Pursuing Happiness

When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.

– Charles S. Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief
Popular Science Monthly (November, 1877)

This week’s featured post is “Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)“.

This week everybody was talking about the looming Trump coup

The most important article of the week was Barton Gellman’s alarming “The Election That Could Break America“. Together with Trump’s repeated refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power — something that has gone without saying in all previous administrations — we face the possibility that a significant majority of the American people might try to remove Trump from office and fail.

Biden’s current polling lead averages around 7.2%, which is sizeable and has been quite stable. But (as we saw in 2016), the Electoral College favors Trump, so Biden’s margin is smaller — 4.5% — in 538’s current tipping-point state of Pennsylvania.

Imagine that Trump’s voter-suppression tactics knock that margin down further, and that Trump’s people (who believe his claims that Covid-19 is not a big deal) are more likely that Biden’s to vote in person on election day. So on election night, Trump appears to be leading, but the lead shrinks as more and more mail-in ballots are counted.

Now Trump’s bogus drumbeat about mail-in voting fraud comes into play, and he charges that he has actually won, but fraudulent votes are being manufactured to steal his victory. Like most of what Trump says, this is bullshit, but it gives cover for Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered-into-power Republican legislature to exercise a long-dormant constitutional power to ignore the vote count and name its own slate of Trump-supporting electors.

Something similar happens in Ohio and Arizona and North Carolina and Florida, which represent enough electoral votes to put Trump over the top. Disputes about this percolate through Congress, and nobody is sure what happens then.

The bigger Biden’s national margin, and the more states that he appears likely to win if all votes are counted, the farther-fetched all this gets. But it’s scary to realize that it is not an impossible scenario.

If that does start to play out, the difference may come down to Belarus-style demonstrators in the streets in Harrisburg or Columbus or outside the White House or wherever the bad stuff seems to be centered. Think about what you’re prepared to do and where you’re prepared to do it, and check websites like Choose Democracy for suggestions.

But above all, don’t freeze. Pushing Biden to a sizeable legitimate margin is the first line of defense against the Trump coup.

Republicans pushed back gently and uncertainly against Trump’s threats to democracy. Lindsey Graham:

Now, we may have litigation about who won the election, but the court will decide and if the Republicans lose, we will accept that result. But we need a full court

That’s still a long way from “Let the voters decide”, as Garrett Graff observes:

What Republicans are really saying here is they’ll support a peaceful transition to Biden *if* their outright voter suppression, hostile efforts to curtail the ability of people to vote at all, AND court packing to influence election disputes all fail.

Here’s how determined Florida Republicans are to suppress the vote:

Florida’s attorney general has requested that the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to reinstate the voting rights of felons by paying their fees, according to a letter to the agencies provided to CNN by the attorney general’s office.

Florida voters thought they had reinstated the voting rights of felons who had served their time (except for murderers and sex offenders) when they overwhelmingly passed Constitutional Amendment 4 in 2018. But immediately the legislature added the provision that all fines and court costs needed to be paid as well. Many of the felons are poor, so the extra requirement amounts to a poll tax: If you can’t pay, you can’t vote.

It is also difficult for felons to determine what they owe. The Florida Division of Elections web site says:

If a person is still unsure about fines, fees, costs, and restitution, and the impact upon restoration of voting rights, the person can ask for an advisory opinion from the Florida Division of Elections. Please review section 106.23(2), Florida Statutes, and Florida Administrative Code Rule 1S-2.010 for how to ask for an advisory opinion and what information is required.

So Bloomberg and others have stepped in to clear the ledger. That’s the effort the Florida AG wants to investigate.

If things are going well for Trump, why is the campaign mastermind behind the Tulsa rally threatening to kill himself?

and his (lack of) taxes

This week’s Trump exposé:

The New York Times has obtained tax-return data extending over more than two decades for Mr. Trump and the hundreds of companies that make up his business organization, including detailed information from his first two years in office.

What do those records show?

Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.

He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.

… The picture that perhaps emerges most starkly from the mountain of figures and tax schedules prepared by Mr. Trump’s accountants is of a businessman-president in a tightening financial vise.

Most of Mr. Trump’s core enterprises — from his constellation of golf courses to his conservative-magnet hotel in Washington — report losing millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars year after year.

Revenue from “The Apprentice” cancelled out a lot of his business losses, but that money is drying up. Meanwhile, $300 million in loans are coming due in the next few years, and the IRS has challenged a $72.9 million tax refund he claimed many years ago.

This all came out yesterday, so I’m only seeing snap reactions. Chris Hayes:

Some people I’m seeing comment on this are vastly overestimating how “normal for a rich guy” these taxes are. Mitt Romney’s taxes were “normal for a super rich guy.” These are not.

Romney released returns showing he paid

$1.9 million in taxes on $13.69 million in income in 2011, most of it from his investments, for an effective rate of 14.1 percent

You may well have paid more than 14.1%, but $1.9 million is still way more than $750 or zero.

James Fallows:

With near-zero tax payments, either (a) he’s lying about being a business success, or (b) he’s lying to the IRS about his losses. Take your pick.

My own snap reaction to Trump’s precarious finances: If he can hold on to the presidency, he has nothing to worry about. Vladimir Putin is worth plenty of money, and so is MBS. I’m sure they’d be more than willing to prop up a President of the United States.

If he loses the election, though, he might have a problem. That (along with the possibility of going to jail) might be why he refuses to promise a peaceful transfer.

and Amy Coney Barrett

As was widely predicted, here and elsewhere, Trump has nominated Judge Amy Comey Barrett to rise from the Seventh Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court.

She has been on the short list for previous Supreme Court appointments, so all the major court-watching organizations have their points and counterpoints well prepared. Basically, she is the most religiously radical of the Trump nominees. She’s not just Catholic — like five current justices — she belongs to People of Praise, an inter-denominational group that was one of the inspirations for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The group believes in prophecy, speaking in tongues and divine healings, staples of Pentecostal churches that some Catholics have also adopted in a movement called charismatic renewal. The People of Praise was an early leader in the flowering of that movement in North America. It is ecumenical, but about 90 percent of its members are Catholic.

… Some former members criticize the group for deviating from Catholic doctrine, which does not teach “male headship,” in contrast to some evangelical churches. The personal advisers can be too controlling, the critics say; they may betray confidences, and too often they supplant the role of priest.

Mr. Lent [a PoP leader] said the group’s system of heads and handmaids promotes “brotherhood,” not male dominance. He said the group recently dropped the term “handmaid” in favor of “woman leader.”

“We follow the New Testament pattern of asking men to take on some spiritual responsibility for their families,” he said.

Conservatives are already gearing up their charges of “anti-Catholic bigotry“, but so far there is no substance behind those claims. Literally no one is attacking Barrett for being Catholic.

E. J. Dionne notes the double standard:

It wasn’t the American Civil Liberties Union or some other bastion of liberalism that questioned Joe Biden’s Catholic faith. No, it was a speaker at this year’s GOP convention, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who called Biden a Catholic “in name only” because of Biden’s support for abortion rights. A conservative group called CatholicVote is spending $9.7 million in Michigan, Pennsylvania and other battleground states attacking the devout Biden as an “existential threat” to the church.

And Trump himself rather astonishingly declared that Biden would “hurt God,” and “hurt the Bible,” too. I didn’t hear Pence say anything about Trump’s “intolerance” toward Biden’s faith.

Josh Marshall:

I don’t know a lot about Amy Coney Barrett. But I know she’s accepting nomination from a President actively trying to subvert a national election and threatening to hold on to power by force, an attack on the constitution unparalleled in American history. Do I need to know more?

BTW, I don’t think it’s “bigotry” even if someone suggests that the Court doesn’t need a sixth Catholic. Maybe we could have just a bit of religious diversity, beyond the two Jews and one Episcopalian in the current non-Catholic minority.

If you really want to see religious bigotry, suggest putting an atheist on the Court. Or a Muslim, or a Hindu.

and the lack of Breonna Taylor charges

Wednesday, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced the findings of the grand jury in the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in her Louisville apartment on March 13. None of the three police officers were charged with offenses related to Taylor’s death, though one was charged with reckless endangerment because his bullets penetrated a neighboring apartment. (The NYT summarizes the officer’s action: He “fired into the sliding glass patio door and window of Ms. Taylor’s apartment, both of which were covered with blinds, in violation of a department policy that requires officers to have a line of sight.”)

Cameron recounts events one way. Georgetown law professor Paul Butler tells the same story differently in a Washington Post op-ed “I am a former prosecutor. The charge in Breonna Taylor’s death is pathetically weak.” Butler asserts that all three officers should have been charged with manslaughter.

The two accounts agree on certain facts: Breonna Taylor was not a suspect in any crime, but police believed her ex-boyfriend was using her apartment to receive packages that could be drugs. They obtained a search warrant and broke down the door. Taylor’s current boyfriend Kenneth Walker fired once and wounded the first officer through the door. The three officers shot 30 rounds; none hit Walker, but six hit Taylor. There is no body-camera video from any of the three officers.

Police claim they knocked repeatedly and announced themselves as police before breaking down the door. Walker reported being awakened by knocking, but says he believed he was shooting at home invaders, not police with a legitimate warrant. (Walker called 911 and said, “I don’t know what’s happening. Somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”) Butler adds this detail:

We know the officers continued to fire long after any threat ceased. A neighbor called 911 to report gunfire, and 68 seconds into the call, you can still hear the shots.

Cameron mentioned the lack of bodycam video, but only as a challenge for investigators to overcome, not as a suspicious detail to interpret against the police. One of the officers who fired was photographed wearing a body-cam holder on his vest. VICE News says: “This contradicts statements by the Louisville Metro Police Department that the officers involved, who work narcotics, do not wear body cameras.

and the third wave of the virus

The first wave of the virus was centered in the Northeast during March and April. The second wave hit the South and West in June and July. The third wave is attacking the Midwest. The highest per-100K-people new-case rates are in the Dakotas and Wisconsin.

Nationally, the daily new-case rate bottomed out at around 35K two weeks ago, and has risen to 45K. Death rates run 2-3 weeks behind, so we should start seeing an increase there soon.

Governor DeSantis has ended all Covid-19 restrictions in Florida, including placing barriers in the way of local governments having their own restrictions. Bars, movie theaters, sporting events — it’s all fair game now.

Florida’s new-case numbers have flattened out at just under 3,000 a day, and deaths are averaging about 100 per day, with 203 reported on Wednesday. The CDC guidance back in April recommended two weeks of declining numbers before any move to relax restrictions.

More turmoil at the CDC. A week ago Friday it published new guidance about how Covid-19 spreads, saying that virus-carrying aerosol droplets can hang in the air and carry further than the previously recognized six feet. Last Monday it withdrew that guidance.

The CDC said that a draft version of proposed changes had been posted in error. The agency said it was updating information about airborne transmission of covid-19 and would post the new information once the review was completed.

The NYT adds this:

Experts with knowledge of the incident said on Monday that the latest reversal appeared to be a genuine mistake in the agency’s scientific review process, rather than the result of political meddling. Officials said the agency would soon publish revised guidance.

It is a sad fact of the Trump Era that we even need to consider the possibility of political meddling with CDC announcements.

and you also might be interested in …

You may not have noticed, but Trump signed his long-promised executive order on healthcare. Presidents who can’t even unite their own party in Congress can do very little, so this does very little. It is essentially a long list of intentions, without any funding or programmatic change to back them up. Example:

It has been and will continue to be the policy of the United States to give Americans seeking healthcare more choice, lower costs, and better care and to ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions can obtain the insurance of their choice at affordable rates.

Who’s going to provide that insurance and how it will be paid for is not spelled out. It might as well be the policy of the United States to give all American children a pony.

Trump’s executive orders banning anti-racism training in both government agencies and government contractors speak volumes. Being openly racist isn’t acceptable in most of America, but Trump is anti-anti-racist, just like he’s anti-anti-fascist.

A big part of Biden’s electability case during the primaries was that he could draw votes from disaffected Republicans. We won’t know for sure until the election, but he is drawing a considerable number of Republican endorsements — most recently from former Pennsylvania Governor and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, and from John McCain’s widow. Ridge says this:

Pennsylvania voters, along with voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida, are likely to ultimately determine the next president. So much is at stake. For me, voting is not just a privilege, but a responsibility. And this year, I believe the responsible vote is for Joe Biden. It’s a vote for decency. A vote for the rule of law. And a vote for honest and earnest leadership. It’s time to put country over party. It’s time to dismiss Donald Trump.

and let’s close with something cute

I’ve had cute-puppy weeks, so I guess it’s time for a cute-kitten week. Here’s a kitten who is clearly the reincarnation of a blissed-out yoga master. Meditate on that.

Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)

Everything dies. But not today.

On this blog, I usually report news, analyze trends behind the news, and save pastoral counseling for my occasional talks at churches. But this week I’ve been sensing an unusual level of anxiety and depression in the people I interact with, and I imagine that Sift readers are sharing a lot of those feelings. So let’s address that.

If the election were tomorrow rather than five weeks from tomorrow, I think I’d tell you all just to suck it up and think about your own issues later. But five weeks is a long time to stay in the states of mind I’m seeing, and carries risks of longer-term psychological and psychosomatic damage. So I think it makes sense to take a little time to get our heads together before the home stretch.

The depression, I think, has been building for some while, as the virus takes away more and more of what we look forward to in life. (I’m currently wondering if my usual Christmas plans can work out this year. Will I ever get to travel again?) But the anxiety is largely election-related, and increased suddenly this week in response to Barton Gellman’s article in The Atlantic, “The Election that Could Break America“.

Worst cases. I’ll have more to say about the content of that article in this week’s summary post, which should be out a few hours after this one. For now, I’ll just sum up the gist: There are scenarios in which Trump hangs onto power despite the voters’ desire to be rid of him, and he seems to be angling to push the country into those scenarios.

The worries raised by Gellman’s article (and others with similar themes) go well beyond the usual election anxieties: that some last-minute surge of support could carry Trump to an ordinary victory, or even that he might repeat 2016’s dubious achievement of winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. Those outcomes would be disappointing, and would have a number of horrible consequences. But at the same time, they would be part of the normal ebb and flow of American politics. If the American people show the bad judgment to re-elect Trump, we’ll just have to work harder to convince them to turn the country in a new direction in future elections.

But if Trump can totally circumvent the will of the people, then something fundamental has changed. In that case, it’s hard to say what we would need to do next time, because this time we already did what we thought we needed to do, and failed anyway. And if the ordinary limits on political power-seeking can be ignored without consequence, then who can have confidence that we will have a chance to do anything at all next time? By 2024, the United States might be the kind of country where the ruling party counts the votes itself, and proclaims that it has been re-elected (for a third term, and then a fourth) by a margin that no one really believes.

In short, if the worst outcomes Gellman pictures come to pass, the American experiment with democracy might be over.

Personally, I don’t believe the worst scenarios will play out. I think the margin Biden has in the polls is real, and that it will hold up as the election approaches. (It’s worth pointing out that we all had the same doubts about the polls going into the Blue Wave of 2018, which played out exactly as the polls predicted.) In 538’s analysis, the current tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Republicans have gerrymandered their way into a majority in the legislature. But it’s worth noting that Biden is currently favored in four states beyond that — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio — any of which might put him over the top. (Arizona would leave Biden 1 vote short, which could come from either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second congressional district.) It’s one thing to imagine one cabal of local Republicans venturing into near-treasonous territory to give Trump another term, but overthrowing democracy in five states simultaneously would be much harder to pull off.

In short, Trump’s anti-democratic tactics may nudge the dial a little, or even more than a little, but still not enough to overcome a decisive message from the electorate. As Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, his strongman talk is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote.

And as many people have observed: You don’t question the legitimacy of an election you expect to win. Further: “I’m going to stay in power no matter what you think” is hardly a closing message designed to convince undecided voters.

But having said that, I don’t deny the possibilities Gellman lays out, and I don’t recommend you simply put them out of your mind. There is a chance — not a likelihood, in my opinion, but a chance — that we are living in the last days of American democracy.

It’s no wonder that people are telling me they lose sleep about that. That loss of sleep is the problem I want to address.

Anxiety and denial. It’s not that you have nothing to worry about, but being low-level anxious all the time — or occasionally going into high-level anxiety and melting into a puddle — is not a useful response. No one is better off because you’re not sleeping.

So what’s a better response? Let’s start by thinking about what anxiety is and what it’s for. People in the middle of emergencies typically don’t get anxious. If your child starts to run in front of a car, you don’t get anxious, you reach out and snatch her back from the path of the car — and maybe shake for a while afterwards about what might have happened. When the wolves are chasing you, you just run, and your mind is filled with nothing but running.

In short, when you really can fight or flee, you fight or flee. Anxiety happens when you get a fight-or-flight reaction that you can’t immediately act on. You hear that a lay-off is coming at work, but who can you fight and where can you run? You just have to wait and see what happens.

Anxiety is fight-or-flight on hold. It keeps you keyed up in case you have to fight or flee soon.

And that was a fine reaction when our primitive ancestors saw a motion in the grass and had to wait a bit for more information about what it was. But it’s poorly adapted to civilized times, when problems play out over months or years. Staying keyed up for months or years will kill you just as surely as whatever might be hiding in the grass.

That’s why denial is such a popular alternative. As the 19th century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it: “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.”

The downside of denial is that it makes you useless, both to yourself and to others. That’s been the problem with the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus. From the top on down, they have assured us that it isn’t that bad and will go away soon, so nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do. And everybody is doing a great job, so there’s no need for recriminations and nothing to stress over. In the short term, their it’s-all-fine denial may be more pleasant than acknowledging the reality of the danger, but it has been a big factor in the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

The reason anxiety is unpleasant is that it’s a promissory note: We owe the future some action, and we’re keyed up so that we don’t forget.

Perhaps the most dysfunctional role for anxiety, though, is that it can become an end in itself: We’re not keyed up to do something, we’re keyed up to punish ourselves for not doing something. We hang the promissory note on the wall, not because we’re going to pay it, but so that we can feel guilty about not paying it.

That kind of self-punishment serves no one. You might as well be in denial. You’d be happier and the rest of the world would be no different.

So what should we do? The best response to chronic anxiety, in my opinion, is to kluge together a combination of action and denial.

Years ago, when I was first starting to make money I could invest towards retirement — thank you, younger self — I found myself worrying about my fledgling portfolio nearly every day. Not just checking stock prices, but wondering if my whole approach was right. Eventually I realized that daily reconsideration of my strategy was an extremely inefficient use of my attention. Rather than worry for a few minutes here or there every day, what I really needed to do was set aside some serious thinking time about once a quarter.

So I set a date to think things through in depth, and I kept that appointment. I did that every three months. In between, I might watch the market in a casual way, but I cut myself off every time I started to fret. “I have set aside a time to think that through properly, and that approach is going to work  better than anything I could figure out while I’m standing here waiting for the tea kettle to boil.”

I recommend something similar now. Using the stray moments of your attention to think about the looming end of American democracy is not going to serve either you or the nation. Instead, block out a time on your calendar (within the next few days, I suggest) to think seriously about the question: “What am I willing to do to keep Trump from hanging onto power?” Are you willing to send money to the Biden campaign or some other political group? Volunteer? Call your friends and encourage them to vote? Write or call your representatives in Congress? Write letters to the editor? Post on social media? Demonstrate against anti-democratic actions, either at your state capitol or in Washington?

Maybe all you’re willing to do is vote. OK, admit that and figure out how you’re going to do it. Are you registered? Where is your polling place? How does early voting or voting-by-mail work in your state? Don’t let your inability to take some grand action get in the way of the little you can actually do.

Once you have your list of actions, start doing them, and set aside another block of time in a week or two to think about how it’s going. Is it enough? Is it already more than I can handle? Should I correct my approach somehow?

But once you’ve decided what you’re doing and are in the process of doing it, tell your anxiety to go away. You’ve set aside a time to think about it, but that time is not now. So STFU, monkey mind. I’m working on it; it’s all going to be fine.

Plan. Do. Then do your best to put it out of your mind until it’s time to replan. Are you feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough? Make a note of that, so you can think about it during your next planning session. But don’t think about it now. You’ve already dealt with it.

When it’s time for me to be the fox, I’m the fox. But when it’s not, I’m the ostrich, and I take the happier course.

Accepting limitation. You may already be raising this objection: The problem with telling yourself “I’ve already dealt with that” is that you really haven’t. Write your check, make your phone calls, plan your march on Washington — and Donald Trump is still out there, still in power, and still plotting to hang onto power no matter what the voters want.

When you realize that, you may find yourself thinking: “As long as Trump’s coup is still possible, I haven’t done enough.”

That way lies madness. Because you are an individual, and the problems of the world are out of your scale. You’re not going to stop Trump by yourself, just like you’re not going to stop global warming or end racism. You can play a part in those stories and I hope you do. I hope you never stop looking for some way to play a bigger part (at sensible intervals, and not for a few minutes several times every day). But you are not the solution. At some point, you have to do what you’re going to do and let it go, trusting the rest of us to play our parts, and trusting God or the Universe or whatever powers work on higher scales to make things come out right.

Because you can’t guarantee a happy ending. The World is not Your Story.

So figure out what you’re going to do, do it, and then let it go.

Accepting fate. It may not shock you to learn that my midlife crisis was more philosophical than most. It wasn’t just that I had a growing bald spot or was losing my vertical leap, although those things were certainly happening. And it wasn’t even the realization that I was going to decline and die, which we all understand at some level, but don’t fully grok until the downhill path starts to open up in front of us.

My midlife crisis centered on the larger realization that none of the substitutes for personal immortality work either: All the people whose lives you change will die too. The organizations and institutions you serve may outlive you for some while, but not forever; in time, they also will collapse. Someday, the last of your descendants will die. Ultimately, civilization will fall, humanity will go extinct, the Sun will swallow up the Earth, and the Universe itself will go cold.

It’s the Ozymandias problem: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Why am I mentioning this now? Because the possibility of a Trump coup is causing a lot of Americans to see for the first time that our democracy is mortal. And that vision can raise a primitive terror even bigger than the prospect of living under some tinhorn dictator, as people around the world have been doing since the beginning of Time.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. Not to us.

But it might.

My midlife crisis and its resolution were bracketed not by insights from deep philosophers, but by two quotes from TV shows. At some point in The X-Files, an otherworldly character makes a matter-of-fact statement to the series’ main character: “Everything dies, Mr. Mulder.”

And in Game of Thrones, young Arya Stark mentions to her swordmaster that she has been praying to the gods. “For us,” says the master, “there is only one god. His name is Death, and we have only one thing to say to him: Not today.”

These days, I always hold those two quotes in mind. The thought that we might be living in the last days of American democracy is indeed horrible. But it shouldn’t be unthinkable, because it’s going to happen someday. Everything dies, and that includes the Constitution.

But the inevitability of Death doesn’t undo the lives we are living. We can’t save anything forever, but we can say “Not today.” And we can struggle to make good on that vow.

American democracy will die someday, because everything does. But not today. Not on November 3. Not on January 20.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

So figure out what you’re going to do, and go do it. But then let it go and live, because you’re not dying today either.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I don’t know if you felt it, but a wave of anxiety went through the country in response to Barton Gellman’s Atlantic article “The Election That Could Break America“. It’s one thing to worry about a Biden collapse or Trump voters who have been lying to the pollsters. But it’s another thing entirely to worry about the ways Trump could circumvent the People, and stay in power despite the voters’ desire to get rid of him.

Gellman’s article raises two problems, which I’ll try to address in two ways. There are the practical considerations, the what-can-I-do-to-prepare stuff, which I don’t have completely knocked, but will try to address in the weekly summary.

Simultaneously, though, there’s the psychological challenge of it all. How are we going to deal with five more weeks of this kind of anxiety? That’s the subject of the featured article “Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)”, which should be out soon.

As I’ve said before, “Another week, another damaging Trump exposé.” This week the NYT has gotten several years of his tax information, which show that he pays less tax than you probably do. New Republicans have announced for Biden. The police who killed Breonna Taylor face no consequences. The virus is ramping up a third wave, just as Florida withdraws all restrictions. Trump issued a meaningless executive order on healthcare. And we all steel ourselves for tomorrow’s debate.

I’ll imagine the summary going out sometime between noon and one EDT.

Evidence and Science

The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people — because he rejects evidence and science.

– “Scientific American Endorses Joe Biden

This week’s featured post is “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court“.

This week everybody was talking about Justice Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at the age of 87.

Anyone who reads the major Supreme Court decisions, as I have been doing since I started this blog, develops opinions about the thinking abilities and writing styles of the justices. Justice Kennedy, for example, used to drive me nuts, even when I agreed with what he had decided. The reason so many gay-rights cases had to go all the way to the Supreme Court was that Kennedy’s majority opinions — despite their marvelous rhetorical flourishes — never got around to stating clear principles that lower-court judges could confidently apply to future cases. Invariably, two appeals courts would apply his decision in two different ways, and only new Supreme Court ruling could straighten the situation out.

Chief Justice Roberts can do good law when he wants to, but often he has some other agenda. His opinion striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act mainly rested on the notion that “things have changed” since the original version of the Act was passed — a political point some conservative senator should have made during the vote to reauthorize the Act, but not a legal principle that should have influenced the Court. Justice Alito I have no respect for at all; in every case I have read, he wants a certain outcome and will say whatever is needed to get there.

Ginsburg’s opinions, though, have consistently been my favorites. Beyond the fact that I have generally agreed with her in principle, I never came away from a Ginsburg opinion wondering what it really meant or how she arrived at that conclusion. She always defined her terms clearly, and recounted the precedents that had shaped their meanings through time. She rooted her statements in facts rather than rhetoric. Some of her best opinions have been dissents. I greatly appreciated her demolition of Alito’s Hobby Lobby decision and Roberts’ VRA decision. Those are both sterling examples of how a legal mind should work.

I can tell I’m hurting when I start generating fantasy-novel alternative histories. Why couldn’t some billionaire have whisked Ginsburg away to his private island for some hush-hush new “treatment”, then covered up her death until January?

and what comes next

Yes, we all remember Mitch McConnell refusing to give Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing because an election was coming up. Garland was nominated in March, 2016, and there was plenty of time to consider his nomination, but McConnell wanted to steal the seat for the next president.

Even at the time, no one really believed McConnell was standing on principle, and now it is clear that he was not. He has already said that the Senate will vote on a Trump nominee. Two Republican senators — Murkowski and Collins — have said the vote should not be held, but McConnell can afford to lose one more, and he probably won’t.

Trump has promised a nominee soon and says it will be a woman. (Remember how he criticized Joe Biden for restricting his VP candidates to women?) Probably that means Amy Coney Barrett. Having talked (in the featured post) about the pointlessness of speculation, I’ll make a prediction: Republicans have the votes and have no shame, so they’ll get it done. Probably they’ll do the hearings before the election, and hold the vote during the lame duck session. That will allow Susan Collins to wring her hands during the campaign, but fall into line for the vote.

Some are speculating that this helps Trump, but I don’t see it. The issues facing the Court, especially abortion rights, are ones where the public agrees more with Biden.

and Trump undermining his own government

A series of government experts said sensible things, only to have Trump contradict them.

CDC chief Robert Redfield told a Senate hearing:

I think there will be vaccine that will initially be available some time between November and December, but very limited supply, and it will have to be prioritized. If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.

He also said that face masks are “the most important, powerful public health tool we have”.

Trump said Redfield was “confused“, because of course Trump knows more about vaccines than the head of the CDC.

Apparently the CDC is not in charge of its own website, and White House political appointees can publish things in the CDC’s name.

A heavily criticized recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month about who should be tested for the coronavirus was not written by C.D.C. scientists and was posted to the agency’s website despite their serious objections, according to several people familiar with the matter as well as internal documents obtained by The New York Times.

… Similarly, a document, arguing for “the importance of reopening schools,” was also dropped into the C.D.C. website by the Department of Health and Human Services in July and is sharply out of step with the C.D.C.’s usual neutral and scientific tone, the officials said.

The information comes mere days after revelations that political appointees at H.H.S. meddled with the C.D.C.’s vaunted weekly reports on scientific research.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that Antifa — which Trump and conservative media has turned into a boogy-man responsible for all kinds of nefarious and violent activity — is “not a group or an organization. It’s a movement or an ideology.”

Trump immediately had to contradict him, because he knows more about Antifa than the FBI:

And I look at them as a bunch of well funded ANARCHISTS & THUGS who are protected because the Comey/Mueller inspired FBI is simply unable, or unwilling, to find their funding source, and allows them to get away with “murder”.

I’m not sure what “murder” is supposed to mean, and I’m always mystified by the “well-funded” part of the conspiracy theory. What does Antifa do that requires money?

and Republicans turning on Trump (sort of)

It’s hard to know what to make of the NYT op-ed “What’s At Stake in This Election? The American Democratic Experiment” written by Trump’s former Director of National lntelligence Dan Coats.

His main premise is certainly valid: For our system of government to work, the American people need to believe that the elections they vote in are legitimate.

Our democracy’s enemies, foreign and domestic, want us to concede in advance that our voting systems are faulty or fraudulent; that sinister conspiracies have distorted the political will of the people; that our public discourse has been perverted by the news media and social networks riddled with prejudice, lies and ill will; that judicial institutions, law enforcement and even national security have been twisted, misused and misdirected to create anxiety and conflict, not justice and social peace.

If those are the results of this tumultuous election year, we are lost, no matter which candidate wins. No American, and certainly no American leader, should want such an outcome.

But his bipartisan view-from-nowhere loses credibility when he can’t state the obvious: The current American leader does want such an outcome. Trailing badly in the polls, Trump works tirelessly to sow doubt about the possibility of a fair election. Without offering evidence of any kind, he proclaims that if he loses, the election is a fraud. He claims mail-in voting can’t be trusted, despite the fact that it has been used for years in states as politically different as Oregon and Utah, without any of the problems Trump predicts. Avoiding the mail by using drop-boxes, Trump says, is also a “voter security disaster”. He warns that the election won’t be decided “until two months later“, during which time “lots of things will happen”.

In every case, Trump offers no solution other than “Don’t do it.” Don’t vote by mail. Don’t use a dropbox. Don’t vote early. Don’t open more polling stations. Don’t appropriate money to help election officials in any way. Just don’t do it. If you’re afraid to wait in a long line on Election Day, don’t vote.

Whenever he has been asked for evidence to support his wild claims, he has failed to produce any. Early in his administration, he assembled a commission for the sole purpose of proving that he didn’t really lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The commission disbanded without issuing a report, having found nothing to back up Trump’s charge that 3-5 million fraudulent votes — or any significant number of fraudulent votes — were cast.

Coats’ call for Congress to establish a “supremely high-level bipartisan and nonpartisan commission to oversee the election” will go nowhere, because establishing it will become a partisan issue. Even if it could be established, Trump would denounce it too as soon as it blessed the legitimacy of an election he lost. The “supremely bipartisan and nonpartisan commission” would be just another manifestation of the Deep State.

The root of Coats’ vision — members of both parties coming together to save American democracy — is already flawed. Democrats are for democracy and Republicans are not; that’s where we’ve gotten to. If Coats wants to save democracy, he needs to support Biden. Nothing short of that will make the slightest difference.

Olivia Troye, who worked as homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus adviser to Vice President Pence for two years, has made a video for Republican Voters Against Trump.

and you also might be interested in …

Scientific publications that usually stay out of national politics feel like they have to weigh in. Science has an editorial “Trump Lied About Science“.

Over the years, this page has commented on the scientific foibles of U.S. presidents. Inadequate action on climate change and environmental degradation during both Republican and Democratic administrations have been criticized frequently. Editorials have bemoaned endorsements by presidents on teaching intelligent design, creationism, and other antiscience in public schools. These matters are still important. But now, a U.S. president has deliberately lied about science in a way that was imminently dangerous to human health and directly led to widespread deaths of Americans.

This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.

And Scientific American endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its 175-year history.

The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges. That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment.

Bill Barr’s Department of Trump is once again following the Leader’s instructions: It has opened a criminal investigation of John Bolton for blaspheming against the Leader in his book The Room Where It Happened.

Since Trump blasphemy is not yet in the legal code, the purported charge a grand jury has been impaneled to investigate is revealing classified information. The basic facts are well understood: Bolton submitted his manuscript for government review, and was told by the reviewer that his edits had satisfied her objections. But when an official OK was slow to materialize, Bolton published anyway. The administration sued to stop distribution of the book and lost.

The basis of the dispute is why the OK never came. The administration claims the manuscript still contained classified information; Bolton says Trump wanted to delay publication until after the election.

In general, classified-information cases are difficult for the public to judge. (Example: the Clinton email investigation.) If Bolton really has revealed classified information, the government can’t just point to a line in the book and say: “There”, because that announcement in itself would violate security. (When I was being taught about classification in my old job, the instructor told us about an article in Aviation Week that gave the specs of a new aircraft. Someone who had inside knowledge of the program had gone through the article with a highlighter, picking out the classified information. Those highlights made that copy of the article a classified document, despite the fact that the underlying article had already been published. The specs were just a rumor until the insider’s highlights verified them. It’s a little like the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the prosecutor gets stoned for repeating what the blasphemer said.)

And from the outside, it’s often hard to tell whether a fact is classified or not. Publishing the nuclear codes would be obvious, but there also might be good reasons why the government doesn’t want some apparently innocuous detail to get out, like that a particular official was in a certain city on a certain day.

On the other hand, Trump has made ridiculous claims about classified information in the past, and in particular with regard to Bolton and his book.

I will consider every conversation with me, as president, highly classified. So that would mean that if he wrote a book and if the book gets out, he’s broken the law. And I would think that he would have criminal problems. I hope so.

With all those caveats in mind, this investigation looks bad. It has all the appearances of using the Justice Department to persecute a political enemy, and to intimidate any Trump insiders who might turn against the Leader in the future.

Another credible sexual assault charge against Trump. Every week seems to have new revelations. I think people realize we’re at a speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace point with Trump. In 2016, you could imagine that he would lose anyway, so your story didn’t need to reach the public. This year, with the possible end of democracy staring us in the face, those people are coming forward.

It looks like TikTok will continue to operate in the US. Trump has indicated acceptance of a deal in which a new US-centered TikTok Global will be owned 80% by the Chinese company ByteDance (the previous owner of TikTok) and 20% by an Oracle/Walmart consortium.

Wired comments:

From the beginning, Trump’s strategy for TikTok, like so many things, was messy and incoherent. For weeks, the president said that only selling the app to an American company would alleviate national security concerns. Now, the deal with Oracle is being described as merely a “partnership,” which caused Republican lawmakers to call for its rejection.

… All along, the administration has failed to provide evidence that TikTok, which employs over 1,000 people in the United States, was doing anything particularly nefarious. The company, as well as outside security researchers, have said TikTok’s data collection practices are in line with those of similar domestic social media platforms. “Here we are banging on the table that we are the ones who have rule of law,” says Jason Healey, a senior research scholar at Columbia University specializing in cyber conflict. “Then where is the evidence?”

Maybe there are real national security issues and maybe this arrangement solves them. Or maybe Trump is doing some kind of shakedown. I wish we had a president I could trust.

There is some confused rumbling about Oracle/Walmart contributing $5 billion to an education fund, which may or may not be the “1776 Project” Trump wants to indoctrinate American schoolchildren with “patriotic education”. Or maybe the project and the money alike are part of Trump’s alternative reality.

You know which corporate giant is pledging to “achieve zero emissions across our global operations by 2040 … without relying on carbon offsets”? Walmart.

Whenever you hear an announcement like this, you always have to wonder how seriously to take it. Corporations have a way of doing whatever they were going to do anyway and calling it “green”. But even though I don’t trust Walmart, I do trust Vox’ environmental writer David Roberts, who tweets:

Wal-Mart is not The Libs. It’s not doing something this big to virtue signal or appeal to a particular upscale market niche (those are just gravy). It’s doing this because it’s going to save a shitload of money.

Maybe that’s where we are now: solar-paneling your big flat roof, fleets of electric vehicles, and so on — maybe that’s just good cost management.

The Big Ten has reversed itself and is now planning to start its football season on October 23.

and let’s close with something rewarding

The Daily Show announces the first (and hopefully only) Pandemmy Awards “celebrating the most breathtaking achievements of this pandemic season”. You can still vote for the winners, who will be announced on tonight’s show.

The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court

A minority-elected President and a minority-elected Senate “majority” might cement an unpopular Supreme Court majority for decades to come — and such a Court might bless the tricks that will allow the further expansion of minority rule.

The death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the likelihood that President Trump and the Republican Senate will replace her with an extreme conservative, creating a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court, raises a number of immediate questions: Can Democrats slow the process down somehow, so that Ginsburg will be replaced by a new president and a new Senate in January? Can Republicans be shamed by the hypocrisy of confirming Trump’s nominee so close to the election (after denying President Obama a Supreme Court appointment much further from the election) that they will forego a confirmation vote? If not, as is almost certain, can four Republican senators be peeled off to prevent Trump’s nominee from being confirmed? And so on.

Speculation. This kind of speculation is addictive, but of limited use. News channels love it, because the production cost of speculation is near zero — just bring your usual talking heads together and turn them loose. Viewers easily get obsessed with it, because speculation appeals to both our hopes and our fears. (Maybe something awful will happen. Or maybe we’ll be saved.) Pundits get to demonstrate their superior savvy by crafting complex House-of-Cards-style scenarios based on loopholes in the rules that lesser pundits haven’t noticed.

And in the end, what does it matter whether or not we divine the future? The useful actions we might take — expressing our desires both publicly and privately, putting pressure on our elected representatives, giving time or money to campaigns, or convincing our neighbors to share our opinions — don’t depend on knowing the future. We could just do them without knowing how they’ll come out.

Living with uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it is honest, because we don’t actually know what’s going to happen. We almost never need to know. We would all be more effective forces for justice and democracy if we spent less time speculating about events beyond our control and more time planning our actions.

Bearing in mind the pointlessness of being an armchair tactician, I want to back up and look at the larger picture: Why is the current situation a problem? Supreme Court justices, like all the leading voices in our Republic, are supposed to come and go. The Constitution defines a process by which our elected representatives replace them.

That process has gone wrong. In the long term, that’s the real problem.

Recent trends have emphasized the anti-democratic nature of our constitutional system, and the worst aspects of those trends have coalesced around the Supreme Court, creating a Court that is far more conservative than the American people. As that conservative Court increasingly excuses minority-rule tactics of gerrymandering and voter suppression, a vicious cycle has developed that threatens the legitimacy of both the Court and the government as a whole.

Democracy and the Founders. When the Constitution was written, large-scale democracy was still an untried notion. England, for example, had a Parliament, but it shared power with the King, and its electorate was still fairly small. (Universal suffrage even for men wasn’t achieved until 1918.) The Founders themselves were of two minds: The sovereignty of the People was good, but “mob rule” was bad.

The Constitution was an attempt to thread that needle. All power did eventually come from the People (minus women and non-white people), and if the (white male) People held an opinion consistently over time, they would eventually get their way. But in practice a number of institutional dams were built to control the floods of public opinion:

  • The President was chosen by an electoral college, and not by popular vote. Popular vote was not even tabulated until John Quincy Adams’ election in 1824 — and he lost that popular vote by a considerable margin to Andrew Jackson.
  • Senators were not only allocated equally to all states regardless of size, but were chosen by the state legislatures rather than direct election. Popular election of senators was established by the 17th Amendment, which wasn’t ratified until 1913.
  • Supreme Court justices were appointed for life, and became completely insulated from the electorate once they were seated. They were nominated by presidents and approved by the Senate, and so were already fairly distant from the people.

In short, not only could you not vote on Supreme Court justices, you couldn’t even vote directly for anybody involved in choosing Supreme Court justices.

The era when it didn’t matter. Over time, the entire Western world got more comfortable with democracy. Suffrage gradually expanded, as religious tests and property tests were eliminated, and finally women and racial minorities were allowed to vote. Monarchies were either overthrown or turned into showpieces. Anti-democratic institutions like the House of Lords gradually lost their power.

In the US, voters got the right to elect senators, but the rest of the anti-democratic structure remained intact. It wasn’t eliminated largely because it didn’t matter: Presidential candidates who won the popular vote won the Electoral College as well, and parties that won the House typically won the Senate also.

Oversimplifying just a bit, the anti-democratic features of our system didn’t matter because the major conflicts were regional: the North against the South, or the East against the West. To the extent that they weren’t regional, the same sorts of issues played out in large and small states alike. As recently as the 1970s, South Dakota and Idaho produced liberal icons like George McGovern and Frank Church, while New York could elect a conservative like James Buckley.

A final factor: Until the 90s, California was a swing state. The same factors that turned an election in California were likely playing out all over the country.

Why it matters now. The big divide in the country today is urban vs. rural. Even in a red state like Texas, which Trump won by 9% in 2016, the big cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio — voted Democratic. Other red-state cities, like Louisville, Nashville, and Atlanta, went Democratic as well.

Largely this split reflects another split: white vs. non-white. Rural populations are overwhelmingly white, urban populations overwhelmingly non-white.

Small states are small precisely because they don’t have big cities. (Rhode Island, where the Providence metro area has more people than the state itself, is the exception.) So a system that favors small states favors rural interests. In the current environment, small-state privilege means white privilege and Republican advantage.

Meanwhile, the biggest state, California, has shifted far to the left of the rest of the country. Hillary Clinton won California in 2016 by 4.3 million votes. In the rest of the US, Trump had a 1.5 million vote advantage.

The result is that the Electoral College has overruled the voters twice in the last five elections, after not causing any problems since 1876. Both times it gave us Republican presidents who led the country into major disasters: George W. Bush (the Iraq War and the Great Recession) and Donald Trump (Covid-19).

The Senate has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to win, even when the majority of voters back them. Nate Silver has done the numbers on this.

At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you. Based on this, we can break every person in the country down into four buckets:

  • Rural: Less than 25,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of you;
  • Exurban or small town: Between 25,000 and 100,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Suburban or small city: Between 100,000 and 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Urban core or large city: More than 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius.

As it happens, the overall U.S. population (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico) is split almost exactly evenly between these buckets: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

But when Silver constructs, the “average state” — weighing small states the same as big states — he gets very different numbers: 35% rural, 14% urban core.

In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite.

Another way to get at the same issue is to look at how many Americans the current Republican Senate majority actually represents. (I did this same calculation on my own before realizing that Silver had already done it.)

[D]espite their current 47-53 deficit in the Senate, Democratic senators actually represent slightly more people than Republicans. If you divide the U.S. population by which party represents it in the Senate — splitting credit 50-50 in the case of states such as Ohio that have one senator from each party — you wind up with 167 million Americans represented by Democratic senators and 160 million by Republicans.

In other words, a truly representative Senate would have a 51-49 Democratic majority, not a 53-47 Republican majority. After looking at various other sorts of data, he concludes:

the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally.

What this means for the Supreme Court. Democrats have won the presidential popular vote in six of the last seven elections, but have only gotten to take office four times. This year, Trump’s hopes for re-election hinge on repeating his 2016 path: squeaking out an Electoral College majority from a voting minority. Silver estimates that Biden has to win the popular vote by 3-4% to be confident of taking office.

Similarly, to win the Senate, Democrats will have to win at least two seats in traditionally red states like Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, or Montana.

In other words, the Constitutional mechanisms that were supposed to insulate the Court from mercurial swings in public opinion now serve to insulate them from the People’s sovereignty entirely. If the People split 50/50, the Court will be conservative.

The current travesty. A minority-elected President and a minority-elected Senate “majority” are now in position to appoint their third Supreme Court justice, and establish a 6-3 conservative tilt. The current conservative justices are Clarence Thomas (age 72), Samuel Alito (70), John Roberts (65), Brett Kavanaugh (55), and Neil Gorsuch (53). Add another young justice, like Amy Coney Barrett (48), and it is not hard to imagine another 15 years going by before a liberal or even moderate Court majority is possible — no matter what the voters want.

Worse, the Court has become part of a vicious cycle: Because of its partisan Republican leanings, the Court is already unwilling to defend voting rights. Chief Justice Roberts eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and the Court has given a green light to partisan gerrymandering. We already see the result of this at the state level: In states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, control of the legislature is out of the reach of Democratic voters, even when they form a clear majority. Republicans regularly win 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in the House of Representatives, despite getting fewer total votes.

The United States caught in a downward spiral: Republicans empowered by a rigged system rig the system further.

Extreme action is justified. If Joe Biden wins the presidency and Democrats take the Senate, they should take action to reverse the structural rigging. Republicans and their captive media will paint these actions as extreme, but they are both justified and necessary:

  • Eliminate the Senate filibuster. With luck Democrats will have 51 votes. If it takes 60 to get anything done, nothing will get done.
  • Make states out of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In addition to just being the right thing to do — taxation without representation is tyranny — this would help reverse the conservative rigging of the Senate and the Electoral College.
  • Pass voting rights laws. Gerrymandering and voter suppression can be outlawed by statute, even if the Court believes they are constitutional.
  • Add seats to the Supreme Court. The size of the Supreme Court is not in the Constitution and does not take a constitutional amendment to change. This will open a huge can of worms, but not doing it is the worse alternative.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Just when you think you’ve seen the worst of 2020, it hits us with something else. Friday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, sparking yet another Supreme Court nomination battle and threatening to cement Trump’s legal legacy with a 6-3 conservative majority.

At moments like this, it’s tempting to indulge in speculation: What will Trump and McConnell do? What tactics can the Democrats use? How will the battle affect the presidential election or the various Senate races? I can’t totally resist that urge myself, but I recognize it as mostly a waste of effort: We’ll know soon enough, and whether we have speculated right or wrong probably won’t help us respond.

What I want to do instead this morning is use the Court as an example of a larger point: We are living under a system of minority rule. Because of the Electoral College, we elected a president with only 46% of the vote, in spite of another candidate getting 48%. The institutional structure of the Senate, meanwhile, inflates the value of rural conservative votes, so that Mitch McConnell can be “majority” leader, in spite of the fact that his senators represent a minority of the nation’s population.

Because the House plays no role in choosing federal judges, McConnell and Trump are able to pack the judicial branch with conservatives who not only are out of step with a majority of the country, but who in turn reinforce minority rule by refusing to protect voting rights.

I’ll flesh that argument out, with a little quantitative help from Nate Silver, in this week’s featured post “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court”. That should be out around 11 EDT.

The weekly summary will mourn Justice Ginsburg, indulge in some speculation about what happens next, and try to at least touch the bases on the week’s other major stories. That should be out by 1.

Blood, Sweat, and Miracles

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

– Winston Churchill

It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.

– Donald Trump

There is no featured post this week.

This week everybody was talking about the wildfires in the West

The fires are still being battled in California, Oregon, and other western states. I’m not going to try to cover the breaking news: Here’s CNN’s latest.

Even in a year with so many signs of the Apocalypse that we joke about it, the smoke-filled orange skies of San Francisco stand out. The local ABC TV station shot a drone video at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

This shot of the Golden Gate Bridge was taken about an hour later.

Air quality measures in parts of Oregon and California have literally been off the charts.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index – or AQI – measures air pollution on a scale of one to 500, with lower numbers indicating healthier air. A reading over 200 is considered “very unhealthy” for humans. Above 300 is considered “Hazardous.” On Wednesday afternoon, AQI readings along the I-5 corridor in Oregon hit 599 on the EPA’s map for Oregon, and upwards of 700 in some locations on the popular PurpleAir monitoring site.

Grist explains the health hazzard:

The problem is all the fine particulate matter that’s being generated by the West Coast wildfires. These particles get suspended in the air and can cause health problems when they’re inhaled. The smallest particles — known as PM 2.5 — are especially concerning, since the body can’t filter them out.

“The 2.5 will just cruise past everything in your nose,” said Amy MacPherson, a public information officer for the California Air Resources Board. These particles can get lodged in people’s lungs, she explained, “and if they’re even smaller than that they can get into your bloodstream.” Health effects include an increased chance of cardiac arrhythmias, asthma attacks, and heart attacks.

These are all major concerns for a particulate matter AQI value as low as 300. It’s unclear what could happen to human health with an AQI that more than doubles that number.

Lest you think those off-the-charts air quality index readings were in obscure smoke-collecting valleys, it also went over 500 in Portland.

Right-wing disinformation is becoming a permanent part of the landscape: Q-Anon and numerous other conservative voices have been pushing the false rumor that Antifa agents have been arrested for starting the fires.

The next note talks about the things Trump wants or doesn’t want the public to panic about: Don’t panic about real threats like Covid-19; do panic about Mexican rapists and caravans of migrant “invaders” and planeloads of Antifa terrorists headed for your town to start a riot.

One of the real threats he doesn’t want the public to lose sleep over is climate change, which creates the conditions that produce massive wildfires. He does seem to have stopped calling climate change a “hoax” (though with him you can never tell when a zombie lie will rise again). Instead, he just doesn’t mention it, as if he could make it go away by refusing to talk about it.

I had planned to demonstrate how little Trump cares about climate change by quoting the Issues section of his campaign web site, but instead I made an even more startling discovery: There is no Issues section of the Trump 2020 web site. Instead, there is an entirely backward-looking “Promises Kept” page promoting Trump’s “accomplishments” while stating no intentions or goals for a second term — just like the 2020 Republican platform, which is the 2016 platform.

Anyway, the “Energy and Environment” page of Promises Kept — can’t let the Environment steal top billing from Energy — does not contain the word “climate”. It mentions “greenhouse gases” only once: in a claim that Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy plan will reduce greenhouse gases. (The claim is false.) The page does brag about rescinding Obama’s “costly” regulations, many of which were intended to reduce America’s contribution to climate change. (The methane emissions regulation, for example.) But the only thing to know about these regulations is that they cost somebody something; what they might have achieved is not discussed.

While we’re talking about “promises kept”, the NYT’s Nicholas Kristoff evaluates:

  • The Wall isn’t built.
  • Mexico isn’t paying for it.
  • Undocumented immigrants are still here
  • If the “crime and violence” had “soon” gone away, as he promised, he wouldn’t be running on law and order again.
  • Instead of defending the lives of Americans, he bears a lot of responsibility for the 195K dead of Covid.
  • He made the burden of student loans heavier, not lighter.
  • He neither repealed ObamaCare nor presented any plan for replacing it.
  • Five million jobs have been lost since the start of his administration.
  • Rather than “drain the swamp”, his administration has eviscerated ethics rules, and eight of his associates have been either accused or convicted of crimes.
  • He fulfilled his promise to appoint a lot of conservative judges.
  • He promised “the truth” and delivered an unprecedented number of lies.
  • He never tried to pass an infrastructure bill.
  • His tax cut mainly benefits the rich, not the middle class.
  • Rather than pay off the national debt, he has seen it increase from $19 trillion to $26 trillion.
  • He did increase the military budget, as he promised.
  • ISIS was defeated, largely by continuing the strategy Obama left behind.
  • There is still no peace between Israel and Palestine.
  • He claimed “nobody will be pushing us around”, but Vladimir Putin leads Trump by the nose.

and the Woodward book

Another week, another damaging Trump exposé. This week, it’s Bob Woodward’s Rage, which is based on 18 on-the-record conversations with Trump, all on tape. So we can skip the did-he-really-say-that part of last week’s exposé, the Atlantic article that has him calling American soldiers killed in combat “losers” and “suckers”.

Here’s the most frequently quoted revelation:

“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”

“This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.

At that time, Trump was telling the nation that the virus was no worse than a seasonal flu, predicting it would soon disappear and insisting that the U.S. government had it totally under control. It would be several weeks before he would publicly acknowledge that the virus was no ordinary flu and that it could be transmitted through the air.

Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Woodward assesses the damage:

Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states. There was no real management theory of the case or how to organize a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the United States had ever faced.

Woodward also spent hundreds of hours talking to current and former top Trump administration officials, including the ones collectively known as “the adults in the room” (back in the early days of the administration when there were adults in the room): Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and Dan Coats, who seem unified in their belief that they needed to cover for a president who was dangerously unfit.

For the most part, I have to agree with Washington Post reviewer Rosa Brooks: “we knew all this already”. And yet, I have to wonder if hearing Trump say this stuff himself will make a difference. All those times when he compared coronavirus to the flu, or claimed that it would soon go away “like a miracle”, he knew better. That’s not debatable now, we have it in his own words.

And for all his followers who are still claiming the virus has been overblown by some deep-state conspiracy: We have Trump on tape saying the opposite.

A bunch of bloggers and columnists have made this point: Trump’s I-didn’t-want-people-to-panic explanation for playing down the virus doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Trump tries to raise panic all the time. He wants us to panic about caravans of MS-13 gangsters and Middle Eastern terrorists coming to “invade” or “infest” our country, about planes full of Antifa conspirators going from city to city starting riots, about babies being “executed” just after birth, and so on. His campaign ads look like trailers for the horror movie Joe Biden’s America. Sometimes people get so panicked by Trump’s wild rhetoric that they start shooting Hispanics in an El Paso mall.

The primary difference between Covid-19 and all the stories Trump has told to panic his followers is that Covid-19 is a real danger.

A real leader would have told the country to the truth back in February: that this is serious, and it’s going to require some adjustments and sacrifices from all of us. That leader wouldn’t have stoked panic, but would have reassured the country that we will get through this if we take appropriate action.

Instead, again and again, Trump has undercut appropriate actions, while telling the public fairy tales. He has never put together a national plan of action or mobilized the power of the federal government. He has pushed states to reopen too quickly, and is still pushing. He has encouraged protesters who threatened violence against governors who followed medical advice. He has held dangerous rallies. He has ridiculed Joe Biden and others for taking appropriate precautions. He has promoted snake-oil cures like hydroxychloraquine and oleandrin.

Trump and the usual collection of Trump sycophants have placed the Woodward quotes in the context of calming statements from the great leaders of World War II.

Trump compared himself to Churchill, which caused Daniel Dale to look up Churchill’s first speech as prime minister in May, 1940:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

What Churchill never said during the Blitz was “The Luftwaffe is very much under control in Great Britain.”

Keeping to the theme, Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy invoked Franklin Roosevelt:

The president said he did not want to freak people out. He wanted to keep people calm during this time of great national uncertainty. Think about it, during the depression, it was FDR who had his fireside chats to calm America.

Similarly, it’s worth a minute or two of your time to look at the text of FDR’s first fireside chat on March 12, 1933 (eight days after his inauguration). He explained why he had temporarily closed the banks, what the government had done since to make banks more secure, and what the public could expect as banks began to reopen. He did not say that the Depression was just the sniffles, or promise that it would disappear “like a miracle“. (That sounds more like the quote Herbert Hoover is known for, but never actually said: “Prosperity is just around the corner.”) Instead, FDR closed like this:

Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.

Imagine if Trump had done that in February: explained what the government would do to get the epidemic under control, described the public’s role in that plan, and then said “Together we cannot fail.” Instead, he repeatedly sugar-coated the situation and did nothing.

Here’s a Trump comparison that fits much better than Churchill or Roosevelt: the mayor from Jaws.

Republicans in Congress have almost uniformly either made excuses for Trump or dodged questions about the Woodward book. Friday, Susan Collins had the misfortune to be in a televised debate with her challenger Sara Gideon — a setting where you can’t just have an aide jump in and say, “No more questions.” Forced to comment, Collins came up with this: Trump “should have been straightforward with the American people … I have said since the beginning that the President’s performance has been uneven.”

Uneven? Getting 200K Americans killed, probably about half of them through sheer incompetence, is an uneven performance?

A meme for attacking these spineless politicians: Pathetic Cowards for Trump.

and Bill Barr’s latest corruptions of the Justice Department

Tuesday, the Justice Department filed a motion to take over the defense of a defamation lawsuit against Trump. in her book What Do We Need Men For? published last year, E. Jean Carroll accused Trump of raping her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. Trump accused her of lying and claimed he had never met her and could not have raped her because she’s “not my type”. Carroll sued for defamation, and a New York state court had moved the case into the discovery phase, when Trump might be obliged to produce a DNA sample.

That’s the case that Barr thinks the Justice Department should defend, using taxpayer funds. He also wants the case moved to federal court where it would go away,

because Trump would come under the protection of the federal government’s “sovereign immunity.” Barr’s minions are, quite literally, trying to deny Carroll her day in court. At taxpayer expense.

Barr’s rationale is that Trump denied Carroll’s charges, and commented on her type, while “acting in his official capacity”. Apparently, insulting women accusing you of rape is now considered part of the President’s job. I hope the federal judge who rules on this motion asks a lot of probing questions about exactly which line in Article II of the Constitution defines that presidential responsibility.

Marcy Wheeler:

As I contemplated Barr’s decision to claim that accusing a credible alleged rape victim was all part of Trump’s job as President, I thought briefly about what it says of Bill Barr’s faith, that he would make it official DOJ policy to condone attacks on claimed rape victims like this. But then I remembered that Bill Barr is of the generation of Catholics where that is the job of the official bureaucracy, to throw all the institutional weight of the Church into protecting alleged rapists and suppressing credible accusations, even to the point of attacking the victims.

A different case is disturbing in a different way. In fact, I’m not sure which is more disturbing: federal agents killing the suspected Portland shooter Michael Reinoehl on September 3, or the way Trump and Barr have been crowing about it.

Killing a suspect, even justifiably (and it’s not clear yet whether this killing was justified), should always be a regrettable event for law enforcement officers. They’re not supposed to be judge and jury; they’re supposed to apprehend suspects and let the judicial system do its work. But Bill Barr’s statement expressed none of that regret:

The tracking down of Reinoehl — a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer — is a significant accomplishment in the ongoing effort to restore law and order to Portland and other cities. I applaud the outstanding cooperation among federal, state, and local law enforcement, particularly the fugitive task force team that located Reinoehl and prevented him from escaping justice. The streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed, and the actions that led to his location are an unmistakable demonstration that the United States will be governed by law, not violent mobs.

In fact, killing Reinoehl does exactly the opposite: It calls into question whether the United States will be ruled by law or by federal death squads.

[BTW, Reinoehl said on social media he was “100% Antifa all the way”, but that’s the only evidence connecting him to Antifa. Whether he was a “member” or just a sympathizer is still debatable. It’s not even clear what being a “member” of Antifa means. It’s not like they have a directory and ID cards.]

Meanwhile, Trump makes Portland sound like the Wild West, with lawmen killing Reinoehl like he was Jesse James or Billy the Kid.

In Portland the other day we had to send in the U.S. Marshals. A man who’s a bad guy, bad guy, shot somebody right in the middle of the street. … Two and a half days nothing happened, I said, “What’s going on?” We sent in the U.S. Marshals, it was taken care of in 15 minutes.

And his crowd cheered. In a country under the rule of law, murder suspects should not be “taken care of in 15 minutes”. That’s nothing to brag about or cheer about. The previous day he said something similar to Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro:

Two and a half days went by, and I put out “When are you going to go get him?” And the U.S. Marshals went in to get him in a short period of time, and it ended in a gunfight. This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him. And I will tell you something: That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.

Retribution is not for the Marshals — or anyone in the Executive Branch — to dish out. And we certainly don’t want the President to be able to call the Justice Department and ask them to go kill somebody (which is what Trump seems to be claiming he did). But we have a President who either doesn’t know or doesn’t believe that.

and the virus

The daily new cases and new deaths numbers are declining, but are still at levels that just about any other country would consider disastrous. The seven-day rolling averages are down to about 35,000 new cases per day and 800 deaths. These death rates are like 200 Benghazis a day or two 9-11s each week.

We’re getting close to 200,000 total deaths, and should pass that total this week or next (depending on how you total up). In deaths-per-million-people, the US will likely pass 600 today. That leaves us still doing better than countries like Belgium (856), Spain (636), and the UK (613), but considerably worse than Germany (112), Canada (243), Japan (11), and South Korea (7). Our numbers are now even worse than Italy’s (589). Remember when Italy was the country nobody wanted to be?

Recently, the virus has faded in the South and broken out in the Great Plains. Friday, Kansas (population 2.9 million), had 13 deaths. Canada (population 37.6 million), zero.

Meanwhile, we wait to see if Labor Day socializing or the reopening of schools or the fans returning to some sporting events will spark a new surge. We probably won’t know for another couple weeks.

Last night, Trump held an indoor rally in Henderson, Nevada. Despite a statewide ban on meetings of over 50 people, he spoke to thousands of supporters inside a manufacturing plant. The rally ignored social distancing and few attendees wore masks. It was Trump’s first large indoor rally since the Tulsa rally that was blamed for a surge in coronavirus cases in the area and may have killed Herman Cain.

Astra Zeneca briefly stopped its vaccine trials after a patient got sick in a way that suggested an adverse reaction. But Saturday testing resumed.

and you also might be interested in …

Lots of speculation concerns how long we’ll have to wait after Election Day to find out who won. Well, there is one scenario where we know right away: if Biden wins North Carolina.

North Carolina allows election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots before Election Day. (Technically, the ballots are run through tabulating machines, but election officials don’t see results until Election Day. Only on November 3 can somebody push a button to see what the tabulator knows.) People who mailed early plus those who voted in person might be enough of the electorate to call the state.

North Carolina is a state that Trump has to have, but Biden doesn’t, and Biden currently has a tiny lead in the state polling. So if we know early that Biden took North Carolina, we can be pretty sure he’s going to win the election. If Trump wins it, we might not know for a long time who will be the next president. If it’s too close to call, that suggests Biden will win, but isn’t as conclusive as if he had NC’s 15 electoral votes in his pocket.

Protesters are continuing to brave repression in Belarus. Meanwhile, their dictator Lukashenko is meeting with Putin.

Brexit is still not a done deal. There is a treaty, but details of trade between the UK and EU are still to be worked out. The treaty, though, protects the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland: The Ireland/Northern Ireland border has to stay open. But that puts the burden on the UK to keep goods out of Northern Ireland that would be either banned or tariffed in the EU. Prime Minister Johnson is now saying the UK won’t fulfill that obligation, which means the whole thing could still fall apart into a no-deal Brexit.

The Trump/Russia conspiracy is ongoing: Rudy Giuliani has been working with a Russian agent to smear Joe Biden.

Thursday, the Treasury Department sanctioned “four Russia-linked individuals for attempting to influence the U.S. electoral process”. One of them is kind of significant.

Treasury designated Andrii Derkach (Derkach) pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13848 for his efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Derkach, a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services. Derkach has directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.

… From at least late 2019 through mid-2020, Derkach waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, spurring corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day. Derkach’s unsubstantiated narratives were pushed in Western media through coverage of press conferences and other news events, including interviews and statements.

Russian agents like this don’t work alone, though. They work through American dupes and accomplices, including two you may have heard of.

[Derkach] was a key source for baseless information touted by [Rudy] Giuliani and [President Donald] Trump smearing Biden and his son, Hunter, over activities in Ukraine when Biden was vice president.

Jonathan Capehart asked Giuliani the obvious question, and got no substantive answer.

You’re a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, a former mayor of New York City, you have a national security firm. How could you not know that this person you were talking to was a known Russian agent?

A crazy epilogue to the tear-gas-protesters-for-Trump’s-photo-op story: It may have caused a Covid-19 outbreak in the Farmville, Virginia immigrant detention center.

Trump wanted ICE agents to join Bill Barr’s non-army army to quash the protests in D.C., and the quickest way to do that was to charter flights. But rules prevent ICE agents from flying on those planes unless they are accompanying detainees. So they shipped detainees to Virginia unnecessarily. Some of those transported immigrants were Covid-positive.

I don’t think of the NYT as a neutral source when the subject is The Intercept, the left-of-center online publication started by Glenn Greenwald after he received the trove of information leaked by Edward Snowden. But its account of how The Intercept mishandled the Reality Winner leak pulls together a story I had only heard in pieces.

I have mixed feelings about Greenwald, whose “Unclaimed Territory” blog was one of the influences that got me into blogging. In the early days of the Iraq War, he was a rare voice speaking out bluntly against the militaristic rah-rah-America spirit of the times. In recent years, though, he has been so stubbornly unwilling to see the Russian disinformation and manipulation threat that at times I wonder if he came out of the Snowden Affair compromised in some way. (WikiLeaks followed a more extreme version of the same trajectory, from pro-freedom-of-information to pro-Russia.)

The Chinese company ByteDance has a proposal to retain ownership of TikTok, but still escape US sanctions: US software giant Oracle takes over management of TikTok’s US operations and data in the cloud. Ars Technica summarizes the issues:

The big challenge facing ByteDance is the need to to satisfy the potentially conflicting demands of the US and Chinese governments. The US government has threatened to shut down TikTok over concerns that the Chinese government would compromise Americans’ privacy or exercise undue influence over the content Americans see. Transferring TikTok’s US operations to an American company could address those concerns.

But the Chinese government isn’t happy about the possibility of the US government essentially seizing a major Chinese technology asset for the benefit of a US competitor. Late last month, Beijing announced new export control rules restricting the sale of artificial intelligence technology—rules that apparently apply to the algorithm TikTok uses to recommend videos to its users. This means that ByteDance will need the approval of the Chinese authorities—as well as the Trump administration—before any deal can go through.

The non-sale to Oracle might thread the needle via corruption:

It’s a victory for Larry Ellison, the chairman of Oracle and one of the few technology tycoons who has been openly supportive of Donald Trump. Ellison held a fundraiser for Trump in February. … So if ByteDance believed Larry Ellison could use his personal relationship to Trump to get the deal approved, that would have been a compelling reason to choose Oracle [rather than accept a competing bid from Microsoft].

If the deal goes through, it is another step down the road to Putinism: A valuable corporate franchise can be channeled to a Trump-allied oligarch.

NBC’s Think blog provides tips for talking to friends and relatives who have gone down the Q-Anon rabbit hole. The tricky thing about any cultlike system is its epistemic closure: If the only information that can be trusted comes from the cult itself, the cult’s beliefs become unassailable.

In any such situation, I remember the Danny DeVito character from The War of the Roses. At one point his good friend says something truly insane about the process of splitting up with his estranged wife. And DeVito observes in a tone of concerned fascination: “This seems rational to you.”

A pattern that probably deserves a longer discussion sometime: Once belief systems start closing themselves off, they can become incubating grounds for even more closed systems.

For example: During the 20th century, Evangelical Christianity developed defense mechanisms to keep Darwinism at bay. The scientific community, and any media that trusts the scientific community, became suspect. Hence conservative Christians need their own news network and their own research institutes.

More recently, Trumpism has grown into a cult inside this protective Evangelical shell, and now Q-Anon is growing inside Trumpism. The kind of objective thinking that Evangelicals need to do if they’re going to root out these cancers could also threaten Evangelicalism itself.

and let’s close with something graphic

I grew up loving maps, especially ones that make you look at something in a different way. This map asks the question: What if we made US states out of the river basins, the way political divisions are drawn in Gambia? Some states, like Alabama or Tennessee, remain recognizable distortions of their current selves, and Santee is more or less South Carolina. But Mississippi goes all the way up to Minneapolis, Ohio goes from Erie to beyond Louisville, and Missouri winds up west of Yellowstone.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Nothing jumped out at me this week as a topic I have to cover myself rather than quote other people. (I also spent a bunch of the week carrying boxes up and down stairs, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t distracted by a writing project.) So there won’t be a featured post this week.

That doesn’t mean we had a light week for news: apocalyptic wildfires in the West, the Bob Woodward book, more political interference in the Justice Department, a lull in the pandemic while we wait to see the effects of Labor Day and school openings, TikTok, Q-Anon, polls, Rudy’s pal is a Russian agent, and new Trump superspreader events.

I’m still looking for a lead quote and a closing. I’m hoping to get the summary out by noon EDT.

Summers and Winters

In a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.

Martin Luther King

This week’s featured post is “Trump Despises His Supporters Too“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s disrespect for military service and death in war

Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’” dominated the weekend’s news. This story is covered in the featured post, but I did want to add some context from Chris Jones :

Seems like a good time to remind everyone that The Atlantic’s fact checkers once challenged my belief that Lorne Michaels was eating snow peas during a meeting and later verified that he was, in fact, eating edamame. They are extremely thorough.

Joe Biden’s comment is also worth your attention:

When my son volunteered and joined the United States military as the attorney general and went to Iraq for a year, won the bronze star and other commendations, he wasn’t a sucker. The servicemen and women he served with, particularly those who did not come home, were not ‘losers.’ If these statements are true, the president should humbly apologize to every gold star mother and father and every blue star family that he has denigrated and insulted. Who the heck does he think he is?

and violence from the left and right

Vox’ Aaron Ross Coleman says that condemning riots is not an adequate response:

If looting and rioting have no place in a well-functioning democracy, then perhaps we should pause to consider that these are signs that Americans are not, in fact, in a functioning democracy. … In declining to reconcile the failure of America’s democratic institutions and in their strong denouncements of riots as political protest, elected officials like Trump and Biden avoid the truth — there is no more effective force for stopping riots than making a serious effort to stop police from killing Black people.

… Today it is perhaps the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie who most pithily expressed how this relationship works. “Kenosha would be quiet if not for an incident of police brutality and abuse,” he wrote this week. “The same is true for other cities where rioting and disorder have taken place.”

I got the MLK quote above from this article, and then I looked up the larger context. It’s from a speech he gave in March, 1968 near Detroit, which had been through a massive riot the previous summer.

Now every year about this time, our newspapers and our televisions and people generally start talking about the long hot summer ahead. What always bothers me is that the long hot summer has always been preceded by a long cold winter. And the great problem is that the nation has not used its winters creatively enough to develop the program, to develop the kind of massive acts of concern that will bring about a solution to the problem. And so we must still face the fact that our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nations winters of delay. As long as justice is postponed we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption. The question now, is whether America is prepared to do something massively, affirmatively and forthrightly about the great problem we face in the area of race and the problem which can bring the curtain of doom down on American civilization if it is not solved.

Coleman describes what we’re not getting done in the periods between a George Floyd murder and a Jacob Blake shooting:

In the executive branch, the recommendations from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing failed to be implemented nationwide. In the judicial branch, legal precedent still protects officers from the consequences of deadly force with qualified immunity. In the legislative branch, this summer’s police reform bills have stalled out. The institutional stalemate persists at the local level even in the bluest of districts like in New York City or Minneapolis, where police brutality persists, despite years of activism and electoral support for reform candidates.

All of which brings me back to a JFK quote I’ve used before: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

But the real violence story these days is happening on the right, where Kyle Rittenhouse is on his way to hero status. Joe Biden is denouncing political violence in all its forms, but Trump is not.

Meanwhile, polls are making it clear that the law-and-order theme is not working for Trump. a majority believes that he is making protests worse, that Biden would do a better job on criminal justice issues, and that Trump makes them feel less safe.

The 538 polling average currently has Biden ahead by 7.5%. But because of Trump Electoral College advantage, Biden needs a 3-4% margin to be confident of winning.

The Right is trying to make something out of Biden not denouncing Antifa by name, but where is their evidence that Antifa is doing anything? Tucker Carlson is talking to Chad Wolf about using the RICO laws against Black Lives Matter and Antifa, but they have the process backwards: RICO can never be the first crime a group is accused of. After you have a record of proven members of a group committing proven crimes, then you can make a case that those crimes are connected by a corrupt organization.

Show me two convictions for serious violent crimes, and then we can talk about whether something connects them.

Meanwhile, why don’t we stop police from killing and maiming Black people for no good reasons? Maybe that will solve the problem.

If we’re going to talk about militias, we should know what one really is. Erik Schechter writes at NBC New’s Think blog:

In 1903, we officially divided the militia into an “organized militia,” i.e., the National Guard (and, later, state defense forces), and the “unorganized militia.” This other militia includes every able-bodied male age 17 to 45 and serves as a reserve body that, at least theoretically, could be called up for service by the president. (States have their own rules for militia membership; Illinois, for instance, now counts women in its state militia.)

So, does being part of an unorganized militia give you and your buddies the right to sling AR-15s across your chest, don cammies and patrol the streets of Kenosha and other cities as the self-declared Super-Patriot Constitutional Militia for Liberty and Tricorn Hats? No, because a militia is not an armed gang; it operates under orders from a legal authority that a self-governed group does not.

… Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, notes that “there isn’t an affirmative right” to form one’s own militia. She cites Presser v. Illinois, in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that a German immigrant didn’t have a Second Amendment right to march his socialist militia in Chicago without authorization from the state.

In Rochester, New York, a grand jury will investigate the death of Daniel Prude, who suffocated in March after police hooded him and pinned him to the ground.

Mr. Prude went into cardiac arrest during a struggle with officers and died a week later. The county medical examiner labeled his death a homicide caused by complications of asphyxiation in a prone position. But for months, the police in Rochester treated the case as a drug overdose after PCP, or angel dust, was found in his bloodstream.

… The case came to public attention only on Wednesday, more than five months after Mr. Prude’s death, when his family’s lawyer released body camera footage from the officers involved in detaining Mr. Prude. The footage was obtained through a public records request by the lawyer.

This case sums up my problem with the few-bad-apples/most-cops-are-good argument: Let’s say the cop who pinned Prude was a bad apple. But he didn’t cover this up by himself. Months ago, the authorities had access to the same body-camera footage they’re acting on now, but they did nothing until the video was made public and caused public outrage.

This pattern recurs again and again: When a cop kills someone, assaults someone, or commits some other crime, the other cops, the local prosecutors, and the police union circle the wagons around him. When they do that, they all join Team Bad Apple.

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Jon Lovett compares two ways of covering the same story. The Washington Post’s headline is “Trump and allies rachet up disinformation efforts in late stages of campaign“, while AP has “Dueling versions of reality define 1st week of fall campaign“. Lovett’s comment:

The Post is honest about this moment while the AP is a victim of it.

The difference goes to the heart of what journalism is supposed to do: Does the journalist cover a real world? Or is the world nothing but conflicting opinions which the journalist can only repeat? AP goes the second route:

On the campaign trail with President Donald Trump, the pandemic is largely over, the economy is roaring back, and murderous mobs are infiltrating America’s suburbs.

With Democrat Joe Biden, the pandemic is raging, the economy isn’t lifting the working class, and systemic racism threatens Black lives across America.

If only there were a real world that AP could examine these claims against. Does their weather report balance the people who say it rained today against the people who say it was sunny?

The Post, on the other hand, believes in a real world where reportable events happen.

On Aug. 30, the president retweeted footage of a Black man violently pushing a White woman on a subway platform under the caption, “Black Lives Matter/Antifa” — but the man was not affiliated with either group, and the video was shot in October. White House social media director Dan Scavino shared a manipulated video that falsely showed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seeming to fall asleep during a television interview, complete with a fake TV headline.

And Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican, released a video splicing together quotes from activist Ady Barkan — who has Lou Gehrig’s disease and uses computer voice assistance — to falsely make it sound as if he had persuaded Biden to defund police departments.

… The slew of false and misleading tweets and videos stood in contrast to the approach taken by Biden, the former vice president, who in 2019 took a pledge promising not to participate in the spread of disinformation over social media, including rejecting the use of “deep fake” videos.

If Republicans are looking for a way to torpedo Trump without actively endorsing Biden, Arnold Schwarzenegger provides a model: Come out against the underhanded tactics that Trump won’t admit to.

Schwarzenegger’s issue is voter suppression. Tweeting a link to a Reuters article about polling places closing in the South, Arnold comments:

I’m a fanatic about voting. Most people call closing polls voter suppression. Some say it is “budgetary.” What if I made it easy & solved the budgetary issue? How much would it cost to reopen polling places?

This is a serious question. Is closing polling stations about making it harder for minorities to vote, or is it because of budgets? If you say it’s because of your budget, let’s talk.

The Trump boat parade is a phenomenon that completely escapes me. I don’t get why a campaign would want to emphasize how many rich people support it. But if you’re going to do one, you should do it right, and not get a bunch of your boats sunk by each other’s wakes. If you wanted a metaphor for the Trump economy, very rich people swamping the boats of lesser rich people is pretty good.

Just because you don’t show obvious symptoms of Covid-19 doesn’t mean you’re not being harmed by it. Penn State has been looking at athletes who have been infected, and finds that a sizeable minority of them (one doctor said 30-35% and another corrected to 15%) suffer an enlargement of the heart muscle called myocarditis. The condition can lead to “arrhythmia, cardiac arrest and death, especially in a person who doesn’t know they have it and performs rigorous exercise”. Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who won 19 games in 2019, will miss the entire 2020 season because of myocarditis brought on by Covid-19.

Question and answer:

Q: Can you help me understand the Portland riots? Why haven’t you stopped the violence?

Portland Press Herald: Well, we’re a newspaper in Maine is the main reason.

and let’s close with something childish

The closer we get to Election Day, the less I want to be challenged by the closings. So light and fluffy is in. Last week we had puppies, this week a countdown of the top ten Muppet Show guest stars.

Trump Despises His Supporters Too

By privately insulting veterans and servicemen killed in the line of duty, Trump has raised a suspicion many of his supporters try not to think about: What does he say about them behind their backs?

He says what he thinks. When his supporters try to explain what is so appealing about Donald Trump, one point that almost always comes up is: “He says what he thinks.”

If you don’t like Trump, that line has probably never made sense to you, because a lot of what he says seems so nonsensical that he can’t possibly believe it. Surely he doesn’t really think he’s been treated “worse than Lincoln“, when Lincoln was assassinated in office, or that he has “done more for Black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln — nobody has even been close”. He was already an adult when President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, laws that made it possible for millions of Black Americans to vote and to begin living something that at least resembled a normal American life. Surely he doesn’t imagine that a few months of low Black unemployment compares to that, does he? Or that it balances his decades-long history of racism.

He doesn’t say those things because he believes them. He says them because he wants us to believe them.

But “He says what he thinks” is actually code for something else: “He says what I think.” People in Trump’s base, particularly older conservative Christian white men, have lived for decades under constant social disapproval for the little things they habitually do and the words that come out of their mouths. Put yourself in their shoes: Maybe you grew up saying the N-word — you didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just what Black people were called in your neighborhood. (I missed out on the N-word: I grew up in a time and place where good little children weren’t supposed to say it, and by the time I was an adult, no one was.) Maybe you said “fag” instead of “gay”, or referred to women in the workplace as “girls”.

Comments or pats on the butt that would once have been accepted as compliments suddenly because “harassment”. Overnight, jokes that everyone used to laugh at became offensive — racist or sexist or some other ist-word you’d never heard before. Affirmations of good Christian values became “homophobia”, and who knows what the heck “intersectionality” means? Every day there was a new set of toes you supposedly had been tromping on for years — so you’d better watch your step from now on. And it never stops: You can’t even make fun of transsexuals these days. Who knows what it will be next? You’ll never be free to just speak your mind.

And there was Trump, ignoring all those rules and not censoring himself. Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals and drug smugglers. America accepts too many people from “shithole countries” like Haiti or those places in Africa that were better off when the British or French ran things. When you thought stuff like that, you didn’t dare say so — but he did. That crippled reporter wrote bad things about him, so Trump just mocked him and his disability right out in front of everybody, with the TV cameras running. The Disability Police came after him with guns blazing, but did he apologize? No way. Women came out of the woodwork to say he harassed, abused, or even raped them. Did he let that intimidate him? Not on your life. He insulted them right back, said they were too ugly to be worth it. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”

What’s more, you would also love to deny that you ever make mistakes, to blame everything that goes wrong on somebody else, and to claim that everything you do or say or own is the biggest and best and most wonderful thing ever. But you don’t, because people would laugh at you. Well, Trump does that, and people do laugh at him, but he just doesn’t care. How can you not love that?

The liberal media and all the people who have been pushing the new standards, they keep trying to bring him down. But they can’t. They try to make him a villain, but he beats them.

And that’s why he’s a hero.

Mean girls. One stereotypic character of high school dramas is the Mean Girl: From her perch at the top of the social pyramid, she can say whatever she wants about anybody — and what she wants to say is nasty. The more cruel or unjust it is, the more it proves her power. She can say anything, and everybody else has to accept it, because if you object, she’ll turn her fire on you. And if you want to be popular like she is, you can’t just silently go along, you have to praise her cleverness and insight. If you want to stay in the Queen’s court, you have to repeat her insults and push the party line. She tells you who’s in and who’s out, and then sends you off to work her will.

Being close to the Mean Girl can be exhilarating. All your life you’ve had to repress your own cruelty, and now it’s an asset — as long as she approves. If you come up with a particularly biting nickname for some rival queen-wannabee or for some kid who thinks he or she can get along outside the social structure, maybe the Mean Girl will start using it too. You’ll never get credit for it directly, but maybe you’ll rise in her esteem, until you’re almost a Mean Girl yourself.

But no matter how close you get to the throne, you never stop wondering: What does that cruel tongue say about you when you’re not there to hear?

In their heart-of-hearts, even Trump’s biggest fans must recognize how much Mean Girl he has in him. That champion-of-the-common-man mantle has always fit badly on someone who lives in a gilded penthouse. Do you think anyone who isn’t rich or famous has ever set foot in his Trump Tower residence except as a servant, a workman, or for sex?

He didn’t make that money by working his way up from the bottom; he inherited hundreds of millions from his father. He’s always been rich, he’s always been on top, and he’s always been a bully. Those famous Twitter insults — Pocahontas, pencil-neck Adam Schiff, Crooked Hillary — that’s not the language of presidents. It’s the language of the Mean Girl.

So even if you’re the most rabid MAGA-hatter in the world, deep down you have to wonder: When he’s with his real buddies — the billionaires or reality TV stars or whoever he likes to hang with — what does he say about you? Does he make fun of how gullible you are, that you think he cares about you and you believe all the crap he tells you?

No matter how much you may try to deny that possibility, silently in your own mind you know he does.

Trump U. Before Donald Trump ever ran for president, he was the founder of Trump University. The target market for Trump U was all the people who admired the great businessman they saw on The Apprentice, people who bought The Art of the Deal and wanted to be like the guy it described. And they didn’t just admire Trump, they trusted him. If he was ready to tell people how to get rich the way he did — which wasn’t to inherit a real estate empire from your Dad — they were ready to pay money to hear it.

They weren’t the Enemy. They weren’t what’s wrong with America. They were his biggest fans.

And he scammed them.

Trump U wasn’t a good idea that got out of hand. It wasn’t a generous impulse that turned bad after he handed it off to a corrupt subordinate. Trump U was a scam from Day 1.

One of the company’s ads said of Trump, “He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.” The ad said that Trump had “hand-picked” Trump University’s instructors, and it ended with a quote from him: “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.”

In fact, Trump hadn’t handpicked the instructors, and he didn’t attend the three-day seminars. Moreover, the complaint said, “no specific Donald Trump techniques or strategies were taught during the seminars, Donald Trump ‘never’ reviewed any of Trump University’s curricula or programming materials, nor did he review any of the content for the free seminars or the three day seminars.” So what were the attendees taught? According to the complaint, “the contents and material presented by Trump University were developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and Seminar and timeshare rental companies.” The closest that the attendees at the seminars got to Trump was when they were encouraged to have their picture taken with a life-size photo of him.

Trump U’s business plan was to constantly up-sell its marks. Drawn in by a free presentation, they’d be given a glowing description of everything they’d learn if they ponied up $1,500 for the three-day seminar. At the three-day seminar, they’d hear about the even more expensive “mentorship” program where they’d learn Trump’s real secrets.

There never were any Trump secrets in the program. He couldn’t tell them how to be born rich, he wasn’t going to tell them how to launder money for Russian oligarchs, and nobody wants to know how to go bankrupt running Atlantic City casinos — so there was really nothing to teach. Trump admirers paid upwards of $30,000 for that lesson, and Trump eventually had to give back $25 million to settle their fraud lawsuit.

Most of the victims of Trump U were people who couldn’t afford to lose that amount of money. But there was a hole in their lives that they thought they could fill by becoming real estate moguls like their hero Donald Trump. In other words, they were losers. And Trump was able to take advantage of their loser-ness (and their admiration of him) to turn them into suckers.

And if you think he’s only done that once, you’re wrong.

The Atlantic article. Thursday, The Atlantic published an article by its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’“. The article made a number of startling accusations:

  • In 2018, while he was in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he cancelled a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, the grave site of 1,800 American Marines who died at Belleau Wood, because “It’s filled with losers.” He also described the Marines as “suckers” for getting killed.
  • When tortured Vietnam POW John McCain had died a few months earlier, he said, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”
  • When he accompanied his Chief of Staff John Kelly on a visit to the grave of Kelly’s son, a Marine who died in 2010 in Afghanistan, he said to Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A retired four-star general who is a friend of Kelly later told Goldberg, “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”
  • After hearing Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford give a briefing, Trump said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”
  • When planning a military parade, Trump told his aides not to include amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

Immediately, the White House tried its standard defense: Fake news, put out by a failing magazine. The story is “totally false”, and the anonymous sources Goldberg quotes are made up.

That explanation broke down almost immediately when other news organizations — AP , The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and The Washington Post — had little trouble finding their own sources, who may or may not have been the same ones Goldberg found. If someone is making these stories up, it’s not Jeffrey Goldberg.

Worse, there was one obvious person who could have blown the whole thing up: John Kelly. If his son’s memory is being used to smear his former boss, you’d think he might try to put a stop to it. He hasn’t said a word. Trump knows what that means. So he attacked Kelly Friday at the White House:

I know John Kelly. He was with me, didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out. He got — he was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted.

He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months. He was not able to function. He was sort of a tough guy. By the time he got eaten up in this world, it’s a different world than he was used to, he was unable to function. And I told him, John, you’re going to have to go. Please give me a letter of resignation. And we did that, and now he goes out and badmouths.

He has also lashed out at Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin, who corroborated some of Goldberg’s accounts via her own sources, and added this anecdote:

According to one former senior Trump administration official: “When the President spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker’.”

Griffin, Trump tweeted, “should be fired for this kind of reporting” and added “FoxNews is gone.”

Other pundits and talking heads have pointed out the obvious: The quotes in the Atlantic article may be new and more extreme, but they sound like Trump quotes we already know. Early in his term, he called the military brass “a bunch of dopes and babies“. One of Candidate Trump’s first political flaps came when he bad-mouthed John McCain’s service: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He publicly contradicted the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.  He attacked the Gold Star parents of slain Captain Humayun Khan. He dodged the Vietnam draft by claiming bone spurs, a diagnosis provided by a doctor who owed his father a favor. Michael Cohen quotes Trump saying, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam.” The only person in Trump’a family who did any military service was his black-sheep brother Fred Jr., who was in the Air National Guard. As President, Trump won’t even challenge Vladimir Putin for paying bounties to kill American soldiers. Putin counts; soldiers don’t.

So yes, it fits perfectly: He said these things. Trump and his flunkies can deny as vehemently as they want, but they’re not fooling anybody.

Why this story hit a nerve. Ever since he came down the escalator in 2015 talking about Mexican rapists, barely a week has gone by without some Trump-said-a-bad-thing story. They arise, people who never liked Trump anyway get upset about them, and they fade away in a day or two. Some political observers believe Trump uses or even engineers this process in order to distract the public from more damaging stories. For example, 1080 Americans died of coronavirus on the day the Atlantic article came out. What’s more important: a few quotes from 2018 or the equivalent of three simultaneous jumbo-jet crashes?

And yet, this time the story doesn’t seem to be going away. I think I know why.

Trump’s usual escape from he-said-a-bad-thing stories is to invoke tribalism. Both the people he insulted and the media that reported the insult are from the Other Side. Who are you going to believe: Trump or the New York Times? Whose side are you one: Trump’s or the Squad? Trump or some Muslim?

But the people he has insulted this time are in his own tribe, and even Fox News is reporting it. John Kelly was a good guy not that long ago, and he went away without making a fuss.

A key part of the Trump base are veterans, especially white veterans from the South or rural areas whose families have a tradition of military service. The kind of guy who goes to the cemetery on Memorial Day to put flowers on the grave of a father who died on D-Day or a grandfather who barely escaped from Belleau Wood — lots and lots of them are Trump voters. And he thinks they’re losers and suckers, just like the people he scammed at Trump U. Then he got his marks’ money, now he gets their votes. But does he respect them? Not at all.

And even if you’re not a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse or son or daughter, you have to know that your position in the Trump base is no more secure than theirs. If he talks that way about them, you know he’s talking that way about you too.

He’s not the hero you want to believe he is. He’s the Mean Girl who finds you useful as long as you do what she wants. He bears you no affection or loyalty, and the more you do for him, the more you convince him that you’re a sucker too.