Tag Archives: democracy

The Debt Ceiling: a (p)review

The chaos surrounding the Speaker vote may be a preview of a far more consequential vote this summer.

As the House of Representatives endured round after round of voting for a new speaker, most of America probably didn’t take the turmoil all that seriously. It was just Congress being dysfunctional again, and we knew already that the next speaker would be a Republican. Obviously, Kevin McCarthy cared which Republican it would be. But why should we care?

The answer to that question is simple: The battle for the speakership probably doesn’t matter much in itself, but it’s a preview of future votes that will matter. Electing a speaker was the first of a handful of must-do items every Congress faces. The others — appropriating money to keep the government functioning and giving the Treasury permission to borrow money to pay the country’s bills — have very real consequences.

If the speakership was this difficult to decide, what’s going to happen when the other must-do items come up?

In each of those cases, the House is one of the three powers that need to agree; the Senate and the President are the others. So over the next two years, Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden will occasionally have to go into a room and come out with an agreement they all support. That agreement will then need to get majorities in both the House and Senate.

Otherwise bad things will happen.

McCarthy’s precarious hold on the speakership makes him a difficult negotiating partner: If he recognizes that he represents only 1/3 of the power in the room and makes realistic compromises, he might well be deposed when he takes that agreement back to the Republican caucus that elected him. And whatever he agrees to, he may not be able to deliver the votes to pass it.

The upshot is that the other must-do items on Congress’ agenda may not get done, or may face lengthy delays. The two possible consequences of that inaction are a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling crisis.

Government shutdowns are a nuisance. Hitting the debt ceiling would be a disaster. There have been a number of government shutdowns over the years, including a 35-day shutdown just four years ago (when President Trump backed out of an agreement that didn’t include funding for his border wall). So most Americans have at least a vague understanding of what happens: The mail still gets delivered and Social Security checks go out, but hundreds of thousands of other government workers go home, creating work-backlogs that ultimately cost billions to resolve.

It’s a nuisance and a waste, but the country survives it.

But Americans have a much shakier understanding of a debt-ceiling violation, which has never happened. Twice — in 2011 and 2013 — a Republican Congress played chicken with President Obama over the debt ceiling, but disaster was avoided both times. (The debt ceiling was increased three times under President Trump, including once in 2019 after Democrats took control of the House.)

The main thing you need to understand about hitting the debt ceiling is that it would be a much bigger deal than a government shutdown, and would create havoc in both the US and the world economy.

What the debt ceiling is. The debt ceiling (or debt limit) is a legal cap on the amount of money the United States can borrow. It was established in 1917, and is a relic from an era when Congress didn’t have a budgeting process anything like the current one.

The current process is that Congress passes a budget with spending and revenue targets, and then passes individual appropriation bills within that framework. You might think that passing a budget with a deficit would automatically authorize borrowing to fill the gap, but it doesn’t. Having passed those bills, Congress can then refuse to raise the debt limit, creating a contradiction in the laws.

Other countries don’t do this. Only the US and Denmark have a debt ceiling, and Denmark’s political parties never play chicken with it.

Fundamentally, the US debt limit is just a dumb idea. Remember the various Star Trek episodes where the Enterprise’s self-destruct option played a role? The captain (and maybe some other officers) would have to go through a detailed authorization process to start the clock counting down. Our debt ceiling is like a self-destruct process that works the other way: Self-destruct will engage automatically unless the officers regularly go through some complicated process to stop it.

Arguably, Democrats should have abolished the debt limit while they had control of Congress, or at least raised it far enough to keep the issue at bay for another two years. The recent omnibus spending bill would have been the place to do it, but it was hard enough getting Mitch McConnell’s cooperation as it was.

The politics of the debt ceiling. For almost a century, debt ceiling debates were political theater without any real drama. It was an opportunity for the party out of power to bemoan the country’s fiscal health, and members of each house would cast symbolic votes against raising the ceiling. (Senator Barack Obama made such a speech and cast such a vote in 2006.) But everybody knew the bill had to pass, and it always did.

Occasionally other measures would get tacked onto a bill to raise the debt ceiling. In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of reforms to Congress’ budgeting process were added, like the Budget Reform Act of 1990. These were process bills (with bipartisan support) that made it more difficult to pass unbalanced budgets in the future. They did not directly raise taxes or cut spending.

That changed after the Tea Party wave election of 2010. In both 2011 and 2013, Republicans used the threat of breaching the debt ceiling to try to extort severe spending cuts out of President Obama.

Where is the debt ceiling now? The current ceiling (set in December, 2021) is a little less than $31.4 trillion, and the current debt is getting close to that number. There are certain accounting games (which I don’t understand) that the Treasury can play around the margins, but the best guesses are that if nothing is done, the limit will be reached sometime this summer.

What that means is that the Treasury will only be able to sell new bonds as old bonds come due. It will not be legal to sell bonds to pay for the government’s new financial obligations, like interest payments or salaries or Social Security benefits.

Recent annual deficits have been running at around $1 trillion (after peaking at $3.1 trillion in fiscal 2020, the last full year of the Trump administration). So assuming the economy perked along nicely in every other way, a post-debt-ceiling government would have to find $80-100 billion in cuts every month — and probably a lot more than that, because the economy would NOT perk along nicely, resulting in decreased revenues and increased obligations.

Think about the position that would put the Biden administration in: US law limits the revenue it can collect and obligates it to make certain payments (like Social Security benefits, salaries for our soldiers, and interest payments to bond holders). But if those numbers don’t balance and it is forbidden to borrow, there is no legal path for the administration to take. The laws contradict each other, so whatever he does, President Biden will be violating his constitutional duty to “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.

The US Treasury will be like a family that has to decide which bills to pay after they cash a paycheck. (“Is the WalMart payroll tax payment in yet? Oh, good, we can reimburse a few of those hospitals that have been taking care of Medicare patients.”)

The main effect on the world economy would result from no one knowing what US Treasury bonds are really worth. (Will the interest be paid? What happens when the principal comes due?) Banks around the world keep their reserves in US bonds, so many of them could become insolvent, starting a banking crisis. No one can predict how far that effect would snowball, as a bankruptcy here makes somebody else insolvent, leading to a new bankruptcy there.

Would Biden have any legal options? Maybe. Many possibilities were discussed in 2011 and 2013, but they’re all of the play-stupid-games, win-stupid-prizes variety. (Paul Krugman expressed this sentiment in more sophisticated Princeton-professor terms: “Outrageous behavior demands extraordinary responses.”)

One proposal that sounds like a joke, but was seriously discussed in 2013 was the trillion-dollar-coin. Apparently, a loophole in the law allows the Treasury to create platinum coins of any value.

The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

The intent was to allow the Treasury to make occasional commemorative coins for collectors. But desperate times …

So in this scenario, the Treasury mints a single trillion-dollar coin, which it then takes to a Federal Reserve bank and deposits in the government’s account. Presto! There is now money to meet the government’s obligations.

The general opinion of both the Obama and Biden administrations was/is that such a scheme is beneath the dignity of the United States. But you never know.

But if that’s what it takes …” There’s a school of thought that says hitting the debt ceiling is the lesser evil: Our steadily increasing debt is unsustainable, and if a crash into the debt ceiling forces the government to only spend what it takes in, that’s all to the good.

That debt’s unsustainability is debatable. (Japan’s national debt is two-and-a-quarter years’ GDP, and they show no signs of collapse. The US debt is one-and-a-quarter years’ GDP.) The important thing to note here is that Congress could balance the budget whenever it wants, by raising taxes and/or cutting spending. That happened at the end of the Clinton administration, so it’s not impossible.

The reason a balanced budget doesn’t happen is that the voters don’t really want it to. Balanced budget is a phrase that polls well, but when you get down to the details, people don’t want to pay higher taxes or give up their health insurance to make it happen. And while it’s not hard to find the occasional $600 hammer or bridge-to-nowhere in the federal budget, you’re not going to find a trillion dollars of that stuff, year after year.

Also, it’s hard to take Republican deficit hawks seriously when they ignored the deficit completely during the Trump years, and instead passed a budget-busting tax cut for corporations and the rich. (One thing I can guarantee you: If there’s a debt-ceiling or government-shutdown crisis sometime in the next two years, Republicans will say that tax increases are off the table.)

But suppose you are the rare good-faith Republican deficit hawk who is not just trying to create an artificial crisis for a Democratic president. What should you do? Convince the voters. You should try to build a popular majority around the idea of a balanced budget — a real balanced budget, with numbers backed by actual taxing and spending policies, and not just the words “balanced budget”. Then your popular majority could elect a House, Senate, and president to implement your balanced budget (which Republicans definitely did not do the last time they controlled all the levers of power).

What you shouldn’t do is stand over the self-destruct button and threaten to press it unless you get your way. That’s not democracy. That’s hostage-taking. It’s terrorism.

Hostage-taking? Terrorism? Really? Hostage-taking and terrorism are pejorative terms that are nothing more than insults if they’re not defined. So here’s what I mean by them: hostage-taking is a negotiating tactic based on threats rather than positive offers; in particular, the hostage-taker threatens to do something that does not benefit him or her, and usually claims that s/he does not want to do it.

So when a kidnapper asks for ransom to give your daughter back, at some level that looks like a trade: money for your daughter. But it’s not a positive offer, because the kidnapper is only offering to restore what he took away. The proposed final deal is that the kidnapper gets money, and (at best) you get back to square one, minus the money.

The alternative to the ransom is that the kidnapper will kill your daughter, which he claims he doesn’t want to do. (“I’m not a monster. I don’t enjoy killing little girls.”) So neither of you wants the kill-the-girl option, but the kidnapper is counting on the fact that you are so desperate to avoid it that you’ll do anything else instead.

Terrorism is a political tactic: the attempt to gain a political advantage through threats of destruction.

In the case of the debt ceiling, it’s instructive to read Republican speeches from previous debt-ceiling crises. In 2013, for example, John Boehner acknowledged that the US was on the path to defaulting on its debt if the ceiling wasn’t raised, and acknowledged on another occasion that “Yes, allowing America to default would be irresponsible.” But Republicans didn’t frame this looming disaster as a common peril that they and President Obama should work together to avoid. Instead, Obama should pay for their cooperation by making concessions without getting anything in return. According to Ted Cruz:

Republicans were looking for three things before raising the debt ceiling: a significant structural plan to reduce government spending, no new taxes, and measures to “mitigate the harm from Obamacare.”

So Obama should scrap his signature program while agreeing to spending cuts Republicans wanted, with no indication of any priority Republicans might compromise on. The upshot was just: “Do what we want, or the country gets it.”

Next summer’s crisis. A new hostage-taking crisis was in the background of this week’s speaker election. Nearly all the 20 Republican holdouts who blocked Kevin McCarthy’s election for 14 ballots were also supporters of the January 6 insurrection, and are now gearing up for debt-ceiling battle. They were terrorists two years ago, and they’re terrorists now.

McCarthy critic Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said he wanted McCarthy to devise a debt-limit deal suitable to fiscal conservatives. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling? That’s a non-negotiable item.”

We can only hope that Norman and other Republican congressmen understand the difference between a government shutdown and a debt default, or that they will pay attention when someone explains it to them.

CNN reported being told by anti-McCarthy holdout Scott Perry that he had gotten a promise from McCarthy that he would oppose a clean debt-ceiling increase, i.e., one with no ransom demands. The procedural concessions McCarthy has made mean that he can be recalled as speaker if he doesn’t negotiate a high enough ransom. Jonathan Chait doubts that any amount of ransom will be enough.

Imagine a Republican Speaker — any Republican Speaker — figuring out a ransom that almost the entire caucus could agree on. The intraparty dynamics virtually guarantee that anything a Republican leader could agree to would immediately be seen on the far right as too little. All is to say that even if you think Biden ought to negotiate a debt-ceiling-ransom demand, it’s now a practical impossibility.

What the government spends money on. Like balanced budget, the phrase spending cuts tends to poll well in the abstract. There’s a widespread feeling — especially on the right, but also in the electorate at large — that the government spends too much money.

The problem is that most people who feel that way don’t have a clear notion of what the government spends money on. They imagine a budget full of foreign aid, welfare payments to people who don’t want to work, and boondoggle projects that don’t serve any purpose.

If you look at where the money actually goes, though, it’s clear that you can’t make a sizeable dent in federal spending without cutting health care, pensions, or defense. As the population ages, an ever-increasing amount of money will get spent on Social Security and Medicare.

When you understand the reality of federal spending, you see that any serious balance-the-budget deal that doesn’t include major tax increases will have to make significant cuts in Social Security and Medicare. And the Republicans have never run on that platform. “Cut Social Security and Medicare so that the rich can keep the Trump tax cuts” is an absolutely suicidal political platform. That’s why the only way to implement it is through terrorism. They’ll never get there through the democratic process.

The best-case scenario. The main power of the Speaker is to control what comes up for a vote in the House. But there is a way around it: a discharge petition. If a majority of the House members sign a petition to bring a bill to the floor, the Speaker has to allow a vote on it.

Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick suggested that a discharge petition might be how the debt ceiling gets raised. It would only take five Republicans and all the Democrats to make that happen.

The problem, though, is similar to the problem of impeaching Trump a few years ago: The Republicans who signed such a petition would be marked for primary challenges and probably voted out.

Are there still five Republicans in Congress with that kind of courage? We may find out.

Partying like it’s 1942

2022 included a lot of suffering and loss.
But if recent trends continue, we might look back on it as a turning point.

In his six-volume history of World War II, Winston Churchill named the fourth volume — the one that covered 1942 — The Hinge of Fate. To the people living through 1942, I doubt it looked all that wonderful. But from the perspective of the Allies’ eventual victory, it was the year when everything turned around.

There’s reason to hope we might look back on 2022 that way, someday.

2022 was a year when the bottom did not fall out. It tempted us to imagine many horrible outcomes, which then did not come to pass. It was a year of dodged bullets.

That’s what a hinge year looks like.

At the end of 1941, it would have been easy to imagine a total Axis victory. Hitler had overwhelmed Western Europe and conquered the Balkans. Now German troops were just outside Moscow, and he seemed on the verge of driving the British out of Egypt. Japan had crippled the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, and its troops were advancing throughout Southeast Asia. Both Singapore and the Philippines would fall in the first half of 1942.

But 1942 began with Russia’s winter campaign inflicting enormous casualties on the Nazi forces. In May and June the US Navy had defensive victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway. In July, the British stopped Rommel’s advance at El Alamein. By the end of 1942 the battle of Stalingrad, which the Soviets would win decisively in early 1943, had begun.

On New Years Day in 1943, I doubt a lot of Americans believed they were on a glide path to victory. If we had lost the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, Australia and Hawaii might have fallen. Stalingrad was still in doubt. Rommel might regroup and start advancing again. Only in retrospect, when the dodged bullets of 1942 led to a string of victories in 1943-45, did 1942 look like a hinge year. But that’s how historians think of it now.

Now think about 2022. A year ago, Russian troops were massing around Ukraine, Covid had developed its new Omicron variant, and pundits were predicting a 2010/1994-style red wave in the fall elections. Worse than the simple prospect of a Republican Congress, backers of Trump’s big lie were running for secretary of state in all the purple states, setting up the possibility of a better-organized coup in 2024. Trump himself had survived the brief spasm of Republican conscience after January 6, and was firmly in control of the party again. A House committee was investigating January 6, but no one knew what it was finding. By the time it told the public anything, would people still care? And even if it uncovered evidence against Trump, did Merrick Garland have the balls to do anything about it? Like Trump, Jair Bolsonaro was running for a second term in Brazil. As we know from the previous examples of Hungary and India, the second term is when fascism consolidates.

Democracy, both at home and overseas, was losing.

Ukraine. In February, Russia opened a full invasion of Ukraine, with the announced intention of ending the fiction of Ukrainian statehood. The Ukrainians seemed outmanned and outgunned. This vision seemed very plausible:

Consider the following scenario: the front lines are in shambles, the army has been defeated, the road to Kyiv is clear, and the West imposes more sanctions but refuses to go to war. In Ukraine’s capital city, riots erupt in large numbers. Protesters call on the government to step down. Armed groups storm government buildings throughout the country as riots swiftly turn violent. President Zelensky, along with a portion of the pro-Western elite, resigns and departs the country. A transitional administration is built around a simple agenda: sign an immediate ceasefire with Russia (or with whomever Russia chooses, such as the Donetsk or Luhansk People’s Republic) under any circumstances, and organize a constituent assembly election.

President Biden wanted to help the Ukrainians, but would NATO follow his lead? NATO’s unity of purpose and trust in American leadership had decayed badly during the Trump years, when the American president had openly wondered whether newer NATO members like Montenegro were worth defending, and seemed to hold Vladimir Putin in much higher regard than any democratic leader.

So where would NATO be, after Ukraine fell? Perhaps it would splinter, leaving its more exposed members (like the Baltic republics) open to Russia bullying.

Miss Ukraine Universe, “Warrior of Light”

None of that happened.

Instead, national independence turned out to mean a great deal to Ukrainians, who rallied around President Zelenskyy as a Churchillian figure. President Biden did a masterful job reuniting NATO around its original purpose of stopping Russian aggression. Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership.

The Russian military proved not to be the efficient machine everyone had imagined. It suffered from weak morale, bad planning, and poor equipment. In the north, its forces have been thrown back completely. In the west and south, they have been retreating since summer.

But hinge years are not victorious romps. All this has come at tremendous cost.

For the US, that cost has been almost entirely financial: In 2022 we spent $23 billion on military aid for Ukraine and an additional $25 billion in non-military aid. The recently passed FY 2023 omnibus spending bill included an additional $45 billion. Sanctions on Russian oil and gas undoubtedly have contributed to our inflation, but US troops are not dying and missiles are not falling on American cities.

The direct suffering is being borne by Ukrainians. Casualty estimates are unreliable, but both civilian and military deaths are likely in the tens of thousands. Nearly 8 million Ukrainians (out of a pre-war 41 million, not counting Crimea) are estimated to have fled the country. As of September, one independent estimate of damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure was $127 billion. The same group claimed GDP had fallen by 45%. (Numbers like these came to mind when I read a tweet from Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren objecting to the Ukraine aid in the omnibus bill: “No more money to Ukraine!!! We can’t fight this war for you for eternity!!!”) Our complaints about gas prices must amuse Ukrainian civilians, who — even if they aren’t currently hearing explosions — frequently lose electric power and have trouble staying warm.

But, as the cliche goes, you should see the other guy. Official Russian casualty numbers are either nonexistent or inaccurate, but BBC/Mediazona have compiled a list (by name) of 10,000 Russians soldiers who have died. A complete death list would undoubtedly be much larger, with the CIA estimating 15,000 Russian deaths already by last summer. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley recently estimated Russia had suffered over 100,000 soldiers either killed or wounded. Other sources claim the loss of 3000 tanks, hundreds of planes and helicopters, and 16 boats and ships, including the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the Moskva.

The blow to Russian prestige has been enormous, and Putin’s ability to intimidate other countries — including the other former Soviet republics — has diminished considerably. Whether all this losing has weakened Putin’s grip on power in Russia itself is hard to judge from the outside. But one indication of internal dissension is the incredible number of oligarchs who have died mysteriously since the war began. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have left the country, either to avoid military service, escape political repression, or perhaps just because they don’t like how things are going more generally.

The 1-6 Committee. On January 7, 2021, and for a week or two afterward, American political leaders of both parties were united in their horror over January 6: Watching Trump supporters violently attack the Capitol, threaten to hang Vice President Pence, and search House offices looking for Speaker Pelosi was too much to stomach, even for Republicans.

But then they saw their base standing by Trump, so they came around. By the time of the impeachment vote in February — which could have disqualified Trump from holding any future office — Mitch McConnell was trying to have it both ways: Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for January 6, but McConnell wouldn’t vote to convict.

Before long, Trump was firmly back in control of the Republican Party, and the official position of the GOP was that nothing about January 6 needed investigating. They blocked a bipartisan commission, tried to bluff Nancy Pelosi into accepting co-conspirator Jim Jordan on the House Select Committee, and boycotted the committee after Pelosi refused.

Nothing to see, just let it go.

The Department of Justice also seemed inclined to let it go. While pursing hundreds of cases against the individuals who invaded the Capitol, DoJ was showing little interest in the planners, or the larger coup plot the riot was part of.

Since the Committee’s hearings began in June, many Democrats have lamented their inability to break through to the Trump base: If you thought at the time that the riot was an appropriate response to a stolen election, you probably still do.

But the hearings kept the issue alive for the other 2/3rds of the country, including a small but decisive slice of the Republican vote in November that supported establishment Republicans like Gov. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, but couldn’t vote for a Trumpist election-denier like Don Bolduc in the Senate race. Across the country, pro-coup governor and secretary of state candidates went down to defeat, often in states that elected other Republicans.

In the lame-duck session after the election, Congress passed a reform of the Electoral Count Act, to make Trump’s shenanigans harder next time. Merrick Garland named a special prosecutor to pursue Trump’s legal liability.

It’s not justice — yet. But running out the clock has not worked for Trump. No one who wants him to face a jury feels threatened by the questions “Why are you still hanging onto that? Why can’t you just move on?” That’s what the 1-6 Committee accomplished.

Additionally, the midterm voters weakened the entire MAGA movement. Post-election analysis identified a “Trump tax” that might have cost MAGA candidates as much as 7% of the vote. The 2024 Republican nomination now looks likely to be a donnybrook. (Anyone who thinks a MAGA-without-Trump candidate like Ron DeSantis is the only alternative should consult with President Rick Perry. A lot can still happen.)

Making democracy work. In his first year, President Biden managed to get two important bills through Congress: the American Rescue Plan (to tackle the Covid crisis) and a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Those were both major accomplishments, given the Democrats’ slim House majority and a 50-50 Senate that included recalcitrant Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

But surely in a midterm election year, Congress would grind to a halt. We’ve been accustomed to gridlock for many years, even in Congresses with far larger majorities. Of course it would be back.

It wasn’t. In addition to the aforementioned reform of the Electoral Count Act, Congress passed its first significant anti-climate-change bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. Also, the bipartisan CHIPS Act (which invests in the American semiconductor industry), the Respect for Marriage Act (protecting same-sex and interracial marriages against future Supreme Court decisions), and the first gun control legislation in decades.

One explanation for November’s disappearing red wave is that Democrats in Congress had a popular record to run on. The public wants our government to work. (Another explanation is that voters rallied against the Supreme Court, which took away American women’s right to bodily autonomy. As in Ukraine, big costs have been paid.)

As we enter 2023, expert speculation expects apocalyptic showdowns between the new Republican majority in the House and the Democratic Senate and White House, with major unnecessary crises and no substantive legislation. We’ll see if that happens, and if it does, we’ll see how the public reacts. The American people want this all to work.

The world. On Sunday, Brazil had a peaceful transfer of power, with Lula replacing Bolsonaro. The voters of Brazil (narrowly) decided they didn’t want fascism, and the much-rumored Bolsonaro coup never came to pass.

Elsewhere, it’s the authoritarian governments that seem to be facing the most unrest. Protests continue in Iran, despite a government crackdown that includes executions. The Chinese government backed down on its zero-Covid policies in the face of protests. Putin is increasingly isolated in Russia.

The world did not decisively reject authoritarianism and fascism in 2022. (The right-wing coalition that returned Netanyahu to power in Israel is worrisome.) But the global drift away from democracy was checked. Around the world, bullets are being dodged.

A hinge year depends on what happens next. 1942 was “the hinge of fate” in World War II because of what happened the next three years. On New Years 1943, it wasn’t obvious that the Soviets would win at Stalingrad, or that Axis advances elsewhere wouldn’t resume at any moment.

The same thing holds for 2022. We might someday look back on it as the year when everything turned around. But will we? That depends on 2023 and 2024.

Trump still has no counter-narrative

Rather than tell his side of the story, Trump attacks anyone who wants to know what happened on January 6.

This week, the House Select Committee wrapped up its work with an 800-page final report that fleshed out with many details (supported by testimony and documents) the story it started telling in its first public hearing in June.

Before the 2020 election was even held, Donald Trump was plotting to retain power after losing:

  • He would encourage his voters to vote in person (rather than early or by mail) so that their votes (in many key states) would be counted first, giving him an early lead.
  • He would prematurely declare victory and promote the false belief that his eventual defeat was due to fraud. He would suborn government institutions (like the Justice Department) to give his big lie false credibility.
  • By pressuring Republican election officials, legislatures, and judges, he would try to prevent key states from certifying their results and appointing Biden electors to the Electoral College.
  • He would encourage local Republican Party organizations to assemble false slates of electors with forged certificates, and to send their votes for Trump to Congress as if they were legitimate electoral votes.
  • He would pressure Republican legislatures, Vice President Pence, and Republicans in Congress either to recognize his false electors, or to rule that states Biden won were “disputed” so the legitimate Biden electoral votes should not be counted.
  • He would assemble his violent supporters on January 6, and send them to the Capitol for the purpose of intimidating the Congress, disrupting its meeting, and preventing its certification of Biden’s victory.

I think this is a good time to re-emphasize a point I first made in July: Trump has never presented an alternate story in anything but the most general terms: He won the election and it was stolen from him. January 6 was a protest by patriotic Americans legitimately angered by a stolen election, perhaps egged on by an Antifa false-flag operation.

Trump has consistently fought against any attempt to flesh out that account with checkable details. Any stolen-election theory is as good as any other; he has never denied even the most outrageous ones. All his January 6 supporters were patriots; he has never denounced any of them. (In the video message where he finally asked the rioters to go home — after letting the riot play out for three hours, during which more than 100 Capitol police were injured — he said “We love you. You’re very special.“) No members or leaders of the Antifa false-flag operation have been identified. (Antifa itself may not even exist, at least not as a national organization capable of pulling off large-scale operations.)

It’s easy for both the media and members of the general public to miss the significance of this, or even to overlook it entirely. We are used to framing our political discussions in terms of two sides each trying to tell their own stories. (Climate change, for example, is either a looming catastrophe that requires radical reorganization of our economy, or a dubious projection of climate models whose “solutions” are far more expensive than what they would prevent. Racism is either a continuing structural problem in our society, or a historical artifact that was never central to America’s identity.)

But this political debate is different: On one side we have the January 6 Committee trying to tell a story as thoroughly as possible, and on the other we have Trump trying to prevent a story from being told at all.

Nothing illuminates that distinction better than a bit of gaslighting Trump posted to his Truth Social account about a week after the Committee’s first public hearing:

I have sooo many witnesses to everything good, but the highly partisan and one sided Unselect Committee of political hacks has not interest in hearing or seeing them. This Witch Hunt could all be ended quickly if they did!

Six months later, we still have no idea who these “sooo many witnesses” might be, or what they would say. We do know who they aren’t:

  • Steve Bannon, who is currently appealing his four-month prison sentence for defying the Committee’s subpoena.
  • Peter Navarro, whose trial for the same offense will start in January.
  • Mark Meadows, who has also defied a subpoena and been cited for contempt of Congress, but has not been indicted for it by the Department of Justice. So far, though, Meadows is losing his battle not to testify to the Fulton County grand jury that is investigating Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 loss in Georgia.
  • Pat Cipollone, who eventually submitted to a subpoena, but invoked executive privilege to avoid discussing his conversations with Trump. (He did, however, corroborate “almost everything that we’ve learned from the prior hearings”.) Cipollone also lost his battle to avoid testifying to the Fulton County grand jury.
  • Michael Flynn, John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, and Roger Stone, who did testify, but dodged questions by repeatedly invoking the Fifth Amendment. (Flynn even took the Fifth when Liz Cheney asked whether he believed in the peaceful transfer of power.)
  • Bill Barr, who testified that he told Trump his election-fraud claims were “bullshit“.
  • First daughter Ivanka Trump, who told the Committee that she believed Barr.
  • Barr’s successor Jeffrey Rosen and his second-in-command Richard Donoghue (both Trump appointees) who characterized some of the election-fraud claims as “pure insanity“. They blocked an effort to use the Justice Department to pressure the Georgia legislature only by threatening mass resignations across the Department.

So who, then?

Not Trump himself, who seems incapable of discussing any part of the January 6 story in terms of facts and evidence. Instead, he issues judgments (“partisan”, “one-sided”, his “perfect” phone call to Brad Raffensperger), calls names (“political hacks”, “Witch Hunt”), and makes claims (“the greatest fraud in the history of our country“). When his claims are debunked (as they always are if he includes enough detail to make them checkable), he neither accepts the evidence nor argues with it, but just makes new claims. (The Raffensperger phone call was a classic example. Raffensperger knew that there were no “suitcases of votes”? Never mind, dead people voted. No? Dominion voting machines flipped votes. On and on, culminating in a threat to prosecute Raffensperger. “You can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you.”)

Again and again, Trump has claimed that some bit of testimony was false. (He didn’t grab the steering wheel after the Secret Service refused to drive him to the Capitol on January 6. He didn’t throw food against the wall in the White House.) But he never follows up with an account of what did happen. (What did he think his crowd would do after he sent them to the Capitol? What was he doing during the three hours before he asked the rioters to go home? Did he know what was happening? Talk to anyone on the phone?) After Cassidy Hutchinson spoke to the Committee, anonymous sources told reporters that Secret Service agents were going to dispute her testimony — but they never came forward.

Trump’s “sooo many witnesses” never do. On one side, you have people (most of them Republicans or even Trump appointees) testifying under oath to details that support the Committee’s narrative. On the other, you have people refusing to testify, sometimes to the point of going to jail rather than be disloyal to Trump by telling the public what they know about him.

One final objection a Trump defender might make is that Trump’s witnesses don’t want to hand their testimony to this “one-sided” committee, which might edit it to Trump’s disadvantage. But that doesn’t explain why they don’t come forward at all.

Trump’s post says that with his witnesses’ testimony “This Witch Hunt could all be ended quickly”. So end it, then. The Committee doesn’t have a monopoly on public attention. For two years, the full apparatus of right-wing media has been ready to publicize Trump’s side of the story, if he would only tell one. Trump has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his supporters, most of whom probably imagined it being used for precisely this purpose.

But Trump has no story to tell. Any account more specific than “They stole the election from me” would quickly fall apart, because it’s just not true. Any witness — including Trump himself — who added supporting detail to that story would risk perjury.

Two Glimpses into the Future

Will American democracy survive after Whites become a minority?
And will the super-rich care whether civilization survives at all?

Following 2020 and 2022 elections, a number of articles have suggested that Democrats losing their hold on Hispanic voters, a development portrayed in liberal circles as something ominous that needs to be fixed. For years, the increasing number of Hispanic Americans was thought to promise Democrats some sort of demographic inevitability, and now they seem to be blowing it.

I’m of two minds about this line of thought. On the one hand, no segment of the electorate should be taken for granted, so the complaints that Democrats are offering Hispanic voters “noble rhetoric but never a seat at the table” deserve serious attention.

On the other, the whole emerging Democratic majority argument now seems wrong-headed, for reasons that Yascha Mounk spells out in the The Great Experiment: Why diverse democracies fall apart and how they can endure.

Mounk is deeply worried about the possible future in which we have a White Party and a People of Color Party. If the major-party identities get fixed in such a tribal way, he has a hard time seeing how democracy in America avoids devolving into civil strife, as it has in, say, Lebanon. Democracy should be about voters who are open to changing their minds when the other party presents a compelling vision, not about rival blocs you are born into and never leave. In a racially-defined two-party system, neither party can hope to convince the other’s voters, so they will end up competing in less positive ways.

To the extent that the parties themselves believe in demographic inevitability, they start to take their own demographic groups for granted and cast the other party’s demographic groups as enemies. You can see this happening already among MAGA Republicans, who see the coming non-White majority as a “Great Replacement” of White people, and try to head off that threat by rigging the system so that the dawning non-White majority never achieves power: stop non-White immigration, stop non-White immigrants from becoming citizens, make it hard for non-White citizens to vote, herd them into gerrymandered districts that minimize their political strength, and so on. Some on the right are ready to jettison democracy entirely rather than face a future where Whites lose power.

Many Democrats, on the other hand, fail to see why they need to win Hispanic votes. I mean, they’re Hispanics. What’s wrong with them if they can’t see which party they’re supposed to support? Conversely, White Evangelicals get written off, and they shouldn’t be. There are good Christian reasons to support liberal policies, and that argument needs to be made.

But Mounk is an optimist in that he believes the melting pot is still bubbling, at least for some groups. The original ethnic majority in the US was English, then Northern European (minus the Irish), and then grew to include Eastern and Southern Europeans (plus the Irish). (Jews, I think, are a special case — assimilated in some ways but not others, and still a political identity in a sense that Italians and Poles no longer are. Jews are separate enough that Doug Mastriano would try to make an issue of Josh Shapiro’s religion in the 2022 Pennsylvania governor’s race. But they’re accepted enough that he failed by a wide margin.) So why couldn’t it also absorb Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims? He thinks that’s starting to happen, and sees it as a good thing: There should be no need for either a White Party or a People of Color Party.

When their race or religion stops being a defining characteristic, Hispanic, Asian, and Muslim political views may come to more closely resemble the rest of the country. Hispanic businessmen, for example, may start to vote like other businessmen, Hispanic Catholics like other Catholics, and Asian or Muslim professionals like other professionals. If Republicans stop casting non-Whites and non-Christians as enemies, people of any race or religion may decide that they prefer lower taxes, less regulation, and other traditionally Republican policies.

Mounk glides over what this means for Black people, whose path into the mainstream has always been more difficult. (To an extent, non-Blackness has been the unifying principle of America’s ever-expanding “White” majority.) Mounk doesn’t explain why this will change, which I think is a major hole in his argument. But I believe this much of his thesis is sound: It’s a mistake to think that people will or won’t vote for you purely because they belong to this race or that religion. There’s nothing inevitable about Democratic dominance in a post-White-majority America — and that’s a good thing for democracy. Both parties would do well to recognize that fact and compete to win the allegiance of the new voters.

Another interesting recent book is Survival of the Richest: escape fantasies of the tech billionaires by Douglas Rushkoff.

Rushkoff describes himself in the introduction as a “Marxist media theorist” and “a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives”. So he is “often mistaken for a futurist” and often finds himself at the same futuristic conferences as tech billionaires. One time he was paid to fly out to a desert compound, and discovered that the small conference he thought he would address was actually a handful billionaires who wanted advice on where to site their apocalyptic refuges and how to keep control of their mercenaries after the legal system collapses.

His book describes a fundamental change in capitalism and the capitalist mindset. Originally, the point of establishing some income-producing enterprise — a shop, a farm, a factory, or whatever — was to create something that could be passed down through the generations like a medieval fiefdom. (This is my interpretation of Rushkoff’s point, and the examples that follow are mine rather than his.) For example, I imagine Henry Ford would have been thrilled to glimpse a future in which the Ford Motor Company still existed 75 years after his death and was still a major source of wealth for his descendants. Some small-scale capitalist — let’s call him Jack — might well have a similar fantasy of a great-grandchild still owning and operating Jack’s Bar & Grill a century hence.

But recently, particularly in the tech world, the prevailing fantasy has shifted to one where you cash out. Elon Musk‘s original fortune, for example, came from co-founding Zip2 and then selling it to Compaq for $300 million. He then co-founded an online bank, which merged into PayPal, which was eventually bought by eBay.

These days, that’s what a tech entrepreneur hopes to do: turn an idea into a business that works, then sell that business and move on to the next idea. It’s as if, rather than open a Mom & Pop grocery and hope to pass it down to your kids someday, you started M&P Grocery Franchises with the idea of selling it to Walmart or Kroger in a few years.

The old model softened capitalism somewhat by connecting the capitalist to the community, because the community was the arena in which success would ultimately play out. Your shop might become a landmark, or your factory could make you a pillar of the community. Some rich families were easily identified with their cities, like the Pillsburys in Minneapolis or the Buschs in St. Louis.

The new model, though, is about transcending the community. You build a team to implement your idea. You hire workers to provide your service or build your product. And once all those relationships are established, you sell and move on.

Rushkoff refers to this as “The Mindset”, and he thinks it explains the wealthy’s disinterest in preventing possible future dystopias: My ultimate fantasy doesn’t rely on the world not going to hell, but on transcending Earth-bound society by colonizing Mars, or uploading my consciousness to the Cloud, or building my Bond-villain bunker in the wilds of Alaska (assuming I can figure out how to control my mercenaries after the legal system collapses).

[T]hese people once showered the world with madly optimistic business plans for how technology might benefit human society. Now they’ve reduced technological progress to a video game that one of them wins by finding the escape hatch.

Closing Argument: Democracy


One of the two parties in these elections has stopped believing in elections.
You should vote for the one that still does believe.

The last time a Republican was president, he did one of the worst things any American president has ever done: He tried to stay in power after losing an election.

The testimony we have heard since, from his own campaign workers and appointees, as well as elected Republican officials in state and local governments, have stripped away all innocent explanations: He knew he had lost. He knew his claims of fraud were false. He knew his plot to appoint fake electors and count their votes was illegal. He knew the crowd he incited to storm the Capitol was prepared to do violence. And after violence broke out, he refused to tell his mob to go home until it was clear that their attempt to intimidate Congress had failed.

His schemes were thwarted only when elected Republicans and his own appointees refused to do his bidding: Mike Pence, Brad Raffensperger, Aaron Van Langevelde, Jeffrey Rosen, Mike Shirkey, Rusty Bowers, and many others at all levels of government. If not for them, he might have succeeded in overthrowing our Constitution or sparking a civil war.

Afterwards, some Republicans in Congress tried to hold the would-be usurper accountable for his actions and reaffirm their party’s commitment to our system of government: Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, and several others.

You could imagine a Republican Party in which all those people are heroes: They did their jobs, fulfilled their oaths, and saved American democracy. But that party doesn’t exist. Instead, almost all the Republicans who resisted the coup attempt have been drummed out of office. (Raffensperger, who survived a primary challenge, is a lonely exception. Whether Pence will ever again win a Republican primary is an open question.)


Instead, the ex-president’s personality cult has solidified its hold on the GOP. The most strident promoters of the stolen-election lie, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, have risen, while those who briefly denounced the coup, like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, have had to eat their words to retain their influence. Mitch McConnell can’t even defend his own wife against racist abuse. In the current election cycle, the party has been saddled with absurd candidates like Herschel Walker “because he scored a bunch of touchdowns back in the 80’s and he’s Donald Trump’s friend“.

Across the country, Republicans who still refuse to recognize their candidate’s loss in 2020 are running to oversee the 2024 elections, while his Supreme Court appointees consider whether to re-interpret the Constitution to allow state legislatures to ignore both their state constitutions and the will of their voters. Republicans running for governor in swing states — Kari Lake in Arizona, Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — have said they wouldn’t have certified Biden’s 2020 victory, without citing any evidence to justify such a move (because there is none). Some Republican candidates — Ron Johnson in Wisconsin — were active participants in illegal 2020 plots.


Worse, many MAGA Republicans are following Trump’s example by undermining elections in general: If they lose, they claim fraud without any evidence. Others are openly attacking democracy, like Utah Senator Mike Lee, who said: “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” Like their leader, many Republicans flirt with racism and anti-semitism, and some don’t even try to hide it.

Even a liberal like me can see that America needs a viable conservative party. It’s healthy that our national conversation include voices saying that government should do less, that traditions should change slowly, and that free enterprise plays an important role in our prosperity. Even as I support the consensus of scientific opinion on subjects like climate change or vaccination, I recognize that those views should not go unchallenged. Every party, even one that I support, needs someone looking over its shoulder.

But the conservative party America needs would be loyal to our Constitution rather than to one man. It would support the institutions of democracy and defend the People’s right to elect someone else.

The current GOP is not that party, and it will not become that party until voters have disciplined it for supporting illegal and violent attempts to seize power. It is the insurrectionists who need to be run out of town, not the people who stopped the insurrection plot from succeeding.

That discipline needs to start in these elections. You may agree or disagree with me about inflation, government spending, regulations, taxes, how to balance women’s rights against fetal rights, and many other issues. But we can have those arguments later. Because in the long run, if we lose our democracy, it won’t matter which of us makes the better case.

American democracy has been in trouble before

If we knew our history, we’d realize that the country is more resilient than we think.

Unprecedented. Every year, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster announces a “word of the year“: a single term that in some way tells you what the year was about. Typically, it’s not a new coinage, but a common word suddenly getting more use. 2021’s word of the year was vaccine (though insurrection was a competitor), and 2020’s was pandemic. 2019’s word was an old pronoun being used in a new way: the singular they.

I don’t know what Merriam-Webster has in mind for 2022, but if it were up to me, the word of 2022 would be unprecedented. I seldom go a day without running across it somewhere.

All kinds of recent events are being cast as unprecedented. Just this week, Delta Airlines described a surge in fall air traffic as “unprecedented”. An ergonomic research group claimed recent strains on industrial workers are “unprecedented”. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee pitched an anti-crime proposal with a twofer: “Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”

Both the Covid-19 pandemic and policies for containing it have been labeled “unprecedented”. Climate change has brought on all sorts of unprecedented events: not just heat waves, but droughts, storms, and floods.


But what makes unprecedented the word of 2022 is its eruption into American political news and discussions about the state of our democracy. No matter which side of the partisan divide you’re on, you see the other side doing unprecedented things that pose an unprecedented threat.

The FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago was unprecedented, but so was the criminal activity that made it necessary. If the ultimate result is an indictment of a former president, that too would be unprecedented. The January 6th Committee’s vote to subpoena Trump wasn’t quite unprecedented, but sets up an “unprecedented” confrontation. The Committee’s hearings themselves have been unprecedented, but so was the riot (or insurrection or failed coup) they are tasked with investigating. A Trump-and-January-6 documentary released this summer was titled Unprecedented.

Day after day, we are being told that the current threat to American democracy is unlike anything that has ever happened before.

It’s a discouraging, dispiriting message, because it implies that we are on our own. History has nothing to teach us and offers no reassurances. If American democracy is Patient Zero of an previously unknown disease, who can advise us or make any predictions about our survival?

But what if our current predicament isn’t unprecedented? What if American democracy has faced crises before and muddled through them?

Historic blind spots. This is a point where the patriotic version of US history that most of us learned in high school fails us. We know about the Civil War, of course, and the Native American genocide (which used to be known as “how the West was won”). We know that Jim Crow walled Black Americans out of democracy in the South, and that women didn’t get the vote until 1920. Various consensual sexual acts were illegal for much of our history, and same-sex couples couldn’t marry until fairly recently.

But still.

The history I learned in school embedded those failings in a narrative of progress, in which democracy and human rights were constantly expanding. We made mistakes, but we fixed them. The villainies of our past are simply backstory for the heroic saga that followed.


This upbeat narrative is what Ron DeSantis wants Florida schools to teach today:

It was the American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. No one had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal.

So (in this telling) when Thomas Jefferson enslaved hundreds of human beings, took sexual advantage of at least one of them, and then raised his own children as slaves, he was foreshadowing abolition. His vision of human equality wasn’t hypocritical, it was prophetic.

While that onward-and-upward story may fill at least some Americans with a warm glow, it fails us in moments like these, when democracy itself is in trouble and human rights may be starting to contract. How can we cope with such unprecedented challenges?

But what if they aren’t unprecedented?

This week I spent some time examining two of the darker eras of American politics: I listened to the opening episodes of Rachel Maddow’s new podcast “Ultra“, about a fascist plot to overthrow FDR. And I read the new book by Smithsonian curator Jon Grinspan about the hyper-partisan politics of late 1800s, which he has dubbed The Age of Acrimony.

Ultra. The first episode of “Ultra” includes its own best introduction:

This is a story about politics at the edge. A violent, ultra-right authoritarian movement, weirdly infatuated with foreign dictatorships. Support for that movement among serving members of Congress who prove willing and able to use their share of American political power to defend the extremists, to protect themselves, to throw off the investigation. Violence against government targets. Plots to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. And a criminal justice system trying, trying, but ill-suited to thwart this kind of danger. …

This is a story of treachery, deceit and almost unfathomable actions on the part of people who are elected to defend the constitution, but who instead got themselves implicated in a plot to undermine it. A plot to end it. …

Perhaps most importantly, this is also the story of the Americans— mostly now lost to history— who picked up the slack in this fight, who worked themselves to expose what was going on, to investigate it, to report on it, ultimately to stop it.

And there’s a reason to know this history now. Because calculated efforts to undermine democracy, to foment a coup, to spread disinformation across the country, overt actions involving not just a radical band of insurrectionists, but actual serving members of congress working alongside them, that sort of thing is… that’s a lot of things. It’s terrible. But it is not unprecedented.

We are not the first generation of Americans to have to contend with such a fundamental threat. Lucky for us, the largely forgotten Americans who fought these fights before us, they have stories to tell.

“Ultra” begins with a mysterious 1940 plane crash that killed Minnesota Senator Ernest Lundeen, along with several government agents who had begun to shadow him. Lundeen was on his way to deliver a Labor Day speech that not only urged America to stay out of the war in Europe (where Hitler had already taken over France and was threatening Britain), it was openly pro-German, and “had been ghost-written for Senator Lundeen … by a senior, paid agent of Hitler’s government operating in America”.

There was a time when I considered myself a World War II buff. But I had never heard of Senator Lundeen, or of the insurrection plot described in Episode 2, for which 18 members of the Christian Front were arrested.

The participants in that plot were never convicted, largely because of the popularity of their cause.

Prosecutors were blamed for not appreciating— not factoring in to their jury presentation— just how favorably the Christian Front was viewed in the community where the trial was held. The local press affectionately nicknamed them “The Brooklyn Boys.” The local Catholic Church supported them loudly. Nobody who was Jewish was allowed to sit on the jury. There was a local Catholic priest who was advising the Christian Front, who had been leading rallies to support them, who was close to [Father Charles] Coughlin [who coined the term “Christian Front”]. His first cousin was picked as the foreman of the jury.

And yet democracy was not overthrown by fascism, not in 1940 and not since. We’ll have to wait for future episodes (Episode 3 just posted this morning) to find out what Rachel thinks we can learn from democracy’s survival.

The Age of Acrimony. Eight years ago, in the most popular Sift post ever, I first pointed to the biggest hole in my US history education: Reconstruction.

In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.

And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.

Reconstruction and much of the Gilded Age get skipped over because (in every area but technological advancement and GDP growth) they don’t fit very well into the ever-upward narrative of American progress. As Grinspan tells the story:

Americans claim that we are more divided than we have been since the Civil War, but forget that the lifetime after the Civil War saw the loudest, roughest political campaigns in our history. From the 1860s through the early 1900s, presidential elections drew the highest turnouts ever reached, were decided by the closest margins, and witnessed the most political violence. Racist terrorism during Reconstruction, political machines that often operated as organized crime syndicates, and the brutal suppression of labor movements made this the deadliest era in American political history. The nation experienced one impeachment, two presidential elections “won” by the loser of the popular vote, and three presidential assassinations. Control of Congress rocketed back and forth, but neither party seemed capable of tackling the systemic issues disrupting Americans’ lives. Driving it all, a tribal partisanship captivated the public, folding racial, ethnic, and religious identities into two warring hosts.

In hindsight, it’s hard to cast either Democrats or Republicans as the heroes of late 19th-century politics. Democrats were the proud descendants of the Confederacy in the South, combined with the corrupt big-city political machines of the North. On the other side, Republicans soon abandoned the ideals of Reconstruction and 15th Amendment’s new Black voters in favor of the vast business empires of the Rockefellers and Morgans.

More and more of the country was being herded into an impoverished urban proletariat that neither party truly represented. Republicans were on the opposite side entirely, while Democrats would “help” by distributing patronage jobs to loyal party members. Neither party saw a structural problem requiring the kinds of solutions that wouldn’t appear until the 20th century: a minimum wage, workplace safety laws, bans on child labor, unemployment insurance, an old-age pension, and protection for union organizers.

The “Wide Awakes” marching for Lincoln in 1860.

What political campaigns lacked in substance, they made up in noise. Both parties had militaristic marching clubs not entirely unlike the Nazi storm troopers of the 20th century, and torchlight parades were common demonstrations of political strength. Neighborhood political centers were typically saloons where glad-handing ward bosses would pour free drinks in exchange for votes.

The spoils system, in which the victorious party handed out government jobs to those who worked hardest on the campaign, was not a dirty secret, but rather an orderly process that people counted on. President Garfield was assassinated not by an ideological terrorist or a lunatic looking for fame, but by a disgruntled member of his own party who felt his electioneering efforts should have earned him a plum appointment.

The result of all this was a widespread belief that democracy had failed. In 1878, one of the era’s top American historians, Francis Parkman, wrote “The Failure of Universal Suffrage“.

When a man has not sense to comprehend the questions at issue, know a bad candidate from a good one, or see his own true interests — when he cares not a farthing for the general good, and will sell his vote for a dollar — when, by a native instinct, he throws up his cap at the claptrap declamation of some lying knave, and turns with indifference or dislike from the voice of honesty and reason — then his vote becomes a public pest. Somebody uses him, and profits by him.

Rule by the majority, it seemed, meant rule by the ignorant and the easily manipulated. No one appeared to know what to do about it. Parkman, for example, didn’t want a king, and thought any attempt to restrict the vote would be impractical: The People would never give up their power voluntarily, no matter how little good it was doing them. And politicians would never agree to change the system that had put them in power.

Journalist Lincoln Steffens examined seven large political machines, and assembled his conclusions in magazine articles that were reprinted in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities.

When I set out on my travels, an honest New Yorker told me honestly that I would find that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, were at the bottom of it all everywhere. The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German city. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders. Then came Pittsburg, Scotch Presbyterian, and that was what my New York friend was. “Ah, but they are all foreign populations,” I heard. The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless.

The problem, Steffens concluded, wasn’t any specific group, and it wasn’t the politicians. It was the people in general. Hoping that electing businessmen would improve the system (a perennial claim of businessmen) was pointless, because the politicians were already businessmen. They supplied what the electoral market wanted: corruption.

If we would vote in mass on the more promising ticket, or, if the two are equally bad, would throw out the party that is in, and wait till the next election and then throw out the other party that is in—then, I say, the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it.

But the electorate wouldn’t do that, leading Steffens to this conclusion:

The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.

And yet, somehow, things began to turn around. They had, in fact, already started their long slow turn when Steffens was making his tour.

Solutions? One aspect of Grinspan’s book that is alternately annoying and satisfying is that he has no concise explanation of how change happened. He’s very clear that it didn’t happen all at once, and there was no obvious turning point. Neither party took on the job of reform, and no Gilded Age Solon designed an improved political system.

The change seems to have been primarily cultural rather than political or legal. Systemic changes were the result, not the cause.

It is tempting to tell this story solely as an evolution of law, of amendments ratified granting wider and wider access. But the driving force behind our changing system has been America’s popular culture, the way we use politics.

The widespread conviction by people of both parties that the current system was distasteful and embarrassing led, over time, to a long series of changes, no one of which stands out as the pivot point.

  • Secret ballots. Believe it or not: “Before the final years of the 19th century, partisan newspapers printed filled-out ballots which party workers distributed on election day so voters could drop them directly into the boxes.” Between 1885 and 1891, all the states (acting on their own) switched to more-or-less the current system: An official ballot is printed by the government and given to voters at the polling place, where they fill it out in secret.
  • Civil service. The Pendleton Act was passed in 1883, establishing a merit system for jobs in the federal bureaucracy. State governments soon began passing their own versions.
  • Mass-market advertising. The new business model of newspapers and magazines aimed at offering advertisers near-universal distribution, rather than niche-marketing to a partisan audience. (Why would Coca-Cola want to be known as a Republican or Democratic drink?) This paved the way for standards of objectivity. Mass media has never truly been objective, and there’s some debate whether that idea even makes sense. But prior to, say, 1920, objectivity was not even an aspiration for most newspapers.
  • Parties changed their campaign styles. The torchlight parades and saloon headquarters became unfashionable, too reminiscent of the fat-cat politicians skewered by the newspaper cartoonists. Campaigns started focusing more on platforms, pamphlets, and buttons — things that you read or wore rather than things that you did.
  • Reformers began learning the nuts-and-bolts of politics and getting their hands dirty. In the post-Civil-War era, politics was considered a odious profession, unbecoming to a gentleman. One positive point in Parkman’s essay is a plea for idealistic and well-educated people to run for office. Over the next few decades many did.
  • States provided tools for direct democracy. The referendum and recall processes come from this era.
  • Political energy shifted away from the two major parties and into causes. Rather than crusading as a Republican or Democrat, you might instead devote yourself to temperance or free coinage of silver or women’s suffrage.

Very little of this was decided in elections. For example, neither party was visibly for or against the secret ballot. it didn’t take hold in one part of the country but not another.

Not all the changes were positive: This was also the era when Jim Crow was being established in the South, and the Chinese Exclusion Act passed.

And some of the beneficial developments had dark sides that we have since forgotten. A printed ballot listing all candidates also served as voter suppression: Illiterate or drunk voters might not be able to recognize candidates’ names. Southern Democrats supported the Pendleton Act because the spoils system kept allowing Republican presidents to give good jobs to their Black supporters. Temperance was a way of shutting down the saloons and taverns where working people might gather and plan.

Today, saying that a change requires a constitution amendment is equivalent to admitting that it can’t be done. But four constitutional amendments passed between 1913 and 1920: the federal income tax, direct election of senators, prohibition, and women’s suffrage.

Perhaps the oddest story of the change concerns women’s suffrage. The proposal was going nowhere in the 1880s, because politics was so obviously masculine. Who wanted his wife or daughter marching with a partisan militia, and possibly brawling with a similar group from the other party? Or hanging around in saloons getting men drunk and asking for their votes?

In a weird way, women’s inability to vote or run for office stimulated the push towards causes. Women were largely immune to the hoopla that gave men their political identities, and often diverted them away from their real interests. Undistracted by party politics, a woman might instead devote her energy to crusading for temperance or against lynching. She might organize a union or co-found the NAACP.

Giving women the vote in 1920 isn’t what changed politics. It was only because politics had changed that men could imagine including women in it.

What can we learn? Neither the 1940s nor the Gilded Age is exactly like the present era, and neither provides a blueprint for democracy’s survival. But both, I think, provide a context that give us reasons to hope.

A rose-colored view of our history, one that tells our story as one of continuous progress towards freedom and inclusion, can make us feel uniquely beset today. But in many ways democracy has always been a struggle, and the battle is never completely won.

But knowing about our past struggles may allow us to hope that American democracy is more resilient than we have been thinking. Reforms that seem impossible in one decade can become obvious in the next. The pivotal moments of history are hard to spot, because they’re probably happening inside the culture rather than in Congress.

Things may have already started to turn, and we just don’t see it yet.

How the Trump Grift Works


Trump’s lawsuit against Hillary’s vast conspiracy was dismissed, and the Durham investigation is winding down without proving much of anything. But in their day, these two Trump-will-be-vindicated hoaxes kept the money flowing in.

When I was growing up fundamentalist, Jesus’ second coming was always imminent. Any day now, the Heavens would open and there He would be, declaring an end to secular history and beginning a period of judgment that would separate the believers from the unbelievers. On that day, the doubters would be proven wrong and there would be “wailing and gnashing of teeth”. The righteous, on the other hand, would “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”.

And in the meantime, you should keep sending in your money.

You can’t fully understand Trumpism without holding that picture in mind. Whatever evidence of Trump’s criminality the “fake news media” might present, and whatever testimony the 1-6 committee gets from Trump’s own people, the real Truth is going to be revealed any day now. His persecutors will be routed, and their sinister plots will be revealed.

In the meantime, keep sending Trump your money.

Like Jesus’ second coming, Trump’s final vindication can be predicted again and again — and those predictions can fail again and again — without undermining the basic narrative that it’s coming any day now. [1] Just scrap the old details for new ones and you’re good to go. Did Trump leave the presidency without invoking Q-Anon’s “storm”? Did none of his 82 post-election lawsuits prove fraud, even when he got them heard by judges he appointed? No problem: Those fantasies kept the money rolling in until new fantasies could be ginned up.

Recently, two other major Trump-vindication vehicles have gone bust: the Hillary conspiracy lawsuit and the Durham investigation. Each was a big deal in its day, but, you know, life moves on. The suit got dismissed and the investigation is closing up shop without finding any of the crimes Trump promised.

But never mind, they kept the money flowing.

The great Clinton conspiracy. It sounds weird to say this, but one of the most amusing things I read these last two weeks was Judge Donald Middlebrooks’ dismissal of Trump’s sprawling lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, Jim Comey, and everybody else the Former Guy has ever blamed for investigating his collusion with Russia.

Middlebrooks’ opinion reads like a professor grading the work of a particularly disappointing first-year law student. The judge keeps backing up to explain fundamental things the student (i.e., Trump’s lawyers) should have read in the textbook (i.e., landmark precedents).

A complaint filed in federal court must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct. Each claim must be stated in numbered paragraphs, and each numbered paragraph limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.

Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is 193 pages in length, with 819 numbered paragraphs. It contains 14 counts, names 31 defendants, 10 “John Does” described as fictitious and unknown persons, and 10 “ABC Corporations” identified as fictitious and unknown entities. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is neither short nor plain, and it certainly does not establish that Plaintiff is entitled to any relief.

More troubling, the claims presented in the Amended Complaint are not warranted under existing law. …

At this stage, a court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept as true all the plaintiff’s factual allegations. However, pleadings that “are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”

The rest of the ruling is a series of that’s-not-what-the-law-says, the-reference-in-your-footnote-doesn’t-support-the-point-you’re-making, and so on, culminating in the judge’s refusal to let Trump’s lawyers amend their complaint a second time:

It’s not that I find the Amended Complaint “inadequate in any respect”; it is inadequate in nearly every respect. … At its core, the problem with Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is that Plaintiff is not attempting to seek redress for any legal harm; instead, he is seeking to flaunt a 200-page political manifesto outlining his grievances against those who have opposed him, and this Court is not the appropriate forum.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Paper Chase where Professor Kingsfield says to a student, “Here is a dime. Call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.”

The inescapable conclusion of Judge Middlebrooks’ critique is that no competent lawyer ever intended this complaint to be the basis for a serious lawsuit. Rather, the only credible purposes would have been to get headlines for filing the suit, and to fund-raise off of those headlines.

In short, the anti-Hillary suit was part of the continuing grift against Trump’s own followers: Neither Hillary nor any of the other defendants was ever going to pay Trump damages, but the prospect of the vast Trump-persecuting conspiracy finally being exposed would induce the MAGA cultists to keep their wallets open.

What Trump wanted out of the Durham investigation. That’s Obama on the far left. https://www.conservativedailynews.com/2019/10/bull-durham-grrr-graphics-ben-garrison-cartoon/

Durham. When Trump accuses his opponents of doing something, it’s only a matter of time before he does the same thing himself (if he hasn’t already). In his mind, the Mueller investigation was an expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt against him. So of course he had to have his own expensive taxpayer-sponsored witch hunt.

When Bill Barr announced this investigation in 2019, conservatives were expecting the grand finale to the Mueller story, the counter-attack that would uncover all the illegal machinations the FBI and others had done to try to nail Trump. As recently as February, Trump was still promising that Durham was finding evidence of “the crime of the century” and “treason at the highest level”. He was “coming up with things far bigger than anybody thought possible”.

Durham may go down as a great hero in this country that will be talked about for years.

But that was all part of the grift. Trump was reacting with such glee to a court filing related to Durham’s indictment of Michael Sussman, a minor figure accused of a minor crime that Durham could not prove. (The jury acquitted Sussman after only six hours of deliberation.) No “crime of the century” involving high-profile conspirators like President Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Now the Durham investigation appears to be shutting down, having lasted longer and cost more than the Mueller probe it was supposed to be investigating. It also has accomplished far less: Mueller proved that Russia did help the 2016 Trump campaign, and that it committed crimes to do so. Mueller didn’t come up with enough evidence to indict the Trump campaign itself in the conspiracy, though he did trace a suspiciously large number of links between Trump’s people and Putin’s. The investigation dead-ended at Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, both of whom were convicted of felonies, but got pardons from Trump, presumably as a reward for their silence.

Durham has one case left: against Igor Danchenko, who is accused of lying to the FBI about the information in the Steele dossier, which Trump wants to claim was the sole source of the Trump/Russia investigation. (It wasn’t. It wasn’t even the primary source.) Again, somebody may have lied about something that, in the end, didn’t really matter. Or maybe not: Durham’s standards appear to be far lower than Mueller’s, so his Danchenko case may be no more convincing than the one against Sussman.

But while Durham’s long-running investigation may look like a flop from a legal point of view, Atlantic’s David Graham explains that it did what it was supposed to do:

Even if Durham approached the probe with earnest sincerity, the real reason he was appointed is that Donald Trump’s political con requires the promise of total vindication right around the corner. For a time, Durham provided that hope for Trump backers. But now, as Trump moves on to other ploys, the Durham probe has served its purpose, even though it has produced no major convictions or epiphanies.

The grift goes on. So now is Trump’s Save America PAC going to apologize for raising money under false pretenses and send it all back? Don’t be silly. The Great Orange Conman has indeed “moved on to other ploys”. Now that investigations on numerous fronts threaten to expose his crimes, he needs your money more than ever.

Don’t ask what he did with the quarter-billion-plus he’s already collected, or why such a fabulously wealthy man needs your money at all. [2] The Forces of Evil are still at work, conspiring to find the top-secret documents Trump stole, expose his fraudulent business practices, and piece together his conspiracy to steal the presidency. So it’s time for all red-blooded Americans to step up, forget all the times Trump has lied in the past about conspiracies against him, and send in their money. (Also, stand by to riot again if he’s indicted.)

Objectively, things may keep looking worse and worse for Trump, but that’s how this story is supposed to go: the worse, the better. Signs of the End Times just lead to the Great Judgment.

Any minute now, the trumpet will blow, and the sky will be full of angels.

[1] I am reminded of one of the great opening paragraphs of any autobiography ever. In Knee Deep in Paradise, TV actress Brett Butler wrote:

I spent the first twenty years of my life waiting for two men I was reasonably certain would never come back – my daddy and Jesus Christ. I don’t wait for them anymore. My dad, anyway. And at least with Jesus I didn’t spend all that time thinking he was gone because of something I did.

[2] Again, there’s a religious parallel. As Captain Kirk once asked: “What does God need with a starship?

“Fascist” is a description, not an insult.


After two years of claiming Joe Biden is senile (and deceptively editing videos to prove it), falsely claiming that his presidency is illegitimate, and pretending that “Let’s Go Brandon” and “FJB” are clever things to display on t-shirts, flags, trucks etc.; after declaring that liberals in general are groomers, pro-pedophile, communists, libtards, and baby-killers — MAGA Republicans are now deeply offended that the President has begun hitting back.

How dare he!

Biden’s counter-attack started on August 25, when he described “extreme MAGA philosophy” as “semi-fascist“. It continued in a prime-time speech Thursday night from Independence Hall in Philadelphia:

MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love. They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fanned the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.

They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, brutally attacking law enforcement, not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots. And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.

They tried everything last time to nullify the votes of 81 million people. This time, they’re determined to succeed in thwarting the will of the people.

If you doubted a single word of that, Trump proved Biden’s point Thursday by promising — if he should ever become president again — to “look very, very favorably about full pardons”, with a “full apology”, no less, for his Brownshirts, the rioters he drew to Washington and incited to attack the Capitol on January 6.

Apparently, Trump supporters should be free to beat up police and intimidate Congress. The law should not apply to political violence, if that violence works to Trump’s advantage.


But in spite of the obvious truth in Biden’s remarks, the pro-fascist voices shrieked in horror: Biden had “insulted” “half the people living in this country“, i.e. everyone who voted for Trump. (Who aren’t “half the country”, by the way. That’s why he lost.)

But two points: (1) Not all of those 74 million Trump votes came from “MAGA Republicans” or even Trump supporters; they just liked him better than Biden. And probably most of those voters did not expect Trump to try to hang onto power by inciting violence after he lost; they might not have voted for him if they had.

Immediately after January 6, lots of Republicans felt that way — not just Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, but also Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and many others. But then elected officials saw which way the wind was blowing within the GOP, and most of them weathervaned back into the MAGA fold. They aren’t Trumpists, they’re just opportunists and cowards.

So Biden carefully targeted his criticism:

Now, I want to be very clear, very clear up front. Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology. I know, because I’ve been able to work with these mainstream Republicans.

But the MAGA folks ignored that part of the speech and continued to insist that Trump voters ARE Trump; you can’t attack him without attacking them. Which also proves Biden’s point: Telling the masses to identify with the Leader, to see his pains as their pains and his enemies as their enemies, is one of the traits of fascism.

Which brings up the second point: (2) Biden (and me and a lot of other liberals) are not using “fascism” as an insult. It is descriptive term that means something — and that meaning clearly applies to Trump and his personality cult.

In 2015, I felt obligated to write an article describing what I meant by “fascism” before I started using the word. I boiled it down to these key characteristics:

[Fascism is] a dysfunctional attempt of people who feel humiliated and powerless to restore their pride by:

styling themselves as the only true and faithful heirs of their nation’s glorious (and possibly mythical) past,

identifying with a charismatic leader whose success will become their success,

helping that leader achieve power by whatever means necessary, including violence,

under his leadership, purifying the nation by restoring its traditional and characteristic virtues (again, through violence if necessary),

reawakening and reclaiming the nation’s past glory (by war, if necessary),

all of which leads to the main point: humiliating the internal and external enemies they blame for their own humiliation.

Again, I haven’t changed that definition (not even the italics) since 2015. Trump and his movement have spent the last 7 years proving me right about them, from the demonization of Muslims to the intentional cruelty of his border policy to the mob violence of January 6.

And what unites Trump’s mob? Identification with one of the groups that might feel aggrieved by the slipping of its former dominance. If the core of your identity is to be White, male, Christian, rural, or heterosexual, and you feel wronged by a society that no longer honors you as you feel you deserve (or sufficiently punishes people who are different from you), then you are a “real American” who needs to bask in the gold-plated glow of Trump’s reflected greatness, and needs his strength to strike back at those who have looked down on you.

As I said in 2015, fascism appears mercurial because it’s not “political” in any ordinary sense; it has no characteristic ideology or economic program, just friends and enemies. Fascism is a phenomenon of social psychology. It’s about dominance and grievance and humiliation and projecting images of strength, not potential solutions to the problems of Americans’ real lives.

The GOP’s decision not to write a platform in 2020 was textbook fascism: Our policy is Trump. Today, the way a candidate gets Trump’s endorsement and the backing of his cult is not to champion a set of ideals or policies, it’s to champion Trump himself, and his made-up grievances about the 2020 election and the FBI’s “invasion” of Mar-a-Lago.

Imagine a candidate who pledged to advance all of the Trump administration policies, but said that Biden had been legitimately elected and the January 6 riot was wrong. Could that candidate get Trump’s endorsement? I think not.

Trump doesn’t have policies, he has grievances. If you also feel aggrieved, he wants you to identify your grievances with his, and to vicariously experience satisfaction when he is victorious again and achieves a humiliating revenge against his enemies.

That’s what fascism is all about.


What’s the point of punishing Trump?


Or Alex Jones? Or Deshaun Watson?

The Info-warrior. Friday, a Texas jury assessed $45.2 million in punitive damages against Alex Jones, on top of the $4.1 million it previously ordered him to pay in ordinary damages. The $49.3 million total would go to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. On his widely viewed program Info Wars, Jones repeatedly claimed that the massacre was a hoax designed to give the government an excuse to confiscate guns, that Heslin and Lewis were “crisis actors”, and that their son never existed.

Because a large number of Jones’ fans actually believe the dark fantasies he spins, Heslin and Lewis have not only seen their grief exploited for someone else’s gain, but they’ve been harassed and even in physical danger for the last nine years.

As the linked article makes clear, the total amount Jones ends up paying could go either up or down. He might appeal to get this judgement reduced, but he also faces additional cases brought by other victims of his malicious lies. Or he might wriggle out of accountability by abusing the bankruptcy laws.

Like a lot of people, I take satisfaction from the prospect of Jones paying millions of dollars. I don’t throw the word evil around lightly, but Alex Jones qualifies. He has amassed a huge fortune by slandering people who have already suffered something worse than most of us can imagine. This is purely predatory behavior, and there is no excuse for it.

The quarterback. Last Monday, another punishment was announced (pending appeal): NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson will be suspended for six games. Watson was the target of lawsuits by 24 female massage therapists. Despite playing for a team (the Houston Texans) that had its own massage therapists, Watson arranged private appointments with more than sixty women, 24 of whom claim he tried to pressure them into sexual acts.

Watson sat out all last season (with pay) while the Texans watched the progress of the cases against him and tried to decide what to do with him. (He had demanded a trade before the scandals broke, but his value was hard to determine until the criminal probes concluded.) Ultimately, Watson was not indicted and he has settled all but one of the suits. The Texans then traded him to the Cleveland Browns, who signed him to a five-year $230 million contract. The contract was structured to have a large signing bonus, but a small first-year salary. As a result, he’ll lose only $345K if he misses the six games.

Like a lot of people, I had the exact opposite reaction to this announcement: Really? That’s all? I don’t know what I thought justice would be, but this isn’t it. If the decision stands, Watson will be back on the field for the Browns’ game against Baltimore on October 23. He should barely notice the lack of $345K, and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Come February, his accusers might be watching him in the Super Bowl. [1]

The former president. Meanwhile, the mills of justice grind very slowly in the case of Donald Trump. The House January 6 Committee has put together a compelling case that he did the single worst thing any American president has ever done to the country: He lost an election and tried to stay in power anyway. The January 6 attack on the Capitol was the culmination of a much larger anti-democracy plot, which he set in motion and tried to benefit from.

If he had succeeded, the republic set up by the Founders would effectively have fallen. After ignoring the Constitution and overruling the voters in 2020, why would he ever give up power? And if he should happen to die or retire, why should any future president give up power?

Whether Trump will face any consequences for these actions is still up in the air. Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators refused to hold Trump accountable in his second impeachment trial. A Georgia prosecutor is investigating the former president’s attempts to reverse that state’s 2020 election, and the Department of Justice finally appears to be going up the chain from the January 6 rioters to the plotters whose will they were carrying out.

Will any of that lead to indictments? Convictions? Jail time? It’s still not clear.

The point of punishment. I’m discussing these three men together — Jones, Watson, Trump — because their cases raise a common theme: What is punishment for? How much is enough? Thinking about Jones and Watson, I believe, can give us insight into what we should want for Trump.

As I said above, it’s satisfying to see bad men punished. That’s a very human response. Particularly when evil-doers appear to prosper, it’s easy to convince yourself that anything bad that might happen to them is justified and even good. [2]

At the same time, I believe that the propensity to glory in revenge (whether personal, vicarious, or rooted in some abstract sense of justice) is not humanity’s best feature. At some point we need to let the Past pass, so that we can move ahead unencumbered.

But when is that? When can we say “OK, enough”? [3]

Nixon. Before we think about that, I want to consider one more example: Richard Nixon. President Ford pardoned Nixon about a month after he resigned, and as a result Nixon was never held fully accountable for his crimes. He never went to prison. He never even had to stand trial, so no once-and-for-all judgement about his actions was ever recorded.

At the time (I turned 18 shortly after the pardon, so I got to vote against Ford in 1976), I thought Nixon got off too easily. OK, he had to leave power, but most of us never have much power. If being returned to the ranks of ordinary citizens counts as “punishment”, then presidents really are above the rest of us in a way that I think the Founders never intended.

But as I look back now, I’m willing to cut Ford a little more slack. Even without a trial or prison, Nixon became a cautionary tale in American politics. For decades afterwards, a stain of illegitimacy hovered over everything he did. No American politician wanted to hear his or her actions compared to Nixon’s. His name went unmentioned at Republican conventions. Post-Nixon presidents couldn’t justify their actions by citing Nixon as a precedent.

In retrospect, I think that was a good outcome.

What I want for Trump, Jones, and Watson. What I want for each of them is not some specific punishment. What I want is an outcome that makes them cautionary tales for anyone in a position to offend in similar ways.

I want current and future sports stars to consider their possible actions and think “I don’t want to become another Deshaun Watson.” I want current and future conspiracy-theory entertainers to think, “That might gain me some viewers, but it’s a little too much like Alex Jones.”

And most of all, I want a stain of illegitimacy to fall across everything Donald Trump ever did. I want the adjective “Trumpian” to become a pejorative label that every major American politician tries to deflect, just as no one wanted to be “Nixonian” for the rest of the 20th century. I want the advisors and assistants in all future administrations to consider what happened to Trump’s people and think about what they might be risking.

What kind of punishments would do that?

It’s tempting to see the Nixon example as proof that punishment isn’t necessary at all. But Nixon was a very different case: By the time he left office, his party had already turned against him. He was never again a force in American politics.

By contrast, Trump is actively trying to return to power, and remains a cult figure whose members regard him as a hero.

He won’t go quietly into the Past, so he has to be brought down. I don’t see how that happens without mug shots, a trial, and an orange jumpsuit. The evidence against him needs to be presented in a court where he is not in control, with the result (I hope) that a jury unanimously convicts him of crimes. He needs to go to jail.

His trial and sentencing will be traumatic for the country, but his own actions and lack of remorse make it necessary. There needs to be an outcome whose reality he can’t deny. His followers may continue to claim, against all evidence, that he won the 2020 election. But if he’s in jail they can’t claim that a jury acquitted him.

How much jail time? Revenge says “He tried to overthrow my country’s Constitution and sent his mob to attack my Capitol.” The rest of his life would not be long enough to satisfy my desire for Revenge.

But that’s not an urge I want to indulge. So: how long? Long enough for the country to move on, and for the Republican Party to find new leaders. A four-year political cycle needs to come and go without any expectation that he might participate.

So that’s what I want: four years.

[1] For comparison, Tom Brady served a four-game suspension at the conclusion of the Deflategate saga. The Patriots managed a 3-1 record while he was gone. After he returned, the team continued on to the Super Bowl, where Brady led a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons and was named MVP. That game is considered one of the highlights of his career.

[2] I believe this is where the myth of Hell comes from. For many people, the vision of bliss in Heaven would be incomplete without the knowledge that the people who abused them in life are suffering endless torment. My own beliefs about God or the afterlife are uncertain, and waver sometimes from day to day. But one thing I’m certain I don’t believe is that a loving God condemns anyone to eternal suffering.

[3] My detailed analysis is in a sermon I gave in 1999, “Forgiveness“. I stand by it.

Trump doesn’t have a side of the 1-6 story


Before you complain about the 1-6 hearings being “one-sided”, you might want to ask Trump what his side of the story is.

As the January 6 Committee wraps up its public hearings until September, it’s time to assess what we’ve learned and where we are. Using primarily testimony from people inside Trump’s orbit (and occasionally inside his family), the Committee has put together a compelling narrative of how the January 6 riot happened. The key points are:

  • Trump lost the election.
  • His own experts, in his campaign as well as his appointees in the government, knew that his claims of widespread election fraud were false, and told him so on numerous occasions. This was not a matter of debate among administration officials. Every official in a position to investigate came to the same conclusion.
  • Trump tried everything he could think of to stay in power in spite of the voters. At every level, he tried to influence and intimidate Republican officials to change the results in his favor.
  • He pressured Justice Department leaders to lie about the conclusions of their investigations and back his false claims of election fraud.
  • He promoted a series of dubious legal theories, ranging from the unlikely to the absurd, that would give various intermediate entities (state legislatures, Congress, the Vice President) the authority to reverse the will of the voters and keep him in power. Again, the experts within his own administration unanimously told him that these theories had no merit.
  • He encouraged Republicans in seven states to assemble false slates of electors, and to submit fake electoral-vote totals to Congress. He then pressured Vice President Pence to count those phony votes, or to illegally refuse to count the votes of legitimate electors because their slate was “disputed”.
  • When it became clear that key departments within his administration — Justice, Homeland Security, Defense — would not abuse their powers to cooperate with his schemes, he called for a massive rally on January 6, promising it would be “wild”.
  • On January 6 itself, Trump knew that some members of his audience were armed when he told them to go to the Capitol.
  • Although a march to the Capitol was not announced in advance (even in drafts of Trump’s speech), right-wing militia groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys knew it was coming. Before Trump started speaking, they were already preparing to breach the Capitol’s defenses and spearhead the mob Trump would send their way.
  • He intended to go to the Capitol himself, with his armed Secret Service detail, but the Secret Service refused to take him there. Instead, they returned him to the White House.
  • For three hours as the attack unfolded, he sat in the Oval Office dining room watching Fox News. The official White House records from that period are blank — no phone records, no photographs. During that time, virtually his entire staff pleaded for him to do something to stop the riot. But he made no effort to interfere with the attack, either by asking the mob to go home, or by mobilizing federal resources to aid the Capitol Police. Such orders, when they finally came, were given by Vice President Pence.
  • He knew that the mob was already angry with the vice president when he tweeted “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution”. He never called Pence to make sure he was safe. Meanwhile, members of Pence’s Secret Service detail were sending messages to their families in case they died.
  • Although the White House call record for those three hours is blank, President Trump was calling Republican congressmen, urging them to continue the work of the mob by delaying further the counting of electoral votes.
  • Only when the tide had already turned, and law enforcement was beginning to regain control of the situation, did Trump ask the rioters to go home. In that video message, he repeated the false stolen-election claims that had inflamed the mob, and told the rioters “We love you. You’re very special.”

If Trump supporters are forced to comment on this narrative, they nearly always say, “That’s just the Democrats’ version. The hearings don’t present Trump’s side of the story.”

I’ve heard various responses to this point, all of which are true as far as they go:

But there is a more fundamental answer that I seldom hear: Trump doesn’t have a side of the story to tell.

I know that sounds crazy: We’re often told that every story has at least two sides. But Trump has had every opportunity to tell his side of the story, and he has offered us nothing. If he wants to get his version out, he has immediate access to the vast resources of right-wing media, including Fox News, which I’m sure would love to be running shadow hearings orchestrated by his followers.

But in the last year and a half, Trump and his loyalists have made literally no positive contribution to the public record of the Capitol riot. From the beginning, Trump’s position has been consistent: No one should talk about January 6. No one should investigate it. No one should testify about it. (Josh Marshall comments on what Jim Jordan et al might have added to the hearings: “The point is to find out what happened … not to have a public presentation of findings along with another group making fart sounds and jeering and generally trying to throw the presentation or testimony off track.”)

Such comments on the hearings as Trump and his people have made are entirely negative: This event never happened, that witness shouldn’t be trusted, this testimony is hearsay, and so on.

But what did happen, Mr. Trump?


Well, that’s not entirely true: TrumpWorld does occasionally offer some transparent gaslighting about January 6, like when Trump described the mob that injured 150 police officers as “loving“, or Republican Congressman Andrew Clyde compared the Capitol invasion to “a normal tourist visit“, or the Republican National Committee characterized mob violence as “legitimate political discourse“.

But if any of the points in the Committee’s narrative are false, it shouldn’t be hard to assemble an alternative narrative and flesh it out with evidence. Did some investigator inside Trump’s Departments of Justice or Homeland Security (and not just amateur yahoos like Sidney Powell and the My Pillow guy) find evidence of the kind of widespread fraud that could have turned the election? (And not just a handful of people submitting false ballots, many of them for Trump?) Was there a faction — or even one person — inside DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel or the White House Counsel’s office who supported Trump’s Pence-can-decide-what-votes-to-count theory? Can Trump tell us about any call he made to send help to the Capitol Police, and get the person he called to back him up? What’s the innocent explanation of how the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys knew ahead of time that a mob was coming to storm the Capitol?

Tell us about it. That would constitute another side of the story.

Or Trump could discuss his intentions. When he told the mob that he would go with them to the Capitol, did he mean it? Where exactly was he planning to go? What was he planning to do when he got there? Why didn’t he tell his supporters to go home sooner?

Other Trumpists could also tell us interesting facts, if they were so inclined. We know Roger Stone spent a lot of time with right-wing militia leaders prior to January 6. Maybe he could tell his side of that story (rather than pleading the Fifth in response to every question). Steve Bannon seems to have been tipped off about the riot. (“All hell is going to break loose tomorrow,” he said on his January 5 podcast. “It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen.”) I’d love to discover how he knew, but he’d rather go to jail than talk about 1-6 under oath.

Mike Flynn retweeted a call for then-president Trump to declare martial law and hold a new election, and called for similar actions himself in public speeches. Other Trump officials have testified that Flynn wanted Trump to order the military to seize voting machines. Maybe he could tell us what he had in mind, rather than pleading the Fifth to a basic civics question like “Do you believe in the peaceful transition of power in the United States of America?”

Those accounts could turn into another side of the story. But it’s not the 1-6 Committee that’s preventing you from hearing such a narrative. It’s Trump.

So if you’re still a Trump supporter in spite of the evidence accumulated and presented by the Committee so far, your problem isn’t that Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney are suppressing Trump’s side of the story.

Your problem is that Trump doesn’t have a side.