Tag Archives: democracy

Laboratories of Autocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Providing that strength is her Christian duty.

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

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

What can we do with them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why fascism? Why now?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how fascism is rising, but not nearly enough about why.

Week after week, I find myself chronicling the signs of a rising fascism, both in the United States and around the world: the January 6 insurrection (and the attempts to write it off as no big deal), the parallel Bolsonaro riot in Brazil, Governor Abbott’s offer to pardon a conservative for murdering a liberal protester, increasing state violence in India (“politicians are learning that violence can yield political dividends in a country deeply polarized along religious lines”), refusal to accept that electoral defeat can be legitimate, defense of treason if it supports your cause (“Jake Teixeira is white, male, christian, and antiwar. That makes him an enemy to the Biden regime. … Ask yourself who is the real enemy?”), the increasingly cynical abuse of right-wing political and judicial power, combined with a reflexive tolerance for right-wing corruption in high places. And so on. [1]

Examples of rising fascist tendencies easily draw attention and produce fear for the future. But much less attention gets focused on the deeper question: Why is this happening now? Fascism has never been completely stamped out, but for decades it was a fringe phenomenon. By and large, losing parties admitted their defeats, tacked back to the center, and tried to regain majority support rather than disenfranchise the voters who rejected them. Elected officials distanced themselves from violence, treason, and blatantly corrupt allies.

What changed? It can’t just be the fault of one bad leader. How, for example, could Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin be causing a drift towards fascism in Europe or South America or India or Israel?

Recently I happened across two essays that address this question in different ways: science fiction author David Brin’s “Isaac Asimov, Karl Marx, & the Hari Seldon Paradox” and Umair Haque’s “The Truth About Our Civilization’s Fascism Problem Is Even Worse Than You Think“. I don’t intend to broadly endorse either author (especially Haque, who in general seems far too negative and fatalistic for me), but both have insights that strike me as important.

The post-war “miracle”. For both Haque and Brin, the key question isn’t why fascism is rising now, but how it got pushed to the fringe for decades after World War II. Haque explains it like this:

Consider the founding of modern Europe. Its entire idea was to prevent the far right ever rising again. Modern Europe, rebuilt in the ashes of the war, did something remarkable, that led to what later observers like me would call the European Miracle. It took the relatively small amount of investment that America gave it — which was all it had — and used that in a way that was fundamentally new in human history. Instead of spending it on arms, or giving it to elites, it used it rewrite constitutions which guaranteed everything from healthcare to education to transport as basic, fundamental, universal rights.

This was the point of Keynes’ magisterial insight into why the War had happened. Germans, declining into sudden poverty, destabilized by debt, had undergone a political implosion. Economic ruin had had political consequences. The consequences of “the peace” as Keynes said — the peace of World War I, which had been designed to keep Germany impoverished. Fascism erupted as a result. And so after the Second World War, Europe did something bold, unprecedented, and remarkable in all of human history — it offered its citizens these cutting edge social contracts, rich in rights for all, built institutions to enact them, from pension systems to high speed trains, and then formed a political union on top of that, to make sure that peace, this time, remained.

Fascism, in Haque’s view, is a political technique for gathering up the misery of the masses and focusing it on scapegoats rather than solutions. The primary promise of the fascist leader is revenge, which will solve the problems of his followers through some magical process of subtraction rather than addition. Throwing rocks through the windows of Jewish businesses or preventing trans kids from getting gender-affirming care will somehow make your own life better. Break up the families of migrants seeking asylum, and somehow your own inability to care for your sick wife or send your children to college will not hurt so much.

America and England both had fascist movements in the 1930s, but they didn’t catch on like Germany’s. Maybe that was because — even in the depths of the Depression — neither country had Germany-level misery. Neither country experienced quite the sense of failure and loss of hope that made Hitler seem like a compelling way forward.

But Brin points to something else that happened in 1930s America: the New Deal, which confounded Karl Marx’ prediction of ever-increasing dominance by wealthy capitalists, inevitably leading to a revolutionary explosion.

Karl Marx never imagined that scions of wealth – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his circle – would be persuaded to buy off the workers, by leveling the field and inviting them to share in a strong Middle Class, whose children would then (as recommended by Adam Smith) be able to compete fairly with scions of the rich. 

It was a stunning (if way-incomplete) act of intelligence and resilience that changed America’s path and thus the world’s.

Brin, recalling the lessons of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, invokes the Seldon Paradox: “Accurate psychohistorical predictions, once made known, set into effect psychohistorical forces that falsify the prediction.” In this case, American plutocrats like “that smart crook, Joseph Kennedy” took Marx’ predictions seriously and tried to head them off. Brin quotes Kennedy: “I’d rather be taxed half my wealth so the poor and workers are calm and happy than lose it all to revolution.”

Kennedy’s view was far from universal among the American rich, but it did split the forces of plutocracy, enabling the creation of an American safety net.

Post-war Europe took the lesson further, as Haque describes:

What do Europeans enjoy, still, even though it’s teetering now, that Americans don’t? All those rich, sophisticated social contracts, one supposes, which guarantee them everything from high speed transport to cutting edge healthcare.

But there’s more than that. All that creates — or did for a very long time — a feeling that doesn’t exist in America. A sense of community. A kind of peace, which you can readily see in the absence of gun massacres in Europe, even though, yes, there are guns, if not quite so many. Stronger social bonds and ties — Europeans still have friends, and in America, friendship itself has become a luxury. All that matters.

The short description of what Europe achieved is public happiness.

Fascism is born of rage, fear, despair, which drives people into the arms of demagogues, who blame all those woes on hated subhumans, “others” — and so the truest antidote we know of to all that is human happiness itself.

Revenge, not hope. That observation explains one of the great mysteries of current American politics: why the GOP has no governing program. The party has a clear constituency: the non-college White working class, particularly in rural areas. So why are there no plans to do anything for them?

Think about it: expanding Medicaid to save not just the families of the working poor, but rural hospital systems as well; bringing broadband internet to rural areas; raising the minimum wage; shoring up community colleges — those are all Democratic goals that Republicans do their best to block.

It’s not that Republicans have no proposals. The red-state legislatures they control are buzzing with activity: loosening gun laws, taking away women’s bodily autonomy, banning accurate accounts of racism from schools, defunding libraries, and making trans youth invisible, just to name a few.

But how exactly does that help anybody?

Or take that frequent Trump claim that “They’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.” Who is after you? How did Trump ever stand in their way? Even a sympathetic NY Post columnist has no answer for that. He spins conspiracy theories of how the Deep State has been out to get Trump from the beginning, but what does any of that have to do with the “you” in Trump’s statement?

What Trump offered “you” was revenge. Those people you hate: the Muslims, the queers, the immigrants, the Blacks, the educated “elite”, and so on. He demeaned them, insulted them, made them suffer. He “owned the libs” and made them hopping mad in ways that you never could have managed on your own..

But he never did anything to improve your life, because that was never the point. It would, in fact, have been counterproductive, because MAGAism needs your misery. If you felt more secure, more hopeful, more capable of dealing with a changing world, then you wouldn’t need revenge any more. And you wouldn’t need Trump.

Beyond the Seldon Paradox. So what happened to public happiness? Now we bounce back to Brin, who quotes a corollary to the Seldon Paradox: After people adjust to dire predictions and cause them to fail, the next generation stops taking the predictions seriously. And then they come true.

In other words, what we are seeing now… a massive, worldwide oligarchic putsch to discredit the very same Rooseveltean social compact that saved their caste and allowed them to become rich… but that led to them surrounding themselves with sycophants who murmur flattering notions of inherent superiority and dreams of harems. Would-be lords, never allowing themselves to realize that yacht has sailed.

In other words: Marx? Who listens to Marx any more? All his nonsense predictions turned out to be laughably false.

So sometime in the 1970s, the plutocratic counter-revolution began. One turning point was the infamous Powell Memo, written in 1971 by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The American system of free enterprise, he wrote, was under broad attack from socialist thinkers, and business leaders had been responding with “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem”. Powell outlined a multi-faceted program to create a new intellectual climate in America, one more favorable to corporate power and the influence of big money.

Within ten years, Ronald Reagan was president, and the United States had embarked on an era of ever-lower taxes on the rich, restrictions on corporate regulation, and union-busting.

And that was the end of the great American middle class. From 1940 through 1980, income growth among the rich had lagged behind the larger public, but after the Reagan Revolution it rapidly made up the difference.

Then and now. A decline in human happiness and hope can lead to a Marxist revolution. (That was one possibility in Weimar Germany as well.) But it also creates opportunities for fascist scapegoating.

So if you don’t feel as successful as your parents were at the same age, and you see even worse prospects waiting for your children, whose fault is that? Maybe it’s the Jews. Maybe it’s the November criminals who stabbed your valiant German soldiers in the back at Versailles. Maybe it’s the decadent culture of big cities like Berlin: the gays, the transvestites, the young people dancing to that African “monkey music” from America.

If only we had a leader strong enough to make them pay.

See the resemblance?

Lessons. So where does that leave us? What lessons can we draw? One lesson is to keep our own resentment tightly focused on the people who deserve it. Working class Americans who see little hope for their children are not our enemies, even if they vote for our enemies. We shouldn’t want revenge on them, we should want them to have better prospects, so that they lose their own need for revenge.

Us against Them is the fascist conversation. We can’t let ourselves be drawn into it.

Our salvation will not come through their misery. Quite the reverse. If we are to be saved, it will have to be through happiness — everyone’s happiness.

And if we’re lucky, maybe some rebel faction of smart plutocrats will come to see the same thing.

[1] Some want to argue about whether to call this worldwide movement “fascism”. I’ve explained why I do, but if you’d rather reserve the word for Hitler, Mussolini, et al, that’s fine. Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro are certainly not identical to Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, but I would say that 20th-century fascism differs in some particulars from 21st-century fascism, not that they are completely different animals.

The important thing is that the lack of a word doesn’t lead to an inability to discuss the phenomenon, in the fashion of Orwell’s Newspeak. Simply referring to Trump, Orban, Bolsonaro, Modi, et al as “authoritarians” (as Tom Nichols does) is not nearly specific enough. Any general who stages a successful coup is an authoritarian. But an anti-democratic movement that anoints one segment of the citizenry as the “real” or “true” citizens, and scapegoats the “unreal” or “false” citizens as the cause of all the nation’s problems, justifying discrimination and even violence against them — that’s something more than just “authoritarianism”.

In short, I’d be content to use some other word to carry on a discussion with someone who wants Hitler to be unique. But that word has to capture the full evil of the phenomenon, without diluting it by including anyone who finds democratic governance inefficient.

MTG’s dream deserves a serious response

If we don’t want a “national divorce”, we need to start discussing ideas rather than trolling each other.

During my week off from writing the Sift, I preached a sermon about democracy to the Unitarian Universalist church I attend, First Parish in Bedford Massachusetts. My theme was that ultimately democracy rests not so much on processes and laws as on a shared spirit among the People: a desire to be united as equals, and to work together to govern ourselves. If a People has that spirit, it will come up with sound democratic processes for choosing leaders and making laws. But if it doesn’t, the best processes in the world will ultimately turn into empty rituals.

In the course of that talk, several ideas came up that aren’t relevant to what I want to say in this post. But I closed with a plea to try to overcome polarization: Democracy rests on an assumption that your fellow citizens are (not totally, but to a considerable extent) rational beings, capable of listening to each other and changing their minds. If you come to the conclusion that they’re not, then democracy stops making sense: Why go through all this public discussion if nobody’s listening? Why protect your opponents’ freedom of speech if nothing they might say could possibly make a difference?

In that part of the talk, I was echoing themes from Anand Giridharadas’ recent book The Persuaders. In the long run, democracy can’t survive just by each side rabble-rousing its base to get a big turnout, while rejecting as heretics anybody who isn’t in 100% agreement. That’s a path towards civil war, not democracy. Real democracy is a messy process of coalition-building: I may not agree with you on everything (or even like you much), but I can work with you on this and compromise up to here. “Politics makes strange bedfellows,” says the proverb.

Since I was talking to UUs, I could invoke the Universalist side of our heritage. Universalism centers on the doctrine of universal salvation: God is not going to give up on any of God’s creatures by condemning them to eternal damnation. [1] Today, Universalism typically gets a more secular interpretation: No one is ever beyond hope; even the most unlikely people can turn their lives around. The final line of my talk expresses a Universalist faith applied to politics:

No matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked, no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth.

MTG’s divorce. As luck would have it, my faith was tested almost immediately: The next day, Marjorie Taylor Greene started tweeting about a “national divorce“.

We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this. From the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats to the Democrat’s traitorous America Last policies, we are done.

For obvious reasons, most people interpreted this tweet as a call for secession — more or less what the confederate states did in 1861. Mitt Romney, for example, responded like this:

I think Abraham Lincoln dealt with that kind of insanity. We’re not going to divide the country. It’s united we stand and divided we fall.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham also protested: Ronald Reagan came from California and Donald Trump from New York, so conservatives should be careful about exiling those states to a different union.

But taking people seriously as potential partners in democracy means letting them clarify their views. If your goal is to turn people against each other, you jump on any poorly worded statements your opponents make and go off to the races, spinning them into something monstrous (as Fox News often does with unfortunate liberal slogans like “defund the police” [2]). But if your goal is to move forward as a self-governing people, you welcome the possibility that your opponents’ statements are actually not as horrible as they may sound at first. [3]

So on Tuesday, MTG posted a 13-tweet storm that elaborated on her “national divorce” idea. In this version, it’s clearly not a Confederate-style secession, but more like a return to the Articles of Confederation that the Constitution replaced: It’s a federalism where the role of the national government is drastically reduced and the sovereignty of the states correspondingly increased. She emphasizes the rhetorical differences between red and blue states, but nothing in her plan makes a formal division of the union into two camps. Rather, every state is divorced from every other state, forming a loose confederation rather than a nation. “Red” and “blue” would be tendencies rather than separate countries.

The main part of the “divorce” model that stays in the restatement is the justification:

irreconcilable differences: inability to agree on most things or on important things

Liberals and conservatives look at the world so differently, she claims, that they can’t come to any mutually acceptable compromises at the national level. So let’s remove those issues from the federal government and push them down to the states.

I have no idea how serious she is about this, but I imagine this vision appeals to a significant minority of the country. (As I said in my sermon: “Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told.”) So I think it calls for a reasoned response [4], which I’ll make in a series of small points that lead up to my main reason for opposing the idea.

This is not going to happen anytime soon, so everybody should calm down. This kind of reorganization would require a sweeping constitutional amendment, which would need to be ratified by 38 states. So any bloc of 13 could prevent such a thing from happening. According to one measure, the 13th most liberal state in the country is New Jersey. So here’s a rule of thumb: If you can’t picture some conservative amendment being ratified in New Jersey, it’s not going to happen.

With that in mind, MTG’s proposal should not be treated as an imminent threat. As Jamelle Bouie puts it, she “has a dream”. For comparison, Bernie Sanders dreams of an America that looks more like Denmark. We should be able to talk about such visions without losing our minds.

Most states aren’t any more monolithic than the US as a whole. As Bouie points out, Americans don’t split neatly into red states and blue states, so it’s far from obvious that you can dodge partisan discord by pushing decisions down to the states. [5]

And if it makes sense to push decisions down to the states, why not further — to the cities or towns or counties? If it’s wrong for the United States to shove liberal ideas “down our throats” in red Georgia, isn’t it also wrong for red Georgia to shove conservative ideas down the throats of blue Atlantans? The same question would apply to Texas/Houston, Tennessee/Nashville, Missouri/St. Louis, and so on.

In addition, one of MTG’s other proposals — that Democrats who migrate from blue states to red states should have to wait five years to vote — indicates that she lacks confidence Georgia will stay red for much longer, if everybody who lives there gets to vote.

A national divorce would be an economic disaster for the red states. Most conservatives understand (and disapprove of the fact) that the government taxes high-income individuals to pay benefits to low-income individuals. But they seldom connect the dots and realize that in the aggregate, government taxes people in high-income states to pay benefits to people in low-income states.

In general, red states are low-income states, and are being subsidized by higher-income blue states. If you list states by per capita income, the richest red state, Alaska, doesn’t show up until #14. If you look at the list in the other order, blue New Mexico is #47. Then you find some Biden-supporting purple states near the middle: Georgia (#32), Nevada (#29), and Michigan (#26). Otherwise, the bottom half of the list is entirely red. [6]

According to SmartAsset.com, the states most dependent on the federal government economically are West Virginia, New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, and Alaska. The least dependent is Connecticut.

The federal government is big because that’s what the American people want. A decades-old paradox in American polling is that Americans will tell you they want the federal government to spend less, but when you ask specifically about the programs the government spends almost all its money on — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense — they’re all popular. People like to imagine that trillions of dollars can be slashed from the budget without taking away anyone’s healthcare or job or pension, but it’s just not true.

One way Greene shrinks the federal government is by sharply reducing America’s role in the world:

The federal government would have to maintain the Department of Defense but it would need to return to it’s original purpose. The United States border and our national security would be the border the DoD would defend.

Periodically, isolationism becomes popular, but it always eventually gets outweighed by a stronger national trait: Americans hate bullies. Support for Ukrainians is high right now because Russia is trying to bully them. But suppose that support fades and we pull back from all our foreign entanglements, as MTG wants. I’ll make a prediction: As soon as refugees start arriving from Chinese-occupied Taiwan and Russian-occupied Poland, Americans be asking why our leaders let that happen.

Nobody likes this divorce proposal better than America’s enemies do. Splitting the United States into fifty pieces with an isolationist foreign policy would be a dream come true for China, Russia, Iran, and a bunch of other bad actors around the world.

Her glowing vision of red states’ post-divorce future is not based in reality.

Think about the inherent contradictions in this sentence:

Red states would likely ban all gender lies and confusing theories, Drag Queen story times, and LGBTQ indoctrinating teachers, and China’s money and influence in our education while blue states could have government controlled gender transition schools.

Red states will ban all sorts of things. There will be an official state ideology about gender, and speaking out against it will be branded as “lies” or “indoctrination”. [7] If parents have other ideas and try to raise their children accordingly, they may be cited for “child abuse” and risk having their children taken away by the state. Banned theories don’t even have to be false, just “confusing”. (If that’s the criterion, I propose banning quantum mechanics from state universities.) Free performances freely attended will be outlawed if state bureaucrats disapprove.

And yet, it’s the blue states that will have “government control”.

But MTG’s vision of crime and safety is where she goes furthest into fantasy.

Crime rates would be very low. Red state citizens would be safe. Criminals would be locked away swiftly when they broke the law. Justice would be served.

Policing is mostly under state and local control now, so we can look at actual results rather than into our imaginations. The states with the highest murder rates are all red states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee. When USA Today ranked states by violent crime, red Alaska was the most dangerous state. Six of the seven red states listed above — not Mississippi, interestingly enough — were also in the top 10, which was filled out by blue New Mexico and purple Nevada and Arizona.

The least dangerous states were in the Northeast: Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. New York was 25th, right in the middle, and less dangerous than Florida (21st).

And if you’re worried about you or your children getting killed with a gun, you’ll want to seek out states with sensible gun laws: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Rhode Island. Stay away from Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

Police officers would be well trained, paid, equipped, and seen as heroes once again, not portrayed as racists thugs.

Remember that economic disaster I warned about? Under the divorce settlement, red states would almost all have severe budget problems, which would probably lead to cuts in police pay and equipment. As for police being “portrayed as racist thugs”, that’s not being pushed down from Washington, it’s bubbling up from the outraged Black citizens of cities like Memphis and Louisville. (If you remember, the George Floyd protests happened while Trump was president, so the national government was not pushing them.)

Maybe red states will be able to quell that outrage with the kind of top-down thought control they’re already starting to practice: If nobody is allowed to learn about racism or discuss anything in racial terms, maybe nobody will notice that cops keep killing Black people for flimsy reasons. But achieving that kind of result will require a lot of repression. Banning a few textbooks won’t get it done.

Her vision is a response to the Right’s failure to convince the majority of Americans. If you want to drastically shrink the federal government and shift responsibilities to the states, the easiest way to do it is to rewrite to the federal budget and change the laws. Greene is in Congress, so she can propose such a thing any time she wants.

But it wouldn’t pass, because that’s not what the American people want. That’s why Republican fantasies of a much-smaller federal government revolve around terrorist tactics like threatening to push the United States into default. (As a gangster might put it, “Do what we want or the world economy gets it.”)

If their ideas were popular, they could have run on another “Contract With America” last fall. They could have publicized a detailed and drastically reduced budget proposal, swept into office with large majorities in both houses, and dared President Biden to veto a plan the American people had just endorsed.

But in fact Republicans still have not specified the cuts they want, even vaguely, because they know that the more specific they get, the less popular their proposal will be.

MTG knows the electorate is against her, so she wants to change the electorate. Her ideas can’t win on the national level, so she wants to shift the playing field to the states — but not to the cities, where (again) she would lose. She’s not expressing a principled position, she’s venue shopping.

The real reason I don’t like this? I’m an American. So far, I have the feeling that I’ve just been nibbling around the edges of the divorce proposal. Practicalities aside, what really engages my emotions here is the symbolism: What Greene is arguing, at its most basic level, is that we should all go back to identifying with our separate states rather than with the United States.

This was a popular view before the Civil War, when people started seeing “the United States” as singular rather than plural. (Before the War, an American was likely to say, “The United States are …”. After, popular usage changed to “The United States is …”.)

According to the American Battlefield Trust:

Because of his reputation as one of the finest officers in the United States Army, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Federal forces in April 1861. Lee declined and tendered his resignation from the army when the state of Virginia seceded on April 17, arguing that he could not fight against his own people. 

Lee’s “people” were Virginians, not Americans. That’s what Greene wants to go back to: fifty sovereign entities loosely amalgamated for defense and a handful of other purposes. Ex uno, plures.

That’s not how I feel. In my lifetime, I’ve lived in four states: Illinois, Michigan (for college), back to Illinois (grad school), Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and then back to Massachusetts. But none of those moves felt like a change of identity, because all along I’ve been an American.

I still carry with me a hodge-podge of local loyalties: I root for Michigan State’s sports teams, and still have a soft spot for Chicago’s Bears and Cubs, even though the Patriots and Red Sox long ago captured my primary affections. (Inexplicably, I was always a Celtic fan, back to the days of Bill Russell and John Havlicek. Michael Jordan arrived in Chicago just as I was leaving.) I have friends all over the country, and can’t imagine thinking of them as foreigners. When I go to the national parks, I don’t feel like a tourist: The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone — they’re mine, because I’m an American.

Boston has a great old state house, but it will never spark the feelings I get from the US Capitol. Ask me who my governor was on some date in the past, and I’ll probably have to look it up. But I know all the presidents. (When I was Eurailing across the continent in the 1980s with a friend and my future wife, we tried to list them and came up one short. A few cars down, we found a tour group of American teachers, who remembered Rutherford B. Hayes.) What states do the US Olympic athletes come from? I have no idea and little interest in finding out. They’re Americans, like me.

Maybe Marjorie Taylor Greene is tired of being an American and wants to identify as a Georgian instead (at least until Georgia finishes turning blue). But I don’t even know what you call somebody from Massachusetts. (Moving.com suggests “Massachusettsans”, which is a mouthful. When I lived in New Hampshire, we called them “Massholes”.)

In short, it’s important to me to keep being an American. No matter how annoyed I sometimes get with Greene and her MAGA allies, or how mystified, embarrassed, and occasionally horrified I am by what’s been going on lately in red-state legislatures, I’m not interested in a divorce.

Maybe we should try counseling. I’ll bet a counselor would recommend that we stop trolling each other.

[1] Back in the 3rd century, the Christian theologian Origen taught that even the devils in Hell would eventually see the light and be brought back into unity with God. Personally, I don’t believe in literal devils or a literal Hell, but I see an awe-inspiring beauty in Origen’s vision.

[2] Rolling Stone explains defunding the police like this:

When cities start investing in community services, they reduce the need to call police in instances when police officers’ specific skill set isn’t required. “If someone is dealing with a mental health crisis, or someone has a substance abuse disorder, we are calling other entities that are better equipped to help these folks,”[Lynda] Garcia [from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights] says.

Virtually no one who says “defund the police” means that they want to let violent criminals run wild. So if that’s the position you’re arguing against, you’re avoiding the real issues.

[3] President Biden was practicing this attitude during the State of the Union, when he accepted Republicans’ outcry that they didn’t intend to cut Social Security. “So folks,” he said, “as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare is off the books now, right? All right, we got unanimity.”

Similarly, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg allowed former President Trump to claim that he had nothing to do with rolling back safety regulations on trains, which may have contributed to the rail disaster at East Palestine. Rather than accuse Trump of lying, Buttigieg graciously invited bipartisan unity: “So if he had nothing to do with it, and they did it in his administration against his will, maybe he could come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction.”

Of course, you can interpret this kind of talk as some sort of political judo, using your opponents’ own momentum to wrong-foot them. But whatever the motive, if both sides practiced such judo, they would stumble towards agreement rather than dig in for trench warfare.

[4] A lot of the tweetstorm looks like trolling to me, and in the spirit of democracy I refuse to troll back, though I will use this note to parry unfair attacks. Her expectations of what blue states will do are almost all based on some demonic fantasy about what liberals want. For example:

In a National Divorce, the left could achieve their dreams of total and complete lawlessness.

Really? Somehow liberals are both tyrannical and lawless. We plan to institute a police state as soon as we get done abolishing the police.

And blue states would be free to allow illegal aliens from all over the world to vote freely and frequently in their elections like the DC city council wants. Dead people could still vote. Criminals in jail could vote that is if blue states even have jails or prisons anymore. Maybe blue states would let kids vote too. I mean why not, if the left says children can chop off their genitals or breasts, surely the left would let them make permanent important adult decisions like voting.

Again, I’m not sure who says “children can chop off their genitals or breasts”, and I suspect she’s just making that up. (A vanishingly small number of minors — under 18 but definitely not “children” any more — are having gender-related surgeries after their parents have had extensive consultations with psychologists and medical professionals. I suspect this is like the vanishingly small number of third-term abortions: Each individual case has unique circumstances that might evoke your empathy if you knew them.)

Non-citizens are not voting in our elections. As I first noted in 2013, dead people voting is a zombie myth that never dies no matter how often it gets debunked. And there’s probably somebody somewhere who would substantially lower the voting age, but I’m not sure who they are.

blue states would likely eliminate the anthem and pledge all together and replace them with anthems and pledges to identity ideologies like the Trans flag and BLM. Perhaps some blue states would even likely have government funded Antifa communists training schools. I mean elected Democrats already support Antifa, so why not.

Most Democrats I know doubt that Antifa really exists, at least in the form conservatives imagine. I have not heard a single elected Democrat say “I support Antifa”, and I doubt MTG has either. If there’s a flag specific to trans people (rather than a rainbow flag that represents everyone) or a pledge of allegiance to BLM, I don’t know about them.

[A commenter has pointed out that there is a trans flag, which (as I said) I didn’t know about. It looks like this:

But nobody has ever suggested that I pledge allegiance to it.]

I will confess that she has me pegged in one way: I think “The Star Spangled Banner” sucks as a national anthem. I’d happily replace it with “America the Beautiful”, which is not only singable but is also about our country rather than about a piece of cloth. But that’s a personal gripe, and I don’t know how many other liberals agree with me.

Anyway, I interpret this kind of trolling as an effort to turn Americans against each other rather than solve problems. I have parried a few unfair attacks, but I refuse to strike back with, say, a Handmaid’s Tale vision of the dystopia MTG might prefer. Both sides should try to deal with what their opponents actually say before launching hyperbolic attacks.

[5] Kansas, for example, is about as red as any state. But last summer a referendum to give the legislature power to ban abortion failed by a wide margin.

[6] People who believe that conservative government promotes economic growth need to account for Mississippi: A Democrat has been governor of Mississippi for exactly 4 of the last 31 years, and yet that state has been near the bottom of just about all economic rankings that whole time.

[7] This is already happening in Florida, and is being widely imitated in other red states. Florida’s Don’t-Say-Gay and Anti-WOKE laws contain lists of banned ideas that teachers can be fined or even imprisoned for telling their students about. No blue state has laws anything like this. Liberals also have been known to object to certain books, but only conservatives want to imprison librarians.

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?