Tag Archives: democracy

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.


It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

The Decade of Democracy’s Decline

When a decade ends, it’s always tempting to look back and come up with a single defining theme. Often that exercise winds up being artificial and its conclusion a bit forced. But as we approach the end of 2019 the theme seems clear: The story of the Teens was the decline of democracy.

2010 in the United States. On New Year’s Day in 2010, we were living in a very different world. Barack Obama had been elected in a landslide in 2008, bringing huge Democratic majorities to both houses. The first major sign of a rightward pendulum swing — Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the race for the Senate vacancy caused by Ted Kennedy’s death — would happen soon (January 19), but the extent of November’s Democratic wipe-out was not at all apparent yet.

Brown’s victory ruined the filibuster-proof Senate majority that the Democrats had maintained for a few months (since Al Franken had finally been seated in July), but Nancy Pelosi maneuvered her House majority and the reconciliation rules to get ObamaCare passed anyway by the end of March.

The economic disaster of 2008 was finally starting to resolve. When Obama took office, the economy had been hemorrhaging jobs, bankruptcies were starting to cascade, and the possibility of a Great-Depression-style collapse had seemed possible for the first time in almost 80 years. (One sign of the looming apocalypse: In September of 2008, a major money-market fund “broke the buck” and stopped redeeming its shares at $1.) The balanced-budget rules most states lived under had been forcing them to make the problem worse: As revenues fell, they had to stop construction projects, cut safety-net programs, and lay off teachers.

But by 2010, a variety of government interventions had begun to stabilize the situation: TARP and a loose Federal Reserve policy had stopped the banking collapse; a federal bailout saved the US auto industry; Obama’s $800-billion stimulus program had cut taxes, shored up state government finances, and started restoring the country’s infrastructure. Unemployment was still high and many people were still suffering, but the feeling that the bottom was about to fall out of everything had passed. A slow-but-steady economic expansion began, and has continued for the rest of the decade.

As the Republican revival took the form of the Tea Party, it was possible to believe in that movement’s grass-roots sincerity, despite the billionaire Koch money behind it. Perhaps large numbers of people really were alarmed by the rapidly growing federal debt, and by the government’s role in the economy, which the bailouts had at least temporarily increased. (By now, of course, we know that concern about the debt was entirely bogus. Trump’s looming trillion-dollar deficits disturb none of the people who angsted about Obama’s.)

Despite the Tea Party, though, the Republican establishment seemed firmly in control of the GOP’s direction. The Reagan policy configuration was unchanged: strong defense, a forceful American presence in the world, free trade, low taxes, low regulation, traditional sexual mores, and an immigration policy that accommodated business’ need for cheap labor.

But more than that, Republicans still participated in a national consensus on democracy so widespread it could mostly go unstated: The two major parties competed to persuade a majority of the American electorate, and whichever party succeeded in getting the majority of votes would, of course, control the government. Despite Republicans’ knowledge that they did better in low-turnout elections, and their occasional efforts to make voting harder for poor and non-white citizens, at least in public they had to acknowledge that voting was a good thing, something the public should be encouraged to do.

As the party of the rich, Republicans had always found it easier to raise large sums of money than Democrats. But controlling money in politics was still at least partly a bipartisan issue, exemplified by the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. As a practical matter, Republicans were more likely to oppose campaign-finance rules than Democrats; but open defenses of plutocracy were rare.

For the most part, Republicans were still part of a nationwide consensus on fair play. This was best exemplified by a moment in John McCain’s 2008 campaign, in which a woman questioning McCain said Barack Obama was “an Arab”, and seemed ready to go further if McCain hadn’t taken the microphone away from her.

I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Violations could be found on both sides, of course, but the general consensus (at least in public) was that candidates should not smear each other in ways that would make it hard for the winner to govern.

A number of rules of fair play held in Congress as well. The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments, but both parties exercised this power with some restraint. For the most part, the president was allowed to get his way unless there was something egregiously wrong about a particular nominee.

There had been a few rumblings in the other direction. On democracy, Tom DeLay’s 2003 Texas redistricting plan intended to net more Republican seats in Congress just by shifting boundary lines, without the need to persuade any voters. As for fair play, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, had no qualms about blowing racist dog whistles in Obama’s direction, or accusing him of “pallin’ around with terrorists“. But these seemed to be excesses rather than signs of the future.

2010 around the world. Internationally, Europe was having a harder time recovering from the Great Recession than the US, and the biggest threat to the unity of the EU was that struggling economies like Greece might need to escape EU austerity rules and the discipline of the euro. The Syrian Civil War, with its consequent Syrian refugee problem, hadn’t started yet. (The entire Arab Spring, with it’s brief promise of democracy, had not yet bloomed and died.) Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment existed in Europe, but was nothing like the continent-wide issue it later became. Far-right parties in France and Germany had yet to take off, and Brexit was a notion from the lunatic fringe of British politics.

But the biggest difference was in eastern Europe. It was already clear by 2010 (to those who were paying attention) that Vladimir Putin was an autocrat running a government-shaped crime syndicate. But no one yet appreciated the threat he posed outside Russia, or foresaw that his democracy-to-autocracy model would be imitated in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Brazil, and even the United States. (My best description of that strategy is probably the one in the review of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, or possibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)

I would argue that Putin has been the single most influential figure of the 2010s. Russia in 2010 was (and still is) a relatively minor economy dependent on an industry with little long-term future (oil). And yet, look at all he accomplished: His ruthless intervention in Syria pushed millions of immigrants towards Europe, where his simultaneous information-warfare campaign inflamed anti-immigrant feelings and boosted nationalist populist movements across the EU. His thumb-on-the-scale was arguably the difference in both the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. At the end of the decade, a foreign-policy goal of every Russia leader since Stalin might finally be in sight: the dissolution of NATO.

In 2010, it was even possible to believe that China would eventually find its way to democracy. The theory went like this: Sooner or later, the rising Chinese middle class would seek a voice in government. But while Chinese prosperity grew through the Teens, if anything China moved the other way politically. Power has increasingly become centered in President-for-Life Xi.

The Republican embrace of minority rule. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (reviewed here), Daniel Ziblatt examined different European nations’ paths toward democracy and found a key difference: It mattered how the old ruling class felt about yielding its power to democratic institutions. Britain developed a viable conservative party that (through its alliance with the Church of England and its traditional morals), saw a way to continue to compete for power in a democratic system. But Germany’s upper classes never stopped seeing democracy as a threat, and were constantly tempted to seize power in non-democratic ways, eventually producing Hitler rather than Churchill.

The big story of the Teens in the US was the loss of a conservative party committed to democracy. The Republican Party has increasingly found itself at odds with democracy, and instead has openly embraced minority rule. In the Trump Era, Republicans no longer even attempt to attract majority support: 46% was enough to produce an electoral college win in 2016, and Trump has spent the last three years talking almost exclusively to that 46%.

In fact, it’s worth looking at all three elected branches of government. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump got 62,984,828 votes (46.1%) while Hillary Clinton got 65,853,514 (48.2%). In the 2018 elections for the House, Republican candidates got 50,861,970 votes (44.8%) and Democrats 60,572,245 (53.4%).

Computing the Senate popular vote is a little more complicated, because it takes six years for all the seats to come up, so you have to total across three elections. In 2014, Republican candidates got 24,631,488 votes (51.7%) and Democrats 20,875,493 votes (43.8%). In 2016 it was Republicans 40,402,790 (42.4%), Democrats 51,496,682 (53.8%). In 2018, Republicans got 34,723,013 (38.8%) and Democrats 52,260,651 (58.4%).

That works out to a total of 99,575,291 Republican votes and 124,632,826 Democratic votes. (The totals are roughly double the House totals because each state elects two senators.) That 25 million vote margin for the Democrats (roughly 55%-45%) has produced a 53-47 Republican majority.

Think about what that means: The American people voted for Democrats to control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but in fact they only succeeded in giving Democrats control of the House.

The retreat from fair play. So far we’ve just talked about anti-democratic elements inherent in our government’s constitutional structure. But during the Teens, Republicans used that minority power to entrench minority rule further.

The 2010 census was the beginning of a redistricting wave that has gerrymandered both federal and state districts to lock in Republican majorities. On the federal level, the Democratic wave of 2018 (53.4%) was considerably larger than the Republican wave of 2010 (51.7%), but produced a smaller majority (235 seats in 2018 vs 242 in 2010).

But it is on the state level where democracy has truly vanished. I could pick several states as examples, but probably the clearest is Wisconsin, where gerrymandering has locked in a large Republican majority in the legislature that the Democratic majority in the electorate is unable to oust.

Despite Democrats winning every statewide office on the ballot and receiving 200,000 more total votes, Republicans lost just one seat in Wisconsin’s lower house this cycle. And that victory was by a razor-thin 153 votes. Democrats netted 1.3 million votes for Assembly, 54 percent statewide. Even so, [Assembly Speaker] Vos will return to the Capitol in 2019 with Republicans holding 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly, a nearly two-thirds majority.

Republicans in Wisconsin: Losing the vote, but holding the legislature.

Far from being embarrassed by their minority support in the electorate or cowed by the mandate voters gave the new Democratic governor, the Wisconsin Republican majority in the legislature responded to the voters’ rebuke by passing laws to cut the new governor’s powers.

And those totals are after considerable efforts to suppress the vote of blocs likely to support Democrats. The one-two punch of minority rule is

  • Make it hard for Democratic blocs to vote.
  • Herd them into a small number of districts so that even a majority of Democratic votes can’t oust Republican majorities in the legislature.

This works because of minority rule on the federal level: A minority president and a minority Senate get to stack the judiciary with judges who are fine with tactics that entrench minority rule even deeper. That’s how we wound up with a conservative Supreme Court that has refused to block voter suppression and gerrymandering, and has opened the door to unlimited money in political campaigns — including unlimited money to influence Senate approval of judges. So the initial anti-democratic tilt built into the Constitution has been amplified.

You might think this reliance on a minority would be an embarrassing secret for Republicans, but in fact it is not. More and more openly, they defend the notion that the majority should not control the government.

For example, the Electoral College used to be seen as a historical relic that wasn’t worth the trouble it would take to get rid of it. But now it is actively defended by conservative publications like National Review and politicians like Senator Mike Lee. The fundamental unfairness of the Senate is cast as the great wisdom of the Founders, who apparently foresaw that Californians wouldn’t deserve to have their votes count for as much as Alaskans.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression aren’t shameful any more, they’re just how the game is played. And unlimited money is “free speech”. Even violence is no longer beyond the pale: Trump has repeatedly warned of violence if his followers don’t get what they want, and Trump supporters like Robert Jeffress even talk about “civil war“.

The drift towards autocracy. Most worrisome of all, in my opinion, is Republicans’ increasing tolerance of and support for autocratic words and actions from their leader. I can find no parallel in American history for how Trump has handled Congress’ refusal to fund his wall: He declared a phony emergency and seized money appropriated for other purposes. Even a congressional resolution to cancel the emergency was unavailing: Trump vetoed it, and held enough support in Congress to block a veto override.

So the precedent is established: As long as a president’s allies control 1/3 of one house, he can ignore the power of the purse that the Constitution gives Congress.

Republicans in Congress have also refused to protect Congress’ oversight power. Since Democrats gained control of the House, the administration has blocked all attempts to investigate his administration.

Nazi comparisons should always be handled with care, but this one seems appropriate to me: It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do, as Germans brushed off the more outrageous sections of Mein Kampf. What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

Already, everyone responsible for launching the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia has been hounded out of the Justice Department. Amazon has been denied a large Pentagon contract because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post is critical of Trump.

It’s a mistake to write this off as “Trump being Trump”. If he acquires the power to inflict more punishment, as he well might if Congress fails to impeach him and the Electoral College re-elects him (once again against the will of the voters), more punishments will happen.

Trends are not fate. George Orwell once wrote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” So it is a mistake to despair. Trends often reverse right at the moment when they seem most unstoppable, and often the reversal is only apparent in hindsight. But it is also foolish not to notice the trend, which for the last ten years has run counter to democracy, particularly in the United States.

Chief Justice Roberts OKs Minority Rule

If you’re a Republican, the demographic trends look bleak: Each cycle, your party’s core voters (white Evangelicals) become a smaller portion of the overall electorate. Worse, your positions on social issues (like gay rights) are turning off young voters, even if they’re straight and white, and your leaders target the fastest growing demographic (Hispanics) with vitriol almost every day.

You could try to change all that by shifting your positions. That’s what an RNC report recommended after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. But the party decided to go another way: Figure out ways to stay in power with fewer votes.

Minority rule. In certain ways, the US system already favors a Republican minority: Small red states like Wyoming or the Dakotas have just as many senators as liberal California, and the Electoral College tilts towards small states. But that natural advantage can be expanded: Voter suppression in Georgia allowed Republicans to keep the governorship there. And, of course, unlimited campaign spending helps Republican candidates win elections they otherwise might not.

But the real pillar of minority rule is gerrymandering. If you draw the districts properly, you can remain in power even if most voters are against you. And if you’re in a state where you have a small majority of voters, you can get a supermajority of seats in the legislature, allowing you to twist the system to your advantage in all sorts of ways.

Take Virginia for example. In 2017, Democrats overwhelmingly won the popular vote in House of Delegate elections, 53%-44%. All the seats were up for election, so you’d think they’d get control, wouldn’t you?

Such a quaint notion! In fact, Virginia delegate districts are gerrymandered all to hell, with the result that Republicans stayed in power: 51 seats to the Democrats’ 49. Apparently, Democrats would have to win by at least double digits to break the Republican dominance.

Same thing in Michigan. In the 2018 elections for the Michigan House, Democrats won the popular vote 52%-47%, but Republicans kept a six-seat majority, 58-52.

On the other hand, you have North Carolina. In 2016, Republicans won the popular vote in the NC House elections, 52%-47%, similar to the Democrats’ Michigan margin in 2018. But with a different result: Republicans got an overwhelming 74-46 majority of the seats. The Republican legislative supermajority was what allowed it to change the rules when a Democrat won the governorship. Maybe the voters still can give statewide offices to Democrats, but gerrymandering lets the legislature strip power away from those offices once Democrats win them.

That’s the essence of gerrymandering today: You don’t really need a majority of voters to keep power, and even a small majority will give you a constitution-amending supermajority, along with the ability to override the vetoes of any governor that the voters manage to elect over your opposition.

Best of all, it’s self-reinforcing: If the other party can’t break your hold on the legislature, then you get to improve your gerrymander every time there’s a new census!

The minority-rule Supreme Court. The Republican minority-rule majority in the Senate allowed Mitch McConnell to block President Obama’s last nominee to the Supreme Court, and to hold the seat open until President Trump (elected with only 46% of the vote) could fill it, as well as name a second justice after Anthony Kennedy retired. So the Court has a 5-4 conservative majority rather than the 6-3 liberal majority it would have if American voters had actually gotten their way.

So when a gerrymandering case came to the Court this term, it gave the five conservative judges a moral challenge: Defend democracy, or defend the partisan minority that appointed you?

None of them rose to that challenge.

The case. Ostensibly, the case was non-partisan, because it paired a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina with a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. Both concerned districts for the federal House of Representatives.

But in the larger context the case was very partisan, because nationwide, the Republican Party has embraced gerrymandering whole-heartedly, while Democrats have hung back. When Democrats took over the House of Representatives in January, the first thing it passed was H.R. 1, which banned gerrymandering of congressional districts. (It’s not clear whether Congress has any power over gerrymandering of state elections.) But of course, that bill has never come up for a vote in Mitch McConnell’s minority-rule Senate.

John Roberts’ opinion. There was never any doubt that Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh would take a partisan Republican position. The question mark was Chief Justice Roberts, who ended up writing the majority opinion.

The gist of his opinion is that while of course he personally finds partisan gerrymandering to be a despicable practice, he can only wring his hands, because the law does not allow him to do anything to stop it.

Chief Justice Marshall famously wrote that it is “the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Sometimes, however, “the law is that the judicial department has no business entertaining the claim of unlawfulness—because the question is entrusted to one of the political branches or involves no judicially enforceable rights.” In such a case the claim is said to present a “political question” and to be nonjusticiable—outside the courts’ competence and therefore beyond the courts’ jurisdiction. Among the political question cases the Court has identified are those that lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” …

We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.

The picture he paints is that if the Court interfered at all, then it would be forced to come up with its own answers to questions that ought to be decided by the political branches of government: How should districts be designed? What does it mean for an election to have a “fair” outcome? And so on.

He points out that gerrymandering happened in the era of the Founders, and that their solution to it was to balance state legislatures’ decisions against the check of the federal Congress, not the courts. He points out all the ways that political forces inside the states might defeat gerrymandering without court intervention:

Indeed, numerous other States are restricting partisan considerations in districting through legislation. One way they are doing so is by placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions. For example, in November 2018, voters in Colorado and Michigan approved constitutional amendments creating multimember commissions that will be responsible in whole or in part for creating and approving district maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Missouri is trying a different tack. Voters there overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new position—state demographer—to draw state legislative district lines.

Kagan’s dissent. Justice Elena Kagan acknowledges Roberts’ points, and gives a “close, but no cigar” response to each.

Yes, the Founders knew about gerrymandering, the same way that they knew about firearms. (My analogy, not hers.) But the modern version is a different animal entirely.

Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology—of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used—make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude linedrawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses,sometimes led to so-called dummymanders—gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world.

And the thing Roberts said was impossible — judging that the gerrymanders in question were unacceptable without imposing your own vision of fair design and fair outcomes — was exactly what the lower courts had done.

The approach—which also has recently been used in Michigan and Ohio litigation—begins by using advanced computing technology to randomly generate a large collection of districting plans that incorporate the State’s physical and political geography and meet its declared districting criteria, except for partisan gain. For each of those maps, the method then uses actual precinct-level votes from past elections to determine a partisan outcome (i.e., the number of Democratic and Republican seats that map produces). Suppose we now have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum—the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other. We can then find the median outcome—that is, the outcome smack dab in the center—in a world with no partisan manipulation. And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum—at or near the median or way out on one of the tails? The further out on the tail, the more extreme the partisan distortion and the more significant the vote dilution.

The North Carolina plaintiffs randomly produced 3,000 districting maps that meet the legal criteria. All of them were more favorable to Democrats than the one the legislature adopted.

Under [the lower courts’] approach, in other words, the State selected its own fairness baseline in the form of its other districting criteria. All the courts did was determine how far the State had gone off that track because of its politicians’ effort to entrench themselves in office. …

The plaintiffs asked only that the courts bar politicians from entrenching themselves in power by diluting the votes of their rivals’ supporters. And the courts, using neutral and manageable—and eminently legal—standards, provided that (and only that) relief. This Court should have cheered, not overturned, that restoration of the people’s power to vote.

And finally, Kagan examined Roberts’ faith that the political system would fix this problem on its own.

The majority disagrees, concluding its opinion with a paean to congressional bills limiting partisan gerrymanders. “Dozens of [those] bills have been introduced,” the majority says. One was “introduced in 2005 and has been reintroduced in every Congress since.” And might be reintroduced until the end of time. Because what all these bills have in common is that they are not laws. The politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.

No worries, the majority says; it has another idea. The majority notes that voters themselves have recently approved ballot initiatives to put power over districting in the hands of independent commissions or other non-partisan actors. Some Members of the majority, of course, once thought such initiatives unconstitutional. But put that aside. Fewer than half the States offer voters an opportunity to put initiatives to direct vote; in all the rest (including North Carolina and Maryland), voters are dependent on legislators to make electoral changes (which for all the reasons already given, they are unlikely to do). And even when voters have a mechanism they can work themselves, legislators often fight their efforts tooth and nail. Look at Missouri. There, the majority touts a voter-approved proposal to turn districting over to a state demographer. But before the demographer had drawn a single line, Members of the state legislature had introduced a bill to start undoing the change. I’d put better odds on that bill’s passage than on all the congressional proposals the majority cites.

She concludes:

Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.

Potemkin democracy. My interpretation of these opinions is that Roberts (and the minority-rule court majority he leads) has no interest in actual democracy, just Potemkin democracy. As long as we have “elections” in which people vote and votes are tabulated, he’s satisfied. If the system has been rigged so that the same people win all the time, well, that’s just politics. And the Roberts Court is above politics.

What I think we should never lose sight of is how all these minority-rule actions build on each other, and then wrap around to cycle through again. A minority-rule Senate and a minority-rule President have given us a minority-rule Court. The Court now is returning the favor, helping the ever-shrinking conservative minority to maintain its hold on power into the indefinite future.

Mueller by Gaslight

Last Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report had only been finished for a few days, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s first letter to Congress had only come out the day before. All through this process, I’ve been urging patience over speculation, so my initial impulse was to give Barr the benefit of the doubt, at least for a little while. After all, he was promising to do the right thing:

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

His second letter, written Friday, fleshed that out a little.

I anticipate we will be in a position to release the report by mid-April, if not sooner.

In between, though, Trump and his supporters have gone on a scorched-earth victory lap. First he claimed a vindication that so far is not supported by the available facts,

No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!

He went on to demand revenge against the enemies who supported investigating the President’s dubious relationship with Russia in the first place.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!

Trumpists in Congress — who said nothing when Schiff’s predecessor Devin Nunes ran the House Intelligence Committee in a thoroughly partisan manner — joined in:

Republicans in Congress and the White House are calling for Rep. Adam Schiff to resign his position as the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The president and his supporters say Schiff perpetuated a false narrative about Trump and his potential illegal activities.

At a rally in Grand Rapids Trump listed his enemies — Schiff, Jerry Nadler, the media — and led a chant of “Lock them up!“. Lindsay Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to investigate the people who investigated Trump:

We need a special counsel to look at the potential crimes by the Department of Justice — the FBI — regarding the Clinton e-mail investigation and the Russian investigation against Trump early on.

Trump also wants revenge against the media.

So funny that The New York Times & The Washington Post got a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage (100% NEGATIVE and FAKE!) of Collusion with Russia – And there was No Collusion! So, they were either duped or corrupt? In any event, their prizes should be taken away by the Committee!

(MSNBC’s David Guru examined how the NYT and WaPo reporting holds up: pretty well, it turns out.)

The Trump campaign sent out a memo asking networks to blacklist critics of the administration:

“Moving forward, we ask that you employ basic journalistic standards when booking such guests to appear anywhere in your universe of productions,” the memo read. “You should begin by asking the basic question: ‘Does this guest warrant further appearances in our programming, given the outrageous and unsupported claims made in the past?‘”

The memo, written by communications director Tim Murtaugh, lists Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and former CIA Director John Brennan.

And all this is based on what exactly? A four-page letter written by an attorney general that Trump hand-picked for this purpose. And that letter itself may not say as much as it seems to.

Barr’s summary. In general, as facts trickled out of the Special Counsel’s office during the last two years, I have tried to avoid tea-leaf reading. I figured that there would eventually be an actual report that said things clearly. I stuck to that policy last week, and did not do a word-by-word analysis of Barr’s letter. But if Trump and his supporters are going to get this far ahead of the facts, and to try to bully various players in our political system into actions based on their extreme interpretation of Barr’s letter, then I think it would be irresponsible to let those interpretations own the field until Barr sees fit to release some version of Mueller’s actual report.

So what exactly did Barr say?

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

I think it’s rational to assume that Barr is being a good servant to his master here: Assuming that what this passage says is true at all (always a major concession when dealing with the most dishonest administration in my lifetime), it reads Mueller’s report in the way most favorable to Trump’s interests. And it does not say “no collusion”. It says that Mueller could not prove that the Trump campaign and the Russian government were directly conspiring. But was Roger Stone part of the Trump campaign? Was Russian oligarch (and Paul Manafort’s former employer) Oleg Deripaska part of the Russian government? What if WikiLeaks was a middleman, conspiring on the one hand with Russia and on the other with the Trump campaign?

In other words, the quote could mean what Trump wants it to mean: that Mueller found the accusations of collusion entirely baseless. Or it could mean that Mueller found a lot of suggestive and suspicious evidence, perhaps better than 50/50 evidence, but no smoking gun — at least not one that would stand up in a criminal trial — that could be tied all the way back to Trump in one direction and Putin in the other. We won’t know which is closer to the truth until we can read the full report.

The second part of Trump’s claim — “no obstruction” — has nothing to do with Mueller. Barr writes:

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Again, not a clean bill of health, just a statement that the evidence is insufficient to prove a crime in court, at least in Barr’s mind, though not necessarily in Mueller’s. (If Rod Rosenstein really does agree with Barr’s conclusion, I’d like to hear him say so himself, rather than let Barr put words in his mouth.) And if that’s the most favorable-to-Trump interpretation possible, then I have to agree with George Conway (Kellyanne’s husband):

Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal.

To conclude this section: Nothing in the information currently available would justify making Schiff resign, rescinding the Pulitzers of the Times and Post, investigating the investigators, letting the Trump campaign write a media blacklist, or locking up any Trump critic. If Trump thinks the full Mueller report contains such information, well, release it and then we’ll all see.

Why the delay? Which brings up the question of why no one can see the report yet. (Alex Cole pointed out how typical this is: “Donald Trump is: 1) ‘a billionaire’ but you can’t see his taxes 2) ‘a genius’ but you can’t see his grades 3) ‘exonerated’ but you can’t see the report.)

In his first letter, Barr listed two things he needed to redact before making the report public. His second letter expanded it to four things:

  • proceedings of a grand jury
  • whatever might compromise intelligence sources and methods
  • material that could affect “other ongoing matters”, which I take to mean open investigations
  • “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties”.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler has pointed out that these may be considerations that limit what can be released to the public, but they shouldn’t (and usually don’t) apply to Congress.

[R]ather than expend valuable time and resources trying to keep certain portions of this report from Congress, [Attorney General Barr] should work with us to request a court order to release any and all grand jury information to the House Judiciary Committee — as has occurred in every similar investigation in the past.

Similarly, the House Intelligence Committee routinely deals with intelligence sources and methods; there’s no reason to keep any part of the report secret from them on that account. Having seen how Mueller writes his indictments, I would be greatly surprised if information that could affect “other ongoing matters” hasn’t already been identified and segregated.

And then we come to the “reputational interests of peripheral third parties”. This looks like a black hole that could suck down anything Barr doesn’t want the public to know. Because who exactly are peripheral third parties? Trump family members? Anybody not specifically indicted? And I’m not aware of any widely accepted definition of “reputational interests”.

Since there really is no good reason that the report has been held so closely, I have to assume that the motive is political: to intimidate Trump’s critics, and so create a period during which Trump’s defenders would own the field. If during this period they succeed in bullying Democrats into silence, then perhaps they won’t have to release the report at all.

Don’t think nobody has thought of that. A recent poll showed that 40% of Republicans think that Barr’s letter is enough; nobody needs to see the rest of Mueller’s report. If Democrats got sufficiently intimidated, not releasing the report could be spun as a magnanimous gesture: There’s no need to embarrass Democrats further; let’s just move on.

And what about Barr’s promises? Well, these things have a way of evaporating if nobody insists on them. Remember when Trump was going to have a news conference to present the evidence that Melania came to America legally? Never happened. And who can count the number of times Trump said he was going to release his taxes?

The gaslighting hasn’t worked. For a few days, Barr’s first letter and Trump’s response to it threw Democrats for a loop: What if Mueller’s report really does totally vindicate Trump? What if it all does turn out to be a big nothingburger and we have to eat all the words we’ve said in the last two years? Do we really want to say more words, knowing that they might come back to us along with all the others?

But by mid-week I think a lot of people independently came to the same conclusion: If this report really did exonerate Trump, it would already be public. And the rush to judgment among Trump supporters has been a little too extreme. You don’t do that when you know that the slowly grinding mills are going to get you what you want.

Thursday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee read a letter asking Chairman Adam Schiff to resign, and Schiff was ready for them. He listed all shady stuff we know about Trump and Russia in a litany of “You may think it’s OK if …”. It went viral.

Since then, I think a lot of us have been in a mood to call Trump’s bluff: You think you’ve got the goods? Let’s see them.

It will all come out eventually. I suspect we will at some point see nearly all of the Mueller Report. It will come out, because the benefit of keeping it secret is fading: If it exonerates you, let’s see it. If we can’t see it, it probably doesn’t exonerate you.

Some parts of the public report may be redacted, and a few names of more-or-less innocent people may be replaced by the kind of placeholders that labelled Trump as “Individual 1” in the Michael Cohen indictment. But we will see it, and Congress will see it in its original form.

This is a testing period, where Trump’s people have been gaslighting us with their interpretation of the report we can’t see, and are floating the idea of keeping the report secret just to see if they can get away with it. In the end, I suspect, the public and the Democrats in Congress will stand firm, and Barr will magnanimously fulfill his promise. “See,” we’ll be told, “you’ve been getting all upset about nothing again. We said we’d release it, and here it is.”

However, the test is real. If they could get away with burying the report, they would. The first version Barr releases will probably be inadequate in one way or another, and the deadline for releasing it might slip further, just to see if anyone cares. But people care.

And when it does come out, the Adam Schiff approach is exactly right. “Does this evidence establish a crime beyond a reasonable doubt?” shouldn’t be the only question. We also need to ask: “Is this kind of behavior OK? Are we willing to accept that American democracy will look like this from now on?”

Inside the Trump bubble it will make no difference. Fox News has trumpeted that the Mueller Report clears Trump, and that conclusion will be allowed to stand after the report comes out, whether it is accurate or not. Anyone who dares to raise the issue will be treated as a traitor and drummed out of the community.

But for the rest of the country, I think the answer will be No. We don’t want our presidents getting elected this way. And once they’re in office, we don’t want them to behave in a way that makes us wonder if they’re loyal to a foreign adversary. That may or may not be a crime. But it’s not OK.

A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic

Friday morning, Trump declared a national emergency that he said would allow him to start building his wall by redirecting funds Congress has appropriated for other purposes. The speculation-to-action ratio has been particularly high since then, with political and legal experts giving conflicting views of what will happen next. Let me see if I can boil it down without adding to the confusion.

1. The declaration was made in bad faith. There is no national emergency on the southern border. Trump admitted as much: “I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn’t need to do this.”

As I explained two weeks ago (under the sub-head “and national emergencies”), the point of the national emergency process is to allow the President to respond to events that unfold too fast for Congress to take action. Whatever you think about the issues of immigration and smuggling on the Mexican border, they have been playing out over decades, and are less serious now than they have been at other times.

Congress has had plenty of time to consider appropriating money to build a wall, and has decided not to do it.

With no honest case to be made for either a national emergency or for circumventing Congress to build a wall, Trump once again gave a speech full of lies.

2. This is unlike any previous emergency declaration. As Trump rightly pointed out, presidents have declared national emergencies before (59 times since the National Emergencies Act was passed in 1976, according to Fox News’ Chris Wallace). But a national emergency declaration has never been used as a partisan weapon before. Wallace challenged Trump advisor Stephen Miller to “point to a single instance when the president asked Congress for money, Congress refused to give him that money and the president then invoked national emergency powers to get the money”. Miller could not answer.

A national emergency declaration has never been challenged in Congress or the courts before, but that’s because previous presidents have used them in uncontroversial ways, not because Trump is being specially persecuted by his opponents.

3. The money will be taken from more worthy projects. USA Today lists the sources.

$3.6 billion will come from a military construction fund, and White House officials admitted that “they did not yet know which military constructions might be cancelled or delayed by the move.” Military Times lists some possibilities:

a new vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, drydock repairs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, F-35 hangar improvements at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, ongoing hospital construction at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and new family housing builds in South Korea, Italy and Wisconsin.

Also: a middle school on an Army base in Kentucky. Lindsey Graham explained that “It’s better for the middle school kids in Kentucky to have a secure border.”

Another $2.5 billion will come from a Defense Department drug-interdiction program. So presumably it will be easier now to get drugs into the country by boat or plane. Trump’s bogus wall, which will do little to affect drug traffic, will squeeze out programs that actually catch drug smugglers.

4. Congress still has a chance to weigh in, but there’s a catch. As originally passed in 1976, the National Emergencies Act allowed what is known as a legislative veto: Congress could override the President’s declaration if both houses agreed to do so. This is, in fact, likely to happen. The Democratic House will pass a resolution against the emergency fairly easily, and the Republican Senate will probably follow suit. (In order to do so, all 47 Democrats and 4 Republicans will have to agree. Mitch McConnell can’t prevent the resolution from coming to the floor, and it can’t be filibustered.)

However, in 1983 the Supreme Court (in regard to a different law entirely) found legislative vetoes to be unconstitutional. As laid out in the Constitution, Congress passes laws and the President has an option to veto them. Congress can delegate its power to the President (as it did in the National Emergencies Act), but it can’t switch places with the President and give itself veto power over his decisions.

As a result, Congress can still undo the President’s declaration, but it requires a joint resolution, which is then subject to a presidential veto. A two-thirds majority of each house would then be necessary to override the President’s veto. This is currently considered unlikely, because not enough Republicans are willing to go against Trump.

So the most likely scenario goes like this: Congress passes a joint resolution against the emergency, the President vetoes it, and Congress fails to override the veto.

5. Then it’s up to the courts. Congress will sue on the grounds that its power of the purse has been usurped. States along the border will sue. Property owners whose land will be seized will sue. Some of those suits have already been filed. (Congress’ suit will probably wait until after its attempt to override the emergency declaration fails.) Then the courts will have to decide whether Trump’s emergency is legitimate.

Whatever conclusion you want to hear, I can point you to an expert who predicts it. Vox assembled 11 experts, and their responses amounted to: Judges shouldn’t OK this, but there’s just enough justification that they can if they want to.

The point of view most generous to Trump is that Congress screwed up when it passed the National Emergencies Act, so its power-of-the-purse is delegated, even if it shouldn’t be. The law doesn’t define “emergency”, but trusts the president not to abuse his power to declare one. Who knew we’d eventually have an untrustworthy president?

Some judges will feel that it’s not their job to second-guess Trump on this. That’s more-or-less how the Muslim Ban case came out. After the administration revised its first two obviously-unconstitutional Muslim bans, the third one passed muster — not because the 5-4 Supreme Court majority agreed with the bigoted pile of bullshit Trump used to justify it, but because five justices deferred to the president’s judgment and declined to examine the details.

As with the Muslim ban, this case hangs on the question of bad faith: How transparently faithless does the President have to be before a judge is obligated to notice?

The problem I have with the Congress-screwed-up view is that the original version of the law didn’t delegate this much power, because Congress retained the ability to override illegitimate emergencies. Now the President only needs one-third of one house to support him. So the Supreme Court changed something significant in the law when it rejected legislative vetoes.

So I would be tempted to make the same kind of argument that conservatives have made against the Affordable Care Act: The National Emergencies Act is a coherent whole, and you can’t invalidate the legislative veto while leaving the delegation-of-power intact. I haven’t heard anyone make that argument, so there must be some reason not to (aside from the fact that all of the currently active national emergencies become invalid, which might not be a bad thing).

6. And the people. This is something worth getting into the streets about. MoveOn has protests planned today, and no doubt there will be others soon.

If you live in a state or district represented by a Republican, you need to challenge your representative to defend the Republic. The expectation that Congress can’t override a veto is based on the idea that most Republicans will stand by Trump’s seizure of power. But if they hear from enough voters, they won’t.

7. Once again, conservatives in Congress and in the courts  will face a challenge: Will they support Trump, even at the expense of what was once considered a core conservative principle? Over the last several decades, much hot air has been blown about defending “the Constitution” and “the vision of the Founding Fathers”. It goes virtually without saying that neither the Constitution nor the Founders ever envisioned or endorsed a process like this: Congress refuses to fund a presidential project, the president seizes the money, both houses vote to condemn that seizure, but it goes through anyway.

Any congressional Republican who refuses to override Trump’s emergency declaration or his subsequent veto can never again claim to be a defender of the Constitution, and should never again be allowed to invoke the Founding Fathers without hearing about this betrayal of their vision. Any judge who allows this travesty to play out can likewise never in good conscience claim to be an “originalist” or “strict constructionist” rather than a partisan judicial activist.

8. There are hardly any core conservative principles left. Republican respect for the Constitution has been suspect at least since Mitch McConnell ignored President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. The GOP’s claim on the Constitution further eroded when the Party decided to ignore the Emoluments Clause and let Trump profit from what are essentially bribes by foreign governments and the governments of the states. But it’s also worth considering the other conservative principles that have already fallen since Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee.

Republicans once claimed to care about the federal deficit, but they have allowed Trump to blow up the federal balance sheet in a completely unprecedented fashion. The record Bush/Obama deficit of FY2009 was a response to an economic catastrophe, but Trump’s deficits are approaching those levels in the late stages of an economic expansion, when the federal budget should be in its best shape. (President Clinton had a surplus during a comparable period.) The next recession, which is due to hit soon, will send deficits into territory never before seen.

Republicans once championed a global system of free trade, but now they stand for tariffs, presidential bullying of American corporations, and one-on-one negotiations with each country.

Republicans once were the advocates for rural America, but now Republican trade policies hit farmers harder than anyone.

Republicans claim their opposition to undocumented immigration stems from a belief in the rule of law, but they support Trump in violating our laws by refusing to let refugees turn themselves in at the border and ask for asylum.

Republicans once claimed to be the party of patriotism and freedom, and promoted Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill”. Now they stand behind a president who is totally subservient to a Russian dictator, who shows no respect to the world’s other democracies, and instead expresses admiration and envy for brutal autocrats like China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, and the Philippines’ Duterte.

Republicans once styled themselves as the party of traditional family values, and (particularly during the Clinton administration) talked endlessly about the importance of a president’s character. Now they make excuses for Trump’s infidelity, corruption, sexual assaults, and shameless lying.

What ground is left for Republicans to stand on, other than bigotry against Hispanics, making the rich richer, and a naked desire to wield power?

Extortion Tactics Have No Place in American Democracy

From the beginning, the government of the United States has been founded on compromise. The Constitutional Convention created the House to give big states their due power and the Senate to protect the small states. Slave states wanted their representation in Congress to reflect their whole population, slave and free, while free states wanted representation determined only by free residents. They settled on counting 3/5 of the slave population.

Through the early 19th century, a series of compromises held the Union together: You can have Missouri as a state if we can have Maine. We’ll start a Bank of the United States, but with a charter that will need to be renewed. (It wasn’t.) Henry Clay was known as the Great Compromiser. It was a compliment, not an insult.

That pattern continued into the 20th century: Your district wants a bridge, mine wants a dam; let’s do both. Urban liberals want to fund food stamps, while rural conservatives want farm subsidies; let’s combine them into one bill.

That’s how American democracy is supposed to work: Different parts of the country may be rivals, but they’re not enemies, so win/win solutions are possible. Along the way, we discover things that just about everybody wants: safety from invaders and criminals, not letting poor people die in the streets, security in old age, good schools, effective responses to epidemics, and so on. So you fund the things that everybody wants, and you make deals on the rest. If I want your support for something you don’t care about, I’ll offer to support something you do care about too.

But something changed in American politics after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and it got worse after the Tea Party wave of 2010: Republicans began to adopt extortion tactics. Rather than offer quid pro quo deals to Democrats, they began packaging demands and threats: If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll do something that nobody wants. I’ll shut down the government, I’ll run us into the debt ceiling. I’ll sabotage the nation’s credit rating. Coast Guard families will be going to food banks. The FBI won’t be able to pay its informants. Air travel, going to the national parks, or even just eating food will get riskier. Then you’ll see how serious I am and understand that you have to give me what I want.

Gingrich ultimately changed his stripes; he and President Clinton worked out any number of compromises, as President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil had a decade before. They controlled spending at the same time that they raised taxes, and guess what happened? The deficit went away.

But extortion tactics were never officially renounced, and over the last decade Republicans have gone back to considering them a legitimate option. To get ObamaCare passed, President Obama needed a House majority and 60 votes in the Senate. But Republicans tried to extort a Democratic Senate and President into repeal as soon as they controlled only one house of Congress. (It’s worthwhile to try to picture the reverse situation, because it’s so hard to imagine: Picture Obama taking office in 2009 and threatening to leave our troops in Iraq stranded and unsupplied unless Congress passed his health care plan.)

And now President Trump (who was elected with 46% of the vote and has never had an approval rating over 50%) is trying to extort funding for his unpopular wall.

Partisan extortionists usually try to cloud the issue, but the difference between extortion tactics and ordinary politics is not at all hard to see. Extortion arguments have a don’t-make-me-do-this quality similar to kidnappers’ ransom demands. It isn’t that anybody wants the government shut down, it’s that one side is willing to do it to get what it wants. It’s also not hard to tell which side is extorting: Look at the issue in question and ask yourself who wants it. During the recent shutdown, the central issue was the Wall, and Trump wanted it. He wasn’t willing to make a positive offer to Democrats, so instead he threatened them with a government shutdown. The media’s popular two-sides-bickering narrative wasn’t remotely accurate: Trump was extorting, and Pelosi was resisting extortion.

Democracy can’t go on like this forever. Eventually, some leader will get elected on an openly anti-democratic platform, arguing that our constitutional system is too cumbersome to work any more. Once he gets into office, he’ll provoke an extortion crisis as a way of proving his point: How can we support a system of government that allows stuff like this to happen? Are we willing to stand by while the country falls apart, or do we want the leader to declare a national emergency, abolish Congress, and make things work again?

The way out of that scenario is for the public to re-establish the norm that extortion is not legitimate. The right way to make change is to assemble a majority, and any leader who offers a short-cut around that process — even to get something we think we want — deserves our scorn.

The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released this statement:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.

The Story that Really Mattered This Year

Will American democracy survive the Trump presidency? The jury is still out on that, but things are looking up.


Ever since the Electoral College named Donald Trump president, news (some of his making and some not) has been coming at us like water from a fire hose — indictments, injunctions, special election upsets, gaffes, natural disasters, high-ranking people getting fired or resigning under pressure, insults to our allies, mass shootings, lies, government shutdowns, outrages against common decency (like ripping kids from their parents and putting them in cages), or the spectacle of an American president repeating the propaganda of foreign autocrats like Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin.

All year, as I write my weekly summaries of the news, I’ve been complaining about it. (Tiresomely, I’ve decided, having just reviewed a year’s worth of Monday Morning teasers.) There is too much to process. Week after week, developments that might have been the Story of the Year in any other administration — the wide-ranging corruption of Scott Pruitt, say — nearly slip my mind. “Oh yeah,” I remind myself. “That happened too.” We get worn out by it. How many cabinet or top White House posts are vacant now due to scandal or protest or insufficient toadying? I’ve lost track.

But since November 6, 2016, one story has stood above all the others. Day-to-day, and even week-to-week, it was easy to lose sight of, but it was always there, sometimes in the background of whatever stories were getting attention. The unanswered question: Will American democracy get through this?

In recent years, authoritarian populism like Trump’s has been corrupting democracies around the world, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the original rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s. (I’ve been trying to cover that in the abstract, by reviewing books like How Democracies Die and The Road to Unfreedom. Recent posts have also been influenced by Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, though I haven’t gotten around to writing about that book explicitly yet.) Trumpists claim that “fascism” is an unfair exaggeration, but the key components are there:

  • idealization of a vague past whose restoration would make the country “great again”;
  • assault on the institutions that try to establish a common basis of truth: science, the courts, experts within academia or the government, and the press;
  • elevation of a leader whose word and power replaces those sources of truth;
  • constant lying by that leader, to the point that lies become loyalty tests and expressions of power: How ridiculous a statement, or how self-contradictory a series of statements, will followers repeat with conviction?
  • identity politics focused not on the powerless and oppressed, but on the powerful and favored, with constant emphasis given to the grievances (some real, but most imagined) of whites, of men, of Christians, of the native-born, of the wealthy, and of all those who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their privileged places in the world;
  • glorification of the leader’s decisiveness, and his unwillingness to be bound by convention, propriety, morality, his own word, or even the Constitution.

And yet, this is America. We have the rule of law and a Constitution that has stood the test of time. We have long traditions of independent courts, independent law enforcement, and a free press. Could we really go the way of failed democracies like Russia and Turkey and Hungary?

It was a real question at the end of 2016, and it still hasn’t been decisively answered. That’s a good thing: At the end of 2016, there was reason to fear that it might be decisively answered by now.

2017. To me, the big story of 2017 was that Trumpian fascism did not prove to be popular.

It might have. Trump took office in the middle of an economic upturn that Obama had never been given credit for, and at a time of relative peace. He had a compliant Congress that would repeat his talking points, harass those who challenged him, refuse to investigate obvious corruption, and pass tax cuts and spending increases without worrying about the resulting budget deficits.

He had chosen his victims and scapegoats well: Muslims, immigrants of color, and refugees. Would the rest of the American people care if they suffered, or be energized by the sheer cruelty of it all? If police were once again unleashed to hassle (or occasionally even kill in cold blood) the non-white poor with no oversight or repercussions, would white Christian citizens react with horror, or gratitude? Would Americans care about the planetary environment they handed off to their children and grandchildren, or would they be happy to ignore all that in an fossil-fuel-burning orgy of après moi le déluge?

On Inauguration Day, none of that was clear, and even it hindsight it was a disturbingly close call: About 40% of the public has welcomed Trumpism, to the point that no development or revelation can move them. It could have been 50% or more.

2018. But even if Americans would tell pollsters they disapproved, would they vote? Or would they be confused or bamboozled or discouraged by dark fantasies of invading caravans? Could Democrats once again be played off against each other, so that they failed to unite behind any less-than-perfect candidate? Could anti-Trump women be cowed by the enraged male privilege of Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham? (Herodotus tells how similar tactics put down a Scythian slave revolt. The slaves repulsed an initial assault by their masters, who then came up with the following plan: “Now therefore to me it seems good that we leave spears and bows and that each one take his horse-whip and so go up close to them: for so long as they saw us with arms in our hands, they thought themselves equal to us and of equal birth; but when they shall see that we have whips instead of arms, they will perceive that they are our slaves, and having acknowledged this they will not await our onset.” Just so, Kavanaugh’s foaming outrage replaced any attempt at contrition, compassion, or fact-based defense: Now you’ve made Daddy angry.)

In retrospect, all that might seem absurd. But a year ago it did not, at least to me. Certainly there were red states where things played out that way and incumbent Democratic senators lost, sometimes by large margins.

And even if a majority wanted to vote against Trump’s party, would it be enough to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering? In Georgia, suppression of the black vote worked, and a white Republican secretary of state oversaw his own elevation to the governorship. Gerrymandering also did its job: A record-setting Democratic popular vote (nationally, a nearly 10 million vote margin, or 8.6%) resulted in a mere 235-199 House majority, smaller than the 241-194 majority that a far narrower Republican margin (1.4 million votes, or 1.1%) produced in 2016.

What if? Imagine if 2018 had come out otherwise. What if the electorate, or at least enough of the electorate to maintain unified Republican control of Congress, had endorsed what they’ve seen these last two years? What if Democrats had won the national House popular vote by only 5% or so, and it hadn’t been enough to gain control?

Then the gloves would be off. Any restraint wary Republicans had exercised on Trump would vanish. Fire Bob Mueller and purge non-Trumpists from the FBI. Finish gutting the Voting Rights Act, so that elections can become mere formalities, like the empty rituals of a faith no one really believes any more. Round up immigrants en masse and drop them on the other side of the Wall without hearings. Openly defy any courts that say all this is forbidden by laws or treaties or the Constitution. Why not? Who’s going to stop it?

Laws can say whatever they want, but if no one is motivated or empowered to enforce them, what do they matter? That’s the essence of Putinesque fascism. Revoke freedom of the press? Why bother, when troublesome reporters can simply be killed and the murders will forever remain unsolved? Why bother, when persistently annoying networks and newspapers can be bankrupted and bought out by your cronies? Disband opposing political parties? Why go to all that trouble, when their backers can be convicted of corruption, and their candidates can be killed or induced to leave the country?

That’s the track we would be moving down, if voters hadn’t come out in large enough numbers to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. We could still wind up on that track. But it’s a lot less likely now.

What the House can do. By itself, of course, the House can’t end this crisis of democracy. It can’t pass laws by itself, and the executive branch is still in charge of enforcing them. Even the impeachment process requires a Senate supermajority.

But the House can guarantee that any further subversion of democracy happens in full public view. If the new Attorney General suppresses the Mueller Report, the House can subpoena it. It can draw attention to the Trump family’s violation of the Constitution’s Emolument Clause, as well as the rampant corruption on the lower levels of this administration. Public hearings can bring to light the human rights abuses and violations of law happening on our southern border, and make administration officials respond with something more than doubletalk.

The executive branch, particularly at its lower levels, is still full of people who are committed to the missions of their departments and agencies. (This is the kernel of truth behind all those “Deep State” conspiracy theories.) People at the EPA still want to protect the environment, in spite of the instructions they receive from the top. People in the Justice Department still want to enforce the laws. People at the State Department still believe in diplomacy and treaties and international law. People at the CIA still want American policy to be based on facts. People at the Pentagon still resist seeing America dominated by Putin or other foreign leaders, no matter what kompromat they have on the president or how much revenue they generate for The Trump Organization.

At times, all those people can feel alone and surrounded. Why resist? Why not go along or take an early retirement and let the administration do whatever it wants? The election told them they are not alone, that the country is resisting as well. And the House can give them a bastion of support, as well as a place to tell their stories to the resisting majority. If a crisis comes, and they start receiving drastic unconstitutional orders, they are much less likely to carry them out, now that they know that the electorate and at least one branch of government is behind them.

What’s more, the 2018 election puts the question to Republicans who have to run in 2020: The American Republic might be in trouble, but it hasn’t failed yet. You still have to face the voters, and so does Trump. Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond this administration, to the party you will have to rebuild after Trump is gone.

It’s not over yet. As we saw in the aftermath of the election, not everyone got the voters’ message or was willing to accept it. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican leaders in the legislature have insulated themselves against the electorate through gerrymandering, so that large majorities voting for Democratic control were unable to achieve it. The statewide offices can’t be gerrymandered, but Democrats who win them can be disempowered. And so, to that extent, democracy is thwarted.

It’s not just Trump. There is a rising anti-democratic spirit in the Republican Party as a whole, which David Frum summed up like this:

If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

The myth of massive voter fraud has no evidence behind it, but conservatives believe it because it provides an excuse to ignore unfavorable election results. If there is a conservative coup someday, it will be justified by a claim that an election was stolen and they only lost due to fake votes.

Republicans still control the White House and the Senate. Attempting to take them back in 2020, Democrats will again run a hazardous gauntlet: Can we stay united? Can we convince reluctant voters to turn out? Can we ignore disinformation and manufactured crises? Can we overcome the electoral-college advantage that has given popular-vote-losing Republicans the presidency twice in the last five elections? Can we win by margins that convince Republicans to drop their flirtation with fascism?

What the midterm elections gave American democracy was a chance to survive, not a final victory.

The damage done. Even a massive 2020 victory won’t automatically set everything right again. The flood of Trump/McConnell judges will be making absurd rulings and blocking progressive change for decades to come. It will be a very long time before America’s traditional allies regard us as trustworthy partners again. The tax-cut giveaway to corporations and the rich will be hard to reverse.

Worse, the time we have lost in fighting climate change can’t be reclaimed. The carbon emitted can’t be recaptured. The wells dug, power plants constructed, and pipelines built will be long-term features of our energy landscape.

But worst of all, I think, is the long-term damage done to democracy itself. One-third of the electorate now buys into a worldview that blames its problems on Muslims and Mexicans, distrusts any attempt to establish objective truth, and won’t believe any vote that doesn’t come out in its favor. Standards of decency and truthfulness will be hard to restore. Partisan, ethnic, racial, and class divides have deepened. Even if we somehow manage to restore trustworthiness to government, will the American people trust it? There will be times of crisis in the future, when Americans will need to unite behind their leaders and move forward in together. It will be difficult, even if in the meantime we have managed to elect wise and honest people.

This election was a major step, but there are many steps to come before we are out of the woods.

The Big Picture: From Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump

The author of On Tyranny is back with a travelogue of The Road to Unfreedom


For several years now, we’ve been observing a global trend of once-democratic countries moving towards fascism. The paradigmic example is Putin’s Russia, but various other “right-wing populist” leaders have taken their countries some greater or lesser distance down the same road: Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Trump in the US, and (soon) Bolsonaro in Brazil. Even in countries that have held the extreme right at bay, some proto-fascist party has shown surprising strength: National Rally in France, Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party, and several others.

Each country has a unique story to tell about personalities, opposition weakness, dissatisfaction among key voting blocs, or previous government corruption. But when you look at the larger picture, you have to ask why. Why now? Why the right rather than the left? Why everywhere at once?

Timothy Snyder has an answer for you. Like all big theories, it’s a bit speculative. If you want a case ready to take to court, you won’t find it here. But if you’re looking for way to tell one big story about the current crisis of democracy rather than framing it as an unfortunate convergence of many little stories, his recent book The Road to Unfreedom is as a good a narrative as I’ve found.

To an extent, I’m misrepresenting The Road to Unfreedom in this article. I’ll be focusing on the abstract stuff in the background, the frame that holds it together. But Snyder’s book is anything but abstract; it is also a detailed description of how the internal politics of Putin’s Russia led to the invasion of Ukraine, and then to information warfare against the European Union and the United States. It maps out the common tactics that show up again and again, from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump.

But why did those tactics work so well in so many different countries?

Two mythologies and the reality they hide. Snyder points to a sea change in the dominant mythology of democratic societies. For decades, we have been living under a flawed but more-or-less benign mythology he calls “the politics of inevitability”, which is a version of the myth of progress: Irreversible historical trends are pushing us towards an “end of history” in which all nations will become human-rights-respecting democracies joined in a global market. As we approach this goal, many good things are supposed to happen: societies become more tolerant, more and more groups achieve justice and get their rights recognized, and technological progress leads to economic growth that raises the overall standard of living.

The exact timing of these benefits may depend on some heroic action here or there, and occasionally there might be a temporary setback. But the overall outcome is destined; it just happens.

Politics in an era of inevitability becomes either boring or frustrating, depending on your point of view. On issue after issue — a new trade pact, a newly recognized civil right, a new market, new patterns of behavior that correspond to new technologies — there seems to be no real choice. The Future is going there; you either get with the program or you don’t.

Over the last two decades or so, that myth has been undermined, by a lack of progress, by hitting environmental limits, and by contradictions among the various values “the Future” was supposed to optimize. Climate change presents a possibility of dystopia rather than utopia. Both globalization and technological change have produced losers as well as winners. As new groups get their rights recognized, groups privileged by the old arrangements may feel less and less at home; society used to fit them like a glove, and it no longer does. The increased freedom of capitalists may lead to decreased opportunities for workers, and while overall economic growth may continue, the new wealth may simply pile up at the top.

Occasionally, the failure of inevitability manifests in some shocking statistic like this one: Life expectancy in the United States fell in both 2015 and 2016. The drop (from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2016) corresponded to an increase in deaths related to hopelessness: drug overdoses and suicides. In the face of such news, the rhetoric of inevitable progress becomes unconvincing.

The faltering of inevitability has made room for a rival myth that Snyder calls “the politics of eternity”: Your own group (whatever it is) is perpetually virtuous and innocent, but it is surrounded and assailed by evil enemies. He refers to this viewpoint as “eternal” because the story never changes.

When each day is devoted to emotional venting about supposed enemies, the present becomes endless, eternal.

Nothing your group does can ever besmirch its innocence, and the rightful steps it takes to defend itself will never be accepted by the evil forces that assail it. All victories and defeats are just temporary. Only an annihilating defeat or a millennial victory at the end of time could truly break the cycle.

Both myths hide the reality that history is whatever humans make it. We are perpetually confronted with choices, and many outcomes are possible. Humanity makes progress (or not) depending on what we do. Virtue is not something we are born with or inherit from our ancestors; it either manifests in our actions or it does not.

Fictionalization. Inevitability politicians offer an idealized future. Eternity politicians have no utopian vision, so they instead offer a return to an idealized past. If you are suffering here and now, inevitability frames your pain as an aberration or a temporary inconvenience or a worthy sacrifice. Eternity, on the other hand, has no better future to offer you, but it tells you who to blame.

An eternity politician defines foes rather than formulating policies.

One key difference between the two myths is that the Future actually arrives, a little bit at a time. So the case for progress is inherently a fact-based case. An inevitability politician may make up facts, perhaps, or twist them, but he can’t do without them. “A plausible future,” Snyder writes, “requires a factual present.”

But eternity-politics requires only struggle, and the less factual the struggle, the easier it is to maintain. A real struggle might come to some conclusion, but an entirely made-up one never will.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional.

So, for example, the millions of illegal voters who decide American elections can’t be stopped, because they’re not real. The struggle against them will go on forever. Democrats can never stop trying to take your guns, because they weren’t trying to take your guns in the first place. The War on Christmas will come back every year, regardless of anything the faithful might do to defend themselves.

People believe these narratives because they are emotionally satisfying, not because they are factual. And so eternity propaganda doesn’t simply repeat what it wants the public to believe, but attempts to destroy the public’s confidence in any factual present or coherent narrative of history. Snyder describes Putin’s propaganda during the invasion of Ukraine like this:

According to Russian propaganda, Ukrainian society was full of nationalists but not a nation; the Ukrainian state was repressive but did not exist; Russians were forced to speak Ukrainian though there was no such language.

The point is not to win a rational argument, but to make rational argument impossible.

The tools and attitudes of ordinary journalism have failed to deal with this more fundamental attack.

One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality. … The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

And if the war is against factuality itself, the press becomes an enemy of the People.

in the Russian model, investigative reporting must be marginalized so that news can become a daily spectacle. The point of spectacle is to summon the emotions of both supporters and detractors and to confirm and strengthen polarization; every news cycle creates euphoria or depression, and reinforces a conviction that politics is about friends and enemies at home, rather than about policy that might improve the lives of citizens.

Already in 2014, as the Russia was invading Ukraine, Putin was unveiling a media strategy that has since become very familiar to American news consumers.

Western editors, although they had the reports of the Russian invasion on their desks in the late days of February and the early days of March 2014, chose to feature Putin’s exuberant denials. And so the narrative of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted in a subtle but profound way: it was not about what was happening to Ukrainians, but about what the Russian president chose to say about Ukraine.

You might think that history would be useful to a nostalgic movement, but only a vague, cherry-picked history will do. Putin, for example, is the heroic inheritor of both the czars and the Soviets who overthrew them. Similarly in the United States, Trumpists simultaneously revere the statues of slave-owning Confederates and blame slavery on the Democrats, claiming the legacies of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as it suits them. Actual history will never support the perpetual virtue and innocence of Russians, Americans, or anyone else, so it must be made incoherent as well.

Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.

Why Russia? In the West, the Great Recession of 2008 was a hammer blow to the myth of inevitability. For communities that had been stagnant or even falling behind for decades, it put an exclamation point on a growing sense that utopia was not coming.

But Russia had gotten to that point much sooner. Within one generation, the fall of the Soviet Union blasted away the Communist vision of historical inevitability, and the corruption and incompetence of the Yeltsin regime discredited the market-democracy alternative. So Russia was the ideal place to hone the new tactics, because it was ahead of other nations on the path to despair and cynicism.

From the beginning of his rule, Putin offered Russians narratives of danger, first from the terrorist Chechens. But after his fraudulent re-election in 2011 brought protesters into the streets, Putin decided he needed a larger enemy: the West, and particularly the United States. The protests, he claimed, resulted from a conspiracy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Putin’s subsequent information war on the West has been motivated by internal politics. Russians know that their own democracy is a fraud, but Putin needs them to understand that all democracies are frauds. No Western nation should stand as an example Russians can aspire to.

Trump. Snyder goes into considerable detail about the course of the Ukraine war (where the current stalemate serves Putin’s interest), as well as the particular myths that have made the European Union vulnerable to attacks like Brexit. But let’s skip straight to Trump.

Trump’s advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended upon American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray, on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character “Donald Trump, successful businessman” in the 2016 presidential election.

Snyder often repeats the  notion of “Donald Trump, successful businessman” as a fundamentally fictional character.

In these conditions, a fictional candidate enjoyed a considerable advantage.

From his campaign through his administration, Trump has been about spectacle and outrage, rather than about substantive plans to improve the lives of Americans — even the Americans who voted for him. He provides emotional benefits for his followers — an energizing anger, self-righteousness, and revenge against largely imaginary enemies — rather than healthcare or highways or schools.

Trump governed just as he had run for office: as a producer of outrage rather than as a formulator of policy.

This can only work for an electorate that expects nothing better from government. And in that sense, it is the failure of inevitability politics that made us vulnerable.

The American politics of inevitability also prepared the way for the American politics of eternity more directly: by generating and legitimizing vast economic inequality at home. If there was no alternative to capitalism, then perhaps yawning gaps in wealth and income should be ignored, explained away, or even welcomed? If more capitalism meant more democracy, why worry? These mantras of inevitability provided the cover for the policies that made America more unequal, and inequality more painful.

Trump’s message resonated (at least among whites) wherever there was hopelessness.

The correlation between opioid use and Trump voting was spectacular and obvious, notably in the states that Trump had to win. … Every Pennsylvania county that Obama won in 2012 but Trump won in 2016 was in opioid crisis.  … With one exception, every Ohio county in opioid crisis posted significant gains for Trump in 2016 over Romney in 2012. … In Scioto County, Ohio, ground zero of the American opioid epidemic, Trump took a spectacular 33% more votes than Romney had.

It was in the localities where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great. Without inequality, without a sense that the future was closed, he could not have found the supporters he needed.

Getting off the road to unfreedom. The recent mid-term elections demonstrated that Americans are not yet in thrall to eternity politics. The final tallies are not in yet, but in the best measure of national sentiment — the total popular vote for the House — Trump’s party looks to have lost by something like 8%. (Obama’s 2008 landslide was a 7% victory.)

But as we can see by looking at other countries, Trump is not unique. It was the failure of our politics and our culture that made us vulnerable to eternity politics. In Snyder’s view, we need to resist the charms of national mythology.

To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. To avoid the temptation of eternity, we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as a citizenry rather than as groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality, racial and economic, or it will have neither.

He ends with a call for a “politics of responsibility”, one recognizing that history has no direction of its own, and that we have no pre-ordained special role inside it. We can make a better world if we collectively decide to do so, but we can’t just wait for the better world to arrive on its own.

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity, and exit the road to unfreedom

What should we make of “Anonymous”?

As I’m pretty sure you already know, Wednesday the New York Times published “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” by an anonymous “senior official”. [1] The author claims to be one of many similarly placed people who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations”. They do this because “we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”

Anonymous diagnoses problems that run deep in Trump’s character and competence: He is “amoral” and has “no discernible first principles”. His “impulses are generally anti-trade [2] and anti-democratic”.  And his leadership style is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective”, resulting in “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back”.

In response, the internal resistance works to “preserve our democratic institutions” by keeping “bad decisions contained to the West Wing”. This results in a “two-track presidency”, where Trump may say one thing, but the government actually pursues a different policy entirely. Anonymous gives the example of how we deal with other countries:

In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

So don’t worry, America, “there are adults in the room … [who are] are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t”.

The questions this raises. Since Wednesday, debate has sprung up in a number of areas.

  • Is this for real? If it isn’t, then the NYT (which claims to know who Anonymous is and to have verified that he really wrote this) has made the whole thing up. To me, that kind of fraud would be way more incredible than anything in the essay, but I imagine some Trump supporters will believe that “the fake news media” and “the failing New York Times” do stuff like this all the time. Trump himself, as usual, wants it both ways: He both suggests that the article is fake and demands that the Justice Department find out who wrote it (even though there is no crime to investigate, so this shouldn’t be a DoJ matter).
  • Who is Anonymous, and who else is part of this “we” he describes? (Like most commenters, I’m going to use a male pronoun, which is a good bet for a “senior official in the Trump administration”.) This is the kind of guessing game that Washington insiders love, because getting it right proves you’re more savvy than everybody else. But what difference does it make? Suppose I tell you it’s Mike Pompeo or Dan Coates; does that change anything? [For what it’s worth, here’s my guess: Somebody who just barely qualifies as “senior” wrote it, but he did it with the blessing of his boss, who can now say “Not me!” to Trump and to the public. I’ll illustrate with analogies from previous administrations: What if Lawrence Wilkerson had written such an essay with the blessing of Colin Powell, or Huma Abedin under the direction of Hillary Clinton?]
  • Should the NYT have published this? I hadn’t thought this was a particularly interesting question, but The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen convinced me otherwise. More about that below.
  • Are the internal resisters heroes or villains? This is complicated. Obviously, if Trump throws a fit and wants to nuke Belgium, any staffer who loses that order before it reaches the missile silos is a hero. But when unknown people consistently decide that they’re smarter than both the elected officials and the voters who elected them, that’s a problem for democracy. (It reminds me of countries like pre-Erdogan Turkey, where the military was always checking to make sure the voters got it right.) More below.
  • How will this article affect events going forward? As many people have pointed out, publishing this essay is just going to make Trump more erratic and more paranoid, so it’s hard to see how it furthers the author’s apparent goals. On the other hand, it’s got to have an effect on the mid-term voters. Stories about Trump’s unfit behavior have been around for a while now, but they’ve been filtered through reporters who could be exaggerating or distorting. (Bob Woodward is harder to dismiss on that count than Michael Wolff or Omarosa, though the MAGA-hatters will manage somehow.) But the Anonymous essay is on a different level. Unless you’re willing to believe that the NYT conjured Anonymous out of pure smoke, you have to admit that even some Republicans who work with Trump and his administration every day think that he’s dangerous. Suddenly it makes a lot of sense to elect a Democratic Congress to fill the constitutional check-and-balance roles that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have abdicated.

Gessen’s take on the NYT’s decision. Masha Gessen argues that the Anonymous essay is not newsworthy enough to offer the author an anonymous platform. The anonymous Trump “resister” is just repeating a point of view that we’ve heard many times before: Trump is unfit. He doesn’t understand the presidency, the American system of government, or the details of any particular issue. He doesn’t respect democracy or the rule of law. He doesn’t think rationally, or even hold an idea in his head from one minute to the next. The people around him try to manipulate him (and often succeed) because they believe (correctly) that he’s a dangerous fool.

That’s not news. We’ve been hearing it from anonymous White House sources for a long time now, and just heard it again in Bob Woodward’s new book (out tomorrow, but already widely quoted). The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer sums up:

The biggest open secret in Washington is that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. His staff knows it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows it. House Speaker Paul Ryan knows it. Everyone who works for the president, including his attorneys, knows it.

If you know about Trump’s unfitness, are in a position to do something about it, and choose to do nothing, then you are complicit in his presidency. It’s really that simple, no matter what story you tell yourself. Gessen expands the circle of complicity further:

The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. At a certain point, one has to stop trying to find the right solution and has to look, instead, for a course of action that avoids complicity. By publishing the anonymous Op-Ed, the Times became complicit in its own corruption.

The way in which the news media are being corrupted—even an outlet like the Times, which continues to publish remarkable investigative work throughout this era—is one of the most insidious, pronounced, and likely long-lasting effects of the Trump Administration. The media are being corrupted every time they engage with a nonsensical, false, or hateful Trump tweet (although not engaging with these tweets is not an option). They are being corrupted every time journalists act polite while the President, his press secretary, or other Administration officials lie to them. They are being corrupted every time a Trumpian lie is referred to as a “falsehood,” a “factually incorrect statement,” or as anything other than a lie. They are being corrupted every time journalists allow the Administration to frame an issue, like when they engage in a discussion about whether the separation of children from their parents at the border is an effective deterrent against illegal immigration. They are being corrupted every time they use the phrase “illegal immigration.”

The corrupt exchange here is that (in return for an article that everyone wants to read), the Times allows Anonymous to paint a virtuous self-portrait: By keeping the American people from knowing what its government is actually doing or why, people like him become “unsung heroes”. I’m sure they tell themselves that, but few things could be farther from the truth. Rather than actually resist, they cover for Trump’s incompetence. Rather than stand up to him, they flatter him.

But since the NYT has bestowed anonymity, we can’t effectively contest that self-portrait, or hold Anonymous responsible for the Trumpian policies he actually did carry out. Why, you might wonder, didn’t some internal resister get in the way of Trump taking children away from asylum-seeking parents? Officials who participated in that evil policy, or helped justify it after the fact — what kind of “resisters” are they really? Or why couldn’t the “adults in the room” manage to get Puerto Rico some help before thousands of American citizens died there?

The Devil’s bargain. If Trump really is unfit, and if this is widely known in the administration and Congress, then why don’t they remove him, either through impeachment or the 25th Amendment? Even if the resisters are only a minority of the cabinet, why don’t they stage a mass resignation and bring their case to the public? Why do the never-Trumpers continue to be such a lonely and pathetic segment of the Republican party?

Serwer explains:

But they all want something, whether it’s upper-income tax cuts, starving the social safety net, or solidifying a right-wing federal judiciary. The Constitution provides for the removal of a president who is dangerously unfit, but those who have the power to remove him will not do so, not out of respect for democracy but because Trump is a means to get what they want. The officials who enable the Trump administration to maintain some veneer of normalcy, rather than resigning and loudly proclaiming that the president is unfit, are not “resisters.” They are enablers.

We’re seeing this process right now with the Brett Kavanaugh nomination. It makes literally zero sense to allow a president like Trump (who may only hold his office because he committed a crime to get it) to appoint judges who will probably have to rule on important points of his case, like whether he can be subpoenaed or whether he can pardon himself. But Kavanaugh will cement a far-right majority on the Supreme Court, something the conservative movement has been trying to achieve for decades. Why let that questing beast get away, just because the President is unstable and may have to use undemocratic methods to stay in power?

This is how tragedies happen: because everyone in a position to prevent them has some special reason not to. And usually they all have some way of telling the story that makes them sound like heroes.

They’re not. An official who refuses to carry out an illegal or unconstitutional order is a hero. When a staffer conveniently ignores orders given when the president is not in his right mind, ones that the president himself will soon be glad weren’t implemented — that staffer may be a better friend than the president deserves. There is virtue in openly refusing to implement policies you believe to be immoral or catastrophic, in telling the president directly that you will resign first, and then carrying out that threat and warning the public about what is happening.

But there’s nothing virtuous about setting yourself up as a permanent unelected government-within-the-government, and tasking yourself to implement a policy agenda the voters rejected. Elections ought to be consequential, and if those consequences are too much for the country to bear, then the president should be removed by legal means.


[1] Don’t miss the parodies: Slate’s “I Am Part of the Police Department Inside This Bank Robbery” and McSweeney’s “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep’s Death Cult“.

[2] Of all the Trump policies that officials can justifiably monkey-wrench in the name of democracy, I would think trade is about last, because protectionism and getting tough with our trade partners was a big part of Trump’s message from the beginning. If Americans really wanted free trade, somebody like Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush should have been able to make that case against Trump in the Republican primaries. So I have to agree with Ross Douthat:

One might say that insofar as the officials resisting Trump are trying to prevent his temperamental unfitness from leading to some mass-casualty disaster or moral infamy, they are doing the country a great service. But insofar as they are just trying to prevent him implementing possibly-misguided populist ideas, they are being presumptuously antidemocratic and should resign instead.