Tag Archives: Republicans

The Media isn’t “Polarized”, It Has a Right-Wing Cancer

As individuals, liberals and conservatives share all the failings humans are prone to. But left-wing media and right-wing media are structured differently, and the implications are huge.


What’s the difference between right-wing media and left-wing media? Or between conservatives and liberals in general? If you have an answer, how do you know that your answer is objective, rather than just a reflection of your own bias? (As John Locke observed more than three centuries ago: “Everyone is orthodox to himself.”) Or if you think there is no difference, couldn’t your both-sides-ism itself be a bias? Wouldn’t it be odd if Right and Left had exactly the same levels of reasonability or factuality?

How would you know?

Network Propaganda. In Network Propaganda, (whose text and illustrations are available free online, as well as for sale as a book or e-book) Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts go to great lengths to produce an objective look at how news travels through the different regions of the US political universe.

It starts with data.

We collected and analyzed two million stories published during the 2016 presidential election campaign, and another 1.9 million stories about the Trump presidency during its first year. We analyze patterns of interlinking between the sites to understand the relations of authority and credibility among publishers high and low, and the tweeting and Facebook sharing practices of users to understand attention patterns to these media.

What they found overall looks like this:

This aggregate view of the open web link economy during the 2016 election period shows a marked difference between the right and everything that is not the right. There is a clear overlap and interaction between the left, center-left, and center media outlets. These are all centered on the cluster of professional, mainstream journalism sites: the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and Politico form a basin of attraction for outlets ranging from the editorially conservative Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Business Week, or USA Today, through the liberally oriented MSNBC. Zooming in, we see that the right side of the spectrum, by contrast, has Breitbart and Fox News as its basin of attraction, has almost no overlap with the center, and is sharply separated from the rest of the map. The other leading sites on the right include the New York Post, the Washington Times, the Daily Caller, the Daily Mail, and the Washington Examiner. There is almost no center-right, and what there is, anchored around the National Review, is distinct from the set of sites anchored by Fox and Breitbart on the right. The Huffington Post, the Guardian, and MSNBC receive the largest number of media inlinks on the left, joined by Mother Jones, Slate, Vox, and Salon.

Dynamics. This structure produces two distinct dynamics on the left and right. People of all persuasions like to have their prior opinions reinforced, and so we are all susceptible to clickbait (fantastic headlines that appeal to our biases, but have no real substance) and fake news (made-up or grossly exaggerated stories that we want to believe). So both kinds of disinformation are constantly being produced on the extreme Left and Right alike. The difference is what happens then.

there is ample supply of and demand for false hyperpartisan narratives on the left. The difference is that the audience and hyperpartisan commercial clickbait fabricators oriented toward the left form part of a single media ecosystem with center, center-left, and left-wing sites that are committed to journalistic truth-seeking norms. Those norm-constrained sites, both mainstream and net-native, serve as a consistent check on dissemination and validation of the most extreme stories when they do emerge on the left, and have no parallels in the levels of visibility or trust that can perform the same function on the right.

In other words: False stories that come from the Left drift towards the center and get debunked. And that’s usually the end of them. Sites on the far Left know that a lot of their audience also listens to NPR or reads The New York Times. Even if a story has to make it all the way to the center-right (The Wall Street Journal, say, or National Review) before it gets shot down, the correction will filter back, making left-wing sites look bad if they keep repeating the false information.

Nothing similar happens on the Right.

Dynamics on the right tend to reinforce partisan statements, irrespective of their truth, and to punish actors—be they media outlets or politicians and pundits—who insist on speaking truths that are inconsistent with partisan frames and narratives dominant within the ecosystem.

In other words, the right-wing news ecosystem has no antibodies that fight infection by false information. Left and Right are each exposed to misinformation and disinformation, but nothing on the Right keeps it from taking root.

It is not that Republicans are more gullible, or less rational, than Democrats. It is not that technology has destroyed the possibility of shared discourse for all. It is the structure of the media ecosystem within which Republican voters, whether conservatives or right-wing radicals, on the one hand, and Republican politicians, on the other hand, find themselves that made them particularly susceptible to misperception and manipulation, while the media ecosystem that Democrats and their supporters occupied exhibited structural features that were more robust to propaganda efforts and offered more avenues for self-correction and self-healing.

Examples. The book illustrates this bifurcated pattern with

parallel but politically divergent false rumors, about Trump raping a 13-year-old and Hillary and Bill Clinton being involved in pedophilia, [and how the rumors] followed fundamentally different paths through the media ecosystems into which each was introduced.

The Trump-rape story was based on a Jane Doe lawsuit. It made an initial splash on the Left, as Democrats on social media shared and reposted  a Huffington Post article arguing that the case deserved media attention. But the same day as the HuffPost article, The Guardian ran a skeptical article, claiming the suit had been “orchestrated by an eccentric anti-Trump campaigner with a record of making outlandish claims about celebrities.” Within a week the story had virtually vanished, even from very liberal news sources.

The Clinton pedophilia story, on the other hand, began in May, 2016 and continued to rattle through the right-wing echo chamber for the rest of the campaign.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, made the accusation on-air, interviewed by Sean Hannity and by Greta Van Susteren on Fox News. Bret Baier, anchoring Fox News’s prime-time news show ran a detailed segment on the accusations of Bill Clinton flying to Orgy Island on the Lolita Express. Fox News online published the underlying materials. Rush Limbaugh discussed the allegation as something everyone knows. Trump’s campaign adviser and national security adviser in waiting, Michael Flynn, tweeted it out. Breitbart, the most widely shared right-wing online site whose on-leave CEO Steve Bannon was then running Trump’s campaign, aired an interview constructed of pure disinformation. It seems highly unlikely that any of the people involved—Prince, Flynn, or the publishers of Breitbart—thought that the accusation that Hillary Clinton had flown six times to Orgy Island was anything other than utterly false, and yet they published it four days before the election on Breitbart’s radio station and online. Not one right-wing outlet came out to criticize and expose this blatant lie for what it was. [my emphasis] In the grip of the propaganda feedback loop, the right-wing media ecosystem had no mechanism for self-correction, and instead exhibited dynamics of self-reinforcement, confirmation, and repetition so that readers, viewers, and listeners encountered multiple versions of the same story, over months, to the point that both recall and credibility were enhanced. It is hardly surprising, then, that a YouGov poll from December 2016 found that over 40 percent of Republican respondents thought that it was at least somewhat likely that someone was running a pedophilia ring out of the Clinton campaign.

This disinformation had real-world consequences. In December, a young man fired three shots in a DC-area pizza restaurant supposedly involved in the pedophilia ring.

Despite extensive efforts, we were unable to find an example of disinformation or commercial clickbait started on the left, or aimed from abroad at the left, that took hold and became widely reported and believed in the broader network that stretches from the center to the left for any meaningful stretch of time

A second set of examples came from the “fake news awards” President Trump announced in 2017.

Comparing the Uranium One, Seth Rich, and Lolita Express and Orgy Island diffusion patterns we observed in earlier chapters on the one hand, and the various winners of the “fake news awards” on the other hand, underscores the fundamentally different dynamics in the right wing as compared to the rest of the American political media ecosystem. When observing right-wing conspiracy theories, we saw positive feedback loops between the core of that network—composed of Fox News, leading Republican pundits, and Breitbart—and the remainder of the online right-wing network. In those cases we saw repetition, amplification, and circling of the wagons to criticize other media outlets when these exposed the errors and failures of the story. By contrast, the mainstream media ecosystem exhibited intensive competition to hold each other to high journalistic standards, and a repeated pattern of rapid removal of content, correction, and in several cases disciplining of the reporters involved. Moreover, in none of these cases did we find more than a smattering of repetition and amplification of the claims once retracted.

Why doesn’t the Left do the same thing? This is one of the book’s more interesting points. People watch news programs for two purposes: to stay informed and to have their worldview reaffirmed. Since the 1980s, the Right has established an alternate news system that primarily serves the second purpose. But this isn’t just an ideological crusade, it also makes money.

So why doesn’t a parallel system make money on the Left? (It’s been tried. Air America tried to establish liberal talk radio during the Bush years, but went bankrupt.) Various liberal news outlets exist, but they’ve never escaped from the mainstream news ecosystem. It’s tempting to claim some superior virtue on the Left, but that’s not where Network Propaganda goes. Instead, it finds a first-mover advantage: Once a self-contained right-wing propaganda system exists, it allows the left-wing audience to gets its worldview affirmation from the center.

But once one wing has established the strategy of partisan bias confirmation, the centrist media with their truth-seeking institutions and reputations suddenly deliver a new benefit to partisans of the opposite pole—as objective external arbiters they can offer institutionalized credibility to reinforce their view that what their opposition is saying is false. Once one partisan media pole is established, the coverage of existing objective media outlets takes on a partisan flavor without any shift in their own focus on objectivity.

The mainstream media will be able to reconcile their goals of truth-seeking and confirmation from the center with providing a steady flow of partisan-confirming news for the wing in opposition to the wing that is already in the grip of the propaganda feedback loop. The outlets that formed the partisan ecosystem have a first-mover advantage over outlets that try to copy them on the opposite side, because as they decrease the value of the mainstream media to their own audiences, they increase it for the putative audiences of their opponents. The further the first-moving partisan media ecosystem goes down the path of its own propaganda feedback loop, the greater its tendency to produce untrue statements, and the greater the opportunities for reality-check centrist media organizations to deliver news that is both truthful and pleasing to partisans from the other side.

Fox is not a news network. During the primary campaign, Fox News represented traditional conservatism and was skeptical of Trump. Consequently, it lost ground to Breitbart as the center of right-wing coverage. After the election, though, it regained its standing by going full Trump.

Chapter 5, “The Fox Diet”, demonstrates how not just the content, but the timing, of Fox coverage derived from what the Trump administration needed, rather than what was new or true or relevant.

One case involves the argument that Democratic activist Seth Rich was murdered to hide the fact that he, not Russia, was responsible for leaking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails. The other case involves use of a story surrounding a company called Uranium One to attack the integrity and independence of the key law enforcement officers involved in the special counsel investigation. The timing and pattern we show in these case studies strongly suggest that they were launched for the specific partisan purpose of deflecting the Trump-Russia allegations and undermining the special counsel investigation. And in the two specifically fact-based cases, we show that Fox News actively promoted these stories despite the fact that they were repeatedly fact checked and debunked by a wide variety of professional journalists.

Both the Seth Rich and Uranium One stories had initially flared and died down, but re-emerged months or even years later when Trump needed them to shift the narrative. Uranium One was initially an anti-Clinton story early in the campaign, but was repackaged after the election as an Deep-State-law-enforcement story when the Mueller investigation heated up and Trump needed to undermine its credibility.

Manipulating the mainstream media. The existence of a propaganda network, one that constantly accuses traditional journalists of bias, puts those journalists under constant pressure to prove their objectivity. Often this takes the form of “balance” — finding a negative story about one side to balance a negative story about the other.

a core driver of the [Clinton] email focus was misapplication of the objectivity norm as even-handedness or balance, rather than truth seeking. If professional journalistic objectivity means balance and impartiality, and one is confronted with two candidates who are highly unbalanced—one consistently lies and takes positions that were off the wall for politicians before his candidacy, and the other is about as mainstream and standard as plain vanilla—it is genuinely difficult to maintain balanced coverage. The solution was uniformly negative coverage, as Patterson and colleagues showed, and a heavy focus on detailed objective facts. The emails were catnip for professional journalists. They gave journalists something concrete to work with. They had the aura of salacious reporting of uncovered secrets, while being unimpeachably factual and professional. And they allowed the mainstream publications to appear balanced in that their coverage of the two candidates was equally hard-hitting and tough.

The result was that Trump by far got the advantage of news coverage during the campaign: Coverage of Clinton tended to be about scandals, many of which had dubious substance. Trump, on the other hand, got covered for his positions on immigration, jobs, and trade.

Articles about Clinton in The New York Times and Washington Post often had scandalous headlines that were walked back by details far down the column. Such articles were frequently cited on the Right (as NYT and WaPo stories seldom are) to validate an anti-Clinton narrative.

Consider where the actual balance-of-scandals tilted: the Trump sexual harassment stories had numerous first-person witnesses, while the Trump University fraud eventually required a $25 million settlement. Supposed scandals about the Clinton Foundation were almost entirely conspiracy theories, while the largely uninvestigated Trump Foundation is currently facing a lawsuit calling for its dissolution for self-dealing. And yet this was the balance of coverage:

The Right needs this kind of mainstream cooperation, because the number of people who live inside the right-wing bubble is somewhere iin the range of 25-30% of the population — not nearly enough to win elections.

Russia and other bad actors. The good news in the book is the authors’ conclusion that Russian social media campaigns, fake news entrepreneurs, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook’s news algorithms actually had little effect on the course of news coverage.

The Russians tried but were unlikely to have been a critical factor. The commercial bullshit artists made some money, but were peripheral. And while Facebook’s data team certainly did make it possible for a complete outsider running with little help from party institutions to identify millions of voters and reach out to them effectively, the Cambridge Analytica manipulative advertising and the dark ads part of the story was still, in 2016, more of a red herring than the game changer some made it out to be.

[Note: This is about the effectiveness of Russian social media campaigns. No one disputes that the DNC emails hacked by the Russians and distributed by WikiLeaks had a major impact.]

However, the existence of a right-wing propaganda ecosystem, with correspondingly low resistance to false facts it wants to believe, is a continuing vulnerability in the American political system. As long as it exists, it will be open to outside manipulation.

Russian propaganda seems to have targeted both sides, and Facebook clickbait sites tried to manipulate denizens of all sides of the American public sphere. But, just as we saw in the case of the competing Trump rape and Clinton pedophilia frames, the responsiveness and success appear to have been very different in the two parts of the media ecosystem. In the right-wing media the propaganda feedback loop enabled conspiracy theories, false rumors, and logically implausible claims to perform better, survive longer, and be shared more widely than were parallel efforts aimed at the left.

The authors also saw little effect from far-right-wing groups (like white supremacists) seeding their messages into the right-wing core. The problem wasn’t that VDare or The Daily Stormer manipulated Fox News into spreading racist anti-immigrant messages, but that Fox went looking for those memes.

In general,

a population with high trust in bias-confirming news and high distrust in bias-disconfirming, professional-norms-driven media will be more vulnerable to disinformation campaigns than a population that has generally higher trust in professional journalism on average, but lower trust in any given media outlet…. As Joanne Miller and her collaborators and, independently, Adam Berinsky have shown, for Democrats, the more knowledgeable they are about politics, the less likely they are to accept conspiracy theories or unsubstantiated rumors that harm their ideological opponents. But for Republicans more knowledge results in, at best, no change in the rate at which they accept conspiracy theories, and at worst, actually increases their willingness to accept such theories.

What can be done? Something, but not a lot. Mainstream media needs to recognize that it lives in a propaganda-rich environment, and that the propaganda does not come equally from both sides.

When mainstream professional media sources insist on coverage that performs their own neutrality by giving equal weight to opposing views, even when one is false and the other is not, they fail. … [T]he present journalistic practice of objectivity as neutrality has perverse effects in the media ecosystem we document here. By maintaining the “one side says x, the other side says y” model of objectivity in the presence of highly asymmetric propaganda efforts, mainstream media become sources of legitimation and amplification for the propagandists.

Instead of balance, mainstream journalism needs to focus on truth-seeking and accountability. The authors make an interesting suggestion about, for example, anonymous sources. A responsible editor will insist on knowing a reporter’s sources, but an irresponsible organization could abuse that practice. What if some independent, highly trusted organization were set up that news organizations could use to verify their anonymous sources without revealing them? The system might function like peer review in science.

Journalists also need to apply skepticism to illicitly obtained documents that come from, say, Russian hackers rather than whistle-blowers.

Recognizing the asymmetry we document here requires editors to treat tips or “exclusives,” as well as emails or other leaked or hacked documents with greater care than they have in the past few years. The “Fool me once, shame on you . . .” adage suggests that after, for example, the New York Times’s experience with Peter Schweizer and the Uranium One story, mainstream professional journalists need to understand that they are subject to a persistent propaganda campaign trying to lure them into amplifying and accrediting propaganda. This happens of course as normal politics from both sides of the partisan system, but our work here shows that one side is armed with a vastly more powerful engine for generating and propagating propaganda.

But ultimately the Right will have to fix itself. It may seem far-fetched at the moment, but traditional conservatives (as opposed to white supremacists or other right-wing extremists) must already realize that the current system is not working for them.

There is nothing conservative about calling career law enforcement officials and the intelligence community the “deep state.” The fact that the targets of the attack, like Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, or Andrew McCabe, were life-long Republicans merely underscores that fact. There is nothing conservative about calling for a trade war. There is nothing conservative about breaking from long-held institutional norms for short-term political advantage. And there is nothing conservative about telling Americans to reject the consensus estimate of the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA that we were attacked by Russia and suggesting instead that these agencies are covering up for a DNC conspiracy. What has happened first and foremost to make all these things possible is that the Republican Party has been taken over by ever-more right-wing politicians.

The authors suggest that a series of election losses might motivate such a re-assessment of where the trends of the last 30 years have brought the conservative movement. Network Propaganda was published prior to the recent midterm elections, but we can hope that 2018 was the first in a series of such losses.

Why I’m Voting Straight Democratic

I’m definitely voting. But if you’re willing to run under the banner of today’s Republican Party, I can’t vote for you.


I didn’t used to be like this.

Only a few years ago, I was a meticulous voter. I’d examine each race and think hard about the individual candidates, looking for the best combination of personal character and positions on the important issues. There was a time when if I didn’t know anything about the candidates for some down-ballot office, I might leave that line blank, figuring that better-informed people should make the choice.

I don’t do that any more. Tomorrow I’m going to vote a straight Democratic ticket, including voting for and against candidates I’ve never heard of. If not for the ballot questions — I’m still meticulous about them — I’d be in and out of the voting booth in seconds.

It’s not that I think the Democratic Party is perfect. I expect that most of the Democrats I vote for will be good public servants, and will mostly promote policies I agree with. But some of the rest, I’m sure, will simply be the lesser evil. I’ve made my peace with that. I just know that they are the best hope to defeat Republicans, and Republicans need to be defeated. I can’t vote for Republicans any more.

That wasn’t always true. In my first presidential election, 1976, voting for Jerry Ford over Jimmy Carter was a real option, because I expected the country to be in decent hands no matter who won. (I dithered between the two before eventually picking a third party candidate.) Decades ago, when I was living in Massachusetts the first time, I voted for Bill Weld to be governor. He seemed like a straightforward, honest, intelligent guy. Eventually I even developed the rule-of-thumb that I would default to the Republican if I didn’t know who to vote for, figuring that only a really good Republican could win in my liberal district. When I moved to more conservative New Hampshire, I flipped that reasoning and defaulted to Democrats.

But now that I’m back in liberal Massachusetts, I’m not voting Republican for any office, no matter how trivial. In any state in the Union, I would do the same.

Have I changed? Not nearly so much as the Republican Party has. Today’s Republicans are not like the Republicans of the past, even the recent past. Today, the GOP is the party of climate change denial, discrimination against gays, gerrymandering, and baseless conspiracy theories. It’s the party that opposes the minimum wage, the party that cuts rich people’s taxes and then goes after middle-class Medicare when their tax cut creates an artificial budget crisis. (The middle-class tax cut Trump promised last week is vaporware: There is no such proposal, and once the election is over you will never hear about it again, except possibly as a cover story for another handout to the rich.)

Even worse, today’s Republican Party is a comfortable home for white supremacist fellow travelers like Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Open racists like David Duke or Richard Spencer endorse Republicans. White supremacist groups campaign for Republicans. If you want to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, you go to the networks and web sites that Republicans frequent. If you’re an abuser of women, Democrats will probably throw you out, but Republicans will circle the wagons around you. If you favor something as offensive to human compassion as the death penalty for gays, Republicans will embrace you.

If you are happy carrying that party’s banner, I can’t vote for you.

And then there’s Trump. (I covered in detail what I think of Trump last week.) Back in 1990, They Might Be Giants recorded a song that starts like this:

This is where the party ends.
I can’t stand here listening to you
And your racist friend.

To me, racist is a stand-in for all sorts of bigoted positions: anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, and just generally anti-everybody-who’s-not-a-white-straight-Evangelical-Christian. For every Republican candidate in the country, Trump is the bigoted friend that they can tolerate, but I can’t. For me, that’s where the party ends.

Your local Republican candidate might sound fairly reasonable from time to time. Lots of Republicans do: Paul Ryan occasionally tut-tuts when Trump says something particularly ridiculous or odious. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have spoken up now and then. (And both retired from the Senate when they realized that even their minimal criticisms had excommunicated them from the Trump personality cult the GOP has turned into. As Flake put it: “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”)

But in practical terms, what has any Republican official done to stand in Trump’s way? 538 models how often you’d expect a senator to vote with Trump, given Trump’s electoral margin in his or her state. Flake was actually considerably more likely to vote with Trump than the model predicted, and Susan Collins even moreso. What have any of them done to fight back, and reclaim their party for reasonable conservatism?

When push comes to shove, elected Republicans have all gotten in line behind Trump. Sometimes they’ve made a big public show of how hard the decision was (like Susan Collins supporting Trump’s tax cut, or Collins and Flake voting to elevate Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court), but they’ve gotten in line. They’ve blocked congressional investigations of collusion with Russia or any other administration wrongdoing, and they’ve harassed any Justice Department investigations that Trump found inconvenient. Cabinet-level malefactors like Ryan Zinke rest easy knowing that Republicans in both houses of Congress have their back.

Rather than stand up for the principles they used to claim, Republicans who ought to know better have drunk the Kool-Aid. Ted Cruz is now embracing the man who insulted his wife and accused his father of conspiring to assassinate JFK. Lindsey Graham once understood that Trump is a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot”. Now he’s the most rabid of Trumpists, frothing at the mouth to defend Brett Kavanaugh and offering unconstitutional legislation to back Trump’s plan to end birthright citizenship.

I’ll just sit here wondering how you
can stand by your racist friend.

The only conservatives who have consistently held their ground against Trump are writers rather than politicians: Michael Gerson, George Will, Max Boot. All of them have urged their readers to vote for Democrats this time around. Boot writes:

Some Republicans in suburban districts may claim they aren’t for Trump. Don’t believe them. Whatever their private qualms, no Republicans have consistently held Trump to account. They are too scared that doing so will hurt their chances of reelection.

Friday, Jennifer Rubin wrote:

The midterm elections have therefore become all about Trump, about whether he’s “winning” or “paying a price” for his descent into rancor, racism and misogyny. Suddenly the real “values voters” are those who care deeply about values such as kindness, democracy, rationality and respect. If they show up and vote their values, Republicans are in big trouble.

Finally, you can see the difference between the parties in the closing arguments they are making as the election approaches: Democrats are talking about making your health insurance more secure, particularly if you’re on Medicare or have a pre-existing condition. They’re talking about student debt, climate change, voting rights, and protecting the civil rights of those whose rights are actually in question: women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ community.

Republicans, by contrast, are closing with an issue that is almost entirely imaginary: the “threat” posed by several thousand migrants fleeing the violence of Honduras. Many of the caravaners are women and children, and the Pentagon believes most of them will never get here. Far from an “invasion”, the expressed intention of the much-hyped caravan is to surrender to US officials and ask for the asylum hearings that both international and American law promise them. (Instead, Trump is offering them a glittering symbol of the new MAGA Republic: “Barbed wire used properly,” he assures his cultists, “can be a beautiful sight.”)

There is no military issue whatsoever, so Trump’s dispatch of 5,000 (or is it 15,000?) troops to the border is pure theater — theater that will waste soldiers’ time and could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The conspiracy theories that Trump is using to justify this stunt have already inspired domestic terrorists like the MAGA mail bomber and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

If that’s what you like — imaginary crises, conspiracy theories, money flowing from the middle class to the rich, race-baiting, voter suppression, abuse of women, and an ever more vigorous and violent white-supremacist movement — then vote Republican. You’re sure to get more of it.

But if that’s not what you want out of government, then the Republican Party as it stands today must fall. Voters need to reject it root and branch.

John McCain Shot Liberty Valance

This week’s eulogies told us more about the hero we need
than the man we’ve lost.


In the classic John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a senator from an unnamed western state (Ranse Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart) is a living legend, and the legend goes like this: Once an idealistic young lawyer from the East, he arrived in the West to discover a town being terrorized by the gunslinger and gangster Liberty Valance. Though he barely knew how to shoot, Stoddard’s refusal to run away landed him in a gunfight with Valance, which he somehow won. Then Valance was dead and his tyranny ended.

Stoddard himself was ashamed to have killed a man in a lawless gunfight, but ever after, he was the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. On the strength of that reputation, he was chosen for the statehood convention, and then to represent the territory in Washington. When the territory became a state, he served three terms as its first governor, and then went on to the Senate. Now a national figure and a senior statesman, he is in line to be the next vice president.

But the truth about Stoddard is a bit more complicated: He did face Valance, got a shot off, and Valance wound up dead — but not because Stoddard’s shot killed him. Though he never promoted himself as Valance’s killer, he was never in a position to deny it either. So the story grew up around Stoddard and stuck with him because it was the myth that the West needed to tell: The Lawyer had killed the Gunslinger; the rule of law had ended the reign of violence.

Now Stoddard is finally able to tell the true story, because the man who did kill Valance is dead and can’t be tried for murder. But after he is done telling it, the local editor tears up his reporter’s notes and burns them. “This is the West, sir,” he explains. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

This week we celebrated the memory of another legendary western senator, John McCain. And we did it in pretty much the same way: We told the legend of the hero we need. That legend intersects with John McCain’s actual life in a number of ways, but the story of the real man is much more complicated — and in many ways less relevant to those of us who didn’t know him.

So by all means, let us discuss the legend, because it tells us a great deal about the times we live in.

The Trump Era. No president in my lifetime (or maybe ever) has dominated the national conversation the way Donald Trump does. Whether you love him or hate him, whether he fills you with pride or disgust, it’s hard to talk about anything or anybody else for very long.

The Trump style is made up of bombast, rudeness, and above all, divisiveness. Unlike previous presidents, he does not reach out to those who voted against him. [1] When he speaks, he does not talk to the nation, he talks to his base. He lies constantly, and his personal life is a parade of sleaze. [2] Every issue, first and foremost, is about him.

Trump’s story is full of irony. Having run on a pledge to “Make America Great Again”, his character is defined by smallness. There is nothing magnanimous about him, and there seems to be no situation that he is able to rise above. He cannot laugh at himself, and rarely laughs at all. Every personal slight must be answered, every blow returned with double force. Gold Star parents, bereaved widows of soldiers, leaders of our closest allies — it doesn’t matter. No one must be allowed to cast a shadow on Trump’s fragile ego.

Having taken offense at every perceived disrespect for the symbols of America — the flag, the anthem, the police — his own loyalty to the nation is questionable; when the Russians attacked our system of government, his weak and subservient response added to the speculation that he is in league with them. Having pledged to “drain the swamp”, he has flaunted his conflicts of interest and presided over the most corrupt administration in many decades. Having won on the strength of the Evangelical vote, he has governed as the anti-Jesus [3], concentrating his cruelty on “the least of these” and favoring the rich man over Lazarus. Famous for saying “You’re fired!”, he actually has no stomach for face-to-face confrontations, preferring to let John Kelly do the dirty work, or to tweet something nasty after he has left the meeting.

The hero we long for. What kind of hero do we need to celebrate in the Trump Era? One who embodies all the virtues that Trump so conspicuously lacks:

  • higher purpose
  • humility
  • willingness to endure hardship
  • courage
  • magnanimity
  • sense of humor
  • devotion to principle
  • idealistic vision of what America means and stands for
  • respect for opponents and willingness to ally with them on issues of common concern
  • compassion
  • honesty even when the truth is not flattering
  • willingness to confront facts and admit mistakes

It also wouldn’t hurt if that hero had a history of criticizing Russia. And it would be even better if he or she were a Republican, because a principled, virtuous, reasonable Republican Party is the single most conspicuous lack in America today. As a Democrat, I may yearn for a hero who can send the GOP into a long and well-deserved exile from power. But even better, I have to admit, would be to return to an America where the need to win was not so desperate, because Eisenhower-like Republicans could be trusted to preserve the Republic until we had a chance to make our case to the voters again.

McCain the legend. Was John McCain that hero? Sometimes. If we pick and choose properly, his life can bear the story we need to tell about it. [4]

He certainly endured hardship at the Hanoi Hilton, and in his final battle with cancer he showed that his fighter-pilot courage had not left him. President Obama said:

He had been to hell and back and yet somehow never lost his energy or his optimism or his zest for life. So cancer did not scare him.

Every time I heard him speak, at some point or other he stressed the importance of having a purpose higher than self. And it was there again (along with an idealistic vision of America) in his final message to the American people:

To be connected to America’s causes — liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people — brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

McCain didn’t say it explicitly, but it’s clear that he didn’t envy the guy who lives in a golden penthouse and has sex with porn stars (who he then needs to pay off). “I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth,” he wrote.

Humility, sense of humor … I first saw McCain in 1999, when he was running against George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. I wasn’t blogging then, so I have no record of what he said beyond my own memory. I recall that he made a point about his campaign’s momentum (he would eventually win that primary) by joking about how unpopular he had been at the outset: “The first poll had me at 2%, and the margin of error was 5%. So I might have been at minus three.”

I was blogging by the time he ran in the 2008 cycle, so I have this:

He answers questions — even hostile questions — patiently and with empathy. (“Meeting adjourned,” he announces in response to the first gotcha. The room erupts in laughter, and then he answers.) He tells corny jokes and at the same time manages to wink at you, as if the real joke is that you have to tell jokes to win the world’s most serious job. He runs himself down, confessing to being fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy, saying that his candidacy proves that “in America anything is possible.” And yet no one in the room forgets that he is John McCain, and he has survived things that would have destroyed any mere mortal. It is an amazing balancing act.

McCain invited the two men who defeated his presidential campaigns, Bush and Barack Obama, to speak at his service in the National Cathedral on Saturday. (Trump was eventually invited to attend — by Lindsey Graham, with Cindy McCain’s approval — but spent the day playing golf.) Obama noted McCain’s humor, magnanimity, and respect for opponents:

After all, what better way to get a last laugh than to make George and I say nice things about him to a national audience? And most of all, it showed a largeness of spirit, an ability to see past differences in search of common ground.

Lindsey Graham noted the contrast between McCain’s magnanimity and Trump’s churlish response to McCain’s death. (He raised the White House flag back to full staff until public outrage made him lower it again.)

John McCain was a big man, worthy of a big country. Mr. President, you need to be the big man that the presidency requires.

Obama made a similar point more obliquely:

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.

And Bush agreed:

To the face of those in authority, John McCain would insist: We are better than this. America is better than this.

Principle and respect for opponents were stressed by another of those opponents: former Vice President Joe Biden.

The way things changed so much in America, they look at him as if John came from another age, lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, integrity, duty, were alive. That was obvious, how John lived his life. The truth is, John’s code was ageless, is ageless. When you talked earlier, Grant [Woods], you talked about values. It wasn’t about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.

For Bush, McCain symbolized America, or at least the America we want to be:

Whatever the cause, it was this combination of courage and decency that defined John’s calling, and so closely paralleled the calling of his country. It’s this combination of courage and decency that makes the American military something new in history, an unrivaled power for good. It’s this combination of courage and decency that set America on a journey into the world to liberate death camps, to stand guard against extremism, and to work for the true peace that comes only with freedom.

And Meghan McCain drew the parallel most clearly, in a litany of statements about “the America of John McCain”, that culminated in:

The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold. She is resourceful, confident, secure. She meets her responsibilities. She speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast because she has no need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great. That fervent faith, that proven devotion, that abiding love, that is what drove my father from the fiery skies above the Red River delta to the brink of the presidency itself.

McCain the man. Unless we are willing to massage their stories and avert our eyes from unfortunate facts, no actual human being is precisely the hero we need. So it is no insult to point out that the actual John McCain was not that hero.

McCain had a temper and could be verbally abusive. His commitment to campaign finance reform arose out of his own scandal. His opposition to torture was never as complete as it seemed. In order to get the Republican nomination in 2008, he embraced the same evangelical preachers he had called “agents of intolerance” in 2000. He famously corrected a supporter who questioned Obama’s citizenship and religion, but he also empowered Sarah Palin to rouse that same rabble.

He vigorously supported the Iraq invasion, and opposed Obama’s withdrawal from that war. In 2013, Mother Jones published a map of all the places McCain had threatened with military intervention.

And despite that one key vote against repealing ObamaCare, McCain was not that big of an anti-Trump rebel; he voted with the president 83% of the time — more than 538’s model of his state’s electorate would predict.

He talked a good game against Trump, but how much did he actually do? He was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had only one more Republican than Democrat. With the Democrats, he could have led an anti-Trump majority. He had subpoena power; any Trump scandal with a national-security angle was within his purview. He did nothing with that power.

So no, the real John McCain was not the hero the Trump Era calls for. He was not the anti-Trump.

Should we be cynical about him? To a large extent, it was McCain himself who orchestrated this celebration of the anti-Trump hero. He had known he was dying, and gave serious thought to his funeral. He invited Bush and Obama to speak and stipulated that Trump not speak. He wrote an explicitly political last message to America.

He knew his death would be a political weapon, and he very intentionally set out to use it. His death, like his life, would serve a purpose bigger than himself.

As his daughter Meghan acknowledged, no one would have been more cynical about such a display than John himself:

Several of you out there in the pews who crossed swords with him or found yourselves on the receiving end of his famous temper or were at a cross purpose to him on nearly anything, are right at this moment doing your best to stay stone-faced. Don’t. You know full well if John McCain were in your shoes today, he would be using some salty word he learned in the Navy while my mother jabbed him in the arm in embarrassment. He would look back at her and grumble, maybe stop talking, but he would keep grinning.

It is tempting to denounce all this, as voices from both the left and the right have. And yet, I will not.

This era needs an anti-Trump hero. The perfect avatar of that ideal has not emerged yet. In the meantime, we have John McCain, whose life in so many ways can remind us of the thing we long for.

We should celebrate that; neither in ignorance nor in cynicism, but in hope. Someday the Trump Era will end. May that day come soon. And if the Legend of John McCain helps it come sooner, then I say: “Print the legend.”


[1] Liberals and conservatives, respectively, often think of George W. Bush and Barack Obama as divisive presidents. But each tried to appeal to those who voted against him.

Bush worked with Ted Kennedy on education policy. The day after winning re-election in 2004, he directed a  portion of his speech to supporters of John Kerry: “We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support, and I will work to earn it.” For his part, Kerry recounted his post-election conversation with Bush: “We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need — the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together. Today I hope that we can begin the healing.”

Obama hoped to start his presidency with a bipartisan compromise: His stimulus package was smaller than many advisers recommended, and tax cuts made up about a third of the package. (In the end he got no Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate.) Later in his term, a variety of “grand bargains” with House Speaker John Boehner attempted to address what (at that time) was the Republicans’ central issue: the long-term budget deficit. But Boehner was never able to pull together enough support within his caucus.

Trump, on the other hand, is still tweeting about “Crooked Hillary”, pushing his Justice Department to prosecute her, and promoting conspiracy theories about the investigation that cleared her. I have tried to think of a similar situation in American history, and I have not come up with one.

[2] Think about where the hush-money story has gone. A long series of denials have collapsed, and Trump no longer bothers to argue about whether he had sexual affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal during his marriage to Melania. He admits his lawyer Michael Cohen paid each woman six-figure sums so that they wouldn’t tell their stories before the election. The new line of defense is that the payments weren’t illegal, because the money ultimately came from his personal funds and not from the campaign. That’s how deep in the sleaze the President has gotten. I-paid-her-myself is a defense now.

Remember what a presidential scandal looked like during the Obama years? He put his feet up on an Oval Office desk. He ordered a Marine to hold his umbrella. His Christmas cards were too secular. Michelle wore sleeveless dresses.

[3] I’m intentionally not saying “anti-Christ”, because that evokes all the speculative Book of Revelation interpretations that have distracted so many Christians from Jesus’ teachings. I’m not postulating some end-times role for Trump, I’m just noting that it’s impossible to imagine him saying a single line of the Sermon on the Mount. Well, maybe: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” But the rest of it — turn the other cheek, love your enemies, blessed are the meek and the poor in spirit, “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth” — no way.

[4] Something similar could be said about Ranse Stoddard, who really did have the virtues the myth assigned him. He didn’t kill Liberty Valance, but the people who thought he did were not disappointed when they met him.

Can I Stop Writing About Paul Ryan Now?

I was going to quote a bunch of long-time Ryan-watchers. But then I realized I am one.


In case you’ve been living in a cave this week: House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will not run for re-election this fall, and will leave Congress when his term runs out in January.

Looking through this blog’s archives, I see I’ve actually written quite a bit about Ryan. In 2012 when he was Mitt Romney’s VP candidate, I did a Ryan triology:

A few months prior, I had examined a critique of Ryan’s budget proposals from bishops and theologians out of his own Catholic tradition in “Jesus Shrugged: Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don’t Mix“.

Later, I covered some of the reports he issued as chair of the House Budget Committee: In 2014, his proposals to replace the Great Society anti-poverty programs led to “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?” and “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?” (In both cases, my answer was no. Ryan’s approach to poverty is doomed by his ideological blinders: Capitalism is perfect, the market is fair, and the rich deserve everything they have, so the only causes of poverty he can recognize are the moral failings of poor people and the disincentives created by government anti-poverty programs.)

By now, justifiably or not, I sort of feel like I get Paul Ryan. Based on that, and on no inside information whatsoever, here’s my take on why he’s leaving Congress: First off, the explanation he gave — that with the passage of the Tax Reform Bill “I have accomplished much of what I came here to do” — is nonsense. Ryan’s main focus has always been on the spending side of the equation, not the taxing side. What he “came here to do” was to reform entitlements and reduce government spending’s slice of the economy. He didn’t come to Washington to do what he has, in fact, done: increase defense spending, leave entitlements largely untouched, and create a huge deficit by cutting taxes.

So what is the reason? Ryan looks ahead and sees that leading the House Republican caucus for the next few years, either as Speaker or as Minority Leader, would be the end of his career. He would have to marshal Republican support behind budgets with trillion-dollar deficits, and decide how far he’s willing to go to protect his party’s president as the investigators circle in and Trump’s behavior becomes increasingly indefensible. Either choice — going down with the ship, or trying to pick exactly the right moment to turn on Trump — would be political suicide. Whatever he did, half the Party would think he’s a toady, and the other half would regard him as a back-stabber.

A related issue is that there is no Republican legislative agenda right now. After Trump was elected, repealing ObamaCare was the central focus. When they finally gave up on a full repeal, the focus shifted to tax cuts. The tax cut bill was signed right before Christmas, and what has Congress been working on since? There was an omnibus spending bill that nobody liked, with a big deficit, no clear focus, and no resolution to a lot of controversial issues like DACA or the Great Wall. And what’s next on the do-big-things agenda: Immigration? Infrastructure? Entitlement reform? Even within the Republican caucus, there’s no consensus on any of those issues. So there will be no legislation.

Now picture being a Republican running for Congress this fall. What’s your message? Keep us in power so that we can do … what exactly? That’s why they’ve shifted to a negative focus: We’ll stop the Democrats from impeaching Trump.

Is that a legacy that will hold up going forward? Ryan is still only 48, and he’s undoubtedly looking forward to 2024 or 2028, by which time he hopes the dust will have settled from whatever happens to Trump. Being remembered as the shield that kept Trump in office as long as possible is not going to play well by then.

On the other side, a few Trump critics speculate that Ryan wants to be in a position to challenge Trump in 2020. But that’s wishful thinking. Fighting a civil war to take the Party back is a fool’s mission; even if he succeeded, the defeated Trumpists would never forgive him. Also, it’s very un-Ryanlike; he’s not the kind of guy who puts down a big bet and rolls the dice. No, Ryan’s time will come after the Party of Trump has crashed and burned on its own. Then, he imagines, he can step forward as the savior who will lead the GOP back to sanity. Better yet, the Party will come to him and beg him to become it’s savior, the way it begged him to become Speaker.

For the next few years, the right place for an ambitious Republican to be is off stage, so that’s where Ryan is going. The only thing I think he might regret is that he may already have waited too long. Leaving in January may not be soon enough to avoid the stain of either sticking by Trump or turning on him.


The other thing I noticed while looking back is that one person has consistently been even harder on Ryan than me: Paul Krugman. And he’s not stopping now. In Friday’s column, he reprised the greatest hits of his Ryan criticism: Ryan was never the “serious policy wonk and fiscal hawk” he played on television. In fact, “the single animating principle of everything Ryan did and proposed was to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted”. His long-term budget proposals always relied on the “magic asterisks” of unspecified future spending cuts, plus added revenue from closing unspecified future tax loopholes. So the deficit reductions he touted were always “frauds”.

His reputation was based on the “motivated gullibility” and “ideological affirmative action” of pundits who needed to make a show of being even-handed.

Yet the reality of 21st-century U.S. politics is one of asymmetric polarization in many dimensions. One of these dimensions is intellectual: While there are some serious, honest conservative thinkers, they have no influence on the modern Republican Party. What’s a centrist to do? … The narrative required that the character Ryan played exist, so everyone pretended that he was the genuine article.

Ryan hasn’t criticized Trump’s excesses because … why would he? “Principled conservative” was just another mask he wore.

[I]f you ask why Ryan never took a stand against Trumpian corruption, why he never showed any concern about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, what ever made you think he would take such a stand? Again, if you look at Ryan’s actions, not the character he played to gullible audiences, he has never shown himself willing to sacrifice anything he wants — not one dime — on behalf of his professed principles. Why on earth would you expect him to stick his neck out to defend the rule of law?

Should We Care What Happens to the GOP’s Soul?

A healthy democracy needs a reality-based conservative party. We haven’t had one for a very long time.


For more than a year, thoughtful Republicans have been posting warnings about the state of their party’s soul. A few days before the recent Alabama Senate election, David Brooks was particularly eloquent:

“What shall it profit a man,” Jesus asked, “if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” The current Republican Party seems to not understand that question. Donald Trump seems to have made gaining the world at the cost of his soul his entire life’s motto.

The question came up during the 2016 Republican primaries, when Trump began pulling away from the crowded field, in spite of — or maybe because of — his blatant racism, sexism, xenophobia, and disregard for truth. It came up again at the Convention, when Ted Cruz briefly took a principled stand before eventually slinking back into line. Evan McMullin’s and Gary Johnson’s third-party campaigns attempted to appeal to a more upright form of conservatism, and managed to shave off a few votes here and there, but had little effect on the election’s outcome.

And then, in the campaign’s final month, the Access Hollywood video came out; it showed the inheritor of the mantle of Lincoln bragging about sexual assault and infidelity. More than a dozen women soon came forward to give the specifics of the assaults Trump had only alluded to. Briefly, party stalwarts like Paul Ryan tried to distance themselves from Trump, without actually denouncing him. Behind the scenes, religious-right heartthrob Mike Pence offered himself as a last-minute alternative. But Trump held firm: Both he himself and the women who accused him had been lying. (“Locker room talk“, he called it — an innocent variety of fib similar to fishermen’s stories.) In spite of his own words, no pussies had actually been grabbed.

Across the country, Republicans — especially the white Evangelical Christians who had denounced Bill Clinton with such vigor two decades before — stood firm behind their man. Despite losing the popular vote by  larger margin than any victor in U.S. history, Donald Trump was President of the United States.

But even that was just the beginning, as Brooks acknowledged.

There is no end to what Trump will ask of his party. He is defined by shamelessness, and so there is no bottom. And apparently there is no end to what regular Republicans are willing to give him. … That’s the way these corrupt bargains always work. You think you’re only giving your tormentor a little piece of yourself, but he keeps asking and asking, and before long he owns your entire soul.

And so congressional Republicans completed the theft of a Supreme Court seat by approving Neil Gorsuch. They went along with Trump’s appointment of cabinet secretaries who were either unqualified — like Rick Perry (who didn’t even know what the Energy Department does), Ben Carson (whose main qualification to run HUD seemed to be his race), and Betsy DeVos — or conflicted, like Putin-approved Rex Tillerson, whose company (Exxon) stood to profit massively from his intention to relax sanctions on Russia. They showed no interest in Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and lack of transparency, slow-rolled both the House and Senate investigations into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, and have increasingly cooperated with Trump’s craven effort to discredit the Mueller investigation. Brooks comments:

Trump may soon ask them to accept his firing of Robert Mueller, and yes, after some sighing, they will accept that, too.

But ultimately, what shall it profit them?

Roy Moore. Fundamentally, there are two kinds of moral codes. One insists that you do the right thing, but the other has a lesser demand: Before you do the wrong thing, you have to agonize about it. Again and again, Republicans have demonstrated the second kind of morality.

I had expected the pattern to play out once again with regard to Roy Moore. Faced with a financially corrupt pedophile who has no respect for the rule of law and pines for the days of slavery, both national and Alabama Republicans would agonize greatly, but ultimately they would come through for their party. Alabamans would elect him and the Senate would seat him.

I was wrong, sort of. Apparently, some Republicans finally reached their limit with Roy Moore. Not many, but just enough that a big turnout in the black community could push Doug Jones over the top: According to the exit polls, Moore got 91% of the Republican vote and 80% of white born-again Christians. Statewide, he lost by a mere 21K votes out of a little more than 1.3 million. 649K Alabamans voted for him.

Turning point? So it’s possible that future historians will look back on the Moore debacle as a turning point, when Republicans began to reclaim their party’s soul, as inside-the-tent critics like Charlie Sykes and Jeff Flake have been pleading for them to do.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s no soul to go back to, or if there is, it’s been lost much longer than the GOP’s internal critics realize. As Ezra Klein observed, the problem didn’t start with Trump and Moore:

It is tempting to split today’s Republican Party into factions, to see Trump as a bizarre aberration, to see his voters as alienated and marginal, to see Roy Moore as an inexplicably Alabaman phenomenon, and to frame establishment Republicans as fundamentally normal politicians suffering through an abnormal moment. This is wrong.

Trump could flourish in the Republican Party precisely because “normal” Republicans like McConnell and Ryan spent years dismissing the facts they didn’t like, undermining the institutions and information sources that contradicted them, indulging the conspiracies and falsehoods they found convenient.

No reputable economic analysis predicts that the cuts in the current tax reform proposal will pay for themselves through growth, but virtually all Republicans voting for the bill say otherwise. They also say that global warming isn’t happening, or that fossil fuels can’t be blamed for it, or that nothing can be done about it anyway. They blame poverty on the poor’s lack of motivation, promote the myth of voter fraud, and insist that guns have nothing to do with mass killings. And racism? What racism? We don’t see any racism.

No major faction in today’s GOP is taking a firm stand on the side of reality, or proposing realistic conservative solutions to problems that actually exist. The intra-party debate is entirely about which fantasies and falsehoods they will run on. In such an environment, best and most brazen liar — Trump, in this case — always wins.

Should we care? For a liberal Democrat like myself, it can be tempting to take a pass-the-popcorn attitude when a kook like Moore wages a primary battle against a swamp creature like Luther Strange, or Mitch McConnell faces a Bannonite revolt.

Maybe, from our point of view, crazier is better. Doug Jones probably wouldn’t have beaten Strange, no matter how corrupt the deal that put him in the Senate. Claire McCaskill might have lost to someone saner than Todd Legitimate-Rape Akin. Harry Reid might have gone down, had the Nevada GOP not gone off the deep end with Sharron Second-Amendment-Remedies Angle. And who knows? An establishment figure like John Kasich or Marco Rubio might have beaten Clinton cleanly, without the distortions of the Electoral College or James Comey or Russia.

In any particular election, Democrats probably do better against off-the-wall crazy candidates than against mainstream Republicans. And yet, after each such race, the national conversation seems a little crazier. Even in defeat, I’ve come to believe, such candidates pollute our political discourse. After Roy Moore’s loss, will it be easier or harder for Republicans to nominate the next Roy Moore, and maybe even to elect him? I suspect the answer is easier. Crazy ideas seem less crazy the second and third and fourth times you’re asked to take them seriously.

That’s why lately, in spite of the prospects in this election or that one, I’ve been rooting for Republicans to get their act together. The Republic needs a reality-based conservative party, and we haven’t had one for a very long time.

Disraeli or Hitler? For historical perspective, it’s worth looking at the recent book Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy by Daniel Ziblatt. In it, Ziblatt examines the very different paths that various European countries took towards democracy between 1848 and the 1950s. Some nations evolved gradually but steadily, with an ever-larger electorate and the ever-increasing power of elected officials over aristocrats and generals. But other countries spent that century ping-ponging from revolution to counter-revolution and back again.

What was the difference? All the countries went through economic ups and downs. All of them experienced the internal tensions of capitalists out-pacing landed elites, and labor organizing itself against capital. All of them endured foreign-policy disasters, deaths of important leaders, and corruption scandals. Why was the path to democracy so much rockier in Portugal or France than in Sweden or the Netherlands? And why, for that matter, has the Arab Spring turned out so much better in Tunisia than in Egypt?

The book retells the political history of Europe during that key century to argue for a counter-intuitive thesis: The difference between the easy-path countries and the zig-zag countries was whether or not the old-regime aristocrats and rising capitalists organized themselves into a politically viable conservative party. Where they did, that party might win or lose as circumstances changed. But where they didn’t, eventually the privileged classes would try to protect their interests through extra-constitutional means.

After a wide-ranging defense of his thesis, Ziblatt then zeroes in on two cases to examine in detail: Britain and Germany.

The aristocratic dilemma and its obvious-in-retrospect solution. By definition, an aristocracy is a small class that wields a lot of power. By its nature, it will fear “mob rule” and try to block or delay democratic evolution. But what happens when it can’t avoid yielding power to democratic institutions like a Parliament chosen by a broad-based electorate? Is its goose cooked, or will it find some acceptable (to itself) way to change with the times?

In every country that transitioned to democracy, some kind of conservative political party developed to represent upper-class interests. And that worked fine as long as the electorate was only a little bit larger than the aristocracy itself. The various upper-class and professional-class people who owed loyalty to a local lord would vote that lord (or his chosen representative) into Parliament. But the continuing pressure for democracy resulted in ever-larger expansions of the electorate, each of which required the conservative party to form a larger coalition if it hoped to stay viable.

First they welcomed in the capitalists, but there aren’t very many of them either. Then respectable shop-keepers, small farmers who owned their land, and so on. But eventually working-class people got the vote and became the majority, which led to a dilemma: How do you convince factory workers to vote to preserve upper-class privileges?

The obvious-in-retrospect answer, which you can see very clearly in the development of the British Tories, and which still echoes in America’s religious right today, is to ally with the established church in a coalition to preserve “traditional values”. The conservative party, then, will rally around symbols of patriotism and faith, make a God-and-Country pitch, and hope to appeal to enough workers to keep itself competitive. [1]

Particularly as workers move into the middle class, the conservative party can make a persuasive argument to defend the status quo: If you want to preserve what you have, help everybody else (including the rich) preserve what they have.

How conservative parties fail. In the zig-zag countries, though, the conservative parties failed to make this transition. Rather than put forward a broad traditional-values-and-the-status-quo appeal, they stayed more insular, and relied instead on the unfair advantages their legacy position gave them (like the ability to rig elections or block reform through an anti-democratic upper house). Landed aristocrats didn’t play well with industrialists, and churches developed their own parties. [2] Rather than accept democracy gracefully, the German Conservative Party (DKP) was known to be “more monarchist than the Kaiser”.

What’s fascinating in Ziblatt’s narrative is that he makes heroes out of a class we often think of as villains: the professional politicians and party organizers. Those larger coalitions came about precisely in the countries where a conservative party establishment developed organizational power that allowed it to keep the grass-roots forces (like anti-Irish or anti-Jewish racism) in check, and to resist being dominated by single-issue pressure groups and individual donors. But in Germany, a weak party establishment at the DKP (and its Weimar successor, the DNVP, German National People’s Party) was unable to keep candidates focused on “serious” issues like economics and foreign policy when anti-Semitism could raise more energy, particularly in the rural areas.

The decision that ultimately proved suicidal for the DNVP, though, was to let its own hold on reality slip and instead embrace a comforting popular mythology: Dolchstosslegende,  the theory that Germany only lost World War I because its valiant army was stabbed in the back by traitors on the home front, who were often portrayed as Jewish.

Once the competition shifted to who could tell the most compelling and energizing myth, Germany’s aristocrats and conservative intellectuals were lost. They had hoped to harness popular grass-roots mythology and prejudices against Weimar’s Social Democrats and Communists. But Hitler and his Nazis were much better equipped for that job. What DNVP politicians indulged in as a vice, Hitler saw as a virtue. Freed to tell whatever story he and his public wanted to hear, he was far more convincing.

Sunrise, sunset. Ziblatt is focused on why democracy might fail to take hold in a country, not how it might decay, so he says nothing about contemporary America. But I find the parallels to Trump and Trumpism unavoidable: The conservative role that Ziblatt sees as necessary for a healthy democracy needs a sane and sensible conservative party to fill it. We don’t have one.

In any democracy, some people are going to believe that change is happening too fast, and that old ways that have worked well enough for a long time should not be cast aside lightly. Some sizeable slice of the electorate is going to feel that the reality of what they are being asked to give up is more valuable than the gains they are being promised. Some voters will be skeptical of government programs, or will want to use the power of government to keep what they have rather than right ancient wrongs that seem intractable anyway. Others will grow tired of the governing coalition, whatever it is, and want a change of faces, but not a revolution.

Those people need a place to go, a party that represents them without raising their deepest fears and exploiting their darkest passions. The Republican Party, the party of people like Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, used to be such a place.  It no longer is.

Two generations of leaders — from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, through the two Presidents Bush, and up to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan — thought they could harness the electorate’s darker, more virulent impulses without being tainted by them. During elections, they could dog-whistle to racists, delegitimize journalism and science, and wink at myths from the Trilateral Commission to global-warming-is-a-hoax to Birtherism — and then govern like rational men.

They never saw Trump coming. The vices they indulged in during campaign season are the virtues he practices every day. He leads the rabble they merely exploited, and glories in the adulation of those they were ashamed to be seen with.

Germany only made it to a stable democracy after it crashed and burned; and for decades democracy only took hold in the part occupied by the armies of foreign democracies. Spain, Portugal, France, and Greece had to endure periods of autocracy, sometimes multiple periods. I don’t know any examples of corrupted conservative parties that reformed themselves without disaster.

I may not be optimistic, but still I have to hope that our Republicans can be the first. If they’re going to reform, though, they need to understand where they are: A simple return to the pre-Trump status quo will just lead to another Trump. They need to go back much further. A less virulent strain of mythology won’t do the trick. For the sake of America, the party needs to return to solid standards of truth and fact. It needs to confront real issues rather than manufactured ones, and propose plausible conservative solutions.


[1] Somehow, I had let What’s the Matter With Kansas? convince me that this kind of coalition was unusual.

[2] One disadvantage Germany had was its more-nearly-even Catholic/Protestant split. British Tories could ally with “the Church”; German conservatives had to choose one church or the other.

The Brazen Cynicism of the Tax-Reform Vote


Without even the appearance of doing something good for the country, the Senate plunged ahead.


I admit it: Senate Republicans surprised me this week.

I know, it shouldn’t be shocking that Republicans would give a big windfall to corporations and the very rich. It’s what they do. Just last summer, they came within one vote of taking healthcare away from 20-some million Americans so that the wealthy could pay less tax.

Usually, though, they do a better job of giving themselves cover. The fringe of the party includes people like Susan Collins and John McCain, who try to retain at least the appearance of a conscience. It also includes clever apologists, whose arguments often obscure what’s really going on and make it possible to claim some noble purpose.

But by early Saturday morning, when the Senate passed its tax reform proposal on a nearly party-line vote, those justifications were all gone. This bill was about paying off the big donors and enriching the Trump family, and everybody knew it. Some senators continued mouthing words like growth and middle-class families, but they weren’t arguing any more, they were just lying. They weren’t fooling anybody, and they didn’t seem to care.

In the end, 51 Republicans voted for the bill, with only Bob Corker opposed. All 48 Democrats voted against it. (Remember that, the next time someone claims there’s no difference between the parties.) One by one, the last holdouts had tossed away their fig leaves and jumped into the mire.

  • John McCain, who gave such a moving speech about returning to regular order before he cast the deciding vote against ObamaCare repeal in July, was unperturbed by a very similar process this time, in which the 479-page bill was not available for inspection until a few hours before the vote.
  • Susan Collins, who in the summer seemed to worry deeply about people losing their health insurance, stopped worrying and accepted the Senate leadership’s promises about future legislation that I will be very surprised to see pass the House (unless it’s paired with a whole bunch of really bad things).
  • Jeff Flake, who (like just about all Republicans) seemed to believe during the Obama years that the deficit was a looming catastrophe, and who supposedly had achieved his independence by choosing not to run for re-election, decided that an extra trillion or two of debt really wasn’t worth getting excited about.

So this is where we are: A similar-but-not-identical bill passed the House in mid-November, so a conference committee will have to work out a compromise bill that both houses can pass. In other words, there is still room for something to go wrong, but some bill of this form is increasingly likely to become law by the end of the year.

The numbers. All along, independent analyses from the Tax Policy Center, the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, and even Congress’ own CBO had been telling a very consistent story: The bill would lead to major increases in the deficit with little-to-no long-term benefits for anybody but the wealthy.

This conclusion was supported by anecdotal evidence. The centerpiece of the bill — lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20% — was supposed to generate massive new investments in production, creating so many jobs that workers would have bargaining power again, raising wages for everybody. But whenever actual corporate CEOs were consulted, they said they would pass the money on to shareholders through dividends or stock buy-backs rather than build new factories or pay workers more. Bloomberg reported:

That money is also unlikely to spur hiring because companies are already well-capitalized and can bring on as many employees as they need, said John Shin, a foreign-exchange strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Companies are sitting on large amounts of cash. They’re not really financially constrained,” Shin, who conducted a survey of more than 300 companies asking their plans for a tax overhaul, said in an interview. “They’re still working for their shareholders, primarily.”

Right up until Thursday, though, Republicans were hoping more favorable numbers would appear. Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation hadn’t weighed in yet, and they were known to use the dynamic-scoring model conservatives favor, the one that figures in the effects of tax-cut-induced growth. The Treasury Department supposedly had over 100 people churning out analyses; presumably Secretary Mnuchin had seen their preliminary results when he claimed that the proposal wouldn’t just be deficit neutral, it would “pay down debt” by generating more new revenue than the tax cuts gave up.

The JCT analysis came out Thursday, just hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote. Its most favorable dynamic scoring said that increased economic growth would restore about 1/3 of the revenue lost, so that the deficit would only increase by $1 trillion rather than the nominal $1.5 trillion. A third is better than nothing, but even if you allowed for growth, the deficit was going up.

Would this guy lie to you?

But what about Mnuchin and the Treasury? It turned out that they had no analysis, or at least none they were willing to make public.

Those inside Treasury’s Office of Tax Policy, which Mr. Mnuchin has credited with running the models, say they have been largely shut out of the process and are not working on the type of detailed analysis that he has mentioned. An economist at the Office of Tax Analysis, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his job, said Treasury had not released a “dynamic” analysis showing that the tax plan would be paid for with economic growth because one did not exist.

So Mnuchin’s many public statements about tax reform had been airy nonsense, grounded in nothing. Meanwhile, here’s what the JCT projected for American families:

(Here’s the same information as a series of charts.) In other words: More than 1/3 of U.S. households will never get anything out of this bill, not even in the first few years. That situation gets progressively worse until nearly all the individual cuts expire in 2027, at which point about 1 in 4 are paying higher taxes, while only 16% still see a tax cut of more than $100.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn dealt with this convergence of expert analysis by saying, “I think it’s pretty clear they’re wrong.” Just because.

Full speed ahead. The original plan had been for the Senate to vote on Thursday. But the surprising (to some) revelation that the JCT analysis agreed in principle with all the other analyses, that nothing to the contrary would being coming out of the Treasury, and so the claims they were making had literally no basis — it threw a wrench into the process.

Many options were possible at that point. The bill could have gone back to committee to be scaled down into a defensible form. Maybe 20% was a bridge too far, and corporations would have to be satisfied with a 25% tax rate. That would create some room to fulfill the original stated purpose of the bill: cutting middle-class taxes for real this time.

Maybe the deficit didn’t have to go up, either. Back in 2012, President Obama had proposed a 28% rate that he claimed would produce more revenue than the 35% rate, without any analytic sleight-of-hand. Both parties have acknowledged for years that our high-rates-with-many-loopholes corporate tax system is inefficient. With a little genuine give-and-take, leaders on both sides might assemble a bipartisan coalition of  60 votes or more, avoiding the reconciliation process entirely.

Or, Mitch McConnell could scrawl a few last-minute changes in the margins to assuage the doubts the last few Republican hold-outs, and the Senate could shamelessly go forward with a bill to borrow an extra trillion dollars or more so that the GOP could give a big Christmas present to the very rich. But if they were going to do it, they’d better do it fast, before the public was able to organize against this already very unpopular bill.

By now, you know which choice they made.

The people they betrayed. One way the Senate got its bill to fit onto the procrustean bed of the $1.5 trillion-over-ten-years price tag authorized by the FY2018 budget resolution was to make of a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t gimmick Paul Krugman refers to as Schroedinger’s tax hike. The budget numbers work because only the corporate tax cuts are permanent; the individual cuts mostly phase out, resulting in this graph from the JCT.

(These numbers refer to an earlier version of the bill, but I believe a similar graph could be drawn for the current version.)

Republicans are arguing that those tax breaks [for individuals] won’t actually be temporary, that future Congresses will extend them. But they also need to assume that those tax breaks really will expire in order to meet their budget numbers. So the temporary tax breaks need, for political purposes, to be both alive and dead.

So either individual taxes will turn sharply upwards in 2025, or the tax-reform bill costs a whole lot more than $1.5 trillion. It’s one or the other. Ezra Klein points out the “pure fraud” in the deficit arguments Republicans have been making for years.

The GOP spent the Obama years in a frenzy over debt and deficits. Now they are passing a tax bill that will add trillions to the national debt, complete with budget gimmicks that, if they play out the way Republicans are publicly hoping they will play out, will lead to an even higher price tag.

When a Democrat is in the White House, the national debt is an existential crisis that threatens to bring down the Republic. But that threat magically vanishes when a Republican takes office.

So if you believed what Republicans told you about the deficit then, they’ve betrayed you now. But they’ve also betrayed you if you believed the populist side of Trump’s 2016 message. Because here’s where we are, prior to this bill becoming law: The national debt is around $20 trillion, and is already projected to increase to $30 trillion over the next ten years. Rather than do anything about that, Congress is in the act of tossing another trillion or two on top it. (BTW: In the speech where he announced his candidacy, Trump said: “$24 trillion— we’re very close— that’s the point of no return. $24 trillion. We will be there soon. That’s when we become Greece. That’s when we become a country that’s unsalvageable. And we’re gonna be there very soon.”)

So what about that big infrastructure project Trump talked about? (“So we have to rebuild our infrastructure, our bridges, our roadways, our airports. You come into La Guardia Airport, it’s like we’re in a third world country.”) Where’s the money for that going to come from? How’s he going to keep his promise not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, once the trillion-a-year deficits start happening? (“Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.”)

He won’t keep that promise. He’s already breaking it.

If this passes, there will be no money left for populism, and no money left to save the programs the middle class depends on. They’ll have given it all to the rich.

They’re doing it as you read this, and they’re being totally brazen about it.

Roy Moore: Are we really having this conversation?

By now you know the basics: Thursday, the Republican senate candidate in Alabama got accused of drawing a 14-year-old girl into a sexual encounter when he was 32, back in 1979. As Josh Moon of Alabama Political Reporter put it:

For nearly 40-year-old allegations, the Post’s story was about as solid as it could be.

In other words: We’re not talking about rumors-backed-by-anonymous-sources. The Washington Post article that broke the story names and quotes the 14-year-old (Leigh Corfman, now 53). Three other women (also named) tell similar, if less extreme, stories about Moore:

Moore pursued them when they were between the ages of 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s, episodes they say they found flattering at the time, but troubling as they got older.

The Post found these women; they didn’t come forward on their own. (The one detail I’d still like to hear is how the reporters found the women.)

Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women. All were initially reluctant to speak publicly but chose to do so after multiple interviews, saying they thought it was important for people to know about their interactions with Moore. The women say they don’t know one another.

Other details are corroborated: Corfman’s mother remembers the incident where her daughter met Moore, and recalls Corfman telling her about Moore’s advances in the 1990s, when they saw his picture in a newspaper. (Moore says he never met her.) Two of Corfman’s childhood friends (one of them named, the other anonymous) remember her talking about an older man at the time, and the named one recalls Corfman saying Moore’s name.

After the story came out, CNN found more corroboration from Teresa Jones, who was a deputy district attorney working in the same office as Moore at the time:

It was common knowledge that Roy dated high-school girls. Everyone we knew thought it was weird. We wondered why anyone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall.

In other words, if the story is a smear, it would have to be a fairly large conspiracy, and there’s no way the Post’s reporters aren’t in on it. Is that really the most likely explanation?

Moore has called the accusations “outlandish“, “garbage”, and “politically motivated”, and he says he’ll sue the Post. (I’ll bet we never see that suit.) But there’s something a little off in his denials. In an interview with Sean Hannity, who surely was not trying to trip him up, he claims not to remember Corfman (“I never knew this woman.”), though he does remember two of the women who claimed he approached them when they were teens. (He “generally” didn’t date teen girls, he says.) He doesn’t remember going out on dates with them, or giving one of them alcohol even though she was under the drinking age (as she reports). He did date “a lot of young ladies” at that point in his life, but he doesn’t remember having a girlfriend in her late teens, and “I don’t remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother”.

I would guess that most 30-something men don’t remember dating any girl who needed the permission of her mother. But that phrase is suggestive of something else, as I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs.

The political situation. Moore is running in a special election for the remainder of Jeff Sessions’ term in the Senate, which lasts until 2020. The election will be held December 12. It’s already too late to replace Moore’s name on the ballot, though write-ins are possible. However, it’s hard to imagine a Republican write-in candidate succeeding without Moore stepping aside.

Other options are described in the NYT: The governor could delay the special election, which she says she won’t do. If Moore wins, the Senate could refuse to seat him. The Constitution addresses this possibility:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members … Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

Ironically, Moore quoted this same passage in 2006 as part of an argument that the House should not seat Rep. Keith Ellison because he’s a Muslim. In Moore’s case, two-thirds would mean all 48 Democratic senators and 19 of the 52 Republicans. Expulsion would set up another special-election situation.

Before the story broke, the RCP polling average on this race had Moore ahead of Democrat Doug Jones by 6 points, with one poll putting the margin at 11. I had been thinking that the polls understated Moore’s lead, because the Raven Republicans (“never Moore”) probably would have come around the same way most never-Trump Republicans did.

Maybe they still will, but there appears to be an initial reaction to the story: A Thursday-to-Saturday poll had Democrat Doug Jones ahead of Moore 46%-42%, or 48%-44% when Undecideds were pushed to make a choice. Another poll, however, shows Moore’s lead shrinking, but still at 10%.

Defense in depth. National Republicans are either partially or totally against Moore. The safe line is Mitch McConnell’s: Moore should get out of the race “if these allegations are true”. But a few national figures have gone further: John McCain left out the “if” and just said “He should immediately step aside.” Mitt Romney was even blunter:

Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman. Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey said on “Meet the Press” Sunday that the accusations are more credible than the denials, and Moore should drop out.

But a number of Alabama Republicans have rallied around Moore. Many are simply repeating his charge that the whole thing is a political smear. A number of them, though, have gone further: Even if the allegations are true, they’re just not that bad, or at least not bad enough to allow another Democrat into the Senate.

State Auditor Jim Ziegler offered this as evidence that Moore’s intentions were honorable: He eventually married “one of the younger women”. Moore’s wife was 24 when he married her at age 38. (I had a similar thought — that Moore’s choice of wife proves that he has an eye for younger women — but I wasn’t planning to go there until I heard Ziegler do it.) Also, Joseph was much older than Mary when they married and raised Jesus. (If the sheer absurdity of this doesn’t faze him, I wonder why he doesn’t make an even stronger claim: Think how much older God was when He got Mary pregnant.)

The religious divide is bigger than you think. In general, American Christians tend to picture extreme Christians as like themselves, only moreso: They attend church more often, take the Bible more literally, are more offended by sinful behavior, and so forth. But the Moore controversy is uncovering a conservative Christian subculture that is totally outside the mainstream.

In particular, the claim that there’s nothing wrong with 30-something men pursuing just-out-of-puberty girls is related to a “traditional” view of marriage that most American Christians would find repellent: A 14-year-old girl isn’t going to be an equal partner with a 32-year-old man; but if a wife’s only purpose is to obey her husband and have a lot of babies, she can do that as well an adult woman. Maybe better.

That’s not middle-of-the-road Christianity only moreso, it’s a whole other worldview. Writing for The L.A. Times, Kathryn Brightbill describes growing up within that world, where Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson (whose son Willie spoke at the Republican Convention) advocates marrying 15-year-old girls. (His own wife was 16, and he started dating her when she was 14.) And speakers at conventions for Christian home-schoolers both advocated an exemplified such marriages.

We need to talk about the segment of American culture that probably doesn’t think the allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore are particularly damning, the segment that will blanch at only two accusations in the Washington Post expose: He pursued a 14-year-old-girl without first getting her parents’ permission, and he initiated sexual contact outside of marriage.

If anything bad happens, of course, it is the girl’s own fault.

Much of the sexual abuse that takes place in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist, or IFB, churches involves adult men targeting 14- to 16-year-old girls. If caught, the teenage victim may be forced to repent the “sin” of having seduced an adult man. Former IFB megachurch pastor Jack Schaap argued that he should be released from prison after being convicted of molesting a 16-year-old girl, asserting that the “aggressiveness” of his victim “inhibited [his] impulse control.”

Nancy French relates similar experiences in The Washington Post.

I was delighted when the preacher volunteered to drop me off. As we drove, I chatted incessantly, happy to have him all to myself without people trying to get his attention in the church parking lot. When we got to my house, I was shocked that he walked me inside my dark house, even more surprised when he lingered in conversation, and thunderstruck when he kissed me right on the lips.

At 12 years old, I swooned over my good luck. He picked me out of all the girls at church. But the relationship, especially after he moved on, reset my moral compass. If all the church conversation about morality and sexual purity was a lie, what else was fake? Now that the “family of God” felt incestuous, I rejected the church and myself. Didn’t I want the preacher’s attention? Didn’t I cause this?

What this is all going to turn on is whether Alabama’s Christians, even those inclined to vote Republican, take a hard look at Roy Moore’s version of Christianity, and realize that they have very little in common with it. Ross Douthat might be a model:

One lesson is that any social order that vests particular forms of power in men needs to do more, not less, to hold the male of the species accountable.

Some cultural conservatives, in evangelical Christianity especially, combine a belief in male headship in churches and families with a “boys will be boys and girls shouldn’t tempt them” attitude toward sex. It’s a combination that’s self-contradictory and deeply toxic, handing men not just power but a permission slip to abuse it — which, predictably, they do.

What Did Virginia Teach Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why don’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what they found out in Kansas.

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

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

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


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

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.