Travesty in Progress: Part 3

Travesty Pt 3 picWhy are we not out in the streets?

We really are a nation of sheep. I don’t wanna sound like a xenophile, but I can hardly think of another Western country where the people would take an outrage like this lying down.

Our ruling political party just shamelessly whitewashed the most egregious imaginable corruption by its leader, demonstrating a contempt for the rule of law that is truly gobsmacking. In fact, they went even further than that: on the way, they argued for near-absolute, unfettered power for that leader. And as the kicker, all of it involves their attempts to undermine the fundamental fairness of the one mechanism they claim is our recourse, which is free elections, that they would turn into a sham.

And here among the engaged segment of citizenry there is moaning and lamentations and wringing of hands as we ponder what we ought to do. But what we won’t do—not yet anyway—is let our wrath be felt by putting these gargoyles on notice, by harnessing the power of public dissent and making it known that that we will not stand for this bullshit.

But by all means enjoy the Super Bowl…..

ACQUITTAL WITHOUT EXONERATION, OR EVEN ACQUITTAL

As the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser wrote, “The Senate can stop pretending now.”

Over the first ten days of Donald Trump’s trial, and particularly in the three consecutive days that the House managers had to make their case uninterrupted, the Democrats mounted a professional, proficient, methodical argument for his removal from power. The fact the craven Republican Party refused to acknowledge the evidence and even objective reality is an act that will stain its members forever.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois noted that this White House could not find even one witness who would stand up under oath and defend what Trump did. But there were loads of them—Trump’s own staffers and appointees—lined up to testify under oath about his misdeeds. Which is why the White House was so desperate to block that.

In a scathing editorial, the New York Times wrote:

(Senate Republicans) didn’t refuse to hold a fair trial so much as they refused to hold any trial at all. Of course, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader for whom bipartisanship is a dirty word, had promised no less. He announced in December that he planned to work in complete coordination with the White House in protecting the president from any accountability, and that he had no intention of honoring the oath he would take to be an impartial juror.

The irony is stifling. For months, Mr. McConnell and other Republicans complained that the impeachment process was being rushed, that the president was being denied basic procedural protections, and that there was no testimony from those with the most direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s actions and motivations. Then they refused to hear from a single witness and refused to demand a single document from the White House…..

I’m beginning to think the Republican Party might be slightly hypocritical.

The vote…..brings the nation face to face with the reality that the Senate has become nothing more than an arena for the most base and brutal—and stupid—power politics. Faced with credible evidence that a president was abusing his powers, it would not muster the institutional self-respect to even investigate….

Chuck Schumer referred to the “permanent asterisk” that would be by Trump’s name in the history books. With characteristic élan, Nancy Pelosi went further, saying Trump won’t be acquitted at all. “You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial,” she said. “And you don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation.”

I am going to adopt Nancy’s attitude, and I encourage you all to do the same. Previously my position was that we were going to have “acquittal without exoneration.” But truly, this is not even acquittal by any reasonable definition of the word.

HEADY LAMAR

The man who delivered the coup de grace, longtime Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), took the absurd position that the House managers had more than proved their case; he just didn’t think it was a big deal. (On the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, Alexander was even more appallingly dismissive.) But as I noted last week, this is not a position the White House defense team argued, opting instead for their boss’s preferred argument, “I am a king.”

In explaining his decision, Alexander argued that Trump’s removal ought to be settled in the next election. But the WaPo’s Greg Sargent blisteringly dismantled that irrational position, which he describes as “self-refuting”:

What Alexander fails to acknowledge is that Trump’s own conduct was both an effort to solicit foreign help in rigging that very election and a clear sign Trump believes it’s absolutely within his authority to continue using his official powers to do just that…..

Alexander’s position—that Trump did solicit foreign help in the election, but it’s up to voters to impose accountability for it—refutes itself. While acknowledging the corruption Trump is capable of, it clearly tells Trump he can continue corrupting that very mechanism of accountability with impunity….

A vote against witnesses—especially when paired with an acknowledgment of Trump’s corruption—can only be a vote to carry through Trump’s own coverup to completion, leaving the country exposed, adrift and in the dark, unable to know precisely what Trump is prepared to inflict on us.

The last point is especially true given that it was clear that there was a mountain of relevant evidence that the ostrich-like Senate refused to examine, let alone reveal to the public. As Garry Kasparov puts it:

Trump’s actions were not an attack on Ukraine or on Biden, but on the integrity of the presidency, US elections and American democracy. And it was surely just the tip of the iceberg. Alexander admitting that and not caring is doubly cowardly.

Alexander, of course, is retiring and has nothing to lose by standing up to Trump, making it all the more disheartening that he chose not to do so. If any Republican in the Senate could take a stand on “principle,” it’s him. So watching him cast the deciding vote that not only sealed Trump’s (fake) acquittal, but protected him from further public exposure of his crimes, ought to disabuse us all of the notion that Republicans are somehow holding their noses when they support and abet this bastard. They have no principles to compromise, apart from maintaining their own power, lining their pockets, and serving the venal interests of their own kind. They are active, enthusiastic accomplices to Trump’s ongoing corruption.

So is Trump using the GOP or is the GOP using Trump, or is it both? And which is worse?

GRAND OLD PARTY

And so, with the announcement of his vote, Alexander put an end to this kabuki.

But what of the other Republicans?

Walter Sujansky writes that many of them “were contorting into pretzels to explain their votes, but Marco Rubio took the prize with the most mealy-mouthed and self-contradictory rationalization”:

(Rubio said), “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office.” That’s like a juror saying “the evidence convinced me that he committed a serious crime, but I think we should let him go free because he’s my boss and I might lose my job if he’s not around to run the business.”

And watch: that will not be good enough for Trump, who demands not just a defense of “wrong but not impeachable” (per Alexander), or “impeachable but never mind” (Rubio), but affirmation of no wrongdoing at all—a Dershowitzean decree of l’etat c’est him. Look for Little Marco to get bitch-slapped by the White House and quiveringly backpedal on even this initial statement, embracing instead the “perfect call” stance. Somebody get him a glass of water.

In fact, as I also wrote last week, Trump’s legal team—especially the vile Mr. Dershowitz— went much further even than that, offering what Amy Davidson Sorkin of the New Yorker called “a pseudo-intellectual scaffold for Trump’s self-delusion.”

Dershowitz was arguing that, as Schiff said on Thursday, if the President believes that a deal is in his political interest, “then it doesn’t matter how corrupt that quid pro quo is.” Schiff was not exaggerating when he called this argument “a descent into constitutional madness”……

(B)y Dershowitz’s logic, a President could not only seek foreign assistance in a campaign; he could unleash any number of investigations into his political opponents, declare spurious emergencies to prevent their parties’ political gatherings, engage in surveillance, or take measures to limit access to polling stations—suppressing, rather than amplifying, voters’ voices.

As Jamil Smith wrote in Rolling Stone, leave it to Trump to use even impeachment to grab even MORE power.

Meanwhile, Rand Paul disgraced himself by trying to get Chief Justice Roberts to name the original Ukrainegate whistleblower…..and when Roberts refused, did it himself at a press conference.

Kentucky might have the worst two senators in the country which is saying something.

Speaking of which, once he knew he had the votes to block witnesses, the senior Senator from the Bluegrass State, Mr. McConnell, gave Susan Collins a “hall pass” (in the worlds of Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes) so she could vote “yes” for witnesses, purely to help her on Election Day in purplish Maine, where she rightly faces an electorate furious at her cowardice on Kavanaugh and throughout this administration in general. (No US Senator is less popular in their home state.)

Yes vote last week or no, she still richly deserves to be chucked out of office, and rob Moscow Mitch of one more seat in his caucus.

And lastly there is Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Susan’s pal, once thought to be a likely “yes” vote on witnesses, whom the New York Times described as engaging in “a suffocating tautology” when she announced she was voting no:

Ms. Murkowski was saying that because the trial would be unfair, she would vote to prevent witnesses, ensuring that the trial would be unfair. On the other hand, her statement was such a searing indictment of the institution’s capacity to perform a critical constitutional function that one wonders how she can bear to work there.

FEBRUARY SPAWNED A MONSTER

We all knew this was coming of course, but to be on the verge of actually watching it happen is still grim and depressing. Is it any comfort to know that we are on the side of the angels and that history will remember these Republican men and women as the cowards, quislings, co-conspirators, accomplices, and in some cases outright traitors that they are? I don’t know, but it’s all we got.

It’s strange how we talk of the acquittal being “set for” Wednesday, like a scheduled C-section. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to look upon the Rosemary’s baby it promises to bring forth. At least Trump has been denied the full force of trumpeting his latest Houdini-like escape during the Super Bowl and the State of the Union, though he’ll do his best of course. Throughout this ordeal it was often said that if Nixon had had Fox News, he wouldn’t have been forced to resign. I guess that’s been proved true.

And so Trump’s lifelong run of vastly undeserved good luck continues, proving that there is no God.

The comedy writer Peter Mehlman of “Seinfeld” fame (the “shrinkage” episode, the “yada yada yada” episode, among many many others) tells an anecdote about being a young man working for Howard Cosell in the 1980s, and being present when Cosell interviewed the young-ish up-and-coming Trump, who back then was just a brash and crass and relentlessly self-promoting New York real estate developer and running punchline in Spy magazine, not a potential Mussolini.

Afterward, Mehlman reports, Cosell remarked privately, “That’s the dumbest, luckiest SOB I ever met.”

I miss Howard.

As we come to terms with Trump’s (non-)acquittal, we all know what will happen next. He will surely be further emboldened by his latest escape from justice, having gotten away with yet another epic set of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Going forward Trump will no doubt behave in an even more brazenly criminal and unfettered way with even less fear of being held accountable—if you can conceive of that. He will also surely act vindictively to punish those who attempted to do so.

The implications are terrifying. As Sargent writes, “There is zero doubt Trump will continue to abuse his powers in any way he sees fit to solicit more foreign interference—or potentially to wield the government against his 2020 opponents in more grave ways.”

Steve Almond again:

The moment he’s acquitted, we know Trump will immediately crow about his glorious exoneration, because his entire brand is based on impunity—the idea that he is powerful enough to say and do whatever he wants without consequence.

This exoneration, in turn, will establish a new precedent: for Trump himself, and all future presidents. They’ll forever more be able to pressure a foreign government to dig up dirt on opponents, freely subvert our elections and block Congress from investigating them. This behavior will no longer be abuse of power. It will become standard operating procedure.

And former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal:

If Trump is acquitted, he can call on foreign governments tomorrow to investigate every Democrat in our nation (and do so in secret). He can ask DOJ to target every Democrat as well, too. And his legal argument, voiced by his lawyer, is that there is nothing wrong with this. Buyer beware.

Of course, this is a one-way street, one affixed with tire puncturing spikes, as the author Michael Gruber writes:

Let us also note that any Democrat who approaches a foreign power with an offer of special help if elected, in return for, say, hacking Trump’s financials, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY THE SAME

Of course, the GOP can’t keep the truth from drip drip dripping out—or even gush gush gushing. What will happen when it does? Needless to say, MAGA Nation won’t care, and the Republican leadership will try to ignore it, but the further airing of evidence promises to make their craven actions even more blatantly shameful, for those who give a shit.

Bolton’s book has already made fools of the GOP, not that it derailed the 9:15 Acquittal Special, making stops on Capitol Hill, Mar-a-Lago, and Trump Tower Moscow. Then, within hours of Senate Republicans voting to end the trial without hearing from Bolton or anyone else, or considering any evidence, the Trump administration admitted in federal court that it was withholding two dozen crucial emails containing precisely the kind of the information germane to the proceeding: Trump’s orders regarding the withholding of military aid to Ukraine.

Yet Senate Republicans still stubbornly crossed their arms and insisted, “Nope, we don’t need to see any of that.”

And now we have just learned that White House counsel Pat Cipolline was in the goddam room when Donald Trump directed John Bolton to withhold aid to Ukraine, and Bolton refused. And yet there Cipolline stood, for days, in front of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and all 100 assembled members of the United States Senate, the “greatest deliberative body in the world” (stop, stop—it hurts when I laugh) insisting that there was no evidence whatsoever that Trump knew anything about the scheme, which Cipolline knew firsthand was a bald-faced lie.

That all by itself is a world-beating scandal, or should be. That it isn’t is a terrible indictment of how cynical and numb to corruption we have become in the past 300 years since Trump took office.

Cipolline is a material witness to this impeachable offense and ought to be subpoenaed to testify before Congress, and disbarred, or worse.

STORM WARNING

What the United States look like on the other side of this debacle remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look promising.

It’s true that Trump will be tarred forever with the stain of impeachment, which he clearly knows, and which clearly eats at him. But he will not have been truly held to account, not by a long shot.

Impeachment has loomed so large over this entire presidency since day one (per the right wing complaint) that it’s hard to imagine what life will be like when it is over. I realize that Trump can be impeached again, and will surely do things to deserve it, very possibly things even worse than he’s already done. I’m not at all against a second impeachment (or a third, or a fourth), although I think they stand even less chance of helping our cause, thanks to sheer fatigue, and the danger that they would feed Republican spin about so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome. Continued investigation, on the other hand, is a certainty, especially as more facts come out. But its objective will be aimed primarily at the ballot box.

So for all practical purposes, what we will be left with is the election. That will be a brave new world, and perhaps the forced focus on that will be a good thing.

I would like to believe that the American people will display enough collective common sense to throw every last Republican bum out in a sweeping cleaning of house in November, chucking not only Trump but also McConnell, Graham, Collins, and all the rest out on their ears. However I am not convinced that that will happen, given the demonstrated willingness of millions of our fellow Americans not only to put up with this bullshit, but to actively cheer it, and of millions of others to be too apathetic to get off their fat asses and vote.

A significant section of American people just don’t give a shit—not a majority, but enough to allow others to put a chokehold on our government, given its counter-majoritarian mechanisms. Barring a national awakening, I have little optimism that those disastrous institutional flaws will ever be rectified. On the contrary, under continued Republican control they are apt to get worse.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the GOP does not intend to participate in a fair vote in 2020, or ever again, and that Trump will not willingly leave office regardless of the results. Hell, this entire impeachment was about trying to cheat in the next election! And by letting Trump skate—indeed, arguing that he was within his authority in what he did—the Republican Party has bluntly announced that it is going to cheat in 2020! We can’t say we weren’t warned.

If Trump does manage to win in November, legally or illegally, God knows what the next four years and beyond will look like. It remains possible, as many warned, that the impeachment hearings will galvanize his fanatic base and prove a boon to him. That has always been a danger, no matter what. But we had no choice. Absent impeachment, the GOP would have manufactured something else with which to whip those folks into a foaming-mouthed fury. They may yet do so.

But as I’ve argued numerous times, impeachment was the right thing to do not only on principle, but tactically as well. Even without a conviction, the process aired many of Trump’s worst crimes and made the case against him to voters. The House managers cogently laid out an impressive case publicly airing the evidence of his unfitness for office and his removal therefrom. It is inconceivable that these proceedings have not done damage to Trump. He certainly thinks so. The Senate Republicans certainly think so, based on their transparently desperate efforts to stop it. Some have even copped to it on the record. Even the faux acquittal has done so. Whether that translates into electoral victory in November, notwithstanding foreign interference, Republican ratfucking, and other skullduggery and attempts to rig the election, I don’t know.

If this thorough public accounting of Trump’s wrongdoing and unfitness does not sufficiently move the electorate, that will be a truly depressing verdict on the moral courage of the American people or lack thereof. And if it makes his followers and undecided voters like him more, we’ve got bigger problems than just tactics.

In the words of Adam Schiff:

If right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is,” Schiff said. “It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. Doesn’t matter how well written the oath of impartiality is. If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost. If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost….

You know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to. This is why if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed.

WHAT CAN A POOR BOY DO?

As I’ve written many times, how pathetic is it that the American experiment, this glorious republic, should come to an end at the hands of a D-list game show host? But as Bill Maher says, “We’re officially living in a dictatorship….and not even one with good rail service.” For all the talk of liberal hysteria, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and violations of Godwin’s Law, this is no longer a hypothetical.

Steve Almond again:

The transformation of Trump from party pariah—a man Lindsay Graham called “a kook” a “loser” and “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot”—to a de facto monarch is the inevitable culmination of this moral rot. “Any time you ignore what could become an evil force,” Graham observed four short years ago, “you wind up regretting it.” These days, Graham isn’t ignoring that force. He’s become its loudest defender.

Now Trump’s Republicans will be on the record for all of eternity.

And for what? To prop up a corrupt and cruel grifter whom most of them despise and mistrust. The only thing greater than their shame, apparently, is their shamelessness. They needed Trump to find that shamelessness. That’s what he’s given them—and all it cost them was our constitutional democracy.

The only remaining remedy is the 2020 election, an election already besieged by voter suppression, gerrymandering and the perverse math of the Electoral College and, thanks to Mitch McConnell, foreign subversion, too.

The only way to repudiate this culture of sociopathic nihilism and lawlessness is for citizens of good faith to become more politically active. We can, and should, watch what’s happening on the floor of the Senate in despair and outrage.

“Citizens of good faith” he is calling upon. That’s us, folks. Bob Mueller’s not gonna save us, and Mitt Romney’s not gonna save us, and John Bolton is not gonna save us. Only we can save us.

Let us again heed Garry Kasparov, who ought to know:

Don’t be surprised, be angry. Show all of these GOP Senators treating Trump like a king that American democracy still works by voting them out. Every last one of them.

The result is bad and the methods are worse. The GOP is saying the president can do whatever he wants. They are a pack of docile reprobates bringing shame on this great nation.

Trump’s pathetic defenders deserve to be grilled every day as further evidence of his abuses comes out. They are also complicit in his every act going forward. They know what he is and what he did, and that now he will do more. The 2020 election is under assault.

Is it possible that Obama will be our last president under a system that bears any resemblance to American representative democracy as we once knew it?

He might be, if we don’t do something about it.

Go Niners.

********

Photo by Samuel Corum / Getty, for the New Yorker

 

 

Travesty in Progress: Part 2

Travesty 2 copy

Do you think Donald Trump is sleeping at all?

Of course not.

Do you think he’s able to concentrate on matters of state (just kidding!), or his golf game, or grabbing pussy, or squeezing pennies out of the gnarled hands of destitute old age pensioners who are behind on their rent, or any of the other things he loves to do?

Look at his Twitter feed. He is consumed night and day with his impeachment, a fuming maniac wandering the halls of the West Wing in an enraged state that would make Nixon look like the Buddha. Even I am not that obsessed with the impeachment, contrary to the impression you might get from the steady flow of these essays.

Very weird behavior for a guy who is guaranteed to beat the rap.

In fact, the thought of a permanently apoplectic, haunted Trump is about the only part of this whole horrific affair that gives me any pleasure.

DON’T WAIT, CALL EIGHT

At the end of last week, prior to the beginning of the bizarre and antiquated ceremony of written questions, the White House lawyers presented their defense of the president, such as it was. Tellingly, for their leadoff on Friday they used only two of their available eight hours, which speaks to the fact that they really have no credible case to make.

WBUR’s Steve Almond writes:

McConnell, and his merry band of quislings, know that Trump is guilty. That’s why they want this proceeding over as quickly as possible. To call it a “trial,” as I’ve argued, is disinformation. This is a show trial, pure and simple, in which Republicans’ stated goal is to exonerate the defendant.

The House managers prosecuting the articles of impeachment against Trump— charging that he abused the power of the presidency to cheat in the 2020 election, then obstructed Congress’s investigation of the same—are engaged in, or are attempting to engage in, an actual trial.

You know: evidence, witnesses, facts.

The president’s defense team is performing for Fox News and other conservative media outlets. There is no discussion of evidence, witnesses or facts, just a recitation of blustery talking points, grade-school deflections, legalistic doublespeak and Trumpian conspiracies….

It is even more telling that the defense has not even bothered to contest the facts that the Democrats laid out. It wasn’t that long ago that many people thought they would make the argument the Trump’s behavior was wrong but not impeachable. That’s a position with which I strongly disagree, but at least it would have made some sense legally speaking. But of course the GOP can’t do that, because that is not what Trump demands. Instead, Republicans have saluted, barked “Three bags full!”, and gone all in with Trump’s pathological insistence that he did nothing wrong whatsoever, that his actions were completely within his authority, and that his behavior was “perfect.” (Pope Francis, white courtesy phone).

This is madness, of course, and Adam Schiff  & Co. beautifully explained why. It is an insane, outrageous, and specious claim that only the most Kool-Aid drunk of these Republican senators could possibly believe. The other, more conniving ones are engaging in an absolutely nihilistic charade, which is worse. (Though not as scary.) Yet that is the argument that Trump’s lawyers—Sekulow, Cipolline, Philbin, Bondi, Starr, and Dershowitz above all—are making. No thinking person can possibly be convinced by it, but then again, that description lets out all of Trump’s followers and the entire leadership of the Republican Party.

A key Republican defense is that Trump did nothing wrong because he was legitimately fighting corruption in Ukraine. As I’ve written in previous blog posts, this is risible. But no lie, no fairytale, no fish story is too outrageous for MAGA Nation to clutch to its collective bosom and defend to its dying breath, which can’t come too soon, if you ask me. (I refer to the movement of course, not any individual humans. Like Nancy Pelosi, I love all people, and I’m not even Catholic.)

But all you really need to understand in order to obliterate that defense is that Trump and his people actively tried to cover up his actions….frantically so, in fact. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, if he did nothing wrong and everything is above board, why so desperate the need to hide it?

Another outrageous howler—and one that totally elides the substance of the charges—is the contention that these impeachment proceedings overturn the last election. Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth. Impeachment is a mechanism built into United States Constitution by our Founders for this very purpose, that of removing a criminally unfit president. For the GOP to ignore that—and worse, deny it—and claim instead that this trial is some sort of coup is dishonesty of the worst sort. I know that’s not surprising in the least, coming from these swine.

But if the Founders devised impeachment as the constitutional remedy for a cancerous presidency, this one is like getting chemotherapy from William S. Burroughs’ Dr. Benway.

It is also the height of irony that Republicans go on and on about the Democrats trying to “steal” an election when that is the very thing that Trump—with their help—is on trial for, and worse, continues to be engaged in even as we speak. But then again, as I like to say, that is Fascism 101: accuse your enemies of your own crimes.

The White House defense team has also screamed that that the House inquiry was incomplete, unfair, didn’t call the right witnesses, and didn’t offer the administration a chance to make its case. That’s the same House inquiry that the White House flatly refused to cooperate with, blocked the appearance of witnesses at, defied subpoenas from, and otherwise obstructed to an extent that would have made Bob Haldeman blanch. They further claim that since the House “didn’t do its job,” there’s no reason for the Senate to do so now.

Is anyone fooled by this whose brain is not rotting from the red dye in their Chinese-made MAGA hat seeping into their gray matter?

Catch Pat Philbin next month in a performance of Kafka’s “The Trial” at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, FL.

DREAM TEAM

Just having Alan Dershowitz on your legal team looks bad, as SNL noted with the return of the great Jon Lovitz. Even so, Dershowitz’s much ballyhooed appearance proved one of the week’s more insane moments, as he argued that, since all politicians believe their election—and re-election—is always in the public interest, Trump’s shakedown of Kyiv is perfectly acceptable. In fact, anything they want to define as “in the public interest” justifies anything at all they want to do. It was the ultimate manifestation of Nixon’s famous statement to David Frost, that “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” (Not to mention the thinking of a certain French monarch.) In short, it is a rejection of democracy full stop in favor of rule by divine right.

Because that’s what America has been all about since 1776, right?

But it was also Dersh being too clever by half, with a thought experiment that he clearly believed was intellectually bold, but actually just made him sound like a lunatic and brought down an avalanche of ridicule. It is destined to be a sad coda to his already sordid history of defending wife murderers and pedophiles, if that is possible.

Ken Starr, meanwhile, looked like he was acting in Pirandello play, so absurd was his outrage at the very idea of impeaching a president! As Ben Wittes quipped, quoting a colleague, “Does Ken Starr know he’s Ken Starr?”

Here’s Susan Glasser on Starr, a man who, after giving us Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress, was fired as president of Baylor University for failing to properly handle a campus-wide sexual assault scandal:

Certainly, it was a bizarre spectacle: the man who brought us the last impeachment of a President lecturing the Senate on the dangerous evils of impeachment.

I’m old enough to remember when, in 1998, Starr produced the most X-rated document ever to be printed under congressional seal, in service of lobbying for an impeachment. The document, which will forever be known as the Starr report, detailed Bill Clinton’s Oval Office trysts in painfully graphic detail. (Google “Starr report” and “cigar” if you don’t remember.) Now, in 2020, the author of that report is acting as the sanctimonious guardian of congressional dignity, lecturing us all on the floor of the Senate about the unfair, improper charges against Donald Trump? Within seconds of opening his mouth on the Senate floor, Starr had his liberal critics—and lots of non-liberals, too—sputtering with outrage.

In his remarks as a member of Trump’s legal team, Starr inveighed against what he called the “Age of Impeachment,” saying that it is happening “too frequently” and is “inherently destabilizing” and “acrimonious.” He reserved particularly scathing words for the “runaway House” and its conduct during Trump’s impeachment, which he called “dripping with fundamental process violations.” Starr seemed especially upset about the partisan nature of the Trump proceedings by the Democratic-controlled House. “Like war, impeachment is hell,” he said. Remember, this is the man who advocated for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, by a Republican-controlled House, for lying under oath about an extramarital affair. Irony is dead. Very, very dead.

With all due respect to Dershowitz, Starr, Dewey, Cheatem & Howe LLP, Trump would be in infinitely better hands with Cellino & Barnes. But that doesn’t mean he won’t still win, because Senate Republicans have made it clear that they are going to close ranks and protect him no matter what his legal reps do or fail to do.

BIDEN MY TIME

On MSNBC Brian Williams quipped that the White House lawyers made a helluva case for impeaching Hunter Biden.

Given the way Bill Barr functions like Tom Hagen to Trump’s Don Corleone, you can bet that if Hunter had done anything even remotely illegal he would already be strapped to a backboard a la Hannibal Lecter and on his way to the Supermax federal prison in Florence, CO. (Or more likely, left a free man for now, the better to serve as a whipping boy during the campaign, as the target of a lengthy and drawn-out criminal prosecution that would play out till November. “Lock him up!”)

Moreover, it almost doesn’t bear repeating that when it comes to trading on a powerful parent, Hunter Biden is a piker compared to the Trump kids, which makes Donald’s focus on him both the height of chutzpah and a measure of his own malignantly narcissistic sociopathology, characterized by a world-beating sense of entitlement and inability to recognize his own hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, we ought not to forget that, notwithstanding the fact that he is being impeached, in many ways Trump’s entire Ukraine scam has worked beautifully, as here we are talking about corruption and Joe Biden.

REVENGE OF THE MAD BOMBER

So to what extent has Bolton’s bombshell altered the calculus of all this? Five days in now, we are getting a picture.

Clearly, it’s mixed.

Bolton has undoubtedly put pressure on the GOP and cast a glaring light on the fundamental dishonesty of the Senate trial. As I wrote earlier this week, I deeply dislike the man on ideological grounds, but I have to admire his tradecraft in doing as much damage to Trump as he could possibly do, even if it does not ultimately lead to his eviction from Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the New Yorker, John Cassidy writes:

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Pat Cipollone, the lead member of Trump’s legal team, learned about the Times scoop. Rather than arguing that their client’s misdeeds didn’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses, he and his colleagues have, with straight faces, echoed the President’s claim that he didn’t demand a quid pro quo from Ukraine and, indeed, did nothing wrong at all. They’ve also argued that there is no firsthand evidence to show that he did.

Bolton has now blown that defense out of the water, giving Adam Schiff the priceless opportunity to play humiliating clips of Cipolline and Sekulow themselves making that now-debunked argument in the Senate last week. It’s not a good look for the accused when the prosecution is able to use his own lawyers’ words against him.

(Schiff also made the “imagine if Obama” argument, a staple of progressive conversation for the past three years. It was a joy to hear it on the floor of the Senate. When Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz then foolishly submitted a written question that sought to “gotcha!” him, Schiff deftly turned their disingenuous query and its skewed premise on its head and beat them to a bloody pulp with it, metaphorically speaking.)

What’s even more headspinning is that the White House has had Bolton’s book since December 30…..meaning Trump knew his former NSA intended to expose that lie. Yet he and his team still brazenly made this argument, a measure of the contempt they have for the entire impeachment process, and the rule of law full stop, not to mention their cocksure confidence of how tightly they have the Republican Party by the short hairs.

Cassidy goes on to describe the rock and a hard place between which JB has stuck his own party:

To be sure, there isn’t much more to be said about Trump’s perfidy, and, in the grand scheme of things, even the spectacle of Bolton providing a firsthand account of the President’s lying and venality may not do him much further damage. We all recall his quote about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Many of his supporters revel in his status as a Washington pariah. But the former national-security adviser showing up on Capitol Hill and telling his damaging tale (evidently, the Ukraine material isn’t the only revelation in Bolton’s book) would certainly reflect badly on the Republicans who tried to prevent him from appearing. These senators already look like patsies and enablers. If Bolton repeated what is reportedly in the book for all the world to see and hear, it would make them look like blithering idiots as well. Who else would have agreed to countenance Trump’s preposterous defense—that his real concern was corruption inside Ukraine?

Well put. It’s not hard to understand why it would be awful for the GOP if Bolton were to testify.

But of course, here’s the kicker: if Senate Republicans block him from testifying, they’ll look even worse. As Laurence Tribe noted, the GOP position boils down to “Trump didn’t do what Bolton said, but we don’t wanna hear from Bolton.” Or as Philip Bump writes in the WaPo, “Trump’s effort to block Bolton’s testimony makes little sense—unless he’s guilty.” Could it be any simpler?

Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine:

Initially, even Trump’s staunchest supporters conceded that pressuring Ukraine to investigate Trump’s rivals would be, if true, unacceptable. (Lindsey Graham: “very disturbing”; Steve Doocy: “off-the-rails-wrong.”) As evidence of guilt accumulated, their denial that this unacceptable conduct took place narrowed to a tiny, highly specific claim: No witness testified that Trump personally ordered them to carry out a quid pro quo.

But now Bolton has done precisely that, which, Chait argues, is why the GOP has fallen back to its Masada-like, die-in-place Dershowitzean position of “So what?”

So in many ways, Bolton’s revelations have not changed the game much at all, a testament to just how debased and desiccated the Republican Party has become, and just how pathetic its fealty to Donald J. Trump.

JUST THE FACTS (NOT)

The majority of Senate Republicans have already announced that they intend to pretend John Bolton and The Room Where It Happened don’t exist. That strikes me as a childish case of wishful thinking and short term gratification, but whatever. It remains to be seen if Romney and three others will override them. (But Cory Gardner of Colorado, apparently, ain’t gonna be one of them. Good luck looking for a new job come the morning of November 4, Cory.)

Here’s Susan Glasser again, on how the GOP has turned goalpost-moving into an art form:

At any other moment in Washington in my lifetime, I would have predicted with absolute confidence that the Bolton revelation would force Republican senators to switch their position and support witnesses. And not just a few, but almost all of them. But this is now, and the unthinkable and inconceivable have become increasingly routine. Here it was, the proverbial smoking gun, right in the middle of the trial, crucial evidence that Trump, his advisers, his lawyers, and his enablers on Capitol Hill knew about and were trying to suppress. Just last week, Trump’s legal team told senators that “not a single witness with actual knowledge ever testified that the President suggested any connection between announcing investigations and security assistance”…..

But we have had so many smoking-gun moments in the last few years. This is the post–“Access Hollywood” tape GOP, which elected as President of the United States a man who bragged of grabbing women by their genitals on tape, just a few weeks after the recording came to light. In the Ukraine scandal, we have seen this process repeat itself. Facts emerge that show the President’s actions to be inappropriate, outrageous, and clearly, straightforwardly wrong. At first, even Republicans on the Hill seem to waver. But again and again and again they find a way to accommodate themselves to the unpleasant new information, to rationalize and to justify….

The post-Bolton-bombshell Republican Party will be largely the same as the pre-Bolton-bombshell Republican Party.

Even if we do get the four necessary Republican votes to compel witnesses, and even if Bolton and others testify and evidence is aired, the idea that the Republican majority might actually convict Trump is like betting on the Washington Generals to beat the Globetrotters.

But here’s the thing:

Counter-intuitively, suppressing the facts in order to acquit Trump is not the formulation here, but rather, quite the opposite. The acquittal is all but a foregone conclusion. The GOP’s real concern is hurrying to that conclusion in order to avoid the further airing of facts.

They know that with each passing day more and more (and more and more damning) evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing will come out. That is the real threat to the party—that the public will hear that evidence, and the unavoidable recognition of Trump’s criminality and unfitness will chip away at GOP support going into November 2020. The steady drip drip drip of revelations of the complicity of various other Republican politicians in the Ukraine scheme—Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Nunes, Mulvaney, Ron Johnson, and others—only turbocharges their desperation. How far and deep and it goes we don’t know….and they don’t want us to.

Therefore the Republican Party will do anything to avoid that turn of events. Even the danger of public backlash at an obvious coverup is less worrying to them than letting the truth be aired, and the backlash that would entail.

The author Michael Gruber has often noted that the Republican Party is behaving as if it will never have to face a fair election again. That may very well be its intention. The Republican embrace of the unitary executive theory only makes sense for them if they can keep Republican presidents in power.

So do these self-evident GOP fears of public backlash contradict Gruber’s theory of Republican confidence in one-party rule?

On the contrary. They bolster it.

In an autocracy, the ruling party’s grip on power is dependent on maintaining control of the narrative. The removal of legitimate popular elections does not mean that they can entirely ignore the will of people (though it sure makes it easier). Ask Ceaușescu, Marcos, the Shah. For the public to become sufficiently enraged and galvanized to action by the airing of irrefutable evidence of Trump’s corruption, as well as that of the GOP at large, represents a threat every bit as real as a flipped district in Wisconsin.

ACQUITTAL WITHOUT EXONERATION

The consensus in the punditocracy is that Trump badly wants his acquittal before Super Bowl Sunday, when his interview with Hannity and a million dollar ad are scheduled to run. (Former RNC chairman turned Never Trumper Michael Steele confidently opines that the ad is surely built around the whole idea of Donald trumpeting his victory.) Not to mention the State of the Union looming next Tuesday.

How’s that for a charmed life: he not only gets to skip merrily way from his high crimes, but even gets to demand the timing of that impunity’s arrival.

But the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne crystallized the ultimate irony that many observers have already noted: the willingness of McConnell and the Republicans to turn this trial into the most blatantly possible sham you can imagine is robbing Trump of the thing he wants the most, which is plausible exoneration that he can wave like a flag during the upcoming general election.

Of course he will do that anyway. (He would do that even if they found him guilty.) But the more obvious the farcical nature of the trial, the harder it will be.

Therefore, what we are about to have as an acquittal without exoneration.

Dionne:

By working with Trump to rig the trial by admitting as little evidence as possible, McConnell robbed the proceeding of any legitimacy as a fair adjudication of Trump’s behavior. Instead of being able to claim that Trump was “cleared” by a searching and serious process, Republican senators will now be on the defensive for their complicity in the Trump coverup.

John Cassidy makes a similar point:

(I)f McConnell somehow succeeds in preventing Bolton from testifying after all this, there can no longer be even any pretense that the trial is on the level, or that an acquittal along party lines is anything other than an abject display of political cowardice and self-abasement by the current generation of Republican senators.

And Chait as well:

McConnell’s desired process of muscling through a wildly unpopular vote to suppress all evidence, followed by a vote to acquit, would rob the outcome of much of the legitimacy Republicans crave. It would instead be widely and accurately seen as a cover-up.

Mitch McConnell is not known for giving a flying fuck how bad his blunt machinations look, so long as they work. (Right, Merrick Garland?) But he is nonetheless a savvier operator than Trump. Knowing that his majority is going to acquit the president regardless, why hasn’t he put on at least the veneer of a fair trial? Would that not have been smarter public relations, and therefore politics, as Dionne, Cassidy, and Chait all note?

I’ll tell you why not:

Because, per above, the Republicans fear the facts and evidence coming out—on live TV no less—much more than they fear being accused of holding a sham trial. Since an acquittal is a near-certainty, the real goal of the Republicans is to limit the amount of damaging information about Trump’s behavior (and theirs) that will come out—ideally, to zero. That is how guilty the GOP knows he is, and how terrified it is of the details being made public. They would rather risk a backlash over a farcical trial than risk people hearing the truth.

But Adam Schiff has made the salient point that eventually the facts will come out, sooner or later, one way or another, and they promise to be even worse than what we already know. (Damn near every shoe-drop thus far has been.) The Republicans, consumed with short term survival and fearing for their political lives—and maybe their actual lives, depending on whether you take Trump’s mobby “head-on-a-pike” and “take-her-out” and “paid-the price” threats literally or just seriously—are obviously gambling that the public will have lost interest and moved on by then.

Ironically, Democrats might benefit politically from a rushed trial where GOP perfidy is blatant more than they would from a seemingly legitimate trial with witnesses and evidence that still ends in acquittal. In fact, the anti-Trump conservative writer Jonathan V. Last has suggested that the Democrats embrace that idea and stop even trying to call witnesses…..ignoring the obvious fact that the GOP would use that against them, much as they instructed witnesses in the House inquiry to defy subpoenas, and now criticize House Democrats for not spending years in court fighting to enforce them.

So what looks worse: a sham trial that blatantly blocks witnesses in order to excuse the accused, or one that allows them to speak and give airtight evidence and still excuses him? Neither reflects well on the GOP.

If only we lived in a country where people cared.

To that end, I am not so naïve as to think any of this will make an iota of difference to MAGA Nation come November. But either way, witnesses or not, in trying to crow about his alleged “exoneration,” Trump will not have the benefit of an even a halfway-convincing trial to bolster his claim. Any thinking person cannot seriously look at this charade and conclude that it was just…..and that includes the crucial “centrist” Republicans who are on the fence, soccer moms in the Philadelphia suburbs, and Obama/Trump switch hitters who are undecided about how to vote this time, among others. Given Trump’s razor thin margin of victory in 2016 (even with foreign interference), and his abysmal approval ratings outside his cult-like  base, those are voters he cannot afford to lose.

It also suggests a roadmap for how to proceed in the post-impeachment world. As Aaron Blake writes in the Washington Post, “The nightmare scenario for the GOP is that they give Trump the quick and witness-free acquittal that he apparently desires, but then information like Bolton’s keeps coming out.” Which we all know it will.

Jonathan Chait one last time:

Such an outcome would, in turn, legitimize House Democratic efforts to continue the investigation. They can continue to press for Bolton’s testimony, and continue prying loose the documents Trump has withheld. To the extent a Senate trial was perceived as thorough and fair, it would have made additional investigations look like sore-loser-ism. Republicans will say it anyway, but the national media will be far more likely to take such probes seriously in the wake of an overt cover-up.

If impeachment is about exacting a price for Trump’s misconduct, perhaps the highest price will come by letting his enablers reveal exactly how far they are willing to go.

GOODNIGHT DON

As I write this, the written questions phase of the trial has just ended. Susan Collins has announced she will vote yes to allow witnesses and Lamar Alexander has announced he will vote no. albeit on the Trump-defying grounds of “wrong but not impeachable.” (Two cheers for Lamar.) Murkowski has said she’ll announce her decision in the morning and Romney has been silent so far. There is speculation about John Roberts having to cast a tiebreaking vote, or abstain, which would be a de facto vote for the GOP position. What tomorrow will bring, I don’t know—none of us do—but it’s possible it could be the day that this all ends and Trump is acquitted.

And somewhere, right now, Donald Trump is wide awake, fuming about it all.

*********

Next time, more on whatever insane bullshit rolls down the pike next.

Photo: Business Insider

 

Travesty in Progress: Part 1

Travesty

Oy. Where to begin?

How about at the beginning, which is to say, at the end….

Barring a deus ex machina, we all pretty much know how this is going to play out. Senate Republicans began this trial by voting 53 to 47 along strict party lines (with one exception, 52 to 48) to block every Democratic motion concerning its conduct, eleven motions in all, including those to subpoena White House officials, demand Defense Department documents, forbid the selective submission of evidence, and everything else resembling the accoutrements of a fair trial as we understand the term.

Notwithstanding the revelations that recently emerged from behind John Bolton’s mustache, this week those same public servants (cough cough) are likely to do the same and block the calling of witnesses, to be followed by a swift acquittal of this cretinous pretender to the presidency. That will be a shameful and disgraceful day for the Republican Party, which no longer resembles anything like a legitimate political organization, but rather a cult of personality comprised of zombies, cynics, quislings, neo-fascists, and low-level mobsters living in terror of their deranged capo.

But it will also be a terrible and disgraceful day for our entire country, marking another steep step down into the abyss of full-blown autocracy.

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but let’s not be naive. The conduct of the trial so far has been even more risible than most observers expected—which is saying something—and promises to be a dark harbinger of where it’s headed.

On the bright side, the 49ers are in the Super Bowl. Niners GM John Lynch deserves to be NFL Executive of the Year, don’t you think?

TRIAL AND TERROR

The Republicans are in a jawdroppingly frantic rush to shut their ears and eyes to the evidence and hurry through this trial to its inevitable verdict of Trump’s perfection as a president and Olympian model of a human being—nay, demigod.

We started with the farcical spectacle of Republican senators like McConnell and Graham swearing to be impartial after announcing that they had already made up their minds and consider the whole thing illegitimate. (Try that next time you have jury duty.) Moscow Mitch then sprung his rules for the trial on the world without any consultation with Chuck Schumer, a howling breach of the “Clinton rules” he dishonestly claimed to be following. No surprise, those rules are a mockery of justice, in keeping with McConnell’s other preemptive announcement that he—in effect, the foreman of a jury—was going to coordinate his every action and take all his directives from the accused.

Because that’s how trials usually work, right?

Soon after, McConnell further showed his hand with his request for Schumer to “stack his motions,” thus openly admitting that the Republican majority intended to vote down every single one without any serious consideration of any of them. Schumer, rightly sick of the majority leader’s games and wielding what little power he has, admirably refused, icily telling McConnell that “there will be a good number of votes.” By so doing, Chuck forced his Republican colleagues to announce one by one, over and over again, their shameless participation in this blatant obstruction of justice.

They didn’t seem too bothered about doing so.

The House managers went on to lay out a powerful, compelling, meticulously detailed case that was about as ironclad as it could be. The Trump defense team, by contrast, offered arguments filled with misdirection, ad hominem attacks, and outright lies. This is not a Rashomon matter of two equally valid interpretations of events, and saying otherwise is a perfect example of the dangerous false equivalence has bedeviled us throughout the Age of Trump. One side is arguing the facts, hard as those might be for right wing ears to hear. The other side is playing with its own feces.

The defense’s presentation was so weak that even a troglodyte like SCIF-storming Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida dismissed it as embarrassing even by the standards of an eighth grade book report. Doubt it? Witness Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow humiliating himself by publicly demonstrating that he doesn’t know what a FOIA lawsuit is.

Like many on the left, I marveled at the eloquent and powerful performance of lead House manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has already cemented in his place in American history as a kind of present day Mr. Smith meets Atticus Finch meets Joe Welch. I know conservatives are eyerollingly sick of the praise heaped on Schiff from dazzled liberals, sneering that we don’t realize it matters not a whit to half of America. But for those who believe—not without good reason—that the Democratic case, no matter how well presented, is pointless given the GOP’s obvious intransigence, it’s worth noting that not a few of these Republican senators, who normally dine only on Fox News, were being confronted and forced to hear some of these facts for the first time. Even Republicans like the Oxford-educated Foghorn Leghorn impersonator Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana had to give Schiff props. Over on Fox itself, retired judge Andrew Napolitano also spoke the truth in lauding the strength of the Democratic case. (Watch for Andy to be looking for a new gig very soon.)

Another personal favorite of mine was the superb Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) quoting Biggie Smalls as he eviscerated Jay Sekulow’s snide question of why they were there are at all:

We are here, sir, because President Trump abused his power and then he tried to cover it up. And we are here, sir, to follow the facts, follow the law, be guided by the Constitution, and present the truth to the American people. That is why we are here, Mr. Sekulow.

And if you don’t know…..now you know.

(No doubt Ari Melber was as hard as a rock.)

But you really have to hear Mr. Jeffries say it: the printed word does not do it justice. How fitting in a moment when very little justice is being done.

Jerry Nadler had his moments too. Here’s Jennifer Rubin:

Nadler explained that it makes no sense to argue you can neither prosecute a sitting president nor remove him when he poses a danger to the country. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact. It does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy,” he said, invoking the famous phrase uttered by the late Justice Robert H. Jackson. Nadler added dryly, “Until recently, it did not occur to me that our president would call a foreign leader and demand a sham investigation meant to kneecap his political opponents, all in exchange for releasing vital military aid that the president was already required by law to provide.”

The Democrats’ use of multimedia was similarly inspired, particularly the damning clips from the not-so-distant past of Lindsey Graham and fame whore/serial scumbag defender Alan Dershowitz, both vehemently arguing then the exact opposite of what they are arguing equally vehemently now.

Memo to boomers: on the Internet, everything lives forever.

HOW DARE THEE!

So far the Republicans’ unwillingness to do their constitutional duty has been shocking in its sheer brazenness. We have seen them nodding off, doing crossword puzzles, ducking out for extended “bathroom breaks,” and in the case of Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), not only reading a book from the right wing bestseller list during the trial, but even nipping over to give an interview to Fox News while she was supposed to be seated in the Senate listening to testimony. Why John Roberts didn’t complain about that I don’t know.

As Chris Hayes put it on MSNBC (and on Twitter), I’m sorry that these Republican senators are so inconvenienced by being asked to do their goddam job. (Profanity mine.)

Ted Cruz apparently thinks this whole thing is so hilarious that he made a joke about a drinking game. I’m glad he’s enjoying himself, but I would humbly suggest that the people of Texas ask themselves whether they want a man with so little regard for the gravity of these proceedings representing them in the United States Senate. As if that is Ted’s only flaw.

Meanwhile, those who were paying attention got their skivvies in a bunch over precisely the wrong things. The odious Susan Collins was so aghast at Jerry Nadler‘s verbiage that she had to pass a note to Chief Justice Roberts, middle school style. (“I like you…..do you like me?”) So what exactly did Nadler say that so offended Susan and prompted her to whip out her quill and write to the grand poobah of the United States Supreme Court? This:

NADLER: So far, I’m sad to say, I see a lot of senators voting for a coverup, voting to deny witnesses—an absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote. Either you want the truth, and you must permit the witnesses, or you want a shameful coverup. History will judge and so will the electorate.

He clearly hit a nerve. But the fact is, unless you want to quibble over whether by “treacherous” he literally meant “guilty of treason” or merely “fraught,” every single thing Nadler said was 100% correct. That is what so enraged the Republicans.

UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff writes:

(Collins) wasn’t stunned by Pat Cipollone’s lying about the House impeachment proceedings. She wasn’t stunned by Jay Sekulow mendaciously accusing Val Demings about “lawyer lawsuits.” She wasn’t stunned by #MoscowMitch putting on a show trial. But when Jerry Nadler pointed out accurately that the Senate could be an accomplice to cover-up, THEN she fell on her fainting couch.

She is really a complete fraud. But you knew that.

Collins is emblematic of the haughty attitude Senate Republicans, who have made a histrionic Sarah Bernhardt-like spectacle of how offended they are at the mere suggestion that maybe, just maybe they’ve been letting a con man-cum-wannabe dictator run roughshod over them. They damn near have the vapors! How we got to the point where the fragile feelings of our senators is more important than their duty to the Constitution, I don’t know. (Snowflakes.) Their offense-taking is ridiculous, of course, but nevertheless may provide enough of a handhold for them as they seek a rationalization, any rationalization at all, for further protecting this asshole.

MISTER ROBERTS

More to the point, for Roberts to act on Collins’s complaint and rebuke Nadler (and Jay Sekulow for his angry reply) speaks to the cruel hoax at the heart of this pitiful excuse for a trial. Much like our eggshell-skinned senators, what does it say that the lone moment that stirs the presiding judge to umbrage is when one of the prosecutors dares speak the plain truth?

The author Steven Beschloss notes that the demand for “civility” is often a weapon deployed by the powerful to control and suppress those who dare question their rule, the American civil rights movement being a prime example:

Civility deployed this way is not about improving the quality of our body politic and public discourse, but aimed at keeping critics quiet.

It is worth noting that Trump, throughout his career, has exploited the civil process of US courts and the general civility of those who refuse to assume the worst. The societal expectation of civility (and the disbelief toward the utter lack of it) has made it easier for him to get away with so much—tearing apart migrant families and losing track of the children’s whereabouts, for example, or covering for Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and the Saudis after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi….

But if you believe your house is on fire and your family faces death and destruction, is it appropriate to engage in pleasant and polite tones when speaking to the alleged arsonist and his accomplices? Is that not the time to speak and act with clarity to spur action and put out the fire?

Speaking of the Chief Justice, in a piece titled “John Roberts Comes Face to Face with the Mess He Made,” Dana Milbank notes the bitter irony that Roberts should be forced to sit almost powerlessly and watch this charade:

Roberts’s captivity is entirely fitting: He is forced to witness, with his own eyes, the mess he and his colleagues on the Supreme Court have made of the US political system. As representatives of all three branches of government attend this unhappy family reunion, the living consequences of the Roberts Court’s decisions, and their corrosive effect on democracy, are plain to see…..

Now, we are in a crisis of democratic legitimacy: A president who has plainly abused his office and broken the law, a legislature too paralyzed to do anything about it—and a chief justice coming face to face with the system he broke.

But Roberts is not as powerless as he has chosen to be, which makes him not merely a witness to this travesty but a willing accomplice to it. Roberts’ only substantive act so far has been that scolding of “both sides“ (each of which features some very fine people, I’m sure). Meanwhile, he didn’t say boo when the Republicans spewed outright lies, or when Marsha Blackburn ran over to do an interview on Fox, or any other time. Ruth Marcus has written that he is doing the right thing on that first point, and that senators are to be smart enough to decide for themselves what is true and untrue. Fair enough, though she has more faith in the collective intelligence and integrity of the US Senate than I do. However, many others have noted that Roberts has in effect put his thumb on the scale on behalf of his fellow Republicans with his inaction, and further, by loaning the majesty and imprimatur of the Supreme Court to this laughable show trial without complaint.

For a man who is reportedly so concerned with his legacy, this performance may not go down into posterity very well. Marcus ends her piece applauding Roberts’ discretion with a reference to the Chief Justice in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the unfortunately named Salmon Chase, who was openly in Johnson’s pocket, and how unseemly that was. No doubt. But the true analogy here is with McConnell’s GOP caucus, which in this case is the party brazenly league with the accused. Roberts’ failure to account for that in any appreciable way is undeniable, and represents his real culpability, and his real kinship with his 19th century predecessor.

Should this pattern continue, rather than being remembered as an honest broker, or an umpire who just called balls and strikes, as SCOTUS nominees like to portray themselves during their confirmation hearings (exception: Brett Kavanaugh), Roberts—contra Schiff—may well be remembered as a craven collaborator in this farce.

JOHN BOLTON’S APACHE DANCE

So all in all it was a helluva Week 1.

And then came Mr. Bolton.

Word of what is in John Bolton’s soon-to-be published kiss-and-tell memoir, uncovered and printed by the New York Times Sunday afternoon, has thrown a juicy plot twist into this otherwise predictable story. It was certainly a strategic leak, and its timing—smack in the middle of the White House’s presentation of its defense (such as it is) and ahead of a vote on hearing from witnesses—was impeccable.

For those Trumpkins who are furious about that, please note that Bolton’s book leaked only because the White House itself recklessly made multiple copies of the single advance manuscript it was given. (D’oh!) Even better, the book apparently is called The Room Where It Happened, raising the unlikely possibility that John might rival Ari and Hakeem as a hip hop aficionado.

In any event, the man is clearly not throwing away his shot.

The account of events in Bolton’s manuscript obliterates a chief pillar of the White House defense, implicates multiple administration officials as well as Trump himself in the illegal withholding of aid to Kyiv, and fills in several other holes in the Ukrainian whodunit. For Republican senators to now continue to claim that there is no need to hear from this man, or from any other witnesses, will be a Herculean task of denial and dishonesty, not that that aren’t up to it. Dozens of them will continue to cling to that absurd and shameful position, but going forward it will be much harder for the handful who have been on the fence—Romney, Murkowski, Portman, Collins, et al—to remain perched there. Romney has already stated outright that he supports a subpoena for the former National Security Advisor-turned-coldblooded political assassin, for which he inevitably has earned the ire of some of his more vile GOP colleagues.

As a New York Times editorial noted, Bolton’s detailed description of the Ukrainegate mess—a “drug deal,” in his words—and Trump’s centrality to it not only rattles the Republican defense, but throws a glaring 10,000 kW Klieg light on the hypocrisy of his Senate defenders……like—surprise!—a certain someone from the Palmetto State:

The most galling part is that Republicans have already admitted how bad the president’s behavior was. Back in September, Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest defenders, said: “What would’ve been wrong is if the president had suggested to the Ukrainian government that if you don’t do what I want you to do regarding the Bidens, we’re not going to give you the aid. That was the accusation; that did not remotely happen.” 

Except that it did, as Mr. Bolton is apparently willing to say under oath.

Bolton is an unlikely hero in this increasingly Shakespearean saga. Let’s leave aside for now his long history as a chickenhawk, a rabid jingoist, and an advocate for aggressive US military intervention almost everywhere on Earth. His bellicosity was a perfect fit in this idiotic administration, but also at odds with its America Firstism (an already pre-existing contradiction in Trumpworld of which Bolton was merely the most extreme manifestation). He and Trump were destined to clash, and they did, and John left—“I quit, no you’re fired” style—swearing vengeance.

Of course, that very hawkishness is precisely what makes Bolton such an especially credible witness for conservative viewers, and such an existential threat to Trump. John Kelly’s endorsement of Bolton this afternoon suggests that a revenge of the Deep State might be building. Ironically, despite the Fox News conspiracy mongering, there was no such cabal until Trump alienated the entire bureaucratic class. Now his habitual mistreatment of his top staff is karmically coming back to bite him in his big fat white ass.

Could there be a more fitting role for a man whose whole brand is the love of dropping bombs?

The coy, will-he-or-won’t-he of Bolton’s testimony has been a bit of a farce within this larger farce. If he wanted to take revenge on Trump—or, less plausibly, act on principle and just do the right thing—he could have done so at any time. He was under no legal obligation to keep silent. He could have volunteered to testify before the House during its impeachment proceedings. He could have held a press conference. For his lawyers to announce, as they did on January 6th, that he would obey a Senate subpoena, if issued, was welcome, but also a bit frustrating and disingenuous.

Obviously, one reason he has kept quiet until now is that he wants to drive up interest in (and sales of) his forthcoming book. In noting that profit motive, it must be said, Team Trump is correct. But Old Testament-style vengeance, even more than love of filthy lucre, seems to be the motivating force here. In any event, Bolton’s self-aggrandizement does not change the substance of what he has to say in the slightest, nor its import. He would hardly be the first lowlife gangster to turn on his former family and aid the prosecution and the public it serves, whatever his motives.

In purely practical terms, a live TV appearance before the Senate would likely be the best advertising for his book for which John Bolton and his publishers could ever hope. Graeme Wood of the Atlantic writes that Bolton is an ice cold motherfucker who has patiently bided his time, waiting for the moment when he can do maximum damage to Trump, while still maintaining his right wing cred, with an eye on his position in the post-Trumpian Republican world, should one ever come to be.

OK with me. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if Bolton’s bruised ego causes him to become an improbable John Dean and bring Trump down, God bless him. We can return to enmity another day.

One last note:

Reportedly, several GOP senators are furious with the White House, having now learned that it has known the contents of Bolton’s book since late December, and put them in this extremely awkward position. And it gets worse. At the time of the January 3rd drone strike on Qasem Suleimani, I was among many to half-joke that Trump was trying to buy Bolton’s silence with this high-risk step toward Johnny’s longtime dream of a shooting war with Iran. (“Might Trump even have privately offered to start that war in exchange for Bolton’s cooperation? Does Brett Kavanaugh like beer?”) Now we find that that is not such a joke after all. Laurence Tribe notes that the White House was given its advance copy of Bolton’s book on December 30, and killed Suleimani three days later.

Just in case you thought there was anything that was beneath this insane clown president and his grotesque collective of business-suited henchmen.

NOT NOW JOHN

Bolton’s bombshell may or may not force the Senate to hear from witnesses. Even in the wake of these revelations, I would not be at all surprised to see the GOP stick to its “move along, folks, nothing to see here” stance. In fact, they might need to dig in even further, given the growing threat. Going on four years now, I have not yet overestimated their venality.

For the time being the GOP remains sickeningly servile to the monstrous leader with whom it has made its Faustian bargain. Trump’s alleged comment that any Republican who votes against him will have his or her “head on a pike” (you know, the way the accused talks to a jury?) sure rings true, despite the inevitable White House denials. I’m sure Donald is privately proud of it and how well it’s worked. This is the language of a mob boss, as many have noted. To watch the Republican senators tremble in such fear of this has-been game show host is appalling to behold. Does not one of them have a single working vertebra?

We are about to find out.

**********

In part two of this essay, we’ll look at what effect the Bolton Bombshell is likely to have, the GOP’s flimsy defense of Trump, and gaze into the crystal ball to imagine what the post-Trump world might look like, should it ever arrive…..

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Images

Smog Machine

Smog Machine

And so the long overdue trial of President Donald John Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors has at last begun. We pretty much know where it’s going to go, but if there’s one thing the past four years ought to have taught us, it’s that even the most outrageous surprises and shocks ought not to surprise or shock us. So buckle the fuck up.

Already it’s been head-spinning.

For starters, the past week saw the Senate open its impeachment proceedings with momentarily reassuring solemnity and ceremony……until one realized that this is precisely the kind of charade that the GOP wants, a veneer of gravitas and seriousness that masks the utter depravity of the highway robbery actually about to go on.

The tip off was the surreal spectacle of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham raising their right hands and swearing an oath that they would be impartial jurors, after bragging to the press (and the President, and their voters back home) that they were going to be anything but. Predictions that someone, anyone on the Democratic side would say boo in objection proved laughable.

As if to make the point, even as that farce was unfolding, last week also saw stunning new evidence of Trump’s complicity in Rudy Giuliani’s “drug deal” (John Bolton’s words, not mine), and a jawdropping TV interview in which Lev Parnas calmly implicated just about every swinging richard in the administration in the crudest kind of political gangsterism imaginable.

(The president’s defenders immediately attacked Parnas as a disreputable thug and indicted felon out only  to save his own skin—much like they once attacked Michael Cohen on the same grounds. And as with Michael Cohen, I feel compelled to point out that Trump hired this guy.)

Last week also gave us an except from Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker’s new book A Very Stable Genius which details a 2017 incident in a classified Pentagon briefing room in which a draft-dodging ex-game show host and serial grifter–cum-Russian stooge berated decorated four-star generals who’d devoted their lives to serving this country, calling them “dopes and babies.” It saw the mainstream media behaving like TMZ in breathlessly manufacturing a fight between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren….Susan Collins continue to disgrace herself…..Trump poaching Jeffrey Epstein’s legal team (perfect!)…..and the emergence of the newest member of the rogues’ gallery of Trump associates, the grotesque Robert F. Hyde, congressional candidate and amateur US ambassador-stalker. (Can I just ask: what the hell is up with that guy?)

And then there was Republican Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, who made news with a sneering, contrived putdown of CNN reporter Manu Raju calculated to thrill the right wing electorate.

Dig it: When McSally ran for the Senate in November 2018, she lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. (I repeat. She lost to a Democrat. In Arizona.) She is only in the Senate now because Arizona’s Republican governor appointed her to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Senator Jon Kyl, who himself had stepped in only temporarily after John McCain died. Now McSally is locked in a desperate fight to stay in office, with threats both from her right flank in the upcoming GOP primary, and from the left in the subsequent general election, in the person of her popular Democratic opponent, former astronaut Mark Kelly (also Gabby Giffords’ husband, by the by).

In that context, it is generally assumed that McSally’s performance was a deliberate ploy aimed at shoring up the mouthbreather vote, rather than a genuine expression of her contempt for the widely respected Mr. Raju as a “liberal hack.” Which raises the question: if you’re only pretending to be a troglodyte in order to win over the troglodytes, at what point does that behavior actually make you a troglodyte?

The ever-incisive Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post:

In a perverse way, it’s fitting that this episode is going viral at exactly the moment when President Trump’s impeachment trial is getting underway—that is, when Trump’s defenders in the Senate are set to put on a great show of pretending to give serious consideration to the case against Trump, before voting to acquit him. McSally’s vile little performance puts the lie to that notion as effectively as anything possibly could.

PRO WRESTLING IN THE CAPITOL

So now the main event is about to begin, even if the fix is clearly in.

For its opening stages, the first questions are whether the GOP will vote to dismiss right off the bat, and whether any witnesses are going to be called before Moscow Mitch pronounces Trump sinless as Jesus Christ and twice as good on camera.

Dismissal seems unlikely, if only for tactical reasons. For once, Team Trump may be smart enough to avoid asking for an embarrassing losing vote, while McConnell knows there’s no need to be even more brazen than usual when he can just as easily arrange an acquittal in a couple weeks’ time. (Then again, no one has yet overestimated either one’s arrogance, so let’s wait and see.)

When it comes to the latter question, Charlie Sykes noted in the Bulwark that Trump’s repeated, histrionic calls for the Senate to hear witnesses will of course soon be revealed as “bullshit, as the president will make every effort to block any witnesses from testifying at the trial.”

And no wonder. We are getting a fuller picture of the cloud of sleaze, corruption, and sheer stupidity that surrounds his presidency and his dealings with Ukraine. As David French notes, the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his “team” (including Lev Parnas) were a virtual traveling Mos Eisley cantina of crooks, grifters, and amateurs…..

But on that point of just how kangarooish this trial is going to be, the most pertinent thing I read all week was satire from the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, in a piece called “Sure, Whatever, Let’s Have Witnesses. Maybe That’ll Finally Convince Me Trump Is Guilty”:

I thought I was at a point where no fact, however compelling, could possibly break through my blissful fog of ignorant support for President Trump, but—I’d love to be proved wrong!….

So, why not have witnesses! Sure, let’s hear from John Bolton! Let’s hear from Lev Parnas! Maybe reading a note on some Ritz-Carlton stationery describing the president’s involvement in withholding aid in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into his political rival will turn out to be the thing that changes my mind.

Ouch. She’s dead right, of course. Nothing is going to open the hermetically sealed minds of MAGA Nation, not even a time-stamped video of Donald dressed like a French maid and giving Vlad Putin a Robert Kraft-style happy ending.

Don’t get me wrong. There are numerous very good reasons why the Senate ought to hear from fact witnesses: in order to discharge its constitutional duty, to let the truth be known, and to demonstrate to the country and the world the manifest criminality that Senate Republicans are about to shamelessly excuse. Indeed, there are no good reasons it should not hear witnesses.

But Petri’s point—that nothing is going to change the minds of Trump’s faithful, least of all facts, no matter how irrefutable—speaks to the broader truth at the core of this entire national nightmare, one that I’ve written about over and over: millions of Americans simply do not care about Trump’s crimes, or his shocking unfitness for the presidency, or the danger he poses to the republic and the world.

And that is only a subset of a larger and even more alarming fact: that belief in objective reality itself—truth, as it quaintly used to be called—is vanishing. But it is not vanishing of its own accord. It is vanishing because it is under relentless attack by forces that benefit from its obliteration.

Guess who.

THE TRIUMPH OF TRUTHINESS

The destruction of objective reality as a commonly accepted metric has been widely remarked upon as probably the most dangerous aspect of Trump’s reign, one that promises to have lasting and deleterious consequences long after this oranged-hued pustule of an alleged human being has been lanced.

To understand why, and how it came to be, let’s look to Russia, global leader in ballet, ice hockey, and radioactive teacups.

Unlike old-fashioned dictators, Vladimir Putin has pioneered the art of despotism that gives the illusion of freedom, making it all the more insidious. Freedom of speech exists in Putin’s Russia, but is toothless. The mass of the Russian people willingly, even eagerly, submit to his authoritarian reign (a la À Nous la Liberté), having been beaten into a state of collective cynicism. For Putin, the preferred mindset of his loyal subjects is that all politicians are corrupt and dishonest, the truth is unknowable, and liberal democracy is just as much a sham as post-Soviet autocracy.

To achieve this state of intellectual paralysis and submission, Vlad has mounted a war on the very idea of truth itself. As Dave Roberts wrote in Vox last November:

As Putin and other modern autocrats have realized, in the modern media environment—a chaotic Wild West where traditional gatekeepers are in decline—it is not necessary for a repressive regime to construct its own coherent account of events. There are no broadly respected, nonpartisan referees left to hold it to account for consistency or accuracy. All it needs, to get away with whatever it wants, is for the information environment to be so polluted that no one can figure out what’s true and what isn’t, or what’s really going on.

Or as Garry Kasparov famously said (and he oughta know): “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

I have written previously about this, in Rudy Giuliani: Post-Modern Philosopher (August 20, 2018), The Death of Hypocrisy (October 22, 2018), The Right Wing Loop of Malicious Ignorance (March 1, 2019), and The End of Outrage (June 20, 2019). But the most exhaustive exploration of the topic to my knowledge is British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s stunning documentary HyperNormalisation, available for free on his preferred platform, YouTube. Curtis’s movie explores the origins of this effort in (not kidding) Russian avant garde theater, and its weaponization by Putin to neutralize meaningful dissent and political opposition. And it’s a model he is successfully exporting to his client state the USA even as we speak.

More recently there was a brilliant deconstruction of this phenomenon by Sean Illing, also in Vox. Let me quote from it at length:

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism. The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable….

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable….

Illing goes on to quote the smug and insufferable (but not wrong) Steve Bannon, who in 2018 notoriously said that, “The Democrats don’t matter; the real opposition is the media.” In other words, the Republicans’ true enemy are facts themselves, and those who would point them out. Bannon’s solution, which he proudly touts, has been “to flood the zone with shit”…..that is, to apply those Russian-pioneered and tested principles detailed in HyperNormalisation. Illing again:

We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion….

(Zone-flooding) produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search. Putin uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.

Illing goes on to quote Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic and the author of a book on the subject, who contends that Putin’s aim “wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that ‘the truth is unknowable’ and that the only sensible choice is ‘to follow a strong leader.’”

That terrifying epistemological void represents the exact dynamics described in Erich Fromm’s seminal 1941 book Escape from Freedom…..which is to say, the human impulse to trade freedom for security, accounting for the otherwise mysterious appeal of a tyrant.

Though Illing refers above to an informational “fog” (even Petri uses that term in her satire), it’s actually something much more sinister than that naturally occurring phenomenon, with its benign Sandburgian associations. It’s more like smog: a toxic miasma, one deliberately produced by folks with ill intent, meant to obscure and choke.

The evidence suggests it is working depressingly well.

INK-STAINED WRETCHES AND UNWITTING ACCOMPLICES

Like a frivolous lawsuit, this Putin/Bannon-style disinformation does not have to have any credibility to achieve its goal: just sowing doubt is enough. Inserting into the media bloodstream an unfounded rumor—sometimes called a “lie”—or scurrilous innuendo, or outright slander, poisons the informational system by definition. It doesn’t matter if it’s untrue, or easily disproven: its mere existence creates at least some believers, and enough confusion to achieve its intended, malicious effect. The goal is simply to create a false equivalence in which an absurd contention—the earth is flat, climate change is a hoax, Trump understands the nuclear triad—is given just as much credence and weight as a demonstrably true one.

The media’s inherent impulse toward “objectivity” only exacerbates the problem. In another Vox piece called “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology,” published early in the Trump administration, the aforementioned David Roberts argued that “journalism cannot be neutral toward a threat to the conditions that make it possible.” Yet even after being played for suckers in 2016, the mainstream US media continues to treat Trump like an ordinary politician, not the dangerous, lie-spewing psychopath he is. A prime example was the response to Trump’s  batshit six-page letter of last December 17, which was reported with headlines like “Trump Savages Impeachment Proceedings in Letter to Pelosi” (from Politico), and “Trump Slams Impeachment as an ‘Illegal, Partisan Attempted Coup’” (CNBC), and not the more accurate and appropriate “Trump Goes on Unhinged Rant; SWAT Team of Psychiatrists Called In.”

But even when pushing back, as they occasionally do, presents journalists with a dilemma which speaks to the difficulty of reporting on a player operating in bad faith. Illing cites UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff on the “framing effect,” which holds that the more a lie is repeated—even in the process of debunking it—the more we begin to believe it, as the sheer repetition inevitably cements it in the mind and gives it the halo of truth.

That puts Trump’s critics in a real bind. As Illing writes:

Debunking it is still useful, of course, but there’s a cost to dignifying it in the first place…. There are too many claims to debunk and too many conflicting narratives. And the decision to cover something is a decision to amplify it and, in some cases, normalize it.

Another toxic effect of “flooding the zone” is that it dishonestly tars legitimate news organizations as being no better than their underhanded and untruthful rivals:

The left overwhelmingly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. Some of the reporting is surely biased, and probably biased in favor of liberals, but it’s still (mostly) anchored to basic journalistic ethics.

As a recent book by three Harvard researchers explains, this just isn’t true of the right. American conservative media functions like a closed system, with Fox News at the center. Right-wing outlets are less tethered to conventional journalistic ethics and exist mostly to propagate the bullshit they produce.

Ironically, Trump’s supporters viciously distrust the media—but only the legitimate media, while eagerly ingesting “news” from a wanton disinformation machine like Fox. But that is the very point: that these fellow Americans of ours are in a Bizarro World where up is down, right is wrong, and day is night, projecting on the other side (and especially the “other side’s” media, as they view it) their own side’s most grievous sins.

In addition to the debasement of traditional journalism, the rise of social media and technological developments in just the last ten years have turbocharged this already dangerous situation, as Illing alluded to above:

One major reason for the (Bannon) strategy’s success, both in the US and Russia, is that it coincided with a moment when the technological and political conditions were in place for it to thrive. Media fragmentation, the explosion of the internet, political polarization, curated timelines, and echo chambers—all of this allows a “flood the zone with shit” strategy to work.

Today, gatekeepers still matter in terms of setting a baseline for political knowledge, but there’s much more competition for clicks and audiences, and that alters the incentives for what’s declared newsworthy in the first place. At the same time, traditional media outlets remain committed to a set of norms that are ill adapted to the modern environment.

To that end, the scariest horror movie of the past year might have been the feature documentary The Great Hack by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, detailing how Cambridge Analytica ratfucked the 2016 election, and how the exponential growth of data mining is feeding a vast global campaign of meticulously specific and targeted disinformation, with a sophistication never before possible in human history.

WHAT, ME WORRY?

In some ways, though, this story is not all that alarming. After all, we’re not talking about covert manipulation of voting machines. (We should be, but we’re not.) In the end, no matter how intense or sophisticated this disinformation may be, what it comes down to is nothing more than trying to change people’s minds. No one is forcing anyone to vote for Trump, or surreptitiously changing their vote (as far as we know). All they’re doing is barraging us 24/7 with propaganda and lies that browbeat, deceive, and otherwise manipulate us into supporting political positions that are in opposition to the facts, our own true interests, and anything approaching defensible morality.

Yeah. That’s all.

It’s true that millions of thoughtful Americans have proven resistant to the firehose of bullshit that is aimed at them every day. Critical thinking remains the hazmat suit that protects against such venomous informational warfare.

Even so, it goes without saying that it is not healthy for a representative democracy to be under this kind of malicious, non-stop, psychological assault. Even if you personally are clear-thinking enough to see through the propaganda, not everyone is. We all know (and many of us are related to) otherwise intelligent, educated people—some of them very intelligent and very well-educated—who for one reason or another have been taken in by the con artistry of the current moment. And we flatter ourselves even to think that we ourselves are immune to it. Brainwashing works, and Stockholm syndrome is real; sufficient repetition of a lie will eventually crack even the most rational mind and the strongest will. The smog machine is a severe threat to democracy that we ignore at our peril.

Now the good news: I am told by professionals in the field that we can use this law of informational physics for our own purposes as well, to counter dark propaganda and obliterate the lies. It ain’t easy. But if we continue to hammer our own message—which has the advantage of being true—small cracks will begin to appear in the red wall of ignorance and slavish blind faith that feeds the Trumpian cult of personality. And once those cracks appear, they can be widened. People do leave cults, after all.

Of course, others drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and die.

CUI BONO

Illing explains how this dynamic has played out in the impeachment saga:

The Trump administration has been remarkably successful at muddying the waters on Ukraine and impeachment, and Republicans in Congress have helped by parroting the administration’s talking points.

The fact is, Trump did what Democrats have accused him of doing. We know, with absolute certainty, that the president tried to get a foreign government to investigate a family member of one of his political rivals. And we know this because of the witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence Committee and because Trump’s own White House released a record of the call proving it.

Yet all the polling data we have suggests that public opinion on Trump and Ukraine has basically held steady. Again, some of this is pure partisan recalcitrance. But there’s good reason to believe that the right’s muddying of the waters—making the story about Ukraine and Hunter Biden, pushing out conspiracy theories, repeatedly trumpeting Trump’s own version of events, etc.—has played a role.

The issue is that the coverage of the trials, in both the mainstream press and right-wing outlets, ensures that these counternarratives are part of the public conversation. It adds to the general atmosphere of doubt and confusion. And that’s why zone flooding presents a near-insoluble problem for the press.

Roberts again: “This is what Republicans need more than anything on impeachment: for the general public to see it as just another round of partisan squabbling, another illustration of how ‘Washington’ is broken.”

But in truth, any reasonable, clear-eyed evaluation of the simple facts of Ukrainegate blows that “both sides have a point”-ism right out of the water. And that’s just what we know. Lev Parnas’s TV appearances last week made it very clear that there is still a helluva lot we don’t know, and none of it is likely very good news for Trump.

But will any of it matter?

In his Vox piece from last November, David Roberts wondered “what would happen if Robert Mueller offered clear, incontrovertible evidence of Trump’s guilt. Would Republicans be able to prevent supporters from ever finding out? What if the truth was revealed but it had no power, no effect at all, because half the country had been walled off from it? What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that can overcome our polarization?”

Now, with Ukrainegate, that scenario looks like it is about to come to pass.

This is the point I have been hammering on about for months: that we would not be in this fix if millions of Americans were not totally onboard with this monstrosity of a US presidency. Even though they are in the minority, their political clout is sufficient to empower the venal Republican leadership to keep a chokehold on the republic.

Another way to look at it is that the rest of America—the majority, that is—has been insufficiently militant in getting to our feet and making our voices heard that we will not stand for this shit.

As impeachment remains unlikely to evict Trump, and exercise of the 25th Amendment is hopeless, the ballot box remains our last best hope to save the United States as we once knew it. Last week the WaPo ran article titled, “Poll Finds Black Americans Determined to Limit Trump to One Term.” Oh let it be so, for we all know that the African-American vote is critical to getting this sonofabitch out of office. So let’s translate that anger into levers pulled and boxes checked and chads punched at the polls in November.

But oh the irony that we are counting on black Americans to save the republic. After all it’s done for them.

STARR CHAMBER

All of which brings us back to Trump’s trial itself. As the author Erick Kelemen writes, Ken Starr couldn’t get a conviction in the last impeachment; maybe he’ll do better this time.

Jonathan Chait has already pre-emptively destroyed the GOP’s absurd defense, per Starr’s colleague Alan Dershowitz, which seems to hinge on the monarchist notion that a US president cannot be removed for abuse of power, an absolutely ass-backwards inversion of the entire impeachment clause.

Trump believes profoundly that a president can use the government exactly as he sees fit. In his mind, “abuse of power” is an oxymoron. To charge him with “abusing” the presidency makes no more sense than charging him with abusing the Trump Organization for personal gain. And now the authoritarian conviction that Trump believes as a matter of instinct has been sanctified as a formal legal theory, endorsed by presidential lawyers.

As my friend Susan Koppenhaver writes, let’s try swapping “Obama” for “Trump” in this above-the-law defense and see how long Republicans stick with that theory.

Dershowitz is arguing that the Founders didn’t really mean “high crimes and misdemeanors” when they wrote “high crimes and misdemeanors”….they meant ordinary crimes, like robbing a bank, or shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. (Ahem.)

Two problems with that.

First, as Chait points out, the GAO just publicly announced its conclusion that Trump did commit a literal crime in withholding aid to Ukraine. And second, it didn’t take long for the press to dig up video of Dersh telling CNN exactly the opposite in 1998:

It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime, if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president, and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.

But even as risible and utterly without merit as this defense is, it may well be enough of a fig leaf—more than enough, in fact—for Republicans to hold in front of their tiny tiny testicles as they vote to acquit (and thereby further embolden) Donald Trump. Even less credible is the Republican argument that we ought to leave it to the next election to decide what we should do about a president who is trying to steal that election.

Charlie Sykes again:

It would almost be funny, if the stakes were not so high. We are, after all, watching a bad reality television show with nuclear weapons and a president whose contempt for the rule of law will be unleashed by the near-inevitable vote to acquit.

The conduct involved is serious enough, but this is what makes this trial unique: it involves an ongoing high crime and misdemeanor. The key difference between this investigation and the Mueller probe is that his misconduct in Ukraine is prospective—it involves attempts to meddle with the upcoming election, not the last one. His presidency remains an active crime scene….

(Republicans’) eventual vote to acquit Trump will be even more dangerous because “exoneration” will further embolden a president who already runs his government like a gangster. How might he react? What might he do? Never forget: This Ukraine adventure began literally the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress and Trump thought that he had been let off the hook for obstructing justice.

So tomorrow, when the impeachment trial begins in earnest, the effect of this epistemological shitshow will be on full display. Every indication is that the Republicans will make an absolute sham of it. But their ability to do so, and get away with it, will be predicated on the willingness of millions of Americans to ignore indisputable evidence in favor of immersion in counter-factual fantasy and post-modern rejection of the very concept of objective reality.

********

Illustration: National Geographic

Acts of War in the Age of Endless War

Trump-Globe-12-22-16 copy

Let’s start by dispensing with the patently obvious.

Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian major general and Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani was driven by a number of factors, but none of them involved prudent forethought and counsel with foreign policy advisors, Middle East experts, and military officers.

We can debate the merits and demerits of such a radically destabilizing move all day. (Spoiler alert: the demerits have the upper hand.) But what we can’t do is pretend that the decision was made in any kind of rational, well-considered way that bespeaks a thoughtful commander-in-chief with an awareness of the implications—or even any curiosity about them—or acting with the best interests of the United States at heart.

It was more like the act of a severely maladjusted seventh grader who got first into his parents’ liquor cabinet, and then their gun rack.

Unquestionably Suleimani was a bad hombre, as the saying goes, with buckets of American blood on his hands from the Iraq war. Good riddance to him. But the wisdom of taking him out right now is highly debatable. It was an order that reportedly shocked even Trump’s top military advisors, who by some accounts only mentioned the possibility as a hypothetical, never thinking he’d go for it. (Have them met him?) Michelle Goldberg writes in the New York Times:

According to Peter Bergen’s book Trump and His Generals, James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, instructed his subordinates not to provide the president with options for a military showdown with Iran. But with Mattis gone, military officials, The Times reported, presented Trump with the possibility of killing Suleimani as the “most extreme” option on a menu of choices, and were “flabbergasted” when he picked it.

So much for Trump as Sun Tzu.

Here in the reality-based world, there can be no plausibly denying that Trump’s chief motivations were as follows, in no particular order:

1) A wag-the-dog attempt to defend against impeachment, which—Mitch McConnell’s machinations notwithstanding—is closing on Trump like a vise.

Ironically, Donald remains likely to escape conviction, which is a howling travesty of justice and indictment of the illness of our political system. But instead of celebrating his continuing lifelong streak of insanely undeserved good luck, just the idea of impeachment is clearly driving the already batty Mr. Trump even battier, resulting in all kinds of erratic and self-destructive behavior, from record-breaking tweetstorms to ordering assassinations that might destabilize the entire global order.

Of course, distracting us from impeachment is merely a sub-task of Trump’s broader effort to get re-elected, which not coincidentally also motivated his unconstitutional skullduggery in Ukraine, which is why he is being impeached in the first place. So in one sense we can look at Suleimani’s killing as little more than an aspect of his re-election campaign, like kissing babies or offering coal subsidies.

2) His instinctive belligerence and knee-jerk tendency to opt for the most extreme, hamhanded, and clumsily faux macho option in any given scenario, regardless of whether he is being impeached or not.

3) Related to #2 above, wanton indulgence of Trump’s massive ego—perhaps the defining principle of his entire presidency.

The Washington Post reports:

Trump was also motivated to act by what he felt was negative coverage after his 2019 decision to call off the airstrike after Iran downed the US surveillance drone, officials said. Trump was also frustrated that the details of his internal deliberations had leaked out and felt he looked weak, the officials said.

This is how we make decisions now.

Needless to say, a huge part of this megalomaniacal insecurity is Trump’s raging, unquenchable jealousy toward Barack Obama, manifested in a desire to undo all of his predecessor’s accomplishments, from the ACA to the JCPOA, and to impulsively take any action that Obama—often wisely—declined to, especially when it comes to the use of force.

Earlier I compared Trump to a twelve-year-old. But this is the mentality of a toddler. And one who never gets hugged.

This dynamic began early in Donald’s presidency when he authorized a risky covert operation in Yemen after some gung ho Pentagon advisors informed him that “Obama wouldn’t do it,” a mission that subsequently went awry and wound up killing a Navy SEAL and several children.

Surely there are other equally petty and appalling reasons Trump decided to launch the strike on on Suleimani, but I suspect they fall roughly under these three headings.

In short, the claim that the strike was twelve dimensional chess, or bold leadership, or anything but classic Trumpian impulsivity and egotism, is hogwash. So please don’t pester me with the fairy tale that Donald Trump is some military genius.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE CREDIBILITY GAP

The odious Mike Pompeo claimed with a straight face that the White House ordered the strike to preempt an “imminent attack” on US lives. But this is Lucy-holding-the-football territory, recalling previous lies that led us into other disastrous foreign wars, from the sinking of the Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin to Iraq’s mythical WMD.

Numerous experts have attested that Suleimani was always in the process of planning such attacks, giving the lie to the notion that there was some urgency to killing him now when we could have done so at numerous points in the past. (Like Obama, George W. Bush also declined to pull the trigger on Suleimani, despite being given the chance—also like Obama, on the wise counsel of his foreign policy advisors.) And we know that Pompeo and his lieutenants had actually been lobbying Trump to order this killing for months, not because of any new emergency.

Conveniently, the alleged evidence of this “imminent attack” was initially classified. When the administration finally got around to briefing Congress—four days after the strike—the response was less than effusive. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah—I say again, a Republican senator—called it “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate,” as well as “insulting” and “demeaning.” (In response, Trump’s pet water carrier Lindsey Graham wasted no time violating Reagan’s 11th Commandment and attacking his fellow Republican for “empowering” Tehran. )

Writing in the Atlantic, George Packer neatly dismantled Pompeo’s specious claim, as well as the administration’s flimsy argument for killing Suleimani on broader strategic grounds:

Suleimani was a supremely powerful leader of a state apparatus, with his own cult of personality, but he was not a terror kingpin. His death doesn’t decapitate anything. He had the blood of tens of thousands of people—overwhelmingly fellow Muslims—on his hands, but he was only the agent of a government policy that preceded him and will continue without him. His deeds are beside the point; so is the display of American resolve. The only reason to kill Suleimani is to enter a new war that the United States can win.

What would that war look like? How will Iran fight it? How will the U.S. respond? What credible allies will we have, after Trump’s trashing of the nuclear deal thoroughly alienated Europe? Who will believe any intelligence about Iran’s actions and intentions from an administration that can’t function without telling lies? How will American officials deliberate when Trump has gotten rid of his experts and turned his government into a tool of personal power? What is the point of having a Congress if it has no say about a new American war? What is our war aim, and how can it be aligned with Trump’s obvious desire to be rid of any entanglement in the region? What will happen if Jerusalem becomes a target and Israel enters the conflict? What will the American people accept by way of sacrifice, when nothing has prepared them for this?

There’s no sign that anyone in power, least of all the president, has even asked these questions, let alone knows how to answer them.

Thus we are brought to a moment of bittersweet irony.

Like many administrations before it, this White House is asking us to take its word when it comes to the most violent and consequential actions a government can undertake. But the Trump administration has less than zero credibility when it comes to saying, “Trust us, it was the right thing to do. We can’t tell you exactly why, but it was.” So in this moment when Trump really needs the faith and confidence of American people, there is some grim satisfaction in seeing his record of world-beating mendacity now come back to haunt him.

FORE!

Bullshit excuses aside, no one can say with confidence what all the long term effects of this reckless action will be, but it is all but impossible that any good that comes out of it will outweigh the inevitable bad. That bad has already begun with the humiliating—and debilitating—expulsion of US forces from Iraq, and Iran’s full-bore resumption of its nuclear weapons program. Even if the crisis does not escalate into a full-scale shooting war (as was the initial and widespread fear, now marginally soothed by tentative signs of saber-holstering by both sides), going forward it promises to bring on a raft of unpredictable and potentially nightmarish problems. Chief among these are the further alienation of the US in the international community (yes, isolationists, that matters) and the attendant handicaps that alienation creates in the conduct of US foreign policy; a more dangerous operational climate for US military forces in the region and arguably worldwide; and of course, violent reprisals of one kind or another that might yet engulf us in a deeper military quagmire. Most grim of all now is the near-certainty that Iran will now get the Bomb within the next decade.

Gee, who’d have thought that giving this kind of power to a maliciously ignorant D-list game show host would have those kind of repercussions?

So while his slavish followers high five and fist bump over what a tough guy they believe he is, Trump has in reality dealt the US a grievous setback on the international stage, dramatically escalated the lethal risks to American life and limb, and risked dragging us into the exact kind of Middle Eastern quagmire he breathlessly campaigned against. He even managed to create a second shameful spectacle of US weakness in the space of four months as our troops are forced to scurry out of Iraq tails between legs, much as we did from Syria, where the laughing Russians cruised in and took over our bases without so much as firing a shot.

If that’s your definition of military success, Donald Trump is indeed a martial mastermind after all, bonespurs be damned.

So once again, as with all things Donald, we are confronted with the headshaking consequences of having a deranged man-baby as our fearless leader. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in the Intercept:

This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the US government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran….. Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)”

The point—and its direct origin in the existential threat to Trump’s presidency—was expressed even more pointedly in this anonymous meme that is caroming around the Interweb: “Right now there’s an impeached president authorizing international assassinations without Congressional approval while tweeting from a golf course.”

Indeed, every aspect of Trump’s behavior here is emblematic of his awfulness.

It should come as no shock that he didn’t inform the Democratic leadership of the Suleimani strike beforehand, though he did inform the Republican leadership, and of course Vladimir Putin (must keep the boss in the loop). And it goes without saying that this entire horrific crisis is merely an acceleration—albeit a wholly unnecessary one—of the trajectory Trump put us on with his foolhardy withdrawal from the JCPOA back in 2018, itself another example of his pathological obsession with Barack H. Obama. (See Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal in these pages, May 11, 2018.)

The timing of John Bolton’s cryptic announcement earlier this week that he is willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial was also interesting. The presumption is that Bolton’s testimony would be hostile and disastrous for Trump. But perhaps John is prepared to perjure himself and defend Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine out of gratitude for his former boss finally starting his long-desired war with Tehran. It is tempting to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory here. Might Trump even have privately offered to start that war in exchange for Bolton’s cooperation? Does Brett Kavanaugh like beer? We can leave that one floating. In any case, I am confident that ever since the Suleimani strike John Bolton has been dealing with the kind of permanent erection that ED commercials warn you to see a physician about.

THE DOG WAGS BACK

Already the next phase in this piteous, bloodsoaked farce is unfolding. Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites, which it seems almost petty to point out is a war crime when it is being proposed in the context of a far bigger and broader atrocity. Deep thinkers like Sean Hannity (“Dude, do you even lift?”) encouraged Trump go even further and begin a full-scale strategic bombing of Iran, which I guess looks good on paper, if you’re a fucking moron. Even Tucker Carlson saw the stupidity in that, which suggests that the cognitive dissonance of Trump’s America Firstism colliding with his inner bully’s natural propensity for bombing the shit out of people may be too much even for MAGA Nation.

But even if we avoid a wider war right now, major damage has already been done in terms of decreased US power in the Persian Gulf and the re-acceleration of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, per above. And if matters do take a dark turn at any point in the near future, Trump’s demonstrated willingness to do what is technically known in foreign policy circles as “crazy shit” does not bode well…..especially if he perceives that he obtains a domestic political benefit from such behavior that will help protect him from Nancy Pelosi pulling up in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue behind the wheel of an empty moving truck.

To leapfrog ahead to the darkest possible scenario, were the US and Iran to get into a series tit-for-tat airstrikes, it is not beyond imagination that Trump might even launch a nuclear strike on Tehran. After all, during the 2016 campaign he openly wondered why we have this massive nuclear arsenal if we never get to use it. As Business Insider reports:

“In any other circumstance, I would have argued that the norm against using nuclear weapons is so strong there’s no chance that a president would use a nuclear weapon,” (said) Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who studies nuclear arms control. “At the end of the day, though, it’s just a norm. And this president delights in smashing norms.” 

Given his innate tendency to always go for the stupidest response, and his juvenile desire to do “bold” things his predecessors would not do (with good reason), there is in fact every reason to suspect Trump would not hesitate to go there. If so, then we will see just how much moral courage the US military establishment has in standing up to him, like Seven Days in May in reverse.

Alarmism, you say? OK, sure. Because Donald Trump would never do something insanely aggressive just in a fit of pique.

Even short of nuclear war, Trump clearly intends to use conflict with Iran to distract from impeachment, thrill his fans, and try to lure wobbly center-right undecideds over to his team with the illusion of strength and patriotism. It’s a time-tested strategy, and one that he histrionically (but incorrectly) predicted Obama would use. In general, Trump’s past attacks on Obama are a master class in projection, providing a reliable roadmap for what he himself will do in any given scenario, as he cannot imagine a leader taking anything other than the most cynical and self-serving path.

Will it work? Here’s Aaron Blake, writing in the WaPo:

Pollsters and political analysts often talk about a “rally around the flag” effect that comes when the United States is attacked or launches new military campaigns. And there is something to that. But it’s often quite short-lived, and there’s little evidence it has actually helped any recent president win reelection.

In fact, Trump’s net gain is likely to be even less than previous wartime presidents, given his aforementioned credibility problem. In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait writes:

Americans historically support their presidents in foreign conflicts, both the wise ones and unwise ones alike, at least initially. Trump no doubt believes the halo effect will last at least through November—that he might undertake an action that would harm his reelection out of some larger sense of duty to the nation or the world is unfathomable. But presidents traditionally benefit from a presumption of competence, or at least moral legitimacy, from their opposition. Trump has forfeited his.

So the Extremely Stable Genius is not likely to get far with this strategy beyond the base that already adores him, and perhaps a few jingoists who have heretofore been fencesitters. Whether that is sufficient to make an electoral difference will be yet another test of the intelligence, gullibility, and moral courage of us as a nation. So far, apparently not even Trump himself is buying his own bullshit, as he was back to tweeting about the impeachment “witchhunt” even as Iranian missiles fell on US troops.

There is also the strong possibility that Trump’s Wag the Dog ploy may even backfire, so transparent are his domestic motives and so stark his record of transactional behavior, particularly if matters with Iran go south fast.

ASSASSIN’S CREED

Moving beyond the details of this specific international incident and its impact on the ongoing domestic US political crisis, we must ask ourselves what Trump’s order to kill Qasem Suleimani says about the state of our democracy and how we conduct war in the 21st century.

On CNN, Pete Buttigieg— lest we forget, a former Navy intelligence officer and Afghanistan vet as well as a Rhodes Scholar—was asked by Jake Tapper if he thought the Suleimani strike qualified as an “assassination.” Wisely refusing to engage in gotcha semantics, Mayor Pete replied:

I am not interested in the terminology. I’m interested in the consequences and I’m interested in the process. Did the president have legal authority to do this? Why wasn’t Congress consulted? It seems like more people at Mar-a-Lago heard about this than people in the United States Congress who are a coequal branch of government with a responsibility to consult. Which of our allies were consulted? The real-world effects of this are going to go far beyond the things that we’re debating today and we need answers quickly.

Pretty good answer. Maybe that kid should run for president.

But let’s dig into the topic, because the exploration is instructive.

Whether carried out by a non-state actor or a sovereign government, assassination is a specific form of killing distinguished by the political nature of the act, its victim, and/or the intended reaction. As such, it is not usually classified as “murder” when carried out (or at least sanctioned) by a nation state, though it is usually is when carried out by an individual acting on their own initiative, even if all the other circumstances are identical. Judge for yourself the wisdom or hypocrisy of that, and the implications for chaos versus justice.

But the verbiage is fungible. An execution of a head of state—even by the mob—is usually not considered “assassination” per se, even when it triggers, or results from, a similar kind of regime change. (Sorry, Charles I and Louis XVI). By contrast, we routinely talk about the “assassination” of John Lennon, which is a measure of his stature as a cultural figure. But in truth, Mark David Chapman didn’t kill Lennon over his antiwar activism. In that sense, assassination is a bit like art or porn, in that it’s hard to define but easy to recognize when you see it: Caesar, Lincoln, Trotsky, the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mountbatten, Bhutto, and so on. Maybe most terrifying of all is Franz Ferdinand, whom Steve Schmidt evoked this week.

As a political tool, assassination is a technique as old as geopolitics itself—if you want to kill a snake, cut off its head. Notwithstanding our pearl-clutching rhetoric when others employ it, the US has certainly not shied away from killing foreign leaders in the past, not only despots but popular elected democratic figures as well, as evidenced by the corpses of Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende, and sometimes even our own surrogates, like Ngô Đình Diệm.

Usually the questions swirling about assassination as tool of state power involve the ethics of taking out a civilian representative of a foreign power, even for convincing reasons that advance national objectives. But that is not the question here. Suleimani was a major general in the Iranian army and a uniformed combatant commander. Therefore the issue is not his legitimacy as a target but whether we were plausibly in a true state of war with Iran where we are actively shooting at the bad guys, or if this was an aggressive provocation that risked ratcheting a low intensity conflict into that more dangerous realm without good reason.

Yet even that is a tricky question.

Since 1945 the demise of formal declarations of war has badly blurred the line between peace and war, which is already pretty blurry if one subscribes to Clausewitz’s definition of warfare as the extension of politics by other means, which I do. In the wake of Vietnam, the 1973 War Powers Act was meant to curb an American president’s ability to deploy US forces into harm’s way for an extended period without Congressional approval. But Mohammad Atta and friends definitively rang down the curtain on that era. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress three days after 9/11 amounted to a blank check for the president to order military action as he or she sees fit, without appreciable oversight, and with no expiration date. In the almost two decades since then, the American people have come to accept those parameters without much pushback, but with dire consequences.

Fighting a “terrorist” enemy in a kind of shadow war that lacks the usual metrics for determining not only victory but even concrete benchmarks of success, we as a nation have grown accustomed to a permanent state of war. Some would say that is precisely the Orwellian state of affairs that, in their Adam Curtis-style symbiosis, both the powers-that-be and their terrorist foes would like.

In such a world, the term “assassination” has become almost useless, since it is pejorative by nature, and since 1976, technically illegal as a tool of US policy under Executive Order 11905, not that it has mattered. (Hence the euphemism “targeted killing.”) If we set aside semantics—and also morality, as it is so malleable—the real question, to which Mayor Pete alludes, is whether a specific military action makes sense strategically and pragmatically. In the case of targeting a specific foreign individual, whether a member of an opposition government or a non-state actor, there can be good utilitarian arguments, even in “peacetime.” But in the case of Suleimani, there is reason to fear exactly the opposite.

Infamously, language itself can be weaponized to create the illusion or legitimacy. Last April, the Trump administration made the eyebrow-raising decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, joining only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in formally applying that term. We don’t have to get into a philosophical debate about the definition of terrorism to understand that labeling a uniformed element of a foreign army “terrorists” is problematic for about a dozen different reasons. If the IRGC is a terrorist organization from our point of view, so is the US Air Force from theirs.

Pragmatism aside, the fact that few Americans object to Suleimani’s killing on moral grounds, and only a few on legal grounds, is itself if a measure of how comfortable we as a people have become with the murky waters of endless war. When utilitarianism is the only guide, it is quite easy for that kind of self-styled flinty-eyed fortitude to slip into the indiscriminate application of force—a policy of murder first and rationalization later—with “pragmatism” as an all too convenient cover. A credible justification for a surgical strike on a center of gravity, whether the assassination of an individual, an airstrike on a terrorist camp, or the bombing of a nuclear reactor, can readily be twisted into something more venal (or be a mere veneer in the first place). Many an act of international aggression has been cloaked in the righteous rhetoric of “self-defense.” Few but the Quakers would argue that the world would not have been well-served and spared terrible horrors if a certain failed painter had met with a suspicious traffic accident in 1935. But it is disturbing how easily that same logic can be turned to Vladimir Putin serving up a cup of poison tea over, say, irritation at the mouthiness of a former KGB man turned defector to the West. The slope is as slippery as they come, circling us back to why assassination is reflexively proscribed the first place.

WAR WITHOUT END AMEN

But Trump is plainly not about to be dissuaded from using force however he fucking feels like it, neither by precedent, nor protocol, nor actual law, and certainly not by semantics. He clearly conceives of his commander-in-chief role much like his role in domestic affairs: absolute, not subject to questioning by mere mortals, and definitely unfettered by the Constitution or the requirement to consult with—much less obtain permission—from Congress.

The unitary executive approach to waging war suits Trump terrifyingly well: we could hardly have drawn up a more perfectly awful POTUS to inherit the expanded warmaking powers of the post-9/11 era.

Numerous sages predicted this state of affairs. Drone strikes, clandestine special operations missions, and targeted killings were among the distinguishing aspects of the so-called “Global War on Terror” that began under Bush 43, much of it hidden from public view and carried out with little to no oversight from Capitol Hill. As those shadowy operations grew under his Democratic successor, many on the center-left were comfortable giving Obama such expansive powers, trusting that he would use them judiciously and wisely. But many on the far left were not so sanguine, making them strange bedfellows with Obama-haters on the right, who were fine with the aggressive exercise of US military might, but just didn’t like a black guy in charge. Now, as the Cassandras foretold, those right-wingers have been delighted to take the vast presidential latitude established in the years 2001-2016 and hand it over to the host of “Celebrity Apprentice.”

The result, to return to Hasan’s formulation, is that we now have a criminally unqualified, proudly ignorant cretin and serial grifter with the near-absolute power of life and death, and the authority to order the killing of any single individual he deems a threat, at the mere press of a remote control button, from oceans away, or even the obliteration of the entire planet.

This is the world in which we now live, one of endless war, where victory is not only impossible but undesirable, and where a mad king can run amok, and we the people just nod and go about our day. It will remain so until the American public decides that we have had enough, or until the integrity and decency of the United States has been so thoroughly debased that it no longer matters.

********

Illustration by the Norwegian cartoonist Bloom

They Did the Right Thing

DTRT

Donald Trump is now only the third US president in 230 years to have been impeached, the first to suffer that humiliation in his first term, and the first to have it happen while he is running for re-election. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Trump may well go on to win a second term, which will be a sorry comment on the state of the American republic and the gullibility of the American electorate. If that happens, history will not look back kindly on our era, or on us. (We already look not so great having let him into the White House once.) Conversely, this episode may prove to be a mile marker on his well-deserved demise.

But to that point, I have been deeply dismayed at how much of the analysis of his impeachment has been focused on sheer gamesmanship, and whether Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have played this well or badly, and what the impact will be on their collective political fortunes.

Really? How small. How shortsighted. How depressing.

The Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives just took on the somber and sorrowful duty of impeaching a US president for high crimes and misdemeanors, the evidence of which was so overwhelming that it wasn’t even a close call for anyone willing to look at that evidence objectively. (I realize that lets out the entire Republican Party,) The GOP has not substantively tried to deny it; in fact, the White House itself openly admitted to the offenses in a phone conversation readout that it unilaterally released. Trump’s own chief of staff bragged about it on national television. It is depressing of course that many of our fellow Americans—many of them US Congressmen and Senators—stubbornly refuse to admit that, either out of willful ignorance, regular ignorance, or craven Machiavellian cynicism. But it does not alter the facts.

Yet as E.J. Dionne observed in the Washington Post, when the articles of impeachment were unveiled last Tuesday, “a large share of the reporting and commentary was about the political risks facing Democrats for insisting on something that would once have been uncontroversial: It is a chilling threat to freedom and to democracy for the commander in chief to use his power to press a foreign government to investigate a political opponent.”

Last month a Monmouth University poll reported that 62% of Trump supporters said that they would support Donald Trump no matter what he does. Let that sink in a moment. Like religious fanatics, they self-report that there is NOTHING Trump could do that would make them turn on him. Not his famous hypothetical murdering of someone in plain sight on Fifth Avenue. Not outright bribery (which he copped to with Zelinskyy.) Not rape (of which he has been credibly alleged). Not treason (of which he has been credibly alleged). Not, presumably, giving the State of the Union address in blackface, or selling kiddie porn, or advocating lynching, none of which frankly would surprise me.

And apparently the GOP leadership agrees.

FOR THE DEFENSE

From the time the Ukraine scandal broke, the right wing has spent precious little time trying to defend Trump’s actions, fighting instead about “process”—always the sign of a weak hand. Those who even bothered to address the substance mostly argued some variation of the claim that the actions weren’t so bad and don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses. (That claim is risible, of course. If extorting a foreign power to spread disinformation in an American election isn’t impeachable, nothing is.)

Others—incredibly—have gone further, parroting Trump’s own insane insistence that he did nothing wrong whatsoever, and indeed acted “perfectly.” That was the gist of GOP counsel Stephen Castor’s argument to the House Judiciary Committee, predicated on the absurd claim that ginning up a smear campaign against Joe Biden constitutes a legitimate anti-corruption effort on behalf of US national interests, and not merely to benefit Donald Trump’s own political future.

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

Another red herring: For weeks now I have read right wingers on the web refusing even to discuss Ukrainegate on the grounds that some mysterious and much bigger dirty bomb was about to drop that would shower the Democrats in feces. It now seems clear that they were referring to the DOJ IG report that came out last week. You may have noticed that it was disappointingly short on details of Hillary issuing secret orders to her cabal of Illuminati FBI agents, and long on facts that obliterated the right wing’s cherished myth of an ongoing Deep State coup. Not that Bill Barr would acknowledge that.

Yet another related argument we keep hearing—one that also tellingly avoids the substance of the charges against Trump—is that we ought not bother with an impeachment when we are less than a year away from an election in which the people can decide for themselves the president’s fitness to remain in office. Really? When the issue at hand is election interference itself? Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) succinctly summarized that argument as the equivalent of saying, “’Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?'” Or as Neal Katyal put it, it’s like saying we ought to settle this dispute with a game of Monopoly, when the very crime of which Trump is accused is cheating on Monopoly.

The whole “let’s wait” argument is dishonest in the extreme, especially coming from Republicans, who damn sure would never let a Democrat slide because we were at the two minute warning. And—god forbid—should an opening on the Supreme Court pop up between now and November, don’t look for Mitch McConnell to argue that we ought to wait till after Election Day to fill it.

All this bullshit was on full display on national television today. I watched a lot of the House debate and it’s impossible to pick out which Republican congressmember was the most loathsome, so competitive was the field. It was a remarkable parade of dishonesty, distraction, and demagoguery, a Festival of Yelling White Dudes, many of whom seemed to be channeling their inner Brett Kavanaughs, having seen that that was a winning strategy, at least in appealing to an audience of one.  (Not a few also engaged in juche-style adoration toward their Dear Leader, which he also eats up.) For a preview of how history will remember it, those Republicans would do well to examine how Nixon’s dead-end defenders are viewed today (or Joe McCarthy’s). And everything lives forever on the Internet.

But at the end of the day, here is the height of irony: Trump and his followers claim that with the impeachment, the Democrats are illegitimately interfering with the upcoming election, when in reality the whole reason for the impeachment is that Donald Trump was doing precisely that with his illegal pressure on Ukraine, which only the sadly deluded or the willfully dishonest can try to deny.

WALKING AND CHEWING GUM

I realize that from the start impeachment and the upcoming election have been inextricably connected. But the fixation on gamesmanship over principle is unhealthy to say the least.

I’ve heard the argument (from the left) that Trump is such an existential threat to our republic that his defeat at the polls must be prioritized over all else. Fair enough. Except that I’m not convinced that we will be facing a fair election in November. Is that preemptive, 2016-style Trumpian doubt-casting on the legitimacy of the vote, something I and many others decried when he regularly did it on the campaign trail against Hillary? Feel free to lob that allegation if you wish. But I would call it a well-founded fear, with lots of evidence to back it up, unlike Trump’s wildly unsubstantiated and dangerous claim. In any case, I’m certainly not willing to put all my eggs in that electoral basket when it comes to stopping that existential threat.

Moreover, I’ve argued before that the two are no mutually exclusive—as that argument presumes—but rather complementary. I don’t think impeachment is a losing strategy, politically speaking; on the contrary, a losing strategy is being so afraid of your criminal opponent that you are too meek even to stand up and call him out for his crimes.

Going into this process with the knowledge that Senate Republicans will almost surely refuse to convict, the Democratic Party has made the decision—correct in my view—that principle here demands impeachment even if it fails…..even if Trump gets to disingenuously wave acquittal as a banner of exoneration, as he did with Bill Barr’s distorted four-page non-summary of the 400-plus page Mueller report. It’s true that acquittal might look impressive to some undecided voters, but what would look even worse, IMHO, is handwringing by an insufficiently brave and bold Democratic Party that claims Trump is an unfit criminal pretender, but is unwilling to make that case in Congress as the Constitution demands.

(What worries me more is that if someone is still undecided about Trump at this point, they might be too stupid to be swayed by logic. In that regard, Team Trump has an edge for sure.)

Impeachment is a moral imperative. If Senate Republicans are willing to close ranks and say that the POTUS (at least a Republican POTUS) is above Congressional oversight, then they will have dealt a grievous blow to our representative democracy. But they must be forced to admit it publicly. I for one am not willing to let them get away with it unchallenged, without calling them out and insisting they stand up and demonstrate by a public show of hands if they are indeed that craven and dishonest. (Spoiler alert: they are.)

Will Trump go on to win in 2020? He might, but not because impeachment strengthened him. If he wins it will because of this cult-like support on the right, its willingness to game the system with black propaganda, foreign assistance, voter suppression, and—crucially—because our side didn’t make a sufficient argument for his wrongdoing and unfitness and for the appeal of our own candidate and platform by contrast. Impeachment is part of making that argument. When I see articles about how Trump is allegedly “winning” on impeachment despite the facts, or about how the Democrats are supposedly blowing it, or how Trump’s re-election is a lock, it makes me ill with its too-cool-for-school ennui. And I hear this cynical garbage not only from the right, as we would expect, but also from the center-left, and from ”Saturday Night Live.” In truth, as Democratic strategist Joel Payne recently told Chris Matthews, this impeachment is 20 points more popular right now than Bill Clinton’s ever was. Even Fox News shows fully 50% of voters in favor of impeachment and removal—not just impeachment, but impeachment AND removal. And I say again: that’s a poll from Fox News.

But even if I turn out to be wrong about the political implications (and I am sure that somewhere there may be perhaps one example of me being wrong), the bottom line is that Trump’s actions in Ukrainegate, and his brazen defiance of the US Constitution in obstructing the Congressional investigation thereof, have left us with no choice. We cannot ignore or excuse it. As Michael Luo writes in the New Yorker, “Failing to impeach Trump would have set a dangerous precedent—that Presidents can subvert American foreign policy for their own ends, without fear of consequences.”  It arose in the first place after he was not held to account over Russiagate; even now, he continues to thumb his nose at the rule of law and behave like an absolute monarch to the throne born, as Rudy Giuliani goes gallivanting around Ukraine openly carrying on with the very behavior for which his master is being impeached. And it will only get worse if Trump skates yet again.

Yes, I fear what the country will look like if we are saddled with four more years of this. But not impeaching him would have been worse, would have emboldened him even more than acquittal, and would not have improved our electoral fortunes even a whit. Yeah, the GOP wouldn’t have been able to run on impeachment and rile up its base, but it would have just riled them up with something else. Do you doubt it? Appeasing bullies, avoiding conflict, and hoping that won’t get mad or madder than they already are is never a winning strategy.

CREEPY OLD GUY

Based on his record number of angry old man tweets last week, and his astonishing six-page rant at Nancy Pelosi that read like it was dictated by a deranged fifth grader, Trump is obviously mad as a wet hen about his impeachment, even as he claims unconvincingly that it’s helping him. It may indeed be helping him, in terms of fundraising and energizing his base, but he is still visibly furious about it because he knows what a humiliation it is. You’d think he’d be delighted that he’s basically about to get away with murder, again, but he clearly understands what a stain this is on his legacy, even if he’s acquitted. Conviction or no, it is the most serious possible black mark against a US president, and Trump knows that as of this morning the very first line of his obituary will definitely include the “I” word. (Speaking of which, can we hurry up with that please?)

Yet in another irony, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, et al are partially robbing Trump of even the consolation of a presumptive acquittal by brazenly announcing in advance that they intend to mount such a sham of a trial in the Senate that only the most slavering Trump disciple will accept its result as genuine exoneration.

McConnell kicked it off by going on “Hannity” and declaring that he is not going behave like the foreman of a jury—which is what he will be—but rather as an arm of the defense. Graham then weighed in by repeatedly saying he’d already made up his mind and didn’t even need to sit through a trial, or hear any evidence.

Neither senator’s position is particularly surprising, of course. As Jennifer Rubin wrote in a piece unimprovably titled “Don’t Worry, Sen. Graham. No One Thought You’d Be Fair”: “Amidst his boot-licking and willful ignorance of a ‘quid pro quo,’ Graham left little doubt that he had the slightest intention of doing his job as a juror.”

Once again, Graham’s is a rather different mindset than he had as one of Bill Clinton’s most aggressive prosecutors in 1999, when he said:

I have a duty far greater than just getting to the next election. Members of the Senate have said, “I understand everything there is about this case, and I won’t vote to impeach the president.” Please allow the facts to do the talking…. Don’t decide the case before the case’s end. 

I know it’s become tedious to say, but let me say it again: Lindsey Graham might be the most loathsome, hypocritical, contemptible swamp creature in all of Washington DC, which is saying something, because the competition is world class. As the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus noted:

Fifteen current Republican senators served in the House or Senate during the Clinton impeachment. All but one of those—Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—voted either to impeach Clinton or to convict him and remove him from office. I’d challenge any of them to explain why they deemed Clinton’s behavior so bad and are so unmoved by Trump’s.

(Speaking of Leningrad Lindsey, I was recently appalled to learn that he and I were both stationed in Germany at the same time in the 1980s, he as an Air Force JAG officer at Rhein Main AFB in Frankfurt, me 35 klicks north as an Army infantry officer at a place called the Rock. I don’t recall ever seeing Lindsey on any of the many Friday nights I spent at the bar of the Rhein Main Officers Club. Perhaps he was busy contemplating how he could help the Russians bounce back from their impending defeat in the Cold War.)

So in a bitter irony, the words of McConnell, Graham, Dewey, Cheatem & Howe LLP may prove to be self-destructive by giving the lie to even the illusion that Trump will be truly exonerated. Of course, Donald is going to claim that no matter what, and MAGA Nation will believe it. But it won’t help his case with any thinking Americans, to the extent that anyone cares about them anymore. And it won’t look good in the history books, which we know that the transactional Republicans don’t care about at all, except when it comes to removing references to evolution.

To state the bleeding obvious: If Trump is so innocent, why are his Republican pals so afraid to review any evidence?

The preemptive destruction of even the veneer of due process is  all the more baffling when the GOP could easily put on the pretext of a fair trial and still carry the day. Are Republicans really that afraid of what will come out and what they will have to willfully deny in voting for acquittal? Or perhaps they just don’t give a fuck, so greedy and compacent and contemptuous have they become of even the trappings of democracy. To that end, the desire for a quick trial is not just a matter of downplaying the allegations and moving on (though it is more proof that impeachment truly does hurt Trump, even as the GOP tries to convince the DNC and America that it does just the opposite.) It is a further admission of Trump’s guilt.

As A.B. Stoddard writes in The Bulwark, “If Trump and Senate Republicans want to finish impeachment as quickly as possible, then they must believe that time is not on their side and that future developments are likely to cut against Trump’s position.”

I think that is safe to say.

Ironically, Trump—of course—wants a circus, because he is a sociopath who seems to genuinely believe that he has done no wrong here or anywhere else (see again The Letter), and cannot by definition, and that the Senate trial would be a great venue in which to smear Joe Biden with absolute lies. His lapdog Mr. Graham, the former prosecutor, admittedly got off a bon mot when he suggested that when someone has said out loud that they’re ready to acquit you (no matter what), you ought to get out of the way and let ‘em.

Trump wants to drag Joe and Hunter Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff into the Senate to testify? OK then, as Chuck Schumer rightly said, let’s also hear from Mulvaney and Pompeo and Pence and Bolton and Parnas and Giuliani.

I’m waiting.

GARLAND RULES

Seeing as Senate Republicans have brazenly signaled that they intend to violate their oaths, shamelessly ignore the evidence, and protect Trump no matter what, movement is building to use that against them: that is, to call them out and refuse to allow them to get away with this criminal dereliction of duty. Per above, they would have done well to keep their traps shut and at least pretend to obey the law and act impartially, and then vote to give Cheetoh Benito his get-out-of-jail-free card. But a hazard of the Trump era is that these thugs have grown accustomed to announcing in advance that they are gonna rob a bank. And this time, the cops are waiting for them.

Lots of smart people, from Laurence Tribe to Charlie Sykes to Bill Kristol to John Dean (!!!!), have recently suggested that the Democrats need not accede to the GOP’s blunt announcement that it has no intention of holding a fair trial in the Senate. As Sykes writes: “There is no requirement that the House immediately send the articles of impeachment over to the senate. This is Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s final card.”

Tribe has been proposing as much even before Ukrainegate broke, back when we were mulling impeachment based on the Mueller report. His initial idea was that the House impeach Trump and never refer the articles to the Senate, thereby denying him the chance to wave the inevitable hyperpartisan acquittal as a flag of exoneration. Now the actions of McConnell, Graham, et al have give the Democrats justification for so doing, or some variation thereof. The new notion is to humbly insist that, gee, Republican Senators not behave like jurors in a mob trial bought and paid for by the Don, as they have bluntly announced they intend to do.

McConnell’s flag-planting in Camp Trump is already being used against him, and rightly so. After Schumer proposed calling Bolton, Mulvaney, et al as witnesses in the trial, Tribe tweeted: “If (McConnell) rejects these reasonable ground rules & insists on a non-trial, the House should consider treating that as a breach of the Senate’s oath & withholding the Articles until the Senate reconsiders.”

Writing in the Washington Post, he explained further:

Under the current circumstances, such a proceeding would fail to render a meaningful verdict of acquittal. It would also fail to inform the public, which has the right to know the truth about the conduct of its president….

Consider the case of a prosecutor armed with a grand jury indictment who learns that the fix is in and that the jury poised to consider the case is about to violate its oath to do impartial justice. In that situation, the prosecutor is under no affirmative legal obligation to go forward until the problem is cured and a fair trial possible. So, too, the House, whose historical role is to prosecute articles of impeachment in the Senate after exercising its “sole” power to impeach, is under no affirmative constitutional obligation to do so instantly. That is especially true when the majority leader has made clear that he is, for all practical purposes, a member of the defense team.

We are in Merrick Garland territory here, folks. This time, let’s play hardball like they do. Just because we have long assumed (correctly, it turns out) that the GOP intends to acquit Trump no matter what does not mean we should roll over and just let them do it without a fight…..without throwing up every procedural argument and obstacle the law allows…..without put a 10,000 kilowatt spotlight on their actions…..without making it clear that if they proceed with a kangaroo court (as they were fond of calling the House proceedings), they will in effect be just confirming Trump’s guilt.

As Senator Schumer said on TV, if the Republican majority holds a ridiculously speedy trial that dispenses with the charges without any serious consideration of them, the American people will rightly ask: “What are they hiding?” (At least some of them will ask that.)

Indeed, with their prejudicial statements beforehand, McConnell and Graham (and possibly others) may have compromised themselves as jurors and rendered it impossible to take the oath required of them by Rule XXV of the Senate Rules prior to participating in an impeachment trial: “I solemnly swear [or affirm, as the case may be] that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [the person being impeached], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.

Will a Democratic Senator like Schumer or Kamala or Cory Booker or Liz Warren or Bernie move that McConnell (and Graham, and others similarly self-tainted) recuse himself? I certainly hope so. How will Chief Justice John Roberts respond? I don’t expect Mitch to do the right thing, or for Roberts to press it. But that spineless bastard should be forced to address the charge and publicly own his refusal to step aside. Red Hat Nation, of course, will find a way to cheer even that hypocrisy. But history will record it as yet another shameful moment by which the man from Kentucky will be cursed on into posterity.

MISS IT! NOONAN!

A note on language:

I hesitate to call Trump supporters “conservatives,” as they are anything but. But when I call them Republicans—which seems fair, given the party’s abject, bootlicking surrender to the man from Queens—I often get Trump people snorting to me that they are not registered Republicans, and in fact loathe the party establishment, followed by a laundry list of their complaints about the late John McCain. But since they now own the GOP, I suggest they get used to the elephantine label. Alternatively, I will settle for calling them “right wingers,” which is undeniable by any definition.

Whatever we agree to call them, it goes without saying that the formerly anti-Trump Republicans who have now obsequiously gone all in on Trump—Graham, Cruz, Paul, Pompeo, et al—are beneath contempt. (I think I saw Marco Rubio’s testicles on a milk carton.) But there is also a whole cowardly class of so-called conservatives who want to have it both ways, particularly in the punditocracy.

While any number of absolute cretins can regularly be seen on Fox News, occasionally a real piece of work shows up elsewhere. One such Republican apologist who appeared last week on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” with Chuck Todd, was conservative chattering head Danielle Pletka. I suppose she is what passes for a “reasonable” Republican in the current climate, which says a lot, but it was revolting to listen to her blithe assertion that the American people have decided Donald Trump is guilty of these crimes but that they’re not impeachable, and are bored with the details. (Implying that she feels likewise.) That is surely true of MAGA Nation, but it’s hardly true of the entire country. I have rarely heard a more cynical and dishonest generalization, one aimed at selling a false narrative right out of the GOP playbook.

It’s also amazing to see these allegedly respectable old school conservatives—not just screeching Breitbart brand hyenas—lamenting the “divisiveness” ripping out country apart. (It shouldn’t be amazing after decades of Republican hypocrisy, but it is.) Consider Peggy Noonan, a Reagan-era apparatchik who gets trotted out as we look back wistfully upon what now seems like an era of kinder and gentler reactionaryism. Noonan too recently appeared on “MTP Daily” to bemoan the fact that impeachment process has been so “partisan”—as if the real problem is the Democrats insisting on the rule of law, and not the GOP’s indefensible aiding and abetting of this criminal president. (Todd, as is his wont, didn’t push back, but joined in her pearl-clutching.)

And merrily we roll along with the toxic false equivalence that brought us to this pretty pass in the first place.

But I know this much: The more that Republicans claim that Democrats are damaging themselves with impeachment, the more I know we are on the right track.

FIGHT THE POWER

As I’ve argued before, the upcoming Senatorial ranks-closing around this criminal will be one of the blackest days in modern US history.

But no matter what ultimately happens, I am proud of the Democratic Party in this moment, which is not something I can always say. As Michael Luo again reports, “In the past few months, Democrats have satisfied their responsibilities, under the Constitution, to conduct a sober fact-finding inquiry, but their Republican counterparts have steadfastly refused to fulfill theirs.”

Congressional Democrats have stood up for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the idea of separation of powers and checks on balances on an wannabe despot. They have deployed the biggest and most powerful weapon in the constitutional arsenal in marking Trump with the scarlet letter “I.” It might cost them the 2020 presidential election, or it might win it for them. It might doom their chances to retake the Senate or it might bolster those chances. Let us hope it doesn’t cost us the House, even if certain individual Democratic members lose their seats in Trump-friendly districts for the sin of exercising integrity. But none of that is the broader point. However it shakes out, history will report that in this time of crisis, the Democratic Party showed some goddam backbone and was willing to stand up for principle.

Mayors are figuring unusually heavily in this election—from young Mr. Buttigieg, to old Mr. Bloomberg, to the batshit crazy Mr. Giuliani. But the one I have in mind at the moment is an honorary one, and a fictional one, Ossie Davis as “Da Mayor,” who told Mookie, and us: “Always do the right thing.”

Good advice.

********

Framegrab: Ossie Davis and Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989), written, directed, and produced by Spike, shot by Ernest Dickerson.

 

 

 

Obstructed View

Obstructed View

Here’s the lede, which I’m going to say again and again as long as this shitshow continues:

None of this would be happening if millions of Americans were not totally thrilled about the idea of a right wing autocrat.

So this week let us examine that headsnapping fact through the prism of just one aspect of the Ukrainegate scandal: the Trump administration’s brazen obstruction of the investigation, something with which those aforementioned millions are just fine.

OBSTRUCT THIS

Yesterday the legal counsels for the House Intelligence Committee—Daniel Goldman for the Democratic majority and Stephen Castor for the Republican minority— delivered statements to the House Judiciary Committee ahead of a vote to move forward with articles of impeachment, which are likely to be presented today. In one sense the lawyers’ appearance was just more kabuki theater, as their respective statements represented diametrically opposed, mirror image visions of Ukrainegate in the never-ending Rorschach test that American life has become.

But as I have often said, two people arguing about the shape of the planet are not both necessarily correct, no matter how loudly the flat earth faction shouts.

Goldman succinctly laid out a case that only the most deluded Trump disciple, or cynical right wing partisan, could plausibly deny. Castor’s statement, by contrast, was a laughable display of dishonesty, obfuscation, and misdirection hinging on the idea that Donald Trump is a valiant and altruistic anti-corruption crusader whose actions in this matter are driven only by his deep, deep desire to clean up the dirty domestic politics of the country of Ukraine. If you’re onboard with that, email me at info@thekingsnecktie.com, because I have a bridge just down the street at the end of Cadman Plaza that I’ll let you have cheap.

But we need not spend one syllable here on the underlying high crimes regarding Ukraine; they have been well-detailed elsewhere, including in these pages. Let us instead confine ourselves purely to the White House’s obstruction of efforts to investigate those offenses, which is to say, the coverup.

I say “coverup,” but that term implies a secret effort to hide the facts. The Trump administration is openly blocking investigators’ access to the facts, which is less like a coverup than flatout contempt for the rule of law.

As every rational observer has already stated, if the White House had exculpatory evidence, they would have rushed it into the public eye. It would be blaring 24/7 from Donald’s Twitter feed, and on Hannity and Judge Jeannie and Ingraham every night, and from the lips of every Trump supporter (should they be able to pry them loose from Donald’s ass).

But they don’t have any such evidence. Very much the contrary.

Therefore, Team Trump has instead done precisely the opposite. It has stonewalled, ordering every conceivable arm of the federal government not to cooperate with proper Congressional oversight. As the report of the House Intelligence Committee put it, “(Trump) has ordered federal agencies and officials to disregard all voluntary requests for documents and defy all duly authorized subpoenas for records. He also directed all federal officials in the Executive Branch not to testify—even when compelled.”

Most egregious (and telling) of all, the White House has instructed the most important, high-ranking witnesses like Mulvaney, Bolton, and Pompeo—the people who have the information that would be most valuable to Congress—not to appear, even when legally ordered to do so. (NB: Trump has issued these “orders” even when the individual in question, like Bolton, or Don McGahn, is no longer a federal employee and under no obligation to obey. So these punks are complicit in the refusal, much as they want to pretend their blood-covered hands are tied.)

Trump of course, has said he would “love” for these individuals to testify, which is damn near a guarantee that the White House will never let them do so. The reason, as both Occam’s razor and common sense tell us, is that if they were to tell the truth under penalty of perjury (not necessarily a certainty), what they have to say would likely be a knife in the heart of Trump’s claim of innocence.

Then again, why not let them testify? No matter what they have to say—and remember, Mulvaney has already said on live TV that hell yes, Trump ordered the Code Red, and “we do this stuff all the time”—the Republican Party will just deny that it amounts to a hill of beans. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

GOD SAVE THE KING

This obstruction of justice is arguably worse even than the abuse of power that Trump is obstructing investigation of. (And that abuse—stealing taxpayer dollars to bribe a foreign leader to interfere in our elections—was pretty goddam bad.)

Even Richard Nixon, the previous titleholder when it comes to contempt for Congress and the rule of law, at least acknowledged the authority of the Constitution he was subverting. Trump, on the other hand, is behaving with utter disregard for even the pretense that he ought to obey the law, operating instead with the same wantonly criminal mentality that has been his north star his entire, obscenely entitled life. And that is not because he is a Nietzschean ubermensch. It’s because he’s a lawless cretin.

In the Bulwark last week, Never Trump conservative Charlie Sykes wrote brilliantly about the magnitude of Trump’s unprecedented obstruction. I’ll quote it here at length, because, you know, why reinvent the wheel when Charlie has already built such a beautiful unicycle?

In laying out the case against Donald Trump, the House Intelligence Committee noted that Trump ”is the first President in the history of the United States to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment inquiry undertaken by the House of Representatives under Article I of the Constitution, which vests the House with the ‘sole Power of Impeachment.’”

The report noted that the president “has publicly and repeatedly rejected the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his actions and has directly challenged the authority of the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry into his actions regarding Ukraine”……

This makes Trump historically unique. As of today, Congress has received only a single document from the Administration: the read-out of the July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Everything else is behind the Trumpian stonewall, along with testimony of key players from Mick Mulvaney to John Bolton.

No other president,” the report concludes, “has flouted the Constitution and power of Congress to conduct oversight to this extent.” Richard Nixon famously resisted releasing the White House tapes until compelled by the Supreme Court, but nevertheless “accepted the authority of Congress to conduct an impeachment inquiry and permitted his aides and advisors to produce documents and testify to Congressional committees.”

Let us pause a moment to take that in.

Trump is saying, in effect, that Congress has no right to investigate him. The actual charges in question are irrelevant, because in Trump’s view it doesn’t matter. He can do whatever he pleases and Congress can’t say boo. And that, my friends, is the very definition of autocracy.

If and when these articles of impeachment come before the Senate, surely including obstruction of the investigation as one of its charges, the broader GOP is going to have to stand up in public and announce if it agrees. If it blithely excuses Trump’s obstruction, we will have crossed an extremely dangerous line. And right now, we have every reason to believe that is exactly what the Republican Party intends to do.

SLOW YOUR ROLL (GOP STYLE)

At the same time that the Trump administration is engaging in this Guinness Book of World Records-worthy obstructionism, its amen corner in the Republican leadership and right wing media is arguing that the Democrats are moving too fast on impeachment. This was the deliberately disingenuous argument made last week before the House Judiciary Committee by the GOP’s own handpicked witness, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, one that can be summarized as, “What’s the hurry?”

As with most of the GOP’s die-in-place defense of Trump, it is a process argument that tellingly fails to rebut any of the actual allegations against him—always the sign of a weak hand. But that’s the least of it.

Turley’s argument that impeaching on less than full and total evidence cheapens the process and lowers the bar for removal of a president is the height of dishonesty, since—do I really need to say this?—it is the White House itself that is that is illegally withholding that very evidence. You can’t refuse to comply with a process and then complain that the process is proceeding without you. (Unless your surname rhymes with “garbage dump.”) One has to admire the chutzpah, except for the part where that chutzpah destroys our democracy.

At the core of Turley’s circular “logic” is the ultimate deceit of the Trump/GOP position. They are employing this irrational, Kafkaesque defense because they cannot defend his actions on their merits, such as they are.

Turley’s performance ought to have made him the laughingstock of the faculty cafeteria. His white dude bias, on the hand, is top notch. The Nation reports: “During the confirmation battle for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the first woman of color ever nominated to the Supreme Court—Turley argued that his thorough ‘review’ of 30 Sotomayor opinions revealed that she lacked the ‘intellectual depth’ of a good Supreme Court nominee.” (In other news, Quasimodo calls J-Lo ugly.)

And let’s go back even further with the amazing Jonathan. The Nation again:

In 1998, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment hearing, Turley said, “No matter how you feel about President Clinton, no matter how you feel about the independent counsel, by his own conduct, he has deprived himself of the perceived legitimacy to govern. You need both political and legal legitimacy to govern this nation, because the President must be able to demand an absolute sacrifice from the public at a moment’s notice.”

It’s impossible to explain the shameless hypocrisy of Turley’s conflicting statements without concluding that his testimony, in both hearings, was offered in bad faith. Can Turley really expect us to believe that he would support impeachment if Trump lied about what he got on Volodymyr Zelensky’s blue dress, but would also support Bill Clinton’s right to extort a foreign power to influence an American election?….

 Back then, Turley was lauded by people like Rush Limbaugh for demanding that Clinton’s own Secret Service agents be subpoenaed to testify about what they know. You’ll note that Turley made no such demands yesterday of former national security adviser John Bolton or Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney….

Luckily, Turley’s argument is moot. The Mt. Everest of evidence already on hand is more than sufficient for articles of impeachment, and indeed conviction. The very act of stonewalling makes Trump look super duper guilty (I’m using the technical legal term), which any sentient person not shitfaced on Fox News-brand Kool Aid can see, and is itself impeachable conduct.

TOO LEGIT TO QUIT

Turley’s specious arguments are part of a broader GOP stance that is only slightly more sophisticated than Trump’s juvenile position that “I can do whatever I want” (but only slightly).

That Republican position stops short of rejecting the whole concept of impeachment, but holds that this particular process is so out of order that cooperating would only “legitimize” it, thus opening future presidents up to similar indefensible attack by radical, out-of-control opponents. (Somewhere in the ninth circle of hell, Dick Nixon is smiling.)

Two reasons that’s a joke.

First of all, per above, if the White House and GOP had evidence that would absolve Donald Trump of these offenses, they would certainly air it—especially if they thought the whole impeachment was a charade. The Trump administration isn’t exactly known for its subtlety or restraint.

But they don’t and they can’t.

Secondly, the claim of illegitimacy itself is the real howler, when everything about this impeachment has been done by the book. It is precisely the mechanism the Founders created for a scenario of this exact sort. You might be a Republican who thinks this particular application of it is groundless, that the evidence is just not there, and that the Senate ought to vote to acquit. (You might also be on crack, but still.) But no serious person can argue that the process itself is illegitimate. To do so is to say there is no impeachment clause at all, and to say there is no impeachment clause is to say that we are a monarchy. In that regard, the GOP’s fancier argument is really no different than Trump’s crude one.

The autocracy-curious GOP is very keen on the letter of the law when it comes to the President’s unilateral authority to do things that infuriate the other party (and huge swaths of the public), like ordering the Muslim travel ban, or re-allocating budget money to build a beaded curtain on the southern border. But when it comes to the House exercising its own Constitutionally-mandated authority, suddenly they cry “Overreach!”

As we are reminded ad nauseam, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. If in the last decade the Republican House had had the votes to impeach Obama for the infamous khaki suit, or for putting Dijon mustard on his hamburger, or for taking off his jacket in the Oval Office (all real things that Republicans were outraged over), it would have been within its rights to do so. It would have been absurd, and therefore counterproductive to Republican fortunes, but not unconstitutional. (Otherwise they would surely have tried it.) That is why the Founders set the bar for conviction in the Senate so high, at a two-thirds majority. If a frivolous or even merely weak case for impeachment is brought, the Presidency should defend itself, as Bill Clinton did. Categorically refusing to do so implies guilt, not principle. But to say that impeachment is illegitimate full stop and therefore the White House is within its rights to defy it is about the most extreme and anti-constitutional position an American political party could take. And that is the position that the Trump administration and a good many of its defenders in the Republican Party are taking.

GASLIGHT FEELS RIGHT

Let us return briefly to the great legal scholar and totally not a partisan hack Jon Turley.

In addition to his “what’s the hurry?” argument, Mr. Turley also told the House Judiciary Committee that he believes that Trump should not be impeached based on the evidence presented thus far, but that “if you prove a quid pro quo, then you might have an impeachable offense.”

Is he kidding, or is he seriously arguing that Trump did not withhold military aid to Ukraine (and a White House meeting for President Zelenskyy) for personal gain, after a parade of witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee, including firsthand testimony from EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, established that he did precisely that?

This is Republican gaslighting at its finest.

Needless to say, Republicans would shriek with outrage and scorn if a Democratic politician tried to make the same specious claim, and they would be right to do so. The GOP is clinging to the “no quid” argument the same way the Mafia claims that a Mob boss is innocent because he didn’t explicitly say in writing, “Take this handgun and go shoot Vinnie ‘The Elbow’ Scarfone in the face outside Umberto’s.” (Which is precisely why we have the RICO Act.)

And I’m not a constitutional law professor, but even if Trump hadn’t extorted Kyiv by withholding items of value, just asking a foreign power to interfere in an American election is illegal. (Or so I learned during “The Bob Mueller Show,” which ran on MSNBC from 2017-19.)

I bring this up because it goes directly to the dishonesty of Turley’s other argument about undue haste, and the White House’s blanket refusal to cooperate with the inquiry. The fact that Turley propagated the “no quid pro quo” fiction suggests that NO amount of evidence will be acknowledged as sufficient, and the Republican Party will continue to reject demonstrable reality. And once they plant that black flag of nihilism, they have no more credibility whatsoever and there is no having any rational discussion with them.

The real reason for that blanket refusal, as Charlie Sykes also notes in his recent Bulwark piece, is that it is working. Again, he deserves quoting at length:

As galling as it may be to acknowledge it, the reality is that Trump’s effort to obstruct Congress is a success, much like his well-documented efforts to obstruct the Mueller probe. The House decision not to push for the enforcement of its subpoenas virtually guarantees that the case will go to the Senate without volumes of pertinent evidence.

I am among those who think the evidence at hand is more than sufficient to justify Trump’s impeachment. But his partisan supporters will continue to declare the effort a sham and the case unproven and unironically complain about the lack of direct evidence—ignoring Trump’s all-out effort to conceal it from Congress.

Historians, who will know far more about Trump’s conduct that we do now, will marvel at how much evidence of his misconduct was left on the table. They will have access to documents, emails, text messages, memoirs, and transcripts (the United States vs. Giuliani?) that we have not seen.

At least some of them will write, “in fairness…” and then note the comprehensive nature of Trump’s obstruction. But, by then, Trump will have been acquitted by the senate and claimed exoneration.

For Trump, this is the lesson that he learned from the Mueller probe – investigations can be successfully obstructed, the rule of law be damned.

And this goes to the heart of the current impeachment effort: the obstruction is not a sideshow: it is heart of Trump’s attack on constitutional norms. In effect, he is in the process of shattering the system of checks and balances that we have relied on to check executive power. If he continues to succeed, it will set both a political and constitutional precedent that will be all but impossible to reverse.

That is an exceptionally depressing assessment, but sadly, an accurate one.

But none of this obstruction would succeed if the GOP did not excuse and condone and actively abet it. And the GOP would not do that if there was not an electoral benefit…..in other words, because they know that sixty-some million right wing Americans are totally supportive of it. The day that Donald Trump is acquitted by the quisling Republican majority in the Senate will be a dark day for American democracy. But the real point is the extent to which the Republican rank and file is totally fine with it.

WE DON’T NEED THIS FASCIST GROOVE THANG

We rightly blame Trump for being a human colostomy bag, and the GOP for creating the conditions that gave rise to him, and for protecting him to the ends of the earth for their own venal interests. But we also need to recognize that this is not a strictly top down phenomenon, but rather the result of the great mass of our own countrymen who have incentivized the GOP to do that, and continue to do so.

I don’t contend that most Republicans see themselves as championing the cause of fascism. That is precisely the problem. They have become so brainwashed by decades of Fox News indoctrination that they don’t even recognize the actions of this administration as anti-democratic, or hypocritical, or unconstitutional, or simply wrong. Their ability to think critically is gone. Call me an elitist libtard, say I’m part of the problem, or what have you, but it’s the truth. The tribalism has become so intense that many Republicans and other right wing Americans see Democrats and progressives as inherently evil, assaulting “democracy” at every turn, and their own tribe as inherently good and decent and right at all times. That is the mentality of a cult, not a rational political organization. And—anticipating the pushback here, Trumpers—part of that tribalism is to accuse the other side of being just as tribalistic and unable to think critically, an ouroboros of self-justifying false equivalence that powers this perpetual motion disinformation machine. See above re the flat earth.

We know that the plutocrats and kleptocrats and jingoists who comprise the Republican leadership, with their fetish for the unitary executive theory, tend to favor an authoritarian state that facilitates their greed, both foreign and domestic, vastly preferring it to representative democracy with its messy “will of the people” and all that rot. We also know Trump has a hard-on for despots, as shown by his man-crush on Putin, his praise for Kim and Xi and Duterte, his kowtowing to Erdogan, and his shameful, ongoing defense of Riyadh. The real crisis for our country began with the merger of these two poisonous forces, when the GOP accidentally discovered that it could weaponize this demagogic con man for its own purposes. That is tragic, and chilling, but easy enough to understand.

What is more mysterious is why ordinary rank-and-file Republicans are predisposed to crave an autocracy, or for that matter, why anyone would do so who is not part of the ruling class that has profit participation in it. Perhaps it is for the same reason that conservative working and middle class people—especially in the US—habitually vote against their own economic interests (“Hey, I’ll be rich someday too!”). Or perhaps, through nature or nurture, they are desperate for a cruel daddy figure to make them feel safe and/or boss them around. I don’t know.

But it goes without saying that all of these right wingers, mandarins and hoi polloi alike, only admire and condone such autocracy from the right. American conservatives, you will recall, were red faced with fury over Barack Obama’s alleged “imperial presidency“ and his use of executive orders. A left wing president who engaged in even a fraction of Trump’s abuses of power would likely lead to violent uprising by our heavily armed, Kid Rock-listening, Stars-and-Bars-waving countrymen. We are way beyond simple tribalism here and into a dangerously irrational realm.

An example. Just last week another great American, Ken Starr—cementing his place in infamy as a partisan bagman without a shred of integrity—accused Nancy Pelosi of “abusing her power” and suggested that the Senate might just dismiss articles of impeachment out of hand. I am skeptical of that prediction, but not because I think McConnell would never be so shameless. (Two words: Merrick Garland.) I think that under the right conditions Mitch would do it faster than his wife can funnel money to her relatives back home. But I suspect the GOP would prefer a show trial that they and Trump can use to claim “total and complete exoneration.”

But the greater point is the sheer hypocrisy of this American Javert. Starr sure does have a different standard for presidential misbehavior than he did in the late ‘90s, not unlike his former underling Brett Kavanaugh, who now believes a sitting president should not even be investigated while in office, let alone charged with a criminal offense. Next step: making the whole idea of a Democrat in the White House impossible by declaring any election that puts one there illegitimate by definition.

Think the GOP won’t go that far? OK. We shall see.

REPUBLIC’S END

As the author Michael Gruber writes, “The GOP is acting like a party that will never have to face a free and fair election again.” Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that it thinks it will not.

The entire history of the Trump presidency thus far is the story of a rapid slide into bald-faced one-man rule, to include the debasement of free elections. If Senate Republicans are now willing to close ranks and say that the POTUS (at least a Republican POTUS) is above Congressional oversight, then they will have said in effect that we are not a representative democracy at all, and the president is in fact a king. And kings don’t need no stinking elections.

Even with the upcoming Republican primaries, the GOP is taking no chances, canceling many of those elections (in eight states so far) rather than give anyone a chance to challenge Trump. As Charlie Sykes also points out in the Bulwark (it was a big week for Charlie), that in itself bespeaks not strength but weakness. For a president who likes to brag about his sky-high approval ratings within his party what is he so afraid of? Shouldn’t he welcome the chance to display his alleged dominance? Hell, even tinhorn tyrants like Putin and Kim at least pretend to hold elections to provide a veneer of legitimacy to their rule.

So be careful what you wish for, Republicans. You might like an autocracy fine when it foists your chosen one on snowflakes like me, but you might not like it so much when you’re the foistee.

For three years now I have been in a near-constant state of blood pressure-popping fury at what is happening to and in our country. (Did anyone notice? I think I hid it pretty well.) Weirdly, I am now finding that recognizing the all-out Republican embrace of autocracy actually calms me down a little. Once the claim of GOP belief in democracy is completely exposed as the farce it is, it’s easier to face—and in some ways easier to fight. I no longer feel quite so enraged by Republican lies, hypocrisy, and other crimes, because we no longer even pretend to believe in the same values or form of government. We are fast approaching the point where there’s no denying that we live in an unrepentant authoritarian state, ruled by a maliciously ignorant manchild whom the party happily uses to advance its hateful agenda, in return for which they allow him to enrich himself and his brood, and shield him from rightful legal accountability.

Yeah, that sounds like what the Founders had in mind in 1787, doesn’t it?

And if Trump manages to win again in 2020, legitimately or otherwise, the idea of Donald unchained in a second term is a truly chilling one. His acquittal itself will do grievous damage to the republic; if he subsequently gets four more years, it is fair to ask whether our republic will survive at all in any kind of recognizable form.

If we do not act to hold Trump accountable, either through removal by impeachment or by electoral defeat, his behavior will continue and indeed get worse. Indeed, it is continuing even now. Even as the impeachment barrels forward, Rudy Giuliani was just on the ground in Ukraine continuing to engage in the very behavior that has put this presidency at existential risk. It was a gobsmacking sight. But this administration is giving the finger not only to the impeachment inquiry but the rule of law full stop, knowing that the GOP has its back, and thus planting the flag of autocracy on the White House lawn. And sixty-some million Americans seem perfectly fine with that.

Until that changes, this nightmare will continue.

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Illustration: LP cover of George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music (1968), by Bob Gill. (Read more about the creative friction in its gestation and the reason for the missing brick.)

 

Will We Go Into the Darkness?

Will We

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that an epic moment for the future of our country looms ahead.

In public hearings over the past two weeks, Congressional Democrats have laid out an overwhelming case that Donald Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors in the Ukraine scandal. I am aware that right wing America does not see it that way. But right wing America also believes that Donald Trump is a corruption-fighting superhero, a lavishly generous philanthropist, a devoted enemy of Vladimir Putin, and a very stable genius. (Also: that climate change is a hoax.)

It goes without saying that if a Democratic president had committed even a fraction of these offenses, the GOP would already be outside the White House with pitchforks and torches (purchased from Lowe’s). I refer you once again to Obama’s khaki-colored suit.

But this goes way beyond mere partisanship. We are at a point where one of our two major parties and millions of its supporters are contemplating an action that undermines the very fundamental principles at the core of our democracy. I should specify that by that I mean the Republican Party and its willingness to excuse Trump’s behavior, because—per above—its rank-and-file believe it is the Democrats doing precisely that. But their conviction only proves my point, in that Trump and his supporters now reject proper Congressional oversight over the executive branch in favor of the redefinition of President Donald Trump as a king.

A BIG BOWL OF WRONG

After a world class display of goalpost-moving since the Ukraine scandal first broke, the GOP now seems to have settled on the argument that Trump’s behavior was wrong, but not impeachable.

There are two big problems with that.

First, it’s patently absurd. To excuse his actions in the Ukraine would be to affirm that the President can bribe foreign officials for his own gain using Congressionally-allocated taxpayer dollars, and then blatantly obstruct right and proper investigations into that behavior, to include witness tampering and intimidation. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “If that is the president’s position—that he can constitutionally ask any other country to intervene on his behalf in a US election—it represents a view of executive power that is the equivalent of a mob boss’s.” (I know many on the left are permanently furious with Sullivan and won’t read anything he writes. I have my issues with him myself, but he is right on the money there.)

Again, imagine if a Democratic president, blah blah blah. That is not to engage in whataboutist tit-for-tat, but merely to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the GOP position. We know that Trump has boasted that Article II of the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” (Someone must have told him that there was such as thing as “Article II.” Or a “Constitution.”) Such is his troglodyte interpretation of American democracy. But we are now on the verge of watching the GOP confirm that it agrees.

The second problem is that Trump himself is constantly undermining the “wrong but not impeachable” stance.

I know they’ll find a way, but how are Republicans plausibly going to mount that defense when Trump keeps tweeting things like: “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable … NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!” Ironically, the GOP’s defense of last resort might actually save him, but with characteristic mulishness, he refuses to play along, insisting on his absolute monarchist vision of the presidency.

It’s obvious that Trump was emboldened by having escaped justice in Russiagate. (The pressure campaign against Kyiv had begun months before, but it’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25, 2019 call with Zelinskyy came the very day after Bob Mueller’s anti-climactic testimony before Congress.) If Trump is not held accountable now, he clearly will do this sort of thing again.

As David Frum writes, he’s probably doing it right now.

PROFILES IN COURAGE (NOT)

The idea that Senate Republicans will give Trump a get-out-of-jail-free card is infuriating and indefensible, but after watching the despicable behavior of House Republicans during the last two weeks of hearings, we better get used to it.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. As I say, the impeachment case is mighty strong, and although the conventional wisdom is still that there’s no way twenty Republican Senators suddenly become vertebrates, a lot can change in the next few months, especially if Trump continues to be his own worst enemy. Look at how fast this whole scandal has unfolded, how fast impeachment—once thought to be dead as disco—came to the point of fruition from a standing start, and how fast public opinion has shifted to support it.

But the odds still remain that, absent a switch to a secret ballot (which is not actually all that farfetched), Trump will be acquitted by the Senate, through sheer willingness to put party over principle and over country.

The canary in the coalmine is Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas), a reasonable seeming African-American former CIA officer who isn’t even running for re-election in 2020, and who represents what ought to be the most moderate and rational wing of the GOP. Yet Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was present for the testimony of witnesses over the past two weeks, subsequently stated that he thinks Trump’s actions don’t merit impeachment, reflecting at worst a “misguided foreign policy.”

That’s like saying the secret bombing of Cambodia was a “careless handling of ammunition.”

If Will Hurd won’t vote for impeachment, no Republican will.

Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida, speaking to Nicole Wallace, gave this perfect summary of the GOP’s shameful role at this critical moment in American history:

These are, in today’s Republican Party, spineless politicians, rotten to the core. Without virtue, without any level of human integrity. Devoid of self respect, self reflection. Without courage and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence. And one day maybe they will have the recognition of how they failed the country and themselves in this moment. But that would be giving them credit that somewhere down deep they have the goodness to recognize how to reconcile their own failings with what is right and just in American politics, and frankly, what is right and wrong in the eyes of adults and children alike….

I agree they inevitably will make the case this is not impeachable. The problem is it requires every single Republican to align with Donald Trump and say that only Donald Trump speaks the truth. That Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, a man of honor and Purple Heart recipient, does not speak the truth. Ambassador McKinley, somebody who’s referred to as the ‘dean of the foreign service corps,’ does not speak the truth. Ambassador Yovanovitch, somebody who dedicated her life to promoting freedom and US ideals on the world stage, does not speak the truth. Only Donald Trump does. And there is no greater example of selling your soul to a charlatan than what Republicans are doing right now in the House and the Senate. And their legacies are on the line just as much as Donald Trump’s. We know the character of Donald Trump. We know the failings of Donald Trump. Watching play out in this impeachment proceeding is the failings of a Republican Party and every single member that goes along with this.

All you need to know about the modern GOP is that a man of principle like David Jolly felt compelled to leave it.

DECISION POINTS #1 AND #2

So let me state the patently obvious. If the Republican majority in the Senate blocks the removal of Donald Trump from office despite the manifest evidence of his abuse of power and other high crimes, it will be a dark day for the United States of America. It will mean, in short, that one of our two political parties has abandoned any semblance of respect for the rule of law. That should not come as a shock, given the GOP’s decades-long descent into neo-authoritarianism. But an acquittal of Trump would be the final nail in the coffin of conservative credibility.

In the final act of Watergate, when Nixon’s crimes became undeniable, the mandarins of the Republican Party did the right thing—belatedly perhaps, but they did it. Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Jacob Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott famously went to the White House and privately told Dick it was time to go. And he went.

Neither thing—Republican courage nor presidential acceptance of his fate—is likely to happen this time. And let’s bear in mind that Watergate, terrible as Nixon’s sins were, was a far less serious abuse of presidential power than what Trump has done.

Assuming Trump survives trial in the Senate, the next inflection point will be the election, which at the current optempo, figures to hit about eight to ten months later, and will be perhaps our last chance to put out this housefire and save the republic.

As I have argued over and over, echoing the thinking of many Democratic strategists, merely by laying out his crimes and general unfitness for office the impeachment process might damage Trump badly enough to doom him next November. In a functional democracy, it wouldn’t even be a question.

In that sense, the presumptive GOP decision to put party over country might prove a shortsighted calculation. If enough Americans are sufficiently disgusted by this Republican display of dishonesty, hypocrisy, and cowardice, the GOP might pay a hefty price in 2020, from the top of the ballot all the way down. Indeed, the indefensible defense of Trump might haunt and hobble the GOP for years to come. (I’ll stop short of the wishful thinking that it will be fatally wounded and go the way of its ideological forebear, the Know-Nothings. After all, just six years after Nixon resigned the GOP took back the White House.)

Then again, it might not pay that price at all. As I’ve written before, my nightmare, like that of many Americans, is that Trump not only survives impeachment but manages to get re-elected. He may do so “legitimately,” under the anti-democratic, countermajoritarian mechanism of the Electoral College (it wouldn’t be the first time), or illegitimately, through outright criminality. Since both paths involve voter suppression, black propaganda, rivers of dark money, violations of campaign finance laws, and other skullduggery, including the assistance of foreign powers, the line between legitimate and illegitimate is pretty fuzzy.

But we cannot lay off a potential Trump win as a flatout train robbery by the RNC, not even if it’s with the help of a certain Mr. V. Putin, late of St. Petersburg. If it is a train robbery, it’s one where a fair number of the passengers are in on the crime.

Lest we forget, sixty-two million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016, for whatever reason: three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, yet still an appallingly high number. Ironically, Trump might cobble together an even bigger Electoral College win next time around while losing the popular vote by an even bigger margin—an outcome that cannot be described as democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. To those conservatives who bluffly shrug and say, “Tough luck, that’s just how the Founders built our system” (or make some flimsy gesture at justifying it with blather about states’ rights), I would suggest that they would be far less sanguine if that system happened to favor the other side. The egregious flaws of the Electoral College are a book-length essay all by themselves, but suffice it to say that the institution was from the very start designed to benefit the Southern slaveholding states, and continues to do so to this day.

Trump’s first victory could maybe be written off as a fluke. The rest of the world looks at us right now more with pity than scorn. But if we return this cretin to office for a second term, even allowing for the skewing of the popular will by the Electoral College and other vote-distorting factors, we will forfeit that sympathy. And we will deserve to lose it.

APRÈS HIM, LE DÉLUGE

If Trump manages to remain in power for a second term, our system of government is likely to become unrecognizable, and not in a good way. It may be game over for American democracy as we know it, and once it is gone, the path to getting it back is formidable indeed.

Given the no-holds-barred, Louis XIV-meets-Roy Cohn manner in which he has behaved in his first term, an emboldened Trump is sure to be even more uncontrollable and flagrantly criminal in a second, when unconstrained by considerations of re-election.….except to the extent that he might well piss on the 22nd Amendment and run again, or just declare himself el presidente-for-life, as he has repeatedly “joked.” In any event, we can expect the neo-authoritarianism of the past three years to dramatically shift into flatout autocracy, and as some wag opined, look forward to Ivanka as Secretary of State, Roe v. Wade overturned, a shooting war with Iran, and Trump’s face on the $100 bill.

Think that’s Trump Derangement Syndrome? OK. Meanwhile, I’ll remind you that we have children in concentration cases on our southern border.

But, hey, I’m sure a second term will cause him to ’“pivot” and become “so presidential we’ll be bored,” as Donald promised during 2016.

No republic had lasted forever, of course. Right now, ours is experiencing a stress test unlike any in our history. There have been darker times—the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Depression, the Second World War, to name just a few—but no threat to the foundations of democratic rule quite like the one we are now facing.

Very popular lately is the story of Ben Franklin leaving the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and approached by a prominent woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel who asked what sort of government the founders had resolved to form. “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Big Ben’s famous reply. (It’s even the title of a recent book by none other than Neil Gorsuch.) The Founders lived a lot closer to the menace of autocracy than we do, and were painfully cognizant of how fragile a representative democracy would be. In fact, in human history there had never been one of the precise sort they envisioned.

More than two hundred years later we’ve grown complacent and spoiled, but the fragility of government of, by, and for the people remains unchanged.

CLEAVAGE, AND NOT THE GOOD KIND

We are about to find out how many of our fellow Americans would prefer to live in a right wing autocracy than a proper representative democracy. Again, I specify “right wing autocracy” because, of course, those folks who are so keen on King Donald the First would never in a million years go for this sort of authoritarian regime were it headed by an Elizabeth Warren.

The author Michael Gruber puts it well:

Russia is aspirational to current Republicans. They want a nation where the press is muzzled, where political opponents can be arrested and killed with impunity, where gays are oppressed, where the state and church are essentially one, where women are eliminated from serious political power, where Muslims and foreigners are despised and oppressed, also with impunity, and where everyone is white. This is their vision of America’s future, and four in ten of our fellow citizens agree.

Along those same lines, the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York magazine column “This Is No Ordinary Impeachment” was such a tour de force that for my own blog this week I contemplated just reprinting it in its entirety. But since my lawyer has advised me that that would be unwise, I’ll merely quote from it at length.

Sullivan writes that this is more than just an impeachment, but a question of “whether the legitimacy of our entire system can last much longer without this man being removed from office.”

(Trump) believes in the kind of executive power the Founders designed the US Constitution to prevent. It therefore did not occur to Trump that blackmailing a foreign country to investigate his political opponents is a classic abuse of power, because he is incapable of viewing his own interests and the interests of the United States as in any way distinct….

This is not just another kind of presidency; it is a rolling and potentially irreversible assault on the legitimacy of the American regime. If the CIA finds something that could reflect poorly on him, then the CIA is part of the “deep state coup.” Ditto the FBI and the State Department. These are not old-fashioned battles with a bureaucracy over policy; that’s fine. They are assaults on the legitimacy of the bureaucracy, and the laws they are required to uphold. These are definitional impeachable offenses, and they are part and parcel of Trump’s abuse of power from the day he was elected.

That’s all bad enough. But this cancer is not confined to one gobsmackingly terrible human being. No no, as we surveyed above, it is much worse than that:

Trump has turned the GOP—one of our two major parties with a long and distinguished history—into an accomplice in his crimes. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most contemptible figure of the last couple of years, even says he will not read witness transcripts or follow the proceedings in the House or consider the evidence in a legal impeachment inquiry, because he regards the whole impeachment process as “BS” and a “sham.” This is a senator calling the constitutional right of the House of Representatives to impeach a president illegitimate.

Thus it is the Republican Party, to repeat what has become a tired but immutable refrain, that is even more to blame and more of a threat than Trump himself, and will remain so even after he is gone. After all, it was the GOP leadership that allowed him to rise; this was no hostile takeover, but rather an piteous, voluntary surrender. It is the GOP leadership that has consistently protected and abetted him and used him to further its own despicable agenda, even in defiance of the popular will and rule of law, not to mention its bluff assurances that it would rise up in opposition if he went too far. Instead the GOP and its red-hatted flat-earther constituency has slipped further and further into an eager embrace of full-blown authoritarianism.

For the Republican leadership could not do what it has done without the passionate support of the rank-and-file. In fact, given the way Republican pols—even the most established—seem to tremble at incurring the wrath of the Trump base, it is often hard to tell who is leading whom. Sullivan again:

Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable. If Trump survives impeachment, and loses the 2020 election, he may declare it another coup, rigged, and illegitimate. He may refuse to concede. And it is possible the GOP will follow his lead. That this is even thinkable reveals the full extent of our constitutional rot.

It has often been remarked that Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of our national illness, which is true enough. For as much damage as he has done and continues to do, there is no denying that a system that would allow Donald Trump to become head of state is not healthy in the first place.

Sullivan suggests that the US is in the throes of “regime cleavage,” that dangerous state of affairs in which a society ceases to have a consensus about the system government it desires.

(I)t is described by one political scientist as follows: “a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions, and laws may be ignored, subverted, or replaced.” A full-on regime cleavage is, indeed, an extinction-level event for our liberal democratic system. And it is one precipitated by the man who is supposed to be the guardian of that system, the president.

He concludes by bucking the conventional wisdom that it would be better for our democracy to remove Trump at the polls than by impeachment, arguing that the former would only further normalize him and his behavior, even in electoral defeat:

(To defeat Trump in an election) would suggest that his assault on the truth, on the Constitution, and on the rule of law is just a set of policy decisions that we can, in time, reject. It creates a precedent for future presidents to assault the legitimacy of the American government, constrained only by their ability to win the next election. In fact, the only proper constitutional response to this abuse of executive power is impeachment. I know I’ve said this before. But on the eve of public hearings, it is vital to remember it.

This blog is subtitled “Dispatches from the American Twilight.” We are about to see whether that pessimistic description is accurate, and if we are indeed living on the edge of sundown.

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AP photo by Carolyn Kaster

 

Dreyfus’s Ghost

LTC-alexander-vindman copy

Yesterday I watched something on TV that is destined to go down in history as one of the darkest moments of American political theater since the McCarthy hearings.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Trump era—one that I’ve written about at length—is the headspinning sight of the Republican Party abandoning many of its core attributes (I won’t call them principles), from its longstanding suspicion of Russia, to its hyperventilating hysteria over deficits, to its commitment to NATO and a hawkish foreign policy. And all this it has done in cowering submission to a sociopathic two-bit con man, in pursuit of raw power unfettered by any concern for the Constitution, the rule of law, or representative democracy.

Grand Old Party indeed.

But perhaps most appalling in that fire sale of all things the GOP used to hold dear has been the vicious Republican slander of members of the US military…..a class of people that the right wing has deified, and to whom it has demanded lavish tribute from all others, including the opposition party.

That phenomenon reached a new low yesterday with the vicious attacks on Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

There’s no need for me to detail the range of attacks, but to skim them briefly: Vindman is unreliable, his judgment is in question, what he says is “just his opinion,” he’s a Never Trumper, he’s disloyal to the White House, hell he’s disloyal to the United States itself (which in Trumpworld is the same thing), and on and on all the way up to full-on espionage—which is to say, treason.

It’s one thing for Trump to sink to that low. (Does he need to sink? I think he dwells in that Marianas Trench.) It’s quite another for the entire Republican Party to fall in line. But we saw it yesterday from Trump’s amen chorus of toadies and craven sycophants (featuring Devin Nunes, Gym Jordan, John Ratcliffe, Elise Stefanik, and Lee Zeldin among others) as they obediently followed their rancid champion’s lead.

This gives the lie to the entire Republican claim to respect for the military, or duty, or honor, or service. This is how shallow it runs, and how quickly they will jettison it for partisan advantage. (Or in this case, a desperate attempt to shield their leader from rightful accountability under the law.)

Of course, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is not the first American warrior to be subjected to this demonstration of the Republican Party’s moral bankruptcy. The late John McCain, the Gold Star family of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, Admiral Bill McRaven, and Generals H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis are just a few of the military veterans whose service has been shamelessly demeaned by a spoiled brat draft dodger with fictional bone spurs. But the attacks on Colonel Vindman might be the most disgusting because they are so directly connected to Trump’s cornered rat, Roy Cohn-style willingness to do anything to discredit his foes and save his sorry ass.

Even before yesterday’s live testimony, Bush-era torture enthusiast and self-loathing immigrant John Yoo was among the most prominent to wade into the darkest of waters. Speaking to the odious Laura Ingraham (and with a creepily grinning Alan Dershowitz looking on in split screen), Yoo suggested that Colonel Vindman might be a Ukrainian spy. Incredibly, in his subsequent apology/non-apology walking that back, Yoo spent as much time expressing sanctimonious outrage that he was misunderstood—or so he claims—as actually clarifying himself or expressing any contrition. But let me tell you, I heard Mr. Yoo say it live and have watched the replay many times since; it’s not at all clear, as he now insists, that he was accusing Ukraine, not Vindman, of attempted espionage. But I guess a UC Berkeley Law professor can’t be expected to be very articulate or do words good. Right, John?

Lest anyone doubt that these attacks were directed from the very top, Charlie Sykes reports (via the Daily Beast) that the Trump White House took “the extraordinary step of distributing talking points to allies of the president” trashing this active duty US military officer who remains a member of the presidential staff. Notably, some of the attacks on Colonel Vindman came from the official White House Twitter account, which is the very definition of abuse of state power to persecute political enemies. (Yet Bill Barr believes the left are the ones “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”)

Regardless of one’s ideology, no thinking person can watch what happened yesterday and still defend this administration, especially those in the military and veteran community, of which I am a proud part.

SHIT ROLLS DOWNHILL, ESPECIALLY WHEN A SHITHEAD IS ATOP THE HILL

Three weeks ago I wrote that, contrary to F-16 flyovers at the Super Bowl, military service is not in and itself ironclad proof of integrity. It’s still true. (Looking at you, Mike Pompeo, USMA ‘86.) But when the GOP ostentatiously pretends that it is, and then behaves as it did to Colonel Vindman, the hypocrisy is too blatant to ignore.

This Republican hypocrisy didn’t begin with Trump, of course—I refer you to the Swift Boating of John Kerry by George W. Bush, veteran of the attendance-optional Texas Air National Guard. But as with many things, it has reached a new low.

Don’t get me wrong: the Republican Party still trades on chestbeating wannabe macho nationalism and fake valorization of the uniformed services. This is a party whose entire brand is that of rock-ribbed commitment to national security and adoration of those who prosecute it at the point of a bayonet. Except when those heroic American warriors threaten Republican hold on power.

But the attacks on Colonel Vindman have been much more extreme than on most of the other witnesses testifying to Trump’s high crimes. Perhaps that is precisely because his pedigree and compelling personal history make him an especially dangerous foe. In the regard, his dress blues attract Republican fire, out of necessity for the GOP, rather than deflecting it. But that makes the attacks more, not less, shameful.

It’s true also that Colonel Vindman is among the most potentially damning witnesses as someone who was actually on the critical July 25th Zelinskyy call, and who can obliterate the GOP’s already Kleenex-thin “hearsay” defense. But Gordon Sondland can do much more damage than Vindman can, and is doing so even as I write this. David Holmes, Bill Taylor, and George Kent are pretty damn damaging too. Yet Vindman has received more abuse than any of them. (Second place: former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who committed both of the paramount sins in the eyes of Donald Trump: she failed to be blindly loyal to him, and she has a vagina.)

So is there maybe something more to the special animus directed at Colonel Vindman?

Never Trump Republican Rick Wilson writes, with his usual panache:

House minority counsel Steven Castor’s line of questioning was pathetic, a transparent attempt to accuse Vindman of dual loyalties that even in this low moment shocked America. His sneering insinuation that Vindman was somehow compromised by the Ukrainian government’s offer of the job of Minister of Defense, an offer he declined and promptly reported, was a moment where even Republican members of the committee looked uncomfortable, and those shameless motherfuckers would watch Trump eat a live baby and laugh it off.

Let’s be blunt. The allusion to “dual loyalties” is an overt employment of the age-old anti-Semitic smear that the patriotism of American Jews like Alexander Vindman is compromised by their religion. There is almost no more despicable slur that can be hurled at an American of the Jewish faith. (Twinned with the anti-Semitism, the GOP also dips back into its traditional Russophobia —and general nativism—just long enough to use it against Vindman, ironically, to the benefit of Vladimir Putin.)

So a Jew and a woman draw the most abuse from Donald Trump. Show of hands if you’re shocked.

This is not the first time that a patriotic Jew has found that wearing the uniform of his country and serving with distinction in combat is insufficient to protect him from charges of disloyalty. But if you’re surprised that the Trump administration would take that line of attack, perhaps you have been vaping something a lot stronger than tutti-frutti flavored propylene glycol.

Heck, I guess there are very fine people on both sides after all.

YOU SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND, BABY, RIGHT ROUND

There were of course other lines of attack on Colonel Vindman, less incendiary but still worth noting.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), himself an Air Force veteran, snidely criticized LTC Vindman for wearing his uniform at the hearing. Republicans sure didn’t have any problem with that when Ollie North—who likewise wore civvies when he was on the NSC—put on his Marine Corps Class As to testify during Iran-Contra. North, of course, was among the accused in that scandal, rather than an accuser, and was eventually convicted of conspiring to defraud the United States, the same charge that hung over Trump during Russiagate. Didn’t stop North from later becoming president of the NRA, to bring this survey of Republican criminality full circle.

To paraphrase the newly popular meme: Parents, do you want your kids to grow up to be like Oliver North or Alexander Vindman?

We have not even really talked here about the substance of what the colonel testified to. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t good for MAGA Nation. After Vindman and vice presidential national security advisor Jennifer Williams came Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, who were supposed to be GOP-friendly witnesses, deliberately summoned by the Republicans in that hope. But they only corroborated the testimony of those who had gone before them. With friends like that, Trump don’t need no enemies.

As if it were not already clear, watching House Republicans yesterday it was patently obvious that the GOP has nothing substantive with which to argue. We’ve known that all along, of course, but it was stunning to watch it in action. In terms of the actual presidential misconduct in question, the GOP couldn’t lay a glove on Vindman or any of the others, but then again, they have been unable to rebut any of the witnesses or evidence in Ukrainegate thus far. Hence their resort to distraction and misdirection (e.g. the obsession with the now-irrelevant identity of the whistleblower), goalpost-moving, and galling attempts at character assassination to include anti-Semitic and xenophobic dog whistling to their white nationalist base.

No doubt this ghoulish charade will be sufficient for Fox Nation. But no thoughtful person of any political persuasion can watch this shitshow and not realize what is going on. Whether that will have a decisive effect on the broader public remains to be seen; I remain cautious.

As John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker:

“Bereft of any substantive defense of Trump, the House Republicans are betting everything on their alternative narrative, in which the deep state and its media allies cooked up the entire Ukraine story. The point isn’t necessarily to make this narrative believable in any objective sense. For the purposes of the White House and its GOP allies, it will suffice to make it believable enough for the conservative media and Trump’s supporters to rally around. That isn’t a high standard to meet.

…..As (LTC Vindman) explained in his opening statement, he has enough faith in his country to believe that, ultimately, the truth will win out. If he’s proved wrong, it will be a tragedy for him and for the rest of us.”

SHOW ME A HERO AND I’LL SHOW YOU A TRAGEDY

I wrote last week about the GOP’s false claim to be the party of patriotism. Hot on its heels, as if made to order, came the attack on Alexander Vindman as powerful proof of my point.

How far will the right wing go to destroy Colonel Vindman and others like him? Based on their behavior thus far, we ought to put nothing past them. Already there are serious concerns. Referencing information first reported in the Wall Street Journal, Max Boot writes:

“(T)he U.S. Army is prepared to move Col. Vindman and his family onto a military base to ensure their security if it is determined that they are in physical danger.” That a war hero might be in physical danger marks a new low in Republican attempts to defame and intimidate the witnesses against the president.

I would add only the bitter irony that this is happening to a man whose family fled the political repression of the USSR when he was a toddler, seeking refuge in a land that claimed to be free.

My affinity for LTC Vindman flows from several tributaries: as a fellow Army infantry officer, as a Brooklynite, and as a Jew (honorary in my case, through marriage and fatherhood), though I in no way presume to approach his courage or integrity. Truly this man, like many of his fellow witnesses, represents the very best of America.

So to recap, we just saw the President of the United States, his son, Republican Congressmen, and conservative pundits wantonly attack a Purple Heart-wearing career infantry officer and combat veteran of the Iraq war. That man’s crime? Daring to stand up and testify under penalty of perjury that the President violated his oath of office.

With Gordon Sondland’s testimony today, Trump is in even more jeopardy than ever, so don’t look for his ferocious and disgusting behavior to get better. No less a Republican shitbag than Ken Starr today suggested that Donald may be headed for a Nixon-style come-to-Jesus meeting with Republican senators, complete with a one-way helicopter ticket to San Clemente, er, I mean Mar-a-Lago. Hope springs eternal.

In the mean time, as I said at the top, the specter of Joe McCarthy hung over yesterday’s hearings…..and not for nothing, but let’s recall that it was McCarthy’s shameful attacks on the US Army that finally undid him, at the hands of the eloquent Joseph Welch.

But there was an even uglier specter haunting the Longworth House Office Building yesterday, one that involved events in fin de siècle France. Look it up.

Play the Marseillaise

Play the Mars

Contrary to popular belief, there are things that can be learned from Trump supporters. It may be in an ethnographic way, the way anthropologists study a lost pre-Columbian tribe. But it’s educational nonetheless.

One of the things I’ve learned from them lately is that they really see themselves as victims. No, I mean REALLY. We all knew that to some extent: a huge part of the post mortem of the 2016 election was endless handwringing in the allegedly liberal “mainstream media” over how globalism had left enormous numbers of working class Rust Belt dwellers high and dry and susceptible to the sale of Trump brand snake oil. (Now with more snakes!). More incisively, other pundits zeroed in on the very real panic among a lot of white conservatives—particularly those of the Christian supremacist variety—that they are losing the demographic chokehold they’ve had on this country for its whole history thus far. Hence the vile battle cry “Take Our Country Back!” in all its not-so-crypto-racist glory.

As Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic:

In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.

(Blame where it’s due: I’ve also heard “Take Our Country Back!” from the left, with no discernible irony or awareness that the other side says it too. I get it, but as a slogan it has serious downsides.)

It’s true that, in the long term, white Christian conservatives are holding the short end of the demographic wishbone. Appelbaum again:

(M)any conservatives, surveying demographic trends…..can see the GOP’s sinking fortunes among younger voters, and feel the culture turning against them, condemning them today for views that were commonplace only yesterday. They are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this comes dark possibilities.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I shed no tears for these folks and their “dilemma.” I’m a middle-aged white guy, but the only white people I know who are worried about this trend are those consumed with white identity politics, keeping other folks down, and advancing an agenda at odds with the pluralism and equality on which this country was founded.

In other words, racists.

I would not lump all Republicans in this ignominious clique, by the way, only a subset of them. But it’s a subset that the GOP has weaponized.

We’ll get back to that misplaced sense of victimhood in a moment. But first, let’s go to the movies.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS

Casablanca is often neck in neck with Citizen Kane atop many surveys of the best American movies of all time. (Distant third: Weekend at Bernie’s.) Among its most famous scenes is the one in Rick’s Café Americain (as in, “everybody comes to”) in which a group of Nazi soldiers in occupied Morocco are singing a raucous version of “Die Wacht am Rhein,” drawing the ire of Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo marches over to the bandstand and firmly tells the bandleader, “Play ‘The Marseillaise.’ Play it!”

The rattled bandleader looks to Rick, played by (do I need to say this?) Humphrey Bogart, who gives him the nod.

The band strikes up the French national anthem. The irritated Germans sing their hateful song louder. But one by one the other patrons of the café realize what’s going on, and join in the Marseillaise, until they have drowned the Germans out.

It’s one of the most stirring scenes in all of motion pictures, as these beleaguered French citizens, under the boot of the most murderous regime in human history, courageously stick a collective finger in Hitler’s eye. (We can leave the thorny issue of French colonialism out of the discussion for now.)

It’s worth noting that this act of theatrical protest results in the Nazis angrily shutting the cafe down, an order obligingly carried out by the collaborationist Vichy authorities in the person of Captain Renault (Claude Rains), on the famous pretext that he is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling going on in the joint. (“Your winnings, sir,” a croupier says immediately thereafter, handing Renault a wad of cash.)

Henreid’s command “Play it!” also echoes perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, when Bogart says the same thing to Dooley Wilson regarding “As Time Goes By”. (Oft misquoted, he never says “Play it again, Sam,” though Ingrid Bergman comes close earlier in the film when she says “Play it once, Sam.”)

Yes, Casablanca is a good movie.

Here in the greasefire that is the United States circa 2019, a scene like the singing of the Marseillaise resonates, and in a way that doesn’t require making exaggerated comparisons or violating Godwin’s Law. (In other words, yes, I know Trump is not in Hitler’s league. But he’s a fanboy.) It feels like how we feel every time that, in some small way, we win any kind of victory, no matter how minuscule or purely symbolic, over the tinhorn tyrant who is doing his level best to destroy everything that we hold dear as a country.

But here’s the problem.

The other side identifies with the Resistance fighters too.

No big surprise, really; no one identifies with the Nazis (except Stephen Miller). Of course, when choosing sides for this particular game of “let’s pretend,” the modern GOP’s resemblance to actual fascists does not help its case.

IN THE END, I BLAME SOCIETY

If you dive into the online conversation among a great many rank-and-file Trump supporters, you will find what seems to be a genuine, deeply aggrieved sense that they are under constant—and even literally physical—attack.

They see themselves as viscerally menaced by antifa, which in right wing world is a force as numerous, ubiquitous, and powerful as the Cold War-era Red Army (or if you prefer, gangsta rap-blasting super-predators of the 1990s, or the caravan of drug-dealing Central American barbarians barreling toward our southern border).

They commiserate over being afraid to put “Trump 2020” signs on their lawns or wear their red MAGA hats in public for fear of angry retaliation from their neighbors and strangers alike. (If that is so, I’m not sure what accounts for the proliferation of both. Perhaps these fearful Republicans live in San Francisco.)

They bemoan the hatred that they say is spewed from the left, the attacks on the president (often identified as “our” president), and the way that—in their view—liberals are sowing division in our country.

And above all, they believe that it is people like them—white conservative Christians, mostly—who are the Americans most egregiously discriminated against.

This last point is the one that has been most widely reported and is therefore least surprising—though no less batshit, or powerful as evidence of just how deep the white sense of entitlement goes.

Do conservative Americans really believe they are a besieged tribe in a society where all the odds are stacked against them? Where all the levers of power are cordoned off and unavailable to them? Where they have to fear for their lives every time they venture out of doors?

The Republican Party controls the White House, the upper chamber of Congress (and until recently the lower one as well), a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, an increasingly large chunk of the federal judiciary, and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. (And that of course doesn’t even take into account all the other advantages, tangible and intangible, that the dominant race, class, and religious group holds in this society.)

But by all means—they’re the underdogs.

This collective delusion goes beyond legitimate grievances of the white Midwestern working class against a Democratic Party that has been insufficiently attentive. It even goes beyond the illegitimate panic of racists and xenophobes who think if English was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for America. It is a confidence game-cum-conspiracy theory that has been carefully cultivated and spoonfed to these folks by a political party and the powerful interests it represents….and has now metastasized and become a dangerous distortion of reality internalized by millions of right wing Americans. In that regard, it sits perfectly within the Orwellian perversion of truth that is the sea in which Trump swims, and where we are all drowning.

SELF-PITY PARTY

“Victim” used to be a pejorative. Now it is a badge of honor that brings with it great power. For years conservatives sneered at it for that very reason, especially when deployed by folks whom they had a hand in victimizing and oppressing. For the right, it was emblematic of the “taker” class; they, by contrast, claimed to valorize rugged individualism and pioneer-style self-sufficiency. (Top pioneer skills: selling smallpox-laced blankets, pretending corporate welfare isn’t a thing, and not noticing public services like police, firefighters, and roads.)

In truth, of course, whites have always employed the same trope themselves. The fiction of white people as a valiant breed beleaguered by sinister forces—mostly darker-skinned—is as old as Western civilization. Similarly, when white Christian conservatives (men especially) complain about “political correctness,” what they’re really complaining about is being held to account for their behavior and denied the privilege they’ve traditionally enjoyed at the expense of others, like being able to treat women and racial and religious minorities like shit just because they can. That’s the country they want to “take back.”

But once the right realized how powerful victimhood was as a weapon, it didn’t take them long to embrace it. And with Trump, that phenomenon has reached its apotheosis.

Again in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes:

As the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observed in their 2015 paper and later book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, whereas people were once loath to be seen as victims, domination is now “the main form of deviance,” while victimization attracts sympathy, “so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.” Sympathetic dollars can follow––as can political support. From the start, Trump has touted his supposed victimhood as no president has before, confident that his supporters won’t hold self-pitying whines against him.

Speaking of movies, in Kasi Lemmons’ new film Harriet, about the woman that Trump and Mnuchin won’t have on the $20 bill, there is an instructive scene that strikes at this very issue. A self-pitying white plantation owner who has fallen on hard times—Harriet Tubman’s former enslaver—tearfully describes feeling like a prisoner in her own plantation, surrounded by “black faces” as her guards. Later, when the woman is confronted by fellow crackers demanding restitution for the hardship that Harriet has caused them by freeing their slaves, she turns the mob to her side by appealing to their common race, and the idea that they are all victims of abolitionism.

Too on the nose? I know some will say so. But for my money, it ought to be required viewing, Ludivico technique-style, for all Fox News followers.

When it comes to claiming the mantle and attendant moral authority of victim, let’s return for a moment to Yoni Appelbaum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, titled “How America Ends,” and the notion that 2016 was the last chance to stop “America’s decline”—which, naturally, white reactionaries see as synonymous with their own loss of power. Appelbaum mentions the incendiary analogy made during the last presidential campaign by conservative writer Michael Anton that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” That’s a metaphor that, to say the least, plays directly to right wingers’ self-flattering vision of themselves as underdogs and martyrs and heroes…..and, in case you missed it, one that casts Democrats and progressives as radical terrorists bent on mass murder.

It’s worth noting that even in that self-chosen metaphor the Republican Party ends up suicidally crashing the aircraft that is the USA into the ground, killing everyone onboard.

TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING

Speaking of the Marseillaise, ironically, our own national anthem has become a battleground in this very culture war.

Trump, with his preternatural schoolyard bully’s instinct for an opponent’s vulnerabilities—and his grifter’s instinct for a sucker’s weak spot—glommed right onto the NFL controversy as a way of ginning up his racist base. It’s as clear as the hood on his face. Per Samuel Johnson, patriotism is famously the last refuge of a scoundrel; that line was never more apropos than in the case of this man, the least public-service-minded dude ever, and one who predictably screams the loudest about the red, white and blue, needs the highest flagpole, and is leading the hunt for a lynching tree for Colin Kaepernick even as he actively works against the interests of the United States and for his own venal gain.

Given Trump’s original line of work, I am even fonder of George Jean Nathan’s quip that patriotism is the arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles. (As if Donald had any of the latter.) And of course, in the ultimate display of shamelessness, we have seem him viciously attacking the loyalty of true patriots who have unquestionably earned their stripes, from McCain to the Khan family to McRaven to (most recently) Vindman, Taylor, and Yovanovitch.

As there is no evidence that this draft-dodging con artist ever did a single thing in his life to benefit anyone other than himself, his cynical and dishonest exploitation of patriotism is the height of hypocrisy—yet also eminently predictable—as he embodies yet another famous quote, the one about American fascism arriving wrapped in the flag and carrying a Bible. The irony of Trump-as-patriot is twinned with the irony of this thrice-divorced serial adulterer, professional liar, cheat, greedhead, and preening porn star raw dogger as a paragon of Christian faith and virtue.

But the conflating of patriotism with blind loyalty to nation is as old as time and a staple of reactionaryism.

In the John Birch mentality, any criticism of the United States is by definition disloyal, if not openly treasonous. It’s an absurd position, of course, and one with dark, McCarthyite (or, yes, even fascist) implications when taken to its logical extreme. It is a further step beyond even that to equate the United States with its president, Louis XIVth cult of personality style.

Here we go back to the popular right wing bumper sticker of the tumultuous late Sixties: “America: love it or leave it.” The question is, what does it mean to “love” one’s country? Does it mean blind, unquestioning loyalty to what its temporary rulers say or do at any given moment? I’m gonna say, uh, no.

A related quote—and often similarly distorted—is US naval hero Stephen Decatur’s ”My country, right or wrong.” (Like “Play it again, Sam,” a misremembering. His exact quote, circa 1816, was: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”) With all due humility, I don’t think the Commodore was advocating blind obedience. On the contrary, I think he likely meant that we ought to be even more invested in redressing our failures and shortcomings when our country is in the wrong.

Let’s go then to James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Pride in one’s homeland can be an admirable and constructive thing; look at how we encourage it in oppressed communities struggling to assert their identities. It’s only when it tips into nationalism that it becomes toxic, as is often the case with powerful nations, or those riven with divisive internecine strife. (And nationalism of course is itself a kissing cousin of xenophobia and racism.)

The United States’ hyperpower status makes ostentatious displays of patriotism a bit icky. Even in international soccer, one of the few places where the US is a poor relation, it makes me feel a little awkward to be part of “Sam’s Army” chanting “USA! USA! USA!” (The choice of “army” itself is sketchy, either tone deaf to the rattling specter of American militarism or an example of it, predecessors such as the KISS Army and Franco’s Italian Army notwithstanding.)

The right fetishizes the shibboleths of patriotism—the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem—and insists that forced respect for them is a precondition of devotion to country. (Because nothing says patriotism like a mandatory display of coerced obedience.) There is no awareness of what those things are supposed to represent—freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom to dissent—and no more perfect example of that than the brouhaha over the NFL players kneeling in respectful protest over police brutality during the national anthem. Here again we see angry white people howling in outrage that a group of fellow Americans visibly wronged—targeted, beaten, and even killed in systemic fashion—have the temerity to mention it.

The right has long tried to assert a monopoly on patriotism, with its bellicose foreign policy (jingoistic, some might say) and ostentatious displays of flag-waving. That conservatives are the best stewards of national security has always been a canard, considering the disastrous foreign policy misadventures they have led us into, from the Red Menace and the arms race, to Nixon’s criminal and self-defeating prosecution of operations in Vietnam, to covert dirty wars in Latin America, coups in the Middle East, and of course the second Iraq war. (Democrats are not blameless either, particularly when it comes to Southeast Asia.)

And that was before Trump came on the scene. Since then, under his, er, leadership the GOP has made an even worse dog’s breakfast of US interests abroad, from getting played by Kim Jong Un, to the idiotic withdrawal from the JCPOA, to the undermining of NATO, to the appalling abandonment of the Kurds and resuscitation of ISIS, to the general emboldening of dictators around the world, to blackmailing Kiev while its soldiers died for want of Javelin missiles, and all of it baldly serving the overall objectives of Vladimir Putin and Russia. (Someone should look into that.)

But patriotism does not belong to conservatives, no matter how much they pretend it does. So let’s blow up the lie that right wingers own the Stars and Stripes, and the warriors who fight on our behalf, and love of country itself.

Indeed, when we look at the contempt it has shown for the rule of law and the most fundamental principles of American democracy over the past three years, there is a strong argument that the modern Republican Party is the most profoundly anti-patriotic organization this side of the Klaus Fuchs Appreciation Society. Internationally, it has become a willing arm of Kremlin policy—a headspinning turn for a party that once had Russophobia as its lodestar. Domestically, it has been ceaseless in its efforts to reject the pluralistic, diverse idea of the Founders in favor of something they explicitly opposed: an autocracy with a state-ordained religion.

And many of the most prominent Founders were slaveowners. The modern GOP is not even as enlightened as a bunch of guys who literally owned other human beings.

So, as televised impeachment begin and the resistance enters a new and dramatic phase, let’s assert our ownership of that. Love of country and commitment to the principles on which it was founded does not belong to Lindsey Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Devin Nunes, or Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway, or Fox News and Breitbart, and it certainly does not belong to Donald J. Trump.

It belongs to us.

So all I wanna say is:

Play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

********

Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis, written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, cinematography by Arthur Edeson. A Warner Brothers production. Special shout-out to my friend Gregory Orr, whose mother Joy Page played Annina Brandel, the Bulgarian refugee who, with her husband, seeks Bogart’s help in escaping Casablanca near the top of the movie.