O Lucky Man

As many many observers have noted, Donald Trump is the luckiest motherfucker on the planet. 

Born into obscene privilege, he has led a life cosseted in unearned wealth and power, exempting him from consequences for 72 years of unrelentingly shitty behavior. He has avoided the blowback from a business career rife with corruption, fraud, tax evasion, and racial discrimination; escaped serving in Vietnam; evaded judgment in lawsuits too numerous to count; and even successfully dodged multiple credible accusations of sexual assault and rape. 

Indeed, he seems never to have been made to answer for any of his ghastly actions throughout his entire pathetic, misbegotten life. 

That pattern most certainly continued when it came to his behavior in the White House, behavior that included making kidnapping an explicit matter of state policy, poisoning the national bloodstream with the normalization of Orwellian disinformation, blackmailing foreign heads of state for personal gain, lining his pockets with bribes from foreign powers, exhibiting depraved indifference in (non)response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and—oh yeah—fomenting a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election.

Yeah, yeah, efforts are underway to hold him accountable for some of that. But I’m getting lightheaded from holding my breath. 

One would think that this lifetime of impunity would make Don happy. Ecstatic, even. But on the contrary: one of the few sources of solace we have when it comes to Trump is that, despite this outrageous run of good fortune, he is demonstrably the most miserable, tormented human being I can think of. The man appears to be in a constant state of rage 24/7/52. 

Hmmm. Maybe there’s such a thing as karma after all. Unfortunately, he feels the need to take that rage out on the rest of humanity. But that is a story for another day.

But I bring up Trump’s lifelong run of good fortune because—in case you missed it—he recently got another insanely lucky break. 

IT’S ALL GOOD, MAN

Of the various legal issues currently bedeviling Trump, the Mar-a-Lago documents case was the cleanest, the simplest, and seemingly the most likely to result in a criminal conviction.

His responsibility for January 6th might well be the worst, and his guilt on that count is blazingly evident, but it’s still complicated and hard to prove in a court of law. The attempt to strongarm Georgia election officials is pretty clearcut, but not an obvious slam dunk, legally speaking. (“Juries—right?” as Saul Goodman would say.) The various criminal and civil charges against him and the Trump Organization for tax, bank, and real estate fraud and other corrupt business practices are complex and arcane, even if his guilt there is also pretty self-evident, and has been to New Yorkers for decades. 

But brazenly stealing top secret documents, insisting that he had the right to do so, openly defying repeated efforts by the National Archives and Department of Justice to get them back (including ignoring a subpoena and falsely swearing to have complied), deploying laughable claims that he declassified those documents en masse just by thinking about it—except he didn’t have to, because he is a god-emperor and can do whatever he wants!—is something anyone can understand. Finally, finally, Trump looked he was going to get his comeuppance.

But because a smaller number of classified documents were recently discovered in locations connected to Joe Biden—a think tank office he used after his vice presidency, and his private residence in Delaware—that assumption has been blown to smithereens. 

Nothing is yet settled, and it won’t be for a long time to come. The Biden story is in its earliest days and all the facts are not yet known. The prosecution of Trump may well carry on unimpeded. But it might not. 

So we might as well brace ourselves for the very real possibility that, believe it or not, as incredible as it seems, Donald Trump may skate out of this one too.

VIVE LA DIFFÉRENCE

Here we are contractually obligated to note that the two cases are vastly different. 

The  number of documents found in Biden’s possession is far smaller than in Trump’s—around twenty—and we don’t yet know how sensitive they are. (The FBI seized some 11,000 documents from Mar-a-Lago, including more than 70 marked secret or top secret. That haul reportedly included some of the most top secret compartmentalized intelligence there is, including nuclear secrets, and information about human intelligence—which is to say, spies—putting the lives of American agents at risk.) Biden, unlike Trump, appears to have had no knowledge of their existence. All indications are that they were put there by accident, and as far as we yet know, never touched in six years.

More to the point are the circumstances in which the documents were uncovered, and the actions of the representatives for the two parties—and the parties themselves—after their existence became known. Biden’s people found the documents on their own, unbidden, and immediately notified the proper authorities, meticulously following DOJ and National Archives protocol in turning the materials over and cooperating with the subsequent inquiry. 

By contrast, the hundreds of sensitive government documents in Trump’s possession seem to have been deliberately put there at his direction. Knowing this, NARA and the DOJ had been trying to recover them for almost two years, bending over backwards to be solicitous of the former president, but meeting only resistance, obfuscation, and outright defiance in return. Trump’s lawyers even signed a sworn statement that a “diligent” search had been conducted and all relevant documents had been returned. (Odds that Trump pressured those lawyers to make that statement are high.) As a result, DOJ ultimately decided it needed to issue a subpoena—which, per above, was brazenly ignored—and then, finally, obtain a warrant from a federal judge and have FBI agents conduct an unprecedented search of a former president’s personal residence. 

So, yeah, not exactly apples to apples.

In writing about the Mar-a-Lago case last summer, and Republican attempts to draw an equivalence with Hillary’s email controversy, I compared the latter to forgetting you had a pocketknife in your carry-on bag and having it seized by the TSA, and the former to smuggling a boxcutter onboard and crashing the plane into the World Trade Center. The same sort of analogy applies here. In fact, Biden’s behavior is even more innocuous: Hillary got caught with that pocketknife; Biden’s people discovered theirs themselves and voluntarily turned it over to the TSA’s blueshirts. 

I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

Let me be clear: the presence of mishandled classified material, even if accidental, even if never touched, even if Biden didn’t know about it, is still an egregious offense. It is also highly embarrassing to Joe, who prides himself on his national security bonafides, and has attacked Trump on that count. It will also have very unwelcome political consequences for him. But to compare it to what Trump did is absurd. 

Yet compared it will be, and in the end, the differences may wind up mattering very little from a political perspective.

WHAT DID THE PRESIDENT KNOW AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?

Far and away the most damning action Biden’s team committed was the delay in making the discovery public. The first classified documents—numbering about ten, we are told—were found at the Penn Biden Center in Washington DC on November 2, 2022, just six days before the midterms. The second set—of six—were found at his home in Wilmington, DE on December 20, in the same locked garage where Biden keeps his beloved, vintage 1967 Corvette. (In The Onion’s old long-running, Obama-era gag about him, it was a Trans Am.)

Then this past Saturday, January 21, federal agents conducting a consensual 13-hour search of that Wilmington home without need for a warrant, turned up six more documents. 

Oy.

The decision not to go public with the first discovery, on the eve of what promised to be a photo-finish midterm election, is both obvious and understandable, if not exactly defensible. It is entirely possible that Biden & Co. decided that absorbing the eventual criticism was worth it and survivable, as opposed to jeopardizing that crucial election. 

But they are denying even that degree of pragmatism.  

According to reporting in The Washington Post, the Biden team is portraying that delay as a good faith effort to let the Department of Justice complete its investigation without a media frenzy. That is a reasonable explanation. (It is certainly true that the DOJ preferred to carry out its investigation out of the spotlight.) Of course, it is also a very politically expedient one, hinging on the hope that the White House could announce the incident along with the “all-clear” from DOJ in a single swoop.

Now that that hope has cratered spectacularly, the Post reports that “(s)ome at the White House remain furious at Garland and other Justice Department officials, saying the attorney general named a special counsel to pursue Biden even after they did everything his department asked.”

Biden’s top aides were determined that the legal process would override any political moves or public messaging, not the other way around. They did not want to be seen as trying to shape the investigation’s outcome, according to people familiar with their approach. “This is a rule-of-law administration,” said one top official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “We are serious about it. We don’t comment on ongoing investigations. So we were always walking a fine line here, in that we were in one.”

Not sure that passes the sniff test. I certainly wouldn’t have accepted that explanation from the Trump White House, and while Team Biden’s has credibility Trump & Co. will never have, it’s still a suspect claim. Surely practical considerations—a la Comey’s press release about re-opening the Clinton email case on the eve of the 2016 election—were on Team Biden’s collective mind, as well they should have been. But the fact is, that delay now looks like a shameless lack of transparency—the very opposite of the deprioritizing of political considerations they claim to have aimed for. (I won’t say it was an outright coverup, because surely they knew word would eventually get out.) 

It’s amazing Biden’s lawyers who discovered the first box at the Penn Biden Center didn’t just burn it. A box that had been sitting in a closet for almost six years, that probably no one even knew was there? But as Nixon would say, “that would be wrong.” 

The New York Times recently published a comprehensive report on how and why the White House delayed for so long, concluding that Biden suffered from a disconnect between the thinking of his lawyers, whose concern rightly was and is his legal exposure, and of his advisors, whose concern is the murkier area of public relations and political considerations.

The decision by President Biden and his top advisers to keep the discovery of classified documents secret from the public and even most of the White House staff for 68 days was driven by what turned out to be a futile hope that the incident could be quietly disposed of without broader implications for Mr. Biden or his presidency.

The goal for the Biden team, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations who spoke on condition of anonymity, was to win the trust of Justice Department investigators and demonstrate that the president and his team were cooperating fully. In other words, they would head off any serious legal repercussions by doing exactly the opposite of what the Biden lawyers had seen the Trump legal team do.

In the short term, at least, the bet seems to have backfired. Mr. Biden’s silence while cooperating with investigators did not forestall the appointment of a special counsel, as his aides had hoped, but still resulted in a public uproar once it became clear that the White House had hidden the situation from the public for more than two months. 

(T)he strategy has left Mr. Biden open to withering criticism for concealing the discovery for so long. 

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin faults Biden’s lawyers for neglecting “the political implications of their conduct in favor of trying to placate the Justice Department. The lawyers seem to have imagined that they could clear everything up before it became public. That was a naive assumption in today’s political climate.”

LET THE PUNISHMENT FIT

For political reasons—that is, to protect the appearance of objectivity in the Trump case (as well as its genuine objectivity)—the appointment of a special counsel was all but inevitable, and Team Biden—which prides itself on being a group of savvy, experienced DC pols—knows that very well, or should have. So its anger rings a bit hollow.

As Jennifer Rubin writes, “In fact, there is no indication that Biden’s team could have done anything to avoid the appointment of a special counsel,” given Garland’s promise “from the get-go that one of his top priorities—if not the top priority—was restoring the integrity of the Justice Department.” 

For all the talk of Garland as an ivory tower idealist living in his own rarefied world, knowledgeable insiders attest that he is in fact very much aware of the political context and ramifications of all his actions. Indeed, that awareness drives the very cautiousness in the various Trump investigations for which he received some pretty scathing criticism from the left, even as the right absurdly tries to portray him as some sort of Javert. 

(Meanwhile, Ankush Khardori of Politico speculated to MSNBC that he thinks Garland is furious at the White House for this tectonic development, and its carelessness, which complicates the case against Trump that he and his team have so meticulously conducted.

Yet there are also advantages for Biden in the appointment of a special counsel. As Heather Cox Richardson notes, that Republicans will now be “(u)nable to attack Biden for having documents marked classified in his possession without also faulting Trump.” Therefore, their only play is to try to suggest that Biden is being treated differently than Trump. But Garland’s speedy appointment of a special counsel undermines that.

That would be true in a sane world. But as we all know, MAGA Nation will make that claim regardless.

The other Republican approach, per the Bannon playbook, is just to “flood the zone with shit,” to muddy public perceptions and imply to low-information voters that Biden is just as bad as Trump on this count. And it is already working: Rubin notes that a recent Quinnipiac poll found nearly 40 percent of Americans think “Biden should be prosecuted—despite the absence of any evidence that he even knew that he was in possession of the documents.”

Theoretically and logically, then, nothing about the Biden case, no matter what is eventually revealed, should impede or derail the prosecution of Trump, which is already much further along. Indeed, there is a veritable consensus on that point among top legal experts. Even the conservative pundit David French, formerly of National Review, a former US Army JAG officer who takes a hardline on what Biden and/or his staff have done, writes in The Atlantic that the new revelations do “not mean that the DOJ should refuse to prosecute either (Trump or Biden), adding, “ If the DOJ finds evidence of willfulness or obstruction—from any person—then it should file charges, no matter the identity of the defendant.”

That view is well represented in a recent piece in The Atlantic titled “Biden’s Classified Documents Should Have No Impact on Trump’s Legal Jeopardy,” by three prominent lawyers—who collectively count among their previous jobs US Attorney, deputy solicitor general, and deputy attorney general (under Republican presidents, no less). The authors write that even as some attempt “to create a false equivalence between the two cases,” in truth “only the most superficial parallel can be drawn.” The authors applaud Garland’s decision to appoint a special counsel, and the choice of Robert Hur, a Republican and Trump appointee as US Attorney specifically, but note that nothing in the Biden case, no matter how it turns out, should prevent the proper investigation and potential indictment and prosecution of Trump, which turns largely on his “concealment and evasion.” Which he is accused of conducting “willfully and unlawfully.”

The apparent obstruction of justice—with evidence pointing to Trump’s direct involvement—makes up the serious misconduct here, more serious than a former president simply having removed documents from their proper place….

Willful and unlawful intent requires knowledge that one is breaking the law, and Trump was placed on notice over the course of many months, and asked numerous times by multiple federal agencies to return all classified and presidential records. He still did not.

They also note that the arguments of Trump’s lawyers effectively admitting that Trump deliberately took those documents and kept them even in defiance of formal US government demands for their rightful return, and the fact that “a federal judge has already determined, in approving the Mar-a-Lago warrant, that there was probable cause to believe that Trump intended to impede or obstruct an investigation or NARA’s proper administration of government records, and likely both.”

So I say, let both cases proceed and the judgments meted out as the facts dictate. Rubin again:

(T)he public’s confusion should not affect the evaluation of special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the investigation into Trump’s situation. Unlike Biden, Trump presided over movement of the documents; personally went through them; failed to return the documents despite subpoenas and then allowed his lawyers to falsely state that he possessed no more classified documents; and made numerous statements arguing that he was entitled to keep them. It should be easy to prove “gross negligence” and to demonstrate the aggravating factors needed to prosecute his case, such as obstruction.

The White House might be upset with Garland’s decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate Biden, but that should be temporary. Given the facts that are known, Biden should be “cleared” in a reasonable timeframe as Jack Smith independently contemplates whether to charge Trump.

That’s as it should be. We simply cannot accept a system that ensnares someone who attempts to cooperate with investigators while simultaneously allowing a megalomaniacal former president to walk off with top secret documents without serious consequences.

But that is a logical and legal judgment, not a political one. And Rubin’s very cogent argument will have no bearing on the hyperpartisan, tribalized politics of America today.

THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION

We don’t yet know all the facts, but even a set that is favorable to Biden is still a gamechanger. 

Biden has insisted that he has done no wrong, and that his people have done everything by the book in cooperating impeccably with the DOJ ever since the documents were first uncovered. “There’s no there there,” as he said. (I love hearing a US president quote Gertrude Stein.) 

But from the moment the story broke, the GOP has been in a festival of schadenfreude to rival the one Democrats and progressives (like myself) engaged in during the humiliation of Kevin McCarthy last week. Gleeful howls about hypocrisy have filled the air, from RNC headquarters in DC to Mar-a-Lago to Fox TV headquarters on 5th Avenue, even as Murdoch World was embroiled in the Dominion Voting Machines lawsuit this week. 

David Smith writes in The Guardian that “There’s One Winner in the Biden Documents Discovery: Donald Trump,” quoting Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia: “This may be pure sloppiness on Biden’s part or the Biden team’s part but it doesn’t matter. In the public mind, now they will say, ‘Well, a pox on both your houses. You’re both guilty. Shame on you both.’ It’s over….It’s just a real distraction. It was totally unnecessary. Every White House makes mistakes and this is a big one they made.”

Smith concurs with the legal community that the new twist “is unlikely to affect the Justice Department’s decision making with regard to charging Trump. But it could make a criminal case a harder sell to voters.” And if it’s harder to sell to voters, it might lead to fraught conditions should charges be brought—not that that’s a reason to refrain—or worse, militate against bringing them at all. In which case, Trump’s legal jeopardy has been changed. 

Smith quotes Jay Town, formerly the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama under Trump, who told the Associated Press that while he doesn’t think the Biden case “impacts Trump’s legal calculus at all….it certainly does impact the political narrative going forward. To the extent that the political narrative is a consideration, it does make it harder to bring charges against former President Trump.”

Trump may yet be prosecuted and even convicted and punished over Mar-a-Lago. He should be. But it has always been a fantasy that even that outcome would mark the end of his political career and influence. For his diehard fans, and even more casual supporters within Republican circles, nothing will make them turn on him. They would vote for him even if he was languishing in federal prison, pumping iron and trading cigarettes…even if he were seen killing puppies with Putin….even if he came out in favor of abortion and Satanism and replacing the NFL with flag football, and every game ends in a tie and a Woody Guthrie singalong. Indeed, persecution—er, I mean, prosecution—by the Establishment will only burnish his reputation for that crowd.  

The goal of destroying Trump’s political power is a related but separate matter and Biden’s classified documents troubles represent a serious setback in that effort. Ain’t no two ways about it. Believe me, it pains me to say that, but there’s no point in pretending or deluding ourselves.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times called “Oh, Biden, What Have You Done?” the veteran pundit Jonathan Alter writes, “If you went into a GOP whataboutism lab and asked for a perfect gaffe, you’d come out with the president snapping last week to a Fox News reporter, ‘My Corvette is in a locked garage.’”

As Alter writes, “it’s hard to exaggerate the level of Democratic exasperation with him for squandering a huge political advantage on the Mar-a-Lago story and for muddying what may have been the best chance to convict Mr. Trump on federal charges.” He also notes that while the classified documents will likely fade as a first tier issue in the 2024 election, it is likely to make those all-important independent and swing voters view him more harshly. Not to mention the ammo it gives the GOP.

In the same way that the grueling Benghazi hearings from 2014 through 2016 softened Mrs. Clinton up for later attacks, the Biden documents story may give new life to unproven allegations about his connections to unsavory Chinese executives in business with members of his family. Did foreign nationals have access to the mishandled classified documents? That’s highly unlikely. But Republican lawmakers will use Democratic charges about security breaches at Mar-a-Lago as an excuse to open outlandish lines of inquiry. And the GOP now has subpoena power to delve into red-meat targets like the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop and any communications on it that involved the current president. 

As Alter writes, “But even if Mr. Biden puts wins on the board, survives venomous Republican lawmakers and gets off with a slap on the wrist in the special counsel’s report, the classified documents story has likely stripped him of a precious political asset with some independents and Democrats: the benefit of the doubt. The general feeling that Mr. Biden—like Mr. Obama—is clean and scandal-free has been replaced by the normal Washington assumption of some level of guilt.”

INSTITUTIONALISM TO THE RESCUE….OR NOT

Merrick Garland is famously an institutionalist—to a fault in the eyes of some. In this case, that may prove our salvation.

Going strictly by both the letter and the spirit of the law, Garland may very well conclude that Trump ought to be indicted and Biden should not. Although those optics are bad politically, the argument for so doing might be very sound—airtight, in fact—hewing to the DOJ’s own standards for which cases to prosecute and which ones not. As with Jim Comey’s decision not to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton over her (or her staff’s) email fiasco, Biden’s sins (or his staff’s) may be similarly below the threshold for any kind of disciplinary action short of a scolding. By contrast, we already know that Trump’s own, personal actions—as well as those of his staff—have been outrageous, and merit criminal prosecution by any reasonable standard.

So Garland may carry through with that decision, because it is correct, and because he is a man who lives by such principles. 

Orrrrr……

Or his “institutionalism” might lead him to conclude, Gerald Ford-like, that the institution of the presidency, and indeed the very rule of law, would be so damaged by such a decision that it is preferable to let Trump off the hook, even though by all rights he doesn’t deserve it.

If he chooses the former, you can be sure the MAGA Nation will go absolutely apeshit. Needless to say, deciding not to prosecute Trump just because we fear the wrath of Big Lie America would be a horrifically bad decision and a terrible, giving-in-to-terrorist precedent. (Trump himself has already made mob boss-like statements implying the chaos that will ensue in that scenario. “Nice democracy you got here; be a shame if something happened to it.”)

As Khardori writes:

If Garland eventually authorizes prosecutors to indict Trump, he will set the country on an unprecedented path, with no clear answer to how it might end and considerable political risks in every possible direction, whether the effort results in a conviction or not. If Trump does avoid prosecution, the political fallout might be less overt but it would be no less dramatic, since many of the people who believe Trump has committed serious federal crimes will probably not be persuaded by whatever rationale emerges to justify the decision.

I wonder if, when Merrick Garland was growing up, he dreamed of being at the epicenter of a pivotal moment in the history of the American republic. If so, he got his wish. 

HANDICAPPING

Do all presidents do this kind of shit with classified materials? Maybe. As this story was going to press, we learned thatclassified documents were just found at the Indiana home of Mike Pence; his lawyers are following the Biden approach in immediately turning them over to the DOJ. But even if that is so, leave it to Trump to take it to a new level, one of arrogant nose-thumbing, norm-breaking, and subpoena-defying, of insistence that he had the right to take anything he wanted from the White House, and keep it wherever he wanted, and show it—or sell it, or otherwise leverage it—to whoever he wanted. (“It’s not theirs, it’s mine.”) In that sense, Pence’s sober reaction to the discovery—an implicit endorsement of Biden’s—may help draw a clear distinction for the public about what is different regarding Trump’s behavior.

In any event, the sloppiness (at best) of all these politicians is mind-boggling to an old intelligence officer and ordinary mortal like myself who was accustomed to handling classified material. 

As French writes, we need “to change the culture of accountability so that we’re not consistently expecting less of the most powerful politicians than we expect of the ordinary service members, law-enforcement officers, and diplomats who serve this country sacrificially and often anonymously. Time and again, we have seen politicians escape legal responsibility for actions that would have cost ordinary Americans their careers (in the best case) and their liberty (in the likely case) if they’d treated classified information with similar carelessness.”

Preach, Dave. 

Might this keep Biden from running in 2024? That was the silver lining I heard many Democrats—quietly—seize on in the wake of the documents revelation. I understand the impulse, but I would be more onboard if there were a strong heir apparent waiting in the wings, pressuring Biden to step aside gracefully, having already done the nation an epic service. 

But right now, there ain’t. As in 2020, Joe Biden may yet be the best bet to beat the Republican ticket, in 2024 no matter who’s on it. Maybe the only one. The documents scandal may not torpedo his chances of winning any more than it persuades him not to run. But it doesn’t help.

Alter suggests that if Biden “takes a leaf from Nancy Pelosi and decides not to run….Democrats would “turn the page,” as Mr. Obama recommended in 2008, to a crop of fresher candidates, probably governors, who contrast better with Mr. Trump and would have good odds of beating a younger Republican.” 

And the smiling old gentleman in the Corvette—his shortcomings forgotten and his family protected — would assume his proper place as a bridge between political generations and arguably the most accomplished one-term president in American history.

THE MISERY OF BEING DONALD TRUMP (AND OF BEING AROUND DONALD TRUMP)

In some ways, the paradox of Trump’s lifelong good luck and his persistent state of rage calls into question just how lucky he really is. You never see the guy calm, or relaxed, or laughing at a joke (let alone telling one), or even just genuinely smiling. Contrast that with the easygoing Uncle Joe. Clearly, Trump’s childhood was hideous, at the hands of his equally vile father Fred, who evidently did a number on all his children but Donny especially. One can almost feel sympathy for the young tyrant-in-the-making, who maybe never had a fighting chance. 

On the other hand, lots of people endure horrific upbringings at the hands of monsters without turning into monsters themselves, so Trump does not get a pass there. But even without plunging into a debate about free will (spoiler alert: it’s a myth), or nature vs nurture, we can conclude that growing up a spoiled brat is actually not the great gift that it superficially seems. Though my wife rolls her eyes whenever I say it, it could be that maybe the worst punishment Donald Trump will ever face is simply being Donald Trump.

I want to see Trump held accountable for at least one of his many crimes, at least once in his life. But even more than that, I want him destroyed as a political player in American society, his legacy ruined the way it deserves to be ruined, and the ground salted where he once trod. Ultimately, criminal consequences will not be the end of Trump, nor of Trumpism. That will require a broad reckoning with the forces in American life that allowed Trump to rise, and to thrive, in the first place. Ideally, we can still get both.

Over to you, Fani Willis—a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

*********  

Photo: Chery Dieu-Nalio/Reuters

The Rise of Republican Nihilism

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen Brothers film. (That would be Raising Arizona. Second place: three-way tie between Miller’s CrossingFargo, and A Serious Man.) I know why people love it, it’s just not top of my list, although John Turturro’s turn as ace bowler Jesus Quintana is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Nor, contrary to popular opinion, is The Big Lebowski the greatest bowling movie of all time. I put it second to Kingpin (featuring Randy Quaid, prior to his sad, batshit turn to Trumpism) and just slightly ahead of Buffalo 66. (Who knew Vincent Gallo could roll like that?) The less said about 1979’s Dreamer, starring Tim Matheson, the better.

Maybe we count the ending of There Will Be Blood, too, even though it’s not particularly funny.

But there is one moment in The Big Lebowski that has been particularly on my mind lately. It’s when Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is informed by the Dude (Jeff Bridges) of the political ideology of the kidnappers with whom—they think—they are dealing:

THE DUDE: They were nihilists, man.

WALTER: Huh?

THE DUDE: They kept saying they believe in nothing.

WALTER: (chilled) Nihilists! Fuck me!

The scene has been on my mind because there’s another group of nihilists on center stage in the US right now.

FECES FIESTA

You won’t be shocked, dear reader, to learn that I have been among those reveling in schadenfreude at the GOP shit show of last week…..you know, the one with the jaw-droppingly self-destructive refusal to get its own act together sufficiently even to elect a Speaker of the House? It took fifteen ballots over five days, an imbroglio not seen in the US Congress for literally a hundred years, and even then saw a near-fistfight within the Republican caucus erupt on national television. (“What’s next?” MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle quipped. “Are we gonna streak across the quad?”)

Gee, I’m shocked that a party that not two years ago tried to overthrow the government is unable even to carry out the most basic act of governance—like agree on its own leader—after the American voters inexplicably gave them the chance to do so. It’s almost as if the GOP isn’t fit to govern. Cough, cough.

So why the intraparty chaos? Was it as simple as Gaetz, Gosar, Boebert, Biggs & Co. wanting to torment Kevin McCarthy? Maybe. Other observers, such as former Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) have suggested that there was in fact a practical motive behind the actions of the Sedition Caucus in terms of leveraging as much power as possible, the way any political faction might, albeit in more extreme fashion. Even so, and whatever the rebels’ broader goals, they very much appeared to be engaging in sheer, performative assholiness for its own sake.  

Any way you slice it, it wasn’t pretty, nor good for the Grand Old Party. 

At one point last week, The Atlantic was running an article called “The Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy” while The New Yorker was simultaneously running one called “Behind the Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy,” even using the same photo of the forlorn-looking would-be Speaker. Meanwhile, over on TBS, they were showing “Battle for the Conquest of Planet of the Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy,” without commercial interruption.

If Kevin is into BDSM, he must have been in heaven. Short of that, I don’t think it’s ever good when your name and “humiliation” are twinned in the Google algorithm.

And all this after McCarthy—who, for a millisecond in the wake of January 6, 2021, appeared to turn on Trump—had quickly reverted to form and groveled before the disgraced god-emperor and his most hardcore, red-hatted, mouthbreathing followers. But as David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “Kevin McCarthy’s Loyalty to Trump Got Him Nothing.” That was fitting for a spineless bootlicker who would do anything to gain that job—and has—only to find himself rightly loathed by everyone on all points of the political spectrum. Aeschylus, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Alfred Hitchcock working together could not have come up with a more delicious fate for the man.

Incredibly, on MSNBC’s website, Commentary’s Noah Rothman came out in praise of Team Gaetz, arguing that this auto-da-fé is actually a sign of the health of the GOP and its robust commitment to democracy. (I’m not kidding, though I’d like to believe Noah is.) It hardly bears pointing out that using parliamentary mechanisms to torture McCarthy isn’t remotely proof that these cretins love democracy, when their whole goal is to gain enough power to destroy it from within.

Of course, even many Republicans were deeply unhappy with this circus—Mike Rogers of Alabama sure was—though I have limited sympathy for them. Very limited. The schism was evident in a cover story last week in the Murdoch-owned New York Post, picturing Gaetz, Boebert, et al under the headline, “Grow Up—Small Group of Republican Saboteurs Blocks McCarthy From Taking Power.” Gee, Rupert was fine with these troglodytes when he perceived them to be helpful to his plutocratic cause. Now suddenly he has a problem with them? The same goes for the rest of the so-called mainstream GOP and their whinging over this self-inflicted crisis.

Because in the end, as we all know, the battle over the Speakership was bad for everyone. Yes, this display of Republican dysfunction calls into question what the hell the American people were thinking in giving the GOP a majority in that House in the first place, razor thin though it is, and yes, it will likely hurt that party going forward. (Or not.) But it also demonstrates, chillingly, that the Big Lie faction of the GOP still retains formidable power in Washington, and what it intends to do with that power over the next two years. 

In that New Yorker piece, John Cassidy wrote:

Over the past few decades, the GOP has gone from being a ruthless and disciplined party of limited government and trickle-down economics to a party of anti-government protest to, now, a party of performative verbiage—in which the likes of Gaetz and Boebert (and, of course, Trump) are far more interested in boosting their follower count, raising money, and appearing on “The Sean Hannity Show” or Newsmax than they are in governance.

So even as we relish McCarthy’s suffering, let’s remember that the people torturing him are even more loathsome and dangerous. As the Washington Post reports, all but two of the 20 House Republicans who voted against McCarthy on Tuesday’s third ballot round are election deniers, and “(o)f the 18 deniers, 14 are returning members who voted against certification of the electoral college count on Jan. 6, 2021.” Indeed, election deniers make up more than three-quarters of the new 222-member House Republican membership. 

In other words, last week’s debacle in the House is only a preview of the dysfunction, grandstanding, and blackmail to come. 

SAD KEVIN

So Kevin McCarthy has at long last reached his lifelong goal of being Speaker of the House at the head of the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party. I wish him luck—he’ll need it. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, “(W)hatever happens to the California Republican, we already know this: The extreme MAGA caucus will essentially be pointing a gun at the head of the House GOP leadership for the next two years.”

And Kevin has enabled it. Clearly he never learned that you shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists, nor the simpler schoolyard lesson of how to deal with a bully….maybe because he’s a bully (and a coward, and a shameless toady) himself.

What is the point of being power-hungry when you have to give up virtually all your power to get that putative position? (“Self-geld” was the memorable term Charlie Sykes used.) Of course, one might just as well ask why any decent person would want to be associated with the Republican Party, let alone be its Congressional leader, in the first place.

McCarthy now faces a Liz Truss-versus-the head-of-lettuce situation, with the smart money suggesting that his days in office are already numbered.  Heather Cox Richardson writes:

McCarthy has allegedly agreed to (the hard-right Freedom Caucus’s) demand that a single person can force a vote to get rid of the speaker, a demand that puts him at their mercy and that he had previously insisted he would never accept. He has also apparently offered members of (the Caucus) two spots on the House Rules Committee, which decides how measures will be presented to the House, and given them control over appropriations bills. He is also said to be considering letting them choose committee chairs, jumping over those with seniority. 

Lawyer and Washington Post columnist George Conway wrote, “I’m no political scientist, but it does strike me that a guy who negotiates by giving stuff up and getting nothing in return probably wouldn’t make a good leader of a legislative body.”

At one point during the voting Gaetz bragged that he’d run out of things to ask McCarthy for. He also claimed that if House Democrats stepped in and tried to elect a moderate Republican as speaker, he would resign. (Can we get that in writing, Matty?) 

Needless to say, this House will now be ungovernable. The Sedition Caucus is emboldened—giddy in fact—and is going to make McCarthy’s life a living hell, and in the process screw the American people as much as possible. 

But as we all know, the Republicans are not really interested in governing, and I don’t mean in the old-fashioned, Norquistian way, where the goal was to convince the public that “government is bad,” such that voters would allow the installation of an unregulated Darwinian state where the plutocrats ran amok. No. The Sedition Caucus has taken that ethos to a new extreme, to a Bannonist destruction of the administrative state full stop, with no cogent plan for what would replace it once the existing structure has been burned to the ground. 

Trump was elected largely because, to a significant chunk of the American electorate, he represented a giant, juvenile middle finger to civility, maturity, and common decency. He said out loud all the racist, sexist, offensive things they wanted to say, hated all the same people they hated, gave voice to all their frustration and alienation and free-floating anger, justified and unjustified alike. 

Since then, that sort of generalized, indiscriminate grievance has become the guiding principle of the entire Grand Old Party. They simply want to oppose, reject, and destroy anything that the consensus of common sense supports. 

Why does the contemporary GOP loathe Volodymyr Zelenskyy with an irrational hatred usually reserved for people who kick puppies or steal money from children’s cancer charities? (You know—like the Trump family.) Why does it self-destructively reject the life-saving COVID vaccine, even as the virus is taking the lives of red state-dwelling Americans faster than anyone else? Why does it mulishly insist that climate change is a hoax? (In that case, I understand that there is a mercenary, mercantile motive in play, but still.) Why is it apoplectic at the notion of people who state their preferred pronouns, as if that will harelip the nation? 

Why? Just because they are contrarians.

Nihilists, some might say.

Therefore, I submit that midterm-era reports of the salvation of democracy are premature. The Know-Nothing, grievance-animated, mob rule movement that we call Trumpism is alive and well and in control of the US House of Representatives, with or without Trump. Ironically, the agonizingly drawn-out vote confirming McCarthy took place just after midnight on the second anniversary of the Insurrection of January 6, one of the darkest days in all of American history.  In other words, the same people who were unable to take control of the Capitol by bear spray, ziptie, and weaponized flagpole two years before, finally succeeded in doing so by different means this past Friday. 

FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN

“Show me what you got, nihilists!” 

That’s what the fictional Walter Sobchak yells at the three kidnappers who claim to be holding Bunny Lebowski when he, the Dude, and Donny (an incredibly youthful Steve Buscemi) face off with them in a bowling alley parking lot. 

Donny, pondering whether their foes are Nazis, asks, “Are these guys gonna hurt us, Walter?”

“No, Donny, these men are cowards,” Walter replies.  

When Uli, the lead nihilist, played to deadpan perfection by Peter Stormare, complains that it isn’t fair that they not get the ransom, Walter howls: “Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilist around here, you bunch of fucking crybabies?” 

In the ensuing slapstick fight worthy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Walter bites off Uli’s ear, spitting it high into the LA night sky, in slow motion. It’s a textbook Coenian moment, nodding blackly to the 1973 kidnapping—and ear-severing—of John Paul Getty III, and maybe to Van Gogh too. Walter then punctuates the ass-kicking by punching Uli in the nose, shouting: “Anti-Semite!”

The Big Lie Republicans who have taken the House of Representatives hostage—and likely any hope of civilized governance for the next two years—deserve a similar fate. 

*********

Photo: Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998), by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Ron’s Retro-COVID Denialism 

I noticed it as soon as Ron DeSantis emerged from the midterms as the Republican Party’s new flavor of the month. 

It was a casual assertion—so casual, in fact, that you might easily have missed it—but presented as an obvious fact upon which we all agreed and therefore didn’t even merit elaboration or special emphasis. And it was widespread in conservative media. 

It was the notion that DeSantis had been right about COVID-19 all along: that the vaunted virus was really just a big nothingburger over which everyone in Snowflakeland overreacted, while Ron admirably kept his cool. Indeed, this idea has rapidly become one of the centerpieces of his appeal to the Republican electorate, or so we are told. 

Jim Geraghty, senior editor at National Review, offered a textbook example in a post-midterm opinion piece for the Washington Post:

As governor, DeSantis took on some gargantuan fights and won. Most notably, his pandemic policies—reopening society faster and wider than many other states—spurred outrage from liberals who nicknamed him “DeathSantis”….But the governor came out of the pandemic more popular in Florida than when it started.

As Americans consider lockdown fallout—including children’s learning loss from school closings, the impact of prolonged isolation on mental health, ruined small businesses, etc.—governors who quickly reopened their states look increasingly wise.

Oh, do they? Whitemansplain that to me some more, Jim. 

This blithe canard that the response to COVID was overblown certainly serves the right wing narrative, especially in hindsight. But that doesn’t make it remotely true. Nor does being popular make a policy “wise,” any more than it makes a politician so.  

So let’s be clear.

COVID-19 killed over a million Americans over the past two years and nine months, and still counting. It has killed more of us than died in both world wars combined, more than in the Civil War, and will soon surpass all the war dead in all our conflicts from 1775 to 1991

It is currently the third leading cause of death in this country. 

Those numbers ought to be horrifying enough. But without the interventions of sane public servants like Anthony Fauci, Vivek Murthy, Ashish Jha, and Joe Biden, it might have been two million, or three million, or five million, and still rising. When it came to combatting the pandemic during that early and most lethal phase, the United States—the most technologically and medically advanced country in the world—looked as hapless and beleaguered as the worst backwater in the developing world, and it was all our own doing. It was truly pitiful. Bob Woodward, who interviewed Trump during that very period, subsequently expressed his horror at the depraved indifference to human life Donald displayed as he prioritized his own political future—as he imagined it—over the very lives of the American citizens he was duty-bound to serve. Trump plainly believed that aggressive action to stop the spread of the virus—or even to simply acknowledge it—would only hurt him. The opposite turned out to be true. His approach wasn’t great for the people who died either.  

But unfortunately for Biden and Team Sanity, you don’t get credit for the disasters you avoided, at least not at the polls, or to the degree that is deserved. So it’s not at all surprising to see the right wing trotting out this counterfactual post-COVID revisionism in which their refusal to take the pandemic seriously was the correct path after all. But to paraphrase the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking on another matter, that’s like safely emerging from a rainstorm and angrily insisting, “What did I need that umbrella for? I didn’t get wet at all!”

That Washington Post article, by the by, is titled “DeSantis Would Pave the Way for a Post-Trump GOP Return To Normal,” which kind of says it all about what’s wrong with the Republican Party. It was the first place I saw this insidious claim, but I soon began to see it regularly and routinely from conservative commentators, often tossed about as “needless to say, we all know” kind of aside. And its popularity is only growing as Trump appears to be imploding, at last, leaving DeSantis the presumptive heir to the keys to the clown car that is the contemporary GOP. 

Which is why Ron DeSantis’s cynical decision to rally round the anti-science agenda of the MAGA base, and its attendant post hoc gaslighting, and the feedback loop in which Republicans applaud that position and internalize its lies, is especially troubling. And that gaslighting has been dialed up to eleven ever since the midterms, as one shitty wing of the GOP gets behind DeSantis and girds for intramural battle with another shitty wing that is still on Team Trump. 

FLORIDA MAN

The whole appeal of Ron DeSantis to Republicans, ostensibly, is that unlike Donald Trump, he is smart. Fair enough—he went to Harvard and Yale, right? So as an educated man, when COVID-19 first appeared, he initially advocated the appropriate, common sense measures that the best-informed public health experts advised, measures that saved untold lives and kept the pandemic from being even worse in those places where they were duly implemented. Much, much worse. 

DeSantis instituted a lockdown, set up highway checkpoints for travelers entering Florida, and took steps to make the vaccine readily available once it was approved for use. Writing in The Bulwark, the Never Trump conservative Amanda Carpenter notes that he attended the “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine summit in December 2020 and outlined plans for Florida’s vaccine rollout, including a “Seniors First” initiative; formed a partnership to create in-store vaccine sites with Publix supermarkets (itself owned by a hardcore Trumper who later helped finance the January 6thrally); and even personally participated in a “Fox & Friends” segment where health care workers vaccinated a 94-year-old World War II veteran in his home. 

Here he is speaking in July 2021:

If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero. If you look at the people that are being admitted to hospitals, over 95 percent of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all. And so these vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.

So far, so good, yes?

But very quickly Ron stuck his finger in the humid Florida air and realized which way the prevailing political winds were blowing. Seeing that a Strangelovian precious bodily fluids mentality ruled the right wing roost, he quickly did a 180 and embraced the anti-vax, anti-lockdown, anti-mask, COVID denialism movement with both of his stubby little arms. 

Per Carpenter, DeSantis “was among the first governors to lift restrictions on businesses—and even went so far as to forbid local governments from fining people for violating masking or social-distancing rules.” He also pushed legislation allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates for their children. Soon he was opposing vaccine mandates as well, beginning with the cruise ship industry, big business in Florida. 

In some ways, this strategic maneuver was even more despicable than Trump’s infantile wishful thinking that COVID would just go away if only he ignored it. DeSantis, by contrast, knew better, and yet promoted reckless public health policies anyway, for personal political gain. (You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Ronny.)

Moreoever, this wasn’t some sort of genial libertarianism—it was performative contempt tailor-made to thrill the mouthbreathing MAGA community. A low point may have been him bullying Florida schoolchildren, in front of the TV cameras, for choosing to wear masks. So much for personal choice. By January 2022 he was refusing to say whether or not he himself had gotten the booster. (The previous month Trump had been booed in Dallas for saying he gotten it.) Once again, as Carpenter notes, this was not small government resistance to vaccine mandates; it was tinfoil hat suspicion of vaccines themselves, or at least pandering to the same.

In May 2020, Rich Lowry wrote a widely circulated piece in National Review praising DeSantis for shrugging off COVID precautions called “Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?” But perhaps that praise was, uh, premature. 

DeSantis began reopening Florida on May 4, 2020, when the pandemic was barely two months old. On that day, there were 527 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the Sunshine State. 

By July 3, there were 11,406.  

Around that time, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times wrote a cheeky piece called, “My Apology to Florida Gov. DeSantis: Sorry, You’re Even Worse Than I Imagined,” noting how DeSantis had “turned the battle against COVID-19 into a political issue.” Since that time, COVID-19 killed more people 65 and older in Florida than in any other state, a statistic that remains alarming even taking into account the fact that Florida has a higher proportion of senior citizens than most states. (With 4.6 million seniors, it has the nation’s second highest percentage of residents 65 or older, after—weirdly—Maine.) Some might say that argued for its governor to be more cautious about relaxing COVID restrictions, not less.

As the Palm Beach Post reported just last month, a whopping 36% of Florida’s 82,065 COVID deaths are in that demographic, according to CDC figures, a higher death rate for seniors than any other state. “The figures are worse for seniors 85 and older,” the Post reports. “Florida leads the nation with 9,828 COVID-related deaths in that age group. These grim statistics leave the far-more populous states of California and Texas eating our dust…..You don’t have to be a pulmonologist to understand what’s occurring here: As more and more children, young adults and middle-aged people forgo protective masks and vaccines, the elderly are left exposed and vulnerable—many die as a result.”

SKYFALL

Ron’s defenders argue that he merely changed positions based on emerging data. Bullshit. That argument might hold water if the emerging data supported a more lax approach to fighting COVID. It’s hard to see how vaccine denialism squares with that.  

The truth is that DeSantis changed positions based on what he thought would benefit him with the Know Nothing MAGA base. And it seems to have worked, because one of the chief attractions of DeSantis to his supporters is this fairy tale that COVID was overblown, and that the left behaved like Chicken Little while governors like DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas were the voice of reason. Indeed, it has become an article of faith among allegedly “highbrow” conservatives at places like the National Review and the Wall Street Journal and the right-leaning columnists for the Washington Post. It is, in the end, the same willfully blind anti-science denialism that is promoted by the nutjob Ted Nugents and Jim Bakkers (and Aaron Rodgers) of the world, merely dressed up in more hoity toity, multisyllabic prose. Anecdotally, I’m now finding it pervasive among rank and file conservatives who don’t have the platforms of a columnist for NR or the WaPo, but are clearly ingesting the opinions of those pundits. 

This position is even seeping out of the right wing media and into more legitimate press. In a piece for The Atlantic called “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty,” the economist Emily Oster thoughtfully proposes that we collectively excuse the honest mistakes and errors made by our public servants as they dealt with the unprecedented emergency of a global pandemic. But almost all the errors she concerns herself with—overzealousness on social distancing, mixed messages on masking, confused guidance on the relative efficacy of the various vaccines—were on the part of the credible public health community. She spends precious little time—almost none, in fact—on the other side, those who downplayed the severity of the virus, who spread disinformation about its origin, or who promoted quack cures. That is not because she is arguing that these mistakes are outside of her proposed amnesty and demand consequences. On the contrary, it seems to be because she seems to consider those mistakes less grievous. Or at the very least that is the impression that their omission from her article creates.  

What DeSantis is doing ahead of his expected presidential run is considerably worse than a mere appeal to those who believe that there was an overabundance of caution in combatting COVID. He is openly pandering to those who believe in active conspiracy about the virus itself, its origin, and its cure….or as Carpenter puts it in The Bulwark, “sucking up to the anti-vax crowd and styling himself as a crusader against what he calls the ‘biomedical security state.’ And, like most of DeSantis’s political stunts, his overtures to the fringe are pretty cringey.”

DeSantis recently hosted a roundtable in West Palm Beach to promote the idea that the COVID vaccines have harmful side-effects which the MSM conspired to cover up. His own surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, is an advocate of that view, for which he has come under harsh criticism from his colleagues in the medical community. Addressing what he calls the “bankruptcy of the public health establishment,” he also announced the creation of a new state agency to be called the “Public Health Integrity Committee” as a counterweight to the CDC—popular bogeyman for the right that it is—and filled it with anti-vaxxers, overseen by that surgeon general. Two of its members are co-authors of the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a manifesto that emerged early in the pandemic that argued for the goal of herd immunity, which entailed letting COVID run amok.

Carpenter surmises that this “Public Health Integrity Committee” looks like another taxpayer-funded PR stunt of the kind Ron is clearly enamored, albeit with dire consequences. 

In the recent past, he’s used the powers of his office to fly bewildered migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and leave them stranded there; challenge Disney’s favorable tax status in retaliation for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” law; fine social media companies for deplatforming conservative political candidates; and arrest people, some of them previously informed by government entities that they were eligible to vote, for voter fraud. What all of these efforts share is a questionable legal basis; they are unlikely to succeed on the merits. But that hasn’t stopped them from grabbing national headlines. It’s almost as though that is all they were designed to do.

Given the fact that DeSantis is already the preferred alternative to Trump among many Republicans, embracing junk science to curry favor with MAGA World and outflank Trump on the right strikes some as a foolish gambit, one that would only drive away voters that DeSantis—or any Trump challenger—desperately needs. It is therefore strategically fraught, to say nothing of morally despicable. Sadly, it seems that we are about to find out whether that gamble will pay off. 

M.A.F.

At one point last year, I was driving in Philadelphia and pulled up behind a car with a bumper sticker that looked suspiciously like a Trump/Pence “Make America Great” decal from 2016. But on closer inspection, I saw that it read “DeSantis ’24—Make America Florida.”

I laughed, though I worried that some people might miss the joke and think it was serious. 

Several days went by before I learned that it was serious. As if becoming like Florida is something the rest of the country aspires to. Takes all kinds, I guess.  

Personally, I find the appeal of Ron DeSantis mystifying. “Boring Trump”, Ari Melber calls him. Another pundit—it may have been Max Boot?—noted that with his grim, charisma-free personality, the politician whom DeSantis most resembles is not Trump but Nixon. So it is ironic that his appeal rest largely on this cruelty-is-the-point culture warrior persona, rather than on his policies per se, except insofar as they reflect that image. I get that he’s supposed to be Trump without the Trumpiness, but I’m not sure he has the winning touch, or that the things he did in Florida to thrill conservatives by turning it red can be replicated outside the unique circumstances of that state. Rafi Schwartz recently asked this question in The Week, in an article titled, “Republican Voters Are Flocking To Ron DeSantis—But Why?” 

Fortunately, DeSantis’s perfidy on this COVID has drawn a lot of attention. But as time passes and the pandemic recedes further and further into our past, we will surely see more and more of this revisionism. It represents only one way in which that notion that DeSantis represents, as National Review’s Geraghty wishfully claims, any sort of Republican return to “normalcy” is utterly specious—as if the pre-Trump GOP, which created the conditions that gave rise to a monster like Trump, was in fact normal at all.

Ron DeSantis, who did a 180 on COVID when he saw which way his base was trending, who instituted a “don’t say gay” policy that emulates the hatemongering of Putin and Orban, who spent tax dollars luring asylum seekers from Texas onto a plane bound for Massachusetts—kidnapping, to call a spade a spade—who picked a homophobic fight with Disney like George Wallace standing at the doors of the University of Alabama…..this is not a man who represents a break with Trumpism, only a more disciplined and therefore even scarier incarnation of it.

Make America Florida indeed. 

**********

Photo: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis accepts condolences from a law enforcement officer after failing his audition to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.

The Tragedy of Brazil 

The chatter surrounding the World Cup—sorry, the FIFA World Cup—has largely centered on the corruption and absurdity of holding the tournament in the dead of winter in the obscenely rich (and just plain obscene) autocracy of Qatar. 

Whether Qatar is an improvement over the 2018 host, Russia, is open to debate. But the Qatari regime’s attempt at “sportwashing,” like that of many an Olympic host before it, may be backfiring by casting a glaring light on the country’s ghastliness for Western viewers who previously might not even have known Qatar was a country. The relentless PSAs that the Qatari government has been running during commercial breaks are not helping. 

(Meanwhile, Russia’s team has been banned entirely this time around, owing to a certain unpleasantness unfolding in Ukraine. FIFA getting on its high horse over Putin’s misdeeds is rather rich, and largely a self-serving PR gesture, even if it was still the right thing to do.) 

Soccer, of course, is the least of it when it comes to the West’s relationship with the repressive regimes of the Middle East, as Tom McTague astutely summarized in a recent piece for The Atlantic:

Qatar hosting the soccer World Cup is like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. It should not have happened, but the very fact that it has only exposes how bad things have become.

Underlying the shame of the World Cup in Qatar and the petrostate ownership of European soccer is this banal reality: These states are our diplomatic and commercial allies. We in the West not only accept their money for our sports teams, but we buy their fossil fuels and in return sell them arms. And we seal the deal by placing our hands on weird glowing orbs in the desert to profess our friendship. To expect sports to act as some honorable exception while the rest of society is trying to make as much money as possible—regardless of the morality or long-term security of their countries—is ridiculous.

Or to put it another way, in the blunt words of my Tom Hall of The Back Row Manifesto, a far more knowledgeable and fanatic soccer buff than I am, “I don’t know why everything has to have the joy sucked out of it by corrupt greedy assholes, but here we are.”

Preach.

But amid all this obvious disgracefulness, there is another grim story with an authoritarian bent that is also unfolding at this tournament. 

ORDEM E PROGRESSO

In international football there’s a saying that everyone’s second favorite team, after their own, is Brazil, owing to the elegance with which that country plays the game, and the sheer infectious joy of its fans. 

But Brazil, as we know, has only recently ejected the neo-fascist demagogue Jair Bolsonaro—the so-called “Trump of the tropics”—in favor of the return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known just as Lula, the progressive leader who previously served two terms as president in the ‘00s. Many were surprised that Bolsonaro did not go further in questioning the results of the vote, refusing to cede power, or perhaps even resorting to violence in a self-coup. (After all, even Donald did that.) As it stands, matters in that country remain touch-and-go.

Bolsonaro did lots of horrible things in his four years in office—like hastening the destruction of the Amazon rain forest, thereby accelerating the global climate emergency and putting the very survival of the planet at risk. So there’s that. But he also managed to fuck up another of Brazil’s greatest natural resources, which is soccer.

During the course of the tense presidential campaign, Bolsonaro’s supporters co-opted the national team’s famous canary yellow jerseys as their own. What was once a symbol of national unity, a sea of yellow in the stands—and in the streets—became a vile political statement of right wing nationalism. It’s not unlike the way the Republican Party has seized the Stars & Stripes and other icons of American patriotism as its emblems and its alone, to the point where many progressives and other Americans reflexively recoil when they see the US flag displayed, knowing that often as not, a gun-toting, Big Lie-believing, COVID-denying Trump supporter is behind it. That is a theft that we ought not let stand, by the by, which is why I have an American flag decal on the bumper of my car, right next to my BIDEN/HARRIS decal, just to let Republicans know they don’t own that flag, nor patriotism full stop. (Tellingly, it has drawn some dirty looks and even shouted insults on the Jersey Turnpike.)

But the desecration of Brazilian football went far beyond wardrobe. Bolsonaro also secured the public support of several players on the national team, including its marquee superstar and most prolific scorer, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, who in the Brazilian style goes by the mononym Neymar. (You know, like Charo, or Madonna.) 

To give you an idea of the weight that endorsement carries, imagine Tom Brady, Tom Hanks. Oprah, and Beyonce all rolled into one, coming out for Trump. 

It’s so ugly that even Glenn Greenwald knows it.

One of the three or four best players in the world by any measure, Neymar, who plays his club ball for star-studded Paris Saint-Germain, isn’t the only right winger on the Brazilian squad. The team captain Thiago Silva, of Chelsea, and former national team player Lucas Moura, of Tottenham Hotspur, are also in Bolsonaro’s camp, to name but two. But Neymar is the most high profile. 

(He’s got some other problems as well. Neymar, his family, and FC Barcelona are currently on trial in Spain over alleged fraud and corruption surrounding his transfer to that club in 2013 from his previous owners, Santos of Brazil. The Brazilian Supreme Court threw out a related tax evasion charge against him in 2016.)

Reckoning with the odious political beliefs of our favorite athletes, artists, and others is nothing new, and in some ways, it’s unfair to single out one player or one team or one country, even when it’s the superstar player on the number one team on the planet. So many of these players, managers, and owners, not to mention their fan bases, or the governments they play for, are despicable, politically speaking. But it is especially sad to have the longstanding joy of watching Brazilian football tainted by the current wave of right wing shitbaggery. And to have that unfold during a World Cup in the borderline slave state of Qatar is a one-two punch of crappiness, bad vibes, and generally grim commentary on the state of the world. 

OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ

I am of the generation of Americans who came to soccer in the 1970s, during the AYSO years, after years of playing Pop Warner football (and lacrosse when I could find it). It was a time, we were told, when the sport would finally catch on and conquer the US the way it had long before conquered the rest of the world. The reasons are self-evident. It’s an elegant and exciting game both to play and to watch, and one that requires almost no equipment, such that even the poorest barefoot child in the most poverty-stricken favela can play, with a ball made of masking tape. You don’t even need a hoop, or a ball that bounces. Crucially, it’s also sport where speed and skill are king and size is not the be-all and end-all, unlike say, American football or basketball. (It doesn’t hurt, though, not only for goalkeepers and defenders, but also attacking players. See: Erling Haaland.) 

Following soccer, you are part of a global culture, which brings rewards well beyond the sport, or “sport” full stop, as they say in Britain. It’s also fun to root for the US in a realm where waving the Stars & Stripes is not an arrogant display of hypernationalism from the most powerful kid on the block, but an expression of identification with and support for a scrappy underdog. 

It took a bit longer than predicted, but soccer has arguably—finally—ascended to front rank status in the US, even if it has not surpassed the popularity of football, baseball, or basketball. At my daughter’s middle school here in Brooklyn, I never see kids wearing NFL jerseys, but I see a lot of kids wearing the shirts of Chelsea, Barcelona, Liverpool, PSG, and Juventus. (Admittedly the situation is very different with my in-laws in Philly, where the Eagles are ubiquitous.) 

Likewise, time was when the World Cup was as obscure and shrug-eliciting in America as Robbie Williams, not must-see viewing and water cooler conversation. And weird as a winter World Cup is, it’s likely increased the tournament’s visibility and viewership in the US by being held during the holidays, when people are home and watching TV, rather than in summer.

For me, this makes the tenth World Cup I have followed. I was a brand new US Army lieutenant freshly arrived in West Germany during the ‘86 tournament, held in Mexico, the first time I had taken notice of the event. I had not experienced anything like it, omnipresent on televisions in the homes and the bars and on the streets of the football-mad FRG. I watched Maradona score the infamous Hand of God goal against England in the semifinals (or my faded memory wants to believe I did), and Argentina beat the Germans in the heartbreaking final, causing Wagnerian levels of sturm und drang in my local Hessian gasthaus. 

Eight years later, in 1994, I was living in California when the World Cup was held in the US for the first time. Brazil played its opening round games at Stanford Stadium, and its army of boisterous fans took up residence on the Peninsula for the month, dancing through the streets on game days like it was Carnival in Rio. Palo Alto was still a sleepy university town at the time, with the first dotcom boom barely beginning to ripple. I worked at one of the few bars in town—the Blue Chalk Café—which was packed night and day with crazy Brazilians in canary yellow and green and blue. I even got to see Brazil play two games in the flesh, a team that included the likes of Romario, Cafu, Jorginho,and a 17-year-old Ronaldo. Ironically, it was Brazil that knocked the US out of the tournament in a round-of-16 match played at Stanford on the Fourth of July.

When Brazil moved on to play the subsequent rounds down in Pasadena, Sweden and Romania rolled into town to play their quarterfinal. The bar stayed decked in brilliant yellow and blue, this time of the Nordic cross, as the Swedish fans partied just as hard as the Brazilians, and were just as joyful in their Scandinavian way. They had a lot of trouble, however, with the syncopated Brazilian music we had taken to playing for the past month. Eventually one of the Swedes handed us a CD of their preferred soundtrack, and the crowd erupted at the strains of four-on-the-floor, ABBA-style Europop. 

For its part, Brazil went on to win its record fourth Jules Rimet Trophy, beating Italy on penalties in a scoreless final played in the Rose Bowl, the first and only time the World Cup was ever decided on PKs. (The Brazilians won a fifth in 2002.) 

How long ago that now feels. One measure of that passage of time: Alexi Llalas, the red-bearded wild man defender of the ’94 US team, a guy for whom the seven-second delay was invented, is now a clean-cut, square-jawed, occasionally crotchety you-kids-get-off-my-lawn elder statesman among the US commentators. 

GET YOUR KICKS IN ‘26

I don’t know how Brazil will fare in this tournament. They’re one of the favorites, but my money is on France, the defending champ, for a rare repeat. Neymar hurt his ankle in Brazil’s opening match against Serbia and sat out the next two; he was back in force for the win over South Korea in the round-of-16, converting a penalty kick and notching an assist as well. (He now trails Pele by just a single goal as Brazil’s all-time leading scorer, albeit with a Maris-like asterisk, as it took him a third more games to reach that milestone.) Meanwhile, Richarlison had two goals in that Serbia match, the second of which was one of the most beautiful strikes you’ll ever see, an acrobatic, capoeira-like bicycle kick. But the truly brilliant part was the little flick with the left foot that set it up.

Ironically, Brazil’s dark turn comes at a time when Pele himself—still the most iconic footballer of all time, and the man most responsible for popularizing soccer in the US during his turn with the still-beloved New York Cosmos—is seriously ill with a respiratory infection. If that’s not emblematic, I dunno what is. (The latest word is said to be encouraging. The whole world wishes him well.)

I don’t hold the sins of Bolsonaro against the Brazilian people, let alone their football team, any more than I hold Trump against our own country. On the contrary: in places suffering from political oppression, a national sporting team can be one of the few outlets for collective relief and expression of genuine national pride, not the bullshit neo-fascist kind, and even, in some cases, dissent. Witness the bravery of the Iranian national team at this same World Cup, refusing to sing their own national anthem in solidarity with ongoing protests back home over the murder of Mahsa Amini. This is no empty gesture, but one with potentially severe repercussions for those players and for their families. The Iranian government subsequently ordered the team to sing or face the consequences; the players complied with half-hearted mumbling, with the whole world watching. Already, it has arrested Voria Ghafouri, a well-known player left off its World Cup squad, for his comments criticizing the regime. 

This sort of “forced patriotism” is the Colin Kaepernick saga writ large. It is a bleak irony that the same American nationalists who ostentatiously proclaim that they “kneel for the cross and stand for the flag,” who think Kaep is a “traitor” who ought to be thrown in jail (or worse), and who loudly despise the “ragheads” of Persia (whom they frequently misidentify as Arabs), are possessed of the same love-it-or-leave-it impulse. 

But it’s simply not as easy as it once was to thrill to the Brazilian team, and certainly not as unimpeachably joyful to watch certain players, or to see the sea of throbbing, delirious yellow in the stands and not wonder which of those fans are onboard with the Bolosonaran neo-fascism roiling their country. A fair number of them, the numbers suggest. It’s the same queasy feeling I get when I look at any large gathering of my own countrymen these days and wonder: Which side are you on?

Of course, there are far greater problems in the world than this. But it remains a shame that the days of happily rooting for Brazil are over, let alone in a World Cup absurdly being held in a shamelessly corrupt Middle Eastern monarchy, thanks to a shamelessly corrupt FIFA, which went ahead with this farce even after being crucified for its own patently obvious graft. What could be more fitting for the present moment? 

The right wing sickness that Brazil is fighting off is on the rise in Italy and Israel, on the wane in France (I think), continuing to fester in the Philippines and Hungary and Turkey and Russia, and just suffered a welcome setback here at home in the November midterms. But we are still far from being able to exhale and consider it eradicated, or even fully contained. 

The 2026 World Cup will be held in North America, jointly hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. I can’t speak for our northern or southern neighbors, but when it arrives, let’s hope that we won’t be talking about a third straight World Cup held in a fucking autocracy. 

*********

Photo: Brazilian striker and Bolsonaro supporter Neymar Jr. Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images.

What Will Republicans Learn from the Midterms?

It is axiomatic that, in war, the losers learn more than the winners. Given how much reckless talk of actual civil war is in the air, I am hesitant to resort to martial metaphors, especially in this case, where the Republicans—who were very clearly the losers Tuesday night—are unlikely to learn much. Leave it to them to defy the cliché in the worst possible way.

As of this writing, we don’t yet know which party will control Congress. What we do know is that whatever the outcome, the ensuing majorities in both houses will be razor thin. That is because of the other thing we know, which is that Joe Biden and the Democrats held on to seats up and down the ballot in historic proportions in defiance of the usual midterm pattern. That victory was especially sweet amid all the pre-Election Day Republican arrogance about a “red wave,” and eleventh hour gaslighting by the party and its allies, from Fox to Musk to the Kremlin, abetted by the reliably useful idiots in the MSM, that it was already a done deal. 

Luckily, John and Jane Q. Voter didn’t listen. 

It is obviously very cheering that we saw stark evidence that sanity is still alive in the USA, if only barely. A slim majority of Americans firmly repudiated Trumpism, making it clear they don’t want election deniers and insurrectionists and hatemongers running the government…that they want us to be “a normal country” again, as I heard one pundit say. By “normal,” I presume they mean one where extremists don’t hold the levers of power, where every election is not an existential crisis, where the losers don’t reflexively howl that they wuz rubbed, where every day is not a nerve-rattling shitshow to which we awake wondering “What fresh hell?” 

Still, it is alarming is how close it was, and how many of our fellow citizens are fully onboard with the Big Lie and budding right wing autocracy, or at least not sufficiently bothered by it to run the Republican Party out of business for good. But I will take what I can get. Like many, I thought it would be worse. A lot worse. 

So, returning to our opening premise, can we correctly say that the GOP “lost” when it might still wind up controlling the House and maybe the Senate as well? Yes, in terms of underperforming relative to lofty expectations. Yes also, in terms of political capital, and tailwinds, and public opinion, and other intangibles in the Democrats’ favor. 

But in terms of explicit power, a win is a win, whether it’s a squeaker or a blowout, as Susan Glasser noted in The New Yorker. If the Republican Party gets control of either or both houses, you can count on it to act like it has a sweeping, landslide-driven mandate, humility and optics and even pragmatic long term self-interest be damned. As Glasser writes: “A one-vote margin in the House would still give subpoena power to Jim Jordan as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. It would still mean the difference between Biden being able to advance his legislative agenda with a Democratic Speaker or the impossibility of doing so with a Republican one.”

Preach. If Kevin McCarthy gets the gavel—let alone, God forbid, Mitch McConnell over in the Senate—he will do all the things that have been predicted in these pages and elsewhere—impeach Biden, shield Trump from prosecution, cut off aid to Ukraine, try to pass a nationwide abortion ban—just as if the GOP had won the midterms in a 2010-style “shellacking.” 

Then again, Kev might not become Speaker at all. But if he does, it will be Marjorie Taylor Greene acting as his puppetmaster. 

McCarthy may be smart enough to know that many of these actions will be vastly unpopular with a general public that just announced that it’s tired of the politics of grievance and obstructionism. But Kevin will not be able to resist the pressure from his party’s Hamas wing (to cop a phrase from Barney Frank in reference to an earlier generation of the Republican lunatic fringe). As former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe noted the other night, Speaker McCarthy, should he ascend to that role, is in for years of misery, in a glorious case of “careful what you wish for.”

Or it might just be months. Boehner and Ryan await you on the golf course, Kev.

Because here’s the thing, dear reader: 

How many people out there think that this epic thumping that the GOP just took will cause it to come to its senses? How many of you believe that, as my friend Tom Hall at the Back Row Manifesto says, Republicans will be “chastened into good governance and policies and will tack to the center”? (Note: Withering Sarcasm™.)

Of course they won’t. They will look at the results and say, “We weren’t extreme enough!” They will conclude that they have to re-double their current efforts to control the electoral process in order to award themselves victories and secure power, as they clearly cannot do so fair and square. (Luckily, that does not bother them.) Even as it was made abundantly clear that the American public by and large does not want Trumpist candidates, that faction of the GOP will exert even more power going forward, because the so-called “normie” branch of the party made a Faustian bargain with them from which it cannot extricate itself.

I realize that that is not the consensus of the punditocracy. I know that the left, and the Never Trump right, are both justifiably celebrating this rebuke of Trump. (There was so much glee on “Morning Joe” the day after the election that even I got embarrassed.) I know how good that feels and how satisfying it is. But I am not yet prepared to say that this midterm marks the end of the radical right turn of the Republican Party that began, uh, in 1964 but truly accelerated in 2016. It may mark nothing more than the passing of the right wing torch from Trump to DeSantis, if that, and that frankly, is a lateral move. (More on that in a moment.)

In The Atlantic, Peter Wehner notes that the contemporary GOP has grown more, not less Trumpy in its composition of late: Cheney and Kinzinger are out, MTG, Boebert, Gosar, Biggs, and Gaetz are in. And these people are not known for their savvy electoral politics.

Those who inhabit MAGA world are deeply alienated from institutions, including political ones, and therefore a good deal less loyal to the Republican Party than they are to Donald Trump…. I’m not sure right-wing pundits declaring that the Republican Party needs to move on from Trump will sway those voters, any more than it did in 2015 and 2016, when virtually the entire GOP establishment opposed Trump.

To that point: it was noteworthy that voters turned away Big Lie Republicans in governor and secretary state races in particular, positions crucial to who controls and certifies the vote in 2024. Even so, some 150 election deniers did manage to win seats in Congress across 45 states, an increase from the 143 who on January 6, 2021 voted not to certify Joe Biden’s victory, even after a violent attempt at a self-coup earlier that day. 

(Guess how many of those deniers are saying their own elections were fraudulent? I’ll give you a hint: it’s a number that was first used by the ancient Mesopotamians in the year 3 BCE.)

So rumors of the Big Lie’s death are greatly exaggerated. 

Of course, I could be wrong. It may yet prove that this is—finally—the thing that breaks Trump’s grip on the Republican Party: quite simply, that he is undeniably costing them elections. What could be more prosaic? But if the GOP didn’t follow the advice of its famous “autopsy” after Romney’s beatdown in 2012, at a time when the party was still controlled by semi-rational grownups, what makes us think it will do so now that it is much more deeply in the grip of the lunatics?

So yes, a modicum of sanity was cited in America on Tuesday night, like a rare bird thought to be extinct. But guard lowering is not advised. Far from it.

WEDNESDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKING

A brief round-the-horn survey of some other noteworthy aspects of the midterms:

Biden and others—like DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain—came in for heavy pre-Election Day criticism over strategy, especially the decision to focus on the threat to democracy, and on abortion rights, and not so-called kitchen sink issues. But “Dobbs, Deniers, and Donald,” as one chryon put it, proved to be a winning combo. 

Many people wanted us to believe that the outrage over Dobbs had cooled and would not help Democrats. But it turned out that a lot of American women—and men, too, those who believe that Margaret Atwood’s vision of the future is not something we should aspire to—have memories that last longer than a few months. In addition to widespread victories by pro-choice candidates over advocates of forced birth, referendums codifying the right to an abortion passed not only in California and Michigan but even in Kentucky and Montana, following the model of Kansas last August. 

Some of the other big Democratic wins: Josh Shapiro over the monstrous Doug Mastriano in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, which could prove pivotal in that swing state in ‘24, especially now that Florida is no longer in play; also in PA, Fetterman over Oz, along with wins in every other competitive House race in that state. Gretchen Whitmer was re-elected as governor and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state in Michigan, also a crucial state, both of whom were targeted for murder by Trumpist domestic terrorists in ’20. Wes Moore became the first Black governor of Maryland and only the third Black governor elected in US history. (Can you fucking believe that?) Then there was Max Frost of Florida, winning Val Demings’ old district, the gay Afro-Cuban who will be the youngest member of the new Congress and first ever representative from Gen Z. And we now have two “out” lesbian governors, up from zero, as the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg reports, Tina Hotek of Oregon and Maura Healey of Massachusetts.

In Wisconsin, Tony Evers won re-election as governor, and Republicans failed to obtain the legislative supermajority that would have allowed them to neuter him, even as that state remains a terrifying laboratory for experimentation in right wing autocracy. As of this writing, Lauren Boebert may lose her race in Colorado and Katie Hobbs may yet triumph over the despicable Kari Lake in Arizona. (Lake—Trump in a dress, but with a similar haircut—is already crying “fraud” even before the race is called.)

But there were some tough losses too: in Senate races in Ohio and North Carolina, and longer shots in Iowa and Florida and the governor’s races in Georgia and Texas. Not to criticize the DNC, having just praised it, but with a little money, Tim Ryan might have beat that toxic poseur J.D. Vance in the Buckeye State. Despite the loss, his campaign was an impressive model, and his concession speech—a paean to the privilege of being able to congratulate his opponent in a peaceful transfer of power—was a thing of beauty, not to mention a pointed rebuke to the opposing party that would do away with such quaint traditions.

Another loss, and a brutal one, was in New York, where cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder pumped $11 million into trying to put former Congressman Lee Zeldin, another election denier, into the governor’s chair. He failed, but Zeldin did well enough in right wing bastions like Long Island, Staten Island, and upstate to boost several Republican candidates for the House. Republicans were further aided by a new electoral map, drawn up by a court-ordered special master last spring, that leveled the playing field for them in that heavily Democratic state. 

Now, one may say that insisting upon less partisan redistricting is a good thing, and it is….but it is not being applied evenly across the national board. Along with New York, blue states like Colorado and New Jersey threw out gerrymandered to favor Democrats. But in Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas, to name just a few, maps that had been heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans were allowed to stand—often by Republican-dominated courts—resulting in a pickup of several House seats for the GOP with a mere finger snap. 

You can’t win when you are made to play the fair and the other side isn’t. For that very reason, Republicans are sure to ramp up their efforts to rig the game even further next time. 

But the real sin was that the dysfunctional NY state Democratic Party made it worse by pitting its own incumbents against each other, like stalwarts Jerry Nadler and Caroline Maloney (Maloney lost and left Congress after thirty years there), or Sean Patrick Maloney, the national chairman of the DCCC, who chose to run in Mondaire Jones’s old district. In a bitter irony, Maloney then lost in that district, the first time that has happened to a conference chairman of either party in thirty years. 

The consequences of such incompetence are gutting. The old map would have put just four New York Republicans in the House; the new one put eleven, which is outrageous in a state that went for Biden by 24 points in 2020, and might be the critical difference that winds up costing the Democrats that chamber. As a New Yorker, that really hurts, and we only have our own party’s infighting to blame.

THAT GEORGIA’S ALWAYS ON MY MY MY MY MY MY MIND

The midterm results weren’t even in yet when the GOP began citing the record turnout as evidence that the new laws it put in place in numerous states following their 2020 loss were not draconian, as Democrats had argued—let alone Jim Crow 2.0—and had not in fact made it harder for Americans—certain Americans, that is—to vote. 

But just because the American people overcame the obstacles that had been put in their way and got to the polls regardless does not mean that those obstacles were any less egregious. Moreover, there’s no way of knowing how much greater the Democrats’ turnout would have been—and therefore their wins—if such suppression had not taken place.

Depending on what happens in Nevada and Arizona, control of the Senate, and therefore the contours of the next two years, may come down yet again to a runoff in Georgia, a place where that kind of voter suppression has been rife under Governor Brian Kemp, pre-dating Trump in fact. It is mind-boggling to me that the voters of that state, of which I am an adopted son, are so evenly split between two candidates who could not be more opposite in every possible way. One wonders if those numbers would still be so, and if Warnock might have cleared the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff, without that suppression.

Elsewhere in the former Confederacy, Florida is now undeniably a solid red state, taking its 29 electoral votes with it. That is a strategic reality with which the Democratic Party will have to reckon going forward. 

Having accomplished that admittedly impressive feat, DeSantis—“Boring Trump,” as Ari Melber calls him—is being touted more than ever as the future of his party, and rational Republican strategists will no doubt be longing for him to assume that position formally. I, for one, question whether he can export his particular brand of charmless Nixonian autocracy, and how well it will work—and play—outside the uniquely weird Sunshine State. Can he replicate his success nationwide? Will he even be given the chance, or will the party continue to stick with Trump? 

Either way, it’s very likely that in the process Trump will burn the party to the ground in an internecine gangland-style war. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys. 

But let’s be clear: DeSantis does not represent a repudiation of Trumpism. He is more like the “smarter Trump“ that many of us have long feared, one who pursues the same odious policies, and with the same Donald-like cruelty, but via a more disciplined approach (and minus the carnival freak show), making him even more dangerous in some ways. 

Trump has now lost the popular vote in two presidential races and the electoral vote in one; cost his party the Senate in the Georgia runoff in January 2021; backed dozens of losing candidates in multiple elections; and been the cause of terrible beatings in two successive midterms. Writing in The New York Post (!), John Podhoretz calls Trump “perhaps the most profound vote-repellent in modern American history.” How much pressure will now be on the GOP to dump Donald—an “electoral boat anchor,” as Charlie Sykes calls him—for Ronald, who, for all his own awfulness, has proven that he can deliver wins? 

If they do, it won’t be because they suddenly grew a conscience. Peter Wehner again: 

If the Republican Party does break with Trump now, it will be for only one reason, which is that he’s costing it power. Everything else he did—the relentless assault on truth, the unlimited corruption, the cruelty and incitements to violence, the lawlessness, his sheer depravity—was tolerable and even celebrated, so long as he was in power and viewed by Republicans as the path to more power.

DEMOCRACY DIES IN DARKNESS. ALSO IN DIM LIGHT.

Just before Election Day, Graeme Wood, a writer I generally admire, had a condescending piece in The Atlantic that pooh-poohed the idea that American democracy is under serious threat. In particular, he took issue with Biden casting the current crisis in Gettysburg-like terms during a recent speech at Union Station in Washington. Wood writes:

Many Republicans running for office are either real threats to democracy, or pretending to be threats to democracy because they think their base finds those threats arousing. In either case they are unfit for office, and I hope residents of Arizona, for example, vote accordingly. 

Biden listed various attempts to intimidate voters and election officials. But the suggestion that these crimes have reached a magnitude that might threaten the American constitutional system is simply not borne out by facts or the experience of voters themselves—almost all of whom have more vivid personal experience of high gas prices than of being prevented from voting.

With all due respect, I find this position hopelessly naïve and privileged. It’s true that we are not at a Ft. Sumter-level of crisis—not yet, and I hope we never get there. But do we have to be at that stage of emergency before we take action? I don’t know what cosseted world Mr. Wood lives in, but it must be nice there.

He was even more nakedly wrong—and cynical—in arguing that “democracy is in danger” was a weak closing argument for the Democrats in this election, and that Americans care more about inflation and gas prices. (“The decision to make the preservation of democracy the core of Democrats’ pitch to voters strikes me as a choice of the lofty over the effective,” he wrote. “Voters simply do not care in large numbers about democratic norms.”) 

Some fit that description, certainly. But the evidence suggests that enough people did respond to Biden’s cri de coeur, and I would submit that it is precisely because they can feel how real the threat is. I am quite sure Paul Pelosi feels it. 

You never get credit for the disasters you avoid, but that public response at the polls helped beat back the wave of autocracy a little bit the other night. And we will surely have to do so again, and soon. 

So let’s not get complacent or overconfident or fool ourselves that the danger has passed. It has not. We ought to have learned by now that the modern GOP will stop at nothing in its quest for raw power, and one midterm setback is not going to deter it. On the contrary, it will only make Republicans more radical, and ferocious, and willing to fight dirty to gain the kind of political chokehold that means they’ll never have to face the nuisance of a free election ever again.

Tuesday night was a welcome sign that the light of democracy is still flickering in America, but there are chilly winds still blowing. We ignore them at our own peril.

*********

Photo: President Biden speaking in Philadelphia on September 1, 2022 warning of the threat to democracy posed by the Republican Party. Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times.

James Carroll’s “Revelations of the War in Ukraine”

For the past 40 years, there has been no more eloquent or passionate opponent of the madness of nuclear weaponry than James Carroll

A child of the duck-and-cover era and son of a three-star Air Force general, Carroll entered adulthood as what used to be called “a radical priest,” part of the anti-war Catholic Left of the 1960s. After leaving the Paulist order in 1974, he turned prize-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction, on matters ranging from the Cold War to the history of anti-Semitism in the Church, as well as a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe. On the topic of nuclear disarmament, he is arguably without peer in the English language. 

Yet Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine caused Carroll to reconsider the anti-war beliefs that have undergirded his entire adult life, and nuclear disarmament in particular. Watching Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression, and the bravery and devotion of the Ukrainian people in response, he writes, “For the first time in decades, I was unabashedly in favor of war.” 

Carroll has crystallized those thoughts in a lengthy essay called “Revelations of the War in Ukraine: An Anti-War Activist’s Personal and Political Reckoning,” a profound survey of the implications of the Ukraine war on global security and the cause of peace. Public Seminar, a digital publication of The New School in New York City, has been serializing it online for the past two months, in six parts.  I urge you all to read it. Links below:

1. A Just War?

2. My Convictions

3. Nuclear Dread Redux

4. Moments of Moral Reckoning after Wars End

5. After Ukraine

6. A New Treaty?

I was among a small group of writers whom Jim—who I am honored to call my friend—asked to deliver brief responses to his powerhouse essay. My piece can be found here, along with those by Frida Berrigan, the anti-war activist and daughter of Philip Berrigan; Randall Kennedy, the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School; Jeremy Varon, professor of history at The New School; and Robert Jay Lifton, the eminent psychiatrist, Columbia professor, and author of The Nazi Doctors (1986). Jim himself has also published a postscript, called “Life on Earth: Repeating Myself about the Putin Revelation.”

What follows is a greatly expanded and modified version of my essay.

LIKE RIDING A BIKE

For Carroll, the Ukraine war began with a reminder of what courage looks like. 

He writes that he found in Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people the same commitment to “a commonwealth of liberal democracy”—to the point of willingness to give their lives—that in his youth he found in the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, John F. Kennedy, and Daniel Berrigan. “(W)hat Ukraine has been showing me all these months is that it is possible not only to want such values, and to defend them, but actually to fight to enable them to prevail.” 

And he does not mean “fight” figuratively, which matters. For a longtime anti-war activist ever to endorse the resort to force of arms is a sobering moment.

At the same time, he notes the alarming muscle memory with which America quickly popped back to the Russophobia ingrained by forty-six years of Cold War:

The Kremlin was once again the supremely unifying adversary, a malevolent role from the last century that it promptly recapitulated….(H)ow great to be free once more to openly demonize Moscow—and not only Russia’s elites and power brokers, but the whole Russian people, who seemed, by the millions, to assent to Putin’s war. The “evil empire” was back. 

In fact, this Russophobia was even better—new and improved!—because Putin’s wanton aggression was so blatant, so brutal, and so unforgivable in any plausible way. Historically, hawks have never bothered with any reservations in the first place, but this time around, even bleeding heart liberals could hate on the Kremlin with unrestrained, unqualified righteousness. There was no doubt Putin deserved it. 

Of course, there were some in the West who took Russia’s side, but Carroll—quite correctly, in my view—has no truck with those who want to blame the war on anyone but Putin:

Some of my friends who had railed against American militarism for decades diluted condemnations of the Russian assault with equivocations about US and NATO provocations, as if Putin was somehow justified in his aggression; as if a kind of American exceptionalism still applied, making the US responsible for all the world’s ills. Some who had long denounced American appeals to the Monroe Doctrine to justify its “sphere of influence” aggressions in the Caribbean and Latin America now accepted Russian claims to its own sphere of influence. 

Carroll notes how he was appalled by those who wished “to place blame for Putin’s war on America’s drive to protect, in the left-wing argot, its ‘global hegemony’….even parroting the Russian president’s talking points.” (No Pink Floyd on Jim’s turntable, I take it.) For my money, there has been no better evisceration of this position than Carroll’s observation that it is comparable “to ‘understanding’ Hitler’s nursed resentment of Versailles Treaty injustices as the cause of the Nazi’s crimes, which would amount to blaming the Holocaust on Woodrow Wilson.” 

But it is not just—or even principally—the left that is guilty of this bullshit. Apologia for Putin was rife on the right before the war and remains so even now, after months in which he has showed the depths of his monstrousness. Indeed it is a great irony that a significant chunk of the most hawkish right wing demographic has, over the past decade, and especially during the Trump years, flip-flopped to become the chief cheerleaders for Putin and the Russian Federation. On the subject of Ukraine, one could hear the far right making the same pro-Russian arguments as the far left, often verbatim. I defy anyone, in a blindfolded test, to tell them apart. 

NO NUKES REVISITED

Like many, the particular area that disturbed Carroll most was the possibility that Putin might use nuclear weapons against his Ukrainian foes, and the implications of eight decades of anti-nuclear activism in the West on that scenario. 

Ukraine had voluntarily—heroically, even—given up its nukes in 1994, yet now found itself menaced by a far more powerful neighbor that still had them. Carroll asks: “(W)ould Putin have attacked a Ukraine that had clung to the nukes it surrendered in 1994? Would Putin have stopped at Ukraine if his crossing NATO’s borders—in the Baltics, say—did not put Moscow itself at risk of destruction?” 

Pretty good questions.

Looking back, Carroll is hard on himself as he reassesses his “own mainly critical assessments of US national security policy across decades defined by American pre-emptive wars.” He acknowledges that the nuclear abolitionist movement of previous decades failed to reckon with the need for a “massively re-imagined structure of international security, new modes of crisis management, (and) an agreed global regime that would check powerful nations from their inbuilt aggressiveness, while offering vulnerable nations sufficient security guarantees that would make their own acquisition of nukes unnecessary.” 

That movement, he says, of which he was a prominent part, “never got serious about authentic political argument, the realities of international law, or the plain obligation of thinking a problem all the way through to its hardest part.” He even blames “his kind” for failing “to make the anti-nuclear case persuasively enough to spark second thoughts if not in the nuclear elite, then in the broad population of citizens.”

By contrast, he goes too easy, in this writer’s opinion, on the national security establishment, generously absolving them of the “amoral detachment of which I had accused them” and granting that they may have had “an implicit and quite rational understanding of the transcendent scale of the social and political transformations required by nuclear elimination.” 

Some may have. But some were very much the monsters he thought. 

The tragedy, Carroll notes, is that “a multitude of nuclear ‘have nots’ have surely drawn one large lesson from Ukraine’s having given up its nuclear weapons”: that it was unwise. He therefore predicts “a cascade of nuclear proliferation” on the part of so-called “threshold states,” those on the verge of obtaining nuclear weaponry, in what one national security expert calls a coming “arms control dark ages.” 

“Indeed,” Carroll writes, “it would be naive to think that a fiercely escalated nuclear arms race, involving multiple nations, has not already begun.” 

PUTIN ON THE RITZ

A few years ago Jim wrote a brilliant stage play called “Midnight Ride,” centered on the doomed James Forrestal, America’s first Secretary of Defense, whose life ended in 1949 when he leapt to his death from a window of Bethesda Naval Hospital, having been hospitalized after being found running down a Florida street hysterically yelling, Paul Revere-like (or Carl Reiner-like) “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” 

(With no discernible irony, a bust of Forrestal greets visitors in the foyer of the Pentagon to this day.)

In the play’s denouement, Carroll notes, “it falls to Forrestal’s wife Josephine—a one-time showgirl reimagined as an American Cassandra—to warn of an imminent nuclear war,” and to condemn the audience for its sin of omission as silent accomplices. But now Carroll has regrets about that portrayal, and the implication that government figures like Forrestal “had less responsibility for the decades of nuclear nihilism than the mass of passive citizens who had lacked any real knowledge of what was long being done in their names.”

“Who was I,” he asks, “to wag my finger in the faces of people who only wanted a night out at the theater?”

Of course, “Midnight Ride” is not mere escapism, and people do go to the theater for reasons other than light entertainment. (Jim’s wagging finger would be doing a public service outside “Cats,” for instance.)

When it comes to the culpability of governmental leaders, Carroll spends significant time focusing on how the malevolence of one man—Vladimir Putin—has justifiably triggered this renewed global panic, given his all but total, iron-fisted rule of the country with the largest nuclear arsenal on earth, measured in sheer number of warheads. 

No human being, Carroll writes, “should be allowed to possess such ascendancy. Even in democratic states, this dominance dwarfs any claim to supremacy ever made in olden times by divine right kings, who, at their worst, could only murder by the thousands, not the billions.” 

The logic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) places an absolute power over life and death in the hands of one person, which contradicts every political aspiration for egalitarian self-determination. The bomb, simply by its still-justified existence, is like a hidden viral infection eating away at four centuries’ worth of post-Enlightenment progress toward liberal democracy. 

One might well say the same of Donald Trump. Carroll notes how, even before Ukraine, the ascension to the White House of our own malicious and unstable sociopath raised anew fears of nuclear holocaust prompted by a whim, or a mistake. Is it too much to hope that Ukraine might give impetus to changing US nuclear warfighting protocol to take the button-pushing power away from one man (or woman), after seeing our own homegrown monster in the White House, one who makes Nixon look sane?

Now that Putin has suffered a series of shocking and humiliating military setbacks in Ukraine over the past few weeks, a defeat few Western military experts ever thought possible, the nuclear stakes have been raised higher still…..because Putin himself has overtly raised them, pointedly telling the world: Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity. This is not a bluff.” 

Generally, when someone says “This is not a bluff” it’s a sure sign that they’re bluffing. But I’m not so sure in this case….and I’m not willing to gamble on it.

A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY IN THE HOUSE OF WAR

Even as the war in Ukraine drove Carroll to an admirable questioning of his beliefs, he lays out a convincing case for the ways in which it has only proved the validity of those beliefs, beginning with the heightened risk of nuclear disaster: 

If Russia could not deliver unspoiled meals-ready-to-eat to its troops under siege or fuel to its stalled tanks in Ukraine, what were the chances that the Kremlin’s highly complex nuclear control mechanisms were being properly maintained? With the corruptions and inefficiencies of the Russian military’s high command exposed for all to see in Ukraine, what of the nuclear arsenal’s unlock-and-launch authorization codes for which that same command is responsible? Are Moscow’s cluster of orbiting satellites and space-based radars on which all early warning depends able to be sustained as Russian technologies are universally degraded by sanctions? There is no star-sighting navigation or global positioning system without microchips—to take a conspicuous example—and sanctions have abruptly cut Russia off from its main chip suppliers. How long before that shortage shows up in the performance of precision guidance systems? Of launch safety protocols? 

Carroll’s self-scrutiny thus leads to a welcome place: a re-affirmation of the urgent need to arrest the continuing danger of nuclear war; to reduce—and ideally eliminate—the number and lethality of nuclear weapons in the global arsenal; to put in place credible, practical, enforceable international controls and restrictions; and to halt and even dial back the number of nations in the nuclear club, and permanently close the rolls on new members going forward. 

In other words, far from making the case for expanded resort to military might to protect all that is good and pure in the world, the war in Ukraine reinforces the argument for nuclear disarmament. To that end, Carroll believes that this newly refreshed awareness of the dangers—and madness—of the nuclear balance of terror could create an opening for real and substantive change. 

To wit: “Nuclear weapons must be eliminated.”

The naysayers will of course sneer about the impossibility of putting genies back in bottles, but Carroll argues that “Such a call today can seem less radical than ever, in light of the recently laid bare dangers of one man’s radically unshared nuclear domination.” (He means Putin, but he could just as easily mean Trump.)

Jim’s plea is not mere blue sky vaguery. Among his concrete proposals, he calls for revision of the power of the UN Security Council and the mechanism of the veto. (Since the publication of his essay, proposals have indeed been introduced to strip Russia of its permanent seat. There remains, of course, the Catch-22 that it must agree to the measure. But clever minds are at work on the issue.) He also promotes the little-known 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a framework for new, workable international arms controls, noting that new technology offers increased possibilities for compliance and verification, reducing the reliance on good faith and any sort of international umpire, which conservatives traditionally fear. He also proposes new limits on the US President’s single-handed authority to initiate a nuclear war, which is actually quite easy to imagine the Pentagon supporting, particularly in the wake of Trump.

But how likely is it that the American national security community, and the senior leadership of the US military in particular, would support the other bold steps that Carroll calls for? 

The first impulse is to scoff that the chances are infinitesimal.

Beginning with the Baruch Plan in 1946, wariness toward arms control has been an article of faith in American politics. The noteworthy successes—the ABM and INF treaties, SALT, START—seem unlikely to be repeated if they require the consent of the contemporary conservative movement, which is not known to be keen on nuanced solutions to thorny geopolitical problems. If anything, that faction, with its “America First” neo-isolationism, clings more than ever to the delusion of an atomic Maginot Line behind which the US can withdraw. 

There are certainly many in the armed forces who share those views, from the humblest private to the most decorated general. But not all. 

Over the past few tumultuous years, senior US military officers, both active and retired, have shown a surprising willingness to breach longstanding protocols in order to protect the republic from what they rightly viewed as grave threats. From reducing the risk of war with North Korea, Iran, and China, to rejecting calls to deploy US military forces to quell domestic dissent, we have been treated to a Strangelove-in-reverse scenario of sober generals restraining their reckless civilian superiors. 

After Mattis and Kelly’s astonishing “babysitting pact,” and Mark Milley’s brow-raising backchannels both to his Chinese counterpart and to Nancy Pelosi, is it so unthinkable that the current crop of American military leaders—including Milley, who continues to serve, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, another retired four-star—might be willing to contemplate other bold new measures to secure the safety of the country and the world? Lest we forget, it was Ronald Reagan, a revered foreign policy hardliner, who, with Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed the most sweeping nuclear disarmament plan in history, and together almost brought it to fruition. One can quibble over the uselessness of “almost,” which famously counts only in horseshoes (and hydrogen bombs). But the mere fact that an archconservative like Reagan was willing to pursue disarmament is an encouraging precedent. That very reputation, of course, also made him better equipped to sell the idea, both to Congress and the public, than his predecessor Jimmy Carter, on the principle that only-Nixon-could-go-to-China. 

Carroll reminds us that in 1945, following the only two uses of atomic weapons on human beings in history, a consensus of US national security mandarins, including Secretary of War Henry Stimson and all the multi-starred members of the Joint Chiefs, met favorably with the idea that international control of such weaponry was the only sane way forward. 

Not a misprint, folks. 

It’s a fact so at odds with contemporary American orthodoxy that it’s hard to fathom—forgotten, as Carroll says, even by national defense professionals. One of the most chilling moments in his essay is when he recalls researching his 2006 book House of War, and asking both Arthur Schlesinger and Robert McNamara about the Stimson proposal. “Neither of them had ever heard of it.” 

In the 77 years since, history has been so thoroughly rewritten, and American public opinion on arms control moved so far to the right, that any suggestion of international custody of nuclear weapons elicits only snorts of contempt and accusations of starry-eyed naïveté. But times change. 

The senior leadership of the US military is uniquely positioned to pursue a similar path in the present moment. The respect and esteem in which the American people consistently hold our armed forces year in and year out make it the premier institution—maybe the only one—whose endorsement of such plans would assuage public anxiety. 

The “military,” of course, is not a monolith. In contrast to the cool heads listed above, one has seen the opposite impulse from retired generals like Mike Flynn and Don Bolduc, or retired colonel Doug Mastriano, to name just a few. Neither wisdom nor folly is an automatic companion of rank, nor experience. 

Which faction will prevail? Part of the answer will hinge on which civilian leaders hold power following the upcoming elections and have the opportunity to pick the uniformed leadership. Watching how a malevolent sociopath can, almost singlehandedly, bring the world to the brink of Armageddon ought to offer a refreshed awareness of the senseless fragility of the nuclear balance of terror. No competent military professional can observe that and believe that the current system is advisable, or that a renewed arms race is the solution.

It will certainly demand great boldness and moral courage for the men and women atop the military pyramid to embrace stringent new arms control measures. It will require bucking reactionary public opinion and the allure of ill-conceived tough-guy solutions, and defying deeply ingrained impulses of the military culture itself. But it’s not beyond the realm of imagination. After all, the Overton window can move or it would not be a window at all, except one that has been painted shut. We may soon learn whether, off the horror of Ukraine, the senior leaders of the much-admired American military are visionary enough to take a revolutionary stand in the interest of global peace and US national security.

Which, after all, is their job.

APOCALYPSE NOW

It’s axiomatic that, in war, the losers learn more than the winners, and increasingly the US expects to be the winner in Ukraine, by proxy. The danger then is that we will take away from this war the wrong lessons, and a misplaced eagerness to resort to force. I recently wrote in this blog about the ways in which the war in Ukraine risks opening a new chapter in US military adventurism  (“Violence and the Heroic Impulse,” April 2022), pondering how a “good fight” shines a light on the urge for bad ones. For one thing, the Ukraine war serves as excuse for Pentagon to lobby for an even bigger slice of the budgetary pie, if you can wrap your head around that, and to boost our own nuclear arsenal. 

It is characteristic of Carroll to subject himself and his lifelong convictions to rigorous re-examination, while those powerful figures who would blithely lead us headlong into extinction carry on with their usual preternatural arrogance, never wavering in the belligerent beliefs that have kept us perched on the knife’s edge of nuclear apocalypse for almost eighty years. 

Precisely, some might say! Isn’t eighty years without a third use of nuclear weapons itself proof that the so-called “balance of terror” works, and by extension, that this peacenik hysteria has always been overblown? Can we please retire the hoary old tropes of Armageddon, apocalypse, and balance-of-terror itself and send all the Chicken Littles back to the henhouse?

Such confidence, I hasten to say, has been with us since Hiroshima, and remains as dangerously misplaced as ever.  

The Greek word “apocalypse,” Carroll notes, “most commonly suggests a world-ending calamity,” but literally it translates as “‘unveiling,’ which is why the last book of the Bible, Apocalypse, is also called Revelation.” Thus the poetic title of this own essay. As he writes:

The great unveiling of the War in Ukraine was, for those who would see it, a fresh laying bare of the most important fact of the re-conceived human condition: nuclear deterrence is not protection. 

It’s the threat. 

Carroll concludes:

At first, in seeing such purpose in the bloody resistance to Putin, I had found myself in favor of war—an unprecedented turn. But now I see as I never had before, in relation to the transcendent threat of nuclear devastation, that the embrace of peace is more urgent than ever. The nations of the world, with the next leg of the nuclear arms race well begun, are on the cusp of abandoning the dream of peace once and for all. 

But peace is still possible. Without moralism or naivete, I am convinced we can insist on that. 

(I)f Zelenskyy and his people can stand against the odds in defending their land, with no guarantees for the outcome—precisely because of the truth and justice embodied in their struggle—why can the rest of us not stand against the odds in defending the human future? 

From his lips to God’s ears.

**********

Further reading: my two-part interview with James Carroll from 2017:

The Invention of Whiteness“ 

The Disadvantages of Decency” 

Photo: The ubiquitous Cold War-era “fallout shelter” signs, which still dot the American landscape, rusted and ignored, as memento mori.

Is Democracy a Luxury?

With the 2022 midterms only 19 days away, the oddsmakers tell us that the GOP remains favored to retake the House, while the Senate is a razor thin contest that could go either way. This, after Democratic hopes rallied in late summer off the latest barrage of scandals battering the Republicans’ undisputed maximum leader, even though he is not on any ballot anywhere, and the manifest poor quality of GOP candidates like Herschel WalkerBlake MastersDon Bolduc, and Mehmet Oz. (But don’t take my word for it: Mitch McConnell will tell you.)

We shall see. Previews like the August referendum in Kansas, in which voters shut down an attempt to make abortion flatout illegal in that ruby red state, suggest that the usual midterm shellacking for the sitting President’s party may be mitigated by Republican own goals like the Dobbs decision. But then again we are told that furor over Dobbs has dimmed somewhat of late as more prosaic issues have risen in the collective public mind.

I myself remain hopeful, even as I am worried that the polls that are optimistic for Democrats may be undercounting the right wing vote, as just happened in Brazil. A lot of reactionaries love to fuck with pollsters, while more shame-faced others are simply embarrassed to admit who they intend to vote for. And the polls have lately swung slightly back in Republican favor in any case. 

And yet. 

At the risk of sounding like Pauline Kael (at least apocryphally), I cannot for the life of me understand why any thinking American would want to return the Republican Party to power. Why would anyone vote for a group of people who less than two years ago tried to seize power in a violent coup? Or who willfully—criminally—mismanaged a historic pandemic, spreading anti-scientific disinformation and outright lies that resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans? Or who has openly announced that, should it regain power, intends to shitcan democracy as we know it?

Naturally, we can leave out those ten millions of American cretins who enthusiastically support that agenda, many because they believe themselves to be part of the privileged class—white Christians—whom that autocratic regime will favor. (Good luck with that.) But what of the mythical “ordinary Americans,” including independents, middle-of-the-road types, and other low information voters who don’t own red baseball hats, but are not fiercely opposed to Trumpism and the Trumpified GOP either?

The usual answer is that for many of these so-called “regular” Americans, any concern for the defense of our democracy against homegrown autocracy is outweighed by quotidian kitchen table concerns about economics, inflation, gas prices, and so forth. 

I understand the blunt urgency of those financial issues—believe me, I do. Viscerally. (Unlike Trump, I will show you my tax returns.) But to sacrifice the fundamental liberty and human dignity of living in a republic of, by and for the people? Low gas prices don’t mean much if you’re driving around in a dictatorship. The idea that “democracy is a luxury” is a pretty convenient canard for people who have a vested interest in taking our democracy away from us.

(Ironically, a majority of Americans report that they are in fact deeply concerned about the state of our democracy—but for opposite reasons.)

Because make no mistake: the Republican Party has abandoned any pretense of commitment to democracy. It is instead engaged in an unprecedented assault on the fundamental principles of the American experiment, an assault aimed at establishing itself in permanent authoritarian control of these United States. 

A friendly reminder: Across the country, a majority of GOP candidates are unabashed “Big Lie Republicans,” questioning the validity of the 2020 presidential election. Many of them have brazenly said that, were they in power at the time, they would have bowed to Trump’s outrageous demands and delivered the election to him in defiance of the vote. They have also promised that, if they gain power, they will do so in 2024 and beyond—actively campaigned on it, in fact. And they will be able to achieve that goal if they can win just a handful of key offices, governorships and secretary of state positions in particular. 

Everybody cool with that? 

So the idea that there are bigger issues that outweigh this monstrousness on the part of the Republican slate is pretty hard to swallow. 

But more to the point, I’d argue that the notion that we must choose between democracy and the pocketbook is a false choice, one that those Republicans are very much invested in deceitfully foisting on us. 

LOST IN SHERWOOD FOREST

Even if economics is your paramount concern, what on God’s green earth makes anyone think the GOP is better equipped to manage the US economy and give us all a better life? 

Its record on that count is abysmal. The signature economic achievement of the Trump years was a Robin Hood-in-reverse tax cut that disproportionately benefited the 1% and shifted more of the tax burden onto the middle and working classes—that is to say, the rest of us— while exploding a deficit that Republicans once claimed to care about. This, of course, is in keeping with previous tax cuts for the rich under Bush 43 and Reagan before him, all part of the brazen and long-running confidence game that claims such goodies for the wealthiest Americans will “trickle down.” (From the “pro-business” party that brought you the Crash of ’08 and Great Depression before that.) 

Lately Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has proposed an 11-point Republican agenda that would raise taxes on about half of all Americans, and not the rich ones either. (Among those it would hit: working families, seniors and active-duty military.) The plan also would cut or end federal support for numerous state and local programs, resulting in the defunding of jobs for public school teachers, police, and firefighters, and health programs such as CHIP and Medicaid. It also calls for Congress to re-authorize every federal law after five years, a provision that would imperil Social Security and countless other programs. (See the debt ceiling for how that re-authorization promises to play out.)

The plan was so outrageous that even McConnell angrily rejected it, not because he’s overflowing with the milk of human kindness, but because he knew it would be poison at the polls. Jesus, between that and his assessment of the GOP’s Senatorial slate, I can’t believe we have entered a world where Mitch McConnell is the voice of reason.

The GOP wants you to be hot and bothered about inflation, but they don’t want you to think about how that inflation is largely the result of price-gouging and corporate greed in the wake of a pandemic that has created massive demand and a constricted supply chain, a situation that its own policies engender. (Remember: corporations are people, and the Republican Party is all about the people.) 

The GOP may be riding a wave of “populism”—a misnomer if there ever was one—but it remains the party of plutocracy, and always will be. That it has managed to hoodwink so many of our countrymen into believing otherwise is mind-boggling, the same way it managed in 2016 to convince some 70 million Americans that a lifelong grifter and serial bankruptcy filer like Donald Trump was a real billionaire and competent businessman and not just a dude who plays one on TV. I think we saw how that worked out. 

The rich, of course, might have a self-aggrandizing reason to vote Republican, even though it requires a despicable degree of selfishness and lack of regard for the broader republic. For the rest of us, it’s absolutely irrational in every possible way, unless you’re a masochist, or a nihilist. Siding with the GOP as the better alternative only makes sense if you’ve swallowed whole the Fox News fairy tale about the alleged unfitness of the “Democrat” party. Which is to say, if you’re deluded and in the thrall of “alternative facts.”

It is not news that, for decades, tens of millions of Americans have consistently voted against their own economic self-interest. What is new, and deeply disturbing, is that this time it might help bring on the collapse of the republic full stop.  

CASSANDRA CALLING

In March 2021, in the wake of the Insurrection, I wrote a blog called “Why Do Republicans Deserve to Heard At All?” In it I wrote:

Call me naïve, but for some reason I foolishly thought that after Trump was unceremoniously evicted from office, and competent grown-ups who had not sworn allegiance to Evil™ once again took charge of the federal government, there would be a wholesale repudiation of the Republican Party as a force that had any credible claim to national leadership. Need I count the reasons why? (I refer you to the previous two hundred and two posts on this blog.) 

The GOP did so much damage to this country in so many different ways over the past four years (we can go back further if need be, but four years will suffice) that by any rational measure it ought to be disqualified from raising its voice at all for the foreseeable future. Not in the sense of any kind of formal exclusion, of course, only in the sense that no sentient American ought to give the Republican Party the time of day unless and until it undergoes a radical reformation of a kind it seems unlikely to undertake.

That remains more true than ever, now that 22 months have gone by and the GOP, far from repudiating Trump, has instead bound itself to him tighter than ever. 

What is even more astonishing is that about half of Americans seem at the very least not to care, and about a third actively endorse it. 

Please don’t try to tell me about any “good Republicans.” It is a precondition of membership in that party to swear allegiance to Trump and the Big Lie. The only ones who have stood up and defied the party, like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger (and to a lesser extent Mitt Romney), are pariahs and not reflective of what the GOP intends to do. 

Should the Republicans win big next month, Kevin McCarthy may or may not become Speaker; it would be a delicious moment of schadenfreude if, after all his bootlicking, he did not. The downside is that his replacement is likely to be someone even more loathsome. Marjorie Taylor Greene is not out of the question. Nor is Donald Trump. (Under the US Constitution, the Speaker does not have to be an elected member of the House.) In that case—and bear with me, because in my day job as a screenwriter I get paid to imagine the most outlandish nightmare scenarios possible—he would be second in line of succession, and Joe and Kamala best sleep with one eye open.

Even if McCarthy does manage to get the job, he will be beholden to Greene and the rest of the Seditionist Caucus, who will have his balls in a vise and be able to make him cluck like a chicken for their entertainment, if they so wish. What seemed like a humiliating ejection for John Boehner in 2015, on the eve of the Age of Trump, now looks pretty good, as he kicks back from retirement in Cincinnati, sparks up a fatty, and watches the circus.

So what else can we look forward to if Republicans do in fact re-take the House, let alone the Senate? Here’s a selected preview:

  • They will impeach both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, maybe more than once. (Maybe every week.) For what? Doesn’t matter. Will they be convicted? No—the Republicans can’t get 67 votes in the Senate, but it won’t matter. They will have succeeded in gumming up the works, and fulfilled the goal of Trump’s 2019 attempt to blackmail Volodymyr Zelenskyy with investigations of Joe Biden that give the illusion that he is corrupt. And that will be only the beginning….
  • They will deluge us with frivolous partisan investigations of every Democrat they can, and their loved ones as well, starting with corrupt, crack-smokin’ Hunter Biden. Also: exposés of Joe Biden’s dog Major pooping on the White House lawn at taxpayer expense! Naturally, these investigations will be covered 24/7 on Fox News and its fellow travelers even lower down the journalistic food chain.
  • They will strip AOC, Ilhan Omar, and the rest of the squad of their committee assignments, and maybe other prominent Democrats as well, and reward fiercely pro-Trump Big Lie Republicans like MTG, Gosar, and Gaetz with plum leadership positions. That will be fun!
  • They will refuse to raise the debt ceiling and as a result cause the US to default on its global financial obligations, triggering international economic chaos. (So much for the better party to be the steward of your economic well-being.)  
  • They will bring the full power of the federal government to bear to shut down any criminal investigations of Donald Trump. As part of that campaign, they will likely defund the Department of Justice to starve it of its ability to carry out its duties. (Good job, party of law & order!)
  • They will vote to repeal Obamacare. Again.
  • They will cut off aid to Ukraine, which is effectively a death sentence for that country, allowing Putin and Russia to re-gain the initiative in a bloody, grinding, war crime-filled march toward Kyiv.
  • They will pass legislation making abortion illegal nationwide. If they control the Senate, they will pass it there too, because—in a gutting irony—they will have done away with the filibuster on day one. Biden will veto it, but that will only fuel the right wing push to unemploy him in two years’ time. Which leads us to the most important point of all, which is: 
  • They will weaponize every available lever of governmental power to make sure that they gain control of all branches of government, permanently, and thus are able to dictate the outcome of the 2024 presidential election, and of all federal elections going forward. I don’t know that they will succeed, but I know they will absolutely try. 

And I’m sure there will be a lot more, and a lot worse, that we haven’t even thought of. 

The rosiest scenario is that a Republican-controlled House will behave in such monstrous fashion, and so badly screw the pooch, that a midterm win will actually backfire on the GOP and help the electoral prospects for Biden and the Democrats in ’24. 

Maybe. Or, for the same reason that they put the GOP back in charge of the House in the midterms, will voters inexplicably blame Biden anyway? You can be damn sure that the right wing media machine will spin like a dervish to try to make them do so. And plenty of ‘em will.

WHITE ZOMBIE

In closing, let me quote myself again, from last March:

So let’s be clear. The Grand Old Party has no business presenting itself as any kind of reliable steward of the public trust. Their efforts to do so ought to be dismissed out of hand. So say five hundred thousand dead, children in concentration camps, and the first non-peaceful transfer of power in 240 years of American history, to name just the greatest hits. 

Still, I am not astounded that Republicans are brazen enough to say and do the things they are currently saying and doing: their shamelessness is well-established. But I am astounded that we are letting them get away with it. 

Why do people continue to support this openly neo-fascist, would-be theocratic party that is openly rife with corruption, eager to suppress your vote, and espouses a long-discredited snake oil brand of economics that hurts the very people it claims to champion?

I dunno. Why does Radio Shack ask for your phone number when you buy batteries?

So let us follow my advice of last spring and “refuse to let the rotting zombie corpse of the GOP act like it has anything valuable to say, or any moral credibility to say it.” 

If not, if we awaken on the morning of Wednesday November 9th to find that the GOP has retaken one or both houses of Congress, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. And we will get the government we deserve. 

*********

Source for photo illustration: John Moore / Getty, in The New Yorker, March 2017

Copy editing by the great Gina Patacca

Of Tehran and Tucson

Last month, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from the provinces of Iran, was visiting Tehran when she was arrested and jailed by the country’s so-called “morality police”—the “guidance patrol,” as they call themselves—for wearing her head covering too loosely. 

Three days later, she was dead, almost certainly killed by those authorities while in their custody. 

I’ll repeat that, as they say on the BBC: She was not arrested for refusing to wear the scarf, just for wearing it too loosely. For that she was murdered by the religious police. (The government claims she died of a heart attack.)

Following her death, Iran erupted in nationwide protest, with demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital, as well as Tabriz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, and even the holy city of Qom, clashing with police, who in some cases fired on them with ball ammo. At least 41 people, both protestors and police officers, have been killed. Defiant Iranian women have been burning their own headscarves and cutting their hair in protest, as captured on video in images disseminated worldwide, causing protests to spread to other countries. In an attempt to quell the unrest, the Iranian government has restricted Internet access and shut down Instagram and WhatsApp, with President Ebrahim Raisi claiming that the protests are being orchestrated by outsiders, the US specifically. Meanwhile, his military is carrying out cross-border attacks on Iranian Kurdish groups in northern Iraq for their support of these demonstrations.

All told, it has been a remarkable public uprising against Iran’s medievalist theocracy, maybe the most remarkable in the 43 years since the mullahs seized power, and all the more remarkable for being led by women, at jawdropping risk to their personal safety. Their courage is inspiring beyond belief. 

Observing the fanatic religiosity of the Tehran regime and the appalling oppression of women that it entails, it’s all too easy for those of us in the West to cluck our tongues, with sanctimony dialed up to eleven. 

Except.

It’s impossible to watch events in Iran and not register that, at the exact same time, the legislature of the state of Arizona, right here in the allegedly modern world, is putting back in place a law dating to 1864 that bans all abortions except to save a woman’s life, with no exceptions for rape or incest (which P.S. is a form of rape). 

Or that Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, who is in a close race with his Democratic opponent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the forced birth movement and on record as recently as 2019 saying that American women who have abortions should be charged with murder. 

Or that the Republican Party is generally shot through with a vicious hatred of women, as evidenced by the way the GOP glories in demonizing any strong female politician of the opposing party, from Hillary to Pelosi to Omar to AOC. Or that that same GOP is in the thrall of a radical religious fundamentalism that is keen to take the US back to a retrograde pre-feminist (and white nationalist) Christian dominionism. 

I am not suggesting that the US is in the grip of the same medieval theocracy as Iran—yet. (Unsurprisingly, Iran’s own abortion laws are extreme.) But there are certainly some powerful forces in this country who have indicated that they would be cool with that. 

RAISING ARIZONA

It has been said many many times, but allow me to reiterate:

The forced birth movement—please don’t call it “anti-abortion,” and certainly not “pro-life”—has nothing to do with the sanctity of human life or the well-being of children, born or unborn. If it did, it would be accompanied by a shred of concern for the health and welfare of children once they have entered this mortal coil, or the mothers who bore them, and maybe even concrete measures to help them. It would not be espoused by people who frequently—irrationally—are opposed to contraception as well.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the Orwellian-named “pro-life” movement is about one thing and one thing only, and that is controlling women. 

Arizona, of course, is far from the only state that has enacted or is contemplating draconian forced birth laws in the wake of the Dobbs decision of this past June. Fourteen states have effectively banned abortion altogether in the last three months, most of them representing the former Confederacy, for what it’s worth. The procedure is in jeopardy in at least nine others, and under severe restrictions in seven more. After years of dishonestly claiming the matter should be left to the states, several Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have even proposed a federal, nationwide ban. (Show of hands: who’s shocked?)

But as the historian Heather Cox Richardson explains, that Civil War-era Arizona law, pre-dating even its admission to the Union, “seems not particularly concerned with women handling their own reproductive care—it actually seems to ignore that practice entirely.”

The law that is currently interpreted to outlaw abortion care seemed designed to keep men in the chaos of the Civil War from inflicting damage on others—including pregnant women—rather than to police women’s reproductive care, which women largely handled on their own or through the help of doctors who used drugs and instruments to remove what they called dangerous blockages of women’s natural cycles in the four to five months before fetal movement became obvious.

(Richardson goes on to explain that that same legislature also prohibited any “black or mulatto, or Indian, Mongolian, or Asiatic” person from testifying in court against a white person, outlawed miscegenation, and defined the age of sexual consent as ten.)

But none of that has stopped contemporary Republican lawmakers in Arizona from using that arcane legislation to foist their religious beliefs on the entire population. 

I lived in Arizona for a time, and have an abiding fondness for it. It is a stubbornly independent state, if a weird and dangerous one, the land that gave us Goldwater (lest we forget), where grandmothers open carry in supermarkets, and a Wild West mentality still rules. Sometimes that mulishness manifests trivially, as in the state’s refusal to participate in Daylight Saving Time (which is actually a pretty rational objection, but means that Arizona is sometimes in Mountain Time and sometimes Pacific). And sometimes it manifests despicably, as in Arizona’s shameful position as the last holdout in recognizing MLK Day as an official holiday, which it didn’t do until 1986. Most recently, it has been the site of some of the most ridiculous Big Lie “auditing” of the 2020 election, to no end except a waste of taxpayer money and an avalanche of ridicule

And it is not exactly covering itself in glory at the moment. 

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which unaccountably continues to be regarded as a legitimate journalistic organization, recently endorsed Republican candidate Kari Lake in the Arizona gubernatorial race because of her stance on—wait for it—school choice. 

Here’s what The Bulwark’s Mona Charen had to say about that:

Kari Lake has declared that the 2020 election was “corrupt and stolen.” Regarding the current president of the United States, she has expressed pity, urging that “Deep down, I think we all know this illegitimate fool in the White House—I feel sorry for him—didn’t win. I hope Americans are smart enough to know that.” 

Lake has also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, denounced vaccine mandates, and accused a GOP primary opponent of coddling pedophiles because he opposes putting cameras in school classrooms. “Her campaign merch featured a t-shirt with the image of a burning mask,” Charen reports. 

She told Steve Bannon that her opponent would likely be in jail by election day, and advised another audience that as governor she would criminally prosecute journalists who “dupe the public.” During her primary race, she suggested that fraud was already underway….And despite her victory, she carried a sledgehammer onstage on primary night and pantomimed smashing electronic voting machines. Her loyalty to the orange Jesus is total. After the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, she declared that “Our government is rotten to the core.”

That’s the GOP nominee for governor of Arizona. 

That Kari Lake is a woman does not excuse her or make her any less dangerous as a member of a party that would drag American women into Atwoodian subservience, and similarly oppress people of color, the poor, middle class, Democrats in general, and pretty much everyone else not wearing a red ballcap and waving a TRUMP flag as it merrily rolls along its anti-science, climate emergency-denying, proto-authoritarian way. 

She is emblematic of lots of women who are complicit in that reactionary crusade, from Ginni Thomas, to Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Elise Stefanik, to Judge Aileen Cannon and Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Globally, shall we include the likes of Giorgia Meloni and Marine Le Pen?) 

I guess we have achieved gender parity in at least one area, even if it’s the dubious one of being a loathsome troglodyte.

THE RAG TRADE

The Islamic Republic of Iran represents the extreme end of where all this might lead, with no need to resort to a fictional Gilead. But real-life Persian women apparently have had enough, every bit as much as the underground resistance fighters of Ms. Atwood’s novel (or at least its TV extrapolation). 

In The New School’s online journal Public Seminar, Kian Tajbakhsh of Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, writes:

I believe we are witnessing something unprecedented in Iranian history: a feminist social movement. The renewed demand for accountable government and individual freedom—the liberal democratic ideal—has sprung up fromthe battle over the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and the paternalistic domination of public space. 

Today’s feminist movement, women and men alike, is saying no: women will exist in public not as wards under the control of male guardians of religious law, but as equal citizens. They are demanding recognition of basic individual human dignity and liberty, such as modern individuals have come to expect. 

As Dexter Filkins reports in The New Yorker, a key player in the protests in Iran—from afar—is the dissident Masih Alinejad, a journalist forced into exile some 13 years ago, now living in an FBI safehouse due to ongoing threats to her life even here in the USA. What Alinejad has done since 2014 surely must rank as among the simplest and most effective grass roots uses of social media for political purposes ever, calling “on women inside Iran to record themselves defying the hijab rule and to send her the evidence.”

Thousands of women have obliged, and Alinejad has posted videos and photos of them showing their hair to accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Those sites are blocked by the country’s dictatorship, but, by making use of virtual private networks, many Iranians have seen them anyway. Millions have been able to witness the bravery of their fellow-citizens and to see how widely their views are shared—which, in the stifling environment of modern Iran, would otherwise be impossible.

Alinejad—who hosts the talk show “Tablet” on Voice of America’s Persian service—recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Women Are Leading a Revolution in Iran. When Will Western Feminists Help?” In it, she speaks of a system she calls “gender apartheid”:

The compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth for Iranian women; it is the most visible symbol of how we are oppressed by a tyrannical theocracy. Now, by drawing attention to that injustice, Mahsa’s death has the potential to serve as a new turning point for Iranian women.

They deserve the support of their Western counterparts. Yet so far we see little evidence that women in Europe or North America are willing to take to the streets to show their solidarity for a women’s revolution in Iran.

Alinejad goes on to criticize female politicians from Western countries, including France, the UK, and Italy, who have donned the hijab on visits to Iran. These Westerners, she says, went “out of their way to show deference to the men who have elevated misogyny to a state principle. A regime that abuses and harasses millions of women each year does not deserve our respect. To do so makes a mockery of all our talk of universal human rights.”

(Just last week the reporter Christiane Amanpour refused to wear a head covering for an interview with Raisi, and as a result had it canceled. Famously, the legendary Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci ripped her chador off during a 1979 interview the Ayatollah Khomeini, telling him, “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” That, too, brought about a  swift end to the conversation.) 

Many, like Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have argued that “Amini’s death, and Iranian society’s response to it, should permanently alter how the outside world interacts with Iranian officials. And that shift in awareness should also include a fundamental reassessment of its own Iran policy by the Biden administration.”

Alinejad also makes a direct connection between what is happening in Iran and in the West:

When the Women’s March took place in Washington, DC, in 2017, I was happy to join. Along with the rest I chanted: “My body, my choice.” Some women might well choose to veil their faces and bodies in accordance with their religious or cultural beliefs—but that should be a matter of their own choice, not a rule imposed by the whips and clubs of men. 

Alinejad calls “those in Afghanistan and Iran who are stepping forward, at great cost, to resist the Taliban and Islamic republic…the true feminist leaders of the 21st century, risking their lives by facing guns and bullets. She also urges “the free world to join the protesters in calling for an end to the murderous regime of the ayatollahs,” calling on us to be “louder than the tyrants.” 

We shouldn’t be afraid of the religious fanatics and the jihadists. They are the ones who are frightened. It is why they seek to keep women down. Women in the streets are paying with their lives for change. But too many in the outside world are shaking hands with our murderers.

I am asking all Western feminists to speak up. Join us. Make a video. Cut your hairBurn a headscarf. Share it on social media and boost Iranian voices. Use your freedom to say her name. Her name was Mahsa Amini.

SMASH THE PATRIARCHY

The very term “patriarchy” invites ridicule over so-called wokeism and political correctness. But what else should we call it when faced with a global wave of misogynistic fanatics—largely, but not exclusively men—who are pathologically obsessed with controlling and oppressing the female of the species?

My neighborhood in Brooklyn is fairly diverse. Daily I see Orthodox Jewish women bewigged and covered from neck to ankle, cheek by jowl with Muslim women wearing not just the hijab but the full-body abaya and niqab, leaving only their eyes exposed. Not very well-represented here, but prevalent in many other parts of the country, like the ones where I grew up, are Christian fundamentalists who are very much in accord with that prehistoric view of the subordination of women. 

But from Tehran to Tucson to Tel Aviv, there is a new generation of women who have said “We’re not gonna take it anymore.” As a certain wise woman once said, women’s rights are human rights…..and women’s rights, human rights, and democracy itself are under attack like few of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. 

It’s hard to miss the fact that it is frequently women who are at the forefront of the global fight to defend them.

**********

Photo: Demonstrators in Turkey carrying a photo of Mahsa Amini. Credit: AFP

Beware a Rat Being Cornered

Last week in these pages, I wrote about the longstanding and exceptionally dangerous campaign by the Republican Party to co-opt the American judiciary such that it functions as a column in that organization’s brazen march toward authoritarianism in the USA.

That remains so.

But I would be remiss if I did not note that some elements of that judiciary, including some that Team Trump arrogantly assumed were on its side, stood up this past week and announced that they remain committed to the rule of law. It was a beautiful thing to see. 

We are still a long way from the dream of Trump being held accountable for his actions of the past six years, and indeed his whole miserable life: criminally, civilly, politically, karmically. But these new developments have brought us closer to that outcome. The danger of right wing control of the courts remains; let there be no mistake about that. But it was cheering to see strongholds of integrity and principle making their presence felt. The danger now is that with the legal pincers closing, Trump—desperate, even panicked, and with dwindling options available to him—will lash out in even more extreme and violent ways. Indeed, we have already witnessed that process beginning. Increasingly Trump is finding himself cornered like the rat he is. And there is no more dangerous animal than a cornered rat.

(Caveat: Except a great white shark armed with an RPG.)

DEAR ME

Over a 36-hour period this past week, Trump suffered three significant legal setbacks. 

First, the special master in the Mar-a-Lago documents case, Judge Raymond Dearie, announced that he intended to complete his work by October 7, six weeks ahead of the deadline imposed by Judge Aileen Cannon, the GOP loyalist who granted Trump’s request for his appointment. That was not great for Trump, whose entire spurious plea for a special master was largely just a delaying tactic. 

But things got worse when Dearie got to work and on day one grilled Trump’s lawyers, obliterating their nonsensical argument that there was no proof that the documents seized by the FBI on August 8th—documents plainly marked as classified, in some cases at the highest level—were in fact classified. Given that this is a civil case and the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, Dearie informed Trump’s attorneys that if they could not offer such proof, he would have no choice but to side with the DOJ. Or as he succinctly put it: “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of it.” He also shot down Team Trump’s protest that it didn’t want to say whether or not Trump had indeed declassified any of these documents, as he has repeatedly claimed to the press, because that might compromise a litigation strategy in a potential criminal case. Zeroing in on the inconsistency of these two arguments, Dearie quipped, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Trump’s lawyers were surely shocked at having to contend with a proper judge, and not a compliant, partisan hack rushed onto the bench by their client in his final days in office. 

In the three days since then, Dearie has continued to deal Trump body blows by demanding that his lawyers back up their client’s outrageous claims that the FBI lied about the documents it seized, and that it planted evidence. Those lawyers thus far have been conspicuously silent, presumably because they don’t wanna be disbarred for lying in court. 

Such straightforward, common sense adjudicating—the polar opposite of Cannon’s openly biased, gymnastically irrational rulings—was bracing to watch. It also made many— myself included—wonder why Trump’s camp proposed Dearie for the job in the first place (and I’ll confess I was equally puzzled why the DOJ was so quick to agree). Now we know: it appears to have been a massive miscalculation about the judge by the gang-that-couldn’t-litigate-straight that comprises Trump’s legal team. (Reportedly, some of those lawyers thought that Dearie’s record of being “tough” on the FBI during certain cases when he was on the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court meant that he would be an ally against the “Deep State.” Once again we see the pitfalls of being venal pricks who can’t conceive of anyone with actual scruples.)

And let’s not forget that Trump has to foot the bill for the work of this special master, who is daily ripping him to shreds. (Show of hands: Who thinks Trump will stiff him? If not, DM me: I have a bridge to sell you.)

It ain’t over till it’s over, but the whole “special master” ploy looks like it is running aground on the rocky shoals of legitimate jurisprudence. It should never have gone even this far—thanks Aileen!—but Judge Dearie seems to be making short work of this obvious time-wasting tactic. 

Score one for the good guys, for a change. 

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

About 24 hours after that cheering news—which unfolded in a Brooklyn courthouse, Judge Dearie’s home turf in the EDNY, about three stops on the R train from where I am writing this—Trump suffered a second resounding defeat across the river in lower Manhattan. (Three more stops on the R, or one if you switch to the N.)

After a lengthy and thorough investigation—so lengthy and thorough that a lot of anti-Trump folks had given up hope—New York’s Attorney General Letitia James announced that the state is bringing a civil suit against the Trump organization that, if successful, will likely put it out of business forever. The grounds are things that have been eye-rollingly common knowledge for years: that Trump, with the assistance of his adult children Uday, Qusay, and Maleficent, has engaged in a systemic, decades-long fraud, alternately overestimating and underestimating his assets in order to defraud banks, lenders, the US government, and American taxpayers, and illegally line his own pockets. What did Ms. James call it? Oh yeah: “a brazen scheme of staggering proportions.” 

Among the penalties she is seeking, Trump and his kids would be barred from serving as corporate officers in any New York business, while the Trump Organization would be hit with a quarter billion dollar fine and prohibited from operating in the state—which, by the by, is the world’s financial capital—for five years. As a side effect, the organization will likely find it impossible to obtain loans and credit, effectively driving it out of business for good. 

She is also referring the case to the SDNY and the IRS for possible criminal charges against Trump and his kids. 

This case, maybe above all others, hits Trump where it hurts the most, and in fact, maybe the only place he really cares about: his wallet. (Dead heat with his ego.) James will still have to make the case in court, of course, but I’ll remind you that in 2018 she took similar action against the equally bogus “Trump Foundation”—for stealing money from a children’s cancer charity (!), or what she called in that case “a shocking pattern of illegality”—resulting in that foundation being permanently dissolved, and the Trumps barred from running a charitable organization in New York state ever again. And that was while Trump was President of the United States.  

So, yeah: Omar comin.’ 

ELEVENTH HEAVEN

Tish James had already made my day when, that same evening, the 11th Court of Appeals sided with the Department of Justice in its appeal of Judge Cannon’s ruling, tossing out her decision in less than a day’s labors with a withering opinion that essentially dismissed it as a travesty. Better yet, two of the three judges on the appeals court that heard the case were Trump appointees. (The other was appointed by Obama.)

As a result, the FBI and DOJ will regain access to the roughly 100 classified documents the Bureau seized in its August 8th search of Mar-a-Lago, which means that the criminal investigation of Trump’s theft of those materials—reportedly including top secret compartmented information about a foreign government’s nuclear capability—can resume. Which, of course, is as it should be: it was outrageous that Trump was able, even temporarily, to claim ownership of US government documents that he stole, and prevent the government from having access to them. Legal experts tell us that a criminal indictment is almost certain to follow, likely just after the midterms. 

As Lawfare’s Ben Wittes likes to say: boom! 

So, yes, Donald had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And as we know, he faces other legal threats as well. 

Fulton County (GA) DA Fani Willis may well bring RICO charges against him and his henchmen at the state level for their attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. The Manhattan County DA Alvin Bragg is in the midst of a criminal probe of Trump—although its status is unclear, and Bragg has been criticized for backing off; even so, the Trump Organization will face criminal trial for fraud and tax evasion in NYC beginning at the end of October, with Donald’s longtime former CFO Allen Weisselberg set to testify for the state as part of his own plea deal. And then, of course, there is the high-profile Congressional probe of January 6th and the Big Lie that led to it, one that is doing significant political damage to Trump with its nationally televised hearings, and may result in further federal charges from the DOJ, which is also conducting its own investigation into the matter. 

Of these various crimes, trying to overthrow the US government would seem to be the most towering, but the complexity of the case may also make it the hardest to prosecute…..not to mention the hand-wringing of those bedwetters who are worried about the alleged damage to the republic from putting a former president on trial. (And yes, they can wring their hands and wet the bed at the same time. #metaphormix) 

I remain more worried about the damage from not putting him on trial.

Moreover, much of that hand-wringing is dishonest and performative, employed by Republican cynics who would like to use the welfare of democracy as an excuse to protect Trump from prosecution, and themselves from facing up to their own complicity. 

By contrast, the Mar-a-Lago documents case seems the most cut-and-dried and both easiest to prove and for the public to grasp. In terms of the damage to the nation, stealing nuclear secrets certainly approaches January 6th, although I think in the end undermining one of the most fundamental tenets of representative democracy—the peaceful transfer of power—still wins the prize. And Trump seems to have done both. 

Thanks to Judge Dearie and the 11th Court of Appeals, for once in his life, he may have to pay the piper.

POLITICS BY OTHER MEANS

Which brings us to Trump’s response. 

When it comes to the documents scandal, Don continues to reiterate his absurd claim that he waved his magic wand and declassified all this material en masse while still in office. While that is obvious horseshit, none other than Bill Barrhas pointed out that, if true, it would actually be even worse than stealing classified documents in the first place. And per above, it’s telling that his lawyers are unwilling to make the same claim in a court of law.

Still, Trump seems to think it’s a winner, and is clinging to it. Most recently, he impressed even those long inured to his insanity by telling Sean Hannity, on national television:

There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it. You’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it.

Because you’re sending it to Mar-a-Lago or wherever you’re sending it. There doesn’t have to be a process. There can be a process, but there doesn’t have to be. You’re the president—you make that decision.

The mind reels. 

Many experts, like former FBI special agent turned associate dean of Yale Law School Asha Rangappa, noted that in addition to being batshit crazy, this was also an open confession of guilt—on TV, before an audience of millions—that he knew he was stealing classified documents that he had no right to possess. (Trump also floated the theory—again—that the FBI was really there looking for Hillary Clinton’s lost emails. I shit you not.)

But as we have noted, this whole “classification” thing is a red herring. None of the crimes being investigated as stipulated in the FBI’s August 8th search warrant hinge on these documents being classified: they are sensitive US government property irrespective of their classification, and their mishandling—not to mention theft, and obstruction of a federal investigation into that theft—is punishable under the Presidential Records Act and the Espionage Act.

In Trumpworld, however, none of that matters, for as noted by Peter Strzok—formerly Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, and a frequent target of Trump’s ire—this is not really a legal fight for Donald at all but a PR one, aimed at rallying his vanishingly small circle of hardcore deadenders and intimidating the GOP mandarins who fear them. In that regard, this legal jeopardy in some ways benefits Trump, allowing him to play the victim card, which is one of his favorite tricks, and one that his grievance-driven suckers—er, I mean followers—lap up like heroin. (Or maybe oxy is a better comparison.) The DOJ case may even drive some of those who have fallen away right back into his arms, and pull in some of the Trump-curious along with them. So be it. We ought not back off adherence to the rule of law just because some assholes don’t like it.

Certainly Trump intends to drag his feet and file pointless timewasting motions and otherwise gum up the legal process. But that legal maneuvering is aimed as much (or more) at running out the clock in hopes of a GOP sweep in the midterms as it is at any hope of a courtroom triumph. In the end, Trump seeks a kind of power that is beyond the reach of the law. He always has, as a businessman and now as a politician and would-be tyrant. 

And there are no depths to which he will not sink in the endeavor.

STAND BACK AND STAND BY: THE SEQUEL

Faced with this kind of legal jeopardy, Trump is becoming more and more radical and desperate—the aforementioned cornered rat. While throughout his life he has, justifiably, always been confident that he can cheat the system, Trump seems rational enough to know that he is in real trouble now, and is therefore resorting to ever more extreme measures to stay out of jail, and keep his ill-gotten gains, and above all regain the presidency. 

Both Trump and his designated bootlicker Lindsey Graham have, in the past two weeks, gone on national television and essentially threatened street violence from MAGA Nation should he be held accountable in a court of law. Graham kicked it off on Fox News’ “Sunday Night in America” when he said: “ If there is a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information after the Clinton debacle… there will be riots in the street.” (I already dissected the wildly dishonest and inaccurate comparison to Clinton here, if you wish to review.) Under fire for those remarks, Graham retroactively tried to frame them as mere prediction and not a threat, but that was patently disingenuous, and the damage was already done. (“The jury will disregard.”)

While stopping short of endorsing violence, I want to remind Lindsey that there are also going to be riots in the streets if Trump is not prosecuted. Just a prediction, Lady G.

As for Trump himself, there was no such backpedaling or ex post facto attempt at qualification. Here’s what he said, speaking to his toady Hugh Hewitt, as recounted by The Atlantic’s David Graham, in a piece titled with a phrase that has been on many a pundit’s lips of late: “Nice Democracy You Got Here. Shame If Something Happened To It.” 

“I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it,” Trump said. “I think if it happened, I think you’d have problems in this country the likes of which perhaps we’ve never seen before. I don’t think the people of the United States would stand for it.”

The implication was clear enough that Hewitt felt the need to throw Trump a preemptive lifeline: “You know that the legacy media will say you’re attempting to incite violence with that statement.”

“That’s not inciting,” Trump replied. “I’m just saying what my opinion is. I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it.”

Stand back and stand by indeed. 

Then there was the instantly notorious rally in Ohio. Ostensibly there to stump for shitbag GOP Senate candidate JD Vance (by sadistically humiliating him for “kissing my ass”), Trump openly embraced the batshit QAnon conspiracy theory. (He had previously shared on social media an illustration of himself wearing a QAnon lapel pin, with the Q slogan, “The Storm Is Coming.”) 

Here are a few excerpts from the speech, as recounted in Rolling Stone, translated from the original German:

“We no longer have a border. Our country is being invaded. It’s an invasion by millions of illegal aliens,” Donald Trump said at his Saturday night rally, using the Great Replacement Theory’s racist “invasion” language, favored by violent white nationalists. “The economy is crashing. Your 401(k) is collapsing,” Trump told the crowd. “Shooting, stabbings, rapes, carjackings are skyrocketing.”

(Trump) complained that Jan. 6 witnesses are compelled to turn on him. “They take good people and they say, ‘You’re going to jail for 10 years … unless you say something bad about Trump. In which case you won’t have to go to jail,’” he said. 

“They spied on my campaign. And nobody wants to do anything about it. Can you imagine if I spied on the campaign of—forget Biden—how about Obama’s campaign? Can you imagine what [the penalty] would be? Maybe it would be death. They’d bring back the death penalty,” Trump said. Later, Trump endorsed punishing drug dealers and human traffickers with the death penalty.

“I don’t know if we’ve had a more radicalized or dangerous time in our country,” Trump said. Returning to his argument that America is falling apart, the former president zealously recited the details of gruesome crimes allegedly committed by immigrants. The hate continued when Trump mocked trans women in sports.

You get the idea. And all of this was set to a QAnon anthem with its own weird history.

The image of hundreds of Q-believing Trump supporters with arms outstretched in a Nazi-like Bellamy salute—with the addition of the Q-specific index finger—was chilling of course. (Conservatives: please cease pearl-clutching over left-wing comparisons of Trump to Hitler. While shit like this continues to go on, Godwin’s Law continues to be in abeyance.) Because as laughable as it is, QAnon is genuinely dangerous. The litany of its believers who have alreadycommitted violence on Trump’s behalf is long and worrying, and it’s likely to accelerate from here. Particular with Donald pouring fuel on the fire. 

(You can watch and listen to the whole bizarro scene here.)

As The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols points out, Trump does know how to stump effectively for a downballot candidate, when he wants to. But that was not what he did in Ohio. What he did there was “play creepy music and present (himself) as the leader of one of the most unhinged crusades of modern times.” 

That kind of rally is not meant to gather voters. Instead, it’s meant to recruit a mob and let the rest of the country see who’s on your side if you are threatened in any way.

Nichols writes that Trump’s “embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theorists represents a new expansion not only of Trump’s cult of personality, but of his threats to sow violence.”

Despite his seeming inability to remember anything from one thought to the next, Trump has a kind of lizard-brain awareness of danger—only to himself, of course—that guides him when he’s faced with threats. His reflex in such situations is to do whatever it takes to survive, including bullying, lying, threatening, and allegedly breaking the law. 

Initially, of course, Trump only winked at the QAnon movement, accepting its support in the same way that he accepted, without acknowledging it, the support of groups such as the Proud Boys. That last microgram of hesitancy is now gone. 

Why is Trump doing this? It would be easy (and reassuring) to assume that he has exhausted all his other reservoirs of narcissistic support, and now all that’s left is to pull in the most conned marks in modern American political history and bask in their adulation while emptying their pockets. I think we have to prepare, however, for a worse possibility: With many of his previous supporters in groups such as the Oath Keepers lying low after January 6, Trump is making a show of recruiting from a movement whose members might include people willing to do violence on his behalf.

Nichols concludes: “I didn’t think American politics could get much darker, but here we are.”

CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY

To reiterate: the legal setbacks Trump suffered this week do not mean that the right wing campaign to obtain a chokehold on the judiciary has failed. On the contrary: they will only spur the authoritarian Republican movement to work ever harder to ensure that in the future the bench is filled with Aileen Cannons and not Raymond Dearies. And they are already prompting Trump and his allies to seek extrajudicial, even violent means to advance his cause.

And Trump might yet beat all these raps, as he has done his entire life, despite a resume of fraud, malfeasance, and other crimes that would impress Charles Ponzi. Even if he is charged, tried, and even convicted, it might not derail his political career. (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue….”) We might witness the baroque sight of the nominee of one of our two major parties running for president while under indictment, or even after being convicted of major crimes, and or even while incarcerated (presumably wearing an ankle monitor and under house arrest in Mar-a-Lago, given the security considerations surrounding a former head of state). He might even win while under those conditions, making him our first ever Felon-in-Chief.

Anything is possible. 

Alternatively, Trump might just wreak havoc with our electoral system, by running and losing for example, and—again—refusing the accept the results, rallying his Kool-Aid drunk followers to acts of extreme political violence, protected by their cowardly, cynical enablers in Congress. He is clearly laying the groundwork for that possibility right before our eyes. 

I am encouraged that we just saw the justice system function properly and, in some small way, begin to make Donald Trump experience something he never really has experienced in all of his 78 years: accountability for his actions. I remain worried that he has no intention of facing that accountability, and what he will do to avoid it, and of our fellow Americans who will happily abet him.

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

Photo: “The Trump Rat,” formally known as Castigat Ridendo Mores (“Morals can be corrected with ridicule”), by New York artist and gallery owner John Post Lee, in Dupont Circle, Washington DC, August 2017. Credit: The Hill.

“Once You Have the Courts….”

The first part of this story is obvious, and would not even shock Captain Renault:

A judge that Trump appointed sided with Trump in a criminal case against Trump, in a ruling that stunned virtually every credible legal expert. 

Also: dog bites man, water is wet, and the Jets suck. 

Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of legal mumbo jumbo and dervish-like spin from the right wing trying to explain and defend this decision, the standard GOP tactic when it has shamelessly exploited the system for its benefit and wants us to believe it has not. So before we go into the details, let’s step back and take a one-over-the-world view of the philosophy—and the threat—undeniably underpinning this decision:

That the modern Republican Party does not bat an eye at weaponizing any aspect of American life to advance its own autocratic agenda, no matter how clumsy or hamhanded that effort may be. Amount of fucks they have to give? An Elvis Costello-like less than zero. 

The judicial system is very high on that list. Or in the words of Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, and the author of How Fascism Works

“Once you have the courts you can pretty much do whatever you want.” 

A ZERO ON ROTTEN TOMATOES

The full array of America’s aforementioned legal experts have already thoroughly summarized the faults with Judge Aileen Cannon’s eyepopping decision granting Trump’s request for a special master in the government documents scandal, so I’ll recap only briefly:

Andrew Weissmann, former general counsel to the FBI and lead prosecutor in the Mueller probe, called it “Nutty. Crazy. Appealable.” His fellow New York University law professor Chris Sprigman said the ruling was “partisan hack judging,” while the prominent attorney Ted Boutrous said “Judge Cannon’s order is riddled with fundamental legal errors and is the opposite of judicial restraint.” Former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal wrote: Frankly, any of my first year law students would have written a better opinion.” 

Samuel W. Buell, a professor at Duke University law school, told the New York Times that the ruling was “laughably bad,” adding, “Donald Trump is getting something no one else ever gets in federal court, he’s getting it for no good reason, and it will not in the slightest reduce the ongoing howls that he is being persecuted, when he is being privileged.”

Even Bill Barr thinks the ruling is bullshit—and what Trump did re Mar-a-Lago was outrageous, and that the DOJ is dead right, and that he’s gonna be indicted. (But will he still vote for him? In the same breath Barr said he hopes that there will be no indictment because of the ostensible damage to the republic. No word on his thoughts re the damage from not indicting.)

So from whence comes this not-so-five-star ruling?

Judge Aileen Cannon of the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida was confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate after Trump lost the 2020 election, part of Mitch McConnell’s mad rush to put as many of Donald’s nominees on the bench as possible while he still could. With only 12 years experience as a lawyer (and only 38 years of age when Trump nominated her for that lifetime gig), Cannon barely met the minimum standards to be rated “qualified” for the job by the American Bar Association. She had also been a long-time member of the radical Federalist Society—and I do think it’s fair to call it radical—which has been on a decades-long campaign to pack the judiciary at all levels with far right wing jurists. 

Beginning to make sense now?

In substance, her ruling allows Trump to pause a portion of the DOJ investigation while a special master reviews the material seized from Mar-a-Lago, predicated on multiple grounds including executive privilege and potential harm to his reputation. In The Atlantic, Andrew Weissmann writes that “Cannon’s ruling is untethered to the law.”

Let’s start with the unequal application of the law. Although Trump wallows in feigned claims of persecution, in fact he has been privileged by the Justice Department, and now Cannon, in a manner unheard of for any other defendant. Every defendant would relish the opportunity to delay a criminal investigation by having a court enjoin the government from investigation, but that never happens. 

Why would others under investigation not have the same claim? Is the extra protection of a special master—and the delay it entails—applicable to all public figures?….And if so, how is a rule that offers special privileges to the most advantaged members of our society consistent with providing equal justice for all? 

The law, it seems, is simply different for Trump and his close allies.

Vox’s Ian Millhiser called the ruling “a trainwreck of judicial reasoning” and “egregiously wrong,” adding that the judge “mangles the law so completely that it’s hard to know where to even begin in criticizing her opinion.”

(Cannon) argues fairly explicitly that Trump is entitled to special rules that apply to virtually no other criminal defendant, because he used to be a powerful person. This opinion is an affront to anyone who believes that all Americans, whether a pauper or a former president, are subject to the same laws. 

The Daily Beast’s Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor, noted that Cannon “mostly seems concerned with protecting Trump’s reputation” and her fear of “the potential injury to Trump arising from the ‘threat of future criminal prosecution’ is, in particular, poorly thought out.” 

In the judge’s apparent zeal to protect Trump, Cannon seems oblivious to the fact that every single person under investigation could assert this same potential injury, and any competent criminal defense attorney will try to use her decision as a basis for enjoining criminal investigations and prosecutions of their clients. Her opinion could open a floodgate of baseless requests for injunctive relief, which will jam the criminal justice system, even if most of them will be denied in slam-dunk fashion.

She even pointed out the stigma attached to Trump having to suffer the indignity of a search warrant being conducted on his home. But she failed to explain how the appointment of a special master can undo that stigma—given that the search already happened. Her opinion also suggests that a special master is necessary because of leaks to the press about the contents of the seized documents—as though a special master has some magical power to stop such leaks.

(Though Wu doesn’t say so, it bears mentioning that the public only learned of the August 8 search at all because Trump himself announced it. Absent that, the DOJ would surely have been happy for the entire event to remain undisclosed.)

Addressing this “reputational harm” Judge Cannon is worried that Trump will suffer, Yale law professor former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa agreed, tweeting: “The idea that an indictment would cause ‘irreparable reputational harm’ is…literally true for anyone, not just POTUS? Maybe don’t crime in the first place.”

Some, like The Week’s Joel Mathis, noted that it’s not even clear that Cannon can actually halt the investigation. “To my mind, this is one of the weirdest parts of Judge Cannon’s order,” law professor Orin Kerr wrote in a Twitter thread, as it “amounts to a judicial takeover of the executive branch’s investigation. I don’t see how a federal judge has the power to do that.” (More on that here.) 

On Substack, the attorney and incisive legal analyst Jay Kuo notes that there is no record in American jurisprudence of a civil court assessing a question like a special master ever enjoining a criminal investigation. Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law professor at the University of Texas law school, told the Washington Post, “It’s stunning insertion of the courts into what has historically been exclusively executive process. This is just not the way our legal system is set up.” If Cannon’s decision stands, the Post reports, “legal experts said, it would allow the targets of investigations to disrupt law enforcement operations before a case is charged or goes to trial.”

No—not all “targets of investigations.” As Ryan Goodman, an NYU law professor and former Defense Department special counsel, told the Post: “The opinion makes explicit what many of us have understood: There are special rules for former President Trump.”

WHITE HOUSE PRIVILEGE

The issue of executive privilege is another headscratching part of the judge’s ruling. As Vox’s Millhiser writes: “Cannon’s opinion is not simply wrong, it plays with legal concepts, such as executive privilege, which she seems to barely understand.” 

Yes, there is a spurious school of thought that holds that the Supreme Court has “not settled the question of whether a former president could assert executive privilege against the administration of the sitting president.” Cannon plainly bought Trump’s absurd claim on that count, even though he’s not the president any more, which it to say, the person to whom “executive privilege” by definition applies. As University of Baltimore law school professor Kimberly Wehle reminds us, “There’s only one president at a time under the Constitution, and in this moment, it’s Biden.”

And that’s not all. Millhiser:

An even more basic reason why executive privilege should not apply to this investigation is that Trump is trying to assert executive privilege against, well, the executive.

(I)f Congress or a court seeks a presidential document, that might raise executive privilege concerns. But the FBI, and the Justice Department more broadly, are part of the executive branch. And there are no separation of powers concerns raised by one part of the executive branch obtaining documents that allegedly belong to another part of the executive branch. 

Weissmann: 

(Cannon) does not explain how the former president has the power to assert executive privilege; how executive privilege could restrict documents from being shared with the executive branch (which DOJ is part of); how it could apply to any documents at Mar-a-Lago that emanated from agencies like the CIA, NSA, or FBI; or why it would not be outweighed by the fact that the documents are needed in a criminal investigation (an interest that the Supreme Court found would overcome a privilege assertion by former President Richard Nixon). And even if some of the documents are covered by executive privilege, the documents would, by law, still have to go to the National Archives and not be returned to the person who absconded with them.

(In any case, the government has already reviewed all the materials, which—and this is the real rub—Trump does not own and is not entitled to have. Weissmann proposes an analogy in which a bank robber who has a million bucks in his possession when the cops come knocking, then demands the money back and a special master to review the evidence even before he is charged. And the judge halts the criminal case for the duration of that review.)

Even if Trump were allowed to invoke executive privilege, it does not offer blanket immunity, especially when it comes to matters of national security, like stealing top secret documents related to nuclear warfare. (By the by, in arguing that the special master needs a TS/SCI clearance, Trump’s own lawyers give the lie to his own claim that the material in his possession was somehow magically declassified.)

On that front, David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post that “Cannon doesn’t seem to fully recognize the national security stakes here.”

How can the US government conduct a national-security damage assessment about possibly leaked classified documents if FBI criminal investigators can’t look at the documents or interview witnesses to figure out who might have had access to the material? That supposed division of labor—drawing a neat distinction between “investigative” purposes and a “national security” assessment—might make sense to Cannon. But some experienced national security lawyers are puzzled, to put it mildly.

“It is impossible to square these two rulings,” says Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. Jeff Smith, a former CIA general counsel, explains: “It’s not clear from Cannon’s opinion that she understands what’s entailed in a damage assessment. I think she must believe that all they have to do is look at the documents and decide what harm would result if they were leaked or given to someone without authority.”

Robert Litt, a former ODNI general counsel, observes: “Typically, when you do a damage assessment … you know who has access to the information: Edward Snowden released information to the world; Aldrich Ames to the Russians. I don’t remember ever seeing one during my time where we knew that information had been mishandled but we don’t have any idea whether anyone had access or who.”

THE APPEAL OF AN APPEAL

So our hostile foreign adversaries are surely cheered by Judge Cannon’s ruling, and the way it exacerbates this ongoing national security disaster. And it’s no coincidence that Team Trump is equally pleased. 

Millhiser hits the proverbial nail on the metaphorical head when he says that this order “could also allow Cannon or other judges to delay this criminal investigation into Trump indefinitely” and that “it’s far from clear that higher courts dominated by Republican appointees will stop her.” Which was very much the intent. 

Of course, the DOJ can appeal, and many—Weissmann prominent among them—have been adamant that it should. But that would only further delay matters, playing right into Trump’s hands, as the case could languish in the system for months or even years, certainly past the 2024 presidential election. More to the point, it is by no means clear that the Department would win that appeal in the Eleventh Circuit, where six of the 11 judges are Trump appointees The same is true if the case goes to the Supreme Court, where Trump will surely take it, with its 6-3 right wing supermajority, half of whom—fully a third of the Court—are Trump appointees. 

Some, like Slate’s Norman Eisen and Fred Wertheimer, have suggested it might just be better to get the special master onboard and get it over with. Others have mused that having a special master might even help the DOJ by inoculating against allegations of partisanship. But that claim laughably assumes that the American right wing will ever behave in good faith, or give up its perpetual claims of Christ-like persecution. And, of course, there is also the risk that the special master could hand down a damaging, Trump-friendly ruling, especially if he or she is yet another MAGA hack.

But Shan Wu argues that the risks of an appeal “are worth taking because Cannon’s decision is so potentially damaging to the DOJ’s ability to investigate and potentially charge Trump (and others) in cases not only arising from Mar-A-Lago, but also any case in which Trump seeks to assert executive privilege defenses—including his actions in Jan. 6-related potential prosecutions.” Millhiser concurs, arguing that by not appealing the DOJ will have given “up its shot to end this highly partisan judge’s supervision of one of the most sensitive criminal investigations in US history.”

Above all, as Eisen and Wertheimer point out, an appeal is necessary to prevent classified US government documents being returned to Trump and his lawyers—perhaps the most mind-blowing possibility, because “the court treated Trump’s request as a motion for the return of property under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g)—a completely unacceptable result here.”

[checks GPS to make sure we have not one through the looking glass with Alice]

As this goes to press, the question has been answered, with the DOJ announcing its intent to appeal Judge Cannon’s order. In a separate filing, it also asked her to allow the criminal investigation to proceed while the special master’s review is underway, and to give that special master access only to unclassified documents, and not classified ones. Which makes perfect sense. If the point of a special master is to sort out any personal, privileged materials from the government ones seized in the search, the classified ones are in the latter category by definition. Indeed, it should have been so ordered from the jump. 

How will all this play out in a legal climate which, as we have established, is toxic with Republican malice, mischief, and malfeasance? We don’t know, but it’s encouraging that the DOJ—which appears to have been a step ahead of Trump at every phase of this case—is taking such an aggressive and pro-active approach, with Slate’s Eisen and Wertheimer praising the shrewd nature of the appeal in particular. They are optimistic that it will succeed. I hope they’re right.

Watch this space.

IF I DID IT, VOL. II

In a piece titled, “Trump-Appointed Judge Cuts Trump a Huge Break,” Truthout’s William Rivers Pitt writes:

Donald Trump has caught yet another break. He will get to dig in behind his plans to run for president again, and will use these legal maneuvers as fundraising tools even as he slathers himself in martyrdom. There are hundreds of Trump judges out there now, with three of them on the highest court in the land.

The legal system was built to prop up people like Trump, not to take them down. This is the world we live in, and although it might be enraging, it should not surprise us at all.

The fact that Cannon not only agreed to Trump’s request for a special master, but ordered the DOJ to halt its investigation—a move that not even Trump’s lawyers dared ask for—gives the game away. (Mercifully, Cannon did not grant some of the things they did ask for, like full access to the redacted portions of the underlying affidavit, including the names of witnesses against the Former Guy.) 

Another dead giveaway: Trump praised her decision, saying “it takes courage and ‘guts’ to fight a totally corrupt Department of ‘Justice’ and the FBI.”

In that sense, Cannon did a lot of the work for Trump’s hapless team that it had itself failed to do. Trump’s lawyers didn’t even file their very belated request for a special master until two weeks after the Mar-a-Lago search, at a time when the FBI had announced it had already completed its review of the seized documents. 

In that regard, the good news is that Cannon’s ruling applies only to materials seized in the August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago, and not to the already voluminous incriminating materials that were in DOJ’s hands prior to that, which in themselves ought to be sufficient to prove violations of the Presidential Records Act and Espionage Act, as well as obstruction, particularly by his lawyers Evan Corcoran and Christina Bobb, and possibly even by the micromanaging Trump himself.  In other words, as Kuo says, “the DOJ already has what it needs to prove that Trump was in possession of sensitive government documents he had no right to have.”

But the possibility that a compromised federal judiciary may try to protect Trump remains a very real danger. 

Pitt describes MSNBC’s Joy Reid asking Elie Mystal, justice correspondent for The Nation, “How on Earth could a judge who made it through law school think that Donald Trump can take the property of the government, the federal government, take it home and then have to have a special master decide whether they can investigate him?”

“Because she’s biased and corrupt,” Mystal replied. “I’ve been saying this since he took office. When you allow Republicans to control the courts, you get nothing. Trump judges do not believe in the rule of law. They do not believe in precedent. They do not believe in facts. They do not believe in logic. They just believe in whatever’s going to help Donald Trump and they’ve proven it again and again and again.”

After the Mueller probe was hijacked, distorted, and ultimately neutered by Trump and Barr in March 2019, I compared Trump to OJ Simpson as the wildly undeserving beneficiary “of honorable people following the rule of law—a rule of law that Trump himself holds in utter contempt, constantly besieges, and would deny to everyone else.” But in the Mueller inquiry Trump benefitted from the scrupulous fairness of his foes—overscrupulousness, some might say—and their admirable, almost naive, and ultimately fatal adherence to norms and protocol. In this case, however, it’s the right wing’s dishonest and self-serving exploitation of the judicial system that is helping him.

Increasingly the right doesn’t even try to hide it.

Heather Cox Richardson writes that “Bloomberg News’s Zoe Tillman recently revealed that seven senior officials who served in Republican administrations, including two former governors, a former attorney general, a former acting attorney general, and a former deputy attorney general, asked to send in a ‘friend of the court’ brief in opposition to Trump’s request (for a special master). Cannon denied their request, saying the court “appreciates the movants’ willingness to participate in this matter but does not find…[it]…warranted.’” 

Former US Attorney and Los Angeles Times legal affairs columnist Harry Litman said he didn’t think he’d “ever seen a court reject a proposed amicus brief, especially from eminent amici like the Former GOP prosecutors Cannon just refused to hear from.”

As Millhiser asks: “Why would a judge do this unless they are trying to advertise the fact that they are not open to opposing arguments? Just accept the…brief and then don’t read it if you don’t want to make a public spectacle out of not caring what anyone says.”

A RATION OF SHIT

Famously, the American right has engaged in a determined, methodical, decades-long campaign to gain control of the courts, the same way it has doggedly run candidates in local, county, and state races in order to obtain a chokehold on the US political system at the ground level. I don’t blame them a bit for that very smart and farsighted approach—only for the loathsome policy ends that they intend for those judges and elected officials to pursue. Shame on the Democrats for not being similarly tenacious and strategic, especially once they saw what the Republicans were up to.  

To reiterate: “Once you have the courts you can pretty much do whatever you want.”

While it is true that a large number of Trump-appointed judges ruled against him in his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, there is no guarantee that that pattern will continue going forward. In fact, should the Republicans regain power they are almost certain to do everything they can to reverse that trend by appointing even more slavishly loyal pro-Trump judges who can be counted on to rule as the party wishes and not show even a hint of backbone or principle.

The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman writes:

This is our future as long as Trump judges remain on the bench. In every election, every issue debate, and every controversy, the first thing Republicans will do is prepare their lawsuits and start shopping for Trump judges who will be guaranteed to rule in their favor. They won’t win every case; they did fail to get the courts to overturn the 2020 election, and even the right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court will rule against them from time to time. But they got the judiciary they wanted, one dominated by hacks whose respect for the law will almost always yield to the GOP’s partisan interests. And they’re going to use it.

The party that once decried judicial activism—when practiced by Democrats—sure is keen on engaging in it itself. 

Friends of Judge Cannon assure us of her integrity. Perhaps they are right, in the sense that she may not be a hand-rubbing, mustache-twirling villain knowingly perverting the justice system to favor her ideological comrades. I don’t know, but I’m willing to take their word for it. At the same time, it’s impossible to square this decision with a picture of her as a nonpartisan jurist unswayed by the benefits that would accrue to her party as a result of her decision, especially given the tortured, precedent-defying logic behind it.

My surmise is that Judge Cannon is a prime example of an educated, intelligent public servant who has nonetheless talked herself into absolutely indefensible, self-aggrandizing behavior. Whether or not she can sleep at night, I dunno; that’s a matter of how high the Kool-Aid content is in her bloodstream. But I do know that rationalization is a powerful drug, one that dwarfs food, sleep, or sex. (As Jeff Goldblum’s character quips in The Big Chill: “You ever gone a week without a rationalization?”)

But young Ms. Cannon is the least of it. A lengthy profile of Samuel Alito in the new issue of the New Yorker makes clear how the new archconservative majority on the Supreme Court feels gleefully unconstrained in its power to remake America along retrograde lines. We are already watching it rapidly unfold, with Dobbs, with West Virginia v. EPA, with Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, with New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen

Heather Cox Richardson:

In the one term Trump’s three justices have been on the court, they have decimated the legal landscape under which we have lived for generations, slashing power from the federal government, where Congress represents the majority, and returning it to states, where a Republican minority can impose its will. Thanks to the skewing of our electoral system, those states are now trying to take control of our federal government permanently.

Like Cannon, the conservative justices may have convinced themselves of the twisted correctness of their rulings, which somehow conveniently always favor the right wing position on any given issue. (Except Alito, whose snide opinion in Dobbs sure makes it feel like he relishes tromping on the law, and on the beliefs of those fellow Americans with whom he disagrees.)

Perfect circle: the man who secured Alito’s place on the Court, after George W. Bush’s personal attorney Harriet Miers was laughed out of contention, was Leonard Leo, the founder and CEO of the Federalist Society. Just three weeks ago, a new right wing lobby group called the Marble Freedom Trust organized by Leo was the recipient of an unprecedented, record-breaking donation of $1.6 billion from an anonymous “dark money” donor—by some accounts, the largest single donation of that kind in American history. In a ferocious irony, such a donation, from a source under no obligation to disclose his identity, was possible—and legal—only because of Citizens United, the 2000 Supreme Court decision that the Federalist Society itself methodically engineered. As a result, Leo and the Federalists will now have even more power in our legal system, an ouroboros-like infinite loop in the perpetual motion machine of right wing American political corruption. 

(ProPublica later revealed that the donor was Barre Seid, a 90-year-old electronics mogul who has already given tens of millions to conservative groups. Icing on the cake: the $1.6B donation itself is suspected to do double duty as a tax dodge, as it is the exact price for which he sold one of his companies this year.)

Next up: Moore v. Harper, about which I have written at length, here and here, a case the US Supreme Court is hearing this term, which would affirm the risible “independent state legislature” theory, and conceivably give minoritarian Republican-controlled state legislatures the power to disregard the popular vote and assign that state’s electors to the candidate of their choice. Just this week the chief justices of all fifty state Supreme Courts (I’ll repeat that: all fifty) plus the District of Columbia and various US territories weighed in with an open letter pleading with the US Supreme Court to reject the Republican position in Moore. Just to be clear, that includes the chief justices of such ruby red states as Alabama, Mississippi, Idaho, the Dakotas, Missouri, West Virginia, and on and on. That’s how absurd and dangerous the ISL is. But that doesn’t mean that Alito & Thomas & Gorsuch & Kavanaugh & Barrett won’t endorse it. (Four of them have already intimated that they will.) 

OF AUTOCRATS AND ICEBERGS

In short, Judge Cannon’s ruling on the Mar-a-Lago search is but the tippy top of an enormous submerged judicial iceberg into which American democracy is sailing. How that particular case will play out very much remains to be seen. The appeal is cause for hope. But as Jay Kuo writes, the brazenness of Cannon’s ruling in the first place “should serve as a warning sign that our federal judiciary is deeply infiltrated by Trump loyalists who can act like landmines in our legal system for those seeking accountability by the former president and his cronies.” 

Make no mistake: The GOP intends to install itself in permanent, autocratic, one-party minoritarian rule going forward, and the transformation of the judicial system into a shameless tool of that autocracy is a crucial part of that. 

Let’s say it one last time:

“Once you have the courts you can pretty much do whatever you want.”

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Photo of Trump in illustration: Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images