The Return of Mr. X (Part 2)

Donald Trump, as seen in the forthcoming remake of Last Year at Marienbad

This week, the second half of my interview with “Mister X,” a veteran Democratic operative currently consulting for the Biden campaign.

In Part 1, we discussed the state of the presidential race, the Teflon nature of Joe Biden, and who can stop Trump’s power grab. (Hint: it won’t be Moscow Mitch or the Supreme Court). In Part 2, Mr. X takes on what the GOP will look like if Trump loses, what America will look like if he wins, the odds of South Carolina having two black senators, what Trumpism and smallpox have in common, and the chances that—gulp—Trump will run again in 2024.

THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Last time we talked about the very real possibility that Trump will try to defy the results of the election, and who will stop him, and how. I didn’t sleep for a week after that.

So in the interest of me getting some rest, let’s turn to a more pleasant scenario. Let’s say Trump does go, one way or another. What do you think is the future of the Republican Party?

MR. X: Well, after 2012, they had lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections (Ed.: 2016 made it six out of seven), and they were really questioning things, and they talked about what to do, but they didn’t follow it up. As soon as Trump came in, he blew it all to shit.

They know they have a problem. They are demographically dinosaurs and this election will be proof positive that even someone who is down on his hands and knees begging old poor white people to vote for him can’t win a general election. That will scream that they’re in the wrong place and they’re going to have to rethink it. If not, they’ll be like the Federalists who hung around until 1812, like three of them left in the Senate. They’ll be like the Know Nothings, basically. But this is just not very future-looking.

People have been talking about the demise of Republican Party since 2012, but the angry demographic that is the Republican Party now will live for a while, and there will still be states where they will win—which stuns me still—places where the majority of people believe that stuff: Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, the Southern states. But this is a country that’s becoming more and more of a mosaic of different cultures—if you go to Queens you see it in a perfect amalgam. Opposing that is just a terrible strategy.

So the GOP is going to have to find a way to open their hearts to polycultural America. That means that they’re going to have to figure out ways to appeal to an audience beyond just angry white people. They’ve got to figure out something that’s not just hate.

The other thing about those angry white people is that they’re actually some of the Americans who are most reliant on government. So it’s incredibly ironic. At some point that just can’t hold, but I don’t know what point that is.

TKN: Is there room for that reinvention to happen within the Republican Party? Or—and I’ll show my bias here—is the Republican brand so damaged by its association with Trump that a new conservative party needs to emerge that can occupy what used to be that center-right space?

MR. X: Well, because of the way the system is set up, it’s hard to make it out of the primaries without appealing to the hardened, right-wing white nutcases who want a marriage of George Wallace and Jerry Falwell.

TKN: That’s why I’m skeptical that a genuine, reasonable conservative faction can arise within the current Republican Party. They have to break away.

MR. X: So if anti-Trump conservatives were to build something like that, what does it look like and who would do it? Would it be the Lincoln Project people?

TKN: I think it’s the Lincoln Project / Bulwark folks, and their argument would be, “We represent real conservatism.” It would be an alternative: a third party. I think that would be healthy for the country, though I don’t know if it would work.

MR. X: The thing about that is for the last 170 years we’ve really calcified the two party system such that getting on the ballot for those people would be hard. They’d have to run more of a Working Families style thing, where they find a way to build a cadre within the Republican Party and retake the party, as opposed to being a third party just because the systems are set up in so many states to preclude that. Because basically the two parties colluded to create that situation.

Look, America elected Ronald Reagan just six years after Nixon resigned. Watergate was America’s national nightmare and the GOP brand was absolutely sullied. But we—meaning the Democratic Party—managed to screw it up, and when we did, the public turned right back to the Republicans, because the system is so binary. It works vice versa too. Barack Obama was elected because George W. Bush fucked it up so bad that John McCain didn’t stand a chance.

TKN: I’m sure you’re right, but it infuriates me that any Republicans who have stood by Trump think they can make us forget that….even though cowards like Ben Sasse are already trying.

I don’t ever want any of these Republicans to be allowed to forget for a minute that they supported Trump. I want that albatross hung around their neck for the rest of time. I want their heads shaved.

MR. X: I hear you. And the exciting part is that we may see some big ones drop. I don’t know that South Carolina is going to have two African-American senators, one from each party, but we’re certainly giving a scare to these Republicans. If there are no Republican senators in Arizona, none in Colorado, Alaska loses one, Susan Collins goes down, Gary Peters survives…..even if we end up with Tommy Tuberville in Alabama, people like Cruz who are slimy and smart will tack to the middle in order not to lose next time. I don’t think MJ Hegar is within spitting distance, but if she loses by five points and she’s not even a strong candidate, if I were Cruz I’d be scared to death. He already almost got taken down by Beto, which was not a small thing.

On the other hand, if a guy like Lindsey Graham does make it through and win re-election, he’s going to be so emboldened. He’s got a candidate against him (Jaime Harrison) who’s raised more money than any Senate candidate has ever raised in a given quarter, or something like that. If Graham survives, he’ll be like, “I can do anything!”

TKN: I don’t know if the Republican Party could ever convince me that it’s reformed—and I realize they don’t really care about me (laughs)—but if they wanted to convince me of that, they would have to go a long way. They would have to really transform that party, on the level of how the Democratic Party transformed from its Reconstruction-era self. It would have to be that different.

MR. X: And even if they succeeded in doing that, then the question is, where’s the space for that racist/fascist/white nationalist one-third of the country? Where are they going to go? They will never be stamped out entirely; there will always need to be a home for those people.

TKN: Especially when you’ve got 50% of Trump supporters buying into QAnon, and another third open to it.

But I take your point about how the ownership of the Republican name is valuable because of the way the two-party system is set up. So in that case, rather than the moderates splitting to form a new Conservative Party and leaving the Republican brand to the crazies, the moderates would get the GOP and the crazies would have to form their own new party. Call it the Nationalist Party maybe, or maybe just drop the charade and go ahead and call it the Trump Party.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

MR. X: I’m going to turn the question around to you. Do you think we prosecute Trump after he’s out of office? Assuming he’s removed from office in the first place

TKN: Do I think we will, or do I think we should?

MR. X: Should.

TKN: Absolutely we should, and I think—unlike with Nixon—the pressure to do so will be insurmountable. I think the trick is to do it not only without appearing to engage in banana republic style reflexive prosecution of the opposing party, but genuinely without doing that.

In other words, the man ought to be prosecuted under the law, because if you don’t, that’s a precedent that’s just as destructive. What I’ve heard suggested as the best method, and Biden himself said this in his recent town hall, is that he as president take a hands-off approach and let the pros at the DOJ handle it. It won’t be like Trump saying “Lock her up.” He’ll still get grief, of course, but that’s inevitable. It’s the right thing to do.

MR. X: I agree with you. My hope is that it’s Letitia James (the New York state attorney general) who does it, and Cy Vance (the Manhattan DA). That would be the best way. It could also be death by a thousand cuts, with his financial crimes as well.

But in terms of the election, the fact that Trump is corrupt and crooked is not going to change any minds. That’s not news.

TKN: True. But I do think it’s great that Sue Craig and her colleagues at the Times on almost a weekly basis drop a new what-would-have-been-bombshell in the old days, keeping the pressure on, keeping those stories in the news.

MR. X: I only hope that it goes back to that. Because Trump was genius in figuring out that every other administration walks a tightrope, and one slip and everyone is pointing at the mistake, but he’s literally flopping off the thing and getting back up and falling again….and because he’s fallen so often, nobody’s even noticing. It’s the inverse of the Big Lie.

TKN: The Big Truth.

MR. X: Right. In this case, you don’t even need to deny it because there will be another story to overshadow it tomorrow. So why even follow it?

TKN: But these are the exact things—or among the things—that he’s done to destroy our country. So let me ask you the opposite question, which is much more pessimistic than where we started talking today. Let’s say he manages to hang on to power, legitimately or otherwise. What do you think four more years look like?

MR. X: Well, I will call you from Portugal and you can let me know.

(Laughter. Bleak, jet black laughter.)

What will they look like? Let’s look at recent history. After the impeachment, he was unbound. In fact, after the Mueller report he was unbound….

TKN: Right. He made the Zelinskyy call the day after Mueller testified on television, which was effectively the end of the Russia probe, and the day his escape was complete. He didn’t waste a second.

MR. X: So he was unbound after Mueller. Then Ukraine happens, and he gets away with that, and he’s even more unbound. Now he’s got this third rate private army he’s built at DHS, he’s talking about dispensing with Barr and looking for even more of a lackey as AG, and in a second term he’d be able do whatever he wanted because he’d have a compliant Congress, or at least one that can’t contain him. Congress actually has very little ability to check an administration. One way that they can is by having people show up and testify and embarrassing them, or having them turn over documents. He has flouted both those things.

TKN: Attention Ross Douhat.

MR. X: If he were able to rule that way, he wouldn’t be a president anymore, he’d be a monarch, and we’d be done. And we couldn’t expect that he would only rule like that for another four years: it would go on for however long he wants, or however long he can maintain it.

TKN: Because there would be no more elections.

MR. X: Trump’s re-election would in fact, I believe, be the end of American democracy.

HILLARY’S UMBRELLA

TKN: The saddest part to me is that if Trump succeeds in doing that, it will have been done to us by the most inconsequential figure you can imagine. Putin is a murderous, amoral scumbag, but he is a proper, formidable villain. So are most of these guys—even Duterte. But to have two hundred some odd years of democracy destroyed by a D-list game show host would be a uniquely American thing. And really, really pathetic.

MR. X: I will say this: people are not voting against him because of his craven, horrible policies and absolute backward-looking view of women, the environment, racial issues, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. They’re voting against him because he’s incompetent. And it’s come back to bite him.

To be fair, you could argue that nobody could have done much about this pandemic, and you play the hand you’re dealt. But it also showed all of his incompetence and ineptitude, his stupidity, his willingness to change the story in midstream, his lack of interest in science at a time when technology and the environment are two huge issues. Ultimately, his lack of interest in trying to grow into the job is what’s killing him. And that’s on him.

TKN: No doubt. And as much as I would have liked to have won in 2016, I shudder to think what would have happened to Hillary if the pandemic had happened on her watch. Yes, we would have not had nearly the death toll, but we would have had some deaths. And even if there were only four, like in Benghazi, the right would have crucified her. And to your point about a binary system, God knows what kind of right wing landslide we’d have had in 2020, and the monsters it would have brought in. Perhaps even worse than Trump.

MR. X: If she had shut down the economy and avoided mass death, they would have said, “God, this was a non-issue! Nothing happened! Why did she destroy the economy over nothing!” It’s the old thing about standing under an umbrella in a rainstorm and saying, ”Why do I need this stupid umbrella? I’m dry!”

To still be without a mask in July and August and September is a crime against public health. For him to get the disease and then be helicoptered to Walter Reed just screamed, “Hey, nobody else gets this service. And even it can even hit me!” So it undercut the last shred of his argument about the most important issue in on the ballot.

It’s really stunning that this person at this moment could be president.

TKN: I think everybody’s tired. I don’t even remember what it was like when I didn’t come home and watch three hours of news every night on the edge of my seat. But I would like to go back and find out.

MR. X: I think the American people are sick of this. The 2016 election happened when the economic recovery had been going on slowly but surely for something like six and a half years, and things were generally quiet on the terrorism front, and we were in this scenario kind of like we were in 2000, at the end of the last eight-year Democratic run in the White House. People were spoiled, and like, “What do we have to lose trying this guy?” Now you can smell what you have to lose and it’s the dead fucking corpse next to you, rotting.

TANNED, RESTED, AND READY

TKN: If Trump does lose in November—or January—what do you think are the odds he might run again in 2024? Assuming he’s not in prison, or maybe even if he is. He’ll be 78, but Biden’s 77, and presumably Trump will still have the fanatical support of a third of the American people, plus whatever fake news media empire he builds after his presidency, and the benefit of four years of doing what he does best—screeching and flinging feces like a monkey in the zoo—without the bother of actually having to govern.

MR. X: Here’s something nobody on a competitive campaign would ever say within earshot of anybody with a tape recorder: “If we don’t win this time…”   

First of all, it’s Steve Bannon talking this up—the guy on the hook for a felony for a phony build-the-wall scheme. Since he was ousted as Trump’s Karl Rove, he’s been in the wilderness and all he wants is to get back in. I think it’s a bit like rowing toward the Titanic, but it takes all kinds. The point is, all he wants is a little love from his patron, so he floats this garbage.

Second, should Trump lose this time, I have to think the respite the American people will have from this day-to-day craziness over the course of four years—the chance to have emotional moderation emanating from the White House for a change—will be something they realize they want to hold onto.  

Anyway, politics is all perception, and Trump, you may recall, promised America we’d be winning so much that we’d be tired of winning.  I’m tired all right, but it’s not of winning. “Winning” is the entirety of his brand.  Winning, bullying, macho power trips, the whole nine yards. He loses—on the world’s biggest stage—and he becomes what he can’t stand, and the voters he attracts can’t stomach a loser. It wouldn’t tarnish the brand. It would shatter it.  

Worse for Trump, if he can’t win with all the aces of federal power in his hand, how does he do it without them? I recognize that he had to win initially to grab that power, but ’16 was a different time with different atmospherics. I don’t dare say what 2024 will look like—I don’t dare say what November 4 will look like—but it’s really hard to make the souffle rise twice.  

What worries me more is that the tricks that make up the Trump persona are already being adopted by his followers: Kemp in Georgia with the voter suppression, DeSantis with the anti-mask idiocy, Pompeo with his shameless abuse of the Hatch Act. If you liked Exorcist II:  The Heretic, you’re gonna love how this next batch of neanderthals pumps new life into the old GOP storylines. Trump was the flawed prototype. Watch what happens when a pro or a true believer tries this stuff.  

TKN: For sure. In fact, one of the earliest entries in this blog, almost four years ago, was called “Beware a Better Demagogue (Parts 1 and 2).” When Trump was running in 2016, and I was sure he would lose, my main fear was that he would create the playbook for a smarter wannabe despot—and he did. I just didn’t realize we’d also have to live through his administration first.

What about the Trump kids? Not that I think they fit the bill of a slicker demagogue—as far as Don Jr goes, it’s probably the opposite. I know he’s got fans, but so does Nickelback. I just don’t think he has his father’s skills as a carnival barker.

MR. X: Did you see Caroline Giuliani’s article in Vanity Fair? It was a little self-referential, but it was interesting to see her deep need to publicly distance herself from her pathological dad. Whoops. You didn’t ask me about that.  

Hmm. The next gen Trumps in politics.  

I just don’t see it. They may try. The father-son competition/repudiation thing is evidently super-strong in that family—beyond Bush-level strong, and that says a lot—but am not sure they get traction. They kind of have a reverse Buttigieg here in New York. The state’s really blue, so there’s no path. And while NYC has occasionally flipped for the right Republican in the past, a gun-toting, spittle-spewing Republican like Don Jr. is just not the right Republican.

Nationally, they don’t have the chops or the narratives to jump in at the presidential level. I heard that Don Jr. is thinking of running for Senate in PA, but carpetbaggers start with problems, and Bob Casey’s quietly kind of locked the place up. It’s always suggested that Ivanka’s the smart one, but I think her political appeal is limited by her Marie Antoinette attitude. And if Jared advises her as well as he has her father….. 

The screenwriter in me sees some other desperate, down-in-the-polls Republican nominee in 2024 putting at Trump on the bottom of the ticket to try to capture that old Trump magic, then dying weeks into office (thanks, Vlad!), which would put the family back in the White House. It’s so clunky, circumstantial, and contrived that it’s probably exactly how this shit goes down.  

POLL DANCE

TKN: Everybody that I know on our side has PTSD from last time and being overconfident about the polls. Although I read a great piece somewhere recently about how the opposite can be true too, that we were overconfident last time. and this time, this panic and refusal to believe in the numbers is equally misguided. So my question is: how much faith do you put in the polls?

MR. X: A month before the election in 2016 I was looking at the national numbers and they were like three or four in Hillary’s favor, but the state numbers looked like shit. So the blue wall, Wisconsin most pointedly—I didn’t think Pennsylvania is going to turn, or Michigan for that matter—but Wisconsin was like, “Jesus Christ, how can it be 0.5 points?”

But I’ve looked at these numbers this time around, only public numbers, and they generally aren’t showing what it looked like in ’16. The national numbers look a lot like the state numbers and vice versa. So that’s interesting. Florida is never going to be a layup for Democrats, but if we force the other side to have to spend money there, and he’s got to go to Ohio, and we talked already about him not having enough money……it’s almost like a magic trick. “You’re over here? Now we’re over here.”

In 2016 Trump drew an inside straight against a terrible candidate. Biden doesn’t have those vulnerabilities, and the same history of being battered by Republicans, and he’s not a woman.

TKN: So if I hear you correctly, you’re saying the numbers last time were never as good as the public thought they were, and this time they are. Which is actually comforting, in terms of this time around, and of faith in polls in general.

MR. X: Right. Nobody looked at the cross tabs; they just looked at FiveThirtyEight saying it’s 99% likely that Hillary wins the popular vote—and FiveThirtyEight was right about that, she did win the popular vote. But this is not a pure democracy where we directly elect our head of state; this is a set of states, and you gotta win enough of them.

It’s hard to run as a protest candidate if you’re incumbent. The Republican Party, going back to your earlier point, is not built to govern. It’s built to protest and throw bombs. Jim Jordan can do that for his whole life, but that doesn’t mean that when it comes time to pass legislation the Freedom Caucus is going to get anything done. They deposed three speakers or something like that, and drove another one out. These people are never going to be satisfied. And politics is about compromise.

That’s why I feel more confident this time. I don’t think that 2016 was the story of the polls not showing things correctly. 2016 was the story of people thinking this guy was a buffoon, nobody’s gonna vote for him, Hillary had better surrogates, better policies, more money, but Trump tapped into something. “Make America Great Again” is one of the best slogans of all time. If you look at what he’s running on now, it’s like, “America’s in flames. Don’t re-elect the president—vote for me instead!” Except, wait: you are the president.

TKN: That’s what I’m worried about if we win—and I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and I’ll be happy to have this problem—but they do thrive on being bombthrowers from the outside, and I’m going to be infuriated when they do that and pretend they’re not responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place. And I’ll be even more infuriated if we let them get away with it. 

But like I said, I’ll be happy to be in that position. Bring that on and we’ll deal with it.

MR. X: Yes. If we can have the executive branch and the Senate, we’ll have a much easier path.

We’re 13 days out, right? The next few days are the homestretch, because you can’t really release anything super damaging the Friday before the election; it just isn’t going to stick. So we’re just days from when the cake is baked—knock on wood— unless it comes out that Biden is actually from Venus or something. If they haven’t hit him with it yet, they’re not waiting with something.

TKN: Not counting this non-story about Hunter’s laptop, the Durham report I think was the last bullet in their chamber, and not only isn’t it coming out before the election, I don’t think it’s coming out at all, because it turned out there was nothing in it, despite all the pressure Trump and Barr put on John Durham.

I did suggest a few weeks ago that Trump might go so far as to try to have Joe Biden arrested. He hasn’t yet ordered Bill Barr to do that, although he clearly wants to, and he continues to tell the crowds at his rallies that Biden is the head of a crime family and ought to be in jail. Which is pretty damned close.

MR. X: Every day is crazier than the last. Your campaign manager embezzles $195 million and then is drunk and carrying a gun and crying to the cops that his wife wouldn’t have sex with him and he ends up in a mental institution….I don’t care how bad a script you write, it’s not as bad as this.

TKN: Nobody could make this up; it beggars fiction. We just had the Superman t-shirt thing….

MR. X: At least he didn’t do that. I guess somebody talked him out of it.

TKN: They couldn’t get it in his size.

TRUMPISM AS SMALLPOX

TKN: To me, the most valuable thing that’s come out of these past four years—maybe the only valuable thing—is an awareness, which I hope is permanent, that there is a sick fucking strain in this country that will never go away, as you pointed out earlier: a segment of the populace that are just plain racists and fascists. They will probably always be with us, though for a long time we thought they weren’t, and that turned out to be wrong and dangerous not to recognize.

Right now it’s running at about 40%. Hopefully it’s not always gonna be 40. If we can get it down to 25, then it’s like smallpox and we can control it.

MR. X: I may have told you this trip before, but in 2004 I flew out to the Plains side of Colorado, eastern Colorado, to do a Kerry thing. And I’m driving around gathering materials and getting my shit together and all the advance work I had to do, and I’m listening to the talk radio out there, and I’m like, “God, America has a crazy aunt. I can’t wait to remove the stairs and nail the door to the attic shut.” And then the election results came in and I realized, “Oh, wait: they’re not the crazy aunt—we are.”

I don’t think we’re a center-right country. I think that this is a progressive country. I hope so—that’s why I stay here and do the work that I do. But it’s very easy for people to get selfish, especially when times are good, and be like, “Fuck it. I want mine.” And those are times when we see the worst of America. The John Birchers came out of the most fulsome time in American history, the post-war years. There is a third of America that are just bonafide haters. Some of them were Democrats before (Lyndon) Johnson, and now they’re Republicans, but they have always been there and they just switched parties depending on who wants to hate others the most. But they’re tribalistic.

Look, for the first time in decades, the life expectancy of the American male has gone down. Opioid addiction, suicide—those aren’t diseases of hope, you know? It’s not like cancer or heart disease that that we’re dying of. We’re dying of stuff that’s self-inflicted because there’s some kind of misery going on. So a portion of these people are killing themselves with drugs and suicide, and then a portion of them are like, “Fuck it. I just hate women and blacks, goddam it!”

But the thing that’s interesting is that Biden is peeling off Catholics, peeling off people with college degrees both men and women, demographically he’s peeling this onion sort of brilliantly. Picking Kamala Harris was just done perfectly. She’s speaking to audiences that he can’t, or at least isn’t the best person to speak to. And the way they rolled her out, it’s was like magic as well, I gotta say. And I personally adore her, not for policies, but just because if that means more Maya Rudolph, then bring her into the White House.

TKN: She knows how to get off an airplane, I know that.

MR. X: Kamala Harris will have the best training any person could ever have to be president, and definitely be three lengths ahead for the next time there’s a contest. To be a party that’s pushing an African-American woman will be terrific, it will speak to a demographic that is both the baseline of the Democratic Party, and a great way to say, hey, America really is willing to be its best self. She’ll be the kind of vice president Joe Biden was, which was a helpmate, but have her own personality, and also be the person in the room who’s willing to tell him, “No, man, that’s fucking wrong.” Because Trump’s gotten rid of all the adults and nobody’s telling him when he’s wrong.

TKN: Clearly.

MR. X: And it’s one reason that this presidency is so off the fucking rails.

TKN: Well, let’s hope that we’re in that position, regarding Kamala. I’m guardedly optimistic—even though I’ve been pessimistic in this interview just to be the devil’s advocate—in truth I’m guardedly optimistic. I think we have a good chance, and we’ll see. If not, I’ll be one of those people with the opioid problem.

*********

Photo: Getty Images

The Return of Mr. X (Part 1)

Early last spring, I spoke with a veteran Democratic operative I called “Mister X,” an individual with more than twenty years’ experience on national political campaigns, then consulting for one of the remaining presidential hopefuls. (See “Inside the Democratic Race, Part 1 and Part 2.”)

That interview from March 2020 now reads like it could have been conducted in 1820.

At the time, with Super Tuesday looming, the big question was whether it would be Bernie or Biden, with great anxiety among the center-left that it would be the former (indeed, a significant part of that interview was devoted to how the Democratic Party could go about winning if Bernie were the nominee), and great anxiety on the left-left that Mike Bloomberg was going to step in and buy the nomination.

That’s right (not a typo): that interview was from an epoch when Mike Bloomberg figured in the national conversation.

Obviously, neither of us knew at the time that the entire world was about to be turned upside down. So I thought now—15 days out from Election Day, with more than 20 million early votes already cast—would be a good time to circle back. I spoke with Mister X, who is currently consulting on the Biden campaign, by Zoom from my own quarantine location (a former Minuteman missile silo, deep beneath the Rocky Mountains).

UNCLE JOE VS. THE CHARLATAN

MR. X: I can see that we both need haircuts.

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Yeah—I haven’t been this shaggy since 1979, when I had a Doobie Brothers LP on my turntable. I’ve been saying that I’m going to let it grow until the election, and then If Biden wins, I’ll shave my head, and if he loses I’ll slit my throat.

MR. X: Either way, you use the same tools.

TKN: The last time we talked was one of my last blog posts before COVID hit. I went back and re-read it yesterday. It feels like it was from a completely different planet.

MR. X: Yeah. First of all, Joe Biden was penniless and ran a campaign which frustrated me to no end in that he won states going away where other people spent months in the field, and with no media, and he would just show up at the end, like, “Hi, I’m here today,” and win by 60%.

TKN: All true. But at the time no one knew that circumstances would conspire such that he could not be a more perfect candidate for us to have at this moment.

MR. X: Especially since he is this historical moderate. You want to attack him for wanting to defund the police, which he pointedly doesn’t even want to do? But wait, you also want to attack him for the (1994) crime bill and the term “super predators”?  Which is it?

He just doesn’t fall into the traps that Republicans would like to set for him. Saying he’s AOC’s stooge is just not gonna do it, and “Sleepy Joe” is just not as interesting an insult as Crazy Bernie or Crooked Hillary. The reason you want to define your opponent early is so it sticks and the race is not about you, it’s about them. But in this case, Trump just never could do that.

TKN: For once it’s nice to have a candidate of our own who’s made of Teflon.

So how are you feeling?

MR. X: This is looking like a Mondale-level wipeout for the Republicans. Of course, we’re almost exactly where we were in the race four years ago, with grab ‘em by the pussy, and back then I was like, “Oh my God, he’s done.” So we can’t relax. But there’s no Comey letter and there’s no email server thing that they’ve been beating on for eight months. They really tried to hit Biden hard—I mean, they got impeached for it. But they never could pin him. And the idea that they’re now gonna come at Kamala Harris, so they can have a liberal African-American woman to attack, means they’re down to wooing the 17 white guys that are in the Michigan Militia. If you don’t have them already, why are you even in this race?

TKN: To what extent do you think, Joe was insulated by his 47 years in politics? I know the GOP keeps attacking him for those 47 years, saying he got nothing done, he’s part of the swamp, etc. etc., which is a canard anyway and the height of hypocrisy. But even so, you just can’t re-define a guy that America’s already so comfortable with.

MR. X: The fun that people have made of Biden—the aviator glasses or driving a Camaro—is all stuff that’s sort of avuncular and sweet. He’s Uncle Joe. He’s certainly cast a lot of bad votes over the course of 47 years, and been on the wrong sense of a lot of issues, which is almost impossible to avoid in five decades of public service. But we just know him. People knew Hillary, too, or thought they did, but what they knew they didn’t like. I’m not saying that because I hate Hillary Clinton—I worked for her—but because the Republican Party and its media allies spent 25 years assassinating her character, and very successfully too.

Biden, on the other hand, the public generally likes enough, for a politician. Trump’s personal numbers are at like minus 17 or something, if that. It was easier for Trump when he and Hillary were vying for who is the most-disliked person in America. This time it’s a choice between Uncle Joe and the charlatan. It’s a very different thing.

FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY

TKN: That’s what I mean about how he’s the perfect candidate for this moment. Lucky for us. Because let’s say Bernie had prevailed, or Elizabeth Warren, even though I liked her very much. If that had happened, I don’t think we’d be in such a strong position. The Republicans would have been able to demonize either of them in a way they just haven’t been able to do with Joe. Right now the idea of a comfortable, grandfatherly, very calm guy who looks and sounds like the presidents we’re used to—even with all the white male privilege that entails—is like comfort food that we are desperately craving.

MR. X: Absolutely. People will only change horses if they’re given a real option and Biden is absolutely all the things you’re describing. Also, people are just sick of this fucking weird game show that we’ve been watching for four years.

Biden is the exact contrapositive to Trump. In the debate, when Trump attacked Hunter, and Biden got pissed and said, “My son has a problem, but he’s trying to solve it,” he was talking to 150,000 people in the Ohio River Valley who also have a kid who’s got an opiod disorder, whose aunt may have died from addiction, and so on. So even that was ground in Americana, without being too flag-waving.

TKN: I don’t know if that response regarding Hunter was calculated, or if they prepped for it or not, but it felt totally genuine. And it played like you just described: like a dad defending his kid. And that was great.

MR. X: Yes. And I will say this: one thing that Biden has done by being in the basement in Delaware for so long—which Trump has been attacking him for—is that he has spent that time training, like he’s Muhammad Ali in Pennsylvania before going to Zaire for the Rumble in the Jungle. He was focusing, doing his homework, and being grilled and testing stuff, so that when it comes to the high points of the campaign—the convention speech, and the first debate, and to a lesser degree subsequent debates—he’s ready. That’s exactly the kind of preparation that you want from people who take this seriously.

TKN: Speaking of the debate, I hesitate to ask, but what was your take?

MR. X: It was like the 2000 debate on steroids—literally. If you remember that debate, Gore had more makeup on than a drag queen, and every time Bush would say something, he’d be rolling his eyes and sighing. That was nothing compared to Trump, of course, because I buy the notion that he was absolutely filled with steroids to keep him erect, and pump up his testosterone, given that we now know he already knew that he’d been exposed to COVID.

TKN: This from the guy who had been insisting Biden was the one on Lance Armstrong-brand PEDs. Projection, as always, is the classic Trump tell.

MR. X: He was like this caged animal that was always on the attack in ways that just didn’t help him. Even Republicans were like, “You set a trap and you wait for them to fall into it.” You don’t set a trap and then yell, “Look: there it is! Jump into it!” Just like, shut up, man.

TKN: Speaking of, clearly one of the better lines Biden got off in the debate was when he said, wearily, “Will you shut up, man?” Because that’s what a lot of people feel.

MR. X: Yes. And then there’s Rick Santorum on CNN, saying, “Oh, they were both throwing brickbats.” Please.

It was just a absolute disaster for Trump, and the numbers afterwards have shown it. Even with four years of practice, he didn’t look like someone you’d want to lead the country….. he looked more like a petulant second grader. And getting COVID right after just undercut his entire argument of the last six months. It was like a trap door that opened up underneath him, and I just don’t see how you can get back up from that. Maybe you can close the gap a little bit, but you only get a few of these chances, and that was his time to reintroduce himself to the public, and he blew it. Of course, that’s my point of view from this side of the aisle.

Because he watches only Fox News, Trump I think has this notion that he can mention the first three words of any crisis, and everyone will know what he’s talking about, and that’s just not true. You really need to tell a story. But he just goes, “Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!” It was like he only read the topline of each of his talking points, and not the second and third beats, which is what happens when you’re amped up on steroids. It only made sense to people who are inside QAnon and follow this stuff every day.

TKN: Well, that raises the question of strategy. I always hesitate to give Trump credit for twelve dimensional chess, because I don’t think he operates with that kind of foresight. But it did seem like he was not trying to win over any new voters so much as just energize his existing supporters so that if he loses, they’ll get behind him when he makes his power grab.

MR. X: Yeah. But that’s not the game. You can’t just build your base. You can turn out and turn out and turn out, but when you do everything you can to offend women….Maybe I’ll be surprised later, but this is a zero sum game where there’s just two people on the ballot.

TKN: But what I’m saying is that he’s not thinking about winning the election at all. He’s thinking about how he can steal the election, how he can claim victory regardless, or get it thrown in the courts, and have an angry third of the country ready to accept that.

MR. X: That’s true when you lose by two and a half points. But if you lose by nine points, that’s a bridge too far.

TKN: So do you think Trump is going to lose? In the Electoral College, that is?

MR. X: Yes. As I said, I think we’re on the verge of landslide numbers, and I say that because he’s having to go shore up his support in states that should already be locked down for him: Ohio, Iowa, Florida, North Carolina. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Missouri next. It’s like in ‘84, when you had Walter Mondale doing a rally in Times Square.

The places that are on a razor’s edge always going to the challenger. And we’ll see, but if they’re only leading by a point in Georgia right now, then North Carolina is probably a Democratic state. Virginia and Colorado are no longer swing states; those are blue states. The states that Hillary lost by 80,000 votes—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan—those are back to blue too. The question is, what other states does Biden add that make this really ugly for Republicans? He probably won’t win all of these states that are on the edge, but he could win Arizona, North Carolina, Florida. I wouldn’t put Georgia or Texas there, although I think a lot of people wish they could. Old people walking away from Trump will hurt him hugely in a place like Florida, or Arizona for that matter.

TKN: And what about the impact of mail-in ballots? The other thing that people are super worried about.

MR. X: They should be. Who knows? But this is how I see election night going, for what it’s worth.

Some states count the mail-ins early, so when you walk in, everyone will be like, “Oh, Biden won.” But we still have tonight’s votes to come in. So those votes come in and the balance changes, but then we still have the mail-in votes from states that weren’t pre-counting. And that’s the phase, the one they call the Red Mirage, which is going to be the ugliest possible time.

That’s why the hope is that Biden’s close enough to 270 that we don’t have this huge crisis……that Trump is at 140 and Biden’s at 255, let’s say. And hopefully the press has done a good enough job of prepping people beforehand that we won’t know the answer tonight.

COUP COUP COUP JOOB

TKN: So let me pose this scenario to you that’s in line with what you just described. Let’s say that the vote on November 3rd is close, which it might be, or maybe it isn’t. But either way Trump declares victory, which I think he’s going to do no matter what the numbers are….

MR. X: Absolutely.

TKN: ….and the mail-in ballots are coming in and being counted, and everybody knows that it’s not over till it’s over, because we’ve been prepared for that. But regardless of a Blue Shift or a Red Mirage, Trump continues to claim victory. How does that stop? Who is the person, or the group of people, who says at last, “Okay, fun’s over, it’s clear you’ve lost. You’ve got to go.” Who does that?

MR. X: Well, you know, the Transition Integrity Project did these tabletop exercises back in June, and basically got to the point of opposing militias in the streets. And when the question was asked, who won?, they were like, “We didn’t get there.” This is from The Atlantic article by David Frum (“Where the System May Break,” July 31, 2020). So it’s incredibly hard to know who’s the one who says, “Enough—you’re out.”

There may be insurrection style stuff going on in this time, but the military seems to have said we are staying the fuck out of this, and that’s good. And there are important signifiers like retired flag officers—the Michael Haydens of the world, the Michael Chertoffs of the world, even the Ben Ginsburgs of the world, the Republican election lawyer—saying “Hold your horses.” It’ll be the Trumpers versus the rest of the country.

TKN: That’s what I’m worried about. It could be a fucking blowout for Joe, but if Trump—who’s got the nuclear football—says, “No, I won,” or “The election doesn’t count, because like I told you, the mail-in votes are all fraudulent. It was rigged; don’t believe the numbers—I won.”

Do you doubt he’ll do that?

MR. X:  No, I don’t doubt he’ll do that. The question is how strident will he be.

If you look at how this has worked in other countries, we may have to be in the streets for days. Would days be enough, or would it have to be longer? It may take a general strike or something like that to stop him. Then you’d have this sort of breakdown where very quickly Charlie Baker (the governor of Massachusetts) and some of the other reasonable Republicans like Mitt Romney start to put pressure on him and chip away at his position.

He doesn’t have the news behind him. Yeah, he’ll have Fox News, but the preponderance of Americans don’t believe his coronavirus statements, they don’t believe him about race, they don’t believe him on the economy or what he’s saying about a V-shaped recovery. He’s lost the public trust. So the hope is that the numbers are such that the American people sort of turn away from him. If all the media except Sinclair and OANN declare this thing for Biden, it’s really hard in America, I think, for Trump to do what we’re talking about him doing.

TKN: Can you believe we’re even talking about this?

What I’m worried about is that if it comes down to the so-called grownups in the Republican Party having to be the ones to break ranks and push him out, then we are really in trouble. Because even if it’s very clear to all sane observers that he’s lost, I think he’ll continue to cling to power until he’s forced out. And like you say, I think it’s gonna take people in the streets and a general strike to do that, and all the media turning against him except Fox and OANN and Breitbart, and even that may not be enough.

MR. X: So the American people I’m talking about, the suburban moms who marched like hell on the 21st of January, 2017, and all the people who marched for Black Lives Matter, and everyone else who cares about this country: there could be 15 million people in the streets. And that would be a moment for the Republicans to say, “Uh, sir, what are you gonna do—gun them all down? Put them all in jail?”

TKN: I want to believe you. But I have trouble picturing Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham or Jim Jordan or any of these other bozos ever having a moment of clarity where they do the right thing and stand up and say to Trump, “For the good of the country, you’ve got to go.” I just can’t see them doing it.

MR. X: No, no, I agree with you completely. Our hope is that we’re not leaving it in their hands, that the American people are seeing this shitstorm of hate and poor governance and saying, and, and truly voting with their feet…..

TKN: I’m not disputing that the American people are going to vote like crazy. I’m saying, what happens when Trump gets beaten 420 electoral votes to whatever’s left, and he still won’t go? Then what?

MR. X: That is a question the Framers left out. And so….

(Long pause.)

This is the end of the American experiment in democracy.

If Trump were to do that, and you were Senator Ted Cruz, and you don’t like him in the first place, and then he malinged your wife, and your dad, and you were given the chance to put the stake in him? God, I hope you’d do it.

TKN: I would hope so too. But I would’ve thought they would have done it long ago.

MR. X: I hear you, but here’s the thing. In politics, when you’re riding high, no one touches you. Once you’re wounded, they never knew you. So if he loses by landside numbers, what is the Republican Party at that point? This will be an interesting moment. I thought this would take place in 2016, after Trump went down, but he didn’t.

If it’s close and questionable, that’s one thing. You can fudge it, but some things are just unfeasible and a big win would be that, I think. I hope.

As we talked about in the spring, if I were a Republican, it’d be such a sigh of relief to get rid of this guy, to not have my feet held to the fire every day in every way. If you’re a Republican Senator, you gotta wake up each morning checking Twitter to see what piece of shit do I have to scrape off the wall today? I mean, can’t be fun.

Of course they can’t say that out loud. So while I’m not expecting Republicans to come out of the woodwork like, “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” I think that the wisdom would be maybe we can live longer if we aren’t under the yoke of a dictatorship.

The thing is that the more dissension and uprising there is, the more Trump locks into this law-and-order / “I need to stay here” thing. So it’s like we’re trapped in a way.

CIVIL WAR FOR THE WEAK AND LAZY

TKN: We did talk about this exact issue back in March—I went back and checked. In fact, we’ve been talking about it since 2017. But then it was still sort of a longshot concern; now it’s front and center.

Graeme Wood just had a great piece in The Atlantic called “He Won’t Concede, but He’ll Pack His Bags,” where he argued that Trump is too lazy to really preside over a violent constitutional crisis. The money quote was:

“A civil war sounds like a lot of work. The easiest path is also the most lucrative. Get on Marine One, protesting all the way, and spend the rest of your days fleecing the 40 percent of Americans who still think you are the Messiah, and who will watch you on cable news, spend their money on whatever hypoallergenic pillow you endorse, and come to see you whenever you visit their town.”

MR. X: And then there’s Ross Douhat. I don’t like Douhat, and I think that in this recent column in the Times (“There Will Be No Trump Coup,” October 10, 2020) he missed hugely the stuff that Trump has really done to undercut democracy, but I do agree that Trump is an incredibly weak figure. Probably too weak to pull something like this off.

TKN: Yeah, I read that column. I agree with Douhat in terms of Trump’s weakness, compared to a true autocrat—a Putin, or an Orban, or even a Duterte. But like you, I thought he grossly understated the things Trump has done. For instance, he said the most egregious thing he’s done in terms of defying Congress is  to reallocate some funds for the border wall…..totally ignoring his wanton obstruction of Congress during an impeachment, for example, which is about as abusive and imperial a thing a president can do. 

I want to believe he’s right about what will happen after the election, but I’m not quite so sanguine.

MR. X: Trump has spent a lot of time searching for support for this de facto coup. But he didn’t get it from the military, and he didn’t get it from other places, so he’s built in DHS a third tier personal army, with militarized law enforcement like Customs and Border Patrol et cetera, and this acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf to do his bidding. You look at what they did in Portland in the name of defending federal buildings, when they were nowhere near any federal buildings, except in the way like in tag, when you’ve got like one finger on base and you’re like stretching all the way out.

I mean, the DHS: we built that thing in 2002 and everybody knew it was a time bomb. The feds said, “Oh no, we’ll be careful with it,” but then along came Trump who decided to use it like a private army loyal only to him. And that’s incredibly scary. And while the idea that the US military won’t step in and interfere in an election is great in some ways, the idea that it won’t step in to stop this private army and resolve a consitutional crisis is also worrying in its own right, and actually ends up fueling the danger.

COURTING DISASTER

TKN: The other wild card is the Supreme Court. If we’re in this kind of constitutional crisis, and he gets a Supreme Court ruling on his side, that’ll bolster him—

MR. X: That would finish it. If he were to get a Supreme Court ruling on his side, it wouldn’t just bolster him—it would finish it.

TKN: And that’s why he’s so desperate to get ACB on the Court. It might be 5 to 4 against us. I don’t see Thomas or Alito surprising us; they’re in the tank. But I think Roberts would do the right thing….

MR. X: So do I…

TKN: I don’t know what Gorsuch and Kavanaugh would do, and I don’t know what an Amy Coney Barrett would do either, but I’m not optimistic. I’m worried about it.

MR. X: It would be such an egregious power grab. I’m sure the conservatives on the Court don’t like Biden, but does that mean that you throw the entire board game up in the air because you lost one election? Maybe they do. I hope not.

If the Supreme Court does end up ruling on anything, it will probably be on a set of very specific technical issues—I hope—that might turn a state or two, or three perhaps. I don’t know; I’m not an expert about this. But the states determine their electors, and in places where there’s a mix, like Wisconsin, it’s possible that the Republican-controlled state legislature could decide to send their electors and Tony Evers could send his own electors. Biden should win handily there; it should not be a question. But it’s still not a scenario you want.

TKN: People forget that in 2000, as much of a shitshow as it was, the Supreme Court didn’t say Bush was the winner: all it did was stop the recount in Florida. Gore could have continued to fight, but instead he did what you’re hoping the Republicans will do this time, which is concede out of respect for the peaceful transfer of power.

Many people at the time thought he should have kept fighting, especially in hindisght when you look at what happened under the Bush administration.

MR. X: Well, after all, we are the party that brings a petition to a gunfight.

TKN: I do think that this time, in a ruling like that, the Democrats would continue to fight, and they should. And I will also say that, if it comes down to a decision by the Court that effectively awards the election to Trump, if that decision feels unjust, I don’t think the American people will stand for that the way they did in 2000, regardless of what the DNC does. I think there will be a popular uprising.

MR. X: But the Supreme Court really does respond to the will of the people. That’s why you get Dred Scott in one era and Plessy vs. Ferguson in another, and then Brown vs. Board of Education. Trump is trimming along at like 40% support, and if he gets beaten soundly, and the GOP wants to set the country on fire basically, then the better part of valor for the Court is to make the right choice and split the difference in a way which will favor the person who got the most votes in the most States.

TKN: This is a topic for another day, but we have some systemic problems if the only way we can avoid a coup d’etat is by a landslide.

MR. X: You’re right. Except that Carter walked away, George H.W. Bush walked away….

TKN: Even Nixon walked away! But Trump makes Nixon look like Cincinnatus. That’s what I’m saying: the system depends on the goodwill of the players. There’s no mechanism to force compliance. 

MR. X: And like the famous line says, and I actually buy it, if there had been Fox News in 1974, Nixon never would have had to leave.

TKN: That’s what I’m worried about.

*********

In Part 2 of this interview, coming soon, Mr. X discusses what the GOP will look like if Trump loses, what America will look like if he wins, how much to trust (or distrust) the polls, the odds of South Carolina having two black senators, and what Trumpism and smallpox have in common.

Illustration: Edel Rodriguez

The Impending Arrest of Joe Biden

You think I’m joking? Trump has already suggested it.

Zonked out of his mind on steroids and other COVID-fighting drugs whose side effects include impaired judgment, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur (we’ve all heard the joke: who can tell the difference, ha ha, cough cough), Trump called into to Maria Bartiromo’s show on Fox Business Network last week and said that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden all ought to be arrested for unspecified crimes against the state….which is to say, against Trump himself.

Let’s quote him verbatim:

“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re gonna get little satisfaction unless I win. Because I won’t forget it. But these people should be indicted, this was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. And that includes Obama, and that includes Biden; these are people that spied on my campaign, and we have everything. Now they say they have much more, and I say Bill, you got plenty. You don’t need any more.”

Trump made similar comments last week in a marathon conversation on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and in a series of tweets, like this one, in his trademark stuck-caps-lock style:

“DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY)!!! BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN – GOT CAUGHT!!!”

(For you right wingers who might have stumbled on this headline and pumped your fist in agreement, you’ve probably realized by now that you’ve come to the wrong blog.)

Trump’s remarks were duly reported in the mainstream media, where they were treated with the same snickering condescension as many of his other batshit affronts to democracy over the past five years. Yet time and time again Trump has floated ideas that no one thought he would carry out for real, like trying to build a wall on our southern border, or refusing to turn over his tax returns, or suggesting that he might not leave office even if he loses in 2020 and that he deserves instead to be president-for-life.

You know. Small stuff.

So I suggest we take this latest threat/promise both seriously and literally.

Yes, the idea of ginning up some transparently excuse to arrest and jail a political rival is the sort of thing that characterizes an autocracy, and was until recently unthinkable in the US. Even now it is hard to imagine, and would be an order of magnitude worse than almost any of the other atrocities Trump has perpetrated. (Except, perhaps, stealing children from their mothers and caging them in concentration camps. Oh yeah—we’ve done that too.) But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

It is not much of a leap from 2016’s chants of “Lock her up!”, aimed at his last electoral rival, to actual attempts to do so with his current one.

Donald Trump is desperate to stay in office for many reasons, including sheer ego, but above all because the presidency is the only thing protecting him from criminal and civil prosecution by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the New York State Attorney General, and the Manhattan District Attorney. The power of the presidency is also his best hedge against imminent foreclosure on some $421 million in debt he owes to unnamed—presumably foreign— creditors, some of whom very likely come from the land of Alexander Ovechkin (and Alexander Litvinenko).

In the interest of keeping his mailing address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump has already shown that he will do everything humanly possible, legal and illegal, no matter how underhanded or despicable, or how much it violates the most basic tenets of American democracy, or how much damage it does to the republic. He’s spent untold hours trying to undermine public confidence in the vote, especially mail-in balloting (even as he uses it himself); starved the USPS; encouraged his supporters to engage in voter intimidation; fomented domestic terrorism; courted foreign interference; dispatched an army of lawyers to try to hobble turnout in places where opposition is strong; and suggested that any Biden victory would be by definition fraudulent.

If you don’t think that will include trying to gin up charges against his presidential rival less than four weeks away from Election Day, and pressure his today Mr. Barr to act on them and find a way to indict and arrest that rival, you’re kidding yourself.

PAGING JEFF GILLOLY

Would it work?

Who knows? It would be an absolutely shameless maneuver that any sane person would see for the hamhanded charade that it is. It is the kind of thing that happens in Belarus, in Zimbabwe, in Peronist Argentina. But since when has that ever deterred Donald Trump?

It would also kick off a shitstorm of protest, even from some on the right, I suspect. But again: how many divisions does the Pope have?

I don’t doubt for a second that he might try it. Such is his level of desperation.

Trump, if nothing else, has a visceral instinct for the political zeitgeist. Well before the Democratic primaries began in earnest he knew that Joe Biden was his greatest threat….enough that he was willing to commit high crimes and misdemeanors with Kyiv to try to stop him. Now down badly in the polls with just over three weeks to Election Day (and some seven million mail-in ballots already cast), Trump is a cornered rat now, and we should put nothing past him.

Keen observers have long been awaiting some sort of October surprise designed to undercut Biden the way Jim Comey’s pre-Halloween announcement put a knife a Hillary’s heart in 2016. A lot of the speculation centered on Bill Barr’s bespoke “investigation of the investigators” regarding Russiagate, an inquiry headed by Republican US Attorney John Durham. Now we are told that the much-anticipated Durham report won’t be released before Election Day…..but not out of respect for our electoral integrity, more likely—it appears—because Durham acted on principle and turned up none of the dirt the administration craved, despite intense political pressure from the White House and main Justice to do so.

So if John Durham won’t wield the pipe Nancy Kerrigan-style, is a blunt arrest of Biden such an outrageous thing to imagine that the Trump White House would do?

Consider Trump’s other recent actions.

Last week he yet again opined that he deserves more than two terms in office, as in this recent tweet:

NOW THAT THE RADICAL LEFT DEMOCRATS GOT COUGHT [sic] COLD IN THE (NON) FRIENDLY TRANSFER OF GOVERNMENT, IN FACT, THEY SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN AND WENT FOR A COUP, WE ARE ENTITLED TO ASK THE VOTERS FOR FOUR MORE YEARS. PLEASE REMEMBER THIS WHEN YOU VOTE!”

At this point, in the heat of a historically ugly election battle and in the context of the actions listed above, no one can still plausibly claim that these are mere “jokes.”

Last week the FBI also arrested a baker’s dozen of domestic terrorists in Michigan who were planning to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and put her on “trial,” inspired by Trump’s tweets of last spring to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” (Note that it was a woman they went after, not the male Democratic governors of Virginia or Minnesota whom Trump also tweeted about.)

The arrests elicited not a word from Bill Barr, while Trump himself took to the airwaves……to further attack Gov. Whitmer.

THE COLUMNISTS WEIGH IN

In his New York Times column this past Sunday, titled “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” conservative Ross Douhat pooh poohs the idea that Trump will be able to steal the election, deriding him as a faux autocrat at best with none of the actual muscle that the real McCoys like Putin, Erdogan, Orban, and Duterte have. Maybe so. But since Douhat has been a consistent apologist for this administration cloaked in the clothing of “moderate conservatism,” I’m gonna pass on such sunniness.

(For example, Douhat also claims that Trump’s “biggest defiance of Congress involved some money for a still-unfinished border wall.” Uh, I seem to remember some wanton obstruction of Congress during impeachment that was considerably more serious than that.)

For five years now we have been told over and over again by conservatives like Douhat that Trump would never do such-and-such outrageous thing, only to turn around and watch him do precisely that. I hope that three weeks from now Ross’s column proves correct, and not bitterly ironic.

The Atlantic’s George Packer takes a more gimlet-eyed view, noting that “The Trump administration is using the last weeks of the campaign to soften up the country for a repudiation of democracy itself.”

Every time (Trump) talks about “massive fraud” and sending the election to a Supreme Court with a conservative majority, he’s preparing you to have your vote taken away—to make that shocking prospect a little more normal, even inevitable. Each new controversy, each norm broken, each authoritarian pose makes Trump’s intention to nullify the election results clear.

The Washington Post’sPaul Waldman notes that with his angry, incendiary tone (but only since, oh, 1986, let’s say), Trump is not pursuing a conventional strategy for a candidate who is so far behind so late in the game, that of trying to court new voters over to his side. Waldman is 100% correct of course—which only lends credence to the theory that Trump is not trying to win the election at all, knowing that that’s a lost cause, but merely trying to gin up his fans for when he eventually claims that the vote was fraudulent.

And they seem to be totally down with that.

Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, writes:

By telling Americans in advance that he intends to stay in power regardless of the vote count, Trump is implicating his supporters in the action as it unfolds. He is giving them notice that they are siding with someone who intends to work hard to see that votes are not counted. He is giving them to understand that they are participants in the unravelling of American democracy. They might not want to face this reality squarely, which would be a normal reaction. This is a lesson of modern tyranny: authoritarianism need not be a conscious project of those embraced by it. They need only sleepwalk through the roles assigned to them. When democracy lies in the dust, they will find rationalizations for what they have done, and will support the authoritarian regime that follows, because they are already involved. No argument from emotions or interests can stop that process.

VICE

Lest we think such appalling behavior is unique to the sui generis cretin that is Donald Trump, consider also the recent actions of his running mate, a man who—like Barr—embodies the lie of grandfatherly “old school” Republicanism (Reagan-era evangelical division) almost to the point of parody.

During last week’s vice presidential debate, when directly asked by moderator Susan Page, Mike Pence pointedly refused to say that the Trump ticket would respect the results of the election. In fact, he took the opportunity to spread even more fear and disinformation about the integrity of mail-in voting.

That’s a softball question almost as easy as the one Trump deliberately whiffed on the week before, “Do you condemn white supremacy?” But that’s the country we now live in: one where the ruling party openly cozies up to white nationalists and brazenly rejects free elections.

I have to believe that Pence had been explicitly told by the White House not to commit to respecting the results of the vote. Before Trump, no American politician, not even Richard Nixon—not even a toady like Mike Pence—would think to violate such a fundamental norm of American politics. But thanks to Trump, it’s a norm no more.

It felt very much like Trump had also instructed Pence to interrupt and hector the infinitely patient and restrained Kamala Harris, and Page as well: Mike’s own low-energy, Midwestern, faux “reasonable” version of the bullying approach Trump took in his own debate. (Like the Whitmer incident, the misogynistic subtext was also apparent, and surely did Team Trump little good with the female voters it desperately needs…..if it is depending on a fair vote, that is.) The lies and lowblow attacks came fast and furious from the Republican side of the stage as we saw just how loathsome and hypocritical Mike Pence truly is, playing primarily to an audience of one. Afterward, Trump himself called Kamala Harris a “monster,” a “communist,” and “totally unlikeable,” not necessarily in order of disdain.

The fly stole the show, but Pence’s rejection of the sanctity of the ballot box was the evening’s most consequential moment, and one we would do well to heed.

WHY TRUMP NEEDS THE BIG LIE TO BE EVEN BIGGER

With all these maneuvers Trump is of course frantically trying to distract the American people from his own horrific incompetence, malevolence, and criminality over the past four years, with his unconscionable non-response to the pandemic as the crown jewel.

Per Bob Woodward, Trump has understood how lethal the novel coronavirus is since at least last January, yet vigorously told the public that it was a hoax. His inexplicable refusal to take the actions necessary to combat the threat have led to an American death toll that is racing toward a quarter of a million—far and away the most of any country on Earth, and one of the worst per capita, with no end in sight.

Yet even contracting the virus himself was not enough to shake Trump out of this dereliction of duty. Practically speaking, It was probably also his last chance to stanch the political fallout and turn it around, with a Damascene eleventh hour announcement that he has seen the light. But that would require an admission that he had erred in the first place, which is completely beyond him: in his sociopathological toolkit, his ego and lack of empathy are far stronger than even his skill at deceit and manipulation.

Anyone who expected Donald Trump to emerge from this ordeal chastened—any more than he was chastened by surviving the special counsel investigation, or impeachment—has simply not been paying attention. (Looking at you, Susan Collins.)

Instead, Trump now needs the Big Lie to be even bigger. He needs to use his own survival from the virus as “proof” that COVID-19 really is no big deal (and simultaneously, a lethal plague that he conquered through sheer force of will).

That sort of prevarication he is adept at.

As part of that performance, since his premature release from the hospital last Monday, he has engaged in his Evita moment on the White House balcony, recklessly exposed his own staff to infection, held a new superspreader event on the White House lawn (Hatch Act, are you keeping count?), suggested he caught COVID from a bunch of Gold Star families (those losers and suckers!), and gone on a batshit crazy media tour with Bartiromo, Limbaugh, et al in which he doubled down on his denialism, insulting those who have suffered and died from the pandemic on his watch, including claims that he could have beaten the virus without any medical intervention at all. All that was missing was a literal Superman impression, and we’re now told he considered that.

This after he was the undeserving beneficiary of more experimental and aggressive blue chip medical treatment than any other COVID patient on the planet, treatment that is estimated to have cost about $100,000, if he had to pay out of pocket, as many of his countrymen do for their health care. Trump got it for the low low price of $750 in federal income tax last year.

Oh, and among the treatments he received: stem cell therapy using fetal tissue, a practice his own party and its adamantly anti-choice fan base ferociously opposes…..for other people. But IOKIYAR, right “pro-lifers”?

DEATH CULT 2020

It is very fitting that the White House is now a hot zone itself, responsible for more COVID cases last week than the entire country of Taiwan (pop. 23 million). Until recently, comparisons of Trump to Jim Jones have been mostly metaphorical. Now they are becoming literal.

How homicidal has Team Trump been? Tim Miller of The Bulwark writes:

(I)f you told me in December 2016 that in the waning months of the first term, 210,000 people would be dead from a contagious virus and that President Trump would pretend it wasn’t happening, contract the virus himself, personally transmit it to thousands of others while he covered up his sickness, and that while he was still possibly contagious thousands of people would pack into the White House lawn while he held a tinpot-dictator-style balcony rally on breaks from his in-home care . . . that would have turned my head a bit.

Vice President Pence held an event at The Villages in Florida yesterday, the site of the infamous golf cart “White Power” video that the president tweeted earlier this year. What we have here is 3000 high risk seniors packing into a tight space to see the vice president TEN DAYS AFTER the president held a superspreader event at the White House and on the same day that Chris Christie checked out of a week long hospital stay after attending a similar event. The president’s spokespeople bragged about the high number of attendees.

Do these people realize that this is becoming a death cult? Did it not faze the staffers when their colleagues became vectors for this virus just last week? 

Are the attendees risking contracting COVID of sound mind? Have they convinced themselves it’s not real? Or do they think that listening to Mike Pence do a community theater Ronald Reagan impersonation is just worth the risk? 

Trump’s estranged niece Mary, a clinical psychologist, informs us that in their family, illness was seen as weakness. For Donald, a lifelong germophobe to boot, being laid up with the ‘rona—and unable to campaign—was his nightmare. Therefore, it comes naturally to him to frame his survival as triumph, and engage in behavior that supports that charade, even as it puts his own supporters, staff, and even family members at personal risk of disease and death.

Could there be a more perfect of the monstrousness of this man?

But the fact is, try as he might to avoid it, Trump’s illness is forcing his criminal mishandling of the coronavirus into centerstage for the final phase of the presidential campaign, which is the last place he wants it to be. Short of the aforementioned 180, his only hope is this massive misdirection in which he portrays his own survival as vindication of his “nothing to see here, folks” approach. But the relentlessly rising death count says otherwise, and the American people  seem not to be fooled.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

If Trump can’t pull off this misdirection when it comes to the pandemic—and the polls say he’s not—he will become more and more desperate about Joe Biden in the next three weeks.

To be clear, I don’t seriously expect Joe Biden to be arrested, much as Donald Trump wishes he would be….but not because it’s beneath Trump to try. It remains an absurd and extreme possibility. But neither would I be entirely surprised. The mere fact that we’re even contemplating it is a shocking measure of how far our country has fallen in four short (long?) years.

Mirror image wise, I do fully expect Trump to use the powers of his office to try to protect himself from the long arm of the law.

Andrew Weissman, one of the lead prosecutors on the Mueller time, recently opined that, should he be forced out of office this winter, Trump will almost certainly try to self-pardon, given the raft of criminal and civil cases hanging over him. It’s an outrageous idea, totally unprecedented and legally untested, and one that would surely wind up in the Supreme Court. But as Weissman notes, what’s Trump got to lose by trying? Worst case, the SCOTUS slaps him down and he’s back where he started, none the worse for wear. In the best case, a 6-3 right wing majority, including three justices he put on that Court, blesses his claim on that get-out-of-jail-free card.

(The alternative, equally odious, is that Trump lays up and goes the safer route, by resigning 24 hours before Biden’s inauguration and having Pence pardon him, Gerry Ford-style.) 

So we have that to look forward to.

It’s madness that we are in a stage when such banana republic maneuvers consume us. 

As for the immediate crisis, here’s George Packer again, expressing guarded, almost Douhatian optimism that Trump and the GOP will fail in their attempts to steal the election and keep Trump in power:

Having chained their party to Trump, Republicans will follow him in his frantic effort to delegitimize the coming election. But I don’t think it will work. The vote remains too powerful an idea in the minds of Americans. They are already standing in long lines to cast the ballots that Trump claims are fraudulent. The word democracy might not be found in the Constitution, but Senator (Mike) Lee (R-Utah) is right to be frightened by it.

I hope he’s right. But I ain’t holding my breath.

Vice President Biden: please have a bail bondsman on speed dial.

********

Photo illustration: TKN

Source photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sick Puppy

This is how fast the news cycle moves these days.

Remember when RBG died, a year ago? Since then we’ve had the beginning of the Amy Coney Barrett drama, the New York Times’ bombshell revelation of Trump’s decades of tax fraud, the pro wrestling spectacle that was the debate debacle (or DebatcleTM), the Proud Boys gearing up for civil war, and most recently, the revelation of Trump’s COVID diagnosis quickly followed by the Nixonian spectacle of Marine One lifting off the White House lawn to medevac him to Walter Reed (and sadly not San Clemente). All that in less than two weeks.

Conspiracy theories about whether Trump really has COVID immediately began swirling, a measure of how little credibility this administration has, how thoroughly its dishonesty has poisoned our culture, and how cynical and suspicious it has left us as a nation.

I don’t buy it…..not because I think he’s above such deceit (ha!), but merely because I don’t see how it benefits him politically. At best his illness is a mixed bag for his already wobbly electoral prospects, and more likely hurts him. Right off the bat he had to cancel three of his favorite things—big Leni Riefenstahl brand rallies, one in Florida and two in Wisconsin—a harbinger of how his sickness is likely to hamper him in the final thirty days of the race. (There is also the pragmatic question of how one would fake all this, given the infrastructure involved, as well as all the other Republicans infected in the same superspreader event, which taken together would be a charade at the moon landing hoax level.)

Trump’s desperate attempts to project wellness and vitality from within the confines of Walter Reed also suggest that this not the twelve-dimensional chess some so often want to ascribe to him. It’s more like exactly what it appears to be: a science-denying fat old man who recklessly ignored the best public health advice and wound up catching a potentially lethal illness, at the worst possible time.

While no one can accurately predict how all this will play out, a few things do seem already clear in terms of the impact on the election:

At a minimum, Trump’s COVID will take him off the in-person campaign trail for at least ten days, depriving the GOP of its best weapon. (The alternative take is that the pause will benefit Trump, as he is also his own worst enemy. Discuss.) It will also keep the coronavirus front and center in the public conversation, at a time when the GOP would dearly like it to be pushed aside. And lastly, should Trump still be debilitated come November 3rd, it will make it harder for him to carry out his well-telegraphed (and already underway) plan to contest the results of the election and claim the right to stay in power regardless of the results of the vote.

One can only hope.

ABUNDANCE

Events moved especially fast last Friday, when most of America awoke to the news that Donald and Melania had tested positive. Initially we were told his symptoms were mild, which was a sure sign that they were severe. By that afternoon, he was being flown by Marine One—not normally a dustoff bird—to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Characteristically trying to play down the severity of the situation, the White House announced that Trump was being hospitalized out of “abundance of caution.” If so, former Minnesota Senator Al Franken acidly noted, it was the first time since the emergence of the coronavirus that this administration had ever acted out of an “abundance of caution.”

The New Yorker editor David Remnick writes:

Any ailing individual ought to be able to depend on the best wishes of others—and on affordable, decent health care. Trump can depend on both, even if millions of Americans cannot. We can only hope that he and his wife get through the virus in a couple of weeks with minimal suffering, and, with prime medical attention and a modicum of luck, there’s reason to think that they will.

But, as President and as a candidate for reëlection, Trump should not count on the silencing of American citizens—on a deference that he has never shown to the people whom he swore to protect and has not. Because of his ineptitude and his deceit, because he has encouraged a culture of heedlessness about the wearing of masks and a lethal disrespect for scientific fact, he bears a grave responsibility for what has happened in this country.

As far back as last February, Donald Trump knew the novel coronavirus pandemic was deadly; he told Bob Woodward so, privately. At the same time, he was telling the American people it was a hoax, that it would miraculously disappear, that we didn’t need to wear masks or social distance or reevaluate our faith in him as an all-mighty god-emperor and steward of the national welfare. He and his team subsequently made conscious choices to deny assistance to various states and municipalities for partisan reasons, some of those choices driven by racially motivated reasons. He attacked his own scientists, disseminated misinformation to include stumping for snake oil cures, and mocked preventive measures, among other atrocities. History will hold him and his minions murderously culpable for a national response that wasn’t just botched but criminal.

So to see him catch that very disease now?

Remnick again:

From the start of his Presidency, Donald Trump has threatened the health and the security of the United States. It has now been made clear that Trump’s incompetence, cynicism, and recklessness have threatened his own welfare. Even the best security system and the most solicitous medical officers in the world could not protect him from a danger that he insisted on belittling and ignoring.

Joe Biden, like all other decent Americans, immediately wished the president a speedy recovery. Can we imagine Trump doing the same if the roles were reversed? Of course not. He would be onstage cackling that Biden was “weak” for getting sick. (“I like presidents who don’t catch COVID,” as the meme illustrated with a laughing John McCain goes. Check your Internet for dates and times in your area.) Indeed, in one of his video tweets from Walter Reed, Trump framed his hospitalization as an act of bravery and sacrifice on his part. Just in case anyone feels even an iota of sympathy for him, he is there to quickly remind us who he really is.

Fox News laughably called for Biden to suspend his campaign while Trump recovers…..as if Trump would ever do likewise. (In fact, Biden immediately pulled his negative ads as soon as word broke of the president’s illness; the Trump campaign pointedly said it would not do the same.)

So no matter how humane and magnanimous we wish to be, it is all but impossible to gaze upon Trump’s infection with COVID without noting the irony, and if I’m honest, a certain amount of grim schadenfreude.

For I genuinely do wish Trump a full recovery, as the premature embrace of the Grim Reaper would, in a way, be yet another way in which he has dodged justice and accountability his whole life. Like a great many of his critics and foes, I don’t want Donald Trump to die of COVID. I want him to recover, get beaten like Ginger Baker’s drum kit on November 3rd, then slink off to Mar-a-Lago in humiliation and disgrace to await his fitting for an orange jumpsuit and his place in history as the worst US President ever and one of the most wretched human beings of this or any other century. 

Death by COVID is not the closure justice demands. So we do wish Donald well, both because he is a fellow human being—notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, or the way he has treated others in the same position—but also because the fate he deserves is something quite different.

JAGGED LITTLE PILL

The specifics of how Trump caught the virus, and then recklessly exposed others offers a microcosm of how he has endangered the entire country over the past nine ten months.

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

The Trump entourage has refused to wear masks, social distance, or follow the advice of public health experts for reducing the spread of the virus. Now it appears that White House officials deliberately withheld information about their condition, directly endangering other people who acted on the presumption that the Trump people weren’t infected. The Washington Post reported that Secret Service agents, who risk their lives to protect the president, are angry and frustrated: “He’s never cared about us.” The 30-50 Republican donors who met with Trump Thursday night at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, are “freaking out,” one report noted. Tickets had cost up to $250,000, and Trump met privately with about 19 people for 45 minutes. Trump knew his adviser Hope Hicks had tested positive when he left for the club, but he went anyway. He did not wear a mask.

Reporter Chris Wallace of the Fox News Channel, who moderated Tuesday’s debate and so was one of those the Trumps’ entourage endangered, revealed today that Trump arrived too late on Tuesday for a COVID-19 test, as the venue required. Instead, there was an “honor system.” Organizers assumed the people associated with the campaigns would not come unless they had tested negative. Trump’s people arrived wearing masks, which they had to have to enter the auditorium, but then removed them shortly after sitting down, and refused to put them back on. During the debate, Trump mocked Biden for his habit of wearing a mask.

The campaign did not tell the Biden camp that Hicks, who attended the debate, had tested positive for coronavirus the day after the event. The Biden organization learned it from the newspapers. The White House did not even tell former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who spent four days in close quarters with Hicks and Trump, helping the president prepare for the debate. He, too, learned the news from the media.

Trump announced his diagnosis—via tweet, natch—in the early hours of Friday morning, but there is evidence that he may have known as eagerly as Wednesday. On that day, he nonetheless got on Air Force One with a largely maskless entourage including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; national security advisor Robert O’Brien; Rudy Giuliani; press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; Ivanka; Jared; Donald Jr.; Kimberly Guilfoyle; Eric and Lara; Tiffany; campaign manager Bill Stepien; a shirtsleeved Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and others. Stephen Miller was also onboard, despite Air Force regulations against bringing live reptiles on government aircraft.

You may be reassured to know that Trump clearly does not care about of these people—his own family and closest supporters—any more than he does the rest of the country. Or perhaps they have all bought into the myth of their own science-denying invincibility. Or maybe they’re just part of the Trump death cult. Or all of the above.

Since then, Stepien, McEnany, and Republican Senators Mike Lee, Thom Tillis, and Ron Johnson have all tested positive, as has Chris Christie (couldn’t he just retreat to his private beach?). Tillis and Lee happen to on the Senate Judiciary Committee which is in a mad rush to confirm archconservative Amy Coney Barrett before Election Day. Chairman Lindsey Graham has indicated that the committee will continue to push forward like a Wuhan bat out of hell nonetheless, even if it has to do so virtually. (Chuck Schumer and others have, reasonably, called for a postponement while health concerns for committee members can be addressed.)

There is yet another irony in the fact that this particular COVID outbreak is being traced to a White House Rose Garden event on Saturday September 26th to announce that nomination. The GOP’s mindbendingly hypocritical rush to jam through the Notorious ACB (as she is already being called) is putting its already endangered Senate majority at further risk in the upcoming election; it might wind up costing it the presidency too, if not the very lives of various high-ranking Republican officials, going all the way to the very top.

In the words of Alanis Morissette, isn’t it ironic? 

ANOTHER MOFO IN A MOTORCADE

Trump’s appalling disregard for others has continued since his hospitalization. (It’s a lifelong habit, actually.) On Sunday evening Trump decided to take a joy ride, leaving his hospital suite to cruise around in a motocade and wave at his supporters who had gathered outside the gates.

AYFKM?

He is supposed to be quarantining. He is not. As a morbidly obese 74 year old man with a shitty diet and some apparently alarming symptoms of the virus, he is supposed to be doing everything he can to maximize his chances for a full recovery. He is not. He is not supposed to be exposing other people—like the Secret Service agents driving him around—to the virus. He is.

It ought to go without saying that that ride was an incredibly reckless and indefensible act, one that no legitimate doctor should have allowed, suggesting that either he is acting “against medical advice,” as the term of art goes (meaning, more precisely, in defiance of), or that his doctors are in violation of their oath by subsuming their professional obligations to political allegiance.

There is no denying that the optimistic, carefully worded public statements they have made thus far—particularly those of Dr. (CDR) Sean Conley—have proven to be misleading, perhaps deliberately so, in obscuring the truth about the severity of Trump’s condition, his use of supplemental oxygen, his prognosis, and other issues. In that sense, Dr. Conley appears to be in the grand tradition of White House predecessors like Dr. Ronny Jackson, another Navy doc, who famously stood before the cameras and pretty much claimed that Trump was a superman. (Dr. J is now retired from the Navy and running for Congress in Texas as a rabid right wing Trump acolyte.)

But, as the New York Times reports, “the few medical details disclosed—including his fluctuating oxygen levels and a decision to begin treatment with a steroid drug—suggested to many infectious disease experts that he is suffering a more severe case of COVID-19 than the physicians acknowledged.” Indeed, the treatments he is receiving are indicative of a patient with an advanced and even life-threatening case of the novel coronavirus. The use of dexamethasone in particular is significant, as it “is reserved for those with severe illness, because it has not been shown to benefit those with milder forms of the disease and may even be risky.”

Yet these same White House doctors tell us that Trump could be released as early as today, another thing that mystifies most informed medical observers. The WaPo reports that “Robert Wachter, chairman of the University of California at San Francisco’s department of medicine, said any patient of his with Trump’s symptoms and treatment who wanted to be discharged from the hospital three days after their admission would need to sign out against doctors’ orders because it would be so ill-advised.”

The point is not the severity or mildness of Trump’s illness, although that is a concern of course. It’s the lack of transparency—not unusual when it comes to presidential health issues in any administration, but in this case emblematic of this one’s egregious history of lies and general unwillingness to be honest with the American people.

Lest we forget, this is not merely a matter of Trump’s own well-being, but of national security as well. The dangers of a helmless ship should be self-evident, as they surely are to our enemies, even if it Captain Queeg who has been at the helm.

Almost a decade ago, I worked on a script for Sony Pictures that envisioned a biowarfare “decapitation” attack that took out the president and all the senior leaders of the United States. It’s a scenario that goes back decades—usually in the form of a nuclear strike by the old USSR—and one that motivated the shadowy Continuity of Government program that dates to the Truman era. But with the superspreader event at the Rose Garden that is thought to be the source of Trump’s infection (unless it was long-rumored hanky panky with Hope Hicks), we have seen something approaching that for real.

Then again, like Queeg, Trump doing nothing is in many ways better than Trump hard at work.

CREDIBILITY GAP

Many of Dr. Conley’s comments an answers to questions have been meticulously constructed to give the rosiest possible picture without outright lying. As Dr. Leana S. Wen writes in the Washington Post:

On Saturday, Conley repeatedly evaded questions about whether the president required supplemental oxygen. On Sunday, he stated that Trump was not on oxygen at that time but did have two episodes, one on Friday and one on Saturday, where his oxygen level dropped. When asked whether it fell below 90 percent, Conley answered that it wasn’t “into the low 80s or anything.” So we are left to surmise that perhaps the oxygen levels were, at some point, in the mid or high 80s — a concerning finding that points to substantial lung involvement.

Even more concerning is Conley’s admission that the drop in numbers on Friday was what prompted the president’s transfer to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. This was in line with (White House Chief of Staff Mark) Meadows saying in an interview that he was worried about the president’s “plummeting oxygen levels.”

I’m worried, too. A COVID-19 patient who experiences a substantial drop in oxygen saturation is unstable. It was correct to transfer him to the hospital to watch for signs of deterioration in case he needs further respiratory support. Here’s my question: What’s changed for Americans to be assured that the president is now stable to return to his residence, as doctors suggested could happen as early as Monday?

On Sunday, we learned that Trump has been started on dexamethasone, a steroid medication that has been shown to reduce mortality in critically ill patients. Importantly, this medication is not recommended for patients with non-severe disease. Given the use of steroids and oxygen saturation drops, it seems likely that the president has at least moderate pneumonia.

This is something else that Conley won’t confirm; when asked about Trump’s chest X-ray or CT findings, he would only say they are as “expected.” Notably, he did not say that they were “normal.”

Another possibility Dr. Wen suggests is that Trump may be further along than we have been told, in which case we have been lied to about when he first contracted and was diagnosed with COVID—not good either, especially for those whom he came in contact with but who were not told of that potential exposure.

Trump may well have already been released by the time this piece goes online; I have no doubt that he will insist on doing so as soon as possible, irrespective of the best medical advice. Laughably, Trump tried to show he was hard at work even in the hospital by releasing staged photos of himself signing blank pieces of paper. But that’s OK: again, it’s preferable to the actual orders he has signed as president.

GET WELL SOON

The amount of undeserved good luck from which Donald Trump has benefited in his long, obscenely privileged life is enough to turn the Pope into Bill Maher. To name just a few lowlights, he has been able to avoid the consequences of bankruptcy, tax fraud, sexual assault, campaign finance felonies, the popular vote, a special counsel, impeachment, and even objective reality itself. But the novel coronavirus has zero fucks to give, and on that count at least, Trump’s luck—and his ability to defy science—has run out.

Trump may yet get off easy once again. Per above, he has the absolute best medical care in the world, and we are already seeing him receive aggressive, cutting edge, experimental treatments that are unavailable to the vast majority of his fellow Americans. So the least deserving person in America is getting the most top-notch care.

But just the fact that he has gotten COVID at all is a stark reminder that not even the most arrogant blowhard can poke his finger in the Lord’s eye forever and get away with it.

With all that help, and even with his comorbidities, he may yet beat COVID, which he will brag about, and his slobbering disciples will lap up as proof that it ain’t that bad, and/or that he’s indeed the übermensch that Dr. Ronny Jackson claimed. But even so, it will keep the pandemic on the front pages, and deny the Trump campaign its desire to make Americans forget his wretched handling of it. In case anyone has already forgotten, let me remind you:

As I write this, some 215,000 Americans are dead from the pandemic—about half as many as we lost in World War II—a significant number of whom would be alive if Donald Trump were not president. 

Even Trump’s illness may not be enough to put an end to that. Even as he enjoys blue chip medical care at taxpayers’ expense, the continuing Republican attempt to openly steal this election and keep him on office went into high gear. In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott ordered the closure of all but one ballot dropoff location per county. (Some Texas counties are bigger than the state of Rhode Island.) In Pennsylvania, state Republican leaders tried to form a so-called “Select Committee on Election Integrity” to investigate the presidential election even as it is still going on. This five-member committee would be comprised of a 3-2 Republican majority with the power to subpoena election officials, the Postal Service officers, and “examine aspects of the election, even while voting and counting are in process.” 

In other words. the GOP continues to make it very very clear that it does not want the American people to vote and express their will this November. What does that tell you?

To repeat, no one knows for sure how this latest turn will ultimately affect that race. There have already been so many unforeseen twists and turns that only a fool would venture to do so. Still, I have to believe that Trump’s infection and hospitalization, however mild or severe it turns out to be, will hurt him to a greater or lesser degree. But—full disclosure—I have been wrong before.

As the culture writer Jordan Zakarin tweeted, “To help Donald Trump get the full COVID-19 experience, let’s make sure he loses his job and is evicted from his home next month.”

I’ll join the chorus wishing Donald Trump well and a speedy recovery, along with the others in his circle who were recently infected….and the other roughly 43,000 Americans who were diagnosed with COVID on an average day last week. I hope the United States as a whole gets well soon, too……and I know just the cure I would prescribe.

**********

Photo: The King’s Necktie, off my TV (MSNBC)

The Paradox of Preparing for an Election That May or May Not Be Rigged

Hands up, conservatives: Who among you, who were sooooo upset about Hillary’s emails in 2016, would have predicted that, four years later, her victorious Republican opponent might refuse to cede power regardless of the upcoming vote?

Anyone? Bueller?

This is the most fundamental sin against democracy, and we are staring it in the face.

And who among you can muster up even a fraction of the outrage for this that you had for that?

No one? Huh. I’m stunned. 

That Republican president has gone even further, of course. He is deliberately undermining the integrity of the election, starving the Postal Service to hobble the vote, fomenting violence in the streets, and generally precipitating a constitutional crisis that has experts deeply worried about civil war and even the potential breakup of the United States. Last week, Barton Gellman, in a widely circulated piece in The Atlantic, summed it up well:

Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum (the 79 days between Election Day and the Inauguration) and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.

Trump’s invincible commitment to this stance….will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before.

It didn’t require Kreskin to foresee this state of affairs; it’s been looming almost from the start of Trump’s reign, and I do mean reign. Indeed, we long ago moved from worrying whether Trump will leave the White House if defeated (see my piece on that way back in 2018, the first of many) to a far more insidious threat, which Gellman’s article—aptly titled “The Election That Could Break America”—lays out:

The worst case…..is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that un­certainty to hold on to power.

So how do we go about stopping that….especially when a third of the country is fine with it? And worse, how do we go about stopping it when, with the skill of the practiced grifter he is, Trump has already convinced that third of the country that his foes are somehow guilty of his own crime? 

THE PERILS OF PRINCIPLE

We are in conundrum a worthy of Kafka, or at least Lewis Carroll.

Donald Trump has spent the last two years doing everything he can to undermine confidence in the election so as to prepare the public to accept his claim it was fraudulent, and thereby assert his “right” to remain in power. This unprecedented, disgraceful, profoundly dangerous campaign is a ploy right out of the tinpot dictator’s playbook, and something no modern president has ever tried, not even Nixon.

At the same time, Trump and the GOP are engaged in an aggressive campaign to monkeywrench the vote themselves. This effort includes the usual Republican slate of voter suppression and disenfranchisement, disinformation and propaganda, three card monte with polling places, voter intimidation, destruction of ballots, and possibly even actual tampering with the count. (Looking at you, Diebold.) And, course, the GOP and the Trump administration are happy to have the help of the Russian secret services as well. (Bill Barr said it was OK!)

This sort of sabotage is a longstanding Republican crusade, but in the past five years it has been taken to a new extreme….now further weaponized by Trump’s assertion that he ought not be bound by the results of the vote.

Trump may yet succeed in creating the kind of chaos necessary to cling to power—and in another bitter irony, if he does, it will be in large part because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, a pandemic that he criminally botched, resulting in the deaths of more Americans than our last five wars put together.

In the worst case scenario, he may even be able to skew the count to support his claim…..and if he does, we will be in the awkward position of having to say the precise thing that Trump is saying now: “The election was fixed!”

No matter how egregious and obvious these offenses, any complaints we make will leave us open to allegations of massive hypocrisy…..and unlike Republicans, Democrats and other decent Americans have the unfortunate Achilles’ heel of principle that makes them vulnerable to such charges in ways that shameless, single-celled Trump supporters lack. This is the evil genius of Trump’s demagoguery all around.

A fair question is: do we care? Ultimately no. If they cheat, we are going to call them out, loudly. But it would be helpful if we could do so in the most convincing possible way, one that neuters the inevitable howls from the right of the aisle.

BALL OF CONFUSION

Unlike Trump, I will not say that the only way the other side can win is by cheating. It is possible, if unlikely based on the current numbers, that Trump could somehow win legitimately. I am painfully aware—painfully aware—that there are millions of Americans who eagerly support this troglodyte. People could be lying to the pollsters, the turnout could be unexpected, Jim Comey could issue another public statement, and so on.

But right now the numbers suggest that Biden is likely to win. If on the night of November 3rd and in the weeks that follow it appears that he has not, we will need to see highly credible, airtight proof to that end. (And not Larry Kudlow-style “airtightness” either. The real thing.) Because Trump has made the integrity of the election his signature issue, and because the Republican record of ratfucking is so shameful (more on that in a moment—remember the phrase “consent decree”), the onus will be on him and his party to prove that any victory they claim is bonafide.

Of course, Trump doesn’t need a definitive mathematical victory when mere confusion may be sufficient.

Here’s David Farris, writing in The Week:

It would unfold like this: The election result is closer than expected, and the ultimate winner remains unknown on election night, with millions of mail-in ballots to be counted in the decisive swing states. Trump declares victory when the (incomplete) election night count favors him, and then launches legal maneuvering to force states to stop counting mail-in ballots, papered over with some feeble pretext about the fraud the president himself keeps encouraging his own supporters to commit. Thanks to post-2010 gerrymandering, Republicans control both houses of the state legislature in nearly every contested state, and the president would presumably direct them to pass laws certifying Trump’s slate of electors, even if updated counts show Democratic candidate Joe Biden ahead. Et voila, a second Trump term.

Before you succumb to a stroke, Farris goes on to note the unlikelihood that Republicans will be able to carry out this scheme successfully. It would require them to (pick your metaphor) run the table, conjure a perfect storm, get super fucking lucky, etc etc. But we’ve seen it happen before.

Irrespective of the GOP’s odds of success, the real outrage is that are trying it at all—openly, and brazenly—and that so few Americans can even muster a shrug of the shoulders. That is how beaten down, numb, and cynical we have become. Which is just how the GOP likes it.

Farris goes on with his nightmare scenario:

Suppose that caravans of Trump supporters, adorned in Second Amendment accessories, converge on big-city polling places on Election Day. They have come, they say, to investigate reports on social media of voter fraud. Counter­protesters arrive, fistfights break out, shots are fired, and voters flee or cannot reach the polls.

Then suppose the president declares an emergency. Federal personnel in battle dress, staged nearby in advance, move in to restore law and order and secure the balloting. Amid ongoing clashes, they stay to monitor the canvass. They close the streets that lead to the polls. They take custody of uncounted ballots in order to preserve evidence of fraud.

There are variations of the nightmare. The venues of intervention could be post offices. The predicate could be a putative intelligence report on forged ballots sent from China.

This is speculation, of course. But none of these scenarios is far removed from things the president has already done or threatened to do….no one familiar with Attorney General Bill Barr’s view of presidential power should doubt that he can find authority for Trump.

THE RED MIRAGE

Apparently, Trump’s fixation on mail-in balloting stems from his freakout over the Florida midterms, when a post-election “blue shift” nearly wiped out what first appeared to be Republican victories in the Senate and gubernatorial races. (In the Arizona Senate race, it did.) In that sense, it is equally well described as a “red mirage,” a term coined by Josh Mendelsohn, the CEO of the Democratic data-modeling firm Hawkfish.

Trump has spent the two years since attacking the idea, with his own re-election very much in mind. But it’s a deceptive strategy, especially when one considers that such attacks on might actually hurt Republican turnout too. But that’s beside the point. Gellman again:

The president is not actually trying to prevent mail-in balloting altogether, which he has no means to do. He is discrediting the practice and starving it of resources, signaling his supporters to vote in person, and preparing the ground for post–Election Night plans to contest the results. It is the strategy of a man who expects to be outvoted and means to hobble the count.

In terms of specific mechanics, one of the chief things Trump and GOP may try to do is delay the certification of the vote long enough for it to be thrown into the House of Representatives, where (through arcane rules that you can read about elsewhere, including Gellman’s article, and this one by Jeffrey Toobin), the Republicans hold a state-by-state majority that could award Trump a second term. Or he may be angling to get it decided by the Supreme Court and its conservative majority—a third of whom will likely be Trump appointees—and he is betting will do likewise.

(Another good analysis of this scheme is to be found in Isaac Chotiner’s New Yorker interview with UC Irvine law professor Richard Hasen, author of Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy.)

But Farris notes that “Mail balloting procedures are fully legal in all states that use them, so asking Republican legislatures either to stop the counting of ballots cast under agreed-upon procedures, or to certify a totally different winner than the people chose, is nothing short of extra-judicial election theft.”

It should not ultimately be a legal question. And in a healthy democracy, these efforts would not come before the courts at all nor should they be casually floated by a sitting president as the plan. Any attempt to do so is no different than having Biden and his vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, abducted and dropped out of a helicopter. A slightly better ending for the two of them, I suppose, but the functional outcome for the rest of us would be identical: an election stolen brazenly by unapologetic authoritarians who would no longer have any check whatsoever on their rule.

CONSENTING ADULTS

In his Atlantic piece, Gellman notes that the 2000 electoral debacle did not really end with a Supreme Court decision, as conventional wisdom and memory holds: it ended because Al Gore publicly accepted that decision on December 13.

All the Court decided was that the recount in Florida should stop. Gore could have continued the legal fight from other angles, and many felt he should have. But that was a different time, when the stakes did not seem so high…..even though a presidency was at stake, and even though they turned out to be very high indeed. (Which way to Iraq?) But Gore and many others felt the respect for the peaceful transfer of power—a cornerstone of American democracy, as important as any other aspect you care to name—were more important.

I’m sure Donald Trump agrees.

As Gellman writes, “We have no precedent or procedure to end this election if Biden seems to carry the Electoral College but Trump refuses to concede. We will have to invent one.”

Another thing that has flown mostly under the radar is the consent decree that the GOP has been under four decades, limiting its ability to intimidate voters on Election Day. Gellman again:

The order had its origins in the New Jersey gubernatorial election of 1981. According to the district court’s opinion in Democratic National Committee v. Republican National Committee, the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls. The power of these methods relied on well-founded fears among people of color about contact with police.

The 2020 presidential election will be the first in 40 years to take place without a federal judge requiring the Republican National Committee to seek approval in advance for any ‘ballot security’ operations at the polls.

This year, with a judge no longer watching, the Republicans are recruiting 50,000 volunteers in 15 contested states to monitor polling places and challenge voters they deem suspicious-looking.

In late 2019, a senior lieutenant in the Trump re­election campaign named Justin Clark gave a private talk to an audience of Republican lawyers in Wisconsin that was surreptitiously recorded and later leaked. Clark spoke about the importance of “EDO”— Election Day operations—gleeful that “first and foremost is the consent decree’s gone,” which he went on to describe as a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal.”

He has since been made deputy campaign manager. Guess they liked what he was doing.

PANIC ROOM

Gellman’s piece caused a collective panic in the left. (As The Atlantic knew it would. Heather Cox Richardson reports that it was slated for the November issue, but rushed into print early, which I consider a public service.) Richardson also reports that Trump’s own reaction to it did not soothe any progressive fears:

Amidst the flurry of concern over The Atlantic piece, a reporter this afternoon asked Trump if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said. “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster.” He went on to say: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

In response to this shocking rejection of the basic principles of our government, Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted, “This is how democracy dies.” He said: “This is a moment that I would say to any Republican of good conscience working in the administration, it is time for you to resign.” But only one Republican, Mitt Romney (R-UT), condemned Trump’s comments as “both unthinkable and unacceptable.”

That’s the same Mitt Romney who last February was the sole Republican vote to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, yet now is down with letting that same unfit, criminal head of state put another justice on the Supreme Court, even in defiance of his own party’s self-established precedent.

Mitt sure runs hot and cold when it comes to fascism.

EIGHT STEPS TO FREEDOM

If ever a Western democracy needed to be put under new management, it’s this one. The problem is, the very people we need to oust from power have control of the levers governing—or undermining—a fair election.

So how do we stop Trump from pulling off this bank robbery? In the words of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” I’ll tell you:

I don’t know.

Per above, the challenge for us is that the gang trying to carry out this caper is also in charge of the bank itself, the cops, the DA, and the judge. But we are not powerless.

At the institutional level, the DNC is already girding for battle with an army of lawyers, already mounting legal challenges, already pushing back against the administration and RNC’s efforts. Presumably there will be no repeat of the Dems’ feather-duster-to-a-flamethrower-fight approach of Florida 2000.

For those of us in the general public, our weapons are few, but they are pretty simple and easy to implement:

ONE: Sound the motherfucking alarm. The more we publicize what Trump is up to—and true to form, he’s not really trying to hide it—the harder it will be for him to pull it off. Obviously, this process has already begun, but we need that awareness—and vigilance—to trickle down from The Atlantic and The New Yorker to Kardashian-like ubiquity in every household in America.

TWO: Let the GOP know that we’re on to them and that there will be hell to pay if they go through with it. I’m not talking about an appeal to honor or principle—don’t make me laugh—only self-serving pragmatism. Behind closed doors, most sentient Republicans know (or at least worry) that Trump is toast, or will be sooner or later. The Ben Sasses and Tim Scotts and others who imagine that they will have a political future ought to be reminded over and over that we are not going to forget (let alone forgive) their shameful subservience to this cretin….and complicity in a heist like this will ensure their permanent pariah status, outside of the minority community of MAGA Nation.

Do we imagine they’re scared by that? Maybe not. But they should be….unless they’re banking on pulling this off and establishing a permanent one-party rule. That’s kind of the whole problem here.

THREE: Get out and vote. Do it in person if it’s safe, and early if you can. Landslide-like numbers for Joe on Election Night will be the best bulwark against Trump’s attempt to gaslight us.

If you need to vote by mail, get your ballot now and send it in, in the safest way possible. In some places you can drop it off in person, if you’re worried about the mail.

FOUR: Did I mention that getting out and voting? Do it.

FIVE: Go into Election Night knowing that we are unlikely to have a winner that evening, but fully expecting that Donald Trump will declare himself the winner no matter what.

SIX: Be prepared to disregard Trump’s claim unless there is overwhelming proof. (Which seems unlikely.) Push back against the falsehoods and the lies he will sling at us.

SEVEN: Brace for a weeks- and even months-long legal fight. (Groups like Protect the Results are already organizing.) Per above, the other side will try to curtail the vote count, and resort to complex constitutional maneuvers, and generally screw with the process in every possible way, legal and illegal, using every possible means. Don’t let them.

And when they try….

EIGHT: Be ready to get out in the streets. Right away. Don’t wait for Trump, Barr, McConnell, and the rest to succeed in their legal and extralegal shenanigans. We need to make them feel the pressure right off the bat, and in ways that have never been seen in these United States. Last summer’s BLM protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd provide a model.

It is this last step above all, save #3 above (did I mention we all need to vote like our country depends on it?) that may prove most important of all.

VELVET DIVORCE COURT

Writing about the Supreme Court in The New Yorker, Professor Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor has advice that applies to the election as well:

Those with the most to lose from a reactionary Trump Court have the least access to the levers of power that could slow this fast-moving process. But they can still attempt to interrupt it with popular protest and resistance. Even if popular resistance is not successful in stopping Trump’s nominee, it will be crucial in the long, ongoing struggle to expand the rights of the people of the United States….

(O)rdinary people are not powerless to challenge the political and economic élite who have such disproportionate authority over our lives. But our power is often located outside of the institutions of tradition and influence. It is through acts of solidarity and struggle that we have been able to secure our rights and liberties in the United States, and, from the shape of things to come, that is how those rights and liberties will have to be defended.

David Farris gets the final word:

It is one thing if Trump wins the Electoral College while once again losing the popular vote, a nightmare outcome that would further erode the legitimacy of democracy and would likely lead to some half-serious talk about secession. But if Republicans halt the counting of perfectly valid ballots and have their gerrymandered state legislatures try to illegally pick GOP electors when it is obvious that Biden has won, and if congressional Republicans go along with this despicable madness, it will break this rapidly unraveling country in two. There will be massive protests in every city. Those half-serious calls for secession will instead be actual bills passed by legislatures in blue states from coast to coast. There will be general strikes and tax strikes and debt strikes. It will make our long summer of discontent look like Sunday Funday. And as much as many of us might fantasize about a velvet divorce, the reality of this heavily armed country tearing itself apart after nearly a year of isolation and sickness and fear would be violent and disastrous.

I’m sure he’s right. But we better get ready, because it’s coming whether we like it or not.

*************

Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez—AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party Believes It Alone Has the Right to Govern

Let’s be clear: the position of the Republican Party is that it alone has the right to name Supreme Court justices, to utilize mail-in ballots, to occupy the White House, and to rule full stop.

The modern GOP has no shame. Its tortured excuses for reversing itself on positions it took in the recent past, like filling a SCOTUS seat in the last year before a presidential election, or for doing things it once excoriated Democrats over (deficits, executive orders, handling of classified material, committing impeachable offenses, etc etc etc) goes well beyond mere hypocrisy. These are the deliberate actions of an organization that has openly declared its contempt for democracy and dedicated itself to the brazen pursuit of authoritarian one-party minority rule at all costs…..and guess which party they have in mind to fill that role?

But all that ought to have been clear four years ago when it sold what was left of its soul to Donald Trump.

THIS MASQUERADE

McConnell and the Republicans are currently tying themselves in knots promoting convoluted reasons why it’s hunky dory for them to seat a new Supreme Court justice just weeks before a presidential election, when five years ago they refused even to even to meet with Merrick Garland on the grounds that ten months out was too short, and the decision should be left to the American people via the new president we were about to choose at the ballot box.

This reversal comes as no surprise. In May 2019 McConnell openly announced—with a snickering, weasely smile—that should a vacancy in the Supreme Court appear during Trump’s final year in office, he would absolutely fill it. Moscow Mitch long ago made it abundantly clear that he is the owner of not a single principle except the ruthless pursuit of brute power. He is the gravedigger of democracy and will go down in history as one of the most destructive influences on our republic in modern times.

So first things first. Let’s dispense with the absurd claim that the GOP has a leg to stand here.

One risible claim the GOP is making is that this case is different because now the president’s party controls the Senate. Bullshit. That control means nothing in terms of the law. It just means that this time the GOP has enough votes to ram their own nominee through, whereas last time it feared it would be unable to block the Democrats’ choice; otherwise they would have held an up-or-down vote with confidence that they could reject him. Not that they care a whit about showing their brutality—they relish it, in some ways. But even monsters prefer the path of least resistance, when it’s available. 

You’ll also hear Republicans talk about the so-called Biden Rule, which wasn’t a rule at all, but simple speculation, and would have been fine if applied fairly and consistently. The McConnell Rule, by contrast, is “I do what I want and you can fuck off.”

You may also hear about the Reid Rule, which refers to 2013, when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats exercised the “nuclear option” and eliminated the filibuster for all judicial nominees…..except the Supreme Court. That may have been tactically wise or unwise, but it was McConnell and the GOP who in 2018 expanded that rule to include SCOTUS nominees in order to get Brett Kavanaugh through.

No one except the most benighted, Kool Aid-drunk red-hatted partisan can possibly take any of these rationalizations seriously.

Disagree? Remember this:

In November 2016, when the blocking of Garland looked like little more than a futile delaying tactic ahead of an inevitable win by Hillary, several prominent Republican senators suggested that, should she win, they would continue to block ANYONE she nominated to the SCOTUS for four years or more.

So the rationalization surrounding replacing Justice Ginsburg are so much kabuki. Any sentient person can see that the GOP will simply do anything and everything, no matter how unjust, to keep any Democratic nominee off the Supreme Court…..part of its broader scheme to eviscerate the mechanisms of a functioning democracy altogether, from undermining fair elections to denying Congressional oversight of the executive branch (NB: GOP-controlled only) to partnering with hostile foreign powers, all in the interest of maintaining its own power in defiance of the will of the majority.

WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ REASONS

Of course, coming up with a plausible justification is not necessary and ultimately irrelevant: the GOP intends to nominate a justice anyway, no matter how self-evidently flimsy and irrational the excuse. They don’t even seem to be putting much effort into the charade.

Republicans often sneer, “Everything Trump and McConnell are doing are within the rules. You Democrats are just a bunch of crybabies.”

Again, bull-shit. A functioning democracy depends on the good faith of its participants, and the GOP routinely acts in the worst faith possible. The Garland incident is a prime example.

In 2016 McConnell flagrantly flouted the Senate’s duties and the clear intent of the Founders (so much for originalism) by inventing this counter-constitutional idea that there was some “use by” date past which a presidential nominee to the Court was invalid. Had the roles been reversed, you can be sure that the GOP would have screamed bloody murder at a Democratic attempt to do likewise, and not been deterred by Chuck Schumer insisting on technicalities or inventing new rules.

That was plenty outrageous all on its own. But it would have been one thing if Mitch had at least been consistent and stuck to that invented principle. (Ha—just kidding!) In terms of following the letter of the law, the current rush to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat is actually not nearly as onerous as the Garland fiasco……but the hypocrisy of doing so after what the GOP did to Garland, and the absolutely dishonest, faux highminded rhetoric that accompanied it, now conveniently forgotten, makes it much much worse.

But as Jane Mayer writes in The New Yorker, “(A)nyone familiar with the Republican senator from Kentucky’s long political career knows he couldn’t care less about hypocrisy; like President Trump, he is immune to shame.”

(B)ehind closed doors McConnell has been raising money from big conservative donors for months by promising that no matter how close it might be to the election, he would install Trump’s Supreme Court pick. As a former Trump White House official told me, “McConnell’s been telling our donors that when RBG meets her reward, even if it’s October, we’re getting our judge. He’s saying it’s our October surprise.”

The only part of the GOP defense that is remotely true is that Democrats have long played softball, partially an admirable function of their respect for the rule of law and the spirit of democracy, and partially a naïve and self-sabotaging refusal to recognize the threat we are facing and meet the ruthlessness of the other side in kind. We see it even now in the media’s reflexive treatment of the Supreme Court vacancy as another horserace to be handicapped, rather than what it is: the latest attack on our core democratic values.

The time for that sort of thinking is long over.

AN INSIDE JOB

Many an authoritarian party came to power through entirely legal means, then slowly strangled democratic rule from within. Now we are seeing that very thing happen in these United States.

We are in a horror movie where the call is coming from inside the house.

In 2015 Noam Chomsky opined that the GOP had ceased to be a conventional political party at all in the conventional American sense of the term and become a radical insurgency—and that was before Trump. But we need not go that far left to find almost identical criticism. Way back in 2012, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote that the Republican Party had become “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The GOP’s lack of principle is now at a level that beggars fiction. Indeed, the issue goes well beyond hypocrisy and into the very ideology of power characteristic of a totalitarian state. In such a state, there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition.” Rival parties and politicians cannot be countenanced; they must be demonized to a degree usually reserved for foreign enemies in wartime.

In that regard, Trump’s reign accelerated a Republican trend that had begun in earnest in the Clinton years, as pioneered by Newt Gingrich, and accelerated under Obama by the Tea Party: the notion that Democratic governance is by definition illegitimate. With the Merrick Garland outrage, McConnell marked a defining moment in that process: a stark announcement, papered over with the thinnest and most absurd parliamentary pretense, that only Republican presidents had the right to name justices to the Supreme Court. The Ginsburg vacancy bookends that in the most painful possible way, marking how far our democracy has already fallen.

Trump has taken that Gingrichian ethos to its logical, chilling extreme, wherein a President of the United States can suggest that his opponents ought to be jailed merely by virtue of opposing him, or hint that his followers ought to use “Second Amendment remedies” to unseat Democratic governors, or to defend his ostensible right to remain in office, or anything else they (or he) wanted. Under Trump, the “Democrat Party,” as Republicans insisting on calling it, denying its foe even the right to choose their own name, is not simply a group of fellow Americans who happen to hold differing views within our communally agreed upon system of representative democracy. They are traitors and criminals. Nothing they do is allowable.

That, my friends, is the fundamental operating principle of authoritarianism.

The right wing riposte, of course, was the left is demonizing them in the same way. But two people arguing whether the earth is round or flat are not both correct simply because of their entitlement to their opinions. That counter is itself part of the insidious tautology of anti-democratic movements, one that deploys false equivalences to create a facade of respectability, exploiting the goodwill of the very system it is in the process of destroying.

LET’S DO THE NUMBERS

Without losing sight of the greater Republican threat and the need to address it, let’s talk short term tactics on this latest battlefront.

Can we find four Republican senators with both the principle and the backbone to stop this travesty?

(The magic number goes down to three if we can delay the vote until after the election, even just into the lame duck period, and if Mark Kelly wins in Arizona, whose state law allows him to be seated immediately. He’s leading right now.)

Speaking just hours before word of RBG’s death, Lisa Murkowski indicated she would oppose a vote before Election Day, and has since re-affirmed that. Susan Collins too has issued a statement saying she would not support a vote. Will she fold? It’s the understatement of the year to say that her record’s not good. There’s a lot of speculation that once again Mitch is “allowing” her to take this stance, in this case to try to save her rapidly slipping chances to hold onto her seat, and that if the vote is held after November 3rd, she’ll have nothing to lose either way and will vote to confirm.

Romney? Maybe, but far from a sure thing. Mitt’s (partial) act of principle during the impeachment does not erase the fact that he is a dyed-in-the-wool old school conservative eager to entrench right wing control of the Court. Let’s see if his flash of integrity has legs.

Who else? Sasse? No. Tillis? No. Cory Gardner, who’s in a tough reelection fight in an increasingly blue state? Unlikely. Lamar Alexander? You mean the retiring Republican eminence grise who had nothing to lose but still led the voted to acquit Trump last February, promising us that he’d learned his lesson?

How about Chuck Grassley? Last August, Iowa’s senior senator said he couldn’t support a confirmation in an election year after supporting McConnell’s blockage of Garland in 2016. Though technically what he said was, “If I were chairman of the committee and this vacancy occurred, I would not have a hearing on it because that’s what I promised the people in 2016.” Of course, he’s not chairman of the judiciary committee, Lindsey Graham is, so maybe that offers Chuck a loophole through which to weasel his way out.

Speaking of which, what of Senator Graham, who is on video proclaiming that, in the interest of consistency, that he would not support confirming a Supreme Court nominee in the year before the 2020 election, even boasting that he should be held accountable for his comments. (He made a similar claim two years before, in 2016, also caught on tape.)

Hold on to your hats: Lady G has now reversed himself. I’m shocked, shocked!

The fact that his promise is on film carries no more weight than the videotape of his speech during the Clinton impeachment did during Trump’s trial, when he did a similar partisan 180.

In terms of the election, Justice Ginsburg’s death has jolted what until now was a remarkably stable race, but it’s not clear how much, or which side will benefit most in terms of energizing its respective base. We’ll know in November; my guess is that it’s probably a wash. (Since Friday, ActBlue has raised more than $100 million, a huge sum, but Republicans are equally motivated. I’ve even heard of anti-Trump conservatives—or Trump-skeptical ones—who support him ramming through a new justice, and then losing in November.)

One thing that’s clear, however, is that the American people have more integrity and common sense than the GOP: new polling reports that that 62% of Americans think the vacancy should be filled by the winner of the election. (Even half of Republicans feel that way.) So the smart move for the Trump and the GOP would be to announce his nominee and use that as a promise for his second term and a chit to drive Republican voters to the polls, rather than trying to foist someone on us before the election and risking blowback. After all, even if he loses, McConnell will have no compunction about ramming a new justice through before January. (Unless he is counting votes and worried about Mark Kelly.) 

But Trump’s never been big on delayed gratification.

The more pertinent point, however, is that the GOP expects Trump to lose.

The fact is, McConnell wants to retain control of the Senate much more than he wants another conservative justice on the Supreme Court, so in the interest of selfishness and simple gamesmanship he might indeed delay the vote until after November 3rd, then push it through afterward regardless of the result. Should Trump lose, a lame duck confirmation would be an even more outrageous middle finger to the will of the people—not that McConnell cares—but as it would be safely after Election Day, Moscow Mitch will have zero fucks to give.

METHODS OF COUNTERATTACK

Right now Democrats have very little leverage, and if recent history is any guide (NB: it is), none of it will deter the Republicans one whit. But the Democrats should rattle those sabers anyway.

Jeffrey Toobin suggests a fourfold path if Biden wins and the Democrats take back the Senate, including an end to the filibuster (to deprive McConnell of his chief weapon to obstruct the new administration); statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico (to bring four more Democratic votes into the Senate); expansion of the number of lower court federal judges; and the big gun, a much-discussed expansion of the Supreme Court.

Might that start an arms race that results in a Senate-like 100-member Court someday? Maybe. But it’s one of the few ways the Democrats have to pressure—or punish—the GOP, and the long term risks might be worth the short term tradeoff. (Reforms to the confirmation process and antiquated lifetime appointment policy would help.) If we don’t do something, there will be no more democracy left to worry about.

Is there also the danger that such threats will help the Republicans energize their base by allowing them to claim that the Democrats are usurping the rule of law? Sure, but they’re already claiming that….in fact, they’re already claiming that the DNC is some sort of Marxist Illuminati puppeteering radical anarchist terrorists in the streets. How much worse can the rhetoric get?

(Objective reality doesn’t enter into it, in case you’re wondering. I happened to be in Pennsylvania this past weekend where Trump is running TV ads saying that the “economy is in ruins” thanks to Joe Biden. That’s Joe Biden, Private Citizen, accused of ruining the economy by the man in charge of the economy.)

Would a Supreme Court unilaterally expanded by a Democratic administration have no credibility? Let’s hope that’s our biggest problem. Moreover, the current Court has already been thoroughly discredited by the Garland/Gorsuch and Kennedy/Kavanaugh maneuvers. If McConnell and Trump push through yet another nominee, its credibility will be degraded even more.

To be clear, I’m not advocating a “be just as bad as they are“ methodology. But the Marquise of Queensberry rules that we were playing by in 2016 are what led to the Merrick Garland debacle in the first place. (That and the overconfidence that Hillary would win anyway, and the failure to believe that the GOP wouldn’t carry out its then-unthinkable threat of four years of filibuster.) Hindsight is 20/20, of course; I’m not blaming anyone for failing to understand that the entire game had shifted into a far more brutal phase. But now that shift is clear and we have no excuse for fighting back just as hard.

ANGELS AND DEMONS

Among the many sorrowful things about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing is that all this Machiavellian politicking has crowded out what should be a period of deep national mourning and tribute to this American titan. RBG more than deserves her rock star status; it will take decades for history to fully appreciate her impact. To lose a pair of towering human rights figures like her and John Lewis in a two-month period is gutting.

Meanwhile, Stephen Miller unaccountably continues to live and breathe and draw a federal salary at taxpayer expense. There is no God.

It must be said that the conservative response to RBG’s death has been mostly polite and respectful in public. (In private, I suspect there has been a festival of high-fiving.) But of course, this being the American right wing we’re talking about, there have been some notable exceptions.

A friend reports that the day after RBG’s death, at the wealthy lakeside community where he has been holed up during the pandemic, a flotilla of boats and yachts appeared flying Trump Pence 2000 / MAGA flags, bearing passengers openly celebrating Justice Ginsburg’s death. Such despicable behavior is self-condemning, for any decent human being. These of course are the same kind of Trump flotillas that have recently materialized in numerous waterfront locales, including my own summertime haunt of Atlantic City, as well Texas, where several Trump-flagged boats sank earlier this month. (Attention: metaphor.)

Though it was prefaced with perfunctory praise for her, McConnell’s statement announcing that he intends to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat might also be included in this catalog of disrespect, coming as it did less than two hours after word of her death.

But leading the way on that bush league front was Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the snarling toady whom you may remember from the impeachment, who tweeted:

RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws. With @realDonaldTrump nominating a replacement that values human life, generations of unborn children have a chance to live

Despite being a great humanitarian (source: Collins himself), this modern day Gandhi has refused to apologize for his remarks, insisting he wasn’t celebrating Justice Ginsburg’s death (his boat must be in for repairs). He also argued that Trump and McConnell should absolutely fill her seat immediately. In another tweet, Collins accused the Democrats of “eroding the integrity of our nation’s highest court” (Projection 101), and grandstanded with a proposed constitutional amendment to block such court packing. (Chances of ratification: zero).

Collins, btw, is running for the Senate in Georgia against another vile Republican Kelly Loeffler, the richest member of Congress, who is embroiled in conflict of interest  and insider trading scandals of her own, thus offering Georgia Republicans a choice between pneumonia and bronchitis. (Georgians: vote for Democratic candidate Dr. Raphael Warnock.)

But it could be worse. In Delaware, Republican Senate candidate Lauren Witzke posted a racist, counterfactual meme so vile I won’t even dignify here. (Since deleted….but the Internet is forever, Lauren.) Witzke was once an opioid and heroin addict who claims to have worked for illegal Mexican drug cartels, as well being a QAnon supporter, self-described flat earther, and 9/11 truther. In another only marginally less awful tweet, she wrote:

I will not praise the woman who spearheaded the total destruction of Western Civilization. I refuse to cheer the career of a woman with the blood of millions of dead babies on her hands. David didn’t mourn the death of Goliath. I will not apologize for standing up for life.

I guess perspectives on who’s destroying Western civilization vary.

INSIDE THE ABATTOIR

If McConnell succeeds in this latest SCOTUS armed robbery, Donald J. Trump will have been allowed to put fully a third of all the justices on the Supreme Court, including the one that may well decide whether or not he gets a second term. That would be infuriating in any event, but even more so when the President in question is an unfit monster who himself ascended to his position under a black cloud of foreign interference.

All three of those seats will have been acquired under shady circumstances at best, given that the only quasi-legitimate one—Kavanaugh replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy—was engineered by Kennedy’s well-timed retirement, followed by the memorable shitshow of Barfin’ Bart crying and whining and throwing a self-pitying temper tantrum over credible allegations of sexual assault, and mocking a mockery of judicial nonpartisanship in the process. (And shall we talk about Anthony Kennedy’s son arranging suspicious loans for the Trump family from his position at Deutsche Bank?)

Jane Mayer again:

(Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute) foresees the potential for a historic political rupture if Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016, and McConnell successfully seize a Supreme Court seat for a second time. “If McConnell gets away with this again, this will be a Court like none we have ever seen in our lifetime. We will be back to the pre-New Deal era,” Ornstein said, referring to one of the most conservative courts in the last century. He predicted, “If McConnell does this, it’s not just an act of hypocrisy, it’s one of the most dangerous breeches we’ve seen in our lifetime. There will be consequences. I think there would almost be revolution in this country.”

Herein lies the real point.

Progressives naturally bemoan the current right wing chokehold on the Court and the kind of decisions it will hand down, even as conservatives celebrate that very thing. A 6-3 right wing majority would be even more extreme, of course. But those gleeful conservatives ignore the cost of their victory and the underhanded means they have used to achieve it. They may get the kind of decisions they crave, and for generations to come, but they have already gravely undermined the credibility of the Supreme Court in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans—a majority perhaps. That is not an abstraction, but a grim fact that goes directly to the health of the nation and our communal faith in its institutions.

Not that the GOP cares one whit. But it’s a terrible loss for our democracy, and another step on the road to banana republichood.

Well done, Mitch.

The GOP has enjoyed an incredible run of luck, beginning with Scalia’s death, running through Trump’s razor-thin Russian-aided win (asterisk for the history books), Bob Mueller’s narrow view of his remit, and this administration’s thus far largely successful obstruction of justice. RBG‘s death may turn out to be another lucky break for them. If Trump manages to win this November, legally or otherwise, that will be an even bigger one.

But that lucky streak will not last forever. The six out of ten Americans who are not down with this despicable regime will eventually tire of being shit upon, treated with contempt, victimized, and generally being forced to watch this criminal gang masquerading as a political party run roughshod over our ideals. Trump and the GOP are currently busy trying to scare the hell out of the conservative base with fearmongering about antifa and radical leftist mobs in the street. If enough of these egregious, blood-boiling outrages continue, their fever dream might come true.

Republican lust for power knows no bounds, but the GOP would do well to remember: pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.

A reckoning is coming, and sooner or later, one way or another, this Republican reign of terror is gonna come to an end.

*********

RIP RGB.

Issues related to the Supreme Court are a regular feature of this blog. See also: The Ghost of Merrick Garland, November 25, 2017; Five Blind Mice , July 11, 2018; “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court, August 13, 2018; and The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II, October 10, 2018.)

Don’t Count on the Military to Save Our Democracy (That’s Not Its Job)

A few weeks ago in these pages, I interviewed my friend, the filmmaker Ramona Diaz,  whose new feature documentary A Thousand Cuts (out now) details Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s persecution of his chief domestic critic, the dissident journalist Maria Ressa. He hasn’t yet had her poisoned, like Putin did to Sergei Navalny, but he’s arranged for her to be convicted of libel in a kangaroo court and sentenced to six years in prison. (She is out on bail while appealing.)

This week Ramona sent me a note about the upcoming US election:

As a person who grew up under martial law, I saw that Marcos needed the full support of the military. Which he did get but that had grave consequences for the morale of the military and hard lessons learned. So much so that today they don’t fully support Duterte. As someone told me, they’re tired of all the adventurism. And that’s why Duterte has not proclaimed martial law, because he’s not fully backed by the military. (Though now the pandemic has helped him consolidate power.)

So in the US, how will this work? I cannot imagine Trump has the support of the military, seeing as how he despises vets, right?

Her question is especially pertinent as we approach the most consequential US presidential election of modern times, only 49 days away, with an incumbent who has spent four years undermining the most fundamental precepts of our democracy, moving us closer to autocracy than almost anyone could have imagined, to include announcing that he will view any victory by his opponent in November as evidence that the election was rigged. 

The possibility that Trump will refuse to respect the results of the election and precipitate a constitutional crisis—once the ridiculed purview of far-out “alarmists”—has now become a regular topic on the front pages of our major newspapers. That’s shocking, of course—unthinkable, in fact, in any presidency since Rutherford B. Hayes. But it’s at least encouraging that the public has at last woken up to the threat.

Specifically, Ramona’s question of what the US military will do or not in such a crisis is on the minds of many, as well it should be.

The bad news, and the short answer, is: not much.

THE CAVALRY AIN’T COMING

As Ramona notes, in most countries, an aspiring autocrat aiming at president-for-life status requires a critical mass of backing from the armed forces.

Not so in the United States. In order to pull off a de facto coup d’etat, Trump doesn’t need the support of the military, since in the US, the usual paradigm works backwards.

As we saw in the aftermath of the St. John’s debacle, when a bevy of retired generals and admirals led by former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine four-star Jim Mattis rejected the notion of deploying active duty troops against American civilians (was that really up for debate?), the US military is loath to even give the appearance of involvement in partisan politics. That’s a good thing….one of the basic principles that the Founding Fathers were adamant about, in fact, having witnessed the uniformed military misused by many a crowned head.

But the downside of that aversion is that it allows a wannabe tyrant like Trump to neutralize the military as a force that will check his own despotism.

Since the default position of the US military is to stay out of domestic political affairs at all costs, all Trump has to do is give the illusion of victory in the election—or create enough doubt and chaos about the legitimacy of a Biden win, which is the same thing. The Pentagon does not want to be what Bush used to call “the decider.” If Trump can get the decision thrown into the House, or wind up before the Supreme Court, the US military will stay on the sidelines….even if the GOP majority in those august bodies manages to shamelessly award Trump a victory he didn’t win. In that regard, he will have neutered the power of the US military to intervene by using its own integrity against it. 

IMHO, in order for the US armed forces to step in this November and prevent Trump from illegally holding onto the presidency, things would have to reach the point of a blatant Pinochet-like power grab such that I simply can’t imagine in the US. (Even though there have been plenty of things that no one could imagine happening in the US that have already happened in the past four years.)

Not that there couldn’t be an unfair election—there certainly could be. In many ways we’re watching one unfold right now, though ironically, in a way that favors Trump, even as he howls about how it’s rigged against him. It’s simply that I am quite sure that Trump is so good at creating doubt and chaos and deceitfully using the norms of democracy to his own advantage that he can conjure the appearance of credibility that he needs, an illusion convincing enough to deter the military from stepping in. No need to get the XVIIIth Airborne Corps on his side.

That is the scariest part of all.

FLIPSIDE

Of course, we are looking at this from a progressive perspective, in which the military steps in to enforce the rule of democracy and remove Trump…..by his fingernails, presumably, with a death grip on the door jamb of the Oval Office, his body fully horizontal as four Army Rangers bodily try to carry him out.

(Don’t tell me you can’t picture it. Though actually I think the task of dragging his fat white ass out of the People’s House will probably fall to the Secret Service or US Marshals.)

But the opposite scenario is equally worth considering: that the US military might rally to Trump’s side.

There is enough Trumpism in the armed forces to make this a plausible concern. If Trump declared victory in a disputed election and called on the military to come to his aid, would the brass agree and give the order? I doubt it, for the same reasons cited above. The Pentagon is no more likely to order active duty troops into the streets Tiananmen style to enforce Trumpian Year Zero than it is to deploy its forces to combat it.

But that is not particularly reassuring either.

As in the other scenario, some civilian authority higher up the chain will have to make the call as to who is the rightful winner of the election, and I believe the brass will follow its lead. (Might certain units break ranks and rally to the United States of Trump? Almost certainly not. If we reach that point of dissension and mutiny, we are really in trouble.)

In that sense, the more pertinent question is not what the US Army will do, but what our political institutions like Congress and the courts will do when principle collides with partisanship. Above all, the question is what will the leadership of the Republican Party do? And that is really terrifying, because I think we all know that answer.

Again, this is all the more reason why Trump will arrange matters so that military force is not necessary. It won’t be, if he can successfully create sufficient smoke and fog that enough Americans take his side, or buy the lie that there is doubt about who’s the real victor, or otherwise throw up their hands while our institutions are paralyzed (or willfully abused for his ends) and the chattering classes clutch their pearls and pen forcefully worded op-eds about how we have to let the system work, even though an armed robber has jammed a crowbar into said system while he steals us blind and manages to get the police to stand by and let him, or even assist in the crime.

Don is very good at all that.

REPUBLICANS LOVE THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Some on the left have scoffed that the “military” has already employed force against peaceful protestors, pointing to Lafayette Square, Portland, and elsewhere. The claim is off base, but fed by right wing rhetoric and actions that deliberately muddy the waters.

Trump and his advisors would like us to believe that our military is already all in on using deadly force on fellow Americans. But that ain’t the case. The federal and local law enforcement agents who have engaged in violence against peaceful protestors are not the active duty US military. The militarized look of these police officers confuses matters (one of many issues with that phenomenon), but the distinction is crucial, even as the administration would like to blur it.

Likewise, the National Guard is not the active duty military either. For those who don’t understand the difference (and apologies for being pedagogic), the National Guard is a part time reservist organization under the control of the governor of a given state, and often used for policing civil disturbances, among other peacetime applications. (It was Ohio National Guardsmen who shot and killed four at Kent State, for instance.)

That is something very different than the domestic use of the active duty US military, under command of the Pentagon, a force designed and configured solely to fight and kill enemy combatants on the battlefield. (The NG can, however, be federalized by the POTUS, which is part of where this could get complicated.) During the BLM/George Floyd protests in early June, the mere dispatch of an active duty military police battalion from Ft. Bragg to DC, even if its members ultimately never left their garrison, was worrying enough that it prompted the pushback from Mattis et al. (The MPs are at least trained in riot control, which many of the anonymous federal agents in unmarked uniforms—rumored to be repurposed Bureau of Prisons officers, on the model of Putin’s “little green men”—were not.)

But the use of these paramilitary police units shows how Trump can apply brute force even if active duty soldiers are not available to him. Most notoriously, his DHS sent more of those anonymous feds in to the streets of Portland to engage in brownshirt-style violence toward protestors there.

Trump is also big on freelance thuggery. Note his cheerleading for white power vigilantes armed with semi-automatic weapons, like the “Liberate” mobs (don’t call people with guns “protestors”) in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and even homicidal teenagers like Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. Trump has regularly encouraged political violence for the past five years, all the way back to the campaign trail. If he can’t have the 82nd Airborne, he will settle for the Proud Boys, Duck Dynasty-style militiamen, and the smirking, tiki-torch carrying frat boys of Charlottesville.

His enthusiasm for the First and Second Amendment rights of armed citizens left of the political center is considerably less vigorous.

Roger Stone has already encouraged Trump to declare martial law. As reported by the Guardian, Stone told InfoWars’ Alex Jones:

Trump should consider invoking the Insurrection Act and arresting the Clintons, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, (Mark) Zuckerberg, Tim Cook of Apple and “anybody else who can be proven to be involved in illegal activity.”

He also said: “The ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state. They are completely corrupted. No votes should be counted from the state of Nevada if that turns out to be the provable case. Send federal marshals to the Clark county board of elections, Mr President!”

Similarly, last week, on September 11th (nice touch), shock jock Mark Levin called for Trump to use the military against Black Lives Matter protestors and others, whom he called “traitors” and “punks.” (You kids get off my lawn!)

Yeah, I know, Stone is a lunatic and convicted felon who rightly ought to be in prison, and Levin is the poor man’s Limbaugh (who is the poor man’s Father Coughlin) and both are showbiz hucksters who deserve exactly none of our attention.

But what about Michael Caputo, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, who went on a 26 minute video rant on Facebook that included the suggestion that “there are (left wing) hit squads being trained all over this country” preparing for violent opposition to a second Trump term, “and when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin. He added, ““If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” he urged his followers.

This is a high-ranking federal official in a Cabinet department. (Caputo, by the by, is also in charge of messaging for the CDC, which in that same Facebook rant he claimed contains a Deep State cell of “seditious” anti-Trump scientists deliberately driving up the COVID death toll.) This is the kind of talk that is bouncing around Trump Nation ahead of the election. We ignore it, or scoff at it, or dismiss it as a joke at our peril.

Particularly because what Michael Caputo is saying is almost exactly the same thing that the President of the United States is saying.

THE LOSERS AND SUCKERS SPEAK

So how much support does Trump really have among the US military community?

I spent the first 28 years of my life steeped in that world, from being born in an Army hospital in Germany in 1963 to the day I left active duty in 1991 and put Ft. Bragg in my rear view mirror. But that was almost thirty years ago; I don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the contemporary US military.

That said, my experience from talking to people I know is that Trump’s support there is less solid than generally assumed. Sure, the military is a largely conservative world, and Cadet Bone Spurs’ chestbeating faux patriotism has won him a fair share of uniformed (and retired) supporters who have bought the con that he is a strong leader and tough on matters of defense.

But plenty of professional military people, especially senior officers and NCOs, are openly appalled by the man and his actions, much like their civilian counterparts in the national security and foreign affairs communities, the State Department, and US intelligence agencies. The damage Trump has done to the United States’ security and standing in the world are patently evident and don’t bear repeating here.

The recent bombshell story in The Atlantic— that Trump denigrated US war dead as “losers and suckers,” amid a longstanding pattern of other insulting remarks about the American military—has brought this dynamic to a head. It comes as no surprise, atop his draft dodging, his personal vendetta against a genuine war hero like John McCain, and his attacks on Gold Star families.

Oh, also: he’s a bought-and-paid for vassal of a hostile foreign power. Which the US military tends to frown on.

And it’s not just retired flag officers with PhDs and jobs at think tanks who have a dim view of our Dear Leader. Recent polling by Military Times shows nearly half of active duty military personnel (49.9%) have an unfavorable view of the president*, compared to about 38 percent favorable. 41.3% say they plan to vote for Biden, compared to 37.4% for Trump. And that poll was taken four days before the Atlantic’s story dropped.

But again, the issue of how much love there is for Trump in the armed forces is, in a way, irrelevant. He is the commander-in-chief, and the bedrock principle of the American military is its subordination to the civilian leadership. There was not a lot of respect for Bill Clinton among the US military of the 1990s, but respect for the authority of the office did not appreciably waver. Whatever individual US military think of this president or any president, they are duly sworn to obey his or her lawful orders.

The only question is what happens if his orders are not lawful.

HOW TO SAVE A DEMOCRACY

Of course, we really don’t want the military to have to step into domestic politics. When that has happened in other countries, it has usually been to crush democracy, not save it. Generally speaking, tyrants are removed by popular uprisings, which the military may join, but rarely leads.

Anything that changes that longstanding precedent and taboo in the United States, even in the interest of a short-term good, brings long-term dangers. I would not want a Christian supremacist and right wing fanatic like retired General Jerry Boykin, who recently suggested that radical feminism was to blame for the murder of George Floyd, staging a dinner theater revival of Seven Days in May. Boykin was a fine soldier, but is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. If he wants to turn America into Gilead, let him run for office, not seize power by force.

So given that the US military will almost certainly not play a part in the coming election in the conventional banana republic way, we the people have to be prepared to step up apply the necessary pressure should the worst come to pass. That doesn’t mean taking up arms, Michael Caputo. But it is damn serious nonetheless.

I humbly a propose a very obvious three-step plan.

Step 1: Sound that alarm now that Trump intends to pull this con and cling to power regardless of the vote. Trump has shown over the past four years that he excels at perverting the mechanisms of American democracy—impeachment, DOJ investigations, the appointment process, and so on—all in the service of his neo-autocracy. Come November, December, and January, I am quite sure he will use every available lever, legal and illegal, to keep Joe Biden’s hand off the Lincoln bible.

Per above, this clarion call is already going out. Let’s keep up the volume.

Step 2: Vote for Biden in such numbers that it’s a landslide that no reasonable person can deny. Since Trump’s not a reasonable person, we know that he will proclaim victory no matter what the numbers. So Biden has to be ready to declare victory swiftly on Election Day, should the vote count support that claim, putting himself in a position of strength rather that of the challenger trying to overturn the result—even a fake result—like Al Gore in 2000.

Step 3: Be prepared to get into the streets, Belarus-style, because we all know that no matter how big the Biden win, or how fast he justifiably declares victory, there will be elements both in the GOP leadership and in the red-hatted Republican rank-and-file who will go along with Trump’s scheme, whether out of true belief or mere cynicism.

It may come down to a massive mobilization of patriotic Americans taking to the streets to oppose this perversion of democracy and demand that the will of the people be obeyed. Will there be violence? I hope not. We won’t start it. But we won’t be cowed by it either, if this criminal administration and its supporters deploy it.

Events in Minsk point the way. Just this weekend the financier turned human rights activist Bill Browder retweeted an amazing video of non-violent women protestors pulling the balaclavas off state security goons during a public demonstration there. Watch these cowards scramble to hide their faces.

Rule of thumb: when you’re afraid to show your identity, you’re not on the side of the angels.

The bad news is that Lukashenko is still in power at the moment, albeit under pressure. We shall see what happens. Overthrowing tyranny takes time, patience, commitment, and determination.

That is a lesson for America in the months to come, one we may need.

Because at the end of the day, it’s not the job of the uniformed, active duty US military to enforce the rule of law and democratic norms on our own shores.

That’s up to us.

*******

Illustration: US Marines running past the body of a fallen enemy soldier during the Korean War, September 1950. Credit: David Douglas Duncan

Summer’s End

I apologize for a blog post that sounds like a feminine hygiene product. But lately I’ve had that not-so-fresh feeling.

TWO TICKETS ON THAT COAST CITY BUS

After the first three grim months of the quarantine, when the weather finally began to improve, and New York—where I live—succeeded in flattening the curve, summer came as a welcome relief.

Though many people we know had understandably already fled the city, my wife and daughter and I, like many others, had been riding it out at home out of necessity. That was a profound experience. But when the temperatures turned warm and school was out, we endeavored to get out of Brooklyn as much as we could, thanks to the kindness of family and friends.

(That alone speaks to White privilege. Even for people of modest means like us—freelancers who are always struggling financially, and whose livelihoods and professional future are in jeopardy—we were still able to avail ourselves of some luxuries that were otherwise beyond us, simply by virtue of the people we know.)

Mostly we went to the Jersey shore: Atlantic City, where Ferne, Philly girl that she is, had grown up spending her summers.

In the best of times AC is right out of the eponymous Springsteen song (“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact”), junkies and hookers and syringes strewn on the sidewalks outside casinos filled with broken hearts and empty pockets. And this ain’t the best of times.

Atlantic City is also the place where in the 1980s a brash young real estate developer from Queens arrived promising the moon, swindled and stiffed everybody he came in contact with, then fled town, leaving it in ruins.

But I digress.

We were down there with our friends Joe—an AC native—and Amy and Tom and Jess when the lockdown hit in March, and returned again for the first time in May. The weather was still raw, and the boardwalk was a ghost town, spooky and depopulated. A Cessna flew over towing a banner reading TRUMP PENCE 2020: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. Irony, thy name is Donald. 

But by June the shore had made a miraculous comeback, and soon resembled its usual self, albeit with (mostly) good social distancing and mask-wearing. The best kept secret in the tri-state area is that Absecon Island, where Atlantic City sits, is actually very beautiful, and so is the carnival life surrounding it, if you embrace it. (For that, see The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.) The sheer intensity of everything else going on made us appreciate it—and summertime full stop—more than ever.

Rod Rosenstein has a house down there too, in Ventnor (check your Monopoly board)—I’ve seen him on the street—and so do Kellyanne and George Conway. In fact, the local community Facebook group recently felt compelled to issue a post begging folks to give the Conways their privacy while they try to work things out, as there are children involved. Fair enough. Though I notice Kellyanne didn’t give much of a shit when other people’s children were at risk.

Of course, in some ways this was a rough, hot summer that will surely rival the infamous ones of the recent past: 1976, and 1968, and 1964, to name just a few. (Election years all, by the by.) COVID-19 continued to kill thousands of Americans every week; the economy remained in a historic tailspin, Trump carried on with his wanton destruction of American democracy, and our streets were the scene of a dramatic and ongoing confrontation over the cancer of systemic racism and state-sponsored violence against people of color.

I don’t count that final item, painful as it is, as a negative, however: on the contrary, it is a necessary and long overdue reckoning with the legacy of slavery that is the original sin of these United States. In that regard, the Uprising—or what the filmmaker Pete Nicks calls the Awakening—was cheering, and part of what made this summer a period of rejuvenation.

But sure as God made little green apples, winter is coming.

ONE OF THESE MORNINGS, YOU’RE GONNA RISE UP SINGING

Even in normal times, summer’s end always fills me with melancholy.

As a boy I relished unstructured free time, and grew up in an America where kids had a lot of it, especially when school was out. Ironically, on that count, my nine-year-old daughter’s summer of 2020 resembled those of my own childhood more than in any previous year, far and away.

As an Army brat, I moved frequently and usually changed schools every fall, so the end of summer and the prospect of being the new kid (again) always filled me with dread, which even in adulthood lingers like a phantom limb. In my mind, Labor Day looms like a gallows.

So for the past three months I have been in a kind of willfully imposed mental bubble, enjoying the respite from a rough spring, and trying not to think about the fall…..all but unable to think about it, in fact, or realistically contemplate what it will look like. As we have all experienced, the uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of this public health crisis.

There are several specific things that worry me.

After New York worked so hard to make it through (what we hope was) the worst part of the pandemic, I fear a second wave, with outbreaks in other parts of the country inevitably blowing back on NYC, by mere virtue of the city being what it is. Even if New York avoids that, I am concerned that various other places are going to get slammed.

I worry about the resumption of school, even though I know many people are longing for it (if it’s in something resembling its regular form, which it almost certainly won’t be). Even though my wife and I have been fortunate in that our daughter’s school has navigated the current challenges superbly, and our kid has done well with remote learning, it’s still fraught.

On a purely visceral level, I dread the cold dark winter, when all the ad hoc outdoor cafes that have popped in my neighborhood and made it feel like a non-stop street fair will be forced to close and life will recede back into the chilly, depressing isolation that marked last March and April. I worry about the economic impact of that, and the psychological one as well. I have confidence in the fortitude of our country, and faith that we can handle that if we have to—previous generations have endured much worse, of course. But the prospect doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

Perhaps more than anything else, I fear the coming election, the outcome of which is far from certain. Given the poll numbers and the general state of play right now, I would be very confident if this were a normal presidency, a normal time, and a fair fight. But it is none of those things.

The best case scenario—let’s not fool ourselves—is a protracted legal battle and constitutional crisis; the worst, a new civil war. Alarmism, you say? I invite your attention to the news. Increasingly frequent clashes between armed supporters of the two sides—the most recent just last weekend, in Louisville, on Kentucky Derby Day—has made that once absurd and unthinkable possibility feel more and more plausible.

And of course Trump might win, legitimately or not. But it will be a disaster of another kind even if he loses, because he has openly announced that he will view any Biden victory as fraudulent by definition.

Ejecting Donald Trump from office is the issue above all others that keeps me up nights. The pandemic is terrible, it goes without saying, but there is cause for optimism if we are under new and competent management come midday January 20, 2021. The battle for new national leadership is the decision point from which all else flows.

SUMMER KISSES WINTER TEARS

On that front, the big news last week was Jeffrey Goldberg’s blockbuster story in The Atlantic that Trump called American war dead “losers and suckers.” As someone with the military in my marrow, I was as appalled and offended as anyone, though hardly surprised. Trump’s history of denigrating and insulting the US military goes way back. For that reason, MAGA Nation’s predictable dismissal of the story—“Fake news!” “Hearsay!” “He would never do that!”—rings especially false. (The story has since been corroborated by all the major outlets, and even Fox News.)

As David Frum writes, also in The Atlantic, “Everyone Knows It’s True.”

You can tell how panicked the Trump campaign is over this by the carefully worded pushback that it initially deployed, as opposed to Trump’s usual knee jerk, flaming-bag-of-dogshit response. Of course, he soon came unshackled and returned to standard form. Even when he held a publicity stunt of a Labor Day presser to try to prove how much he loves and respects the armed forces, Trump insanely turned it into an attack on his own senior military leadership, and, remarkably, on John McCain. (Who’s dead, according to the best reportage.) The result, naturally, was that he only proved the point he was trying to rebut. The guy truly can’t help himself.

I’ll confess that I didn’t think this story would have legs. No previous scandal has stuck to Donald; why should this one? But it has, and I’m as delighted as I am surprised.

But did we really need this to break the camel’s back? Was stealing children from their parents and caging them in concentration camps not enough to outrage us? Wasn’t “grab ‘em by the pussy,” or Helsinki, or a hundred other atrocities? What does that say about us as a people? There is some irony that a military matter might finally be a bridge too far for an administration where faux patriotism and jingoism are second only to racism and misogyny in its DNA. But it’s also pathetic.  

Remember in the early days of the Trump reign, when there was speculation that he’d said the “n-word” in outtakes from “The Apprentice,” the implication being that the publication of that audio would sink him? We know better now: the GOP leadership would find a way to dismiss it, and his red-hatted fans would actively applaud it. But if there’s one thing that’s sacrosanct in mainstream American life, it’s valorizing the troops. That deification is partially a function of collective guilt over the inequitable distribution of the burden of the defense of our nation, which is a matter for another day. But at least it’s now helping deliver some bodyblows to this monster. It’s a rare case of Trump getting the Trump Treatment, which he is usually on the doling-out end of: a simple, sticky, schoolyard-style allegation that the flummoxed victim can’t readily refute. When Trump does it, it’s usually a lie (“Biden is against God!”) In this case, it happens to be true.

Again, it won’t cost him any votes from the Kool-Aid brigade, but it might sway some wavering conservatives, especially in the military community, and every little bit helps. (The passionate denunciation by retired Major General Paul Eaton, a highly admirable officer with whom friends of mine served in Iraq, was especially powerful.)  If nothing else, it has kept Trump on the defensive, which is a joy to watch and eats up precious time and space in the 55 days remaining before Election Day.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MENTAL ILLNESS

The best news for Trump this week was that Losers-and-Suckers-Gate did eventually recede. The bad news for him is what displaced it.

Bob Woodward’s new book Rage revealed that from the earliest days of the pandemic, Trump, by his own admission, deliberately misled the American public about how deadly the novel coronavirus would be.

Wow.

For months some public health experts like Greg Gonsalves have been saying that Trump’s handling of the pandemic approaches the level of a crime against humanity that ought to have him standing in the dock in the Hague. Not merely his bungling and incompetence, which were bad enough, but his willful decision not to fight the virus with the full might at his disposal, as it was disproportionately decimating communities of color whom he scorns and wants to hobble anyway, in the interest of his re-election prospects.

And that was before this public confession of willful criminal negligence on an even greater scale.

Predictably, Trump immediately claimed that he was just trying to suppress panic. (And Trump Nation of course believes him, the same way they believe him when he says he didn’t disparage fallen American soldiers, or that the economy is booming, or that 2+2=5.)

Except, as Scott Matthews notes, he didn’t try to avoid panic. He didn’t say, “Be cool—I got this.” He intentionally spread disinformation, called the whole thing a hoax, mocked mask wearing, refused to endorse social distancing, held super-spreader public events, and actively made it all worse….on purpose, when he knew better. And at the same time—to state the blindingly obvious—was DOING NOTHING behind the scenes to stop the virus.

I’m still trying to get my head around this.  

In some ways, this is not news: we know Trump was repeatedly warned about COVID-19, well in advance, by every possible expert. But until now the portrait has been of a mental defective in infantile denial. Now we know, from Trump’s conversations with Woodward as far back as early February, at the very least, that he was very much aware of how bad it was, and that his public statements to the contrary were less self-denial than outright deception that cost tens of thousands of American lives, if not more.

What was he thinking?

Just from a venal and selfish point of view, it was a priceless opportunity to be a hero, to say, “This is dangerous, but I alone can fix it.” Why didn’t he do that?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a coherent answer. Spoiler alert: there ain’t one, only more deceit, depravity, and avarice that is almost unfathomable in a person entrusted with the welfare of the republic and its citizens.

Even he really was trying to avoid panic—P.S., he wasn’t—why didn’t he simultaneously do anything to stem the coming tide of death? Because he couldn’t, not even in his own self-interest. Because he is a sociopath incapable of anything but short-term, shortsighted, transactional thinking.

Perhaps his willful blindness came into play in magically thinking that somehow it all really would just miraculously vanish without any effort on his part. Even now he continues to insist that the virus will disappear of its own free will, that the spread is contained, that all is well—all lies that make actually fighting the threat harder. I’m surprised we have not yet heard him say this latest revelation is proof of his claim, of March 17, that he knew this was a deadly pandemic before anybody. Maybe he’s losing a step, or off his game amid all his other problems. But I’m sure it’s coming.

So the extent of Trump’s sociopathy is unaltered by this new reporting. Bob Woodward has only affirmed that his monstrous Neroism is even worse than we knew.

Joe Biden—correctly—is already hammering Trump on this and ought to continue to do so, over and over, especially during the debates. Trump will say, “I banned travel from China!” Biden has to say, “Too late, not the main threat, and you otherwise fiddled.”

Fittingly, the damage Trump is suffering here stems almost entirely from his own egotism, in his eagerness to talk to Woodward. The WaPo reports:

Trump advisers said that the president reacted with fury after Woodward’s last book, blaming former counselor Kellyanne Conway and other advisers for not bringing Woodward in for interviews. “It would have been a better book if I talked to him,” Trump said in 2018, according to a former senior administration official. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions, said Trump complained for more than a week about Woodward’s last book, interrupting meetings with broadsides about the author.

For this latest book, Trump encouraged others to speak with Woodward and would often mention the journalist in conversations with other advisers, suggesting that he might call him again. Some of the conversations between the two men, a White House official said, were precipitated by Trump—who thought Woodward was more receptive to a favorable narrative about his presidency.

But not even a narcissist like Don can fail to notice how that has backfired. The Post reports that Trump and his advisors know that this story is really bad for him. Let’s seize on it.

DEAR KIM: I LIKE YOU, DO YOU LIKE ME?

Woodward’s new book is full of other revelations, less incendiary but no less headspinning, including Trump’s poutiness that Black people don’t like him enough, and his childish delight that Kim Jong-un called him “Your Excellency” but thinks Obama is “an asshole” (NB: Don’t you WANT the dictator of North Korea to think that of the US president?).

What else this week?

The metaphor police are working overtime. First a bunch of boats sank during a “Trump flotilla” in Texas, then reports came that the Republican Convention did thousands of dollars of damage to the South Lawn of the White House and the Rose Garden. Would that the other damage to the White House could be repaired as quickly.

As reported by Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, a Bible signed by Trump in his serial killer handwriting is being sold online for $37,500. Buy now before it bursts into flame.

A DHS whistleblower asserted that he was instructed to suppress US intelligence reports about Russian interference in US elections because it “made President Trump look bad,” while newly released HHS emails showed how the White House tried to muzzle Dr. Anthony Fauci.

And lastly, the federal government is now the defendant in a rape charge that pre-dates Trump’s entire political career, never mind his assent to the presidency. (And our taxpayer dollars are paying for his defense.)

The gall of this regime continue to astonish me…..and I thought my astonishment meter was pegged. A cornered rat, Trump has abandoned even the pretense of the rule of law, distorting the most basic principles of our system of government in order to serve and protect him alone. L’etat c’est him. As we have witnessed for four years, he views the entire federal government as his personal fiefdom—and worse, so does his pathetic criminal excuse for an AG, Bill Barr.

Which brings us back to the shortening days of autumn, and the uncertainty that looms ahead.

WHICH BERGMAN MOVIE ARE WE IN?

Soon will be the winter of our discontent, with no sun to bring summer back to New York. Will it be as bad as the nightmares that wake me at 3 a.m., or will we get a few breaks, do the right thing, and be able to navigate it successfully? 

As with all things, the answer is to be found in arthouse Swedish cinema.

When I was fourteen, every Friday night the local PBS station in Honolulu showed a Bergman movie, and I became obsessed with them. (This should give you some idea of my social life in high school.) I’m sure I didn’t really understand what I was watching, and I wouldn’t swear on a stack of Bibles—Trump-autographed or not—that I do now. But the stark black & white aesthetics, the existential Scandinavian angst, and the ponderous symbolism were all tailor-made for a certain kind of teenager….the arty, virginal kind. (Speaking of, that time also saw the beginning of my lifelong crush on Harriet Andersson. Not sure if the TRO is still in effect; I have to check with my lawyer.)

At the risk of sounding dull, the two Bergman films that had the biggest impact on me were the most obvious candidates, The Seventh Seal (1957) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955): the latter Ingmar’s lightest offering, the former his most iconic and famous allegory, almost to the point of parody.

The question is, which Bergman film are we in right now? The Seventh Seal—set in medieval Sweden as a plague ravages the land—is the natural favorite. But as I bathed in sunshine and denial of my own this summer, I felt like I was in Smiles. Now, with fall upon us, I can see that pale figure in the long black cloak standing on the rocky beach, beckoning me back into that other theater again.

(Another strong candidate: the little-seen The Serpent’s Egg, from 1977. Look it up.)

On the public health front, I’ve heard numerous calm, knowledgeable-sounding medical professionals and public health experts opine that we know a lot more than we did six months ago, and have more precise tools with which to fight the virus, so the prospect of a full-scale, draconian lockdown like last spring’s is unlikely.

That’s great. Just the limited normalcy and human interaction of the past months with protocols and precautions in place has been a tremendous boon mental health wise, and economically as well, even as so many businesses continue to suffer. With some heat lamps, maybe outdoor cafes can stay open into November (if we’re not in a civil war), and perhaps by the new year the situation will be good enough that there can be indoor dining and other commerce. Will the average restaurant be able to stay afloat at only 30% capacity? Different question.

But I’ve also heard estimates that we’ll be at 400,000 dead by the new year, which is the same number of Americans who died in World War II. We’re halfway there now, and as we all know, the official count is probably low.

THE DEAD OF WINTER

So is the future Harriet’s winning smile under the midnight sun, or Max von Sydow matching wits with the Grim Reaper?

(Anyone upset about that Harriet Andersson/TRO joke earlier, in the post #MeToo world? Fair enough. Although I will remind you that I was 14 at the time, and Harriet Andersson is now 88, so we are into Harold and Maude territory.)

Politically speaking, the recent flood of bad news for our faux president has me guardedly optimistic, which is as high as my optimism meter goes these days. (It broke in November 2016.) But I am still deeply worried that he will still manage to ratfuck his way to a second term, even if it means fighting in the streets.

Legitimate hopes for a COVID vaccine collide with concerns that Trump will try to rush an untested one out as an October surprise. More stories like Jeffrey Goldberg’s and Bob Woodward’s are likely to come out, but they may wind up having no more impact that Billy Bush and Access Hollywood. I don’t want to look back ruefully on this period of hope and optimism and bitterly recall how high our hopes were before they got cruelly dashed, again. The only way to avoid that fate is to keep working as hard as we can for an electoral blowout that minimizes Trump’s intention—the one that he has overtly been signaling—that he intends to remain in office regardless.  

Only 258 days till next summer.

********

Illustration: Final scene of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, photographed by Sven Nykvist

Pix or It Didn’t Happen: Facebook vs. the Truth

Pix or It Didn't

Germany, the saying goes, is The Only Country That Ever Learned Anything.

It came at a steep price.

But today Germany is perhaps more vigilant than any other country on two fronts in particular: the demonizing of vulnerable minorities—especially outsiders—and the danger of hate speech.

For that reason, Angela Merkel and the BRD led the way in welcoming Syrian refugees fleeing that wartorn country, even as the United States has turned its collective back both on those suffering human beings and our own principles.

It is also for that reason that Germany—again unlike the US—has some hard limits on freedom of speech, rejecting the absolutist view in favor of policing particularly extreme and incendiary expression. (Specifically banned: the display of Nazi iconography, including the swastika and the Bellamy salute.)

So it is fascinating and ironic that the Federal Republic of Germany recently saw the confluence of these two issues in a landmark court case involving a Syrian refugee named Anas Modamani who sued Facebook over its abetting of hate speech and the spread of fake news. The story is told in a superb new short documentary called Anas vs. the Giant by filmmakers Adrienne Collatos and Karen K.H. Sim, which premiered at SXSW in 2019. (You can watch it here.)

Anas’s story is a seminal one for our times: a David and Goliath tale of one brave individual—an immigrant and refugee no less—standing up to the toxic alliance of right wing hate groups and Big Tech. But it is also a story that goes to crucial questions about freedom of speech in an age when technology has dramatically altered every aspect of that debate, and in the process, put the very foundations of democracy at risk.

YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU WANT TO BELIEVE

Anas Modamani fled the violence in Syria in 2015 at the age of seventeen. In September of that year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the refugee camp in Berlin where he was living and Anas took a selfie with her. Teenager that he was, he posted it to his Facebook page.

Initially, the photo brought him some renown and good fortune. But in March 2016, right wing trolls seized on Anas’s six-month-old picture and used it to allege that he was the terrorist behind the bombing of the Brussels airport that month. (He was later linked, equally falsely, to the attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December of that year.)

Anas was not remotely associated with either crime; he had been viciously smeared by alt-right provocateurs. But neither was he the real target of their campaign. Apart from sheer sadism, what did a bunch of neo-Nazis care about ruining the life of one Syrian refugee? Their real aim, naturally, was to suggest that Merkel was cozy with terrorists and soft on radical extremism.

Anas immediately reported the posts and asked Facebook to take the photo down. Facebook refused, arguing that it didn’t violate its “community standards.”

The image—in various doctored forms—soon spread like wildfire around the Internet, garnering millions of views. (The original poster, no surprise, was a Russian account.) Soon the far-right German political party AfD—Alternative für Deutschland—gleefully joined in.

Fearing for his life as the picture continued to go more and more viral, Anas went into hiding. Through the Austrian NGO Mimikama, which polices fake news online, he was eventually put in touch with Chan-jo Jun, a German attorney who specializes in social media and users’ rights.

Together they sued Facebook in the German court system.

D IS FOR DEFENSE

Facebook’s defense was an ever-changing game of three-card monte in which all the cards were counterfeit.

First it claimed that it didn’t have the technical ability to take down the photo. That, any FB user will tell you, is risible. When I can have a conversation with a friend about, say, doughnuts—not even on an electronic device—and then come home to find my social media feed deluged with ads for doughnuts, you can’t tell me that Facebook can’t find a given photograph.

“Eventually Facebook said it would remove the photo from being visible in Germany,” Adrienne Collatos explains, “and at one point they did do that. But you could still mimic the VPN of a different country and see the posts. Basically all they offered was a Band-Aid.”

When Anas and Chan-jo sued for redress, Facebook challenged the authority of the German legal system to hear the case. “Their defense was, ‘We’re an American company, our headquarters are in Ireland, we don’t speak German, so we can’t answer your questions,” says Karen Sim. (Facebook was represented by one of the biggest law firms in the world, White & Case.) “They tried everything from radio silence, to dirty tricks, to attempts to intimidate, to ploys like ‘Oh, maybe we’ll give you a settlement,’—all to try to get Anas to drop the case. It was just insane.”

Team Zuckerberg did not even formally respond to the charges until minutes before courtroom arguments began, when its lawyers wired a 60-page written rebuttal in an attempt to make Chan-jo look unprepared in front of the three-judge German panel. Even that was devious, Collatos says. “It would have been too obvious to send the form at 11:30 am the day of the trial, which is when Chan-jo got it. Instead, White & Case sent it at 9:00 pm the Friday night prior, so that the court wouldn’t discover it and forward it until the last minute, and they could essentially blame it on the judges.”

Things didn’t get better once arguments began. “Facebook’s German lawyers didn’t conceal their anti-immigrant sentiment. They did a lot of posturing in the courtroom, like saying to Anas and Chan-jo both, ‘Oh, we don’t know how to pronounce your name.’”

One of the most gutting scenes in Collatos & Sim’s film comes when a member of Anas’s legal team explains that the judges don’t use Facebook themselves and don’t even understand what the lawyers were talking about.

They ruled against Anas.

“WE WERE ONLY FOLLOWING THE ALGORITHM”

Facebook’s standard claim is that it is not responsible for the content that its users post. This default dodge hinges on the notion that it’s not a publisher in the conventional sense, but merely a platform. Suing it would be like suing Verizon when someone tells a lie over the phone.

That position is utterly dishonest, of course, as Facebook most certainly regulates speech as it sees fit. I’m sure everyone reading these words knows someone who’s done time in “Facebook jail,” or at the very least had posts rejected, sometimes for something as mild as the use of profanity. I have. So Facebook’s decision not to stop—or even spank—the right wing trolls making statements that would have been actionable acts of libel in any other medium, not to mention putting the life of at least one human being at risk, doesn’t obtain.

But for the sake of argument, let’s accept that self-characterization.

OK, Facebook: If you’re like the phone company, then you’re a public utility, and a monopoly to boot, and we’re going to treat you like one and regulate you.

It’s true no one HAS to be on Facebook….but you don’t HAVE to have a phone or use electricity or gas or water either. (Approximately a third of the planet uses The Beast That Zuckerberg Built or one of its products at least once a month.)

“I think approaching it from the antitrust level is very interesting,” says Sim. “Yes, you can opt not to be on Facebook. But social media has become like electricity. Practically speaking, can you really not be on it, or on Instagram, or not engage with Amazon? If everybody needs you, you shouldn’t be allowed to hold us hostage and say, ‘We’re going to feed you QAnon conspiracy theories until your head explodes…..or doesn’t explode, and you vote for Trump.’”

“And it’s not like Facebook has a competitor that could say, ‘Come over to us, we don’t tolerate this sort of behavior.’ Right now there’s no incentive for Mark Zuckerberg to be better in any way that will benefit his consumers.”

(Business opportunity here, MySpace!)

THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT (WING)

In October 2019, Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter of The Social Network, published a scathing “Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg” in the New York Times.

Mark:

In 2010, I wrote “The Social Network” and I know you wish I hadn’t.

I didn’t push back on your public accusation that the movie was a lie because I’d had my say in the theaters…..(but) It was hard not to feel the irony while I was reading excerpts from your recent speech at Georgetown University, in which you defended—on free speech grounds—Facebook’s practice of posting demonstrably false ads from political candidates….

(W)hile you were testifying before a congressional committee two weeks ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked you the following: “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?” Then, when she pushed you further, asking you if Facebook would or would not take down lies, you answered, “Congresswoman, in most cases, in a democracy, I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves.”

Now you tell me. If I’d known you felt that way, I’d have had the Winklevoss twins invent Facebook.

The fact of the matter is, Facebook doesn’t want to police hate speech because it makes money off it. Its insistence that it’s merely a neutral “bulletin board” is obliterated when one understands that it actively prioritizes and abets the spread of the most incendiary material.

Collatos: “One of the biggest problems with social media in general is that it feeds off extremism. I don’t consider myself an extremist, but if I’m going to engage with something on social media, it’s probably because something made me extremely angry or extremely unhappy.”

Facebook’s business model is driven by traffic, and right wing fanatics comprise a not insignificant, lucrative revenue stream. Even people pushing back against the right wing constitute clicks that put money in Mark’s pocket. “Facebook and its ilk want interaction,” Collatos adds. “They sell ads, so they want your eyeballs, and they can guarantee that they’re getting those eyeballs if people are super angry and choosing to like, or comment, or reshare.”

“Facebook’s whole way of doing things has also really undermined traditional news sources’ ability to make money—especially print news—which has caused those traditional sources to radicalize their headlines as well. That’s an old practice, obviously, but it’s somewhat interconnected. The attitude is ‘We need to get those eyeballs, and wrest them away from these other websites when and if we can.’”

“Ad tech—advertising technology—is essentially the business model running underneath everything online,” Collatos explains. “It was really created and proliferated because of Google, who started out saying, ‘We’re going to inventory all the information out there and make it accessible at your fingertips.’ But what they did to monetize it was to analyze the searches that you’re doing and get you into these tiny personal groups and then sell that information to advertisers for a ton of money.”

“But there’s some research that kind of debunks the efficacy of ad tech, so if that’s true, then the whole model is broken and no one’s benefiting. Obviously Google’s users aren’t benefiting, but also the people buying the ads are not really getting the product that they think they’re getting.”

“It’s like all advertising, in some ways,” says Sim. “You never really know if it’s working. Who knows if this Coke ad on TV is the thing that got you to buy Coca-Cola, or if it was some billboard, or the taste testing, or whatever? It’s such a blunt instrument. Tech companies tell their customers, ‘We have the ability to get you 50 million clicks in an hour.’ But the eyeballs they’re getting could be click farms, they could be trolls, they could be bots, so there’s no distinguishing. A click is a click, and everybody’s gaming the system.”

ALT-WRONG

At a time when free speech is under attack all over the world, and the press is being demonized as the “enemy of the people,” it’s especially ironic that forces like Facebook that are facilitating hate speech—and rightly ought to be regulated—are hiding being a free speech defense, one which allowed neo-Nazis to attack Angela Merkel (and Anas) on the model of their ideological forbearers.

And of course it’s not just lunatic fringe extremists spreading lies and hate on social media; it’s people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin too, who have weaponized the technology as a new means of authoritarian control, undermining some of the fundamental precepts of liberal democracy.

We see the effect in the AfD’s campaign to smear Merkel. Previously a marginal force at best, the party’s popularity had soared as a result of migrant crisis, part of a wave of right wing extremism—don’t call it “populism”—sweeping the globe. In 2017, a year after the Anas scandal, AfD became the first far-right party to be represented in the German parliament since World War II. Prior to that election, it had never held even one seat in the Bundestag. Today it has 94 out of a total of 709, and is the third largest party in the country.

Sim: “The argument always in the US is that you want to let the Nazis to march down the main street, because you want to know that they exist. In Germany, it’s illegal to do that, but it doesn’t prevent those groups from arising. You still have this neo-Nazi movement, but it’s totally underground.”

One might question which is worse: a society where racist thugs are subterranean and hard to identify, or one where they feel emboldened to show their faces and run for office?

In Germany, those far-right forces are now migrating from the former category to the latter. Since taking their seats, AfD members of the Bundestag have behaved like trolls, often disrupting parliamentary sessions in a way chillingly reminiscent of a certain other German political party that will go unnamed here. And its vile ethos has found purchase elsewhere in German society. Recently the Merkel government disbanded a company of KSK, (Kommando Spezialkräfte), its most elite special operations unit, after it was revealed that it was riddled with far-right extremists. While that scandal is especially disturbing in Germany, to Berlin’s credit, it did take swift action to address it. It’s impossible to imagine Donald Trump doing the same if a similar situation were revealed in an elite US unit.

On the contrary: he does the opposite, encouraging right wing fanatics and pardoning war criminals.

INVASION OF THE SOUL SNATCHERS

With the German legal system refusing to come to his aid, Anas was left without any real options for combating the slander tarring him as a murderer, short of endless legal appeals in his adopted country, or pursuit of the case in other nations like the US, both of which required resources that an indigent teenage refugee did not have. Instead, he has been forced to live with the results of that slander to this day.

So how long can an image live on the Internet? Consider the story of a Swedish woman named Lena Forsen.

In 1972, when a group of (almost exclusively male) software engineers at USC were developing what became the JPEG format, they tested their compression algorithm by feeding into their computer a Playboy centerfold for which Lena had posed. The resulting digital image—cropped at the shoulders—became the industry standard, permanently embedded in the Internet, and shared bazillions of times. (Trivia: It is also the centerfold presented to Woody Allen’s Rip Van Winkle-like character in Sleeper, suggesting it will endure at least until 2173.)

No one asked Lena Forsen—now a 67-year old grandmother living in Stockholm—her permission.

It wasn’t the first case of revenge porn, but it opened the door to it, and was a harbinger of what would happen to Anas Modamani and many others in a far darker version of that kind of appropriation and re-purposing. It’s also a testament to the durability of the Internet, where everything lives forever, whether it’s soft porn from the ‘70s or fake news tarring someone as a terrorist. (The story is well told in the documentary short Losing Lena, whose website is part of a campaign to obliterate the misappropriated image.)

We’ve all heard the old folktale about lost Amazonian tribes shunning photography as “stealing the soul.”

Wait till they hear about Mark Zuckerberg.

WHAT’S “BOOKFACE”?

In 2006 or so, my wife Ferne and I went to speak to a film class at my alma mater, Lafayette College, and to look at some undergraduate work. One of the students got up in front of the class to show her short documentary, which she said was “about how people are obsessed with Facebook.”

Ferne and I looked at one another, baffled. “What the hell is ‘The Facebook?’” we asked each other. Even after the film was over we still didn’t have a clue.

That was the first time either of us had ever heard of the thing. Who, those fourteen short years ago, imagined that this frivolous online time-waster that people mostly used to post pictures of cats would become an all-consuming cancer that would eat the soul of global democracy? Only the same seers who foresaw that a D-list game show host and serial con man would become President of the United States and bring a 250-year-old republic to the brink of extinction.

Tech/anti-tech guru Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), has speculated that ‘“Facebook might have won already, which would mean the end of democracy in this century.”

It’s possible that we can’t quite get out of this system of paranoia and tribalism for profit—it’s just too powerful and it’ll tear everything apart, leaving us with a world of oligarchs and autocrats who aren’t able to deal with real problems like pandemics and climate change and whatnot.”

By way of example, Lanier points to COVID-19, suggesting that “the sway of media is more powerful than the experience of reality—that people can be watching hundreds of thousands die from this virus and yet believe it’s a hoax at the same time, and integrate those two things. That’s the food for evil.”

But my own ignorance about social media is one thing; that of someone who controls your fate is far more terrifying…..like a judge, or a Congressman.

When Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress in 2018, members of that august body—most of them far older than the average American—asked him things like, “Why does my email go into the spam folder?” as if he was the world’s highest paid IT guy. Karen Sim says that Zuckerberg’s recent testimony went a little better, as some of the Congressmembers were better informed this time around. But there are still many many elected officials who don’t use social media or understand the most basic things about it, even as they are charged with regulating it—or not.

Adrienne Collatos: “From what we can tell, Congress seems to be moving towards regulation, because antitrust is a language that they do understand, and they know how to legislate. So that’s encouraging. It isn’t just this idea of algorithm and ad tech targeting, which is so beyond their understanding.”

That is encouraging indeed, because until it is forced to do so, Facebook is unlikely to self-police. On the contrary, as Anas’s experience showed, the company has been VERY reluctant to accept any responsibility for anything, or to take down even the most grotesque, false, or dangerous posts…..so much that it was big news when—finally—it pushed back against Donald Trump when he recently offered the patent lie that children are immune to the coronavirus.

It’s one of the few Trumpian lies that have not been allowed to take root and fester online, as Zuck and Don seem to share the same attitude toward truth and moral responsibility.

Last week, a Facebook post by a militia group called the “Kenosha Guard” called for armed volunteers to confront Black Lives Matter protestors in Wisconsin, in a listing for “Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property.” Facebook received 455 separate complaints reporting the post and asking that it be taken down, but the company refused, again arguing that it did not violate its “community standards.” Four different Facebook adjudicators all came to that same conclusion.

But after the 17-year-old right wing vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse subsequently murdered two BLM protestors and wounded a third with an AR-15 in Kenosha, Zuckerberg was forced to make an apology and acknowledge that Facebook should have removed the post. Even then, he was tone deaf enough—or arrogant enough—to describe his company’s failure as “largely an operational mistake.” (“My bad.”)

Of course this was far from the first time that social media had been implicated in fomenting acts of violence. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d wager it won’t be the last.

YOU ARE THE PRODUCT

“There are two schools of thought,” says Sim, speaking of efforts to regulate social media and the power of Big Tech. “One is that the laws are already in place, they’re just not being applied correctly. That school views Facebook more as a publisher than just a neutral platform, however you define those things. The other school is that we need a whole new set of laws because this is the new frontier.”

As my own Facebook friends will attest, I myself scorned all social media before January 2017, out of a combination of contrarianism, Ludditism, and old age, which kept me busy yelling at the neighbor kids to get the hell off my yard. But Trump’s rise made me feel the need to commune with like-minded souls. I went into Facebook fully embracing exactly what is said to be wrong with social media: shouting into the echo chamber, which for all its obvious faults, is also a way of organizing, sharing information, and just plain venting. But it’s a tool—or more precisely, a weapon—that both sides can use.

Jaron Lanier has said that “(Social media) is worse than cigarettes in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.” Writing in GQ, Zach Baron summarizes some of Lanier’s main precepts:

That anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, for free, you are in fact the product being sold. That social media companies are basically giant behavior-modification systems that use algorithms to relentlessly increase “engagement,” largely by evoking bad feelings in the people who use them. That these companies in turn sell the ability to modify your behavior to “advertisers,” who sometimes come in the old form of people who want to persuade you to buy soap but who now just as often come in the form of malevolent actors who want to use their influence over you to, say, depress voter turnout or radicalize white supremacists. That in exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you. That because of all this, and for the good of society, you should do everything in your power to quit.

But there is hope, beginning with the dawning recognition of these dangers…..and in some cases turning social media’s own power against it.

“One of the things I love about Anas and Chan-jo’s story,” says Sim, “is that here we are in the midst of this terrible anti-immigrant moment, and yet they are immigrants who are using the very tools of the society that hates them to fight that society and fight for what’s right and to make a life there. It gives you some hope. But it’s a huge effort. And that’s Chan-jo’s life.”

The founders of Western democracy, steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment, could not possibly have conceived of the challenges posed by the Information Revolution. Whether it’s by means of antitrust legislation or a revised view of privacy rights or something else, we need a new paradigm for a new age. If that democracy is to survive, 20th century concepts of freedom of speech—which are in reality 19th century and even 18th centuries concepts—have to adapt or become handmaidens of tyranny.

Feel free to share on the web.

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Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters. Syrian refugee Anas Modamani taking a selfie with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in 2015.

Further reading:

Ramona Diaz on the Persecution of Maria Ressa – August 7, 2020

“The Modern World Starts Here”—The Birth of Silicon Valley – March 30, 2018

Rosenstein and Guildenstern

Rosenstein

We begin the week with an issue that has dogged our country for four years.

Two weeks ago, a bipartisan report of over a thousand pages from the Republican–led (I’ll repeat that: Republican-led) Senate Intelligence Committee offered the most thorough account yet of the extent to which the Trump campaign coordinated with a hostile foreign government to help put Trump in office in 2016.

That coordination is not in doubt. We know that nearly everything Trump says is the polar opposite of the truth, so when he bleats “No collusion!” you can bet there is collusion aplenty. Evidence of it is mountainous, having been thoroughly documented in the open source media by dogged investigative reporters, by the US Intelligence Community, and by the special counsel Robert Mueller. Anyone who cares to take an objective look at the facts cannot plausibly come away arguing to the contrary. (Lots of folks continue to do so implausibly, however.)

The Senate Intelligence Committee just added to that mountain in a profound way.

The report contained explosive information about the actions of Roger Stone and Wikileaks and the Trump campaign’s connections to both, Trump’s own vulnerability to blackmail, and Russian intelligence’s’ salivation at the prospects for exploiting the inexperience and hubris of the Trump team. Its most startling revelation, however, was to confirm what heretofore has only been speculation: that Paul Manafort’s close associate Konstantin Kilimnik was an active Russian intelligence agent.

Manafort, no naïf, surely knew this, or at the very least had to presume it was a strong possibility, having worked since 2004 for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who often functioned as a proxy for Putin and his intel services, helping install pro-Kremlin governments around the world.

Kilimnik was Manafort’s conduit to Deripaska. As such, the Senate report concluded that “Mr. Manafort created ‘a grave counterintelligence threat’ by sharing inside information about the presidential race with Mr. Kilimnik and the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs whom he served.”

The report portrayed Mr. Manafort as deeply compromised by years of business dealings with those oligarchs. Collectively, they had paid him tens of millions of dollars, lent him millions more and may also have owed him millions. These complex financial entanglements apparently figured in Mr. Manafort’s decision to give Mr. Kilimnik inside campaign information, including confidential polling data and details of Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy….

“What did the Russians do with all this information, how did they use it, did they use it?” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, asked in an interview on Tuesday. “Those are serious counterintelligence questions we may never get the full answer on.”

Mr. Manafort recognized the Kremlin’s interests, the report said. “This model can greatly benefit the Putin government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitments to success,” he wrote in a memo to Mr. Deripaska.

The report called Mr. Manafort’s efforts for the oligarch “in effect, influence work for the Russian government and its interests.”

Ask yourself what the GOP, Sean Hannity, and the rest of Fox Nation would say if Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager had been regularly passing information to Russian intelligence and coordinating with it to help get her elected.

I’ll save you the trouble: She would have been burned at the stake before the metaphorical ink was dry on the story.

A PHANTOM INVESTIGATION

Yesterday yet another incredibly damning piece of this story broke, as Michael Schmidt of the New York Times reported this:

The Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation into Russian election interference and any links to the Trump campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, keeping investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia.

The special counsel who finished the investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, secured three dozen indictments and convictions of some top Trump advisers, and he produced a report that outlined Russia’s wide-ranging operations to help get Mr. Trump elected and the president’s efforts to impede the inquiry.

But law enforcement officials never fully investigated Mr. Trump’s own relationship with Russia, even though some career FBI counterintelligence investigators thought his ties posed such a national security threat that they took the extraordinary step of opening an inquiry into them. Within days, the former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere.

(Schmidt’s article is excerpted from his book Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President, which will be published tomorrow, September 1. See also Jeffrey Toobin’s new book, True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump.)

Rosenstein, you’ll recall, is the guy who wrote the letter justifying the May 2017 firing of Jim Comey in the first place, on the laughable grounds that he had allegedly been unfair to Hillary Clinton in his investigation of her. Rod is now emerging as an even more villainous figure than we first thought.

At the time Rosenstein was painted as a tortured soul, an “institutionialist,” we were told, who was tricked into drafting that letter. He must have been an “institutionalist” under the same definition that Bill Barr is one.

In this telling, Rosenstein—a lifelong Republican, let’s remember—was subsequently so horrified at how the White House misused his letter that he quickly appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to carry on the Russia investigation that the FBI had begun. That narrative itself was always suspect, as Rosenstein clearly understood that Trump was directing him to create a pretext for firing Comey. (And I’ll remind you that, as Deputy Attorney General, it fell to Rosenstein to do so because his boss, AG Jeff Sessions, had rightly been forced to recuse himself due to his own implication in the Trump campaign and the Russia affair.)

Mueller’s appointment was framed as Rosenstein’s pushback to Trump, when really it was a desperate attempt at spin and damage control after the public outcry over the hamhanded dismissal of the FBI director proved far greater than the administration had anticipated.

Now we learn that the truth was even worse: that it was all misdirection, as Rosenstein restricted Mueller from doing a full investigation from the very start.

As the Times reports:

Many Democrats embraced the appointment as a sign that law enforcement would complete a full accounting of Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia.

But privately, Mr. Rosenstein instructed Mr. Mueller to conduct only a criminal investigation into whether anyone broke the law in connection with Russia’s 2016 election interference, former law enforcement officials said.

But that ain’t all. With Mueller effectively circumscribed, Rosenstein also made sure the FBI could not fully investigate the matter either:

Mr. Rosenstein concluded the FBI lacked sufficient reason to conduct an investigation into the president’s links to a foreign adversary. Mr. Rosenstein determined that the investigators were acting too hastily in response to the firing days earlier of James B. Comey as FBI director, and he suspected that the acting bureau director who approved the opening of the inquiry, Andrew G. McCabe, had conflicts of interest. Mr. Rosenstein never told Mr. McCabe about his decision, leaving the FBI with the impression that the special counsel would take on the investigation into the president as part of his broader duties. Mr. McCabe said in an interview that had he known Mr. Mueller would not continue the inquiry, he would have had the FBI perform it.

In other words, Trump’s DOJ kneecapped the Russia probe from the get-go, in ways we are only now beginning to fully understand.

The handcuffing of Mueller was bad enough. (Ask yourself why Rosenstein and the DOJ never made that public.) But the neutering of the FBI was especially crucial, as it sidelined the nation’s lead counterintelligence agency in the biggest counterintelligence case in American history, one that went to the very heart of US national security:

“It was first and foremost a counterintelligence case,” Mr. McCabe said. “Could the president actually be the point of coordination between the campaign and the Russian government? Could the president actually be maintaining some sort of inappropriate relationship with our most significant adversary in the world?”

For the next ten months, Andrew McCabe remained in charge of the FBI, the whole time believing that Robert Mueller was investigating Mr. Trump’s personal and financial ties to Russia and that his agency did not have to.

But Rod Rosenstein had unilaterally decided the FBI should not investigate Trump’s connections to Moscow, and ordered it not to do so, giving the director the FBI the impression that the special counsel was on that. Meanwhile, he had told the special counsel not to investigate it either.

This is flat-out sabotage of the rightful prosecution of justice that the Office of the Attorney General is charged with overseeing. It is shameful beyond belief.

It’s also important to remember that, before Rosenstein curtailed it, the FBI was conducting two separate investigations, even though they are usually conflated in the public mind: a broader inquiry (codenamed Crossfire Hurricane) into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and its efforts at electoral interference, opened in the summer of 2016 before Trump was even elected, and one launched in 2017 to determine if Trump was actively compromised by the Kremlin.

Seems like something the American people would want to know, no? So what reason would the Trump administration have for suppressing and undermining it?

I can’t possibly imagine.

SPARE THE ROD

It ought to go without saying that this is an atomic bomb of a story, in many ways far worse than the revelations about Kilimink or anything else in the Senate report, damning and informative as that was. Paul Manafort is a sleazy dirty trickster going back to the Reagan era; Rod Rosenstein was Deputy Attorney General of the United Sates.

In light of this revelation, Trump’s entire hysterical, two-year long smear campaign against the Mueller probe looks like mere kabuki. He knew from the start he was going to skate.

But there is another interpretation, of course:

That Trump truly was terrified, even with the strict limits which he privately knew had been imposed on Mueller and the FBI, because he knew that he and his team likely did commit literal crimes for which he could be prosecuted, in addition to impeachable acts that might justify his removal from office even if he could not be proven to have violated any laws.

But by obstructing the investigation in the egregious manner that he did, Trump was able to hide evidence of that, and has kept if from the light of day even now.

To that end, as bad as the Senate Intel Committee report was, it could have and should have been even worse, had they not been denied access to Trump’s tax returns and other financial records. Schmidt again:

Senators depicted extensive ties between Trump associates and Russia, identified a close associate of a former Trump campaign chairman as a Russian intelligence officer and outlined how allegations about Mr. Trump’s encounters with women during trips to Moscow could be used to compromise him. But the senators acknowledged they lacked access to the full picture, particularly any insight into Mr. Trump’s finances.

Yet slowly but surely, bit by bit, the evidence is seeping out.

BENEDICT DONALD

In the midst of the pandemic, a historic economic collapse, a painful reckoning with the legacy of slavery playing out in the streets, and the unprecedented threat of neo-fascist authoritarianism at the highest levels all roiling these United States, Russiagate feels like ancient history, a canceled show that few wish to watch again. But it is part and parcel of the malevolent incompetence—and incompetent malevolence—of the regime that gave us those four horsemen (particularly the last).

Trump partisans to this day cling to the rock-ribbed belief that the entire Russia thing was a hoax, and that they and the president were proved right. (See also Barr’s openly deceitful handling of the SCO report, beginning with his dishonest and outrageously misleading four-page public summary of it in March 2019.)

They have to hew to that belief, as any honest accounting of the facts leaves their hero exposed as the epic traitor that he is. (Please don’t email me about the dictionary definition of treason. File that along with the argument that we weren’t really at war in Vietnam because it was never formally declared.) They will surely be unmoved by these latest revelations, and their impact on the election will be slight at best, or even nil. That willful denial, however, does not make this information any less explosive or damning.

Over the past four years of this national nightmare, I have often said—by way of consoling myself—that history will have the final say, as it always does, and that its judgment on this man, this administration, its supporters, and the America that allowed all this to unfold will be harsh. That refrain has grown tedious….but that doesn’t make it any less true.

We are already beginning to see history’s verdict revealing itself.

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images