The High Cost of Letting People Off the Hook

It’s been a blockbuster week, from the overturning of Roe (imagine if we hadn’t been warned) to the explosive testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump’s fourth and final chief of staff Mark Meadows. While seemingly distinct, those two tentpoles are actually holding up the same canvas, which is to say, the ongoing Republican attempt to lockdown permanent minoritarian control of life in these United States. 

The GOP is happy to do that through a violent attempt to overturn an election—an act that a large chunk of its current crop of political candidates continues to both defend and deny—or through a quasi-legal exploitation of structural weaknesses in our democratic system that give a determined neo-fascist insurgency the ability to hold the rest of the country hostage. 

Lest we forget: on abortion, on gun control, on the environment, on gerrymandering, on the increasing co-mingling of church and state—to name four right wing victories from just this week alone—the GOP continues to dictate policy, despite the fact that the Democratic Party controls the Presidency, the House and the Senate….for now. 

(Somehow, when the roles are reversed, the Democrats are unable to pull of the same trick. Discuss.)   

I have written at length about the urgent need to push back against this GOP crusade for permanent control of American governance before it’s too late. It may already be. But a major part of that effort is the quest for accountability for January 6th. Common sense tells us that if we fail on that front, if there are no significant consequences for an attack on the US Capitol and an attempt murder the Vice President and sitting members of Congress by way of stealing a presidential election, it will only embolden the perpetrators of those acts going forward. As the popular meme goes, a failed coup with no repercussions is just a dry run. 

And the necessary consequences almost certainly include criminal prosecution of Donald Trump, among others, for those crimes. Since the Republican-controlled Senate refused to convict Trump on those counts during his second impeachment, what other punishment remains available to us? Indeed, in passing the buck of responsibility back in February 2021, a characteristically weaselly Mitch McConnell explicitly said as much in declining to find Trump guilty. “He didn’t get away with anything yet,” quoth Moscow Mitch, overtly suggesting that Trump could still be held to account in the criminal and civil court systems. 

You don’t hear many Republicans saying that now, except Cheney and Kinzinger. Certainly not McConnell.

Instead, predictably, a chorus of conservative voices has arisen insisting that no matter how grave his sins, prosecuting a former US president is a terrible precedent—so terrible that it outweighs even the need for justice. Wouldn’t it be better just to let him get away with it?

As it happens, we don’t have to look too far back in our history for a case study in that exact dilemma.

 PARDON ME BOY, IS THAT THE CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO?

Gerald Ford always said that he pardoned Richard Nixon because he felt that the country had been through such angst as a result of Watergate that a criminal prosecution of his predecessor would only further traumatize the nation and do more harm than good. 

He may well have genuinely believed that. But at the same time, it may also have been a kind of willful blindness that conveniently allowed him to let a fellow Republican off the hook, and spare further damage not to the country, but to the GOP. That’s sure how it looked. (Ford also always denied that he was named to the vice presidency, succeeding Spiro Agnew, who had been forced to resign in a separate corruption scandal, in a quid pro quo for that eventual pardon.)

In February 2021, in the immediate wake of the January 6th Insurrection, I wrote in these pages:

Ford’s logic that a trial would only extend America’s suffering and be even more divisive was ludicrous. Try it the next time you’re on trial: “Your Honor, it does appear that I robbed that bank. Yes, there’s video of me sticking a six-gun in the teller’s face. But wouldn’t putting me on trial just cause everyone more grief and suffering?”

I humbly submit that far from “sparing the nation more trauma,” “healing the country,” allowing us to “move on” from our “long national nightmare,” Ford’s excusal of Nixon’s crimes did grievous harm. It legitimized the hustle. It told America that you were a sucker if you played by the rules. It said that if you were rich enough and powerful enough the laws didn’t apply to you—that there was one set for those folks and another for the rest of us in the hoi polloi. It was a giant fuck you to ordinary Americans who were expected to obey the law and could bet their bottom dollar that Johnny Law would come after them if they didn’t.

(In fact, it is my view that, in addition to Watergate, Nixon could well have been impeached for violations of the Logan Act and other war crimes in his prosecution of US involvement in Vietnam, a conflict he unnecessarily prolonged—at the cost of some 21,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—for his own partisan political gain.)

In the years that followed, many journalists confronted Ford over the pardon, and specifically the fact that, after receiving it, Richard Nixon never once admitted any guilt. On the contrary: asked about the illegal things he had done, he famously told David Frost, on camera, “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Ford grew so used to these questions, and so defensive, that he began carrying around a dogeared copy of the Supreme Court’s 1915 decision in Burdick v. United States, in which the Court ruled that accepting a pardon was by definition “an admission of guilt.” Ford was even known to pull the clipping out of his wallet and show it to those interlocutors (Bob Woodward among them).

Well, that’s all fine and good. But it does not make up for the fact that Richard Nixon walked off into a well-feathered retirement distinguished by expensive homes in San Clemente and Upper Saddle River, and lucrative book deals, and banquets thrown in his honor by his plutocratic admirers, instead of an orange jumpsuit, a metal bunk bed, and a job making license plates. And he never once admitted his crimes. 

The good news is, despite the pardon, almost everyone today thinks of Nixon as a miserable crook who was driven out of office in disgrace. Yes, there are some archconservative deadenders who still admire the bastard, almost out of sheer transgressive contrariness it would seem. For that matter, there are some cretins who still admire Sen. Joe McCarthy, too, and even worse monsters. But the overwhelming consensus on Nixon, and history’s verdict on him, is set, and it ain’t kind. 

(Ironically, his reputation has risen a little of late thanks to comparison with Trump, whose grotesquerie makes Tricky Dick look like a saint.)

But that is not to say that Ford’s pardon came without a price.   

If Nixon had been prosecuted and punished for his crimes, how might it have altered the trajectory of the post-Watergate GOP? We can never know. But just six years after Nixon departed the South Lawn in Marine One, an even more right wing Republican won the presidency, ushering in a conservative counterrevolution that sought to roll America back to the pre-New Deal era, if not the Puritan one. Over the course of its forty year run (and counting), that movement has gone a long way to achieving that goal. A patient, methodical plan to take control of the judicial branch has been a huge component of it, and we witnessed some of its repercussions even this past week.

The butterfly effect renders it impossible to say something like, “Without Nixon, there would have been no Trump.” But I know this much: Nixon getting off scot free didn’t help.

Absent prosecution, the GOP was able to portray Nixon was as an unfortunate aberration, a power-mad paranoid who brough shame upon Republicanism, rather than the natural son of a party that gave us the Great Depression, McCarthyism, and John Birch. Since then, the GOP has carried on with its shameless grift of the American people, and even been rewarded for its efforts. 

And that party has only descended further into the depths since then. 

WHAT’S GOOD FOR REPUBLICANS IS GOOD FOR THE COUNTRY

It is little wonder that Trump’s apologists are making the same Ford-like argument now about the risks of prosecuting a former head of state. We should give those arguments all the credibility that Trump supporters deserve when they talk about integrity and principle. 

After Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony, a number of esteemed legal analysts across the ideological board are now convinced that Trump’s criminal exposure is severe, including many on the conservative side, from Sol Wisenberg, a former deputy to special counsel Ken Starr in the Clinton impeachment, to Commentary’s John Podhoretz, to former National Review editor David French. While acknowledging how much uncertainty remains, Alan Rozenshtein, a former Justice Department official and now a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said, “I have gone from Trump is less than likely to be charged to he is more than likely to be charged.”

More to the point, the magnitude of Trump’s crimes, and therefore the danger of letting him get away with them, is exponentially greater than Nixon’s. “We have never seen anything like this in this country,” said former Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, himself a former prosecutor, referring to the Big Lie and the Insurrection. “Watergate pales in comparison.”

The charge of conspiracy to defraud the US is an easier case to make than incitement to violence, although both cases are plenty strong—likely slam dunks, in fact, against anyone other than a man who was the sitting president when he committed them. (In ordering Trump to turn documents over to the January 6th committee, Federal Judge David Carter has already ruled that it’s “more likely than not” Trump committed both of those felonies. Which is not the same as a conviction, but also not cause for high-fiving in the halls of Mar-a-Lago.)

Yet still the right wing’s legal front is trotting out the tired old “bad for the country” excuse. 

Give me a fucking break. These are the same people that wanted to lock Hillary Clinton up over some mishandled emails.

In The Atlantic, the consistently brilliant Adam Serwer reminds us that Republicans disingenuously trotted out this “too traumatic” rationalization during Trump’s second impeachment, and over this same offense:

Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, insisted that seeking accountabilityfor an attempted coup would be “incredibly divisive,” and was therefore not worth doing. “The notion that we’re going to spend a week or two weeks on a trial on somebody who’s not even in office—it sounds to me like a waste of time,” Rubio told Politico in 2021.

The Week reports that even Ty Cobb, Trump’s top legal adviser in the Mueller probe and his lead lawyer during his first impeachment trial, has said that if what his old boss did on January 6th “isn’t insurrection, I don’t know what is.” And yet, Cobb also told CNN that “I am not convinced prosecuting Trump is in the best interests of the country in the long term.”  Which is exactly what you would expect a Trump supporter to say. 

Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who is now a contributing editor at the pro-Trump National Review, recently published an opinion piece in the Washington Post that embodied this scam perfectly. In McCarthy’s view, prosecuting Trump “would polarize the country and set a dangerous precedent (in) having the current administration go after its predecessor and chief political opponent.”

To be sure, no one is above the law, even the president; but neither do we prosecute every provable crime. Other considerations often apply, such as preserving domestic tranquility and institutional integrity.

Oh yes: “domestic tranquility and institutional integrity.” Two things that immediately leap to mind when one thinks of Donald Trump. 

McCarthy’s cred plummets further as he goes on to equate the Mueller and Benghazi probes as examples of “politically fraught investigations” proving that the “intrusion of prosecutors into electoral politics has a corrupting effect on the democratic process and the Justice Department itself.” Such an assertion is laughable on its face, but also betrays McCarthy’s howling bias. (He goes on to give us other examples of that bias, like his repetition of the Fox News gaslighting that the January 6th committee is partisan—after Republicans blocked an independent commission, and pulled all their loyalist members of this one; and the never-ending attempt to equate January 6th with the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.) Perversely, he also claims that Trump’s apparent desire to seek the presidency again should be a factor mitigating against the DOJ charging him. 

But it gets worse. Even as he acknowledges the power of Hutchinson’s testimony, McCarthy ultimately dismisses all the evidence against Trump as much ado about nothing, since—wait for it—a significant part of the country is cool with what he did:

There should be no place in political cases for charges involving vague offenses based on abstruse legal theories—such as an obstruction charge based on Trump’s promotion of the bogus theory seeking to derail Congress’s counting of state-certified electoral votes. 

If there is not a public consensus, cutting across ideological and partisan lines, that Trump has committed grave crimes deserving of prosecution and likely imprisonment, an indictment would be perceived as invidiously selective prosecution by much of our deeply divided country. 

In other words, since 30% of Americans believe the Big Lie and think Trump actually won the 2020 election, and was therefore justified in trying to have his own vice president murdered and the electoral votes thrown out, we best not punish him for those crimes. 

I don’t know about you, but I am REALLY tired of the Republican Party talking to us like we are the biggest suckers who ever walked the Earth. But if we let them get away with this bullshit, the way we did in 1974, we will be proving them right.

THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN PROSECUTING

No one is disputing the enormity of the decision that faces Merrick Garland. Duke University criminal law professor Samuel Buell told the Associated Press that “It will be one of the hardest issues that any US attorney general has ever confronted.” 

However, as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote, echoing a great many others, “It will set a disturbing precedent if Attorney General Merrick Garland prosecutes former president Donald Trump for alleged crimes. But I believe it will set a worse precedent if Garland doesn’t.”

It’s true that having an incoming president try to put the previous one in prison is a favorite trick of banana republics, but it’s hardly unprecedented, even in the most stable and advanced Western democracies. Ask Silvio Berlusconi, the proto-Trump Italian prime minister of the Nineties and Ohs who in 2013 was convicted of tax fraud by an Italian court, or Nikolas Sarkozy, the former French president who just last year was convicted of two counts of corruption by a French one. (Berlusconi got four years, three suspended, and served the other under house arrest, doing community service. Sarkozy got a year of house arrest for one conviction and three years for the other, two suspended and one in prison, which he is still appealing.)

It’s also true that, because of the partisan divide, a prosecution of Trump by the Biden administration’s DOJ would be even more fraught than a red-on-red prosecution of Nixon by Ford’s. Ford would not have been accused of simply trying to destroy the leader of the opposing party, as Biden inevitably will be. In that sense, as I also wrote in early 2021, “Ford missed a tremendous opportunity to reinforce the rule of law (and) set an important example by insisting Nixon answer for his crimes, rather than granting him a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

But no sane country would let a high-powered group of its citizens attempt a violent coup d’état—led by a deposed head of state no less—and let them off with no consequences. Unless that country was keen to have them do it again.

Adam Serwer again:

(M)ake no mistake: If those who collaborated with Trump’s attack on American democracy escape accountability, the calculus of high-ranking administration officials next time will be that there is a greater price to pay for opposing a coup than supporting one.

SHRUGGING OUR WAY TO AUTOCRACY

Even if the January 6th hearings do not bring about a criminal prosecution of Donald Trump by the DOJ, they have clearly damaged him severely. (He sure thinks so; check out his Truth Social feed.) According to a Politico-Morning Consult poll taken shortly after Ms. Hutchinson’s testimony, 66% of Americans thought Trump’s effort to overturn the last presidential election’s results was a crime and he should be prosecuted for it Only 19% said it was not a crime while 8% thought it was a crime but Trump should not be prosecuted.

(Of course that still leaves roughly a third of our countrymen who believe the Big Lie in some form or another, which is terrifying. But the less said about them the better.)

But have the hearings damaged him enough to keep him from getting the GOP nomination next summer? Maybe, maybe not. Anyone who can’t imagine the hearings backfiring, let alone a prosecution, and Trump weaponizing the perpetual grievance machine that is his base yet again and riding it to victory in 2024 even while under indictment—or even after a conviction—has not been paying attention. 

Or maybe the hearings will indeed damage him enough to end his political career at last. And then President Ron DeSantis will pardon him. 

For the real danger is not that Republican voters won’t accept that Trump tried to steal and election, and was even willing to use violence to do so. The real danger is that they don’t care.

In The Bulwark, the always insightful Charlie Sykes writes:

We know that the nation can survive insurrections and even attempts at obstruction of justice. But can it survive a shrug? 

Polls continue to show that the majority of Republican voters still believe the Big Lie, and support Trump. So what happens if one of the nation’s two dominant political parties decides that it doesn’t care? And is rewarded by the voters for its cynicism and moral nihilism?

Why? Because the lies don’t matter. Only the outcome counts. 

The Big Lie is the pretext for the refusal to accept the peaceful transfer of power to political opponents who are seen as evil and dangerous.

A subtext of right-wing politics now is that the other side simply cannot be allowed to win. They hate America, they hate God, and they will destroy everything you hold dear.

It’s the Flight 93 election forever. It’s Jan. 6th . . . forever.

When that is the ethos of the Republican Party, anything and everything can be justified in the name of its self-interest, including the use of violence against fellow Americans, including overturning an election, including seizing power of the electoral process full stop.

On that front, while you’re still digesting Dobbs, get ready to remember the name Moore v. Harper, which will go down in infamy. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case, involving the so-called “independent state legislature” doctrine, and will surely deliver a 6-3 decision that paves the way for Republican state legislatures (they control 30 of 50, as of this writing) to disregard the will of the people and the popular vote and send Republican electors to the Electoral College on no authority but their own. 

In other words, exactly what Trump and his crime syndicate wanted, retroactively, in 2020. No Capitol-storming necessary.

Heather Cox Richardson writes that retired Judge Michael Luttig, a highly esteemed conservative icon who gave searing live testimony to the Jan 6 committee, “has been trying for months to sound the alarm that this doctrine is a blueprint for Republicans to steal the 2024 election. 

In April, before the court agreed to take on the Moore v. Harper case, (Luttig) wrote: “Trump and the Republicans can only be stopped from stealing the 2024 election at this point if the Supreme Court rejects the independent state legislature doctrine (thus allowing state court enforcement of state constitutional limitations on legislatively enacted election rules and elector appointments) and Congress amends the Electoral Count Act to constrain Congress’ own power to reject state electoral votes and decide the presidency.”

And what are the odds that the 6-3 far right wing majority on the Supreme Court will reject that doctrine, which is tailor-made to deliver electoral victories to the GOP in perpetuity?

That’s a rhetorical question, folks.

IT COULDN’T BE SIMPLER

It has by now become wearying to say that the Insurrection did not end on January 6, 2021 but is still going on, in the multipronged Republican attempt to hijack the electoral process and institute itself in permanent, countermajoritarian rule. 

Donald Trump must be held criminally accountable for his actions or we will be dooming ourselves to the success of that effort. Even that may not be enough, but without it, the Republicans will surely achieve their insidious goal.

So while Trump’s apologists continue to trot out their tired, old Nixonian misdirection about letting criminal presidents skate “for the good of the country”  let’s heed the words of Jan. 6th committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), speaking to Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show”:

We never want to get in a position where we’re just prosecuting the last administration—that’s another thing you see in failed democracies—but when you try to overthrow the will of the people, and you try a coup in the United States government, you have to pay for that. Period.

Mic drop.

********

Photo: Dick and Jerry, laughing all the way into ignominy.

Smoking Cannon

As the January 6 hearings commenced, an old and trusted friend commented to me that he thought only the production of a smoking gun would be likely to change any minds in our current calcified, hyperpartisan political climate. Many pundits have echoed that opinion. 

Yes and no, say I. 

We all understood going in that for the roughly 30% of Americans who would push their own mothers off a cliff if Donald Trump told them to, nothing—nothing!—will change their minds about the Insurrection or The Former Guy’s culpability for it. Not even a smoking gun. In his hand. On video. With Trump shouting, “I did it.”

Because the fact is, there has been a smoking gun in plain view ever since that tragic afternoon itself—a smoking cannon, in fact. A 155mm self-propelled howitzer. A Gerald Bull-style Supergun that can launch a Volkswagen-sized satellite into outer space.

We’ve known all along that the Insurrection was no spontaneous riot, no church picnic that got out of control, no false flag operation, but a well-planned, coordinated attempt by the Trump campaign to use political violence as part of an effort to stop the count of electoral votes and steal the election for their guy. And it came at the end of a months-long (even years-long) Republican effort to undermine confidence in the results of the election full stop, thereby creating circumstances that would enable Trump to stay in office. That was all painfully evident to anyone who lived and breathed in America during the last presidential campaign, and who watched events unfold that January afternoon, and who was not guzzling Fox Brand Kool-Aid. As was Donald Trump’s fundamental responsibility for all of it.

To use the legal formulation, if not for Trump, those people who stormed the Capitol do not come to DC, do not mass on the Ellipse, do not get worked up into a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy, do not march on the People’s House, do not erect a gallows to lynch Mike Pence, do not beat law enforcement officers with Blue Lives Matter flags, do not breach the building, do not roam its halls chillingly calling out Nancy Pelosi’s name in order to murder her, and so on and so forth. As the Internet meme goes, on January 6, 2021 a frantic Kevin McCarthy knew who to phone to try to call off the attack, and it wasn’t the antifa or BLM or the FBI. Because he knew who was responsible then and he knows it now.

Man-on-the-street interviews with Trump supporters provide anecdotal evidence of their maddening—but unsurprising—refusal to face the facts. They’re not watching the hearings; they think they’re a witchhunt; the Democrats aren’t interested in the truth, only in hurting Trump; I got better things to do with my time; blah blah blah. Their comments remind me of testimony we heard during the hearings themselves, from reasonable Republican officials describing colleagues who continued to insist that the Democrats had stolen the election even when every claim to that end was definitively refuted, saying, “Yes, but I just know in my heart that they cheated.” 

There is no reasoning with such people. This obstinate refusal to reckon with one of the darkest moments in all of American history is sheer tribalism and willful blindness, and all the more dangerous because the emergency is not over but continues to unfold, with the ongoing right wing attempt to sabotage our representative democracy.  

What’s that you say? I am obviously deeply tribal myself? Guilty as charged. Except that my tribe has the facts on its side. Check back with me when Biden supporters storm the Capitol to try to overturn an election. 

So, yes, not even a smoking gun produced by the January 6th committee will change the minds of a third of America, but these hearings were never intended to persuade Trump’s immovable deadenders. What the committee has done with the hearings, however, is a public service of the absolute highest order nevertheless, one whose repercussions are three-fold. Let’s take them in reverse order of importance. 

First, the hearings will likely sway a small sliver of middle-of-the-road voters, who were crucial in 2020 and will be again this November, and again in 2024, and convince them that Donald Trump and indeed the whole GOP have no business holding power in this country. (That is, if Republicans have not by then succeeded in gaining a total chokehold on the electoral process.)

Secondly, the hearings have made the case for history, and before you scoff at the alleged uselessness of that, let us remember that history’s verdict will be the most enduring, with consequences for future generations that reverberate far beyond the next few short-sighted news or election cycles. 

And lastly, and perhaps most crucially, the hearings have made it all but impossible for the Department of Justice not to bring charges against the architects of the Insurrection, in the interest of the long-term good of the republic. After hearing the case so powerfully laid down by the House committee, if a violent attempt to overturn an election—carried out by a defeated president marshaling the full powers of his office—is not a crime worthy of prosecution, what is?  And if we do not pursue its perpetrators and bring them to justice, are we not opening the door for an imminent sequel?

A BRIEF REVIEW

Before the hearings commenced, defeatism was in the air in anti-Trump circles. The cake-taker may have been David Brooks’ much-discussed New York Times piece titled “The Jan. 6th Committee Has Already Blown It,” which ran even before the very first hearing. 

In his defense, Brooks was arguing that treating the investigation of the Insurrection as an exercise in ordinary political campaigning was thinking way too small. But it turns out that the House committee had no such weak tea in mind. 

The January 6th Committee has calmly, cogently, and methodically laid out a powerful case that there was an extensive, coordinated Republican effort to overturn the election, culminating in the attack on Congress on January 6th, and that that effort was directed by Trump himself. (Per above, “culminating” is not quite right, of course, as the effort to seize control of the American electoral process continues.)

It has produced eye-popping evidence that even dedicated watchers of the case—among whom I count myself (ask my wife)—were completely unaware, and heart-rending testimony from the likes of Capitol Police officers and innocent election workers like Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman. 

We have seen evidence of Trump’s direct involvement in some of the most egregious aspects of this criminality, including RNC Chairwoman Rona Romney McDaniel’s admission that the RNC helped orchestrate the fake elector plot in coordination with the White House. We learned of how callously Trump handed down a de facto death sentence for his own vice president (“Maybe he deserves to be hanged”), and terrorized frontline election workers. We learned of the extent of the coordination between Trump and GOP officials and brownshirt-style street goons like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers to bring physical violence to bear on Congress. We were told of the extraordinary pressure put on state officials to overturn the will of the people, and the scope of the legal maneuvering to try to justify the rejection of the electoral vote.  We also learned that Trump’s staunchest advocates on Capitol Hill and within the White House—Gaetz, MTG, Gohmert, Biggs, Gosar, Eastman, et al—sought preemptive pardons, indicating that they knew that their actions were highly illegal. 

And on and on.

After the first couple of televised hearings, Washington Post’s Max Boot spoke for many when he wrote:

I admit to having been skeptical, ahead of time…. What more is there to be said, I wondered? The evidence of Donald Trump’s guilt in inciting an insurrection was already so obvious that it was hard to imagine that the committee would have much to add. 

I am happy to say I was wrong. The committee’s hearings are exceeding expectations, because it is not behaving like a typical congressional committee. There is no grandstanding and no preening. There are no petty partisan squabbles. There is not even the disjointedness that normally occurs when a bunch of politicians are each given five minutes to question each witness. There is only the relentless march of evidence, all of it deeply incriminating to a certain former president who keeps insisting that he was robbed of his rightful election victory.

The committee’s reliance almost entirely on Republican witnesses—from revered right wing figures like retired Judge Michael Luttig, to many many Trump appointees and former members of the administration itself who finally reached a line even they could not cross—was a stroke of genius. To hear a loathsome Trump accomplice like Bill Barr dismiss the Big Lie as “bullshit,” “crazy stuff,” and “complete nonsense,” and report that for Trump there was “never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were” carries more weight than a thousand speeches by Adam Schiff, with all due respect to the highly honorable gentleman from California. 

Boot opined that the testimony of these former Trump’s aides has been “the committee’s most potent weapon.” 

One could not script a better scene than the one described by former Trump attorney Eric Herschmann—a member of Donald’s odious legal defense team during his first impeachment—describing his Sorkinian exchange with John Eastman over the plan to mount a coup: “Are you out of your effing mind? I only want to hear two words coming out of your mouth from now on: orderly transition.”

(Close second: Acting Deputy AG Richard Donoghue telling environmental lawyer-turned scheming would-be Attorney General Jeffrey Clark: “We’ll call you if there’s oil spill.”)

But let us not lionize some of these former Trump officials; many of them could have acted much earlier and forestalled this whole chain of events, Mike Pence above all. This testimony would have been quite useful in late January 2021, for example, when Trump was impeached over these very crimes. But credit where it’s due, and two cheers. 

(The fact that some of these people, including Barr, Brad Raffensperger, and Rusty Bowers, even now say that they would vote for Trump again in ‘24—or at least would not rule it out, in Raffensperger’s case, like Susan Collins’s—is a mind-blowing matter for another day. Though mere partisan politics is not the point—per Brooks—one can only hope that this shocking litany of Trump’s crimes will convince other less benighted Americans that they ought not vote for him ever again, should the chance arise. For many Republicans, some wit noted, the hearings are playing like a six-part infomercial for Ron DeSantis.)

But worth remembering: the integrity of these officials was the only thing that stood between Trump and a second, illegal term….and is therefore the precise thing that the GOP is dead-set on obliterating as an obstacle to permanent, predetermined electoral victories going forward. 

DO THE RIGHT THING

So the case against Donald J. Trump and his disciples has been powerfully made. The question now is, what the Department of Justice will do with it? 

For as David Brooks rightly noted (see? I’m defending him), these hearings have not been merely an exercise in damaging the GOP ahead of the midterms and 2024, or even in establishing the case for posterity, important as that is. They have been an attempt to hold a criminal head of state accountable for his sins for the sake of the country’s health and well-being going forward. 

So over to you, Merrick. 

It is encouraging that even as the hearings unfolded, the DOJ began issuing subpoenas and interview requests to key GOP officials and fake electors in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, and raiding the homes of people like Jeff Clark. The signs do point to an aggressive DOJ investigation, even if it is being conducted with Mueller-like operational secrecy, and not coincidentally ramping up with each revelation by the committee. We shall see where it goes. (“I can assure you that the January 6 prosecutors are watching all the hearings,” Garland told the press.)

want to say that I cannot imagine that after seeing what all of America has seen—evidence that it likely already developed itself, and more—the Department of Justice will not bring indictments at the highest levels.

But I can imagine that. I can readily picture the painfully cautious, “institutionalist” Mr. Garland deciding that it would be too politically incendiary and damaging for the country to indict and prosecute a former president—the same rationale Gerald Ford used to justify his pardon of Richard Nixon, a travesty for which we are still paying today.

It is inconceivable to me that John Eastman, who relentlessly promoted a scheme that by his own admission he knew was illegal, will not be indicted. And Eastman, we all know, served merely at the pleasure of his boss. But I’ve been wrong before.

I can also see Garland electing not to indict Trump on the grounds that he doesn’t think he can get a conviction. That is the kind of strategic decision prosecutors make all the time, and he may even be right about that. But in this case, and in this layman’s humble opinion, it would be a woefully misguided decision with terrible consequences for the republic and the rule of law we flatter ourselves that we live under. 

Like Trump’s impeachments—both of them—a criminal prosecution of Donald Trump is an essential duty of the body politic, even if the chances of a conviction are not as airtight as prosecutors would like in normal circumstances. But hell, in normal circumstances, with evidence like this, a conviction would be nearly a slam-dunk. The only reason it ain’t necessarily so in this case is the uncharted waters in which we would be venturing in putting a former president on trial, and the Bizarro World / up-is-down / day-is-night hyperpartisanship of America as we now know it, such that getting twelve jurors to agree that puppies are cute is a longshot if Donald Trump is weighing in with his opinion. 

Lest we forget, acquittals in both of Trump’s impeachments were all but certain. Yet despite those nearly foregone conclusions, we wisely went through with them anyway. What was the alternative? To throw up our hands and say, “Oh well, no point even trying, since the GOP’s gonna stonewall us. What are you gonna do?”

If I am not mistaken it was former US Attorney Harry Litman who quipped that, when faced with an ex-president credibly accused of crimes on the scale of Trump’s, the only thing worse than trying him would be not trying him. (The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson makes that same point very well here.) 

SMOOTH JAZZ, OBVIOUSLY

As the evidence against Trump accumulates, a great many observers have seized on the possibility that he is, in effect, fucking crazy, and therefore his actions—while terrible—were not motivated by criminal intent, because he truly believed that the won the election. As a legal defense it’s a stretch, but was given a handhold by the testimony of Bill Barr, who opined that Trump had “become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff.”

On that front, many wags have cited the gospel according to George Costanza—the Picasso of liars—before his pal Jerry undergoes a polygraph in an attempt to prove (falsely) that he has never seen “Melrose Place”:

“Jerry, just remember: It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Luckily, numerous legal scholars have already demolished that specious argument, under which almost no criminal behavior is possible whatsoever. 

“Willful blindness” is not exculpatory. You cannot rob a bank and be excused because you felt it was within your rights to do so. You cannot steal the Stanley Cup and run around Manhattan with it just because you don’t accept that the Rangers got beat in the Eastern Conference finals. You can’t pilot an airplane with five martinis in your bloodstream, crash it into a mountain and kill everyone onboard but yourself, and be acquitted because you were genuinely convinced that alcohol didn’t affect you. 

(In The Bulwark, Will Saletan argues that it’s actually worse if Trump really did believe his own bullshit. I would agree it might be more dangerous, unpredictability wise—pressing the nuclear button wise—but it’s not worse, morally speaking.)

The fact is, the committee made a compelling case that Trump was not in fact that self-deluded, that he had been repeatedly told by his own advisors that there was no election fraud, that Biden had won fair and square, and that his continuing push of the Big Lie was both incorrect and illegal. Under the law, Trump cannot then turn around and in good faith claim simply not to believe it and employ that as a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

When it comes to intent,  don’t you think telling the acting Attorney General ““Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen” covers it? (After all, exploiting a fake investigation is one of Trump’s favorite moves, from Comey to Kyiv.) 

But all of that sort of misses the point, as beautifully argued, also in The Bulwark, by Mona Charen

Charen notes that, “in our age of post-truth politics,” the crucial Watergate-era query—What did the president know, and when did he know it?—“shrivels into a dry cinder.” Asking whether Trump sincerely believed he had won the election, she argues, is “the wrong way to look at it.”

In the first place, the tangle of loose wires, celebrity gossip, Putin-worship, grade school taunts, and world-class vapidity that forms Trump’s mind is impossible to penetrate. We are, to our sorrow, quite familiar with his indifference to truth. When it comes to a person who has lied about American Muslims celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers; told the country that COVID was like the common cold and was “disappearing;” lied about why he fired James Comey; and lied even about the paths of hurricanes, we are dealing with someone whose lies are a constitutive part of his psychology. And everyone knows this.

Charen reminds us that all along, “Part of Trump’s project was to obliterate the truth, to ‘flood the zone with shit,’” in the memorable words of professional troglodyte Steve Bannon. In contrast to Nixon, “absolutely everyone in (Trump’s) circle and everyone in the Republican party who made their peace with him as leader had been lied to repeatedly. Trump had so warped the people around him that there was no expectation of honesty or integrity.”

Did he know that the election was not stolen or did he sincerely believe that it was? What does it matter? What is sincerity in the mind of a man who lies with every exhale? Asking whether Trump knew the election was free and fair is like asking whether a komodo dragon prefers smooth jazz or hip hop. It’s a category error.

ADULT SWIM

As many have observed, in retrospect, it was a horrific own goal by Kevin McCarthy in refusing to have GOP participation in the January 6th committee, notwithstanding the excommunicated Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Even Trump knows that. Nancy Pelosi wisely refused to let Kevin put human hand grenades like Jim Jordan and Jim Banks on the committee, so Kevin petulantly took his ball and went home. (After scoring the own goal. Or maybe that was the own goal. Before the hand grenades went off. I’m still working on the metaphor.) 

Let’s just settle on calling it political malpractice. 

In any case, the net result is that this has been a sober, grownup proceeding, laser focused on demonstrating the irrefutable truth, rather than the usual audience-alienating partisan food fight. To that end, the complaints of “onesidedness” by Trump, right wing pundits, and even those aforementioned men-and-women-on-the-street inadvertently reveal the weakness of Trump’s position. 

In the WaPo, Greg Sargent notes that “It’s darkly amusing that Republicans see McCarthy as their problem here,” pointing out that Republican complaints about McCarthy are themselves “a pernicious form of spin (implying) that there exists an alternate set of facts being suppressed by Democrats, one that would weaken the revelatory force of what we’re learning about Trump and his co-conspirators.”

“What’s really irritating Republicans,” Sargent writes, “is that they’ve been deprived of the opportunity to pollute the media environment and muddy up the harsh truths coming to light with obfuscation, misdirection and lies.”

Everyone is entitled to a defense, of course. But we are not required to pretend there is an alternate, possibly exonerating set of facts that is being suppressed when there isn’t one. The very suggestion is itself more gaslighting. And because news accounts don’t state this plainly, coverage of Trump/GOP criticism of McCarthy unwittingly advances GOP spin about this supposed alternate story that isn’t being told.

Sargent argues that “Many—or even most—Republicans have simply ruled out the option of grappling straightforwardly with what Trump did.” What, he asks, would they have said if they had been on the committee?

Would they have said Trump wasn’t actually informed that the scheme he was pressing for was illegal? That he really believed he had won in 2020? That he didn’t know the mob was violent before pointing it like a howitzer at his vice president? That he actually believed exactly enough ballots could be “found” in Georgia to allow him to prevail by precisely one vote?

Here’s a better guess: Because the case against Trump on those fronts is so strong, Republicans on the committee wouldn’t have even tried to “defend” him against it. Instead, they would have engaged in endless obfuscating antics.

Lastly, Sargent reminds us that before the hearings we were assured “that Trump allies would ‘counter-program’ them. Yet they’ve been largely silent. If there were a genuine fact-based defense available to them, we’d be hearing it.” 

I FOUGHT THE LAW

In the end, the question is very simple: Did Donald Trump conspire to defraud the United States and interfere with a legitimate federal proceeding, which is to say, the certification of the results of the Electoral College? 

The only credible answer is: Hell yes. 

Short, perhaps, of recklessly bringing on a nuclear war, there can be no greater crime for a President of the United States. If we allow it to go unpunished, we will have written our own death sentence as a democracy.

In a piece for The Atlantic bluntly titled “The January 6th Committee Is Not Messing Around,” Quinta Jurecic of the Lawfare blog duly notes that the committee knows that part of its job is to put pressure on Garland and the DOJ. But she also reminds us that “the select committee’s work is itself a reminder that the Justice Department is not the final arbiter of accountability when it comes to the Insurrection.”

There’s a tendency to treat the elusive possibility of a criminal probe or prosecution of Trump as the ultimate prize—the achievement by which investigatory success can be measured. The select committee, though, is doing something different. Congress can’t bring a legal case against Trump—but it can build a case for liability in the moral and political sense. That is its own worthy project, and it’s one that the January 6 committee is proving itself more than capable of carrying out.

She is quite right of course. Irrespective of what Garland and the DOJ eventually do or don’t do, the American people have been presented with a thoroughly corroborated and indelible portrait of Donald Trump as the worst president in US history, a man who should never have been allowed anywhere near the Oval Office in the first place. (“But her emails.”) That in itself has been a great public service, but it is not sufficient in terms of the consequences Trump ought to suffer—not out of vengeance, but in the interest of the long term well-being of the republic.

Establishing moral liability will not be sufficient to preserve the integrity of our democracy going forward, nor does it mean that we ought to stop pursuing the Holy Grail of accountability within the criminal justice system. In a New York Times piece called “Donald Trump, American Monster,” Maureen Dowd  writes: “In his dystopian Inaugural speech, Trump promised to end ‘American carnage.’ Instead, he delivered it. Now he needs to be held accountable for his attempted coup—and not just in the court of public opinion.”

In that same piece, published after only the first night of televised hearings, she also compared The Former Guy to the iconic creation of a certain fictional mad scientist:

Shelley’s monster, unlike ours, has self-awareness, and a reason to wreak havoc. He knows how to feel guilty and when to leave the stage. Our monster’s malignity stems from pure narcissistic psychopathy—and he refuses to leave the stage or cease his vile mendacity.

The House Jan. 6 committee’s prime-time hearing was not about Trump as a bloviating buffoon who stumbled into the presidency. It was about Trump as a callous monster, and many will come away convinced that he should be criminally charged and put in jail. 

We are about to find out whether or not crime pays, and whether future presidents will feel free to behave like a creature from a horror movie.

***********

Photo: Former Fox News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt, who was fired for calling Arizona for Biden on election night 2020, is sworn in before the House select committee on the Insurrection.

Credit: Jabin Botsford/Pool/The Washington Post via AP.

Copy editing by the intrepid Gina Patacca.

God, Guns, and Gold 

In the immediate wake of the horrific events in Texas eleven days ago, a friend said to me, “I take it you’re going to write about Uvalde this week.” I said, “Why don’t I just re-run my essay from the last mass shooting?” (There are several.) After all, it’s not even two weeks old.

Because, you may have noticed, this kind of gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, wholly avoidable tragedy happens with tedious frequency in our country. No one said it better than The Onion: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Proving once again that jesters are the best truthtellers.

When Uvalde happened we had not even yet processed the white supremacist mass murder in Buffalo of ten days before, also carried out by a disturbed teenaged gunman with an AR-15 variant and high capacity magazines. In the less than two weeks since then, there have been twenty more mass shootings in the US, including an especially horrific one in a Tulsa hospital

The cyclic rate of this blog is not as high as that of an Armalite. 

POST-MORTEM, AGAIN

I can’t add much to the points that have already been widely made across the mediascape in the aftermath of these two tragedies in quick succession—and just as readily ignored by the gun-fetishizing American right wing, which includes the mainstream Republican Party. But I feel compelled to hit a few lowlights:

Can we now bury forever the canard of “the good guy with a gun”? (First articulated, fittingly, by the odious Wayne LaPierre following the Sandy Hook school massacre ten years ago.) The shocking and unconscionable inaction of law enforcement officers on the scene in Uvalde speaks for itself, and it’s in a vomit of obscenities: violating two decades of SOP on how to handle an active shooter; cravenly refusing to confront a lone gunman for fear of their own lives; pepper spraying and arresting parents pleading with them to do something; ignoring the pleas of terrified 4th graders inside the building as they made desperate cellphone calls begging for help. 

Some—but not very much—attention has been paid to the fact that Uvalde is a poor community comprised largely of people of color. It’s hard to imagine a wealthy white suburb where the police response to an active shooter in an elementary school would be so lethargic. 

Absolutely vile, too, was the Orwellianism of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his ilk, who subsequently praised law enforcement on the scene, saying those police officers kept the slaughter at Robb Elementary from being worse. “Be thankful, peons!” was the subtext. (Of course, the blood on the hands of Abbott & Co. goes far beyond that when it comes to culpability for these and many other gunshot deaths.) 

But as The Atlantic’s David Graham points out, a focus on the shocking malpractice of law enforcement in Uvalde—legitimate as that criticism is—misses the point. “Only a broken society would focus on the police failures,” as the headline of Graham’s piece succinctly puts it. Indeed, we should not be surprised that the gun-worshipping cult that is America’s right wing has already twisted that failure inside out, arguing that the cowardice of Uvalde’s police department is the very reason why private citizens need to be armed to the teeth. 

This utterly infantile myth about so-called “rugged individualism” and self-reliance is at the core of American gun culture. Texas is one of the most heavily armed states in the country per capita, and that didn’t deter the Uvalde shooter one bit, nor provide any recourse as events unfolded. Yet predictably, there were immediate calls on the political right for teachers to be armed. (One of the first calls to that end came from Texas’s Attorney General Ken Paxton—the same Ken Paxton who is under indictment for securities fraud, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election, and who spoke at the Trump rally before the Capitol insurrection on January 6.) 

But the broader point is that the whole idea is asinine. In 2013, battle-hardened Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was killed on a civilian shooting range (in Texas, natch) by a gun-wielding attacker, so—as some wag pointed out at the time—I guess all we need to do is to give our teachers just a little bit more extensive training in firearms than Chris Kyle had. 

The reality is quite the opposite, in terms of an armed citizenry. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb reports that a recent study by criminologists at Florida State University, published in the journal Justice Quarterly, found that gun homicide rates were 11% higher in states with more permissive carry policies than in those with stricter laws, while “the probability of mass shootings increased by roughly 53% in states with more gun ownership.”

Twinned with the “arm the educators” movement is the idiotic argument of Ted Cruz, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, and others calling for “hardening” schools. Because we’d all relish living in an armed camp where our schools are built like prisons and everyone is strapped 24/7, right? Even if that idea was workable (good luck with the “one door” theory when the gunman takes control of that one door) are we also gonna harden our playgrounds, our parks, our supermarkets, our churches, our buses, our laundromats? So we’ll also need to put our doctors, and janitors, and playground supervisors, and grocery store clerks, and baseball umpires, and manicurists, and clergymen through Basic UDT/SEAL training at Coronado.

Wishful bullshit though it is, this harebrained idea would at least have more cred if the people crying for it were also in favor of taking action at the most obvious chokepoint in the crisis, which is the availability of guns in the first place. As the meme says, when my kid hits another kid with a stick, I don’t blame the stick. But I still take it away.  

Similarly, the right wing blather about mental health being the real issue is beneath contempt. It would have more bite if those folks did not also favor gutting social services and public health resources that would address mental health care in America. 

So what is the solution to this epidemic of gun violence? Maybe to change the laws so it’s not easier to get an AR-15 than it is to adopt a rescue dog, or buy a beer, or get into a nightclub? (Almost all mass shooters obtain their guns legally.)

Nah. Our solution is to train our children how to hunker down under their desks and try to keep quiet so a gunman stalking the halls of their elementary school doesn’t murder them with a legally-purchased, unregulated semiautomatic weapon designed for combat infantrymen. Good luck, kids!

A MODEST PROPOSAL

As of 2020, firearms are the leading cause of death for American children, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Let that sink in. 

What makes this already somber fact even more appalling is that, unlike cancer, say, or even motor vehicle collisions, this plague is eminently preventable, and the cure well within our control, if only we had the courage to take action. 

For once we venture beyond the self-serving bullshit of the contemptible Ted Cruzes and Ken Paxtons of the world, there is a readily available menu of concrete solutions that would stop this wave of deaths by cutting off the easy availability of guns in the first place, the one distinguishing factor that separates the United States from every other advanced society when it comes to the prevalence of mass shootings. Simple as that.   

Why won’t we do that?

On the BBC Newshour, Art Acevedo, the highly regarded former police chief of Austin, Houston, and Miami, asked “How many more have to die before the Senate in this country does something and changes the law?” Good question, Chief. He went on to say that it is high time for the American people “to make gun safety reform a litmus test for every person running for office and demand that they do something or get ’em out of office.” 

Then he directly addressed the shamelessness of Cruz & Co:

One of the things I’m tired of is guys like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. Time and again, they show up at the scene of these massacres—I remember seeing him in Santa Fe high school—and they offer their thoughts and prayers and nothing else. At the end of the day, if, if all you want to do is thoughts and prayers, maybe you should resign and join the clergy, because you are there to lead, and to pass laws that make sense and are pragmatic. It is reachable and it’s time for the American people to demand the same.

Fuckin’ A. Because what we expect of our elected officials isn’t homilies, particularly not wantonly hypocritical ones, but robust and targeted legislative action to protect our citizenry, defenseless children above all. Call me a starry-eyed idealist.

But thus far we as a nation have consistently refused to implement that kind of action, and the reasons why speak to an even deeper sickness that threatens the entire well-being of the republic. 

HOSTAGE CRISIS

Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found that a jawdropping 81 percent of American support background checks, 64 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines, 63 percent support a ban on assault weapons, and a majority opposes permitless concealed carry. These are numbers that a typical president gazing longingly at his sub-50% approval rating could only dream of. Even a majority of gun-owning Republicans support background checks and oppose permitless concealed carry (which is on the rise in GOP-controlled states).

While this is reassuring proof that we are not, as a nation, as batshit crazy as it seems when it comes to guns, it is also alarming evidence that we are trapped in a dysfunctional political system where we cannot pass common sense gun laws even when they are supported by huge majorities like these

That is because, like abortion, gun control is an area where a small minority of fanatics have been able to foist their radical views on the rest of the country in defiance of the fundamental principles of representative democracy. In that regard, Buffalo and Uvalde are inextricably connected to the shock of the leaked Alito draft overturning Roe.

It is no coincidence that those fanatics are often religious in nature, with their “faith” offering both a cult-like, all-purpose self-justification for their crusade, and a blind, Reason-defying commitment to it. It is also no coincidence that the two demographics largely overlap, in a Venn diagram that approaches a perfect circle. 

The same people who would force a teenage victim of incest (which is to say, rape) to bear her attacker’s baby magically lose that concern for human life once said child leaves the womb. Access to medical care, maternal leave, childcare for working families, good nutrition, public education, even security from deranged killers toting battlefield weaponry as they hunt defenseless victims in the halls of our elementary schools—sorry, kid, you’re on your own. 

We are in this position because, beginning in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, one of our two major parties—the one that has historically been sympathetic to that John Birch-y mentality in the first place—made a conscious decision to cultivate an alliance with extremist elements to help promote its longstanding plutocratic agenda. The GOP was happy to bed down with gun nuts, and precious-bodily-fluid obsessive anti-fluoridation freaks, and snake-handling tongue-speaking religious fanatics, so long as it brought tax cuts for the rich and helped reverse the trajectory that American governance had been on since the New Deal, and the advances in prosperity, justice, and equality that progressivism had brought. 

It worked brilliantly. Over the past four decades America has lurched rightward politically, even as sociological trends are pulling it in the other direction, as the Republican Party has gotten the tax cuts and Darwinian economic policies it craves. And all it had to do was sign on for a little gun-totin’, woman-hatin’ theocracy. 

But now the monster has Dr. Frankenstein waiting on it hand and foot. 

A CULTURE WAR, WITH REAL GUNS

In a recent column, the historian and Boston University professor Heather Cox Richardson ably tracked the Republican exploitation of the “cowboy myth,” dating back at least to the 1950s—that of the self-reliant rugged individualist who didn’t need no stinkin’ government—as a means to mobilize white male grievance against the civil rights movement, feminism, and the New Deal in general. (Even as the New Deal vastly benefitted that very demographic….precisely why the GOP needed to undermine it.) 

Behold some of the poisoned fruits of that effort:

In 2004, a ten-year federal ban on assault weapons expired, and since then. mass shootings have tripled….

(T)here were about 400,000 AR-15 style rifles in America before the assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994. Today, there are 20 million.

For years now, Republicans have stood firmly against measures to guard Americans against gun violence, even as a majority of Americans support common sense measures like background checks. Notably, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, when a gunman murdered 20 six- and seven-year-old students and 6 staff members, Republicans in the Senate filibustered a bipartisan bill sponsored by Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) that would have expanded background checks, killing it despite the 55 votes in favor of it.

There is a reason that “God, guns, and gold” go together as the holy trinity of marauders, from the conquistadors, to religious zealots who first settled the Plymouth colony, to the pioneers who murdered the native peoples and took their land as the US expanded westward. America is hardly the only country ever to have suffered under the pernicious influence of greed and a suffocating religious oppression. But the addition of widespread availability of lethal firearms is like gasoline poured on a greasefire. 

Once again we see the enduring accuracy of Barack Obama’s widely criticized—but 100% correct—comments from 2008 about bitter Americans left behind by the global economy who, not surprisingly, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Yeah, it was an impolitic thing to say for a man on the campaign trail, but he was quite right, and refreshing in his candor, especially for a man on the campaign trail). Above all, Cassandra-like, he perfectly predicted the trajectory of the next 14 years of American politics, and counting, with no end in sight. 

Like abortion, the debate over guns has ceased even to be about guns, and is now simply a tribal signifier, a wedge issue where Big Lie Republicans compete to prove their far right bonafides and “own the libs.” Witness the deluge of GOP campaign ads (and family Christmas cards) featuring candidates displaying—and firing—combat-grade weaponry that would be the envy of Rambo.  

Even Scalia, in his disastrous DC v. Heller decision of 2008, reinterpreting the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a private individual’s right to own firearms outside of a well-regulated militia, made a point of saying that the government still had the right to regulate those firearms. And that is as it should be: we rightly regulate almost everything in our culture, from aspirin to yogurt to motor scooters to Pilates instructors. But not access to state-of-the-art killing machines specifically designed to slaughter human beings as rapidly as possible on the military battlefield? Today, the Republican Party treats the very idea of any restrictions on firearms as what Ronald Brownstein, writing in  The Atlantic, calls “a sign of disrespect to the values of red America.” In other words: sheer self-serving political theater, paid for with the blood of our children.

Republican politicians and pundits blamed Uvalde on everything from trans rights to critical race theory to the COVID lockdown—everything but the ready availability of combat weaponry.   

Meanwhile Tucker Carlson has overtly told his millions of viewers that Joe Biden’s true intent in pushing for gun control in the wake of this tragedy is that he knows he is an illegitimate president and fears an armed uprising by the people. That is despicable on so many levels I can’t count, but more than that, it is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Yet night after night we let this sort of incitement go on and we act like everything’s going to be OK.

ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL

It is in that regard that the gun crisis is really a crisis of governance, or what Brownstein calls the “growing crisis of majority rule in American politics.”

A “commanding majority” of Americans supports universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban. But “gun control is one of many issues in which majority opinion in the nation runs into the brick wall of a Senate rule—the filibuster—that provides a veto over national policy to a minority of the states, most of them small, largely rural, preponderantly white, and dominated by Republicans.” Brownstein believes that only reform or elimination of the filibuster can solve this problem…..which goes for abortion, for voting rights, for action on the climate emergency, and for protection of a fair presidential election as well, to name just a few.

Otherwise, the basic rules of American politics will continue to allow Republicans to impose their priorities even when a clear majority of Americans disagree. The hard truth is that there’s no way to confront America’s accelerating epidemic of gun violence without first addressing its systemic erosion of majority rule.

Brownstein notes that “Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party had done since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Yet Republicans have controlled the White House after three of those elections instead of one, twice winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.” Matters are even worse in the Senate, where “Republicans have represented a majority of the US population for only two years since 1980….But largely because of its commanding hold on smaller states, the GOP has controlled the Senate majority for 22 of those 42 years.”

A 2020 Rand Corporation study found that the 20 states with the highest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Republican lawmakers (32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states that President Donald Trump carried in the 2020 election (17 of 25). In an almost mirror image, the 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Democratic lawmakers (also 32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states Biden won (16 of 25). 

Those 20 states represent more than two and half times as many residents (about 192 million) as the states with the highest gun-ownership rates (about 69 million), but carry equal weight in the Senate.

And this imbalance reflects only the inherent, built-in disparity of our Senatorial and Electoral College system. It will get even worse as the GOP continues to carry out its ongoing campaign to gain an irreversible countermajoritiarian chokehold on American politics

Brownstein again:

As with gun control, polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support acting on climate changeoppose overturning Roe v. Wade, and back comprehensive immigration reform, including offering legal status to undocumented immigrants (especially young people brought into the country by their parents). The House has passed legislation reflecting each of those perspectives. The Senate’s inaction on these issues again reflects the outsize influence of those states with the highest gun-ownership rates—which also tend to be those enmeshed in the fossil-fuel economy, with high shares of culturally conservative white Christians and low shares of immigrants.

God, guns, and gold indeed.

THE CHOICE IS OURS

The famous maxim about American fascism arriving wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross—, erroneously attributed to Sinclair Lewis, and worn out by now, given its regular, and apropos deployment since 2016—ought to be modified to include “and wielding an AR-15.”

Even as I write this, news comes that a retired Wisconsin judge was taken prisoner and executed—by firearm—in his own home on Friday by a disgruntled constituent found to have a “hit list” that also included Governor Tony Evers of that state and Gretchen Whitmer of neighboring Michigan, both Democrats, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Not the first time Ms. Whitmer has been targeted, by the by.) 

Get ready for more of that, as Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and the rest of the malevolent clown car of Seditionist Republicans continue to scream incitement. 

Nobody has said it better than Jessica Winter in The New Yorker:

Republicans, as we know, get what they want. It is their best feature. They have vacuumed up the state legislatures, gerrymandered much of the country, stacked the Supreme Court and the federal judgeships, turned back the clock on LGBTQ rights, paralyzed entire school districts with engineered panics over critical race theory and “grooming,” ended (or so it seems) reproductive rights as a constitutionally guaranteed freedom, and blocked all attempts at gun-control legislation. 

If the leaders of this political movement, which in Texas managed to ban most abortions and criminalize health care for trans kids in the space of a school year, took real offense to murdered children, they would never simply accept their deaths as the unfortunate cost of honoring the Founding Fathers’ right to take up muskets against hypothetical government tyranny. They would act. 

If America were not afraid to know itself, we could more readily accept that gun-rights advocates are enthralled with violent sorrow. This is the America they envisaged. It is what they worked so hard for. Their thoughts and prayers have been answered.

So while it is true that we the majority have repeatedly been stymied in our attempts to institute common sense firearms regulations, our culpability remains. When the GOP filibusters the next attempt at even modest gun control, are we going to shrug and say, “Oh well, we tried”? The same goes for voting rights, for abortion access, for reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, for accountability for the January 6th coup attempt, and for other seminal issues. Or will we insist on reforms—major and tectonic though they may be—to redress these wrongs and create a functioning democracy that is equitable, safe, and secure for all?

We are indeed at the mercy of fanatics, but only as long as we let ourselves be. If we submit, then we have no reason to complain, and history’s withering judgment will be rightly upon us as a country that loved its guns more than it loved its children. It will duly record the sickening indifference that we have shown over the routine mass murder of our countrymen as one of the most damning examples of our cowardice and barbarity in what will surely be the twilight of the American experiment.

To that end, we are also, it seems, in danger of going down in history as a country too effete, or too self-destructive, to save its embattled democracy, even when it is drenched in that blood. 

Here’s an alternative idea, if you’ll indulge me:

We can stand up and say “No more.”

**********

Illustration: Being Jesus, he can get by with just a shotgun. 

I found it on the web, and I dunno if it’s ironic or not. What’s worrying is that both possibilities are equally likely.

They Don’t Want It to Stop

Where would you like to begin with the horrific events in Buffalo last week?

Let’s start with the most obvious and urgent aspect.

There is an epidemic of right wing domestic terrorism in the United States—especially against people of color—one with no analog anywhere else on our political spectrum, and it is being eagerly fomented and fanned by right wing politicians and media figures. 

You can tell how true that statement is by how ferociously those politicians and media figures are trying to deny it.

Last week, The New York Times’s David Leonhardt wrote an extremely coherent, non-hyperventilating piece that laid out the facts very clearly:

Over the past decade, the Anti-Defamation League has counted about 450 US murders committed by political extremists. Of these 450 killings, right-wing extremists committed about 75 percent. Islamic extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists were responsible for 4 percent.

Nearly half of the murders were specifically tied to white supremacists.

Leonhardt duly notes that “not all extremist violence comes from the right—and that the precise explanation for any one attack can be murky, involving a mixture of ideology, mental illness, gun access and more…..But it is also incorrect to pretend that right-wing violence and left-wing violence are equivalent problems.” 

The right, of course, would like us to believe otherwise, but the facts are the facts. It is not antifa going around killing people in cold blood time and time again, not BLM, not queer activists, not migrants from Latin America, not Bernie Sanders supporters or MSNBC devotees, not even—by the numbers—Islamist terrorists. It’s white neo-fascists, enflamed by the rhetoric of what has become the mainstream Republican leadership, both elected and not.

In this week’s entry in his excellent blog The Back Row Manifesto, my friend Tom Hall offers an excruciating litany of this terrible history over the past thirty years. It is a nightmare that includes both state-sponsored violence against people of color and unilateral acts by hate-filled individuals, twin horrors that go hand in hand.  

But as Tom notes, this nightmare is not new. Variations of it go back all the way to before the founding of this country, in the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas by European invaders, who also brought slavery to these shores, continuing through Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan (both in the 19th century and again in the 1920s), Jim Crow, and the violent response to the civil rights movement. We see it even now in the disproportionate violence toward people of color carried out by law enforcement and the criminal justice and prison systems. 

It is bitterly ironic that the same American conservatives who are apoplectic at the idea that we might (correctly) teach our children that there is a history of systemic racism in the United States are also unwilling to acknowledge that there is even a problem…..not even when, yet again, a murderer spouting vile white supremacist rhetoric guns down a slew of Black or Brown people in a bloody rampage, an occurrence which, you may have noticed, happens with tedious regularity in America.

Very on brand, as the saying goes.

That ought to be enough of a crime against humanity, doncha think? But added to it is the uniquely American plague of guns in millions of hands, such that a racist madman isn’t just confined to venting online, as he might be in other developed countries, or even attacking a few people with a knife before he is subdued, but can go into a supermarket and execute nearly a dozen people while kitted out in body armor and packing a veritable arsenal fit for a combat infantryman. 

Inevitably we are greeted with the Republican talking point that guns don’t kill people, mental illness does, which of course conveniently elides the fact that they don’t wanna do anything about mental health care in America either, any more than they want to support common sense firearms restrictions. (Despite his history of mental illness, the Buffalo gunman was legally able to buy an assault-style weapon, just as most mass shooters bought their guns legally.)

In short, I don’t know which is more despicable: the right wing’s responsibility on multiple fronts for what happened at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, or its shameless denial of that responsibility.

But on that point, let’s spend a moment on one of the chief shitbags engaged in this evasion.

FÜR ELISE

Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third ranking Republican in the House, having replaced the excommunicated Liz Cheney, represents New York’s 21st congressional district, upstate, not too far from Buffalo, in the 26th. Once a mainstream-ish conservative who even railed against Trump’s unfitness to lead the party, she is now among that majority bloc of craven Republicans who came to realize that kissing Trump’s fat ass and embracing the Big Lie and going full MAGA is the only path to success in the contemporary GOP. And that is precisely what she has done. 

After overtly touting “replacement theory” on her website and campaign ads—literally the thing that inspired this mass murderer—as well as slinging the newly fashionable innuendo that all Democrats are pedophiles, she now has the gall to issue a statement in the wake of the Buffalo murders saying, “It is not the time to politicize this tragedy. We mourn together as a nation.” 

(Excuse me a moment—I’ll be back right after I clean up my vomit.)

This has become the standard, loathsome Republican dodge in the wake of mass shootings, especially when members of the GOP bear a strong measure of blame for what happened: 

“Let’s not talk about the blood on my hands, and how I helped spew the poison into the national consciousness that led to this latest atrocity.” 

To suggest that holding to account those whose words and actions contributed to a tragedy is somehow “politicizing” it is beneath contempt. So let’s be clear: It is the Elise Stefaniks, the Tucker Carlsons, the Steve Bannons, and the Stephen Millers of the world who created the conditions for the massacre in Buffalo in the first place, a massacre which by its very nature is political in every way.

MOTHERTUCKER

In the wake of Buffalo, we’ve gotten a lot of “explainers” breaking down exactly was the “great replacement theory” is, but at the end of the day it’s just another incarnation of racism itself, the idea that dirty, diseased outsiders in various shades of not-white are coming to take your jobs, deflower your daughters, and generally ruin America. (I know, I know, there are “nuances” involving global elites, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the Christian baby content of matzoh, but we can leave that shite aside.) 

In other words, it is standard issue racism, nativism, and reactionary politics, with a baroque dash of Weimar-style anti-Semitism. 

We keep hearing that “replacement theory” is now a mainstay of the Republican mainstream, which is true, but what it represents is the age-old hatred and fear at the very heart of American right wingism.

With impeccable timing, The New York Times’s Nick Confessore recently published an epic three-part series on Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson (read it herehere and here), and how he has created what Confessore says “may be the most racist show in the history of cable news— and also, by some measures, the most successful.” 

Those two achievements are not coincidental; they are inextricably linked.

To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas. 

Almost from the beginning, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has presented a dominant narrative, recasting American racism to present white Americans as an oppressed caste. The ruling class uses fentanyl and other opioids to addict and kill legacy Americans, anti-white racism to cast them as bigots, feminism to degrade their self-esteem, immigration to erode their political power.

Among the most frequent recurring characters on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” are Black politicians like the Democratic congresswomen Maxine Waters and Ilhan Omar and Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Mr. Carlson has portrayed, against the available evidence, as a kind of shadow president. 

He regularly disparages Black women as stupid or undeserving of their positions…..When President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Mr. Carlson demanded that the White House release her law school admissions test scores to prove she was qualified.

Seemingly every social ill is laid at the feet of immigrants and refugees—not just working-class unemployment, but rising home prices, out-of-wedlock births among native-born Americans, even the supposedly sorry state of his favorite Beltway fishing spots. 

Mr. Carlson, I feel compelled to point out, is the stepson of an heiress to the Swanson TV dinner fortune. My own assessment of him, which I have offered before, but of which I am so enamored that I will say it again, is that his family made its money feeding Americans garbage in front of their TVs and he is continuing the tradition.

Confessore tracks Carlson’s rise from troubled teenage ne’er-do-well to bowtied talking head dipshit to modern day Father Coughlin. The takeaway is that Carlson saw what resonated with his audience of aging, racially panicked white people and methodically honed his snake oil act accordingly. (This pattern is not new either. Read Volker Ullrich’s Ascent.) Whether he has come to believe his own bullshit or not is ultimately irrelevant. The toxic end result is the same.

Carlson and his producers continue to craft their message through a mechanism they call “minute by minutes,” a measurement of audience engagement in almost real time, as opposed to more conventional evaluation of ratings in 15-minute blocks. Three former Fox employees told Confessore that “Carlson was among the network’s most avid consumers of minute-by-minutes,” as he was “(d)etermined to avoid his fate at CNN and MSNBC,” where his shows failed due to low ratings.

And what did those “minute by minutes” prompt Carlson & Co. to do?

“Tucker Carlson Tonight” began devoting more and more airtime to immigration and to what its host depicted as the looming catastrophe of demographic change. “He is going to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up,” said another former Fox employee, who worked frequently with Mr. Carlson.

It is also no coincidence that Carlson’s wanton racism and championing of “replacement theory” is twinned with his support for the Big Lie, and attempt to portray January 6th as a false flag operation by the FBI, and the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol as victims and martyrs. That is significant because the Republican Party’s virulent racism is of a piece with its campaign to gain a chokehold on the American political process, and elections specifically.

WHO BENEFITS?

The GOP very much wants America to view the Buffalo mass murders as the random and senseless act of a mentally ill individual, having nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with the ready availability—and legality—of firearms intended for the battlefield, and certainly nothing to do with the shameful, hateful propaganda it daily spouts, even though this shooter specifically cited it. 

Its reasons for this stance are as clear as the reasons a hijacker doesn’t like metal detectors.

But if a killer gunned down ten people while spouting almost verbatim rhetoric taken from Rachel Maddow and Nancy Pelosi, I think Republicans would be a lot more eager to connect the dots. Of course, Maddow and Pelosi don’t go around spewing lies and ginning up irrational hatred and encouraging people to violent criminal acts, do they?

As Republicans continually stand in the way of meaningful reform to stop this wave of unconscionable violence, the rest of us are left sputtering with rage, asking, “Why??” and “How many more must die before we do something stop it???” But the answer is so painfully obvious, it’s a wonder we so rarely see or hear it plainly spoken:

The don’t want it to stop.

After all, what is the purpose of political violence? I’ll tell you. It is twofold. First, and most bluntly, it is to take what you want by force, whether it’s land, money, resources, or the acquiescence of the victims in question. But secondly, it is to intimidate others, to cow them into submission, and to deter them from putting up any similar resistance going forward. That is the whole point, from Brownshirts to Klansmen dressed as ghosts to open warfare itself: to intimidate one’s enemies into bowing to your will in fear for their lives. That’s why it’s called “terrorism.”

And it’s not just ordinary Black people that the modern Republican Party wants cowed. It’s opposition politicians, and even their own members. 

David Leonhardt again:

If you talk to members of Congress and their aides these days—especially off the record—you will often hear them mention their fears of violencebeing committed against them.

Some Republican members of Congress have said that they were reluctant to vote for Trump’s impeachment or conviction partly because of the threats against other members who had already denounced him. House Republicans who voted for President Biden’s infrastructure bill also received threats. Democrats say their offices receive a spike in phone calls and online messages threatening violence after they are criticized on conservative social media or cable television shows.

The same threat is intimidating election officials, one in six of whom “have exper­i­enced threats because of their job,” according to the Brennan Center. These attacks range from death threats that name offi­cials’ young chil­dren to racist and misogynistic harass­ment, forcing “elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try to take steps like hiring personal secur­ity, flee­ing their homes, and putting their chil­dren into coun­sel­ing.”

When it comes to this sort of thing, ask yourself, cui bono? (Not the illegitimate offspring of Sonny and Cher.) Who benefits from that kind of intimidation? The people who want to continue to oppress people of color, and keep them from voting, and get a chokehold on the American electoral process full stop, that’s who. 

I am not suggesting the GOP leadership, or even individual Republicans, endorse murders like the ones we just saw in Buffalo. (Or in Pittsburgh. Or in Charleston. Or in Charlottesville. Or in El Paso. I could go on.) 

Sometimes they do, of course, as in Kenosha. But there is no doubt that a climate of simmering political violence is serving Republican ends. You can tell, because they continue to stir it up.

Likewise, I’m not saying that this monstrous killer—I won’t say his name—had the specific agenda of aiding Republican electoral aims. He just wanted to murder Black people. But his actions sure do serve the goals of a white supremacist, Christian dominionist political movement, which is what the contemporary GOP has proudly become. (My friend Roz Weinman advocates dropping all this verbiage in favor of calling them something simpler and catchier for the sake of the American public, like neo-Nazis.)

We all know that Trump himself has frequently encouraged his supporters to commit acts of violence on his behalf, and well before January 6, 2021. The Republican leadership never denounced it, and has not started now. That cowardice, of course, only emboldens the would-be thugs. Because the threat of violence underpins and supports the rest of the reactionary campaign to gain a chokehold on the governance of this nation.

It is much like the oft-asked question of why Republican leaders don’t break with Trump when given the chance, as in his second impeachment. The obvious answer, as I’ve written ad nauseam in these pages over those past five years, is because they don’t want to break with him. And why should they? He serves their purposes beautifully! (Oh, I guess there is that pesky issue of common human decency and any shred of morality. But let’s not split hairs.)

Similarly, we should not be surprised that Republicans have not taken meaningful steps to stop this lethal plague of racist violence, that they have blocked attempts to do so by the Democratic Party, and indeed are pushing for an even freer hand in the wild west of public discourse where these poisonous ideas fester.

Because it’s good for them.

I am sure that, in the unlikely event that any right wingers (don’t call them “conservatives”) were to read this essay, they would be deeply, deeply offended by this allegation, and I understand why. But I invite them to do something to prove the case to the contrary. Because right now, I don’t see any evidence to support their claims. 

Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard, told The New York Times, “In a stable democracy, politicians unambiguously reject violence and unambiguously expel from their ranks antidemocratic forces.” The GOP is not doing that. Until it does, we will have no choice but to presume that it is perfectly happy with the murderous way things are. 

And we all know why.

*******

Photo: Lawrence Beitler’s iconic photograph of the lynching of two Black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Credit: Bettmann/Corbis.

Zebras Not Horses: The New American Normal

Funny story. Early one morning last week, the wife and I were awakened around 6am by what sounded like an enormous explosion, followed by a burst of light. It speaks to the collective jumpiness of the current American moment that as New Yorkers, immediately flashing back to 9/11, the first thought for both of us was that a bomb had gone off. 

We leapt out of bed and went to the window—not having paid attention during those duck-and-cover drills in the ‘50s, before we were born—and soon heard more explosions and additional flashes. 

Pretty soon we realized it was nothing but an especially intense bout of thunder and lightning. But it took us a while. 

As I went about my business on the day that followed, I mentioned the experience to several friends, all of whom told me they had the same exact experience. All of them. 

When it comes to diagnosis, medical students are taught to live by Occam’s razor: that the simplest explanation is usually correct. As the maxim goes, when you hear hoofbeats, your first thought should be horses, not zebras. So what does it say when your first instinct upon hearing a loud boom is “bomb,” not “thunder”?

It says you’re living in fraught and anxious-making times.

A BOX OF GRID SQUARES

At the military installations that I grew up on and around, the sound of live artillery, in gunnery training, was pretty commonplace. You got used to it. 

(My dad—an old infantryman who had a pokerface that made Buster Keaton look like Jim Carrey—once told me that the cannonshot that accompanied the playing of “Retreat,” and the lowering of the flag in front of the post headquarters at 5pm everyday, was a live round that flew overhead and landed in an impact area on the far side of post. “That’s why helicopters fly with their doors open,” he added, “so the shell will pass right through.”)

Even in Iraq in the Gulf war, there was plenty of boom boom, mostly from the skies, but apart from the occasional Scud, it was mostly the other guys on the receiving end of it. (I’m told that American vets who have gone to Ukraine to fight with the International Legion have had to adjust to being on the side with less firepower, even as Kyiv’s forces have proved adept at asymmetrical warfare.)

But I’m not used to hearing bombs go off in NYC. Even the sound of the first 767 to hit the World Trade Center—an improvised missile—did not immediately register to me as what it was, on the day. (I thought it was demolition associated with construction or something, albeit an unusually very loud one.) 

Exhausted from the pandemic and from Trump, New York is a tense place at the moment, and I suspect that is probably true all across the country. The city feels jumpy right now, with a larger-than-usual number of openly unwell people on the streets, shouting profanities at imaginary demons and threatening violence to passersby. The shooting on the N train in Sunset Park last month, two stops from where my wife and daughter and I live, has people rattled and wary on the subway especially. (The shooter fled the scene calmly, debarking in our neighborhood before moving on to the Lower East Side, where he called the cops from a McDonald’s in order to surrender.) 

Old New Yorkers never cease bemoaning how the city ain’t what it used to be. I’ve lived here for 23 years, and still get lectured on the glories of pre-Applebee’s Times Square. File that under “careful what you wish for.”

Sad to say, then, but the notion that there could be a nuclear blast in New York City—or anywhere in the US, but NYC especially—feels like a reasonable fear. It’s something that has haunted America since 1945, and developed a renewed urgency in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Obviously, I didn’t think Vladimir Putin had attacked us the other morning; that, I presume, would have been a much bigger bang. But I did think it could be terrorism related to the war in Ukraine, or part of the not-quite-finished “Global War on Terror,” which is to say, the “clash of civilizations” between the radical Islamist extremism and the West.

We used to say that Americans were spoiled and soft and disconnected from the harsh reality in which the rest of the world lives. That is still so, compared to, say, life in Ukraine, or Yemen, or Myanmar, to pull just three names out of the hat. But after 9/11, an economic collapse, a certain tangerine-tinted tinhorn Mussolini, the pandemic, Derek Chauvin and Kyle Rittenhouse, and now the spectacle of the resurgence of brutal land war in Europe, we may have turned a corner, mentality wise.  

ACCEPT IT THAT SOON YOU’LL BE DRENCHED TO THE BONE

Obviously, I am generalizing, badly. There are plenty of individual Americans who are not at all benighted—who, either through personal hardship or experience of the wider world or both, are plenty clear-eyed about the harshness of the aforementioned reality. There are whole communities, and whole demographics, whose daily life in this country does not resemble a picnic, and never has. 

But as a nation, it’s hard to dispute that we have long been a rather naïve and privileged people, insulated by oceans and good fortune and military might. 

And there were certainly rough times in the past, to be sure. We are regularly, numbingly reminded of how the Greatest Generation endured and prevailed during the Depression and the Second World War. During the Fifties, even as America supposedly experienced a “Happy Days”-style period of postwar prosperity presided over by an avuncular war hero-turned President, it also lived through the plague of McCarthyism and under the cloud of looming nuclear armageddon that might descend at any moment. The Sixties too certainly had its share of horrors, from Dealey Plaza to Memphis, Chicago, My Lai, and Kent State and beyond. 

But the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties—my own formative years—were relatively serene, assuming you were white, male, and middle class. The Wall came down, Francis Fukuyama sold books, there was peace and prosperity—an economic boom, in fact—and a smooth and fantastic hillbilly in the White House who played sax on “Arsenio Hall.” 

Even after September 11th broke the spell, it was another 15 years before the chickens really came home to roost, on a dark day in November 2016 that marked the beginning of the grim period in which we still wallow. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which unfolded in that interval, really had little impact on domestic American life for most of our countrymen, which was actually a huge part of the problem. After Vietnam, our leaders figured out how to prosecute our foreign military misadventures without need for a draft, outsourcing our warfighting—or should I say, insourcing it—to a tiny sliver of the population that was returned to combat again and again while the rest of us had the luxury of not worrying about it. Needless to say, that is a toxic arrangement for democracy. The feeling within the ranks was succinctly captured in a photo snapped at a US Marine base in Ramadi, Iraq and widely circulated on the Internet, showing a whiteboard inscribed with the words, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall.” 

But that era seems very much at an end. The pandemic brought home the point of “It’s a Small World After All” with even more force than that insidious earwig of a melody. First, America—almost unique in the developed world—was humiliated by its inability to cope with the coronavirus, thanks to a widespread Know Nothing anti-intellectualism and predilection for the “paranoid style” that runs deep in our collective DNA, as strongly reflected by our government at the time. But then, just as quickly, we were at our best, the envy of the world as American scientific know-how—the very thing that COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers angrily rejected—delivered a medical remedy in record-breaking time. Even then, of course, that same John Birchist precious-bodily-fluids faction refused to take advantage of it, prolonging the death and suffering for everyone. 

But it was no coincidence that our haplessness in responding to the coronavirus coincided with the reign of a toxic political movement unprecedented in our history in terms of the threat it poses to the republic. We didn’t need a foreign crisis to teach us about the big bad world when a homegrown monstrosity had arisen to threaten everything this country was supposed to stand for. 

BLESSED BE THE FRUIT

While I’m writing about explosions, and the present dystopia, we might as well touch on the continuing fallout from last week’s Supreme Court bombshell (yswidt?). It feels like a prime example of the parade of hardships that lately seem to have befallen us.

After years of insisting the fight against abortion was all about returning power to the individual states, emboldened Republicans are already talking about a federal, nationwide ban on abortion—period, without exceptions even for rape, incest (which, btb, is a form of rape), or the life of the mother. That didn’t take long, did it? Giddy over Alito’s draft opinion, they aren’t even pretending to hide their hypocrisy. Should they retake the Senate, they are contemplating dispensing with the filibuster in order to do so, notwithstanding their recent gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over its sanctity—nearly as sacred as a newly fertilized ovum, protected by law with all the rights of a fully formed human voter even as the post-coital couple are still avoiding the wet spot. And despite Alito’s risible insistence that the Court isn’t setting a precedent regarding other unenumerated rights, those same Republicans are also talking about making IVF, the Plan B pill, and contraception illegal. Gay and interracial marriage, the rights of LGBTQ couples to adopt children, and even desegregation are all on deck

Hysteria? Perhaps Susan Collins can reassure us that the Court, and the Christian dominionists who spent decades working toward this moment, would never do such a thing. 

Let’s be clear. The plutocratic wing of the GOP, which ran the Republican show for many many decades, does not care about abortion one way or another. But beginning with Reagan, the GOP deliberately courted the so-called “religious right” to bring to the polls a bloc of religious fanatics who would turn out turn out turn out, ferociously, for years to come, in order to achieve their theocratic goals, enabling the mainstream Republican Party to achieve its own prime directive of cutting taxes for the rich. 

And it worked. 

The problem is, the creature has blithely knocked Dr. Frankenstein aside (that’s fronk-en-steen, to you) and is now fully in control of the GOP. And that’s why our country’s laws on abortion—and a whole raft of other issues soon to come—is being dictated by a small minority of medieval religious zealots. 

If we don’t like it, perhaps we can push back with some passion and ferocity of our own. Which may be why those same folks are not only very keen to suppress voting rights, but also to get a chokehold on how our elections are run full stop.

Leave it to Harvard’s Jill Lepore to hit the bullseye, in a piece for The New Yorker titled, “Of Course the Constitution Has Nothing to Say About Abortion,” which begins with the salient observation that “Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is surprised that there is so little written about abortion in a four-thousand-word document crafted by fifty-five men in 1787.”

As it happens, there is also nothing at all in that document, which sets out fundamental law, about pregnancy, uteruses, vaginas, fetuses, placentas, menstrual blood, breasts, or breast milk. There is nothing in that document about women at all. 

Most consequentially, there is nothing in that document—or in the circumstances under which it was written—that suggests its authors imagined women as part of the political community embraced by the phrase “We the People.” There were no women among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. There were no women among the hundreds of people who participated in ratifying conventions in the states. There were no women judges. There were no women legislators. At the time, women could neither hold office nor run for office, and, except in New Jersey, and then only fleetingly, women could not vote. Legally, most women did not exist as persons.

Lepore writes that “Alito, shocked—shocked—to discover so little in the law books of the 1860s guaranteeing a right to abortion, has missed the point: hardly anything in the law books of the eighteen-sixties guaranteed women anything. Because, usually, they still weren’t persons. Nor, for that matter, were fetuses.”

(W)hen Samuel Alito says that people who believe abortion is a constitutional right “have no persuasive answer to this historical evidence,” he displays nothing so much as the limits of his own evidence. “

To use a history of discrimination to deny people their constitutional rights is a perversion of logic and a betrayal of justice. Would the Court decide civil-rights cases regarding race by looking exclusively to laws and statutes written before emancipation?

Lepore sagely points out that “Alito’s opinion rests almost exclusively on a bizarre and impoverished historical analysis,” one that argues that rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, can be affirmed only if “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition”—a standard, she notes, that “disadvantages people who were not enfranchised at the time the Constitution was written, or who have been poorly enfranchised since then.”  

Women are indeed missing from the Constitution. That’s a problem to remedy, not a precedent to honor.

Mic drop.

HARBINGER FROM THE SOUTH PACIFIC

The other item in the news that struck me this past week was the presidential election in the Philippines, where the good people of that long suffering nation inexplicably returned to power a monstrous and corrupt family that not very long ago robbed that country blind and eviscerated its democracy before being ousted on a wave of massive public outrage.

(I invite your attention to John Oliver’s excellent pre-election piece on the topic.) 

This is a tragedy for the people of the Philippines. How and why would they do such a thing to themselves? I dunno, but I know it’s a bad omen for democracy across the globe, the USA very much included.

So what I want to know is: In 2024, or even just six months from now, with the midterms, will we look back and ask the same question of ourselves?

Among saddest aspects of the Philippine debacle is the fact that Bong Bong—like Duterte—legitimately has the support of massive numbers of his fellow citizens. We have a similar WTF problem here in the US, but not a majority, which is both good and bad, when one contemplates the looming autocracy they intend to impose. Is a dictatorship installed by a small cabal of venal assholes against the will of the people better or worse than one that seizes power with the enthusiastic support of tens of millions, as in the US, or more extreme still, a full-on majority of short-memoried supplicants anxious to be abused, as in the Philippines? 

It took the people of the Philippines 36 years to forget the sins of this particular criminal gang and return them to power. We the people of the United States of America might well do that in less than two. 

If the age of American privilege and naivete is ending, such that we—like many people around the world—have to worry about bombs going off, and killer viruses, and insurrectionists living next door—maybe that vigilance is not such a bad thing, even if it’s a nerve-wracking way to live. That clap of thunder that I and many others mistook for an explosion woke me up. Which is not a bad way to be.

The Very Worst Person We Should Have Let Decide Our Abortion Policy

The New York Times’s Peter Baker called this week’s leak of an Alito-penned draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade“one of the biggest earthquakes in American domestic politics in a generation.”  (Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward of Politico broke the story.) No doubt about that.

It’s early days to say the least, but let’s dig into just a few aspects of this rapidly unfolding development, one that promises to consume and reshape US politics for months or years to come, and yet another major turn in what is very clearly right wing autocracy on the march. 

The bluntness of the Court’s decision. 

For years pundits, experts, and others in the SCOTUS peanut gallery predicted that the Court would subtly chip away at Roe rather than bluntly overturning it. The Court has long been signaling a gutting of Roe, a process we have watched slowly but inexorably unfold, with sickening milestones along the way, like Texas’s vigilante anti-choice law passed last September. All the experts thought that pattern of death by a thousand cuts would continue.

So Alito’s opinion in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization came as quite a shock: a full-throated, balls-to-the-wall extremist screed that could have been written by the most virulent anti-choice radical you can imagine. As the lawyer and writer Jill Filipovic wrote on Substack: “I thought this decision would have a lighter touch, that the Court would functionally overturn Roe without formally overturning Roe. I underestimated their radicalism.”

She wasn’t alone. In Slate, the veteran justice correspondent Dahlia Lithwick writes that if some version of this decision comes to pass, “years of conventional wisdom about the court and its concerns for its own legitimacy will be proved wrong.”

Every single court watcher who spoke in terms of baby steps, incrementalism, or “chipping away” at one of the most vitally important precedents in modern history will have been wrong. Those who suggested the court would never do something so huge and so polarizing just before the November midterms will have been wrong. And the people who assured us that Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were moderate centrists who cared deeply about the appearance of a nonideological and thoughtful court—well, yeah. They will have been wrong too.

They said Roe would go out not with a bang but a whimper, but when are we going to stop underestimating the awfulness of the Republican Party? I guess around the time Charlie Brown finally succeeds in kicking that football.

The first chance Republicans got to overturn Roe they are doing exactly that, because they don’t care about the will of the majority, they don’t care about optics, they damn sure don’t care about women or basic human decency…..they don’t care about anything except their own power, and they will do whatever the fuck they want to maintain and extend it, and do it as bluntly and as loudly and as crassly as they wish, even if it means lying (to the Senate) or cheating (in an election) or stealing (a seat on the Supreme Court). And if you don’t like it, fuck you. 

And that despicable ruthlessness applies both to the Ginni Thomas-brand religious zealots for whom overturning Roe is the Holy Grail, and to the plutocrats who couldn’t care less about abortion, but who have pandered to these Christian dominionists for their own venal ends.

The extremity of Alito’s opinion. 

“Full-throated” and “evisceration” are two terms widely used to describe Alito’s opinion, which I think is too kind, and implies a cogent argument, which it is anything but. It is, however, certainly full of sneering contempt not only for Roebut for an entire school of Constitutional scholarship, the one that sees the Constitution as a living document and not something to be read like a biblical diktat from Heaven.

By contrast, Alito favors a specious originalism, arguing that “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion,” and that there is no tradition of a right to abortion in American history, but rather “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.” 

So let’s bring back slavery, child labor, anti-miscegenation laws, and men-only voting too! (Don’t worry: someone at CPAC is working on all four.)

He certainly seems to have a badly impaired sense of irony, as when he writes: 

This Court cannot bring about the permanent resolution of a rancorous national controversy simply by dictating a settlement and telling the people to move on. Whatever influence the Court may have on public attitudes must stem from the strength of our opinions, not an attempt to exercise “raw judicial power.

That will be news to the roughly two-thirds of Americans who want Roe to stand, and to the conservatives who for years have been howling about “judicial activism” (by liberals).

Among the lowlights of this opinion, a possible cake-taker is Alito’s argument that “(Roe) imposed the same highly restrictive regime on the entire Nation, and it effectively struck down the abortion laws of every single State….and it sparked a national controversy that has embittered our political culture for a half-century.” 

George Orwell, call your office. So Roe—which gave American women control over their own bodies—was the “restrictive regime” that the government was forcing upon them, not this new reality the Court seeks to unilaterally install in which that control is arrogated by the state, such that it can compel a woman to carry her rapist’s child to term, even if that “woman” is a minor and her rapist is her father or stepfather? And Roe was the source of bitter national controversy, whereas this Molotov cocktail of a decision in Dobbs is going to usher in an era of comity and group hugs?

IMSIYAR. (It Makes Sense If You’re A Republican.) 

Incredibly, the right wing has managed to invert the whole concept of “religious liberty” such that the phrase now effectively means that the Religious Right can foist its faux morality on the rest of us, and force us to live by its medieval, mythological rules, but cannot be compelled to extend any such consideration to others’ beliefs or freedoms. 

We’ve seen that the justices, not surprisingly, live in a bit of a bubble—the older liberal ones, as well as the reactionaries. But Alito’s screeching diatribe betrays the ugly confluence of that isolation with immersion in the right wing echo chamber. 

In a piece for Slate titled “The Supreme Court’s Legitimacy Is Already Lost,” one of the country’s sharpest observers of that institution, Dahlia Lithwick, notes that in 1992, when O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy affirmed the constitutional right to an abortion in their plurality opinion in Casey—all Republican appointees, by the by—they “knew very well what would happen to the court if it disregarded and disparaged the American public, the Constitution, and itself.” 

The Court’s current right wing supermajority either doesn’t know or has zero fucks to give. 

(I)n addition to Alito’s sneering references to “abortionists” and eugenics and his gleeful mockery of the authors of both Roe and Casey, anyone who believed the court would pretend to have any solicitude whatsoever—for women, for public opinion, for its own reputation as a moderate branch—was well and truly kidding themselves. This draft opinion, whatever may be done to it in the days to come, is Exhibit A for anyone who believed that time or history or respect for their colleagues or the justices who came before them would moderate the five justices in this current majority, a majority that ought to know it stole its way into a majority but again refuses to even feign self-moderation in the face of that fact. We knew this when Texas’ S.B. 8 law banning abortion after six weeks was decided on the shadow docket in September, and when the court let it stand again this winter. We knew it when we watched the Dobbs arguments last fall. Roe had already been effectively overturned then—we have just had trouble catching up.

+ States’ rights, shmates’ shmites. 

Alito writes: “The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. We now overrule those decisions and return that authority to the people and their elected representatives.”

“Leave it up to the states!” has been the Republican rallying on this matter since at least 1973. If Roe falls, it won’t affect abortion rights in Massachusetts or California or anywhere else the citizenry collectively wants it, we were assured by ostensibly moderate conservative pundits. There are serious problems with that theory, but never mind, because Republican adherence to it was always disingenuous. Even before the Dobbs decision becomes law, we are already seeing them beginning to push for federal legislation banning abortion nationwide. 

The morning before the leak broke, the Washington Post reported that “Leading anti-abortion groups and their allies in Congress have been meeting behind the scenes to plan a national strategy that would kick in if the Supreme Court rolls back abortion rights this summer, including a push for a strict nationwide ban on the procedure if Republicans retake power in Washington.”

It’s almost as if everything the GOP has said, going back decades, has been flat-out lies, isn’t it?

+ Damage to the court’s Image—boo hoo—and the deceit of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and ACB.

As Politico noted, “No draft decision in the modern history of the court has been disclosed publicly while a case was still pending.” Whoever leaked it (and the prevailing theory is that it was a right wing clerk, to pre-emptively lock the justices into the decision), it speaks to the firebreathing volatility of the present moment.

But it’s very telling that the leak is the thing that conservatives like David French, late of the National Review, are most upset about—and French counts as a relatively reasonable conservative, and anti-Trump—along with the damage to the Court it will cause. Indeed, clutching their pearls and howling about the leaker is a literal GOP talking point, according to an internal strategy memo obtained by Axios.

So let’s be clear. The damage to the Court was done by duplicitous right wing justices who did an Apache dance before the Senate over stare decisis during their confirmation hearings. That in turn has been part of a broader self-sabotage of the Court’s credibility by its conservative members and by the right wing movement in general, with Mitch McConnell in the role of mustache-twirling ringleader. 

Collins and Murkowski both issued statements saying that they are shocked (shocked!) that Gorsuch & Kavanaugh & Barrett blatantly lied to them. Wow. In other news, apparently you can be a US Senator and be as gullible as a newborn—or as dishonest as a fucking Republican politician.

So forget the leak. The real tragedy here, I humbly submit, has to do with a rather larger issue of human rights in America—again, eloquently stated by Dahlia Lithwick by way of demolishing the Frenchy position: 

The court’s staggering lack of regard for its own legitimacy is exceeded only by its vicious disregard for the real consequences for real pregnant people who are 14 times more likely to die in childbirth than from terminating a pregnancy. The Mississippi law—the law this opinion is upholding—has no exception for rape or incest. We will immediately see a raft of bans that give rights to fathers, including sexual assailants, and punish with evermore cruelty and violence women who miscarry or do harm to their fetuses. The days of pretending that women’s health and safety were of paramount concern are over.

PS Mr. French believes that the decision to overturn Roe would represent “a restoration, not a rupture of our constitutional fabric….Roe was the rupture, and our nation has been dealing with the legal and political consequences ever since.” He has also said he thinks dispensing with Roe will cool, rather than inflame, national tensions on the topic.

Good luck with that, Dave.

+ The towering significance of McConnell’s crime. 

Every day and in every way, the repercussions of Mitch McConnell wantonly, despicably, hypocritically violating the spirit of the US Constitution and blocking even a hearing for Merrick Garland continue to reverberate. Also: the disastrous decision of the Democratic Party not to raise holy hell about it at the time, born of overconfidence re an imminent Hillary victory.

Fool me once. 

+ Anything from the ivory tower? 

Eagerly awaiting Ross Douthat’s column telling American women why this is best for them.

+ Conservatives and radicals.

For the second time in a month (the previous one being on the subject of Ukraine), I am shocked to find myself agreeing with Bret Stephens, Douthat’s wiser fellow conservative on the Times’s opinion page, who notes that overturning Roe is a radical, not conservative move. Notably, Stephens disagreed with the reasoning behind Roe in ’73, but argues that almost fifty years later, reversing it will do more damage. While his argument is grounded mostly in the arcana of Constitutional law, rather than respect for a woman‘s reproductive rights, or human rights full stop, he’s still on the side of reason, decency, and common sense.  

Bret, forget what I said before: you are invited to the bat mitzvah again.

+ Only the beginning.

As I have written before, joining a loud chorus, this ain’t just about abortion: it’s about a wide-ranging rollback of civil rights and the ominous clatter of a right wing autocracy on the march. 

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

And so here we are. A minority, placed in control of the US Supreme Court by a president who received a minority of the popular vote and then, when he lost reelection, tried to overturn our democracy, is explicitly taking away a constitutional right that has been protected for fifty years. Its attack on federal protection of civil rights applies not just to abortion, but to all the protections put in place since World War II: the right to use birth control, marry whomever you wish, live in desegregated spaces, and so on.

Alito’s weak-kneed attempt to wall off this decision from other potential rollbacks of civil rights is a joke. (“We emphasize that our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right. Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”) Emboldened by this long sought victory, the right wing is going to extend it to try to outlaw IUDs, IVF, the morning after pill, and if it can pull it off, contraception itself. (God willing they will stop short of masturbation.) And next they will come for all those other unenumerated rights: the ones laid down in Obergefell, Loving, even Brown v. Board of Education. 

Doubt it? Which of us, then, is the naïve one here?

It reminds me of Scalia’s opinion in DC v. Heller (2008) asserting an individual’s constitutional right to own a private firearm under the Second Amendment, incorrectly in my view, but still a decision that explicitly said the government can regulate those weapons. That last bit has been conveniently forgotten and trampled upon by America’s firearms fetishists, and the anti-choice cabal (overlapping a lot with those Yosemite Sam gun nuts) will do the same with Alito’s absurdly flimsy qualifier.

+ Careful what you wish for.

For Democrats and other progressives, the optimistic view is that this Supreme Court decision-to-be represents one of the few ways the GOP could blow the midterms, which all the smart money has it tipped to win in a historic red wave. It sure seems to be trying. 

Insert “dog that caught the car” analogy here. Let’s hope it backs over it. 

In a piece for The Bulwark, Charlie Sykes writes:

For years the GOP has campaigned against Roe, but without any realistic expectation that it would actually be overturned. Republicans are keenly aware that polls have consistently shown that while opinion on abortion itself is mixed, a strong majority of voters opposes overturning Roe. Just 30% of Americans say they’d like to see the Supreme Court completely overturn its Roe vs. Wade decision, with 69% opposed—a finding that’s largely consistent both with other recent polling and with historical trends. 

While abortion has been a highly useful wedge issue for the GOP, the passionate part of its base that is fired up by it is not representative of the larger population, the roughly 7-in-10 American majority that supports some sort of abortion rights, and might work against the GOP in a general election. 

Last December, Sykes wrote, “In a rational political world, legislators would craft compromises that would reflect the various shades of public opinion. But, as you may have noticed, we do not live in that world.”

In this environment, the extremes will define themselves by their hostility to compromises of any sort.

I imagine it playing out like this: J.D. Vance comes out for a ban after 6 weeks; Josh Mandel calls for a ban after 2 weeks; MTG declares that all true conservatives support a total ban; and Madison Cawthorn insists that the true pro-life position demands the death penalty for doctors who perform the procedure.

Sykes predicts—and I’m not betting against him—that every race at every level “now becomes a referendum on abortion,” from statehouses and governorships to Congress and the presidency. “In a sane world, this debate could actually be healthier than what we have now. But does anyone think that we live in a world that particularly values sanity?”

(Sykes also  believes that “the schism between red and blue America will become wider and starker. While red states impose criminal penalties, blue states will expand taxpayer funding. American women will be living in two very different countries.” Except they won’t, because Republicans are planning a nationwide ban on abortion, full stop.)

So will this decision really galvanize the left? Will American women—and men—rise up in outrage? Or are there too many self-loathing Phyllis Schlaflys and Anita Bryants and Marjorie Taylor Greenes out there? 

Regardless, the Democratic Party damn sure ought to make this the centerpiece of its campaign. If it can’t straighten out its traditionally piss-poor messaging and mobilize voters off this, maybe it deserves to lose. 

The leadership does seem to recognize that. In a joint statement released soon after the Politico story broke, Pelosi and Schumer wrote: “Every Republican Senator who supported Senator McConnell and voted for Trump Justices pretending that this day would never come will now have to explain themselves to the American people.”

Damn straight. Let’s not let them avoid it. 

+ And lastly—Trump. AYFKM???

At the end of the proverbial day, I keep coming back to the gobsmacking fact that somehow we let Donald Trump decide abortion policy for the United States. Donald Trump!

The abortion wars have been raging for decades. It is bitterly ironic that it was this grotesque cretin—himself a strong argument for abortion—who should be the one to deliver the final coup de grâce. But thanks to Mitch McConnell, Democratic meekness, Tony Kennedy looking out for his kid, and just plain dumb luck, Trump was allowed to put THREE justices on the Supreme Court, fully a third of that bench. Three!!!

The members of America’s religious right hitched their wagon to a thrice-married, serial adulterer and proud sexual predator, the least pious man imaginable, a walking affront to everything their faith claims to be about……and it paid off, both for them and for their plutocratic allies, who as we noted above, don’t really give a shit about abortions (except when their mistresses need them), but are eager to weaponize it as a wedge issue to energize the reactionary base.

As I have written before, how many abortions do you think Trump himself has paid for in his long, misbegotten, teenage beauty contestant-harassing, porn star-rawdogging life? (Or more likely, as Samantha Bee quipped, promised to pay for and welshed on?) I’ve always hoped one of those women would come forward, but at this point I think MAGA Nation would just shrug and rationalize it away like everything else. 

It is beyond irony that this is the man we have allowed to determine what reproductive rights American women would have. As a result, the US may soon have more restrictive laws on abortion than Catholic countries including ItalyIreland, and Mexico, where the systems are far from perfect, but still far more humane than what looms here.

Once again we are reminded that elections have consequences. Oh, do they ever. Even the ones we win in the popular vote, but lose in the electoral college (with a little help from the Republicans’ friends in Moscow).

But her emails, amirite? 

+ Bad moon rising.

In closing, everything about the Alito draft confirms what ought to be excruciatingly obvious by now: the American right is playing rollerball while the middle and left are playing Candyland. The right means to seize power in the United States and take us back to a pre-New Deal, pre-feminist, retrograde America where white Christians didn’t have to worry about offending anybody with the n-word, or uppity women who thought they should be paid the same as men, or having their political power challenged in any way. The government they mean to install will certainly not be one that cares about a woman’s right to control her own body or make her own health care decisions. And they are willing to do just about anything to achieve that control: get behind Donald Trump, ally with Vladimir Putin, overturn an election, or throw democracy out the window to make sure elections no longer matter. 

If the Alito draft is a slap in the face that wakes us up to that harsh reality, it will be for the best. Because the sooner we realize it, the better off we will be in trying to stop it, if it’s not already too late.

**********

Previous King’s Necktie posts on the Supreme Court and/or abortion:

The Unkillable Zombie of States’ Rights – December 9, 2021

Autocracy on the March – September 10, 2021

Smash the Patriarchy, 2020 Edition – March 7, 2020

The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II – October 10, 2018

“Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018

Five Blind Mice – July 11, 2018

The Ghost of Merrick Garland – November 25, 2017

Violence and the Heroic Impulse 

When last we met, I was pondering whether Vladimir Putin was rational enough to recognize his losing situation in Ukraine, and—given his almost total control of the information available to the Russian public—simply declare victory and go home

The question was partly rhetorical. He has not done so, and unlikely to going forward. Stop the presses. 

Even so, Putin is proving to be somewhat rational.

The Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria calls our attention to the military scholar Can Kasapoglu, writing for the Hudson Institute, who early on predicted that the invasion of Ukraine would really be two distinct wars, one in the south and east and another in the north and west. Having met unexpectedly stiff resistance in trying to subdue the whole of the country—a string of embarrassing defeats, really, including, most recently, the sinking of the battlecruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet—Putin now seems to be recalibrating toward a less ambitious objective, one that merely carves off the oil-rich Donbas region and the southeastern portion of Ukraine, with its access to that sea. 

In that regard, he is, if not declaring victory, at least moving the proverbial goalposts—perhaps by design—back to where many experts had them from the start.

Whether this is a strategic retreat after a colossally ill-conceived overreach, or what the Kremlin planned all along (my money is on the former), repelling a Russian invasion and preventing the speedy conquest that most expected already represent a tremendous upset victory for underdog Ukraine, and a deep humiliation for Putin. But the danger is far from over, and the situation remains highly fraught….in part for that very reason. 

Russia’s less publicized gains in the east remain worrying, and Putin seems set on exploiting them. Zakaria:

Russia has been able to move forces and supplies out of its bases in Crimea and capture the cities of Melitopol and Kherson. Mariupol is now encircled and invaded by Russian troops, and Ukrainian forces trapped there cannot be resupplied. Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov has been blocked, and, Kasapoglu points out, Russian forces have a contiguous land corridor from Crimea deep into Donbas. 

The loss of Odessa, the country’s main port, would be especially devastating, as it would turn “Ukraine into an economically crippled rump state, landlocked and threatened on three sides by Russian military power, always vulnerable to another incursion from Moscow.” 

Zakaria also believes that this outcome would tempt Putin to invade neighboring Moldova, “which has its own breakaway region”—Transnistria—”filled with many Russian speakers.” Zelenskyy himself believes that if Putin succeeds in the south and east, he will return to try to capture Kyiv again, a view shared by the Ukrainians’ senior general in charge of the defense of Kyiv, Alexander Gruzevich. 

It is also clear that Putin intends to prosecute this new, more limited campaign with the same monstrousness he has shown thus far, including the wanton leveling of Ukrainian cities with artillery and airpower, the deliberate targeting of civilians, summary executions of prisoners, massacre of noncombatants, and widespread rape, torture, and other war crimes, all perpetrated by an undisciplined force that seems to have no adult supervision. (A longstanding and blood-drenched tradition within the culture of the Russian military, it must be said.)

Images of the Kyivan suburb of Bucha, site of some the worst atrocities thus far, prompted a number of observers to note that Ukraine is “not a battlefield—it’s a crime scene.” (The analogy was made by everyone from the Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas to Vitali Klitschko, the former professional boxer whose brother Wladimir—also a former pro boxer—is now the mayor of Kyiv.) The recent arrival of a new field commander, General Alexander Dvornikov, nicknamed “the Butcher of Syria” for his performance in that theater, does not suggest that a reversal of that trend is in the works.  

For a time there was talk that Zelenskyy would negotiate an end to hostilities by ceding the Donbas to Moscow. That scenario now seems unthinkable. It may yet emerge—geopolitics is famously unpredictable, in case you missed it. But having badly bloodied the Russians’ collective nose, Kyiv now has the strategic initiative; Zelenskyy is not going to sacrifice the Donbas or any other part of his country, and he should not. 

His fighters certainly aren’t in the mood to wave the white flag, as witnessed by the defenders of Mariupol just this week giving the middle finger to a Russian demand that they surrender. It was reminiscent of a moment early in the war, when besieged Ukrainian soldiers on a place with the unimprovable name of Snake Island defiantly told the crew of a menacing Russian warship to “go fuck yourselves.”

And what was the name of the Russian warship? Oh, yeah: the Moskva. Which now sits at the bottom of the Black Sea. 

PRESCRIPTION FOR VICTORY

So how to proceed from here? As Putin readies this new offensive, how can the West capitalize on Kyiv’s success thus far to expel Russia entirely with Ukrainian sovereignty—and territorial integrity—intact? 

The primary answer is pretty simple: Arm and support Ukraine so that it can resoundingly defeat the Russians and win the war. 

That such a prospect is even on table is pleasantly astonishing to most people outside of the Kremlin and Mar-a-Lago, where the faithful pennant-waving for Team Putin continues, but there you have it. And it is within Kviv’s means to achieve it, and within ours to help.

Ukrainian triumphs on the battlefield mean that the West can now pursue a more aggressive strategy of pro-active military assistance without fear of Russian escalation, and we should do exactly that. Concerns about a wider war—even a nuclear one—remain, but success breeds success, and we are in a position to act more forcefully. 

Writing in The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies offers a savage critique:

The Russian military—revealed as inept at tactics, unimaginative in operational design, obtuse in strategy, and incompetent at basic logistics and maintenance—can do only two things well: vomit out massive amounts of firepower and brutalize civilians. It has been bloodied very badly indeed. If, as seems plausible, it has taken losses (killed, wounded, missing, and imprisoned) of a quarter or more of the forces it committed to this war, it may teeter on the verge of collapse. We can see the indicators in reports from the battlefield: equipment abandoned, officers killed by their own men, desperate attempts to dragoon young men into military service, and blocking units to shoot deserters. The Russian military has not established, let alone maintained, control of the air. Russia threw three-quarters of its ground-combat forces into Ukraine, where they were driven from one theater and severely handled in the others, and now has no real reserves on which to draw.

Cohen believes that both Putin and his top generals are woefully ill-informed about this true state of affairs—a true hazard of despotism. To that end, he thinks Putin is foolishly about to “order offensives that, if confronted by a well-resourced Ukrainian foe, can effectively destroy his own army. The challenge for the West is to ensure that this is its fate.”

From your lips to God’s ears, Eliot. 

Per Zakaria, retired flag officers like Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, former commander of US Army Europe, propose sending Ukraine the kind of equipment that will allow it to exploit the inherent weaknesses of Russia’s rigid and tactically inflexible military: helicopters, armored vehicles, drones, multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), and good old fashioned artillery that will enable the Ukrainians to stand off and attack Russian forces from long range.

Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, has advocated giving Ukraine fighter planes (a contentious issue thus far), air defense systems, and more advanced anti-ship missiles like the homegrown R-360 Neptunes it used to sink the Moskva. I had previously been skeptical of the push to send old MiG fighter jets, but as Cohen points out, “the Ukrainians are now the world’s experts in fighting Russians—not us….So rather than questioning whether they need fixed-wing aircraft or can use Western military hardware, the US should err on the side of generosity.”

Zakaria also argues for a naval blockade in international waters similar to the one NATO imposed during the Balkan wars of the ‘90s, one that would keep Russian troops from making an amphibious assault and resupplying by sea. Intelligence support is also a force multiplier, and because it is by definition secret, with plausible deniability baked in, has the added advantage of not risking escalation the way, say, a USAF C-17 full of AT-4 anti-tank weapons landing at the Kyiv airport does. 

In some ways, however, the shopping list is an inside-baseball matter for the military cognoscenti. It’s the speed of delivery that matters most to Kyiv. 

In a recent interview with Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, President Zelenskyy said, “When some (world) leaders ask me what weapons I need, I need a moment to calm myself, because I already told them the week before. It’s Groundhog Day. I feel like Bill Murray.”

(Cue “I Got You Babe.”)

Moscow, of course, is threatening Washington not to do any of these things, but that is the sound of a desperate man on his back foot. (White House reply to Kremlin: “You’re not the boss of me.”) Putin has little leverage with which to deter such stepped up Western aid, short of mutually assured destruction, and I am guardedly optimistic that he is not that crazy nor so out of it, despite reportedly not getting the straight skinny from his generals. (Understandably so, as few of them are keen to get fired, or worse.)

Zelenskyy also argues for the importance of information warfare in penetrating domestic Russian propaganda—not only at the state level, but also via non-state actors, like Anonymous and other hackers who can break through (or go around) Putin’s informational Maginot Line and eat away at public support for the war among ordinary Russians. Even steel-fisted dictators are vulnerable to the regiments of grieving mothers when the coffins start coming home, accompanied by questions.  

Economically, depriving Russia of the roughly $320 billion it derives annually in oil and gas sales to foreign buyers—Europe, principally—would help, though Zakaria believes sanctions and embargoes alone will not force Putin to end the war. “The only pressure that will force Russia to the negotiating table is military defeat—in the south. Putin’s Plan A failed, but we cannot let his Plan B succeed.”

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

There is no doubt that the US can and should move faster and more aggressively to send aid to Ukraine. That said, some of Mr. Cohen’s suggestions go far beyond what I would say are advisable. 

These include the deployment of volunteer US combat pilots, organized along the lines of the First American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, that flew under the Chinese flag before the US entered World War II. A step beyond even that, he advocates the overt deployment of active duty American advisors to Ukraine itself, presumably from the 10th Special Forces Group, which is focused on Europe, and has a forward-deployed battalion permanently stationed in Germany. (“If the Soviet Union could deploy thousands of advisers to North Vietnam in the middle of the Vietnam War without triggering a nuclear conflict, the US can deploy advisers to western Ukraine, or at least to Poland, to train Ukrainian soldiers.”) 

Of course, the US already has some 8750 soldiers in Poland, including a brigade of the 82nd Airborne, not to mention whatever the 10th SFG is up to already, covertly. But to openly put American military personnel into Ukraine would be a very risky move, as history shows that “advisors” almost always wind up as active combatants. 

We ought not be surprised at Mr. Cohen’s hawkishness, though, as he is a card-carrying member of the neo-con brain trust that dragged us into the disastrous and dishonest second Iraq war. It’s ironic, since those neo-cons, you may recall, were gripped by the same blinkered expectation as Putin that the nation in question would greet its invaders with bouquets of flowers.  

Cohen also argues that any Russian use of chemical weapons ought to trigger consideration of a no-fly zone, which—he declines to note—is tantamount to jumping with both feet into a full-blown shooting war. Even the New York Times’s reliably conservative Bret Stephens won’t go that far, offering instead a far more measured menu of escalated response to that terrible scenario. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Bret Stephens, but when the alternative is Eliot Cohen, it’s a sliding scale…and Stephens’ argument is sound and smart. 

Cohen’s recklessness marks the boundaries of how far we ought to go in pursuing the initiative in Ukraine—a reminder that hawks gonna hawk, and we need to rein them in, even when they’re on the side of good now and then. 

ALL NAZIS ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL

The war in Ukraine has had a galvanizing effect on the Western world, as we watch an embattled democracy resist a brutal invasion by a criminally aggressive, openly autocratic neighbor. Even some pacifists have noted that it’s impossible not to admire the bravery and valor of the Ukrainian people, and hard to argue that they should not fight back by force of arms. 

Not since the Second World War has there been a conflict that has generated such near-universal consensus over the righteousness of one side and the villainy of the other. Other combatants in other wars have certainly had their devoted supporters convinced of the justness of their cause, but they were usually opposed by an equally devoted cohort for the other side. By contrast, in Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, the whole world is on Team Blue & Gold, save for Vladimir Putin and Tucker Carlson and their respective, overlapping cults. On that count, Putin’s supporters at least have the excuse of being in an information chokehold without access to the actual facts. Tuck’s do not; their blinders are voluntary. 

To that point, Eliot Cohen represents the old school Republican attitude on foreign policy. But there is another longstanding strain on the right, and it is more Lindberghian. Indeed, this faction is eerily reminiscent of the previous one operating under the slogan of “America First!,” a group whose lobbying to keep the US out of a war in Europe was a similarly thin disguise for its flatout admiration for the aggressor in that war. 

The cult of Carlson and other faithful American consumers of Kremlin propaganda seem to have swallowed whole Mr. Putin’s risible claim that his invasion of that nation is about “de-Nazification.” To cite one anecdote, the WaPo recently detailed the angry, threatening messages the proprietor of a steakhouse in Bardstown, Kentucky received for flying a Ukrainian flag, including sneering references to the Ukrainians being “Nazis.”

Funny, MAGA Nation was a lot more sympathetic to Nazis when they were marching in Charlottesville and otherwise backing the Trumpist GOP

(But if they liked Tucker’s recent foray into homoerotic soft porn, they’re gonna love Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.)

The symbiosis between Putinist and Trumpist propaganda is no coincidence. Heather Cox Richardson reports:

Russia specialist Julia Ioffe told MSNBC, “Every time I’m asked by Americans do Russians really believe this stuff… as if we don’t have the same thing happening here. You have 40% of the American population that was convinced in just one year that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election….”

And, indeed, Trump loyalists like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson continue to echo Russian talking points to undercut Ukraine’s war effort. Media scholar Eric Boehlert noted that “the anti-democratic, authoritarian bonds are becoming tighter as the Trump movement now turns to the Kremlin for its messaging cues. The overlap is undeniable, and the implications are grave.”

What is even more astonishing is that the American right is at once able to side with Vladimir Putin, while aping the martyrhood and idealism of the people he is fighting. 

LOOKING FOR A FIGHT

The chest-swelling inspiration that we draw from Ukraine’s pluck—and success—is instructive, whether it ignites “Kum-ba-ya” rhapsody for global democratic solidarity or Cohen’s innate itch for interventionism. It’s undeniable that there is frisson in observing a life-and-death drama on this scale. It makes many of us long to be part of a similarly righteous struggle for something much larger than ourselves, which is part of why so many Westerners have, admirably, if abstractly, adopted the Ukrainian cause as their own. (It’s a lot less romantic huddled in a makeshift bomb shelter in Kharkiv, or looking over gunsights in the frigid trenches outside Mariupol, or trying to flee to safety in Poland with your terrified children in tow.)

I get it. I felt it as a young man looking for adventure and for dragons to slay, or at least windmills to tilt at, and I feel it even now, as a not-so-young-man with a bad back. In some ways, those of us who have been infuriated by the rise of Trumpism and energized to push back against it have been steeped in a similar sort of passion for six or seven years now. (Not equating the gravity of the situations, nor Trump to Putin, but the sense of mission and of  camaraderie is similar.) 

But it’s also an impulse that can easily curdle and turn into something dangerous and toxic. I invite your attention to the fervor of the January 6th Insurrrectionists, who so passionately believed that they too were fighting the good fight. They believe it still. 

It must be noted that their beliefs—passionate though they are—are grounded in self-delusion, cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs conspiracy theory, Salem-like mass hysteria, and a willful refusal to consult the facts, all fueled by lies told by the fomenters of that despicable cause. 

So let me be clear that I am not saying, “Gee, the right wing rabble have a point,” or in any way justifying or excusing their batshit beliefs and indefensible actions, let alone comparing them to the righteousness and bravery of the Ukrainians. (I feel compelled to note again that January Sixthers and other Big Lie Republicans tend to identify and sympathize with Russia.) I am saying only that they see themselves as comparable, notwithstanding the epic delusion at the core of that belief and the falseness of the premise from which it springs. 

Thus we see the self-flattering feedback loop of all those who resort to violence. Sometimes they are right, as in Ukraine. Sometimes opinion is greatly divided, from the West Bank to Derry. Sometimes they are dead wrong, from the KKK to the SLA to the Islamic State. But ”our cause justifies killing people” is the argument of all who take up arms, from sovereign states, to legitimate freedom fighters, to terrorists who claim that mantle, to aggressors like Putin himself, to lone wolf lunatics who shoot up the N train in Sunset Park. Grievance justifies gunfire. That sometimes they are right and sometimes howlingly wrong is the complexity at the heart of the whole problem.

MAGA Nation takes inspiration from Ukraine’s fight too, even as it sides with the invaders. The idea of banding together under the patriotic banner to take up arms against “tyranny” is intoxicating, even if the casus belli isn’t foreign invasion but gender neutral bathrooms, Anthony Fauci’s belief in empiricism, and Colin Kaepernick. We rightly scorn these yahoos for their adolescent eagerness for revolution, and their t-shirts quoting Jefferson about the bloody plant food for the tree of liberty. But we ought to recognize the universal impulse from which it comes.

Their self-flattery falls apart, as does its ostensible function as a pretext for armed revolution, under even a cursory examination of their agenda. The regime that Trumpists want to install is one that would eviscerate our republic, put an end to the American experiment, and create a de facto one-party right wing state, one which promises to make the (gulp) first Trump administration look like an episode of “Teletubbies.” 

It is one that valorizes Putin and Putinism and as it seeks to emulate his autocracy here at home.

WANTED: FORTUNE TELLER

We cannot yet predict with any confidence how the war in Ukraine will end. Putin might well be forced to withdraw without achieving any of his objectives, but it’s not gonna come easy. While he could almost certainly sell that retreat to his domestic audience as a Potemkin victory, the international consequences of such a humiliation are very much another matter. More to the point, as we have discussed, any settlement that leaves Zelenskyy in power would also leave Vladimir’s chief strategic goal—the ruthless obliteration of an uppity pro-democracy movement on his border—unfulfilled. In fact, it would likely have the opposite effect, emboldening such democratic impulses and inspiring others that they too can defy Moscow’s desired “sphere of influence.” He is therefore unlikely to submit to such a result unless he has no other (realistic) choice. Which is to say, unless Ukraine, with our help, forces him out. 

It has become trite to say that Putin has already lost the war, given that he has turned Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global icon, brought the admiration of the civilized world onto the Ukrainian people, prompted Germany to rearm, and made Finland and Sweden seek membership in NATO, to say nothing of the lasting damage he has done to his own country. (Own goal: V. Putin/ RUS, 2’) 

But Putin “losing” the war will still entail horrific suffering by the people of Ukraine along the way, and months or years of fighting, even if it is confined to the south and east. Russia may yet turn all of Ukraine into smoking rubble and massacre every last citizen with a Ukrainian passport before this is over. We can have a hand in preventing that, or at least minimizing it. Notwithstanding the recklessness of some of his more hawkish ideas, Cohen is quite correct when he writes that, “Decisive action is urgently required to tip the balance between a costly success and a calamity.”

And while we go about that effort, let us do so with a clear head and a gimlet eye, and the knowledge of how intoxicating righteous violence can be, and how readily turned to less admirable ends. 

Might Putin Just Declare Victory and Go Home?

When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, most of the Western world assumed that his army would readily conquer the nation within a few weeks. I was among them, putting me in the company of almost all informed military strategists, foreign policy experts, and laymen alike, who expected a swift, if ugly, Russian victory. 

Putin clearly thought so too.

But we are now 33 days into the invasion and the Kremlin’s forces are bogged down in a grinding war of attrition. The Russian advance has been halted on all fronts; indeed, Ukrainian counterattacks have even pushed the Russians back in some areas. No major cities have yet fallen, despite relentless, cowardly hammering by far-off Russian artillery, much of it aimed at brutally flattening Ukraine’s cities and deliberately targeting civilians in order to inflict as much pain as humanly possible. 

Yet still the blue-and-yellow flag is flying.

The credit for this unlikely stalemate goes to the Ukrainian people, whose tenacity and determination in fighting foreign aggression by a monstrous autocrat are an inspiration to the world. Untrained Ukrainians of all ages have taken up arms and stymied the Russian invaders, a conscript army plagued by low morale and a general mystification of what the hell they are even doing there. Ukrainian fighter planes have been flying so low in attacking Russian forces that at least one UAF Su-27 returned to base with a street sign stuck to its jet intake after clipping it on a strafing run. That is really putting the “close” in “close air support.”

The Russian troops have been further bedeviled by logistical problems and long supply lines that have made it difficult for Vlad to keep them supplied with fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and even chow, proving the old saw that tactics is for amateurs while logistics is for pros. More prosaically, in the US Army we say, “If Joe don’t eat, Joe don’t fight.” Goes for Ivan too. 

At the national level, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an actor and comedian who found himself the unlikely president of his country in its darkest hour since the 1940s, has established himself as a heroic figure, “the Jewish Churchill,” as some are calling him. (NB: Actually, some believe that Churchill is the Jewish Churchill, according to Mosaic law, given rumors that his mother Jennie was Jewish or partially so.) 

We have also witnessed excellent statecraft by the Western powers, led by the Biden administration, distinguished by impressive control of the narrative and dominance in the informational battlespace, at least outside of Russia’s own borders. More concretely, the West has executed a well-coordinated campaign of non-military resistance and targeted economic sanctions, even at the price of mild domestic sacrifice—not America’s strong suit in the past. Among other things, those sanctions last week caused Russia’s Uralvagonzavod tank factory in the town of Nizhni Tagil in the Ural mountains—the largest such facility in the world—to shut down, largely because it can no longer get the computer chips that are essential to its product. 

But silicon wafers are the least of it. On the ground in Ukraine, the Russian tank corps has been getting it even more viscerally, as the combination of man-portable light anti-tank weapons (like the Javelins Trump held hostage) and drones (particularly Turkish TB-2s) are wreaking havoc on it.  

Haters have been trying to write the obituary of armored warfare since the end of the Cold War, but somehow the main battle tank manages to hang on. (It is worth noting that the Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred on the 31stanniversary of the commencement of the ground phase of the 1991 Gulf War, the largest armored assault since World War II and itself a famous refutation of the premature epitaph for armored combat.) But in Ukraine we may indeed be witnessing a sea change in armored warfare, and—at long last—the end of the supremacy of the main battle tank. (Ladies and gentleman, as an old grunt, I submit to you that the once and forever champion in the category of the Ultimate Weapon remains the infantry soldier.)

None of this is to say that Russia is beaten. On the contrary: faced with these setbacks, Putin is even more dangerous, and apt to intensify his brutal tactics—war crimes, as even Joe Biden has rightly begun to call them. That choice, should he make it, may prove even more self-destructive than the original decision to invade, but it doesn’t mean he won’t do it. 

So as the operational situation evolves, a great many pundits are openly pondering how all this might end. Some of the scenarios are quite grim, and I am duly worried about them. But without speculating on the relative odds, we must acknowledge that another, more welcome possibility exists as well, largely as a result of those Ukrainian successes: That Vladimir Putin, realizing the epic error he has made, and the damage it is doing to Russia and to him personally, might simply declare victory and go home. 

Am I predicting that will happen? No. But it might….particularly if Ukraine and the West continue to rack up wins that incentivize him to do so.    

NOT-SO-BEST ACTOR

In just this first month of the war we have seen headlines that read “Putin has already won” and “Putin has already lost.”  So let me be clear about what I mean and what I don’t by the question I am posing. Latter part first, 

I don’t mean Putin has actually won the war. Very much the opposite. For Putin to declare victory would suggest that he is losing the war, and knows it, and needs to find a rapid, face-saving way out, one that simultaneously deflects recognition of that fact.

But given that he has near-total control of the Russian media, he is very much in a position to do so, simply by announcing to his people that Russia has achieved its objectives, Ukraine is “de-Nazified,” and he is bringing the boys home. 

Do we doubt his ability to pull off this Orwellian trick? He has been able to convince his citizenry that Ukraine started the war, that its Jewish president is a Nazi, that Hunter Biden is running US-funded bioweapons labs inside its borders, that the citizens of Mariupol are bombing themselves, and more. So it’s not a stretch to think that the charade of a glorious Russian victory will not be hard to sell at home. 

International opinion is a different matter, of course.

Even if he gaslights his own people, Putin won’t want to look weak or defeated on the global stage. Who does? The desire not to be humiliated is natural and universal, but it can’t always overcome reality, and the reality may well be that Russia cannot win in Ukraine. By that I mean not merely that it will ultimately be defeated in a long and grueling counterinsurgency—the long-term end state that I and many others have predicted—but that it cannot capture Kyiv, eject Zelenskyy from power (and likely from this mortal coil), and occupy the country at all. 

Given that he was foolish and arrogant enough to start this war in the first place, and not exactly surrounded by stalwart advisors who tell him the truth, Putin may be very far from coming to that recognition. But it may eventually be forced upon him whether he likes it or not.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, war is hard. Surprisingly so. 

A significant chunk of Russia’s armed forces is occupied in Ukraine, limiting its ability to project power elsewhere as needed or desired. That is tenable in the short term, but in the long run it will seriously constrain Moscow’s strategic flexibility, even more so than Washington’s lengthy quagmire in Southwest Asia did (or Southeast Asia before that). If Putin does come to realize that this campaign is doing him more harm than good, he may well decide to cut his losses while trying to put the happiest possible face on the withdrawal. Eventually even the great powers have to face reality, as both the USSR and US had to do in Afghanistan. Of course, in both those cases, it took ten to twenty years, respectively. Putin may traverse that arc faster, or he may not.

Or, at the other end of the spectrum, he may double down on his commitment to conquering Ukraine, even to the point of leveling its cites, starving its people, and perhaps even exercising his nuclear option, either at the tactical level, or the strategic one, or both, all of which would be a historic catastrophe. He might do so because he continues to think he can win, as numerous informed sources have reported. Or he might do so because, consumed with the sunk-cost fallacy, he calculates that the humiliation of losing is a price he cannot afford to pay. Or he might do so because he is living in the proverbial dictator’s bubble with no one but groveling sycophants and yes-men to give him advice. Or simply because he has lost his fucking mind. 

So does this all come down to whether or not Putin is a so-called “rational actor”? Maybe. And the answer to that question is not at all clear. 

Reporting from the critical port of Odessa, on the Black Sea, the former NPR correspondent Lawrence Sheets recently told Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep that when Putin appears on Russian television these days, he seems unable to use his right arm properly, and walks with a limp on that side, suggesting that he may be suffering from a Parkinson’s-like neurological condition. Footage of him trembling and twitching has appeared in the Western TV as well.  There have also been rumors that he has cancer, and is suffering from ill effects of his treatment. Even his famous, laughable obsession with macho displays of his fitness—judo, hockey, horseback riding, scuba, etc—has been linked to a lifelong need to prove his good health, he doth-protest-too-much-wise. 

I don’t want to wish ill on another human being, but if Vladimir Putin dropped dead tomorrow, it wouldn’t cause me a moment’s hiccup in my daily Wordle. (Though that is squarely in careful-what-you-wish-for land. There isn’t exactly a long line of Jeffersonian democrats waiting in the Kremlin green room to succeed ol’ Vlad.) 

But short of that, what is plenty worrying is the idea of an unwell, unpredictable, unstable dictator with his finger on the not-at-all figurative nuclear button.  

NO SUBSTITUTE FOR VICTORY

Among respectable members of the American punditocracy, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, an Eastern European expert, continues to be among the most hawkish voices on Ukraine, as she was on Afghanistan, rejecting the idea that a decade-long insurgency resulting in the ejection of the Russian invaders would be a practical goal for the West to pursue. 

Instead, in a piece titled “Ukraine Must Win,” she calls instead for outright Ukrainian victory right now, and describes its parameters:

It means that Ukraine remains a sovereign democracy, with the right to choose its own leaders and make its own treaties. There will be no pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv, no need for a prolonged Ukrainian resistance, no continued fighting. The Russian army retreats back over the borders. Maybe those borders could change, or maybe Ukraine could pledge neutrality, but that is for the Ukrainians to decide and not for outsiders to dictate. Maybe international peacekeepers are needed. Whatever happens, Ukraine must have strong reasons to believe that Russian troops will not quickly return.

That scenario may be achievable. It is certainly—surprisingly—much more within the realm of possibility than almost anyone thought three weeks ago. It is cheering to think that we are even discussing the possibility of Russia withdrawing with its collective tail between its figurative legs after just a month of fighting. (“Just a month”—if it’s a news story you’re reading in a café in Georgetown or Silverlake or Peoria, and not an in-your-face reality in a makeshift bomb shelter in Kharkiv.)

In any event, Ukrainian successes have undeniably strengthened Kyiv’s hand in potential peace talks. 

As canny as he is eloquent, Zelenskyy has expressed his willingness to negotiate with Putin. But so far all Zelenskyy has offered by way of concessions is an expression of “neutrality” and a commitment not to seek membership in NATO, which was never really going to happen anyway, and therefore not much of a trade. 

Moreover, as we have discussed, NATO expansion has never been anything but a fig leaf for Putin, so in that sense Zelenskyy is merely calling his bluff (or rubbing his nose in it). Putin’s real purpose in invading Ukraine, as Applebaum herself wrote pre-war, was to crush a powerful pro-democracy movement on his border and deter the same impulse across the Baltics—and more importantly, at home—something that the no-NATO promise does not achieve. 

But it could still offer him cover for a strategical reversal of an ill-conceived and disastrous decision. I am not advocating appeasement, but all negotiations require giving the other guy a way out. 

What Russia has offered thus far—the possibility of an end to hostilities if Ukraine surrenders the Donbass and recognizes its 2014 annexation of Crimea—has been bluntly rejected by Kyiv, and rightly so. What leader would sacrifice whole parts of his nation and its citizenry like that, rewarding aggression in the process? A pragmatic one, some might say. But the Russian-speaking Ukrainian populations in those regions, the very people whom Putin claimed would welcome his troops and take his side, have valiantly risen up and fought back against him, ferociously. They deserve far better than to be bargained away, even to save the sovereignty of the rest of the country.   

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that, channeling my inner Applebaum. But if anything, the Ukrainian people and their leaders are even more steadfast and unyielding on that point than me, or her. 

Another possibility is what the LA Times calls “a creative compromise: While (Ukraine’s leaders) won’t agree formally to Russia’s annexation of any part of their country, they will promise to pursue reunification only by peaceful means.” That means a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in which Zelenskyy accepts the de facto conquest of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea without saying that’s what he’s doing. 

Distasteful? Yeah. But politics is the art of the possible. Zelenskyy is trying to balance the need to resist aggression—which means deterring it in the future by not submitting—with keeping millions of his people alive and free. 

To that end, negotiations also benefit from pressure that brings the other side to the table under conditions favorable to ours. Zelenskyy has called for even more Western aid, which is his job, as it is the job of Biden and Johnson and Scholz and Macron to take other factors into account, like preventing a wider war while not signaling to Putin that, short of an attack on a NATO member, we are unwilling to confront him. 

Not that anyone asked, but I would offer a qualified endorsement of that call for more military aid from the West: it is not for Putin to tell us what lines we may cross, after he crossed an enormous one. None of us, of course, is privy to what Moscow has privately told Washington regarding its red line, or vice versa. But I don’t need to be told that a no-fly zone, inherently entailing US engagement with Russian forces, is an escalation no one should want, just as any ratcheting up of Russian atrocities in Ukraine makes it accordingly less possible for the Kremlin to complain about the increasing overtness of Western assistance. 

Putin’s battlefield failures therefore give the West the initiative, and a freer hand to act aggressively in aiding Ukraine. But they also push Putin into a corner, making him even more dangerous. We must capitalize on Kyiv’s surprising military success while still pursuing diplomatic solutions that have become more favorable, though still fraught, as a result. 

CLAPPING ON THE ONE

One thing we can be sure of is that Putin will not be getting any “tough love” advice from his own cowering advisors. 

In the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell recounts a surreal passage from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, about the Iannucciesque extremes to which the USSR’s cult of personality extended in Russia’s past. 

Solzhenitsyn describes a Fifties-era conference which ended with a call for a tribute to Comrade Stalin, leading to a rapturous standing ovation “for three minutes, four minutes, five minutes,” as “palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching,” and “older people were panting from exhaustion.” 

However, who would dare be the first to stop?

The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had just called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! 

….the applause went on–six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! 

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…

Finally, after eleven minutes of vigorous, non-stop applause, “the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat,” with everyone else—consumed with relief—immediately following suit. 

Bad idea. 

That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of his interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

We’ll leave Solzhenitsyn’s exploitation by the American right, as a precursor to the contemporary GOP’s Christian nationalist pro-Putin wing, for another day. But that tale is instructive as evidence of how diseased and irrational an authoritarian state can become, making it a dangerous and unpredictable opponent. 

So will Putin declare victory and go home? I doubt it. The recent intensification of Russian attacks suggests that he is in fact pursuing the opposite course, at least for now. I fear that he is indeed clinging to the disastrous belief that he can win, that in any event he can’t afford the damage to his authority that would accompany anything short of unqualified victory, and that no one around him is brave enough, or suicidal enough, to stop applauding and tell him otherwise. 

Even so, we can increase the chances that, against those long odds, the rational Putin will return. We want the mind of the cold-eyed career KGB officer to prevail, not that of the barechested, Idi Amin-ish dictator, and we can hasten that by delivering him setbacks and losses—militarily, economically, psychologically—and making it clear that victory is not within his grasp, no matter how loud the ongoing ovation from his terrified myrmidons. 

As I used to write at the end of all my undergraduate history papers, only time will tell. (Lazy all-nighter cliché or charming prose trademark? You be the judge.) We shall see if Putin will pursue a prudent course of cutting his losses, even if it is papered over with propaganda, or a scorched earth one that leaves Ukraine—and even broader Europe—in rubble and ruins. Opaque as the current Russian regime is, even the best neo-Kremlinologists can only guess.

We’ve all been wrong before. 

*******

Photo: Putin holds a trophy at a 2015 hockey game on the occasion of his 63rd birthday, in which he scored seven goals. Credit: Alexei Nikolsky/AP.

h/t Dixie Laite for rumors of Churchill’s Jewish ancestry.

The Ghost of Impeachments Past

As I wrote two weeks ago, it’s almost an obscenity—and the height of parochialism—to think about the war in Ukraine in terms of domestic US politics. 

But there is an aspect to that discussion that goes beyond tribalism. Because I hasten to remind you, dear reader, that until it recently became embarrassing to them, one of our two political parties was fully aligned with Vladimir Putin and a vocal supporter and ally of his regime. And its standard bearer continues to be his BFF

That is well worth keeping in mind as we watch wanton Republican gaslighting over Ukraine, and as we contemplate the GOP’s effort to regain power right here in the USA.

A GENTLE REMINDER

So much has happened in the last two years that it’s easy to forget what would otherwise have been earth-shaking events. One such event is Trump’s first impeachment which, you may recall, turned on him blackmailing the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy—the same guy they are now calling the Jewish Churchill—to manufacture dirt on Joe Biden if he wanted to get American anti-tank weapons with which to defend his country against a Russian invasion. 

All but one of the 49 Senate Republicans—everyone but Romney—thought that was much ado about nothing, or at least pretended to. 

But that was the least of it.

For the past four or five years, Republicans were extraordinarily forgiving—and even openly supportive of—Vladimir Putin, following the example of their own Dear Leader, whose worshipful groveling before the Russian dictator was widely noted and commented upon. (After one particularly appalling episode, the 2018 Helsinki summit, Sen. John McCain called Trump’s kowtowing “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”) 

In thrall to Donald much as Donald was in thrall to Vlad, the GOP dutifully emulated his attitude toward the Russian police state. 

There have long been many things American reactionaries overtly admire about Putin: his racism, his distortion of Christianity, his homophobia, his total control of the press, his use of brute force to get what he wants—abroad, with invasions of uppity neighbors, and at home, with violent suppression of dissidents. Above all they admire his chokehold on the domestic electoral process, such that he never has to face a true challenge at the polls.


The ascent of Trump brought all that to the foreground, unabashedly.

But now that Putin has, in brutal fashion, reminded the world of his true colors (NB: it’s Tarantino-brand blood red, Pantone 032), Republicans are trying to walk a very fine line, hoping that we will forget about their pro-Putin past, even though it was only yesterday, while opportunistically trying to score points in a contest over who can bang the drums of war the loudest. 

By now we ought to be used to such gaslighting.

It’s true that, until Trump, Russophobia was also a staple of mainstream Republican politics, even among its isolationist wing, so one might say the GOP is just returning to its roots. But we ought not let them do so without accounting for their quisling behavior of the recent past. (The general knee jerk xenophobia and Red Scare-style paranoia of that Russophobia is yet another matter). 

A gentle reminder should suffice to put it all in perspective: The Kremlin worked its collective ass off to help put Donald Trump in office, Trump welcomed the assistance, and then returned the favor by doing Russia’s bidding throughout his administration. And that water-carrying continues to this day, no matter how much some Republicans would like us to forget it.

WAR BY OTHER MEANS

As we watch this horrific war unfold in Ukraine, we ought to remember that we were attacked by Putin too—far less brutally, but still in an outrageous “cyber Pearl Harbor” fashion. 

The always astute Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, quotes the  British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who explicitly describes Russia’s actions during 2016 as “a military attack on the West.”

We called it “meddling.” We used words like “interference.” It wasn’t. It was warfare. We’ve been under military attack for eight years now. 

That attack included not only efforts on Trump’s behalf but also support of Brexit and groups like LePen’s racist neo-fascist National Front in France (lately rebranded as the National Rally).  This, as Clausewitz teaches us, is a form of war on the low end of the spectrum of conflict. Also known as politics.

Solnit lays it out quite clearly—in particular, the close coordination between the Kremlin and Team Trump, including what some might call (gulp) a quid pro quo: 

(T)he most striking role of the Russian government in the 2016 US election was its many, many ties with the Trump campaign, including with Trump himself, who spent the campaign and the four years of his presidency groveling before Putin, denying the reality of Russian interference, and changing first the Republican platform and then US policy to serve Putin’s agendas. 

This included cutting support for Ukraine against Russia out of the Republican platform when he won the primary, considerable animosity toward NATO, and ultimately trying to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in 2019 by withholding military aid while demanding he offer confirmation of a Russian conspiracy theory blaming Ukraine rather than Russia for 2016 election interference.

When Solnit reminds us of the shoulder-shrugging of many on the left over Moscow’s actions in 2016 (looking at you, Glenn Greenwald)—“Hey, hasn’t the US interfered in lots of foreign elections?”—it is eerily reminiscent of what we are seeing and hearing from those quarters now, over Ukraine:

Stunningly, a number of left-wing news sources and pundits devoted themselves to denying the reality of the intervention and calling those who were hostile to the Putin regime cold-war red-scare right-wingers, as if contemporary Russia was a glorious socialist republic rather than a country ruled by a dictatorial ex-KGB agent with a record of murdering journalists, imprisoning dissenters, embezzling tens of billions and leading a global neofascist white supremacist revival. 

(Yes, I know the US has meddled in plenty of foreign elections. Doesn’t make it right when it is done to us….or when the senior members of one of our two political parties openly welcomes that interference and serves the ends of the foreign power that perpetrated it.)

Solnit details the “stunning number of Trump’s closest associates (who) had deep ties to the Russian government,” including his campaign  manager Paul Manafort, who spent a decade as a lobbyist for Putin’s toady Viktor Yanukovychwhen he was the howlingly  corrupt president of Ukraine, and also shared internal Trump campaign polling data with the Russian intelligence agent Konstantin Kilimnik before himself being convicted of bank fraud and other crimes (Trump, of course, pardoned him)…..former Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who shared information with the Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak before going on to be Trump’s first Attorney General…..LTG (Ret.) Mike Flynn, who was paid to speak at a dinner celebrating RT, Russia’s state-run propaganda channel, before serving as Trump’s first (of four) National Security Advisors, a post from which he was forced to resign and was subsequently convicted of lying to the FBI (Trump pardoned him too)…..and last but not least, Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner who tried to set up a backchannel to communicate with Russia’s ambassador to Washington in order to hide their communications from the CIA.

Wow. Imagine if Hillary Clinton’s team had those Russian connections. Her corpse would still be dangling from a makeshift gallows in front of Fox News HQ in Midtown Manhattan.

But that is only the appetizer.

More broadly, Solnit indicts the “corruption and amorality inside the United States” that enabled Putin, from the likes of Trump and Manafort to “Silicon Valley’s mercenary amorality that created weapons and vulnerabilities (that) were exploited to destructive ends,” with the help of “international players such as WikiLeaks and Cambridge Analytica”; to “media outlets such as Fox News that continued—in Tucker Carlson’s case until last week’s invasion of Ukraine caught up with him— to defend Putin and spread disinformation.”

But it’s all good, because these people are all in prison now, rightly held accountable for their crimes. 

Wait, what? They’re not? They’re actively campaigning to run the country again? And the smart money says they’re going to succeed?

Oh. 

DOG WAGGING 101

On the right there is this narrative that Ukraine is a Wag the Dog situation, that even if Biden did not himself create the war a la Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman—and there are those he would have us  believe that he did—he is at the very least using it to distract from his sagging poll numbers, from inflation, from lingering COVID (bad news, Republicans: it’s on the wane), and other right wing bugbears. 

But the fact is, it is the right that is using Ukraine in Wag the Dog mode, to try to distract us from the investigation of their attempted coup, and from their attempts to undermine and take control of the electoral process here at home, and to make us forget their support of Putin and other despots in the past. 

For all their infamous Barnum-like ability to control the narrative, “a lie goes round the world”-style, the GOP can sometimes be pretty clumsy with public relations. For example, why does Truth Social sound like the least popular sister-wife in a religious cult?

In The New York Times, Jonathan Weisman writes that “the bulk of the Republican Party (is trying) to get on the right side of history amid a brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.” That will be a neat trick, considering their shameful history on that topic heretofore. Not surprisingly, their go-to move is to promote reckless military action by the US.

Republicans are among the most vociferous champions for the United States to amp up its military response, and are competing to issue the strongest expressions of solidarity with Ukraine’s leaders.

Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi has taken up Mr. Zelensky’s call for a western-enforced no-fly zone. Senator Rick Scott of Florida said deploying US ground troops to Ukraine should not be “off the table.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina encouraged the assassination of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to save a nation that many in his party had previously portrayed as hardly worth saving.

As I wrote last week, the jingoism of this crew is matched only by its contempt for the intelligence of the American people. 

Even worse, of course, are the Republican voices still defending Putin. But as Weisman notes, “Now, even the far-right flank seems confused.” 

On Monday, (Marjorie Taylor) Greene used her Twitter account to both call one of the whistle-blowers in former President Trump’s first impeachment, retired Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a “clown” who was “clueless about Americans being fed up with sending our sons and daughters to die in foreign lands,” and advise, “While innocent people are being murdered in Putin’s war on Ukraine, the US response is critical.”

Maybe MTG is worried about the Gazpacho

Such great human beings as Tucker Carlson, and convicted felons Dinesh D’Souza and Steve Bannon (like Manafort and Flynn, both pardoned by Trump) would have us believe that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are the greater threat to American democracy than Vladimir Putin, and that we should take Russia’s side over Ukraine’s. (Carlson’s words, as is frequently the case, are being widely broadcast on Russian state TV.)

Even Bill Barr, while hawking his new book in which he describes how Trump spread the Big Lie and tried to eviscerate American democracy, told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that he will still vote for Trump in ‘24, if he is the Republican nominee. “Because I believe that the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party, it’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee.”

Hive mind: help me figure out what to file that under. Hypocrisy? Tribalism? Cowardice? Greed? Psychopathology?

I’ll wait.

MY CANDIDATE, RIGHT OR WRONG

There is simply no way to separate Trumpism from Putinism, or to honestly support the former while condemning the latter. But Republicans are damn sure trying, like the odious New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, the third ranking Republican in the House, a former moderate turned staunch Trump supporter, who is now releasing videos condemning Putin over Ukraine, even as she tries to blame it all on Biden.

An even better example is Nikki Haley, another Republican with presidential aspirations, who is supposed to represent the “still sane” wing of the party. Haley used to have little to say about Ukraine, except that Putin wasn’t going to invade it. Even as the crisis heated up, she spouted JD Vance-like talking points about how Biden ought to be less concerned with Eastern Europe and more with our southern border. Now she is a regular presence on Fox talking tough about Putin and accusing Biden of being soft.

I was born at night, Nikki, but it wasn’t last night. 

The Bulwark’s William Saletan writes:

(Haley) has no courage. It’s easy for American politicians to talk trash about Putin. What’s hard is to stand up for democracy and the rule of law when those principles are threatened by a man who can derail your career. In Haley’s case, that man is Trump, not Putin. And when Haley is asked about Trump’s sabotage of NATO, his praise for Putin, and his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, her response is thoroughly craven. “I’m not a fan of Republicans going against Republicans,” she pleads.

Even Trump’s own National Security Advisor (#3 of 4) John Bolton, asked about the war in Ukraine by Sirius XM’s Julie Mason, said: “I think one of the reasons that Putin did not move during Trump’s term in office was he saw the president’s hostility of NATO. To Putin’s mind it’s a binary proposition. A weaker NATO is a stronger Russia. So I think Putin saw Trump doing a lot of his work for him, and thought maybe in a second term Trump would make good on his promise to get out of NATO.”

On Twitter, Liz Cheney—along with Adam Kinzinger, the conscience of the Republican Party (NB: that’s why it disowned her)—recently referred to “the Putin wing of the GOP.” The specific thing that prompted her remark was retired US Army Colonel Doug MacGregor, once considered a deep thinker in the military, who now goes around saying that Russian forces have been “too gentle” and “I don’t see anything heroic” about Zelenskyy. Not surprisingly, he too is frequently seen on Fox—he’s a favorite of Tucker’s—and (you guessed it) RT. 

During his presidency Trump nominated MacGregor to be a senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense, where he was in charge of—you guessed it again!—the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Trump’s watch, that consisted of making a deal with the Taliban not to attack us until we slashed US troop strength so deeply that they no longer had to. So please spare me your cries that Biden fucked it up. 

Trump also tried to make MacGregor Ambassador to Germany, until the Senate refused, due to his statements about minorities, Islam, the “Israel lobby,” and Germany’s too-nice-to-the-Jews remembrance of the Holocaust. Appointed by Trump to serve on West Point’s advisory board, MacGregor distinguished himself by repeatedly spreading “a conspiracy that the Biden administration is bringing in non-White immigrants as part of a ‘grand plan’ to have them outnumber White Americans of European ancestry in the United States.”

The best people, amirite?

PUTINISM ON THE POTOMAC

Some will ask: why are you looking to the past? Shouldn’t we all band together as Americans and look forward? It’s a disingenuous question to say the least. I’m looking to the past because past is prologue. The Republicans have shown us who they are when it comes to Putin. They continue to show it still, as Carlson bleats pro-Putin propaganda to his millions of viewers every single night. If they take power again, they will continue to facilitate the Putinist agenda, and that’s not all. They will also undermine our democracy here at home, continue trying to establish an autocracy, and generally carry on the spirit of the January 6 insurrectionists. 

The Russian autocracy is precisely what Republicans aspire to in America, right down to the cult of personality around its leader. But right now they don’t want us to recognize that, as they try to piggyback off the general condemnation of his aggression in Ukraine. 

In the words of my man Flavor Flav: Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype. 

(#justforyouAriMelber)

Under its new, Republican-made voting laws, Texas just flagged over 27,000 mail-in ballots in its recent primary, a blunt demonstration of how the GOP intends to suppress and subvert the vote in the midterms and in 2024. Florida is banning the very use of the word “gay” in public schools, while the racist assault on so-called “critical race theory” and “wokeism,” in the Orwellian name of free speech, is giving us actual book burnings. The Big Lie that Trump won the election is now sacrosanct dogma for any Republican who hopes to run for office, and a chilling number of these candidates are openly campaigning on the promise that, should a similar constitutional crisis arrive again, they will deliver the victory to Trump or his surrogate. Failing that, real Americans are justified in taking up arms to overthrow the tyranny of Pelosi.  

The good news is that it’s startling to see how the Ukraine crisis has made Trump shrink on the American mental landscape. It’s not merely his continued cheerleading for Putin, even now. It is—what feels to me—like a late-dawning awareness of how fucking crazy this guy was, how inept and reckless and ignorant, and how lucky we are he’s not in the Oval Office in the midst of this epochal crisis. I think even many Republicans and other conservatives feel that way, at least the rational ones among them. (I know them both.)

It’s as if the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded us of how serious geopolitics really is.

Bear that in mind when you go to vote in November 2024. 

Very early days, of course, but we all know Trump cannot resist praising Putin, no matter what. So will that hurt him (as almost nothing else ever has) if and when he runs in 2024 and this war is still raging, or at the very least its repercussions are still being felt?

Maybe. Americans have very short memories, and, as we’ve seen, a shockingly high susceptibility to Trump’s carnival barker bullshit. Hell, the dude had been a step ahead of the law his whole rotten life, dodged two impeachments, COVID, and even an emergency landing in a private jet this week. Those pacts with Satan have some pretty good bennies, evidently.

So will Ukraine be the thing that finally dooms him? Not holding my breath. 

The last word—or at least the penultimate one—goes to Ms. Solnit:

The Republican party met its new leader by matching his corruption, and by covering up his crimes and protecting him from consequences, including two impeachments. The second impeachment was for a violent invasion of Congress, not by a foreign power, but by right-wingers inflamed by lies instigated by Trump and amplified by many in the party. They have become willing collaborators in an attempt to sabotage free and fair elections, the rule of law, and truth itself.

Well worth remembering as we watch the bloody events unfold in Ukraine, precipitated by a man whom a powerful wing of the GOP continues to lionize, and as we push back against their attempts to emulate his rule here in the US.

*********

Illustration: Tim O’Brien, TrumPutin.

A Guide to Recognizing Imperialism

Foreign policy debates are often framed as a fight between realists and idealists. The very terms are self-flattering; the former are more often cynics and the latter aspirationalists. 

In the American response to the war in Ukraine we are seeing the weaknesses of both, most glaringly in the ways that some practitioners of realpolitik slip into abdication, and thus provide cover for Putin, while some interventionists are proposing actions that would be reckless in the extreme, even if motivated by admirable humanitarian reasons.

How to thread the needle, while a war crime carries on?

KEEPIN’ IT REAL

I have already whinged in these pages about those who blame the US for the crisis in Ukraine. Generally speaking, the left especially is quick to recognize and call out American aggression when it happens, which is all well and good. But when it comes to the sins of our adversaries, such as the guys in the furry hats, they tend to shrug…..or worse, still find a way to blame the US (which only hurts those critics’ credibility in those cases when there are legitimate critiques to be made).

But when it comes to Ukraine, the “blame America” school also includes a number of self-styled “realists,” largely but not exclusively from the right, who define actions on the world stage only in terms of so-called “great-power politics,” divorced from moral considerations. 

Faced with Putin’s horrific, unprovoked attack on his weaker neighbor, their response is: 

“Whaddaya gonna do? Empires gonna empire. Politics is the art of the possible.” 

Again, the problem is that the allegedly clinical, cold-eyed objectivity on which these voices pride themselves is not applied equally across the Risk gameboard. Indeed, many of the “realist” critics go even further, taking an actively Putinist view, arguing that Russia has legitimate security concerns surrounding NATO and related matters. To the point of excusing an invasion. 

One does not have to be a mouthbreathing, gun-totin’, flag-waving American exceptionalist to be offended by that.

Before you freak, dear reader, rest assured that I am not going rah rah “America, fuck yeah!” on you. Virulent nationalism—masquerading as mere patriotism, shot through with racism, xenophobia, and jingoism—has always been a pox on this country, like most countries. The last four years under Trump saw that strain explode, even if it included an equally Neanderthal dose of isolationism, and it was revolting. (Ironically, the Trumpists were actively pro-Putin, in their white supremacist, bully-admiring, nihilistic way, and now find themselves in quite the pickle.)

But there are respectable people advancing the “great-power” view and it is worth considering. We can’t get into a McCarthyite mode of accusing anyone with insight into an adversary of being “a useful idiot,” a stooge, or an apologist. (And I know I used some of those terms recently, and I stand by them for the specific people I mentioned, the likes of Carlson, Pompeo, and Trump himself.)

For example, Jack F. Matlock, a vastly experienced career diplomat who was US Ambassador to the USSR under Bush 41, recently made a similar argument, blaming US policy, on the website of the lobby/think tank ACURA—the American Committee for US-Russia Accord—of which he is a member. (Conspiracy theorists take note: in 1962 Matlock was the young Moscow-based Foreign Service officer who interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald and authorized his return to the US from the USSR. No word on whether he knows Ted Cruz’s dad.)

It is admirable to be rigorously self-critical of one own’s motives, and advisable to consider what self-interests drive an adversary’s behavior, know your enemy-wise. It’s the sort of thing that strategic intelligence analysts do for a living all day long, in think tanks in Santa Monica and windowless rooms in Langley, Virginia. But it’s quite another to cross the line from predicting (or explaining) behavior to justifying that behavior.

Somehow these critics are never so forgiving or understanding of the US’s legitimate beefs or self-interest when we engage in aggression abroad.

These criticisms of the shortcomings of US policy therefore must be twinned with acknowledgment and condemnation of Putin’s actions, and his exploitation of them as excuses, or they do merely serve as cover for Russian aggression, inadvertently or otherwise. 

Pull the other one, as our British friends say.  

HIS STORY, AND HE’S STICKING TO IT

Right now, the “realist” argument on Ukraine is not looking very good. 

A leading voice in this group is the political scientist Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, who has merited mention in these pages three weeks running. The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner was quite hard on Mearsheimer in a recent interview, as you might guess from its title, “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the US for the Crisis in Ukraine.”

Chotiner explains that Mearsheimer hews to the precise school described above, one “that assumes that, in a self-interested attempt to preserve national security, states will preëmptively act in anticipation of adversaries.” All well and good as far as it goes. 

But Mearsheimer’s position excuses all of Russia’s behavior as part of “great-power politics,” a courtesy he does not extend to the US. 

For years, Mearsheimer has argued that the US, in pushing to expand NATO eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine, has increased the likelihood of war between nuclear-armed powers and laid the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive position toward Ukraine. Indeed, in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Mearsheimer wrote that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.”

Uh, does the US not have “great-power” interests of our own? Or is he simply saying that we pursued them in short-sighted fashion that is now backfiring on us? 

Chotiner pushes back, saying that American imperialism does not excuse Russian imperialism, and asking whether Ukraine does not have a right to self-determination. Mearsheimer’s answer is, “That’s not the way the world works.”

MEARSHEIMER: (W)hen push comes to shove, strategic considerations overwhelm moral considerations. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukrainians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy. But in the real world, that is not feasible. The Ukrainians have a vested interest in paying serious attention to what the Russians want from them. They run a grave risk if they alienate the Russians in a fundamental way. 

Mearsheimer does acknowledge that there are moral considerations in foreign affairs. (Probably his most famous and controversial book, co-written with Stephen Walt, is about the pro-Israel lobby in US politics.) But in explaining Russia’s strategic thinking—which is to say, Putin’s strategic thinking, since nations are abstract concepts that tend not to have literal brains, and we’re talking about an authoritarian quasi-monarchy here—he skirts dangerously close to a simplistic advocacy of “might makes right,” or at least it damn sure feels like he does. 

If that’s not what he’s saying, he’s not doing a very good job of conveying the nuances or caveats. And once again, America doesn’t get the same consideration.

Mearsheimer repeats the claim that, “If there had been no decision to move NATO eastward to include Ukraine, Crimea and the Donbass would be part of Ukraine today, and there would be no war in Ukraine.” This flies in the face of arguments made by Anne Applebaum, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and many others that NATO expansion is a mere fig leaf, and that it is pro-democracy movements in Ukraine, other parts of the former USSR, and within Russia itself that are Putin’s chief fear. 

But perhaps Mearsheimer would say that excuses his behavior as well, if all we are concerned about is pragmatism. 

Going back in time, he stands by his longstanding claim that “the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible” for the disaster of Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, which was part of Ukraine at the time, I hasten to note. (Mearsheimer believes China is our greatest threat and that we should ally with Moscow against Beijing—a position not unlike what one hears from many Fox News-y Republicans, where that argument tends to have racial underpinnings.)

MEARSHEIMER: My argument is that (Putin’s) not going to re-create the Soviet Union or try to build a greater Russia, that he’s not interested in conquering and integrating Ukraine into Russia. It’s very important to understand that we invented this story that Putin is highly aggressive and he’s principally responsible for this crisis in Ukraine. 

He pooh-poohs the idea that Putin has designs on other Baltic states, since he knows they’re members of NATO, while simultaneously saying it’s unwise that they are members. Chotiner points out the inconsistency, which baffles the professor, who replies: “(H)e’s never shown any evidence that he’s interested in conquering the Baltic states. Indeed, he’s never shown any evidence that he’s interested in conquering Ukraine.”

Perhaps the professor’s cable is out. 

He goes on to split hairs over whether Moscow installing a puppet government in Ukraine is fundamentally different than conquering and occupying it. (Please explain that to President Zelenskyy before he is shot.) Asked about Putin’s outrageous claim that Ukraine is a “made-up nation,” Mearsheimer seems unbothered, arguing that “all nations are made up.” which, again, I doubt is much comfort to the people in Mariupol currently being shelled by Russian artillery. 

It goes downhill from there.

MEARSHEIMER: It’s hard to say whether he’s going to go after the rest of Ukraine because—I don’t mean to nitpick here but—that implies that he wants to conquer all of Ukraine, and then he will turn to the Baltic states, and his aim is to create a greater Russia or the reincarnation of the Soviet Union. I don’t see evidence at this point that that is true.

It’s difficult to tell, looking at the maps of the ongoing conflict, exactly what he’s up to. It seems quite clear to me that he is going to take the Donbass and that the Donbass is going to be either two independent states or one big independent state, but beyond that it’s not clear what he’s going to do. I mean, it does seem apparent that he’s not touching western Ukraine.

CHOTINER: You don’t think he has designs on Kyiv?

MEARSHEIMER: No, I don’t think he has designs on Kyiv. I think he’s interested in taking at least the Donbass, and maybe some more territory and eastern Ukraine, and, number two, he wants to install in Kyiv a pro-Russian government, a government that is attuned to Moscow’s interests.

He also thinks Kyiv can come to terms with Moscow to end this invasion and establish a peaceful co-existence, concluding, “I think the Russians are too smart to get involved in an occupation of Ukraine,” and that Putin “understands that he cannot conquer Ukraine and integrate it into a greater Russia or into a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union….It would be a blunder of colossal proportions to try to do that.”

Right now, Prof. Mearsheimer is not looking like much of a seer. 

UNICORNS, RAINBOWS, AND SURGICAL STRIKES

So much for “realism.”

At the other end of the spectrum, idealism has led us into some dark places as well. (Sometimes because that idealism was mixed with—or a cover for—naked self-interest, and not idealism at all. Governments are not monoliths, and the factors playing into foreign policy decisions are almost always multi-pronged and even contradictory.) 

US involvement in Vietnam is often portrayed as an idealistic crusade gone wrong, though that itself is largely a fairy tale. It would be hard to argue that our nationbuilding efforts in Afghanistan, despite their noble origin, were an unmitigated success. (Though they may have been a partial one, more so than many recognize.) The deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 was ostensibly meant to protect that country’s Catholics from attacks by the Protestant majority, and quickly turned into quite the opposite. 

So, yeah, we all know about the pavement on the road to hell.

I was born into and raised in a military family, where rational toughness on national security was in the DNA. (I say again: “rational.”) That worldview evolved during my own service as an infantry and intelligence officer in Germany at the end of the Cold War and in Iraq in the Gulf war, and was radically changed by the second Iraq war, eleven years removed from my last day in uniform, as I watched the Bush 43 administration lead us into a horrific and unnecessary war under false pretenses. Lies, as they are sometimes called.

One of my chief bugbears, then, is the uninformed naïveté of those—typically on the hamhanded and hawkish right, but sometimes also on the idealistic and interventionist left—who are keen to solve international problems with military force. Sometimes that impulse is idealistic, sometimes self-aggrandizing. Either way, it is an enduring delusion that we can pop into messy and complex foreign wars and change their course with a few airstrikes, but without, ya know, really getting our hands dirty. 

For very understandable reasons, the airwaves are filled with such cries now. 

Many people, including former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove, the Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, and even President Zelenskyy himself have called for NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. There have been calls for other measures that are nearly as aggressive, including active intelligence and targeting assistance. 

I could not be more sympathetic to these pleas. Which is not to say that I endorse them, much as it pains me. 

For us to stand by and watch Putin wantonly brutalize Ukraine in an unprovoked, unjustifiable invasion, massacring civilians in the process, is gutting. The reptile brain impulse—and a noble one it is—is to ruck up and put American muscle into this fight. But almost without exception, our best military, security, and foreign policy minds all believe that would be not only suicidal, but possibly omnicidal for the human race. For us to intervene in that way not only risks a third world war, but almost guarantees it.  

It would hardly be the first regional conflict to spiral into a wider war. And where might that lead? An exchange of tactical nukes on the battlefield? A strategic nuclear war? 

The mind reels. 

THERE IS A TOWN IN NORTH ONTARIO

In 1992, in the debate over the war in Bosnia, Secretary of State Madeleine  Albright, frustrated with the post-Vietnam reluctance of the Pentagon to commit US forces to combat abroad, confronted General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and memorably snapped (screamed, by some accounts): “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” 

(“I thought I would have an aneurysm,” Powell recalled. “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board.”)

The answer is to Ms. Albright’s query is that no matter how big and how powerful and how good your military is, it’s not a magic bullet. There are constraints on how and when and where it can be used…..and we are seeing that now in Ukraine. 

I am a broken record on Clausewitz’s fundamental and most famous dictum, usually rendered as “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” the North Star of all discussions of the use of force as a tool of national interests. 

(For an arcane but instructive inside-baseball debate on the topic, I invite your attention to this dissection of the quote in the original 19th century German, by Naval War College professor James R. Holmes, including a heated debate over the significance of the prepositions “by” versus “with.”)

In other words, war is not some separate beast different and apart from politics, but only another tool that political actors—state and non-state—employ to achieve their desired goals. Combatants do not “cross a kind of event horizon, passing from routine peacetime politics into a dark realm ruled by violent interaction,“ such that “a discontinuity separates war from peace.” Conflict is a spectrum, only part of which involves physical violence. 

We are arguably at war with Russia right now, just not a shooting one. That is not metaphor. Our weapons in this war are economic, financial, informational, and the like—indeed, an unprecedented range and depth of non-military leverage we are bringing to bear. Putin himself has labeled them as such. (Ironically, the Russians used similar weapons on the low end of the spectrum of conflict in attacking the US electoral system in 2016….and deadly they turned out to be.) It will likely not be enough to save Ukraine. But for now this is the kind of war we must wage, given the geopolitical constraints of the situation. 

If that makes you feel helpless and frustrated, imagine how it makes the Ukrainians feel. But what we are seeing here is the limits of military power as a tool of national policy.

NOSTALGIA FOR THE NUCLEAR NIGHTMARE

President Zelenskyy and other prominent Ukrainian officials have repeatedly framed this invasion as a Sudetenland situation. Putin, they tell us—defying Mearsheimer—will not stop with Ukraine: his dream of a USSR 2.0 requires the gobbling up of most, if not all, of the former Soviet empire. Would he be so insane as to attack a country that is part of the NATO alliance and trigger the collective security provisions of Article 5, which is to say, to invite a full scale, planet-threatening world war with the United States? It’s hard to fathom he would be so crazy, but it was also hard to fathom that he would really invade Ukraine in the first place. 

In such a conflict, the specter of nuclear war is unavoidable. Not hands-of-the-Doomsday-Clock inevitable, but still a risk much greater than any of us should want to run.

As if to make the point, last week Putin raised the readiness level of Russia’s nuclear forces for the first time since the fall of the USSR 31 years ago. Is this saber-rattling mere gamesmanship, or something worse? I for one don’t want to  find out. Just his willingness to do that is a sign of his moral bankruptcy, and his unpredictability.

But that is Putin’s very ploy, to deter us from providing any further help to Kyiv. Here’s Clint Watts, the West Point-educated foreign policy specialist and former FBI counterterrorism expert, writing in the Washington Post:

When in trouble, Russia and its Soviet forerunners have always employed threats of nuclear war. This Sword of Damocles stokes fear at home and abroad, among officials and the public, and slows down the decision cycle of the United States and its allies. The knee-jerk reaction invokes the old Cold War paradigm: We should do nothing more to help the Ukrainians lest it trigger World War III.

Without giving in to that gambit, I think it would be a mistake to think it merely a bluff. Putin’s mental state is already in question. It is not beyond comprehension that if cornered, and losing the war in Ukraine, he could decide to go out in a blaze of glory and attack a NATO country, the consequences be damned. (Watts has suggested that precise thing.) 

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols, also a professor at the Naval War College, writes that such concerns are ”perfectly understandable….now that a paranoid dictator has led Russia into a major war in the middle of Europe, attacking a country that shares a border with four of America’s NATO allies.” Reiterating that a “nuclear crisis is unlikely, but not impossible,” Nichols suggests that the most likely trigger would be not an intentional Russian attack on a NATO member but an accident. (Not super reassuring.) He also writes about the dangers of a tit-for-tat escalation of nuclear signaling, as happened during the 1973 October war between Israel and the Arab states. 

I was a boy at Ft. Bragg, NC in October 1973 when, in response to the Yom Kippur war, Kissinger (not Nixon, btw) brought the US military to DECON 3, its highest state of combat readiness short of active combat, prompting the Soviets to do the same and almost precipitating World War III. My father was aide-de-camp to the commanding general of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps at the time; I remember my parents speaking in hushed tones in the kitchen of our quarters, as my mother—who had already been through my dad’s two tours in Vietnam (PS so had my dad) was freaking out. They had both grown up in the “duck-and-cover” era of the Cold War and Red Scare, and been stationed in Germany in the early Sixties through both the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, and Kennedy’s assassination to boot. They could easily imagine the Cold War turning hot.   

It’s grim to think we are back to on the knife’s edge of a similar nuclear nightmare fifty years later, and once again right in the heart of Europe. 

FIN DE PARTIE

So what is the end game? No one knows, but the smart money is that it’s not good. 

By now it is apparent that the Russian invasion is what military people would call—to use the professional term of art—“a goatfuck.” But no matter how badly the war goes for Putin, it is unrealistic to think that he will accept a negotiated settlement that stops short of total conquest of Ukraine and the removal of the Zelenskyy government. Initial thoughts that he might be content with the Donbass—the sort of which Prof. Mearsheimer was so enamored—have quickly proved illusory, raising fears of just how unhinged and brutal the Russian dictator really is. As if, after twenty some years, we needed further proof.  

So if we are lucky (!), we will witness a grinding mechanized assault of some weeks’ duration, characterized by indiscriminate shelling of cities and slaughter of civilians, until Russian forces have rendered the Ukrainian military combat ineffective and taken control of the capital and other key objectives. That, as we are already seeing, will not be some lightning fast, brilliantly orchestrated demonstration of modern combined arms combat, but rather, a blunt old school assault, hey diddle diddle straight up the middle, fought by a recalcitrant conscript army reliant on an almost comically inept logistics chain, while it hammers the Ukrainian populace with artillery and levels towns and cities.  

That’s when it will get really ugly. The “victorious” Russians will then have to occupy and pacify a gigantic country that they just brutalized and whose citizens are prepared to fight a grinding, decades-long insurgency, if necessary. 

As criminal and unjustified as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was, the initial march on Baghdad was masterful, operationally speaking. Our trouble there began after the capital fell, during the botched occupation, for which Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the neo-con brain trust had—incredibly—failed to do even the most rudimentary planning, arrogantly expecting our troops to be met with bouquets and kisses. That was a measure of their madness and self-delusion, which prefigured Putin’s. 

But Vlad’s situation is far worse. 

In Iraq we were at least removing a brutal and hated dictator, even if our reasons for so doing—9/11, WMD, blather about spreading democracy—were canards. Until we fucked it up, we had at least some segments of the Iraqi populace open to our presence. Notwithstanding Russian ethnic minorities in places like the Donbass, Putin is attempting to take out a wildly popular, democratically elected rock star president and force the people into a new Russian empire at gunpoint. Good luck with that. 

Russia faces a grueling guerrilla war, much of it to be fought in punishing urban terrain that heavily favors the incipient national liberation movement. Like almost all guerrilla wars, it is one that the occupier is all but doomed to lose, even though he may—temporarily—occupy Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and the rest of the country. But in the end, Russian troops will be ousted. 

That will also be the phase of the war when the kind of military assistance the West can provide will be an exponential force multiplier. (In fact, it is not beyond comprehension that clandestine US assets are already operating in Ukraine, covertly by definition, and likely with plausible deniability of any official connection to Washington, should they be compromised.) 

The repercussions of that long war are equally hard to predict but may well include the beginning of the end of Putinist Russia. That would, of course, be the height of irony, given that Putin invaded Ukraine precisely because he feared that fate. It could happen abruptly, or—much more likely—painfully slowly. It might take a decade or two or three, until Putin dies, followed by a Khrushchev-like period of “de-Putinization.” But history will very possibly remember the Ukraine invasion as Putin’s Waterloo.

And as I say, that is the best case scenario. I might be wrong, but I don’t see one that includes Kyiv staying out of Russian hands. Nor is the notion of Putinism’s long term downfall a sure thing—it may hang on even after his death. The possibilities decline rapidly from there, if Putin precipitates an even wider conflict, or we make strategic errors that contribute to it. Then the “realists” who want to blame America will get their chance. 

Let’s not let them.  

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

A popular meme these days is to say, “We are all Ukrainians.” A great sentiment. Do we mean it?

If so, let us consider how “we” will beat Putin. We can’t do so in a toe to toe fight, not without risking World War III and Armageddon. But we can make a strategic withdrawal and prepare for the long, asymmetrical war ahead. Therefore, when we think about this fight in Ukraine, we have to think innovatively. 

For now, we must wage war on the lower end of Clausewitzean scale: with financial and economic levers, with materiel and intelligence assistance to the Zelenskyy government, with the written and spoken word, with things like the seizure of oligarchs’ yachtsan end to dependence on Russian oil and gas, and the isolation of Russian elitesincluding Putin himself from the global community in which they long to move.

Throughout, information warfare will be crucial. Watts again:

I do not believe the Russian people condone the violence inflicted on Ukraine, and as their sons vanish in combat, the antiwar protests in cities will grow. Information that specifically connects with the Russian people inside Russia offers an opportunity for the West to de-escalate the situation. The Kremlin has fed Russians a steady stream of disinformation to justify the invasion of Ukraine, but do the people believe Putin’s stories? Interviews inside Russia suggest they are increasingly disillusioned. The West should use every digital means available to send the truth about the needless violence Putin has waged.

Watts also proposes that, while not tripping into appeasement territory, we would be wise to offer Putin a face-saving way out of this, for everyone’s sake. That too is an arrow in our quiver. 

The West must help repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but that might mean providing an exit strategy for Putin that falls somewhere between exposing him to world humiliation and a coup inside Russia—both of which could bring about unprecedented scenarios involving nuclear strikes.

Let us hope it doesn’t come to that, or even a conventional fight between our forces and theirs. Avoiding it will require skillful statecraft, of the kind the Biden administration thus far has shown itself to be very capable, and its predecessor terrifying inept, if not openly complicit with the enemy. 

Still frustrating? Unsatisfactory? Insufficient? Yes, but that is the nature of warfare. It’s time we as a people grow up and face it. The Ukrainian people have had no choice.

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Illustration: Edel Rodriguez

h/t Richard Berge for sending me Jack Matlock’s essay, Stephen Lee for the piece on the Russian air force, and Scott Matthews for the article on Turkish drones. 

Thank you as always to Gina Patacca for her stellar copy editing.