Authoritarianism Adjacent

Gerrymander

As far back as the very earliest weeks of this blog, back in the summer of 2017, I wrote about what strikes me as the greatest and most insidious threat to our representative democracy: the slow, steady Republican attempt to undermine its fundamental institutions and entrench permanent right wing control in defiance of the public will.

At the time, I described this effort as a slow motion coup d’etat. (The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup – July 12, 2017.) Since then, Trump has taken to using the word “coup” frequently (I don’t want to say “liberally”) to describe what he says is a sore loser effort by “angry Democrats” to undermine and even end his presidency—principally, through the “witchhunt” of the Mueller probe, oversight by Congress, scrutiny by the free press, and other mechanisms that the rest of us without delusions of imperial grandeur understand are the normal functions of a working democracy. As a result, the term “coup” has lost its currency; I certainly don’t want to lower my argument to a false equivalence by laying claim to the same terminology.

But the point remains.

Of course, the GOP scoffs at the very idea. Perish the thought! Do you expect them to do any less? But the evidence speaks for itself, and has been well-catalogued in these pages, among numerous other places. It was well summarized this week by New York Times columnist Michael Tomasky:

(T)he Republican Party is no longer simply trying to compete with and defeat the Democratic Party on a level playing field. Today, rather than simply playing the game, the Republicans are simultaneously trying to rig the game’s rules so that they never lose.

The aggressive gerrymandering, which the Supreme Court just declared to be a matter beyond its purview; the voter suppression schemes; the dubious proposals that haven’t gone anywhere—yet—like trying to award presidential electoral votes by congressional district rather than by state, a scheme that Republicans in five states considered after the 2012 election and that is still discussed: These are not ideas aimed at invigorating democracy. They are hatched and executed for the express purpose of essentially fixing elections.

We might add to Tomasky’s list the Merrick Garland travesty, the shameless attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, the obstructionism toward numerous Congressional investigations (to include defiance of subpoenas), the attempt to turn the DOJ into Trump’s personal police force and law firm, the disinformation/propaganda machine that is right wing media, and oh yes, the willingness to accept and even solicit illegal assistance by foreign powers.

It is important to stress that Trump himself is merely one aspect of this broad and far-ranging campaign, not its apotheosis or even its primary instigator. For all the air time he gets, he is but a symptom and not the underlying disease, as many have noted. That dubious distinction belongs to the broader GOP, with its long descent into no-holds-barred proto-authoritarianism, a descent that has its roots in early 20th Century nativism, runs through McCarthyism and the John Birch movement, showed its true colors under the criminal reign of Dick Nixon, rebounded with the ascent of Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, grew to maturity (as it were) with the rise of Fox News, the Tea Party, and Mitch McConnell, and has now come to full, toxic flower with the con man from Queens.

Still I hear Republicans snorting in derision. So let’s review what we have at the moment:

  • A Republican president who lost the popular vote, yet still ascended to office. (True of both of our last two GOP presidents, as it happens. In fact, the Republican candidate has won the popular vote in only one of the last five elections)….
  • A Senate that similarly remains in Republican control because of anti-democratic measures built into the Constitution, and is willing to protect that President from political and criminal jeopardy come hell or high water…..
  • A right wing majority on the Supreme Court—achieved by the outright theft of a seat rightfully belonging to the nominee of the last President—moving in almost lockstep to defend the interests of the Republican Party….
  • And a judiciary increasingly packed with hardline right wing ideologues, part of a concerted, overt decades-long project toward that end.

Sound like what the Founders had in mind, or not?

Oh, and by the by, that aforementioned countermajoritarian Republican POTUS got into office with the demonstrable help of a hostile foreign power that held damaging information on him that he was desperate to hide from the American people, having repeatedly lied about it.

Yeah, that sounds like a perfectly healthy Western democracy to me.

DON’T LOOK AT US

Which brings us to last week’s disgraceful 5-4 Supreme Court decision—along party lines, of course—to abdicate any responsibility of the judiciary to address hyperpartisan gerrymandering.

The SCOTUS is a pretty regular topic of this blog. (See The Ghost of Merrick Garland – November 25, 2017, The Ghost of Merrick Garland, Part II – October 10, 2018, Five Blind Mice – July 11, 2018, and “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018.) And once again, with this decision, the Court has shown itself willing to be a pretty brazen arm of the Republican machine, despite highfalutin pretense of being above the partisan fray.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne writes of last week’s decision:

(T)he five members of the Supreme Court’s Republican Machine (two of them named by Trump) shoved aside mounds of evidence, threw up their hands and declared themselves powerless to contain the radical gerrymandering of legislative seats. They did so even while effectively conceding the obvious, well-described in Justice Elena Kagan’s history-will-remember dissent: that gerrymanders “enabled politicians to entrench themselves . . . against voters’ preferences” and “promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will”….

Please read Kagan’s scathing and at times wickedly mocking dissent. She shows how (Chief Justice John) Roberts and his allies are willfully blind to how much the world of political mapmaking has changed because of “big data and modern technology.” These tools not only allow very precise election-fixing (creating the “voter-proof map”) but also provide courts with easy ways of detecting in a “politically neutral” way “the worst-of-the-worst cases of democratic subversion.

“These are not your grandfather’s—let alone the Framers’—gerrymanders,” Kagan writes. “For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply”….

And not only does the Court’s right wing junta take this helpless stance, pleading an aversion to judicial activism, but it does so selectively, usually when it benefits the GOP. Dionne again:

Conservatives who were happy to override decades of precedent to throw out laws limiting money’s influence in politics and to gut the Voting Rights Act suddenly discovered judicial modesty on gerrymanders. I was reminded of former congressman Barney Frank’s quip skewering the GOP’s “Reverse Houdinis” who tie themselves up in knots and then say they cannot act — because they are all tied up in knots.

Notice: When judicial intervention helps Republicans, expands the power of the wealthy or undercuts the ability of minorities to vote, the court’s conservatives are activist. When restraint helps the GOP, they are overcome by humility.

Anticipating the complaint from my conservative readers (both of them):

It’s true that that same Court narrowly struck down the White House’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, an action that would have significantly skewed the GOP’s electoral advantage going forward. It did so only because Roberts sided with his progressive colleagues this time, as he occasionally does in his role as the closest thing the current Court has to a swing vote. That in itself is telling, given that the Chief Justice is a solid conservative.

Roberts has a reputation as an honest broker, and is said to be very invested in the legacy of the Court that bears his name. I don’t deny that he periodically lives up to that rep, as he did in upholding the constitutionality of the ACA in June 2012. Other times—such as his convoluted opinion defending the Muslim ban as not religiously based, even as Trump himself crowed to his cheering followers that it was—he seems to function as a reliable GOP team player, even when it requires yogi-like contortions to explain his position.

Moreover, as Thomas Wolf and Brianna Cea of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice write in The Atlantic, the entire Court—and not just its right wingers—still accepted at face value the administration’s false contention that there is a historical argument to be made on behalf of the citizenship question. Even if Roberts voted against adding the question to the 2020 census, rejecting the administration’s brazenly laughable claim that it would help it protect minorities, it’s worth remembering that his four conservative colleagues were perfectly fine with it.

Trump, of course, immediately tried to go around the decision, which he predictably railed against as “totally ridiculous,” asking if the census could be delayed until the GOP can find a way to win. He has even implied he might just ignore the Court’s ruling.

Of course, never in American history has the Supreme Court been truly impartial or above partisan considerations. (See: Bush v. Gore). But some eras and some moments are worse than others, and right now, its stock is at a nearly all-time low. The FiveThirtyEight points out that other non-judicial solutions remain to address gerrymandering, but the cause just got infinitely harder. The unwillingness of Court to step in, and its weak-kneed claim that it has no business (or capability of) doing so, even as it takes on other electoral matters like the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is a shameful display that smacks of the pure politics that it claims to be above.

WHO’S COMPETITIVE?

So what to make of this rise of incipient authoritarianism within the GOP, a rise that has been radically accelerated by Trump, even if the broader trend long predates him? An ocean of ink has been spilled on the topic—little of it by conservatives of course, after eight years of hyperventilating allegations that Barack Obama had claimed for himself the powers of an emperor.

To be fair, Tomasky does not believe that the GOP has become authoritarian. But he comes close:

It doesn’t have a name, this thing the Republicans are trying to do. It’s not true democracy that they want. But it’s also a bit much to call them outright authoritarians. And there’s nothing in between.

I admire his discretion and cautiousness, but I see no reason to call “this thing Republicans are trying to do” anything but the Big A. At the very least it is damn sure “authoritarian adjacent,” as the real estate brokers would say. Or perhaps a better metaphor is “authoritarian curious.”

Indeed, for my money, in its demagoguery, anti-intellectualism, merger of church and state, hypervalorization of the military, nativism, cult of personality, attacks on the press, and (selective) obsession with “law and order,” at times it veers dangerously to the Big F.

Tomasky makes the case for the term “competitive authoritarianism,” coined by the authors Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in their 2010 book Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. (Levitsky is also the co-author of last year’s much-discussed How Democracies Die, with Daniel Ziblatt.) They define such systems as “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.”

Even now, almost ten years later, Levitsky—like Tomasky—does not believe that we are quite there yet, arguing that, “The playing field between Democrats and Republicans remains reasonably level.”

I guess the operative word there is “reasonably.” The trend is worrying, however, and certainly runs the risk of getting worse. Levitsky himself raises that alarm, echoing the view that Trump is only a symptom—not the cause—of this GOP turn toward the dark side. Tomasky quotes him:

“Recent Republican behavior—from the 2016 stolen Supreme Court seat to the legislative shenanigans that followed gubernatorial defeats in North Carolina and Wisconsin to voter suppression efforts across numerous states—suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened. The fact that the Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian poses a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump.”

Again, “suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened” is an almost comically generous description of the modern GOP. But I guess that’s why he is the esteemed political scientist, while I am a guy who walks around Times Square in an Elmo suit.

Tomasky concurs, noting how, thanks to gerrymandering, the GOP managed to maintain a House majority under Obama even when Democratic Congressional candidates won more votes. And Trump has taken it to a new level:

Think of his efforts to do things like politicize the institutions of the executive branch, to try to turn the Department of Justice into his personal law firm. Think of his threat in 2016 that he would honor the results of the election “if I win,” and his recent musings about staying beyond two terms. Think of his commerce secretary’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census, which would benefit the Republicans electorally.

He goes on:

Who doubts that Mr. Trump, with quiescent and tremulous congressional Republicans watching, will keep up his assault on them, intensifying in a second term? And what are the odds that after years of Mr. Trump, the Republican Party will return to what used to pass as normal? After all the Republican lurch in this direction predated Mr. Trump.

In other words, is there any reason to believe that the Republican creep into authoritarianism—turbocharged by the discovery that they can do pretty much anything they goddam want as long as Donald Trump is in the White House—is going to stop, let alone reverse itself?

TANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

As if to drive the neo-authoritarian point home, Trump is about to get his wish of a Red Square-style May Day—er, I mean Fourth of July—parade, complete with generals standing beside him and fighter plane flyovers and M-1 Abrams tanks rolling down the Mall and marching troops passing in review. (Also: a VIP section, because as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes, “nothing says Fourth of July like preferential treatment for rich toadies.”)

Donny has been after this sort of garish, wildly un-American royalist spectacle ever since he saw the Bastille Day parade in Paris in 2017, and it’s now coming to pass, despite the best efforts of many (even in the Pentagon) to explain why it’s an absolutely terrible idea in every possible way from top to bottom. I’d love to see the press ignore it altogether, but of course, they can’t turn away from a trainwreck.

It hardly bears noting the absurdity of spending millions of taxpayer dollars so an ignorant, draft-dodging egomaniac and borderline traitor can indulge his Napoleonic fantasies and hold a publicly funded campaign rally. Subverting the entire point of a day meant to celebrate our liberation from monarchy does not require any further elucidation here. This at a time when our government is keeping children in squalid conditions in cages, and DOJ lawyers are pleading before federal judges that we can’t afford to provide them soap.

Is America great again yet? Wake me when it is.

Maybe Trump got both parade and concentration camp advice from his boyfriend Kim Jong Un on his recent trip to North Korea, the latest in a series of shameful diplomatic blunders and unforced Christmas gifts to the DPRK that were once jawdropping, but have now become so routine that I can barely muster the strength to bitch. (See Only Nixon Could Go to China…But Nixon Was, Like, Smart – March 16, 2018, and Singapore Is the New Munich (Is What Fox Would Have Said If It Were Obama) – June 13, 2018.)

And that fatigue is precisely what we have to fear.

Slowly (I turned), step by step, inch by inch, the modern Republican Party—led by its cretinous dotard-king—is dragging us into a sanguine acceptance of what was once unthinkable in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Pick your metaphor of choice: the Overton window is moving even as we speak; we are the frog in boiling water; it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Any way you want to frame it, the bottom line is that Donald Trump thinks Kim, Putin, Erdogan, and Duterte are all swell guys, and the Grand Old Party is just fine with that.

Yes, tanks on the Mall tomorrow are ridiculous. But it’s the tanks on the Mall in November 2020 that I’m more worried about.

*********

Illustration: US map altered to reflect voting power of the individual states, as of 2016

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_United_States_presidential_election

 

 

 

 

Semantics and Sadism

96 Semantics and Sadism

Rule of thumb: if you’re having a national debate about whether or not your country has concentration camps, it probably does.

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER

Last week the right wing’s new favorite bogeywoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, used that term to refer to what the United States government is doing to migrants on our southern border, especially children whom that government has stolen from their parents. In our name, I hasten to note.

She was clearly aware of how those comments would be received and the backlash they would prompt because she couched her statement in pre-emptive explanation of that exact thing, and offered her reasoning for using that incendiary phrase. Obviously, that sort of careful contextualizing should have defused any knee-jerk outrage and prompted a thoughtful, vigorous, but civil discussion with the GOP opposition.

Just kidding!

To no one’s surprise, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s due diligence didn’t prevent Fox Nation from having a collective shit fit and renewing its apoplectic howling that she is (take your pick): a) an anti-Semitic idiot, b) a scourge to all that is good and right on God’s green earth, c) coming to take away your hamburgers and SUVs, d) the second coming of Angela Davis (NB: they don’t mean it as a compliment), or e) all of the above.

In other news, water is wet. The right would freak out on AOC even if she came out in favor of puppies and rainbows.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY)—think Dick, but with a vagina—offered a typical comment, sneering that AOC needs a history lesson about the Holocaust. (Tellingly, conservatives like Cheney were much more upset about the analogy than about the actual condition of these children.) That in turn prompted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes to slap Liz down with the suggestion that she needs a lesson on the difference between a death camp and the Nazis’ other Konzentrationslager.

Then ensued a flood of commentary—some partisan, some clear-eyed—by scholars of the Shoah and experts on concentration camps in general, many of whom made the salient point that such camps aren’t unique to the Third Reich, and that just using the term—accurately—is not the same as equating a given facility to a Nazi concentration camp, or implying that it’s part of anything comparable to the Final Solution. (Though it’s damn sure not a good look on anyone.)

But such nuances, and indeed the entire semantic debate, miss the point, as the reliably intrepid Masha Gessen pointed out in the New Yorker:

(T)he argument is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it.

In other words, the angry Republican pushback against the use of the term is a failure of imagination: a refusal to accept the possibility that the United States could engage in such behavior, using a tautology to explain it away. “The US doesn’t build concentration camps, therefore the camps the US has built aren’t that.”

THE MAN ON HIS HIGH HORSE

Gessen makes a convincing argument that we engage in a kind of dishonest deflection of responsibility with the convenient portrayal of Hitler (or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot) as an “inhuman” monster whose actions are an aberration outside of history. That is a fraught escape hatch, morally speaking, and one that poses dire risks, politically.

The grim truth, not to be pedantic, is that Hitler was very much human, and his capacity —and that of his followers—for unthinkable cruelty, while extreme to say the least, is not something outside human experience but potentially within all of us. (I refer you to the Stanford prison experiment, or any gradeschool playground.) Ironically, pretending otherwise makes an encore more, not less, likely, by making us less vigilant and self-scrutinizing.

Couple that with the juvenile American belief in our “exceptionalism” and you have a toxic recipe for national blindness that creates the exact conditions in which such crimes against humanity can be committed with impunity, and even with eager public defense and endorsement. (Looking at you, Laura Ingraham.)

The very idea that Americans would ever even think of building concentration camps is enough to make many conservatives furious. The chauvinism runs so deep that it creates a feedback loop in which we excuse ourselves from even the possibility that we could behave in such a manner by definition, a kind of get-out-of-Auschwitz-free card that itself ought to expose the dangerous hubris of its adherents.

(Worth noting, while the radical right sanctimoniously insists that the American character inherently precludes the establishment of a gulag archipelago in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it is also an article of faith in those circles that the left—led by people precisely like AOC—has secret plans to put all conservatives in “re-education camps.” But whatever.)

So per Gessen, while some might say that AOC has distracted from the urgent issue of the atrocities going on at the border, I’m on the side of those who say quite the opposite: that she has done a public service by highlighting it in the most dramatic possible way. The debate over verbiage is only a problem if we fixate on it—which the right is eager to do—instead of addressing the underlying reality that it indicts.

OUR SHAME

So why are we having this linguistic debate in the first place? Well, it’s because AOC’s remarks came in conjunction with new revelations of the horrors at the border, exposed by credible, non-partisan humanitarian organizations whose members—many of them human rights lawyers—have physically inspected the facilities and the affected children. Among their revelations:

That the innocuously-titled “family separation policy” has not really ended. That the federal government has no real plan for reuniting thousands of children forcibly taken from their parents, and not much interest in it either. That we as a people now have a network of ad hoc tent cities and other warehouse-like facilities in which migrant children are being held, some in shocking, unsanitary conditions that you would not tolerate for a dog, where they are deprived of basic necessities and lack adequate adult supervision by qualified personnel. The Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn described it about as well as anyone:

The image kept replaying in attorney W. Warren Binford’s mind after she left a migrant detention facility last week in Clint, Tex., where hundreds of children were held: The 15-year-old mother, her baby covered in mucus. It seemed no matter how many times she washed the sick baby’s clothes in the sink she couldn’t get them clean. There was no soap. And when she tried to find baby food, there was none of that, either. All they had was instant oatmeal for breakfast, instant soup for lunch and a frozen burrito for dinner, “every single day,” Binford said.

Child care was not the forte of US Customs and Border Protection, Binford could see. Here, in a warehouse filled with filthy kids who had not bathed in days, some with lice and influenza, it was kids taking care of kids. “We were just horrified,” Binford, director of the clinical law program at Willamette University, told The Washington Post…

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes:

Antar Davidson, a former youth-care worker at an Arizona shelter, described to the Los Angeles Times children “huddled together, tears streaming down their faces,” because they believed that their parents were dead. Natalia Cornelio, an attorney with the Texas Human Rights Project, told CNN about a Honduran mother whose child had been ripped away from her while she was breastfeeding. “Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children wait in a series of cages created by metal fencing,” the Associated Press reported. “One cage had 20 children inside.”

In short, we are being awakened to the fact that the border crisis of a year ago precipitated by the Trump administration’s deliberately sadistic policies is anything but resolved, and indeed is getting worse.

Fueling the fire, of course, is Trump’s own angry, Orwellian insistence that he is the one who reunited the families, not the one who separated them, which might be the most brazenly ass-backwards, vile, and vomit-inducing of the many many lies he has told in his public life, which is saying something.

Along similar lines, Mike Pence naturally defended the administration, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd, “We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.” He even had the, er, chutzpah to blame Democrats for the conditions in the detention centers (can I call them camps?), arguing that the administration can’t provide basic standards of humanitarian care while in the middle of blackmail to get funding for its idiotic “border wall.”

What would Jesus do indeed.

But the most spectacular and attention-grabbing of the recent stories that returned this crisis to the forefront of the national conversation was the image of a US Justice Department attorney named Sarah Fabian arguing in federal court that these children do not require such basic necessities as soap or toothbrushes, and can be made to sleep on cold concrete floors in low temperatures under bright lights, while still meeting the standard for being held in “safe and sanitary” conditions.

Feel free to read that again, in case the cognitive dissonance was too great on the first pass.

In a welcome burst of common human decency, the three judges on that federal court (all Bill Clinton appointees, it must be noted), reacted in shock and disgust:

“You’re really going to stand up and tell us that being able to sleep isn’t a question of safe and sanitary conditions?” US Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon asked Fabian. “Are you arguing seriously that you do not read the agreement as requiring you to do anything other than what I just described: cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket?” US Circuit Judge William Fletcher asked Fabian. “I find that inconceivable that the government would say that that is safe and sanitary.”

Incredibly, the DOJ thought it was a winning strategy to make that argument even knowing that the third judge on that court, Judge A. Wallace Tashima, was as a child himself held in an internment camp along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. You can’t make this shit up.

You can watch the entire proceeding here, and see the actual face of Sarah Fabian, who has Sarah Huckabee Sanders resting easy in the knowledge that, for the moment, she is no longer the front-runner in the World’s Worst Sarah contest.

SADISM IS AS SADISM DOES

It goes without saying that what the federal government is doing in our name ought to make every American hang their head in shame, especially while we repeatedly, laughably, flatter ourselves to believe we are better than every other nation.

But it has often been noted that when it comes to the xenophobia that drives Trump’s policy on immigration (the Muslim ban, the “family separation policy”, restriction of visas, etc), the cruelty is the very point.

Now, it may be that Trump and his advisors like the human colostomy bag that is Stephen Miller genuinely believe that these policies will achieve the intended effect of keeping brown people out of America, and keeping those who are already here beaten down. Such barbaric magical thinking has always been characteristic of nativism. (Wow, could there be a less apt term for a movement full of people who stole their land from its actual native inhabitants?) Likewise, they surely understand very very well that there is a political benefit to them in thrilling their red-hatted white nationalist base.

But to the previous point, those goals do feel very much like a side effect. Regardless of any practical result, it seems very clear that the administration quite simply disdains (if not openly loathes) non-whites, and therefore at every available opportunity intends to treat them as badly as possible purely because it can. Even if there is no “practical” payoff, the White House isn’t really bothered in the slightest. So the cruelty is indeed very much an end in itself.

Team Trump also knows that these actions will prompt furor from the left, which is another thing that to them is a feature and not a bug. For many in MAGA Nation, infuriating centrists and progressives (and even moderate Republicans)—“owning the libs,” in their own self-flattering terminology—is their greatest pleasure, even more than achieving any concrete policy goal, which also speaks to the adolescent hatefulness at the core of their movement. Identity politics is integral to Trump’s followers, even as they hypocritically decry it in others. But as we have seen with all things from Trump’s golfing to engagement with North Korea to the use of unclassified electronics, hypocrisy is the poisonous mother’s milk of Trumpism.

What they really mean is, only they are allowed to traffic in the politics of self-pity and resentment.

Might I also add how absolutely head-spinning it is that we as Americans have arranged it so that a wantonly unfit, proudly ignorant, D-list celebrity game show host is the man with the authority to inflict this sort of sadistic treatment on hundreds and possibly thousands of children? I guess elections do have consequences.

Serwer’s epic, aforementioned piece in the Atlantic goes on to contextualize the separation policy and show how it is inextricably tied to the hateful white nationalism that is the core of Trumpism:

Americans should have fathomed the depth of the crisis Trump would cause in 2016, but many chose denial, ridiculing those who spoke the plain meaning of Trumpism as oversensitive…. The separation of children from their families at the border in order to punish children for their parents’ decision to seek a better life in America, as the forebears of millions of Americans once did, has now clarified for many what should have been obvious before.

Also note, please, that this story is breaking even as Trump is flirting with war with Iran—more red meat for the base, and with its own racist overtones, in three-part harmony with the main motif of jingoism. (Don’t be misled by his typically Trumpian boast that he is the one who stopped the outbreak of war. Dude: you’re the commander-in-chief. If planes were in the air, or even being readied, it’s only because you gave the order. The idea that at the last minute he heroically stepped in to prevent bloodshed and the beginning of a giant, horrific Middle Eastern shitstorm is like a kidnapper asking to be praised for freeing your child.)

But that too is a classic Trump tactic: create a crisis, then claim to be a hero for addressing it (sort of). It is exactly like him taking credit for re-opening the government after he shut it down, or more on point, stopping the family separation policy that he instituted. Except he didn’t even really stop it.

I only mention Iran to call attention to the outrage fatigue, and our limited capacity to comprehend and react to multiple domestic and international goatscrews simultaneously. Needless to say, it serves Trump’s ends to have us distracted with the possibility of yet another Persian Gulf war instead of protesting in the streets over American concentration camps on our own land, or pressing him on Russiagate.

The administration uses the sheer relentlessness of its steady parade of self-created emergencies and stomach-churning behavior to wear down resistance and foment exhaustion. That, too, is page one of the fascist handbook. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg writes:

I understand why, bombarded with stories about the Trump administration’s sadism, people can just shut down. One some level, I think Trump understands this as well. “I do think there’s some emotional burnout,” (ACLU lawyer Lee) Gelernt said. ‘People just don’t want to hear anymore about another baby who’s sitting in a shelter all by himself without his parents, crying: ‘Where’s my mommy? Where’s my daddy?’ But we need the kind of public outcry that we had last summer. Otherwise we could be looking at thousands more children separated.’

The question is whether, over the course of this numbing year, we’ve learned to tolerate what just last June seemed intolerable.

THE RETURN OF OUTRAGE

Ironically, last week’s essay, The End of Outrage, bemoaned the fact that we have become so inured to atrocity and scandal—and a segment of our countrymen so in denial about it, and some of them actually in favor of it—that even the most appalling acts and events fail to have an appreciable effect on the national conversation.

That remains so.

I am not prepared to say that the renewed attention to what is going on at the border will reverse that trend. But if damn sure oughta, wouldn’t you say?

If we as a people are not stirred to action by the image of an attorney for the Department of Justice standing in front of federal judges and arguing that migrant children ripped from their parents by US border police can be justifiably housed—indefinitely, and with no plan for reuniting them—in makeshift camps behind razor wire, in conditions that would violate the Geneva Convention, then the American soul is truly dead.

Maybe we’re not quite there yet, but someone needs to check for a pulse.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, when future historians and political scientists look back and posterity renders its verdict, this latest horror will prove to be an important tipping point. After all, there was the rise of sufficient public outcry a year ago, when the family separation policy first came to light, that forced Trump to reverse himself, or at least pretend to. (His usual MO, as Max Boot noted at the time.)

Or maybe not. Either way, there is every reason to believe that we will look back on this moment as one of the darkest hours in modern American history, akin to the Japanese internment camps in which Judge Tashima was held, the sort of thing that until very recently we tut-tutted about self-righteously, implicitly condemning our forefathers for tolerating such blatantly immoral and—ahem—un-American behavior. The critical issue is how we will now respond to it.

For I say again, at the risk of re-stating the obvious: all this being done in our in our name. For the moment we still flatter ourselves to believe that we live in a representative democracy where our alleged leaders can’t just trample the rule of law and commit unspeakable atrocities without the assent of the majority.

So are we assenting or not?

If we turn our backs to what Trump is doing at the border, if we cover our ears and eyes, if we refuse to stand up and say, “Hell no—this is not what we are about and we will not tolerate it,” we have no grounds on which to claim that we are a “civilized” people, a nation of laws, or even a community of decent human beings, let alone continue to make this absurd assertion of some sort of ridiculous “exceptionalism.”

We are smack dab in the middle of a Niemöllerian first-they-came-for-the-socialists situation. Exactly a year ago, in an essay called Dear Huddled Masses: Go Fuck Yourselves (June 21, 2018), I wrote:

There is a meme on the Internet that asks about those countries throughout history that wantonly arrested and imprisoned large numbers of their residents without any kind of due process and sent them to prisons and concentration camps, sometimes indefinitely. The meme asks: “Did you ever wonder what the hell the other people in that country were doing while that was happening?

The answer is: “Whatever you’re doing right now.”

********

Related posts:

In Case of Non-Emergency, Break Glass….or What If They Burned Down the Reichstag and Nobody Cared? – February 17, 2019

The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes) – December 28, 2018

Requiem: Is This America? – December 21, 2018

Dear Huddled Masses: Go Fuck Yourselves – June 21, 2018

The End of Outrage

Hulk.png

Uh, didn’t we just spend two excruciating years trying to determine whether Donald Trump, wittingly or otherwise, conspired with a foreign government to help vault him into the White House?

And didn’t Donald Trump over the course of those two years swear up and down nearly every waking minute that he never did any such thing, that the mere allegation was a dirty lie by sore losers trying to delegitimize his presidency? And even now does he not continue to howl that there was “No collusion! no collusion! no collusion!”?

That happened, right? I didn’t dream it, did I?

All that only for Trump to go on national television with George Stephanopolous last week and volunteer that, sure, he’d do that, and what’s more, he didn’t see anything wrong with it.

It’s no wonder Emmet Flood wouldn’t let this guy sit down with Bob Mueller.

This of course is the classic evolution of a Trumpian self-defense:

1) I didn’t do it, and how dare you even ask!

2) Well, maybe I did do it, but I never said I didn’t, and anyway it’s not a crime,

And finally,

3) Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!

The Stephanopolous interview was a near reprise of Trump’s on-camera admission to NBC’s Lester Holt in May 2017—a boast, really—that he fired Jim Comey specifically to halt the Russia investigation. At the time I thought that alone made for an open-and-shut case on obstruction of justice. I still think that.

(Particularly, buttressed as it was, by his blunt comments to Lavrov and Kislyak that same week as to why he fired the FBI director: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”)

Trump truly should stick to talking only to Fox & Friends, because any time he talks to a proper journalist he immediately confesses to the Black Dahlia murder, snatching Jon Benet Ramsey, and sinking the Andrea Doria.

As you might expect, his comment to Stephanopolous created a fairly big kerfuffle, largely among Democrats, progressives, law enforcement and intelligence officials, constitutional law scholars, historians, journalists, pundits, and the like. Not, notably, from Republicans.

I hesitate even to call it a gaffe, because he’s proud of it, but regardless of the uproar or lack thereof that Trump’s latest gaffe prompted, there is no reason to believe that it will deal him lethal political (or criminal) damage, or even mark a tipping point, death-of-a-thousand-cuts-style, that leads to his downfall. Which brings us to the crux of the issue, one that we have been continually returning to over and over in these pages:

A disturbingly large number of Americans—enough to put a chokehold on our representative democracy—simply do not care.

I BEG YOUR PARDON (I NEVER PROMISED YOU)

Even before the Stephanopoulos interview, there was a similar should-have-been bombshell story that caused barely a ripple.

In a May 22 press conference in the White House rose garden, Trump clumsily let slip that Don Jr had told him about the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives before it happened—a fact that is central to the conspiracy charge, and something both Dons Sr and Jr had, until then, denied to high heaven.

It’s a measure of our collective national PTSD that this revelation went almost noticed, or at least unremarked upon. Just a few months ago that would have been considered a giant development in the Russiagate story. Now we just yawn.

And even taking into account the conclusion of the special counsel investigation, there is no concrete reason for that change in reaction, no real change in the circumstances or the facts that makes it less significant than it would have been last winter. The apathy with which it was greeted was purely a matter of fatigue.

Of course, if we want to look at the entire Trump presidency (and campaign before that), we can find an almost infinite supply of moments and events that ought to have had the American people out in the streets with torches and pitchforks demanding the immediate ejection of this cretin from the White House. But for the sake of challenge, let’s just limit ourselves to the past couple weeks.

In that period, we’ve seen Trump go over Congress’s head to sell $8.1 billion worth of sophisticated military weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its allies like the UAE and Jordan. That’s the same Saudi Arabia that consistently pumps money into Trump’s own pockets via his hotels, and that recently murdered and dismembered a US-based journalist (notwithstanding Trump’s refusal to admit it, let alone do anything about it).

We’ve seen him float the possibility of Memorial Day pardons for both convicted and accused war criminals, a stomach-churning piece of pandering and contempt for the rule of law aimed straight at his aptly named base, and one that—apparently—he was dissuaded from carrying out only by ferocious opposition within the top ranks of the US military.

We’ve seen him traffic in Gulf of Tonkin-style sabre-rattling over Iran, a naked attempt to distract from the domestic troubles that threaten to end his presidency (and put him in jail), even at the risk of setting off a horrific and wholly unnecessary new war in the Persian Gulf.

We’ve seen him refuse to fire Kellyanne Conway even after a separate special counsel recommended that she be removed for violating the Hatch Act by engaging in partisan political attacks from her official governmental position.

We’ve seen him direct the prosecution of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act, a chilling attack on free speech and a free press, and one drenched in irony. The idea of the Trump administration prosecuting anyone for canoodling with a hostile foreign power is mindboggling, but especially Assange, whose work as a Russian cutout helped Trump get elected. That Assange is a loathsome piece of pond scum is not the issue—or perhaps it’s more correct to say that that is exactly the issue. The administration is engaged in a concerted effort to muzzle dissent and freedom of expression in the most underhanded possible way, by focusing on a man whom very few can muster the enthusiasm to defend. (Paging Martin Niemöller.)

We’ve seen him kick off his 2020 re-election campaign with a greatest hits rally in Florida that spent more air time on Hillary Clinton than on anything else, suggesting that he intends to stick to the same racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, hate-mongering playbook that worked—with some foreign help—four years ago. Drink in this classic case of psychological projection-cum-fascist demagoguery (translated from the German):

Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country, as we know it…..They would shut down your free speech and use the power of the law to punish their opponents. They would strip Americans of their constitutional rights while flooding the country with illegal immigrants….Instead of bringing us together as one America, Democrats want to splinter us into factions and tribes, they want us divided….

And lastly and perhaps most egregiously, we’ve seen him give that odious toady Bill Barr free rein to muck about in the US intelligence community, to include the authority to override the intel agency chiefs and declassify cherrypicked material, all to further stymie proper investigation into Trump’s own wrongdoing and perpetuate their Orwellian false narrative about his relationship with the Kremlin. While that is already reprehensible on its own demerits, in the process Trump and Barr are potentially putting the lives of American agents in jeopardy and compromising the mysterious and oft-cited “sources and methods,” an effort that has the potential to make the outing of Valerie Plame look like small beer. This from the alleged party of strong defense, national security, and flag-waving patriotism.

The Barr matter, of course, is related to an ongoing pattern of obstruction, including refusal to comply with subpoenas, instructions to subordinates not to cooperate with Congressional investigations, and a general disinformation campaign, the details of which we won’t even get into here. But as I recently wrote in a piece called Garbo Speaks: Will Congress Listen?, this brazen distortion of the legitimate purpose of the Justice Department is among the most alarming developments in Trump’s already plenty alarming pattern of proto-authoritarianism since taking office. Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman turned Trump critic, has said that this is the realization of the dream that Trump and Bannon (remember him?) announced when they first arrived in Washington: the destruction of the administrative state. And as Steele as says, it is happening without consequences.

And that’s just May and June.

Yet quiet flows the Potomac.

COME MISTER TALLYMAN

Getting back to Trump’s recent comments to Stephanopolous, Lucian Truscott IV summarized them well in Salon:

Trump just put up a banner outside the White House telling autocrats around the world that he’s open for business. You want a few F-22’s over there in Poland or the Czech Republic? Bring me some crap on Biden, or Bernie, or Warren! You want to get that oil flowing out of the ground up there above the Arctic Circle, Putin my pal? Get those damn hackers clacking those keyboards! Hey, MBS! You want some more smart bombs to drop on goat herders over there in Yemen? How about putting some more bucks in my buildings!

It’s hard to overstate how outrageous Trump’s remarks were, except to note that they demonstrate how utterly this man fails to understand the most basic principles of our representative democracy, statesmanship, the rule of law, let alone his job as head of state. That is hardly news, but it’s still shocking and appalling to see it so baldly on display.

Yet the real shock and disgrace, per above, is that so few Republicans care. They either share Trump’s wanton ignorance, or if they do understand the implications of what he’s saying, are so unprincipled, hypocritical, and stone cold unpatriotic that they are willing to exploit his behavior for their own partisan gain.

We’ve already established that, for diehard members of MAGA Nation, Trump could wipe his ass with the American flag on live TV and they would still cheer and chant “lock her up!” It’s deeply disturbing that some 30-40% of our countrymen are fine with this shameless con man and all his behavior so long as it promotes their own retrograde belief system and agenda. But what would it take for a critical mass of the sane portion of the American people to rise up and say “Enough!” What would to take to ratchet up their anger at Trump from, say, writing-an-angry-blog level to taking-to-the-barricades level?

Of at least equal importance, what would it take for the Republican establishment to turn on him?

We know that caging babies, conspiring with the Kremlin, defending neo-Nazis, and protecting murderers like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman won’t do it, to name just a few lowlights. Trump himself infamously mused aloud that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any support. (He might gain some, especially if the person he shot were black. The NRA would certainly cheer.) The bootlicking behavior of the GOP leadership has certainly lent credence to that boast.

Back in January, in a piece called The Rise of the Espiocracy, I mused about what the GOP would do if the Mueller report—then very far off—delivered a damning indictment of Trump’s wrongdoing:

I am not saying that the Republican Party will suddenly discover its missing spine and do the right thing. I doubt it will. But I do think that it will be impossible for the GOP to plausibly dismiss Russiagate as a witchhunt, mere partisanship, or trivial “process” crimes.

How dewy-eyed and innocent I was.

What I did not anticipate—what few did, to my knowledge—was that a new Attorney General would be in place who would spearhead a shameless distortion of that report; that Mueller’s conclusions would be so narrowly drawn in a legalistic sense, and so meticulously respectful of constitutional law in the most careful and cautious way; and that the White House and DOJ coverup would be so aggressive, that the administration would be able to declare victory when it should have been fending off calls for Trump’s immediate resignation. Nor did I anticipate that those circumstances would allow the already supine GOP to abet that strategy in a way even more despicable than usual.

But what if Trump did something truly batshit crazy, so crazy that even Mitch McConnell, the king of pokerfaced hypocrisy, could not excuse or defend it? Perhaps not something policy-based, but indicative of his all-but-undeniable creeping dementia. What if he stood up during a nationally televised speech and began singing and dancing “The Banana Boat Song”?

Would McConnell, Thune, McCarthy, and Scalise then go on TV and say, “Sadly, it appears that the President is ill. Someone call Mike Pence.”

I doubt it. I think they’d shake their hips and sing “day-o.”

For the Republican establishment, I believe the only thing that could possibly cause them to mutiny against the captain of the SS Pussygrabber would be if Trump ceased working for the further enrichment of the wealthiest Americans. That, after all, is the very thing—really the only thing—that causes them to support him in the first place. (One could argue that it is a subset of the GOP’s sheer lust for power, but I would argue that the equation goes the other way around: they want power primarily to enrich themselves and their cronies and patrons. All else is ancillary.)

If that were to come under threat, if Trump were to suddenly reverse course on massive tax cuts for the 1% (not that he has any reason to do so), or were to take his already reckless economic policies even further—say, with a truly destructive trade war that threatened the immediate financial well-being of the plutocracy—then and only then do I believe that the Republican poobahs would at last balk. (Indeed, the only time the GOP has shown ANY real willingness to stand up to Trump in even the smallest way was over tariffs.)

Luckily for Trump, his own financial interests are fully aligned with theirs.

SHEEP GET SHEARED

In another essay almost a year ago I wrote about what I called The Death of Hypocrisy. By that I meant that Trump and his supporters seem to operate outside and beyond the realm of rational recognition of behavior that is jawdroppingly hypocritical by any reasonable standard. (See: Golf.)

But the end of outrage is worse. It suggests that the emotion that ought to be caused by that hypocrisy and the other flagrant offenses committed by this “president”—righteous, justified outrage—is equally dead. It has passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. Its metabolic processes are now history. It’s a stiff, bereft of life, rests in peace, pushing up the daisies, off the twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.

In its place is a shameful complacency.

The Stephanopolous interview may yet prove a pivotal moment in his downfall, but I doubt it. It’s already fading from our consciousness as the next outrage/non-outrage takes its place. I suppose SOMETHING could yet be emerge that would shock us and move the proverbial needle, but probably not. At this point we are inured to scandals that would be presidency-ending in any previous administration, and to ostrich-like right wing tolerance of the same.

So where does that leave us?

It leaves us with the same task as before: holding this criminal administration to account, and maintaining the drumbeat that reminds the American people of Donald Trump’s manifest unfitness for office and pattern of behavior that demands his removal. It means not ceding control of the narrative, and pushing forward on the parallel fronts of Congressional investigation on the road to impeachment, and an aggressive electoral effort to unseat Trump in 2020. (And to keep the House and try to take the Senate as well.)

The age of waiting for a bombshell from Mueller or elsewhere is over. We know all we need to know. All that’s left now is the grim death march toward Trump’s constitutional removal one way or another.

In 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach, playing a Mexican bandit (gulp, in brownface), says of the hapless townspeople he and his comrades are about to rob: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” (In Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake, the line is uttered by Peter Sarsgaard, playing a white dude.)

So it is with the American people. If we don’t rise up and express our unwillingness to be ruled by a monstrous ignoramus who gleefully announces that he intends to rob us blind and trample everything we claim to hold dear, we deserve what we get.

So I respectfully suggest that we get off our collective ass and do that. We’re never going to change the minds of a certain Kool-Aid-guzzling 30-40% of the country. But if I remember my grade school arithmetic correctly, all we have to do is motivate the remaining 60-70% to get up and act.

Despite the conventional wisdom that partisanship has calcified, within that majority there remains a squishy segment who could tilt either way, including moderate conservatives who are uneasy with Trump but tribally resistant to the Democratic Party, and burn-the-system-down types who could go for Donald or go for Bernie, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. Regarding the latter, there were reports last week that a notable number of that tiny sliver of people who voted for Obama and then for Trump have been defecting back. All it would take is a slight move of those numbers to the Democratic side to make a huge difference in 2020. I say this to reinforce the idea that we can and should still make the case to those on Team MAGA who are willing to listen, as that segment could prove crucial in tight race.

And make no mistake: the other side will be fighting just as hard. If Trump’s 2016 campaign was ugly, his 2020 campaign kickoff in Florida this week suggests that this one will be exponentially worse. Four years ago Trump’s campaign began as a lark, a branding opportunity in which Trump basically had nothing to lose. Now he has everything to lose, including his freedom, his fortune (small though it is), and his criminal business empire. He is a cornered rat, and already behaving that way.

Or it may be that our political system is so broken that we cannot recover from this debacle. It took 240 years, but finally a monster emerged—enabled by a venal and anti-democratic political party and the people who support it—who is perfectly engineered to exploit the loopholes and vulnerabilities in the system that the Founders, for all their wisdom, accidentally left in place. They were visionaries, but not psychics, and they did not foresee a shameless charlatan like Trump rising to power and bulldozing through norms and morals and even explicit laws like the emoluments clause in the way that he has, and without sufficient check by the legislative branch. (Not to mention the emergence of technology and media that could not have been contemplated in the 18th century.) 2020 may prove that Republican skullduggery is enough to beat down the will of the majority—through ultra-gerrymandering, voter suppression, disinformation, collaboration with hostile foreign powers (passive or otherwise), and the anti-democratic anachronism of the right wing-favoring Electoral College—to say nothing of a White House gleefully thumbing its nose at proper oversight, Congressional subpoenas, and court orders,

And it may be that, even if he loses, Trump will refuse to leave office. Don’t believe it? He continues to float trial balloons to that effect. Or are we supposed to take him “seriously but no literally”?

Please. That may be American democracy’s epitaph.

Inside the Myth Machine

Myth Machine

Last December, The New Yorker ran an astonishing piece by Patrick Radden Keefe called “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success.”

In it, Keefe described in great and cringeworthy detail how, in 2001, in search of a “tycoon” character to topline his new unscripted series, the English reality TV impresario cast Donald Trump, ignoring his ignominious history of failure, bankruptcy, and general malfeasance. At the time, Trump’s reputation within the legitimate business community was a joke. But the fictional narrative created by Burnett’s show blew that well-deserved reputation away, creating in its place an enduring—if utterly false—image of Trump as self-made man and business mastermind.

Just how enduring no one knew at the time, least of all Burnett or Trump.

“The Apprentice” marked the creation of a stunning fiction about a man whose actual business acumen was, to be polite, rather less impressive.

Last month, in a blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, the New York Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars between 1985 and 1994, the biggest loss by any individual American over that period. Trump immediately tried to spin that colossal embarrassment as a triumph, much as he did during the debates when it was suggested that he paid no taxes—“That makes me smart”—which amounts to saying, “I’m not the worst businessman in America—I’m just a tax cheat!”

(He might be both. Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous, long-running fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family, including the dodges—some illegal, some merely disgusting—they used to avoid paying taxes on the billion dollar inheritance Fred Trump passed on to his children, including not only Donald but also his sister Maryanne, who until very recently was a federal judge.)

But facts, shmacts. None of that was known to the general public in 2001. And as “The Apprentice” became a runaway hit, Trump was given a new lease on celebrity—the latest in the long string of undeserved lucky breaks that this miserable cretin has gotten since birth.

I think we all know what happened from there. It was like something out of A Face in the Crowd.

(Listen to Mr. Keefe discussing the piece with David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour.)

On the heels of that New Yorker piece, I reached out to three individuals with firsthand knowledge of how that particular rancid sausage got made: a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” a business owner whose company was featured in one of the show’s competitions, and a producer who has worked with Burnett over many years. As they all understandably wish to remain anonymous, I’ll gender-ambiguously call them Mx Red, Mx White, and Mx Blue….

THE CONTESTANT

THE KING’S NECKTIE: What did you think of The New Yorker piece about Burnett and the genesis of “The Apprentice”? Was it an accurate depiction?

MX RED: Oh, very much so. I wasn’t surprised by anything in there.

TKN: What struck me as truly amazing was how it pulled back the curtain on this charade. Trump was a punchline, a joke on Page Six, a guy that Spy Magazine used to take down regularly, and now that’s all been completely obliterated by this new vision of him that Mark Burnett created.

RED: Exactly. I remember having a quick conversation with Burnett during the filming. I don’t remember the specifics, but I must have been disputing something that Trump said, and Burnett was very quick to say, “Well, if Trump says it then it’s true.”

TKN: Yikes. Talk about a harbinger of things to come.

RED: Yeah. Sort of acknowledging that, well maybe it’s not actually true, but the reality is that this is “alternate reality.”

TKN: I mean, when the show first aired, nobody thought that this was gonna turn out to be such an insidious and destructive thing—I don’t know of anybody who thought that, anyway. It just seemed like television.

RED: I’m certain this has been written about, but in the past when Trump had entertained the possibility of a presidential run, by and large people didn’t take it seriously. They thought he was just going for publicity and trying to get in the news. I’m a deeply cynical person, so my guess is that his primary motivation for running for president was to enrich himself, or more accurately, to pay off his debts. That would be front and center and nothing else would even matter. But in retrospect, his time on NBC increased his visibility to such an extent that it was the set-up for a real presidential run. Many, if not most of us, associated with the show were shocked when he actually won.

TKN: I couldn’t agree more. To me as just an ordinary American watching this, it seemed like even he never thought it was a real possibility that he could win the presidency. I think he thought it was just a branding opportunity.  

RED: Right. But one thing that guy clearly knows is how to do, maybe better than anyone else, is how to get media coverage. The best charlatans do, going back to PT Barnum.

TKN: It’s kind of mind-blowing to think that Burnett was just looking for a frontman, a figurehead, and if he’d picked someone else, the entire course of American history would be different. I mean, that’s the “butterfly effect”—that could be said of anything—but in this case, it’s really remarkable to ponder.  

RED: Oh yeah. Trump and Burnett were mutual opportunists feeding off of each other. But one of the other important players, as I’m sure you know, is Jeff Zucker. He was at NBC then and had a major role in the success of the show. I don’t know that it would have been so successful without him. And now, of course, being at CNN, Zucker represents the very essence of “fake news” in the eyes of the president. So it’s kind of funny to see them as enemies now.

TKN: What was Trump like personally?

RED: Well, as one would expect, in individual or small group encounters he was very personable and outgoing and ostensibly interested and caring, but it was obvious that it was all in an effort to get something out of you. I didn’t detect anything genuine about the man. But again, I’m a cynical person.

TKN: One of the things I thought was fascinating in The New Yorker piece were the descriptions of how much the show’s editors had to craft his “character” to make him appear smarter than he was, and making more informed decisions than he did, and so forth. They needed to present him as a tycoon, even if that was at odds with his actual business history. Did that TV persona—the “character” he played on “The Apprentice”—jive with the person that you encountered in real life?

RED: Not very much. I mean, there was very little talk or thought of serious business or operational matters. Certainly he can command a room or a conversation in an absolutely domineering and attention-getting way—that’s without dispute. But he’s clearly not, and perhaps has never been, a serious or thoughtful man. He’s just a complete and utter charlatan and huckster which at least a third of the country doesn’t seem to understand or care about.

TKN: How does one deal on a face-to-face basis with somebody who’s so pathological?

RED: It’s extremely challenging. I don’t know if anybody’s getting it right. I did see a suggestion that the only way to deal with someone like Trump is what someone called a “truth sandwich,” where you point out the truth, then you point out what he has said and how it’s in conflict with the truth, and then you end by again restating the truth and forcing him to respond. But the way that news is constructed, in sound bites, nobody forces those conversations. So if conversations like that are happening, they don’t see the light of day.

TKN: Having had this firsthand encounter with him so many years ago and looking at him now, do you see any change in him?

RED: Oh, absolutely. If you look at CNN footage from thirty years ago, clearly he had a higher IQ back then. He’s probably well into dementia now. It’s quite clear, no question.

TKN: Yeah, I hate to give him any kind of “out,” but when you look at those old clips from the ‘80s or ‘90s he could at least put a coherent sentence together. I think he was still a vile human being, and a racist, and all that other stuff, but it does make you think that he’s now got some sort of age-related neurological problem, because today he just seems—on top of all those other things—also incoherent. (laughs) Not a great combination.

RED: (laughs) Definitely not.

TKN: Were his kids on the show when you were on it?

RED: That came a little bit later, so not while I was on it. But I was in Junior’s bedroom in Bedford, New York while he wasn’t there. (laughs) Part of what they did for the contestants to keep them happy during the quarantine time was to bring them around to various Trump properties and try to impress them. A little bit of wining and dining.

TKN: What was it like being in that quarantine situation?

RED: It wasn’t so bad. For the most part you’re left alone if you wanted to be. Most people on shows like that are in some sort of transition. That’s pretty much the common thread. So at the time I wasn’t missing work or school, so it was an extremely unusual opportunity to have unstructured time.

TKN: What about your relationships with the other contestants?

RED: We were actually quite friendly. The majority of us were in touch regularly for at least a year, and then for some of us longer than a year, although I’m not in regular contact with any of them today. I was even friendly with Omarosa; she actually called me right before the election and I just pressed “send to voicemail” because I suspect she was asking me to show up to some event and show some support, which I would not have done.

TKN: She’s been such an interesting figure, because she was completely villainous—both on the show and as a member of the White House—and then she had a falling-out with Trump as so many people do, and now she’s kind of on the side of the angels, but we’re still a little suspicious of her. But I saw her on TV recently and she was fantastic: just completely eloquent and clear-eyed in her commentary on the current situation. You know, you couldn’t make up that character.

Do you have any sense of what the cast’s thoughts are on Trump’s eventual rise to power?

RED: Certainly at least some of them were opposed. The African-American cast members banded together in protest, and actually asked me to join them in publicly denouncing the candidacy. And I politely declined not due to any views I might have but just because there’s downside to having publicity.

TKN: Did you watch the show after you were on it?

RED: Oh, of course. And a couple of additional seasons as well. I mean, it’s not particularly entertaining or well-done television, but I sort of felt compelled to watch it, having been involved with it.

TKN: How truthful were the storylines as edited and aired, compared to what really happened?

RED: Most if not all storylines are really crafted. They leave a hundred or a thousand or whatever number of hours of footage on the cutting room floor. The editors have full discretion and they can take any element of any discussion or any scene and come up with anything they want. So there’s very little that’s legitimate. As opposed to other shows like “Survivor” where at least you know there’s some transparency in the voting. Regardless of what else may be portrayed, the vote is the vote.

TKN: But as we know, actual vote counts don’t really apply in Trumpworld.

RED: Right. On “The Apprentice” everything occurs behind closed doors in terms of decisionmaking. And again, as you would expect, everything is ratings-driven anyway.

TKN: Did you have any kind of editorial input? Could you dispute anything that you thought had been displayed inaccurately?

RED: Not at all. Absolutely no opportunity for input whatsoever. I maintain even now that the application video which I submitted is far more entertaining than anything I did on that show. And that’s because of the editing choices that were made.

I was naive so I actually believed that there was some meritocratic element to this entire competition. For example, there was one member of our team who was completely abysmal, and everybody could see that, and any camera could see that as well, so I thought it was a given that this was gonna be the person eliminated from the team. But I didn’t count on this person actually being a bit of a ratings juggernaut because he was such a comical guy and could really play to the camera, and was such an oddball that he absolutely didn’t mind being the butt of the humor. And that was attractive to the network, so they wanted to hold him on as long as they could. But that didn’t even occur to me at the time.

TKN: I watched a few seasons of it too, and it seemed to me that, not just on that show but on a lot of reality shows, the casts got geometrically savvier and more strategic from watching previous seasons. It’s almost innocent the first season or two.

RED: I would agree with that. I was just very naive about the whole thing. Most people on shows like this ultimately just want to be on TV, perhaps even for a living if they’re not doing that already, but that hadn’t even occurred to me.

TKN: Needless to say, “reality TV,” as many people have pointed out, is an absolute misnomer. Because they’re really game shows, and mostly rigged ones at that.

RED: Yes. I genuinely believed going into that show, “Well, of course I’ll do well because I have experience developing real estate and that’s what this guy does, so how could that not give me an advantage?” But nothing could be further from the truth.

TKN: Right—because you think you’re in a legitimate competition, when in fact you’re a cast member on a television show that someone is puppeteering.

RED: Exactly. Whereas any show that had ballots cast out in the open would be far more real. So actually, the very essence of the competition itself on “The Apprentice” was not legitimate from the get-go, in my opinion.

TKN: You really see that on dating shows. There’s always a contestant who’s an obvious trainwreck and by all rights should be kicked off immediately, but they aren’t because those people make for good television. So the producers string the audience along for a while before they finally get rid of that person.

RED: I would add one more thing, and maybe this is just a quirk with my attention to language, but even the catch phrase or the tagline for the show, “You’re fired,” is factually incorrect. None of the cast members are “hired” in the first place. So it’s just a lie. You actually never were hired, so you can’t be “fired.”

TKN: Much worse tag line, though: “We’re not going to hire you.”

RED: And, of course, the job itself—as you can read in any number of articles—is not even a real job, it’s just basically to be a brand ambassador for one of his latest midlevel buildings.

TKN: What advice would you give people who have to deal with Trump today?

RED: Well, in a business context, my advice would be “don’t.” Just walk away. At a minimum you’ll be unpaid or screwed in some manner. His real estate—the little of it that he actually owns—is so obscenely overpriced that it attracts only stupid money.

For people that might entertain the idea of working for him politically, I would just think about the long-term consequences of your career versus any short-term boost or notoriety it might give you. I’d be a little wary of this administration closing doors for you versus opening them.

TKN: Do you have a guess about how the rest of his tenure in office is going to play out?

RED: I have no particular insight into that other than the dominos keep falling and I just wonder how many more people can be taken down, indicted, or jailed. Sooner or later it’s got to come down to Trump himself, even if it’s not until his four years are done. Let’s hope it’s only four.

It’s an interesting and terrible time to be alive.

TKN: If you could talk to Trump now, what would you say to him? 

RED: I just wouldn’t even want to have the conversation.

THE BUSINESS OWNER

TKN: How did the producers of “The Apprentice” find you?

MX WHITE: Through a consultant who represented my business. They’d gotten a call from one of the “Apprentice” producers, and they told me about the idea, and I said, “OK, I’m interested—send them my way.” (laughs) I wasn’t in any position to say no..…why would I? And lo and behold, what door did it open?

TKN: How did you figure in the show?

WHITE: It was just one episode. The contestants are divided into two teams and my business was featured in one of the competitions between them. And the team that worked with me won.

TKN: So that exposure boosted your career?

WHITE: I don’t know about my career, but it did end up being very lucrative. A hundred million people saw it. People were buying all my stuff the very next day. Customers converged on my shop; I had people lining up. I mean, I was a big winner in the eyes of America, right? (laughs) I got 5000 emails the first week after the episode aired. In fact, my email crashed. I had people trying to reach me four times before they finally got through. I couldn’t believe the response. I was making like ten, twenty grand a week for a while.

TKN: And that wasn’t something that you expected?

WHITE: I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until the night before it aired. I was sitting with a bunch of friends, watching this thing, not knowing the outcome. I really didn’t. My mind was blown; I kept pinching myself every day after, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all this. My business was doing fine before, I was making a living at it, but then I began making a much better living at it. Much much much better.

The whole experience led me to meet very interesting people from all over the world: England, Hong Kong, Sweden, you name it—people I’m still in touch with. Some of them were very famous or successful, but I didn’t really know who they were until I took the time to look. I was too busy working! But then these people come to my office…..coming from Los Angeles, Texas, Cincinnati—everywhere. People in nineteen piece suits waiting for me. And it was funny—I thought, “Wow, you’re groveling for me for a change.” It was a real turning of the tables; I never thought it would happen like that. And my stuff wasn’t even on the screen that long—maybe a minute or two in total. I was on camera too, maybe that helped. I don’t know. But it was a mind-boggling experience.

TKN: How long did that effect last? Or is it ongoing?

WHITE: It lasted longer than me or my friends or my family ever thought. I still don’t believe it, but the checks did clear so I guess I do! (laughs)

I would say it lasted for eight or nine years. For the first three or four years it was very strong and then it began to taper off. And then of course in ‘08 the crash happened, and people who would normally buy my products now were wondering if they had enough money to retire on. Their priorities shifted. Luckily, I’d saved enough for that kind of situation, so I wasn’t shaking a cup on the street.

TKN: Did you meet Trump in the course of being on the show?

WHITE: Yeah, he came by for a meet-and-greet. Nobody had any idea of where this thing was going to go, of course.

TKN: I don’t think even he did. So what did you think when, all these years later, this thing that started as a TV game show wound up shaking the whole world?

WHITE: I still don’t believe it’s real. It feels like this is all some kind of Truman Show. Are there words in the English language to express this kind of disbelief? I’ll use all of them for 50 points.

There are no words, really. The guy who should be separated from society, who should be put on an island all his own, in a cage, instead is in the most important job in the world—the exact opposite of where you want him.

I try not to think about it, to be honest….even though I subscribe to the Times online, and I keep one eye open just to see what he’s done next.

TKN: You have to, just in self-defense.

WHITE: Correcto. Everything he does is just to drive the price of his properties up, whatever they might be, to artificially inflate them so the value is raised and make it look worth more than it is.

TKN: No doubt. I’m not shocked he does that, but it’s still despicable.

WHITE: I’d be shocked if he didn’t do that! (laughs)

TKN: It’s an unfair question, but where do you see us going from here, politically?

WHITE: Well, I think the blue team has a chance if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. I’d like to think they’ll unite instead of divide, like always seems to happen. What do you think?

TKN: I agree with you 100%. I’d vote for a tree stump over Trump, because I genuinely believe the stump would make a better president. Some of the Democratic candidates that have announced so far I like better than others, but ANY of them would be fine with me, and preferable to Trump.

But it’s worrying that we might eat our own instead of coming together. Obama just warned about the dangers of this obsession with purity; like they say, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

WHITE: For sure. People like Bernie, they like Buttigieg….but it’s kind of early. Bottom line is, somebody’s got to beat his guy. If it’s someone we really like that’s even better, but we just need the most viable candidate to beat this sonofabitch. But it’s so early.

TKN: The Truman Show that you mentioned before is an apt analogy, because that’s what it feels like we’re in. It’s fitting that Trump got a second act on a so-called “reality” TV show—or a third, or a fourth, or whatever it was after all his bankruptcies—and of course he’s obsessed with TV and the entertainment industry, and ratings. And now we’re all living in this nightmare reality TV show.

WHITE: The Real World of Make-Believe.

THE PRODUCER

TKN: Trump gets all the attention, for obvious reasons, but in his own way Mark Burnett is the accidental Mephistopheles behind all this.

MX BLUE: I find it really interesting to think about Mark in terms of where he came from. He told me—and I have no reason to disbelieve him—that he came from a very working-class background. He went into the army. He was a paratrooper. And Trump of course evaded serving in the military, so there’s an irony there (laughs). But there’s a connection in that Trump never felt that he was part of the New York society either. Not really.

TKN: Except Trump was born into wealth and luxury. His “self-made man” narrative is total bullshit. It’s true that he’s always had a chip on his shoulder because he was from Queens and never felt accepted by the Manhattan elite he so desperately wanted to be part of, so I agree with you there. But he wasn’t an up-from-nothing bootstraps type like Burnett.

BLUE: Right. But both of these guys are outsiders that have that same sense of, “I’m a bit of a fake. I’m not really supposed to be here, but look: I’ve managed to pull it off.”

I think where Mark was at his best was when he came up with the idea for the Eco-Challenge. That was something that was truly authentic to his experience, because he’d done all that kind of survival training, and he knew all about the Raid Gauloises, and he realized there was an opportunity there. But the Raid Gauloises was such an inside-baseball race. His vision was for something bigger. Eco-Challenge may not have evolved into something that was so huge, but it spawned “Survivor,” which is his biggest success. And that really is to do with him being his authentic self. Can you tell me anything that Mark’s done since then that was such a big success?

TKN: Well, “The Voice,” but he didn’t invent “The Voice,” he just brought it over from Holland. And even “The Apprentice” I don’t think was ever as big as “Survivor.

BLUE: No. It’s kind of interesting, because I feel like when he was more true to himself and what he really knew how to do, he really did his best.

But look what Mark has achieved. He is a talented guy. He’s a bit of an “It Guy.” You know how you talk about an “It Girl”? He’s an “It Guy” because if you are with him he’s so charming. He really has these eyes that are just are so captivating. His enthusiasm really comes through. He has an ability to seduce people. He’s so convincing. You want to be in his orbit. And I think he’s obviously talented at recognizing things in people that he can exploit.

TKN: In a way Burnett himself would have been a better choice to be the tycoon on “The Apprentice” because he was all the things they were claiming Trump was: self-made man, a salesman who has that charisma, that ability to size you up, built an empire from nothing, really came from the working class, etc. Whereas Trump is a complete fraud in all those ways.

BLUE: It’s almost like Mark’s own lack of experience about the world of business that “The Apprentice” portrayed made him choose someone like Trump for it. It was Trump’s vanity and narcissism and deluded self-confidence that perhaps Mark saw as a hit. He recognized the appeal of the Barnum & Bailey persona. But really, how could he have thought that a show featuring this sort of vulgar, New York Post-obsessed, failed real estate guy, that’s gonna be a television hit?

TKN: But it did become a hit. Because Burnett created the illusion of Trump as a genuine tycoon and business genius, which was a complete crock. The truth was he was a spoiled little rich kid who had everything handed to him, and still managed to fuck it up. But Trump eagerly bought into that fake image because that was and is the exact image he wants to project.

BLUE: True. Mark told me how when he first came to the States, he worked as a nanny. He knew that that was very unconventional. You had a man being a nanny—but he brought so much more to it because he’s this ex-paratrooper, so your children were gonna be safe with him. But I feel like working as a nanny somehow informed him dealing with Trump on TV, because he behaved like a babysitter with him.

TKN: Apparently.

BLUE: Mark has great people skills. So in dealing with Trump and sort of letting him have the lead all the time, he had all of this in his background and part of that was his training in the British army.

TKN: But do you think Burnett had any inkling that “The Apprentice” would lead to anything other than a hit TV show? Nobody really thought Trump had any potential beyond that….if even that, as you say.

BLUE: No. I don’t think he had any vision of Trump being president. I probably think he’s a bit shocked by how things turned out.

I do have a soft spot for Mark, though. I admire what he did, coming from the kind of background he did. I just think he overcame so much that could have constrained him. From what I’ve seen he seems pretty mercurial, but you can’t change your core values.

From what I’ve read, he did become very religious, though. I never discussed religion with him, and I’m not an authority on Mark Burnett at all, but I’m assuming that coming from the UK he wouldn’t be that religious, so I wonder about that. I just find it a little bit strange.

TKN: Maybe it’s the wife. I’ve heard that. Though she’s British as well—for those of you who still consider Northern Ireland part of Britain.

BLUE: I read something from somebody who knows him better than me saying that he tends to adapt to who he’s with.

TKN: Like Zelig. If Zelig were a British paratrooper.

BLUE: Which again speaks to his great survival instincts. He adapts constantly to the situation.

TKN: You’ve interviewed Trump yourself, yes?

BLUE: I did. It was so easy to get an interview with Trump at that time: he’d do anything to be on TV. I’d been told he was a germaphobe, so the first thing I did of course was put out my hand just to see if he would shake it. He spent quite a lot of time checking how he looked. He was quite particular about that.

And then the interview was not long at all. By that time he was already quite a professional inteviewee and he understood how the game worked. He wouldn’t answer any questions he didn’t like; he had a script in his head for what his comments would be and he wasn’t going to change that. In the end he was like, “All right, are you done?” I wound up not using any of it.

TKN: Why’d he do the interview then, if he had no intention of answering?

BLUE: Because it got him in the paper. Anything that’s going to get him in the news, or on television…. you know, all publicity is good publicity.

TKN: I think that prior to Trump the average American had no problem with Mark Burnett. They admired all those things you said: came from nothing, immigrant story—which we’re supposed to be all about, right?—built this empire, very smart, etc. Regardless of whether you think “Survivor” is a highpoint of Western culture or not, it was a success. I don’t think people even blame him for Trump per se, because like you said, it was such a fluke.

But what I think people do blame him for, people on the left anyway, is how he’s dealt with it since then. He didn’t say, “Oh my God, I’m horrified at what I unleashed.” He didn’t even hint at that. He continued to be close with Trump. He helped with the inauguration. He’s kind of tried to have it both ways, and I think that really rubs people the wrong way.

BLUE: He hasn’t spoken out, that’s true. I remember seeing something where his wife Roma had said that Trump had always been very nice to them, and very polite. I think this was after the “pussy grab” tapes came out. They’ve defended the indefensible. But I think that Mark would say he’s not a political animal.

TKN: But that’s such an incredible cop-out. We’re all in this thing, and “Which side are you on?” is the question that he has to answer. Especially because he’s at least partially culpable.

BLUE: I know….

TKN: If you ask the man on the street, “What do you think of Trump?” and that guy says, “I’m not a political animal,” fair enough. But if you were in business with him, if you built him up into the thing that enabled him to launch his political career, you do have something to answer for. And by not saying anything negative, by trying to have it both ways, Mark appears to be endorsing it or condoning it.

BLUE: Part of that is his working class roots. “Serve the establishment.” Those kinds of political things are for those people “up there” who get to decide that stuff.

TKN: But let me play devil’s advocate. I think it’s the opposite. He is that guy “up there” now. Now he’s this super-successful, ultra-rich guy and it’s really hard for those people to throw a wrench into the system. He’s not gonna shit on the President of the United States, even if he doesn’t like him. Or maybe he does like him; we can’t tell. That’s the problem.

And then conversely, people are still doing business with Mark Burnett. This is like the old joke that Hollywood would do business with Hitler if there were money to be made. Not comparing Mark to Hitler by any stretch, of course, but just to take it to the extreme. As much as some people in showbiz don’t like Trump, or Burnett because of his association with Trump, they’re not turning down his shows. And they won’t until they stop making money.    

BLUE: Of course not.

TKN: And it’s also true that there are more Trump supporters in Hollywood than the general public realizes. Closeted maybe, but still.

BLUE: (groans with weltschmerz)

(long pause)

I do think maybe you’re saying that he is that guy. He is that really successful guy. But I wonder if, at some level, Mark doesn’t really see himself that way, even now, with all his success.

TKN: Yeah, I’m sure he doesn’t see himself that way. I’m sure he sees himself as this regular lad still. But he’s not.

BLUE: I’m a sentimental kind of person. I’m just finding him a sympathetic character. Many years later, I happened to be at a meeting and Mark saw my name on the list and came by to say hello. I have the impression he is tremendously loyal to friends and colleagues. So I respect that. He is a mensch in that sense.

TKN: Fair enough. I don’t know him at all, of course, but what makes him interesting to me is that he doesn’t appear to be a pure villain. There are plenty of pure villains in Trump’s orbit that are just so over-the-top evil you could never dream them up, even if you were writing a Disney cartoon. But Burnett has all these positive attributes that you’re talking about, and that’s what’s maddening and frustrating and sad.

I do think he must have some soul or he would just be a flatout Trump supporter, right? It would do him better with a certain segment. Or maybe he’s trying to play both sides. I don’t want to say he’s tortured, but I suspect in the dead of night, he feels some responsibility, and it appears that he’s wrestling with that.

BLUE: I don’t know. I don’t know how much he’s wrestling with it, but I think that he’s not all villain. Far from it. I think he has a lot of very good qualities. 

TKN: (surprised) Now I’m giving him more credit than you are, in terms of his introspectiveness. Why don’t you think he’s wrestling with it?

BLUE: I think he’s an incredibly disciplined person and that probably allows him to compartmentalize things in such a way that he might not be tossing and turning trying to go to sleep at night. And that discipline in so many other situations is a real asset.

TKN: But in this situation it’s a massive rationalization that allows him to let himself off the hook.

BLUE: It’s an amazing quality. Who knows what’s going on in his mind?

TKN: We’ll see how this all shakes out. I heard a podcast with the author of that New Yorker piece, Patrick Radden Keefe, who said that the first line of Burnett’s obituary is certainly gonna be, “This man helped get Donald Trump elected president.” And that’s a hard thing to live with, unless you like Donald Trump.

BLUE: True. I don’t think that’s what Mark would want as the first line of his obituary.

TKN: The irony is, if it wasn’t for that, he would be celebrated as this success story that we were talking about—this Horatio Alger figure. He might be blamed in part for the rise of reality TV and the toxic dumbing-down effect it’s had on Western society, but he wouldn’t be held significantly responsible for the total collapse of American democracy.

BLUE: Yeah, although again, if you put that question to Mark, “How responsible are you for Trump?”, I think he would say that he’s responsible for making Trump into this star of a reality show, but ultimately the people of America are responsible for having elected him.

TKN: Well I don’t disagree with that. It’s just like the Russian interference: the fact of that does not relieve the America people of our own responsibility. I’m not looking to lay it all on Mark Burnett or Vladimir Putin or anybody else except the American public. The only people we can really blame are ourselves.

But If Burnett had come out during the campaign and said, “This is a joke; this guy was a clown. We made him what he is, or what he wants you to think he is,” it might have had an effect. I’m not saying Mark would have ever done that, for many reasons; it would have been extraordinary for him to do that. I wouldn’t have expected that of anyone, really. But it would have had an effect.

BLUE: In some ways it’s sort of like working on a documentary, because you spend a lot of time with a given person, cultivating them, their family, you’re involved in that kind of way, and to then turn around and do that would sort of say, “Everything about me is fake.” It’s not just about betraying Trump and his family, it’s about betraying the whole illusion of what Mark makes his money from.

Maybe it’s going to be one of those end-of-life things, much later from now, when ol’ Mark Burnett’s time as a TV movie mogul is done and all he’ll have is his memoirs. 

TKN: But then it’s like McNamara, and then people really get angry when twenty years go by and there’s nothing at stake anymore, and you say, “Yeah, you know what? I kind of made a mistake.” That really pisses people off.

BLUE: But I also think that his intense sense of loyalty to people, as I mentioned, comes into play. He’s been in the trenches with Trump and I don’t think he’s gonna turn on him. Even if he thought he was an asshole, I think that would be overridden by his sense of their shared experience.

TKN: But at a certain point—and I’m not saying where that point is—but no matter how close you were with somebody or what you went through together, if that person became, say, a serial killer, I might say “Yeah, my friend Blue’s great, but I don’t support that ‘killing people’ thing they do.”

BLUE: Exactly. In the end that’s something only Mark Burnett can answer for himself.

**********

Photo: Allocca/StarPix/Rex Features/Shutterstock. ©2004

Transcription: Sherry Alwell, type916@gmail.com

 

Garbo Speaks: Will Congress Listen?

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 11.50.42 AM

OK, we clear now?

Bob Mueller just said that Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted left him and his team without even the option of charging Donald J. Trump with a crime.

In other words, he wouldn’t—and couldn’t, according to his interpretation of the law—charge Trump with anything, no matter what he found.

He pointedly said that, under the Constitution, a president’s misdeeds—both ordinary criminal behavior and “high crimes and misdemeanors” as defined politically, not legally—are a matter for Congress, if it so decides.

He also explicitly said that his office would have exonerated Trump if they thought he was guiltless, but they didn’t do that because they didn’t think he was. I believe his exact words were that “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” a sound bite that ought to ring in America’s ears for years to come. Indeed, his written report lists in granular detail ten different instances in which Trump arguably did obstruct justice in ways that rise to the level of a federal crime…..and close to a thousand former federal prosecutors have signed a letter stating that, in their collective professional opinion, Trump would have been indicted on that charge if not for the office he holds. (The written report also specifically notes that Trump can be indicted once he leaves office.)

And lastly, at the very beginning and end of his remarks—which PS, storytelling-wise, is where the bottom line usually goes—Mr. Mueller reminded us that arching over and above all this is the fact that the government of Russia engaged in “a concerted attack on our political system” consisting of “multiple systemic efforts to interfere in our election,” all designed to benefit Donald Trump and damage Hillary Clinton. Unspoken was the implication that Moscow—and perhaps others—will surely will continue to do so, which ought to be of grave concern to each and every American. (Unless you’re the folks Russia is interfering to help.)

So all in all, that was a pretty instructive nine minutes, wouldn’t you say?

INDICTMENT IS NOT AN OPTION

In my own solipsistic world, that the sphinx should speak at last this very week was fitting, on the heels of a four-part series in these pages on the impact of the special counsel report and the prospects for Trump’s removal from office, either by impeachment, resignation, or defeat at the polls in 2020.

Mueller’s unexpected silence-breaking made for a resounding coda, and did several things to alter the landscape going forward.

It destroyed Bill Barr’s brazen lie that the OLC opinion wasn’t the pivotal issue in Mueller’s decision not to indict on obstruction.

It exploded the notion that Russian interference was a hoax—an idea propagated most prominently by two world leaders, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Not a coincidence.

It obliterated Trump’s fiction that the SCO found “no collusion” between his campaign and Russian actors. Mueller very pointedly did NOT say there was no collusion. He did not even use the word “collusion,” as well he shouldn’t, as it is legally meaningless. What Mueller said, in fluent legalese, was that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy,” which is far from the same thing. We know very well that there were many many illicit contacts between Trump associates and various foreign players,  which the Trump team was desperate to keep hidden and about which it repeatedly lied. Whether those contacts rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy that is likely to lead to a conviction is a wholly different matter….but that in no way constitutes the clean bill of health that Trump ludicrously claims.

And lastly, it made it very clear that Mueller intended his report to be an impeachment referral, since he explicitly said that he did not believe that he and his team had the authority to indict NO MATTER WHAT THEY FOUND, and that under the Constitution, Congress is the proper venue to handle these issues.

As the British say, must I paint you a picture?

One can only hope that this press conference will encourage Congress to do its constitutional duty and hold this criminal president to account for his actions, or suffer the withering judgment of history for its unwillingness to do so. And I use the word “encourage” in its most literal sense:

To. Give. Courage.

THE VIEW FROM BIZARRO WORLD

To no one’s surprise, the White House immediately tried to spin Mueller’s remarks—like his report itself—as yet another demonstration of absolute exoneration. But by now we are hip to that game…..or at least 60 percent of us are.

The evidence that the White House really did not see Mueller’s statement as helpful to them was that within minutes Rudy Giuliani was attacking It on Fox News, and in his usual hysterical fashion, comparing Mueller’s press conference to something that would have occurred in the USSR. Mueller has “lost his notion of American fairness,” Giuliani added with no discernible irony, defending a president and administration who have been the greatest and most undeserving beneficiaries of the integrity and fairness of others since OJ.

And Team Trump is right to be unhappy, as even Fox anchor Bret Baier said that Mueller’s statement was the “exact opposite” of the spin Bill Barr put on the SCO report. Also on Fox, former judge Andrew Napolitano said it exposed Barr’s summary as a “whitewash.” Trump himself was reduced from crowing about “complete and total exoneration” two months ago to feebly mumbling about “insufficient evidence” today.

Some have said that Mueller did throw cold water on the left’s scathing attacks on Barr’s integrity, in which I have been a very eager participant. But the fact is, he did not really defend Barr. He did not, for instance, say “I don’t question the attorney general’s good faith,” as some have reported. Speaking very narrowly of Barr’s decision to release the redacted report rather than the summaries the SCO team had prepared, Mueller said, “I certainly do not question the attorney general’s good faith in that decision” (italics mine). It was that action and that action only that Mueller was referring to. Left open: whether the AG acted in good faith in his other actions. Mueller’s personal letter to Barr of March 27 complaining that Barr was misrepresenting the SCO’s conclusions to the public suggests otherwise.

In short, what we saw today, after two years of silence, was an astounding rebuke of how the president and his minions—including the man who is allegedly the country’s chief law enforcement officer—have tried to distort the results of the SCO investigation. It was a blunt explanation that the special counsel was never going to bring any charges of any kind, as he considered that beyond his purview, giving the lie to Trump’s bluff assertion that no charges meant no wrongdoing, and a stark clarification that the vast array of damning evidence in the 448 page report was intended as a roadmap for Congressional action.

If Mueller’s remarks did not go as far as some would have liked, or in sufficiently dramatic fashion, they were nonetheless a serious body blow to the administration, no matter how much it wants to deny it.

DARKNESS FALLING

I’d like to turn now to a related matter, which is the next phase of the campaign by Trump/Barr to obfuscate and cover up Donald’s misdeeds, because it’s ramping up, and in the most alarming way.

From the very beginning of Russiagate, and particularly since the release of the special counsel report put him out of immediate legal jeopardy, Trump has promised to “investigate the investigators,” and punish those who had the unmitigated gall to dare look into whether or not he had done anything wrong in the 2016 campaign. Because, ya know, he’s above the law……we all agree on that, right?

Trump has long been throwing around accusations of treason, promising prison terms, and generally behaving like the tinhorn despot of a Third World backwater banana republic. Now he is making good on his threats, and putting teeth in them by giving his shameless lackey Bill Barr the authority to declassify intelligence—including sources and methods—in order to cherrypick info that can be used to craft their disinformation narrative. Barr’s spin on the SCO report offered a preview of how he will do this; the coming effort promises to be infinitely greater in scope and utter dishonesty, and in the potential threat it poses to the republic.

Evidence of Trump’s crimes—obstruction, acts of conspiracy with Russia, financial misdeeds, fraud, etc etc—will be omitted. Random bits of information will be plucked out of context to bolster a mythical plotline in which the Deep State conspired to overthrow him. It is an article of faith in MAGA Nation that indictments are coming down any day now, and Hillary, Comey, Strzok, et al are all getting fitted for orange jumpsuits. Maybe Barack too!

In other words, Trump is weaponizing the DOJ and the investigative process as a cannon he can fire at his political enemies. That process is already underway, with the revocation of security clearances as a personal vendetta (against John Brennan, for example), and with Barr’s unconscionably blithe and dangerous use of the term “spying” to describe FISA-authorized government surveillance, which he has already pre-judged.

It should not surprise anyone that this is the very thing that he and Barr have howled in faux outrage that others are doing: politicizing the investigative apparatus to persecute and punish one’s foes. That, as we all know, is Fascism 101: accuse others of your own crimes.

Shall we discuss just how dangerous and alarming this development is?

There are of course grave national security considerations in this move to give Barr power over the intelligence community. As the Washington Post’s Max Boot pithily observed: “So Trump’s position is that his tax returns should remain private but the CIA’s ‘sources and methods’ should become public.” In terms of the venal, indefensible compromise and exposure of US intelligence officers and assets for partisan political gain—literally putting lives at risk in some cases—the outing of Valerie Plame pales in comparison.

Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff for both the DOD and CIA, has noted that such actions also make it harder for the US to recruit agents going forward and to get foreign intelligence services to share intel with us….and with good reason. Why should anyone trust us, knowing that at some unknown future date the American president might casually decide to betray their secrets for his own ends?

All true. But it is the domestic impact that is more chilling to me.

Boot again:

When Trump said Hillary Clinton should be locked up, he meant it; the Mueller report documents Trump’s repeated demands that the Justice Department investigate his 2016 opponent. Having paid no price for what should be an impeachable offense, Trump let it be known this week that former FBI director James B. Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe—along with “people probably higher than that”— deserved to be executed for treason. Is Trump insinuating that President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, to whom the FBI reported in 2016, were guilty of treason? Sure sounds like it.

I don’t expect Jim Comey to be clapped in irons. I’m not saying it COULDN’T happen—who knows how far Trump will go, and the GOP-controlled Senate will let him go? But for now the mere idea that a Roy Cohn-like AG has been let off the leash to pursue politically motivated prosecutions is worrying enough. It is precisely the sort of imperial behavior that the Founders feared and the system they constructed was designed to prevent. But that system only works when its players act in good faith.

Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman turned Trump critic, has said that this is the realization of the dream that Trump and Bannon announced when they arrived in Washington: the destruction of the administrative state. And as Steele as says, it is happening without consequences, and will continue to do so until Congress reaches down and discovers its testicles (to traffic in a sexist trope).

For Trump, of course, it’s a three-fer: he is at once indulging his innate sadism and desire for revenge, while creating a circus that assists him in the coming presidential campaign, and suppressing any meaningful further investigation of his crimes.

People wonder guilelessly how William Barr could become a bagman for this regime and active accomplice in this travesty. I have written about that at length, but it’s easy to understand, even without looking at his sordid history in Iran/contra. Like many plutocrats, Barr believes in the unitary executive theory, and he believes in that because an autocracy with no parliamentary or judicial or any other kind of oversight offers him and his kind the most freedom and impunity from justice as they pursue their hateful agenda.

For his part, Comey himself has pooh poohed these investigations, arguing that they are bad theater and will come up with nothing. He may be right on both counts, but the charade is still deeply worrying, as the investigations will form a false, toxic narrative that Trump and the GOP will relentlessly promote and many gullible Americans will accept. And the underlying danger of the precedent set by such a shameless perversion of the justice system of course remains.

Writing recently in Salon, Chauncey DeVega gave a bravura survey of the state of authoritarianism in America today, all pegged to the events of a single day last week, May 23. It bears quoting at length:

During a press conference (that day), Trump was asked by NBC reporter Peter Alexander to name the people he believes are guilty of “treason.” Trump responded by mentioning former FBI director James Comey, former acting director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former Justice Department official Lisa Page. Treason is a high crime punishable by execution. In essence, President Trump publicly threatened to have those four former public servants executed.

What did the four do to warrant a potential death penalty? Comey, McCabe, Strzok and Page followed through on their professional responsibilities to hold a president and his inner circle accountable for their behavior in accordance with the nation’s laws. Their other “crime” in the eyes of Trump and his regime? Protecting the United States from a hostile foreign power that successfully subverted American democracy in 2016 (and continues to do so). It would seem that Donald Trump’s foreign patrons are not to be interfered with.

Also on May 23, Trump gave Attorney General William Barr, his handpicked insurance policy, the power to unilaterally declassify secret intelligence information in his search for evidence that the Mueller investigation was an attempted “coup” and an effort to overthrow his presidency…..

On Thursday evening, both the president and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, circulated a heavily edited video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, purporting to show that she was “drunk” or “not of her right mind”….

In total, Thursday’s events were a grand tour of the authoritarian’s playbook: The Leader is the State; the Leader is above the rule of law; the Leader is the law; reality is to be twisted and bent to serve the Leader; there is no accountability or transparency in government; fealty and loyalty to the Leader and his Party are all that matters; violence, threats and intimidation replace democratic norms, principles, consensus and accountability.

DeVega also notes that this trifecta comes atop an already appalling pattern: the threats not to respect the outcome of elections; the encouragement of politically and racially motivated violence; the concerted effort to usurp women’s rights to control their own bodies; the emboldening of foreign dictators; the disregard for democratic norms; and the denial of civil rights to those “who are not white, male, Christian, rich and heterosexual.”

The authoritarian’s playbook indeed.

Mr. Boot one more time:

I refrain from saying that Trump has hit a “new low” because the phrase is meaningless; next week he is practically guaranteed to bore even deeper into substrata of immorality and vileness that no previous president has ever penetrated. The only thing that can stop him before November 2020 is impeachment. But Pelosi’s caution is understandable: The House can impeach, but the Senate will never convict, allowing Trump to claim unearned exoneration. The result is that Trump’s abuses of power are practically guaranteed to get worse as he fights for his political survival.

LET MUELLER BE MUELLER

Here is the ultimate irony of the twinned events of Trump’s weaponization of the DOJ and Mueller’s startling press conference.

Trump’s willingness—eagerness even—to pervert the justice system and intelligence community for the most despicable, venal, anti-democratic, and self-aggrandizing ends stands in stark contrast to the meticulous, principled, painstaking-almost-to-a-fault integrity of Robert Swan Mueller III. Jesus, even a Marvel superhero movie doesn’t offer such a blunt dichotomy between good and evil. (DC maybe.)

Indeed, some have suggested that Mueller’s commitment to principle is actually hurting us in this steel cage match, that he should have spoken up sooner, or been more aggressive in his interpretation of his remit. On MSNBC, former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller mused how different things would be if this press conference, rather than Barr’s smoke-and-mirrors display, had been the way the American people were introduced to the SCO report. Many others noted that Mueller, for better or worse, appears to be a creature of a different media age, and did not think in those terms. Given how many people (even on the left) initially presumed that Bill Barr would behave in a principled manner, perhaps it was too much to expect that Mueller—his longtime friend and associate, and fellow Republican—could have anticipated his antics.

I am sympathetic to these arguments. But those who are frustrated with Bob Mueller for not being Tom Steyer have not been paying attention to who Bob Mueller is. I say this with love, because many of those people are my dear friends, and I could not feel their pain any more if I tried. But that is asking a bird to be a fish.

As with Nancy Pelosi, who gives the Democratic Party camouflage and cover by representing the slow-and–cautious approach on impeachment, even if it’s only tactical (see Who’s Afraid of the Big I?, May 15, 2019), Mueller has had an important role to play in this drama too…..a starring one, in fact. But it is not the role of Javert pointing his finger and shouting “J’accuse!”

Mueller is perfectly cast as a sober, by-the-book, honest broker. He provided a towering public service with the SCO inquiry and the report it produced. Only a non-partisan figure of immense credibility who commanded deep respect across the ideological divide could fill that role (at least until Fox News’s poison did its work—see the turnabouts by Graham, Gingrich, et al). For him to turn into a firebrand now would undo all that good.

Would I have liked to have see Bob Mueller stand up there and proclaim that Donald Trump is a lying sack of shit who ought to go to the Supermax federal pen in Florence, Colorado along with Ted Kaczynski, Robert Hanssen, and Zacarias Moussaoui? Sure. But I would also like it if I could get in a time machine and emerge in 1973 for a dream date with Pam Grier, and I don’t expect that either. (Don’t worry, it’s cool—Ferne is onboard, and might come along, although she also has her sights set on 1951-vintage Marlon Brando.)

Mueller likewise provided another valuable service with his nine-minute statement of May 29th. If it was not the mic drop that some would have liked, that expectation was always unrealistic. What Mueller did, very clearly, was say to the American people, “There was never going to be a criminal indictment no matter what I found, so stop buying Trump’s bullshit that no indictment equals exoneration,” and to Congress: “Hey dummies: Read the report. It is an impeachment referral. Now do your job.”

Mueller put the tennis ball squarely in Congress’s court. Far from “penning Democrats in,” as some pundits claim, he actually bolstered the case for impeachment. In direct contravention of the conventional wisdom, some have even begun to say that not impeaching will actually hurt the Democrats in 2020 and hand a second term to Donald J. Trump, to say nothing of the damage such inaction would do to the integrity of the republic. I suspect they are right. Ignoring Trump’s wrongdoing is the far greater danger than holding him to account for it, regardless of the political costs.

I do believe that if we survive this administration, Mueller’s commitment to fairness will be a great gift to America. If he had been more aggressive in his inquiry and his statement—much as I would have liked that on a visceral level—I fear the precedent for a less scrupulous special counsel working for the other side in the future. One has only to look at how Trump and Barr are abusing their power to see how that might play out. It is precisely this kind of integrity that we are fighting for, and that we can’t sacrifice.

Mueller’s presser provided yet another study in contrasts—perhaps the starkest yet—between this man and the one he was investigating. Bob Mueller earned his golden years well before he came out of retirement to become the special counsel: in Vietnam, as a US Attorney and acting US Deputy Attorney General, as a homicide prosecutor, and as director of the FBI during one of the most trying times in modern American history. When the smoke clears from the current battle, I suspect that posterity will look back and recall that, in the twilight of his lifetime of public service, he once again answered the call.

 

How to Tell Elections Matter

How to Tell Elections

Is it really be necessary to state that elections matter? Really—you needed that reminder? After November 8, 2016?

We need not reiterate (nor debate) how or why a washed-up game show host and degenerate grifter wound up in the White House. Historians will mull it for generations to come, while satirists will bow down before its tragicomic majesty and their own abject inability to match it with fiction. We can talk about the antiquated, anti-democratic institution of the Electoral College. We can talk about Russian interference (yes, Virginia, it’s real), or the far less discussed and never properly investigated issue of actual vote tampering. We can talk about economic discontent and about the roles of racism and misogyny. We can talk about how Hillary didn’t visit Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio enough, or how WikiLeaks dumped a ton of stolen emails the day the Access Hollywood “pussygrabber” tape dropped, or how Comey decided, gee whiz, I’m gonna come out with a statement announcing the re-opening of the investigation into Hillary’s email server just days before Americans go to the polls.

That’s about a thousand doctoral dissertations right there.

But at the end of the day, Donald J. Trump did get in, to almost everyone’s surprise (his included) and everyone who voted for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or thought Hillary was a shoo-in and stayed home played a part in putting him there, not to mention those who went ahead and actually voted for the Con Man from Queens.

But there was another national election since then, the 2018 midterms, and that one was just as instructive.

So in the final essay in this four-part survey of the post-Mueller landscape, let us examine whether the coming presidential election can get us out of the fine mess that the last one got us into.

WILL THIS BE ON THE MIDTERM?

At the risk of sounding pedantic, let me recount what the midterms did for us. (Get it?)

Without a Democratic majority in the House, the delivery of the Mueller report would have been exactly what Mitch McConnell wants to pretend it is—“Case closed”—notwithstanding its underlying damnations that Bill Barr tried to spin away. There would be no ongoing Congressional investigations of Trump, no subpoenas, no court fight over his tax returns, no possibility of Barr being held in contempt of Congress, or of Don McGahn or Robert Mueller testifying on national television, no chance of us seeing any of the unredacted report.

We would still be in a constitutional crisis—and make no mistake, we’re in one—but it would be a one-sided fight with not much we could do about it.

But luckily, the resistance got its shit together sufficiently last November, which is the only reason that Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Maxine Waters, Elijah Cummings, and the rest are able to do the things they’re doing. True, Trump is still running roughshod over the rule of law, but it would be much much worse if Nancy Pelosi didn’t own the gavel. As Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times:

The handling of the (Mueller) report underscored once again the consequences of the last election in delivering control of the House to the Democrats. Were Republicans in charge of both the House and the Senate, the findings could have been the end of the matter. But with Democrats holding House committee chairmanships, they do not seem at all willing to let the issue go. They were further motivated by what they saw as an egregious attempt by Attorney General William P. Barr to run political interference for the president.

I can think of no more powerful positive example in modern American politics of how much elections matter.

For negative examples, we have an embarrassment of riches.

For one especially inverted view we need only look to Georgia, which under Republican Governor Brian Kemp recently passed abortion laws straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale—laws which a Governor Stacey Abrams could have vetoed even if the state legislature was comprised of misogynistic monsters, which apparently it is.

Blessed be the fruit indeed, if the fruit is a fucking peach.

I cite Georgia rather than Alabama or Missouri or Ohio or any of the other states trying to take us back to the Age of Coat Hanger because, as you may recall, Kemp slid into office under the most outrageous of circumstances, to wit:

In the gubernatorial race last fall, he was not only the Republican candidate but also the state official IN CHARGE OF THE ELECTION, which would have already been howlingly outrageous even if he didn’t have a history of voter suppression and fraud, which he did. (And sure enough there was widespread evidence of voter suppression in that race, and even outright tampering with the vote.)

No self-respecting banana republic would dare try to get away with a shameless farce like that. But having spent a good hunk of my childhood there, I can tell you that the state of Georgia can only aspire to the status of a banana republic.

Prior to 2016 itself, surely the most infamous example of electoral consequences was 2000, when a razor thin margin and polling place chaos allowed the GOP to grab the White House via a party-line vote in the Supreme Court (dealing a blow to the Court’s credibility from which it has never quite recovered). It does not require a deep dive into counterfactual alternative history to wonder how different the modern world would be if Al Gore had taken the oath of office in January 2001 instead of George Dubya Bush.

There are myriad more examples of course; the value of the vote is painfully self-evident. Which is why perhaps the single most worrying threat to our democracy is the current right wing campaign to undermine the electoral process by multiple means: by hyper-gerrymandering at a level far worse than the routine map-fucking in which both parties traditionally engaged; by partisan-driven suppression of the vote; by fearmongering over nonexistent “voter fraud” and the concomitant cry for voter ID laws that are nothing but a smokescreen for mass disenfranchisement; even by the willful acceptance of foreign interference. (What??? No, you say!)

So to the point raised in the title of this essay, how do you tell that elections matter?

Because the bastards are doing everything they can to sabotage them.

NO MATTER WHO YOU VOTE FOR, THE GOVERNMENT ALWAYS GETS IN

In 2006 I made a feature film called Land of the Blind, a political satire starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland. At one point, their two characters contemplate the merits of democratic reform versus violent revolution, prompting Sutherland’s character to quip, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”

It’s a cynical line, and an old one (I don’t know where I first heard it), but it reflects a justifiable pessimism about how much the powers-that-be are truly committed to democracy in almost any society that you care to name. And the modern GOP is doing its level best to be a living embodiment of that dynamic.

Faced with unresponsive, unacceptable, or even openly tyrannical leaders, the American people have two chief avenues of recourse: the courts and the ballot. It is therefore no coincidence that both are the targets of intense Republican efforts to lock down control, even in defiance of the public will. (The other avenues of public recourse—like peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and in the most extreme circumstances, revolution—exist outside the formal parameters of the law, rather than codified in the Constitution, except under the umbrella of freedom of expression. Which PS is also under attack.)

At least since the time of the Bork debacle, the Republican Party has been trying—pretty successfully— to pack the courts at every level with hardline right wing judges, an effort masterminded by people like Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Under Trump (in a discreet under-the-radar campaign engineered by Don McGahn, for you fans of irony), it has ramped up that effort to a record pace. The GOP’s attempts to neuter the vote have been even more outrageous, and among the scariest of all its myriad crimes against the republic, which is saying something. The Republican Party has done lots of terrible things, but to screw with the ability of the electorate to express its will at the ballot box strikes at the very heart of representative democracy.

An out-and-out autocracy is one thing, but at least it’s honest about its tyranny; the illusion of free elections is worse in its way, and certainly more insidious. But that has become the fig leaf of choice for the modern police state. (Looking at you, Vlad.)

Are we in the good ol’ USA that far off from the transparent sham of a cult-of-personality regime where the despot in question is habitually reelected with 99.9% of the vote? You scoff, but the net effect is not really different when the loser of the popular vote somehow wins the race—which has happened twice in the past 16 years, not coincidentally, both times with Republican candidates.

The GOP hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. Don’t talk to me about how scrapping the Electoral College would be so unfair to the citizens of Wyoming (all seven of them). I’m sure Fox Nation would be totally cool with it if the EC continually put Democrats in the White House even though they lost the popular vote. Which may be why Barack Obama, in collaboration with Eric Holder, has made a piece of that issue—an anti-gerrymandering campaign—the centerpiece of his post-presidential mission.

But trying to undermine the vote makes perfect strategic sense for the Republicans, of course, as their electoral power is dwindling, demographically speaking, not to mention their fetish for authoritarianism and unfettered plutocracy, and the fact that they really have no interest in principle, or democracy, or equality, or justice in the first place.

A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY

I say all this not just to vent about the crime syndicate that the GOP has become (not just), but to make the point that fair elections are one of the things autocrats fear most. Therefore, they are also one of the most powerful weapons we have, if we can maintain their integrity.

Short of Russo-Republican ratfucking, Trump is eminently beatable in 2020. Hell, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes, and only won the Electoral College because of some 10,000 votes in Michigan (out of 4.5 million cast) that could very easily have gone the other way, to cite just one scenario. And he is far less popular now than he was then. His approval ratings have been historically abysmal and never broken 50%……and this with a soaring economy. (Which he rightly gets no credit for, not matter how much he tries to grab it, as the boom began under Obama. If anything, Trump has done his level best to wreck it with things like trade wars, a ballooning deficit, and general global panic-making.)

Even accounting for the usual statistical weirdness, head-to-head matchups show Trump losing to almost every Democratic nominee, which ought motivate everyone to get behind whoever the nominee is, even if it’s your not personal favorite (he said pointedly).

That fact also ought to help dissuade us from risky assumptions about who is or isn’t “electable,” a beartrap which several smart observers have recently addressed.

Writing in The New Republic, Alex Pareene had a thoughtful piece about that myth and the pitfalls it presents as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pareene points out that after Barry Goldwater got crushed by LBJ in 1964, the Republican Party didn’t run from right wing extremism, it doubled down on it, nominating Nixon four years later and eventually moving both the party and the whole country hard to starboard, going on to win not only with Tricky Dick but with Reagan, Dubya/Cheney, and Trump as well. They only lost when they played it safe with “mainstream” nominees who promised broader appeal, like Dole, McCain, or Romney.

By contrast, in Pareene’s view, the Democratic Party is still traumatized to this day by McGovern’s landslide defeat in ’72, which led to such timid and allegedly acceptable to the mainstream choices as Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and the not so-safe but supposedly inevitable Mrs. Clinton.

In the Times, Michelle Goldberg recently had a similar column about Joe Biden, and whether he would be a reprise of such previous “safe bets,” or if we might be better off with a less orthodox candidate who inspires more passion. On that front, Rebecca Solnit has a tour de force piece about the brilliant and brave Elizabeth Warren, and the way misogyny and anti-intellectualism have conspired to create the canard of her as “unlikable.” (Hey, she drank a beer, right? That was enough to get a dolt like George Bush elected. But he had a penis.)

In other words, electability is as electability does. Cravenly discounting candidates because we’re worried they’re too bold for the middle-of-the-road voter is a Christmas present to the other side, when we can just as easily create our own political reality, in the words of conservative writer David Priess, whom I quoted at length last week. Who initially thought a biracial center-left first term senator named Barack Hussein Obama was “electable”? Or a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy? Or an obscure, saxophone playing Arkansas hillbilly (smooth and fantastic though he was, in the words of John Mulaney). For that matter, who thought Donald fucking Trump was electable, marking perhaps the only thing 44 and 45 have in common, polar opposites that they are?

So who’s to say then that Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete, or Kamala aren’t be “electable”?

I get the “comfort food” aspect of Biden, and I’m as susceptible to it as anyone. Sure, I’d like a more progressive candidate, and a fresher face—and how about a woman, and a person of color, to really put a knife in Trump’s heart, not to mention, oh yeah, making a statement about what this country stands for. But I will enthusiastically support Joe if at the end of the primaries he turns out to be the candidate best positioned to beat Trump like a conga. Like Ricky Ricardo pounding out “Babalú.” Like Keith Moon on Live at Leeds. Like Gene Krupa on crystal meth.

The same goes for the whole slate of Democratic presidential aspirants. A year ahead of the midterms, we saw a preview of our ability to motivate the progressive electorate and carry the day in the special elections in Virginia and Alabama, which were both inspirational and a roadmap to November 2018, where we did it again. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons [and Limits] of Virginia, November 10, 2017). Let’s stay the course, to coin a phrase.

Let’s not give the GOP a gift by eating our young. Call me a pollyanna, but I believe the Democratic primaries can be a constructive and civilized process, not a self-destructive one, and reveal who is best equipped to take on Trump: in other words, where that aforementioned passion really lies…..and it may be Biden after all, or it may be Bernie, or Klobuchar, or whoever. (All we know is that it won’t be the Blaz.)

Whoever emerges from that process, can we all please pledge to put aside our intramural differences and support whomever the blue team nominee proves to be? As Diana Kane of Persisticon pointed out in these pages a few weeks ago, the differences in their policy positions are not even that extreme, and certainly not compared with what the current administration is pursuing. Let us remember that “Perfect is the enemy of the good”…….that ANY ONE of the approximately 2,457 current Democratic candidates would be infinitely better than Trump….that a rotten, two-week-old hardboiled egg would be better.

As I’ve said before, in order to beat Hitler the US had to ally itself with Stalin. So I think all of us in the so-called resistance ought to be able to find common ground.

(Note to Republicans: Yeah, that’s right, I made a casual comparison between Adolf and Donald. You got something to say about it? If so, put down your tiki torch and send me an email.)

Trump can absolutely be beaten in November 2020, but only if we all pull together and make it happen. The other side has shown that it will turn out in droves, and they fight dirty. So let’s put everything we have into stomping this mofo and leave it all on the field with nothing left to give, shall we?

PAGING SHONDA RIMES

All of which brings us back to the topic we discussed in this space last week: the Big I.

In case it wasn’t clear, I am of the opinion that the US Congress has a moral and constitutional responsibility to impeach Donald Trump or else torch its own credibility and open the door to even worse neo-authoritarianism, wanton criminality, and contempt for the rule of law. The potential damage to the republic by not doing so is terrifying to contemplate.

Commenting on last week’s blog post, a savvy reader with the handle of snowinla wrote:

One thing we have seen with Trump is that he continues to amp things up. If he gets away with something once, he is sure to do it many more times. If the Dems just let his infractions go and think that they will “let the voter decide,” they are assuming that he will not do something more egregious to ensure his win in 2020, even if it involves open fraud. If they don’t try to take action, they will have no one to blame but themselves, will have no moral standing or, arguably, no Constitutional standing since they abdicated their role….

While it seems like there is a choice, there really is not.

Well said. Our system is not built for someone who openly flouts the rule of law, especially when the courts refuse to enforce it and one of the two political parties abets him. Even Nixon wasn’t this brazen. Until the American people stand up and express outrage—or in some cases, even experience outrage—we’re not going to be able to get out of this nightmare.

But regardless of whether one thinks impeachment is a viable means of removing Trump or not, no sane person would pursue it at the exclusion of trying to defeat him at the polls. And there’s no reason even to contemplate such a strategy, as it’s not by any means a binary choice, as Bill Barr likes to say.

As I wrote last week, pursuing impeachment and mounting the most formidable possible electoral campaign for 2020 are not mutually exclusive paths to evicting Donald Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, right? Indeed, I believe that even beyond the reasons of pragmatism that militate for it, and the reasons of principle that demand it, impeachment will profoundly benefit the Democratic cause in the 2020 election. The mere fact that the GOP keeps insisting otherwise ought to clue you in that that is so.

As many pundits have noted, Nixon’s approval ratings were not bad (higher than Trump’s) and public support for his impeachment very low before the nationally televised Watergate hearings began. But when they were done, Dick’s goose was cooked. We Americans are a nation of anti-intellectual illiterates (I say that with love); the arcane 448 pages of the Mueller report will never have the same impact as the TV miniseries adaptation.

So bring it on—I need something new to binge now that “Veep” is over.

In terms of the looming legal battles over Trump’s stonewalling, we are told that an active impeachment will prompt the courts to look more kindly on Congress’s demands for testimony and documents. As Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, Trump’s own flagrant obstructionism on these investigations is all but forcing an impeachment, which would compel him and his administration to cooperate, and load the Democratic nominee up with ammo going into the general election.

Seen in that light, far from being an either/or choice, impeachment and the election are inextricably intertwined.

Many have noted that an electoral defeat would be a more resounding and definitive rejection of Trump than impeachment, which would further divide the country and invite tinfoil hat grumbling about a Deep State conspiracy, and pedophile pizza parlors, and maybe even violent right wing insurgency. (Don’t we have that already?)

True enough. But it’s still the right thing to do. And does anyone doubt that MAGA Nation is going to go that route no matter when or how Trump leaves office, even if it’s in 2024 when he’s unable to repeal the 22nd Amendment and run for a third term?

To that end, several bright sparks have correctly noted that the real constitutional crisis still awaits us if Trump loses his bid for re-election and decides not to surrender power. And I am not of the school that thinks he will only make that stand if the count is close, or that a resounding loss would dissuade him from doing so. Not in a million years. Are you kidding? (See WIll Trump Ever Leave Office [Even If He Loses in 2020]?, July 23, 2018.)

We saw in 2016, when he expected to lose, that Trump is prepared to challenge any loss……and now he REALLY has a reason to do so, given that the presidency is the only thing keeping him out of jail. In his report, Mueller pointedly noted that Trump can absolutely be indicted for obstruction after he leaves office, not to mention a whole slew of other charges currently in the works in the SDNY and elsewhere, including bank, tax, and real estate fraud, and another one, felony campaign finance violations, for which his former lawyer just went to prison and in which Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”).

To avoid this kind of post-presidential prosecution, our insane clown president is therefore more incentivized than ever to stay in office at all costs. Already he is talking about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s call for injury time—“reparations” for the unconscionable pain and legislative inertia he suffered as a result of the special counsel probe. (“Two more years! Two more years!”) Wait till he is looking down the barrel of a couple dozen criminal and civil indictments that will eviscerate his phony business empire, leave him broke, disgraced, and possibly being fitted for matching orange jumpsuits alongside his children.

But just to get to the point of that particular bunker situation, we first have to vote him out, or impeach him, or both. I don’t really care which.

AMERICAN RUBICON

In announcing his campaign, Joe Biden framed the 2020 election as a historic decision point, with one fork leading to a narrative in which Trump is an aberration, the other to the end of the American experiment as we know it. Whether you think Uncle Joe ought to be the Democratic nominee or not, he’s slam on target about that. The institutions that distinguish American democracy are barely hanging on going into the back half of four years under Trump; we may not survive eight.

From the start of Trump’s rise some have ridiculed this kind of thinking as alarmism, a critique that has come both from the right and the left. In its first show after the 2016 election, “Saturday Night Live” memorably had Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock lampooning white people’s angst that this was the worst thing that ever happened in America. The most painful—and worrying—part of that sketch wasn’t being called out for white privilege, but the idea that anti-Trump resistance might be riven along racial or other lines, rather than focused on a common goal.

But times have changed. Trump has been a lot worse even than most people imagined back then. Chappelle has since recanted his call to give they guy a chance (which he made in the monologue immediately preceding that sketch), concluding that we did and he failed.

In this blog I have often cited the great Rev. William Barber II to the effect that, as bad as Trump is, his regime is not the worst thing the United States has ever suffered, that we can get through this, and emerge stronger. We don’t need to get into an atrocity competition; comparing Trump to Jim Crow, let alone slavery, is apples and carburetors. But no serious person can doubt the uniquely dangerous threat that this administration poses to the future of American representative democracy, one that requires a concerted, united effort to defeat.

The damage Trump & Co. can do in a second term will be exponentially worse and more longlasting than if he is one-and-done, and in every category—from the environment, to the economy, to foreign affairs, to the judiciary, to a free press, to the rule of law itself. Imagine a SCOTUS with three or four Trump appointees on it.

Why do I bother even saying this? Is an argument why we need to defeat Trump even necessary? Undoubtedly not, unless you think Tucker Carlson is the second coming of Edward R. Murrow. But I want to stress the stakes, and just how bad it would be.

Apart from the terrible practical consequences, re-election would also make a profound statement about who we are as a people, which is a big part of Biden’s point. Electing this monster not once but twice would make it impossible to say that it was a fluke, or the result of temporary insanity, or that the Russians made us do it. It would say that, even if a majority of Americans actually oppose Trump, our system is so broken and dysfunctional and fundamentally anti-democratic, and that the resistance so disorganized and the forces of white supremacy and neo-authoritarianism so strong even if they are a minority, that we are not sufficiently competent as a nation to chuck this jackass out of office.

It would say that Trump is not an aberration but the very soul of America.

(Many on the far left have been saying that for years, of course, and take issue with the whole Bidenist premise.)

Any way you look at it, I don’t think Americans traveling abroad will still be able to count on the goodwill and sympathy of the rest of the world, who so far seem to feel bad for us and largely assume that we got screwed. That will no longer be so if we give Trump a second term.

As if getting sneered at by taxi drivers in Spain is our biggest worry.

And as we have noted over and over in this blog, even the end of Trump will not mean the end of the scourge which has afflicted our body politic—not by a longshot, for he is but a symptom and not the cause. That scourge will only be eradicated when we address the toxic brew of white supremacy, misogyny, nativism, pluto-kleptocracy, and Orwellian contempt for truth that the contemporary Republican Party embodies.

Anyone with good ideas for how to do that, please feel free to speak up.

WITHER DEMOCRACY? (SIC)

Thus concludes our four-part opus on the state of play in the immediate post-Mueller world. To sum up: we have a demonstrably criminal president flouting every attempt to hold him accountable, a Republican Party shamelessly protecting him, an opposition party trying to use constitutional mechanisms that the president and his accomplices are working furiously to undermine, and a looming election that Trump and the Republicans are brazenly trying to fix via voter suppression and an open invitation to foreign meddling, and oh yes, show every sign of defying if it doesn’t go their way.

So there’s that.

The next seventeen months ought to be pretty interesting. We’re about to see whether the American people have the kind of integrity and backbone that we flatter ourselves to think we have, and whether or not we can stand up and—one way or another—rid ourselves of the worst and most destructive presidential administration since 1865.

Fire up your office pools, my friends.

********

The King’s Necktie will (probably) be on hiatus next week, letting the laptop keys cool off. Unless Trump pardons a bunch of accused war criminals on Memorial Day.

See you in June.

Photo from Politico.

Who’s Afraid of the Big I?

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 8.24.31 PM

Over the past two weeks we have examined the reasons why Donald Trump richly deserves to be impeached (Reading Mr. Mueller, May 2, 2019) and the appalling Republican rank-closing to protect him (A Plague Among Us, May 7, 2019) a die-in-place effort that makes the fanatical deadenders of Imperial Japan look like wishy-wishy dilettantes.

But the question of whether impeachment makes strategic sense for the Democratic Party is a very different one, as are the related matters of whether there is a reasonable chance of success, and the wisdom or folly—or necessity—of pursuing it regardless .

That is the thicket of thorns into which we will delve this week.

But be advised: unlike Hirohito’s suicidal loyalists, the GOP is less likely to use its swords for hara-kiri than to julienne American democracy into beef tartare.

DO I DARE TO EAT A PEACH?

People were talking about impeaching Donald Trump from the moment it became clear he was headed to the White House. If that seemed to some like a rush to judgment (“Give the guy a chance!”—remember that?), Trump wasted little time in proving his critics prescient and giving them good reason to follow through. The question was largely abstract while the special counsel carried out his work. But with the submission of the Mueller report, it’s unavoidably now on the front burner.

That is a problem for the Democratic Party not because there is any question that Trump has committed the kind of high crimes and misdemeanors that justify ejection from office—there ain’t—but because impeachment, being a political process and not a legal one, is debilitated by the same right wing monkeywrenching that has afflicted every other aspect of governance under this kakistocracy.

The two basic schools of thought are these:

1. THE BR’ER RABBIT SCHOOL: Impeachment plays right into Trump’s hands. There is absolutely zero chance of getting a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate, and no reason to think that will change, so it’s all for naught…… indeed, worse than naught in that Trump will use that acquittal as (another) chance to declare his innocence and exoneration, while the GOP will use the whole process to animate its base and drive right wing voter turnout in 2020.

As evidence, proponents of this school point to how the impeachment of (but failure to convict) Bill Clinton in 1998 wound up helping the Democrats and damaging the Republicans. More on that, and whether it is in fact so, in a bit.

2. THE CONSTITUTIONAL PURIST SCHOOL: Trump’s actions demand impeachment regardless of whether the Senate will convict him. For the House to ignore the appalling array of high crimes and misdemeanors laid out in the Mueller report would be to shirk its constitutional duty, and set a terrifying precedent for future demagogues, proto-authoritarians, and simple crooks who might likewise find their way into the White House.

According to this line, impeachment is the strongest form of condemnation the House can impose, even if the Senate won’t convict, and in and of itself is damning. Censure is far too mild—pathetic even—in light of what Trump has done. The mere fact of an impeachment—not to mention the televised hearings, public airing of the granular details of Trump’s sins, and the Watergate-like parade of witnesses—will inflict tremendous damage on an executive who richly deserves it, and hurt him badly through much of the 2020 campaign. (More on that, and whether it is in fact so, in a bit as well.) But even if it won’t do that, we still have to impeach just on principle, for the long term good of the country.

So let’s take these schools of thought in turn.

AN IMPEACHMENT TRAP?

Advocates of school #1 see themselves as the pragmatists, and with some justification. Writing in the conservative but anti-Trump online magazine The Bulwark, David Priess sums the realpolitik position up quite well:

Democrats are confident that Trump is beatable in 2020. Why risk even the possibility of an electoral backlash for a Senate acquittal, when the better bet appears to be removing a vulnerable, unpopular president through a vigorous 2020 campaign?

The idea here is that Trump is so bad that we need to maximize our chances of beating him at the polls, no matter how much he deserves early removal and no matter how risky the precedent in not pursuing that. This school sees his electoral defeat—not abstract long term constitutional considerations—as the greater good that must take priority. As Eric Levitz put it in New York magazine:

…..the Democrats’ overriding civic obligation is to maximize the probability of their victory in 2020. All else being equal, it is more important to actually remove a would-be autocrat from office than to formally demonstrate one’s commitment to doing so.

To be fair, Levitz frames this in terms of “if” Democrats believe this about Trump’s criminality and the GOP’s intransigence, not as a call to arms per se. But he makes it clear that Republicans’ refusal to do jackshit about Trump’s self-evident unfitness for office leaves the Democrats with a stark mandate.

I’m sympathetic on a purely intellectual basis, but there are two problems that jump out at me.

The first is that this theory presumes that impeachment by the House without a conviction in the Senate will hurt Democratic chances in the election. But we don’t know that that is so; in fact, as we will shortly see, it might be quite the opposite. In any case, it’s not at all clear that pursuing impeachment and winning the next election are mutually exclusive choices that require a binary calculation.

We know that many Republicans think that impeachment is a winner for them, a chance to motivate their base and portray Democrats as radicals who just hate Trump blindly. Sometimes it feels like Trump himself is trying to goad us into it. (“Oh no! Don’t throw me into the briar patch!”) I’m not suggesting that is his sole reason for behaving like a cornered sewer rat, as that’s his nature regardless. But it may be a bonus in his mind.

Proof of the GOP belief that impeachment would actually help them is to be found in the fact that Republicans raise the specter of it as much or more than Democrats do. But that belief is not proof that they are correct in their assumptions.

The second problem is that this utilitarianism, even if correct, creates an immense moral hazard. It is Congress’s sworn duty to hold a criminal president accountable, and failure to do so would be an egregious act of negligence and a terrible portent for the future, no matter what the electoral impact. This is the crux of the argument from school #2.

That said, I think we ought to make a distinction between those who are simply chickenshit about impeachment and those who are merely being tactical—for now.

Nancy Pelosi has been very canny about the Big I, which she says she does not favor at this point, much to the consternation of the hardcore anti-Trump left within her own party. But her job is to be a savvy inside-the-Beltway tactician, and she is demonstrably freaking excellent at that. She is clearly playing the long game, and it suits us on the anti-Trump team to have her in that role.

Even though the GOP’s depiction of a mindlessly bloodthirsty Democratic Party and Trump-as-martyr is a hyperbolic and dishonest portrait, I don’t think they’re wrong about its tactical advantages—and Nancy knows that very well. She is cleverly denying them that terrain, and even though they’ll try to take it anyway, she’s making it harder for them to do so.

So speaking as someone who’s been wearing an ITMFA button for two years, let’s give her a break, OK fellow firebreathers? There are plenty of ferocious would-be Trumpslayers available to lead the pro-impeachment faction in the Democratic Party; let’s be grateful that we have such a smart and seasoned resource to fight a different kind of battle on another front. Indeed, I don’t know that the Speaker truly buys into the impeachment-will only-hurt-us mindset; I suspect she is merely keeping her powder dry until the big fat orange target is in her sights at point blank range.

THEIR BRAND IS CRISIS, STILL

In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart offered a variation on the impeachment-is-Democratic-suicide school of thought, arguing that leaving Trump in office for the rest of his term would actually do the Republican Party much more harm by letting him continue to ruin their “brand.”

Much as I share Mr. Lockhart’s desire to see the GOP go the way of Radio Shack, I have two big problems with this argument as well that bear going into.

First, it blithely ignores the massive damage being done by Trump in mean time. In that regard it feels like something that could only have been written by a privileged member of the professional political class, one consumed with 202 area code gamesmanship, and not personally threatened by things like loss of health care, or clean water, or deportation to Guatemala. (The even broader matter of long-term damage to our democracy goes without saying.) Lockhart’s argument prizes partisanship over the public interest, treating the red-blue pachyderm/donkey competition like a sport, and not the existential national emergency it is.

Secondly, in my view, this argument vastly underestimates the resilience of reactionaryism. Yeah, the old white male demographic is dwindling in its political power, but to imagine that five and a half more years of Trump is going to destroy the Republican Party from within is the worst kind of naiveté. It is more likely to destroy American democracy as we know it but leave the Republican Party intact, cockroach-like, and indeed more far-right wing than ever, blaming Democrats, immigrants, women, and people of color for the mess that the country is in.

And plenty of people tuned to Fox will believe that and still pull the GOP lever.

ITMFA ALREADY ALREADY

So let’s move on to school of thought #2. A number of pundits have laid this out better than I can, so let’s hear from them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Lawfare editor-in-chief Ben Wittes describes Trump’s actions on obstruction—his repeated public appeals for witnesses to defy the special counsel and Congress, his talk of “rats” and exhortations to people like Cohen, Manafort, and Stone to “stay strong”—as “a grotesque abuse of power” that demands impeachment, irrespective of other political considerations:

The spectacle of the president of the United States publicly and repeatedly urging witnesses not to cooperate with federal law enforcement and entertaining the notion of using his Article II powers to relieve them of criminal jeopardy or consequences if they do not cooperate is one of the most singular abuses of the entire Trump presidency. Again, one has to ask of Congress what is unacceptable in a president’s interaction with an investigation if this conduct is tolerable? 

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg seconds his argument:

Whether or not this is politically wise, failing to impeach would be a grave abdication. If you want people to believe that the misdeeds enumerated in the Mueller report are serious, you have to act like it. To not even try to impeach Trump is to collaborate in the Trumpian fiction that he has done nothing impeachable.

But what of the fact that Mitch McConnell’s clown car of a GOP-controlled Senate is almost sure to acquit? Well, Goldberg’s fellow Times columnist Charles Blow makes a passionate case for impeachment as a worthwhile end in itself:

I say that there is no such thing as a failed impeachment. Impeachment exists separately from removal. Impeachment in the House is akin to an indictment, with the trial, which could convict and remove, taking place in the Senate. The Senate has never once voted to convict. So, an impeachment vote in the House has, to this point, been the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president. I can think of no president who has earned this rebuke more than the current one. And, once a president is impeached, he is forever marked. It is a chastisement unto itself. It is the People’s House making a stand for its people.

But what if it costs us the election in 2020? The veteran reporter Elizabeth Drew, whose career includes covering Watergate, wrote in the Times:

Madison and Hamilton didn’t say anything about holding off on impeachment because it would be politically risky. It’s hard to imagine they’d put political convenience on the same footing as the security of the Constitution. And the Democrats who prefer to substitute the 2020 election for an impeachment fight don’t appear to have considered the implications if Mr. Trump were to win: Would that not condone his constitutional abuses and encourage his authoritarian instincts?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is even more succinct:

(Democrats’) focus has to be on their constitutional duty—and nowhere in the Constitution does it say “never mind about presidential obstruction of justice or abuse of power if there’s an election next year.”

It must also be asked if the received wisdom that pursuing impeachment will hurt the odds of unseating Trump at the polls in 2020 is even true.

Although David Priess laid out that position very well in The Bulwark (see above), he was not in fact endorsing it. For starters, he argues that the punishment meted out to Republicans for impeaching Clinton was less than is conventionally assumed, especially since they won the White House in the next presidential election. Robinson makes that same point, noting that “If impeachment was a mistake, it wasn’t a very costly one.”

Will Trump fans see him as a martyr and turn out to vote for him because of it? Of course.  But they’re going to do that regardless.

Priess even questions the presumption that, for all its venality, the Senate will never vote to convict. Unlikely as it seems right now, he argues that, in essence, fortune favors the bold, as “political actors make their own reality.”

Think about Barack Obama in 2008: A first-term senator just four years removed from the Illinois Senate not only defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but won the presidency. Think about Pete Buttigieg now: A 37 year old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana has surged into the top tier of a crowded Democratic field. Think, of course, about Trump himself. Political reality is made by action, not by saying what can’t be done.

Likewise, it’s true that right now polls don’t show support for impeachment among a majority of Americans…..but neither did polls in early 1974. It was a different story by August, after months of televised hearings laying bare Nixon’s misdeeds. Priess again:

Public hearings are powerful tools to move public opinion. The majority of Americans haven’t read the nearly 500-page redacted Mueller report and haven’t seen the bulk of the revelations within it. Putting people in televised hearings to answer questions about what happened could create iconic moments, such as those that emerged during Watergate. It’s worth remembering that those hearings, which started under an overwhelming consensus that the Senate would never convict Richard Nixon, led to the president’s resignation.

SLOW WALKING TO THE GALLOWS

A variation on the aggressively pro-impeachment position is the idea of investigating Trump seven ways to Sunday without yet drawing up actual articles impeachment that might invite a bigger backlash. Hillary, who knows a thing or two about impeachment, wrote a widely read and very savvy op-ed about that very idea, and how to pursue right and proper investigations of Trump that might or might not lead to impeachment without sacrificing political capital in what looks like a rush to judgment. Very Clintonian—and more than a little ironic.

But as someone who was highly critical of the partisanship of the Republicans’ endless Benghazi investigations, I am loath to think about an investigation of Trump in those kind of tactical terms. Yes, we might be able to inflict maximum damage by trying to drag out these House investigations without bringing articles of impeachment until the matter is forced. But I would feel like a hypocrite suggesting that after repeatedly raking people like Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) over the coals for admitting—in a slip-of-the tongue—what was patently obvious: that the whole point of the Benghazi hearings was to inflict political damage on Hillary.

Is that a matter of our side foolishly playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules while our opponent operates under the ROE of a Panzer division rolling into Poland? Or is that the kind of adherence to principle that prevents us from becoming no better than them?

Frankly, I’m not sure.

What it comes down to is whether this “slowwalking” strategy, or Clinton’s measured approach, or whatever you want to call it, is really just a synonym for the timid belief that pursuing impeachment will hurt us, or whether it’s a version of Pelosi’s long game. If the latter, I am more open to it. The New York Times’ Carl Hulse writes:

For the moment, Democrats will try to finesse the matter. They will push for the evidence underlying the report and demand that Mr. Mueller and others central to his inquiry appear on Capitol Hill while stopping short of any impeachment discussion. That strategy has the advantage of keeping the inquiry and Mr. Trump’s conduct in the spotlight without getting into the charged impeachment talk. But Republicans will do whatever they can to portray Democrats as overreaching and maliciously harassing Mr. Trump out of political spite, riling up Republican voters in the process.

In other words, the GOP is going to cry “overreach!” regardless, so why employ half-measures? Again Eugene Robinson hits the nail even more directly on the head:

Here is the important thing: Trump will mount this attack no matter what Democrats do. And strictly as a matter of practical politics, the best defense against Trump has to be a powerful offense. I fail to see the benefit for Democrats, heading into the 2020 election, of being seen as such fraidy-cats that they shirk their constitutional duty.

Right on, as the kids say. (Well, they used to say it, around the time the Doors’ first album came out.) Who exactly are we afraid of pissing off anyway? The battle lines in American life are so hardened at the moment that there is little “undecided” middle to worry about losing. Witness the negligible movement in the polls even after the Mueller report dropped.

Let’s motivate our base. Let’s get them energized and out to the polls in November 2020. Likewise, maybe the way to win that small but crucial segment of “undecideds” is to bank on boldness and show the courage of our convictions rather than making namby pamby calculations about how it will play. Let’s embrace impeachment with both arms and shout, “Hell yeah we’re gonna impeach this miserable bastard. He deserves it and here’s why.” That might actually help, not hurt. (I’m sure someone like Nate Silver—or Kent Davison—could help us track that.)

Robinson yet again:

Does it “play into Trump’s hands” to speak of impeachment? I think it plays into the president’s hands to disappoint the Democratic base and come across as weak and frightened. Voters who saw the need to hold Trump accountable decided to give Democrats some power—and now expect them to use it.

PANIC IN THE STREETS OF LONDON—ER, I MEAN WASHINGTON

All that said, the events of the past few weeks have dramatically changed the context in which we consider the very idea of impeachment.

As noted in the last several posts in this blog, Bill Barr’s initial summary/non-summary on March 24 sure made it feel—to Republicans and Democrats alike—that the peril of Russiagate to the Trump presidency was over. Barr and his tangerine-hued boss and the rest of the GOP gangsterocracy obviously want us to think so. “Case closed,” as Mitch McConnell said firmly before the Senate the other day, adding: “Case closed.”

He said it twice, so I guess that’s that.

Oh, wait: we’re not all fucking simpletons.

Nevertheless this is the mantra the GOP intends to use, and it’s a powerful one, despite being a big fat lie, particularly if they’re willing to dissemble about the underlying truth. And—spoiler alert—they are.

But recent events have proven quite the opposite, in part because the actual facts that emerged from the report itself painted a portrait very much to the contrary, and in part because Trump has gone even more full bull goose loony than usual. If anything Trump’s behavior since the release of the Mueller report has become even more fuel to the impeachment fire, which is odd for a document that in his telling “completely and totally” exonerates him.

Gee, it’s almost as if that wasn’t true.

Trump has in effect declared all-out war on Congressional oversight. He has said his administration will fight every attempt to hold it to account, “ordered” Don McGahn not to testify before Congress or turn over his notes (NB: he can’t order a private citizen to do shit), instructed White House staffers to defy subpoenas, filed suit to stop Deutsche Bank from turning over banking records and the IRS and Treasury Department from releasing his tax returns as demanded by the House Ways and Means Committee, not to mention the usual batshit all caps tweets, rambling speeches to red-hatted mobs, and attendant propaganda campaign on Fox and the rest of the right wing alternative universe.

That behavior in itself militates for impeachment even as it impedes it…..in fact, precisely because it impedes it. In any reasonable country with a citizenry that is not comatose, such behavior alone would be sufficient to bring down the government. We ought to be out in the streets in outrage . But I guess a nous la liberté. We Americans tend to be happy puppets who love our strings.

But the bunker mentality madness described above makes it plain that the Trump administration is in a tailspin. The House is about to hold the Attorney General of the United States in contempt of Congress for only the second time in history, the Secretary of the Treasury is in danger of being arrested and thrown in Congress-jail for refusing to release the president’s tax returns, and Donald Trump Jr. has been subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee (and remember, that’s a Republican-controlled body, proving that at least one GOP senator not running for re-election in 2020, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has at least a modicum of integrity). On top of that, North Korea is testing missiles again, Iran announced that it’s resuming its quest for the atomic bomb, and we’re in a trade war with China that has the stock market making like Greg Louganis.

But topping them all last week was Trump’s worst nightmare: the New York Times’ blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner about his taxes, which suggests that he is the worst businessman in modern American history. Fox & Friends, of course, were quick to announce that this was actually proof that Trump is the best businessman ever. (Also, that the Buffalo Bills meant to lose four Super Bowls, OJ wanted to go to prison, and Spike Lee was thrilled to lose to Driving Miss Daisy twice.)

Not that I think that Times story will sway even one guy in a red hat to reconsider his support for Donald. But I do think that, as the revelation of his darkest secret, it is the ultimate public humiliation that Trump fears above all things. (Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous and long-running tax fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family.)

Trump appears to be in a dead panic, and rightly so. This week Speaker Pelosi memorably said that he is becoming “self-impeachable,” which is a lovely turn of phrase even if—or perhaps precisely because—it is poetic but vague. (Kind of like “collusion.”) What we can infer it to mean, of course, is that he is behaving in such an erratic, alarming, and blatantly unconstitutional way that he is forcing the issue of his removal from office, even if the GOP remains inexcusably unwilling to act on the matter.

Herein we see Nancy’s genius. By refusing to go to eleven right out of the gate, Pelosi has created room to maneuver and build toward the moment of impeachment, (rightly) seeming reasonable all along the way. If and when the time comes when even the most patient voices in the Democratic Party like Pelosi and Nadler say,” OK, America, there’s no avoiding it now,” the impact will be all the more powerful for her current cautiousness, and the careful cultivation of a (quite correct) image as a cool head who was reluctant to go that route but finally had no choice.

Because Donald played right into her hands.

TANNED, RESTED, AND READY: THE SEQUEL

Some of the approximately 2,457 Democratic presidential candidates have already overtly come out in favor of impeachment: the always brave Elizabeth Warren was first out of the gate, with Kamala Harris shortly behind her. Others are more squeamish about being subjected to this litmus test, preferring a Pelosian approach. But what’s appropriate for the Speaker of the House, in whose realm impeachment would occur, is not necessarily appropriate for the person who wants to be the party’s standard bearer and go toe to toe with the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief in the general election.

But it is worth noting how the entire responsibility for saving the republic is being laid at the door of the Democrats, because not a single sentient American that I know of believes that the Republicans will lift even a pinkie finger to do the right thing.

Of course, some on the right side of the aisle argue that there is no problem that needs addressing at all. The speciousness of that claim speaks for itself, in obscenities mostly. Even more contemptible are the cynics and opportunists in the GOP who know how bad Trump is but are willing to profit from it anyway, making them even more culpable than the dummies and the winguts because they are smart enough to know better, yet still do nothing. And of course, in their charade they risk beginning to believe their own bullshit, if only so they can sleep at night, until they are just as deep in the Kool-Aid as the rest.

But they might come to their senses, right?

Right?

Blow again:

Democrats are operating from the Richard Nixon impeachment playbook, only this isn’t the 1970s, before cable news, the internet and social media. They think it’s somehow possible to overwhelm the public with evidence, to turn Trump’s devout base against him, to pressure the president himself into submission.

On that point, let’s simply dispense with the fantasy that the calculus on Republican loyalty to Trump is ever going to change.

For three years, going all the way back to the campaign, we have been hearing that Trump would finally cross a line that would alienate sufficient numbers of GOP leaders or voters. But nothing he has done has yet constituted that line, including the most outrageous revelations of entanglements with foreign powers, national security nightmares, hush money payments to porn stars, tariffs that violate what was once sacrosanct conservative dogma, outrageous attacks on our NATO allies and shoulder-shrugging over state-sponsored murders by Middle Eastern theocracies, the surgical attachment of his lips to Vladimir Putin’s white Russian butt……and on and on.

Nothing.

The only thing that would plausibly do it is if Trump suddenly proposed a return to an Eisenhower era 90% tax rate on the rich.

Don’t hold your breath on that.

It’s worth remembering that Richard Nixon was not in fact impeached: he was forced to resign because of the imminent threat of impeachment….that is, when senior GOP leaders finally went to him and said, “It’s over, Dick.” That is never going to happen with Mitch McConnell, the living embodiment of the spinelessness, venality, and utter lack of integrity that distinguishes the Republican Party of 2019 from that of 1974.

Trump also benefits from a vastly different media environment. It’s become trite to observe that Nixon might well have survived if he’d had Fox News back in his day, but that doesn’t make it any less true. (Indeed, in her towering New Yorker piece on Fox, Jane Mayer observes that the creation of that kind of force field around a Republican president was a specific goal of Roger Ailes when he founded the network.) Needless to say, Trump also has the toxic bullhorn of Twitter, a medium tailor-made for the kind of low-information, nuance-free schoolyard insults that are his stock-in-trade.

Paul Krugman recently wrote about the moral self-destruction of American conservatism in an epic column called “The Great Republican Abdication,” a phrase taken from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die:

The truth is that the GOP faced its decisive test in 2016, when almost everyone in the Republican establishment lined up behind a man fully known to be a would-be authoritarian who was unfit morally, temperamentally and intellectually for high office….The party’s willingness to back behavior it would have called treasonous if a Democrat did it is just more of the same.

That column was so scorching that Trump went nuts and tweeted all about it, sending it viral. So there, don’t say I never said he did anything good.

KILLING AN ELEPHANT

Ultimately, this Republican abdication is central to the whole discussion of impeachment and of how to deal with Trump full stop.

Eric Levitz’s aforementioned piece for New York magazine is called “If Impeaching Trump Is Pointless, Then Bipartisanship Is Worthless.” Setting aside electoral gamesmanship, his main point amounts to a radical proposal in which “commitment to small-r republican values requires prioritizing the GOP’s disempowerment over the preservation of institutional norms.”

If the Republican Party can’t be trusted to even consider putting its allegiance to lawfulness above its fealty to Donald Trump, then the GOP is a cancer on the body politic. And if our Constitution has brought us to the point where a non-democratically elected president can promise “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to anyone who violates laws he does not like—without facing any serious threat of removal from office—then our Constitution is obsolete and there is no cause for treating that document, or the established norms of our institutions, with reflexive reverence…..

That is a bold conclusion, but it’s getting increasingly hard to dispute.

The Republican Party is broken. You can’t have a functioning democracy when one of the two political parties refuses to act in good faith, and barring a sudden burst of integrity (ha ha just kidding), it’s hard to imagine the GOP returning to anything resembling principled participation in the American political process anytime soon. Two years ago Noam Chomsky called it “the most dangerous organization in human history,” which might seem like a stretch (and a real insult to the Nazis) until you think about the Republican stance on climate change.

So I must say that I am with Mr. Levitz in supporting a no-holds-barred campaign to destroy the Republican Party by any peaceful and principled means necessary and salt the ground from which it sprang.

But there are heavy moral risks associated with the endeavor Levitz proposes.

Obviously, one could employ that same “they’re so bad” logic to any foe, making this a very slippery slope. As soon as we decide that the other side is so bad that anything and everything is justified in order to defeat it, we will have entered a dark, dark place. What’s to stop the Republicans from concluding that the Democrats are such a threat to the American experiment that anything and everything is justified in order to eradicate them as a substantive political entity?

As it happens, the GOP decided that long ago. (I’ll peg it to 1994. Thanks Newt Gingrich!)

But not every demonization of the enemy is equally valid. Sometimes you really are fighting the devil, and when you are, the facts are there to support it. In this case, they’re in black & white running to over 448 pages.

Another way to look at is that the impeachment process itself has been rendered useless because the Republican Party is valuing its own chokehold on power over the Constitution that it claims to honor—a prospect that the Founders never imagined or planned for. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote this week in The New Yorker, “The Constitutional system is not built to resist Trump’s defiance of Congress”…….and I would add that he is only able to carry out that defiance because the Republican half of Congress is acting as his accomplice.

Which brings us back to Levitz’s original point. If the GOP is no longer a good faith partner willing to participate in a legitimate representative democracy, the Democrats’ path forward is a fait accompli. It’s not a matter of whether we are in a streetfight with a neo-autocratic white nationalist crime syndicate. That battle is already joined. The only question is how best to win it.

Krugman one more time:

First, anyone expecting bipartisanship in dealing with the aftermath of the Mueller report—in particular, anyone suggesting that Democrats should wait for GOP support before proceeding with investigations that might lead to impeachment—is being deluded. Trump is giving the Republican establishment what it wants, and it will stick with him no matter what.

Second, it’s later than you think for American democracy. Before 2016 you could have wondered whether Republicans would, in extremis, be willing to take a stand in defense of freedom and rule of law. At this point, however, they’ve already taken that test, and failed with flying colors.

The simple fact is that one of our two major parties—the one that likes to wrap itself in the flag—no longer believes in American values. And it’s very much up in the air whether America as we know it will survive.

To that end, next week we conclude this four-part opus with another interesting idea for removing Trump from office:

What are the odds we can just vote the motherfucker out?

 

 

A Plague Among Us

the-black-death-and-vampires-1068x534

Last week I offered a cursory summary of what strikes me as the bottom line in the Mueller report, to wit: we have a president who by any reasonable measure ought to be chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish.

If you don’t agree, you’re in the wrong blog.

The litany of Trump’s sins is too long and mind-numbing to repeat. (For newcomers, you can review it here, if you wish.) But the heart of the matter is that we are enduring the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and proto-authoritarian American presidency in modern times, and possibly ever.

Yet still—and this is the part that makes me feel like a stroke is coming on—the Republican Party stands by him.

That’s right: a party that wanted the drag out the guillotine when Barack Obama wore a khaki colored suit is now perfectly fine with a president hiding his tax returns, paying hush money to a porn star, wantonly profiting from the presidency, defying Congress, obstructing federal investigations, and playing footsie (at the very least) with the Kremlin and kowtowing to them at every turn. They are fine with a president who routinely orders his subordinates to lie to Congress and to create fake paper trails to cover their tracks, who sees the Department of Justice as his personal Cosa Nostra and pictures Roy Cohn as the perfect Attorney General. And I’m confining myself here to bipartisan outrages, leaving aside the numerous policy-based crimes against humanity—like caging babies or undermining our NATO allies or destroying the planet—that many on the right actually agree with.

It’s one thing for Trump and his inner circle to be shameless con men and criminals. It’s another for the entire GOP to go along as his enablers and protectors.

The steady parade of conservatives cravenly selling their souls to Trump has been underway for more than three years, but it is reaching a critical mass now that the special counsel’s report is complete and the country is faced with the question of how to respond. In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman writes:

(Republicans) aren’t arguing that Trump’s behavior was reprehensible but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. Instead, their position is that Trump didn’t do a single thing wrong. Inviting a hostile foreign power to hack his opponent’s emails? He was kidding around! Accepting the help of that hostile power for his campaign? What any candidate would do! Seeking a multimillion-dollar deal in a hostile foreign country while running for president and lying about it to the public? Just a shrewd businessman! Firing the FBI director to shut down an investigation into his campaign, and admitting it on TV? His absolute right as president! Trying in multiple different ways to obstruct justice? He was just fighting back against a deep-state conspiracy!

I’ve never been a fan, but to his credit, Mitt Romney has been one of the few prominent Republicans even to say boo. Then again, he has yet to substantively opposing the administration in any significant way, so I’m not sure whether to be amazed that he spoke up at all, or disgusted by his dead-on impression of Jeff Flake.

At the other side of the spectrum there is Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most extreme and repulsive example of a former Trump critic turned servile bootlicker. In a WaPo piece bluntly titled “How Conservatives Rationalize Their Surrender to Trump,” Max Boot writes of the spectacle of watching Graham “spout pro-Trump conspiracy theories from his perch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and berate FBI agents for expressing opposition to Trump in 2016—while conveniently forgetting that he himself called Trump a ‘kook,’ a ‘bigot,’ ‘crazy’ and ‘unfit for office.’”

This abdication of civic duty goes beyond simple partisanship. Trump’s actions are not trivial matters that can be ignored or recast as something benign, at least not without a massive deployment of epic hypocrisy and deceit…..a task at which, admittedly, the GOP excels.

Indeed, part of the explanation is that MAGA Nation is in such denial that its members refuse even to acknowledge that anything is amiss.

HOW THE OTHER SIDE (NOT HALF) THINKS

Here’s a brief survey of what they do believe:

In right wing world, the Mueller probe “totally and completely” exonerated Trump on both collusion and obstruction, even though it was a witchhunt conducted by a bunch of angry Democrats (led by an establishment Republican, true, but hey, those people also hate Trump!). They simultaneously cite the SCO report as proof of Trump’s lilywhite innocence while condemning it as part of an attempted coup d’etat. Ignoring its actual content, they insist it contains no evidence of the slightest wrongdoing.

And why didn’t the perpetrators such a nefarious plot just manufacture evidence? Because Trump is so squeaky clean that they couldn’t—that’s how awesome he is!

The right wing is also convinced to its dying breath that this will all eventually lead to the prosecution and imprisonment of the people who initiated the special counsel investigation in the first place and most loudly cheered it on—like Schiff, Schumer, and Swalwell—and who conducted it—like Mueller himself, and I guess Rosenstein (hence his fawning resignation letter)—and oh yes, also Hillary Clinton.

Seriously.

If you don’t believe me, dip into the right wing media for a while and you will hear this precise narrative being hammered home over and over again. I engage with ordinary, rank-and-file Trump supporters all the time; confronted with any kind of effort at serious debate, they reflexively chant, “No collusion, no obstruction!” Asked to defend Trump’s actions, they insist that the lack of a criminal indictment is all that matters, per Waldman. Indeed, many on the right seem to revel in Trump’s behavior precisely because of its norm-busting, rule-breaking nature, like malevolent toddlers. Pressed on whether they would be OK with a Democratic president doing the same things, they never respond. Instead—yawn—they go directly to the same old tired refrain that Obama was infinitely worse, rants about Hillary’s emails (STILL!), Uranium One, Susan Rice, Seth Rich, Benghazi, and zzzzzzzzz…..

Sorry, I dropped off there for a second.

(Sidenote, and a personal pet peeve. Almost de rigueur in every exchange, these folks habitually claim the Mueller probe cost the taxpayers $30 million—and lately Trump has been reflexively inflating it to $35M—ignoring the fact the seizure of Paul Manafort’s assets alone mean the probe actually turned a profit for the American taxpayer. I cite this petty point as just one example of the willful denial of objective reality, and to stress the utter irrationality and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders…. not to mention the hypocrisy after the millions spent—and never recouped—on Whitewater, Benghazi et al.)

Needless to say, there is no reasoning with the literal cult that the modern Republican Party has become. And by that I don’t mean there is no broaching the political divide in how the report should be interpreted (although there isn’t); I mean they stubbornly ignore the most basic facts in the report, which of course, almost none of them have read.

To that point, I’d like to thank the numerous Trump supporters who liked—and even shared—Employee of the Month, my post of April 19th slamming Bill Barr, apparently not realizing the title was sarcastic, and clearly not having read even the first sentence, which makes that plain. (Who says we can’t get along?) That comic misunderstanding is telling about the level of intellectual acuity on the American right, but also about the Rorschach test nature of our current political moment. Clearly, those Trump fans saw that title—illustrated with an official government portrait of the smiling AG—and took it at face value. They might even have taken the lead-in that introduced that post as endorsing their position: “The truth begins to come out….despite some people’s best efforts.”

But OK, fine. That’s the Fox-watching, “lock her up”-chanting, MAGA hat-wearing Trump base. But Republican Congressmembers are supposed to be different, right? They’re supposed to be dutiful, informed public servants charged with protecting the national welfare, and—when fundamental democratic principles are at risk—capable of looking beyond the fog of politics and making honest judgments that rise above petty partisanship.

That is precisely what makes their craven silence even more contemptible.

CURSE OF THE NOT-SO-STARVING CLASS

Much as we loathe them, most Republican lawmakers are not idiots. They may be cynical opportunists with the morals of a rattlesnake, but they are not idiots. With the exception of the true wingnuts (the Nuneses, Kings, Scalises, and other Tea Party alumni), even the most venal (the McConnells, Grahams, Jordans) know that the facts contained in the Mueller report and elsewhere represent a damning portrait of criminality, corruption, and threats to national security that all but insist on impeachment. But they refuse to admit it, much less act.

True, there has been some speculation that even the most cynical of these men, such as McConnell and Graham, have actually begun to believe the Fox News counternarrative. Maybe so, and maybe we’ll never know—and I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, in terms of their culpability or descent into delusion. But the net effect on their behavior is non-existent.

Graham, of course, is burdened with the words about unfit presidential behavior that issued from his facehole in 1998 when he acted as one of the prosecutors during Bill Clinton’s impeachment for high crimes far less than Trump’s. I quoted them last week, but they bear repeating, as rarely does life provide such a glowing example of utter hypocrisy:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

But that was then and this is now.

In Graham’s telling, this is not blatant hypocrisy because, unlike Bill Clinton, Trump has done nothing wrong. That might as well be Lindsey’s epitaph. Per Max Boot, for this man—once the friend and ally of the late John McCain, but now among Trump’s most consistently red-faced defenders and golfing buddies—to make such as defense is the embodiment of how much the leaders of the Republican Party are willing to debase themselves. Waldman again:

This is the logical and perhaps inevitable endpoint of the decision they made in 2016. Republicans chose as their leader the single most loathsome figure in American public life, a man possessed of not a single human virtue. He would inevitably call them to descend to the moral void where he resides. And when they did—enthusiastically—they showed us not just who he is, but who they are as well.

When it comes to Trump’s skullduggery as outlined by the SCO, there is less than zero chance that the GOP will even acknowledge it, much less hold him to account the way Mssrs. Clinton or Nixon were. The Republican position is exemplified by Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, who in an appalling interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd last week, stubbornly stuck to the right wing mantra that the whole matter is “done,” there’s nothing left to discuss, and we should move on.

Wishful thinking, John. At least the originators of the phrase MoveOn acknowledged Clinton’s misdeeds and called for his censure, which is what they proposed “moving on” after. By contrast, today’s Republicans refuse to find any fault with Trump whatsoever, marching in lockstep, covering their ears and shouting “la la la la la” to drown out the Ring Cycle-long recitation of Trump’s sins.

Needless to say, the right wing’s impatience with lengthy investigations is a new phenomenon, post Benghazi. (Perhaps they are just plum tuckered out.) But I hasten to predict that video clips of these shameless clowns absurdly bleating, “Nothing to see here!” like Leslie Nielsen will not age well, and will leave an black black legacy.

Far from the end of the Russia scandal, as it briefly seemed on March 24 when we had nothing but Bill Barr’s lies to go on, the delivery of the SCO report now feels like only the beginning of a whole new and even more intense chapter. As it should be. Now armed with that report, the Democratic leadership looks poised to be like a dog with bone, which I mean as a compliment.

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING

Setting aside the folks for whom political debate begins and ends with the word “libtard,” the so-called serious defense of Donald Trump has been most aggressively put forward by Attorney General William Barr, and amounts to this:

By definition, the president can’t ever obstruct justice because he is the country’s chief law enforcement officer. He can shut down any investigation, even into his own actions, for any reason he wants…..for example, because his feelings are hurt. Also by definition, he can have no such thing as corrupt intent. The president can’t be indicted while in office, and therefore it’s not even permissible to investigate potential presidential misconduct. And if for some reason a president is accused of crimes despite all that, he would be within his rights to pardon himself.

In other words, the president is above the law.

And that is not a gross oversimplification of Barr’s position. It may be gross, but it’s not an oversimplification.

What it is, in fact, is the definition of a king.

In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick puts it in perspective:

(Barr) seemed to have explicitly adopted and accepted the Trumpist worldview that holds any attempt at oversight or investigation deemed by the president to be unjustified harassment is illegitimate….

This is an astonishing claim—that if the president feels that the investigation is unnecessary and is resulting in him being harassed or misrepresented in the media, then the president is justified in taking any action he sees fit to stop it.

Needless to say, this assertion is deeply disturbing, leapfrogging far past anything even Nixon dared. But as we’ve seen, some sixty million Americans seem perfectly fine with that sort of authoritarian philosophy….so long as the authority is wielded by a Republican administration. Those same people are furious—furious!—if anyone else, say, a Democratic administration, ever tried to do anything that could remotely be characterized (even dishonestly) as that imperial. That is beyond tribalism, my friends and into the realm of psychosis.

To that point, I will never understand why people like Bill Barr, Dick Cheney, and other conservatives are so enamored of the unitary executive. Why do these people crave being ruled by a monarch? Is it a pathological, masochistic need to be dominated? Must be something Freudian, deep seated in their need for a commanding father figure (mothers need not apply). But even so, is it so deeply ingrained that they even welcome a monarch as godawful, bumbling, and ignorant as Donald Trump?

Of course, their preference for autocracy may have a more prosaic motive, which has to do with seeking a system that favors the rich, dispenses with oversight, and provides cover to all manner of pillage and plunder. On that front, Barr has practical reasons for defending this particular despot manqué. Shall we get into his connections to Russia’s Alfa Bank, Och-Ziff, Deutsche Bank, and the Vector Group, which are variously tied up in everything from the Trump Tower Moscow to the pushback against the Magnitsky Act?

As the Never Trump GOP strategist Rick Wilson recently wrote, our current Attorney General may well be the most dangerous man in America right now. But I did relish watching Kamala reduce him to a blithering Ralph Kramden impression on national television last week.

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND INDICTING?

If you think that’s bad, let’s move on to how Barr’s royalist philosophy plays out in the specifics of the Mueller probe. Fair warning: it is the legal equivalent of a Zen koan so inscrutable that it would give even the Buddha a headache.

Try to follow this:

Barr argues that Robert Mueller ought to have come to a “binary” decision, either recommending indictment or not…..in other words, that the special counsel’s only duty was to decide whether to charge the president with a crime, and nothing more.

But at the same time he also insists that it is DOJ policy that a sitting president can never be charged with a crime, and to that end, as we saw above, shouldn’t ever even be investigated for one. Indeed, that was the gist of his 19-page audition tape for the AG job, in which he called the entire SCO probe fundamentally flawed and illegitimate.

As a result, in Barr’s view, the only conclusion to which Mueller should be allowed to come is to exonerate.

Got that?

That is a straightfaced display of diabolically circular logic that would make Orwell blanch. As with McConnell and Graham, we must ask if Barr really believes this bullshit or is just brazenly trying to buffalo us. (Last week I made the argument that it’s the former. Barr himself told Peter Baker of the New York Times in November 2017 that he thought there was more reason to investigate the Uranium One non-scandal than collusion with Russia. Yet people persisted in describing him as a respectable “institutionalist.”)

But does it really matter? For whatever reason lurks in his cold, dark heart, Barr has given us a reprehensible ouroboros of a legal theory (thank you, Rebecca Solnit) by which president can never be held to account criminally by anyone, for any reason. (Former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller has made this same point.) What an utterly dishonest, shameful tautology.

Goddamn, it is good to be king!

MAY I APPROACH THE BENCH?

That policy against indicting a sitting president is not law, by the by, only the prevailing opinion of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, and has never been tested. The question of whether it is ought to be is a separate one—one that many had hoped Mueller might take on.

But he didn’t…..and here’s where it gets even trickier.

Mueller declined to indict on the charge of obstruction because of the DOJ policy, but explicitly refused to exonerate either. One way to look at that is that Mueller would have exonerated Trump if the evidence supported that conclusion, as he makes clear in his report. But it didn’t and therefore he didn’t.

By extension, the only reason he didn’t induct Trump is because he accepts the idea that DOJ policy forbids it. Apparently two of the prosecutors on Mueller’s team privately told the Justice Department officials as much, and since then, hundreds of former federal prosecutors—veterans of both Republican and Democratic administrations—have concurred in writing, stating that, but for the office he holds, Donald Trump would certainly be indicted on that charge.

That seems to have made Barr irate, since his view was that Mueller’s only option was to be a rubber stamp on Trump’s innocence. So he went ahead and pronounced Trump clean as a whistle himself.

Apparently it also infuriated Emmet Flood, formerly the acting White House Counsel, who now holds the weird title of “Special Counsel to the President.” (I guess Trump was mad that the Democrats had their own Special Counsel, so he wanted one too. Also: a new Playstation.)

We learned this past week that Flood sent an angry letter to Mueller after his report was released, berating him for not exonerating Trump outright.

Man, are these guys greedy or what? Not satisfied that Bob Mueller chose not to indict Trump, Flood now has the huevos to howl in outrage that Mueller didn’t make a definitive exoneration. “Indict or don’t indict!”

Don’t tempt him, dude.

Of course, if the Robert Mueller had broken with policy and indicted Trump, you can be sure that the GOP would be screaming about the illegality of that. (It’s a coup d’etat!!!!) It is ironic, of course, that the most unprincipled and outright criminal administration in modern American history is so keen to hide behind and exploit the noble efforts of those who do believe in the rule of law. But I suppose that’s what criminals do.

(As an aside, the language in Flood’s letter sounded like it was dictated by Trump himself, not unlike his personal physician’s laughably over-the-top testament to Donald’s superhuman health, or a similar statement by then-White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson, or Sean Spicer’s sputtering claims about the biggest crowd at an inauguration ever, or Rod Rosenstein’s resignation letter. For a functional illiterate, Trump sure does have a lot of literary influence.)

Flood, we are told, is justifiably worried about the door that Mueller left wide open in his report: that Trump can absolutely be charged with obstruction once he leaves office, not to mention the slew of other criminal charges hanging over him, like tax, bank, and real estate fraud, and felony campaign finance violations for which his lawyer is now in prison and in which the SDNY has already named him as an unindicted co-conspirator—“Individual 1.”

Um, could we just fast forward to that post-presidency moment please? Because I’m not sure the country will survive the wait. Max Boot again:

(F)or the next 18 months, at a minimum, this nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration. I am in despair as I have never been before about the future of our experiment in self-rule. Before Mueller filed his report, it was possible to imagine the president being brought to justice. That fantasy is no longer tenable. Instead we are left with the dismaying likelihood that the president will now feel emboldened to commit ever greater transgressions to hold onto power—and thus delay a possible post-presidential indictment.

HE AM NOT A CROOK

Bill Barr’s dishonesty has been on prominent display in another way, which is in ignoring two other functions of the special counsel probe: its counterintelligence aspect, and the notion of it as a referral to Congress for impeachment.

Again, this is part of the insidious “binary” formulation that is all the rage for Hannity fans.

Barr continually makes comparisons to an ordinary prosecutor, ridiculing the idea that one would decline to prosecute but still make public derogatory information that he or she feels is in the national interest. (Even though that’s precisely what then-FBI Director Jim Comey did in July 2016 when he announced the end of the Bureau’s probe into Hillary’s emails, but thought he’d give her a public dressing down anyway, just for fun.)

But the Mueller probe was not a case in criminal court, or even a purely criminal investigation, no matter how much Barr wants to frame it that way. It was something much broader and more amorphous than that.

Mueller makes it clear in his report that he didn’t see his investigation in the same narrow terms Barr did, because he specifically refers to the possibility that Congress can and should take up the evidence he uncovered and draw its own conclusions on whether or not to pursue impeachment. But that of course is the last thing Trump and Barr want, which is why they are going out of their way to ridicule and discredit the very idea, precisely because it is right and proper and therefore very threatening to them.

By contrast, in 1998 the Starr report went straight to Congress and the American people, specifically framed as an impeachment referral. Since then, the rules have been changed so that Mueller didn’t have that option, and now we see why. It’s also no coincidence that under the new rules the job title was changed from “independent counsel” to “special counsel,” which is proving more than just a matter of semantics.

Trump, Barr, and their loyal lemmings all across MAGA Nation are fixated on the false claim that because criminal charges were not brought, Trump is vindicated, the show is over, and there is nothing more to discuss. But as we’ve seen, this is the height of mendacity given that the special counsel followed rules saying that criminal charges CAN’T be brought. Here’s Michelle Goldberg, writing in the Times:

The president’s manifest disloyalty to the country in trying to halt an investigation into a foreign attack on an American election is, to the right, of no account. Nor are the counterintelligence implications of Mueller’s findings, which aren’t part of the report. In the eyes of the president’s supporters, his campaign did not participate in the criminal conspiracy that helped elect him, so no more needs to be said.

Moreover, as we all know and have been told ad nauseam throughout this ordeal (cue up that Lindsey Graham clip again, will ya?), impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. A president need not be guilty of a prosecutable crime to be legitimately removed from office for the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Founders stipulated as cause, wholly unrelated to criminal conviction.

Which brings us back to where we started at the top of this piece, with a mountain of evidence of presidential misconduct, and a Republican Party that is making like Nero rosining up his bow while the Roman firetrucks race by.

WHAT IF THE COUNTRY WAS ON FIRE AND A THIRD OF IT DIDN’T CARE?

So what do we do when a third of the American people—either because they willfully deny it or hypocritically condone it—simply do not care about behavior that by any reasonable measure demands, at the very least, consideration of impeachment?

What do we do when they are willing to tolerate behavior that makes Nixon look like a piker: massive corruption, shameless attacks on a free press, undermining of the rule of law, and open consorting with our enemies for personal gain, not to mention brazen racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and general contempt for democracy and even the very concept of truth itself?

What do we do when some of them turn not just a blind eye to this behavior but actively applaud it, while far more minor transgressions by members the other party—and sometimes things that aren’t even offenses at all, or aren’t even true—rouse those same people to start fashioning nooses?

What do we do when they will defend the president in defiance in violation of anything even remotely resembling principle, simply because he’s their boy? What do we do when they are fine with a gangsterocracy?

I don’t know. But I do that it leads down a very very dark path.

It is as if there is a plague among us that has infected fully a third of our countrymen and shows no sign of abating, let alone being cured. I have often suggested that future historians will look back on this era as one of Salem-like mass hysteria, but it’s beginning to feel more like something even more flesh-eating. What will be left of our republic if it is allowed to fester and spread and is not addressed?

I realize this sounds hyperbolic and, more importantly, patronizing—the very thing we are repeatedly counseled against if we want to win in 2020. And patronizing it may be. But hyperbolic it is not.

Such a situation renders the fundamental mechanisms of representative democracy useless, particularly in terms of checks and balances. The Founders assumed that Congress would by definition be vested in preserving its own power and therefore would never turn so abjectly servile to the executive. But they never envisioned the rise of political parties, such that the division of power is not really among the three co-equal branches but between two hyperpartisan extra-constitutional political organizations. When one of those organizations abandons any pretense of commitment to democracy, we have a serious problem on our hands.

Racism, misogyny, wanton greed, powerlust, selfishness, and a willingness to victimize others for personal gain will ever be with us so long as humankind roams the earth. (Silver lining: perhaps that may not be much longer.) But how can we manage and minimize it , especially when a huge swath of the populace is totally fine with even the worst and most Machiavellian behavior, so long as it is employed for their chosen ends?

As many have noted, Donald Trump is the symptom, not the cause of our ills. Per Mr. Mencken, a malevolent ignoramus of this sort is the logical end result of the modern Republican Party’s slow slide into John Bircherism, beginning in 1964 (to be generous; really one can trace it to Tailgunner Joe circa 1950). Therefore, his removal, when it comes and by whatever manner, will not be the end of the struggle.

Let me quote—gasp!—AOC, despite her being, ya know, a girl, and brown, and young, and smart, and willing to speak her mind (quelle horreur!). On March 24, a day that will live in infamy (to coin a phrase), she tweeted:

He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified+reanimated.

Preach.

Next week in part three of this series we will discuss the Big Eye itself: impeachment. But even if we succeed in removing Trump from office by whatever means (including the ballot), what kind of smoking wreckage we will be left with when he is gone?

For as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez reminds us, the black plague that he represents and from which he sprang will still remain.

Reading Mr. Mueller

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 2.50.05 PM

It has now been two weeks since the redacted Mueller report hit the street, enough time for us to begin—but only begin—to digest its meticulously prepared, bone-rattling conclusions.

For some, the headline—seized upon and hammered relentlessly by Donald Trump and his lowlife band of criminals, would-be autocrats, and political enablers, led by the utterly shameless William Barr—was that no criminal charges were being brought. But that does not begin to be the whole story, not by a country mile, even though Trump would like us to believe that it is. Indeed, with his characteristic pathological dishonesty, he has crowed that the report goes way beyond even that, representing “complete and total” exoneration of all wrongdoing.

Well, it turns out America was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

B.L.U.F.

So here’s the real bottom line, which fortunately has been well-reported in the legitimate media, and continues to gather steam with each passing day and further revelations:

The Mueller report laid out a damning portrait of a presidential campaign that eagerly accepted the help of a hostile foreign power in order to win the White House; that was well aware of Russian efforts to interfere on its behalf and welcomed those efforts; that enthusiastically entertained meetings with foreign nationals offering such assistance (“If it’s what you say I love it”), openly encouraged this attack on our electoral system (“Russia, if you’re listening…”), and then gleefully exploited and capitalized on the poisonous fruits thereof (the WikiLeaks dump of stolen DNC emails).

Among other things, Trump & Co. tried to set up a backchannel with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that would circumvent the US intelligence community; to tap into WikiLeaks (via Roger Stone) regarding the Russian hacking of the DNC; strategized how best to use that dump against Hillary Clinton; and passed polling data in key battleground states to Konstantin Kilimnik, a known GRU operative.

Everybody over there in once-Russophobic Fox Nation cool with all that?

Writing in Salon, former federal prosecutor Kenneth F. McCallion summarizes the import of this very well:

Trump and his team were willing without hesitation to betray the core interests of the United States in maintaining the integrity of our democratic and electoral systems and to provide aid and comfort to the efforts of a foreign hostile power to attack America and to shake its democratic foundations to its core. This stark portrait of a presidential candidate and a campaign organization that was willing to seek a short-term political advantage at the risk of jeopardizing fundamental US interests by soliciting and utilizing data that they knew had been hacked and stolen by the Russians amounts to a fundamental betrayal of the US on a scale never before experienced by our country.”

Moreover, Team Trump vehemently denied over and over that it had ANY contacts with Russians whatsoever, only later to be shown to have had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals, WikiLeaks, or their associates. That alone ought to have made any American citizen think twice about the honesty of this team and its claim of unquestioned loyalty to the United States….although per Rudy Giuliani, Republicans have recently decided that accepting the help of the Kremlin is totally fine, when their side does it.

But of course the public didn’t have the opportunity to think twice about that, because in September 2016 Mitch McConnell blocked the proposal to make that pertinent information public in a bipartisan manner.

The parade of guys in furry hats meeting with Team Trump was so long that Mueller spends 198 pages in Volume One of his report documenting it, as noted by Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a key passage, Mueller writes: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” That, by any reasonable political definition, is collaboration with a hostile foreign power, passive or otherwise—a sin of omission that ought to be disqualifying for any presidential aspirant, to say the least.

The proof, for any doubter, is that the Trump campaign failed to inform ANYONE in the US law enforcement or intelligence communities that it had been contacted by foreign nationals offering this kind of illegal assistance. As Lucian Truscott IV writes: “To the contrary, the Trump campaign made continual use of the help the Russians provided to the campaign when Trump repeatedly and approvingly cited the release of the Democratic Party emails hacked by the Russians and released by WikiLeaks. He cited WikiLeaks and the hacked emails more than 160 times at rallies and in interviews in the closing weeks of the campaign.”

So we are not talking about a presidential campaign that was appalled by the actions of Vladimir Putin’s agents, regardless of its own cooperation with them or lack thereof.

Ben Wittes of Lawfare has always been one of the sharpest observers of the Trumpocalypse, and his reading diary of the special counsel’s report is an invaluable and enlightening resource. If Barr’s infamous, now-discredited four page “summary” of March 24 was the kindergarten-level Cliff Notes version of Mueller’s Moby-Dick—one that mysteriously left out any whales—Wittes’s diary is more like a PhD dissertation on the same. (He recently produced an condensed summary of his conclusions in the pages of the Atlantic.) Wittes sees the semantically imprecise question of “collusion” this way:

Trump personally ordered an attempt to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails; and people associated with the campaign pursued this believing they were dealing with Russian hackers. Trump also personally engaged in discussions about coordinating public-relations strategy around WikiLeaks releases of hacked emails. At least one person associated with the campaign was in touch directly with the Guccifer 2.0 persona—which is to say with Russian military intelligence. And Donald Trump Jr. was directly in touch with WikiLeaks—from whom he obtained a password to a hacked database. There are reasons none of these incidents amount to crimes—good reasons, in my view, in most cases, viable judgment calls in others. But the picture it all paints of the president’s conduct is anything but exonerating.

Call it Keystone Kollusion.

OH, DID I SAY “NO CONNECTIONS WITH RUSSIA”? I MEANT LOTS

The Mueller report also catalogued other clandestine connections between Trump and Russia that in any previous administration would, in and of themselves, been presidency-ending. Chief among these was the fact that Donald Trump had a multimillion dollar real estate deal in the works in Russia—a proposed Trump Tower Moscow—that came with a $50 million in-kind bribe he offered to Putin personally in the form of a penthouse apartment designed to lure other oligarch into the building.

Wow. Just fucking wow.

(We actually learned that through journalistic efforts before the special counsel report was released, but the SCO fleshed it out and confirmed it. Which I mention by way of credit-where-it’s-due to the Fourth Estate, which is much beleaguered these days.)

And just to remind you: like the claims that there had been no campaign coordination with the Russians, Trump howled with righteous outrage—both throughout the election and after he was in office—at the very suggestion that he had ANY business contacts with Russia. Now we know that that was perhaps the most bald-faced lie any politician ever tried to perpetrate on the American people.

As if all that is not enough, Trump’s lies about the Moscow venture created another historic scandal in the form of a counterintelligence nightmare: a presidential candidate (and then sitting president) vulnerable to Russian blackmail and other political pressure because the Kremlin held explosive information about him that he was hiding from the American people. That is the very definition of how extortion works, folks. In light of that, Trump’s bizarre, previously inexplicable pattern of pro-Russian statements and actions—even in defiance of his own intelligence chiefs and the US military and diplomatic communities—suddenly makes sense, and stands as stark evidence of just how much he was in Moscow’s thrall.

Lastly, and almost in passing, Robert Mueller and his team also painted an Armando Iannucci-worthy picture of a White House riven with incompetence, backstabbing, venality, megalomania, and palace intrigue that would make the Borgias blush. But none of those are really criminal or impeachable offenses, except against good sense, short of the argument that this administration is so appallingly inept that it is in breach of its duty to protect and defend the common welfare. Among his more headspinning conclusions, Mueller noted that some members of Trump’s team—including Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner—were, in effect, too stupid to know that what they were doing with the Russians was wantonly illegal. (Not that ignorance of the law is an excuse, only that their sheer idiocy might make it hard to win a conviction.)

All this in addition to other skullduggery that—as many on the hard left would remind us—arguably constitutes reason for removal even without entanglements with the Russians or efforts to cover up same, including (but not restricted to) tax, bank, and real estate fraud; pardon dangling; felony campaign finance violations in the form of hush money payments to a porn star and other mistresses; numerous and brazen conflicts of interest; nose-thumbing violations of the emoluments clause; and a jawdropping level of general corruption and wholesale abuse of presidential power.

All in all, kind of seems like a guy who should not be the President of the United States, no?

IN THIS AFTERNOON’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF JOHN MITCHELL WILL BE PLAYED BY BILL BARR

Unsurprisingly, Trump and Barr have done their best to obfuscate and pervert the actual content of the SCO report, for reasons that are now obvious. We can only wonder what the effect would have been had the report been dropped on Congress and the public—the way the Starr report was—without their despicable and profoundly deceitful muddying of the waters. But we are now—belatedly—experiencing a dawning understanding of how Trump, Barr, and the entire GOP have been trying to gaslight us.

Just this week we learned that Mueller himself was so unhappy with the way Barr’s initial four-pager mischaracterized the report that he twice complained in the three days after that statement was released, even taking the eyebrow-raising step of sending a personal letter to the DOJ expressing his frustration.

Yet when questioned by the House Judiciary Committee on April 19 about Mueller’s opinion of his four-pager, Barr professed ignorance. (I’m not a lawyer, but is the AG supposed to lie to Congress?) Testifying again yesterday, this time in front of the friendlier, Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr resorted to unconvincing semantics to try to explain away that borderline perjury, and in the weaseliest possible way. In a stunning display of arrogance and Orwellian sabotage of the rule of law, he again flatly lied in how he framed the content of Mueller’s letter, even though it had by then been published for the whole world to see.

The chutzpah on this guy!

The Attorney General was also questioned on the related issue of whether he is being pressured by Trump to initiate politically motivated criminal investigations. Kamala Harris, like the former prosecutor she is, took Barr apart and had him stammering like the guiltiest perp on “Law and Order” ever. He never did answer definitively yes or no.

Really? Bill Barr can’t remember if he had any conversations with the President of the United States about launching investigations to punish the president’s political enemies? My eight-year-old wouldn’t try to get away with a howler like that.

(Sitting next to Harris during Barr’s cringeworthy non-response, fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker had a look on his face that was admiring, but a comic strip thought bubble over his head reading, “I’m screwed.”)

Asked about Trump’s pathological dishonesty by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barr replied, “I’m not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people.” Which is too bad, because that business is booming. At the very end of the testimony, Blumenthal had zeroed in another crucial matter—the existence of a written record of Barr’s recent phone call from Mueller, which Barr, appallingly, bluntly refused to hand over—when Lindsey Graham leapt in and ended the day’s events, a clip that is not going to age well for Barr or Graham.

How else did Bill Barr disgrace himself in front of Congress yesterday? Let me count the ways:

  • He flatly lied about what Mueller was upset about, claiming it was only about the media and how the summary was being perceived. (Read the letter—Mueller explicitly complains about Barr’s summary itself, not just the public reaction, and does not mention the media at all. Republicans continue to parrot this lie, but it is simply not there in black & white, making this an especially egregious attempt at deception on their part.)
  • He argued that Trump can rightly stop former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress, a claim that is beyond Nixonian in its view of executive power. (But we already knew Barr felt that way about the unitary executive theory.)
  • He continued to characterize properly authorized FBI surveillance conducted under a FISA warrant as “spying,” playing to his boss’s tweetstorm fits of pique and Fox Nation fantasies.
  • He claimed that the Steele dossier might include Russian disinformation, which is risible given that this administration (and the Trump campaign before it) might as well be a subsidiary of TASS.
  • Also, I’m not sure, but did the ghost of Richard Nixon just appear on live TV and say when the president orders his lawyer to lie it’s not a crime, because the one who gave the order is the president?

I could go on. Can we just go ahead and impeach this motherfucker too?

There were only two silver linings to the Bill Barr Shit Show on Capitol Hill yesterday:

First, that what little was left of Barr’s much-vaunted credibility is now gone, and second, that he has backhandedly made Mueller’s testimony before Congress an inevitability. “If there was any chance DOJ could prevent Mueller from testifying it’s gone now,” said former prosecutor Joyce White Vance. “Congress is entitled to hear from Mueller directly to see if he agrees with Barr’s characterization of his concerns and his comments.”

Not surprisingly, Barr declined to appear before the far less hospitable House Judiciary Committee today, presumably because he will be busy watching the ashes of his reputation scattered into the Potomac. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has suggested that should Adam Schiff subpoena Barr and he still refuses to appear, the House ought to exercise its power to arrest him and march him over in chains. I am heading over to Stub Hub now to get my tickets.

So in case it wasn’t already painfully clear, despite all the assurances that Bill Barr is a man of integrity and an “institutionalist” whom no one could imagine being a bagman for the likes of Donald Trump, it turns out that Barr is exactly that: a true believer, a soulless autocrat in full support of an imperial presidency (right wing version only), not at all bothered by Trump’s outrages, and more than willing to chain himself and his legacy to this rapidly sinking Liberian-flagged garbage scow. He strikes me as yet another rich old white man who has come to internalize the Fox News worldview, irrespective of his credentials and alleged reputation, and gone all in on Donny. He is the missing link between today’s Trumpified GOP and the allegedly respectable “old school,” Bush-led GOP that gave birth to it and is now undeservedly mythologized by some. (On that count I am almost grateful for him as a living reminder of that.) “Trump with a brain,” Nicole Wallace called him, abnormal though that brain appears to be….which makes him much more dangerous than regular brand Donald Trump, and exponentially more dangerous when the two are in league, melding schoolyard bully demagoguery with faux legalistic smoke-and-mirrors gibberish spouted by a soporific evil grandpa.

In short, in the words of the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, he is a hack who “can no longer function credibly as attorney general.”

The oft-asked question, therefore, of why a man like Barr would come out of retirement to go to work in the Trump administration, in a job he’s already had no less, is self-answering: Because he is not a man of integrity or principle in the first place. At all.

Bring back Matt Whitaker.

OBSTRUCOLLUSION

Setting aside this shameful right wing campaign to distort and disguise the truth, when it comes to Russigate the only remaining question is the degree to which Trump and his underlings cooperated in Moscow’s effort to influence the 2016 election, as opposed to merely serving as its happy beneficiaries.

Mueller seems to have concluded that Trump was not an active collaborator, only the passive but very willing recipient of the Kremlin’s gift-giving, a distinction which the GOP is bizarrely trumpeting as some sort of vindication and badge of honor. But even by that definition Trump’s involvement is more active than it might seem, and to understand that, it’s helpful to look at the story through a different lens.

Some months ago Ben Wittes offered the pithy formulation that “the obstruction is the collusion.” (See also Rise of the Espiocracy in these pages, January 20, 2019.) By that he meant that, in trying to stymie the Russia investigation, Trump was continuing to do the very thing of which he was accused: acting as an agent of a hostile foreign power. In concealing the scope of Russia’s actions from US intelligence and law enforcement officials, he was both serving Moscow’s interests and giving it cover to continue those attacks in the future.

Can anyone seriously argue that he is not continuing to do precisely that even now, by refusing to cooperate with Congress in its right and proper oversight role as a co-equal branch, despite compelling evidence of this behavior by Russia? Faced with the legislative branch taking over the investigative lead, Trump is waging an unconscionable campaign of defiance toward Congressional authority that even Nixon wouldn’t have dared: refusing to comply with subpoenas, suing to stop the release of banking records, ordering the Treasury Department and IRS to hide his tax returns, attempting to block White House aides from testifying (foremost among them Don McGahn), and so forth. Despite his lawyers’ specious claims, all that is well within Congress’s legitimate purview, both in terms of Trump’s demonstrable benefit from Russia’s actions and his pattern of corruption in general. Meanwhile Trump still refuses even to acknowledge that Russia interfered in our election, let alone spend any of the money allocated to harden our cyber defenses and prevent it from happening again, since he privately figures to benefit from it in 2020.

(Wittes also make some keen observations about the missing counterintelligence side of the SCO inquiry, which is a subject for another day.)

And this obstruction is a pretty winning strategy.

In his reading diary of the SCO report, Wittes offers a very compelling case that Trump so successfully obstructed justice that he prevented the special counsel from being able to uncover the full story of his conspiracy with Russia in 2016……which is kind of the whole idea of obstruction, n’est-ce pas? Charlie Sykes summarized Wittes’s argument well in a piece last week called “Did Trump’s Attempts to Obstruct Actually Work?” in the new(ish) Never Trump online magazine The Bulwark, which is a fascinating publication for any progressives out there interested in a (usually) sensible conservative view on our ongoing national nightmare.

Now, I know this sounds like exactly what we often accuse the right wing of doing, over Benghazi, and pizzagate, and Solyndra, to name just a few: refusing to accept the available facts and clinging to the delusion that there are hidden secrets that would prove us correct if only the invisible hand would remove itself. It’s a fair and predictable allegation, and one we have to be prepared to rebut.

But rebut it we can, as not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

There is ample evidence that the whole story on Team Trump’s collaboration with Russia has not yet come out, particularly in the case of Paul Manafort, whose lies to the special counsel are explicitly mentioned in the Mueller report as having hindered the investigation. Likewise the Seychelles meeting between Erik Prince, emissaries of the UAE, and Putin ally Kirill Dmitriev. (Though Adam Schiff and the House Judiciary Committee made a criminal referral to the DOJ against Prince just this week, for perjury, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Maybe Betsy DeVos can get her brother to start some adult education programs in federal prison, or he can just recruit some more hired killers for his businesses there.)

The SCO was also denied all the facts on Carter Page, Don Jr. declined to testify, and most notoriously, the White House legal team successfully kept Donald Trump from turning on his perpetual perjury machine in a face to face interview.

In other words, because of the stonewalling, the destruction of documents, the number of Trump deputies who baldly lied to the special counsel, and witness tampering with some of those same people, not to mention the ticking clock and intense pressure (some might call it “harassment”) on the SCO from the White House, the GOP-controlled Senate, and the right wing media, we may not yet know the full story of conspiracy with Russia, and possibly never will.

So one man’s tinfoil hat is another man’s Occam’s razor. To each his or her own conclusions, but for me, I’ll leave it at this:

Imagine a bank robbery where you couldn’t prove the suspect had the loot, but he was a known gangster, was at the scene of the crime, and was now covered in bright blue paint where the dyepack exploded on him.

That is certainly the feeling one gets after reading the Mueller report.

LOW CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

We have already discussed at length the difference between crimes that can be charged in a court of law with a reasonable certainty of obtaining a conviction, and what is morally wrong, poisonous to our democracy, and/or an eyepopping counterintelligence threat….that is to say, high crimes and misdemeanors. It is that latter half of that dichotomy with which we are now rightly concerned, no matter how much the perpetrators of those offenses would have us believe that this is settled science and there is nothing to see here, folks, let’s move along.

Trump need not have actively conspired with the Kremlin for his behavior to be outrageous and warrant ejection from office. For a reminder of that, let’s go to no less an authority than Senator Lindsey Graham, the former litigator who served as one of Bill Clinton’s prosecutors during his Senate impeachment trial in 1998, when he was accused of offenses far less than Trump is:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

Get ready to hear those words on an endless loop for the next eighteen months, Lindsey.

So let me make a statement that may sound absurd in its sheer obviousness:

The actions described in the Mueller report constitute a grave scandal, unprecedented in American history, that ought to rock the nation to its core and trigger severe political and legal ramifications, to include the removal from office of the current President of the United States.

The reason I feel obliged to state that blindingly self-evident point is because, as you may have noticed, many Americans don’t see it that way.

But history sure will.

Where is the outcry from the Republican side of the aisle? Where are the conservatives who screamed bloody murder about 44’s alleged “imperial presidency” and “executive overreach”? Hell, the right wing was ready to march on the White House with torches and pitchforks when Obama wore a khaki-colored suit. (A recent supercut of Fox News attacks on Obama makes this hypocrisy crystal clear.)

Now all I hear from the right of center is crickets. And that is the subject we will delve into next week in the second installment of this series….

 

 

 

Nevertheless They Persist

Persisticon Image for TKN

In 2017, a group of feminists in Brooklyn formed Persisticon, a female-led activist group dedicated to getting Democratic women elected to public office.

With several members with backgrounds in comedy and music, Persisticon’s main efforts have centered on stand-up comedy events—featuring mostly women performers—to benefit EMILY’s List. Persisticon’s next event is Sunday May 5 in Brooklyn. (Full details at bottom.)

I sat down with some of Persisticon’s founders—Diana Kane, Theo Kogan, Leslie King, and Christina Clare—to talk about the group, its activities, and the current state of play in the USA. (Another founder, Lynn Harris, weighed in via email from overseas.)

ORIGIN STORY

THE KING’S NECKTIE: For folks who don’t know, how did Persisticon get started? What was the origin?

DIANA: Our origin story? (laughter) The idea behind Persisticon is to take the things that we‘re passionate about, that we love, and employ them to further equality in elected office. That’s the ultimate mission, and the idea is to do it through promoting female performers and bringing our community together.

THEO: When 45 won—I can’t say his name—I just felt so incredibly hopeless. And I thought, “OK, this is the time. I’m so upset and angry, I have to do something aside from signing every petition online.” So Diana and I were talking about it, and she said, “You have to meet my friend Lynn,” and I said, “You have to meet my friend Leslie,” (laughter) and it just snowballed from there.

LESLIE: And then Christina came along and helped us organize everything, to project manage, and make it all happen.

DIANA: Theo and I kept talking about wanting to do something that we could actually do, because we are not lawyers, and we cannot run down to the airport and save somebody’s life with our laptops. But what we’re good at is throwing parties, and creating a community, and having fun. It seemed to us that if there were more people in policy-making places who genuinely represented us and all the things that matter the most to us—like clean air, and water, and education, and racial justice—that’s where we could put our energy to have the greatest effect. Civic engagement doesn’t always have to look like marching in the streets.

TKN: And what are your events like?

CHRISTINA: In the past we’ve had comedians and musicians like Bridget Everett, Janeane Garofalo, Murray Hill, Aparna Nancherla, Michelle Buteau, Abbi Crutchfield, Jon Glaser, Tiger Bay & Fancy Feast, Jo Firestone, Negin Farsad, Kendra Cunningham, DJ Tikka Masala, DJ Swoon, Ashley Nicole Black, Tammy Faye Starlight, and of course Theo, who’s the lead singer of the Lunachicks and Theo & the Skyscrapers. And we also have people outside the entertainment industry, like Emily’s List CEO Emily Cain, Evelyn McDonnell, editor of the new book Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, and contributors Caryn Rose, and Jana Martin….

THEO: It’s a whole event. You come into the venue and there are vendors selling things, and photographers, and drinks with funny names, and you can drunk shop, which is always fun. And then the show itself is comedian after comedian after comedian, and maybe there’s a singer, maybe there’s an activist or writer who speaks…..it’s a huge array of different types of humans—mostly women—from all different backgrounds and skintones and points of view. And it’s really fun—I always leave crying and laughing. And we raise all this money to get women elected, and raise awareness, and bring people together in the community. Just getting people feeling hopeful is a huge part of it.

LESLIE: it’s a way of activating the community, and making people feel less alone, and finding ways for them to find a voice. People leave and they start doing things themselves, which is ultimately what we want to happen. So people feel they have a voice and can use their talents, whatever they are, to make a change.

DIANA: And the thing about Persisticon promoting female performers is that, in so many shows I’ve gone to in my life, the lineup has been 80-90% male. And I never really questioned it. And it just struck me at some point that this was so imbalanced, and there are so many spectacular performers out there who need a stage, and if you bring them together you get out of the area of being token. There’s a whole panoply of spectacular women performers, and we get to experience them.

CHRISTINA: We do have men on the lineup too. David Cross will be doing our next show….

TKN: Yeah, men can do comedy too, I heard….

CHRISTINA: (laughs) Yeah, men can do comedy….

DIANA: But are they funny? 

(laughter)

TKN: So what’s the next event?

DIANA: The next event is Persisticon III: There Is No Planet B, which has an environmental focus. Because we’re in between elections at the moment, we thought we’d concentrate on issues that need to be on the forefront of people’s minds going into that next election cycle. The world is burning down, and it’s just so clear—and it has been for some time—that whoever we’re voting for needs to be paying careful attention to that. And because it’s springtime, it seems like a good time to bring everybody’s awareness to that. That’s on May 5th at the Bell House in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.

TKN: And where does the money go?

DIANA: For these larger events, EMILY’s List is the organization that most strongly aligns with our values, which is to get pro-choice Democratic women into office. For some smaller events we’ve given to some smaller, more local organizations, but EMILY’s List has the structure to train candidates and support them throughout the entirety of the campaign process.

CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE

TKN: I’m loath to give “45” credit for anything—I don’t even want to give him the number 45—but the one thing I might backhandedly give him credit for is inspiring this kind of activism, as its target of course.

THEO: That was the thing I thought when “It” got elected: that it was gonna invigorate some art and people were gonna fight. I feel like we’ve been pummeled with shit by him and this whole situation, and I was just feeling like: (groans). Just rundown. And things like Persisticon just help me to believe, “Yeah—we’re gonna keep fighting.”

LYNN: But I will say this about this presidency—quoting one of my early mentors, Patricia Ireland: WE COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT IT. Given that it happened, yes, thank GOD it sparked activism, not just complacency and doom. But I don’t think it’s a silver lining. I think it’s an imperative. And I do think we would have had record numbers of female candidates and a rise in activism and determination even without it. We just would have had a different fuel: not rage, but hope. Imagine where we’d be right now if we’d been spending this time building our democracy, not trying to save it from the fire!

TKN: Yeah, I do feel like there is some hopefulness in the country, despite it all, precisely because of this kind of activism. Is that a sense you get?

DIANA: I was telling somebody in Congressman Nadler’s office about Persisticon, and she was lovely, and the thing she said that most inspired me was that she’d heard of other things like Persisticon…..not precisely like us, but little pockets and bubbles all over the country. And that gave me hope. There are organizations that have sprung up like Indivisible, or Solidarity Sundays, or #GetOrganizedBK, that have really picked up the mantle. Everybody’s doing the thing that works for them—some people show up at Chuck Schumer’s office every single week. So I do think there is hope.

But it’s exhausting. We’re two years into this, and people are getting tired. So I also think that things like Persisticon are rejuvenating, because you come back together and remember that you’re not alone and there is still hope and things we can do.

I look at things like the fight for civil rights. We’re not getting beaten by policemen. We’re still in easy activism, in large part. There’s a long way to go. Our bodies aren’t on the line in the same way that the bodies of people in some communities are. I look at the beatings that John Lewis took and I think, “OK, this is exhausting and hard, but it’s not that.” There’s a long way to go.

TKN: I always think of that quote from Rev. William Barber II where he says, this is bad but this is not the worst thing we’ve ever faced. Not to minimize it, but just saying that if people made it through slavery, and the Depression, Jim Crow, we can make it through this and in fact use it to for positive change.

LESLIE: I think we’re in a very privileged position. We’re not living under that same sort of attack and oppression. So we have the duty to use our privilege to take action and try to activate change.

DIANA: One of the places where we do have power is that we are regular people in our community. There’s nothing special about us, there’s no massive history of activism or study in that area. So if we can do it, anybody can do it. It’s just taking the things that you’re passionate about and putting them to service. 

MISOGYNY (est. 50,000 B.C.E.)

TKN: I don’t wanna go back and relive 2016, but it seemed to me that misogyny was— if not the driving factor—certainly one of the driving factors in what happened. And I don’t feel like that’s changed.

DIANA: No. It’s funny, I work for myself. I own a boutique, and most of my customers are women, and even with all that exposure I feel like I was blind to a lot of it for a long, long time. It was really in the run-up to the 2016 election, like a solid year before, that I started to understand how deeply, deeply rooted misogyny is in this country, and in the world. It’s just shocking. It’s been a shock and an eye-opening experience, and it just continues to be revelatory. I lived in a privileged little bubble, and I didn’t realize how hateful the world has always been towards women, and continues to be.

LESLIE: Don’t you feel like Persisticon was born out that? After the election, all my women friends and I kind of held on to each other and kept talking about ways to support each other, and this felt like a way to do it on a much bigger scale. Bringing women together in a public space—performers, designers, activists—all in one room, celebrating women. And inviting men into that room as well, but women were the first ones to show up, which was powerful and exciting.

CHRISTINA: One of the amazing things about Persisticon is that, since 45 has been in office, I’ve wanted to be involved more politically, but I can’t stand hearing his voice, I can’t stand seeing him. The fact that we’re able to bring together these comedians who can talk about the issues and not talk specifically about him—that’s a beautiful space to be a part of. The idea that we can be politically active, but not talk about the people like him that are so enraging. I love the fact that Persisticon is not about 45, it’s about change. And I love being part of that.

DIANA: He’s the ultimate example of the misogyny that’s in this country, and beyond, for so long, that for me he’s sort of beside the point in a lot of ways. He just exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s so much bigger than him.

TKN: Right—he’s the symptom, not the cause. That was made clear recently with his hostility toward AOC, and the hostility of the whole right wing toward her, and other female politicians. I mean, where does that come from? Can you guys explain that to me?

DIANA: I wish. He hates women. They hate women. They hate anyone who’s different from them, and challenges them, or challenges the power structure, and they capitalize on it. I really think it’s that simple.

LESLIE: Just look at who he gathers together in a room when he makes any sort of “decision”: it’s all old white men. Consistently. If there is a woman, she’s in the background, or by the door, or getting coffee, or used as a token.

DIANA: I place my own awakening around those crazy incel guys, that shooting in Santa Barbara. People who just openly hate women, and come out with guns blazing. I just wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t ready for that in my bones, until some of those hashtags showed up. The #yesallwomen hasthag was incredibly powerful for me. Because a lot of women thought they were alone, and because that kind of behavior has been normalized in such a mass way, all these experiences that all these women have had forever were treated like, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

I think #metoo, all of that, is deeply important. We set what’s normal. Our culture sets that. And if we don’t want that to be normal anymore, we need to lay that down. And I think that’s part of what this is too, and it speaks to the growing awareness of what 45 represents.

2020 VISION

TKN: Which raises the question of 2020. When I look at the presidential field, there are numerous strong female candidates. Do you think the Democratic Party is definitely going to—or needs to—nominate a woman?

THEO: No idea. I hope so.

LESLIE: I dunno. It’s so early….

DIANA: It’s too soon.

THEO: I’m hoping some of the “repeat” people will back down….not mentioning any names.

LESLIE: I think it’s definitely a time when we can have new voices, and I don’t know exactly who that is, but I think people are ready for a fresh voice.

LYNN: Personally, I think the number of white men who should be running for president this time around is zero. Especially the young ones. I like those fellas well enough, but it is NOT YOUR TURN, BRUH. Sit down for a minute and throw your resources behind a woman. Jeez.

LESLIE: There are certain people who are running that I would definitely rather not vote for, but whoever is our candidate is going to be better than what we have right now.

DIANA: Yeah, our strategy is to continue supporting all the women candidates that we possibly can. I think that was the turning point for me, really. When I realized that Congress was made up of 80% men, I was like, “Whaaaat???? How can that be? How can that be? What’s going on that we’re stifling those voices?”

But the 116th Congress is a spectacular thing—it really is. It’s remarkable and exciting and we feel like we helped contribute to that, and even if some of that contribuiton is just a backlash against what’s-his-face, we’ll just keep on going. Because there’s still so far to go. That’s part of why it’s called “Persisticon.” And in some way that’s super exciting. There’s so much room for improvement that anything you do is welcome. You don’t even have to try that hard—just showing up helps! Just the awareness of the problem is a huge step.

LESLIE: It has a ripple effect. People come to the shows, and then they talk to their friends, and that grows the conversation, and that’s ultimately what we want.

TKN: It does feel like it’s way bigger than just one horrible guy or one issue; it’s this consciousness that’s been raised.

THEO: It’s just so crazy, the dichotomy. All this is happening, this awakening, all these people are being called out in #MeToo, and then we have this horrible aggressor that’s still there. I dealt with so much, being in the music business, and the amount of sexism—all kinds of stories from that time. The music business allows a certain type of woman to succeed, and not the others ones that are maybe stronger and more “threatening,” and scary to them. We saw that a million times in the Lunachicks. We were like, “But we’re funny! And we’re good musicians!” And we went very far, but it was always there. And it’s still there. A lot of things have changed and there’s been progress, but it’s still there. Even just our right to choose…..a fetus is a person that can file a lawsuit? It’s insane. It’s completely horrifying, and unbelievable to me.

LESLIE: Yet not surprising at the same time.

PAGING AL GREEN

TKN: It seems clear that this movement—Third Wave Feminism or whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to put a label on it—is threatening to the patriarchy. That’s why they’re lashing out. But how do you keep the movement together? How do you keep it from fracturing?

DIANA: I think that’s kind of the wrong question. Because it’s not really about that. Every single person is living in their own body and has their own experiences that they’re drawing on to make their own choices, and that’s a powerful thing. But it also means we’re not seeing everything through the same lens all the time. And I think the attention spent on how much division is in the women’s movement feels like a distraction, and we should all be vigilant and keep our eyes on the prize.

Look: we’re a diverse group of people with lots of different priorities, but for the most part, we’re all headed in the same direction together. So that kind of thinking is just a red herring, a way to get us off our game.

It’s like looking at the Democratic presidential field, where some people want to tear each other apart. But there’s over 90% agreement among every candidate on all the issues, so any one of those Democrats is going to be a good answer. Any one of them. So that divisiveness feels like it’s been inseminated—and I use that word on purpose. It’s intentional, to get us fighting with each other. And it works.

TKN: Right. I’m thinking specifically of the Women’s March. The first one was so inspiring: Ferne and I were out of town in a hotel, and I have a picture of our daughter watching it live on a laptop, and she was mesmerized. She was six.

But of course—and I don’t think it was a coincidence—there was controversy around the second march, which I’m sure was spurred by people who were looking to split the resistance. So how do you stop that?

DIANA: It was a moment—a spectacular moment. But I think marching in general is not always the answer. The answer is finding ways to go forward and keep progressing.

LESLIE: I think things change even in activism. We’re not going to have a women’s march like we did the first time. Things evolve and change. People want to recreate that moment again, but it’s not possible. It has to change. We can’t hold on to the past. It has to keep moving forward.

We’re about results-driven activism rather than ego-driven activism. That’s where people get really hung up. It becomes more about being right than about the endgame. And people on the other side know that and they feed it, and that’s where things get stunted.

CHRISTINA: There are no easy answers to a lot of these issues, and we’re still struggling to figure out the best way to consolidate our fight, and seeing that we have to find ways to bring groups together. And that’s going to be a constant issue that we’re fighting against, to make sure we have a united front. And it’s exciting to be a part of that.

LYNN: No matter what, we ALL need to stay at the table. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.  

TKN: Well, it does feel like people are aware of that—of the deliberate attempt to split us, and the need for us to stay together and focused. Because there are always opponents who are going to want to attack the movement and break it apart, and those differences are pressure points they go for: racial differences, economic differences, political differences. But to take an almost absurdly extreme example, the only way we could beat Hitler was by making a deal with Stalin. So we can work with people who have different points of view, to say the least.

DIANA: In order to get where we want to go, we need all voices. So there’s no reason to stifle anyone, even if you don’t agree with them 100%. The truth is, like I was saying, you’re gonna agree with them like 90%! (laughter) So I do think that as much as possible you need to keep including all voices, even if they contradict yours.

LESLIE: And those conversations are also very important, because you’re gonna wrestle with different ideas and you may learn something. We all do, in some way. But if you squash anybody who doesn’t agree with you on every single point, then we’re done.

Many women and oppressed communities are finding that we are more alike than we are different. So with the women’s march, we’re realizing that we need all voices to make change. It’s not just about women, or the black community, or immigrants: we’re all connected.

DIANA: One of the things that I most admired about the organizers of the Women’s March—particularly early on, and I don’t know where they’re at now—was their willingness to listen and adjust and make the changes that are called for. In the beginning it was like, “Wow, you’re too white, you need to listen to other voices.” And they did. And I really admired that. The evolution of that organization—at least initially—was pretty fantastic.

LESLIE: It’s something all women are unlearning that was reinforced in us, deliberately. People keep pushing that narrative that women are bitchy and are gonna fight. So there are a lot of things that women are breaking free of. We can do things together, we can work together in so many ways: in our activism, in our personal lives, in our professional lives. There’s more than just one spot for one woman; there are many spots for many women.

DIANA: For me it comes down to women’s bodily autonomy. Period. If you don’t have control over your reproductive rights—and I hate that it has to be framed by abortion, because it’s that, but it’s also bigger than that—but If you don’t have control over your choice, your destiny, and your body, then we’re sunk. Everything else is adjacent to being able to choose whether or not to have a child. And to have some man dictating whether or not you can do that is absolutely not OK. That affects every single woman, no matter what color or where you are in your life. And that’s where women come together: protecting your rights to your body.

TKN: And that issue is in the hands of five Catholic men. Which is grim….but they’re up against this groundswell that Persisticon and other groups like it represent.

DIANA: The way our country is set up, childbearing and childrearing falls mostly on women, still. There are pockets, and in this room right now we are all lucky to have partners who are fantastic, but in general, women’s economic health takes such a huge hit—a massive hit—and it all comes down to how we equalize opportunity for women. And a lot of that is in bodily autonomy.

LESLIE: It is grim. And if you are a person of color, your body is thought of as “different,” as far as women’s health, mortality rates, and so forth. It’s a real crisis, to even recognize a person of color as a full human being.

MANSPLAINING FOR BEGINNERS

TKN: I want to thank you all again for speaking with me. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to add?

THEO: Can I flip the script and just ask, why do you think men hate women so much?

TKN: I wish I knew. But I don’t. I feel like you all felt: I was shocked by how much hatred came out in 2016. I feel stupid in a way. Here I am, over fifty years old, and suddenly I was like, “Wow—there’s a lot of misogyny in the world.”

People really hate women. Even women hate women! There are plenty of conservative women out there who are as misogynistic as any man. And I always say “misogyny” not sexism because it went so far beyond what I think of as garden variety chauvinism or sexism. It was hatred. And I’ve had this argument with a bazillion conservatives: the hatred toward Hillary was so out of proportion to anything she did. It was irrational in its extremity, and it stands for the hatred toward all women.

And it’s changed a little bit, but it hasn’t really changed. There’s a pushback now, and that’s the best thing that’s come out of this, as we were saying before. But the hatred hasn’t changed or gone away, and I don’t know how to make it go away, because I don’t know where it comes from in the first place.

So I don’t begin to know how to answer that question.  

LESLIE: One of the big changes is that now there are men asking “Why?” That’s a big first step. “Why is this happening and how am I contributing to it?” And they’re questioning the sort of community they live in, and the system they live in, and I think that is a huge step, that men are becoming part of the conversation and it’s not just women screaming from the sidelines.

The 45s of the world have this attitude toward women like, “Oh, they don’t know their place.” But I feel like men are recognizing that women don’t have to remember their “place” and stay in it.

DIANA: That whole glass ceiling thing is so apt. Even the guys on your side are only good up to a point. When you want true equality, when you actually want to run the company, they’re not so excited about that. And that’s been eye-opening too. I’m always like, “Wait—I thought you were one of the good ones! I thought we were in this together.” It’s startling.

(laughter)

TKN: It’s so ingrained. I’m conditioned, you’re conditioned, we’re all conditioned, and that doesn’t change overnight. Even if intellectually I understand it, sometimes I catch myself in a retrograde way of thinking. And sometimes I don’t catch myself. And it seems to me—you’d have to ask a sociologist, but it seems to me—that that takes a long time to change. A couple of generations at least. So let’s start.

LESLIE: If more people are asking why, and catching themselves in moments, that’s everyone. Really questioning the norms and asking, “How am I part of the problem?” That’s a huge step toward change. And that’s a big part of the battle, just having some self-awareness.

THEO: And can I say, for the next election, if the person you like isn’t the Democratic candidate, can you please just vote for whoever is running against 45, even if you don’t really like them? How about that?

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

Poster by Johanna Goodman

https://www.persisticon.com/

PERSISTICON III

Sunday May 5, 2019

The Bell House

149 7th St, Brooklyn NY 11215

(between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Gowanus)

Where COMEDY, ART and electing FEMINISTS collide. Laugh, listen and party and help raise cash for EMILY’s List: committed to electing progressive pro-choice women and equalizing the representation of all genders in government.

Click link below for tickets:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/persisticon-iii-there-is-no-planet-b-tickets-59198566506

Bar Opens 5:30pm, Doors 6:30pm, Show 7:00pm (over 21 only)

With emcee Ophira Eisenberg of NPR’s “Ask Me Another”

Featuring (list subject to change): Alex Borstein, Michelle Buteau, Bunny Buxom, Carolyn Castligia, Kerry Coddett, David Cross, Ana Fabrega, Aparna Nancherla, Model Majority, Amber Tamblyn, and special guest rabblerouser Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of Uprose, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, dedicated to environmental and social justice.

*********

TEAM PERSISTICON

DIANA KANE ENGLISH is a retailer, designer, and activist. She is the owner of Diana Kane, a Brooklyn boutique highlighting the work of emerging and established independent, sustainable designers. She’s the creator of the viral FeministGold t-shirt and a passionate feminist, jewelry designer, and community organizer.

CHRISTINA CLARE is a comedy and social justice activist and founder of TheMicHub, an online comedy concierge and aggregator promoting inclusivity through a diverse comedy database. She has worked as a project manager in the translations industry for years and is passionate about music, comedy and all the restorative mediums that entertain, teach, and heal “by accident.”

MARTHA CORCORAN is the curator of The Art of Resistance, a feed that celebrates social justice art and creative resistance. She is a photo editor and researcher for book publishing, digital media, and documentary film, and has worked on projects for Hearst, Abrams, PBS, Barnes & Noble, Nat Geo, and Time Inc.

LYNN HARRIS is founder of GOLD Comedy, which aims to give girls/women/”others” the comedy skills to take over the world. She is an award-winning journalist, retired comedian, and former Tonya Harding lookalike (long story).

LESLIE KING is a Brooklyn-based designer and owner of the sustainable handbag company LK. She is also actively working with local and citywide groups committed to addressing and dismantling segregation in New York City public schools.

THEO KOGAN is best known as the singer of Lunachicks. She was a model, actress, and honorary drag queen, a DJ, party promoter and creator/CEO of Armour Beauty lip gloss. Theo grew up in Brooklyn and is currently a pro makeup artist and mom.

SASADI ODUNSI got her roots in protesting at a young age, speaking out to protect the land and mountains where she grew up in Colorado. Since then, she’s been an active supporter of many causes. She is a mother of four who has worn many hats, but mostly chases after kids and beads earrings these days when she’s not posting stories for Persisticon.

FERNE PEARLSTEIN is a prize-winning director/cinematographer who is one of a handful of women featured in Kodak’s “On Film” ad campaign. Her latest film, THE LAST LAUGH, about taboos in humor, features Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and many others, and continues to screen around the world since its premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

ANDREW E. WAGNER is an Emmy Award-winning producer with over 25 years of experience developing and managing creative projects of every size and shape imaginable. He has a soft spot for people who want to make the world a better place.

*********

Previous King’s Necktie essays on feminism, sexism, and misogyny:

Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary) – May 23, 2017

Feminism in the Age of Monsters: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 1) February 8, 2018

A Spark Is Lit: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 2) – February 15, 2018

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

Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen – February 11, 2019