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, 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. 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!

*********

Illustration: Bethesda Softworks LLC

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

Has That Boat Sailed? 

Late last January, in the wake of the Insurrection, I had a conversation with my fellow commie bastard libtard blogger Tom Hall of The Back Row Manifesto about how the country ought best reckon with that historic travesty, whether Biden was bringing a feather duster to an RPG fight, and similar issues. We recently met again to reassess those and related topics nine months down the road. 

Bottom line: Back in January, Tom was more pessimistic than I about the chances for a proper reckoning, both legal and moral. He turned out to be right. Presciently, Tom said: 

I see signs, multiple, aggravating signs, that the Republican narrative machine is going to be effective in re-shaping this conversation. 

It is not even three weeks since the mob attacked US Capitol at the order of the President to physically prevent lawmakers from certifying a free and fair election. The most obvious, blatant lie, that the election was “stolen,” told precisely and reinforced by a network of propaganda on TV and social media, was a narrative that, after the failure of the mob, was still supported by over 150 lawmakers in Congress. They voted to overturn the election results in multiple states. The result? Nothing. No consequences. And they immediately pivoted to typical Republican obstructionism and seeking to shame Joe Biden for acting to implement his agenda as somehow not being about “unity.” And they get away with it, because “both sides.” 

At the time, I was still hoping that there would be repercussions for a violent attempt to overthrow the government. (!) Silly me. I said:

I think it remains to be seen what the consequences are. I’d like to see Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley removed from the Senate, and the 150 House members too. At a minimum I’d like to see them censured, stripped of committee memberships, and more intangibly, made pariahs except in Alex Jones World. I’d like see them criminally prosecuted for inciting violence. Maybe some of that happens or maybe none of it does. It’s up to us to keep the pressure on.

But none of that has happened. There have been no appreciable consequences. Maybe the gears of justice are just grinding slowly, but if so, they are grinding so slowly as to be functionally nonexistent, and far too slowly for the speed at which Republican autocracy is careening. Meanwhile, the lack of repercussions is allowing the seditionists to carry on with their vile campaign, putting the country at even greater existential risk.

In regard to what I called “the inevitable Republican gaslighting and disinformation blitz” that we knew would arise surrounding the Insurrection, I wrote that, “It remains to be seen if rational voices rise up to call out that vile absurdity, and that hypocrisy, and if the American people will listen.”

This just in: they haven’t. Close to a third of the country considers the Insurrectionists either peaceful protestors, or—if they admit to them engaging violence at all—great patriots for having done so.

At the time, I also expressed the hope that we would not let Trump’s allies get away with distancing themselves from the Insurrection, and from him, and trying act like they’d always been part of the rational world of normal politics. But even that turned out to be laughably over-optimistic. If anything, they have bound themselves closer to him than ever on the (correct) assumption that that is the only way forward in the still-Trumpist Grand Old Party. 

Trump has never accepted his defeat, and has now made fealty to the Big Lie the cornerstone of Republican politics and a litmus test for anyone who wants to be a player in the GOP. In fact he has openly stated that it is the core principle of Republican politics to which all Republicans who hope to win elected office must bow down.

Some saw January 6th as a chance for the Republican Party to break with Trump at last, but when are we going to learn that THEY DON’T WANT TO BREAK WITH TRUMP! Trump’s was never a hostile takeover of the GOP: Republicans welcomed him with open arms, once they realized what he offered, which was the answer to their dreams. Trump became the mechanism by which the GOP could put its inherent autocratic impulse into overdrive. Yes, he has destroyed the party as its principled members (now pariahs) once saw it, but it has not been that party for a long time. And even with him out of office that autocratic campaign continues unabated and even, in some ways, accelerated. 

As Susan Glasser recently noted in The New Yorker, “Nine months after the storming of the Capitol, Trump is more popular with the GOP and his Big Lie is more widely believed.” That is astonishing and soul-crushing—to me and to many people. (Not Tom, whose capacity for gloom is vast.) But perhaps we ought to stop being surprised by the depths of Republican depravity, and the willingness—eagerness even—of our right wing countrymen to buy into the most vile Orwellianism to justify it.

DO YOU SMELL SMOKE?

Like many observers, myself included, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has stated that we are now in the midst of a second Insurrection—or if you prefer, a second phase of a single rebellion—this one being carried out by Congress itself. The legislative branch’s refusal to protect voting rights and its abetting of voter suppression and electoral subversion at the state and local level is “nothing less than insurrection by other means,” in the words of the Washington Post’s book critic Carlos Lozada, in reviewing Schiff’s new book Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could.

The formidable and eloquent Mr. Schiff, who was the lead House manager in Trump’s first impeachment, is also a member of the House select committee on January 6th. That committee is moving fairly aggressively by Congressional standards, but it may not be nearly enough, as demonstrated by the defiance of its first batch of subpoenas by the Republicans served with them: Meadows, Bannon, Scavino, and Patel. The problem is that no matter what Schiff and his colleagues do, they will always be operating within the realm of rational political discourse and a deliberately cumbersome and cautious democratic structure…..but the threat they are fighting is a radical, borderline nihilistic one unconstrained by rule of law, principle, or anything else. Indeed, it is a movement that eagerly weaponizes the very mechanisms of representative democracy and turns them back against it. 

That’s far from a fair fight. 

On his HBO show Real Time, Bill Maher recently ended an episode with a much-discussed segment titled The Slow Moving Coup that was essentially a more comedic version of Robert Kagan’s also-much-discussed WaPo column “Our Constitutional Crisis Is Already Here.” Maher makes the same predictions Kagan did: that Trump will run in ‘24, that he’ll get the GOP nomination, and no matter what the results, he will claim he won. He concludes by arguing that Democrats are living in a dream world if they treat 2024 like a normal election. 

It’s an alarm that many are raising, and the more the better. But some action in response to that alarm would be even better. 

It makes me insane when I watch MSNBC or CNN or any of the legitimate networks and hear the pundits talking about poll numbers and approval ratings and the other legislative horse-trading of politics as usual. But therein lies the rub. Democrats still have to do all that regular political stuff—stuff that is even harder than ever thanks to new GOP-driven voter suppression laws—and at the same time have to go far beyond that and worry about a flatout ratfucking of our electoral system more akin to guerrilla warfare than normal politics. 

In my conversation with Tom last January, I wrote of the failure of Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election:

I don’t have any truck with the oft-heard, self-congratulatory cry that “the system worked!” The system only worked because of Team Trump’s haplessness and because a handful of people of good faith happened to be in key positions that came under attack. With a better demagogue or weaker local officials in crucial roles, “the system” would have collapsed like wet cardboard.   

This is precisely the scenario that is now unfolding for 2022 and 2024. From county election officials to secretaries of state to state legislatures, governors, and Congress itself, the GOP intends to have Trump loyalists in power who will ignore the popular vote if need be and award the Republican candidate (i.e., Trump) the win. So the second insurrection of which Schiff warns is well under way, aimed at making sure Republicans control the electoral process at every level in order to ensure their “victory.” 

It will be a bitter irony if Vice President Kamala Harris has to decide whether to throw out electors who really are fraudulent after Team Trump tried to get Mike Pence to throw out legitimate ones (and Pence tried everything he could to figure out a way to comply). Be prepared to hear that the Veep doesn’t have that power, along with the expected cries of “Tyranny!” and “Coup d’état!”

The best case scenario is that we pass voting rights protections that safeguard the integrity of the vote—which needs to be done immediately, in case Republicans retake the House (and maybe the Senate too) a year from November. The worst case scenario is that Republicans get control of Congress, and possibly the White House as well—even if it’s through rigging the system—and, in conjunction with the control of the judiciary that they have carefully established over a quarter century, slam the door to democracy behind them. Then what? 

A less dramatic scenario, but ultimately one that would be even harder to combat, would be if Republican efforts at voter suppression result in popular vote counts that actually award the GOP victories at the state level, albeit misrepresenting the genuine will of people, but requiring no such obvious travesties as a state legislature overruling the results, or governors or Congress throwing them out.

The even more worrying question is whether that Republican chokehold has already happened?

Don’t ask Tom Hall, unless you have a strong stomach.

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES

THE KING’S NECKTIE: When we spoke last January you were already convinced that there would be no consequences for the Insurrection and you were correct. Why do you think that is?

TOM HALL: I just think there’s no narrative for consequence. The narrative right now is infrastructure and Democratic infighting and the collapse of the Biden agenda over spending bills and all that. But the whole premise of Republican “governance” at this point is opposition. They have no principles: it’s just whatever the Democrats say, fuck them, we’re not going to do that, no matter what it is, while they carry out this active plan to subvert democracy. 

TKN: But don’t you think that the Democrats and the left in general ought to be able to craft a narrative in the wake of January 6th that is compelling and says, “This is an unprecedented horror in American history and they’ve not stopped and we have to do something about it.” Seems simple enough. 

TH: But the Democrats and the left haven’t said that. At least I’m not seeing an active campaign to frame it that way from the leadership. Every three weeks or so, there’ll be articles saying, “Oh boy, Republicans sure are passing a lot of laws that look bad for democracy. Don’t you think we should pass this bill to stop it? It’s never going to pass because we’re not willing to make the institutional changes required to pass it. But boy, it doesn’t look good.” That’s the extent of what I’m seeing. As recently as a month ago, I saw people saying, “We just have to get out the vote. If we turn people out, we’ll win.” No. There’s a process that’s being enacted by the right that’s going to be turnout-proof. The other side is going to disregard the election. They’re going to call it a fraud. It’s not like they’re hiding their plan. The plan is happening in plain sight and there’s a refusal to take it seriously.

It’s incredibly maddening to be in control of the levers of power and watch nothing happen. 

TKN: Not long ago, James Carville was interviewed in Vox, and he said we have to pound the Republicans with January 6th, every single day, and never let the American people forget what they did. Now, you may like Carville or hate him, but he’s smart and he’s strategic and he was totally right about that. Yet last night he was on MSNBC and all he was talking about was a kind of pre-2016 sort of politics, attacking the progressive caucus for not passing the first infrastructure bill, taking the win, etc, etc. He conveniently left out the part where the so-called “centrists,” the so-called “moderates,” are the ones behaving dishonestly and not even saying what they want, while the progressives are the ones acting in good faith and being grownups, even as they have learned to play hardball. But my point is that even James Carville, who knows that we have to shout “Insurrection, insurrection, insurrection!” every day, is not doing that.

TH: Yeah, totally. That whole generation is used to a transactional politics where you give this to get that and figure out a middle ground, because the other side has legitimate needs that you can live with. In this case I don’t think that’s true at all. First of all, no one knows what Kyrsten Sinema wants. There’s no indication that she wants anything. There’s just a nihilistic void that’s sitting in the middle of the Senate stopping everything. And of course, no one will do anything about it. She and Joe Manchin have decided they don’t want to enact Biden’s policies. They don’t like spending, unless it’s for a yacht from which they can shout down at paddling constituents, which is the same position as the Republicans, even though they wedged through a multi-trillion dollar tax break for the rich. It’s always the same with the right. “It’s okay for us and not okay for you.” 

There is no dynamic leadership on the Democratic side. I’m not even talking about like accountability for January 6th. The White House has washed its hands of that whole thing and is leaving it to the select committee to do the work of investigation, but what’s really to investigate? It’s pretty clear cut. This is another case, like Russia or Ukraine, where we’re waiting and waiting and waiting for information that we already know. There’s not going to be some big moment where Steve Bannon’s going to tell us that Trump was involved in planning the Insurrection. Yeah, no shit—we already know all this. This whole slow thing of, “We have to live by the rules of journalistic verification” doesn’t work when people are hiding stuff and lying all the time. It’s an impossible environment in which to make progress, because they’re never going to tell the truth. They’re not going to participate in democracy in the same way that we’re expected to do. 

As you saw when we talked last time, I have a very dark outlook on how this is going to go down, because I don’t think it’s going to be good.

TKN: Not only is there no big “aha!” moment coming, but even if it did come, it wouldn’t matter. On January 7th people were generally kind of appalled, and nine months later, you’ve got a Republican fundraiser for Glenn Youngkin in Virginia where the crowd is pledging allegiance to a flag carried by the insurrectionists when they attacked the Capitol. They’re not trying to distance themselves from what happened—they’re embracing it. It’s same Trumpian evolution that was in play in all his scandals, going from, “We didn’t do it,” to “We did it but it wasn’t so bad,” to “Hell yeah we did it and it was a great thing and all-American!”

TH: It’s been normalized by the right as acceptable, and turned into “we’re the victims of injustice.” Yesterday, Trump said that the number one agenda for the Republican Party needs to be to state that the 2020 election was a fraud. Number one. So you have to tell the lie, continue to tell the lie, build energy around the lie. You’re not going to get his support or any support from the party unless you claim that the wound of his defeat is false and that he won, because he’s psychologically incapable of taking the “L.” And as a result, the whole nation, and the whole world, has to suffer in order for him to feel legitimized. If not, he’ll burn it all down and he doesn’t give a shit.

There’s no line in the sand that they won’t cross. There’s no moral anything there, just this emptiness, and the narcissistic injury of Donald Trump. That is the unfillable, irredeemable heart of all this, and the whole Republican Party has given itself over to it because they know the energy of Trump’s fanatical supporters is beyond anything else that you’ll see in the country. 

I don’t share their energy. I’m not crashing school boards to stand up for mask mandates. The left does not have the same fire to preserve common sense and rational thinking and political normalcy. An infrastructure bill is going to carry us to victory? It’s crazy that the counterweight against burning down the country is, “Well, let’s build roads so that when the other guys take over, it’ll be in great shape.” 

What’s going to happen with the January 6th commission in a year and a half, after they grind out these hearings and write a report that’s released right on the edge of the 2022 elections? Are we going to have people going to jail? Is Merrick Garland’s Justice Department going to bring charges and try people for their crimes? If the shoe were on the other foot, I have no doubt that Republicans would. Their whole campaign in 2016 was about throwing Hillary Clinton in prison. And whose mind is it going to change, any legal result? Are there people who would look at the report and say, “Hmmm, that’s pretty criminal. All these convictions have made me rethink my position.” The report, or even convictions, would just be pitched as partisan. 

TKN: Right—more “political prisoners.” But that’s genius of rightwing propaganda, that everything can be pitched as partisan or turned inside out. The Wall Street Journal reported that Garland has expressed concern that throwing people in jail over the Insurrection would only further radicalize them. 

TH: Insane. 

TKN: I mean, we’re not talking about the Muslim Brotherhood in an Egyptian prison; we’re not talking about unjust imprisonment by a police state that becomes a university for radicalization. Generally when you commit a crime in the United States, we punish you and we don’t worry about whether it’s going to make you mad. That’s the sort of…institutionalism is too kind of word for it, but the sort of naivete that you were talking about before, and from Merrick Garland of all people. If Merrick Garland ends up getting fired, that would just be too ironic.

TH: Fine by me. You need somebody who’s going to uphold the law. If he’s not willing to do it, then he should go.

IT’S TOO LATE BABY (YEAH IT’S TOO LATE)

TKN: So this is the problem, and it’s not a newsflash. You’ve got a party that has abandoned representative democracy and is fully onboard with autocracy and isn’t even trying to hide it. And if I understand you correctly, you feel like we’ve already passed the point of no return. It’s not a matter of “get out the vote,” as you said before, it’s not a matter of having to stop these voter suppression laws or overcome them somehow. You think the boat has sailed. 

TH: I do. I’m still where I was in January. There’s not going to be any action taken. If everyone got together in Congress and passed a federal voter protection law that had to be implemented at the local level, and revised the Electoral College process so that the results can’t be changed or rigged, that would be one thing. But there’s not enough fight. I just don’t see it. 

It’s funny: I keep looking at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s Twitter feeds and thinking about Donald Trump’s Twitter feed in comparison. Biden and Harris are like, “Get vaccinated. It’s good for everybody!” (laughs) “Hey, you know what? If we passed the infrastructure bill, it’d be great for America. Let’s go get that bill passed!” And that’s how we want it. We want it normal. But you can’t fight a bully on the playground by saying, “Let’s talk about this for a minute. Why are you so angry?” (laughs) Sometimes you’ve got to punch back. Biden and Harris are not fighters. And I was worried about it when I had to vote for them. Biden’s an institutional centrist, and he’s up against people who are willing to burn the whole thing down in order to take over and impose their will on the country. 

TKN: We could do all the things you said in terms of passing voter protections if we just got rid of the filibuster. Clinging to this arbitrary mechanism that doesn’t exist in the Constitution, doesn’t exist in any other advanced democracy, that’s purely invented and could be changed with a simple majority vote of the ruling party, but they won’t do it because they’re afraid of “disrupting democracy.” Meanwhile, it’s achieving the exact opposite effect. And if the other side gets in power, the first thing they’re going to do is get rid of the filibuster so they can advance their agenda unhindered.

TH: Absolutely. The rationale behind keeping it is complete bullshit. The real rationale is that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema don’t want to forfeit their own personal power and ability to get what they want. 

TKN: Of course, even without the filibuster, you’d still need Manchin and Sinema’s votes for anything you want to do in a 50-50 Senate, and more than half the time you can’t get those two, because they’re de facto Republicans. Look at Manchin and clean energy

But the scenario that worries me the most is the one you laid out, where the right has already rigged the electoral system such that they don’t even have steal it on election day. It’s pre-stolen. Because the vote count will be skewed and then there’s just nothing at all to grab onto and fight back against because it’s too abstract and any outcry at that point feels like sour grapes, as opposed to something like a Republican governor sending his own handpicked electors to be verified in Congress, where you can stand up and howl at an obvious armed robbery. 

So short of what you were talking about before, where all of a sudden we find our balls and pass voter protections and so forth—and it may already be too late even for that—what do you propose as the strategy for our side going forward? How do we fight against that?

TH: I guess the question is, what do you mean by “we”? Do you mean “we, the Democratic Party”? They’re not going to get it done because they don’t have discipline as a party around this issue, the way the other side is willing to bend itself backwards and be unified. Not a single Republican voted for anything Democrats have proposed, and they’re not going to lose any voters at home for that. They have a whole propaganda network in place to reinforce the messaging, motivate the troops, and get everybody in line. 

The left is a much messier coalition, and we know that. But if the left can’t agree on the fundamental principle of preserving democracy, I don’t know what to say. It’s just beyond belief to me. But that’s where we are. 

Everyone’s like, “Oh, the party in power always loses the midterms.” But are people’s memories really that short that they don’t see what that would mean? It’s already being framed as a horserace, which I can’t stand, as if it’s two equal horses on the track, the Democratic horse and the Republican horse, and who’s gonna win? Except that the jockey on one horse is shooting at the other jockey. But we won’t talk about that. So for me, the worst case scenario is if 2022 goes wrong and we lose the levers of power. Then we’re going to get Benghazi 2.0 with some sort of bullshit investigation into the nonexistent corruption of the Biden administration, which will be like a funhouse mirror representation of Trump’s corruption, just so they can twist the knife and make it even more bitterly ironic and ridiculous. And then 2024 comes around and the Republicans have rigged everything in their favor. There will be no voting rights protection, and voter suppression will happen en masse. If there’s any local official willing to announce results that are not in favor of Trump—which I doubt there will be on their side—they will go after that official and cry fraud and throw the whole election into question. Then Congress will reinforce that fraud claim and will install Trump as president in January 2025. I don’t see that not happening. I really don’t. 

The Republicans could also somehow win a popular election. I don’t think it’ll happen, but it could, because I think you’re going to see a lot of unmotivated Democrats looking at their own party and going, “Why aren’t you fighting?” Not even just the progressive wing; I just think there are a lot of people who want more fight out of the Democratic Party and will not be motivated enough to vote.

TKN: Not even motivated enough to get out and vote if it meant stopping Trump, regardless of what you think of the Democratic Party? Or are you saying the system would already be so rigged that the vote won’t matter?

TH: Both. 

TKN: So you asked “who do you mean by ‘we’?” If we rule out the Democratic Party to lead the resistance from the top down, what do progressive citizens do in a situation like that, where essentially you’ve already had a slow motion coup d’état in advance of the election?

TH: I don’t know. If you look at coups all over the world throughout history—”soft coups, hard coups, whatever—it just depends on how much the Republicans are willing to put into political violence. One thing we’ve not seen in this country that you see in a lot of states around the world is heavy duty political violence against the opposition party. So the lack of that does tend to create a false sense of security, or make us not take the threat seriously, at least the way that people do when you compare it to a Chile or to other military coups that have taken place historically, because people will say, “Oh, it’s not the same thing.” You can still get up and go to work everyday like nothing’s happened. The takeover doesn’t feel as extreme. 

TKN: But that’s why it’s more dangerous. 

TH: I think so too. It’s just a softer, more insidious version of the same thing. And when Trump’s back, is it going to be all about retribution? Are the police just going to be unleashed? Will the government be putting troops out into the streets? We saw them test drive that. Certainly there are not a lot of backstops to prevent that from happening. If you install loyalists all up and down the chain, and the right wing Congress approves every nominee, and you don’t make the mistake of having institutionalists and experts from previous Republican administrations and just put in diehard Louis DeJoys at every level of government instead, I don’t see how you stop it. 

So what do you do in the face of that type of threat? I think it comes down to leadership. A disorganized civil movement will get crushed in that environment, as happened in China. I’m not a big fan of “individuals above the group,” and I believe in collective action and all that stuff, and in the authenticity of organic action, but at some point, the other side’s got a commander and a very organized propaganda machine behind it. That is a recipe for getting your ass kicked if you don’t get organized. There has to be a leadership dimension to it. It could be just massive civil unrest, sort of like we’ve seen in other big capitals around the world when authoritarian governments take over, but I haven’t seen a lot of change come from that. It’s very disheartening. 

TKN: Well, that sort of rebellion happens very slowly, like the Velvet Revolution. It takes decades.

TH: Right. And that was with the support of the United States government and a global anti-Soviet campaign. (laughs) I don’t know what would happen here. You’re going to get France to come back and help again? 

TKN: We should have let them sell Australia those submarines.

TH: (laughs) But I really do think it’s very dark. I think about it quite often, and it’s worrying to me.

WILL TO POWER

TH: Let’s have a little back and forth. I think that’s a really viable possibility, Trump’s return. What do you realistically think is going to happen? 

TKN: I think what you’re describing—that it’s already too late—is absolutely a viable possibility. I don’t think it’s done and dusted, there’s a lot of time before November 2024, and loads of unexpected things will happen, of course. But I had a sick feeling when we got rid of Trump last year that this was just going to be a respite, and the GOP would come roaring back. I didn’t think that they would be as brazen as they have been, and I don’t know why I didn’t think that, because at every turn they’re always brazen. But I think that your dark prediction is a hundred percent plausible.

Maybe we can hold the line. Maybe they will carve out an exception on the filibuster for voting rights protection only, if it lets Manchin and Sinema hold on to their selfish levers of power but still vote for that, if they care enough. I don’t know. But these are all such half measures in the face of that onslaught that you very eloquently described. And if we fail, our options are a grim menu.

I don’t think it would change the calculus, but one wrinkle would be if there was substantive criminal action against Trump on other fronts between now and then, whether it’s taxes or a rape allegation, or whatever. Anticipating your reply: I don’t think it would change things for his supporters. He could be in an orange jumpsuit, pumping iron in the senior citizens wing of the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado, and still win the Republican nomination, given MAGA Nation’s fanaticism. But it might change the contours of the situation.

TH: Yeah, it might make a difference if the party was decapitated. I don’t mean literally, obviously, but in the sense of removing its leader, the way Al Qaeda was when Osama bin Laden was removed. Which is a weird conversation to be having about a former President of the United States, but taking him out of public life by delivering real repercussions for his crimes. 

Who would step in? I feel like they would lose a lot of momentum, because this is a cult of personality and not an ideological movement per se. I don’t see Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley or Nikki Haley or Kristi Noem stepping into the void. So maybe that does make an impact. But I just don’t think the left has the institutional will to do that. And if they do, then the next time the right gets in power they will manufacture charges and throw the previous Democratic president in jail. 

TKN: They may try to do that even if the left doesn’t prosecute Trump. 

TH: Right.

TKN: And the problem is, tens of millions of countrymen would thrill to that.

That’s the thing about Republican rule. Don’t get me wrong: we are definitely talking about anti-democratic minority taking power in defiance of the will of the people. But it’s not a small cabal that would be holding the country hostage: t’s a cabal that has the eager backing of tens of millions of our fellow Americans who are fully onboard with a racist, right wing autocracy. Which is often the way autocracies work.

This faction has always been with us, but they are newly aggressive in a way we’ve not seen since the 1920s, really. Until we reckon with this sickness in the American public, the Republican Party—which is to say, the forces of John Birchism that now control that party—are going to continue to be a menace.

ANGER IS AN ENERGY

TKN: This gets back to what you were saying before, and I’m glad you brought that up, the idea that the Republican Party is in thrall to this manchild and is somehow debasing itself to please him. That is one way to look at it, but that is really not the dynamic. Throughout his whole reign, you’d hear, “Why don’t Republican stand up to him?” Well, it’s because they don’t want to. They love it. So the fact that Trump is insisting that everybody who’s running on the Republican ticket has to sign on to Stop the Steal: they’re fine with that. They’re weaponizing that. Trump is the greatest thing that ever happened to the GOP. And so, as you say, if he were to die, that would be a real blow to the Republicans because he’s super useful to them. He’s certainly used them, but they’re using him too. He’s the best thing that ever happened to the Republican Party. Also the worst, but also the best.

TH: Well, he’s the energy machine. This is what I’m saying about the other side: this is the energy that they want, because they were living in an imaginary version of America where people like you and me want to control their lives and tell them what to do. We’re smug elitists living on the East Coast. 

But again, you can’t even have a rational conversation about it because it’s built on this false perception of what the other side is. We’re baby-eating, child rapist, pedophiles…..the right has to go to the worst extremes to build their enemies. And people will believe it—not the people who are propagating it, because they know they made it up, but it energizes the “low information voters” as they’ve been called. 

TKN: Somebody was saying to me the other day, “God, it’s one thing to have a cult of personality, but it’s another to have a cult of personality that worships the worst person you can possibly think of.” But I don’t think that’s an accident. There’s no cult of personality around a Tom Cotton or a Josh Hawley. They’re awful, but they’re boring. It’s the sheer extremity of Trump’s awfulness that is appealing to his followers because it lets their id out. “He’s maligned, I’m maligned. He’s a victim, I’m a victim.” They love it. And the pussy grabbing and all that? Feature not a bug. OK? That is precisely what they like. 

TH: Right. Like I said, it’s absolute jet fuel for the grievance engine, and that’s what they’re built on.

It used to be that the right would say, “Oh, the left is the grievance party.” But then the right realized that there is energy around this idea of victimhood. And Trump built that. The weird part is that it’s all personal grievance on his behalf that gets sort of blown out into the world. It’s like an expanding amoeba that starts at this very small cellular level of the narcissistic injury of one person and becomes a catch-all for everything and everyone who identifies with him. 

I just don’t get it, because who’s more elitist than the guy who owns gold-plated buildings? It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all, this idea that this person is sort of the vessel for this energy, but it’s completely true.

TKN: I recently saw that a majority of the Republican Party is now against mandatory vaccines period: against the measles vaccine and the rubella vaccine and all that. A little less than half of Republicans now favor something that has been the norm for decades, across party lines. So we’re moving backward.

TH: Yeah, anything that would create human progress under the Biden administration they would be against, until it’s their turn. 

TKN: It beggars fiction. My only regret is I will not live long enough to see what our robot overlords someday make of this in the history that they write about the fall of the American empire.

TH: I got an email today at my job asking why I’m discriminating against unvaccinated people by not allowing them into movie theaters. I was told by this individual that it was a discriminatory policy and that I should be in favor of diversity and inclusion. 

TKN: So diversity, including people with lethal infectious diseases. It’s the same Orwellian thing they did with “religious freedom” and “religious liberty.”

TH: Yes, exactly. Because now they’re going to co-op diversity, equity, and inclusion narratives. 

And where’s the narrative energy going the other way? Everyone’s just shaking their heads and rolling their eyes about school board meetings being crashed, but now you have school board members resigning, and people running for school boards who believe this right wing conspiracy stuff. The guy from Q Anon just declared that he’s running for Congress in Arizona. There’s all this sort of energy to take over institutions and impose their will, and there’s no one standing in the way; there’s no firewall, no dam of support going the other way. You and I aren’t going to school board meetings in the Midwest and fighting back. There’s no buses taking us there. It seems like a bunch of local problems, but it’s not. I mean, I sort of sit in Park Slope and watch that stuff and go, “I’m glad I don’t live in such-and-such a place.” But on the other hand, a lot of people do live there.

TKN: We even have the Oathkeeper guy running for the New York City Council from Park Slope. (A man in the neighborhood where Tom and I live is an overt member of the Oathkeepers—even advertising it on his car—and is now running for public office in NYC.) So if it’s penetrated here in District 39, where the City Council vote was like 98.5% Democratic in the last election, that gives you some idea of where we’re at. 

TH: He’s really counting on apathy. You need a lot of apathy , when you’re polling at 1.5%.

TKN: He saw that Brad Lander was term limited, so he thought, “Here’s my chance.” He’s the change candidate.

TH: I just don’t know what to do about it. We need leadership.

*********

Tom Hall is the Executive Director of Montclair Film and its eponymous film festival in Montclair, NJ, and writes The Back Row Manifestoa blog about politics, cinema, and culture.

Previously Tom has been Director, Artistic Director, and Director of Programming at numerous other film festivals, and prior to that was former Director of New Media for Bravo/The Independent Film Channel. He directed short films for Bob Mould’s Carnival of Light and Sound Tour, written extensive film criticism, and conducted and published interviews with many of the most prominent filmmakers of our time, from Altman to Herzog, Carax, Aronofsky, Schnabel, Assayas, Wiseman, the Dardennes, and many others. In 2010 Hall was named one of Spring Board Media’s 20 under 40 in Film. A graduate of the University of Michigan (’94) with a degree in intellectual history, he resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and two sons. 

Kagan as Cassandra

This week on The King’s Necktie, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in four and a half years of writing this blog: devote an entire essay to a single piece of journalism by another author.

I’m doing that because last week the conservative foreign policy thinker Robert Kagan published a juggernaut 6000 word op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Our Constitutional Crisis Is Already Here,” forcefully laying out the clear and present danger to our republic like no other piece of writing before it. It should be required reading for all Americans. 

Let’s dive in.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Kagan’s point is simple: that the GOP is in the process of installing Donald Trump for a second term in 2024, regardless of the results of the election, an act that would mark the de facto end of representative democracy in the United States and the arrival of an autocratic state. Further, he states that the Democratic Party, the respectable remnants of the Republican Party (all three of them, hiding in a basement in Orange County), and other forces opposed to Trump are not reacting to this crisis with the due urgency. 

I couldn’t agree more. 

The US, Kagan argues, is entering “its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.” The steps he sees, and about which he thinks there is no debate, are as follows:

First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.

I would add to the list of potential de-railers “legal problems” including felony indictments, but I’m not holding my breath. Even being on trial in federal court—or less likely, pumping iron in the yard of a federal prison—might not be a barrier to Trump running, or even winning, especially considering Kagan’s next point:

Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. 

Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way…..the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. 

The reason for this effort is self-evident. Trump probably cannot win in a fair election, just as the broader party has found it all but impossible to win on policy at the national level, so the GOP needs to take control of the electoral process so that a) Democratic voters will be suppressed, and b) it can manipulate the results if they don’t go its way. Kagan notes the irony that Trump has said the Democrats cannot win in 2022 and 2024 without cheating, when in fact the math says that it is Republicans who are in that position. So cheat they will

And it might not be that difficult to pull off:

The fact that (Trump) failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way—if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if Trump had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, Trump came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

It is this last point that is most alarming. If the GOP succeeds in its concerted, systemic effort to remove anyone whose x-rays show evidence of a spine and replace them with Trumpist lackeys, who will be left to stop him next time? Not a Republican-led Senate under Mitch McConnell. “As the two Trump impeachments showed, if members of Congress are willing to defend or ignore the president’s actions simply because he is their party leader, then conviction and removal become all but impossible. In such circumstances, the Framers left no other check against usurpation by the executive—except (small-r) republican virtue.” 

A party that will not remove a president who tried to mount a violent self-coup can hardly be counted on to play fair the next time that same guy runs for office. 

INSURRECTION 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO

Anticipating GOP claims of victory in the next presidential race—or fraud, if they lose, irrespective of the actual numbers—Kagan then paints a portrait of nationwide chaos. “Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.” If Biden calls out the police and/or National Guard to maintain order, let alone invoke the Insurrection Act, Republicans will scream “Tyranny!” even as they were fine—even encouraging, in some cases—when Trump mused about doing that very thing. (IOKIYAR.) Democrats, conversely, will have trouble defending such actions, even if they are genuinely warranted, after hue and cry over hints of presidential despotism and martial law last time. 

Alarmism, you say? I refer you to the events of January 6, 2021—and the following February 13, when the aforementioned Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold Trump accountable. Yet still many of countrymen refuse to believe such political violence is plausible, even after seeing it happen once before. 

Most Americans—and all but a handful of politicians—have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement….(following) the standard model of appeasement.

A strong candidate for Cliché of the Year is the maxim that a failed coup that meets with no punishment is just a dry run. But clichés usually earn that distinction because they are true. 

It would be foolish to imagine that the violence of Jan. 6 was an aberration that will not be repeated. Because Trump supporters see those events as a patriotic defense of the nation, there is every reason to expect more such episodes. Trump has returned to the explosive rhetoric of that day, insisting that he won in a “landslide,” that the “radical left Democrat communist party” stole the presidency in the “most corrupt, dishonest, and unfair election in the history of our country” and that they have to give it back. He has targeted for defeat those Republicans who voted for his impeachment—or criticized him for his role in the riot. Already, there have been threats to bomb polling sites, kidnap officials and attack state capitols. 

Kagan offers a review of how the chattering classes on both left and right have consistently underestimated Trump’s awfulness and his willingness to employ it, including “how far he was willing to go to retain power.” But by now we ought to realize that nothing is unimaginable or beyond the pale for the Trumpist GOP. 

The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about Trump’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. These days, even the anti-Trump media constantly looks for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.

So let us be under no delusions about what the modern GOP is and its lone goal:

The Republican Party today is a zombie party. Its leaders go through the motions of governing in pursuit of traditional Republican goals, wrestling over infrastructure spending and foreign policy, even as real power in the party has leached away to Trump. From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during Trump’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of Trump’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.

And if the GOP cannot regain power with electoral subversion, it will be happy to do it with bear spray, zipties, and AR-15s. 

RAIN ON A TIN ROOF

So who is this prophet of doom foretelling such a grim future?

Robert Kagan is a co-founder of the now-defunct neoconservative think tank the Project for the New American Century. A veteran of the State Department with degrees in history and public policy from Yale and Harvard and a PhD in US history from American University, he was a speechwriter for Secretary of State George Shultz under Reagan, and a foreign policy advisor to Jack Kemp in the early ‘80s and for John McCain during his 2008 presidential run. Currently he is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Foreign Affairs Policy Board, and a contributing editor at The New Republic and The Weekly Standard

So, no slouch, and no bleeding heart liberal either. 

A lifelong Republican, Kagan left the GOP in 2016 over its nomination of Donald Trump and endorsed Hillary Clinton. 

I’m not on Team Kagan when it comes to foreign policy. Given that he was one of the chief cheerleaders who took us into Iraq, the bloody aftermath of the fall of Afghanistan is not a great time for Bob to pop up and give advice. But he is as right about the danger of Trump as he was wrong about the ease of taking out Saddam.

Kagan suggests that Trump is waging war on two fronts: one the “normal, legitimate political competition,” the other “outside the bounds of constitutional and democratic competition and into the realm of illegal or extralegal efforts to undermine the electoral process.” 

The two are intimately related, because the Republican Party has used its institutional power in the political sphere to shield Trump and his followers from the consequences of their illegal and extralegal activities in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Thus, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, in their roles as party leaders, run interference for the Trump movement in the sphere of legitimate politics, while Republicans in lesser positions cheer on the Jan. 6 perpetrators, turning them into martyrs and heroes, and encouraging illegal acts in the future.

He cites the advantages of “this pincer assault,” principally, that it allows Republicans to pretend to be normal politicians acting in good faith while acting in horrendously bad faith. (Along the way, Republicans have also suddenly remembered their hawkish interventionalist foreign policy, and their deficit-fetishizing supply side economics, both of which were in a blind trust during the Trump years, unlike the Trump Organization.)

But as Kagan writes, “there is a fundamental disingenuousness to it all.” 

It is a dodge. Republicans focus on China and critical race theory and avoid any mention of Trump, even as the party works to fix the next election in his favor. The left hand professes to know nothing of what the right hand is doing.

Even Trump opponents play along. Republicans such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have condemned the events of Jan. 6, criticized Trump and even voted for his impeachment, but in other respects they continue to act as good Republicans and conservatives. On issues such as the filibuster, Romney and others insist on preserving “regular order” and conducting political and legislative business as usual, even though they know that Trump’s lieutenants in their party are working to subvert the next presidential election.

The result is that even these anti-Trump Republicans are enabling the insurrection.

THE LOWEST OF BARS: WHAT PASSES FOR REPUBLICAN COURAGE

To that end, we all know by now just how vile and loathsome the top Republicans are: McConnell, Graham, McCarthy, Hawley, Cruz, DeSantis, Abbott, and the rest of democracy’s gravediggers. But one of the great public services Kagan provides is calling out the handful of “decent” Republicans like Romney who have been happy to collect praise for their mild pushback against Trump while refusing to take the necessary steps real resistance demands. 

Like the man said, ain’t nothing in the middle of the road but a big yellow streak. 

In distinguishing Trump from traditional (big-r) Republicanism, Kagan is trying to protect the legacy of the “Reagan Revolution” in which he believes, though I would argue that Reaganism was very much a waystation on that downward journey, and not a departure from it. He urges the left not to view the GOP as synonymous with Trumpism, as there are allies to be found among disaffected Republicans who still cling to some semblance of true conservative principles and shared American values. He also beseeches Democrats not to use this moment as a partisan opportunity to deal lethal damage to the GOP, though there I would again argue that the GOP has already done that to itself, and nothing the Democrats do one way or another will make it better or worse. (Kagan himself details the ugly history of Republican self-harm better and culpability for the rise of Trump than anyone. More on that in a moment.) 

It has become fashionable to write off any possibility that a handful of Republicans might rise up to save the day. This preemptive capitulation has certainly served well those Republicans who might otherwise be held to account for their cowardice. How nice for them that everyone has decided to focus fire on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Yet it is largely upon these Republicans that the fate of the republic rests.

Those who criticize Biden and the Democrats for not doing enough to prevent this disaster are not being fair. There is not much they can do without Republican cooperation, especially if they lose control of either chamber in 2022. 

But who are these supposed idealists who are ripe for rebellion? Only seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment. “All have faced angry backlashes—Romney was booed and called a traitor at the Utah Republican convention; Burr and Cassidy were unanimously censured by their state parties.” But Kagan does not see this seven as particularly magnificent, and is harder on them than almost anyone on the left:

Yet as much credit as they deserve for taking this stand, it was almost entirely symbolic. When it comes to concrete action that might prevent a debacle in 2024, they have balked.

Specifically, they have refused to work with Democrats to pass legislation limiting state legislatures’ ability to overturn the results of future elections, to ensure that the federal government continues to have some say when states try to limit voting rights, to provide federal protection to state and local election workers who face threats, and in general to make clear to the nation that a bipartisan majority in the Senate opposes the subversion of the popular will. 

Kagan asks why they have been so timid. They have no “future in a Trump-dominated party,” and even if they did, do they really want to be mere lackeys in a neo-fascist regime? He urges Romney et al to “fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic,” meaning joining with Democrats in a “temporary governing consensus on a host of critical issues: government spending, defense, immigration and even the persistent covid-19 pandemic, effectively setting aside the usual battles to focus on the more vital and immediate need to preserve the United States.”

Ah yes, and after that they will flap their wings and fly to the moon. 

There is no sign that any such non-partisan bravery on the part of disaffected Republicans is in the offing. 

Kagan makes some other claims that also seem rather, uh, optimistic. He notes the urgency of passing new voting rights bills, and says that “Senate Democrats were wise to cut down their once-massive voting rights wish list and get behind the smaller compromise measure unveiled last week by Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.” Yet in the very next sentence he admits: “But they have yet to attract any votes from their Republican colleagues for the measure.” 

“Democrats need to give anti-Trump Republicans a chance to do the right thing,” he writes. Well, we have, and by Kagan’s own admission, the best we’ve gotten is Susan Collins running interference for Brett Kavanaugh because she was confident he was not out to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and then not even getting behind the House bill that codifies Roe, even after good ol’ Bart pulled the football out from under her, Lucy-and-Charlie Brown style.

Hoping a few Republicans will rise up and save the day does not strike me as a winning strategy. I think it is more than “fashionable” to write off that idea— it is prudent, to use a word conservatives once favored. 

Thus far the anti-Trump GOP resistance in elected office has shown less courage than my ten-year-old daughter did on her first night at sleepaway camp.

THE SERPENT’S EGG

In the same way that Kagan calls out Republican cowardice in the present moment, he is also quite clear on who is responsible for the rise of Trump in the first place—not an academic question, as it bears on the current dilemma. The bookstores are already full of tomes on the subject, and that cottage industry looks to have a long future ahead. But Prof. Kagan minces no words: 

The (Republican) party gave birth to and nurtured this movement; it bears full responsibility for establishing the conditions in which Trump could capture the loyalty of 90 percent of Republican voters. Republican leaders were more than happy to ride Trump’s coattails if it meant getting paid off with hundreds of conservative court appointments, including three Supreme Court justices; tax cuts; immigration restrictions; and deep reductions in regulations on business.

This is not a new development. Kagan has long blamed the GOP for going down a path that led to this monster, notably in a 2016 piece for the WaPo, before Trump even officially secured the Republican nomination, titled “This Is How Fascism Comes to America.”

He notes that Trump either forced out or co-opted all the mandarins of the traditional GOP, many of whom foolishly thought they could restrain, manipulate, or out-maneuver him, just as Hindenburg & Co. did with a certain clownish mustachioed upstart in the ‘30s. But the normal rules of party politics cease to operate when dealing with a cult of personality.

More chilling still were those who were happy to bow down.

Trump’s grip on his supporters left no room for an alternative power center in the party…..The only real issue was Trump himself, and on that there could be no dissent. Those who disapproved of Trump could either keep silent or leave.

Conservative publications that once opposed him as unfit for the presidency had to reverse course or lose readership and funding. Pundits had to adjust to the demands of their pro-Trump audiences—and were rewarded handsomely when they did. Donors who had opposed Trump during the primaries fell into line, if only to preserve some influence on the issues that mattered to them. Advocacy organizations that had previously seen their role as holding the Republican Party to certain principles, and thus often dissented from the party leadership, either became advocates for Trump or lost clout.

He excoriates the conservative intellectuals who “not only came to Trump’s defense but fashioned political doctrines to justify his rule, filling in the wide gaps of his nonexistent ideology with an appeal to ‘conservative nationalism’ and conservative populism.Perhaps American conservatism was never comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy, but certainly since Trump took over their party, many conservatives have revealed a hostility to core American beliefs.”

That process continues even now, with once-vaguely credible organizations like the Claremont Institute, whose president Ryan Williams recently offered The Atlantic’s Emma Green an eyepopping argument why minority rule by conservatives is justified, even in defiance of the popular vote. (Part of an interview that was chockablock with racism, xenophobia, Christian supremacism. Have a look, if you have a strong stomach.) 

This is the inevitable next step in the conservative movement’s Orwellian rationalization for why it is duty-bound to destroy the very fundamentals of American democracy.

But it was one thing for working Republican politicians and pundits to become Trump’s lickspittles—despicable, but understandable. But what of those with nothing on the line who still kept quiet and stared at their shoes, those “Republican elder statesmen, former secretaries of state in their 80s or 90s who had no further ambitions for high office and seemingly nothing to lose by speaking out”?

Despite their known abhorrence of everything Trump stood for, these old lions refused to criticize him. They were unwilling to come out against a Republican Party to which they had devoted their professional lives, even when the party was led by someone they detested. Whatever they thought about Trump, moreover, Republican elders disliked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democrats more. 

Again, this is not so unusual. German conservatives accommodated Adolf Hitler in large part because they opposed the socialists more than they opposed the Nazis, who, after all, shared many of their basic prejudices. 

Such is the toxic influence of tribalism. For even as Kagan argues that Trumpism and the GOP are not synonymous, he inadvertently highlights the deeper reality: The Republican Party gave birth to this viper, and didn’t strangle him in the nest, precisely because ultimately its members are sympathetic to him and what he aimed to do (and still aims to do), at least when measured against the Democrats and their agenda.

Res ipsa loquitur. 

PERSONALITY CRISIS

Without denying or excusing their underlying racial bigotry, Kagan notes the “normalcy” of the majority of Trump supporters, even those who took up arms in the Insurrection of January 6th. (Hannah Arendt, call your office.) 

That does not make them any less dangerous….indeed, it says something chilling about so-called “mainstream” America. “Although zealous in defense of their own rights and freedoms, they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them,” he writes. What these folks don’t have “is what the Framers meant by ‘republican virtue,’” of which he spoke earlier, “a love of freedom not only for oneself but also as an abstract, universal good; a love of self-government as an ideal; a commitment to abide by the laws passed by legitimate democratic processes; and a healthy fear of and vigilance against tyranny of any kind.”

Al Gore and his supporters displayed republican virtue when they abided by the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2000 despite the partisan nature of the justices’ decision. (Whether the court itself displayed republican virtue is another question.)

The events of Jan. 6, on the other hand, proved that Trump and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past. While it might be shocking to learn that normal, decent Americans can support a violent assault on the Capitol, it shows that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions. 

Kagan traces the long history of this “paranoid style” at the heart of Trumpism all the way back to the dawn of colonial America, with its “suspicion of and hostility toward” centralized authority, its racism, white supremacism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, sectarian fear of modernity and secularism, economic anxiety, class tensions, and the rest. The cross-breeding of that reactionary impulse with a cult of personality and the power of modern media has proven to be terrifying.

(F)or millions of Americans, Trump himself is the response to their fears and resentments. (Trump supporters’) bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns. They believe the US government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants.

There was a time when political analysts wondered what would happen when Trump failed to “deliver” for his constituents. But the most important thing Trump delivers is himself. His egomania is part of his appeal. In his professed victimization by the media and the “elites,” his followers see their own victimization. That is why attacks on Trump by the elites only strengthen his bond with his followers. That is why millions of Trump supporters have even been willing to risk death as part of their show of solidarity: When Trump’s enemies cited his mishandling of the pandemic to discredit him, their answer was to reject the pandemic. 

Such a slavish, demigod-worshipping mindset is fundamentally at odds with a republican form of government. 

Liberal democracy requires acceptance of adverse electoral results, a willingness to countenance the temporary rule of those with whom we disagree. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, it requires that people “endure error in the interest of social peace.” Part of that willingness stems from the belief that the democratic system makes it possible to work, even in opposition, to correct the ruling party’s errors and overreach. 

For a movement built around a cult of personality, these adjustments are not possible. For Trump supporters, the “error” is that Trump was cheated out of reelection by what he has told them is an oppressive, communist, Democrat regime. While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle, so far no Republican has been able to challenge Trump’s grip on Republican voters: not Sen. Josh Hawley, not Sen. Tom Cotton, not Tucker Carlson, not Gov. Ron DeSantis. It is still all about Trump. The fact that he is not in office means that the United States is “a territory controlled by enemy tribes,” writes one conservative intellectual. 

That is a recipe for insurrection and civil war. Kagan again:

The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, Trump is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, Trump would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock if only for financial reasons.

But this time, Trump would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the Trump movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant.

So what would a return from Elba look like?

(Trump’s) exoneration from the charges leveled in his impeachment trials—the only official, legal response to his actions—practically ensures that he would wield power even more aggressively. 

His experience with unreliable subordinates in his first term is likely to guide personnel decisions in a second. Only total loyalists would serve at the head of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will not be someone likely to place his or her own judgment above that of their civilian commander in chief. 

Nor would a Republican Senate fail to confirm Trump loyalists. In such a world, with Trump and his lieutenants in charge of all the levers of state power, including its growing capacity for surveillance, opposing Trump would become increasingly risky for Republicans and Democrats alike. 

A Trump victory is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.

PAGING JOE STRUMMER

Kagan is far from alone in raising these fears, but he has been among the most blunt and eloquent. 

While being interviewed at The Atlantic Festival last week, Hillary Clinton was asked about his op-ed and replied that she “largely agree(d) with it, because I’m not sure that many people—and this includes obviously the public, but also the press—fully appreciate the determination, the relentless pursuit of power, the design of minority rule that we are currently watching happen.” 

We’re in a tough spot. And it is an existential crisis in lots of ways because there’s no doubt in my mind that the plan on the other side is to win the presidency again, whether or not they win the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the same will be true to take back the Senate, to take back the House. And anybody who thinks that’s not the most important issue facing our democracy is really not paying attention.

Kagan wraps up thusly:

We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-Trump Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose Trump. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.

In common usage, the term “cassandra” is often used to mean a false prophet whose predictions prove untrue. But that usage is itself wrong. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophet who was cursed to always tell the truth….but not be believed. 

Let’s hope Bob Kagan doesn’t go down in history fitting that description. 

That will be up to us. 

The Effort to Demonize Joe

As regular readers of this blog know, I occasionally dip into the right wing media, just to see what the other side thinks. Does that make me a masochist, or just someone who likes to be informed? Maybe some of both. I will ask my dominatrix.

In any event, on my occasional forays into the fever swamp that is the right wing mediasphere (wearing a hazmat suit and Dräger rebreathing apparatus), I have lately been struck by a new and worrying phenomenon. 

THE VIRTUES OF MODERATION (SORRY BARRY)

During the early phases of the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden took a lot grief in progressive circles for being too moderate, too uninspiring, too boring, too old school—too old full stop—too white, too male, etc etc. There was some credence to those complaints.

But lucky for us, it turned out that that was exactly what the American electorate wanted after four years of a screeching, racist, pussy-grabbing, rabid weasel in the Oval Office, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that cried out for sane, reassuring leadership. Biden was human comfort food who fit in nicely with 44 of the previous 45 POTUSes on a schoolroom chart. He was non-threatening enough to appeal to centrist voters—even some disaffected, anti-Trump Republicans—while still retaining the Democratic base and its core of Black and women voters who are really the ones, lest we forget, who delivered his victory. Given the razor thin margins in some of the swing states, anything even a millimeter further left—let alone a Sanders or a Warren—might have been a disaster, much as some like myself would have welcomed that sort of leftward shakeup. 

During the campaign, Trump and the trolls who comprise the modern GOP tried mightily to demonize Joe they way they had demonized Hillary and Obama before him, but they just couldn’t do it. Biden’s own inherent decency and likability came palpably through and deflected the ad hominem attacks…..and without race and gender to fire up the bigots, the right wing effort fell flat. The Republicans just couldn’t make middle America see Joe Biden—whom we’d known and observed in the public eye for almost fifty years—as a foaming-at-the-mouth socialist radical. For once, finally, they had overstepped with their brazenness.  

That attempt at character assassination continued into the first months of the Biden presidency, and still found little purchase. Try as it might, the Republican Party could not erase the deeply ingrained image of Joe Biden as a happy warrior. Conservative voters might not agree with every one of his positions—or in the extreme, any of them—but they could not be convinced that he was AOC in drag, let alone Angela Davis, Emma Goldman, or Madame Defarge. (Feminization very much intended.) 

Biden appeared to be coated with Teflon, Reagan style, in a way that few Democratic politicians ever have been.

TOUCH OF EVIL

Based on a proprietary system I have developed known as the Highly Unscientific Not Confirmable Hypothesis™ (HUNCH), I think that still holds for a majority of Americans across the political spectrum.

But not all. 

Lately what I see in the right wing press and social media is a depiction of Biden as Satan incarnate. “Evil,” “traitor,” and “monstrous” are some of the words that are frequently employed. (Republicans are not known for their nuance.) That portrait still fails to obtain in the part of America with measurable brainwave activity—which is to say, about six out of ten households—but it is prevalent in the remaining three or four.

This is generally the description the right wing applies to the entire “Democrat Party,” as they like to call it, so it’s in some ways natural that, as the leader of that party, it should be applied to Joe too. His presidency is portrayed as a “catastrophe,” the country in chaos, America we know it in ruins, dogs and cats living together….you know, Ghostbusters-style armageddon. Should we be surprised? A death cult that believes its leader can re-route hurricanes with a Sharpie, and would rather drown while clutching anvils Wile E. Coyote-style than get onboard the SS Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson and sail to safety, is not a group of people who are going to treat the opposition with fairness and decency.

And as I say, this trope is prevalent in conservative America.

In the past year I’ve taken several trips through rural Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and upstate New York, which is to say, deep into the heart of MAGAland. It’s a bit like Bavaria in the ‘30s: beautiful, pastoral countryside rife with some of the most odious politics imaginable. I saw barns adorned with murals deifying Trump; homes festooned with signs reading “TRUMP 2024 -TAKE AMERICA BACK”; and most pointedly for the purposes of this essay, banners attacking Joe Biden as “Looney Toons” (with the old Warner Bros. cartoon logo) and as the “Biggest Idiot Democrats Ever Nominated.” (Get it?)

And yet it all flies in the face of Joe Biden’s inherent benignness, affability, and non-stick coating, which may be why it flounders outside of the base. Biden’s approval rating remained largely consistent through the first nine months of his presidency—as did Trump’s throughout his whole four years (which is to say, at a record-breaking low in the modern era). It has dipped a bit of late, after Afghanistan, and Fox Nation is keen to make maximum hay out of that, noting that it is now lower than most of his predecessors at this point in their presidencies. (Though Trump never once cracked the 50% mark.) But the whole stat is pretty meaningless. More than a barometer of Biden’s true popularity or unpopularity, it is largely a measurement of how calcified American tribalism has become.

So what precisely are the “evils” that Joe Biden is promoting? Stopping a pandemic? Repairing the social safety net for poor families and hungry children? Making rich people pay at least as much in taxes as their secretaries? Perish the thought!

Some of the right wing fearmongering relies on a reductio ad absurdum fallacy of extremes. In this argument, Biden’s New Deal vision of American government will inevitably lead to sloth, laziness, the destruction of American ideals, and eventually of course, the establishment of re-education camps which will force-feed its formerly Fox-watching inmates “Free To Be You and Me,” Ludovico-style. 

Such hysteria is not to be taken seriously.

Similarly, attacks on Biden over foreign policy—non-proliferation, China, counterterrorism, engagement versus isolationism (though that’s gotten very jumbled of late, partisan wise)—don’t bear explication here, as they reflect the age-old canards of American hawks. 

Reproductive rights is of course the area where conservatives feel most justified in staking out the moral high ground, as they define it, and indulging in the most histrionic invective. (“Stop killing babies!”) That is very much why opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, is a central tenet for many conservatives—precisely because it allows for such self-reassuring self-righteousness. It’s no coincidence that QAnon also hinges on “protecting children” in its batshit conspiracy theory about Satanism, pedophilia, ping pong, and pizza.

I do understand that there are reasonable conservatives (an endangered species) who take issue with Biden’s policies….but the adjective “reasonable” self-selects out those whose concerns rise to the level of viewing him as having horns and a tail. 

EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF EXTREMISM

As many have written, we have passed far beyond the point where the opposition is viewed as loyal fellow Americans who simply hew to a different set of political beliefs within a communally agreed upon commitment to representative democracy. Now the other side are treasonous monsters who must be stopped at all costs. 

Such hyperbole is quite useful. Once the opposition has been branded in that matter, it becomes morally justifiable to use any means necessary to defeat them, to include not only abrogating “one-person, one vote” majority rule and other democratic norms, but even the use of political violence. Seeing the foe as Satan’s spawn and not just decent people who hold a different point of view makes it a lot easier to justify the use of the most extreme means to combat them. Like beating them to death with flagpoles

Where once we could have civil disagreements and respect the views of the other side and still consider them our countrymen, the partisan lines are now drawn more starkly and with higher stakes than at any time since Bull Run. Where once we operated within a communally agreed upon framework of ideals and norms and principles, now we are in a cold civil war.

This, of course, is exactly the Republican retort. “You’re complaining about the demonization of Biden? Look at what you liberals said about Trump! And you’re one of the worst, King’s Necktie—if that is your real name!”

Fair enough. But calling someone a racist, misogynistic, megalomaniacal dictator manqué isn’t out of order when they really are a racist, misogynistic, megalomaniacal dictator manqué.

I do not buy the fairy tale—useful to and therefore widely propagated by Republicans—that this hyperpolarization is the result of bad behavior by both sides. It is not.  

Part of the insidiousness of the right wing madness is a deceitful bothsideism, which is an old trick of anti-democratic forces. Behave in a brutal and indefensible manner, and accuse your enemies of the same crimes, then dismiss it as mere partisanship when they complain. But as I’ve written before, two people arguing about the shape of the planetare not automatically due equal credibility simply by virtue of staking out their claim. 

The American right really IS engaging in a concerted, terrifying, violence-prone, unprecedented-since-1865 campaign to rattle the very foundations of democracy and put the republic at severe risk. You can’t cancel that by a false equivalence to similar claims about Biden, Kamala, AOC, and the Squad, any more than you can refute Galileo’s assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun by saying, “Well, the Geocentrists strongly believe in their theory, too.” 

Now we have one functioning political party that believes in representative democracy, and one that has become a radical insurgency for which anything and everything is justified in the interest of raw power, even if it destroys the fundamental principles of this country which they claim to hold sacred. Since at least 1932 American conservatives have been on a mission to make the nation believe that “government is bad,” and have done everything humanly possible to make it so, and muck up the works, even at the expense of the good of country, then disingenuously point to the ensuing mess as if it is proof of their position, while pretending their grubby little fingerprints are not all over it. 

How bad is it? This bad: 

study by the University of Chicago found that nearly 20% of American adults—about 47 million people—think Biden is an illegitimate president. (Another survey reports that fully 53% of Republicans feel that way.) Almost one in ten—about 21 million people—believe that the “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.”

So please spare me your bleating that both sides are to blame, or engaged in equally scorched earth politics. 

WHAT A DRAG IT IS GETTING OLD

I don’t think all conservatives are evil. Some certainly are, teleologically speaking: Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, McConnell, Cruz, Hawley, Rand Paul, to name just a few, not to mention The Former Guy himself and various members of his grotesque clan. Below that there is an entire stratum of cowards, opportunists, and fellow travelers who might not merit the scarlet “E” but definitely aren’t getting an invite to my next bowling night. 

But I’m not willing to categorize some 75 million of my fellow Americans as “evil.”

Needless to say, the majority of people on the conservative side genuinely believe in the righteousness of their cause, and have their hearts in the correct location in their chest cavities, even some of those who subscribe to what I consider wantonly batshit political beliefs that are gravely dangerous to the republic. Some of these people are—or at least were—friends and acquaintances and erstwhile colleagues of mine, as I used to be a conservative myself, 30 years ago anyway. I think they are horribly misguided, and it saddens me greatly. (They surely feel the same way about me.) They all have their own reasons for going to the dark side; some of those reasons are defensible, others anything but. But I don’t think they belong in the ninth circle of hell, if you believe in that sort of thing, or even in one of the aforementioned re-education camps-to-be. (Which is what Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity have been secretly building all these years….we all know that, right?)

One step less crazy than the Biden-Is-Evil cabal is an even larger group of conservative- leaning Americans who firmly believe that Biden, while not necessarily a monster, is in the grip of dementia and cognitive decline. 

This is a predictable and lazy line of attack on the oldest man ever elected president, at 78, beating the previous record holder—you guessed it—Donald Trump, who was 70. Few remember it today, but that was the standard knock on Reagan when he first won the office, at the age of 69, before he went on to beatification as a conservative saint

(We later learned that Reagan did indeed suffer from dementia in the latter years of his second term, which ended when he was not quite—you guessed it again—78.)

It’s only honest to say that Biden has undeniably lost a step from his Senatorial prime, and does occasionally invite comparisons to a doddering grandpa, making this a natural thing for his morally bankrupt enemies to seize upon. But don’t we all love our grandpas, and prefer them to serial sexual predators and lifelong tax cheats and grifters?

The right wing image of a drooling old age pensioner who is the puppet of Kamala Harris is absurd, and beneath contempt. Even accounting for the occasional senior moment, Biden remains sharp and vital, and indeed frequently displays the accumulated savvy and wisdom of the long political experience that he brings to the White House. He certainly runs a tighter ship than his predecessor. 

To that point, Republicans’ baseless allegation of cognitive decline is especially ironic in light of that predecessor and their own cult leader, the self-proclaimed “very stable genius,” whose multitude of mental deficiencies and psychiatric disorders would keep a team of world class neuroscientists busy for a lifetime. (Projection, as always, is the GOP’s default mode.) Look at video of Trump on the Letterman show from the ’80s; he’s not even recognizable as the same guy who sat on his fat ass in the Oval Office. He was already a narcissistic shitbag, sure, but he could at least speak intelligibly. The 21st century Trump, by contrast, could not form a coherent sentence: verbatim transcripts of the words that spewed forth from his piehole read like Williams Burroughs cutups, incomplete sentence fragments abandoned in midstream and spiraling off in random directions, desperately in search of connective tissue or a cogent point.

On top of that already sad state of neurological decline, he was also a textbook sociopath living in an alternate reality, consumed with paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and a persecution complex that made Nixon look like the Dalai Lama. So don’t talk to me about Biden’s Brain.  

“Whataboutism!” you say? Yes and no. It’s true that Trump’s mental deficiency wouldn’t negate Biden’s, were it so. But the irony of Republicans deploying this unfounded attack after ignoring Trump’s far more evident and far more dangerous mental state demands calling out.

As I wrote last week, am I merely spreading this fake news by trying to refute it? Maybe. But I am hopeful that what I am doing is turning the kitchen light on the cockroaches of right wing dishonesty and sending them scurrying. 

THE FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT

During the Obama years, Bill Clinton famously argued that he had been subjected to even more right wing vitriol than Barack. “Nobody’s accused him of murder yet, as far as I know,” Clinton quipped in 2014, referring to the Vince Foster conspiracy theory. And it’s true that Bill was impeached, which Barack never was. 

Still, I never bought it. Bill had certainly been demonized by the right and unfairly attacked in the extreme, but the racist element of the abuse directed at Obama put the attacks on him in a completely different league. (Nobody accused Obama of murder, but nobody said Clinton as a secret Muslim or demanded to see his birth certificate either.) Likewise the irrational, foaming-at-the-mouth, misogynistic hatred of Hillary—from the time she first emerged on the national stage in 1992 as merely a candidate’s wife, all the way through and beyond her own 2016 presidential run—was an order of magnitude greater than anything her husband ever experienced. 

But in retrospect, Bill did have a point. The ferocious vilification of Democratic standard bearers is now standard practice for the GOP. The attempt to turn avuncular, empathetic Joe Biden—a man widely beloved even by his Republican Senatorial colleagues—into the second coming of John Wayne Gacy shows it, and looking back, it clearly began with the Clinton era and the arrival of Newt Gingrich and his bloodsport approach to politics. 

And where do we stand today? A few examples—all from a single, not especially noteworthy week—ought to suffice. 

At Breitbart last week, its editor-at-large John Nolte claimed the “left” is tricking right wingers into dying of COVID, Br’er Rabbit style, by encouraging them to get vaccinated, knowing that right wingers would NEVER do anything progressives or liberals want them to do. Even if that were true—which it ain’t, remotely, not even in Bizarro World—it would amount to blaming the left for their own suicidal stubbornness.

Also last week Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted: “ALL House Democrats are evil and will kill unborn babies all the way up to birth and then celebrate”—her emphasis on ALL. (It’s true, I have several “baby-killing celebrations” in my Google Calendar for this week alone. I am bringing the potato salad.) Greene, of course, is also a prominent QAnon follower who in the past has physically stalked her colleagues, and called for the assassination of leading Democratic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

But, you scoff, Greene is the lunatic fringe of the GOP, not its mainstream. 

Oh, is that so? Who got kicked out of the party leadership for being insufficiently pro-Trump and denying the Big Lie, Margie or Liz Cheney? MTG is the face of the contemporary Republican Party.

Finally, last week saw the exposure of a memo from John Eastman, a high-ranking member of the Federalist Society and advisor to the Trump White House, outlining exactly how Trump & Co. intended to overturn the 2020 election and illegally retain power. We’ve known the broad outlines of this effort since January, but with the revelation of each new piece of the puzzle—like this one—the shocking scope of what went on becomes more and more appalling. This was the exact thing that “reasonable” Republicans snorted contemptuously that Trump would NEVER dare try. And not only did he try it, but he damn near succeeded.

And what is the GOP response now? To excuse it, defend it, deny it, obstruct efforts to expose the truth about it, and even more alarming, to continue that effort by other means going forward. 

That sound you hear is glass breaking, because American democracy is in the midst of a five-alarm emergency. One that its perpetrators would love to distract us from with the idea that Joe Biden needs to be removed via the 25thAmendment.

TUNNELVISION

It has not escaped my notice that over the past nine months, many of my blog posts wind up in the same area, belaboring a single, tiresome theme: the Republican Party’s ongoing attempt to undermine democracy in America and install itself as an unchallengeable autocratic power. 

I apologize for being monotonous, but it’s the issue of our time. One of the two political parties in our country—one with tens of millions of voters, that stands a good chance of regaining power—has, over the preceding five years (or is it fifty?) turned fundamentally anti-democratic. Tunnelvision is in order when you’re in a tunnel, and especially when the light at its end is an oncoming train.

In The Bulwark, Mona Charen recently wrote that she is now a “single issue voter,” saying, “I’ll vote against the party threatening the republic—simple as that.”

The Republican party….has become a conspiracy of liars. As such, it threatens the stability of the republic. 

It’s a cult dedicated to lying, rewarding liars, and punishing truth tellers. I won’t vote for it.

Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer—who way back in 2018 coined the phrase, “The Cruelty Is the Point” in relation to the Trump administration—continues to demonstrate why he is one of the sharpest political observers around, most recently with a five-point summary of the ways Trump tried to overturn the election, much of it drawing on that Eastman memo. Serwer concludes with a pair of paragraphs that perfectly capture the state of the GOP and the crisis in which we find ourselves as a nation:

(To the Republican Party, winning majorities) is irrelevant to whether or not the party’s Trumpist faithful believe they are entitled to wield power. Win or lose, their claim to be the sole authentic inheritors of the American tradition means they are the only ones who can legitimately govern and are therefore justified in seizing power by any means. This is the modern incarnation of an old ideology, one that has justified excluding certain groups of Americans from the suffrage on the basis that their participation is an affront to the political process.

American traditions of unfreedom always represent themselves as democracy’s protectors, rather than its undertakers, and this one is no different. If Biden were allowed to take office, Eastman insisted in a longer version of his memo, “we will have ceased to be a self-governing people.” The catastrophe is not only that Trump tried to overthrow an election. It is that so many Americans were cheering him on.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Not even close, in fact. 

Funny thing about dipping into the right wing media to see how the other side thinks: it’s always a shock to come back and read sane, intelligent commentary in the non-right wing media. 

***********

Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

The Canard of the “Liberal Threat”

You’ve got to hand it to America’s right wingers. They try to overthrow the US government in a violent coup d’état, one fomented by the highest levels of their political leadership, an act that they continue to defend even now……and yet they would have us believe that pronouns are the greatest threat to the republic. 

For sheer chutzpah, that’s tough to beat. 

Of course, it’s not surprising, given the oft-demonstrated Republican capacity for shamelessness. The conservative media, from fancy pants magazines like The Economist down to sewer dwellers like InfoWars, are engaged in a concerted campaign to try to convince America that the most pressing danger we face are trans kids who want to be addressed as they/them/theirs, teachers who have the temerity to believe there’s racism in America, and public health officials who want to bludgeon us with this sketchy thing called “science.” 

Yes, it’s batshit. Yes, it’s beyond outrageous—stupefying in fact. But this is the Orwellian, up-is-down, freedom-is-slavery world in which contemporary Republicans live. And I got no problem with that; they can live in any old world they want. 

The problem is that they want the rest of us to live in it with them. 

THE BEST PROTECTION IS GOOD PROJECTION

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s a reminder that the FBI and other Homeland Security experts continue to assess that white nationalist extremism is the greatest terrorist threat to the security of the United States. Not hybrid cars, Nikole Hannah-Jones or, pumpkin spice lattes.

But page one of the fascism handbook is to accuse your enemies of your own crimes. 

We need not debate whether the Trumpist GOP does in fact deserve the “f” word (short answer: it does) to understand that Republicans have seized on projection as their best and perhaps only form of self-defense. That is why they are desperate for us to believe that woke college students are going bring on the American apocalypse, not the people who, I repeat, literally tried to mount a violent coup d’état just last winter, and on the whole have not recanted or abandoned that cause, nor seen their leaders punished for it.  

Let’s begin our survey of this concerted propaganda campaign with what passes for credible, reason-based thinking in the modern conservative movement. 

The Economist recently had a cover story screaming, “The Threat from the Illiberal Left,” subtitled, “Don’t underestimate the danger of left-leaning identity politics.” (Referring to liberalism not in the partisan American sense of Republicans and Democrats, but of Enlightenment-based Western democracy as a whole.)

What its editors seem to have their panties in a bunch over is a mode of thought that (wait for it) “has recently spread from elite university departments.” 

As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling “unsafe” and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and cancelling allies who have transgressed.

In other words, a bunch of old white guys don’t understand kids today.

In that same issue, the magazine laments,“Left-Wing Activists Are Using Old Tactics in a New Assault on Liberalism,” and  “How Did American ‘Wokeness’ Jump from Elite Schools to Everyday Life?” Ho-hum, grandpa. 

(But it could be worse. Two weeks before, that same magazine ran a piece by 98-year-old Henry Kissinger assessing the failure of the US campaign in Afghanistan….part of its periodic “What War Criminals Think” column.)

This is an absurd waste of ink—and pixels—not to mention brazen misdirection. Even the convocation of Statlers and Waldorfs at The Economist admit that “the most dangerous threat in liberalism’s spiritual home comes from the Trumpian right.”

Populists denigrate liberal edifices such as science and the rule of law as façades for a plot by the deep state against the people. They subordinate facts and reason to tribal emotion. The enduring falsehood that the presidential election in 2020 was stolen points to where such impulses lead. If people cannot settle their differences using debate and trusted institutions, they resort to force.

Yet they don’t put that on their cover, do they? After all, they’re trying to sell magazines. 

To elevate political correctness to the level of “threat to the republic” equivalent to people wearing balaclavas and carrying AR-15s is not only ridiculous and misleading but wantonly irresponsible. Yeah, PC-ness can go too far, but this is worrying about a freckle on you arm when you’ve got a grapefruit-sized goiter growing out of your neck….a goiter that believes the election was stolen, we didn’t land on the moon, and fluoridation is sapping our precious bodily fluids, and violent rebellion is in order in response.

The authors even have the gall to engage in shameless bothsidesism, claiming that “populists and progressives feed off each other pathologically. The hatred each camp feels for the other inflames its own supporters—to the benefit of both.” 

As if the people who wanted to lynch the Vice President and the ones who think Black people ought not be murdered by the police are on an equal moral plane. 

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

The longstanding conservative hue and cry over “political correctness” (recently re-branded as “wokeness”) boils to down to one very simple thing: powerful people—largely white, and mostly male—angry that they are being asked to behave in a decent and civilized manner toward others, instead of doing whatever the fuck they want, with impunity, a state of affairs to which they’ve been accustomed their whole goddam lives. And I know, because I’m a white male myself.

Accordingly, whenever I hear complaints about PC culture, or wokeness, I go into automatic snooze mode at this laziest and most dishonest of beefs. 

Nearly every development toward a more progressive society has been met with anger and ridicule at first, from the term Ms to Title IX to an end to “whites only” drinking fountains. But eventually these things all come to seem routine and normal and even inevitable in their manifest justness and common sense.

“But Stalin!” cries the right wing intelligentsia. (Oxymoron? You be the judge.) “It starts with the collegiate thought police and ends with the gulag!”

Sigh. 

Yes, we all know there have been horrific totalitarian regimes under the mantle of “leftism”; whether or not they represent “the left” as we currently understand the term, or have circled all the way around to authoritarianism more characteristic of right wing regimes, is a book length topic in itself—library length, in fact. But in the context of our discussion, the terms “left” and “right” have less to do with Marxism and capitalism than with democracy and autocracy, regardless of ideological trappings. 

Even conceding that a left-wing regime—however you define it—has the potential to slip into autocracy, to suggest that liberals present the most pressing danger to Western democracy at present is beyond absurd: it can only be deliberate smoke  and mirrors. Violent, right wing populism (personally I reject the very term, for those of you scoring at home) has been on the rise for more than a decade, from the Philippines to Hungary to the US, characterized by hypernationalism, xenophobia, jingoism, and all the other textbook trappings of “f-word” states, whether we use that tag or not. 

I don’t think Rachel Maddow is an equal threat. 

Still, this faddish notion of an “illiberal left wing scourge” has found traction in the chattering classes. 

Two weeks ago I took issue with a hawkish article by The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum that derided the idea that there is no military solution for the US in Afghanistan. It pained me, because as I stated at the time, I am a fan of Ms. Applebaum’s work. Now she has sent me rending my garments again with a piece for that magazine headlined “The New Puritans” (archived under the title “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”), a screed against what the right likes to call “cancel culture,” to which news outlets like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” have devoted an eyepopping amount of airtime. (One thing the left does well is eat its young.) 

Oh, Anne: I was such a fan, but I’m just a simple man, and I don’t understand your plan, both on this and Afghanistan. It leaves me wan. 

While The Economist hyperventilates about the macro effects of wokeism, Applebaum’s focus is almost purely on academia. Largely she is bemoaning the lack of due process in what are not, after all, legal proceedings but social judgments, which are notoriously hard to police, as she herself concedes. She also takes admirable pains to distinguish her critique from the usual right wing blather about liberalism run amok in the academy.

Applebaum brings to the topic her considerable expertise on authoritarianism in Russia and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But it’s ironic that the “whisperers” in academia that she decries as an extrajudicial mechanism for identifying transgressors—students especially, whom she compares to the revolutionary committees of Mao’s Cultural Revolution—are not unlike the citizens deputized by Texas to inform on women who seek abortions and anyone who helps them, or even thinks of helping them. 

The logic of who gets canceled can indeed be hard to parse. Recently I heard Michael Jackson on the radio—“Off the Wall” I think it was—and I thought, “Why is Michael Jackson not canceled but Al Franken is?” The scope of their crimes is not even remotely comparable. Maybe it’s because Michael is dead; no doubt that is part of it. But really it’s because people love his music so much that they aren’t willing to cast it into oblivion, no matter what horrors he committed, and taking into account the physical and psychological abuse he suffered as a child himself. (This is a whole different debate.)

I do have sympathy for people in the midst of this great pendulum-swing who are falsely accused, or culpable but over-punished with penalties that don’t fit the crime. What I object to is the elevation of this problem to an unjustifiable level of hysteria where it can be used by the neo-authoritarian right as both a shield against accountability for its own far more serious crimes, and as a cudgel to counterattack its enemies. 

It’s clear that we are still figuring out how to deal with new norms and mores regarding what is socially acceptable behavior, especially when it comes to race and gender, the workplace, and the rules of engagement for romantic interaction. There have been excesses, certainly, and injustices and inequities. There were a hell of a lot of all three, and far worse, in the opposite direction under the ancien regime as well.  

I’m fine with this being explored in The Chair. I just don’t need it put on a par with people who wanted to lynch Nancy Pelosi.

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS FOR THE REAL VICTIMS

In less august right-leaning media, you can hear a cruder and even more extreme version of this argument, in which conservatives (especially white men) are the real victims of persecution, and the “Democrat Party” is an authoritarian cult bent on taking your guns, instituting sharia law, and turning the NFL into a flag football league with its Dr. Mengele-devised concussion protocol.  

This self-pity is deep in the right wing DNA. For a group of people who like to throw around the word “snowflake,” they sure are fucking fragile. 

The same Republicans who just passed a law that subjects women in Texas to vigilante enforcement of its Atwoodian anti-choice laws are now foaming at the mouth at the alleged “tyranny” and “oppression” of a vaccine mandate for federal workers and businesses with over 100 employees. I presume these same folks have issues with measles shots, seat belts, Health Department inspections of restaurants, and the mere existence of OSHA too.

Hewing to the directive “know your enemy,” I have been on a Trump mailing list since the 2016 campaign, just to see the things they are saying. I recently got an email solicitation from them stating, with No Discernible Irony: 

Joe Biden just announced a sweeping mandate that is designed to FORCE you and your family to undergo medical procedures whether you want to or not.

That is why the GOP is fighting back and planning to SUE the Biden administration for their un-American federal overreach, and we need your help.

Driving around the Jersey shore last weekend, where right wing talk radio is rife, I heard one of the many, many Christian channels (“Your station for faith, family, and freedom!”) telling its listeners that Dr. Anthony Fauci harvests the organs of live babies. Not long after I was in Bucks County, PA, north of Philadelphia, where my father lives, an area where strong progressivism co-exists cheek by jowl with some pretty extreme examples of what we call “Pennsyltucky.” In the latter camp: the guy with the sign on his rear window that reads “PLANDEMIC,” and the homeowner with the handpainted sign in his front yard reading, “Fake Pandemic, Real Tyranny.”

And this is a recurring pattern, fed both by the right’s innate predilection for Hofstadterian paranoia, and the opportunistic conservative elites who feed and exploit it. 

Even as those of us on the left feel like the right has a chokehold on our democracy (because, gee, I dunno, we control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives and yet Mitch McConnell gets everything he wants), the right sees itself as perennially under assault, or at least its mandarins paint that picture to fire up the rubes and keep the donations flowing. 

As I say, that may be a function, at least partially, of the chronic paranoia that runs through American conservatism, but it’s also a strategy. Their advertising, their fundraising appeals, their nightly Fifty-Two Minutes Hate on Tucker Carlson are all organized around the notion that the liberals are coming, and Real America is up against the wall. Spurious online periodicals like City Journal, masquerading as mainstream journalism, specialize in horror stories about political correctness run amok in our schools, stories designed to scare the khakis off upper middle class center-right (and even center-left) parents who would not be so easily fooled by similar stories in Breitbart or Fox.

In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent seized on another standard Republican ploy, and a dirty and dishonest one it is: Sow doubt among conservative voters about Issue X, from the efficacy of the COVID vaccine to the legitimacy of Biden’s election, then cite that very doubt as justification for opposing common sense measures regarding the problem. 

“A lot of people are skeptical about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, and we need to respect their fears!” Yes they are skeptical—because you fed that skepticism. 

“A lot of people think there’s massive election fraud in America (except in elections I won), so we need to suppress the vote!” Yes they do think there’s fraud—because you told them there was fraud.  

This disingenuous plea for “understanding for all sides” and “respecting the choices of others” gives ammunition to anti-factual Know Nothings who reject empiricism and want to cast their selfish, reckless endangerment of our collective public health as “freedom of choice.”

Another of the right’s favorite new tricks is to make a specious argument on the grounds of “religious freedom,” seeking exemptions from the law that would allow them to, say, abrogate a woman’s right to control her own body, or discriminate against LBGTQ+ folks, or forgo routine immunizations and still want to avail themselves of public schools, or deny service to Black people in restaurants, or refuse to rent apartments to Jews. (Or Muslims. Or Unitarians.) And so on. 

The furor over “critical race theory” is another doozy. In this reboot of the brouhaha over evolution, white people who are terrified of losing power are apoplectic at the idea that their children, or any children, might be taught that there is such a thing as racism, and that it has played a seminal role in the history of this country and the journey to where we are today. 

Next up, outrage over teaching our children that water is wet, the sun is hot, and the Beatles are better than Nickelback.   

THE MARTYRDOM OF MARK MILLEY

Here’s another example where there’s been a lot of linguistic confusion, if not deliberate up-is-down, day-is-night, disinformation. So let me set the record straight:

The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th to murder US government officials and try to overturn an election are NOT patriots, martyrs, or political prisoners, and certainly not heroes, even though the GOP has begun treating them that way. (See: the right wing rally in DC today in support of those being prosecuted.)

General Mark Milley who worked within his constitutional authority to forestall a coup and prevent the outbreak of “Wag the Dog” -style wars against Iran and/or China, IS a hero. Full stop, period dot, out here.

If you want to know what’s wrong with United States today in a nutshell, consider what it means that Mark Milley is under far more fire for his actions surrounding the events of January 6th and its aftermath than Donald Trump is. (It means that we are maxed out on disbelief at the depths to which Trump will sink, that his followers would find a way to excuse it—in fact, applaud it—even if he wiped his ass with the US flag, and that there is no God.)

My friend Erick Kelemen notes that “The uproar (over Milley) is largely manufactured by people wanting to obscure the fact that only days before, he had discovered that Trump was trying to go around everyone in his own national security offices to order the US out of Afghanistan.” And what was Milley’s response to that, and to Trump refusing to accept the results of the election? “To call everybody together to re-read the rules and make sure everybody followed them? To phone nervous adversaries and assure them that we would follow the rules and not be swayed by the whims of someone trying to cling to power in his last days? The outrage is ridiculous.”

Any conflict between civilian and military leaders is dangerous terrain, and questions remain around the context and details of General Milley’s actions. He has promised to answer those questions when he and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin—himself a retired four-star—testify before Congress at the end of the month, an event Republicans are sure to turn into a circus.

But whatever the answers, Milley can be forgiven for pressing up against the boundaries of his office considering the extraordinary circumstances he was in, with a dangerous and unhinged commander-in-chief desperately clinging to power and capable of doing almost anything. Famously, Mattis and Kelly—two more retired four-stars—had a “babysitting pact” throughout their tenure in the Trump presidency to keep him from setting the world on fire. Or recall August 1974, when SecDef James Schlesinger ordered the Pentagon not to obey any nuclear strike orders from a drunken and unstable Nixon in his final days without going through him or Kissinger first.

Could a rogue general take similar action to go around the President and try to start a war, rather than stop one? Of course; that is the nature of power. But the same demographic that is furious at Milley over this loved it when MacArthur defied Truman, and Singlaub defied Carter (both over Korea, as it just so happened). 

Some—including retired LTC Alexander Vindman, whom I greatly respect—have suggested that Milley should have resigned instead. But the whole point was that someone needed to stand in Trump’s way; would it have been better, in that critical time, to give Donald the opportunity to install a lackey as CJCS, as he had already done with numerous other key officials in the national security apparatus, the exact kind of indicators one would seize on in anticipation of a coup?

The Republican hypocrisy is, as usual, mindblowing. Their tyrant manqué puts American democracy in lethal jeopardy, then they howl bloody murder when anyone takes any steps, any steps at all, orthodox or not, to protect it and mitigate the damage, accusing that person of—you guessed it—undermining democracy. Quite a neat trick.

It’s rich to hear the right wing complain about the military being politicized, when no one in American history did more to politicize it than Donald Trump, with his talk of “my generals,” his demand for a May Day-style military parade in his honor, and his repeated use of the armed forces as props. Now that the embattled US military has been forced to use politics to push back, suddenly conservatives are clutching their pearls? I don’t recall them being worried about General Milley “playing politics” when he found himself accompanying Trump on that reprehensible photo op at Lafayette Square, an act that Milley was caught up in almost accidentally, and was so mortified by that he considered resigning over that, and subsequently issued a public mea culpa.

For Marco Rubio to accuse Milley of fomenting a coup—or Trump to cry “treason!”—is the height of irony. 

WILL YOU TAKE ME AS I AM? (WILL YOU TAKE ME AS I AM?)

There was some good news last week, as reason prevailed in California and Gavin Newsom survived a recall attempt with a resounding 63% to 36% victory. Whatever one thinks of Newsom, as a referendum on science and reason versus the paranoid style, it was at the very least a reassuring sign that the majority of Californians are not in fact insane (and perhaps a blueprint for Democratic strategy in the midterms).

After losing, the leading Republican candidate Larry Elder told his supporters to be “gracious in defeat.” That is remarkable at a time when falsely screaming “fraud!” in a crowded movie theater has become de rigueur for Republicans, and doing otherwise risks excommunication from the party because it undercuts the Maximum Leader’s own specious claims of having been robbed. 

Writing in The Week, Damon Linker notes, “A recent CNN poll reveals that fully 59 percent of Republicans consider it ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important for members of the party to affirm that Trump won the 2020 election.” The pressure that puts on GOP candidates at all levels to toe the party line is immense, and is pushing that party even further into Cloud Cuckooland.

But this is how far the bar has been lowered. Conceding defeat used to be the norm, of course, and is in fact essential for democracy. As Heather Cox Richardson writes: “If losers in a democracy refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, the system falls apart.” Which is fine with the GOP, which has been flogging the mantra that “government is bad“ for decades, and doing everything it can to make it so.

Elder’s welcome comments are all the more remarkable because they come after he had sown doubt about the legitimacy of the vote ahead of election day—also de rigueur for Republicans these days, thanks to The Former Guy. 

So two cheers for Larry, and let’s be grateful that the voters of California had the good sense not to put him in office.

In that same piece, Linker called these Republican lies about election fraud “a ticking time bomb,” asking pointedly, “How do they think this will end?” 

This is hands down the most dangerous political development in recent American history—a civic time bomb placed smack dab at the center of American democracy. It’s more dangerous than a reality-show demagogue ascending to the presidency. Or partisan gridlock in Congress making governing and passing legislation extremely difficult. Or constitutional disagreement about the scope of women’s reproductive rights. Or conflicts surrounding masking and vaccine mandates. 

All of those issues are important, and some of them contribute to the degradation of American democracy. But none of them degrade it more than spreading the lie that elections in the United States are systematically untrustworthy and rigged against one of the country’s two parties. That’s the kind of claim that could ultimately make American self-government impossible.

That’s because this is a battle over the rules of the political game—the rules that enable the US to function as a democracy that is deemed fair by everyone, the winners as well as losers, in any given electoral contest. Once faith in that fairness has been undermined and obliterated, the peaceful transfer of power is bound to break down entirely. Where will it end? Nowhere good.

When it comes to threats to our democracy, seems like the wholesale delegitimization of the integrity of the vote in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans might be something genuinely worth worrying about. 

Unless you’re on the team promoting it.

The increasingly radicalized, Trumpist GOP is precisely such an organization as Linker describes, no longer recognizable as a conventional political party at all, but only as a death cult-cum-neo-fascist insurgency. And people are noticing.  

On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 last weekend, George W. Bush gave a speech that compared the 1/6 Insurrectionists to the 9/11 hijackers. Good on him. I will never forgive Bush for Iraq, but of late he has not only looked good compared to Trump (NB: so does a rotting tree stump) but actually walked the walk, a little. 

And that wasn’t the only head-spinning turn in Old Republican World. 

The new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Peril, the same one that got Milley in such hot water, also revealed the role Bush the elder’s vice president Dan Quayle played in dissuading Mike Pence from going along with Trump’s plan to reject the results of the Electoral College. If you told me 30 years ago that I’d be praising Dan Quayle for anything, I’d have turned off my C+C Music Factory cassette and laughed in your face. But, believe it or not, as some wit wrote on the Internet, “Dan Quayle stopped a coupe.”

Meanwhile Trump himself used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to make a speech attacking Biden on Afghanistan, and to collect a paycheck doing commentary on a pay-per-view fight between a 58-year-old Evander Holyfield and former UFC champ Jordan Belfort. 

All class, that fella.

For an encore, two days before this new MAGA rally in front of the Capitol, Trump issued a statement siding with those terrorists, a statement that began: “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.” (File under: “Florida retiree pours gasoline on the fire.”)

And why shouldn’t Trump feel entitled to do so? He’s never suffered any meaningful consequences for any of his actions throughout his entire life. (Losing reelection doesn’t count.) As many wise people said from the very beginning, if there are not repercussions for the people who incited this insurrection—not just the cosplaying Q believers who did the actual insurrecting, but the muckity mucks who sent them down Pennsylvania Avenue—we will surely see it happen again. 

That process is already underway…..and it worries me a lot more than the Washington Football Team having to change its nickname.

WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS

The experts tell us that one of the most difficult and maddening things about trying to combat fake news is that repeating it at all, even to debunk it, only spreads it further. So in calling out this right wing disinformation, am I only abetting it?

Maybe. But how else to fight it? Besides, I trust my readership—tiny as it is, but intelligent—to be able to think critically. We are not afraid of the other guy’s ideas, and can readily dismember them. No misdirection, disinformation, or sleight of hand required. 

Meanwhile the right wing gaslighting festival rolls merrily along and shows no sign of being shut down any time soon. There’s too much money to be had for the grifters, too many eager marks out there to be had, and too much at stake for whitey and the plutocrats (my favorite Southern rock band) as they try to make us think we’re the evil and crazy ones, not them.

Yeah, well,  I was born at night….but it wasn’t last night. 

Autocracy on the March: The Texan Front

Let us begin with the obligatory—but still sadly necessary—blast at Texas’s devious and sickening new law that for all practical purposes outlaws abortion in that state, in violation of what the US Supreme Court has previously ruled, and deputizes vigilantes to enforce it. 

The same GOP that believes in “my-body-my-choice!” when it comes to anti-vaxxers refusing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will now force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, even in cases of rape or incest. That same party will mandate that a 12-year-old girl raped by her stepfather must go through with the pregnancy, but not that that girl must wear a mask in school, because that’s “governmental overreach.” The same Republicans who are terrified of fictional “vaccination squads” directed by Oberführer Fauci going door-to-door somehow managed to pass the most intrusive kind of governmental policy imaginable, one which incentivizes Texans to spy and inform on their neighbors for cash. 

No one will be shocked to learn that the Texas law says absolutely nothing about the men who impregnate these women, not even rapists, all of whom are completely absolved of any responsibility or legal repercussions. 

I write screenplays for a living, and they would throw me out of the Writers Guild if I pitched this as a movie idea. That’s the realm of Atwoodian science fiction, amirite? 

Texas is a state that hobbled its own infrastructure to the point where over 200 people died when it couldn’t provide heat and power during an ice storm last winter (while its junior Senator fled to vacation in Cancun), and four months later had to beg its citizens not to run their air conditioners when a heatwave overwhelmed that same power grid. It’s a state where nearly 1 in 5 children live in poverty; a state that ranks 51st (including DC) in children’s health care; a state whose allegedly “pro-life” legislators have consistently opposed funding for child care, education, help for needy families, and even tried to abolish the state’s Child Protective Services agency.

That’s how you know that this new law has nothing to do with “protecting the unborn,” much less the born, and everything to do with demonstrating and maintaining male control over the female of the species. That’s how you know it’s part of a war on women, one that’s deeply baked into the conservative movement, even including the (mostly white) conservative women who are part of it.

Texas is also a state where it’s now legal to carry an unlicensed firearm; a state whose governor recently issued an executive order directing state troopers to stop and frisk anyone they suspect of being an undocumented migrant; a state consistently on the forefront of efforts to restrict the teaching of things its conservative mandarins don’t like, such as evolution, or the history of civil right movement; a state that recently passed some of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the country, designed to keep Democratic constituencies (including people of color, working women, the poor, young people, and the handicapped) from voting.

As the Internet wags say, the lone star on Texas’s state flag must be its Yelp review. 

BOBBY FULLER PREDICTED IT

So what exactly is in this new Texas law? 

In effect, it outlaws abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, well before most women even know they’re pregnant. It offers a $10,000 reward to citizens who snitch on anyone “aiding or abetting” such a procedure, such as the provider, a doctor who makes a referral to a clinic, or even a friend who gives the woman a ride (payable by that person, plus legal fees). Even a person who contemplates rendering such aid, but doesn’t, can be sued.

The $10K is a minimum, by the way; “There is no cap on the amount of damages a court can award to a citizen who sues to enforce the law.”

As Jezebel’s Laura Bassett describes it, writing in The Atlantic, this is “the most extreme abortion ban the United States has seen in half a century.” It is a thorough, effective, de facto reversal of Roe v. Wade—the very thing the GOP has dishonestly been claiming it is not pursuing (wink wink), and deviously designed to pass legal muster by outsourcing enforcement to private citizens rather than the state. 

But make no mistake: we all know what it is. 

In her dissent, a furious Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:

In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures. 

Or as a Twitter user called John Slayer writes, “A state is now putting a bounty out for women who don’t comply with a religious belief. Let that sink in.” 

That use of vigilantes is perhaps the most despicable part of the law, even as it is the part that anti-abortion zealots praise for its “cleverness.” But as The Week’s Jill Filipovic writes, “Whatever you think about abortion rights, deputizing any person in the United States to be their own little secret police is an incredibly dangerous approach, less ‘pro-life’ than ‘American Stasi.’” That is especially appalling when you consider that, as Filipovic says, “The right has been on a tear about what they say is the massive threat of liberal totalitarianism, from the classroom to the boardroom to the federal government.” 

Justice Breyer was unimpressed with this too-clever-by-half trickery, writing in his dissent that American women have “a federal constitutional right to obtain an abortion during that first stage” of pregnancy, and that Texas’s delegation of the power to prevent it to private individuals does not offer a way for the state to abrogate that right. Citing a previous opinion, he wrote: 

….we have made clear that ‘since the State cannot regulate or proscribe abortion during the first stage… the State cannot delegate authority to any particular person… to prevent abortion during that same period.’ Texas’s law does precisely that.

The US Supreme Court was not asked to rule on the law’s constitutionality—yet. But in a shadow docket ruling that shocked most observers, it has let the Texas law stand while that process unfolds. Of that refusal to step in, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.

Ironically, in the same week, the Supreme Court of Mexico, a staunchly Roman Catholic country, ruled that it is unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime, putting it one up on Texas when it comes to being a civilized society. I suspect we will soon see desperate Texans fleeing in through the out door over Trump’s partially built border wall, seeking help in our more forward-thinking southern neighbor. (On the holy rollers’ side, God did punish Mexico with a 7.1 earthquake since then.)

The United States is now on the road to having abortion laws far more restrictive than Ireland, another deeply Catholic country, which in May 2018 held a referendum in which the Irish people overwhelmingly voted to end their longtime ban on the practice, reversing centuries of repressive tradition

Think about that for a moment. The US and the rest of the developed world are headed in opposite directions. 

And as Heather Cox Richardson writes, the implications of this flagrantly unconstitutional law, and the Supreme Court’s cowardly, dead-of-night 5-4 refusal to stop it from going into effect, go far beyond just reproductive rights and the war on women, terrible as both of those are. 

The new anti-abortion law in Texas is not just about abortion; it is about undermining civil rights decisions made by the Supreme Court during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. 

A state has undermined the power of the federal government to protect civil rights. It has given individuals who disagree with one particular right the power to take it away from their neighbors. But make no mistake: there is no reason that this mechanism couldn’t be used to undermine much of the civil rights legislation of the post–World War II years.

What’s to stop Texas—or Georgia, or Mississippi, or any other fellow traveling Republican-controlled states—from enacting legislation that, say, denies constitutional rights to people of color, or LGBTQ folks, or hell, Democrats? From allowing business to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, creed, sexual orientation, or country of origin, hung on the specious, ass-backwards claim of “religious freedom”? From opting out of 80 years of New Deal protections, union rules, or child labor laws?

Merrick Garland’s DOJ has vowed to intervene in Texas. So, Eisenhower-era like, are we about to see federal troops or US Marshals accompanying women into Planned Parenthood clinics and other providers, the way they did for Black schoolchildren integrating Southern schools in the Fifties and Sixties in defiance of segregationist efforts to stop them? That’s what it took the last time a bunch of regressive states decided that an entire class of American citizens didn’t deserve their constitutional rights. 

The Texas law, then, is not just an attack on reproductive freedom, or even on women full stop, though it is both of those things. It is part of a broader, retrograde attack on New Deal /  civil rights era progressivism in favor of the white nationalist theocracy that the American right craves. 

And these folks are just getting started. 

HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE

There are seven Catholics on the Supreme Court, six of them conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. (See here for the nuances of Gorsuch.) Five of them formed the core of the decision to let the Texas law stand. 

Three years ago, almost to the week. I published an essay in these pages that touched on that fact, called “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court.” Sadly, it is absolutely pertinent still.

These guys will have the power to decide the future of reproductive rights in this country and to dictate what an American woman can or cannot do with her own body, to include the authority to make abortion illegal if they so wish. And those five men very likely will do exactly that, even though roughly 70% of Americans oppose the idea.

To that end, the Court’s Catholic majority won’t criminalize abortion by blatantly overturning Roe; in this day and age that’s too obvious, even for them. What they will do is cut the heart of that ruling without even having the courage to admit what they’re up to. 

In that regard, we might say that evangelicals made a winning devil’s bargain in 2016 by backing Donald Trump, who put three of the five justices on the Supreme Court who formed the core of this non-decision. We might say that, except that it was no devil’s bargain at all. Evangelicals didn’t hold their nose over Trump’s racism, misogyny, lack of piety, cruelty toward children, and myriad other ills just in order to get Supreme Court justices: they loved it all.

In Slate, veteran SCOTUS watcher Mark Joseph Stern wrote:

Perhaps it was inevitable that this Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, not with a momentous majority opinion, but by doing nothing. That’s all it took for the Supreme Court to let Texas’ six-week abortion ban take effect on Sept. 1: silence.

At a bare minimum, the monumental conflict over reproductive autonomy deserved a full and fair hearing in open court. Instead, the Supreme Court has let an established constitutional right die in the shadows.

Singling out Kavanaugh and Barrett in particular, he cited their comfort with “manipulating the court’s procedures to reach radical results,” and proficiency  in overruling precedent without acknowledging it

SCOTUS has already taken a case that will probably gut abortion rights by June 2022. But with its new law, Texas handed Kavanaugh and Barrett a gift: They could eviscerate Roe months earlier without writing a single word. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did the dirty work for SCOTUS by preventing a federal judge from blocking the ban or even holding a hearing on its constitutionality. All the justices had to do was nothing.

Stern notes that “the court’s inaction is especially galling in light of its aggressive intervention in cases it deems important,” including emergency rulings to challenge blue states’ COVID restrictions, end the CDC’s eviction moratorium, and reverse lower court decisions blocking Trump’s assault on legal immigration. But abortion? Nah. 

By refusing to lift a finger, the Supreme Court has telegraphed to the states that it does not view an illegal assault on abortion rights as a pressing matter requiring immediate attention. It gave the green light to impatient red states that won’t wait for SCOTUS to reverse precedent. These states can pass blatantly unconstitutional laws, persuade far-right judges not to block them, and count on the Supreme Court to stay out of it.

SIX FLAGS OVER “CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR”

A number of pundits have suggested that with this Texas law—being copycatted as we speak in other Republican-controlled states, such as Florida, South Carolina, Arizona, and Ohio, with others likely to follow—the GOP has become the proverbial dog that caught that car. For four decades the party has been able to gyrate its base over abortion without having to deliver much in the way of results. Now that promise is gone—fulfilled you might say, but no longer available as a GOTV strategy, especially for anti-abortion fanatics who are one-issue voters. 

In The Atlantic, David Frum writes that “Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option,” in which “they could use pro-life rhetoric to win support” at low political cost.  

Pre-Texas, Republican politicians worried a lot about losing a primary to a more pro-life opponent, but little about a backlash if they won the primary by promising to criminalize millions of American women. That one-way option has just come to an end. 

Now Republicans may have simultaneously forfeited a core right wing voting bloc while energizing a left wing one. Frum speculates that it’s possible that “anti-abortion-rights politicians are about to feel the shock of their political lives. For the first time since the 1970s, they will have to reckon with mobilized opposition that also regards abortion as issue No. 1 in state and local politics.”

Instead of narrowly failing again and again, feeding the rage of their supporters against shadowy and far-away cultural enemies, abortion restricters have finally, actually, and radically got their way. They have all but outlawed abortion in the nation’s second-largest state, and voted to subject women to an intrusive and intimate regime of supervision and control not imposed on men. 

The GOP’s uncharacteristic absence of gloating in the wake of the SCOTUS ruling suggests that they know the spot they’re in, as did the stealthful means by which the Court’s conservatives pulled the plug on Roe, which was already on life support. 

Stern again:

Initially, the New York Times and the Washington Post treated the court’s inaction as a below-the-fold story. It took several hours on Wednesday morning for much of the media to catch up with the fact that SCOTUS allowed a state to ban abortion. And this, we can assume, is exactly how the conservative justices wanted to end Roe: not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with silence, confusion, and queasy uncertainty.

So might this backfire on the GOP, electorally speaking? Maybe. Maybe it will indeed be the end of driving evangelicals to the polls without provoking an equally passionate turnout from the pro-choice side. (Yes, I know there are plenty of women who are rabidly anti-choice, but it’s not an issue divided strictly along gender lines.) But others have argued that it’s much more complicated, and that this notion of a silver lining is deluded wishful thinking by Democrats. We shall see.

In any case, Texas Republicans, and Republicans in general, aren’t taking any chances. They clearly know how unpopular this policy will be with tens of millions of Americans, not unlike lots of other GOP policies (more tax cuts for the rich, anyone?) which is why they have twinned it with a relentless campaign of voter suppression and electoral subversion. That campaign is especially crucial in a state like Texas that almost turned blue last time and whose demographics are continuing to trend in that direction.

Frum again: 

(T)here’s already compelling evidence that Texas Republicans understand how detested their new abortion law will soon be—not only in New York City and Los Angeles, but also in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth. They took the precaution of preceding the nation’s most restrictive abortion law with one of the nation’s most suppressive voting laws. It’s as if they could foresee what Texas would do to them if all qualified Texans could vote. 

The question now will be whether the angry passion among Democratic voters ignited by this draconian new law and others like it will be enough to overcome the outrageous anti-democratic battlements that the GOP has put up around them. 

Frum argues that the oppressive new Texas voting law “only impedes voting; it does not prevent it. The 2020 election showed that voter suppression can only do so much to protect a sufficiently unpopular incumbent.” True, but the law we are talking about was enacted post-2020, and places far more severe restrictions on voting than were in place to help Trump. Indeed, his loss is the precise reason why the GOP felt the need to enact such laws.

If pro-choice passion is not sufficient to put Democrats in power, or if Republican rigging of the system prevails enough to prevent it, Frum suggests that we might be heading into a situation on abortion comparable to Prohibition, wherein “for a dozen years, metropolitan America lived under rules imposed by non-metropolitan America. Then the whole experiment utterly collapsed. Alcohol prohibition failed so dismally, both in practice and in politics, that even the prohibitionists had to surrender. Only then could the United States move to a stable equilibrium of national legality bounded by locally acceptable regulations.”

Perhaps the same will happen after Americans have to live for a few years under a religiously-driven medieval foreclosure of reproductive rights. Cold comfort to the women with unwanted pregnancies during that interim, however. 

MASKED AND NO LONGER ANONYMOUS

Whether they pay a price at the polls or not, one thing is clear: Republicans will no longer be able to pretend that they are not out to end Roe v. Wade once and for all. Ironically for a bunch of people who have made a fetish of their opposition to masks, the mask is now off Republican hypocrisy over reproductive rights, and they stand bare-faced with their monstrous misogyny. (Ooh, I do love a good metaphor. Also a bad one.)

Laura Bassett writes in The Atlantic of how the Texas law means the jig is up on this longstanding Republican charade:

For half a decade, Republicans—especially self-described moderate members of the party—have been gaslighting America on the issue of abortion rights, pretending they didn’t know that Donald Trump’s Supreme Court picks were always planning to overturn Roe. A central goal of the conservative judicial movement that these justices came out of is overturning Roe. The Federalist Society handpicked them for that reason. It’s a transparently phony act, one that’s now been exposed as such.

Sitting before the Senate during his 2018 confirmation hearings—before he broke out in a tear-stained hissy fit over how unfairly he was being treated—Brett “I Like Beer” Kavanaugh, in full Eddie Haskell mode, insisted Roe was “settled law.” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska called women “hysterical” for fearing that the federally protected right to control their own  bodies was in danger. (Phrasing, Ben, phrasing.) 

In that aforementioned 2018 essay for the blog, I wrote this ahead of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings:

Kavanaugh will surely put on a ferocious Apache dance in claiming how he can’t possibly speculate about how he might rule in some hypothetical future case such as, oh I don’t know, abortion. He will also go full Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in implying that he has the utmost reverence for legal precedent and is anything but an activist judge looking to overturn Roe v. Wade. Perish the thought! In fact, he already began that charm offensive with his remarks at his nomination, stressing his allegedly female-friendly bonafides. (He coached his daughters’ basketball teams! Rest easy, feminists!) All of this will be carefully calculated to reassure middle-of-the road voters and centrist(ish) GOP senators like Collins and Murkowski that he is not going to gut that landmark ruling.

Then, once on the bench, he will do precisely that.

A year before that, way back in 2017, Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate:

(T)here is little doubt that Kavanaugh will gut Roe at the first opportunity. Indeed, he has already provided a road map that shows precisely how he’ll do it….

A conservative state will pass a draconian anti-abortion restriction—one that shutters all abortion clinics, perhaps, or outlaws abortion after a fetal “heartbeat” is detected. With Kavanaugh providing the decisive fifth vote, the court will rule that the state law does not pose an “undue burden” to abortion access; after all, the government has an interest in “favoring fetal life,” and women who truly want an abortion can go to another state. The majority may not admit what it is doing. But in practice, it will be overturning Roe.

Kavanaugh is the ideal candidate to cast that fifth vote and even write the opinion. He has already proved that he can pretend to adhere to Roe while hollowing out its core holding. He has revealed a striking aptitude for intellectual dishonesty, pretending to follow precedent while enshrining anti-abortion dogma into law. His disingenuousness will be an asset on the Supreme Court. And within a few years, the United States will be a country of Jane Does.”       

HUT TWO FOUR THREE

And so, with the Texas abortion law, the forces of right wing autocracy in America march steadily on. Control of the courts is just another front in that war, along with voter suppression and subversion, all of them battlegrounds on which the American right has been waging a slow-burning but relentless insurgency for decades while Democrats slumbered, naively putting their faith in the strength of our institutions and the goodwill of their opponents.  

That may well be democracy’s epitaph.

It’s one thing to enact laws like the one in Texas; it’s another to enact them in defiance of the will of the majority. That’s what the GOP is doing, and not just on this topic. Nationally, Americans support maintaining Roe 58% to 32 %. More broadly, 80% of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances (including 32% of who believe it should be legal in all circumstances), while only 19% say it should be illegal no matter what. 

In Texas, the issue splits the citizenry pretty evenly, but the new law’s failure to make exceptions in cases of rape and incest go too far even for most pro-life Texans.

But you might have noticed that Republicans’ whole megillah these days is countermajoritarian rule, given that they can’t win national elections outright, a reign to be established and maintained through the aforementioned electoral suppression, gerrymandering, disinformation, legislative obstructionism, and other skullduggery. 

Filipovic again:

This is the strategy for a party that increasingly cannot win fair and square: Rig the game. Make it harder for people to vote so that an ideological minority can maintain its grip on political power. Claim political opposition is the real authoritarianism, while using the courts and legislatures to enact authoritarian laws that serve your aims. Keep women and those who love and support them scared, ostracized, and under the very real threat of having their lives ruined—and in refusing women abortions, keep them poorer, more tethered to abusers, and less able to pursue their dreams and aspirations.

Let’s play out just how cutthroat this will be, and the stakes in play. 

If Republicans re-take the House in the midterms, they will immediately move to impeach Biden, because of course. They were set to do so regardless but now will use Afghanistan to dress the effort up in the mufti of legitimacy. (Never mind their own culpability for that debacle, and never mind that this same party did not think that a president accepting covert aid from a hostile foreign power, or blackmailing an ally for personal gain, or fomenting a violent insurrection to remain in office, merited even a polite throat-clearing by way of complaint.)

I don’t imagine for a moment that the GOP will get 66 votes to convict in the Senate, but it won’t matter. They will succeed in gumming up the works for the next year or more heading into the 2024 presidential race, furthering the paralysis of our democracy—exactly the outcome that the “government is bad” con men of the Republican Party have been peddling since 1932. And they will have engineered it to be so.

In our hyperpartisan climate, will impeachment then become the new normal? It might, but the very question reeks of bothsidesism. The two impeachments of Donald Trump could not have been more in order if they had been hypothetical examples laid out by the Founding Fathers themselves in “The Constitution: An Owner’s Manual.” (If an autogolpe isn’t impeachable, what is?) He could have been impeached for a couple more things as well. An impeachment of Joe Biden, by contrast, would be a partisan farce, unless he tries to sell Alaska back to Russia between now and then.

No, this would not be the fault of some mythical “divided America” in which both parties are equally vile; it would be the fault of Republican scorched earthism going back at least to the early Nineties. (Thanks Newt Gingrich, gravedigger of democracy!)

A Republican-controlled House might also well make Trump Speaker (who, constitutionally, doesn’t have to be an elected member of that body). Not that Trump has the cognitive skills or attention span to handle the managerial demands of the job, but he would be a troublesome figurehead, foisted back into the public eye to rouse the MAGA base. (And his installation would be just another humiliation that the invertebrate Kevin McCarthy will eagerly accept. I guess Kevin must like the taste of Trump’s shoe polish on his tongue.)

The California gubernatorial recall is another example of the current dysfunction, and one that presents dangers at the national level as well. If Gavin Newsom is recalled, and the frail 88-year-old Diane Feinstein dies in the next 17 months before California’s next election, the state’s new interim governor—likely Republican talk show host Larry Elder—will be able to hand control of the US Senate back to the GOP even before the midterms. 

Polls currently tip Newsom to hang on by the skin of his very straight white teeth, but should he lose, Feinstein ought to retire and allow him to appoint a younger Democratic replacement in his lame duck period. Would Republicans scream like their testicles were caught in a beartrap? You bet. Boo hoo. Were the tables turned, they’d do the same, gleefully, and sneer at Democrats for daring to voice objection. 

RACING/FIGHTING IN THE STREET

I have long feared that Biden’s win and these first two years of his term while his party controls Congress (not that it feels like it) will prove to be but the eye of the storm, a brief respite before neo-fascism comes roaring back with a vengeance. We already see the Republican sorcerers trying to conjure that outcome. The midterms will be the first test, and the presidential race of 2024 the next. 

Afghanistan is tailor-made for the GOP to campaign on, allowing them to unjustly reclaim their mantle as the macho party of national security, even though they bear far more blame for that debacle than Biden or the Democrats. They will also pummel Joe for not getting COVID under control, even though it’s their own anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers—egged on by malignant Fox News propaganda—that are hindering the valiant effort of public health officials and responsible Americans. They will savage him for not getting more done, on infrastructure and everything else, even though they themselves blocked that legislation, or if he does succeed, blame him for not being sufficiently bipartisan, when they all voted against it and tried to sabotage it in every way.

We all know the playbook.

And Donald is poised to either run again, or play kingmaker, which might be even worse. 

In 2020 Trump was the incumbent—a liability for him, given his shambolic mismanagement style and ghastly record, including hundreds of thousands dead in the pandemic. But in 2024 it will be Biden defending his performance to a fickle public cursed with the memory of a goldfish, while Trump will be back in his natural role as loudmouthed, bombthrowing outsider promising the moon like the con man he is. 

It’s madness, of course, to think that the American people might return this cretin to office only four years after chucking him out on a Mavericks-sized wave of blood, but it could happen. He remains toxically unpopular, it’s true: indeed, for the GOP, a Trump run might be the same kind of unforced, self-inflicted wound as the Texas abortion bill, in terms of harming Republican prospects at the polls. But don’t rule it out. In addition to our short memories, we Americans are highly susceptible to the grifter’s pitch that “I alone can fix it,” even after recently watching him bollocks it all up in the first place. 

Trump of course need not be on the ticket for Republican horror show to be sufficiently nightmarish in ’24. Even without him, the GOP has so thoroughly—and willingly—remade itself in his pustulent image that a DeSantis or Abbott or Cotton or Haley candidacy would be just as bad. In fact, a Trumpist candidate without hideous scarlet “T” of actually being Trump might be far more dangerous, by which I mean, electable. 

And given the GOP-engineered distortion of the vote, that Republican standard bearer may well win….and if he or she doesn’t, Republican loyalists (via their structural gaming of the system) may by then be in place to hand the race to him or her anyway, or at the very least create chaos by insisting—again—that the election was stolen. More dramatically, after four years of being fed that lie about the 2020 election, and having tried and failed to mount a coup without suffering any negative repercussions, they will be emboldened to resort to mob violence again, or worse, to get what they want. 

GILEAD CALLING

Texas offers a preview of what an America under unchallengeable Republican rule would look like. There are lots of hideous angles to it, from guns to institutionalized white supremacy to a venal and unfettered kleptocracy, but one trademark aspect is sure to be the resurgence of the patriarchy.

It would be journalistic malpractice, or at least a violation of the bylaws of the Cliché Slingers’ Guild, not to note hereFlorynce Kennedy’s quote, often misattributed to Gloria Steinem, that if men could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament. (Steinem and Kennedy say they first heard it from a salty female cab driver in Boston.) In that regard, the GOP has shown its hand in the ugliest possible way. It’s up to us make them feel the punishment, even if it means scaling the walls of outrageous voter suppression that Republicans have erected.

The alternative, come 2022 and 2024, is a whole country that looks a lot like Texas.

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Photo: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Unveiling New Uniforms.” Satire by Paul Leigh. Enough people were taken in that Snopes had to clear the air….because satire is dead when things happen like what happened in Texas last week.