Healing from Hate: A Conversation with Peter Hutchison

Once upon a time, American Nazis had to keep it on the down-low. You couldn’t go around with a swastika tattooed on your neck, or wearing a t-shirt reading “Hitler died for your sins,” or openly proclaiming “Jews will not replace us!” and expect to be taken seriously in mainstream political dialogue in the United States.

It’s still the sort of thing that raises eyebrows in a job interview. 

But ever since the rise of a certain failed real estate mogul-turned-game show host, the inveterate racism, White supremacism, and homegrown domestic terrorism that we fooled ourselves to think was a thing of the past has come bursting forth, newly normalized by one of our two major political parties, one that decided to weaponize and embolden that movement for its own gain. 

Of course, that party had long cultivated that audience, somewhat discreetly, from the Southern Strategy to Willie Horton to Brian Kemp…. but beginning in 2015 it seemed to realize that there was no need to dog whistle when a bullhorn worked even better. 

I would like to say that the United States is currently grappling with how to reckon with that aftermath of that neo-Nazi renaissance. I would like to say that, but it’s premature, because we are still very much in the midst of that battle. The forced retirement to Florida of the aforementioned game show host has not ended that racist resurgence, only marked a new phase in its ongoing poisoning of American society.

The filmmaker Peter Hutchison’s new feature documentary Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation examines the root causes of that sort of violent extremism through the bold work of Life After Hate, a remarkable organization founded by former skinheads and neo-Nazis now engaged in helping other refugees from the self-styled “alt-right.”  In the film, we see members of Life After Hate—“formers,” as they are known—working one-on-one with current members of White supremacist groups who are in the midst of the difficult and dangerous process of de-radicalizing and disengaging from those organizations. The film premiered at DOCNYC in 2019, and with uncanny timing, was released theatrically on January 22 in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. (It is now streaming on all platforms.) 

This chilling, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful film offers a bracing view into how individual members of hate groups can make their way back to sanity, and in the process, hints at a roadmap for our country at large. 

THE PARADOX OF BELONGING

THE KING’S NECKTIE: Peter, I don’t need to tell you, your film could not be more timely.

PETER HUTCHISON: It’s a really weird thing, because I started this before Trump took office, at a time when people were talking about the rise of the alt-right and what that meant, and how that tied in with economic dislocation and disenfranchisement, and just starting to talk seriously about White entitlement and things like that. Then everything exploded once Trump got into office, and eight months later Charlottesville happened, which just blew everything up in the air. 

I was convinced that I was going to lose access to everybody that I’d been working with for three-quarters of a year at that point, because all of a sudden these guys became hot. Every major news outlet wanted to talk to them. They were getting swamped with media requests and documentary film requests and offers for book deals and television series. Everyone wanted to commodify them.

TKN: You’re talking about the guys who had left the movement. 

PH: Correct. But these guys said to me, “Listen, we’ve had people come to us before wanting to make documentaries and TV series and stuff. But we’ve spent the last eight months really getting to know one another. We’re signing an exclusive agreement with you because we trust you and we want you to tell the story.”

So that was a great lesson. 

And every couple of months there would be another high profile incident, and my team and I would be like, “Oh, we missed our window to get this film out while it’s topical! If only we were further along!” Because Vice will swoop in with their resources and film for two days and crank out a doc feature that ends up on TV the next week about the exact topic you’ve been working on for a year.

But I think the patience paid off. Every few months there was another incident, and the film only became more relevant and timely—sadly. Then of course the whole insurgency in DC dovetailed with the release of the film; we literally rolled out digitally two weeks later. Who knows what’s going to happen next? 

TKN: I’m afraid to ask.

PH: Me too. I don’t want the film to be timely! I certainly want my film to be seen and to make some kind of impact, but by the same token, we have to ask why is this ramping up instead of ebbing away?

TKN: How did you begin to earn that trust from the beginning, when you first approached these guys? I presume they were wary.

PH: Yeah. They had gone down the path with other filmmakers or production companies, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of exploitive doc filmmaking out there. A lot of these outfits didn’t care about these formers’ psychological well-being, they didn’t care about their evolution as people, they didn’t care about their fragility. I’m lucky that I have a clinical background, which helped because we could really talk about the psychological vulnerabilities that these guys go through when they’re leaving the movement and how tenuous that process is, and how raw they are, and how you have to keep your ethics at the forefront when you’re working with those kinds of subjects.

The head of Life After Hate, Sammy Rangel, is a really, really amazing guy. He has a really solid clinical background, which is why he’s running the organization. We had so many long talks about what made sense and what didn’t in terms of formers’ development as they move out of those groups, and I think I may be the only filmmaker who even bothered to have those sorts of conversations with him. That’s gradually how the trust began to build. I also spent time with all of these guys individually before I really started filming them. I traveled with them and would maybe shoot a presentation that they were giving, and we got to know one another. A couple of these guys are very close friends of mine to this day. 

TKN: What sort of vulnerabilities are we talking about in particular?

PH: The reality is that when you walk away from a hate group like these guys did, you walk away from everything. You’re walking away from your community, your family, your friends, oftentimes your livelihood, and you’re wandering in the wilderness. 

And there’s an even bigger piece of it, which is that the very thing that brings a lot of these guys into the movement, the thing that makes them so vulnerable and set up for recruitment, is needing some sort of identity, needing a sense of belonging, and a sense of empowerment, and community, and meaning in their lives.

REDEMPTION WRIT LARGE

TKN: To back up a little, I should have said right at the beginning that I really loved the film. I thought it was super well done and powerful, and these guys were so moving. The characters that you chose are all so smart and articulate and introspective. In a way, I guess it’s a self-selecting group: that’s the kind of person who would eventually withdraw from a hate group in the first place, and you’ve got to be like that to survive everything you just described. But it was still really striking. They’re a remarkable group of guys.

PH: I couldn’t agree more. But the piece of that I think people probably miss, or don’t pause to consider, is that yes, they’re all resilient and evolved guys, but you’re also seeing them at the end of this evolutionary process. They’re grownups now. They spent that decade trying to figure out who they were in relation to their hate group affiliation and it wasn’t easy for any of them. So I think what’s easy to miss is that it’s not a smooth path: it’s years and years in the making. And like you say, there’s a degree of self-selection. These are the guys who made it to that point. There are guys who do not. 

A prime example is the gentleman in the film named Thomas Engelman, the big bald guy with the eyepatch whose old comrades took a hit out on him that went sideways. Unfortunately he took his own life this past August. It was absolutely horrible. 

TKN: I was struck by the willingness of these guys to speak at all. It’s one thing for the leaders of the group like Sammy or Frankie Meeink (the inspiration for the Edward Norton character in American History X) to be open to it, but it’s another thing for guys like Thomas and Randy who are still in the process of getting out. I mean, it’s hard enough do what they’re doing in leaving a hate group, but then also to be in a film about it at the same time, was really incredible. 

PH: Yeah. And we had long conversations around, “Hey, are these guys ready to be on film?” And Life After Hate felt that of all the people who were going through this process at the time, these two guys would be good subjects. We all thought they were in a good enough spot that they could participate in this, and were two unique individuals who really have important stories that shed light on what’s happening. 

Thomas was someone that Life After Hate saw as a potential leader—kind of the next generation of formers to come up through this process. And nobody knows why he took his life; it was a surprise to everybody. He seemed like he really had his act together, he was doing a lot of outreach for the organization, he was an incredibly articulate guy, very, very open and in touch with his emotions and his evolution. It just underscores what these formers go through during that initial period in leaving a hate group, even the ones who seem to have the most resolve or be the most resilient. No one’s ever going to know what he’s struggled with, what shame or self-doubt or loss of hope. But whenever I watch the film now, that’s one of the things I think about the most: what was he going through? That’s why it’s so important that these guys have this support group. Without it, this transition doesn’t happen.

Sammy’s story is absolutely remarkable, too—even the sliver of his upbringing that you glean from the film is really only the tip of the iceberg of what he’s been through. The time that he spent in prison is so tragic and scarring that we couldn’t fit it all in the doc and keep the story balanced. I mean, this guy never even finished high school, and over the past 12 years not only does he go on to college, he got his master’s degree and his clinical certifications. He’s just an incredibly insightful and adept and introspective guy. He’s one of these people who’s been able to take his pain and his tragedy and use it as a tool. He really understands human nature and what these guys are going through on a fundamental, emotional level.

TKN: That’s apparent in the movie. Just a snippet of what he talks about regarding his background was devastating; I was reeling. And then you see how good he is at doing this. Those experiences would destroy most people. They would never get up from that.

PH: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the really important lessons in this, as Michael Kimmel (the sociologist whose book inspired the film) points out. There’s this notion that no one is irredeemable. These guys prove that, and that’s a lesson to everybody. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with hate groups. This is a much larger philosophical lesson. 

TKN: It’s almost religious, redemption-wise. I felt it. And it made me think about my own lack of empathy toward not just these guys, but even far less violent people on the other side of the political divide, people who I’ve been so angry at for four years. When the guys in Life After Hate talk about using compassion and empathy to reach out and save people, it made me maybe think about myself and how I can’t do that.

PH: And the corollary here is that if no person is irredeemable, then no nation is irredeemable. And it gives me hope that there is a redemptive capacity in our story as a nation. 

TKN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. We see in the film how difficult it is to get an individual out of that movement. First they have to want to come out, and even then they’re up against all the challenges that you outlined. So how do we apply that, writ large, to the whole country? 

PH: I think there are some fundamentals, and I think the place where we start is precisely what I just mentioned. No one’s irredeemable. Everyone has the capacity to change and evolve, and there are fundamental lessons in the film around how that happens. I’m not saying that the 74 million people who voted for Trump are hate group members—that’s not where I’m going with this. But when these formers talk about the most transformative experience for them, it’s when someone extended compassion to them and empathy when they least expected it. And it was extended by someone from whom they least deserved it, whether it was Frankie’s experience with the Jewish antique dealer in Philly, or Randy’s experience in Gainesville. 

(In the film, we see a White nationalist named Randy Furniss get separated from his neo-Nazi comrades at an alt-right rally and set upon by a group of Black counterprotestors who appear set to brutalize him. But a Black DJ named Julius Long protects him, marking the beginning of an unlikely friendship.)

Julius and Randy’s relationship is the perfect example. Julius saves Randy from this crowd that’s beating the shit out of him and spitting on him and punching him in the face and stuff, and takes him aside and has an open conversation with him. Julius genuinely has curiosity and compassion and courage. He wants to know, “Why do you believe this shit? I really want to understand it.” And I think that that’s a big piece of what we’re missing. We don’t want to understand one another anymore. There’s this side and that side and you’re wrong and I’m right and you’re fucking crazy and I’m the sane one. 

I think it’s driven by these media filters where we get our news and information. We hear the term “civil war” thrown around all the time, and I think people believe that the people on the other side of the political aisle are their enemies. We’ve lost the capacity to even have curiosity for why the other person believes what they believe. But that genuine curiosity has the innate capacity to transform relationships and the way people view and think about themselves and the world. I know it sounds maybe “new agey” or airy fairy or whatever. But I think that’s really where it has to start.

TAKE THE SKINHEADS BOWLING

PH: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. It’s a fantastic book he wrote 20 years ago. He talks about how just a generation ago, we hadn’t self-siloed where we live, where we get our news, what we do for entertainment. He talks about how, after church, he and his whole community used to go bowling together. People of all different political affiliations and ways of thinking about the world. And in that simple act of bowling every Sunday, you would get to understand why someone who was on the other side of the political aisle believed what they believed.

You also learned to respect them because you spent time with them. It’s very rare anymore that people spend time with people who have a different set of beliefs than they do. And I’ve seen some really excruciating fallout from that this past four years, I’ve seen families break up, I’ve seen families go into therapy to try and wrestle with this idea of, “How could you be a Trump supporter? You’re a heinous, evil, demented person.” Or vice versa. And Putnam talks about this phenomenon that if we’re not gonna spend time doing things with people who don’t share our precise viewpoint, of course we’re never going to understand how they think or what they believe. 

And to bring it back to the film, I see it mirrored in these stories of these hate group affiliations. Who do you hate? You hate people you’re not exposed to. You can’t “other” someone who lives next door, who you work with, who you go to school with, who you go to church with. You “other” a race or a culture that you don’t understand: the immigrants coming from Somalia or south of the border to take your job and destroy your way of life, or the Jews who are behind a global conspiracy to take over the planet. 

I think about it a lot. In the community where I grew up, I didn’t know what a Jew looked like till I went to college. 

TKN: Me too. I never met a Jewish person until I was eighteen and moved north.

PH: Yeah. And we both ended up marrying women who are Jewish. (laughs) I joke about it with my wife. We had a whole repertoire of Jewish jokes when we were kids, but we didn’t know any Jews. It’s just really easy to hang your troubles and anxiety and your fears on people that you don’t know or understand. And I think that’s a very, very, very dangerous set-up.

TKN: That was one of the lessons of the film that I thought was so valuable, because as a country we’re trying to reckon with that. How do we heal? How do we have unity without normalizing racism, without appeasing Trumpism or QAnon, but having the empathy and compassion that you just talked about, the capacity to try and figure out, “Why do you believe this stuff? How did you go down that path that led you to storm the Capitol?” Not to say, “Oh, we both have a legitimate viewpoint, even though you want to lynch people,” but so that we can prevent it from happening again. 

January 6th felt like the beginning of an insurgency or a counterinsurgency or even a civil war, but you don’t win those by force, at least not solely by force. You win them through soft power. Anne Applebaum has a big piece about that in The Atlantic right now. And these guys in Life After Hate are doing that on a one-by-one level and it was remarkable to watch.

PH: I do think there are a lot of lessons there that can be scaled up, and that we can all try and take with us out into the world and our daily interactions with people. You don’t know when it’s going to have an impact. You just don’t know.

TKN: I was also very interested in the discussion in the film about how the White nationalist movement morphed from being skinheads in Doc Maartens to being guys in suits who are savvier—and scarier in many ways. Some of these guys seem to have a foot in both those worlds.

PH: It’s fascinating to see some of the early footage of them on some of these talk shows, like Jerry Springer. One of these guys—I think it might have been Frankie—was actually on that famous episode that ended up in a real brawl: not a World Wrestling Federation type brawl, but a real brawl, where the chairs got thrown and the White supremacists got in a fistfight with the audience and the other people on stage.

And then you see their evolution—which I think mirrors the political evolution—of putting on the suit and tie, getting rid of the Doc Maartens. You’re right: it’s scary. But it is a political evolution, and when you see some of the actions of our representatives on the floor of the House and Senate, there are some very clear examples of men who are dressed up in a nice suit and tie who are representing these same ideas.

TKN: At one point in the film, Tony McAleer talks about how tech has accelerated this White power movement, because you can consume the indoctrination faster—as fast as you want, in fact. Conversely, he also says you can tiptoe into it now, you don’t have to take the big risk of, say, going to a skinhead rally. 

PH: And all of that has accelerated since the film was finished. In this COVID reality that we’ve dealt with the last year, the only way we’ve had to communicate and engage with one another is through technology, and I think that has accelerated a lot of this, as well as these alternative platforms for messaging and communicating, so that these conversations don’t have to take place on Facebook or Twitter anymore. There are dedicated platforms where these ideas can move really fast, which a lot of people feel was responsible for the offense at the Capitol on January 6th.

IDENTITY POLITICS FOR PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO HATE IDENTITY POLITICS

TKN: At one point in the movie, somebody—it might be Sammy—talks about how some of the people that they’ve reached out to, people who are in the midst of trying to disengage from hate groups, have actually like called them up and said, “I’m thinking of going into a synagogue and shooting people up.” And they’ve talked them down. They’re like a suicide hotline—or a homicide hotline, I should say. And it’s amazing that somebody who’s on the edge of doing that is also on the edge of reaching out for help. These guys in Life After Hate are literally saving lives…..not just the lives of the formers, but would-be victims as well.

PH: That’s right. But it also sheds a really important light on the emotional state of the person who’s considering going and doing something violent like that. I keep coming back to this time and time again. The reality is that there’s so much more at play here than the ideology. There are some very, very fundamental psychic issues around power and meaning and I think it applies not only to the members of these organizations but also to these guys who are leaders and in a position of power. 

I don’t know if Richard Spencer believes what he says. But I do feel very strongly that he has a deep need for power and for being seen. I think you see that on different levels within these organizations. For the person who’s going into blow up a synagogue or shoot up a Baptist church: is it really the ideology? Does it have to do with some tragic, fragile sense of self? Most of these guys, ideology is not why they enter these groups to begin. Ideology is secondary. 

And on a more subtle level, I think there are parallels to be drawn for the 70 million plus people who voted for Trump. He’s tapping into something that’s very, very crucial for people in terms of feeling empowered and that who they are as American people is valued. Obviously his policies aren’t helping those people. It’s something else—a very emotional, a very emotional response. 

TKN: Someone else in the film talks about how it can even start as a pose, for whatever reason, but then you play it for so long that it becomes real. Years ago when I was in film school I made a student film about a guy who worked at Rocketdyne in the early ‘60s, who started writing about the moon landing conspiracy as a joke. In fact, he initiated the idea. His name was Bill Kaysing. He’s passed away now, but he admitted to me very openly that he started it as a gag, but he got so much attention that slowly he began to believe it. He convinced himself of this batshit theory and that became his whole persona. It’s like what we were saying at the very the beginning of this conversation. That became his whole world, and he couldn’t give that up.

PH: Right. That’s his identity now.

TKN: Richard Spencer, when I watch him, I feel the same way you do. And Spencer and Stephen Miller went to Duke together, where Miller was involved in shit-stirring around the Duke lacrosse rape case.

In high school Miller was known as a provocateur: he was like a shock jock trying to get a rise about of people. Probably he has internalized it now and really believes it, because it works for him. But it could have been something else he latched onto.

PH: Right. I’ve been doing a deep dig into Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich this past couple months as part of a different project, but you see a lot of similarities in Hitler’s political development. When he started out there was very little indication that anti-Semitism would play a significant role in the way he thought about politics and the world. But like you say, it was working for him. And the more it worked, the more he believed it. That’s what it becomes, but that’s not where it started. The drive for power is where it starts. 

********

HEALING FROM HATE is available to stream, rent, and buy everywhere, including iTunesAmazonYouTube MoviesGoogle Play, and cable providers including Spectrum, Verizon, and others. Watch the trailer here.

PETER HUTCHISON

Peter Hutchison is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, activist, NYU faculty member, and New York Times bestselling author. 

The companion pieces in trilogy with Healing From Hate are Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump, based upon the groundbreaking work of sociologist Michael Kimmel, and Auschwitz: Journey into Reconciliation, which follows former neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Tony McAleer (also featured in Healing from Hate) on a personal journey of atonement through the Polish death camps.  

Peter’s previous documentaries include Requiem for the American Dream: Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power (Netflix), which was a New York Times Critics Pick and the #1 top-selling doc on iTunes. The companion book (Seven Stories Press) debuted at #6 on the Times Bestseller list. Among his other films are What Would Jesus Buy? (Sundance Channel) with producing partner Morgan Spurlock; the award-winning SPLIT: A Divided America (IFC Choice Indie); its follow-up SPLIT: A Deeper Divide (Documentary Channel); and Awake Zion (Film Buff), which was the closing night film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. 

Hutchison holds an MS in counseling psychology.

PHOTO: A “probate” wishing to become a citizen of the KKK’s Invisible Empire is blindfolded prior to a “naturalization” ritual. Credit: Anthony Karen.

Cowards Bend the Knee (Again)

When 2020 ended, I was among many who celebrated the end of that annus horribilis. 2021 is already better under the stewardship of Biden & Harris. Even so, amid that improvement, it has also brought us, in just six short weeks, two of the darkest days in modern American history. 

One of course was January 6th, when we saw a bloodthirsty mob sack the US Capitol and try to murder a slew of federal officials and overturn a free and fair election. The other was February 13th when the Republican Party refused to hold accountable the president who fomented that attack. 

Worst President’s Day weekend ever. 

No one really thought there were going to be 17 Republican votes to convict; how could there be, when so many Senate Republicans told us outright both before and during the trial that they had already made up their minds? (So much for their oath as jurors.) How could there be, when Senators like Graham, Lee, and Cruz openly and brazenly coordinated with the defense team?

Hell, I was surprised we got seven. I’ve been very hard in these pages on Collins and Sasse in particular, and while their votes to convict do not absolve them of their past shamefulness, let’s give credit where it’s due, along with Romney (again), Murkowski, Toomey, and—surprises—Burr and Cassidy.  

It is deliberately hard to remove a US president via impeachment. For context, this was still the largest and most bipartisan vote to convict in US history, covering four Senate trials over 152 years (half of which starred Donald Trump). Indeed, for the first time ever, a bipartisan majority of US Senators decreed that an American president is guilty of high crimes and unfit for office. I would venture that with the passage of time, the power of the House managers’ case will loom even larger than just the 57-43 number. 

And so will the cowardice of the 43 votes to acquit.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN JURISPRUDENCE WITHOUT REALLY TRYING

There is little to say about Trump’s “defense” that hasn’t already been said. The retired Florida man and his lawyers were so contemptuous of the process that they barely bothered to mount one, using less than three hours to engage in shameless whataboutism (while denying they were doing so), showing a montage of random, out of context sound bites (while openly accusing the House managers of doctoring their own footage, which is an outrageously slanderous allegation), and arguing—irrelevantly—that the President has extra-special First Amendment rights above anyone else’s.

But a collage of clips from Madonna, Johnny Depp, and Maxine Waters that had zero practical impact isn’t remotely comparable to the aggressive propaganda campaign and solicitation of violence that Trump and his enablers engaged in over months, let alone the lethal results. Also: none of them are President.

But there was a subtext to that, video, which Jake Tapper dubbed “a Sean Hannity mixtape.” In The New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin quotes House manager Del. Stacey Plaskett, of the Virgin Islands, who said, “It is not lost on me that so many of (the speakers in the videos) were people of color. And women—Black women.” Sorkin adds: “As Trump surely knows, that message won’t be lost on his supporters, either.”

In a twist worthy of a John Grisham thriller, we also got the eleventh hour revelation of a screaming match between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in mid-riot, in which Kevin called the White House pleading for help, and Donald replied, “Well Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” prompting McCarthy to scream back, “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” 

I think he knew, Kev. Because he owns you.

As Jennifer Rubin notes, just how low is Kevin McCarthy that even after all that, in the weeks following January 6th he still kept silent about what he knew, voted against impeachment, and even trekked down to Florida to kiss Trump’s ass, er, ring.

In prison they have a word for people like that, but I won’t use it because I’m too woke. (#sexismisbad, amirite?)

MESSAGE FROM MOSCOW

As far as Trump’s defense goes, the conventional wisdom is that Republican Senators needed cover to justify why they voted to acquit….but do they? Their base already believes this is a witchhunt. All they needed was the flimsiest of fig leafs, and Trump’s legal team seemed to dead set on giving them the flimsiest leaf humanly possible. 

Which brings us to Mitch McConnell, whose bizarre and infuriating speech at the end of the proceedings was a master class in utter hypocrisy and howling cynicism, even by his own Olympian standards in those arenas. 

McConnell affirmed Trump’s guilt as established by the House managers, but insisted that the Senate had to acquit him on a technicality, which is to say, timing, because he is no longer in office. 

First of all, that issue was settled with very first vote of the trial, in which the historical precedent for trying a former official was firmly established, and the Senate voted to affirm it. Mitch, of course, is not a constitutional scholar, but 144 people who are wrote an open letter during the trial confirming that position. The Constitution leaves it to the Senate to decide its own rules when it comes to impeachment, and once it did so, the jurors are supposed to abide by that and rule on the evidence, as Richard Burr (R-NC) did. But Mitch has never been big on rules that are inconvenient for him.

More to the blood-boiling point, even if it were true that a former president can’t be tried, McConnell himself is responsible for that timing, by refusing to allow this trial to happen before January 20th. In so doing, he personally created the conditions he now claims tie his hands. To state the bleeding obvious, would he and the others have stood on this specious technicality—let alone created it—if it had been a former Democratic president?

So Mitch’s grave, sanctimonious closing statement condemning Trump was so much bullshit. MSNBC legal analyst Ari Melber tidily summarized his position: “Trump did it, but the only time we could try him was when I prevented it.”

It was largely a speech aimed at corporate donors, the backbone of the old school plutocratic wing of the GOP, who need a pretext to continue supporting a Republican Party that would forgive Donald Trump for a sin like this….which they are glad to do, but know it’s shitty PR, absent the facade of Captain Renault-like posturing like Mitch’s.

And there was still more hypocrisy in McConnell’s attempt to have it both ways. He railed self-righteously against Trump’s Big Lie, but it’s a lie that he actively abetted. Transparently, he passed the buck to the criminal justice system for further prosecution of Trump’s transgressions, throwing the onus onto the Biden Justice Department (ironically, to be led by Merrick Garland) which he knows will be a fundraising extravaganza for Republicans as they rail against the never-ending Democratic vindictiveness. Indeed, that fundraising effort began within minutes of the acquittal, MSNBC reported.

In closing, McConnell claimed that in coming to this conclusion he engaged in “intense reflection.” Which I always thought vampires were incapable of.

THE MOB

Most Republican Senators predicated their not guilty vote on the idea that Trump’s actions did not constitute incitement, or short of that, in any way render him unfit for office.

Really?

These same Republicans are members of a movement that believes Hillary’s email protocol merited “locking her up,” that Benghazi justified two years of multimillion dollar investigations at taxpayer expense (yielding nothing), and that Bill Clinton deserved removal for lying about an affair…..but fomenting a violent insurrection gets a pass? Again, the Republican defense is that Trump did no such thing, but it’s risible. Even if one takes the indefensible position that his actions didn’t constitute “incitement,” and that he is somehow still fit for public office, the majority of the GOP refuses even to criticize him on the matter or acknowledge its gravity. Such is the behavior of pathetic, shit-scared little weasels.

George Conway is among many who have said that Republican cowardice in Trump’s first impeachment is what led to January 6. There can be no doubt. Indeed, it was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House manager in that trial, who told us in his closing statement a year ago that, if left in office, Trump would soon do something like he did in Ukrainegate yet again. 

And he did. In fact much much worse. 

In The New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes:

Trump alone never could have wreaked such mayhem on our democracy, on our Capitol. His mob is not just the thugs who attacked cops with flagpoles on January 6th; it also includes some of the elected officials inside the besieged building, the ones in suits who advanced and promoted Trump’s election lies, just as they had advanced and promoted so many of his other lies for the previous four years. Of course, they are standing by him now.

Lead House manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) hit the nail in his closing statement, addressing a group that likes to describe itself as “the world’s greatest deliberative body”:

This is almost certainly how you will be remembered by history. That might not be fair. It really might not be fair. But none of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now. Our reputations and our legacy will be inextricably intertwined with what we do here and with how you exercise your oath to do impartial justice.

SEE DONNY RUN

As Tim Miller writes in The Bulwark, we now live in a world where Donald Trump might very well be president again. Miller specifies that that is not a prediction that he will run, let alone win, or that the odds favor it (which they don’t), but merely that it is now a possibility in purely practical terms, since the US Senate did not see fit to prevent it.

On that front, my friend Scott Matthews has pondered whether the failure to convict and bar Trump from office might actually come back to haunt the GOP, not only in terms of public demonstration of its shamefulness, but by keeping a Trump candidacy in the mix for the next three-plus years, cockblocking other Republican hopefuls (like the conniving Nikki Haley) or at least severely complicating the situation. Only time will tell, as I used to say at the end of my undergraduate history papers, when I wrapped them up at 4:30 a.m. on the morning they were due.

But does Trump even want to be president again? Or does he just wanna be on Twitter? He loves to be the center of attention, of course, but he is also lazy and selfish, and would prefer to play golf and raw dog porn stars than have to, ya know, work. 

Maybe he will run just for the legal protections the office provides, ‘cause he’s gonna need it. As even McConnell pointed out, Trump still faces criminal prosecution at the federal, state, and municipal levels over this and many other crimes. (I would add the International Criminal Court to that list.)

And of course there’s future conduct to consider as well. I’ve compared Trump to OJ before, in numerous ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump follow his lead again in squandering his acquittal with new crimes, just as he did after skating on Russiagate and Ukrainegate. Guard your trophies, folks.

Since Trump has not been barred from running again, the practical impact of the impeachment will largely be to lay down a marker that at least some members of the body politic will not tolerate insurrection—an important point, even if you’d think it was self-evident—and to (further) stain Trump as the worst US president ever. Though conviction and disqualification would have been preferable, that’s still no small thing, even if in terms of concrete impact, his de-platforming from social media may well have a more severe repercussions. 

If Trump does choose to run again, he will have to do so without the help of Jack Dorsey and his preferred megaphone, and while bearing the scarlet “I” of twin impeachments, and our collective memory of all the horrors he wrought, from caged children to half a million dead to a violent attempted self-coup. 

Still, watching the behavior of right wing America through all this, I am not ready to write that off as an impossibility.

TRAVESTY REPEATED

Here’s Heather Cox Richardson:

Republican Senators willing to excuse Trump for his incitement of an insurrection that attacked our peaceful transfer of power are tying the Republican party to the former president and to an ideology that would end our democracy. 

What led the rioters on January 6, 2021, to try to hurt our elected officials and overturn the legal results of the 2020 election was Trump’s long-time assertion that he won in a landslide and the presidency had been stolen from him. 

This big lie, as observers are calling it, is not one of Trump’s many and random lies, it is the rallying cry for a movement to destroy American democracy. He is building a movement based on the idea that his supporters are the only ones truly defending the nation, because they—not the people who certified the 2020 election—are the ones who know the true outcome of the election. He is creating a narrative in which he is the only legitimate leader of the nation and anyone who disagrees is a traitor to the Constitution.

As (House manager David) Cicilline noted, even after the riot Trump refused to repudiate that big lie. And now, even in the face of impeachment he has not repudiated it. Indeed, he has doubled down on it, refusing to admit he is a “former” president. His supporters haven’t admitted it, either, including his supporters who sit in Congress. None of those who challenged the counting of the electoral votes on January 6 and 7 has admitted it was a political stunt. Now, they are arguing that impeachment is a partisan attack on the part of Democrats.

Trump is not trying to win just this trial: he is trying to win control of the Republican Party and, through it, the country.

I’ve recycled the title of this essay from the last time craven Senate Republicans let the worst president in American history off the hook, the final installment in a four-part series on the Ukraine impeachment collectively titled “Travesty.” At the time I had no idea there would be a reprise just a year later, with even higher stakes.

The GOP has now told future presidents, “If you don’t like the results of a given election, feel free to send a mob to try to overturn it.” It has also given the green light to violent political intimidation at the everyday level.

One of the reasons that the abortive decision to call witnesses was hastily reversed, we are told, is that the House mangers discovered that numerous would-be witnesses were too afraid for their lives to testify. No doubt some Republican Senators were afraid too. In the words of former Assistant US Attorney Daniel Goldman (one of the prosecutors in the last impeachment), we have gone from a point where Republicans feared a  mean tweet from Trump, to one where they fear for their physical safety from an army of thugs that Trump commands…..and that is surely emboldened by his acquittal yet again.

When you let a criminal off the hook, what do they usually do? Commit more crimes of course. Within hours of his acquittal Trump was already firing up his followers and talking about holding new rallies as part of his Nixonian-style comeback. Those followers, similarly emboldened, are no doubt getting their zipties and tasers and tactical gear ready.

Former Republican strategist Kurt Bardella, now of the Lincoln Project, has opined that the GOP is now a domestic terrorist party and should be treated as such. (In this he is echoing Noam Chomsky, who has been saying something like that for years.) It’s impossible to look at what just happened in the past six weeks and offer a rational rebuttal. 

If and when there comes more violence, what will these Senate Republicans say?

“Not my fault,” I presume, as all cowards do.

In the meantime, the rest of us will be left with the damage that they have done to the republic, and the shame that they brought on us all.

**********

A Twenty-First Century Scopes Trial

Donald Trump has always been his own worst enemy. The most damaging wounds to his political career have all proceeded from self-inflicted incidents: firing Jim Comey, releasing the Zelenskyy transcript, and above all, promoting the Big Lie of the election that was supposedly “stolen” from him.  

But the own goal of all time was the January 6 insurrection.  

Imagine if he had not fomented that violent attempt to overturn the election and murder various federal officials. He would be in an infinitely stronger position right now, to say the least, and perhaps even poised to run again in 2024. 

Instead? Not so much. 

I realize that others suffered far more from the events of that day, including the people who were murdered, and American democracy itself. And he may yet survive this, politically, and even rise again to menace the republic—indeed, that is one of the very things at stake in this trial. Own goal or no, his chokehold on the Republican Party is currently very much in evidence, given that the Senate is all but sure to acquit him.

But history’s judgment has already begun, and the trial is a watershed in that process, and all the shameless Republican rank-closing in the world will not change that. 

That has surprised me. As important as impeachment is on principle, I somehow expected this trial to be more or less a formality. Knowing that the craven Republican caucus will surely block his conviction, the point of the trial seemed to be to draw a line in the sand—to fall back on Gulf war tropes—to say that such behavior cannot be allowed to stand, even if the GOP is perfectly fine with it. I did not expect the trial to be such a powerful indictment defining Trump’s shameful legacy, or to reshape political dialogue in the US going forward, which it is now clear that it is doing.

POSITION #31

The Republican position (check your kama sutra) is that Donald Trump gave one little speech at a rally, said nothing untoward, and then a bunch of folks spontaneously got out of hand just by sheer coincidence. If some of them came to that rally already prepared for violence, well, that’s all the more proof that it had nothing to do with what Trump said that day. 

This is what the members of the GOP would have us believe, though most of them don’t believe it themselves, desperate as they are to convince us that they do. 

That fairy tale was always ridiculous on its face. But this past week, the House impeachment managers obliterated it for all time, in the process powerfully defining for all America—and for posterity—the chilling truth of what really happened on January 6, 2021. The counternarrative will continue to persist in the swamps of right wing media, (which includes four million Fox viewers nightly). This is a party where gaslighting has become not just a technique but the entirety of its ideology. But for the rational world and the judgment of history, the facts have now been dramatically established. 

Shall we recap, briefly? Let’s just begin with the day’s events, setting aside for now all that led up to it.

Trump chose the date for the rally, taking over an event that had been originally set for four days earlier by its organizers, a group called Women for America First—a legally very significant fact in its own right. He and his White House team were intimately involved in its planning, right down to choosing the speakers, setting the order of events, and even selecting the music. Trump promoted it heavily, for weeks, including his famous tweet “be there, will be wild.” His two adult sons spoke at the rally, as did their wives or girlfriends, and his personal lawyer Mr. Giuliani (who exhorted the crowd to engage in “trial by combat”). Trump himself spoke in the fiery language of political rabblerousing and incitement to violence, familiar to anyone with brainwave activity, egging the crowd on and using the words “fight” or “fightIng” 20 times—“peacefully” only once. (Or is this another case where we’re supposed to take him seriously but not literally….or is it the other way around? I can never remember.) In any event, video of the crowd’s reaction makes it clear how much this galvanized them. 

Needless to say, Trump has a long tradition of encouraging physical violence, and has celebrated and defended it over and over, from Charlottesville, to the “Liberate” rallies and the attempted kidnapping of Gretchen Whitmer, to running a Biden campaign bus off the road. Trump had seen his supporters engage in violence before, and thrilled to it, and he knew he could get them to do it again. Online chatter from right wing extremists shows the same thing, and the House managers keyed the rise in discussions of violence to precise moments in Trump’s speech on the Ellipse. 

Of crucial legal significance, the rallygoers had no permit to march to the Capitol; that was a plan Trump himself put in their collective head in knowing violation of the rules, and they did so at his urging. (Perhaps the Senate will convict him holding a march without a permit—$25 fine.) After all, there was no event planned at the Capitol to which they would go; their only purpose there would be to “stop the steal,” which had been the focus of his remarks.

Despite telling the crowd that “I’ll be there with you,” Trump watched the events unfold on TV from the White House, where he was reported to have been delighted at the violence, and confused why his aides didn’t think it was great that these people were fighting so hard for him. 

The video of the attack that the House managers showed—much of it never before seen, from Capitol surveillance cameras—was beyond chilling. Several officials, including Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Mitt Romney, and Chuck Schumer—came within moments of being captured by the mob, and we can be confident what grisly fate awaited them had that happened. We can see the absolute viciousness and bloodlust of the insurrectionists, who killed a police officer by smashing his head with a fire extinguisher, savagely beat others with hockey sticks, crutches, their own shields, and even flagpoles bearing the Stars & Stripes (a bit on the nose, don’t you think?), all the while calling the cops “traitors” and chanting “USA! USA!” (ruining the 1980 Olympics for me) and “Fuck you, police”  and “Fuck the blue!” 

When NWA said that, they were vilified, but at least they weren’t simultaneously claiming to be members of the Police Athletic League. 

In one video that serves as a companion to the Stars & Stripes moment, rioters can be seen viciously beating police officers while waving a Blue Lives Matter flag. (But I guess that jibes with Lindsey Graham, who screamed at Capitol Police officers during the siege for allowing the building to be breached, and even now continues to blame them for not doing a better job of protecting him.) 

Those battle cries, along with “Hang Mike Pence!,” will live in infamy, but to my ears, the one that was most chilling, and most telling, was the one heard over and over throughout the day, the one that went: “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!”

Kinda says it all.

To that point, the rioters themselves are powerful witnesses for Trump’s culpability, so overt and self-acknowledged is their slavish devotion to the orders issued by their Dear Leader. 

Multiple insurrectionists, many of them now under arrest, have proudly proclaimed that they did what they did because Trump told them to. Some of that testimony took place on camera during the riot. One rioter screamed at a cop, “There are a million of us, and we are listening to Trump!” Another can be heard shouting at the police, “We were invited by The President of the United States!” The rioters even read a Trump tweet verbatim through a bullhorn….and not just any tweet, but one Trump sent attacking Pence as a coward right after being told the Vice President and his family were being evacuated by the Secret Service to save them from the mob that was hunting Pence down in order to lynch him. In other words, Trump launched an attack on his own VP at the exact moment when Pence was in maximum danger, and Trump knew it

The mind reels.

Even after the horrific scope of the situation had become clear, Trump had to be pressured into making a statement telling the rioters to stand down, and it took hours until he finally, grudgingly agreed to do so (kind of). Similarly, he had to be strongarmed into including any appeal for calm in that videotaped message, which—incredibly—began with a repetition of the claim that the election had been stolen and an affirmation of the rightness of his followers’ fury, ad-libbing the infamous lines “You’re very special,” and “We love you.”

(As calls for calm go, it wasn’t going into any textbooks. By contrast, House manager Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas showed samples of Trump’s all-caps tweets like STOP THE STEAL and STOP THE COUNT, noting that that is what it looks like when Trump genuinely tells someone to stop doing something.)

Even the fact that the mob eventually did begin to disperse when Trump finally spoke, albeit weakly, speaks to their fealty to him and his control over them.  

That evening, long after it was clear just how horrific the day’s events had been, Trump tweeted this: 

These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love and in peace. Remember this day forever!

Confronted about his behavior a few days later, Trump said his speech at the rally was “totally appropriate.”

WORST HEIST MOVIE EVER

Trump’s own former advisors H.R. McMaster, John Bolton, John Kelly, Jim Mattis, and even Mick Mulvaney and Bill Barr (Bill Barr!) have laid the blame for January 6th at his feet. (Libtards!) Even McConnell did so in its immediate aftermath, though he is now hedging his bets, as did Kevin McCarthy before Trump reminded him who his daddy was.

But of course Trump’s culpability is not limited only to what happened on the 24 hours of January 6th. If anything, his actions leading up to that date are even more damning.

As the former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg noted, the story of a bank robbery is not just the story of the moment the gun is pointed at the teller. It’s the story of the planning, the recruiting of the crew, the reconnaissance of the target, the purchase of the getaway car, the acquisition of the guns, the construction of the alibis, the rehearsals, the stickup itself of course, and then also the escape, the dividing of the loot, the laundering of the cash, and on and on and on. 

So too with this violent attempt at a self-coup.  

Let’s state for the record what we all know: for months, both before and after November 3rd, Trump spread the vicious Big Lie that the election was rigged and that it was being “stolen” from him. This was the animating force behind the entire “stop the steal” movement that culminated with invasion of the Capitol, and—make no mistake—continues even now as a low-boiling domestic insurgency that regards Trump as still the rightful president-in-exile.

That alone is impeachable, irrespective of any violence. 

The Capitol insurrection was no spontaneous event, a rally that simply got out of hand, with a few rogue criminals operating independent of White House guidance. It was a deliberately organized attack by a desperate defeated president who had run out of other options in his quest to hang on to power, and turned finally to outright armed sedition. This rally was held on January 6th for a very specific reason: because that was the day that Congress was to certify the Electoral College vote, and Trump’s last chance to overturn the election, short of declaring martial law. (Which his disgraced national security adviser and convicted felon Lieutenant General [Ret.] Michael Flynn was urging him to do. Trump reportedly considered making Flynn his chief of staff and/or director of the FBI in the closing weeks of his term.) 

Writing in Slate, William Saletan asks the pertinent question that Trump’s lawyers must, if this were a proper trial, without a foreordained outcome, be forced to answer: “If Trump wasn’t directing the mob to attack or threaten Congress, what was he telling it to do?”

(Along those same lines, my friend Scott Matthews points out that the focus on Trump’s culpability for inciting violence is understandable, but a bit of a red herring. Even absent violence, his mere—mere!—rhetorical attacks on the integrity of the election and the peaceful transfer of power have done grievous harm and are deserving of impeachment and banning from future office-holding.) 

Meanwhile, significantly more evidence has also come out about pre-coordination for the insurrection.

Trump’s purge of DOD and US IC officials in December, for example, suddenly makes a lot more sense. One of the puppets installed in that purge, Acting SecDef Chris Miller, issued a preemptive order on January 5th limiting National Guard intervention in the next day’s events, strongly suggesting that the Trump administration knew that there was going to be violence, and blocking in advance federal authorities’ ability to contain it. (Steve Bannon and others are on record with statements suggesting that they too knew there would be violence, and encouraging it.) 

On that same day, January 5th, numerous Congressmembers are credibly alleged to have given private tours to individuals who would storm the Capitol the next day, tours that functioned as reconnaissance. Small but significant numbers of the insurrectionists did seem to have alarmingly suspicious and specific knowledge of the layout of the notoriously confusing Capitol building (and even maps), including the location of the offices of their key targets, like Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently revealed just how close she came to being murdered as well. 

We also know now that Michael Flynn’s brother Charles, an active duty lieutenant general and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the whole US Army, was in the room at the Pentagon when the decisions were being made not to send the NG to the scene of the insurrection. Not that anyone is saying he shares his brother’s views, and he would rightly be involved in that decision-making process in his job as DCSOPS, but it’s not a great look, especially since the Army initially denied he was there. (He has since been given a fourth star and a high-profile command.)

On the follow-the-money front, the Trump campaign gave $3.5 million to the organizers of the rally. (For that matter, a great deal of Super PAC money went to the members of Congress like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz who were trying to decertify the Electoral College vote, not to mention Trump himself.)

Meanwhile, the FBI reports that it has found “evidence detailing coordination of an assault. But I don’t need an FBI investigation to tell you that the people who arrived with Kevlar helmets and body armor and zip ties and tasers had more on their mind than just a polite expression of their First Amendment right to peaceful dissent. And I don’t need a weatherman to tell me that they did so because they’d been given the go sign from the highest levels that their behavior was welcome. 

SEE NO EVIL

In short, the only people who can see Trump’s words and actions and still refuse to hold him accountable—at least politically and morally, if not legally—are those engaged in willful denial. Unfortunately, that group includes some forty-odd Republican US Senators. Witness the highly performative expressions of outrage by Graham, Hawley, Rick Scott, et al in attacking the House managers for having the temerity even to bring this case. 

Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine that they would be so forgiving if it was a “Democrat” president who had done this. 

As many have noted, the Senators are not only the jurors in this trial but also among the victims of the crime, witnesses to it, and in some cases, accomplices in its commission. Surreally, the trial is taking place in the crime scene itself; some of the Senators are sitting in the very desks that violent insurrectionists commandeered five short weeks ago. Yet none of that seems to have done anything at all to penetrate the all-powerful bubble of GOP venality.

Charlie Sykes summarized matters nicely in The Bulwark:

Donald Trump (1) stoked the fire by lying about the election (2) summoned the mob, (3) incited the assault on the Capitol, (4) failed to condemn it even once, (5) tweeted attacks on VP Mike Pence even as he sheltered in place, (6) was derelict in his duty, and (7) afterward, celebrated the insurrection.

This ought to test the capacity of even the most hardened Trumpist to deny the enormity of Trump’s conduct. But, don’t worry, they will find a way.

“Both sides” are just as partisan, you say? We don’t know, because no US president has ever done anything even remotely like this before. But even if that were so, it of course does not justify excusing Trump or anyone else now.

As Chris Truax writes, also in The Bulwark:

As a matter of principle, Trump should be convicted. He spent two months telling flat-out lies designed to undermine American democracy and keep him in power even though he had lost the election. He demanded that the vice president of the United States violate the Constitution. When Mike Pence refused, he ordered a violent mob to march on the US Capitol, which they did while chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

But that argument falls apart right at the top, with the words “As a matter of principle.”

We’re talking about Republicans, folks.

The behavior of Senate Republicans is setting a new low for moral cowardice and dereliction of duty. I wrote last weekthat I looked forward to the spectacle of these venal bastards gazing at their shoes and cringing when presented with video evidence of what Trump wrought. It turned out not to be that much fun….but it was certainly a stark display of history’s verdict being rendered in real time.

Truax again:

The trial has already achieved one of its major objectives by creating an indelible historical record of the events of January 6. The “timeline” video introduced into evidence on Tuesday was a stunning, damning record of the events of the day as they unfolded. That 14-minute video will come to define the Trump administration for future generations. A hundred years from now, children will study it in school.”

Of course, for that very reason, numerous Republicans chose not even to watch it. “During the video of the insurrection, Trump supporters Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) looked at papers on their desks, Rick Scott (R-FL) looked at papers on his lap, and Rand Paul (R-KY) doodled.”

And Josh Hawley sat with his feet up, ignoring the trial and working on his “Magnum PI” fan fiction. I thought my opinion of Hawley was already lower than the Marianas Trench. Then I read this and discovered, hey whaddaya know, it can actually sink even lower. (You might recall that the right wing wanted Obama impeached, or worse, for putting his feet up in the Oval Office. One man’s nonchalance is another man’s uppity, I guess.)

Anne Applebaum tweeted:

(The mob was) looking for Pence, and shouting Pelosi’s name. They were carrying weapons. We were minutes away from an even bigger tragedy. And the Republican Senate still can’t bring itself to condemn the man who inspired them, incited them, told them they were patriots.

D-FENCE

So what of Donald’s actual legal defense? Paul Begala nailed it during the opening statements when he tweeted, “Trump is apparently being represented by the law firm of Meandering & Furious.” It’s funny because it’s true, as comedians like to say. (Not.) What’s really infuriating is that Trump has bozos like this as his legal team and yet he will still get acquitted.

But as Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote in The New Yorker, “what looks like incompetence may be better understood as contempt for the process.”

In response to the chilling videos of violence at the Capitol, Republicans have already deployed their defense: “Yes, that was horrible, but it was just the actions of a few criminals. Nothing to do with Donald.” This claim flies in the face of everything we’ve just discussed, but that is the flag they are planting. 

This argument is essentially a First Amendment one, which I’m sure we’ll hear more of when Trump’s team has its sixteen hours beginning today. But the First Amendment defense is a particularly dishonest one. 

In a contentious appearance on MSNBC, the vile Robert Ray, Ken Starr’s successor in the Whitewater investigation, who was also on Trump legal team for his first impeachment, was one of many right wing lawyers sneering at the idea that Trump’s words constitute “incitement to violence” by the standard of a criminal trial. But Ray and his ilk all know very well that an impeachment trial is not a criminal proceeding but a political one, and the same First Amendment protections don’t apply. (Ray’s main point, however, which he kept repeating over and over, was that none of this matters because there won’t be enough votes to convict regardless. But he meant it as a boast, not a disgrace, which is what it is.)

Ironically, the case the House managers laid out probably does meet the standard for a criminal incitement, but that doesn’t matter either, as stated bluntly in an open letter from 144 constitutional law and free speech scholars ahead of the trial, as reported in New York Times: 

(T)he First Amendment, which is meant to protect citizens from the government limiting their free speech and other rights, has no real place in an impeachment trial. Senators are not determining whether Mr. Trump’s conduct was criminal, but whether it sufficiently violated his oath of office to warrant conviction and potential disqualification from holding future office.

Among those 144 lawyers was legendary constitutional law attorney Floyd Abrams, who noted that there are lots of things that are protected speech that the President of the United States could legally say that would still be impeachable offenses. A sampling:

“I think it would be great if China invaded and occupied the US and I’m going to work to make that happen.”

“Black people shouldn’t have the same rights as White people.”

“Anyone who wants a pardon should make an appointment to see Corey Lewandowski.”

All those things are betrayals of the presidential oath that would be high crimes and misdemeanors justifying impeachment and removal. So is a president telling millions of his slavish followers that the election was rigged. 

Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker:

There is no doubt that Trump’s abuse of office—his lies about election fraud, his strong-arming of state election officials including Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, his advocacy for unconstitutional interventions in the Electoral College, and, finally, his incitement of protesters to march on the Capitol—warrant impeachment and conviction. The House prosecution brief prominently quotes Republican Representative Liz Cheney’s emphatic judgment: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

Then there are the specious Republican claims about how we as a nation ought to “move on” and forget about January 6th, and oh yes, Trump’s responsibility for it, and their own. My favorite was Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, scolding Democrats for wasting the Senate’s time when it should be focusing on COVID relief…..after Senate Republicans sat on House Democrats’ proposals for COVID relief for months. Which he opposes in any case.

We’ve dismantled these cries previously in this blog, but they’re like the unkillable Michael Meyers in those Halloweenmovies.

In live commentary on the trial’s opening statements, Alan Rappeport of the Washington Post noted that Trump lawyer David Schoen argued “that the impeachment proceedings—rather than the insurrection—weaken America’s image around the world.” The WaPo’s Katie Benner followed up, seizing on Schoen’s claim that “the trial “will tear this country apart” and “bring us to the brink of civil war,” noting that he “does not address the idea that a violent attack on Congress in order to undo an election could have a deleterious impact on the nation.” 

But the Republican abomination goes beyond these rhetorical ploys and into overt, flagrant perversion of justice. Cruz, Graham, and Mike Lee of Utah openly met with Trump’s defense team on Thursday to discuss strategy—you know, the way jurors always coordinate with the defense in a trial? (Much the same way Mitch McConnell brazenly told the press he was coordinating with the White House during Trump’s first impeachment.) It goes without saying that they ought to be summarily disqualified and removed as jurors, had we not become accustomed to such rank contempt for proper jurisprudence, even in a purely political procedure. 

HISTORY HAS ITS EYE ON US

As I write this, Trump’s legal team (such as it is) is about to begin the detailed presentation of its defense, one that promises to be a festival of lies, deceit, and misdirection building on their specious opening argument and taking the aforementioned gaslighting to a whole new level. 

The infuriating part, of course, as Robert Ray boasted, is that it almost certainly won’t matter, as a majority of Republican Senators have already made it clear that they are not impartial jurors as demanded by their oath and are going to acquit no matter what. In fact, they have been shameless in flaunting their contempt for the very process.

But we should not be surprised. As Hillary Clinton tweeted, “If Senate Republicans fail to convict Donald Trump, it won’t be because the facts were with him or his lawyers mounted a competent defense. It will be because the jury includes his co-conspirators.”

So with little hope of conviction (and the practical benefits of Trump being disqualified from holding office again), Democrats are instead using the trial to disqualify him by a different means. As Professor Melissa Murray of NYU law school notes, the Democrats are cleverly making their case directly to the American people that Trump is unfit to hold office, irrespective of an acquittal…..and that the party that is defending him is unworthy of the support of any thinking American with a shred of respect for the rule of law. 

Therefore, as Truax notes, “Trump isn’t on trial—the Republican Party is.”

The pundits are constantly reminding us that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. (I got it already.) That is the unspoken crux of Republican willingness to acquit Trump despite the manifest evidence of his guilt. So it’s gratifying to see Democrats approaching the process with the same political calculations. 

The putative winner of a trial is not always the actual winner. No one thinks of the Scopes trial and remembers what a great defense of creationism William Jennings Bryan made, even though he “won.” Does OJ walk the streets a national hero and appear on our TV screens in ads for Hertz and Dingo and Schick and Foster Grant after being “exonerated” in a LA courtroom?

Not so much.

So Trump’s legacy in not in question. But this is not merely a matter of history; it is very much an ongoing crisis. We dodged a bullet (so to speak) in getting Trump out of office. If we don’t hold him accountable for commanding an army of violent thugs in an effort to overturn an election, and we don’t bar him from running again, we may find ourselves in a situation where he is President again, and feels utterly unshackled in using those forces and other forms of violence to stay there for life. 

And we won’t be able to act surprised.

***********

More to come next week…..

Who’s Afraid of the Big I (Reboot)?

If it’s early February, it must be time for another impeachment of Donald Trump. 

Yes, I know that’s what his defenders say as well, bitterly. But parties differ on shape of planet.

In mid-May 2019, I published a blog called “Who’s Afraid of the Big I?” arguing for the Trump’s impeachment based on the conclusions of the Mueller report. That essay was the third in a series, following posts on why Trump richly deserved that fate, and the appalling Republican rank-closing to protect him, “a die-in-place effort that makes thefanatical deadenders of Imperial Japan look like wishy-washy dilettantes,” as I wrote at the time. Not much has changed, except that this time both aspects are even worse. 

Of course, Trump was not impeached over the Mueller report, but seven months later, he was impeached over a completely different, though related, scandal. Man, the guy had criminality to burn. From the great beyond, Nixon must be doffing his cap. (The Wifi in the seventh circle of Hell is pretty good.)

I want to look at the same issues again now, as we prepare for something even weirder: this second impeachment of Donald Trump, after he is out of office. This, of course, has never before happened to a US president, and is something almost no one ever predicted, not even the most savvy and/or Trump-critical observers. But then again, almost no one ever predicted that Trump would send a mob of Confederate flag-waving, body armor-wearing, gun-toting goons to invade the US Capitol, assassinate his own vice president, and try to keep him in power by force. 

THE PEOPLE VS. DONALD TRUMP

The House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) will no doubt definitively show Trump’s culpability for the January 6th attack on the US Congress. (That, my friend Justin Schein says, is the proper way to describe it—as an attack on people, and not just a building—and he’s right.) 

They will show how Trump spread the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him, and in fact laid the groundwork for that lie for months beforehand, not to mention doing his level best to undermine the vote in that very election. 

They will show how, after he was fairly and decisively defeated, he exploited every legal maneuver to try to overturn the result, losing some 60 lawsuits in the process. They will show how, when legal options were exhausted, he and his surrogates (like Lindsey Graham, who will be one of the jurors even as he is implicated in the offense) turned to illegal ones, pressuring state lawmakers to cheat, to decertify their state’s votes, and generally to disregard the will of the people. Though will show how he pressured his own VP in the same way. 

And finally they will show how, as his last ditch effort at hanging onto power illegally, he summoned his furious, radicalized followers to a rally on the National Mall, fired them up with more lies and open calls for violence (a longstanding trend in his rhetoric), and sent them down to the halls of Congress to attempt a violent seizure of power. This was not a peaceful protest that—oops—got out of hand. It was a well-orchestrated assault, funded by well-connected Republican groups, promoted by the White House itself, planned and coordinated by its most violent followers, who came equipped for battle, with reconnaissance beforehand conducted with the aid of sitting Republican members of the US Congress. There has never been anything like it in American history, and Donald Trump must answer for it.

I am very confident that the Democratic case for the prosecution will be a juggernaut.

So let’s look now at the Republican defense. It has two major, process and substance, and the tea is very weak on both.

On the former, Trump and his defenders claim that it is unconstitutional to impeach a president after he has left office. But the Senate has already rejected that argument, as well it should, with five Republicans joining the unanimous Democratic majority. Of course, for conviction, the burden is reversed, and the prosecution will need 67 votes to prevail. But in terms of sheer legality, this Republican claim has no basis, either in the US Constitution or simple logic. (A nice summary of the whole issue is here.)

Federal officials have been impeached after leaving office, and reason demands that they be subject to that procedure. In 1876 Grant’s Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached (and acquitted) of corruption even after resigning from office. The Senate affirmed its right to do so in a 37-29 vote. In 1989, the US Supreme Court affirmed the Senate’s broad powers in terms of who it may impeach and under what rules, in considering an appeal from a US District Court judge in Mississippi, Walter Nixon (no relation, but it’s ironic), who had been impeached, convicted, and removed from office on corruption and bribery charges. (Thanks to former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg for that citation.)

A variation on this claim is the so-called “January Exception,” the idea that a president can’t be impeached for actions taken in the final two weeks of this term—the equivalent of “garbage time” in sports. I’m not a constitutional scholar, nor a professional sportswriter, but I don’t see that in the owner’s manual for our representative democracy either. As former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has argued, If that were so, a president could commit any crimes he or she wished in his final weeks of office—murder, bribery, conspiracy with foreign powers—knowing that there would be no time to try him before the end of his term. 

And of course, the entire line of argument ignores the fact that Trump was impeached before he left office, on January 13th, meaning that his Senate trial could well have started (and indeed concluded) while he was still president for those remaining seven days….except that Mitch McConnell prevented that from happening. Now McConnell has voted with those who say Trump can’t be impeached for that very reason.

Hmmm. 

So let’s dispense with that laughable claim.

When they eventually lose their argument about process, Republicans will claim that Trump did not do anything impeachable. This argument, put forward by the likes of the aforementioned senior senator from South Carolina, would have us believe that the Democratic effort to convict Trump, even if legal, is driven by sheer personal vindictiveness. (They tried this with Russiagate and Ukrainegate as well.)

Again: risible. If fomenting a violent insurrection to overturn a fair and just election in order to hold on to power is not impeachable, wtf is?

The Republicans will reply that Trump did no such thing—that all he did was exercise his right to free speech. In fact, they have already made this claim even ahead of the trial. “If this speech is considered incitement for insurrection,” said Trump’s new lead counsel. David Schoen. “then I think any passionate political speaker is at risk.”

What utter bullshit. The House managers have already taken on this ridiculous but predictable claim, arguing, as the Washington Post reports, that the First Amendment was never intended “to allow a president to ‘provoke lawless action if he loses at the polls.’” 

“I have a dream”…….”Ask not what your country can do for you”…..”All we have to fear is fear itself”—that is passionate political speech. 

“Let’s go down to the Capitol take back this stolen election by force!” is not.

It’s worth stopping here to note that the Capitol insurrection is the child of the nauseating “Liberate” rallies of the summer of 2020, and the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Moreover, it is the malignant grandchild of the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000, when Roger Stone organized a paid mob of aggressive Young Republicans to pound on the doors of the Miami-Dade County election board until the terrified canvassers stopped the recount. It worked then, so it is any wonder that the technique has metastasized? But now the rioters have traded their Oxford shirts and khakis for camouflage and Kevlar, and went right to the heart of the federal government, carrying nooses for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. 

KABUKI, REPUBLICAN STYLE

I’m quite sure that Rep. Raskin & Co. will go on to demolish everything else the GOP throws up next week; we can postpone a thorough review until the trial unfolds. 

But what is already clear is that Senate Republicans will be in a tough spot, because Trump really does not want to mount a defense based on process, or even substance really. He wants to defend himself on the grounds that he actually did win the election, and that his supporters were right to storm the Capitol and attack the Vice President and members of Congress in order keep him in office for a second term. That was the point that caused him to lose his previous legal team last week, at the eleventh hour, because he wanted those lawyers to go before the US Senate and argue that the Capitol insurrection was justified. 

The mind reels. 

(There is also reportage that Trump, skinflint that he is, balked at that legal team’s pricetag, said to be about $3 million, even though he just scammed $170 million from his dumbass supporters ostensibly to fund that legal defense. With Trump it always comes down to money.)

And here’s the kicker: Despite the utter madness of that argument, Trump will almost certainly win a second acquittal. Forty-five plus Republican Senators may not buy the argument that he was within his rights to try to overthrow the government—although they might, given their collective, unprecedented reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Biden administration—but they will at the very least find a way to AGAIN excuse him of responsibility, a reprise of their shameful shielding of Trump’s actions re Ukraine at this same time last year, even as these high crimes are much, much worse, and his culpability much, much more obvious. 

But in order to do that, Republicans are going to have to participate in a very public, nationally televised, ritual of shocking self-abasement. Luckily for them, they are good at that. 

The Post again:

The (Democratic) effort to present new video evidence and witness testimony appears designed to make Republican senators as uncomfortable as possible as they prepare to vote to acquit Trump, as most have indicated they will do. The prospect of injured police officers describing the brutality of pro-Trump rioters to Republicans who regularly present themselves as advocates of law enforcement could make for an extraordinary, nationally televised scene.

I look forward to watching fifty Republican Senators squirm as they watch video of Trump whipping up the crowd on the Ellipse, followed by twenty different crowdcast iPhone camera angles of a violent assault on the US Congress, Trump acolytes chanting “Hang Mike Pence,!”, a Capitol Police officer being beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, and MAGA flag-waving seditionists shouting “Trump sent us”…..and then voting to acquit anyway.

In other words, Senate Republicans are going to have to stand up, one by one, even as Trump howls, “Hell yes I ordered the Code Red!!!” and say, “Nah, he didn’t.” Case dismissed.”

Good luck with that, fellas. The whole world will be watching. 

IMMANUEL KANT WAS A REAL PISSANT

Even as the trial itself is probably a foregone conclusion, the politics swirling around it remain volatile.  

The duty to impeach on principle, and to lay down the law against future presidential malfeasance, was never in doubt in 2019 and 2020 and is even less so now. But practical and tactical arguments remained—mostly dishonest ones from the right, but some genuine ones from the left as well—about why impeachment was nonetheless a fraught proposition for the Democratic Party. The arguments from back then will sound familiar, because we are hearing them again now.

From the friendly side, there was a lot of talk about whether the commitment to principle was outweighed by the goal of maximizing our chances of ousting Trump at the polls the following November. I disagreed, writing in May 2019:

(T)his utilitarianism, even if correct, creates an immense moral hazard. It is Congress’s sworn duty to hold a criminal president accountable, and failure to do so would be an egregious act of negligence and a terrible portent for the future, no matter what the electoral impact. 

But I also rejected the whole premise of this false equivalence: 

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

In other words, timidity on impeachment (cowardice, if we want to be blunt), even above and beyond the demands of principle, would cost us on Election Day. 

The New York Times’ Eugene Robinson hit the nail even more directly on the head:

(S)trictly as a matter of practical politics, the best defense against Trump has to be a powerful offense. I fail to see the benefit for Democrats, heading into the 2020 election, of being seen as such fraidy-cats that they shirk their constitutional duty. 

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

Considering that the Dems went on to win the White House, the Senate, and hold the House in November 2020, Robinson’s argument looks vindicated, notwithstanding other intervening factors unforeseen in May of 2019—like 400,000 dead from a pandemic—that had a hand in it. 

One of the Democratic voices arguing against impeachment in 2019 was former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, who in an op-ed for the New York Times that April suggested that leaving Trump in office for the rest of his term would actually do the Republican Party much more harm by letting him continue to ruin their “brand.”

I objected to that approach on principle and still do, but it did turn out to be true following the craven Senate acquittal…..although I don’t think Mr. Lockhart or anyone else imagined at the time that the damage would include 500,000 dead Americans and an economy ravaged to near-Great Depression levels. 

(Lockhart’s argument) blithely ignores the massive damage being done by Trump. In that regard it feels like something that could only have been written by a privileged member of the professional political class, one consumed with 202 area code gamesmanship, and not personally threatened by things like loss of health care, or clean water, or deportation to Guatemala….

Lockhart’s argument prizes partisanship over the public interest, treating the red-blue pachyderm/donkey competition like a sport, and not the existential national emergency it is.

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

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

Turns out it didn’t even take five-and-a-half years for Trump to do that kind of damage, only one-and-a-half. 

Meanwhile, post-January 6th, Republican submersion in the Kool-Aid is proving even deeper than we thought. 

Of course, even if Trump is acquitted—again—this second impeachment will still have great value, even beyond a stand on principle, valuable as that is. As the New York Times’ Charles Blow argued in 2019:

I say that there is no such thing as a failed impeachment….The Senate has never once voted to convict. So, an impeachment vote in the House has, to this point, been the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president. I can think of no president who has earned this rebuke more than the current one. And, once a president is impeached, he is forever marked. It is a chastisement unto itself. It is the People’s House making a stand for its people.

To Mr. Blow’s point, Trump is now the only US president ever to be impeached twice, and in a single term, to boot. If that’s not a withering indictment of him as far and away the worst president in American history, I don’t know what is. 

(Andrew Johnson fans, spare me your teeth-gnashing. Andy’s abominable sabotage of Reconstruction was a precursor to Trump’s attempts to bring back the Confederacy, so he can share in Donald’s infamy.)

The impeachment offers another benefit to Democrats. Even if (when) Trump is again acquitted, the opportunity to present in public, on live television, a ironclad case for his criminality regarding January 6th is invaluable. It is not the Senate but the court of public opinion in which the House managers will be making their argument, and not to a jury of Senators but directly to the American people.

Nancy Pelosi was very canny about impeachment the first two times it was on the table, and took a lot of heat for how long it took her to get onboard over Ukraine. As I said at the time, I suspected she was “merely keeping her powder dry until the big fat orange target is in her sights at point blank range.”

So it’s significant that she didn’t hesitate for a moment this time. Trump sent people to assassinate her, and Mike Pence, and others. You can understand why she thinks he ought to be made to answer for that. 

WHAT WE HAVE ON OUR HANDS IS A DEAD ELEPHANT

In 2019 I wrote:

The Republican Party is broken. You can’t have a functioning democracy when one of the two political parties refuses to act in good faith, and barring a sudden burst of integrity (ha ha just kidding), it’s hard to imagine the GOP returning to anything resembling principled participation in the American political process anytime soon. 

And that was before the GOP got onboard with the violent overthrow of a democratically elected President from the opposing party. 

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

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

Nothing.

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

That assessment has proven true in spades. Even so, almost no one would thought Trump would go as far as he ultimately did, or that the GOP would be fine with it.

We are now seeing the logical end of the descent of the once-proud Republican Party. In my previous essay I quoted Paul Krugman, and I’ll do it again, as what he wrote in May of 2019 remains as true today as it was then:

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

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

THE LUXURY OF A BLIND EYE

Last week in these pages, I made an argument that one can currently hear all over the non-insane portion of the United States: that there can be no unity in America, no healing from the Trump years, no repair and forward progress without a reckoning for what we just went through. In other words, accountability.

We will see a first step in that process when Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in the US Senate kicks off tomorrow. 

It ought also to be remembered that even in its shameless dishonesty, the Republican cry for unity is a tacit admission that Trump fucked things up. Bad. 

The New Yorker editor David Remnick reminds us of the words of Jonathan Schell in that magazine in 1973, writing about Watergate.

Schell wrote, we are not allowed the luxury of seeking out the truth about high crimes and misdemeanors and then simply ignoring what is discovered. 

“In a democracy,” he observed, “certain forms of truth do more than compel our minds’ assent; they compel us to act.” 

This week, the Senate begins deliberations in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial—and the resulting verdict will tell us much about the direction of our country. There have been only a few other moments of such political consequence in American history.

How will we fare? Not glowingly, given Republican telegraphing of the inevitable acquittal. But perhaps, as with the last impeachment and the pre-determined acquittal that followed that one, we will witness at least one of our two major political parties demonstrating its belief in the rule of law, and the idea that a defeated president is not within his rights to attempt a violent seizure of power. 

Just a thought.

*********

Crime and Punishment

I’ve had this essay in the works since early fall, looking ahead—hopefully—to Trump’s departure. (And I do mean hopefully in the correct sense of the word.) 

Originally it was titled “The Case for Prosecution,” the idea being to argue for why holding Donald Trump account for his various crimes—both via impeachment and ordinary criminal prosecution, among other mechanisms—was in the best interest of the nation. Even in the fall that was not a super controversial position, although a second impeachment was not yet on the horizon, and there was some concern about the banana republic-brand pitfalls of an incoming administration pursuing legal action against its predecessor.

But the events of January 6th pretty much put an end to that debate. 

After watching Donald Trump openly incite a violent insurrection that sent a bloodthirsty mob into the US Capitol to murder Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi and stop the certification of the Electoral College results (note to people emerging from comas, time travelers, and alien visitors from distant galaxies: yes, that really happened), most Americans agreed that he must be held accountable under the law one way or another.

According to an ABC News poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol riot, 67% of the American public blamed Trump for it, and 56% thought he should be removed from office before the end of his term. According to an earlier poll by JL Partners and the Independent taken in October, about half of all Americans (49%) believed he ought to be investigated for criminal liability once he was out of office…..and that was before the insurrection. Afterward, that number rose to 54% who now think he should face criminal charges, according to a Washington Post/ ABC News poll

Of course, we don’t do things just because a majority thinks we should—the Framers built in some protections on that count. But those numbers speak to the vox populi and a mandate for justice. 

So you’d think that’s that. 

But you’d be wrong. 

Once again, the members of the Republican Party are engaged in a wantonly dishonest, howlingly hypocritical, anti-democratic crusade to shield themselves and their once and forever leader from answering for what they have done. 

Therefore let us spend some time surveying the case for accountability.

GIMME A ‘U’

By now we are all familiar with the Republican argument for giving Trump yet another free pass: that America needs “unity,” and that holding him accountable will somehow prevent us from “healing” and “moving on.”

That might be the most ridiculous and galling argument the GOP has put forward in five decades of world-beating deceit and dishonesty, going all the way back to Nixon’s claim to be the champion of “law and order,” with honorable mention for “tax cuts for the wealthy will help everyone.” 

Over the past few weeks, many many many many many many many pundits, observers, and other critics have taken that argument apart like a starving wolverine descending on a pork chop, so I’ll just summarize:

Cries for unity are rich coming from the party that just plunged this country into four of the most bitterly contentious years in contemporary American history, under the thumb of the most hateful, bigoted, and divisive president in modern times. But even if you accept that “unity” is a worthy goal, the Republican plea is transparently self-serving. Appeals for “unity” usually come from the guilty in an attempt to escape repercussions for their misdeeds, and this case is no exception. 

To state the blindingly obvious, there can be no unity without accountability. Period dot, end of sentence. 

Republicans argue further that Trump didn’t really foment a riot, and that crimes committed in the last two weeks of office don’t count; we’ll delve into these equally laughable defenses next week when we get into the weeds of the impeachment. But the main GOP thrust remains centered on this wildly disingenuous call for a rousing nationwide chorus of “Kum-ba-ya,” after playing “The Horst Wessel Song” at top volume for four years. 

Worth remembering: the liberal organization MoveOn arose in the Clinton years and is so named because its original argument was to censure Bill and “move on.” Note that it did not call for ignoring or excusing what he’d done, only that censure was more appropriate than impeachment. Republicans, by contrast, feel that their leaders never need to answer for their actions at all, no matter how egregious or even openly criminal. (Let’s recall that with Clinton the crime in question was one count of perjury over an extramarital affair—not violently trying to overthrow the US government.)

So no, we can’t just “move on” with no accountability at all.

It’s not merely a matter of justice, though that ought to be sufficient, but of deterrence going forward. Grant Tudor of the policy group Protect Democracy notes, “Moving on might make us feel better in the short term, but in the long term, sweeping really dangerous behavior under the rug and crossing our fingers that it won’t happen again has, time and again, proved to be a pretty dangerous strategy.”

That too should be apparent even to those Americans no more sentient than a tree stump. Of which it appear there are plenty.

As a group of more than a thousand historians and scholars wrote on Medium, “Throughout his presidency, Trump has defied the Constitution and broken laws, norms, practices, and precedents, for which he must be held accountable now and after he leaves office…..No future president should be tempted by the example of his defiance going unpunished.”

Even after January 6th attack on the US Congress, some conservatives have continued to argue for impunity, like the writer Jonathan Rauch, who had a piece in Lawfare  titled “The Case for Pardoning Trump” in which he argued that “If we want Biden’s presidency to succeed, accountability to be restored and democracy to be strengthened, then a pardon would likely do more good than harm.” Ryan Cooper reporting in The Week, took that absurdity right apart:

This is an astoundingly terrible argument. Trump’s monstrous presidency was in no small part the product of previous elite impunity, and he should absolutely face legal liability as any other citizen would in his place.

Preach. 

ANOTHER COUNTY HEARD FROM

So is impeachment punishment enough, or do Trump’s actions demand both that and something more? The always incisive John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker:

In other democracies, a leader who tried to overthrow an election result and incited a violent insurrection might well be cooling his heels in prison by now. In this country, the job of policing the President falls largely on the legislative branch. For four years, it has failed dismally to carry out this task. Even after the unprecedented events of last week, it’s far from clear that Congress will prove up to the task now. But this time, surely, and for the sake of American democracy, Trump must be held accountable.

He is quite right, of course, as 45 Senate Republicans—all but five of their number—voted against even impeaching him. Luckily, elections have consequences and the new Democratic majority prevailed, joined by five Republicans who could muster the bare minimum of moral courage. But it looks highly unlikely that a two-thirds majority will vote to convict, despite being both eyewitnesses to and victims of the very crime for which they will serve as jurors.

That failure adds impetus to calls for criminal prosecution of Trump in the regular criminal justice system, as opposed to the purely political process of impeachment.

Ahead of Biden’s inauguration, The New York Times noted:

(M)any Democrats say that impeachment is not enough. Once President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office on Jan. 20, wide segments of his party are eager to see investigations and prosecutions of an array of Trump aides and allies—an effort, they say, that would bolster the rule of law after a presidency that weakened it and serve as a warning to future presidents that there will be consequences for illegal actions taken while in office.

(In June 2019, then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris told NPR she would definitely launch a criminal investigation of Trump after he leaves office.) 

But as you might imagine, Republicans who don’t think Trump ought to be impeached certainly don’t think he should stand trial like—gasp!—an ordinary criminal.

We expect Republicans to mount a dishonest, hypocritical argument for letting Trump skate. But what of Democrats and others who are taking that bizarre view?

Yahoo Finance columnist Rick Newman opined:

One thing seems clear: There would be no partisan unity under Biden if his Justice Department pursues legal claims against Trump that wind through the courts for years. There might not be any unity regardless, even if Biden lets Trump off the hook. But Biden won’t even get credit for trying if he turns over Trump’s tax returns or sends prosecutors after his predecessor. Anybody who voted for Biden hoping he’d offer an olive branch and lower the volume might think differently when they vote in the 2022 midterms or the 2024 presidential election.

Yes, because it’s up to Biden and the Democrats to heal the breach, while the QAnon Party continues to insist that the new administration isn’t even legitimate, and readies its hockey sticks and fire extinguishers (and guns) for the next violent attack on federal and state buildings.

Then there was Jim Comey, who even after the insurrection weighed in against punishing Trump, saying “The country would be better off if we did not give him the platform that a prosecution would for the next three years.”

Thanks, Jim, but after October 28, 2016, I’m not sure I need to hear even one more word from you ever again. 

In an op-ed for NBC News, Michael Conway, a Democrat and former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, goes even further, arguing that Biden should himself pardon Trump in the interest of unity: 

A Biden pardon of Trump, like the pardoning of former President Richard Nixon 46 years ago, would be intended to heal the nation and foreclose the possibility of an ongoing cycle of retribution after political parties change control of the government.

Let’s spend a little time with this argument, as Mr. Conway’s piece is an absolute howler of bad advice, especially coming from an accomplished attorney and Democratic operative, suggesting an old man wildly out of touch with contemporary America. (Conway, like Biden, is in his 70s.) 

He starts off OK, writing:

Trump would, of course, be one of the least deserving recipients of a federal pardon in history. His pardon could not be justified based on his innocence or his contrition because Trump is not contrite; to the contrary, he is currently endangering our democratic processes by relentlessly undermining the legitimacy of Biden’s election and thwarting a peaceful transition.

Conway then argues that accepting the pardon would be an admission of guilt by Trump. But Nixon never admitted guilt as part of accepting the pardon from Ford; do we really think Trump would feel compelled to abide by that norm? (Don’t make me spit milk out my nose.) Would his rabid fans….or would they cheer it as exoneration, and weakness by Biden?

Conway also argues that Trump would still face charges at the state level. But is that a reason for forfeiting federal prosecution?

Mr. Conway’s central argument is that a pardon would free Biden and his team from allegations of pursuing a partisan vendetta, making him “better” than Trump, who wanted to jail his political enemies, and was unable to do so only because they’d committed no crimes. (Clever bastards.)

But who cares? Republicans certainly never cared about the bad optics of their actions. On the contrary: they reveled in them. Merely not prosecuting Trump—or leaving it to his DOJ, without White House interference—would accomplish the same thing without the farce of a pardon. And Joe Biden is already “better” than Trump by every imaginable metric.

Biden already pledged last May that he absolutely would not pardon Trump. Conway argues it’s OK for him to break that pledge, because we now see how many Americans voted for Trump and would be happy if he were absolved…..that even an investigation of Trump, let alone a prosecution, would make him a martyr and create further divisiveness. 

So did going to war with the Confederacy. Should we have let that slide?

After the Trump-Biden race, America needs healing. We can’t continue as a nation so divided.

The 73 million Americans who voted to re-elect Trump two weeks ago will be just as angry about a good faith federal investigation of Trump after he has left office as Democrats were angry about Trump’s baseless chant to lock up his former political opponents.

They may be, but that doesn’t mean we should appease them.

Conway writes that “American democracy cannot tolerate the prosecution of political opponents.” But it can and should when they’ve committed unconscionable crimes. You know American democracy cannot tolerate? Looking the other way when violent, sadistic, openly corrupt kleptocrats hijack it, and sitting on our hands and hoping it doesn’t happen again.

See above. No accountability, no unity. No justice, no peace. 

PICTURE YOURSELF IN A BOAT ON A RIVER

Conway ignores the fundamental fact that a pardon for Trump would send exactly the wrong signal: that the rich and powerful can get away with murder (close to literally in this case). It’s not about revenge, it’s about justice and affirmation that we are nation of laws and no one—not even the president—is above them.

We’ve been here before, of course, as Conway himself alluded.

Gerald Ford went to his deathbed claiming there was no quid pro quo in his appointment as Nixon’s vice president and subsequent pardoning of his erstwhile boss in 1974. 

And John Lennon claimed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” wasn’t about LSD.

If the history is to believed, Ford apparently was telling the truth, and—incredibly—there really was no deal with Tricky Dick over a pardon before he assumed the vice presidency, not even a discussion of it. (For the record, Lennon was telling the truth too, although he had the excuse of being high as a kite.)

But the absence of a dirty little deal still leaves the question of whether the pardon was the right call. Ford faced a hurricane of criticism for his decision, and may well have lost the 1976 presidential race right then and there. But since then a revisionist view has arisen among historians that he actually did the right thing. 

I beg to differ in the strongest possible terms. 

I humbly submit that far from “sparing the nation more trauma,” “healing the country,” allowing us to “move on” from our “long national nightmare,” Ford’s excusal of Nixon’s crimes, even if well-intentioned (and Ford was certainly likable enough when he was an original cast member of SNL), did grievous harm. It legitimized the hustle. It told America that you were a sucker if you played by the rules. It said that if you were rich enough and powerful enough the laws didn’t apply to you—that there was one set for those folks and another for the rest of us in the hoi polloi. It was a giant fuck you to ordinary Americans who were expected to obey the law and could bet their bottom dollar that Johnny Law would come after them if they didn’t.

In fact, Ford missed a tremendous opportunity to reinforce the rule of law, as it would have been Nixon’s own party punishing him, rather than the opposition doing so. Ford might have set an important example and precedent by insisting Nixon answer for his crimes, rather than granting him a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

It was the original IOKIYAR(President). And it will be even more so if we let Trump slide on crimes that make Nixon look like a jaywalker.   

Ford, of course, only got the job in he first place because Nixon’s first vice president, the incredibly corrupt Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign ahead of being charged with taking bribes and kickbacks—envelopes full of cash, no less—from the time he was governor of Maryland all the way through his years as Vice President of the United States. And Spiro was fuckin’ lucky:  given the evidence prosecutors had, anyone else would have been thrown in prison for the rest of his days. But US Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who would later seal his fame with his noble actions during the Saturday Night Massacre, was justifiably worried that Nixon would be impeached or resign, leaving the country with Agnew as president. So the decision was made to let him resign and get away basically scot free for the greater good of the nation. (See Rachel Maddow’s book and podcast on the Agnew tale, Bag Man.)

That was probably the right decision for the country, but it was an incredible miscarriage of justice nonetheless. However, it was at least part of a utilitarian calculus aimed at catching the bigger fish. Nixon’s pardon did not even have that flimsy basis.

Ford’s logic that a trial would only extend America’s suffering and be even more divisive was ludicrous. (Shame on you, Yale Law School.) Try it the next time you’re on trial:

“Your Honor, it does appear that I robbed that bank. Yes, there’s video of me sticking a six-gun in the teller’s face. But wouldn’t putting me on trial just cause everyone more grief and suffering?”

Yet Trump’s apologists—and, again incredibly, even some others—are making the same risible proposal now. 

Fool me once, shame on….uh…..can’t get fooled again, as another Republican president once said.

ONLY THE LITTLE PEOPLE GET PUNISHED

War story. (Cold War, but it still counts.)

When I was a young lieutenant in Germany in the ‘80s, I was stationed at a remote kaserne not-so-lovingly nicknamed the Rock, as part of the 1st Brigade 3rd Armored Division. With two infantry battalions, two armor, one field artillery, and one combat support, there were upwards of 3000 troops stationed there—all men but for maybe twenty women in that CS battalion. 

Near the end of my three-year tour, the brigade commander, a full colonel, was caught having an extramarital affair with one of those women, a young Military Police second lieutenant. The scandal prompted a great debate within the ranks about what should happen to the Old Man. (It was more than thirty years ago, so bear in mind that this was very much pre-#MeToo.)

One school of thought was that, notwithstanding his undeniable transgression, his punishment should be mitigated in light of his many years of faithful service, including Vietnam. The other school was very much the contrary: that he should be hammered with the full force of the Big Green Machine’s might, because he should have known better, and as a lesson to the troops that no one is above the law, and that leaders above all have an obligation to set the example and are held to an even higher standard. 

The latter won out: that colonel was unceremoniously cashiered, forced into immediate retirement, his career and reputation ruined, plus I don’t know what other non-judicial penalties, reduction in rank, loss of retirement pay, and other financial punishments. He was shipped out of Europe literally overnight, gone on the next thing smoking. Today he might have also faced criminal prosecution for sexual harassment, but for the time, it was harsh.

Moral of the story: whatever its many other flaws, the Pentagon holds its senior personnel to a high standard. 

I guess our civilian leadership doesn’t feel that same ethical obligation. 

CERTIFIED PUBLIC ACCOUNTING

Some weeks ago I had an open dialogue in these pages on this very topic with my friend Tom Hall, who writes the brilliant blog The Back Row Manifesto. Tom’s central point (if I may paraphrase) was that America must have an acknowledgment of our wounds before we can begin even to think about healing. 

Unity depends on the polis having faith that we are a nation of laws, where some semblance of justice obtains. That faith requires holding our leaders to account—even if that means taking steps that are unprecedented. 

That means holding not only Trump accountable but also his accomplices and enablers: the Republican politicians who abetted him, the broadcasters who spread his lies, the donors who funded him, the law firms and consultancies and think tanks and media companies that are now being pressured not to hire his former underlings as they pass through the revolving door into the private sector.

If we do not do so, distrust in our democracy and the rule of law will only rise, and contempt will fester, and belief in the rule of law and justice in America—already on life support—will wither and die. Witness the bitter taste left after not one single person from Wall Street or the financial services industry went to prison for the criminal actions that led to the 2008 crash.

But this accountability, of course, brings it own risks. We cannot become a nation where each administration prosecutes the previous one for its policymaking. As destructive as the decision to leave the Paris climate accord was, I don’t favor charging Trump for being an accessory to mass murder in criminal court, even though it would be reasonable to do so purely on the facts. But other acts—like bribery, obstruction of justice, pressuring state officials to overturn an election, and above all open, violent sedition—take us into a different league. These matters are well within the purview of the US criminal justice system. Others, like the kidnapping and caging of migrant children, or criminal negligence in handling a pandemic might be best handled in the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity, especially if it is shown that the administration deliberately allowed the virus to spread in communities of color, and withheld federal aid as a political tool (and there is evidence that it did both), or that it deliberately sought to seize children as a deterrent with no plan to ever return them, which we know it did. 

Republicans like the despicable Matt Gaetz are furious—furious!—that Democrats are even discussing criminal liability for Trump and members of his administration, tweeting, “This is now the Left’s goal – throw President Trump, his administration officials, his family and his supporters in prison. This is where we are now. Disgusting.”

Yes, what kind of monsters would build a political movement around the idea like “lock ‘em up”?

But while Gaetz is a human skidmark on the underwear of mankind, the question of political retribution is indeed fraught. That’s why we objected to MAGA World’s incarceration fetish in the first place. 

Beyond impeachment and criminal prosecution, whether domestic or international, there may be other ways to hold Trump and his henchmen accountable, including systemic changes to our democratic institutions. (More on that complex question in a future post.) But what cannot be denied is that not reckoning with the sins of the Trump years would be a hugely self-destructive mistake.  

Do we need something like South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission? The Times quotes former US Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia, who was a special adviser for the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, as noting that countries that have suffered national trauma and “skip the accountability phase end up repeating 100 percent of the time—but the next time the crisis is worse. People who think that the way forward is to brush this under the rug seem to have missed the fact that there is a ticking time bomb under the rug.”

Needless to say, we don’t want to spend all our time on Trump, especially when it’s been such a relief to be rid of him these past two weeks. But as the cliché goes, we can walk and chew gum at the same time, and we have to reckon with what we’ve been through. That is especially true as we continue to struggle with suppressing a violent domestic insurgency of pro-Trump fanatics who have not gone away….and a political party that represents them and is currently engaged in its own civil war over whether it wants to return to being merely obstructionist reactionaries, or prefers to be the openly seditious party of lizard people hunters carrying guns on the floor of Congress and searching for Jewish space lasers.   

VENDETTA VS. JUSTICE, AND HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE

In a piece for The Atlantic this past October titled, “Trump Has Justified Breaking One of America’s Most Sacred Norms,” Paul Rosenzweig—a former DOJ prosecutor and senior counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and Bush appointee at the Department of Homeland Security—writes that “The tradition of granting post-term immunity from prosecution to those who leave the White House now comes at too great a cost.”

The powerful should be held to account. For society to function, all Americans must believe that crime doesn’t pay and that everyone is equal before the law. To avoid strife, we may exempt a president from criminal investigation for his political actions (however heinous and criminal they may be), but if we go further, and extend to him the kingly prerogative of impunity for his lifetime, we go a long way to destroying the faith in the rule of law that undergirds democracy.

To be fair, this quote is pulled from a longer and more complex piece about how fraught that is, which we will leave for another day. Let’s turn instead to another piece from The Atlantic, by Barton Gellman, who writes:

Trump and his party brainwashed tens of millions of people with a proposition that could only lead to violence. What choice is there but rebellion against a pretender to the throne? Sedition, for Trump’s true believers, became the patriotic choice.

History is not finished with Trump, Cruz, or Hawley. If we value our democracy, they will face justice now. The reckoning has only begun.

Next week I will attack the question of the wisdom or folly of impeachment. (One guess where I land.) Down the road, we will tackle Rosenzweig’s much more complicated issue of how to hold Trump accountable in ordinary criminal prosecutions, and other possibilities. Stay tuned.  

But in all these venues the very first thing we must do is acknowledge the seemingly self-evident need for accountability, despite Donald Trump’s lifelong lucky streak of avoiding it, and the general injustice of American life. Trump must answer for his sins, and so must his capos. Absent that, we have no accountability, no unity, no rule of law, no hope for the future of the republic, no nothin’. 

Not hard to understand, is it?

Here endeth the lesson.

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

Making America Great Again

Joe Biden has been in office for ten days. Why hasn’t the pandemic been stopped, the economy turbocharged, the country healed, and the Buffalo Bills won a Super Bowl?

You think I’m joking, but Republicans are already asking those questions (OK, not the Bills one, but they’re thinking it)…..that is, when they’re not complaining that the monsters in the Democrat(ic) Party are picking on poor old Donald Trump by holding him accountable for trying to overthrow the government. 

The nerve of those libtards!

It’s to be expected of course. The contemporary Grand Old Party remains comprised of the worst people in America who are not on a registered sex offender list. (And some who are both.)

But the joke is on the GOP, because Joe Biden actually is taking swift and effective action on COVID, the economy, and many many other fronts. Indeed, starting the very afternoon he was inaugurated, he and his team have been working overtime with a blitz of executive orders and other actions designed to do just that. The fact of the matter is, that is what Republicans are really upset about: action, not alleged inaction.

Are any of these matters an easy fix? Hell no—there’s a long way to go. But what Biden has done so far is admirable and remarkable and speaks to his seriousness of purpose and commitment to keeping the promises he made on the campaign trail. What a refreshing change of pace. 

Over the four years that I’ve been writing this blog, the overwhelming number of posts have been angry screeds, mostly related to something bad done by Donald Trump. (Did anyone notice? I think I covered pretty well.) So it is a pleasure now to write something positive about the man occupying the office of the President of the United States. 

So let’s have a report card for Biden’s first ten days. (Because that’s the way Democrats get treated.) 

EXECUTIVES EXECUTE

As of this writing Joe Biden has issued 42 executive orders, aggressively reversing the policies of the Trump administration per his electoral mandate, and bringing the United States back into the community of nations where we were once the global leader.

He reopened Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces for Americans in need of coverage during the pandemic.

He revived DACA.

He canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline.

He stopped construction of the border wall.

He dispensed with Trump’s Muslim ban. (Yes, it’s fair to call it that.)

He made masks mandatory on federal property.

He lifted Trump’s ban on trans people in the US military.

He extended the federal moratorium on eviction and foreclosure.

He reversed a Trump ban on federal funds for international aid groups that perform or inform about abortions, the so-called Mexico City rule, and ordered a review of rules preventing funding for US clinics that offer abortion referrals, like Planned Parenthood.

He put the US back in the Paris Climate Accord.  There are indications he will also bring us back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, which would be damn smart

He ordered the DOJ not to renew contracts with private prisons. (Not yet addressed: privately run prisons for immigration detainees run by the Department of Homeland Security.)

He moved forward with the promise of a task force to reunite the migrant children kidnapped by the last administration with their parents. (One of the hardest of the new administration’s tasks, as well as one of the most appalling of the last one’s sins.)

He ordered HUD to investigate Trump’s dismantling of fair housing policies in order to discriminate against people of color. 

He extended the pause on student loan payments

He brought the US back into the World Health Organization.

He allowed Dr. Anthony Fauci to speak frankly to the American people. (Fauci’s delight was palpable.) 

He issued an executive order to re-establish “federal respect for tribal sovereignty.” (Coulda used that in 1492 but better late than never.)

He elevated climate change to a national security matter and re-established a task force of scientific advisors on the topic. (Science! What a novel idea!) In connection with that, he issued a sweeping order to initiate a review and possible reversal of a whole slew of Trump actions that devastated environmental protections

He launched a $700B program to encourage the federal government to buy more American-made products—ironically, a program that sounds like it might have come out of the last administration, with its flag-waving America First windowdressing, except that this time it’s genuine, and not merely misdirection while Trump’s line of ties get made in China, and his Trump brand suits in Indonesia, and Trump brand vodka in Europe.

He unceremoniously fired Trump loyalists within the federal bureaucracy who refused the customary request to resign, and has taken aggressive action to remove “stay-behind” bureaucrats that Trump try to embed within the government to sabotage the new regime. 

And last but not least, he let Vladimir Putin know there’s a new sheriff in town by ripping him a new rectum over arms control, interference in the 2016 election, the Solar Winds cyberattack, and the treatment of Navalny. I am picturing Vlad sitting at his desk in the Kremlin sighing wistfully, and gazing at a picture of Trump while listening to Streisand sing “The Way We Were.” Misty watercolor memories indeed.

WHAT’S SO FUNNY ‘BOUT PEACE, LOVE, AND UNDERSTANDING?

And this is but a sampling. Most of all, of course, Biden has been spinning up the plans and mechanisms to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including a massive nationwide rollout of the vaccine, almost from a standing start given the Trump administration’s criminal refusal to take even the most basic steps to address that urgent, life-and-death public health issue.

Of course, there’s lots more damage left to undo, and the biggest moves may be yet to come. For one, Chuck Schumer has suggested that Biden declare a national emergency in order to obtain broader authority to fight climate change, as Trump did in order to try to build his beaded curtain along the southern border. 

It’s clear that the Biden team carefully prepared this blitz of executive orders, proposed legislation, and other actions during the months of the transition and even before, during the campaign itself. Unlike school, IRL that’s not cheating, folks—it’s prudence and foresight, the actions of competent, experienced, professional public servants. (That includes doing its level best to pre-plan its COVID response, given that the Trump administration willfully refused to share information during the transition period—an act of almost unfathomable pettiness and sheer evil.) 

My litany of specific executive orders also leaves out broader and more intangible aspects of the new administration, reflecting the return of competent adult supervision of the federal government in general. 

For instance, we now have daily press briefings again, ones that don’t play like scenes from Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. From day one White House press secretary Jen Psaki has been an instant rock star, offering a return to an intelligent, informative, mutually respectful exchanges between the administration and the press, and she’s done it all while missing a crucial vowel in her surname. An inspiring story of triumphing over adversity.

Bonus points for bringing in, for the first time, an ASL interpreter…..which, as some wag on MSNBC said, it’s hard to believe we never had before. I know that’s the kind of thing that makes right wingers snicker, because hey, common decency, basic humanity, and equality are for weaklings and cucks, right?

But every one of these seemingly little things is a brick in the reconstruction of sane governance in the US of A, and even ambitiously trying to improve what we once had. Building back better, some might say.

RASHOMON ON THE POTOMAC

Anticipating your complaint: I am aware that Republicans do not think these are great accomplishments by Joe Biden. Very much the contrary. They are not impressed by the speed with which he is working—they are appalled by it. 

It was the same when progressives looked at what Trump did, like the Muslim ban, which he put into place at the end of his very first week in office. One of the knocks on Trump is that he didn’t do enough as president, and it’s a fair cop. Instead of playing golf and eating cheeseburgers and tweeting from the toilet, he could have been doing lots of things to help the country, like, oh I dunno, fighting a pandemic. But in another sense, Trump did plenty as president…..it’s just that almost all of it was bad. Like kidnapping children, yanking us out of the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal, diverting money from schools for the children or servicemembers to pay for his border fence, cozying up to dictators, serving as Putin’s man in Washington, and more.  

Per above, the Republicans are therefore not actually focused so much on complaining that Biden isn’t doing enough—that will come later. For now they are mainly complaining that he shouldn’t be doing these things at all, clutching their pearls and collapsing on their fainting couches over the idea of spending money to fight the pandemic, for example. (Deficits, ohmygod!) And they are definitely complaining that Joe’s fellow Democrats in Congress are pursuing an impeachment that would hold Trump accountable for actions that are the very definition of a high crime.

When Republicans see a headline like “Biden dismantling Trump’s legacy,” they greet that with predictably Biblical rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. (Dog bites man.) As the New York Times reports, they have the gall to claim that by so doing, Biden is “betraying his pledge to seek unity.” 

Right on! Where does Joe Biden get off pursuing policies that he and his party believe in, and were duly elected and given a mandate to pursue, instead of continuing the repudiated policies of his predecessor, whom the American people definitely chucked out of office, no matter how much he wants us to believe otherwise???? The nerve of these freakin’ Democrats!

As we are frequently reminded, elections have consequences. It is usually the people who just won the last electionwho do the reminding, and the ones who lost who need it. It was Elizabeth Warren who had the best retort on that point, which was that when it comes to unity, “How about if we’re unified against insurrection? How about if we’re unified for accountability?” 

Of course, there is another more subtle irony to this dishonest Republican call for unity. It presupposes that there is a deep, problematic divisiveness in American society that is crying out for such healing. 

And who gave us that divisiveness?

One guess. 

FAKE NEWS PHASE II

So in detailing this laundry list I am not trying to convince any Trump supporters that, hey, this new guy is all right. I am speaking to my own tribe, and to independents and undecideds (if any still exist), to conservatives who grudgingly voted for Biden and are watching him warily to see how he does, and to Bernie bros who are doing the same.

Also to the Fifth Estate.

Along with the expected Republicans bitching, you won’t be surprised to learn that the mainstream media also feels obligated—presumably out of the same false sense of “objectivity” that Trump exploited throughout his reign—to criticize Biden too. Muscle memory, I guess. 

This week the New York Times Editorial Board (!) published a piece titled, “Ease Up on the Executive Actions, Joe,” which argued that “President Biden is right to not let his agenda be held hostage, but legislating through Congress is a better path.”

As Brian Williams quipped on MSNBC, “I don’t know what Congress they’re looking at.”

The muckity mucks at the Times go on:

These directives, however, are a flawed substitute for legislation. They are intended to provide guidance to the government and need to work within the discretion granted the executive by existing law or the Constitution. They do not create new law—though executive orders carry the force of law—and they are not meant to serve as an end run around the will of Congress. By design, such actions are more limited in what they can achieve than legislation, and presidents who overreach invite intervention by the courts.

Thanks for the civics lesson, New York Times, but what exactly would you have Mr. Biden do instead? 

The editorial board goes on to decry “the whipsaw effect” of each president undoing the orders by fiat of his or her predecessor, using fiat of his/her own. A valid point. So what’s your solution, Gray Lady?

To be fair, the Times did acknowledge Republican hypocrisy in decrying the exact kind of executive overreach in which the GOP itself gleefully engaged—“Satan’s pen,” as John Hudak of the Brookings Institution dubs it. But it scolds Biden—virtue-signaling its own much-vaunted “objectivity,” kinda sorta—without offering any substantive ideas or alternatives. 

By way of example, it cites how the establishment of DACA, followed by its suspension, followed by its reinstitution, has been hard on the Dreamers. No doubt. But would it have been better not to have reinstated it? Or never to have created the policy at all?

“Dreamers deserve better than to be subject to the whims of whoever holds the White House, “says the Times. “It is long past time for Congress to establish a clearer, more permanent path for them.” No shit. So what do you propose President Biden do, when faced with an obstructionist GOP minority that will hold the administration hostage using every available lever?

Undoing some of Mr. Trump’s excesses is necessary, but Mr. Biden’s legacy will depend on his ability to hammer out agreements with Congress. On the campaign trail, he often touted his skill at finding compromise, and his decades as a legislator, as reasons to elect him over Mr. Trump. The country faces significant challenges to recovering from the pandemic, from a global recession, from years of safety nets and institutions and trust being eroded. Now it is time for the new president to show the American people what permanent change for a better nation can look like.

Jesus Christ, are they kidding? Putting the burden of compromise on Biden, when his opponents won’t even repudiate a violent attempt to seize power by their own once and forever leader? 

(Tell me more about the liberal bias in the media, please.)

This is coming barely a week after the monstrous Donald Trump left office. I fear that this sort of blinkered pre-2016 “bothsidesism” from the mainstream media—never mind the right wing media—is what we have to look forward to during the Biden era. I can’t say I’m surprised, except maybe by the speed with which it happened. But still:

Shame on you, you ink-stained wretches. 

GHOSTS OF PRESIDENTS PAST

Several times in the past week I’ve heard a news reporter say, “The President did or said such-and-such” and found myself surprised that the President actually did or said something good. Then, quickly, I am reminded—after four years of operant conditioning—that the President is now a decent human being and competent leader, and not a malignant pusbag with a Swiss bank account.

This is a bit like my wife’s story of being a kid in the 70s, watching Nixon on TV and asking her mother, “Why does the President sometimes wear a white wig and sometimes he doesn’t?”

Not every president is George Washington…..and fortunately, not every one is Donald Trump either. 

The challenges that still lie ahead for Joe Biden and for the country he leads—that’s us, folks—remain daunting, to a historic degree. Comparisons to the challenges that faced FDR when he took office in March 1933 are not out of order. There are going to be failures, and stumbles, and mistakes, and setbacks.

But he is off to a good start, no matter what the Sons of the Confederacy, the White Power Party, Orange County QAnon Moms for Putin, and the New York Times would have us believe. 

********

Photo: AP

This blog also available on Medium and Substack.

Now We Know

In July of 2018—two and a half years ago—I published an essay on this blog called “Will Trump Ever Leave Office (Even If He Loses in 2020)?” As the title implies—spoiler alert— it asked this question:

Will Donald Trump willingly leave office even if he is defeated in November 2020? And if he balks at doing so, or worse, refuses outright, will the Republican Party do anything about it?

I went back and looked at that essay recently in the wake of Trump’s attempted self-coup, culminating in the January 6th Capitol insurrection. I’m sorry to say that much of it was right on the mark. 

In the interest of post-mortem, I offer here some highlights from what at the time struck many people as wacko, left-wing fearmongering. 

Now we just call it US history.

***********

July 23, 2018:

(T)he notion of a massive indictment hanging over his head as soon as he surrenders power will incentivize Trump to stay in office at all costs, like the cornered rat he is.

The irony is rich. In a twist worthy of Roald Dahl or O. Henry, one of the most egregiously guilty sonsabitches in US criminal history will find himself in the only position in American life in which he is protected from prosecution. So you can bet your life that he will do everything within his power to stay there. And we have all seen that the spectrum of what Donald Trump is prepared to do in his own self-interest is, uh, rather wide.

That means that even if he loses the 2020 election, he will contest the results with every fiber of his being, try to delegitimize his opponent’s victory, and mobilize his mouthbreathing hordes and his shameless accomplices in the right wing media to help him. (For that matter, he and the GOP will try to rig the election in the first place. But that’s a topic for another day.)

If he fears he might lose, he will gin up a faux national security emergency Reichstag fire-style to try to justify postponing the elections. Failing that, he will create some transparently false excuse for claiming that the election was rigged and declare the results null and void. (Hell, he was pre-emptively saying precisely that on the campaign trail in 2016. Turns out he was right, though in exactly the opposite way he claimed.).

And his followers will obediently, enthusiastically sign on.

When I floated this possibility at my friend Pete, who is a lawyer, he was beyond skeptical. “Are you really suggesting that Donald Trump would stand in the way of a peaceful transition of power?” said he.

“Yep,” said I.

Do you doubt it? Before the election in 2016, when almost everyone—even Trump—assumed he would lose, he was asked if he would honor the results or contest them. He equivocated. “I’ll let you know,” he said, coyly, already causing damage to the fabric of American democracy. Little did we know that that scenario would soon look enviable compared to what would really transpire.

And that was when he had far far less at stake. Do we really think he will be more accommodating and respectful of the bedrock of American democracy if he is facing what amounts to life in prison, the obliteration of his family fortune, and the destruction of everything he cares about…..which is to say, himself?

COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP, DONNY

I’ll concede that the very idea smacks of hysteria and overreaction.

But I put it to you that we are living in an era when the absolutely unthinkable has already happened over and over again. Accordingly, far from trafficking in alarmism, it would be foolish and naïve not to consider a scenario like this, however extreme or remote it might be.

It is unlikely that Mueller will try to bring a criminal indictment against a sitting president. (Not impossible—Mueller may uncover skullduggery of such profound implications that he feels compelled to break with DOJ norms—but it is unlikely.) That means that any criminal prosecution of Trump will have to wait until he is out of office. And no matter how powerful or airtight the case Mueller presents, it is equally unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office because of it. The numbers and the politics simply militate against it.

Even if Democrats flip the House in the midterms—enabling them to impeach Trump by simple majority—they’re not likely to gain control of the Senate, let alone obtain the supermajority necessary to convict him and chuck him out of the White House. Short of those sixty-one partisan votes, it is equally implausible that they will be able to woo enough Republican Senators to vote for conviction, judging by the yellow-bellied stain of opportunism and cowardice that the GOP leadership has spread across Washington DC thus far.

We know that Trump’s Kool Aid-drunk based will shrug off anything and everything that Mueller delivers. They have not been bothered by Trump hiding his tax returns, or insulting Gold Star families, or making fun of the handicapped, or the vast evidence we already have of his financial crimes, wanton corruption, and collaboration with our enemies. They were not bothered by Access Hollywood, or Charlottesville, or taking babies from their mothers, or most recently, the appalling bootlicking and borderline treason of Helsinki. What could possible change their minds now?

A NOUS LA LIBERTE

“OK,” I hear you saying, “that’s what Donald Trump would try to do. We know he’s a lunatic. But the American people would never stand for it.”

Really?

Famously,  a Washington Post poll taken last August showed that a majority of Republicans (52%) would support suspending the 2020 presidential election if Trump proposed it. 

Per above, not even the egregious, jawdropping public display of subservience to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki gave the majority of Republicans pause. As former US diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford wrote in an LA Times op-ed, “As the dust settles after Helsinki, this too has become clear: There is no line Trump can cross that will spur meaningful Republican action against him.”

In a piece for Salon called “How Low Will Trump Go?” Lucian Truscott IV writes:

This man is not going to be driven from office by either Congress or the courts. He’s going to fight, and fight to the death of democracy if necessary, because he has no loyalty to the Constitution or love of democracy. All he has is love of Trump.

He’s preparing his base for the day he fires Sessions, Rosenstein and Mueller. He’ll pardon every single American who has been charged or pled guilty, and then he’ll order the entire work product of the Mueller investigation to be collected and burned. He’ll send his supporters into the streets to demonstrate in favor of firing Mueller and ending the investigation. When counter demonstrations hit the street, he’ll call them a threat to “national security” and start making arrests. He’ll begin with Antifa and Black Lives Matter, then he’ll move on to anyone found demonstrating on a street where violence or damage to property has taken place.

When demonstrations break out…..between anti-Trump protestors and Trump supporters, he’ll declare martial law. He’ll declare that the Democratic Party is the “enemy of the people” and issue an executive order to postpone elections. His base will support him all the way.

COWARDS AND OPPORTUNISTS: A FIELD GUIDE

So let’s forget about the GOP base for now. Its capacity for welcoming authoritarianism—as long as that authoritarianism is of the ideological stripe it admires—is well proven. What about GOP lawmakers? My friend Pete’s contention was that GOP lawmakers would not stand for Trump disrupting the peaceful transition of power; that regardless of right wing public opinion, Republican legislators would in effect be the last line of defense for democracy.

I respectfully disagree. That argument is predicated on the idea that the Republican leadership has more integrity than the party’s rank and file. I have seen no evidence that that is the case. As is none, nada, zero, zilch, bupkes. In fact, there may be a strong argument that they have shown a lot less.

I have written before that we are witnessing a slow motion coup d’etat by the Republican Party to secure permanent, anti-democratic control of the United States government. (“The Elephant in the Room: Trojan Trump and the Invisible Coup,” July 12, 2017). They have suppressed the vote; engaged in outrageous gerrymandering far beyond even historical precedent; tried to skew the census; weaponized the infusion of dark money into campaign finance; spread the vile lies of voter fraud, birtherism, and beyond; marshaled a massive Orwellian propaganda machine that has done irreparable damage to public discourse; and turned a blind eye to ongoing foreign attacks on our electoral system that are tantamount to war.

The GOP “leadership” takes its lead from the base, not the other way around. (Maybe most politicians behave that way, but rarely in such a brazenly craven and conspicuous way.) Those profiles in courage Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have shown absolutely no integrity or sense of principle and no willingness to defend the rule of law against even Trump’s worst offenses, given that they and their party are benefitting from his rule—at least in the short term—beyond their wildest wet dreams. The most they ever offer by way of censure is mealy-mouthed statements of discomfort when Trump really pushes the limits—mere lip service to the principles of democracy—which is almost worse.

At least Trump and his hardcore followers own their awfulness; they are monsters, but not hypocrites (except when it comes to Obama). The same can’t be said for Mitch, Paul, and the rest of the gang—and I do mean gang.

As for respect for the sanctity of the electoral process and peaceful transition of power, Republican leaders uttered barely a mouse-squeak when Trump deliberately undermined those principles on the campaign trail. Since he took office, they have condoned and even abetted his attacks on the rule of law, the law enforcement and intelligence communities, a free press, and the patriotism of the loyal opposition (not to mention reliable conservative bogeymen like immigrants, minorities, and poor people). Should he be defeated, what makes anyone think that Trump questioning or even physically opposing the results of the 2020 election would be a red line for them?

Perhaps most tellingly, with their unconscionable obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination, Republicans ruthlessly subverted one of the fundamental norms of American democracy in order to keep control of the Supreme Court. Do you think they will do any less to maintain control of the Presidency?

Speaking to Rolling StoneJohn Dean recently had this to say on the subject (and he should know):

(I)f Trump loses the 2020 election, his term will end, and the new president will be sworn in—and he will contest it, claim a rigged election, and make life miserable for the world. However Trump’s presidency ends, I expect it to be ugly. He has no respect for the rule of law, or historical norms, or standards of conduct. Because he is shameless, he will do it his way, which will be un-American and unprecedented.

CASSANDRA VS CHICKEN LITTLE

In closing, I realize that the right will scoff at this sort of speculation as “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” the hysterical ravings of hair-on-fire liberals who don’t know whether to shit or go blind over the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the ascent of Donald Trump. They openly delight in (what is to them) the comic spectacle of snowflakes who just can’t “get over it,” as the late, inexplicably venerated Justice Scalia flippantly said of the Supreme Court handing George W. Bush the presidency.

Of course, the right has no credibility on this point, given eight years of their own sky-is-falling rhetoric over Barack Obama on what were empirically far less persuasive grounds. (Infinitely so, in fact.) Moreover, from the moment of Trump’s rise in the GOP primaries, the right has pooh-poohed concerns of the damage he would do, how bad he would be, and how far he would go, only to be proven disastrously wrong at nearly every turn. So their scorn carries no weight.

But I know that even mainstream conservatives, independents, and even some liberals and progressives—like my friend Pete—find such scenarios alarmist and absurd. I do realize that all this talk of martial law and a president-for-life sounds extreme. It is.

But in case you’ve been in a coma, we are living in extreme times. Over and over again the unthinkable has happened, each time moving the Overton window of what we believe possible in this country.

No one thought Trump would get the GOP nomination or win. No one thought he would get away with not releasing his tax returns, or that he would continue to brazenly violate the emoluments clause once in office. No one—at first—thought collusion with Russia was credible, and no one foresaw that it would be revealed to be as bad as it has been (with more to come). No one thought he’d attack NATO, cozy up to dictators, insult Canada, start trade wars, risk nuclear armageddon with North Korea and then turn around and surrender to them. No one imagined we’d be building concertina-ringed camps along the southern border to hold migrants indefinitely, and no one thought we’d be ripping babies away from their mothers and marching one-year-olds before judges in immigration courts.

I could go on.

Vizzini-like,  Trump is fond of the word “inconceivable.” At this point, nothing is inconceivable in Trump’s America.

I truly hope I am wrong and Pete is right. Should Trump take things to the extremes that this essay contemplates, I fervently hope that both rank-and-file Republicans and the GOP leadership locate their principles—and their balls—and stand up and stop him for the greater good of everything this country is supposed to stand for.

Man, that would be a rather low bar, and I’m not sure they can clear even that. But I hope so.

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The blog also available on Medium and Substack.

Back and Forth with The Back Row Manifesto

As you might imagine, us left-leaning bloggers all hang out, wearing our silk smoking jackets and puffing on pipes while swirling snifters of brandy, discussing Marcuse, and listening to Gang of Four. (Secret handshake optional.)

Among that club, one of my very great friends, Tom Hall, writes the trenchant blog The Back Row Manifesto. Last week in his post “Trauma” (January 19), he called for a public acknowledgment of our shared national trauma, writing: 

The battle for how we remember, process, understand, and overcome the trauma of Trumpism will define how we triumph over it. The first and most crucial step in the formalization of post-traumatic collective memory is to invest in transparency and truth.

No truer words. 

That call also included a critique of Biden on that point:

Transparency begins with Joe Biden, and yet his calls for unity and the focus on his agenda has frustratingly ignored the lingering impact of the trauma of the Trumpist years. Biden has laughed off Trump and ignored every ridiculous indignity, instead focusing on building his own transition process with seriousness and determination…..I’m not sure he understands how deeply the nation has been injured. We need to be heard, to be understood, and to share in the validation and legitimization of our experience….

Tom also raised fears the Biden will “appease a movement hell-bent on establishing authoritarian, anti-democratic power in the hands of Trumpist Republicans,” and that he seems to share the Trumpist call to “put the past aside, to forget and move on.”

While I am in agreement with the main point about the need for reckoning, I had problems with this preemptive critique. I would not say that Biden has failed to understand or acknowledge the nation’s wounds, nor do I think he is pursuing a policy of appeasement, or asking us to forget the past and move on—even though there are strong forces that would like him to do so. In any event, it’s far too early to render that verdict.

But I do think he’s walking a tightrope. 

No one is more open-minded and ready to have a dialogue than Tom, so I wanted to discuss it with him. But rather than confine our conversation to the bloggers’ private bar over those brandy snifters, we decided to make our emails about this matter an open exchange of letters. 

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: Tom, I couldn’t agree more about the need for accountability— a reckoning, in fact—after this criminal administration. I’d also agree that the calls for “unity” from the right wing are disingenuous at best, an attempt at inducing mass social amnesia (as you cogently explained) and dodging responsibility for the shitshow they presided over and its lasting damage. I’m hopeful that most thinking Americans won’t be suckered in, despite the longing for a return to normalcy. As I wrote some weeks ago, there can be such return, because “normalcy” is long gone, if in fact it ever existed. The “normalcy” some want to go back to is the very thing that the George Floyd protests were about putting an end to.

But I take issue with your critique of Biden on that front. Let me throw this over to you first, in the interest of conversation, and then I’ll detail my complaints.

THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO: Thanks, Bob. With the Trump “transition” (aka sedition) and the acknowledgment of our experience of living through the trauma of the Trump years, I think President Biden was put in yet another difficult position. On the one hand, he was forced to focus his time and attention on preparing to become president in a vacuum of Trump’s making, and on the other hand, he wanted to set a tone that he would unify the country and stand above the pettiness of Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the election results. In fact, when asked about Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, Biden laughed for a moment and said “He will.” 

That moment really troubled me because it underlined for me Biden’s rock solid faith in our institutions, institutions which, for the most part, have been shown to be deeply flawed and have, in innumerable instances, failed us during the Trumpist era. 

I call it the “Trumpist” era; I won’t call it the “Trump era” because the catastrophe of the last four years would have been impossible without the enabling of the Trump Administration by so many people across multiple sectors of our lives. 

TKN: I like your rationale for the term “Trumpist era” versus “Trump era.” (It’s catchier than my sobriquet for it, Hell™.) Although by that logic, it ain’t over, because Trumpism is still with us even though Trump is gone. And I am soooooo ready for the post-Trumpist era. 

To that matter of Biden laughing off Trump and his sins: I think when Biden is nonchalant and makes light of Trump like that, he’s not being dismissive so much as tactical. In line with his chosen role as Unflappable Grownup Who Will Make Everything OK, I think he is trying to minimize Trump’s power and knock him down a peg and take away his impact as a bogeyman. That is very different than not holding him and his accomplices to account. 

As you know, Ferne and I spent a lot of time wrestling with this issue of laughter/ridicule/satire and its power (or lack thereof) as a weapon against tyranny, and with that, the risks that it poses. One of the risks, of course, is underestimating the enemy by treating him/them as mere clowns and not genuine dangers. I can’t believe that after all the horrors of the past four years anyone on the Biden team, from the top on down, is that blithe or naive. I really think it’s a strategy—the way one learns in grade school never to let a bully know that they have ever gotten under your skin. 

To your point about Biden’s faith in our institutions, you wrote: 

After years of gaslighting and the demolition of belief in the ability of our institutions to stand up to their debasement at the hands of Trump, we need more than just the truth; we must demand that our shared experience is validated and, most importantly, we must see vindication for our belief that our system is still capable of delivering equal justice under the law.

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

BRM: Biden’s bemusement at Trump’s childish petulance, his almost disbelief that American leadership could have fallen so low, stands for me as a symbol of the failure of institutionalism to imagine the impact of Trumpism on every day life in America. What has been unleashed has, as many have pointed out, always been there, and Trumpism is just saying out loud what we have refused to acknowledge as a nation, etc. 

But it was also normalized, it was framed by fealty to the office of the Presidency and institutions of government as being the official business of the nation. I call the effect of this sort of official normalization the “Haberman-ization” of Trumpism, but it is an undeniable fact; the people of America have been forced to live under a deeply corrupt, venal, and cruel sociopath for four years, and that experience has lead to a deformation of normalcy, of institutions, of what America actually is.

TKN: I don’t think it’s a failure of imagination. I think it’s a pose—in a good way—and an attempt to stir (positive) patriotism, along the lines of, “We’re better than this.” Even though the past four years suggest that we very much are not. 

The normalization of all that shite is indeed one of the most terrifying aspects of this nightmare. We shall see how much of it sticks now that this eminently decent and norm-respecting President is in office. (I hesitate to use the word “institutionalist,” now that Bill Barr has utterly devalued the term.) 

I agree with your assessment of the tough spot Biden was put in. That gets to the heart of my aforementioned quibble. I think Biden is trying mightily to set a reassuring, measured, non-incendiary tone…..I think he (rightly) sees his job as Uniter-in-Chief. That said: unity is not a suicide pact. As Rev. Al said recently when this question was posed to him, unity vs. accountability is a false choice. There can be no unity without accountability. Now, that’s a great bumper sticker, but what does it really look like? I think it looks like prosecuting the motherfuckers. I think it looks like impeachment, conviction, and barring from public office. I think it looks like not letting Trump’s enablers pretend like it’s postwar France and we were all in the Resistance together. I do NOT think it means reaching across the aisle and making nice with racists, misogynists, fascists, and their sympathizers

BRM: I don’t think Biden is being disingenuous when he calls for “unity”, as you and I rightfully understand those calls from Trumpists and their apologists on the right. But while I think his belief in the country framed his response to Trump, the reality of our collective experience has not yet been acknowledged properly. Until that happens, calls for unity, no matter how well-intentioned, ring hollow. 

TKN: This is the crux of my pushback to your last blog. As I’ve said, I totally agree about the need for accountability, which includes not only legal consequences for the lawbreakers, but also the kind of moral rehabilitation you describe. But I think Biden is correctly cautious about his role in that, particularly on the first point, but also on the second, which is a real minefield.

On the first, I’m sure Biden is among those who are justifiably nervous about establishing the precedent of an incoming President prosecuting his or her predecessor, banana republic style. The problem is, what do you do when the predecessor is genuinely a criminal whose actions rightly demand that kind of beatdown?

I think Joe is keen to stay out of it and above it, and leave that to Letitia and Cy and Merrick. I don’t think that’s a bad approach.

But the second aspect of this national rehabilitation is trickier. We do need the new President to preside (yswidt?) over a kind of truth and reconciliation process. Biden has to wield his moral authority here, but he can’t do it in a way that feels partisan or merely vindictive. I think that now he is in power, he may be a little freer in doing that…..and I think that his natural style lends itself to that sort of eminence grise kind of thing. 

But per above, I totally agree that, as I wrote some weeks ago, “normalcy” is dead and buried. But for that very reason, we now have an opportunity to address some really deep, entrenched, systemic problems and possibly affect real change. (To build back better, some might say). It will be ironic if Joe Biden, a creature of Washington and near-embodiment of the sclerotic Old Guard, can re-invent himself, seize the opportunity, and be the one to lead that revolution.

BRM: I think you are missing my point. Your argument keeps coming back to Biden’s political tightrope walk as President between holding Trump accountable for his crimes and his desire to unite the country. But while I am of course thinking of how to best hold Trumpists accountable for their crimes, I have to first think about the way in which our collective trauma is acknowledged. 

Without a fundamental agreement about the impacts of Trumpist criminality on the country, on us as a people, the will and pretexts for justice become impossible. In other words, if we cannot acknowledge the pain and suffering of the victims of Trumpism, there is no moral argument for holding him to account, and the discussion immediately pivots to the politics of accountability, erasing the experience of the people. If we don’t acknowledge our shared trauma, we erase it.

It is hard to talk about this in context without drawing comparisons between historical examples that far outweigh the social damage of Trumpism, and because so many legitimate far-right comparisons are contemporary (thanks for nothing, global surge of far-right government!), I struggle to point to an efficient analysis of how this works. I won’t make Nuremberg or Truth & Reconciliation in South Africa or Rwanda references, because the scale of those crimes and the level of that trauma is incompatible with our own experience in America under Trumpism, and I don’t want to diminish those examples by way of comparison. 

That said, they are examples of taking deep, systemic trauma seriously, of using trauma as a form of “moral standing” to prosecute crimes. But more than just a mechanism for accountability for the criminal, acknowledging trauma also empowers and validates those who have suffered. It makes the crimes real, it makes justice moral. 

For all of the credit he has received for being the “empath in chief,” for knowing loss, Biden’s personal losses are the result of tragedy and not the result of willful victimization at the hands of the state. Democrats need to begin making the case immediately that Trumpist crimes have consequences, not just for Trumpists, but for all of us. They need to articulate those consequences, not just their impact on our institutions, but on us as people.

TKN: Yes, Biden’s personal tragedies were not the result of state-sponsored crimes, but that doesn’t make him any less empathetic. And I am definitely concerned with the political tightrope he has to walk. But this is not just inside baseball stuff, or shortsighted partisanship. It’s critical to the success of our effort. 

To that point, I fear you’re asking for something abstract (and universal) that may not be there. Lots of Americans thought it was great to rip children from their mothers and cage them. 

The acknowledgment of trauma only speaks to the 66% of the country that is in its right mind. I don’t think it is hard for Biden to do that. The bigger question is how to manage the other 33%. Maybe there is a way for Joe to be the president for all while still definitively repudiating what we just endured. Ironically, like I said above, his model-of-moderation, comforting-old-white-dude persona may make him the perfect guy for that job. 

BRM: The failure of institutions doesn’t mean that cold, government buildings collapse; institutions are people making decisions, making choices. In government, those choices are meant to serve the people.  When the power we bestow upon those institutions is used to traumatize the people they serve, we need more than just a reckoning for the decision-makers, we need proactive repair—acknowledgement and support—for those impacted by the decisions; Orphaned children, 400,000 dead, families on food lines, a militarized police culture unleashed on peaceful demonstrators, the dismantling of the already threadbare safeguards against discrimination, a Capitol attacked with the intent to eliminate democracy as we know it, all driven by a daily, hourly flood of lies intended to deny the legitimate experiences of those who were the targets of state power.

So, for me, the discussion doesn’t begin with the mechanics of accountability, it begins with the acknowledgement of the trauma, which will legitimize and drive accountability forward. This is how justice works.

TKN: I’m down with that, and I concur about the need for proactive repair, but we may getting into a battle of semantics here. 

What, in your view, does an “acknowledgment of the trauma” look like? To me, it is inextricably connected to the mechanics of accountability, which is why I am fixated on that. I understand your point that acknowledgement of the trauma legitimizes and drives accountability, and you might say that I am skipping that step. But to me, that acknowledgment is implicit (if we prosecute Trump for inciting a riot, or bring civil suits for his willful malfeasance in responding to COVID-19, or whatever) and at the same time difficult to formalize.

I fear you are looking for something more profound and poetic than we as a nation are able to summon. I will settle for indictments.

BRM: Accountability is a remedy, but there also has to be an acknowledgement that this experience was real, that it happened, and those who suffered because of it must be given priority in the media, in our narrative, to have that experience validated by consequences. 

I think justice is essential, but I don’t think trauma is solved solely through justice. I see signs, multiple, aggravating signs, that the Republican narrative machine is going to be effective in re-shaping this conversation to avoid dealing with the actual pain that people experience. I do not just mean the pain of COVID, I mean the daily feeling of fear that ICE will come and deport you, that people seeking to protest will be battered and arrested by right-wing police that don’t live in their communities and who want their union to back the President who encouraged their brutality, that disaster management would leave you without help, that white-supremacists and nationalists would be allowed free reign in American cities to act out their violence and be publicly venerated by the President, that our system and institutions would be bent, consequence-free, to attack you. 

It may seem poetic and profound to say that the stories which we give priority matter, but they do; they frame everything. 

Look at the insurrection itself: It is not even three weeks since the mob attacked US Capitol at the order of the President to physically prevent lawmakers from certifying a free and fair election. The most obvious, blatant lie, that the election was “stolen”, told precisely and reinforced by a network of propaganda on TV and social media, was a narrative that, after the failure of the mob, was still supported by over 150 lawmakers in Congress. They voted to overturn the election results in multiple states. The result? Nothing. No consequences. And they immediately pivoted to typical Republican obstructionism and seeking to shame Joe Biden for acting to implement his agenda as somehow not being about “unity.” And they get away with it, because “both sides.” And so, the media have already turned to profiling Biden as “divisive,” interviewing Trump supporters to find out how they feel about Biden uniting the country….Kevin McCarthy this weekend said that “everybody across the country has some responsibility” for the insurrection at the Capitol….Newt Gingrich going on Fox News saying Democrats want to “exterminate” Republicans….Josh Hawley saying he ever wanted to overturn the results of the election….Rand Paul claiming Biden was sowing division by calling out white supremacy. 

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

In the mean time, there’s no doubt about the Republican gaslighting, and the Big Lie at its cold black heart. But I don’t view those pieces—from reliably mainstream outlets like CNN or MSN, let alone a progressive outlets like Mother Jones or Towleroad—as evidence that the media is promoting the right wing spin, as long as they are properly framed and not presented as “parties differ on shape of planet.” We can’t expect right wing troll world to stand down, at least not voluntarily; the question to me is how do we best combat it?

To that end, banning Trump from Twitter increasingly looks like the best thing since sliced bread, despite its dangers and complexity. Can you imagine if we had to deal with his running commentary and infusion of toxic bullshit into the collective bloodstream 24/7, the way we have for the past four years? 

This is a slightly different discussion about the wisdom of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, and combatting fake news a la HyperNormalisation, the dangers of weaponized social media, a la The Great Hack or The Social Dilemma (or Feels Good Man).  

BRM: This is what “moving on” looks like, a narrative that gives a platform to deniers and liars, that will likely allow Trump to once again claim he was “exonerated” by spineless Republicans in the Senate, and will never allow us to fully come to terms with the avalanche of criminality of the Trumpist years. How will we ever tell the truth about the past and build a future if there is no priority given to really grappling with trauma, with using every avenue to tell the story of what happened truthfully? That is the narrative that can deliver justice. No. We need a full reckoning, we need the full experience of life under Trumpist rule to be validated, we need to fight to tell the truth of every single thing we know to be true, in their entirety. We need the truth to triumph and make the “lie” obvious in its insanity.

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As Tom is my guest here, I’ll give him the last word there (not counting this epilogue), and because I concur with his dire warning about not letting the right control the narrative, not accepting the euphemism of “moving on” as cover for impunity for Trumpist crimes, and the general need for reckoning, which is where this whole discussion started. 

Opinions will differ on how President Biden handles these delicate but urgent matters, and the inevitable Republican gaslighting and disinformation blitz. It’s the earliest of days, so plenty of material for that debate (and his performance evaluation) is yet to come. In the mean time, we can all agree that Republican calls for “unity” are as credible as the claims of George Floyd’s killers that they’re the real victims. It remains to be seen if rational voices rise up to call out that vile absurdity, and that hypocrisy, and if the American people will listen.

More to come on the reckoning with the sins and damage of Trump and Trumpism in a future post.

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Check out The Back Row Manifesto.

This blog also available on Substack and Medium.

Let the Sun Shine In

I deliberately posted my farewell to….what’s his name again? I’ve already forgotten. Anyway, that last guy. I deliberately posted my farewell to him on Tuesday, before the Inauguration, because Wednesday belonged to President Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Devi Harris. 

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to hating on He Who Must Not Be Named shortly. Sadly, we’re not done with him, not by a long shot. But for now, let’s revel in our welcome return to sanity. 

I don’t mean to romanticize these figures, Joe and Kamala. They are not superhuman, nor perfect, nor will they solve all our problems by mere dint of their arrival. But as I wrote earlier this week in that farewell to their ghastly predecessors, they are competent, decent, empathetic human beings and it is a massive relief—and an unfamiliar feeling—to have people like that in charge again.

WALKING PROUDLY IN OUR WINTER COATS

I was stunned at how quickly Tr—p left my headspace….almost as soon as Marine One powered up and flew off the White House lawn, taking out the trash. I hope that is a harbinger of a nationwide psychological phenomenon. 

The rest of the day was a blur, full of poignant moments. I’m not ashamed to say I choked up more than once, again surprising myself. I guess I’m a much more sentimental SOB than I like to think, or perhaps just more wrenched than I understood. 

A brief survey of the highlights:

  • Amanda Gorman, instant rock star. 
  • An inaugural address that didn’t sound like the monologue that a Bond villain recites to Sean Connery before trying to laser beam his testicles off. 
  • The stagecraft. Whoever managed it deserves an Emmy. The idea of 400,000 US flags to represent the victims of the pandemic, standing in for the live audience who could not be there—the federal government’s first expression of communal grief at this national tragedy—was a masterstroke. Inevitably, it also recalled in macabre counterpoint the opening gambit of the last regime, Sean Spicer’s laughable/chilling lie that his boss’s Inaugural crowd was the biggest ever. (Factcheck: Not even close.) 
  • Three of the four living Ex-Presidents all in one place (save for Jimmy Carter, who was too frail to travel), and not including the soon-to-be ex who ain’t invited into the club
  • A bunch of Broadway all-stars ripping out the scorching finale to “Hair.” 
  • A Zen-like Hillary Clinton, in what must have been a bittersweet moment for her, both revisiting her crushing disappointment, and reveling in the vindication that she was right as right can be all along.
  • Lady Gaga. After all the absurd racist controversy surrounding the national anthem over the past few years, how moving was it to see Gaga—with her instinctive, brilliant sense of theater—turn to the Stars & Stripes at exactly the right moment in the song, just two weeks after a violent mob of right wing insurrectionists tried to overthrow the US government, and sing: “Our flag was still there,” lyrics written after the last time the US Capitol was attacked?

(And bonus: I know MAGA Nation fucking hated it.)

  • Speaking of MAGA Nation, I am confident that it set its collective hair on fire over a Woody Guthrie song being sung at the Inauguration, with a dollop of Spanish to boot.
  • Enough purple to make Prince smile down from Heaven.

So yes, it was the best Super Bowl halftime show ever, even with the ghostly streets of Washington lined with police barricades and concertina wire and 25,000 DC National Guardsmen in full battle rattle. And we all know who’s to blame for that.

Of course, I am leaving out the most moving and important moments of the day: when the first woman, Black person, and South Asian person of either sex was sworn in as Vice President, and when a reasonable, qualified, sane human being—the most politically experienced and qualified candidate to ascend to the Presidency ever, in fact, whatever else you think of him—was sworn in as President, taking over from his polar opposite.

It was the first inauguration in my lifetime that I really appreciated the significance of that transfer of power, having come so close to losing our democratic form of government twice in the past couple of months: lately, in a violent attempt to nullify the election, but also on Election Day itself, given that a Tr—p victory would have spelled the end of American democracy as we know it just as much as the violent mob of January 6, had it succeeded. 

Or perhaps we can view those two events as merely related battles in a single campaign. After the election, I put out a piece called “How We (Narrowly) Avoided a Coup” (November 9, 2020), referring to Tr—p’s failed attempts to delegitimize the vote, fended off at the polls by Biden’s undeniable numbers and the integrity of stalwart election officials at the local level. At the time I didn’t know that there was another, much more violent phase of the coup yet to come. We avoided that disaster in an equally narrow escape, and it’s not at all clear that we’ll be so lucky next time.  

DON’T MAKE ME LAUGH

During the Inauguration, it was a relief to see at least the pretense of old school, pre-Tr—p (or maybe pre-Gingrich) bipartisan civility, with McConnell and McCarthy attending mass with the Bidens, and going through the usual protocols with their Democratic counterparts, shaking hands and being collegial and all that. 

That said, I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night. Same goes for the rest of sentient America.  

When it comes to civility, that word “pretense” is operative. The GOP gets no credit for going through these motions, which are less a matter of contrition or expression of decency going forward than they are merely performative, part of their effort to induce collective amnesia. Already Republicans are trying to convince us that they comprise a reasonable political party that didn’t just violently try to seize power, or spent the last four years abetting a neo-fascist kakistorcracy that almost burned America to the ground.

Nice try, fellas.  

President Biden of course will soon face gale force howling hypocrisy from that same Republican cabal. If you want a preview—and a good laugh—read conservative WaPo columnist Marc Thiessen’s new piece suggesting three things Biden can do to help achieve “unity.”

They are (not in this order, and I swear this is not satire):

1. Find a big project to do that the GOP will like…

2. Drop the impeachment, and… 

3. Be nice to the GOP and give them a lot of what they want, because “unity requires compromise….you can’t restore unity while trampling the rights of the minority at the same time. If (Biden) wants to restore unity, he and fellow Democrats will have to moderate their demands, agree to some Republican priorities and sometimes accept ‘no’ for an answer.”

Yeah, you know, the way the Republican Party under Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump were so generous and accommodating to the Democrats.

I’m surprised that guys like Thiessen don’t have big long ZZ Top beards, because I don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror to shave, nor why a major newspaper like the Post gives column inches to this drivel.

PARDON IS SUCH SWEET SORROW

Thiessen’s fishwrapping is but one of the reminders that we will be dealing with the rancid detritus of the Tr—p era for some time to come.

Here’s another:

It emerged yesterday that one of the senior generals in the room at the Pentagon as the decision was made not to send the National Guard (let alone active duty US military) to protect the Capitol from domestic terrorists was Lieutenant General Charlie Flynn, Mike Flynn’s brother, and the DCSOPS for the entire US Army—that is, deputy chief of staff for operations, the equivalent of the most senior G3 in the entire service branch. (The 3 being the preeminent officer on any military staff.) 

To be clear: Flynn would not have been the decision-maker in a situation like that, but he definitely would have been involved in that decision-making, as the senior staff member in charge of advising the Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Army on operational matters, and responsible for planning and executing them.

Like stopping insurrectionists from overthrowing the government.

To be clear once again: we have no evidence that General Flynn shares the views of his disgraced older brother, himself a retired three-star and convicted (and pardoned) felon who “publicly suggested that President Donald Trump declare martial law and have the US military oversee a redo of the election.” But it’s not a great look that he was part of the mechanism by which military assistance to repel the attack on the Capitol was rejected….especially when you ask yourself why, for days, the Army denied that he was even in the room for the call, until forced to admit it had been lying.

As DCSOPS, Flynn had good reason to be in the room. There was no need to lie and say he wasn’t.

Unless there was. And thanks to the Army’s actions, we are left wondering.

Speaking of pardons, in December I predicted that Tr—p would try to self-pardon but apparently he didn’t (nor pardon his kids, nor Giuliani, both of which I also expected). That is, unless there was a double secret dog dare pardon, as Lawrence O’Donnell has repeatedly speculated. We shall see, if and when Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department brings federal charges. 

Not sure that’s gonna play. “Oh, obstruction of justice? Sorry—I pardoned myself before I left office. Did I forget to mention that?” I doubt he’ll get five Supreme Court justices to sign off on that, though I am sure he will get two. (What does it say that the worst two SCOTUS justices aren’t even Tr–mp appointees?)

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (ADJACENT)

As the past four years of this blog will attest, I didn’t like the 45th president of the United States. But during his pathetic farewell at Andrews Air Force Base (I can’t bear to call it JBA), the disgraced soon-to-be private citizen did have one moment of vulnerability, and that very much shocked me. It was when, amid the rest of the ad libbed, characteristically megalomaniacal bullshit, he said almost wistfully, “I did my best.” (Or words to that effect. I don’t want to go back and watch it again to get it verbatim.)

On one level, I was merely appalled. That was your best? Yikes.

But on another level, I did glimpse in him, for just a moment, a flicker of sadness. Not—without getting into a debate about free will—anything close to something that would excuse or forgive or even mitigate in any way his vast transgressions. But a moment of pathos nonetheless.

For truly he is a pathetic human being. How must it feel to have the whole world dance in the streets at your defeat? To have to beg or force your underlings to attend your grubby little goodbye, and then watch the bulk of the country, and the kind of A-list celebrities whose company you crave, mount a nationally televised party (with fireworks!) for your opponent. All this miserable excuse for a human being has wanted his whole life is that sort of love and affection, the kind of love that he never got from daddy. It’s ironic, n’est-ce pas?

Of course, the lesson is, if you want love and affection, don’t be a fucking monstrous, racist, misogynist, sadistic, piece of shit asshole. 

Pro tip.

TEAR DOWN THIS WALL

So now “The Trump Show” has been canceled. Catch the re-runs on Fox. (I’ll use his name here only in the interest of the joke.) For the rest of us, we now return to our regular pre-2015 programming, the kind that was not managed by a group of rabid chimpanzees who had taken over the broadcast booth. 

During Watergate, in February 1974, Garry Trudeau published a famous Doonesbury strip showing the White House and transcripts of the Nixon tapes (“I want you all to stonewall it”) behind a wall that bricklayers were building brick by brick, until in the final panel it obscured the entire strip. (He reprised it for Tr—p’s threatening call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger this past December.)

When Nixon resigned, Trudeau ran a bookend strip that had no text, only workers dismantling that wall until it revealed the White House with the sun shining down on it once again. 

That’s how I feel right now.

I have already experienced some snickering ridicule from right-of-center friends over the kind of optimism many of us feel surrounding the new administration. That strikes me as deeply cynical and destructive. But I don’t care—I remain optimistic nonetheless. 

The past 11 weeks have seen at least four dates that are destined to go down in history: November 3, which was Election Night; November 7, when the major news organizations called the election for Biden and spontaneous celebrations in the street broke out all over the world; January 6, when Tr–p’s attempt at a self-coup climaxed in the assault on the Capitol; and this past Wednesday January 20, when Tr—p finally departed, Biden was sworn in, and a new day dawned. 

I am still shaking my head that my young daughter, who is not yet ten, lived through such momentous events. 

The road ahead remains immensely difficult. But at least we are on the right road, not the highway to hell, autobahn to nowhere, or waterslide to madness that we’ve been stuck on for the past four years. 

Now let’s get to work.

***********

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP

This blog also available on Substack and Medium.

For more essays, go to The King’s Necktie Archive.

Hit the Road, Jack

“…..and that’s when they stole the election from me.”

It has been four very long years. So, now, on the eve of a historic transition, let us pause to savor the ignominious, much-deserved departure of Donald John Trump, a man who had no business being President of the United States (no business in public life full stop, if you ask me), who discharged the job in the worst manner of anyone ever to hold it, and who is now leaving in greater disgrace than any of his predecessors, even that guy from California who had such enthusiasm for tape recording technology.

It will take years of effort and encyclopedia-length volumes to detail all of Trump’s horrors, and I will not attempt a thorough survey here. We know them all too well, so let’s not be masochists and subject ourselves to a review right now. Plenty of time for that. 

Suffice it to say that this man has left the country damaged in almost every imaginable way, our international standing dealt a grievous blow from which we may never recover, bigots and racists given the high sign to come out brazenly into the light and parade their vile views, divisiveness at a historic worst in the post-Civil War era, the very concept of Truth and objective reality devalued, not to mention 400,000 of  our fellow Americans dead—the same number killed in World War II—felled by a historic pandemic that he criminally mishandled and even actively made worse. 

Oh, and also: The further demonization of immigrants; the normalization of wanton graft and corruption by elected official; the debasement of discourse and coarsening of our national dialogue; the empowerment of violent domestic insurgents to include neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and militia members; the weaponization of lies, the politicization of the military, the applauding of police brutality; the kidnaping and caging of children; the emboldening of foreign dictators; the craven surrender to the Kremlin….

I did say I wasn’t going to go into the laundry list, didn’t I? My bad. It’s pretty tempting. 

In short, Trump proved to be far worse on every front than even the most dire predictions from his critics, belying the bluff confidence of condescending Republicans, up to and including perhaps the most egregious sin possible for an American president: violently attempting to oveturn a fair election, thereby interrupting a heretofore unbroken string of 240 years of peaceful transfer of power. 

So in light of all that, Republicans, you’ve forfeited the benefit of the doubt until further notice. I recommend you go to your room and think about what you’ve done. We’ll let you know when you’re allowed to come out.

Pay no attention to that hammering sound: it’s just us barricading the door from the outside, Exorcist-style.

THE GASLIGHTERS’ BALL

As the brilliant Michelle Goldberg wrote in an epic piece for the New York Times: 

There’s a bleak sort of relief in the arrival, after everything, of comeuppance. The question is whether it’s too late, whether the low-grade insurgency that the president has inspired and encouraged will continue to terrorize the country that’s leaving him behind.

Fittingly, Trumpelstiltskin is going out as the only US president ever impeached twice (and in a single term, no less). And don’t talk to me about how it was pointless or divisive to do so with less than two weeks left in office. Actions have consequences—conservatives used to preach that, didn’t they? Actions like inciting a violent insurrection. But IOKIYAR I suppose.

Last week, even after the attack on the US Capitol and attempted insurrection by Trump supporters at his behest, Republicans continued to insist risibly that “there will be a peaceful transfer of power on January 20.”

Sorry, guys: that boat has sailed, with Captain Queeg at the helm. (Days Without a Coup D’état: 14.) 

On that point, the citizens (and leaders) of many foreign countries are rightly wondering why Trump is not under arrest. Good question. Given due process, our version of proper repercussions (at least in the short term), would be the exercise of the 25th Amendment, but it falls to Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke it, and they remain his allies, even as Pence was to be assassinated as part of the plot. 

What we will see next is what The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins aptly describes as a Republican effort to induce mass amnesia in America. 

“Republicans call for unity but won’t acknowledge Biden won the election fairly,” as the Washington Post headline tidily put it. This is the GOP gaslighting we can look forward to for the foreseeable future. We might even see Mitch McConnell vote to convict Trump as part of that attempt. I’d welcome that vote, but he ought to do it on principle (cough cough), and even if he does, it won’t begin to constitute sufficient contrition and penance. 

For this is the Big Lie, the ticking time bomb Trump has left the country with. 

Thanks to his efforts, and of people like McConnell who abetted him, President-elect Joe Biden will enter office with almost seven in ten Republican (69%) believing that he stole the election. (Country first, right guys?) Bear in mind that only 25% of Americans identify as Republicans (31% identify as Democrats and 41% as independents), bringing the total number of batshit possible insurrectionists down to 17%. But that is still uncomfortably scary.

Meanwhile, the vile Lindsey Graham went on Fox News this past weekend and made a straight-faced, sanctimonious demand for his longtime Senatorial colleague Joe Biden to force Chuck Schumer to dismiss the article of impeachment, in the interest of healing and moving on. (Lady G made the same demand in a written letter.) It’s the same dishonest rationale that was behind Nixon’s pardon. And do note the veiled threat by Graham of more violence if Biden doesn’t let bygones be bygones.

This from a man who was one of Trump’s chief megaphone-wielders in spreading the Big Lie of a stolen election that resulted in the insurrection of January 6th

(Speaking to Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, Graham also blamed Nancy Pelosi for the poor security around the Capitol on that day. Curiously, he didn’t have any thoughts on the culpability of those who sent those insurrectionists there. Like himself.)

So spare me, Lindsey, you spineless opportunist. 

By poisoning the body politic in this way, Trump amd his enablers have ensured that the destruction he has wrought will continue to wreak havoc for years to come. Just my opinion, folks, but we ought to never never never let the Republican Party or the so-called “conservative” movement forget that they foisted this cretin upon us, and the damage he did. Because make no mistake: they are already pretending they didn’t, while out of the other side of their collective mouth continuing to pander to the mouthbreathing base that descended on the US Capitol two weeks to the day before the Inauguration.

GOOFUS AND GALLANT

Trump reportedly has not reached out to Biden (nor Melania to Dr. Jill Biden), nor offered any of the usual courtesies nor engaged in any of the protocols of a normal transition. Needless to say, he will not attend the Inauguration. CNN reports: 

The Inauguration Day snub of the Biden’s comes on the heels of a series of broken norms and childish behavior that comes directly from the President of the United States, who has been vocal about his disinterest in preserving any semblance of decency towards the man who will succeed him.

What a petty, pathetic little man to the bitter end. One former Trump White House official called Trump’s behavior “abhorrent”—and that’s coming from someone who thought it was OK to work for Donald Trump.

But are we surprised? On the contrary: it would have been astonishing if he had done anything decent.

(And it’s not just a matter of manners. His smallness created national security risks complicating the handoff of the nuclear football.) 

“If I lost, I’d be a very gracious loser,” Trump bragged back in December, with characteristic lack of self-awareness. So says the very stable genius, with the very very large a-brain, who knows more about ISIS than the generals, and is not a puppet you’re the puppet. 

But Trump’s petulant departure is the natural reaction of a man who tried to steal an election and failed without winding up in prison. (Yet.) Axios’s podcast “How It Happened: Trump’s Last Stand” reports that Trump had a very clear plan for how to hang onto power “focused on the so-called red mirage.” It began with his months-long effort to delegitimize mail-in voting, and carried on with his post-November 3rd lawsuits, and propaganda campaign, and strongarming of state officials, and attempts to get Congress and even his own vice president to decertify the results of the Electoral College, all the way up to his final card, the fomenting of a violent assault to stop that process. In other words, his attempt to undermine the will of the people was not some ad hoc improvisation but a conscious, pre-planned strategy to hold onto the presidency regardless of the outcome of the vote. As Axios’s Jonathan Swan writes, “His preparations were deliberate, strategic and deeply cynical.” 

Likewise, the Capitol insurrection itself—even the word “riot” misrepresents its true nature—was carefully planned, orchestrated, and financed (possibly in part by foreign powers, and through evangelical Christian fundraising networks), as opposed to the peaceful little protest that got out of hand, which some on the right would have us believe. (I watched a few minutes of “Huckabee” this weekend and nearly had to vomit.) 

The GOP will continue to try to sell us this lie, but the more details that come out, the harder that will be for them. But I am confident that they will keep trying.

THE FINAL DAYS

Sources say that in the closing weeks of his administration, an enraged Trump has banned his staffers from even uttering the word “Nixon.” Don should be so lucky as to be compared to Tricky Dick, who sent 21,000 US soldiers to needless death in Vietnam, undermined the Paris peace talks, subverted the Constitution, wiretapped his political foes, and (apocryphally) called a disastrous play for the Washington Football Team in the 1971 NFL playoffs. 

Child’s play. 

But there are plenty of Nixonian echoes in the images of Trump’s twilight hours. 

Will he try to squeeze a pardon out of Pence, despite having tried to have him killed? Or will he leave having “secretly” pardoned himself and/or his offspring and minions, as Lawrence O’Donnell has hypothesized? I guess we’ll find out. Two days ago The New York Times ran a piece headlined “Prospect of Pardons in Final Days Fuels Market to Buy Access to Trump,” subtitled, “The president’s allies have collected tens of thousands of dollars—and potentially much more—from people seeking pardons.” Jesus Christ. That’s a fitting epitaph for America, when a headline from the Old Gray Lady blithely refers to the market to buy pardons from the president and that’s not itself a national scandal.

In any case, he’s in need of some lawyers. Reportedly Trump has told his accountants not to pay Rudy Giuliani’s legal fees, causing Neal Katyal to quip that he wasn’t sure who was getting the shorter end of that stick: Giuliani, who was being stiffed, or Trump, for having Giuliani as his attorney in the first place. 

Or how about the image of the nutjob CEO of MyPillow entering the West Wing to propose the imposition of martial law, without bothering to conceal his notes to that effect. (Or maybe McConnell sent him over to smother Trump.) This is who Trump has left with him in the bunker.

We recently learned that Melania hasn’t even let him sleep in the presidential bedroom for all four years, consigning him to the den like a husband permanently in the doghouse, forced to sleep on the couch. (Typical, quipped Ric  Groves: an immigrant who wouldn’t even do the job she was brought here to do.)

Elsewhere in Trumpian domestic affairs, we are told that Jared and Ivanka wouldn’t even let the Secret Service agents guarding their lives and those of their children use any of their six bathrooms. (Let them eat urinal cakes!) As result, the American taxpayer was forced to shell out $3000 a month for the USSS to rent a nearby flat for when nature called. 

And of course, as we speak we have more troops deployed to secure Washington DC than we do in Iraq or Afghanistan….and it’s not because we’ve wisely drawn down from foreign wars, but rather, because we’re facing a proto-civil war of our own making here at home. America First, right?

I can only imagine what Hillary Clinton thinks, watching what America has come to under the man who unaccountably bested her in 2016. Four years after his own inauguration where he railed about “American carnage,” Trump himself has laid our nation lower than any foe since 1812, as the spectacle of the nation’s capital turned into a battlefield attests. 

Will you indulge me in a little overheated Stephen Milleresque rhetoric? The only difference is, what I’m describing is real. For this is America at the end of the Trump era:

Children ripped from their parents and put in cages. White nationalists armed to the teeth who feel free to patrol the streets. Economic suffering at near-Depression levels while the rich get tax cuts. Millions of Americans frothing at the mouth after being fed toxic lies. 400,000 dead from an out-of-control virus that America botched worse than any major nation (and many minor ones), hospitals straining at the seams, reefer vans brought out to relieve overflowing morgues. Our enemies gleeful as the US abdicates global leadership, dictators emboldened, and nuclear proliferation on the rise…. 

Sorry—got carried away again. I’ll just no-look pass it over to Barton Gellman, who observes in The Atlantic:

A healthy democracy does not need a division-size force to safeguard the incoming president in its capital. Generals and admirals in a thriving republic do not have to enjoin the troops against “violence, sedition and insurrection” or reaffirm that “there’s no role for the US military in determining the outcome of a US election.” A nation secure in the peaceful transfer of power does not require 10 former defense secretaries to remind their successor that he is “bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration.”

This is a moment of historic fragility in America. We are a long way yet from a second civil war, but there is no precedent for our fractured consensus about who holds legitimate power.

Just checking: is America great again yet? 

DEPLORABLE

Donald Trump is the worst human being I can think of. Yeah, I know there are worse: pedophiles and serial killers and so forth. For that matter, one of my great grievances is that Trump is only a dictator manqué, a dangerous clown, not even a proper despot like Putin or Kim or Orban or Duterte. Not that I’d prefer that, but it’s a uniquely American humiliation to be ruled by a clueless, deranged game show host.

Yet it’s hard to think of any public figure in this country or any other who presents such an appalling combination of so many vices: greed, selfishness, misogyny, racism, dishonesty, disloyalty, marital infidelity, cowardice, bullying, laziness, hypocrisy, demagoguery, megalomania, pathological narcissism, and on and on, and always always always doing the absolute worst possible thing in almost every given situation. 

Truly, this man is a human colostomy bag. 

That millions of Americans flat out worship him as part of a literal death cult is about the scariest and most headspinning thing I’ve experienced in my nearly sixty years on this planet. 

In his interview in this blog way back in 2017, the educator Matt Bardin derided the school of journalism he called “DTBM”—Donald Trump Bad Man. I can understand the weariness with reportage that does nothing more than repeat the litany of his awfulness without offering any insight or call to action. Then again, that weariness is part of what Donald Trump (Bad Man) counted on to abet his crimes. 

It’s astounding to me all the time I spent thinking about Donald Trump since 2015. (The aforementioned Michelle Goldberg had a piece in late October titled “Four Wasted Years Thinking About Donald Trump.”) If, in the 1980s, you’d told me I’d spend that much time consumed with this know-nothing con man from Queens at a time when he was but a Spy Magazine punchline, I’d have laughed and gone back to listening to “Tainted Love,” which was playing nonstop during throughout decade. (“Take my tears and that’s not nearly all…..”)

What will Trump’s legacy be, if you can call it that? A skidmark on the underwear of America might be a better description. The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last opines that we already know that answer, predicting history’s verdict in one sentence:

He oversaw a disastrous response to a global pandemic, because of which more than 400,000 Americans died on his watch.

That’s it. That’s his legacy. And if he gets a second line in the history books it will be this:

He incited an insurrection on the US Capitol which led to a second impeachment.

Sadly, that second impeachment—essential as it is—will unavoidably keep him in our lives a bit longer. Jesus, we can’t get rid of this guy, even after soundly rejecting him at the polls. 

But as some consolation, Trump is leaving office far more damaged—perhaps fatally—than he was just two weeks ago. Remember the talk that even as John Roberts was swearing Biden in, Trump would be holding a huge campaign rally on live TV and announcing his candidacy for 2024? The Capitol insurrection put the kibosh on that idea. We were told that Trump was going to be a kingmaker within the Republican Party, and possibly the Napoleonic kind, who crowns himself. Instead he is leaving office with his power considerably diminished, and it’s his own fault. Instead he went from being merely a lame duck to a turkey buzzard with his head dangling from a lone tendon after accidentally shooting himself with the farmer’s twelve gauge shotgun. 

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

That said, I am not writing him off. He’s defied the odds too many times (there is no God), and we’ve all seen too many horror movies where we’re led to believe the monster’s dead, only to have him pop back up in the final reel. 

Gellman again:

Here is the nub of our predicament. Donald Trump attempted democracide, and he had help. The victim survived but suffered grievous wounds. American democracy now faces a long convalescence in an environment of ongoing attacks. Trump has not exhausted his malignant powers, and co-conspirators remain at large.

The president of the United States lost an election and really did try with all his might to keep the winner from replacing him. He did his level best to overthrow our system of government, and tens of millions of Americans marched behind him. But a coup d’état in America had seemed so unlikely a thing, and it was so buffoonishly attempted, that the political establishment had trouble taking it seriously. That was a big mistake.

ON YOUR BIKE

Since the election, a number of people have asked me if I’m going to stop writing this blog. (We’ll discuss the hopeful, pleading look in their eyes later.) 

The answer is fuck no. Unfortunately for all of us, the United States will continue to be hampered by grievous problems for the foreseeable future—many of them the same ones we have wrestled with throughout the Trump era—and much as I would like to retire and do nothing but watch “Seinfeld“ reruns all day, I feel compelled to bloviate about them. For as we’ve said many times, Trump is but a symptom of America’s ills, not their cause.

We have talked at length in these pages (and by “we” I mean “me”) about how we managed to wake up to find Donald Trump in the White House in the first place, and how to go about fixing the ills that led to that disaster. I’ll warn you that many more column inches are going to be devoted to that going forward, both here in The King’s Necktie and myriad other places I’m sure. It’s a long, difficult, and dangerous road ahead. 

But for now, let us rejoice in Trump’s overdue departure, his defeat, his disgrace, and do everything we can to erase his legacy and repair the damage and never let ourselves be maneuvered into a nightmare like this again. And let’s give all praise dues the arrival of President Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. and Vice President Kamala Devi Harris. Even if you don’t agree with every single one of their policies, either from the left or the right, it is a welcome and unfamiliar feeling to have decent, competent, empathetic national leadership again. 

So buh-bye Donald, and don’t you come back no more no more no more no more.

It’s about to be morning in America once again. 

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

Illustration: Nighthawks (1942), by Edward Hopper

Detournment via @joeheenan / Twitter

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