Toward a New Political Journalism

As I have stated over the past few weeks, going forward it is my intention to focus this blog on efforts we as Americans can take to combat the ongoing attempt by Big Lie Republicans to seize control of the republic and establish a right wing autocracy. 

Because make no mistake: that is what is going on, and there has hardly been an existential emergency of this magnitude for the United States since the Second World War. And this one is in some ways worse, as the call is coming from inside the house! It’s one thing to be conquered by a authoritarian foreign power, which, to be frank, the US did not come close to in the Forties, because we stormed Normandy Beach and stopped that threat on European shores, where the fascists had already wreaked plenty o’havoc. It is another to willingly tear down your own 240-year-old democracy and institute a homegrown autocracy. And to my knowledge, no such domestic Operation Overlord is in the works to arrest that trend. 

In that regard, we have to go back to the Civil War to find a comparable danger….and as Barton Gellman wrote in a recent, widely-heralded piece for The Atlantic, even the sickness at the core of the threat was not so sweeping. “Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost.” What we are seeing now is an even more basic rejection of the fundamentals of our democracy by tens of millions of Americans, even if it has not spiraled into the same kind of open warfare. Yet

So where to begin? There are untold fronts, all of them critical, but let’s start with one of the simplest, which is all the news that’s fit to print.

REF, ARE YOU BLIND????

In the 2016 presidential campaign, we saw that the media had no idea how to deal with a demagogue like Donald Trump. 

As a pathologically dishonest and obscenely entitled real estate con man, Trump had spent a lifetime lying and cheating with abandon and impunity. When he turned to politics—largely to promote his brand, and by all accounts without any real thought of winning anything—the mainstream media seemed completely unprepared for how treat him. They were like medieval lancers facing a modern army wielding tanks and machine guns, incapable even of comprehending how to counter this new weaponry. 

The press treated Trump with the same rules and decorum to which it had subjected conventional politicians, laughably unaware that he intended to run roughshod over every protocol, norm, and nicety under the honor system that was American politics heretofore. He was a media terrorist who made a laughingstock of the informal guidelines intended to contain him, and indeed turned those norms into weapons that further devalued real journalism and served his wrecking machine. By the time the press realized that it could not control him, and that they were unwittingly complicit in this atrocity, it was too late. 

Incredibly, many in the American media have yet to figure that out, as the same attitude continues to bedevil us in the current crisis. 

The “mainstream media” that is so often accused of being left-leaning is in fact painfully neutral and objective to a fault….that fault being an addiction to false equivalences and an inability and/or unwillingness to call a spade a spade. Why? I dunno. Some benighted, misplaced obeisance to the great god Objectivity? An innate desire to create drama, which is good for ratings? A simple inability to respond to a wantonly deceitful political force that has no respect for good faith, and wants to exploit the vulnerabilities of those who practice it? 

Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, it’s abetting the Republican cause and helping poison American democracy to death. 

In June 2016, even before Trump nailed down the GOP nomination, Eric Alterman wrote a piece for The Nation titled “How False Equivalence Is Distorting the 2016 Election Coverage.” In it, he made the sage observation that “The media’s need to cover ‘both sides’ of every story makes no sense when one side has little regard for the truth.” In some ways, that phenomenon has only accelerated since then, but without any necessary adjustment by the already-benighted media. 

Arguing that “false equivalence often appears to be the rule rather than the exception,” Alterman offered multiple examples, such as the specious and facile comparisons between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders by highbrow pundits (They’re both outsiders!)…..the WaPo’s coverage of Mitch McConnell’s unconscionable blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and the Nadia Comaneci-level gymnastics in which it engaged to try to demonstrate some sort of Democratic equivalent…..and The New York Times’s implication that Trump’s use of words like “bimbo,” “dog,” and “fat pig” to refer to women was the moral equivalent of Hillary Clinton alienating the coal industry by her support for clean energy jobs.

Of special note in our current moment of incipient right wing insurgency, Alterman cited a Times story dated March 13, 2016 detailing Trump’s repeated incitements to violence among his supporters, with the qualifier that “Both sides are fueling this.”  

Are they, though? When? And according to whom? 

The Times didn’t bother to say.

Alterman:

These pathologies have long been with us. But they have reached a crisis point in recent years, as conservatives have grown ever more brazen in exploiting them, successfully shifting the boundaries of political discourse well beyond what the rest of us recognize as readily observable reality. This is but one of the dividends the right enjoys from its long-term investment in “working the refs”—that is, creating and supporting countless institutions whose purpose is to harass members of the media to produce more sympathetic coverage of their pet issues.

As Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash told the website JournalismJobs.com back in 2003, “The conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective…. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too.”

And I remind you: that was obvious to plenty of smart observers like Eric in 2016

After all, it was way back in 2000—or as we used to call it, the Year Two Thousand—that Paul Krugman famously quipped: “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’” 

SHIT ROLLS DOWNHILL

Presciently, Alterman was even writing about the Fourth Estate’s failures on the very specific issue of voting rights back in 2016, citing a study by Media Matters that found “baseless complaints about voter fraud were given the ‘he said/she said’ treatment in the (New York) Times in 60 percent of the relevant stories published in 2013 and 2015—a 10 percent increase over the previous two years.” 

The paper’s own public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan, herself raised the issue of what Alterman calls “the paper’s repeated failure to report the truth about this issue,” prompting the Times’s national editor Sam Sifton to argue that “It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper…. We need to state what each side says.” Even if what one side says is total horseshit, I guess. (Sifton “made this point regarding a story by Ethan Bronner, who admitted to Sullivan that he was aware of ‘no known evidence of in-person voter fraud.’”) 

That the media’s mandarins are defending their ill-conceived mentality is not a coincidence. In that 2016 piece, Alterman also wrote: “The refusal of so many in the media to adjudicate between truth and falsehood is not a by-product of journalistic posturing. Rather, it is at the very foundation of how those at the top define the job.” 

In a brand new piece for The American Prospect titled “The Sins of the Mainstream Media, Alterman writes of Fournierism, the ethos within the Fourth Estate that, in the words of media critic Jay Rosen, valorizes “contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called ‘bipartisanship.’” As Alterman writes: “Fournierism underlies not only both-sides-do-it journalism but also the political posturing of most of the prestigious pundits and so-called experts who populate the nation’s op-ed pages and Sunday roundtables.”

This toxic impulse is named for Ron Fournier, former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, and Alterman offers a prime example from the master himself, again turning on the GOP’s unprecedented refusal even to meet with Merrick Garland in 2016:

Fournier was briefly tempted to blame Republicans for what they were doing, in thrall as they were to an “angry” base that was “opposed to any accommodation with Democrats.” But don’t be fooled: “The GOP isn’t the only party captive to its special interests,” Fournier insists. If “the roles were reversed and a Republican sat in the Oval Office,” the pundit felt certain that “Democrats would block the lame duck’s nominee.” 

Here you have the essence of Fournierism: If reality doesn’t cooperate, you can always blame “both sides” in some alternate universe.

(During the 2016 election Fournier was also a chief proponent of the “both candidates are awful” fallacy. We see where that got us.)

GEORGE SANTAYANA, WHITE COURTESY PHONE

As I say, the media appears to have learned exactly bupkes in the last six years. If I have to listen to Chuck Todd, or NPR, or CNN, or any of the rest of the allegedly “left-leaning lamestream media” uncritically give right wing voices a forum, even in the interest of hearing all sides, I might go full Elvis on my TV. Yes, sunshine is the best disinfectant, but it’s not sunshine when you just give these Republican mouthpieces an audience of millions and let them spew their lies unchallenged. Don’t they have their own network for that?

An anecdotal example. Note how the MSM has reported the job numbers under Trump and under Biden, as originally called out by MSNBC’s Ari Melber. In February 2018, under Trump, the Associated Press reported: “US employers added a robust 200,000 jobs in January.” In December 2021, under Biden, that same Associated Press reported: “US employers added a sluggish 210,000 jobs in November.” 

That’s  what you call MAGA Math, folks, in the same way that Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s. 

Today the crime that is most blatantly benefitting from the “both sides” treatment is the Republican attempt to put a chokehold the electoral process. With a handful of notable exceptions, the US press continues to be utterly incapable of responding, and once again is getting played for suckers. 

In a recent piece by Dan Froomkin for Press Watch, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein spoke openly of political reporters and editors struggling “to accurately and sufficiently convey facts about the Republican assault on voting rights and democracy. The fear of taking sides is very obviously holding them back.” The result? “The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber.”

An example: Citing a poll it conducted in cooperation with the University of Maryland, the Washington Post reported that 69 percent of Trump voters believe Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. It then added: “Republicans’ rejection of Biden’s victory is not novel. In a fall 2017 Post-UMD poll, 67 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Hillary Clinton voters said Trump was not legitimately elected president.”

What the Post DIDN’T say is that Donald Trump eagerly fanned those flames delegitimizing his successor, while Hillary Clinton graciously—and admirably—did the opposite. That is a shameful sin of omission and a near-textbook case of “bothsidesism” and the dangers of faux “objectivity” in the mainstream media.

Writing in the Washington Post recently, Jennifer Rubin laid down an indictment of this phenomenon very well: 

The mainstream media’s fixation with false equivalency between the two political parties and fear of criticism from the right has led to distorted coverage and misleading characterizations of the assault on democracy.

Only one party, the GOP, protects members who post violent, outrageous material. Only one overwhelmingly opposed a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. Or tossed a party member out of her leadership position for refusing to lie about the Donald Trump-inspired effort to overturn the election. Or filibustered debate on any voting rights reform (with the exception of a single Republican senator from Alaska).

Part of the problem in identifying the source of the threat to democracy stems from the mainstream media’s refusal to recognize that we no longer live in a political world in which two political parties engage within acceptable bounds of democracy.

Better still, Rubin has specific, concrete proposals for what the media ought to be doing, and dire warnings about the cost of the failure to do so:

Why isn’t Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quizzed as to how his party can take direction from a former president who plotted to overthrow the election? Why isn’t every Trump-picked candidate quizzed as to whether they buy the “big lie” of a stolen election and asked to renounce violence? Will debate moderators confront Republican candidates with questions as to whether President Biden won the election and whether they would oppose state legislative efforts to overturn the will of their voters by submitting an alternative slate of presidential electors to the House in 2024?

Also in the WaPo, that same aforementioned Margaret Sullivan who was formerly the Times’ public editor, now a media columnist for the Post, recently published a piece titled, “If American Democracy Is Going to Survive, the Media Must Make This Crucial Shift.” 

For the most part, news organizations are not making democracy-under-siege a central focus of the work they present to the public. “We are losing our democracy day by day, and journalists are individually aware of this, but media outlets are not centering this as the story it should be,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of autocracy and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”

But, in general, this pro-democracy coverage is not being “centered” by the media writ large. It’s occasional, not regular; it doesn’t appear to be part of an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we’re in.

That must change. 

Calling the press out and keeping up the pressure can have an effect. To his credit, Todd has gotten better, no doubt in response to this kind of criticism. (NPR has its own problems.) 

Sullivan acknowledges important articles like Gellman’s in The Atlantic, an AP story headlined “‘Slow-Motion Insurrection’: How GOP Seizes Election Power,” and a much-praised piece by Melissa Block on NPR on “the clear and present danger of Trump’s enduring ‘Big Lie.” However, she calls for not merely more of this work but different kinds as well, including “a new emphasis on those who are fighting to preserve voting rights and defend democratic norms,” and begs for “news leaders” to “show that you really mean it.” 

Don’t be afraid to stand for something as basic to our mission as voting rights, governmental checks and balances, and democratic standards. In other words, shout it from the rooftops. Before it’s too late.

FOXES AND CHICKENS

It is an article of faith in the right wing—and even much of ordinary, apolitical America—that the MSM is left-leaning. When confronted with the obvious, shameless bias of Fox, reactionaries will first deny it—“Fair and balanced!”—then grudgingly say it is no more biased than MSNBC, as if the two are co-equal offenders. Yet another false equivalence.

MSNBC does not hide its ideological position. (Fox, risibly, tries to.) But at the same time, MSNBC operates in the reality-based world, while Fox happily swims in the sea of Kellyanne Conway-esque alternative facts, facts that are bespoke to its needs at any given moment and subject to change without notice as those needs evolve. Or what side of the bed Donald Trump hauled his fat ass out of that morning. 

There is no need to dignify the “opinion” celebrities-cum-carnival barkers that anchor Fox’s prime time lineup by pretending that they are real journalists. They themselves alternately embrace the label when it suits them, and disavow it when it does not. The son of an heiress to the Swanson TV dinner fortune, Tucker Carlson comes from a family that for years fed America garbage in front of our televisions, and he is keeping up the tradition.

(Fox takes pains to distinguish these malevolent infotainment clowns from its traditional news division,  but that news division is hardly much more objective….and indeed may be more dangerous in some ways for its very veneer of faux legitimacy. Fahrenbalanst indeed.)

The net result is that the GOP has an entire propaganda empire at its disposal—America’s most watched news network, as it is fond of bragging—the center of an even larger right wing mediasphere that includes the Sinclairbehemoth, ubiquitous talk radio, local outlets, and social media. The Dems have nothing analogous. In that sense, the whole term “mainstream media” is dead wrong. As the academic Nicco Mele points out, as empirically measured by sheer, indisputable numbers, the right’s dominance of the press is so vast that it truly is the MSM.

Eric Alterman—damn, that guy is good!—wrote of the effect that Fox has had on the Overton window of American politics: 

Thanks, in part, to the willingness of most mainstream journalists to treat Fox News as just another news source, right-wing ideologues have shifted the political “center” closer to the conservative fringe with every election. And so the Fournierists have moved rightward as well. 

For that matter, the entire canard of the “left-leaning” media is risible….as if allegedly liberal major media corporations like the Washington Post, NBC, and CNN—owned by even bigger mega-corporations like Amazon, Comcast, and AT&T, respectively—are somehow bastions of Marxism who want to tear down the system. The proof of their crypto-conservatism (and often not so crypto) is in their coverage, which consistently reflects a center-right point of view. And that’s at best. Dallas-based AT&T, in fact, is one of the major donors to pro-Insurrectionist politicians, as well as the primary platform of the far right OANN.

But at the risk of sounding like a broken record (kids: look it up), the only reason that these conservative media outlets and right wing politicians can pander like this is because there is a base to pander to—simple supply and demand. There are tens of millions of our fellow countrymen out there consumed with what we used to call John Birchism (now: standard Republican orthodoxy) and the Big Lie Republican Party would have been unable to grow and fester like it has without them. Per Nicco Mele, they are not the majority, we are the majority, but they exist in large enough numbers, and are fanatical enough, to be incredibly useful to plutocrats and would-be authoritarians.

These people are almost beyond reasoning with because they have been conditioned to disregard any facts that inconveniently clash with their worldview there on Earth 2….and have willingly surrendered to that mentality. A few years ago, I got into an argument online (always a good use of one’s time) with a conservative woman who was peddling some conspiracy theory or another. When I sent her a Snopes link disproving her claims, she responded that she doesn’t read Snopes because “I like to make up my own mind.”

Yes, and I don’t read weather reports because I like to decide for myself what the temperature is.

It is this gullibility that Fox, Breitbart, and the rest of right wing media exploits, and that we have to do a far better job of countering. 

Of course, the culpability of the MSM for the poisoning of our democracy is an old story compared to the Wild West of Facebook and other social media companies, which represent a totally different kind of threat, but that is a topic for another day. 

Still, it’s kind of silly that we’re even talking about so-called “legacy media” given the extent to which its influence is waning as the Age of Cronkite gives way to the Age of Zuckerberg. (Barf.) But the Internet has not yet completely displaced the power of broadcast and print news, particularly of the tabloid right wing variety, which deftly uses the Internet as a force multiplier, or perhaps vice versa.

It’s ironic, though, to think of how similar Trump and Facebook are. 

Once upon a time, in the Eighties, Donald Trump was just a vulgar real estate developer, walking punchline for Spy magazine, and celebrity wannabe best known for leching after teenaged Eastern European models….not an aspiring tyrant with an army of violent followers who posed an unprecedented threat to American democracy. You know, the same way that once upon a time Facebook was a trivial diversion like Tetris on your Palm Pilot, and not a malevolent multinational juggernaut that was taking over the world by mining your brain like the machines in The Matrix

It’s bitter but fitting that the two worked hand in hand so well, a pair of jokes that turned into urgent, hair-on-fire dangers to humankind.

D.I.Y.

As apostate Republican and Never Trumper Ron Filipkowski says, “(T)he traditional media is constitutionally incapable of being a counter to the alternative ecosystem the right-wing has constructed. Our media is structured to report facts about the way the world functions in a liberal society, not act as a counterweight to an else-worlds propaganda machine.

(I assume he means liberal in the classical sense, though as a fearless Stephen Colbert joked/not-joked at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner—without ever breaking character from his O’Reillyesque “Colbert Report” alter ego—“reality has a well-known liberal bias.”)

To that end, Democrats have to take up that role, and get a lot better at marketing, advertising, and PR. (The folks at the Lincoln Project—not Democrats, but allies on the Democratic side, and also the democratic one—are damned good at it.) That shift will not come naturally, because as Jennifer Rubin noted, Democrats seem “temperamentally unsuited to calling out their opponents as anti-democratic or un-American. (How else would one describe the cheering for an unpeaceful transfer of power?)” We are also at the constant disadvantage of arguing for nuanced, humane policies, as opposed to simplistic and often ill-conceived reptile brain ones. That would present a big enough challenge even if reactionaries weren’t also willing and eager to lie their asses off on top of it.

So we have to let go of our Marquess of Queensbury thinking. 

An example:

Speaking on MSNBC a few weeks ago, the astute former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, whom I deeply respect, addressed a series of incriminating tweets by members of the Trump circle— including family members, Fox News personalities, and Republican congressmembers—that the January 6th committee had made public. Rosenberg said that he wished the committee would not release things like that piecemeal, but rather keep them under wraps until its final report is ready. I understand the prudence and professionalism of this civilized approach, but I respectfully disagree. That’s precisely what the Mueller probe did and it proved a grievous strategic mistake, ceding the media battlespace to Team Trump for almost two years…..and then even allowing Trump and Barr to spin the final report itself ahead of its publication.  

This is a pre-2016 mindset that we have to get out of. Knowing that Hannity, Ingraham, and even that walking Oedipal complex Don Jr. all begged Trump to stop the Insurrection has already changed the national conversation.  

I’m not a journalist per se. (Haters: That’s your cue. I’m not gonna lob you softballs like that everyday.) I come out of documentary, where we make no secret of having a point of view, even if the viewing public is often confused about that distinction. If the American media will not or cannot recognize the insidious Republican game and shift its approach accordingly, the Democratic Party and other opponents of GOP authoritarianism will have to take the initiative. 

The only positive opportunity created by the longstanding right wing war on the media (and on Truth full stop) is that it has so destroyed public faith in journalism, and so inculcated a Putinist cynicism that “everything is a lie,” that it has opened up space for overtly partisan voices to take their case directly to the public, jaded though that public may be, since all “news” is perceived as having an agenda anyway. 

So be it, then: let us make the case that our agenda is preferable to theirs.   

Writing in The Bulwark, Filipkowski advocates this approach in a piece called “How Democrats Can Win the Information War,” and bemoans the fact that the left has not already taken it up:

Either Democrats fail to recognize what is happening, don’t understand it, or think that a handful of PACs and White House press conferences are sufficient to deal with it. Either way, they’re wrong. The DNC’s “War Room” looks like a Victorian tea party compared to what Republicans do on a daily basis. It is shocking to watch both sides operate each day, and see how much more effective the GOP is at messaging.

If the Democratic party had even five intelligent, relentless, full-time people working as a team to fight the right-wing disinformation war, it would be more effective than all the traditional media outlets combined. Again: It isn’t the media’s job to fight partisan battles and the media as it currently exists simply isn’t configured to fight bad-faith, malicious propaganda and disinformation. But also, there are things that can be done by a partisan political group that traditional media cannot, will not, and should not do.

Like Rubin and Sullivan, Ron even gets into the weeds of how this would work:

What would this team do exactly? Generally, it must identify what is being said and done on the right across multiple platforms, settings, and venues. Their game plans for today, this week, this month, and this year are all there, out in the open. Once you become aware of disinformation, it can be proven false and countered immediately. And then Democrats should take the fight directly to the right on their own platforms. I believe that many of the people who have been turned by lies can be won back with irrefutable truth—but the truth has to be put right in front of them, meeting them where they are.

I am less convinced than Mr. Filipkowski that MAGA Nation will listen to reason (they haven’t yet), and a lie famously goes round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But I do think his scheme will do some good with the squishy middle, to the extent it still exists, and help counter the relentless right wing narrative.

The price of failure will be enormous. Jennifer Rubin again:

As the Republican Party strays further from democratic norms and standards of civil conduct, the refusal to pin blame on them for erosion of democracy serves to provide cover for their illiberal conduct and anti-democratic sentiments. A democracy that can no longer recognize existential threats is in no position to defend itself against shameless foes.

CLOUDS’ ILLUSIONS I RECALL

In  closing, let’s go back to 2016. Amid the untold damage done by the MSM’s “both candidates suck!” coverage, Eric Alterman was very clear-eyed about the two choices, and what was at stake:

Journalistic abdications of responsibility are always harmful to democracy, but reporters and pundits covering the 2016 campaign will be doing the public a particularly grave disservice if they continue to draw from the “both sides” playbook in the months leading up to the November election. Now that Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, some simple facts about him and his campaign should be stated clearly and repeatedly, not obfuscated or explained away or leavened into click bait. Trump is a pathological liar and conspiracy theorist, a racist, misogynist, and demagogic bully with a phantasmagoric policy platform and dangerously authoritarian instincts. Hillary Clinton’s flaws and failures are many, and they should not be discounted, either. But they are of an entirely different order. Love her or hate her, at least we don’t have to wonder whether she believes in democracy. When it comes to sane and even semi-sensible policy proposals for America’s future in the 2016 presidential election, there is only one side.

We will be writing a similar epitaph about 2022 and 2024 unless shit changes. 

*********

Photo: Adolphe Menjou (left) and Pat O’Brien (center), and George E. Stone in the original 1931 film version of The Front Page, directed by Lewis Milestone.

The Respite Is Coming to an End, Part 2

Last week in the first part of this essay, we discussed the distressing possibility that it might already be too late to stop an authoritarian takeover of US democracy by Big Lie Republicans less than a year from now.

In this week’s installment, we look at further signs pointing to that fate, what we can do to avert it, and how to begin thinking about resistance should it come to pass. 

CHOKEPOINTS AND HOW TO RECOGNIZE THEM

We have already detailed the finer points of the ongoing GOP attempt to subvert American democracy. As I wrote in part one of this piece, when we reach the midterms, less than a year from now, we may be at the point of no return. That realization unavoidably changes how we look at the daily ebb and flow of US politics. Or should, anyway. 

Normally this week I would be very upset over Joe Manchin double-crossing the President and his own party and reneging on Build Back Better, thereby almost singlehandedly destroying the Biden agenda (it appears), making life significantly harder for millions of working Americans as a result, and handing the GOP a massive victory that will aid it immeasurably in ‘22 and ’24. Thanks Joe! Pick up your MVP trophy at  RNC headquarters. 

(Remember earlier this year, when all the pundits were excoriating the Democrats’ progressive caucus for playing hardball in negotiations with Manchin and Sinema, and insisting on connecting the two infrastructure bills because they feared Joe would double-cross them on the second if they agreed to pass the first in a separate vote? Well, that’s exactly what happened.)

But I just don’t have the energy to worry about Joe Manchin anymore. His odious behavior feels like small beer compared to the broader emergency unfolding all around us….though of course, Manchin is also blocking the passage of bills to protect voting rights, so on that front he’s part of the problem. 

This subversion of the vote is the heart of Republican strategy, both in keeping people from voting, and in controlling the process by which those votes are counted. Build Back Better, admirable and visionary as it is, will just be roadkill along the way should the Republicans succeed.

A year ago, in an influential article titled “The Election That Could Break America,” The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman wrote that Trump understands “that more voting is bad for him in general. Democrats, he said on Fox & Friends at the end of March, want ‘levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.’”

Therefore, having lost the vote in 2020, and failed to overturn the results, the GOP has devoted itself to fulfilling another prediction Gellman made in that piece: 

Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian…..A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix his victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome.

That is precisely what Trump and the Republicans intend to do in 2022 and 2024.

The illusion of a free election is useful cover for authoritarians, from Moscow to Istanbul to Hong Kong. To that end, what the GOP is carrying out now is a kind of “pre-coup” that offers the fig leaf of a fair election, but actually renders a Republican victory a fait accompli. It also obviates the need for any pressure on Congress over the certification of the electoral votes and a second storming of the Capitol by controlling the process further upstream. 

Not coincidentally, this Republican effort to gain a chokehold on the electoral process is concentrated on those states that are likely to be key to victory in ’24. Gellman hones in on this fact in his latest, much-talked about piece in The Atlantic, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”: 

Among the 36 states that will choose new governors in 2022, three are presidential battlegrounds—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—where Democratic governors until now have thwarted attempts by Republican legislatures to cancel Biden’s victory and rewrite election rules. Republican challengers in those states have pledged allegiance to the Big Lie, and the contests look to be competitive. In at least seven states, Big Lie Republicans have been vying for Trump’s endorsement for secretary of state, the office that will oversee the 2024 election. Trump has already endorsed three of them, in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan.

If UN election observers saw that happening in some emerging Third World democracy, the whole General Assembly would howl bloody murder. 

LETTING YOU GO WITH A WARNING THIS TIME

Just over a year ago, Gellman wrote that as Election Day approached, the screens of electoral experts and political scientists were “blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb.” 

They are an even brighter shade of crimson today. Yet we are, collectively, doing damn little about it. 

“Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real,” he writes of the professional political class and its failure to give this crisis the attention it demands. “Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have taken passing rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. They are making a grievous mistake.”

Gellman reports that experts who were cautioning against hyperbole a year ago, like Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, now speak “matter-of-factly about the death of our body politic,” and believe that “The democratic emergency is already here.” ‘We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” he quotes Hasen as saying, ‘but urgent action is not happening.” 

Biden has spoken—sometime with soaring rhetoric, sometimes not—about the looming threat and the crucial importance of electoral integrity; indeed, it was a key part of his stump speech during the 2020 campaign, and voters responded to it. But since then, that grand rhetoric has not been matched with similarly dramatic action, or much action at all. Mostly what the President has proposed—not even enacted, but merely proposed—is “enforcement of inadequate laws, wishful thinking about new laws, vigilance, voter education, and a friendly request that Republicans stand athwart their own electoral schemes.”

Conspicuously missing from Biden’s speech (about voting rights, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on July 13th) was any mention even of filibuster reform, without which voting-rights legislation is doomed. Nor was there any mention of holding Trump and his minions accountable, legally, for plotting a coup…..

Democracy will be on trial in 2024. A strong and clear-eyed president, faced with such a test, would devote his presidency to meeting it. Biden knows better than I do what it looks like when a president fully marshals his power and resources to face a challenge. It doesn’t look like this.

By way of analogy, Bill Kristol argues in The Bulwark that Trump’s defeat in November 2020 wasn’t D-Day but Dunkirk, “an occasion to heave a huge sigh of relief, but ultimately a success that simply allows us to regroup and gather our energies and forces for a longer fight.”

The anti-democratic forces seem stronger at the end of 2021 than they were at the beginning. The Republican party seems to be more captive to authoritarian demagoguery today than it was a year ago following Trump’s defeat. Establishment Republicans seem to be even more willing to appease a rising anti-democratic Right than ever. The trajectory of the Republican party heading into 2022 is worrisome. At the start of 2020, people believed that the Republican party might become explicitly anti-democratic. At the start of 2021, all doubt was removed. And neither the party’s leaders nor voters have done anything to change that base fact.

On Medium, a reader named Leonardo del Toro recently made the salient point to me that few functional democracies, faced with a deposed head of state who just tried to mount a violent insurrection to overturn the vote that chucked him out, would allow him to go scot free, run for office in the next election, and even organize an openly violent political movement to back his bid—and, presumably, stand back and stand by in case he loses again.

Gellman again:

The Justice Department and the FBI are chasing down the foot soldiers of January 6, but there is no public sign that they are building cases against the men and women who sent them. Absent consequences, they will certainly try again. An unpunished plot is practice for the next.

In defense of the good ol’ USA, it must be said that we tried to hold Trump to account with an impeachment (his second, ahem), but that effort was blocked by the high-ranking members of his own party who constitute an openly seditionist bloc in our parliament. Unfortunately, far from mitigating the danger, that fact only makes it greater. 

In one mildly encouraging development, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Select Committee on January 6th, has recently said that the committee is looking at a referral to the DOJ for criminal charges against Trump for his role in the Insurrection, both for fomenting it and for failing to stop it once it began, even as senior Republicans, Fox News stars, and even his own family members pleaded with him to do so.

About goddam time. We shall see if Merrick “The Institutionalist” Garland (his WWE costume is a business suit) agrees. I hope so, but I have a scuba tank on standby in case I have to hold my breath. In any case, brace yourself for a slew of hyperventilating op-eds about how such a criminal prosecution would be bad for the country, create more divisiveness, set a terrible precedent for political score-settling by each incoming head of state, blah blah blah blah blah. 

Then remind yourself that when someone commits a horrific crime—particularly when that person is supposed to be the leader of the country—it’s collective political suicide if we don’t hold them to account.

(And it’s far from unprecedented to so. Ask Sarkozy. Or Berlusconi. Or Honecker. Or Fujimori. I could go on.)

THE JUSTIFICATION OF THE MEANS

We would do well to remember that it is this threat of physical violence that underpins the Republicans’ procedural efforts at an electoral takeover, even as the electoral takeover defends and excuses the threat of violence. It’s the kind of symbiosis of which Field Marshal Cinque could only dream. 

Back to you, Gellman:

Trump’s army of the dispossessed is hearing language from Republican elected officials that validates an instinct for violence. Angry rhetoric comparing January 6 to 1776 (Representative Lauren Boebert) or vaccine requirements to the Holocaust (Kansas House Representative Brenda Landwehr) reliably produces death threats by the hundreds against perceived enemies—whether Democratic or Republican.

The infinite scroll of right-wing social media is relentlessly bloody-minded. One commentator on Telegram posted on January 7 that “the congress is literally begging the people to hang them.” Another replied, “Anyone who certifies a fraudulent election has committed treason punishable by death.” One week later came, “The last stand is a civil war.” In response, another user wrote, “No protests. To late for that.” The fire burns, if anything, even hotter now, a year later.

I’ve written many times about how the right’s apocalyptic fearmongering and demonization of Democrats (literal in some cases) serves the twin purposes of retroactively justifying what was done in the past—the Insurrection, support of Trump in the first place, etc—and providing a pretext for even more extreme measures in the future. Before we humans annihilate our foes, we must first convince ourselves they are evil and/or sub-human and deserve such treatment. 

Damon Linker in The Week:

The right believes that the progressive left hates America; that it is an evil totalitarian cult which has infiltrated every institution; and that it is using a mix of business, bullying, and technological surveillance to deconstruct both masculinity and the United States as a whole in order to create a world without belonging.

If you believed this was true, what would you be prepared to do to stop it?

One suggestion, which (David) Brooks mentions in passing in his essay (“The Terrifying Future of the American Right”), is that such hype actually has a retrospective purpose—to justify past and present support for former President Donald Trump among people (like Cruz and Rubio) who once took a stand against him. Such support wouldn’t be necessary if the progressive threat wasn’t so dire,” the argument goes. But because it is, good, patriotic Americans have no choice but to rally around the most tireless and relentless fighter, who just so happens to be the former president and frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination.”

So what exactly is the American right giving itself permission to do? Whatever it takes to defeat its mortal enemy.

Historians and political scientists can tell us where this road leads. 

Gellman writes at length about Robert A. Pape, who runs the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST). Last June Pape conducted a survey in which about 8 percent of respondents “agreed that Biden was illegitimate and that violence was justified to restore Trump to the White House. That corresponds to 21 million American adults. Pape called them ‘committed insurrectionists.’” A Public Religion Research Institute survey the following November found that an even larger percentage of Americans, 12 percent, believed both that Biden had stolen the election and that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Pape’s study also revealed that white grievance was far and away the most distinguishing aspect of the group, noting, “The last time America saw middle-class whites involved in violence was the expansion of the second KKK in the 1920s.” 

Pape has compared Trump to the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, who lead the former Yugoslavia into years of genocidal war “by appealing to fears that Serbs were losing their dominant place to upstart minorities.” Milošević argued to his supporters that “The survival of a way of life is at stake. The fate of the nation is being determined now. Only genuine brave patriots can save the country.” These are the precise themes Trump and his Party are hammering. 

Pape also compares the situation to Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, when just 13 percent of Catholics in that country thought force was justified in the cause of Irish nationalism. Gellman writes that the Provisional IRA had only a few hundred members at the time, but that 13 percent of popular support was more than enough to sustain it, creating “’a mantle of legitimacy—a mandate…..that justifies the violence’ of a smaller, more committed group.” 

Like the Rittenhouse acquittal writ large, it is a twisted form of the “self-defense” argument. Linker again: 

If your political opponents are poised to stomp you into the ground and destroy you, aren’t you entitled to do whatever you can to defend yourself? After all, your very survival is at stake. At the individual level, the appeal to self-defense in the face of a lethal threat can lead to acquittal for taking a life. Following a similar logic, a distressingly large number of prominent Republicans seem ready to seek exoneration for the impending crime of killing American democracy. 

YOU KNOW IT’S BAD WHEN THE GENERALS ARE WORRIED

In case your drawers are not yet sufficiently soiled, consider how this impulse toward violence plays out in the US military.

A troika of retired generals, led by the outspoken Major General (Ret.) Paul Eaton, recently published an open letter in the Washington Post in which they warn of the danger our republic is facing. “We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.” 

They go on to note the alarming number of veterans and even active duty service members among the Insurrectionists on January 6, and the specter of the military taking sides in 2024, as previewed by the commanding general of the Oklahoma National Guard recently refusing an order from President Biden mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all NG members. (The danger, of course, is not only one of mutiny and civil war—which ought to be plenty alarming—but of how foreign adversaries might exploit that chaos.)  

The generals write of how ill-prepared the US military was for January 6th, though some might say that is a generous interpretation. (Were people like Trump’s acting defense secretary Christopher Miller unprepared, or were they deliberately aiding the Insurrection with their refusal to act?) Like Gellman and Mr. del Toro, they are also unsparing in their criticism of our collective failure to hold the leaders of the Insurrection to account, noting that “Not a single leader who inspired (the Insurrection) has been held to account,” and pleading for “the Justice Department, the House select committee and the whole of Congress” to “show more urgency.”

Yet General Eaton and his colleagues recognize that the military can no more wait for other institutions to lead the way than rank-and-file citizens can:

(T)he military cannot wait for elected officials to act. The Pentagon should immediately order a civics review for all members—uniformed and civilian—on the Constitution and electoral integrity. There must also be a review of the laws of war and how to identify and deal with illegal orders. And it must reinforce “unity of command” to make perfectly clear to every member of the Defense Department whom they answer to. No service member should say they didn’t understand whom to take orders from during a worst-case scenario.

That’s great, but a training pause for a civics class will not stop pro-Trump servicemembers who don’t give a rat’s ass about their Constitutional duty (despite maudlin claims of how much they revere that document), especially those who have already shown that they are willing to run roughshod over the rules to keep or put their guy in power. 

The generals do go on to recommend “intensive intelligence work….to identify, isolate and remove potential mutineers” and guard against propaganda and disinformation, and that the Pentagon “war-game the next potential post-election insurrection or coup attempt to identify weak spots.” Again, great….as long as those senior generals and admirals are not themselves Insurrectionists or Insurrection-adjacent. For there is, of course, an opposing cabal of pro-Trump retired flag officers, whom Eaton & Co. themselves acknowledge by way of emphasizing the danger, to say nothing of senior officers on active duty who are fanatically pro-Trump but quiet about it. 

You can decide for yourself which group you find more convincing. But the mere fact that our generals are choosing sides is alarming.

THE FUTURE OF A DELUSION

David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has spent more time covering Trump than almost anyone except maybe Tim O’Brien, believes Trump will not be the GOP candidate in 2024 because by then he’ll be under indictment for racketeering and fraud. 

From your lips to God’s ears, Dave. 

That assessment runs contrary to that of most of the other experts, like Gellman, or Nate Silver, but maybe. But cruel hopes of the law belatedly catching up with Donald after a lifetime of horrific behavior, both legal and illegal, have been tormenting decent Americans for years, eating away at any case that God exists at all, let alone has good hearing. I frankly don’t think even indictment would prevent his nomination—an opinion shared by Gellman—and in fact would probably help him fundraise and stoke anger and passion among his grievance-filled mob of supporters. 

Yet even if Trump is not the candidate, that will not mean the danger of looming autocracy is past. Not by a longshot. As we have noted over and over again, Trump is the symptom, not the disease. He is the logical result of the policies and strategy the Republican Party has been pursuing since the early ‘90s, and it will continue down that path even when he is dead and gone. Absent a Damascene conversion, it’s hard to see the GOP finding its way back to sanity. 

To me, a more convincing argument is the one Democratic operative Doug Sosnik recently made in the Washington Post that the Trumpist takeover of the GOP is already complete, marking the transformation of the once-proud GOP into the party of white nationalist authoritarianism.

As if dialed up from Screenwriting 101, Bob Dole’s death last month at the age of 91 was a perfect marker of that transformation. Dole’s passing was the occasion for lots of well-deserved tributes about his personal courage and service and think-pieces about what Republicans used to be. (The less said about his state funeral, at which Lee Greenwood befouled the Liverpool anthem “You Never Walk Alone” and trotted out the inevitable “God Bless the USA,” the better. Give me a US Army band doing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” at Colin Powell’s funeral any day.) 

There’s no denying that America would be far better off if the Bob Doles of the world were still in charge of the GOP, and God rest his soul. That said, Dole voted for Trump twice. That suggests to me that, like many of his elderly Republican colleagues, he was stuck in a pre-2015 mindset, where party loyalty was innocent enough and did not entail siding with seditionists….which is to say, he could not get his head around the sea change in American politics that we have recently experienced, or the threat that Trump represents.  

Admittedly, he was 93 the first time Trump ran and 97 the second. Few of his fellow Republicans have recourse to that same excuse. 

At a December 7th news conference, speaking about the jail conditions in which accused January 6th Insurrectionists are being held, Matt Gaetz said, “We are going to take power after this next election. When we do, it’s not going to be the days of Paul Ryan, and Trey Gowdy, and no real oversight, and no real subpoenas. It’s going to be the days of Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Dr. Gosar, and myself doing everything.”

I know for Big Lie Republicans that’s a feature not a bug. But for the rest of us, it ought to be terrifying. For once Gaetz is telling the truth: whatever one thinks of the Bob Dole GOP of the past, the future of the GOP is a hellish one.

SHINY BOOTS VS. PASS-AROUND HORS D’OEUVRES

The oddsmakers tell us that the GOP is likely to regain power in the midterms. Biden’s poll numbers are down, Youngkin won in Virginia, Republicans have momentum, yada yada yada. I have heard it so much from the mainstream media that it is beginning to take on the feeling of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So let me be clear that we ought not give up just yet on working within the system, even as we prepare for the near-certainty that our main effort will have to be outside it. 

November 2022 is both barreling toward us at freight train speed and simultaneously an eon away in political time. A lot can happen between now and then, and it would be playing into Republican hands for us not to put forward the best candidates we can, and mount an aggressive GOTV effort, and badger our elected officials to pass voting rights protections, and so on and so forth. The GOP and its amen corner at Fox et al would like nothing better than for us to despair and quit before the game is even fully played. That, after all, is a major goal of its propaganda campaign.

That said, we would be naïve not to understand that the odds of a Republican takeover are high, and what that will mean. Above all, it means we won’t be able to rely on elected Democratic officials to arrest a further slide into authoritarianism in the years that follow. 

Should this blue wave occur in 2022, some have hopefully suggested that cocky Republicans will then overreach, as they did following their big midterm wins in ‘94 and ’10, after which Clinton and Obama both nonetheless sailed to re-election. Maybe that is so. But that was a different world, one that operated under different rules of engagement. The one in which we now live is far more polarized and partisan, to say nothing of the likelihood that the GOP will have an anti-democratic death grip on that electoral process come November ’24.

In his November 2020 piece, Gellman wrote, “It’s a mistake to take for granted that election boards and state legislatures and Congress are capable of drawing lines that ensure a legitimate vote and an orderly transfer of power.” Boy, did that turn out to be true. Especially when the GOP has, since that time, methodically stripped those entities of their independence, non-partisanship, and commitment to the principle of free and fair elections and instead embedded its myrmidons in key positions with a mandate to deliver victories to Republican candidates irrespective of the vote.

Once that insidious task is complete, Gellman’s next point becomes self-evident: “We may have to find a way to draw those lines ourselves.”

The last piece of journalism to rock the chattering classes like Gellman’s recent Atlantic article was Robert Kagan’s epic op-ed for the Washington Post this past October, “Our Constitutional Crisis Is Already Here,” which also sounded the alarm about the ongoing right wing coup. So I’m glad to see that at least some folks are aware of what’s happening and are going full Paul Revere in response. But I am also highly aware of how limited and absurd a collective case of the vapors among the readership of the Washington Post and The Atlantic really is. (Let me know when Men’s Fitness runs a cover story on it.)

As if to demonstrate my own membership in the Chablis Underground, I am reminded, as always, of the iconic bit from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1980), in which Woody’s character, Isaac, tries to recruit some other guests at a black tie cocktail party to confront a group of neo-Nazis:

Isaac: Has anybody read that Nazis are going to march in New Jersey? We should go there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Guest #1: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It is devastating.

Isaac: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Guest #2: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

In other words, it’s great that people in highbrow political periodicals are raising the alarm. We need folks all across the spectrum to do that. But it’s going to take a lot more than just consciousness-raising in NPR Nation for us to prevail in this struggle. 

Recognizing you’re in a flaming housefire is a good start, but only if you take action to put it out.  

IF YOU WANNA BE WOKE, YOU GOTTA WAKE UP

So short of Woody’s bricks and bats, how do we stop this coup and save the republic? 

Let’s start with the optimists first. 

Writing in Washington Monthly, David Atkins, who runs the qualitative research firm the Pollux Group, argues that “in the event of an attempted hostile takeover by a theocratic, anti-cosmopolitan fascist movement, a nonviolent civil resistance and general refusal to cooperate among military, business, and civil elites—plus mass civil disobedience by blue America writ large—should be able to stop it.”

If the Republican Party decides to declare victory by selecting conservative electors even when they lose, change the rules to ensure that they never lose again per the Hungarian model, and allow a Republican president unchecked dictatorial powers—all of which are not only possible but, in fact, likely outcomes within just the next few years—it will actually be doing so from a position of weakness.

Successful fascist movements and authoritarian coups generally require not only a fervent base of cruel, fundamentalist backers. They also need the support, cooperation, and acquiescence of social elites. Most of all, they need the public to roll over and go along with it.

Atkins notes that “democracy’s defenders have an advantage” in that they “represent the majority of America and are also the main drivers of the country’s culture and economy.” 

Blue counties produce more than 70 percent of America’s GDP. U.S. cities—overwhelmingly blue—are responsible for the vast majority of the country’s cultural and economic output. Blue states are overwhelmingly donors to the states that despise them and seek to disenfranchise them. The nation’s most successful companies are typically located in ultra-liberal areas. And the country is becoming more diverse and more urban every day. Americans under 40 are overwhelmingly progressive. This is the present and future of America.

Atkins also thinks that these demographic trends—increasingly non-white, urbanliberalyoung, and non-white—will force Big Business (which might naturally side with allegedly pro-business conservatives) to recognize on which side its Wonder Bread is buttered and apply pressure on the GOP. We know that this dynamic is real, because of the way the Republican Party already, regularly “now portrays itself as the victim of ‘woke’ corporate elites.”

In the Guardian, the intrepid Rebecca Solnit makes a similar arc-of-history-bends-toward-justice case. Seconding Atkins’ point about demographics, she writes hopefully that the forces of reactionaryism are fighting like cornered rats precisely because they know that they are in fact cornered, and quotes Michelle Alexander’s 2018 essay to the effect that “We are not the resistance. (We) are the mighty river they are trying to dam.”

I’m sure she’s right, by the numbers. But let’s not underestimate how long those panicked white nationalists can hold on in their death throes, and how much damage they can inflict along the way, and how painful that will be. 

Which brings us to the pessimists. 

Speaking to Truthout’s C.J. Polychroniou recently, the estimable Noam Chomsky bluntly argued that “if Trump and acolytes (return) to power….we will be well on our way to proto-fascism and to falling off the precipice.” You don’t need to be as smart as Noam Chomsky to have clocked that, though it’s nice he is around to summarize it so tidily.

Noam goes on:

Is there a way to fend off these grave political consequences? Not within the confines of the deeply corrupt and undemocratic political system. The only way that has ever worked, and can work now, is mass popular pressure—what the powerful call “the peasants coming with their pitchforks.”

In other words, the main pushback for the defense of the republic ultimately will have to come from outside the conventional political system. There are plenty of models, from Gandhi in India to Solidarity in Poland to MLK and the civil rights movement right here in the United States. 

Atkins seems to agree: 

The future of American democracy looks exceedingly grim under threat from a far-right authoritarian movement—and it’s not clear that any particular electoral or legislative response by Democrats can fix it. In short, it will take an unprecedented all-of-society approach to bring together many competing interest groups—from leaders of the business community to marginalized workers and everyone in between—to stop the MAGA train in its tracks.

So yes, we should try to passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Yes we should turbocharge our GOTV efforts. Yes, we should call out and mount legal challenges to extreme gerrymandering and obviously partisan Congressional redistricting.  Yes, we should push back against anti-democratic legislation to take the electoral process out of the hands of neutral administrators. Atkins believes that while they hold any political power at all, “Democrats should do everything in their power to pass bills that improve Americans’ lives, drag Manchin and Sinema to do whatever is possible to shore up majoritarian democracy, and run the best, most popular and effective campaigns possible.” 

But those things alone cannot stem the tide against a determined fascist party in a thermostatic two-party system.

Conservatives are guaranteed to make every attempt to turn America into the next Russia or Hungary. It will take coordinated, overlapping solidarity among both regular people and elites across various institutions to stop it.

Even Bill Kristol agrees, writing, “We have to be the source of our own rescue, the cause of our own liberation. And that work we have only just begun.” 

We Americans—white ones anyway—have long had the luxury of living in a country where we could rely on the mechanisms of official power to protect us from the more sinister forces that would do us harm and undermine our free and open society. That is not the norm in most of the world. We now find ourselves in that harsher, bare knuckles world. 

We better beginning acting like it.

*********

Photo: Solidarity protest in Poland, 1982. Chris Niedenthal / Forum.

What Rough Beast: Joan Didion for Boys

I came to Joan Didion late. As a teenage boy in the 1970s, the titans of so-called New Journalism who grabbed me were Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and their Beat Generation predecessors like Kerouac and Burroughs—the usual suspects. I’d encountered Didion in excerpts from The White Album and Salvador, but I was a grown-ass man before I began to really read and appreciate her in earnest. My loss. 

Those male writers fit the adolescent model that seemed tailor made for guys like me. But Joan Didion’s work was sneakier, subtler, and darker. Yes, darker than Hunter Thompson and William S. Burroughs, even though I’m not aware that she ever pulled a gun on anyone, much less the trigger. As I say, it took me a while to mature enough to appreciate it.  

(The 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold by her nephew-in-law Griffin Dunne is a good introduction to his aunt, both benefitting and suffering from being an insider account.)

People love Joan Didion the way they love Joni Mitchell, another California icon, transplanted though she is: as an artist with a dazzling and absolute mastery of her craft, whose work feels incredibly personal, as if directed individually at them. Like those male authors, she is an unmistakably American writer; what could be more American than drinking an ice-cold Coca-Cola for breakfast every morning? Her influence is towering, yet still underestimated; to mangle Eno’s famous comment about the Velvet Underground, it seemed like everyone who read her work went out and applied to a journalism or MFA Creative Writing program.

As a reporter, Didion’s talent for zeroing in on the crucial elements of any given topic and neatly dissecting them for the reader in eyepoppingly stylish prose was a match for Wolfe’s. Her writing on the Central Park Five—Six, originally, and now known more properly  known as the Exonerated Five—presciently looked ahead to contemporary battles over racism and the criminal justice system. (It especially resonated with my wife, who as a young documentary photographer had known and worked with one of the wrongly accused young men.)

As a screenwriter myself, I was also taken by Joan’s journalism about that part of her career. (I will include in that grouping her husband’s 1997 book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, which recounts their travails in scripting the 1996 Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer movie Up Close and Personal, which featured some real life characters I had dealt with myself at close range.) Certainly no one has captured the faux goodwill and passive-aggressiveness of contemporary Hollywood as well as she did when she wrote, in a piece called “Good Citizens,” from The White Album:“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Didion’s writing about her home state, far beyond just Hollywood, remains some of her best work, IMHO, as well as some of her most celebrated. That too struck a chord with me, as an almost accidental transplant to the state, decades behind previous generations of westward-bound searchers, and one who fell in love with it. Even now I retain a strong vestigial attachment to the Bear Republic, which takes a back seat to no state, not even Texas, in seeing itself as its own sovereign country. Few have captured the California myth better than Joan.

She can be forgiven for her admiration for the Doors, as I hope I will be. (The teenage years are hard and confusing.)

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, AND BACK AGAIN

I was well into adulthood before I discovered Joan’s writing about Hawaii. As it happened, the time she spent in the islands coincided almost exactly with the period I lived there as a teenager. Reading her stories for the first time, I was astonished at how perfectly she captured the place—from the perspective of a visiting haole, anyway—not only Honolulu, familiar to tourists, but unfashionable parts of Oahu like the Army post where my family lived in the late ‘70s, Schofield Barracks:

I have never seen a postcard of Hawaii that featured Schofield Barracks. Schofield is off the track, off the tour, hard by the shadowy pools of the Wahiawa Reservoir, and to leave Honolulu and drive inland to Schofield is to sense a clouding of the atmosphere, a darkening of the color range. The translucent pastels of the famous coast give way to the opaque greens of interior Oahu. Crushed white coral gives way to red dirt, sugar dirt, deep red laterite soil that crumbles soft in the hand and films over grass and boots and hubcaps. Clouds mass over the Waianae Range. Cane fires smoke on the horizon and rain falls fitfully. BUY SOME COLLARD GREENS, reads a sign on a weathered frame grocery in Wahiawa, just across the two-lane bridge from the Schofield gate. MASSAGE PARLOR, “CHECKS CASHED, 50TH STATE POOLROOM, HAPPY HOUR, CASH FOR CARS. Schofield Loan. Schofield Pawn. Schofield Sands Motor Lodge.

If my fourteen-year-old self had known Joan Didion was prowling around post, he would have been starstruck, if my fourteen year old self had known who Joan Didion was. (I was more consumed at the time with the likes of Gerry Lopez.)

She goes on to describe other places, like the red light district of Hotel Street, where I changed buses on my commute to 9th grade in Honolulu (on those days when the carpool wasn’t running, I feel compelled to say, at the risk of chipping away at my street cred). 

(I)t was in this sombre focus that I last saw Schofield, one Monday during that June. It had rained in the morning and the smell of eucalyptus was sharp in the air and I had again that familiar sense of having left the bright coast and entered a darker country. The black outline of the Waianae Range seemed obscurely oppressive. A foursome on the post golf course seemed to have been playing since 1940, and to be doomed to continue. A soldier in fatigues appeared to be trimming a bougainvillea hedge, swinging at it with a scythe, but his movements were hypnotically slowed, and the scythe never quite touched the hedge. Around the tropical frame bungalows where the families of Schofield officers have always lived there was an occasional tricycle but no child, no wife, no sign of life but one: a Yorkshire terrier yapping on the lawn of a colonel’s bungalow. As it happens I have spent time around Army posts in the role of an officer’s child, have even played with lap dogs on the lawns of colonels’ quarters, but I saw this Yorkshire with Prewitt’s eyes, and I hated it.

I….had lunch with my hosts at the Aloha Lightning NCO Club and was shown the regimental trophies and studied the portraits of commanding officers in every corridor I walked down. Unlike the golden children in the Honolulu bookstores these men I met at Schofield, these men in green fatigues, all knew exactly who James Jones was and what he had written and even where he had slept and eaten and probably gotten drunk during the three years he spent at Schofield. They recalled the incidents and locations of From Here to Eternity in minute detail. They anticipated those places that I would of course want to see: D Quad, the old stockade, the stone quarry, Kolekole Pass. 

It was in one of those bungalows that we lived at precisely that time (though we only had a mutt—a poi dog, in local parlance—not a Yorkie). D Quad was my father’s; his portrait was one of those commanding officers she studied; and one of the regimental trophies of which she speaks was a silver punchbowl his predecessors in that regiment—the 14th Infantry “Golden Dragons”—had brought back from the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the 19th century.

She writes of “barracks rats” who were “erasing Army hatred by indulging in smoke or drink or listening to Peter Frampton at eighty decibels.” The quads where those GIs lived were right across the street from our house, and I can tell you that in terms of the volume of the music blasting out from behind windows typically adorned with tinfoil in lieu of curtains (soldiers are very resourceful), 80 dBs is generous, though in my memory it was “Go Your Own Way” or “Trampled Under Foot” or “Brick House.” 

I was still reeling from that shock of recognition when I came upon her description of a commemorative screening of From Here to Eternity at Schofield (where much of it was set and had been filmed) in 1977, and realized I had been at that screening, in the company of my father. 

(E)veryone to whom I spoke at Schofield had turned out for this screening. Many of these men were careful to qualify their obvious attachment to James Jones’s view of their life by pointing out that the Army had changed. Others did not mention the change. One, a young man who had re-upped once and now wanted out, mentioned that it had not changed at all. We were standing on the lawn in D Quad, Jones’s quad, Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s quad, and I was watching the idle movement around the square, a couple of soldiers dropping a basketball through a hoop, another cleaning an M-16, a desultory argument at the Dutch door of the supply room—when he volunteered a certain inchoate dissatisfaction with his six years in the 25th Division. “I read this book From Here to Eternity,” he said, “and they still got the same little games around here.”

DISSENT

For my part, I’ll apologize halfheartedly for writing about Didion from such a solipsistic point of view, but only halfheartedly, because New Journalism had already broken the rules and put the reporter—not the putative subject—at the center of the story, and because her writing was so piercing that its impact was hugely personal for the reader. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The acclaim for Ms. Didion is not universal, of course. Take Tom Carson, formerly of Esquire, a brilliant writer and stylist in his own right (see Gilligan’s Wake), who has written of her carefully calculated public persona, and the disingenuous pose (my words) that showcases “her fragility in a sentence(s)…about as hesitant as a fighter plane.” ”Few writers,” Carson writes, “so happily stack the deck while pretending they’re just passive receptors of the cards they’ve been dealt.” He also makes the point that Didion actually was more appealing to a male audience than a female one.

All fair enough. All my literary heroes inspire strong passions and legions both of champions and detractors, except Robert McCloskey. Even those detractors admit Didion’s vast influence on postwar American letters. Revisionists gonna revise.

For me, coming to her work late in life was a revelation, one that sent me circling back to earlier times in my own life, allowing me to relive them with an adult perspective, and affording me an appreciation for prose that I was too callow to reckon with at the time. Lucky me I got a mulligan. 

I’ll sign off by turning it over to the woman herself, who wrote these prophetic words way back in 1968, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem:

Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, thing have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.

May she rest in peace and her legacy linger. 

******* 

Photo: Joan Didion in 1972, by Jill Krementz

The Respite Is Coming to an End

When Joe Biden beat Donald Trump to win the US presidency, I was one of tens of millions who rejoiced. Here in Brooklyn, as in many places all over America and the whole world, spontaneous parties erupted in the streets, a testament to how hated Donald was, and remains. (As the meme went: “Try to do your job in such a way that people don’t dance in the streets when you get fired.”)

But glad as I was, from the beginning I was also among those who worried that we were only entering a lull before the vile hate machine that is the modern Republican Party came roaring back on the counter. 

It was not hard to predict. But it is now impossible to deny that that is precisely what is underway. 

I wrote at the time that there could be no return to normalcy, but even that warning has proven a vast underestimation of the threat. 

Biden has been in office just under a year. Just under a year from now, with the midterms, and the probable Republican re-taking of the House of Representatives, we may be at the end of the phase in which he has appreciable control of the governance of the United States. Matters are likely to get dramatically worse from there heading into January 2025, which may well see the reinstallation of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. That event, not coincidentally, would likely mark the effective end of representative democracy as we know it in the United States.

Alarmism, you say? I don’t think so. All around us we can see the forces of white nationalist authoritarianism engaged in a second, far more methodical, far better coordinated, and already more successful attempt to do what they failed to do on January 6, 2021. If matters continue on this path, the Biden administration will prove only a brief respite before those forces snuff out the grand American experiment and secure a permanent, countermajoritarian chokehold on the erstwhile republic. That outcome is especially likely when we observe how tepid the response of our elected Democratic leaders has been thus far as regards this threat. 

I am not trying to be some Eeyore-cum-Schleprock-cum-Debbie Downer and kill everybody’s buzz. The die is not cast, but it’s damn sure being shaken and blown on, Nathan Detroit style. We should not stop fighting (NB: metaphor) against this threat, nor working with all our might on all legitimate fronts to stop it. But the chilling truth is, the defenders of American democracy—working within the political system, the confines of morality, and the realm of fealty to objective truth—are at a decided disadvantage against a foe that respects no law, no rule, no norm, no boundary at all, to include the use of lethal violence against their fellow Americans in order to seize and retain power. 

Therefore it has become increasingly clear that even as we work to stop a GOP takeover, we must at the same time look ahead—”over the horizon,” in the preferred Pentagonspeak of the moment—and gird ourselves for that possibility, and begin to think about how we will resist a looming right wing autocracy, one that promises to make the first Trump administration look like a ukulele-strumming stroll through the marigolds.

IS IT “PRESHY-ENSE” OR “PRE-SCIENCE”?

The unfolding Republican threat to American democracy is two-pronged. The first is the bubbling possibility of political violence by the kind of seditionists who attacked the Capitol on January 6th (and tried to kidnap and murder Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and staged the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville). The second is the lower-profile but equally hostile takeover of the mechanisms of government in order to control the electoral process going forward—chiefly by installing Trump loyalists in positions where they can deliver victories to Republican candidates up and down the chain, from local school boards all the way to the White House, irrespective of the actual vote. 

The two aspects are twinned, of course, and mutually reinforcing. 

In the new issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman has a provocative cover story in which he outlines the mechanics of that slow-motion coup in great detail. Titled “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” it is a kind of follow-up to his equally influential piece of a year ago, “The Election That Could Break America.” That story proved prescient and I’m afraid this one will too. 

Gellman’s predictions ahead of Election Day were pretty good. He predicted that Trump would challenge the results (a calamity against which the US had “no fail-safe”), predicted his meritless legal challenges, and predicted the attempt to interfere with the counting of the electoral votes and the pressure that would be put on Mike Pence. He even predicted the attempts by Trump, Meadows, Eastman, et al to get state legislators to set aside the popular vote and choose a slate of electors directly. 

“We are not prepared for this at all,” Julian Zelizer, a Prince­ton professor of history and public affairs told Gellman at the time. 

No shit.

Gellman was especially clairvoyant (not that it took a Kreskin) about Trump’s refusal to admit defeat, all the way to Elba-Lago:

Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.

It takes nothing away from Gellman’s psychic powers to note that Trump himself told us that in advance. Over and over again in both 2016 and 2020 he refused to commit to accepting the results of any election he didn’t win. Even in an election he did win, he obsessed over losing the popular vote and claimed, “baselessly but not coincidentally, that at least 3 million undocumented immigrants had cast fraudulent votes for Hillary Clinton.” (He just happened to have lost by 2,868,692.) So we should have been prepared. 

Gellman wrote: “(T)here is no version….in which Trump congratulates Biden on his victory. He has told us so. ‘The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,’ Trump said at the Republican National Convention on August 24.” We didn’t take him literally or seriously or whatever the hell we were supposed to do. But we should have.

Yet no one, not even Gellman, I think, fully contemplated the scope, duration, or above all the impact of that non-concession.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED

In the end, as we know, Trump didn’t generate enough confusion and doubt to enable him to hold onto power, though he damn sure tried. But he generated enough to create a fog of illegitimacy around his successor, and in so doing pointed the way for how the Republicans could take power back in 2024. They have been at it ever since. 

Gellman argues that ”the next attempt to overthrow a national election….will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect.”

For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.

Any Republican might benefit from these machinations, but let’s not pretend there’s any suspense. Unless biology intercedes, Donald Trump will seek and win the Republican nomination for president in 2024. The party is in his thrall. No opponent can break it and few will try. Neither will a setback outside politics—indictment, say, or a disastrous turn in business—prevent Trump from running. If anything, it will redouble his will to power.

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Republican-dominated legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws to make it harder for Black and Brown Americans, as well as others expected to back Democrats, to vote. Some of those states have taken the power to certify official votes away from nonpartisan officials and given it to Republicans. Had these laws been in place in 2020, Trump would almost certainly still be in office.

Essential to this effort at all levels is the recruitment of capos willing to do the God-Emperor’s bidding. 

In 2020 Gellman wrote, “If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?” Turns out that’s exactly what happened, and the people who stopped him, chiefly, were a mere handful of principled, relatively low-profile Republican officials at the state and county levels. The GOP duly took note, and has methodically removed most of those officials and replaced them with fanatic Trump loyalists who are currently engaged in a frenzied competition to prove who loves the taste of Donald’s butt cheeks the most. 

Affirming a widely held view, the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse told Gellman that the integrity of these Republican officials was the crucial factor in the ultimate failure of the attempted coup. “I think you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more willing to follow the party line,” said Kruse, “and you get a different set of outcomes.”

“Today that reads like a coup plotter’s to-do list,” Gellman writes. “Since the 2020 election, Trump’s acolytes have set about methodically identifying patches of resistance and pulling them out by the roots.” Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, Doug Ducey in Arizona. (And these are Trump supporters…..just not supportive enough.) The Republican-controlled state legislature in Arizona has even passed a law forbidding the Democratic secretary of state from taking part in election lawsuits, as she did last year. “The legislature is also debating an extraordinary bill asserting its own prerogative, ‘by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration,’ to ‘revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election.’ There was no such thing under law as a method to “decertify” electors when Trump demanded it in 2020, but state Republicans think they have invented one for 2024.”

In Georgia, a new law has taken power away from the county authorities who normally manage elections and given it to “a GOP-dominated state board, beholden to the legislature, (that) may overrule and take control of voting tallies in any jurisdiction—for example, a heavily Black and Democratic one like Fulton County.” That board can also “suspend a county board if it deems the board to be ‘underperforming’ and replace it with a handpicked administrator” who will have the power to disqualify voters and declare ballots null and void.”

“Instead of complaining about balls and strikes,” Gellman writes, “Team Trump will now own the referee.”

If those people and provisions were in place in the weeks following the 2020 election, Donald Trump would still be in the White House today. The GOP is going to make damn sure they are there come ’24.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFEKT

In his new piece, Gellman writes: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.”

Donald Trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it again, and his position is growing stronger. Republican acolytes have identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are methodically exploiting them. They have set loose and now are driven by the animus of tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters who are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence, and reject democratic defeat. Those supporters….are armed and single-minded and will know what to do the next time Trump calls upon them to act.

The midterms, marked by gerrymandering, will more than likely tighten the GOP’s grip on the legislatures in swing states. The Supreme Court may be ready to give those legislatures near-absolute control over the choice of presidential electors. And if Republicans take back the House and Senate, as oddsmakers seem to believe they will, the GOP will be firmly in charge of counting the electoral votes.

Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, Donald Trump may be capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take that chance.

“Electors are the currency in a presidential contest,” writes Gellman, “and, under the Constitution, state legislators control the rules for choosing them.” In 2020, Trump tried to “decertify” electors after votes had been cast—an outrageous, Hail Mary ploy, and one that failed. In 2024, Trump and the GOP intend to circumvent that problem by attacking it further upstream, before the electors are even chosen. They intend to do that by controlling how the states choose those electors, and who in the state government oversees that process. 

News flash: they’ll be wearing elephant pins.

(Of course, the Republican attempt to subvert the vote goes far beyond just the presidential race, to include almost every level of elected office. Therefore the GOP has been assiduously laboring to ensure that it has ironclad control of the electoral process at every level, from local election commissioners to state legislatures to Congress and the presidency itself.) 

Anticipating that this effort might well end up in the courts, “Trump’s legal team is fine-tuning a constitutional argument that is pitched to appeal to a five-justice majority if the 2024 election reaches the Supreme Court.”

This, too, exploits the GOP advantage in statehouse control. Republicans are promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred electors instead.

Four conservative justices—Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas—have already signaled support for…..an absolutist reading of legislative control over the “manner” of appointing electors under Article II of the US Constitution. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s last appointee, has never opined on the issue. The question could arise, and Barrett’s vote could become decisive, if Trump again asks a Republican-controlled legislature to set aside a Democratic victory at the polls. 

It is no comfort to remember that Trump lost 64 of 65 legal challenges to the 2020 election, because Donald has upgraded his team considerably since then, the same way he “upgraded” the Supreme Court, from a reactionary point of view.

Trump is not relying on the clown-car legal team that lost nearly every court case last time. The independent-state-legislature doctrine has a Federalist Society imprimatur and attorneys from top-tier firms like BakerHostetler. A dark-money voter-suppression group that calls itself the Honest Elections Project has already featured the argument in an amicus brief.

“One of the minimal requirements for a democracy is that popular elections will determine political leadership,” Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School expert on election law, told me. “If a legislature can effectively overrule the popular vote, it turns democracy on its head.” Persily and UC Irvine’s (Richard) Hasen, among other election-law scholars, fear that the Supreme Court could take an absolutist stance that would do exactly that.

FAHRENBÄLANST

Another aspect of this insidious Republican crusade is more abstract, but possibly more important. 

Though Trump no longer commands the advantages of an incumbent president, Gellman believes that “the balance of power is shifting his way in arenas that matter more,” the informational one being perhaps paramount. For essential to his scheme is a relentless propaganda effort to marshal support from the MAGA base and even casual mainstream voters—call it “consciousness-lowering”—with a bullshit Orwellian justification for what the GOP is doing. 

Though his attempt to overturn the vote in 2020 failed, “the Trump team achieved something crucial and enduring by convincing tens of millions of angry supporters, including a catastrophic 68 percent of all Republicans in a November PRRI poll, that the election had been stolen.” 

Nothing close to this loss of faith in democracy has happened here before. Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost. Delegitimating Biden’s victory was a strategic win for Trump—then and now….

Trump has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his smoke. His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power. 

This is not some transient or loosely committed population. Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.

As Heather Cox Richardson writes, this large majority of Republicans who believe the Big Lie gives cover to GOP officials to undermine future elections under the risible rubric of “making the vote more secure.” Indeed, it provides a mandate for even more draconian steps, if necessary. Gellman again:

Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.

Trump’s army of the dispossessed is hearing language from Republican elected officials that validates an instinct for violence. Angry rhetoric comparing January 6 to 1776 (Representative Lauren Boebert) or vaccine requirements to the Holocaust (Kansas House Representative Brenda Landwehr) reliably produces death threats by the hundreds against perceived enemies—whether Democratic or Republican.

Rewriting the true history of January 6th is a key part of that campaign.

Gellman writes: “For a few short weeks, Republicans recoiled at the insurrection and distanced themselves from Trump. That would not last.” By this past October Trump was crowing in a statement released by his fundraising group, that “The insurrection took place on November 3, Election Day. January 6 was the Protest!” 

It is difficult today to find a Republican elected official who will take issue with that proposition in public. With Trump loyalists ascendant, no room is left for dissent in a party now fully devoted to twisting the electoral system for the former president. Anyone who thinks otherwise need only glance toward Wyoming, where Liz Cheney, so recently in the party’s power elite, has been toppled from her leadership post and expelled from the state Republican Party for lèse-majesté.

Trump is successfully shaping the narrative of the insurrection in the only political ecosystem that matters to him. The immediate shock of the event, which briefly led some senior Republicans to break with him, has given way to a near-unanimous embrace. Virtually no one a year ago, certainly not I, predicted that Trump could compel the whole party’s genuflection to the Big Lie and the recasting of insurgents as martyrs. 

During the (first) Trump administration, the mainstream media was constantly looking for the moment when the GOP would break with Donald…..as if the party was actively searching for a chance to do so. After January 6, I hope we have learned that such a moment is never coming, because the GOP does not want to break with Trump. Why would it, when he offers a once-in-several-generations means of inspiring fanatical support among the conservative electorate? 

So if he says jump, they’ll say how high. And if he says the sky is red and 2+2=5 and hang Mike Pence, they’ll salute and say “Three bags full, sir!” to that as well. 

Yet still Trump apologists scoff in condescension at the very idea that the man would ever do anything untoward, or that we should lose sleep.

I have written before—including just last week—about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s infamous essay of October 2020, “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” which was itself a response to Gellman’s Atlantic article warning of just that. In his new piece, Gellman takes measure of Douthat’s subsequent attempts to justify his embarrassingly wrong prediction, attempts which center on the idea that Trump failed in the end. 

“There are risks of foul play, (Douthat) writes, but “Trump in 2024 will have none of the presidential powers, legal and practical, that he enjoyed in 2020 but failed to use effectively in any shape or form.” Douthat argues that the odds of Trump’s overturning an election from outside the Oval Office are slim once we recall “his inability to effectively employ the powers of that office when he had them.” 

Gellman makes short work of that:

That, I submit respectfully, is a profound misunderstanding of what mattered in the coup attempt a year ago. It is also a dangerous underestimate of the threat in 2024—which is larger, not smaller, than it was in 2020.

It is true that Trump tried and failed to wield his authority as commander in chief and chief law-enforcement officer on behalf of the Big Lie. But Trump did not need the instruments of office to sabotage the electoral machinery. It was citizen Trump—as litigant, as candidate, as dominant party leader, as gifted demagogue, and as commander of a vast propaganda army—who launched the insurrection and brought the peaceful transfer of power to the brink of failure.

All of these roles are still Trump’s for the taking. In nearly every battle space of the war to control the count of the next election—statehouses, state election authorities, courthouses, Congress, and the Republican Party apparatus—Trump’s position has improved since a year ago.

2024 IS COMING IN 2022

This is all plenty terrifying all on its own. But it gets worse.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of an exhausted electorate, the point of (almost) no return is not the next presidential election three years away in 2024; it is the midterms, less than a year away, in 2022. 

As it stands right now, Republicans are tipped to re-take the House. If they do, they will already have their boot on the neck of democracy, making the rest of the slow-motion coup even more likely. What will that look like?

A GOP-controlled House will impeach Joe Biden. No ifs, ands, or buts. It might impeach Kamala Harris too. All of it will be on specious, frivolous grounds (trumped up, you might say) and they won’t get a conviction, but they will gum up the works, prevent the White House from doing much else, and above all tar Biden as corrupt and even criminal in the eyes of tens of millions of low-information voters.

The Biden agenda will come grinding to a halt while red America celebrates his subjection to this Inquisition. The GOP will then blame Biden and the Democrats for not getting anything done, and lots of Americans will look at the news on their TVs and smartphones and thoughtfully stroke their chins and say, “Hmmm, I agree.”

From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to a red wave two years later, putting the GOP back in charge of the Presidency, the Senate if they don’t already have it, a majority of statehouses  and governorships, and more.

The Republicans will gin up special committees on everything they can think of, from Afghanistan to mask mandates to Biden’s dog Major, all with the aim of crawling up the lower intestines of their Democratic colleagues as they haul them before Congress HUAC-style. In the process, Republicans will also suddenly recall their ferocious belief in the sanctity of subpoenas and start throwing people in jail if they refuse to cooperate. If you liked Benghazi, you’re gonna love this.

When they manage to get control of the Senate, too, they will do infinitely worse than that, like hold open indefinitely any vacancies on the Supreme Court—for years even—until they can get a Republican back in the Oval Office (and you know which one I mean). They will propose and pass outrageous legislation, reverse attempts to arrest the pandemic, ramp up their Atwoodian war on women, make sure firearms are as readily available as chewing gum in the checkout line, and generally behave unfettered by even the shred of principle that pestered them last time. 

And 30% of America will cheer.

And above all, they will change voting laws to further entrench the anti-democratic control of the electoral process that they desperately need to gain and hang onto power. Their entire reason for undermining the process in the first place is because they know that the demographic trends are against them and that they can’t win elections on a level playing field going forward. 

Once they get control, therefore, they are never going to give it up, or risk having free and fair elections ever again. Indeed, we may have already seen the last one.  

THERMOSTATICS FOR BEGINNERS

But maybe we can defy the pundits and the prognosticators—and the odds—and keep the GOP out of office. Right?

Two days before Gellman’s essay came out, the researcher David Atkins published a piece in Washington Monthly that was less discussed but just as seminal. In clinical, non-hyperventilating prose (readers of this blog may not be familiar with the style), Atkins elegantly laid out how “the American electorate seems to have an unalterable tendency toward thermostatic behavior,” and explained for us dummies what that means….which essentially is, the unalterable tendency to want to “throw the bums out”:

In layman’s terms, the electorate grows cranky and dissatisfied for reasons often out of government’s direct control (gas prices, a pandemic, economic fluctuations, and so on), and the party out of power gains an advantage accordingly. Voters of the dominant party become complacent even as the opposition grows angrier and more determined. 

(Contrary to the hopes of some—Democrats especially—hyperpolarization has not negated this effect. Neither, apparently, has behavior so egregious that some of us thought it might doom That Other Party for good.) 

Compounding the problem is what Atkins calls America’s “dangerously archaic and outdated two-party presidential system that fails to account for modern political realities.” He adds that “the mechanisms of accountability, such as impeachment and conviction, against a lawless president are nearly worthless if his own partisans refuse to take action.”

The part of Atkins’s article that falls under the rubric of “tell me something I don’t know” is this: 

The Republican Party has become an antimajoritarian, antidemocracy organization driven to extreme tactics. This is mostly based out of fear of permanently losing America’s culture war. The GOP only has a few actual policy ideas beyond owning the libs and causing blue America as much pain as possible, all while giving goodies to its donors and base. And it is willing to overthrow democracy to hold on to power. 

Extreme gerrymandering in statehouses and the US House of Representatives, plus disproportional representation favoring conservative rural whites in the Senate and Electoral College, is stacking the deck in favor of a radical minority—and Republicans have grown brazen about simply stealing elections for themselves even if those advantages prove insufficient.

Sadly, it’s Atkins’ view that “Democratic politicians have limited options right now regarding what to do about it,” and even changes to protect voting rights “still wouldn’t prevent Democrats from losing elections fairly and organically in the normal thermostatic way.” That is not a problem in a normal political system: it’s simply how the game is played. It becomes a real problem, however, when the opposing party is a neo-authoritarian one that has made no secret that it intends to hold onto power permanently, should it get back into the driver’s seat.

Which brings us to the really scary part:

So, the key challenge is this: Democrats would need to win every single election from here to prevent the destruction of democracy, while Republicans only need to win one. And the American system is set up so that Republicans will win sooner or later, whether fairly or by cheating. What to do?

If that is so, we’re fucked. 

OK, you can start hyperventilating now. 

THE MASTER’S TOOLS AND THE MASTER’S HOUSE

In summary, we are in a world of hurt. As The Atlantic’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg writes in a preface to this week’s issue, “We are close—closer than most of us ever thought possible—to losing not only our democracy, but what’s left of our shared understanding of reality.”

I myself have tried to remain hopeful, but I am increasingly resigned to the likelihood that, per Atkins, the Party of the Big Lie will eventually regain power one way or another—perhaps legitimately, through the thermostatic effect and general American dumbfuckery, perhaps through electoral suppression, chicanery, or even brute force—if not in 2024, then in 2028, or 2032, but eventually. And when they do, they will install permanent, unvarnished, right wing, white nationalist, Christian supremacist authoritarianism in America.

We will not be able to stop this eventuality from within the system, a system in which we play by the rules and they do not. We have to get ready to work outside the system. Atkins writes:

Blue America needs to start thinking about and planning for what “Break glass in case of emergency” measures look like—because it’s more likely a matter of when, not if. It not only can happen here; it probably will happen here. 

In the coming months, this blog will devote more time to what we must do to prepare for the possibility of full-blown, right wing, white nationalist autocracy in America, even as we struggle to avoid that fate. More of that to come in part two of this essay next week. 

In the mean time, let’s give Bart Gellman the final word:

There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without. 

Democracies have fallen before under stresses like these, when the people who might have defended them were transfixed by disbelief. If ours is to stand, its defenders have to rouse themselves. 

*********

Photo: Trump supporters—including David Viviano, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court (foreground, right, in Hillsdale College jacket) at a Trump campaign rally in Sterling Heights, MI in early November 2016. 

The Unkillable Zombie of States’ Rights

In last week’s dancing-about-architecture essay regarding The Beatles: Get Back I didn’t have to mention TFG or the Republican Party even once, which was a treat. This week, it’s back on your heads, people. And what could be more shit-sucking than wading into the debate about abortion? 

Gluttons for punishment, follow me…..

JUST A BUNCH OF REASONABLE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO OWN SLAVES

Over the past five years, the term “conservative” has ceased to have its proper meaning in American politics, especially when it comes to the punditocracy. With its only rational members having fled to a mainstream mediascape where Reality still reigns, the picked-over corpse of what now constitutes “conservative media” consists largely of con men, carnival barkers, and batshit conspiracy theorists hopped up on their own vitamin supplements, human growth hormone, and horse de-wormer. 

What those cretins have to say about abortion does not merit serious consideration. 

But consider what the few remaining, ostensibly “reasonable” conservative pundits have to say on the subject. The argument you hear from those folks goes like this:

“When Roe is rightly overturned, it won’t affect the legality of abortion or access to it in liberal states like New York, California, or Massachusetts. All it will do is return the rightful authority to restrict it to those states that wish to do so.” 

Seems almost reasonable, if the person saying it is a well-spoken public intellectual in a bowtie on CNN, and not a spittle-spewing protestor holding a graphic picture of an aborted fetus and screaming in the face of a 14 year-old girl as she tries to enter a Planned Parenthood clinic. 

But in fact, that proposition is dishonest and chilling in the extreme. 

This is the same old “states’ rights” argument that has plagued our nation since its very founding—pre-dating it, in fact, all the way back to 1619, you might say. It is the same one that ignited the Civil War and continues to be the animating force behind the most divisive issues roiling the United States to this day. And it’s no different when it comes from an amiable Republican politician in a fleece vest than from a Foghorn Leghorn-voiced Virginia slaveholder in a waistcoat in 1860.

Consider how readily the states’ rights argument on abortion could be applied to other matters…..including matters to which it was very memorably applied in the past:

If Alabama wants to have whites-only drinking fountains, racially segregated schools, a literacy test at the polls, if it wants to define marriage as an institution exclusively for heterosexual couples, or make homosexuality illegal outright, or deny women the vote, or Black people, or Democrats, what’s the problem? (Oh, wait—they’re already doing that.) If the majority of Alabamans are cool with that—I’ll pick on them, hypothetically, if you don’t mind, hypothetically—how is that any skin off the collective nose of Pennsylvanians, who are free to enact different policies as they see fit? Live and let live, n’est-ce pas

No, n’est not so pas. Not at all.

We are a Union whose entire existence hinges on a fundamental set of shared values. Not every value, but the most basic ones. There are laws of minor significance that can vary from state to state without harelipping the nation: what days of the week you can buy booze, what the speed limit ought to be, how long you can redshirt your pre-kindergartener to give him a leg up in the NFL draft. But there are other things that are inherent to who we are as a country and cannot be abridged if we want to maintain that national integrity. Things like equality for all under the law, protection of voting rights including unfettered access to the polls, and the rights to privacy, personal safety, and liberty. One of those fundamental values is, or at least ought to be, what Justice Elena Kagan has called “the fabric of women’s existence in this country.” 

In the 1957, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to protect Black schoolchildren as they entered the halls of Central High, which had been desegregated over the objections of the state government. He did that because the Supreme Court had ruled that the United States was not going to have a system of apartheid, not even with the separate but (putatively) equal facilities that an earlier Court had deemed kosher. 

Almost a century earlier we went to war with our own countrymen over the question of whether some states—claiming “states’ rights”—were going to allow the lawful bondage and enslavement of human beings. 

With Roe v. Wade—and the new laws in Texas and Mississippi (among others) that challenge it—we are now being asked to decide a similar question, something that can’t be allowed to vary across state lines if we want to call ourselves a civilized union. I would phrase that question as: do American women have autonomy over their own bodies, or not? The radically different way others would phrase it speaks to the breadth of the divide. 

It took a bloody civil war for America to conclude that our Black fellow countrymen are, gosh, full human beings and citizens deserving of equal protection under the law. The drama playing out now suggests that we have not yet concluded that women are too.

THE HIGHLY MOBILE GOALPOSTS OF “PRO-LIFE” COMPROMISE

In a democracy, we have to accept laws that accommodate a pluralistic range and diversity of views, irrespective of our own personal moral beliefs. Abortion falls into that category. The debate pits two equally adamant camps against each other: one that believes a fertilized egg is tantamount to a human being, and another that views the government’s Cambodia-like incursion into the uterus as hateful subordination of women as second class citizens. 

It is ironic that that first camp—which, opportunistically or otherwise, includes the entire Republican Party—analogizes its cause to that of 19th century anti-slavery abolitionists, yet uses the strategy of slaveholders of that same era to defend it.  

You might have noticed: the entire debate about abortion hinges on when life begins, the two irreconcilable extremes being a) at the moment of conception, and b) at the moment of birth. Neither view can have its way entirely in a functioning American republic, which is fine, because both are absurd. An acorn is not an oak tree, but neither is a fetus in the 32nd week just a hunk of inanimate tissue, particularly given the capability of modern medicine to maintain viability outside the womb.

(Not even worth discussing is an even more extreme Catholic position that even sperm, or an unfertilized egg, which is to say “potential life,” should be accorded the same rights and protections as a living human. That is a nonsensical, anti-scientific argument that would make murder out of a wet dream or the menstrual cycle itself. By that logic, we don’t even need to go to the point of ejaculation: just the tingling feeling I get when I see Penelope Cruz would constitute a mortal sin, notwithstanding the astronomical odds against matters proceeding from there. Or so it says in the TRO I was served with.) 

The whole point is that we are stuck with an insoluble philosophical question, à la Plato’s Beard, the only answers to which are arbitrary by definition and therefore unsatisfactory. In light of that, inflexible dogmatic positions like these two extremes are unworkable in a representative democracy. What we need instead is a reasonable middle ground that accommodates as much as possible the competing needs and desires of all parties involved. That is to say: a policy that gives American women their rightful autonomy over their bodies, and offers a fair window for responsible reproductive decisions, while still protecting the sanctity of life in terms of fetuses who are past the point of viability.

Something kinda like the system established as a result of Roe vs. Wade, yes? 

Because what we are currently litigating isn’t the incompatible views of life-begins-at-conception and life-begins-at-birth. It is the extremism of the former, versus a reasonable accommodation for a democratic society, which is what Roe—the existing law of the land—represents.

For the anti-choice movement, yes, the extreme does apply, with many of its members unwilling to make exceptions under any circumstances. But no credible voice in the pro-choice movement is insisting on abortion on demand up to the moment of birth. What the pro-choice movement wants is what Roe guarantees, when not restricted with insidious legal maneuvers that undermine the spirit of the decision: an American woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own body under reasonable conditions. 

I understand that for those who take the begins-at-conception position, any compromise, on democratic grounds or otherwise, is unacceptable. I would respectfully suggest that the real problem is the invalidity of their unfounded and extremist view, one which they insist on imposing upon the rest of the country. Indeed, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out, what they seek to impose is essentially a religious belief, raising questions of abrogation of First Amendment protections for the rest of us on behalf of one preferred religious group. (Tit for tat, evangelicals.)

Last week on “MTP Daily with Chuck Todd,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) specifically made the states’ rights argument, suggesting that the Mississippi case—Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—represents a kind of middle ground on this thorny issue…..a sort of Missouri Compromise, if you will. (Because we saw how well that worked.)

But Roe itself is already the compromise. Dobbs and its ilk would take away even that.  

And yet that is precisely what the Supreme Court is about to do away with.

I WISH I WAS IN THE LAND OF COTTON

It’s a bitter irony that Hillary’s loss in 2016 was driven in large part by sheer misogyny, and as a result the sexual predator host of “The Apprentice” was able to put three—three!—justices on the Supreme Court, a bloc that now looks set to overturn Roe and set back women’s rights in this country—and human rights—a hundred years. 

If I had told you in 1983 that this bozo Donald Trump, this cartoonish d-bag celebrity wannabe and butt of jokes in Spy Magazine, was gonna be in a position to do that—and also to foment a violent attempt to overthrow the government, and to command an army of tens of millions of pinwheel-eyed disciples—you’d have laughed me out of my parachute pants and Members Only jacket. 

For that matter if we were in a movie theater in 1951 watching Bedtime for Bonzo and I told you that that actor up on screen would serve two terms as president and become a deified figure in the Republican Party, you’d have asked me when the Constitution was going to be amended to allow chimpanzees to run for office.

Yet here we are.

In the New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin writes that “In a few months’ time, when (the Dobbs) decision is likely to be handed down, the right to an abortion as Americans have known it for half a century will, it appears, no longer exist.” (Along with Mississippi and Texas, some 19 other states are poised to make abortion literally or effectively illegal as soon as the Supreme Court gives them the nod.) 

She goes on to obliterate the dishonesty of the states’ rights position, and the callous indifference to our neighbors that it proposes:

There is a difference between living with a right and relying on the indulgence of a state legislature. And it is an insult to people in every state to say that they needn’t care about the liberty and well-being of people in another state who might be deprived of choice or pushed toward the sort of unsafe, illegal abortions that often cost women of earlier generations their lives.

David French, formerly of National Review, has made the eyebrow-raising argument that returning the issue to the states will calm matters, a position that likewise harkens back to attempts to find a “compromise” on slavery. (Calming matters, however, is not the paramount concern for either side.) By contrast, the Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes articulates the majority view that affirming Dobbs will do exactly the opposite. Count me on Team Charlie. 

Some of the other Republican arguments on abortion are particularly ironic at a time when issues of medical necessity, personal privacy, and governmental intrusion on bodily autonomy are at the forefront of the national conversation. 

In another conversation with Chuck Todd last week, Sen. Braun of Indiana argued that a  COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and even just weekly testing if you don’t want the vaccine, is an unacceptable medical intrusion on Americans, especially those who don’t have convenient local access to it. This from the Dept. of You Can’t Make This Shit Up.

The states’ rights amen corner makes a great show of venerating the Enlightenment ideals of egalitarianism and representative democracy as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. But in reality, those ideals are exactly what that corner opposes. (And of course we have the irony of many of those Founders themselves being slaveholders.) The right to operate racist, sexist, plutocratic mini-autocracies within the federal system is what “states’ rights” has always boiled down to…..and before you accuse me of hyperbole, let’s bear in mind that the kind of contentious, restrictive policies I laid out above are precisely the kind that this movement has fought for in the past, and wants to institute now. No one raises the banner of states’ rights—or needs to—so that Georgia can name the brown thrasher the state bird. 

In this talk of “states’ rights,” there is no discussion, you will note, of the burden that laws like Mississippi’s would place on poor and/or working women who can’t travel to another state to get an abortion, or for victims of rape or incest (or both, as the latter usually implies the former). That is because anti-choice advocates don’t really think anyone should be able to get an abortion, anywhere, anytime, ever, so they really don’t care. 

For here is the ultimate irony, and hypocrisy: if they succeed in gaining power at the national level, which seems likely, you can be sure they will try to outlaw abortion nationwide. 

Where’s your “states’ rights,” now?

THE WEDGE ISSUE TO END ALL WEDGE ISSUES

It is no accident that abortion has become such a prominent issue for the American right, and the reason is two-fold. 

First, it’s something that REALLY gyrates a passionate segment of the Republican base, which is an invaluable resource for any political party. (Why it gyrates them so is a matter for another day.) 

Secondly, it’s an issue that insidiously seeks to maintain and even further entrench the control of women by men in a blatantly inequitable, anti-feminist way.

A hyperpartisan wedge issue that lets the GOP advance the cause of white male patriarchy? That’s a no-brainer. The Republican Party is gonna put all its chips on that number every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  

Naturally, there are true believers who are genuinely and passionately convinced that life begins at the moment the lights go down and the needle drops on the Barry White record. But a huge segment of the national politicians who are “pro-life”—a majority, I would unscientifically wager—are cynics and opportunists manipulating the hoi polloi, while their own opinions may well be different, or at least indifferent. Do you really think Donald Trump is against abortion? Surely he has paid for plenty in his time…..or more likely, as Samantha Bee says, promised to pay for them and welshed.

The conservative position on abortion is certainly not about being “pro-life,” to use the preferred propagandistic term of the evangelical right. (Which is why I don’t feel bad about calling them “anti-choice,” an equally loaded term, but I would argue a perfectly accurate one.) 

To restate the obvious, where does that “pro-life” mentality go when it comes to providing childcare for working mothers, or food for hungry children, or medical assistance to the poor, or any of the other post-partum humanitarian issues on which conservatives suddenly turn Dickensian? As George Carlin quipped, the allegedly “pro-life” forces are all in on protecting babies….until they come out of the womb. After that, fuck you: you’re on your own. 

Many of these same people, of course, are also adamantly in favor of the unregulated availability of guns, including semiautomatic, high-capacity ones designed for the battlefield, and have little to say beyond ”thoughts and prayers” at the massacring of Americans, many of them children, with clockwork regularity. Some even send out Christmas cardsthat celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with what looks like Al Capone’s family portrait. 

It’s also no coincidence that the anti-choice forces characterize their crusade as about “saving babies.” It’s the most dramatic possible way of framing it, even if that framing elides crucial nuances and even scientific reality. As I wrote a few weeks ago, this is the same impulse behind QAnon’s fever dream of Satan-worshipping pedophiles among the Hollywood and Washington elite. In the scorched earth Gingrichian politics of the American right, it is necessary to characterize one’s foes as the most vile creatures imaginable, the better to justify the most extreme tactics to defeat them. So what could be worse than baby-killers? (Echoes of Vietnam, when that exact same appellation was hurled at returning GIs by a rabid antiwar left.)

The idea that a D&C at six weeks “kills a baby” is a triumph of bad science, bad linguistics, and bad faith argument. But it’s good for inflaming a certain passionate segment of the electorate and driving them to the polls (or merely into your camp should you decide to make the polls irrelevant). One might suggest that I am doing the same thing by invoking the ghost of American slavery. OK. I promise to stop as soon as they do…..in the mean time, I’ll stand by the validity of my analogy and put it up against theirs any place, any time.

PAGING CAPTAIN RENAULT

Like a number of conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, during his confirmation hearings, Bart “I Like Beer” O’Kavanaugh clutched his pearls and assured the US Senate of his deep, deep respect for precedent. Now that he is safely on the Court for life, with impeachment a highly unlikely (but not totally unfathomable) possibility, his enthusiasm for stare decisis seems to have waned considerably.

It goes without saying that questions about “precedent” asked of Supreme Court nominees are always coded ones that are really about a certain topic that dare not speak its name. But in his hearings three years ago, Kavanaugh said explicitly that Roe was “settled as a precedent” because “it has been reaffirmed many times over the past 45 years.” Indeed, he went out of his way to assure his various partners in this Apache dance—Susan Collins above all—that he had no intention of overturning it. But now that he has been presented with the chance to do so, he is damn near salivating at the possibility.

In the New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin writes of how Kavanaugh “rhapsodized” last week about the “history-making power the Court has,” rattling off seminal cases that overturned previous rulings that, in his view, were wrong. Among the triumphant reversals he noted were Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Obergefell v. Hodges. 

….and those are some of the most consequential and important in the Court’s history,” (Kavanaugh) said. If the Court, in the Dobbs case, thinks “that the prior precedents are seriously wrong,” can’t it pursue “the right answer” instead? If it never overturned precedents, he said, “the country would be a much different place.”

(Yes—one more to the liking of the neo-Confederate ethos the GOP supports, in terms of the list he ran down.)

Did you catch what Brett was up to? (If not, maybe PJ or Squee can explain, or Buster, or Ass Man, or Dr. Stinkfinger, or one of his other high school buddies.) He was casting Roe v. Wade as an egregious judicial error on a par with the policies of segregation, denial of due process in the criminal justice system, and marital discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. I’m surprised he didn’t include Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott, though the WaPo’s Hugh Hewittdid. Or maybe he doesn’t think those were wrong.

In truth, of course, what we are facing is just the opposite, as Kavanaugh’s colleague Justice Sotomayor keenly noted.

The Orwellian hypocrisy of acting as if overturning Roe is on a par with defending civil rights should come as no surprise: co-opting the iconography of the civil rights movement is all the rage in right wing America these days, where reactionary politicians now regularly invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to promote policies that are diametrically opposed to everything he stood for. (Virginia’s Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin is just the most prominent of many Republican politicians to do so, in his recent successful gubernatorial campaign.)

It’s what Ibram X. Kendi calls “the second assassination” of MLK, all over again.

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman writes that “the conservatives on the Supreme Court lied to us all.” Very true, though we’ve known that all along. (Except Susan Collins, who is also the proud owner of a bridge in Brooklyn and some swampland in Florida.).

They weren’t just evasive, or vague, or deceptive. They lied. They lied to Congress and to the country, claiming they either had no opinions at all about abortion, or that their beliefs were simply irrelevant to how they would rule. 

It was all a lie, a scam, a con: the assurances that they were blank slates committed to “originalism” and “textualism,” that they wouldn’t “legislate from the bench,” that they have no agenda but merely a “judicial philosophy.”

Somehow that philosophy nearly always produces results conservatives want: undermining voting rights, enhancing corporate power, constraining the rights of workers, enabling the proliferation of guns, and now most vividly, allowing state governments to force women to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Waldman then walks us through what various justices said during their respective confirmation hearings, from Gorsuch to Roberts to Alito to Barrett, who “was already on record stating that abortion is a moral evil,” but during her hearings insisted, “I don’t have any agenda” and that it “would not be possible” to predict how she would rule on an abortion case. 

As Waldman quips, “That must be why Republicans were so desperate to get her on the court and so rapturous with joy when she was confirmed: Because they had no idea how she might rule!” (Ouch.) 

The cake-taker, though, might be Clarence Thomas, who astonishingly claimed that he did not have an opinion about Roe, and in fact had never even had a conversation about it. (That may be news to his wife, a hardcore arch-Catholic activist.)

The kabuki is not limited to SCOTUS nominees, of course. Waldman writes: “Like his Republican colleagues….Ted Cruz repeatedly insisted at confirmation hearings that the very idea that a Republican appointee might have a political agenda was deeply offensive to whatever fine nominee was before them.” 

But here is Cancun Ted speaking with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham last week:

“If we have six Republican appointees on this court,” (Ingraham) said, “after all the money that’s been raised, the Federalist Society, all these big fat-cat dinners — I’m sorry, I’m pissed about this—if this court with six justices cannot do the right thing here,” then Republicans should “blow it up” and pass some kind of law limiting the court’s authority.

“I would do that in a heartbeat,” Cruz responded.

“In other words,” Waldman writes, “We bought this court, and we’d better get what we paid for.”

EVERY SPERM IS SACRED

Speaking of precedent, when the Court considered Texas’s new vigilante anti-choice law this past fall, Kavanaugh was given pause by the idea that the same trick could conceivably be used (get it?) by another state—say, a Democratic-controlled one—to restrict firearms, for example. If Texas can refashion itself as Gilead, why can’t California institute sharia law (which we all know that us liberals are super keen to do)?

But overall, right wingers don’t seem too worried, as their general policy with this and all other matters is to interpret the law as they wish to benefit themselves, and reverse it on a dime for the other side.

Kavanaugh also made an explicit states’ rights argument in leading questions that he asked the Mississippi solicitor general, suggesting that the Constitution was neutral on the issue of abortion, and that a ruling for Mississippi in Dobbs would not prohibit the procedure, only leave it to each individual state to decide. The WaPo’s, Ruth Marcusmade short work of that fallacy, explaining how reproductive rights are clearly the kind protected by the 14thAmendment: 

To say that the Constitution is “neutral” is another way of saying that women no enjoy no protection, no liberty to decide what to do with their own bodies—or, more precisely, only so much protection as the state where they live chooses to grant them.

But the right wing still has plenty of surrogates in the media pushing its narrative.  

Ahead of last week’s arguments before the Supreme Court, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote a column titled “The Case Against Abortion” that neatly illustrated the intellectual disingenuousness—and sloppiness—of so-called conservatives on the topic. 

As the Gray Lady’s resident devoutly Catholic reactionary hiding behind a veneer of staid, above-the-fray “reasonableness,” Douthat began with two sweeping, related, and totally unsupported (and unsupportable) presumptions:

There is no way to seriously deny that abortion is a form of killing. At a less advanced stage of scientific understanding, it was possible to believe that the embryo or fetus was somehow inert or vegetative until so-called quickening, months into pregnancy. But we now know the embryo is not merely a cell with potential, like a sperm or ovum, or a constituent part of human tissue, like a skin cell. Rather, a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception, and every stage of your biological life, from infancy and childhood to middle age and beyond, is part of a single continuous process that began when you were just a zygote.

Say what??? What exactly in embryology tells us that “a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception,” other than Ross’s wish that it is so? How precisely does the act of avoiding the wet spot qualify as the choir-chiming moment at which the mythical soul achieves personhood?

Douthat goes on:

We know from embryology, in other words, not Scripture or philosophy, that abortion kills a unique member of the species Homo sapiens, an act that in almost every other context is forbidden by the law.

Again: wha????? Making a Misty Copeland-caliber jeté from his previous howler, Douthat neatly concludes that, since a freshly fertilized egg deserves the right to vote on “American Idol,” anything other than carrying that embryo to term involves “killing” a human being. 

In other words, he presents as indisputable fact the notion that human life OBVIOUSLY begins at conception and that therefore abortion is killing BY DEFINITION. (He stops short of the word “murder,” but he certainly implies that this killing is unjustifiable, as opposed to, say, killing in self-defense, or in warfare, or by legal execution.) Zero actual proof for either point, by the by, just a blithe restatement of the anti-abortion dogma, leaping over fundamental precepts of logic and reasoning that a college freshman learns in Philosophy 101. You may agree or disagree with Douthat, but you can’t just state those things without a cogent argument behind them. That’s the whole crux of this long-running and heated debate. 

Everything after that is pointless, once he insists that we accept those terms. 

Backing up a little, even the title of Douthat’s piece—“The Case Against Abortion”—is slanted, implying that the folks on the other side of the debate are super gung-ho and “for” abortion. They love getting abortions! They do it the way other people go bowling on Tuesday nights! 

The notion of “safe, legal, and rare” is not helpful when one is writing agitprop. 

The title also, in its oversimplification, implies endorsement of a total, no-exceptions ban on the procedure, which isn’t something even Douthat has proposed. But an op-ed called “The Case Against Abortion, Except In Cases of Rape or Incest or Lethal Threat to the Health of the Mother” doesn’t sing, does it? No one ever said this debate was big on nuance.

MY BODY, MY CHOICE (YOURS—NOT SO MUCH)

In some ways, though, we need not bother ourselves with Ross Douthat, as his credibility is less than zero. Every single day I want us all to re-post Douthat’s October 10, 2020 column titled “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” one of the most egregiously and embarrassingly wrong predictions in all of postwar American journalism. 

Yet he remains a columnist in the most respected newspaper in America.

Ross continues to try to qualify and rationalize that column, but both the column itself and his ongoing defense of it speak to his smugness and sense of entitlement. 

In closing, let us turn instead to Boston University history professor and Substack superstar Heather Cox Richardson, who reminds us that the Dobbs case is about a lot more than abortion. 

Make no mistake: it is not just reproductive rights that are under siege. If the Supreme Court returns power to the states to legislate as they wish, any right currently protected by the federal government is at risk. 

After 19 Republican-dominated states have passed election laws suppressing the vote and gerrymandering districts, a reactionary minority controls them. Although Biden won Wisconsin, for example, the state supreme court today left in place districts that likely will enable Republicans to control 60% of the legislative seats in the state (and 75% of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives). Ending federal protections for civil rights means handing to these reactionaries power over the majority of us.

So, contrary to the states’ rights argument, even if you don’t care about reproductive rights, or the legalization of bounties for citizens to snitch on their neighbors, shrugging your shoulders over the de facto outlawing of abortion in Mississippi and Texas (to start) opens the door to a very worrying area. What’s to stop the states’ rights crew from enacting laws that, say, disenfranchise women, Margaret Atwood style? Or Black people? Or Democrats? (Oh wait—they’re already doing that.)

At a time when voting rights are under assault in dozens of states—when American representative democracy full stop is facing an existential crisis—the notion that the Supreme Court might well affirm the right of individual states to wantonly do whatever the hell they please takes us far beyond even the seminal question of women’s rights and fetal heartbeats to the heartbeat of the republic itself.  

********

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Get It Be (or, Rashomon on Savile Row)

My friend Peter Millhouse was an RAF fighter pilot. In the mid-Sixties he left the service to work in film and TV in Swinging London, as it was only half-jokingly called, cutting a dashing figure around the King’s Road. In early 1969 he was working for Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of Let It Be, and claims to have been on the Apple rooftop for the Beatles’ famous, impromptu final concert.

Was he really there? I don’t know. For that matter, did he really claim that, or do I just remember it that way because I like to say that he claimed it? Like the man saysprint the legend

And legends are very much the topic at hand, both in the sense of “someone very famous and admired, usually because of their ability in a particular area,” as the Cambridge Dictionary tells us, and of “a very old story or set of stories from ancient times, not always true.”

By the time this blog goes to press, we might have hit the saturation point on think-pieces about Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary opus The Beatles: Get Back. But since everyone and their estranged stepbrother has felt qualified to weigh in, you can be damn sure I’m going to do so, lifelong Beatles fanatic that I am. (“Fanatic? That’s an understatement!” my wife is yelling from our bedroom. Yes, she can psychically tell what I am typing even from the other end of the apartment.) So I will try to rein in my voluminous thoughts about all things Beatle and instead focus this essay on a less-well-worked-over aspect of Jackson’s landmark project: what it tells us about the subjective nature of storytelling full stop.

I promise you I will get there eventually. 

I WAKE UP TO THE SOUND OF MUSIC

To be clear, I myself certainly wasn’t on the rooftop of 3 Savile Row in Mayfair, London, the home of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, on January 30, 1969. I was a five-year old in Columbus, Ohio with a father about to leave for his second tour in Vietnam and a mother on Valium. So I don’t really know what went on there, or in the ad hoc recording studio in the Apple basement, or at Stage 1 of Twickenham Film Studios. At best I can make only an educated guess about the relative accuracy of Lindsay-Hogg’s largely reviled 1970 film and Jackson’s mostly adored new one. But the mere existence of the two, and the sheer volume of interest in the story—both its human subjects and the new project itself—offer a rare opportunity to think about what we consider “truth” in the first place. 

By way of exposition for the non-cognoscenti, in January 1969 the Beatles embarked on a new album, eventually to be titled Get Back, that was meant to be a stripped-down “back to our roots” LP, recorded live, with mistakes included, and no overdubs—a new direction and a new challenge after the pioneering multitrack psychedelia of records like 1966’s Revolver and (especially) 1967’s Sgt. Pepper. The insanely short three-week timetable was to culminate in the band’s first live show (David Frost doesn’t count) since Candlestick Park in August 1966.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to document the process, and the concert, for a TV special, having previously directed a number of short “promotional films” for the Beatles—music videos, we would call them today. More recently, he had also directed another TV special, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, on which John and Yoko played a pair of tunes (“Yer Blues” and “Whole Lotta Yoko”) backed by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass), and Mitch Mitchell. Circus, however, had been a disastrous production that the Stones hated; it would not air for almost thirty years. Which probably should have been a red flag. 

For the Beatles, the problem was that they were perfectionists who were never really satisfied with the raw takes of the Get Back sessions, having become accustomed to building their songs methodically, using the still-new process of multitrack recording the way Leonardo used his brush. Also, the band was coming apart as its four members had all begun to move in divergent personal and professional directions. (There, I just saved you eight hours of TV-watching.) 

The band’s frustration was a measure of how far they had come from their first LP, 1963’s Please Please Me, which was recorded in a single day, almost entirely live. (Which is why, for instance, Paul sings solo on the chorus of “Love Me Do,” the rest of which is two-part harmony, as John’s lips were occupied with the harmonica for that section.) 

It didn’t help that Lindsay-Hogg asked them to reverse their usual nocturnal recording schedule, and leave Abbey Road studios for early morning calls in a cavernous, acoustically crappy stage at Twickenham, surrounded by colored lights and an army of cameramen and boom operators. Though matters improved in the second week, when they re-located to the newly constructed—if half-assed—studio in the Apple basement, the record never reached a level that satisfied the famous foursome. 

As a result, Get Back, and Lindsay-Hogg’s film, were shelved as the band returned to its usual methods to record Abbey Road. It was only later that they brought in the American producer Phil Spector to “salvage” the earlier album, now retitled Let It Be, which was released in May 1970, about a month after the announcement of the band’s breakup

I have a lot of love for that original Let It Be album, even with its bizarro aesthetic clash of warts-and-all one-take cuts, free association studio chatter (“Queen says ‘no’ to pot-smoking FBI members”), and Phil Spector’s over-the-top Wall of Sound embellishments. As a child, I bought it sometime in 1970—or more likely, early 1971—in its original pressing, complete with the now-rare red apple label. (I thought they were all red until 1973, when I bought the “Live and Let Die” single, with its standard green Granny Smith.) I have often told people it was the first record I ever bought, which was a fib. It was the second; the first was The Partridge Family Album. (NB: I was seven.)

The Fab Four themselves largely thought Spector’s production was a crime, not knowing that Phil had a much worse crime still up his sleeve. But like many fans, I grew up with that version: it was my introduction to the band, and I will always think of it fondly, even as I understand its shortcomings. 

Befitting its troubled gestation, that original version of Let It Be has since been worked over ad infinitum, including the 2009 remaster, and 2003’s excellent, McCartney-initiated Let It Be….Naked, which stripped away Spector’s lavish orchestrations in an attempt to return to the original spirit of the endeavor. (Get back to where you once belonged, indeed.) The new documentary is accompanied by yet another re-release, a special edition box set with 57 songs on five CDs, plus a Blu-ray and a 100-page book. For completists only, it even includes Glyn Johns’ May 1969 mix of the abortive, much-bootlegged original Get Back album, in case you want to own a record the Beatles themselves didn’t like enough to put out.

ACT NATURALLY

Lindsay-Hogg’s film, retitled to match, finally came out simultaneously with the album in May 1970, and for more than fifty years has been the final cinematic word on the demise of the Beatles. Somewhere I have a bootleg DVD of it, but it’s been years since I watched it, and I’m not even sure I ever did watch the whole thing. It is infamous as a depressing, inadvertent chronicle of the looming dissolution of the biggest and most influential band in rock music. For that reason, it’s been out of print for years, which may give you some idea how unhappy it made people. 

In 2017, word that Peter Jackson was revisiting the voluminous raw material from which Let It Be was culled sent Beatledom atwitter. (Not a new social media platform.) A feel-good trailer released last December, and widely circulated reports that this project was designed to re-write the last chapter of the Beatles’ history, led many to expect—and fear—a sanitized, saccharine take. The apoplexy among the Beatle faithful was palpable. 

But that presumption proved unfounded. Get Back actually spends plenty of time on the dysfunction of the band in its twilight, some of it very uncomfortable to watch, and all of it enlightening to anyone even vaguely interested in the artistic process. The new film in no way dispels the standard historical take about the band’s breakup, but it does paint a much fuller, more complex, and more nuanced portrait of it. It’s an elegy that also shows the camaraderie of four individuals who had been lifelong friends since their teens, who created a peerless body of work that changed the world, who experienced global fame at an intensity few others in human history ever have, and who, as George Harrison once pointed out, were the only four people on earth who could understand what the others had been through.

It’s fitting that the Get Back/Let It Be sessions should be the subject of competing film versions, in the same way that the record has been subjected to multiple revisions. There is also some irony that Lindsay-Hogg’s film was conceived for television but turned into a feature, while Jackson’s was intended as a feature and turned into TV, after the COVID-19 pandemic gave the director an extra year and a half to work on it. (Fitting also that it’s on Disney and not Apple TV, given the history of bad blood between the Beatles and the gang in Cupertino over that trademark.)

Get Back moves in strict chronological order, day by day, kicking off with the first known Beatles recording, “In Spite of All the Danger,” an Elvis-inspired McCartney-Harrison composition from 1958, put on tape at a friend’s home in Liverpool. As a fly-on-the-wall view of the creative process of some of the most accomplished musical artists of the 20th—or any—century, even if it was at the end of their partnership, it is unparalleled.

All my life, having not bothered to check the calendar, I blithely assumed the Let It Be sessions went on for months. It’s astonishing to think that all this creativity—and friction, and drama—unfolded over just 22 days. From a standing start, with just a few snippets of ideas and a handful of works-in-progress leftover from the White Album sessions (and some chestnuts dating back to the beginning of their career), the Beatles crafted an entirely new LP that, despite its sour reputation owing to their impending breakup, remains astoundingly accomplished. A number of songs, including both of George’s that made it onto the album, “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine” (along with “Old Brown Shoe,” which became the B-side to “The Ballad of John and Yoko” single in May of that year) were written overnight. 

But should we really be so surprised? After all, this was a band that put out 13 iconic albums in just about six years. That’s how long it took Guns & Roses to mike a single tom tom on Chinese Democracy

For most bands, the Let It Be album would be their masterpiece. For John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it’s only lesser Beatles—a B+.

Jackson’s film turns Lindsay-Hogg—who is inexplicably American despite his über-English surname, and widely rumored to be Orson Welles’ illegitimate son—from auteur of this drama to supporting character in it. He certainly has the Wellesian pomposity: If he nagged the band one more time about sailing a ship to Libya and performing in a torchlit ancient Roman amphitheater for an audience of “3000 Arabs,” I thought I might reach into the TV screen and whack him in the face with Paul’s Hofner bass myself. (The one with the 1966 setlist still taped to its body, which I would then sell on eBay.) 

But as many have noted, MLH deserves credit for his exhaustive documentation, even if he did interfere badly with the band’s already challenged creative process, not to mention illicitly recording a private conversation between John and Paul using a hidden mike. (If not quite on a par with Robert Durst‘s self-incrimination in The Jinx, it’s still pretty sketchy.)

There are so many wonderful moments, I won’t even try to touch on them all. I could write a lengthy blog on the topic of Glyn Johns’s coats alone. But to name just a few:

  • The mind-boggling scene of EMI being stingy with the Beatles’ requests for decent microphones and an eight-track machine instead of just four. (“The Beach Boys got eight tracks,” the band members note. “The Beach Boys are American,” they are told.)
  • The serendipity of their old Hamburg pal Billy Preston dropping by just when the band needed a keyboard player. 
  • The way the Beatles, with no discernible irony, consistently and respectfully refer to their late manager as “Mr. Epstein.”
  • Paul languidly working out “Let It Be,” to my ears one of the most moving and beautiful songs in all of Western music, while the rest of the band disinterestedly chats about set design. 
  • How everyone in the band wanted to play the drums.
  • The cavalier manner in which George quits the group (“I’m leaving the band now”), and the similarly cavalier manner in which John quickly proposes replacing him. (“If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday we’ll get Clapton.”) In my alternative history, Clapton lasts all of one day, after refusing to play on ‘that anti-Enoch Powell song,’ prompting Lennon to quip, “Get Jeff Beck on the line.”
  • On that same count, the band’s shocking nonchalance about a lineup that the rest of musicdom considers sacred. At one point they toy with the idea of making Billy Preston a permanent member. (“It’s hard enough with just four,” Paul quips.) When Ringo scotches the idea of going abroad to play the historic concert Lindsay-Hogg envisions, McCartney jokes about the availability of Jimmy Nicol.
  • The young roadie—a time-traveling Ed Sheeran lookalike named Kevin Harrington—who brings the band endless cups of tea (and glasses of wine), and in the final concert serves as a human music stand for John Lennon, who can’t remember his own nonsense lyrics. (“Where you can syndicate any boat you row-ow.”)
  • A quick shot of Linda noodling on a keyboard—bonus sub-movie, the birth of Wings.
  • In a moment worthy of Spinal Tap, the Beatles’ confusion over the codenames Lindsay-Hogg has assigned them, apparently without their knowledge. (“I can’t go to France.” “No, France is your codename.”) But the psychic connection runs deeper, as the original Let It Be film was a key model for This Is Spinal Tap, the greatest rockumentary of all time, even though it’s totally fictional.  
  • Glyn Johns, he of the aforementioned fabulous coats (and eyeglasses that Elton John would envy) as an unsung hero of this saga, not only for his artistic contributions but also his good advice—unheeded—warning the boys off Allen Klein.
  • Yoko’s apparently infinite patience. For five decades the second Mrs. Lennon has taken endless bags of shit for her ubiquitous presence at the Get Back/Let It Be sessions…..but in the series’ opening minutes we are bluntly shown that George Harrison brought not one but two Hare Krishnas to the studio with him, even if they sat further away from the amps. (Also in her defense, Jackson pointedly shows the other three Beatle wives visiting the sessions as well, though admittedly they weren’t there 24/7.) Yoko’s omnipresence is famously part of the myth of the Beatles’ breakup, but watching her sit there (mostly) silently for hours and hours on end—sewing, painting, going through her mail—my overwhelming reaction was that she must have been bored out of her own febrile mind. 
  • And lastly, maybe the most astonishing and widely remarked upon moment in the whole series: Paul McCartney jamming on his bass and formulating “Get Back” from out of the ether, in real time, right before our eyes. (Honorable mention: John ad-libbing a joke that will become the counter-melody in “I’ve Got a Feeling.”)

Then there is the climactic, legendary rooftop concert. 

I guess I always bought the notion that the rooftop show was thrown together and sloppy, a sad coda to their performing career. Peter Jackson’s film attests that it was very much otherwise. After farting around and fighting and procrastinating and playing golden oldies for three weeks, not to mention wringing their hands over whether they even wanted to play live again, or were up to it, it’s a shock to see the band get up on the Apple rooftop, plug in, and basically blow the doors off Mayfair, rocking exactly as hard as you would expect from the very best rock band in the world, one that was forged in the seedy nightclubs of Hamburg, playing eight hours at a pop night after night for demanding crowds of drunken sailors and hookers and gangsters and the occasional boho German university student. 

Maybe Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory is correct after all. 

DORIS GETS HER OATS

It is an understatement to say that Jackson’s film is a major addition to the Beatles’ saga, changing much of how we think about the final chapter of the band’s career. For fans, critics, historians, and other obsessives (my card is laminated), it’s as if an HD recording of the Last Supper turned up in an attic in Schenectady.

The achievement begins with the image itself. When we watch archival footage, even very well-preserved archival footage, the degradation of picture quality immediately connotes “age.” But this footage—shot on grainy 1960s vintage 16mm, not even Super 16 or 35mm—has been digitally scrubbed to the point where it feels like it was shot this morning. For sheer visual experience, it’s revolutionary. Apart from Jackson’s previous documentary, the World War I epic They Shall Not Grow Old, which engaged in similar mind-blowing restoration, I can think of no other film that offers this sort of surreal “time machine” effect….and with Get Back that effect is multiplied because it deals with a quartet of iconic global celebrities. It’s incredible to watch this 52-year-old footage that looks so impeccably pristine…..and to see the Beatles, still in their twenties, as if you’re in the room with them. (Some quibble that it’s too clean. Whatever, dude. I happened to watch the series with a friend who works for Kodak, who roared when George and Paul began debating the merits of various film stocks and their capacity for blowup to 35.)

That alone makes Get Back a unique experience and towering accomplishment. The technical achievement of teasing apart, isolating, and cleaning up multiple layers of audio is also astonishing, in a film that is, after all, largely about sound. 

For such a high profile commercial project, Get Back is also a challenging film that demands a lot of its audience, in almost Wisemanesque fashion. It’s close to pure cinéma vérité, apart from some supertitles and the opening pre-1969 recap, with no narration or new interviews. It asks the viewer to watch hour upon hour of observational footage with dense, overlapping dialogue (eat your heart out, Altman), much of it in thick Liverpudlian accents and working musician slang. Jackson could easily have made a three or four-hour version—still a marathon—that conveyed much the same message and found a wider audience. Maybe Disney calculated that the longer cut would be even more lucrative, or maybe they just bowed to the wishes of 800 pound gorillas like the Lord of the Rings auteur and the Fab Two plus widows. 

Of course, like a lot of fans, I could watch all 60 hours of raw footage, unedited, but that’s me.

Speaking of which, the editing‚ by Jabez Olssen, is masterful, particularly the interweaving of wild audio with non-sync picture—very much an artful, self-conscious approach to evoke the capital T truth in defiance of the literal lower case version. (Olssen also worked on various narrative films by Jackson, and cut They Shall Not Grow Old as well.) 

Without taking away from his achievement, let’s also bear in mind that this is an eight hour film culled from about 60 hours of footage and some 150 hours of audio tape. That’s actually quite a low shooting ratio by the standards of cinéma-vérité—about 7:1, just accounting for picture. Observational documentaries, including many I have worked on, frequently have shooting ratios of more like 100:1. Reportedly, Jackson’s preferred director’s cut is 18 hours long, giving us a shooting ratio of just over 3:1. At that point, per above, I say, just show me the rushes. I’ll watch ‘em. 

Jackson has said that he would like to release an extended director’s cut at some point, which I’m sure Disney—and its accountants—will be all in on. Me too. Will it be for everyone? Of course not. But when people get tired of writing about Shakespeare, or Da Vinci, or Picasso, we can discuss closure on the topic of the Beatles. 

Hell, I would happily watch Chris Farley talk to Paul McCartney about Die Hard. (“That was awesome.”)

“SEE YOU ROUND THE CLUBS”

Naturally, there is already the backlash, and then backlash to the backlash, both about the band and the film. “The Beatles are overrated. That’s our fault not theirs,” sniffed the Washington Post, while Inside Hook retorted, “No—you’re overrated.” I eagerly await the backlash to the backlash to the backlash.

While some of the critical assessments have to do with craft, or the amount of time devoted to the subject, most of them have to do with Get Back’s alleged veracity or lack thereof, both on its own and relative to the earlier Let It Be. It’s a natural question, even as it’s also one that ought to be filed under “Errand, Fool’s,” on the hill or otherwise. 

At the very beginning of each episode, a card informs us that “Numerous editorial choices had to be made during the production of these films.”

To that I say….oh, what’s the technical term? Oh yeah:

Duh.

All stories require that. That is the very nature of storytelling. Short of an unmanned, static surveillance camera, every angle, every cut, every single thing in the mise-en-scène of every film, narrative or documentary, is a choice. Even with a surveillance camera, the spot where it was placed and when it was turned on and off are choices that were made by some sort of intelligence behind the process. On a project with a swiping scope like this, the editorial task is massive.

A second card in each episode elaborates that “At all times the filmmakers have attempted to present an accurate portrait of the events depicted and the people involved.” 

That is slightly less obvious. Most documentarians do try to do that, except the ethically challenged, though the execution is by definition subjective.

Still, pretty much duh again.

Jackson is, um, a fairly accomplished filmmaker, so surely he knows how silly all that is. The obvious purpose of the cards is to pre-empt the inevitable whinging by individual Beatles fans—a passionate and opinionated lot—that the director misrepresented this or that, or didn’t include Ringo tying his shoes on Day 17.  

Such gripes will always arise, of course, but the consensus seems to be that Jackson has captured the “reality” or more ambitiously, the “truth,” of what went on. But the criteria for that verdict is howlingly abstract. What exactly are we measuring this veracity by? Our own irrational, emotional sense of what went on? Our assessment of what “feels” real? Our sheer hopes as fans, or as detractors, or Gerry and the Pacemakers partisans?

Even the opinions of the people who were there are suspect, as human memory is notoriously unreliable, and everyone—consciously or not, benignly or otherwise—has their own subconscious agendas. I cling to my RAF friend Peter’s claim of witnessing musical history, even if I totally imagined it.

The two viewers whose opinions matter the most, Mssrs. McCartney and Starkey, have been quite positive about Get Back. But Jackson himself addresses this phenomenon, speaking of the reactions of Paul and Ringo to the new film:

It’s not the story the way they remember parts of it, because they don’t remember it; it was more than 50 years ago. They lived through it, but they can’t remember it—except the miserable part of breaking up in 1970 and all the acrimony.

The British Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn—the dean of that field—has frequently had to correct mistaken comments by the surviving Beatles over this or that fact or piece of trivia or minutiae: who played what or when on what day and sat in what chair. It’s amusing, but not surprising, really. Who among us remember our own lives in that detail? It’s just that most of us don’t have armies of obsessive fans and whole academic departments devoted to cataloging our every move. (Sounds cool,  but it probably isn’t.)

Similarly, McCartney has said that decades of hearing the received wisdom about how he and Lennon were at each other’s throats in the band’s final months had him beginning to believe the myth himself. He says that he knew deep down—because he was there—that this gossipy narrative was never correct, that for all the moments of undeniable venom (see: “How Do You Sleep” and “Too Many People”), the feud was never as vicious or as lasting as prurient outsiders imagined—or wanted. Indeed, he’s said that he has had to mentally go back over his lifelong relationship with John to reassure himself of the truth, a truth he had been driven to question by sheer repetition, Stockholm syndrome style. One might retort that, per above, his memory is the less accurate barometer, especially given the preferred version in which he is emotionally invested. But the constructed narrative of a band of outsiders has no more credibility, wisdom of crowds notwithstanding, and arguably less. One might just as cogently argue that Lindsay-Hogg’s version is biased toward the dramatic “breakup” narrative that he wanted to tell, suppressing any joyous elements that might detract from that. Indeed, that is what Jackson, Paul and Ringo, and now the critical consensus are saying.

Some accounts—like a recent one in Pitchfork—paint Get Back as arising from a nearly mystical revelation: Jackson’s viewing of the original rushes, and his realization that they told a different story than the “canonical” one of bickering and conflict ahead of a looming divorce with which we were all familiar, Scenes from a Marriage, Merseyside Style

I don’t doubt that Jackson saw in the footage a different story than he knew from Let It Be, a story he wanted to see, or more charitably, the one he believed to be more accurate. I also buy the idea that the perennially upbeat Paul McCartney was keen on telling that version and championed the idea. I don’t buy, however, the idea that there was but one Platonic sculpture sitting within the raw footage, waiting to be chipped out. The mere fact that there already existed a different perspective on that material is a testament to the notion that there could be multiple perspectives on it. 

In that Pitchfork piece, the author, Jayson Greene, also says: “Get Back flows with the feeling of unmediated reality, of simply being in the room with the Beatles as they existed.” But that feeling is an illusion. Calling it “unmediated reality” is an insult to the artistry of the filmmakers, except as a backhanded compliment to the seamlessness and invisibility (or at least unobtrusiveness) of their hand. It’s an especially ironic plaudit for a film that states outright that it will, for example, sometimes marry wild sound to “representative picture,” a deft technique and beautifully done, but artifice nonetheless, and certainly not unvarnished recording of “reality.” 

While it is only human to seek some sort of verisimilitude from anything that purports to be “non-fiction,” contemporary audiences are very sophisticated, and typically understand that even non-fiction programming represents a subjective, carefully curated narrative. (Don’t they?) 

We don’t really know the Beatles as people, though many of us imagine we do, often to an unhealthy, Rupert Pupkin-ish degree. Indeed, that was very much part of what cost John Lennon his life. Not to get too navel-gazing about it, but can we ever really know anyone, or even ourselves? (I think some acid left over from the Pepper sessions got on my laptop keys.) Some who have gotten close to their heroes, be they the Beatles or others, have often found them wanting. Way back in the Seventies a pre-breakthrough Joan Armatrading famously turned down an offer to sing backup for Van Morrison because she didn’t want to become disillusioned by proximity to one of her role models. (In retrospect, a very wise choice. Looking at you again, Clapton.)

Comparing the two Beatles documentaries is ultimately unfair—Apples and oranges, some might say—but even so, I would bet Granny Smith-colored money that Jackson’s film is indeed the more accurate account, if only because of its much bigger palette. (Though of course that length would be pointless if not for the artistry with which it was utilized.) Jackson has intimated that he will be involved in a restoration and re-release of Lindsay-Hogg’s film in the coming months, so we can compare and contrast. That would be a menschy thing to do, and I think we can count on Peter to do so. Tarantino has also said he wants to show Let It Be at his film prints-only cinema in LA, the New Beverly

Perhaps someday Peter Jackson, or one his children, will recut Get Back into four separate films each showing the sessions from the perspective of a different band member (Quadrophenia, anyone?), and a fifth one from the POV of the ginger-headed kid holding John’s lyric sheet. I myself lay claim to a stage adaptation of the sessions from the perspective of the two Hare Krishnas as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tom Stoppard-style. 

So in that regard, The Beatles: Get Back is a kind of elongated Rorschach test, or if you prefer, a blank slate upon which the viewer can project his or her own preferred vision of the band, good, bad, or indifferent, but unchallengeable by objective reality or the historical record.

Print the legend indeed.

“I HOPE WE PASSED THE AUDITION”

One final quibble, since everyone else is airing theirs: Could we not get a full-length “Let It Be” at the end of the miniseries, rather than just a truncated one? Was there not room for that in a show with a running time of 468 minutes? We’ve had multiple full-length versions of “Get Back”—and yes, I know it’s a great song, and yes, I know it’s eponymous here—including three on the roof alone.

Just my personal beef. (Peter did warn us that he had to do some editing.)

But as I say, this is hairsplitting in a true masterpiece. So let us thank Peter Jackson and his team for this great gift to us, this labor of love, this peerless opus that gives us a rare window into the creative process of some of the most beloved and accomplished artists of our time. 

Let’s end, then, with a quote I love from Kurt Vonnegut, another Sixties icon, from his 1997 book Timequake:

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

Yeah yeah yeah.

**********

Illustration: Original cover art for the Beatles’ never-released 1969 LP Get Back, parodying their first British LP, 1963’s Please Please Me. 

Rittenhousism and the Republican “Self-Defense” of America

As promised (or threatened), this week’s essay continues to explore the impact of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.  

Last week’s post focused on his acquittal as a bitter example of the racist double standard in the US criminal justice system and in American society at large. But as the Nation’s Elie Mystal wrote, anguished cries of a “miscarriage of justice” miss the point. On the contrary, the system functioned exactly as intended, sending a message to all that this is the hierarchy, and if you don’t like it you can go fuck yourself. 

It’s no coincidence that this misinterpretation is heard mostly from white people, a demographic to which—full disclosure—I belong. Black Americans have long since stopped being surprised that pasty-faced defendants get a pass in a system that brutalizes, arrests, prosecutes, convicts, incarcerates, and executes people of color at vastly higher rates than whitey.

This week I want to focus on another aspect of the Rittenhouse story that I gave only glancing attention last time: its role in the current Republican effort to justify its seizure of power by any means available, including both the anti-democratic subversion of the electoral system, and blunt, unrepentant acts of violence. 

Let’s begin with the ultimate totem of conservative worship, the gun itself, and how the culture surrounding it provides a template for Republican autocracy. 

A GOOD GUY WITH A GUN (“GOOD” PART OPTIONAL)

In The Atlantic, the always trenchant Adam Serwer writes:

The United States is a nation awash in firearms, and gun owners are a powerful and politically active constituency. In state after state, they have helped elect politicians who, in turn, have created a permissive legal regime for the carry and use of firearms, rules that go far beyond how courts originally understood the concept of self-defense.

These laws have made it difficult to convict any gun owner who knowingly puts themselves in circumstances where they are likely to use their weapon—that is, anyone who goes looking for a fight. It should come as no surprise then, that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges…

But, of course, this case goes far beyond that. Serwer writes that “It is one thing to argue that the jury reached a reasonable verdict based on this law, and another entirely to celebrate Rittenhouse’s actions.” His colleague at The Atlantic, David French, echoes the sentiment, writing that for millions on the Trumpist right “he’s become a positive symbol, a young man of action who stepped up when the police (allegedly) stepped aside.”

(O)ne of the symbols of the American hard right is the “patriot” openly carrying an AR-15 or similar weapon. The “gun picture” is a common pose for populist politicians. Mark and Patricia McCloskey leveraged their clumsy and dangerous brandishing of weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters into an appearance at the Republican National Convention.

Rittenhouse is the next step in that progression. He’s the “patriot” who didn’t just carry his rifle; he used it.

But white people in America have frequently been able to get away with violence toward people of color, even murder. In that sense, the conservative cheerleading for Rittenhouse is not remarkable. (On those rare occasions when it goes the other way, unjustly or not, the reaction is quite different. See: OJ.) What makes this case different and far more troubling is that it is unfolding at a moment when the reactionary willingness to undermine or even break the law for its own partisan ends—to include the use of violence—is alarmingly ascendant. 

We have never in American history seen one of our major parties so openly embrace flat-out anti-democratic rule, not even in the civil rights era. Back then, segregationists and other neo-Confederates wanted to disenfranchise Black people. Now they want to expand that suppression to everyone who disagrees with them, irrespective of skin tone. (So, some progress there, in terms of racial equality?) 

To that end, Serwer observes that much of the conservative media and the Republican Party “don’t see the (Kenosha) killings as ‘wrongful’ in any sense, instead elevating Rittenhouse as the manifestation of retributive violence against their political enemies.”

The fact that Rittenhouse has become a folk hero among Republicans points to darker currents within the GOP, where justifications for political violence against the opposition are becoming more common. The party finds the apocalyptic fear of impending leftist tyranny useful not only for turning out its supporters, but also for rationalizing legislative attempts to disenfranchise, gerrymander, and otherwise nullify the votes of Democratic constituencies. Engineering the American political system so that Republicans’ political rivals are unable to contest their power is a less forceful solution than killing people, but the political goal is similar: to never have to share power with those they disagree with.

Is it any wonder then that Fox Nation elevates young Mr. Rittenhouse to the status of “St. Kyle”? He did in Kenosha what the Republican Party claims to be doing nationwide: taking the law into its own hands in the “self-defense” of an America under siege from antifa, BLM, and Big Bird

This is the famous “rugged individualism” at the heart of America’s self-flattering origin story—its foundational myth, to be less kind—the pioneer spirit of self-reliance that found fullest flower in the Wild West, while we’re on the subject of myth. I understand the appeal, but also its adolescent aspect. Taken to the extreme, it quickly curdles into Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.”

In the eyes of the right, Rittenhouse bravely went into a situation where “law and order” had collapsed, where the nominal authorities had abdicated responsibility (or worse, sided with the leftists) and “protected” the community using his Second Amendment rights. When he felt himself under threat, he stood his ground and defended himself using lethal force, which was his right as an American. 

It is the very mentality behind the attack on the US Capitol and members of Congress on January 6, and the more slow-burning but no less dangerous attempt to seize control of the electoral process…..to “take our country back,” as the right wing bumper sticker says. (It is also no coincidence that Wisconsin, scene of the Rittenhouse murders, and his acquittal, is also among the states where Republican ratfucking of the electoral process is most egregiously underway.)

As Prof. Eddie Glaude of Princeton writes in the Washington Post, “Kyle Rittenhouse has become the poster child for a general feeling among some in this country that White America is under siege. Rittenhouse defended himself, this argument goes, and White America must do the same.”

BEFORE THEY MAKE WAR, FIRST THEY MAKE ENEMIES

This gymnastic argument requires the wanton demonization of one’s foes to justify such extreme measures. Serwer again:

Right-wing gun culture is not unlike the wellness industry, in that it requires the cultivation of a sustained insecurity in its audience in order to facilitate the endless purchase of its products. You can never be too skinny, and you can never have too many guns to stop the impending communist takeover.

This is exactly what the GOP claims to be doing on behalf of America as a whole, or at least the lilywhite, Christian America that it believes is the only legitimate one. They have painted for their followers a portrait of America under the thumb of an illegitimate, oppressive, neo-fascist Democratic regime that hounded Donald Trump for four years and then stole the election from him, a regime that intends to brainwash their children (the children are white, naturally) into self-loathing, confiscate their guns, ban their religion, and turn the USA into a Marxist police state ruled by sharia law. (It’s a hybrid.) Given the stakes of this threat, the GOP has advanced the notion that nothing ought to be off the table in the effort to stop it. If a few Congressional districts need to be gerrymandered, or portions of the electorate suppressed—illegitimate portions, whose voice doesn’t deserve a hearing anyway—or school board members threatened, or at the most extreme, some liberals jailed or even killed, so be it. The end justifies the means. 

It’s no coincidence that QAnon turns on the idea that high-ranking Democrats are devil-worshipping pedophiles and sex traffickers: it is the logical end of the Gingrichian ethos that demands that the opposing party be treated not as the loyal opposition within a commonly accepted set of political principles but as Satan’s own spawn. Naturally, then, they have to be practitioners of the most absolutely vile and damnable crimes imaginable. Once that appellation has been attached, nothing is beyond the pale, and all can be rationalized in the fight against them. If one accepts that the foe is that evil, the idea that we ought to kick them off local elections boards is a no-brainer….and the idea that they ought to be hunted and put down like dogs is not far behind.

It’s ironic—but no coincidence—that the same right wing that fetishizes individual “self-defense” also gave us George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, a form of “preventive” (not pre-emptive) war that operated on the principle that “I thought he was gonna hit me so I hit him back, first.” (Whether he—being Saddam—was ever gonna hit us at all was already a canard.) Now that same mentality is being applied domestically, on the premise that all is justified in fighting the Democrats. 

PADDY CHAYEFSKY, PROPHET OF DOOM

Kyle Rittenhouse is but one bellwether of this trend.

At a recent stop in Nampa, Idaho on something he calls his “Exposing Critical Racism” speaking tour, the young conservative demagogue Charlie Kirk took a question from an audience member who asked: “At this point, we’re living under a corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns?” The crowd cheered and applauded, prompting the man to add: “That’s not a joke, I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”

Kirk was clever enough to reject the idea, arguing that such talk plays into Democrats’ hands. But his real point was that such violence was going to be unnecessary, because the right is “close to having momentum to be able to get this country back on a trajectory using the peaceful means that we have.” He went on to say that “we’re at the teetering edge of a regime that knows good and decent Americans are going to get to the place in the movie Network, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.’” 

So does Kirk’s disavowal of violence belie my warning in this essay? Read it that way if you are so inclined. (At the same event he also suggested “a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of election fraud, while implying the ballot count in Arizona could still be proven illegal despite the recent audit coming up with no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”) But note, please, that Kirk did not denounce violence on moral grounds, only strategic ones. Just the fact that the question was asked, in all seriousness, and the crowd raucously approved, is deeply telling. Sadly, this dude was far from an outlier, but rather, represents a mood and a mindset that is prevalent throughout the Republican rank and file….because the Republican leadership has tacitly and sometimes openly encouraged it. And as that Network-style fury continues to metastasize among Republican voters, just because Charlie Kirk is savvy enough not to openly endorse violence is hardly going to stop them. 

More to the point: If and when widespread violence comes, is Charlie Kirk going to stand up and say, “This is wrong”? Or is he going to go along, because he knows his power and influence depend on the allegiance of people like that man in his crowd? I don’t know, but for a clue, look to his defense of the January 6th Insurrectionists. The same question needs to be asked of every Republican leader, whose collective cowardice and shameful self-aggrandizement on the matter since that bloody day does not bode well. 

Following the tedious pattern that’s been in play since the spring of 2016, I can hear the snickers about my allegedly unwarranted alarmism. 

Yes, the prospect of a Rwandan-style genocide in the US with bloodthirsty Republicans massacring their Democratic neighbors seems not only implausible but absurd. But so did the idea of Donald Trump winning the presidency once upon a time. 

Likewise, when it comes to the demonization of the other side, the right is quick to accuse the left of engaging in similar “hysteria,” “hyperbole,” and “fearmongering.” (I’ll pre-quotation mark myself.) But as I have said many times, one fella furiously arguing that the earth is flat and another arguing just as hard that it is round are not due equal credence just by virtue of their equal vehemence. The evidence of Republican campaign of anti-democratic skullduggery and political violence is voluminous and brazen. The claim of a parallel Democratic one is illusory. 

The right wants us to believe that provisions to allow mail-in voting during a historic pandemic amounted to voter fraud, even as they move to put a chokehold on the electoral process nationwide. They want us to believe that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is an insidious federal assault on that antebellum oldie-but-goodie “states’ rights,” even as they try to roll back hard-fought gains from the civil rights era. They want us to believe that snowflake libtards pose the most clear and present danger to public safety, even though it’s white nationalists who overwhelmingly commit acts of domestic terrorism.

The right also wants us to believe that the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder are tantamount to the January 6th attack to overturn the vote. But in the words of Flavor Flav, don’t believe the hype. Even the small number of those BLM protests that turned violent don’t begin to approach the Insurrection’s level of atrocity and criminality, which is to say, an attempted coup d’état mounted at the behest of an ousted president who refused to acknowledge his electoral defeat. Perhaps above all, it’s worth noting the standard bearer of the Democratic Party is not going around defending people who wanted to lynch the sitting vice president. 

As with all things Republican in the contemporary era, they want to gaslight us into ignoring, accepting, or glossing over what they are up to. 

Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype. 

IS IT SAFE?

Another telling story which, with fiction-beggaring perfection, played out simultaneously with the Rittenhouse verdict was the censuring of Rep. Paul Gosar, the insane dentist-cum-Republican congressman from Arizona, for tweeting out an altered anime video showing himself killing his colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and attacking President Biden. 

Gosar, as we know, is a chief proponent of the “Stop the Steal” madness who spoke at the January 6 rally on the Ellipse, a man whose seven brothers and sisters have bought airtime to denounce as a sociopath. On the floor of the House, Kevin McCarthy gave an Orwellian speech in Gosar’s defense that was a masterpiece of projection, accusing the Democrats of being power-mad, of hypocrisy (“Rules for thee but not for me”), and of generally destroying America. Meanwhile the only Republicans that Kevin’s backbenchers want punished are the thirteen who voted for the Biden infrastructure bill. Only two House Republicans voted for censure, the pariahs Kinzinger and Cheney, whom their GOP colleagues already consider UnPeople. 

The Republican defense of Gosar was predicated on the fiction that he had apologized because he had taken the video down. Fact check: He took it down, but never uttered a word of apology or even regret. Instead, he and his surrogates repeatedly sneered at the criticism, telling people to “relax,” because it was just a “cartoon.” (Tell it to the folks at Charlie Hebdo.)

Just to be clear, in any other job in America, if you posted a video of yourself murdering a co-worker, even in “jest,” you would be fired. (Oh, and by the by, threatening the President’s life is a federal crime.)

And how chastened was Gosar by his censure? Within minutes of receiving his punishment, he retweeted the video.

Faced with this brazen nose-thumbing and obliteration of the myth of his contrition, the House, rightly, then took the next procedural step after censure and voted to expel him. 

Just kidding! They didn’t say boo. Any parent will tell you that if you let you kid get away with flagrant disrespect like that, they’re going to be emboldened and do it again, and worse. 

In other contexts, the (literal) cartoon ravings of a nutjob like Paul Gosar would not merit such concern. But at a time when all these other harbingers of violence abound, they matter very much indeed. It’s hard to claim you’re just “joking” about killing Democratic congressmembers, and even the President, just months after you fired up a mob to try to kill the Speaker of the House and the Vice President (from your own party, no less, for being insufficiently loyal). 

We are in a fraught moment when, as Adam Serwer writes, “the desire to kill your political opponents is a sentiment no longer confined to the dark corners of the internet.“ Paul Gosar may be clinically mentally ill, mitigating his guilt and meriting our pity. But the GOP’s craven ranks-closing around him does not.

A SNOWBALL’S CHANCE 

The  fanaticism displayed by Gosar is part of this broader shift of the Overton window regarding what conservatives feel they are within their rights to do, and why. 

In a chilling interview with The Atlantic’s Emma Green a few months ago, Ryan Williams, president of the conservative Claremont Institute, argued that minority rule by conservatives is justified, even in defiance of the popular vote.

Williams says that the Claremont Institute’s mission is “to save Western civilization,” and cites the progressive movement as the chief obstacle to that. As for what constitutes “Western civilization,” Green generously gives Williams the chance to say it’s comprised of ideas, and not defined by geography or ethnicity. But Williams responds that “You can never really divorce a set of ideas and principles from the people in which it grew up. America is an idea, but it’s not just that. It’s the people who settled it, founded it, and made it flourish.”

Green: Just to ask the question directly, do you mean white people?

Williams: No, not necessarily. I mean, Western civilization happens to be where a lot of white people are, historically, but I don’t think there’s any necessary connection between the two. The ability to believe in natural rights and a regime of limited government the way the Founders did is not reserved only to white people.

Hmm, that is one tricky line he’s walking. Democracy isn’t just for white people, but neither can it be divorced from the white people—or “people of European descent,” the phrase that he and Green agree upon—who pioneered and fostered it. It’s a pretty thin veneer for an all-but-openly white nationalist philosophy. (Once a respectable conservative think tank, Claremont has over the past five years gone all in for Trump.)

Like many in that camp, Williams offers a dishonest endorsement of “race neutral” policies that in effect deny the existence of any inherent bias within the structures of American society. It’s a game of smoke-and-mirrors misdirection that attempts to turn the civil rights movement itself into a weapon of white supremacy. 

Williams says, “The counter from the left is that there’s systemic racism that has built up over years by certain legal systems. I would have to see some real proof of that.”

(Pause to pick jaw up off floor.)

Pushing back, Green notes that the disproportionate numbers of Black men in the US prison system. Williams replies by questioning whether sentencing in the US is truly discriminatory or if “the high incarceration rate of Black Americans is due to their much higher propensity to commit violent crime…..We have to start, though, with the acknowledgment that a lot more Blacks are in prison because they commit violent crimes at a much higher rate [than Americans of other races]. Whites commit violent crime at a much higher rate than Asians do, so I don’t mean to suggest a racial crime hierarchy. But it’s just a fact we have to acknowledge.”

Like many conservatives, Williams idealizes a time when America was more homogenous, religiously and ethnically, rejecting the idea that the US was ever intended to be a pluralistic society:

I think it would be bad for America if that longtime Christian core disintegrated. The Founders were pretty unanimous, with Washington leading the way, that the Constitution is really only fit for a Christian people. I would modify that a bit and say a majority Christian people could maintain that. But if you don’t think your rights ultimately come from a Creator, you’re halfway down the road to our modern confusion.

Williams also defends a Claremont essayist, Glenn Ellmers, who last spring wrote in one of the Institute’s publications that “certainly more than half” of the people residing in the United States are not Americans in any recognizable sense. “(I)f Claremont thinks real Americanism is a belief in the principles of the American founding,” Williams argues, “we have to acknowledge that a good portion of our fellow citizens don’t agree with our principles and conclusions about what politics is for.”

So Paul Gosar may be a cuckoo-for-cocoa puffs human punchline, but this is a once-credible and still highly influential right wing think tank positing the idea that some Americans are more equal than others. It ought to go without saying that that is a highly dangerous position, one that opens the door to the idea that many of our countrymen are not really our countrymen at all. And once that has been established, the bar for denying them their rights, denying them the vote, denying them the protection of the law, and even denying them safety from physical harm becomes much much lower. 

And by them, I mean “you and me.” First they came for the chablis drinkers….

It’s worth noting that it was another Claremont Institute publication, The Claremont Review of Books, that published the infamous 2016 essay The Flight 93 Election” that compared the urgency of electing Donald Trump to the passengers who stormed the cockpit of the hijacked jet on 9/11. That is the exact kind of apocalyptic, “by any means necessary” thinking that animates the current political moment on the American right. 

Blithely glossing over the responsibility of conservative media and groups like his in sowing this kind of divisiveness, Williams blames the vaguely-phrased “elite media” for public confusion about what news sources are trustworthy or not. “We have to advance intellectual ideas that we think are true, and the politics that we think will be the most successful. But we underestimate the extent to which we can lower the temperature in America and move forward with a lot more unity.” Ms. Green drily responds that she will look for “that effort to make sure our temperatures are lowered” the next time she reads The Claremont Review of Books.

You say you’re not worried about the influence of an obscure conservative think tank in San Bernardino? How about Fox News then? 

An even more hamhanded example of this same effort is Tucker Carlson’s new “documentary” Patriot Purge, a film that is telling tens of millions of gullible Fox viewers that January 6th was a false flag operation by the left, and that the Biden administration intends to hunt down and terrorize American conservatives Global War on Terror-style. It is a ploy, as Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post, “designed to lay the justificatory foundation for efforts to resist or subvert legitimate democratic outcomes by any means necessary or available in the future.”

Again, it is easy to say that my own essay here is spreading wild rumors about Republican intentions no different than Tucker’s about Democrats’. 

Except Tucker’s world is flat and mine is round. 

JUST AN OLD SWEET SONG

We know that the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood of lethal violence, whether it’s a barroom argument, a bank robbery, or a street protest. What might have ended in a punch-up, at worst, more often than not ends up with a GSW being treated by an ER trauma team. Yet even with common sense gun laws in some states, America remains a society where a teenager can find a way—however convoluted—to legally patrol the streets with a semiautomatic rifle, and even kill people, and get away with it under the law.* 

(*Whites only.)

In Wisconsin, teens are allowed to carry long guns for hunting—the legal loophole that allowed Rittenhouse to have his AR variant on the streets of Kenosha, at least as far as the judge was concerned. Of course, it’s a real stretch to say that that’s what Kyle was doing, except insofar he was clearly there in hopes that a certain kind of game would appear and give him a chance to live out his vigilante fantasies.

In the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA, the three (white) defendants are mounting a self-defense claim similar to Rittenhouse’s. But their case is even less strong, given the way that they blatantly hunted down and killed Mr. Arbery without even the pretense of credible danger to their own lives. The prosecution has also been far more skillful than the Kenosha DA, especially in cross-examination. (Caveat: Unless the jury decides to let the killers off because the superb female prosecutor was “shrill.”) 

I went to high school just a few towns over from Brunswick, in Hinesville, a very similar community, and I can attest that it’s a part of the country where you wouldn’t be shocked to hear of three white dudes with a shotgun and a pair of pickup trucks, one with a Confederate flag license plate, chasing down a Black jogger to “ask a few questions.” But in the wake of the Rittenhouse verdict, their chances for acquittal suddenly look a lot better, notwithstanding the outrageous flimsiness of their argument. As Adam Serwer writes, “For that matter, even the white nationalists facing a civil lawsuit over their 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, have sought to invoke their right to self-defense.”

In his Atlantic piece, Serwer quotes the historian Caroline Light who notes that, “Our embrace of lethal self-defense has always been selective and partial, upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets.” George Zimmerman had a right to self-defense; Trayvon Martin did not. The same for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, who like Trayvon, is seen “only as the sort of person the right of self-defense was meant to be invoked against.”

Similarly, some conservatives see themselves as having the right to do anything they want to “save the republic” because they are the true Americans, facing an existential threat from the Other. The members of that Other have no such right. 

LET’S ROLL

In closing, let’s go back one more time to David French, in the hope that his words might reach some of his erstwhile conservative comrades:

A political movement that turns a deadly and ineffective vigilante into a role model is a movement that is courting more violence and encouraging more young men to recklessly brandish weapons in dangerous places, and that will spill more blood in America’s streets. 

But French’s formulation implies that this encouragement is accidental. I submit that it is deliberate and intentional. 

In his Atlantic interview, Claremont’s Mr. Williams does express concerns about political violence in the US, saying, “The Civil War was terrible. It should be the thing we try to avoid almost at all costs.” But even that is eyebrow-raising, suggesting that, terrible as that Civil War was, it may be something the forces defending “Western civilization” can’t avoid in trying to achieve their aims. 

(And lest we forget, while contemplating a Second Civil War, conservatives tend to have most of the guns.)

Republicans have navigated themselves and their followers into a very chilling position, one that threatens us all. Rittenhouse, Gosar, January 6: at every turn, Republicans are declaring that their embrace of violence—but theirs alone—is justified to achieve their political ends. The best case scenario—the best!—is the Charlie Kirk position that they won’t need violence because they can seize power, insidiously, and hold it, indefinitely, without resort to bullets. But brute force always remains at the ready if need be, a kind of metaphorical “open carry” designed to intimidate their foes. And more and more Republicans are keen to demonstrate that they are in fact perfectly comfortable using it, and justifying it.  

********

Photo: Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Illinois, posing with the semiautomatic Smith & Wesson M&P 15 that he would later use to kill two BLM protestors and maim a third.  

Critical Race Theory Proven

Let’s be clear. If Kyle Rittenhouse were Black, he would never have gone to trial for murder— because the cops would have shot him dead on the spot on the streets of Kenosha.

Speculation? Maybe, but it’s speculation backed up by history.

Under Wisconsin law, and just by virtue of common sense, it’s not self-defense when you create the danger you’re in. You can’t set a fire and then complain that you got burned. The Rittenhouse jury didn’t see it that way, and reasonable people can agree or disagree. But we all know that a Black teenager who took an AR-15 to the scene of a violent protest and used it to shoot two people dead would never be acquitted in an American courtroom, let alone on grounds of self-defense. Even Tucker fucking Carlson knows that. 

It is the height of irony that we should see this verdict at the exact same time when right wing reactionaries all across America, from school boards to barstools to the self-proclaimed world’s greatest deliberative body, are furiously insisting that our children not be taught that there is systemic racism in the DNA of this nation. 

If there was ever more glaring proof of the racial double standard in the American justice system than what just happened in Kenosha, and of the correctness of so-called “critical race theory,” I’d like to see it. 

The micro question of whether Rittenhouse was afraid that he was going to be disarmed and harmed by people who took exception to his action hero wannabe-ism is not the issue here. The issue is what the fuck was he doing on the streets of Kenosha with a combat-style bulletlauncher in the first place? What made him think he was entitled to do that, or that he could get away with it? 

I guess the fact that he did get away with it provides us the answer. And why not? Everything in the culture in which Kyle Rittenhouse was raised told him in no certain terms that it was his God-given right to do so. And this jury just affirmed it.

A civilian vigilante wielding an AR can gun down two unarmed men and claim he was the one who feared for his life? If you’re white, I guess so.

But should we really be surprised? (Black folks sure aren’t.) Three weeks ago, the Nation’s justice correspondent Elie Mystal published a piece titled, “I Hope Everyone Is Prepared for Kyle Rittenhouse to Go Free.” He was spot on, of course. His new piece is called “Kyle Rittenhouse Has Gotten Away With Murder—As Predicted,” in which he sagely notes: “Rittenhouse’s acquittal is not a ‘miscarriage’ of justice, as some might claim. It is our white justice system working as intended.”

For that is the nauseating, fundamental fact at the core of all this.

It was clear that this trial was going to go down this way from the very beginning….and by “beginning,” I mean the whole idea that white boys cosplaying like they’re Navy SEALs in Fallujah are allowed to bring battlefield-type weapons onto the streets of American towns to enforce their own deluded notions of racial justice. That is white privilege at its most extreme. Yes, the prosecution did a poor job of proving its case. But it faced an uphill battle in a game stacked on the white boy’s behalf. 

in The Atlantic, David French—formerly of National Review, now on the outs due to his Never Trumpism—writes:

(T)he nature of self-defense claims (is that they) are not assessed by means of sweeping inquiries into the wisdom of the actions that put the shooter into a dangerous place in a dangerous time. Instead, they produce a narrow inquiry into the events immediately preceding the shooting. The law allows even a foolish man to defend himself, even if his own foolishness put him in harm’s way.

The narrow nature of the self-defense inquiry is one reason people can escape responsibility for killings that are deeply wrongful in every moral sense.

On the night in question, Rittenhouse not only traveled to Kenosha from his hometown in Illinois and started patrolling the streets with an AR, but also falsely told people on the scene that he was an EMT. Did local law enforcement react with alarm? On the contrary. Before the killings, he was given a bottle of water by the cops and told that they “appreciated” what he and other right wing vigilantes were doing. After killing two people and wounding a third, he was allowed to walk away from the scene and go home unmolested. Not under arrest, not with his hands ziptied behind his back and his face pressed down on the blacktop, not with his torso riddled with bulletholes from police firearms. 

Can you imagine a Black teenager with a smoking gun barrel getting the same treatment? In Cleveland in 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black child, was shot dead by a (white) policeman just for HOLDING a toy gun.

Can we also remember that the protests in Kenosha were occurring in the first place because, two days before, a white policeman had shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back, in front of his three children. (Both the Kenosha DA and US Justice Department later declined to prosecute the officer.) 

Just a few of the other sideshows surrounding this circus:

Rittenhouse claimed he went to Kenosha to protect businesses, and stood in front of one called Car Source that he had no connection to, whose own owners didn’t even know him and certainly hadn’t asked for his help, and—wisely—were themselves nowhere around during the violence. As Trevor Noah said on “The Daily Show”:

Nobody drives into a city with guns because they love someone else’s business that much. That’s some bullshit. No one has ever thought, ‘Oh, it’s my solemn duty to pick up a rifle and protect that TJ Maxx.’ They do it because they’re hoping to shoot someone.

And there was proof of that. Just weeks before the murders, Rittenhouse had been recorded expressing his desire to shoot looters—video that his jury was not allowed to see or hear. (In the footage, which people leaving a CVS pharmacy clutching goods, Rittenhouse is heard to say, “Bro, I wish I had my fucking AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.”) 

After the killings, and after being bailed out of jail (with $2 million raised from conservative donors and “Free Kyle” t-shirts sold online), Rittenhouse was photographed at a Wisconsin bar wearing a “Free as Fuck” t-shirt and flashing a “white power” sign while posing with members of the Proud Boys.

The right has sneered at the claims that Rittenhouse brought the murder weapon across state lines, and that it was not lawful for him to own it, which they label as liberal misinformation. The whole debate betrays what a farce this is. Rittenhouse’s weapon was a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, one of many variants of the standard American semiautomatic rifle commonly referred to—even by Rittenhouse himself—as an “AR.” (He bought it with his $1200 COVID stimulus check.) It had been purchased for him in Wisconsin and stored there on his behalf by a friend, as Rittenhouse was too young to buy it himself, and it was illegal for him to possess it in Illinois where he lives. If that’s what the right thinks absolves him of the sketchy circumstances of his ownership, and the weapon’s presence in Kenosha, it’s the flimsiest of semantics, but indicative of the dishonesty of the right wing argument. 

What else? Oh yeah: The Missouri couple who waved an AR and a handgun at BLM protestors from the steps of their home visited the trial in support of Rittenhouse. A former cop from Ferguson, MO toting his own AR was there on Kyle’s behalf too. Birds of a feather, amirite? 

Then there was the judge, who refused to allow the two men Rittenhouse killed, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, to be referred to as “victims.” (By that logic, I guess they’re not dead either, just “un-alive.”) The judge’s cellphone also went off in court, its ringtone country singer Lee Greenwood’s maudlin patriotic anthem “God Bless the USA,” a staple at Trump rallies. 

The judge’s other flaws, from mere eccentricities, to a bad case of “judge brain” acquired during 38 years on the bench, to ill-advised ethnic jokes in open court (or the use of the term “a Black”), have been well-documented. But as Elie Mystal notes, “a sympathetic judge and a predominately white jury are just standard gifts the criminal justice system gives to white boys accused of criminal violence.” 

The jury apparently accepted the defense’s brazen argument that Rittenhouse’s victims (I’m allowed to call them that, right?) were the actual provocateurs of the killings. But after he shot his first victim, Kyle Rittenhouse was by all rights himself an “active shooter.” If people on the scene charged him, whether with skateboards like Mr. Huber or a pistol like Gaige Grosskreutz, a genuine EMT, whom Rittenhouse also shot and wounded but didn’t kill, were they not themselves acting in self-defense on behalf of the entire crowd?

Rittenhouse’s sobbing breakdowns in court—when recounting how he feared for his life, and again when he was acquited—inevitably recalled Brett Kavanaugh, whose tears worked similar magic. For a bunch of people in thrall to machismo, right wingers sure are suckers for crybabies. More to the point, it was notable that Rittenhouse’s pain only came out on his own behalf, not in grief for his victims.

Of course, this case is yet another Rorschach test. Right wing America—mostly ivory colored, it’s fair to say—sees Rittenhouse as a hero, a patriot, as someone who stood up to “lawless” violence (by taking the law into his own hands) to “protect the community.” Needless to say, they don’t see it that way when Black people turn to violence in legitimate self-defense, which this wasn’t. 

Aside from being the latest and most stomach-turning example of the racism that is baked into American society, perhaps the most chilling aspect of this verdict, as many have noted, is that affirms the reactionary view that they (and they alone) are justified in turning to deadly force whenever the fuck they feel like it. 

People of color, and liberals, and everyone else? Not so much.

That is a very dangerous precept at a time when we’re still trying to reckon with a violent right wing attempt to overturn an election on the same deluded grounds.

Even as this verdict came down, we are also watching the trial of three white men in Brunswick, GA for the murder in cold blood of Ahmaud Arbery—defendants who are making the same specious self-defense claim as Rittenhouse—and a civil trial in the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, the event that gave us Trump’s “very fine people on both sides.” I am not optimistic about the outcome of either. But I do fully expect to see Rittenhouse feted in person on Fox News, trotted around at GOP campaign rallies, and selling merch on his websiteMatt Gaetz has already suggested he might hire him as an intern. Hell, come January 2025, he’s probably in line for a Cabinet position in Trump Administration 2.0. 

I suspect there will be more on the Rittenhouse verdict and all that it says about America to come in these pages. For now, let us just behold white privilege on display in its most sickening and unjust form. 

*********

Photo: Kyle Rittenhouse (left), in Kenosha, WI, August 25, 2020. Credit: Adam Rogan / The Journal Times/AP

Fifth Column of Fools

I have spent a lot of time in these pages warning about Insurrection 2.0: the slow-burning but highly aggressive Republican effort to undermine American democracy and secure permanent power for themselves, in defiance of the will of the electorate. 

I am far from alone in raising that alarm. It is ringing throughout the chattering classes, from the pages of The Atlantic to the latte-soaked cafes of Brooklyn Heights to the meeting rooms of the Center for American Progress, for all the good it seems to be doing. 

I’m one of many who regularly note that this slow motion coup is all the more worrying because it’s not merely Mitch McConnell and his cabal of mustache-twirling GOP supervillains at work (though they’re leading the charge), but a large chunk of the public—about one in three of our countrymen—who are all onboard with right wing autocracy and happy to help advance it. In the words of Kate McKinnon, we know dis.

But the election results in Virginia and New Jersey last Tuesday make it clear that there is a third group that is also abetting this insurgency: those casual, low information American voters who are treating the GOP like a garden variety political party operating within the accepted norms of our representative democracy…..which is precisely what the GOP would like the American people to think. 

Except it ain’t remotely so.

Are Americans’ memories really that short? As short as a goldfish’s, and not in the good, Ted Lasso way?

It was just 11 months ago that the Republican Party tried to overturn a presidential election, resulting in the first time in US history that we did not have a peaceful transfer of power.

I say the “the Republican Party” and not just “Donald Trump” because while Trump certainly fomented and led the Insurrection, the GOP did not man up and disavow it, and still has not. Very much the contrary. After a brief blip when it looked like Republicans might finally break with Trump, they quickly remembered that having a demagogue in command of tens of millions of rabid cult followers was far too useful.

Indeed, in the months since January 6, 2021, obeisance to the Big Lie and affirmation of the idea that Biden is an illegitimate head of state and Trump is the true president has become the sole loyalty test and defining principle of the GOP. No aspiring Republican politician can buck it; the most they can do is equivocate—which is in itself appalling—winking at the right wing base while trying to maintain “viability” with mainstream voters. That is in some ways even more reprehensible, of course. At least QAnon nutjobs, Oathkeeper seditionists, and Louie Gohmert own their despicability. 

And that dishonesty seems to be paying off, as Glenn Youngkin’s come-from-behind win in the Virginia gubernatorial race shows. This past Tuesday, millions of voters acted as if we are in a pre-2016 world —or perhaps a pre-1992, pre-Newt Gingrich one—where conservative talking points about taxes, spending, deficits, and other quotidian rot are the most pertinent issues on the national agenda. They did not act as if we are in a world where the United States is facing an existential crisis from within, with one of our two major political parties transformed into a full-blown neo-fascist insurgency out to destroy the very fundamentals of our republic. 

Alarmism, you say? OK: go over and sit with Ross Douthat, please. 

Let’s be clear. The Republican Party remains dedicated to what happened on January 6th and is continuing that insurrection by other means. A vote for a Republican candidate isn’t just a vote for old-fashioned “conservative” values, like lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, and such. (Was it ever, really?) It is a vote to aid and abet the GOP’S effort to seize unchallengeable power and put an end to 240 years of the American experiment. 

In the service of that goal, it should come as no surprise that some Republican politicians have figured out how to navigate a path that capitalizes on the energy of the cretinous Trump base while tricking middle-of-the-road voters into believing that they are not part of that fundamentally un-American, kleptocratic, white nationalist movement.

What is surprising, depressing, and deeply worrying is that so many Americans are falling for it.

GENERALISSIMO FRANCISCO FRANCO IS STILL DEAD

No one nailed this phenomenon better than the WaPo’s Perry Bacon, in a piece titled “An Abnormal Republican Party Was Treated Normally by Voters in New Jersey and Virginia.

Tuesday’s election results in New Jersey and Virginia—a big swing away from the party that controls the White House—were fairly normal. And that’s the scary thing. (The results) suggest a reversion to normal—that the 2022 election will feature a GOP base that is more motivated than the Democratic one, along with a small bloc of voters swinging to the GOP….

But in our current abnormal circumstance, with US democracy on the precipice because of the extremism of the current GOP, everyone needs to understand that normal could well be catastrophic.

Always the go-to source to cut through the bullshit, Noam Chomsky reiterates Bacon’s point. While sticking to his longtime belief that the Democratic and Republican parties are just wings of the same “business party,” Noam pointedly rejects the tired and now highly dangerous trope that “both sides are equally bad.”

In earlier years, it was often not too important which faction of the business party took power. In recent years, it has been. Proto-fascism is on the march. Worse still, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, we’re are advancing to a precipice from which there will be no return. Four more years of Trumpism might well tip the balance.

Even so, is it smart (of me) refer to people we’re trying to win over as “fools”? Clearly not. But there are several reasons that militate for doing so anyway. 

First, I’m not sure they can be won over. If nothing else, the last five years have taught us that reason is a pathetically weak weapon in American political discourse, where “feeling” and emotion are king.

Second, sometimes you gotta call a shovel a shovel.

Third, I was seduced by the alliteration of my title.

WARNING: Mansplaining section ahead.

According to Wikipedia, font of all knowledge, a fifth column is “any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation. Clandestine fifth column activities can involve acts of sabotage, disinformation, or espionage executed within defense lines by secret sympathizers with an external force.” (The term originated in a cable from Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, whose spirit is alive and well in the GOP.) And I’m here to tell you that we have a kind of fifth column at work in the US right now. We saw it flex its power last Tuesday. 

Make no mistake: The Republican Party’s mandarins are leading the insurgent campaign to seize permanent power in the US. Their rabid MAGA foot soldiers are enthusiastically supporting that campaign, happy to terrorize, physically attack, and even kill their fellow Americans in order to do so. 

But it is the squishy middle of “centrist” voters who might go back and forth between Trump (when they’re sick of politics as usual!) and Biden (when they realize Trump is a madman!) and Trump again (Biden looks sleepy!) that is serving as an unwitting ally in aiding that cause. 

We were told that these swing voters were mythical, that it wasn’t worth our time trying to woo them in these hyperpolarized times. But last week’s elections made it clear that, yes Virginia, there is a persuadable middle, even if it is too easily persuaded by wanton BS. 

For it’s not just gerrymandering, and the installation of reliable Republican toadies in crucial state-level positions like secretary of state, and other perversions of democratic norms that risk delivering the next election or two to the GOP. Virginia and New Jersey were not two of the 19 states that have over the past year enacted egregious voter suppression laws and other measures to skew and manipulate the vote. The people of Virginia and New Jersey freely voted for Republicans in numbers that matched—and in Virginia, beat—the Democrats. (In Jersey, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy won a second term as governor, but in a race that was much tighter than it should have been)

We can talk all we want about Democratic infighting, the stalled infrastructure bills, GOP obstructionism, voter suppression, Afghanistan, Manchin, Sinema, and Jayapal, McAuliffe’s poor campaign, Youngkin’s deceptive affability and repugnant tactics, etc etc. But at the end of the day (also, the beginning, the middle, and all points in between), we have to face the reality that vast numbers of our fellow Americans are genuinely onboard with a party that fundamentally opposes representative democracy, and is totally fine with a brutal, right wing autocracy in its place. 

That group runs the gamut from ambitious young Senators from Missouri to beady-eyed guys in Kevlar vests and Ayn Rand tattoos to suburban soccer moms in Lululemon workout pants who don’t necessarily think Trump is a great frontman for America, but hey, there’s just too much hip hop on the radio these days, don’t you think? And that last member of that unholy trinity poses damn near as much of a threat as the first two.

GLENN YOUNGKIN: AMIABLE, MALLEABLE, AND UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED 

The 2020 election showed that full-blown Trumpism is a bridge too far for most Americans, even center-right ones. But the same policies packaged in a more palatable wrapper stand a far better chance of getting through. 

Now, you may say that that wrapper makes a big difference, a point that Never Trump conservative Jonathan V. Last recently tackled in The Bulwark. 

For the sake of argument, Last suggests that, even if one doesn’t agree with all his policies (or any of them), Glenn Youngkin represents a big improvement from Trump. Youngkin doesn’t seem to have despotic aspirations, and has shown little predisposition to incite political violence over an electoral loss. He “exists in the real world,” as Last notes, and “has at least a normal level of cognitive function,” with politics that are “on a recognizable plane of reality.” (Talk about a low bar.) 

But at a time when we’re still traumatized by having a deranged game show host as our overlord for the past four years, asking what’s so bad about Glenn Youngkin is very much a trick question, and Last quickly dismantles it:

The health of the Republican party is the most important political issue of our time. Democracy doesn’t work with only one healthy political party. You need two of them, otherwise every election becomes a crisis point.

He goes on to define “healthy” as faith in a party’s bedrock commitment to the democratic process; that it “exists within a perception of reality that is more or less shared by the general public;” and that it “is not principally driven by grievance.”

(But) the Republican party as it exists today—both in the composition of a large number of its elected officials and the views of a large percentage of its voting members—does not meet that benchmark.

What marked Youngkin as still being part of the sickness that has infected the Republican party was his refusal to admit to basic, irrefutable facts concerning the 2020 election. These were not matters of opinion or preference, but raw facts of life. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. By quite a lot. The election was free and fair. Period. The end.

Glenn Youngkin danced around this fact for a very long time. Then he tried to finesse it. Then he backed away from it again. This reveals a dangerous lack of commitment to those bedrock commitments on democracy and the rule of law. Not because Youngkin himself would want to throw them over—but because if his voters demanded such a thing of him, he might roll over and give them what they want.

In other words, when the Youngkins of the world refuse to definitively reject the Big Lie—in particular, the idea that any election won by a Democrat is by definition invalid—and instead use it, even obliquely, to advance their own careers, whatever improvement they offer over Trump vanishes in terms of the practical danger to our republic. 

Put it this way: Pretend it’s 2024 and Joe Biden has won Virginia by 500 votes over Donald Trump. Now pretend that Youngkin’s voters demand he do something about it: refuse to certify, “find” 501 votes, work with the legislature to appoint an alternate slate of electors, etc. What is your confidence level that Youngkin would refuse? The problem with Youngkin is that while he, personally, may be pro-democracy, a substantial portion of his voters are not. And he has demonstrated that he is their hostage.

REPUBLICANISM WITHOUT REPUBLICANS

Much ink has been spilled over spineless GOP pols who, for their own selfish purposes, have gotten onboard the garbage scow that is the SS Trump. Paul Krugman recently hammered them—apropos of anti-vax sentiment—in a piece titled, “Cowards, Not Crazies, Are Destroying America.”

Youngkin is one such craven opportunist, and he successfully exploited both the extremism of the mouthbreathing red hat community, and the shoulder-shrugging apathy of “mainstream” Virginians. 

Appalling but true: If the Republican Party can keep Trump’s diehard troglodytes AND win back some of the mainstream conservatives Donald alienated, and without either group being so revolted by the very idea of alliance and compromise that it bolts, the GOP will be formidable. Youngkin is currently hailed as the avatar of that challenging needle-threading; whether it can be replicated in other states remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t rule it out. 

It must be noted that Youngkin’s campaign included a helluva lot of racist dogwhistling—the tried and true Republican M.O. before Trump came along and began to do it with a bullhorn instead. Running for a governorship that sits in the former capital of the Confederacy, he seized on “critical race theory” as a winning approach for white voters seized with racial panic, despite the fact that most of them couldn’t define CRT even if you spotted them the C and the T. That fact suggests the true motivation for a fair number of the casual converts. The Trumpian bullhorn works brilliantly with a shocking number of Americans who are comfortable with their own unabashed racism; the softer approach works well for those who may feel the same way, but don’t like to admit it, even to themselves. 

If Youngkin’s racial fearmongering was the thing that energized these “moderates” to vote for him, then they’re really just more discreet members of that hideous fraternity.

Let’s not forget: Youngkin supporters staged a rally—at which Bannon spoke and Trump phoned in—where they pledged allegiance to a flag carried by the January 6th insurrectionists. In response, Glenn—who was shocked, shocked—offered only a tepid disavowal, before going back to railing about how Old Dominion’s schoolkids really don’t need to learn about slavery.

In another low point, a runner-up to that Pledge of Allegiance thing, Youngkin despicably quoted MLK on judging a man not by the color of his skin but by content of his character, pervertedly using it as a reason not to teach the history of racism in public schools. Neat trick, Glenn! Dr. King, you may recall, was a man your ideological forefathers viciously attacked as a commie stooge, tried to silence, and ultimately murdered. It’s typical Republican shamelessness to pretend to champion him in order to advance an educational policy where American students would never be allowed to learn anything substantive about him? 

Needless to say, this nauseating reactionary jiu-jitsu turns civil rights on its head—much like the concept of “religious liberty” that allows a Christian wedding cake baker to refuse service to a gay couple, but forces women in Texas to live under the sharia law of radical right wing Catholicism. In fact, it’s the kind of Orwellian sleight-of-hand that would impress even Trump. 

Hmmm.

Perry Bacon notes that the results in Virginia and New Jersey “suggest that many voters aren’t too bothered by a Trump-like Republican Party as long as Trump isn’t in the White House.” But if Republican officeholders continue to pursue Trumpist policies, just with better, slicker packaging, as Youngkin is doing, is that better or worse? It might be less openly criminal, and less grotesque to watch, but it might well be more dangerous by virtue of that very veneer of “normalcy.” And as Last points out­, the spinelessness of these Trump Lite candidates does not in any way obviate the possibility of a GOP evisceration of democratic norms, and even political violence, at the behest of the great unwashed MAGA horde that has had a taste of unfettered power and craves more, and a Republican establishment that would love nothing better. 

The GOP remains the Trump Party, no if’s, and’s or but’s—that debate is long settled. Glenn Youngkin’s “fascism with a human face” may be a template for other ambitious members of Omega House, but don’t fool yourself into thinking Donald has been marginalized. 

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank writes:

Youngkin’s victory confirms a depressing reality: Trumpism succeeds as a tactic even in the absence of Trump. Though Youngkin nominally distanced himself from Trump (he didn’t mention Trump often or attend events where Trump spoke on his behalf), he ran a classic MAGA campaign, raising racial fear and animus among White voters by scaring them about crime and the phantom menace of critical race theory. He littered the airwaves with falsehoods and falsely implicated McAuliffe in a dark conspiracy theory involving the FBI. Youngkin emphasized the Trumpian trope of “election integrity” and called for an “audit”of Virginia’s voting machines, while Trump and other Youngkin surrogates told Virginians to expect fraud.

Numerous other pundits, including The Atlantic’s David Graham, have written about this idea of “Trumpism without Trump,” and what Graham calls Youngkin’s “Trump two-step.”

On the one hand, (Youngkin) has relied on his background as a typical milquetoast, pro-business Republican to reassure moderates and independents, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia, that he’s not an extremist. On the other, he has managed to use culture-war issues to keep pro-Trump Republicans elsewhere energized and in his corner.

All true, but it misses the larger point. These analyses all proceed from the premise that the Republican Party was the victim of a hostile takeover, and fundamentally transformed by an arriviste parvenu from Queens by way of “The Apprentice.” 

But that gives the GOP far too much credit. 

The Republican Party has long been a party of anti-New Deal plutocracy, and since the time of the Southern Strategy, of weaponized racism as well. Trump didn’t happen to the GOP by accident: he was the logical result of the dark path down which Republicans had long been treading, with McCarthy, Nixon, Thurmond, Reagan, Helms, Atwater, Gingrich, Cheney, and the Tea Party all ghastly milemarkers along the way. 

Youngkin is no more a new form of Republicanism than Trump was. They are both mere variations on the same old tune. And that tune is “Dixie.”

ESPN FOR POLITICAL JUNKIES

In keeping with voters who acted like this was just another old-fashioned election, there was plenty of old-fashioned Monday morning quarterbacking about what it all meant, reflecting a blinkered, pre-Trump mentality. 

“Centrist” Democrats and their media surrogates wailed that this is proof that the party has moved too far left. Progressives like Julian Castro argued that nominating a tired, whitebread candidate and inveterate Clintonista like Terry McAuliffe was exactly the sort of thing that turns young, left-leaning voters off just when we need their energy and enthusiasm and engagement the most. 

Paradoxically, both arguments are partially correct. 

I wrote some time ago that the best way to beat Trumpism would be for the Democrats to show what they can do, to make governance work, and to deliver concrete accomplishments for the American people. (Call me naïve.) My friend and fellow blogger Tom Hall has been skeptical of that—the GOP is waging civil war, and our answer is better highways?—but it’s become a moot point. Biden’s genuine accomplishments are wantonly ignored or bluntly denied by many conservative-leaning Americans. Republican obstructionism has stymied other parts of the his agenda, and I will include Manchin and Sinema as part of that obstructionism rather than buying into the lazy “Democratic infighting” narrative, because they might as well be Republicans, both in their policies and their actions, to say nothing of their personal greed

I have no patience for blaming the delayed passage of the New New Deal on the progressive caucus, let alone laying last Tuesday’s electoral bloodbath at their Birkenstocks. It’s not Pramila Jayapal’s job to get Terry McAuliffe elected when he ran a shitty campaign; it’s her job to get crucial legislation passed for the American people, which she and her colleagues did, by playing hardball with deceitful reactionaries like Manchin and Sinema who refused to negotiate in good faith and wanted progressives to buy a pig in a poke. If that was inconvenient for Terry, he ought to take it up with Joe and Kyrsten.  

(I was cheered to see the MSM seem to recognize that and assign blame to Manchin and Sinema at least as often, if not more, than to the progressive caucus. Even if both infrastructure bills had passed before November 3rd, there was no guarantee that it would have put McAuliffe over the top.)

But we are rapidly approaching a point where this kind of political debate is tragically antiquated, and no longer a factor in bringing about substantive change. Chomsky offers a prescription for what we can do, and might have to do, in the face of this assault on our democracy:

Is there a way to fend off these grave political consequences? Not within the confines of the deeply corrupt and undemocratic political system. The only way that has ever worked, and can work now, is mass popular pressure—what the powerful call “the peasants coming with their pitchforks.”

One last point on the election results: Mona Charen, also writing in The Bulwark, notes that the same Republicans who for more than a year have been screaming themselves baby blue in the face about rampant “voter fraud” and the need for electoral integrity” seemed perfectly happy to accept that a race their guy won by a slim margin was perfectly legit and fair. Charen:

Isn’t it interesting that Democrats appear to have forgotten how to manipulate voting machines, stuff ballot boxes, engage in the wee-hour ballot dumps, collect ballots from dead people, and coordinate with Chinese/Venezuelan governments to change the outcome of elections? Two-thirds of Republicans believe that’s what happened in 2020. And yet, only one year later, Democrats have lost the knack?

It’s almost enough to make one think that these Republicans are dishonest. 

HANNAH ARENDT, WHITE COURTESY PHONE

As I asked in a blog post last spring, why on God’s green earth does any American think the GOP deserves its vote, or even to be taken seriously in the national conversation? I refer you again to the law firm of Venal, Racist, & Dim, LLP.

Jonathan V. Last again:

(W)e no longer live in a country where the peaceful transfer of power is assured and the commitment to democracy and the rule of law is assumed. And until we return to such a place, then electing even Good Republicans is a risk if they are unwilling to stand up to their more authoritarian supporters.

(We can leave the debate over the formulation “Good Republicans” for another time.)

As I say, it would be one thing if the GOP leadership had repudiated the events of January 6th. But it has not, instead simultaneously claiming that a) it wasn’t so bad—more like a church picnic, but also, b) it was terrible!….but antifa and BLM were behind it, in a false flag operation…..oh, but also, c) it was terrible!….but also great, because us patriots need to take our country back, even if it means murdering cops! 

With characteristic savvy, James Carville has said Democrats ought to hammer the GOP with insurrection insurrection insurrection 24/7 and never let the American people forget it. Should be easy to do, no? So how is it that the left has the best writers, musicians, filmmakers, comedians, actors, and artists of all kinds, and yet the right has managed to control the narrative? (This too is a Tom Hall bugbear.)

If last Tuesday proves a harbinger, Jonathan Last offers some chilling predictions of what 2022 and beyond will look like:

Joe Biden may well be impeached by the Republican House.

(I would eliminate “may well” and replace it with “will.”)

Should a SCOTUS seat be vacated, a Republican Senate will not vote on a replacement until 2025, holding the seat open for as long as necessary.

Trump will be the Republican nominee for president.

Mercifully, he leaves out what will happen in that 2024 general election. It’s mind-boggling to think that the American people might well return to the White House a twice impeached human colostomy bag who, through an unholy combination of malevolence and incompetence (or was it incompetence and malevolence?) presided over the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and then sent a lynch mob to overturn an election and murder his own vice president. But they might.

If that happens, it will be because the Democratic Party was inexplicably unable to make the argument that we shouldn’t restore to power the same group of people who just tried to overthrow the government, and have doubled down on that position since.

We often talk about being in a “battle for the soul of the nation.” Since January 6th it’s less a metaphor than a concrete description of the current state of play. But at a certain point, when we see the numbers of our fellow Americans who are on the side of Trumpism, autocracy, and (at least tacit) white nationalism, one begins to wonder if that soul has been irreparably poisoned and can be saved at all. We ought to always remember that those folks remain a minority, albeit a fanatical one, which is part of what makes their success so maddening. But it doesn’t help when the fanatics are abetted by the somnolent. 

We learned in the wake of the Second World War, or should have, just how dangerous banality can be.

Speaking of banality, we all know that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” (variously attributed to Mill, Burke, and Obi-Wan Kenobi), and that America is now learning that “a third of the country would kill another third, while the remaining third watches” (a sentiment that originated with a cheeky Werner Herzog impersonator). So if the Republicans do succeed in putting a chokehold on American governance and establishing a one-party Potemkin democracy on the Putin or Duterte or Orban model (they LOOOOOOOVE Orban), it won’t be just because of conniving right wing politicians and the Proud Boys. 

It will also be because tens of millions of our countrymen are basically cool with it. 

**********

Photo: On the campaign trail, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin of Virginia demonstrates his promise that, if he is elected, white players will again dominate the NBA.

Credit: Reuters

the entirely preventable collapse of american democracy (undergraduate overview)

15 messidor year CDXXVI

among academics—and that small sliver of the public that is aware, or cares—the consensus about the collapse of democracy in the united states of america in the 21st century CE is sufficiently uniform that no new insights or revelations are likely to be forthcoming, not even from the most revisionist thinkers. 

for an event that happened more than 400 yrs ago, the reasons remain remarkably self-evident, to the point where one marvels that americans of that era themselves did not see it coming—or worse, did but still failed to stop it. even so, we can take valuable lessons from the folly of these ancients, in hopes of avoiding the same sorry fate.

this summary, prepared for Political Science 107: The Collapse of American Democracy, will provide a brief survey. 

A TRAGEDY FORETOLD

lets start at the end, shall we?

the united states, the first country on earth to establish a representative democracy, tragically committed a kind of political suicide, carelessly allowing the rise of a demagogue at the head of a ruthless right wing autocratic movement that used the very mechanisms of democracy to undermine and destroy it. 

terrible as that was, the autocrats succeeded only b/c the forces of law and order and were so slow to react—and when they finally did, moved timidly and fecklessly. by the time a significant number of americans awoke to the emergency they were in, it was too late. 

that paradigm, of course, is common in many nations that succumb to autocracy. indeed, historically speaking, the demise of a democracy via an extralegal takeover, violent or otherwise, is far less common than one that begins at the ballot box, with an authoritarian party gaining power thru legitimate or quasi-legitimate means, then slowly choking off the very mechanisms it used to gain it, and installing itself in permanent control. 

in the case of the US, it was an especially bitter fate, given that the country had succeeded in removing that demagogue and his party once, only to foolishly let them seize power again. 

how, you ask, could an empire like the united states have reached this pretty pass? to understand, its helpful to look back at the origin and history of those united states. 

(for those of you who are ambitious, try your hand at reading the primary source documents in 21st century english, in all its prissy formality.) 

PAST AS PROLOGUE

the united states of america was founded some 600 yrs ago as the first modern republic, rejecting the primitive concept of monarchy in favor of rule by the citizens themselves on the then-revolutionary notion of “one person, one vote.”

the US was the foremost power of its time, akin to the roman empire of 2000 yrs before, the global leader in everything from the arts to technology to manufacturing to pop culture. it also had, for many yrs, by far the most powerful military on the planet, and was not shy about using it. the united states gave us the internet (peace be upon it), and the Information Revolution full stop, for good or ill. It was the birthplace of aviation, and—a mere 69 yrs later, a relative eye blink—the first country to put a human on the moon. american innovation, industry, and ingenuity, were the envy of the world; its artists, filmmakers, musicians, and designers set the international standard that all others emulated, with american culture reaching the most farflung corners of the planet and shaping human life to an almost obscene degree. for a period of nearly a hundred yrs, from the defeat of germany in the mid 20th century to its own decline in the mid-21st, america arguably ruled the world. 

but the united states was also a nation born in contradiction. the visionaries who founded it included a significant number of slaveowners—that is to say, people who actually owned other human beings in a state of violent bondage, servitude, and institutionalized rape. the unconscionable brutality of such a system is hard for the modern mind to comprehend, let alone among people who fancied themselves “enlightened.” but slavery had been prevalent thruout the ancient world, including the rebellious colonies that became the first thirteen american states. for that matter, the land on which the united states was established had been stolen in the first place from its original indigenous inhabitants, who were slaughtered in a horrific genocide by the forefathers of the settlers who would go on to found the USA. 

given that inauspicious start, it becomes easier to see why the US went down the way it did.

following america’s successful war for independence from its monarchist mother country, slave-owning remained commonplace in fully half of the new united states for almost 100 yrs. even after slavery was ended following a bloody civil war that almost destroyed the young republic, it left a legacy of systemic racism and an inherent domestic conflict between the formerly free and formerly slave states. (“one person, one vote” too was a cruel joke: originally only white property-owning males were enfranchised in the united states. it would take until 1920 CE for the country to grant full suffrage to all citizens, with women gaining it last.) 

the US never did reckon with the cancer that accompanied its birth, and in many ways it was the failure to do so, and the lingering, festering fanaticism of those who clung to the legacy of the slave-owning cause that would be at the heart of the countrys eventual demise.

TO DREAM YOU MUST BE ASLEEP

having been born in a guerrilla rebellion against monarchy, the US prided itself on not being an imperial power. that may have been true in its early yrs, but by the end of the 19th century CE it had evolved into a nascent empire acquiring colonies of its own. it went on to become among the most militarily aggressive nations of its time, attacking, invading, and otherwise violently interfering in the affairs of countless nations all over the world, both overtly and covertly. (some, though not  all, of that military adventurism must be contextualized by americas rivalry with soviet russia, the other “superpower” of the time, to use the vernacular of that era.)

it was de rigueur for american politicians to refer to theirs as “the greatest nation on earth.” (im sure that didnt alienate anyone in the rest of the world.) arguably, this otherwise childish belief in “american exceptionalism” did have a kernel of truth at its core, in terms of america having pioneered representative democracy. but over the centuries that justifiable pride curdled into toxic self-regard bordering on a deadly nationalism.

ostentatiously rejecting old world ideas of aristocracy and hereditary wealth, america fancied itself a “classless” society and prided itself on its social mobility—the “american dream,” as its citizens proudly called it. for a time that, too, was relatively true. but by the turn of the 19th century, unchecked capitalism had led to levels of inequality such that in the year 1929 CE there ensued a severe economic crash and subsequent depression. the US pulled itself out thru a program of progressive-minded policies called the New Deal—laughably mild by our standards, but radical for the time, and viewed by conservatives of that era as a threat to all they held dear….which is to say, their hold on power.

the enactment of the New Deal, followed by a world war in which the united states admirably took a leading role against fascist tyranny in europe, vaulted the US into the period of its greatest prosperity and power. but american conservatives never stopped bristling at the power they had lost.

it took almost fifty yrs, but beginning in the 1980s CE, rapacious right wing political elements began dismantling the New Deal with a kind of voodoo economics that, risibly, convinced ordinary americans that the best thing for their economic well-being would be to cut taxes on the rich, on the theory that the benefits would “trickle down.” 

spoiler alert: the result was the exponential growth of an equality gap in which the rich got richer and the poor got the picture. 

to make matters worse, almost alone among industrialized nations, the US eschewed things like investment in education, universal health care, government sponsored childcare, paid family leave, retirement and pension plans, aid to the poor, and other social services, leading to an unbearably cruel darwinian state. by the time the US eventually collapsed, it was among the most egregiously inequitable of all industrialized nations, with an obscenely rich elite controlling virtually all its wealth, while all the vast majority of americans struggled and suffered. 

bizarrely, a great many working americans enthusiastically supported this dynamic, consistently voting against their own self-interest, a testament to the sheer effectiveness of the con that had been perpetrated upon them, and their own willingness to abet it. in part that was b/c of a deviously successful right wing propaganda campaign, conjuring foreign enemies, “socialists,” and what they derisively referred to as “elites,” even as it was waged by the true elites themselves. 

which brings us to the rogues gallery of cretins, con men and monsters who finally brought down american democracy, and sweet but feckless fools who let them do it. 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

in ancient america, the republican party—as it was known, with no discernible irony—identified as the party of conservativism. both terms were screaming misnomers. far from being middle of the road moderates, the self-described conservatives of the late american empire were reactionary radicals who sought to maintain their hold on power by transforming the republic into a right wing autocracy.

the republicans ostentatiously presented themselves as the party of “small government” and individual liberty. for some that position was genuine, for others nothing but a useful pose that allowed them to pursue an agenda that belied both precepts. the republican party had always been the defender of the rich, of big business, and of aggressive militarism, but it had, for more of its history, been solidly within the bounds of the rule of law and the principles of american democracy as they were generally understood. but beginning in the 1990s the party became increasingly radicalized, under the sway of a cunning sociopath with the unlikely name of Newt Gingrich who advocated a scorched earth brand of politics that preached no cooperation or compromise with the other side, not even on the most anodyne matters of governance, twinned with a permanent attack mode that sought to demonize those foes as not merely the respectable opposition, but downright satanic. 

it was a strategy as effective as it was cynical.

the US was also deeply superstitious society, with tens of millions of its citizens fanatically devoted to their various mythological gods. (after all, the first invaders who came to the western hemisphere were religious fundamentalists fleeing persecution in the old world in order to perpetrate it in the new one.) beginning in the late 20th century, that religiosity too was ruthlessly weaponized by reactionary forces, whose hypocrisy on the matter beggared belief. yet tens of millions of the devout were willing dupes, conned into taking the side of some of the most openly impious, libertine, and morally degenerate forces in american life, simply b/c they had been duplicitously assured by these same folks that they were “defending the faith.” 

not for nothing was it america that gave us the maxim that “theres a sucker born every minute.” 

the rise of brute force Gingrichian politics coincided with the Information Revolution—or perhaps more correctly, the Disinformation Revolution—which allowed for the dissemination of propaganda, fake news, and outright lies at a theretofore unheard of rate. slander, conspiracy theory, and fearmongering took off exponentially, with entire swaths of the populace siloed off from anything resembling the truth. hand in hand, legitimate journalism was starved of oxygen, becoming functionally inconsequential except among the “thinking classes,” where it served as little more than an echo chamber that had no appreciable impact on broader society. some colossally self-absorbed private individuals even wrote “blogs”—a portmanteau for “web log—bloviating screeds of personal opinion that ran to thousands of words a week, read by almost no one, and with all the impact of a gnat screaming in a hurricane. 

that right wing propaganda found fertile soil in the american psyche. the independent spirit of rugged individualism that distinguished the country from its very founding had also brought with it a predisposition to paranoia, anti-intellectualism, suspicion of government, skepticism of science and of empiricism full stop, and worst of all, a deadly fetish for guns unique in the developed world. such a people were primed to believe the most outrageous bullshit. when turbocharged by the advent of social media and high tech, that phenomenon became positively deadly.

Gingrichs brand of ruthless politics came into its own with the election of the first and only Black US president, Barack Obama, who ascended to the White House (the metonym for the US presidency) after his republican predecessor—the callow and inexperienced son of a previous republican president—led the country into both a disastrous foreign war and a banking meltdown that nearly destroyed the entire global economy….the 2nd time, in fact, that a republican president had done so in the span of 80 yrs. 

(by that time the republican party already counted within its ranks the only US president ever to be forced to resign in disgrace over an epic scandal—Nixon, was his name for your footnotes—and a dimwitted but affable former movie star who championed the disastrous “trickle down” economics.) 

despite that abysmal record of republican leadership, the rise of a Black president so incensed the reactionary swath of the american public that a widely believed conspiracy theory arose that Obama was not really american by birth and therefore constitutionally disqualified for office: such was the teeth-gnashing panic over the idea that white people would lose their grip on power. 

during Obamas reign the american right wing became more and more radicalized and extreme and violent, so loath were these people to accept the idea that a Black man could be head of state. it was fitting then that this development should set in the motion the fall of the United States into neo-fascist autocracy, given the central role that race had played thruout US history, stretching back to its very founding.

and it was into this volatile and explosive climate that stepped a man named Donald Trump. 

THE RISE OF A NITWIT

Donald Trump was an almost laughably inconsequential figure prior to his election to the US presidency—a fact may have caused many to vastly underestimate the danger he posed. 

the spoiled son of a rich but disreputable racist slumlord, he had dodged the draft as a young man, then rode his fathers coattails into the real estate business in new york city, making a name for himself primarily as a boorish playboy thirsty for fame and trailing serial bankruptcies, lawsuits, and allegations of sexual assault behind him like toilet paper stuck to his shoe. yet late in life he found a 2nd act as the host of a moronic tv game show—ironically, playing the kind of business tycoon he never was IRL—unjustly paving his way into politics. as we all know now, there is no God.

a narcissistic manchild and textbook sociopath of no special intellectual ability, Trump was nevertheless a prodigiously talented con artist and demagogue. that such a feeble and unremarkable figure would be at the center of such historic change remains a cautionary tale for the ages. 

defying all predictions, Trump won the presidency in 2016 CE on the back of three factors. first and foremost was the racist panic of white americans who feared losing “their” country. 2nd was the vicious misogyny toward his opponent, the first woman to make a serious run for the presidency (almost 250 yrs into the history of the republic), Hillary Clinton, whose story is familiar today to every schoolchild. and lastly but most astonishing, was the assistance of americas chief enemy, the russian empire, which held Trump in its thrall and worked assiduously to aid him, with a sophisticated propaganda campaign that would become the norm in US politics going forward.

Trumps first term was characterized by wanton criminality and kleptocracy, paired with neo-fascist politics that included the kidnapping and brutal imprisonment of immigrant children, to name just one atrocity. it was also marked by ongoing collusion with hostile foreign powers like russia that had helped install him in power and whom he rewarded with almost embarrassingly obvious servitude. yet millions of americans who adamantly fancied themselves “patriots” excused and ignored and even applauded it.

with his schoolyard bullys mindset and carnival barkers preternatural talent for the grift, Trump showed the republican party—already a gobsmackingly venal organization—what it could do by abandoning all fealty to the truth, the rule of law, or any semblance of principle. as noted above, prior to Trump, the “grand old party,” as it liked to call itself, was plenty horrific, but it still operated more or less within the bounds of objective reality. after Trump all bets were off, with the republicans becoming less a political party, as the term was understood at the time, than a radical insurgency for which nothing was beyond the pale.

by contrast, their opponents, the democrats, failed to grasp that this transformation had taken place, and continued to operate as if politics as usual were still in play. it would prove a fatal error…. kind of like wearing a tutu at an 8maudlinMax concert. (and you thought I wasnt up on the latest pop music!)

Trump was impeached twice during those first four yrs, but his party closed ranks and prevented him from being removed from office, an appalling miscarriage of justice which the democrats were legally powerless to prevent. i say again: twice. that had never even come close to happening before in US history….and never would again, as Trump and his party eventually saw to it that they were never again challenged in a legitimate democratic election. 

SURRENDER BY DEFAULT

at the end of his first term, Trump was soundly defeated by the democratic challenger, an inoffensive veteran politician named Biden. it helped that in the final year of that term Trump haplessly presided over a gruesomely botched mis-response to a global pandemic that wound up taking the lives of more than a million americans—more than the worst wars the country had ever fought all put together. (in particular, his conscious decision to let the virus run riot in communities of color—of a piece with the vile racism at the core of Trumpism—is generally remembered as a near-genocidal crime against humanity.) whats more, most of those deaths would have been preventable had Trump and his party not doubled down on disinformation and denial in the short-sighted belief that they could wish the pandemic away, gripped as they were in the Gingrichian mindset that no failure or weakness could be conceded to “the other side,” even when the common good of the country was at stake. 

but Biden’s win was the not the final word. in the month known as January in the year 2020 CE, for the first time in american history, a defeated US president refused to concede that he had lost the election or participate in a peaceful transfer of power. instead, Trump marshaled his fanatical supporters with the lie that the election had been “stolen” from him—and by extension, from them—and mounted an aggressive, multi-pronged campaign to overturn its results, culminating in him sending a mob of thousands to attack the american parliament as its members finalized the vote count. the image of so many americans attacking their own government was something the US had not seen since its civil war in the 1860s—and never before on behalf of a cult of personality—and left the nation rightly shook. but perhaps not shook enough.

the rebellion failed and Trump slunk out of office, still insisting that he had been robbed, and repeating that claim to his tens of millions of still-loyal followers, encouraging them to view his successor as illegitimate. which they did, passionately.

and heres where it gets really unbelievable, dear students. 

after that close call, one would assume that the inheritors of the US government—the democratic party led by Biden that had defeated Trump—would take every available measure to punish the seditionists and the leaders who inspired them, to secure future elections, and to ensure that no such insurrection could ever happen again. 

they did not do so. the consequences were epic. 

the democrats success in ousting Trump from office only spurred the republicans to new and even more dangerous extremes, which their lethargic opponents failed to note, or at least stir to counter. it was no coincidence, then, that 2020 was americas last free and fair election.

unable to win fair and square, the republicans took control of the electoral process at the local level, changed the rules to favor themselves and marginalize their foes, re-wrote the election laws so that they could throw out results they did not like, and even deployed thugs and vigilantes to intimidate and brutalize election officials. they stubbornly undermined attempts at rational governance by the party that had ousted them, then blamed that party for its failure to accomplish anything; shielded their own leaders from accountability for the attempted coup of january 2020 even as those same leaders plotted the next one; whipped their followers into a frenzy with a cavalcade of lies and, jiu-jitsu like, fiendishly turned a gullible mainstream media to their advantage. as this unfolded, a not small segment of the american people enthusiastically cheered it on, glorying sadistically in the denial of rights to their fellow americans, even as they vehemently insisted on those rights for themselves.

while the republicans rampaged across the political landscape eviscerating the very heart of american democracy, the democrats slumbered, rousting themselves only to offer the occasional polite throat-clearing, and to debate the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin. one would have thought the people would have taken to the streets, but few did.  there were half-hearted legislative attempts at protecting the vote, and lots of handwringing in the legitimate media, but riven with infighting, and—incredibly—with a handful of their own senators blocking reform, the democrats put up little resistance as the republican campaign rolled on virtually unopposed, coasting on the gullibility of the short-memoried american public. 

to be fair, the democrats were hamstrung by their admirable loyalty to the rule of law, which is what makes them at least the sympathetic protagonists in this story, though far from its heroes. but the story is, in the end, a tragedy, as their fatal flaw was their failure to realize the stakes of the fight, and just how far their foes would go. they need not have sunk to the republicans’ level to recognize the threat they were up against, and to have taken aggressive, effective action to combat it.  

and so it was that the republicans were able to regain both parliament and the white house just a few short yrs after being unceremoniously chucked out. (they had already largely secured control of the country’s judiciary thru a decades-long sub rosa infiltration of right wing ideologues onto the bench.)

once again ensconced in power, the republicans turned the trappings of american democracy into a farce, carrying on with the windowdressing of free elections while establishing their own unchallengeable control. they pursued and even accelerated their longstanding, retrograde program of reverse robin hood plutocracy, appalling misogyny, systemic racism, xenophobia, and jingoism, all papered over with howlingly hypocritical faux religiosity. they also continued—and even expanded—their use of police and the other mechanisms of government to violently terrorize america’s Black and Brown citizens, and its female, gay, and trans ones as well, and to further the rape of an already dying ecological environment. indeed, relieved of the need to worry about the verdict of the public opinion in the next election, the republican party took all those atrocities to new extremes. 

thus ended the noble cause once known as “the american experiment,” not w/a bang but a whimper. may it rest in peace.

REQUIEM FOR A FAILED STATE

the american empire had been in moral decline for many decades prior to its ultimate collapse. i say “moral” decline b/c those decades saw the US betray the ideals which it flattered itself that it stood for. it might be argued that it had never fully lived up to them; in truth, american history was checkerboarded with moments of both shining nobility and appalling disgrace. 

looking back on the centuries prior to the arrival of the Singularity, before humans  became completely extinct, when they still served as our menial laborers, sex objects, and pets, it is easy to be sanctimonious and condescending toward these ancient americans, to gaze upon their suicidal foolishness and dismiss them as idiots who got what they deserved. but in their tragedy is a lesson for all of us.  

OK, thats all for today. a few housekeeping notes: my office hours this term are posted in the cloud; contrary to rumor, the take-home exam is NOT optional for members of the varsity quidditch and rollerball teams; and anyone who wants to have VR sex with me can sign up on the google doc via subcutaneous BrainBlink chip.

next weeks lesson will cover the bloody and sorrowful aftermath that followed the 2nd and 3rd Donald Trump administrations, and the infighting between his eldest son and daughter to succeed him in the united states post-democratic era.  

deepblue488#@

adjunct professor, dept of ancient american studies 

university of phoenix (online)

go firebirds!

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Illustration: Bethesda Softworks LLC

All praises due Margaret Atwood, Pierre Boulle, and Anthony Burgess