This Just In: War Is Hard

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is proving to be far harder than the Kremlin—and indeed, most outside observers—expected. This is above all a tribute to the grit and determination of the Ukrainian people, whom many expected, through no fault of their own, to be little more than speed bumps under the treads of Russian armor barreling toward Kyiv. 

They have been anything but.

It is also due in part to skillful diplomacy by the West, and—ironically—a revitalized and freshly unified Western alliance, with Vlad the unintentional agent of that revitalization.

But the mess Russia faces is also an immutable principle of armed conflict. 

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” as the old saying goes. (Attributed to the 19th century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, the elder, the literal quote is: “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main enemy force,” or “Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus,” if you want to be Teutonic about it.)

Or in the words of Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” 

Putin has taken several punches in the mouth over the last few days, both on the literal battlefield and the metaphorical one. 

To this old soldier, the first sign of trouble was the sight of Russian fighter planes being shot down. Moscow’s inability to achieve air supremacy is telling—and I do mean supremacy, and not mere “air superiority,” which is to say, total, uncontested control of the skies, as the US had in both its invasions of Iraq. Given the numerical and technological mismatch, the Russian military should have been able to effectively suppress Ukraine’s air defenses, and truly needed to do so as a prerequisite for the entirety of the operation to follow. That it has not been able to achieve that is an ominous sign. 

Meanwhile, on the ground, Ukrainian resistance, both from the military and from ordinary citizens, has been staunch. Russian armored columns are said to be stalled in their attempt at a blitzkrieg; no major Ukrainian cities have yet fallen; Russian supply lines are already stretched thin; and the expected cyberattacks have not yet emerged (though Anonymous took down a bunch of Russian government websites in a preemptive counterattack). 

The strategic weaknesses of an autocracy are showing. At home, many ordinary Russian citizens are said to be even more shocked than Westerners that this invasion would actually happen, and there is significant public protest. It’s even been reported—by LTC (Ret.) Alexander Vindman, among others—that some Russian soldiers didn’t know what country they were invading when they deployed to Ukraine, or indeed that this was a real world operation at all and not merely a training exercise. That is not a recipe for national resolve when the bodybags start coming home, or Western sanctions kick in. 

The Russians also seemed unprepared for the level of defiance from their Ukrainian foe. In a place with the unimprovable name of Snake Island, a small, besieged group of Ukrainian soldiers responded to a Russian warship’s demand that they surrender by radioing back: “Go fuck yourself.” 

And somewhere Tony McAuliffe is smiling.

WHEN INFOWARS AIN’T JUST A CUTE NAME

Russia is also losing the information war in a rout. 

There has been near universal global condemnation of the invasion, a kind of scrutiny and opprobrium Putin did not have to deal with when he leveled Grozny, for instance, in the early ‘00s. (We’ll get to his overconfidence in a moment.) 

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy is demonstrating that he is both a bold and brave leader and a savvy communicator. Among his countrymen, his TV and Internet appearances from various wartorn locations are earning him a reputation as a flatout hero. His impassioned speech to the EU heads of state via video evidently convinced that otherwise jaded and recalcitrant bunch to enact historic, punishing sanctions on Moscow, including its eviction from the world’s financial network. His memorable and meme-ready way with words is turning him into a rock star in the West as well. (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he apparently told the US when we offered to extract him, a quip since heard round the world.)

We ought not be surprised. Not widely remarked upon, but of special interest to comedy nerds, Zelenskyy is a lawyer by training, but also an actor and comedian who rose to fame playing a fictional President of Ukraine in a TV show called “Servant of the People,” before assuming that role for real, as the head of a political party bearing that same name. 

Someone please page Armando Iannucci.  

(Zelenskyy is also Jewish, making the score Ukraine 1, USA 0 when it comes to Semitic heads of state. That puts us in the same league as Saudi Arabia; Israel still has a commanding lead.)

The faceoff between Zelenskyy and Trump, star of “The Apprentice,” thus takes on the cast of the worst crossover episode ever. On the heels of that, and Sean Penn in Ukraine making a documentary, is it such outrageous satire to think Steven Segal—a naturalized Russian citizen—is fighting alongside Russian spetznaz

As long as it keeps him off the road with his band.

We’ve even seen statements by prominent Russian athletes who compete in the West, like the tennis pro Andrey Rublev, and to a lesser extent, a cautious statement by the NHL’s Alexander Ovechkin (of the Washington Capitals, for you fans of irony), heretofore a longtime pal and supporter of Putin. For many, however, Ovechkin didn’t go nearly far enough. Meanwhile, Formula 1 is canceling the Russian Grand Prix, and the Champions League is moving its final—a Super Bowl-level event, you maybe surprised to learn, my fellow Americans—from St. Petersburg to Paris. (So Liverpool supporters: change your tickets and get ready to watch Hendo & Co. hoist the trophy in the Stade de France.)  

In short, we shouldn’t be surprised that, for all his alleged cunning, a lifelong KGB officer pushing 70 and ensconced for the past two decades in the Kremlin bubble is proving inept at the complex game of modern marketing. The down side is that Putin might decide to say, “Fuck it” and just stick with the part of statecraft he’s good at, which is killing people.

AN ARMY OF ONE

By some accounts, Vladimir Putin is the most powerful human being who has ever lived in all of human history. (Sorry Madonna.)

He is the richest man on earth with an estimated wealth of $200 billion, having robbed the Russian nation blind on behalf of himself and his cronies. (Elon Musk is reported to be worth more, but Putin’s personal fortune is surely an underestimation, given that the entire treasury of the Russian state is pretty much his own personal ATM.) At the same time he commands a nuclear arsenal second in size and power only to that of the US, capable of eradicating all life on Earth at the touch of a button. The President of the United States is often described as the most powerful person on the planet. But he (or she—it’s possible, right?) is constrained by a wide range of democratic checks and balances, from Congress to the courts to the Constitution itself. Vladimir Putin is constrained by nothing but his own sense of decency. Which is to say: not at all. 

In military intelligence, we talk about the enemy not in the plural—“they”—but in the first person singular: “he.” He has such-and-such capability. We assess that he will do X, Y or Z. His forces are being attritted. He is vulnerable if we hit him here. (With apologies to Andrew Sarris, call it the military auteur theory.) 

This is largely just a matter of style and tradition. But with Vladimir Putin, it is pretty much an accurate statement of grammatical fact. 

Putin does not depend on the acquiescence of the Duma, nor the voters. He does not even really rely on the strategic advice of his top cabinet ministers or military professionals, whom he likes to keep at the far end of the longest table in all Moscow. He is a despot with virtually unlimited power who not only answers to no one but by all accounts does not even solicit anyone else’s advice. 

Much remarked upon before the invasion was his cocksure “overconfidence.” And why shouldn’t he be overconfident? He got away with annexing Crimea, with invading Georgia before that, and Chechnya before that; with poisoning KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, on British soil; he even got away with ratfucking a US election and installing his own personal puppet as President of the United States. Looks pretty good on his Linked In profile. 

Domestically he’s gotten away with turning the Russian government into a cult of personality, with shutting down opposition parties and making a mockery of elections, with seizing de facto control of the media, with arresting and jailing his enemies on the flimsiest of provocations or no provocation at all. Litvinenko is the least of it, though still perhaps the most baroque, as Putin has gotten away with blithely imprisoning, murdering, or trying to murder uppity oligarchs, dissident journalists, and all manner of political opponents from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Anna Politkovskaya to—most recently and dramatically—Alexei Navalny.

So yeah, he’s pretty cocky. And we thought he was gonna be reluctant to invade Ukraine?

Even so, there were so many good reasons to think that this invasion would be a colossal disaster for Russia that until it happened many informed observers found it hard to believe that he would go through with it, even as he made it abundantly clear that he intended to do so. To that end, there has been a lot of debate over whether he is a “rational actor” or not. 

In some ways it’s a matter of semantics, which is another way of saying that the answer is both yes and no. 

RISK/REWARD

Putin is a murderous despot, but he’s not stupid. He cannily played his hand against the Western powers and carefully prepared the battlefield for this operation with all the usual bullshit about a genocide of ethnic Russians within Ukraine, Orwellian talk of sending in “peacekeepers,” pearl-clutching about Russia as the real victim, etc etc etc. All that is supremely “rational”—if evil—in the extreme. 

Putin really made it hard to obey Godwin’s Law when he was covering all of Adolf’s greatest saber-rattling hits: the country I want to invade is historically part of my country, it’s not really a country at all, it’s the aggressor threatening me and my people, all I really want is a protective zone for my nation’s legitimate self-defense, and you know, maybe some room to grow—lebensraum, to coin a phrase. The parallels to 1938 were so blatant as to be ridiculous, right down to the not-coincidental choice of Munich for the last-minute security conference on the crisis. 

(The question of the Olympics, to which I alluded last week, is both absurd and emblematic. To think that a man who routinely kills his political opponents cares about the Olympic tradition of suspending hostilities every four years is laughable. Yet the timing of the invasion, on the day after the closing ceremonies, was likely not coincidental, as the Russia Federation, like its Soviet forebear, has aggressively weaponized the Olympic movement for its own ends, with China now following suit.)

But with Biden and the West having credibly informed Putin of the specific ways in which he was going to suffer if he went ahead with the invasion, surely he must be irrational to have still gone through with it. So what was he thinking? 

Well, I suspect he was thinking the same thing Saddam Hussein was thinking when staring down the barrel of a US invasion in the spring of 2003, his second in twelve years: that his grip on power was better served by defying the West, even with the lumps he would take, than by allowing threats to that power to continue to metastasize. And in Putin’s case, as we discussed last week, the chief threat to his power was and is the rise of democratic nation-states in what was once the Russian sphere of influence, including former parts of the USSR itself.

I do not believe it was a simple matter or having painted himself into a corner. An unchallenged supreme leader who has control of all significant media in his country could, if he wanted to, simply withdraw from his attack positions on three sides of Ukraine (four, if you count the ocean), declare victory, and tell the Russian people, “Mission accomplished!” 

But that would not relieve him of the central problem of a democracy next door that might give his own people worrying ideas.

In other words, pre-war debates over how Putin could extricate himself with face intact missed the point. He did not want to extricate himself. His only way out has always been through Kyiv.  

Now he must deal with the consequences of that calculation. 

NERO ON THE MOSKVA

As far as being a rational actor goes, even before the invasion kicked off, the image of Putin as icy grandmaster took a hit with his address of February 21 to the Russian people, and the world. Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, offered a tidy review of how unhinged that speech was: 

He had the presence not of a confident president, but of a surly adolescent caught in a misadventure, rolling his eyes at the stupid adults who do not understand how cruel the world has been to him. Teenagers, of course, do not have hundreds of thousands of troops and nuclear weapons.

But body language was the least of it. Putin’s words were a jaw-dropping greatest hits barrage of Soviet-style paranoia and lies. I thought he might take his shoe off and bang it on the table. The same was true for the televised charade of his meeting with his advisors, which had the feel of dystopian science fiction or a Python sketch, or both. 

Yet we keep hearing that it’s a mistake to think Putin is simply a madman. OK, point taken—I agree, and I would not underestimate him. (Not sure I would go to Mike Pompeo-level of fanboyism, though.) That said, Vlad continues to behave in ways that belie that presumption of rationality. Former US Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul tweeted, “I’ve watched and listened to Putin for over thirty years. He has changed. He sounds completely disconnected from reality. He sounds unhinged.”

(For that matter, the same applies to Trump. Look at the old clips of him on Letterman in the ’80s. Always a racist megalomaniac and human skidmark, he could at least put together a coherent sentence back in the old days. No more.) 

Of course, is entirely possible to believe that Putin was once a ruthless, eminently rational, coldly calculating KGB officer, and at the same time believe that, over twenty years of dictatorial power, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants fearing for their lives, he has, as the clinical term goes, lost his shit. 

Over the past ten years, Putin has definitely engaged in some Nero-like behavior. Check out his child’s piano recital version of “Blueberry Hill” from 2010, or the 2017 ice hockey game in which he scored six goals (somebody get me two octopi, Red Wings fans), while the professional players in the game somehow forgot how to play defense. (NPR’s Scott Simon: “Putin gets the puck. He’s blocked, but he sends his opponent to a labor camp. The goal is open. Putin scores. Putin with the puck again. He goes left. He goes right. But wait—the defender’s hit by a bathtub falling out of a window. Putin scores!”)

(For an instructive comparison, see this scene of President-for-Life Idi Amin in a swimming race, from Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait.)

The less said about his scuba diving, horseback riding, and shirtless beefcake posing on the beaches of the Black Sea the better. 

Putin seems suffering from an ailment common to despots, which is the dangerous, mind-clouding isolation of authoritarian rule, with no one able or willing to give him good advice or tough love. Not to put it on a scale with Napoleon’s invasion of (yep) Russia, but Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine may prove an own goal of such foreseeable stupidity that future historians will shake their heads in puzzlement at how such a savvy player could make such a big mistake. 

I would refer them to neuropsychologist Ian Robertson’s book The Winner Effect, about the physiological changes in brain chemistry produced by massive fame and power, for which evolutionary biology has not adequately prepared mere mortals.

INTO THE ARMS OF THE WEST

Perhaps the most ironic part of the backfiring of Russia’s invasion is the re-strengthening of NATO and the broader Western alliance, and the re-emergence of the US as a world leader. And all this just a few short years after Trump all but trashed eight decades of delicate and methodical postwar alliance-building. Whoda thunk it?

Surrealism abounds. Biden is hailed as a great statesman and America as the tip of the NATO spear. For the first time in almost 80 years, Germany is setting aside its well-founded fear of its own militarism and sending weaponry to aid a beleaguered foreign nation. (To say nothing of suspending Nord Stream 2.) Even famously neutral Switzerland has joined in global financial sanctions on Moscow. Hell, the last time the Swiss took sides, even covertly, it was to aid the Nazis.

In fact, forget NATO: Zelenskyy has applied for Ukrainian membership in the EU! While the former might have more practical military impact with the collective security implications of Article 5, the latter represents an even more stark break with Moscow and realignment with the West. Precisely the thing Putin feared and that he invaded Ukraine to stop. 

Writing in The Atlantic just before the war began, Tom McTague put the Ukraine crisis in the broader context of shifting (let’s not hastily say waning) American power, arguing that “Russia’s challenge to the West today….is predicated on its belief that American power is retreating, and with it the power of its example. Europe’s response, however, has been to reveal how powerful America remains. The truth is that it’s possible for both sentiments to be true at the same time.”

Warts and all, the Russian invasion demonstrates how the United States remains the indispensable nation to which the rest of the democratic world looks for leadership in a global crisis, whether it’s COVID or the climate emergency or Ukraine. We have not always lived up to those expectations, of course, but we saw what happens when the US abdicates that role, or proves unworthy of it, as under Orange Julius. Among many other reasons, that is also precisely why it was so wrenching to see Trump wantonly break the bones of our already imperfect democracy here at home. 

Here in the US, some 74% of Americans view the Ukrainian invasion as a travesty, a rare moment of near-unanimity in our polarized nation these days. Beyond that, however, the understanding of the nuances of the situation is not great. 

The self-righteousness on the center-left, bordering on jingoism in some cases, leaves me cold. (From the far left we continue to hear only about US imperialism.) All the rah-rah sanctimony about how we can’t let Ukraine fight alone is great, but ignores some practical realities. Yes, the US should provide as much support to the Zelenskyy regime as humanly possible: military materiel, technological assistance, intelligence sharing, economic and financial pressure, cyber operations, PSYOPS, some degree of clandestine and covert special operations, and yes, also moral support, which is more important than it sounds. 

(Gee, wouldn’t it have been great if we hadn’t blackmailed them and withheld Javelin anti-tank missiles back in 2019? What might have been.) 

But the deployment of conventional US military units in active combat—not even under discussion, except on Facebook—is not on the table and rightly not. It would be madness to risk letting a regional conflict, however noble, spiral into an omnicidal world war between the nuclear powers. 

If it is gutting to watch Ukraine fight for its life and not do truly everything we can to help, to include putting our own military might into the fray on Kyiv’s behalf, then we must reckon with the very nature of warfare itself, its meaning and purpose and implications. But the American public has never had a very keen grasp on the limits of military power as a tool of national—or international—political objectives. 

Meanwhile the actively pro-Russian propaganda from the US right is even more appalling, as I wrote last week. Silver lining, maybe: even if MAGA Nation is never moved by even the most blatant demonstration of their Dear Leader’s monstrousness, or that of his supplicant lieutenants from Hawley to Cruz to Cotton, for any sentient observer this crisis ought to expose the despicable nature of GOP’s ass-kissing of Vladimir Putin, and its blood-drenched results. 

As Amanda Carpenter writes in The Bulwark, “It’s worth remembering now, as so many Republicans pin ‘Stand with Ukraine’ images to their profiles, how little most of them cared when Donald Trump withheld critical military assistance from the country in 2019 as he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to do his political dirty work.”

Yet another figure from Impeachment 1.0, Dr. Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia and formerly an advisor on the National Security Council, writes in her recent memoir, There Is Nothing For You Here: “There’s no Team America for Trump. Not once did I see him do anything to put America first. Not once. Not for a single second.” Asked about the difference between Trump and Biden on national security, Dr. Hill said, “You couldn’t get a sharper contrast.”

Let’s go Brandon indeed. 

FIGHTING FAKE NEWS, AT HOME AND ABROAD

To speak of Ukraine as a chance for Biden to regain his foreign policy mojo after the fall of Afghanistan is a kind of uniquely American obscenity. For starters, it overstates this administration’s culpability for the ugly end of that forever war. But worse, it reduces this valiant fight by a brave people to mere partisan politics viewed through the most parochial of lenses. Still, there is no denying that Team Biden has handled this crisis well thus far. Thank God Joe and not Don is behind the Resolute Desk at this dark hour.

Russia still has terrifying assets at its disposal and may yet bring the hammer on Ukraine. One thing we know is that Putin is not about to be humiliated, or settle, even if he brought this mess upon himself, which means that things might get very nasty indeed before it’s all over. And when it’s over it still won’t be over, because he will face a grinding insurgency from a people who have already shown their toughness. Right now the US is on an admirable path to helping them. Let’s keep it up.

Before hostilities commenced, it was startling to hear Biden boldly predict that Putin would go into Ukraine instead of deploying the usual diplomatic front that “he may or may not, we dunno.” The reasons were likely two-fold. 

First, it served to announce to Vlad the efficacy of US intelligence collection and analysis, and perhaps put the fear of God into him over what else we might know, and how. In that sense, it flipped the usual intelligence paradigm. Normally the IC prefers not to let anyone know what it knows; ask the good people of Coventry. So this was a bold and clever inversion of that orthodoxy and impulse.

The second aim was to get ahead of Russian fake news, such as the possibility of a false flag pretext, or other fairy tales, which, sure enough, Putin predictably trotted out anyway. 

On the eve of the invasion, New Yorker writers Joshua Yaffa and Adam Entous explained this strategy, which also involved rapid sharing of intelligence with allies to create a united front and deny Putin the opportunity to exploit differences of opinion. “In some cases,” they write, the White House rapidly declassified intelligence “in order to expose Russian plots and complicate Putin’s apparent invasion plans.” As one senior US official said, “One of the big lessons learned….is that shining a light on Russia’s nefarious activities is the best kind of antidote to their plots.” (In that sense the US learned a lot from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.) 

Yaffa and Entous write that “The current US strategy to quickly declassify and publicly relay intelligence about Russian intentions and deployments may not prevent a war, but it has certainly complicated and raised the costs of one.” 

Of course, we may never know exactly how these revelations affected events. And none of these moves can forestall an invasion, if Putin has already made up his mind. Still, a shared, coherent, and factual understanding of the roots of any war is necessary to insure a unified response on sanctions and other measures.

At the very least, the US has shown a new willingness to try and outflank Putin’s attempts at disinformation. “For years, Russia looked to be one step ahead of everybody, able to create a certain reality and make others react,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister, said. But now, at least in part, the roles are flipped: “Russia also has to react. And they look irritated, like they’re not used to it, having to explain themselves over and over.” Irritated and deterred are, of course, very different things. 

Yaffa and Entous go on to say: “The modern Russian information strategy is aimed not so much at making its narrative the dominant or convincing one but at creating such a cacophony that the very prospect of knowability comes into doubt.”  It is a model that Trump and American right wingers have studied and gleefully embraced. 

Here we must go to the Rosetta stone on that subject, Hannah Arendt, who in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism wrote of the dangers of “an ever-changing, incomprehensible world” in which people reach “the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”

The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Perhaps there are some lessons here for fighting fake news at home. Preempting Putin’s lies didn’t stop him from invading Ukraine, any more than calling out Trump’s voluminous lies have shaken his millions of followers out of their 3.0 BAT-level Kool-Aid-drunkenness. But it’s still something, to plant the flag of truth amid a minefield of lies.

There’s a quote widely attributed to Alexander Solzhenitsyn—and he should know—but it turns out it is actually from the Russian émigré writer Elena Gorokhova (not to be confused with the late Russian painter of the same name), from her 2011 novel A Mountain of Crumbs. Whichever Russian said it, it’s never been more apropos, for their country and ours:

We know they are lying. They know they are lying. They know we know they are lying. We know they know we know they are lying. 

But they are still lying.

*******

Photo: Putin’s top military advisors explain that the Ukrainian situation is so dire they are forced to meet around a shuffleboard table.

h/t CDR (Ret.) Mason Weaver, USN for the Solzhenitsyn/Gorokhova quote.

The People Giving Putin a Pass

Well, at least he waited till the Olympics were over.

As we watch the early stages of the largest military invasion on the European continent since World War II, a wanton act of unprovoked aggression by a brutal dictator abrogating the sovereignty of a democratic neighbor, one of the most striking things to this observer is that the rhetoric from America’s hard left and hard right is almost identical.

And the gist of that rhetoric is: “Meh.”

I should qualify that. On the right there are many who are not just indifferent but active fans of Vladimir Putin, who admire him, who think that his invasion of Ukraine is great. This gang includes a former President of the United States and his Secretary of State, along with not a few Republican Senators, congressmen, newscasters, and pundits—not for nothing, influential people who openly aspire to lead this nation again. Just by the by.

But only a few of these, like the aforementioned Florida retiree, are so monstrous as to wear their admiration for the Russian despot on their silk sleeves. The majority of pro-Putin right wingers are savvy enough to keep it on the down-low, making them even more insidious, and therefore more dangerous. These right wing Putin “neutralists” operate under a dishonest veneer of alleged respectability and moderation—a veneer so Kleenex-thin that it would disintegrate in even a light breeze, but a veneer nonetheless—asking, with mock sensibleness, why we care about Ukraine, don’t we have other stuff to worry about, and anyway isn’t Russia entitled to its national security concerns in its backyard the same way the USA is?

As with most things that issue out of Republican pieholes, it’s hard to tell if this is genuine moral hideousness or simply sheer cynicism. Equally hard to tell? Which one is worse. 

Their far left wing brethren who are similarly unbothered by events in Ukraine come at the issue from a very different position—diametrically so, in fact—one that emphasizes American sins and blithely papers over Russian ones, if they merit mention at all. But the net effect is the same: to give cover to Vladimir Putin’s wholly indefensible invasion of Ukraine, and the global risks it foretells.

Who says America is riven in two and can’t agree on anything?

So let’s take this phenomenon apart in counter-clockwise fashion, beginning with the more conventional critique from the left, and work our way round to the ghoulish circus taking place on the right. 

MOSCOW MULES

Regular readers of this blog know that I have tremendous respect for Noam Chomsky, that great outsider of American political commentary, whose invisibility in the MSM is a telling measure of his acumen and the threat he poses to the status quo. His critique of domestic US politics of late has been especially acute, IMHO. 

But on Ukrainehis running conversation with the interviewer C.J. Polychroniou in the pages of Truthout has missed the mark. Both men acknowledge Putin’s awfulness, but only in passing, on their way to lengthy diatribes about what they see as the United States’s blame for this crisis. 

Their general argument is a familiar one in foreign policy circles, because it is Putin’s argument too: that the US is ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns, particularly with regards to the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, and therefore is the party at fault for “creating” this crisis. Compounding the sin, in this view, is the fact that there is no real chance that Ukraine is going to become a member of NATO in the foreseeable future, making the US refusal to “meet Russia halfway” even more unjustified.

Pundits across the reasonable political spectrum from Mehdi Hasan to Chris Hayes to David von Drehle to Peter Beinart have endorsed or at least mused about something similar. It is a mantra often traced back to a 2014 article in Foreign Affairs by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, titled “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” bearing the subtitle “The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” (Talk about blaming the victim. Was Ukraine wearing a short skirt or something?)

But the argument is unsound. 

While the US is open to Ukraine joining NATO—itself a relataively new development—our European allies, Germany above all, are dead set against it and have told Moscow as much in so many words. 

So if there is no chance of Ukraine joining NATO, how does that justify such “security concerns” on Putin’s part….. and not just any ol’ security concerns, but the kind that require a military invasion? 

The post-1991 expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics, during America’s hubristic, oat-feeling “hyperpower” period, may well have been ill-advised—not merely as part of the game of nations, but in hindering efforts for genuine democracy to rise within Russia. Thomas Friedman is among those making that case, quoting the great and wise George Kennan. 

Then again, one might well argue that Ukraine has very good reason to cozy up to the West, whose democracies (flawed though they are) it seeks to emulate. It has equally good reason to be hostile toward Moscow, which overtly denies that it is even a real country with a right to exist, and has long intervened in its affairs, including a previous military incursion into Crimea just eight years ago. Indeed, the expansion of NATO and the deterrent threat of Article 5 might be the only thing keeping Putin from gobbling up all of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.

That can be filed under “Chicken or Egg? Discuss.” But to swallow whole Putin’s fish story about NATO and faux alarmist “security concerns” is to ignore the other plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face reasons why he wants the state of Ukraine wiped off the face of the Earth. Even Friedman acknowledges that Vlad is latching onto NATO merely as “low hanging fruit,” which is part of why it may have been foolish and self-damaging on the part of the US in the first place.

TWO WRONGS

The other aspect of the Ukraine crisis over which the far left has been hammering the US is that of simple hypocrisy. And to be fair, they have a point there. 

How, they ask, NATO or no NATO, would the United States respond to a foreign adversary pressing on our borders—that proverbial backyard—or indeed anywhere we deem of strategic concern, which is pretty much everywhere……how have we responded, in fact, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Operation Just Cause? 

Yes, we “secretly” invaded Cambodia in 1970 in violation of international law, a disaster that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Yes, we dropped into Panama in 1989 and overthrew the government when Noriega became insufficiently cooperative, threatening US control of the canal. Yes, we nonsensically invaded Iraq in 2003, in irrational response to 9/11, to play out the Bush family’s Oedipal drama as far as I can tell. (But as Rumsfeld explained, Iraq had all the best targets!) Chomsky has long described even the US presence in South Vietnam as an invasion, and he’s not wrong.

And that is limiting the laundry list just to large scale military operations, leaving out covert skullduggery and proxy wars from the toppling of Mosaddegh in Iran to the Bay of Pigs to the murders of Allende, Lumumba, and more.

OK, so we’re no angels.  

But the fact that the United States has engaged in indefensible acts of international aggression does not make Russia’s latest demonstration of the same any more acceptable. Two wrongs, my friends, as any preschooler can tell you. 

More to the point, how is it that these critics are so unconcerned with Putin’s crimes, giving them only the scantest mention, while railing ferociously and at length about those of the US and the West? It is very reiminiscent of the 2016 election, when I often heard otherwise intelligent people continually say,”Yeah, Trump is awful, but….”, then spend hour upon hour and column inch upon column inch decrying everything that was allegedly wrong with Hillary. 

We saw where that got us. 

These critics cannot possibly believe the West is worse than the Russian autocracy; if so, their credibility is suspect from the jump. If it is only a matter of holding democracies to a higher standard, it still has the net effect of propagandizing for authoritarianism by dint of sheer journalistic real estate. Conversely, to argue that the West doesn’t deserve a higher standard—that is, that a Western democracy like the US, flawed though it is, is the moral equivalent of a jackbooted police state—is to parrot the exact argument Putin has been making for more than twenty years. 

In other words, a little perspective is in order here. Even if one accepts the Mearsheimer argument (which I do not), does that justify an invasion and the attendant slaughter of tens of thousands? Truthout & Co. have not been very forgiving of the US when it has done so, or as understanding of its reasons as they are of Putin’s.

So by all means, let’s call out the US’s failures and transgressions—it’s our moral duty to do so. But let’s not give Putin and other despots a pass in the process. 

PUTIN ON THE RITZ

If the left is bad on Ukraine, the right is infinitely worse. 

Show of hands: who’s shocked?

In right wing media, the narrative about Ukraine includes that same bullshit about NATO, but less elegantly framed, amid the usual head-in-the-sand “populist” isolationism:  

It’s none of our business! Why should we care about some obscure former Soviet republic halfway around the world? It’s in Moscow’s sphere anyway! It’s the Super Bowl halftime show that’s the real outrage!

Prominent in that choir, Tucker Carlson is a literal shill for the Kremlin, blasting out Putinist propaganda to his millions of mouthbreathing viewers every night. Not for nothing is he regularly featured in the Russian domestic media and on Russia Today, that country’s premier state-run TV network targeting the outside world. 

The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes gives us a nice survey of Carlson’s service to the Kremlin:

“Vladimir Putin does not want Belgium,” explains Tucker. “He just wants to keep his western borders secure. That’s why he doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO, and that makes sense.” As for Ukraine? “It’s run by a dictator who’s friends with everyone in Washington,” Carlson said. 

The Russian are, of course, thrilled.

A rogues’ gallery including the likes of Tulsi Gabbard, Maria Bartiromo, Paul Gosar, George Papadopolous, Candace Owens, and Laura Ingraham are also advancing the canards that “Zelenskyy is a dictator,” and that the White House is trying to distract us from its (supposed) failures on COVID and (zzzz) the border, and of course the latest on Hillary spying on Donald! Owens went so far as to suggest the US send troops into Canada to overthrow Justin Trudeau. (I’m not kidding.) The left and right meet in the person of Glenn Greenwald, the hard left contrarian who is now a regular presence on Fox News, including Carlson’s show, where he serves as resident progressive apostate and all-purpose housepet. 

Fiona Hill, formerly the senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, whom you may remember from Trump’s first impeachment, has called Carlson and his ilk “the ultimate stooges.” Arguably the central figure from that impeachment, LTC (Ret.) Alexander Vindman—himself a Ukrainian émigré, lest we forget, born in what was then the USSR—has said they have “blood on their hands.”

And it’s not just limited to the freak show of Fox. Presidential aspirant Mike Pompeo practically slobbered in describing Putin’s shrewdness and his own respect for him–he made me a better diplomat!!!!!—trying to walk the very thin line that will allow him to insist that he didn’t praise Putin per se, even though he knows that’s how it will read to MAGA Nation, and to Putin himself, which of course is how Mike wants it to read. (“Maybe Vlad will hack the DNC to help me,” is what’s in the thought bubble above Pompeo’s head.) 

Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance, locked in a race to the bottom with the other hopefuls in the Ohio GOP primary, took time out from taking obscene cheap shots at genuine American war heroes to suggest that migrants at our southern border are a greater national security concern than Putin. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent took him apart like a wolverine who’d been thrown a pork chop, noting how repulsive it is to treat “immigration to the United States as a species of invasion on a par with what Russia is threatening.”

The best people, amirite?

In some ways, of course, the newfound GOP affection for Russia is astonishing, given that Russophobia has been at the very heart of the American conservative movement for almost eight decades as the organizing principle around which all right wing American foreign policy revolved.

But at the same time, head-in-the-sand isolationism is an equally old and venerable tradition among American reactionaries—America First, anyone?—creating a fundamental conflict with that jingoism. Postwar revisionism in the glow of victory has erased the memory of the vast number of right wing Americans who were perfectly fine with Nazi Germany—admiring of it, even—in the years before Pearl Harbor made that position untenable, from Lindbergh to the Silver Shirts to the German American Bund to many ordinary Hooverite conservatives. 

Which brings us to the truly appalling aspect of right wing apologism for Putin: It is not merely that many American conservatives are willing, for whatever reason, to overlook his ghastliness, as some on the far left are. They are kindred spirits who share his worldview.

The revanchist right views Putin as a great bulwark of white, putatively Christian supremacism in a world beset by the horrors of politically correct liberalism, the LGBQT movement, hip hop, and the tuck rule. (It is no coincidence that Putin and his cronies are fanatically homophobic, sometimes homicidally so.) 

That phenomenon reached its apotheosis with the ascendance of Donald Trump, whose bizarre, groveling subservience to Putin has been well-documented in this blog and innumerable other places. When the right looks at Putinist Russia, with its autocratic cult of personality, its governmental control of the media, its brutal suppression of dissent, and its retrograde anti-liberal agenda, they see not a nightmare but a dream to which they aspire.

GENIUS RECOGNIZES GENIUS

Even as Fox News makes the predictable Wag the Dog allegations, it may well be that we are past the era when the rally-round-the-flag effect of a foreign war helps a sitting American head of state, even as a distraction—not at a time when the leading members of the GOP are happy to openly root for our chief foreign adversary over our own President. Among Republicans, Putin’s “very unfavorable” rating is around 45%; Biden’s is 80%, and Pelosi’s and Harris’s are even higher than that. (#misogyny). 

But except among the already zombified, the expected cries from the right flank that Putin is going into Ukraine because “Sleepy Joe is weak” fall flat. It is certainly fair to say the Putin has been emboldened by American behavior in recent years, but a vast amount (and the worst examples) of that emboldening happened on the watch of Mr. Biden’s predecessor.

Contrary to his predictable claims, if The Former Guy were still in office, it’s safe to say that Putin would be waltzing into Ukraine with nary a peep of complaint from the White House, only the sound of Trump shaking his pom poms and jumping around in his pleated skirt, while hoping Vlad feels him up afterward at the big postgame homecoming dance. (“He’s so dreamy!!!”) 

During the Trump administration there was no need for a Russian invasion of Ukraine or anywhere else, because Putin had lackeys in the White House who would let him menace Kyiv without need for military force. As Damon Linkerwrites in The Week: “Putin didn’t play nice guy from 2017 to 2020 because he was afraid of Donald Trump. He did so because he knew he had nothing to fear from the fanboy in the Oval Office.” Forget Kremlin worries about NATO expansion: Trump was actively trying to pull the United States out of the alliance.  

Indeed, one could argue that Trump and the Republicans have been abetting the invasion of Ukraine for six years, stretching back to the change in the 2016 GOP platform on that issue. (After all, Manafort had been a lobbyist working on behalf of Yanukovich for more than a decade.)

Asked about the invasion this week, the first words out of Trump’s mouth were “Well, what went wrong was a rigged election.” Truly, the man is one note and one note only. But he soon got around to praising Putin as a “genius.” (Not a very stable one, though.)

The sight of prominent American politicians cheering for a brutal dictatorship over our own country’s leadership is nauseating to say the least. Reporting this in the wake of Russian troops rolling across the Ukrainian border, the Washington Post put it blandly, but accurately:

The comments reflect the novel phenomenon of a major political faction openly siding with the leader of a US adversary against the American president. They cite Putin’s shrewdness and strength, along with an unfettered willingness to use force to expand his country’s reach, suggesting that creates a flattering contrast with Biden, whom they portray as weak and feckless.

Yet Putin is an authoritarian leader who has jailed adversaries, shut down political opposition and moved to eliminate a free press and independent judiciary. He has dispatched his powerful military against an independent neighboring country.

That second graph is meant to be in contrast to the first, but for Trump Nation, they are one and the same. Putin’s brutal authoritarianism is a feature not a bug.

THE CASE FOR GIVING A FUCK

So what’s really behind the invasion of Ukraine, and why should we care? 

The latter ought to have been clear in 2019, when we impeached a US president over relations with that country……an impeachment, you may recall, that turned on Trump illegally withholding some $400 million in military aid to help Kyiv defend itself against Putin and Russia unless the Zelenskyy government manufactured a bullshit investigation of the man who is now President of the United States and leading the global effort against that very attack.

In a recent piece for The Journal of Democracy, the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and Robert Person, director of the International Affairs curriculum at West Point, writes: “Forget his excuses. Russia’s autocrat doesn’t worry about NATO. What terrifies him is the prospect of a flourishing Ukrainian democracy.”

Putin would not stop seeking to undermine democracy and sovereignty in Ukraine, Georgia, or the region as whole if NATO stopped expanding. As long as citizens in free countries exercise their democratic rights to elect their own leaders and set their own course in domestic and foreign politics, Putin will keep them in his crosshairs.

In other words, it is not NATO expansion, but the homegrown pro-democracy movements of the so-called Color Revolutions in the former Soviet republics and satellite states that threatens Putinism. 

McFaul and Person note that “From the end of the Cold War until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO in Europe was drawing down resources and forces, not building up. Even while expanding membership, NATO’s military capacity in Europe was much greater in the 1990s than in the 2000s. During this same period, Putin was spending significant resources to modernize and expand Russia’s conventional forces deployed in Europe. The balance of power between NATO and Russia was shifting in favor of Moscow.” (Indeed, in 2000 Putin himself suggested that Russia itself might one day join NATO.)

Putin may dislike NATO expansion, but he is not genuinely frightened by it. Russia has the largest army in Europe, now much more capable after two decades of lavish spending. NATO is a defensive alliance. It has never attacked the Soviet Union or Russia, and it never will. Putin knows that. But Putin is threatened by a successful democracy in Ukraine. He cannot tolerate a successful, flourishing, and democratic Ukraine on his borders, especially if the Ukrainian people also begin to prosper economically. That undermines the Kremlin’s own regime stability and proposed rationale for autocratic state leadership. Just as Putin cannot allow the will of the Russian people to guide Russia’s future, he cannot allow the people of Ukraine, who have a shared culture and history, to choose the prosperous, independent, and free future that they have voted for and fought for.

Putin’s chief goal in his roughly 24 years in power has been to demonstrate to the world that Western democracy is a farce, no better than Russian-brand autocracy. Understandably, the rise of nascent democracies in the former Soviet sphere works mightily against that aim, and nowhere more so than in Ukraine. 

In The Atlantic, Franklin Foer seconds this argument:

Why did Putin cling to Ukraine? In 2014, his fear wasn’t Ukraine’s drift toward NATO. It was its drift toward the European Union, with its insistence on rule of law. To preserve his hold on Ukraine, Putin tried to instigate a counterrevolution in cities with large Russian-speaking populations. He invaded Crimea and the Donbas, threatening to carve the country into two. What he feared most was Ukrainian democracy, which would deprive him of influence over the colonial possession that he felt was his birthright.

Foer details the way Moscow kept Kyiv under its heel, and the West’s general indifference and willingness to let him do so:

Even if Russia nominally accepted the fact of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence, the Kremlin treated it as a vassal state. Putin manipulated Ukrainian politics so that its corruption enriched his cronies and its leaders never deviated too far from his desired policies. The pipeline traversing Ukraine, which sends Russian gas to Western Europe, provided a massive pot of money that the Kremlin dispersed to serve its murky purposes. Meanwhile the Ukrainian state was deprived of cash that could have been spent on schools and roads.

Even now, as Russia threatens to invade Ukraine, it is talked about as an abstraction—a passive victim of great-power politics. Perhaps this explains why many foreign-policy realists and much of the American public are so willing to readily sacrifice the country to Russian President Vladimir Putin. They see Ukraine as part of a sphere of influence, not a collection of human beings.

One of the sharpest observers of contemporary Russia, the émigré Masha Gessen, writes in The New Yorker of how Russia and Ukraine were on parallel paths after 1991, contending with corruption, poverty, and uncertainty, not to mention leaders who tried to steal elections. But it was the Ukrainians who twice—in 2004 and again in 2013—rose up in revolt over those attempted coups, gathering in Kyiv’s Independence Square. 

They stayed there, day and night, through the dead of winter. They stayed when the government opened fire on them. More than a hundred people died before the corrupt President fled to Russia. A willingness to die for freedom is now a part of not only Ukrainians’ mythology but their lived history.

Many Russians—both the majority who accept and support Putin and the minority who oppose him—watched the Ukrainian revolutions as though looking in a mirror that could predict Russia’s own future. The Kremlin became even more terrified of protests and cracked down on its opponents even harder. Some in the opposition believed that if Ukrainians won their freedom, Russians would follow. There was more than a hint of an unexamined imperialist instinct in this attitude, but there was something else in it, too: hope. It felt something like this: our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. We may yet be brave enough and determined enough to win our freedom.

That is precisely what Putin is afraid of, and why he is so desperate to strangle Ukrainian democracy in the cradle. 

Of course Ukraine matters as a symbol of the lost Soviet empire. Ukraine was the second-most-populous and second-richest Soviet republic, and the one with the deepest cultural links to Russia. 

ANNE WITH AN “E”

Among the most eloquent and passionate writers on this topic is The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum. She writes:

But modern, post-Soviet Ukraine also matters because it has tried—struggled, really—to join the world of prosperous Western democracies. Ukraine has staged not one but two prodemocracy, anti-oligarchy, anti-corruption revolutions in the past two decades. The most recent, in 2014, was particularly terrifying for the Kremlin. Young Ukrainians were chanting anti-corruption slogans, just like the Russian opposition does, and waving European Union flags. These protesters were inspired by the same ideals that Putin hates at home and seeks to overturn abroad. 

After Ukraine’s profoundly corrupt, pro-Russian president fled the country in February 2014, Ukrainian television began showing pictures of his palace, complete with gold taps, fountains, and statues in the yard—exactly the kind of palace Putin inhabits in Russia. Indeed, we know he inhabits such a palace because one of the videos produced by Navalny has already shown us pictures of it, along with its private ice-hockey rink and its hookah bar.

(Coming soon to hipster Brooklyn: ice rink and hookah-bar.) 

Putin’s subsequent invasion of Crimea punished Ukrainians for trying to escape from the kleptocratic system that he wanted them to live in—and it showed Putin’s own subjects that they too would pay a high cost for democratic revolution.

She goes on to write that Putin “wants his neighbors—in Belarus, Kazakhstan, even Poland and Hungary—to doubt whether democracy will ever be viable, in the longer term, in their countries too” Farther abroad, he wants “to undermine America, to shrink American influence, to remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America. He wants America itself to fail.”

Now, I should say that on many other foreign policy matters, Applebaum is too hawkish for me. Another of her recent articles for The Atlantic, “There Are No Chamberlains in This Story” (subhead: “But There Are No Churchills, Either. And Ukraine Will Fight Alone”) charts a course that would have the US get into a shooting war in Ukraine. (Last summer, on Afghanistan, she made a similar case for continuing that futile war.) But her expertise on Eastern Europe is indisputable, meaning she deserves to be taken very very seriously. Very. 

Of Putin himself, Applebaum writes: “Although he is sometimes incorrectly described as a Russian nationalist, he is in fact an imperial nostalgist.” The diagnosis speaks directly to his oft-quoted 2005 remark that the breakup of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” More specifically, she identifies him as good old-fashioned power-mad despot­­–nothing mysterious about it. 

Yet, she writes that “Putin (is) simultaneously very strong and very weak.”

He is strong, of course, because he controls so many levers of Russia’s society and economy. Try to imagine an American president who controlled not only the executive branch—including the FBI, CIA, and NSA—but also Congress and the judiciary; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, and all of the other newspapers; and all major businesses, including Exxon, Apple, Google, and General Motors.

And yet at the same time, Putin’s position is extremely precarious. Despite all of that power and all of that money, despite total control over the information space and total domination of the political space, Putin must know, at some level, that he is an illegitimate leader. He has never won a fair election, and he has never campaigned in a contest that he could lose. 

He knows, in other words, that one day, pro-democracy activists of the kind he saw in Dresden might come for him too.

For such a man, rising democracy on his border is a greater threat than all the tanks and fighter planes NATO can muster. Which is a great lesson for us all, as we contemplate the looming threat of homegrown autocracy here in the US, and what we can do to fight back.

LINE IN THE SAND, 2022 EDITION

So let us not be taken in by Putinist propaganda, nor its American amplification either by the right or left. But where we go from here is unclear. 

In The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes that Alexander Vindman sees the current crisis “as a way to signal to other democracies that the United States would support them if they were menaced by authoritarian regimes.” Vindman argues that “You can’t be progressive without believing, and buying into, the notion of supporting democracies.’”

100%.

But now we are into Applebaum territory, and the question of what that support looks like, short of risking the nuclear war that we managed to avoid for 77 years. 

If Putin rolls all the way into Kyiv, slaughtering tens of thousands along the way, rounding up his enemies list and putting them in concentration camps, and hanging Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s corpse upside down from the balcony of the presidential palace, it will make even our harshest sanctions and other non-military responses look feckless and weak. 

But it is equally likely that this invasion will backfire badly on Putin and prove a disaster for Russia, as so many have predicted. Putin may have just dragged his country into a grinding, decades-long insurgency reminiscent of the USSR’s catastrophic misadventure in Afghanistan (or the United States’ in Iraq). Already, even in these earliest days of the war, he has kicked off a wave of patriotic fervor and unity among Ukrainians. Fearful of NATO, he has—ironically—already strengthened it to a level of unity and cohesion not seen in decades. Seeing his willingness to massacre and occupy his neighbors, non-NATO members like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and even Finland, once happy to stay neutral, may now clamber to join. He has already brought on non-military retribution in the form of sanctions and other economic pressure that will cripple the already precarious Russian economy, and hit even him and his cronies personally. Though he has long since co-opted most of the country’s oligarchs, those billionaire gangstercrats will not be happy to be squeezed out of the global financial playground. Threatened by pro-democracy movements in neighboring countries, the Ukraine invasion may well inspire the kind of homegrown resistance he has thus far been able to brutally suppress. Already there are anti-war protests in the streets of Moscow–not a typo, I don’t mean Kyiv, I mean Moscow—protests that are being violently put down by militarized Russian riot police. Imagine the courage it takes to get in the streets of Putin’s own capital, an infamously harsh police state, and protest the invasion of a foreign neighbor. And yet Russians are doing it. 

I guess Putin has good reason to be worried about pro-democracy movements. 

Even as he is openly trying to restore the Soviet empire and cement his place in history as a modern Peter the Great, Putin may wind up trashing that legacy—already dubious and blood-drenched—and be remembered instead as the overreaching fool who drove Russia even further down into the ranks of second-rate powers. But along the way, many many innocent people are going to die.

So I’m sorry to say that what’s going on in Ukraine right now is our business as Americans, because we are involved in humanity.

Here is the foreign policy thinker Max Boot, who like Vindman was born in the Soviet Union, writing in the Washington Post, echoing the French newspaper Le Monde in the wake of 9/11 (“Nous sommes tous américains”):

With his military superiority, Putin can invade Ukraine and maul its armed forces. He can even install a puppet regime in Kyiv. But he cannot make Ukrainians accept the Russian yoke. He cannot prevent Ukrainians from fighting back, whether with massive “people power” demonstrations (like the ones that toppled a previous pro-Russian ruler in 2014) or with guerrilla attacks (like the ones carried out by Ukrainian fighters against Soviet rule in the 1940s and 1950s).

The West must do whatever it can to support Ukrainian patriots. Ukraine’s fight is our fight, too. As Sen. John McCain said in 2014, during the last Russian invasion of Ukraine, “We are all Ukrainians.”

And the Americans who, either cynically or benightedly, want to downplay the brutality of this man and his actions are tiptoeing perilously close to playing for Putin the role described (apocryphally) by another famous Russian leader:

“Useful idiots.” 

*********

Russian tanks staged in Belarus earlier this month for the invasion of Ukraine, conducting joint exercises as part of the Response Force of the “Union State,” a military alliance between Moscow and Minsk. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry/AFP/Getty Images.

Of Paranoia and Patriotism

When I was stationed in Germany in the 1980s, the armor battalions on our kaserne kept live ammunition on their M1A1 Abrams tanks 24/7, including 120mm depleted uranium rounds, the better to roll out speedily should Ivan come across the Intra-German Border. For that reason, their nightly guard shift also carried live ammo in their sidearms, initially the venerable Colt .45, and later, the Beretta 9mm. 

One cold Hessian night, a despondent young private on guard duty in that lonely tank park pulled his pistol, pressed it against his chest, and pulled the trigger, committing suicide.

The next morning, the Armor battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, held a formation and told his assembled troops that he didn’t give a fuck about a solder who wanted to kill himself.

I had a lot of respect for that colonel otherwise, but it goes without saying he was flat-out wrong with that callous attitude, which was colossally un-PC even in the far less enlightened US Army of the Eighties. Many of our soldiers were young men right out of high school (we had no women in combat arms in those days), deployed to a remote part of an allied­ but sometimes still hostile foreign country, and their mental health was of great concern to the unit leadership, or should have been, with suicide in the ranks a serious problem across USAREUR. Today that commander’s opinion would be a career-ender, for any officer foolish enough to voice it.

But without endorsing LTC Not-His-Real-Name’s coldblooded attitude, that incident has been on my mind as I contemplate the current state of the pandemic.

If, for whatever bizarre reason, tens of millions of my fellow Americans don’t want to take a free, safe, readily available, government-provided vaccine that will protect them and their loved ones from a lethal pandemic, then I wish them well. It is literally their funeral.  

The problem is, by so doing—unlike that poor tanker private in Germany—they are also putting the rest of us at risk, prolonging that pandemic, and preventing us as a nation from getting a fucking handle on it.

THE REV. JIM JONES WOULD BE PROUD

From whence springs such self-destructive contrarianism? I’ll tell you.

I don’t know.

But I do know that this strain goes way back in our national psyche. It is the famous “paranoid style” of which Richard Hofstadter wrote some 59 years ago, the very month of Kennedy’s assassination, as it happened, a watershed moment in the history of tinfoil hats. It is the mentality of Strangelove’s “precious bodily fluids” (fictional, but prescient), and of the John Birch Society, once considered a lunatic fringe by mainstream conservatives, but now the dominant strain in the Republican Party. It’s not uniquely American, but we are definitely a global leader in it, pre-dating even the founding of our country, with roots in the religious zealots who first settled here and seized the place from its indigenous inhabitants.

It’s also a mindset that is hard to eradicate with an appeal to reason and those pesky things we like to call “facts,” given that its very core is not reason-based at all, but rather, defiantly anti-rational.

It doesn’t help that a segment of the population that is already skeptical of any kind of book-learnin’ and highly susceptible to conspiracy theory has been ruthlessly exploited by a ruling class that benefits from its ignorance and belligerence toward common sense.

I’m all for questioning authority, Joe Strummer style. But we’re not talking about critical, open-minded, free-thinking here….we’re talking about knee-jerk reactionaryism, weaponized by the very plutocratic elites whose gated mansions the alienated hoi polloi ought to be storming.

In a piece for The Atlantic called “The Anti-Vaccine Right Brought Human Sacrifice to America,” Kurt Andersen writes:

(M)illions of Americans have been persuaded by the right to promote death, and potentially to sacrifice themselves and others, ostensibly for the sake of personal liberty but definitely as a means of increasing their tribal solidarity and inclination to vote Republican.

And the price?

Unvaccinated people from 65 to 79 are now 21 times as likely to die of COVID as the  to be hospitalized than the vaccinated and boosted.

The median age of Fox News viewers is 65.

Yet in the same way that Trump’s pre-Election Day claims that the vote would be rigged self-destructively robbed him and other Republicans of votes, the GOP anti-vax effort is killing more Republican voters than anyone else.

87% of US adults are at least partially vaccinated, but Republicans and Republican-leaning independents comprise the vast majority of that remaining unvaccinated 13%. (Put another way, three out of five of unvaccinated Americans are Republicans.) Andersen reports that 17 of the least-vaccinated states are ones that Trump carried in 2020, and a whopping 27% of Republicans are adamantly opposed to getting the vaccine for any reason, compared to only 9% of Democrats.

Put simply, nationwide, “the more Republican your county, the more likely you are to die of COVID.”

Because of that right wing resistance, the number of fully vaccinated adults in the US is somewhere between 64 to 66%, the worst among fifteen major industrialized nations, except—fittingly—Russia.

It goes without saying that this willingness of the GOP’s to spread lethal disinformation for partisan gain is despicable beyond belief. The contempt that willingness shows for the party’s own followers—to the point of killing them—speaks for itself. But that is the nature of a death cult.

Andersen goes on to detail the ways that ambitious Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in the early days of the pandemic supported common sense public health measures like masks and social distancing, now understand that their future in GOP politics depends on a competition in crazy. Hence their performative attempts to outdo each other in banning mask mandates and vaccine requirements, offering unemployment benefits to workers fired for refusing to get the jab, and even declining to reveal their own booster status. (Spoiler: They’re boosted. They’re evil, not stupid.)

But, as Andersen says, this is hardly the first public-health crisis the American right has exploited, and it is unlikely to be the last. “After all, for 40 years now they’ve proved their righteous power by sacrificing thousands of lives each year to the quasi-religious American fetish for guns.”

ALTERNATIVE FACTS

Near my dad’s house in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania there is a guy with a big sign in his yard that reads FAKE PANDEMIC / REAL TYRANNY. I am puzzled every time I drive by. So Biden’s a tyrant exploiting a fake pandemic, even though the fake pandemic was ginned up on Trump’s watch? So far I have resisted the urge to knock on the guy’s door and ask, because I turned in my Kevlar vest when I got out of the Army. 

Such partisan absurdism is part of why the virus has ravaged the US longer than it had to, and was able to mutate into newer and deadlier forms. But as it finally begins to recede, there is more than a little irony in the point at which we now find ourselves.

From the very start of the pandemic, the right wing downplayed its severity, insisting it was no worse than the flu and that we could just live with it. They had no reason to believe that other than wishful thinking, the aforementioned contrariness, and the usual hostility toward authority, academia, and the scientific method in particular. But that’s what they claimed.

Now, ironically, it is the rational, mainstream segment of the public, the ones who understood the historic threat that the novel coronavirus posed and dutifully took the necessary measures to combat it— that is to say, largely Democrats, independents, and reasonable conservatives (both of them)—who are coming to view COVID-19 as a manageable illness that we can live with, like the seasonal flu.

It only took nearly a million dead Americans to get here, right?

This is not to say that the right wing crazies were correct. Quite the contrary. COVID-19 is only becoming a manageable illness of that sort after wreaking havoc in a way not seen in a hundred years, and then only because the majority of earthlings took those measures to contain it, and because a miraculous series of vaccines was developed thanks to an unprecedented, government-backed, moonshot-like scientific effort.

Of course, that “manageability” also depends in part on our ability to get control of a separate but related threat, the ongoing global climate emergency, to which the rise of species-jumping viruses like COVID-19 is related. You won’t be shocked to learn that the climate emergency is yet another thing that the reactionary community is desperate to disbelieve, lie about, and deny.

One can easily imagine a counterfactual alternative history in which the Trump administration took the opposite tack, embracing the lethality of the coronavirus, and using it as cover to institute draconian governmental interventions that would advance its autocratic agenda. Indeed, that was a scenario that’s been used by other despotic regimes, and one that quite a few pundits predicted would happen here as well. For Team Trump, it actually would have been a lot strategically smarter in numerous ways. 

Yes, it would have run contrary to that General Jack D. Ripper paranoia that is endemic in the American right. But that would have likely been balanced by the Frommian impulse for submission to father figure authority and the fetish for law & order that is equally endemic there. It would also have offered the bonus, ahem, of containing the virus and preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Just by the by.

But there was also Trump’s laziness to take into account, and his lifelong belief—constantly reinforced—that he could just bend reality to whatever he wished. And he wished COVID would just go the hell away.

In this alternative history, it’s the left that is skeptical of government information about the virus, and critical of invasive measures the administration takes to extend and expand its authority. It’s easy to picture articles in The Nation and The New Republic suspicious about how fast the vaccine was created and approved, and raising natural medicine objections to it, and full of conspiracy theories about the shot as a way for the Trump regime to tag and track us.

What it comes down to is who you trust. With its history of malevolence and mendacity, if it was the Trump administration telling us how deadly the virus was and taking those kinds of extreme measures, we would have rightly been wary.

And yet, it WAS the Trump administration instituting those strict restrictions, lockdowns, and so forth, grudgingly, on the advice of non-partisan public health experts. But the left did not freak out, or even complain. We listened to the credible scientific officials attesting to the lethality and communicability of the virus, even while under the heavy thumb of the Trump White House, and adjudged their recommendations correct and prudent, despite the potential for abuse by those in power at the time. It was that corrupt administration itself and their mouthbreathing followers who had to be dragged along. It was right wing vigilantes, not left wing ones, armed with semiautomatic weapons and waving “Don’t Tread On Me” and Confederate battle flags, who gathered in maskless, pathogen-friendly mobs in Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, howling about government “tyranny” and demanding the right to die and to put others’ lives at risk along the way. And somehow, like my dad’s neighbor, it was Democrats they were furious with—not their own party, which was in power at the national level. Trump, born bombthrower that he is, tweeted encouragement as they protested his own policies.

Like I said before: not reason-based.

Almost two years later, it was pretty astonishing last week to see Trump in Arizona at a rally for his 2024 presidential campaign (yes, that’s what it was) telling the crowd that the US government is withholding the COVID vaccine from white people. Needless to say, it was a shameless, race-baiting lie. But what a weird one! What possessed The Former Guy to tell this particular whopper to a crowd of people who are largely against getting the vaccine anyway, and many of whom believe that COVID-19 is a hoax is in the first place?

The month before, appearing with Bill O’Reilly in Dallas, Trump was actually booed by the crowd when he told them he’d had the booster, suggesting that the Salem-like hysteria he unleashed with his COVID denialism in the spring of 2020 now threatens to devour even its pumpkin-tinged creator.

It was a fascinating moment. Heretofore the distinguishing feature of Trumpism has been the headspinning willingness of his cult to do a 180 on a dime when his whims reverse, as they frequently do. And Trump is such a supreme narcissist that he obviously thinks he can say and do things that even defy the orthodoxy of his own movement—yet another ego-serving demonstration of the tyrant’s unchallenged alpha dog dominance. But with COVID denialism, he may find he is at last pressing up against a mindless, mule-headed, and unyielding force even stronger than MAGA Nation’s fealty to him.

After all, from the start the members of that cult embraced him largely because he was the perfect vessel through which they could vent their free-floating resentment and anger. That may change if he ceases to facilitate their bile, creating an opening for a new avatar of hate. (Tucker Carlson, anyone?) Then again, we know that this audience is not swayed by “the facts,” so there’s no reason they can’t believe that COVID is a hoax and at the same time be furious that the government is—allegedly—denying the vaccine to them.

CELEBRITY SKIN

One of the few good things COVID-19 did was expose the crybabiness of many of our professional athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities. Like nothing before, the egalitarian demands of the pandemic brought out the fragility of this pampered segment of the polis, who are generally exempted from the indignities of everyday life with which we mere mortals must daily contend. From Clapton to Van Morrison to Meat Loaf to Aaron Rodgers to Kirk Cousins to Kyrie Irving to Novak Djokovic, the megalomania and sense of entitlement has been beyond beyond. (Say what you will about Australia, though, they really know how to return a Serb.)

Some are worse than others, of course. Kyrie and Cousins at least owned their positions, while Rodgers tried to have it both ways. Unfortunately for him, the 49ers pass rush was too much, even at Lambeau in freezing temperatures. (As one tweet put it, “Congratulations to Jimmy Garoppolo on replacing Dr. Fauci as Aaron Rodgers’ least favorite Italian.”)

But even a civil approach to vaccine resistance is, ultimately, irresponsible, no matter how much one tries to frame it as a matter of “liberty” and “personal choice.” 

Last September, Indianapolis Colt quarterback Carson Wentz, a devout Christian, said the following about being unvaccinated:

I’m not going to go into depth on why but I will say it’s a personal decision for me and my family. I respect everybody else’s decision and I just ask that everybody does the same for me. I know that’s not the world we live in, not everyone is going to equally view things the same but yeah, no one really knows what’s going on in someone else’s household and how things are being handled. It’s a personal decision.

At first blush, that might pass for pretty reasonable. After all, it was full of phrases like “personal decision” (twice), “me and my family,” “respect everybody else’s decision,” and so on. As far as that goes, it easily beats Rodgers’s deceptive semantics about being “immunized” and his snotty claims on sports talk radio to have done his own research, and his whiny complaints about “the woke mob.” (But I’ll stop picking on Aaron. He hates being needled.)

But really, let’s think about what Carson is saying. He’s saying, “Hey, I’m gonna do this thing that puts not only my own health at risk, but also the health and even the very lives of my teammates, the coaching staff, the fans, and everyone around me, and it’s none of your business why.”

Really? Imagine a chef saying, “Hey, I’m not gonna wash my hands after I take a shit in the employee bathroom, and that’s just my personal choice, so screw you, Department of Health.” Or a parent saying, “I’m not gonna have my kid vaccinated against smallpox because it goes against my belief in the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis, so see you at the next PTA meeting….I’ll bring the brownies!”

It also goes without saying that that same part of the political spectrum that is suddenly keen on “my body, my choice,” and ferociously opposed to governmental intrusion in private decisions about medical procedures, has historically sung a very different aria over a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions. But if American women are unhappy about that, I guess maybe they should have thought of that before they recklessly decided to be born with uteruses.

It’s not hard to parse the source of this position for these celebrities: “I’m special.” It’s what psychiatrists call Acquired Situational Narcissism (ASN), seen in individuals who have spent their entire lives receiving non-stop cues that relentlessly tell them that they are in fact special. Indeed, it would be irrational for them to conclude otherwise.

With issues of medicine and health, the phenomenon is especially acute for professional athletes, whose bodies are their instruments. Ask 104-year-old Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady, owner of a record seven Super Bowl rings—not a vaccine denier, I hasten to note—when he next emerges from the hyperbaric chamber where he sleeps, connected to an IV drip of Komodo dragon bone marrow.

Speaking of which, congrats to Tom on his retirement, which will allow him to spend more time breeding a new race of über-human offspring with his Brazilian supermodel wife. (I kid, Tom. #TheGOAT.) The good news is, his retirement will allow Joe Biden to name the Buccaneers’ new quarterback.

But I don’t mean to pick on athletes and entertainers. Lots of other Americans seem to feel they too are exempt from participation in the community.

Neil Gorsuch seemed to be signaling that with his refusal to wear a mask in the Supreme Court, while a notoriously right wing federal judge recently ruled that a bunch of Navy SEALs could claim a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine, even though none of them had previously expressed objections, religious or otherwise, to the multitude of other immunizations the Navy had required of them in their military careers.

But Supreme Court justices and SEALs are still very much in the realm of the elite. What about Joe Six Pack? Oh, you better believe he thinks he’s special too.

Last weekend, several thousand anti-vax demonstrators gathered on the National Mallin Washington DC to shriek for their right to die, decry the vaccine as “Satan’s syrup” (as the Florida-based right wing evangelical preacher Rick Wiles calls it), wave Trump flags, and call for things like the imprisonment of Dr. Fauci. The only good news? Any hostile extraterrestrials conducting a reconnaissance of Earth ahead of a potential invasion may have viewed that rally and decided it’s not worth it.

School boards have become battlezones where parents now insist that they, not public health experts, know best about, er, public health (when not railing, Scopes Monkey Trial-style, against letting our kids know—gasp—that there’s racism in America). As a Republican strategist in Virginia opined after Youngkin’s gubernatorial win, “If they opened up the schools in the fall of 2020, Terry McAuliffe wins.”

(The New York Times podcast “The Daily” recently had a great two-part episode on that very topic, coincidentally, also set in Bucks County.)

But this too is a juvenile response, however understandable. You don’t have to tell me that parents are exhausted; I’m the father of a fifth grader who has had all or part of three school years ravaged by COVID. But to threaten the lives of school board members because you think a mask policy is tantamount to the Gestapo knocking on your door at 3 a.m. is a special kind of crazy all its own.

THE NOT-SO-GREATEST GENERATION

A perfect confluence of these two reactionary strains is to be found in right wing provocateur and Birthright cautionary tale Bari Weiss, formerly of the New York Times, last seen fearmongering about wokeism in our schools. 

Weiss recently went on Bill Maher’s show to whine that “she’s done with COVID.”Specifically, her complaint was that she did all the right things and yet the virus is still with us. To be fair, a lot of people feel that way, and with justification. But most are smart enough—or insufficiently famous enough—not to go on national TV and sound like a spoiled brat about it.

Grow up,” was the succinct reply of Dr. Jonathan Reiner of the George Washington University med school.

All of this whinging is hard on America’s heroic and self-flattering vision of itself as “the greatest country on earth.” (Sorry, Andorra!) A nation that never ceases crowing over its shared sacrifice in World War II and how tout le monde would all be speaking German if not for the Greatest Generation is now one in which millions will not even wear a paper mask in the interest of the national good….which is to say, to stop a historic pandemic that has claimed nearly a million of their countrymen. (And these same folks are keen to compare mask and vaccine mandates to the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.) Perspective seems to be in rather short supply.  

The most bitter irony of all is that the anti-mask, anti-vax, COVID-denying movement fancies itself great patriots and “real” Americans, defending “freedom” or at least their twisted vision of it. But of course, these are the same self-styled “patriots” whose god-emperor regularly shits on the Constitution they claim to hold sacred, who have been known to beat police officers with flagpoles while insisting that they “Back the Blue,” and who are somehow fine with doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin, who after all, is just defending white Christian values and seems like a really cool guy, ya know?

The most generous interpretation is that they merely have a different definition of America than the rest of us. (Merely.) No doubt about that. It’s a vision that’s retrograde, paranoid, and overwhelmingly blanco, one that looks backward to a time when men were—allegedly—men, and didn’t have to worry about what a bunch of broads, immigrants, fags, and colored people had to say. 

When it comes to the pandemic, that twisted “patriotism” and sense of privilege, coupled with a Know Nothing resentment of intellectualism, science, and knowledge full stop, has brought on a toxic insistence that they ought to be able to do whatever the hell they want and the rest of America can fuck off and die. Ironically, they’re mainly the ones doing the dying, as we’ve seen, but in the process they’re prolonging a pandemic that affects everyone.

To quote one of the right’s own favorite maxims, freedom isn’t free. A democracy confers on its participants the benefits of liberty, but also entails duties to the commonwealth. These types are fond of shouting, “I know my rights!” You never hear: “I know my responsibilities!”

So dear crybabies: Pull up your big boy-and-girl pants, put your alleged patriotism—and simple humanity—where your mouth is, and do the absolute least you can do for the common good. If that’s not too much trouble for you.

MISSES AND DISSES

We all know that dangerous misinformation is rife in America today, from global warming denialism to the Big Lie that Trump wuz robbed to COVID conspiracy theory.

After Meat Loaf died, I saw a comment on a friend’s Facebook thread that said something to the effect of, “Oh well, seems like it doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not. I know both kinds of people, and some got it and died and some were fine.”

I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to write and say, with all due respect, that that simply was not true. The woman replied: “I don’t want to argue with you, just stating my opinion!”

I responded, again with all due respect, that that was not an opinion but an outright falsehood and it was dangerous to spread. She repeated her assertion that she had a right to her opinion.

How did we get to this point where not only has a distorted concept of “freedom” morphed into reckless disregard for personal responsibility toward the broader community, but arbitrary personal opinion has been elevated to the same level as empirical fact?

Again, I’ll tell you.

I don’t know. But it doesn’t bode well for the future.

In truth, the two impulses are conjoined. I can do whatever I want because “freedom,” and I can justify it because part of that freedom is my god-given right to my own facts. Which I am under no obligation to back up with, like, proof.

There’s a fella on my own Facebook feed who is an anti-vaxxer and regularly asserts, without evidence, that “millions” have died from the vaccine. “Do your research,” he routinely sneers at those unfortunate souls who unsuspectingly stumble into arguments with him. 

I decided to follow that advice. So I went back to college, got a second bachelor’s degree in human biology, went to med school and got an MD, specialized in infectious diseases, passed my boards, did a four-year residency and then a three-year fellowship, got a PhD in epidemiology along the way, worked at the CDC and NIH and WHO, traveled abroad to study epidemics and pandemics firsthand, published a bunch of papers and a few books, and now hold a tenure track teaching position at a prestigious university.  

Well, I was gonna do that, but then someone told me “do your research” just meant listening to a podcast from a UFC commentator who used to host “Fear Factor.” Huge time-saver.

Just to be clear: our hospitals are not full of people who are sick from the vaccine, nor our morgues with people who died from it. Those hospitals are, however, full of people who are sick because they didn’t take the vaccine. Thus have we entered what is being called “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” And the GOP is abetting it. 

Not all anti-vaxxers are cretins by any means. In my extended family I have a vaccine “skeptic” who has not had the shot. This is a lovely person, well-educated, living in a major metropolitan area, and married to a doctor. I can’t speculate about why they feel that way, and it’s awkward to discuss. But it’s tremendously sad and unfortunate ….for them above all, but for the rest of us as well. 

No such kindness is in order for the cynics, opportunists, and political partisans who know better, but have encouraged and exploited this deadly mentality for their own political gain, at the cost of human lives. Because misinformation is one thing. Disinformation—outright lies, deliberately spread—is another. And that is what the Republican Party is engaged in.

STUPID IS AS STUPID DOES

To use the legal term of art, what Republicans are displaying—even worse now than in the early months of the pandemic, while the political contours were still shaking out—is a depraved indifference to human life. The goal is simple and two-fold: to energize their deluded followers, and to pin the blame on Biden for our inability to get a handle on COVID.

But as the Bari Weisses of the world, and others—especially on the right—whinge about the persistence of the virus, and the alleged inability of the current administration to end it, I can’t believe I rarely see anyone stating the patently obvious rejoinder:

That the American right—beginning with the previous administration—has done everything within its power to keep this pandemic going, from denying the severity of the novel coronavirus in the first place, to violently opposing mask mandates and other common sense public health measures, to refusing to take a free, safe, highly effective vaccine, to spreading lethal disinformation that is costing human lives, and then squealing hysterically that the Biden administration hasn’t fixed the problem.

The Biden administration has had its ups and downs with the virus, which is to be expected when dealing with such a fluid situation, and most recently, with a fast-moving and unknown variant like Omicron. But I have absolutely no patience for the flagrantly hypocritical criticism of Biden from the Republican Party and its fellow travelers after their own infinitely worse, openly malevolent, utterly incompetent response to the pandemic, which put us in this position in the first place. And it is not nearly a matter of the past tense either, as they continue actively and maliciously to obstruct efforts to get this pandemic under control.

Just in case you thought the GOP had already reached rock bottom. This just in: They’ve begun to dig.

What will future generations say when they look back on the country so stupid and stubborn and self-destructive that it would not take common sense medical precautions against a deadly pandemic even when those precautions were free, painless, and readily available? Worse, what will they say about the subset of that populace that preyed on their fellow countrymen to make matters even worse?

I guess the same thing they will say about a country that survived a near coup d’état and blithely let the perpetrators go free to try it again.

They’ll say we were dumbasses who deserved what we got.

Police and Thieves

Last week I wrote in these pages about the complicity of the mainstream media in the ongoing Republican attempt to undermine American democracy. That high-pitched squealing you hear is the sound of several howling examples on display in the days that followed.

Let’s dive in.

FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION

In The New Yorker—about as mainstream as American media gets—the usually very savvy David Rohde has a profile of US Senator Angus King of Maine, one of only two independents in that once-august body. (The other more famous one, not coincidentally, is also from New England, a certain B. Sanders.) With all due respect to Mr. Rohde, his piece traffics in exactly the kind of destructive bothsidesism that I bemoaned last week, and that plagued the US media in the 2016 election, and that continues to do so with even more dangerous consequences as we speak.

Here’s the operative paragraph:

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, told me that both sides are increasingly playing to their political base. Joe Biden, after months of largely ignoring his predecessor, has begun calling out Trump and his Republican enablers. In a recent speech in Georgia, the President compared opponents of the voting-rights bills to Bull Connor, the notorious commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, in the nineteen-sixties, who unleashed attack dogs on peaceful civil-rights protesters. Biden’s rhetoric won praise from his party’s liberal base, but it sparked a rare rebuke from Senator Mitt Romney, who said that the comparison was offensive.

Did you catch that?

In saying that both Republicans and Democrats are “playing to their political base,” Rohde makes no distinction between the former, who are spreading outright lies in the interest of electoral subversion, and the latter, who are calling that effort out and the risks it poses for our democracy. (He literally uses the words “both sides.”)

It’s as if a group of armed robbers burst into a bank and took hostages, and when a SWAT team assaulted the building and arrested them, the headline read, “Cops and Robbers Both Break Into Bank, Take Prisoners.”

Rohde then sets Mitt Romney up as a wise old man condemning that state of affairs, and not a partisan engaging in the same false equivalence himself.

For the record, what Romney said was, “President Biden goes down the same tragic road taken by President Trump, casting doubt on the reliability of American elections. This is a sad, sad day.” That is a shameless and specious comparison, and Romney knows it. And I would remind you that Mitt “Don’t Let Me Dog-Sit For You” Romney is supposed to be one of the BEST Republicans. (A very low limbo bar, admittedly.)

At the other end of the Republican Respectability Spectrum, in an escaping-prisoner-underground tunnel twenty feet below that bar, Mitch McConnell not surprisingly went even lower, saying, “The president’s rant yesterday was incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office,” accusing Biden of giving “a deliberately divisive speech that was designed to pull our country further apart.”

I guess Mitch is used to the quiet dignity and eloquent “Kum-ba-ya” approach of that very stable genius who previously brought such honor to the Oval Office.

He capped his criticism by saying, “”Unfortunately, President Biden has rejected the better angels of our nature. So it is the Senate’s responsibility to protect the country.”

I’ll just let that sit there like the steaming pile of feces it is.

Rohde ‘s piece is called “The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy.” For once, the headline is more accurate than then piece itself, which is not the usual pattern. But even that title is misleading, as if the whole Senate is trying to protect voting rights and somehow failing. The reality, of course, is that fully half of the Senate—the GOP half, 50 Senators strong­—is against any bills to protect voting rights, even ones that they wholeheartedly supported in earlier, less viciously partisan times….like a law that 17 sitting US Senators voted to affirm in the past, a law so patently decent that as recently as 2006 it was reauthorized in the Senate by a vote of 98-0, a law that even McConnell himself is on tape that year lavishly praising as a great moment in American legislative history.

Meanwhile, two Democrats, while putatively in favor of these voter protections, are unwilling to modify an arcane rule of parliamentary procedure to break the impasse and get them passed. (Even though as recently as last month they’ve voted to modify that rule for other reasons, like to raise the debt ceiling.) Which effectively means that they don’t really support those bills at all when push comes to shove, which is when it fucking counts.

A better headline, then, would be, “Voting Rights Blocked by Senate Republicans (Plus Two).”

So in other words the Senate is happy to change the rules to protect the global financial system, but not to protect the rights of black and brown people or anyone else who might vote against the status quo.

As Midnight Oil says, the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

LET’S GO BRANDON—SOOOO HILARIOUS

Only a few days after that New Yorker piece went to press, the trope escalated after Joe Biden gave a marathon two-hour press conference on the eve of his first anniversary in office and, among other things, said that the next election might not be legitimate if voting rights protections aren’t passed.

From the reaction of the MSM, you’d have thought he’d announced that he was moving the nation’s capital to Wilmington, DE, that puppies aren’t cute, and that he was ordering Republican Senators to wear clown costumes to work in the interest of truth-in-advertising. (Not the worst idea.)

On CNN the next day, Susan Page of USA Today and her conservative colleague at that paper, former Bush advisor Scott Jennings, practically had the vapors, bemoaning how Biden was repeating Trump’s assault on public faith in our elections. Philip Bump in the Washington Post offered similar criticism, along with many others. (Even before Biden’s presser, as if on cue, Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan was on Chuck Todd’s MSNBC show—of course—making the “Biden is undermining electoral integrity” argument. Chuck didn’t feel that required any pushback.)

I understand that perhaps the worst thing Trump did—on a CV full of strong contenders—was that undermining of faith in free and fair elections. But here’s the rub: In the 14-plus months since his humiliating defeat, his side has gone out of its way to make his claim a reality by brazenly sabotaging electoral integrity under the guise of protecting it, and seeking to put a chokehold on the voting process both in terms of who gets to vote and who counts those voters, all to ensure that it will regain and retain power.

This, my friends, is not news….except when Joe Biden is impolitic enough to point it out.

This is also not hyperbole but a matter of demonstrable fact. Heather Cox Richardson reports that even as Biden spoke in Georgia about voting rights last week, “a state court in North Carolina upheld redistricting maps that are so extreme they would give Republicans 71–78% of the seats in a state Trump won with just 49.9% of the vote. This, voting rights journalist Ari Berman noted, “is exactly the kind of partisan & racial gerrymandering [the] Freedom to Vote Act would block[.]”

Enjoy the coming autocracy, everybody!

For Biden to call that out is not engaging in the same behavior as Trump, but quite the opposite. It is his civic duty as our head of state to announce what is plainly obvious to anyone who is paying attention. Are we supposed to not acknowledge the armed robbery the GOP is in the midst of perpetrating? Hell, that is precisely what it would like us to do. But if we do point it out, they accuse us of hypocrisy and being as bad as Trump. (Whom they still worship.)

So now, in a bitter irony, Trump’s claim is correct, if backwards. Very soon we may no longer have free and fair and credible elections in the US, because the Republicans have seized control of that system at almost all levels. In fact, one might even suspect that the GOP consciously used Trump’s attack on Americans’ faith in elections as cover for that effort, one which is merely an acceleration of a longstanding reactionary campaign going back to the very origins of this country.

But that would be cynical.

So would the notion that the Republicans have laid a trap where their critics cannot call them out for this attack on the credibility of American elections without being—unjustly—accused of the same sin. (Remember: they’re evil, not stupid.)

This is exactly the double standard that the Republican Party counts on: for Biden and the Democrats to be held to the responsibilities incumbent on reasonable players in a free society, while Trump actively assails our democratic institutions, openly encourages his supporters to political violence, and creates space for his allies to destroy the system, and we’re supposed to take him “seriously but not literally” (or is it the other way around?) while the press shrugs and chuckles and says “Well, that’s just Trump being Trump.”

Get ready for this to be the standard Republican tactic and talking point going forward. It follows the pattern of many of the previous ploys over the past years, such as complaints about “uncivility” from the left after the GOP chose as its standard bearer in 2016 a flaming bag of dogshit with an M-80 stuck inside it. (Indeed, the Republican claim to be defending “electoral integrity” is itself the ur-example of this Orwellian inversion of the facts.)

I am not saying that we are not entering fraught terrain. But I am saying that the right wing dragged us into that terrain, and now we have to deal with it, even as they try to exploit our response as a means to legitimize their ongoing crime spree. The hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about Biden’s remarks, and the reckless naivete of journalists who want to equate his warning with Trump’s lies, is itself extraordinarily dangerous.

COMMON VS. EMMA GOLDMAN

As a professional screenwriter, I would never dare script a scene where the President of the United States is lambasted for comments like these on the same day when 52 US Senators line up to kill a landmark voting rights legislation in the World’s Biggest Gathering of Do-Nothing Gas Bags, er, I mean, World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Wayyyy too on the nose.

I understand why Chuck Schumer brought a purely symbolic vote on voting rights to the Senate floor, which is fine as far as it goes. But after the past five years, do we really think Republicans can be shamed just by being forced to state publicly their opposition to the fundamental precepts of democracy?

By now it is obvious that the filibuster is a wildly anti-democratic anachronism (with racist origins and history to boot), one that almost no other developed democracy harbors, and that would keep the US out of an organization like the EU were we an emerging “democracy” applying for membership. But the inability of the Democratic Party to corral its two rogue, crypto-Republican Senators and take the most basic steps to protect the republic is beginning to be an argument for why more radical change—and more aggressive champions—will be needed to beat the GOP in ’22 and ’24, especially given its control of the playing field, the goalposts, and the refs.  

What will history say when it looks back at a moment when well-meaning Americans of all political persuasions had a chance to protect the most basic aspect of our democracy—the right to vote—and couldn’t get it together enough to do so? It may depend on just how dark the road is down which that failure leads. I am confident, however, that history will be plenty hard on that third of our countrymen who are all onboard with taking those rights away from their fellow Americans.

And Joe Biden is criticized for pointing this out? (That bombthrower!)

Here is the exact reference to Jim Crow-era segregationists that raised such hackles in Atlanta:

I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the sides of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

Predictably, tout le monde in the MSM—to say nothing of the Washington Times, the WSJRoss Douthat, and Pat Buchanan—went apeshit, again comparing Biden to Trump as an insult-slinger. (Mitch “Gravedigger of Democracy” McConnell, again looking to see just how hypocritical he can be before the time-space continuum cracks open, called it “pure demagoguery.”)

In other words, the people pushing a racist attack on voting rights—and indeed, spearheading an entire “populist” movement greased with appeals to white grievance—were deeply offended at being compared to previous generation of racists.

(As Andrew Gillum memorably said of Ron DeSantis during the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race, I’m not saying they’re racists, I’m simply saying the racists believe they’re racist.) 

In my too-cool-for-school youth, I used to be fond of the quote, “If voting could really change anything, it would be illegal,” a quip misattributed to many, including Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, and Phillip Berrigan. (To my knowledge, its true provenance is unknown.) In Land of the Blind, I film I wrote and directed in 2006, a decade before Trump’s rise, I put it in the mouth of the revolutionary leader Thorne, played by Donald Sutherland, who offers that sneering observation to Ralph Fiennes’ character Joe by way of justifying violent revolution over peaceful reform from within the system. It’s pithy, for sure, and carries the aura of sardonic cool, and it might even be correct when it comes to many oppressive regimes. But as regards the US, it has become a dangerously jaded point of view, one that encourages cynicism and apathy and that can be readily exploited by the reactionary right. I am sorry I ever deployed it, even in a work of fiction.

Today I would not even toy with such a toxic sentiment. These days I have come to favor an opposing view, that of Common, who in 2018 tweeted “If your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep you from voting.”

BOUQUETS AND BRICKBATS

Credit where it’s due: there were moments last week when the MSM did a great job. In particular there was Steve Inskeep of NPR, politely but firmly pressing Trump so hard that the irate Former Guy cut the interview short. The dude just ain’t used to having to answer real questions from real reporters, and not sycophants like Fox & Friends.

Others, however, did not do so well.

Right from the jump, the Washington Post’s coverage of Biden’s press conference was in full-tilt “Hillary sucks just as bad as Trump, amirite?” mode, beginning with this lede:

President Biden escalated his partisan rhetoric Wednesday during his first news conference in 10 months, laying the blame for his stalled agenda at the feet of Republicans….

As if it is somehow “partisan” to drop the gloves and state the facts, or blame-shifting not to let the bastards get away with what they’re up to.

I humbly propose an alternative:

President Biden dropped his heretofore overly generous indulgence of Republicans Wednesday during his first news conference in 10 months, calling them out for their lies and wanton, policy-less obstructionism at the expense of what is best for the American people….

Then there is the coverage of Kyrsten Sinema, one of those two (allegedly) Democratic US Senators who, for their own indefensible reasons, are blocking Congressional protections for voting rights.

So how does the Washington Post describe her in this piece (with the snotty headline “Kyrsten Sinema Preempts Biden, Dashing Democrats’ Illogical Hopes She Would Move on the Filibuster”):

As a, quote, “centrist.”

I’m sorry, but person who abets the theft of voting rights from tens of millions of her fellow Americans and allows the GOP to gleefully carry on with its evisceration of the electoral process is not a “centrist,” or a “moderate.”

And thus does the WaPo help move the Overton window of American politics closer to that of Hungary.

(Sidenote: Searching for examples of the MSM taking cheap shots at Democrats runs the real risk of taking one down a rabbit hole, as one finds some appalling stuff. For example, this New York Times story from last month, titled, “Biden Catches a Cold and Blames His Grandson.”)

Of course, there are far worse offenders.

I am rapidly coming to think that The Week’s national correspondent Samuel Goldman, who is also a professor of political science at George Washington University, is one of the most dishonest voices in the “respectable” conservative press, rivaling Hugh Hewitt or Marc Thiessen. (We can leave out the Carlsons and the Levins and the Bannons.) Goldman publishes in a legitimate, well-regarded magazine—a good one, and among those I rely on for the views of the sane members of the center-right (an endangered species, to say the least). Yet in contrast to much of that magazine, Goldman’s pieces are, consistently, thinly veiled apologia for Trumpism, dressed up with the veneer of “reasonableness” and the pedigree of academia and legitimate journalism.

recent article of his, about what Republicans should promise voters in ’22 by way of a new “Contract with America,” is a case in point, in that it is both absurd and insulting.

First of all, it’s absurd to believe the GOP has any platform at all except Trump’s ego and the advantages the slavish devotion of his fan base offers to down ballot candidates.

Secondly, the things Goldman advocates for, as if they really matter to Republican voters, comprise the usual wishlist of reactionary crap. (Militarize the border! Stop teaching CRT! Tie the hands of the CDC!) Incredibly, for a magazine that claims to represent intelligent conservatism, this list also includes “election security,” or what Goldman describes as “a commission to review the 2020 election and propose measures to encourage secure, credible results in the future, including a national standard of in-person, election day voting.”

That, my friends, is Stop the Steal by another name.

A modest proposal: Let’s not let Sam Goldman and The Week get away with this, or pretending that he (and it, in this case, for giving his propaganda that platform) are good faith players in our democracy. That would be a step in the right direction toward “election security,” IMHO.

This normalization of what the GOP is up to, and the press’s largely ho-hum attitude about it, is a severe danger to say the least. For all the supposedly hair-on-fire pieces about the death of democracy that are being mocked by the chattering class, much of the American media remains unwilling to call a shovel a shovel.

The Danish director Camilla Nielsson has a powerful new film out called President, which details the 2018 presidential election in Zimbabwe, which the incumbent Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, a former henchman of Robert Mugabe (whom he helped overthrow the previous year), shamelessly stole from his challenger, the 40-year-old pro-democracy activist Nelson Chamisa. (It is short-listed for the Oscar for best documentary feature.)

Not long ago, we Americans could have watched that film and felt all superior about how hopelessly screwed up the developing world is. Now we watch it and see damn near a blueprint for what is happening in the US right now headed into 2024.

Nielsson lays out an appallingly brazen electoral theft, from the army brutalizing Mnangagwa‘s opponents, to partisan control of the supposedly independent electoral commission, to ballot stuffing and manipulation of the vote count, to the apparent complicity of the Zimbabwean Supreme Court, and more.

But if you search the web, most of the Western reportage about the election is along the lines of, “The incumbent President Mnangagwa won, the losers alleged cheating, but the Supreme Court ruled against them.” And that’s it.

US press coverage of the ongoing Republican coup d’état here in America is approaching that level of ostrich-gullibility, which by extension equates to complicity. And we are all paying the price.

THE MYTH OF NORMALCY

In addition to the fish tale that Biden-is-as-bad-as-Trump, a parallel narrative developing in the press is that Biden promised normalcy and is not delivering it. According to this line of thought, Biden wants to be FDR, but we didn’t elect him to do that; we elected him to bring back the good ol’ status quo….you know, when middle class white people didn’t have to worry about the entire world crashing in on them, or a historic pandemic, or the establishment of a neo-fascist kleptocracy that would interfere with their (read: our) safe and well-ordered lives.

The complaint is stomach-churning.

As I wrote over a year ago, echoing many others, there can be no return to normalcy, if indeed such a thing ever existed. Trump, the pandemic, rising economic inequality, the legacy of slavery and virulent institutional racism, resurgent white nationalism, the plague of firearms, planet-threatening environmental catastrophe, the threat of aggressive autocracy abroad….these things are not going away on their own. It may be time to recognize that “normalcy” gave us those blights in the first place and put us in the state we are in. Therefore, to address them and make a brighter day, far more substantive change is in order.

That is the sort of thing, as Prof. Nikole Hannah-Jones reminds us, the esteemed Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in and fought for, even as his legacy is now being dishonestly co-opted by the very segment of people who during his lifetime opposed him with every fiber of their collective Confederate being.

If mainstream Democratic politics ultimately fails to save America, perhaps a more robust King-inspired kind of activism will rise up in its place, which would be a silver lining to end all silver linings. But if that happens, the failure won’t be because Joe Biden finally pointed out that the emperor has no clothes. It will be because it took so long for us collectively to say so.

Toward a New Political Journalism

As I have stated over the past few weeks, going forward it is my intention to focus this blog on efforts we as Americans can take to combat the ongoing attempt by Big Lie Republicans to seize control of the republic and establish a right wing autocracy. 

Because make no mistake: that is what is going on, and there has hardly been an existential emergency of this magnitude for the United States since the Second World War. And this one is in some ways worse, as the call is coming from inside the house! It’s one thing to be conquered by a authoritarian foreign power, which, to be frank, the US did not come close to in the Forties, because we stormed Normandy Beach and stopped that threat on European shores, where the fascists had already wreaked plenty o’havoc. It is another to willingly tear down your own 240-year-old democracy and institute a homegrown autocracy. And to my knowledge, no such domestic Operation Overlord is in the works to arrest that trend. 

In that regard, we have to go back to the Civil War to find a comparable danger….and as Barton Gellman wrote in a recent, widely-heralded piece for The Atlantic, even the sickness at the core of the threat was not so sweeping. “Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost.” What we are seeing now is an even more basic rejection of the fundamentals of our democracy by tens of millions of Americans, even if it has not spiraled into the same kind of open warfare. Yet

So where to begin? There are untold fronts, all of them critical, but let’s start with one of the simplest, which is all the news that’s fit to print.

REF, ARE YOU BLIND????

In the 2016 presidential campaign, we saw that the media had no idea how to deal with a demagogue like Donald Trump. 

As a pathologically dishonest and obscenely entitled real estate con man, Trump had spent a lifetime lying and cheating with abandon and impunity. When he turned to politics—largely to promote his brand, and by all accounts without any real thought of winning anything—the mainstream media seemed completely unprepared for how treat him. They were like medieval lancers facing a modern army wielding tanks and machine guns, incapable even of comprehending how to counter this new weaponry. 

The press treated Trump with the same rules and decorum to which it had subjected conventional politicians, laughably unaware that he intended to run roughshod over every protocol, norm, and nicety under the honor system that was American politics heretofore. He was a media terrorist who made a laughingstock of the informal guidelines intended to contain him, and indeed turned those norms into weapons that further devalued real journalism and served his wrecking machine. By the time the press realized that it could not control him, and that they were unwittingly complicit in this atrocity, it was too late. 

Incredibly, many in the American media have yet to figure that out, as the same attitude continues to bedevil us in the current crisis. 

The “mainstream media” that is so often accused of being left-leaning is in fact painfully neutral and objective to a fault….that fault being an addiction to false equivalences and an inability and/or unwillingness to call a spade a spade. Why? I dunno. Some benighted, misplaced obeisance to the great god Objectivity? An innate desire to create drama, which is good for ratings? A simple inability to respond to a wantonly deceitful political force that has no respect for good faith, and wants to exploit the vulnerabilities of those who practice it? 

Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, it’s abetting the Republican cause and helping poison American democracy to death. 

In June 2016, even before Trump nailed down the GOP nomination, Eric Alterman wrote a piece for The Nation titled “How False Equivalence Is Distorting the 2016 Election Coverage.” In it, he made the sage observation that “The media’s need to cover ‘both sides’ of every story makes no sense when one side has little regard for the truth.” In some ways, that phenomenon has only accelerated since then, but without any necessary adjustment by the already-benighted media. 

Arguing that “false equivalence often appears to be the rule rather than the exception,” Alterman offered multiple examples, such as the specious and facile comparisons between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders by highbrow pundits (They’re both outsiders!)…..the WaPo’s coverage of Mitch McConnell’s unconscionable blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and the Nadia Comaneci-level gymnastics in which it engaged to try to demonstrate some sort of Democratic equivalent…..and The New York Times’s implication that Trump’s use of words like “bimbo,” “dog,” and “fat pig” to refer to women was the moral equivalent of Hillary Clinton alienating the coal industry by her support for clean energy jobs.

Of special note in our current moment of incipient right wing insurgency, Alterman cited a Times story dated March 13, 2016 detailing Trump’s repeated incitements to violence among his supporters, with the qualifier that “Both sides are fueling this.”  

Are they, though? When? And according to whom? 

The Times didn’t bother to say.

Alterman:

These pathologies have long been with us. But they have reached a crisis point in recent years, as conservatives have grown ever more brazen in exploiting them, successfully shifting the boundaries of political discourse well beyond what the rest of us recognize as readily observable reality. This is but one of the dividends the right enjoys from its long-term investment in “working the refs”—that is, creating and supporting countless institutions whose purpose is to harass members of the media to produce more sympathetic coverage of their pet issues.

As Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash told the website JournalismJobs.com back in 2003, “The conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective…. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too.”

And I remind you: that was obvious to plenty of smart observers like Eric in 2016

After all, it was way back in 2000—or as we used to call it, the Year Two Thousand—that Paul Krugman famously quipped: “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’” 

SHIT ROLLS DOWNHILL

Presciently, Alterman was even writing about the Fourth Estate’s failures on the very specific issue of voting rights back in 2016, citing a study by Media Matters that found “baseless complaints about voter fraud were given the ‘he said/she said’ treatment in the (New York) Times in 60 percent of the relevant stories published in 2013 and 2015—a 10 percent increase over the previous two years.” 

The paper’s own public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan, herself raised the issue of what Alterman calls “the paper’s repeated failure to report the truth about this issue,” prompting the Times’s national editor Sam Sifton to argue that “It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper…. We need to state what each side says.” Even if what one side says is total horseshit, I guess. (Sifton “made this point regarding a story by Ethan Bronner, who admitted to Sullivan that he was aware of ‘no known evidence of in-person voter fraud.’”) 

That the media’s mandarins are defending their ill-conceived mentality is not a coincidence. In that 2016 piece, Alterman also wrote: “The refusal of so many in the media to adjudicate between truth and falsehood is not a by-product of journalistic posturing. Rather, it is at the very foundation of how those at the top define the job.” 

In a brand new piece for The American Prospect titled “The Sins of the Mainstream Media, Alterman writes of Fournierism, the ethos within the Fourth Estate that, in the words of media critic Jay Rosen, valorizes “contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called ‘bipartisanship.’” As Alterman writes: “Fournierism underlies not only both-sides-do-it journalism but also the political posturing of most of the prestigious pundits and so-called experts who populate the nation’s op-ed pages and Sunday roundtables.”

This toxic impulse is named for Ron Fournier, former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, and Alterman offers a prime example from the master himself, again turning on the GOP’s unprecedented refusal even to meet with Merrick Garland in 2016:

Fournier was briefly tempted to blame Republicans for what they were doing, in thrall as they were to an “angry” base that was “opposed to any accommodation with Democrats.” But don’t be fooled: “The GOP isn’t the only party captive to its special interests,” Fournier insists. If “the roles were reversed and a Republican sat in the Oval Office,” the pundit felt certain that “Democrats would block the lame duck’s nominee.” 

Here you have the essence of Fournierism: If reality doesn’t cooperate, you can always blame “both sides” in some alternate universe.

(During the 2016 election Fournier was also a chief proponent of the “both candidates are awful” fallacy. We see where that got us.)

GEORGE SANTAYANA, WHITE COURTESY PHONE

As I say, the media appears to have learned exactly bupkes in the last six years. If I have to listen to Chuck Todd, or NPR, or CNN, or any of the rest of the allegedly “left-leaning lamestream media” uncritically give right wing voices a forum, even in the interest of hearing all sides, I might go full Elvis on my TV. Yes, sunshine is the best disinfectant, but it’s not sunshine when you just give these Republican mouthpieces an audience of millions and let them spew their lies unchallenged. Don’t they have their own network for that?

An anecdotal example. Note how the MSM has reported the job numbers under Trump and under Biden, as originally called out by MSNBC’s Ari Melber. In February 2018, under Trump, the Associated Press reported: “US employers added a robust 200,000 jobs in January.” In December 2021, under Biden, that same Associated Press reported: “US employers added a sluggish 210,000 jobs in November.” 

That’s  what you call MAGA Math, folks, in the same way that Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s. 

Today the crime that is most blatantly benefitting from the “both sides” treatment is the Republican attempt to put a chokehold the electoral process. With a handful of notable exceptions, the US press continues to be utterly incapable of responding, and once again is getting played for suckers. 

In a recent piece by Dan Froomkin for Press Watch, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein spoke openly of political reporters and editors struggling “to accurately and sufficiently convey facts about the Republican assault on voting rights and democracy. The fear of taking sides is very obviously holding them back.” The result? “The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber.”

An example: Citing a poll it conducted in cooperation with the University of Maryland, the Washington Post reported that 69 percent of Trump voters believe Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. It then added: “Republicans’ rejection of Biden’s victory is not novel. In a fall 2017 Post-UMD poll, 67 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Hillary Clinton voters said Trump was not legitimately elected president.”

What the Post DIDN’T say is that Donald Trump eagerly fanned those flames delegitimizing his successor, while Hillary Clinton graciously—and admirably—did the opposite. That is a shameful sin of omission and a near-textbook case of “bothsidesism” and the dangers of faux “objectivity” in the mainstream media.

Writing in the Washington Post recently, Jennifer Rubin laid down an indictment of this phenomenon very well: 

The mainstream media’s fixation with false equivalency between the two political parties and fear of criticism from the right has led to distorted coverage and misleading characterizations of the assault on democracy.

Only one party, the GOP, protects members who post violent, outrageous material. Only one overwhelmingly opposed a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. Or tossed a party member out of her leadership position for refusing to lie about the Donald Trump-inspired effort to overturn the election. Or filibustered debate on any voting rights reform (with the exception of a single Republican senator from Alaska).

Part of the problem in identifying the source of the threat to democracy stems from the mainstream media’s refusal to recognize that we no longer live in a political world in which two political parties engage within acceptable bounds of democracy.

Better still, Rubin has specific, concrete proposals for what the media ought to be doing, and dire warnings about the cost of the failure to do so:

Why isn’t Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quizzed as to how his party can take direction from a former president who plotted to overthrow the election? Why isn’t every Trump-picked candidate quizzed as to whether they buy the “big lie” of a stolen election and asked to renounce violence? Will debate moderators confront Republican candidates with questions as to whether President Biden won the election and whether they would oppose state legislative efforts to overturn the will of their voters by submitting an alternative slate of presidential electors to the House in 2024?

Also in the WaPo, that same aforementioned Margaret Sullivan who was formerly the Times’ public editor, now a media columnist for the Post, recently published a piece titled, “If American Democracy Is Going to Survive, the Media Must Make This Crucial Shift.” 

For the most part, news organizations are not making democracy-under-siege a central focus of the work they present to the public. “We are losing our democracy day by day, and journalists are individually aware of this, but media outlets are not centering this as the story it should be,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of autocracy and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”

But, in general, this pro-democracy coverage is not being “centered” by the media writ large. It’s occasional, not regular; it doesn’t appear to be part of an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we’re in.

That must change. 

Calling the press out and keeping up the pressure can have an effect. To his credit, Todd has gotten better, no doubt in response to this kind of criticism. (NPR has its own problems.) 

Sullivan acknowledges important articles like Gellman’s in The Atlantic, an AP story headlined “‘Slow-Motion Insurrection’: How GOP Seizes Election Power,” and a much-praised piece by Melissa Block on NPR on “the clear and present danger of Trump’s enduring ‘Big Lie.” However, she calls for not merely more of this work but different kinds as well, including “a new emphasis on those who are fighting to preserve voting rights and defend democratic norms,” and begs for “news leaders” to “show that you really mean it.” 

Don’t be afraid to stand for something as basic to our mission as voting rights, governmental checks and balances, and democratic standards. In other words, shout it from the rooftops. Before it’s too late.

FOXES AND CHICKENS

It is an article of faith in the right wing—and even much of ordinary, apolitical America—that the MSM is left-leaning. When confronted with the obvious, shameless bias of Fox, reactionaries will first deny it—“Fair and balanced!”—then grudgingly say it is no more biased than MSNBC, as if the two are co-equal offenders. Yet another false equivalence.

MSNBC does not hide its ideological position. (Fox, risibly, tries to.) But at the same time, MSNBC operates in the reality-based world, while Fox happily swims in the sea of Kellyanne Conway-esque alternative facts, facts that are bespoke to its needs at any given moment and subject to change without notice as those needs evolve. Or what side of the bed Donald Trump hauled his fat ass out of that morning. 

There is no need to dignify the “opinion” celebrities-cum-carnival barkers that anchor Fox’s prime time lineup by pretending that they are real journalists. They themselves alternately embrace the label when it suits them, and disavow it when it does not. The son of an heiress to the Swanson TV dinner fortune, Tucker Carlson comes from a family that for years fed America garbage in front of our televisions, and he is keeping up the tradition.

(Fox takes pains to distinguish these malevolent infotainment clowns from its traditional news division,  but that news division is hardly much more objective….and indeed may be more dangerous in some ways for its very veneer of faux legitimacy. Fahrenbalanst indeed.)

The net result is that the GOP has an entire propaganda empire at its disposal—America’s most watched news network, as it is fond of bragging—the center of an even larger right wing mediasphere that includes the Sinclairbehemoth, ubiquitous talk radio, local outlets, and social media. The Dems have nothing analogous. In that sense, the whole term “mainstream media” is dead wrong. As the academic Nicco Mele points out, as empirically measured by sheer, indisputable numbers, the right’s dominance of the press is so vast that it truly is the MSM.

Eric Alterman—damn, that guy is good!—wrote of the effect that Fox has had on the Overton window of American politics: 

Thanks, in part, to the willingness of most mainstream journalists to treat Fox News as just another news source, right-wing ideologues have shifted the political “center” closer to the conservative fringe with every election. And so the Fournierists have moved rightward as well. 

For that matter, the entire canard of the “left-leaning” media is risible….as if allegedly liberal major media corporations like the Washington Post, NBC, and CNN—owned by even bigger mega-corporations like Amazon, Comcast, and AT&T, respectively—are somehow bastions of Marxism who want to tear down the system. The proof of their crypto-conservatism (and often not so crypto) is in their coverage, which consistently reflects a center-right point of view. And that’s at best. Dallas-based AT&T, in fact, is one of the major donors to pro-Insurrectionist politicians, as well as the primary platform of the far right OANN.

But at the risk of sounding like a broken record (kids: look it up), the only reason that these conservative media outlets and right wing politicians can pander like this is because there is a base to pander to—simple supply and demand. There are tens of millions of our fellow countrymen out there consumed with what we used to call John Birchism (now: standard Republican orthodoxy) and the Big Lie Republican Party would have been unable to grow and fester like it has without them. Per Nicco Mele, they are not the majority, we are the majority, but they exist in large enough numbers, and are fanatical enough, to be incredibly useful to plutocrats and would-be authoritarians.

These people are almost beyond reasoning with because they have been conditioned to disregard any facts that inconveniently clash with their worldview there on Earth 2….and have willingly surrendered to that mentality. A few years ago, I got into an argument online (always a good use of one’s time) with a conservative woman who was peddling some conspiracy theory or another. When I sent her a Snopes link disproving her claims, she responded that she doesn’t read Snopes because “I like to make up my own mind.”

Yes, and I don’t read weather reports because I like to decide for myself what the temperature is.

It is this gullibility that Fox, Breitbart, and the rest of right wing media exploits, and that we have to do a far better job of countering. 

Of course, the culpability of the MSM for the poisoning of our democracy is an old story compared to the Wild West of Facebook and other social media companies, which represent a totally different kind of threat, but that is a topic for another day. 

Still, it’s kind of silly that we’re even talking about so-called “legacy media” given the extent to which its influence is waning as the Age of Cronkite gives way to the Age of Zuckerberg. (Barf.) But the Internet has not yet completely displaced the power of broadcast and print news, particularly of the tabloid right wing variety, which deftly uses the Internet as a force multiplier, or perhaps vice versa.

It’s ironic, though, to think of how similar Trump and Facebook are. 

Once upon a time, in the Eighties, Donald Trump was just a vulgar real estate developer, walking punchline for Spy magazine, and celebrity wannabe best known for leching after teenaged Eastern European models….not an aspiring tyrant with an army of violent followers who posed an unprecedented threat to American democracy. You know, the same way that once upon a time Facebook was a trivial diversion like Tetris on your Palm Pilot, and not a malevolent multinational juggernaut that was taking over the world by mining your brain like the machines in The Matrix

It’s bitter but fitting that the two worked hand in hand so well, a pair of jokes that turned into urgent, hair-on-fire dangers to humankind.

D.I.Y.

As apostate Republican and Never Trumper Ron Filipkowski says, “(T)he traditional media is constitutionally incapable of being a counter to the alternative ecosystem the right-wing has constructed. Our media is structured to report facts about the way the world functions in a liberal society, not act as a counterweight to an else-worlds propaganda machine.

(I assume he means liberal in the classical sense, though as a fearless Stephen Colbert joked/not-joked at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner—without ever breaking character from his O’Reillyesque “Colbert Report” alter ego—“reality has a well-known liberal bias.”)

To that end, Democrats have to take up that role, and get a lot better at marketing, advertising, and PR. (The folks at the Lincoln Project—not Democrats, but allies on the Democratic side, and also the democratic one—are damned good at it.) That shift will not come naturally, because as Jennifer Rubin noted, Democrats seem “temperamentally unsuited to calling out their opponents as anti-democratic or un-American. (How else would one describe the cheering for an unpeaceful transfer of power?)” We are also at the constant disadvantage of arguing for nuanced, humane policies, as opposed to simplistic and often ill-conceived reptile brain ones. That would present a big enough challenge even if reactionaries weren’t also willing and eager to lie their asses off on top of it.

So we have to let go of our Marquess of Queensbury thinking. 

An example:

Speaking on MSNBC a few weeks ago, the astute former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, whom I deeply respect, addressed a series of incriminating tweets by members of the Trump circle— including family members, Fox News personalities, and Republican congressmembers—that the January 6th committee had made public. Rosenberg said that he wished the committee would not release things like that piecemeal, but rather keep them under wraps until its final report is ready. I understand the prudence and professionalism of this civilized approach, but I respectfully disagree. That’s precisely what the Mueller probe did and it proved a grievous strategic mistake, ceding the media battlespace to Team Trump for almost two years…..and then even allowing Trump and Barr to spin the final report itself ahead of its publication.  

This is a pre-2016 mindset that we have to get out of. Knowing that Hannity, Ingraham, and even that walking Oedipal complex Don Jr. all begged Trump to stop the Insurrection has already changed the national conversation.  

I’m not a journalist per se. (Haters: That’s your cue. I’m not gonna lob you softballs like that everyday.) I come out of documentary, where we make no secret of having a point of view, even if the viewing public is often confused about that distinction. If the American media will not or cannot recognize the insidious Republican game and shift its approach accordingly, the Democratic Party and other opponents of GOP authoritarianism will have to take the initiative. 

The only positive opportunity created by the longstanding right wing war on the media (and on Truth full stop) is that it has so destroyed public faith in journalism, and so inculcated a Putinist cynicism that “everything is a lie,” that it has opened up space for overtly partisan voices to take their case directly to the public, jaded though that public may be, since all “news” is perceived as having an agenda anyway. 

So be it, then: let us make the case that our agenda is preferable to theirs.   

Writing in The Bulwark, Filipkowski advocates this approach in a piece called “How Democrats Can Win the Information War,” and bemoans the fact that the left has not already taken it up:

Either Democrats fail to recognize what is happening, don’t understand it, or think that a handful of PACs and White House press conferences are sufficient to deal with it. Either way, they’re wrong. The DNC’s “War Room” looks like a Victorian tea party compared to what Republicans do on a daily basis. It is shocking to watch both sides operate each day, and see how much more effective the GOP is at messaging.

If the Democratic party had even five intelligent, relentless, full-time people working as a team to fight the right-wing disinformation war, it would be more effective than all the traditional media outlets combined. Again: It isn’t the media’s job to fight partisan battles and the media as it currently exists simply isn’t configured to fight bad-faith, malicious propaganda and disinformation. But also, there are things that can be done by a partisan political group that traditional media cannot, will not, and should not do.

Like Rubin and Sullivan, Ron even gets into the weeds of how this would work:

What would this team do exactly? Generally, it must identify what is being said and done on the right across multiple platforms, settings, and venues. Their game plans for today, this week, this month, and this year are all there, out in the open. Once you become aware of disinformation, it can be proven false and countered immediately. And then Democrats should take the fight directly to the right on their own platforms. I believe that many of the people who have been turned by lies can be won back with irrefutable truth—but the truth has to be put right in front of them, meeting them where they are.

I am less convinced than Mr. Filipkowski that MAGA Nation will listen to reason (they haven’t yet), and a lie famously goes round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But I do think his scheme will do some good with the squishy middle, to the extent it still exists, and help counter the relentless right wing narrative.

The price of failure will be enormous. Jennifer Rubin again:

As the Republican Party strays further from democratic norms and standards of civil conduct, the refusal to pin blame on them for erosion of democracy serves to provide cover for their illiberal conduct and anti-democratic sentiments. A democracy that can no longer recognize existential threats is in no position to defend itself against shameless foes.

CLOUDS’ ILLUSIONS I RECALL

In  closing, let’s go back to 2016. Amid the untold damage done by the MSM’s “both candidates suck!” coverage, Eric Alterman was very clear-eyed about the two choices, and what was at stake:

Journalistic abdications of responsibility are always harmful to democracy, but reporters and pundits covering the 2016 campaign will be doing the public a particularly grave disservice if they continue to draw from the “both sides” playbook in the months leading up to the November election. Now that Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, some simple facts about him and his campaign should be stated clearly and repeatedly, not obfuscated or explained away or leavened into click bait. Trump is a pathological liar and conspiracy theorist, a racist, misogynist, and demagogic bully with a phantasmagoric policy platform and dangerously authoritarian instincts. Hillary Clinton’s flaws and failures are many, and they should not be discounted, either. But they are of an entirely different order. Love her or hate her, at least we don’t have to wonder whether she believes in democracy. When it comes to sane and even semi-sensible policy proposals for America’s future in the 2016 presidential election, there is only one side.

We will be writing a similar epitaph about 2022 and 2024 unless shit changes. 

*********

Photo: Adolphe Menjou (left) and Pat O’Brien (center), and George E. Stone in the original 1931 film version of The Front Page, directed by Lewis Milestone.

The Respite Is Coming to an End, Part 2

Last week in the first part of this essay, we discussed the distressing possibility that it might already be too late to stop an authoritarian takeover of US democracy by Big Lie Republicans less than a year from now.

In this week’s installment, we look at further signs pointing to that fate, what we can do to avert it, and how to begin thinking about resistance should it come to pass. 

CHOKEPOINTS AND HOW TO RECOGNIZE THEM

We have already detailed the finer points of the ongoing GOP attempt to subvert American democracy. As I wrote in part one of this piece, when we reach the midterms, less than a year from now, we may be at the point of no return. That realization unavoidably changes how we look at the daily ebb and flow of US politics. Or should, anyway. 

Normally this week I would be very upset over Joe Manchin double-crossing the President and his own party and reneging on Build Back Better, thereby almost singlehandedly destroying the Biden agenda (it appears), making life significantly harder for millions of working Americans as a result, and handing the GOP a massive victory that will aid it immeasurably in ‘22 and ’24. Thanks Joe! Pick up your MVP trophy at  RNC headquarters. 

(Remember earlier this year, when all the pundits were excoriating the Democrats’ progressive caucus for playing hardball in negotiations with Manchin and Sinema, and insisting on connecting the two infrastructure bills because they feared Joe would double-cross them on the second if they agreed to pass the first in a separate vote? Well, that’s exactly what happened.)

But I just don’t have the energy to worry about Joe Manchin anymore. His odious behavior feels like small beer compared to the broader emergency unfolding all around us….though of course, Manchin is also blocking the passage of bills to protect voting rights, so on that front he’s part of the problem. 

This subversion of the vote is the heart of Republican strategy, both in keeping people from voting, and in controlling the process by which those votes are counted. Build Back Better, admirable and visionary as it is, will just be roadkill along the way should the Republicans succeed.

A year ago, in an influential article titled “The Election That Could Break America,” The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman wrote that Trump understands “that more voting is bad for him in general. Democrats, he said on Fox & Friends at the end of March, want ‘levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.’”

Therefore, having lost the vote in 2020, and failed to overturn the results, the GOP has devoted itself to fulfilling another prediction Gellman made in that piece: 

Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian…..A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix his victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome.

That is precisely what Trump and the Republicans intend to do in 2022 and 2024.

The illusion of a free election is useful cover for authoritarians, from Moscow to Istanbul to Hong Kong. To that end, what the GOP is carrying out now is a kind of “pre-coup” that offers the fig leaf of a fair election, but actually renders a Republican victory a fait accompli. It also obviates the need for any pressure on Congress over the certification of the electoral votes and a second storming of the Capitol by controlling the process further upstream. 

Not coincidentally, this Republican effort to gain a chokehold on the electoral process is concentrated on those states that are likely to be key to victory in ’24. Gellman hones in on this fact in his latest, much-talked about piece in The Atlantic, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun”: 

Among the 36 states that will choose new governors in 2022, three are presidential battlegrounds—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—where Democratic governors until now have thwarted attempts by Republican legislatures to cancel Biden’s victory and rewrite election rules. Republican challengers in those states have pledged allegiance to the Big Lie, and the contests look to be competitive. In at least seven states, Big Lie Republicans have been vying for Trump’s endorsement for secretary of state, the office that will oversee the 2024 election. Trump has already endorsed three of them, in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan.

If UN election observers saw that happening in some emerging Third World democracy, the whole General Assembly would howl bloody murder. 

LETTING YOU GO WITH A WARNING THIS TIME

Just over a year ago, Gellman wrote that as Election Day approached, the screens of electoral experts and political scientists were “blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb.” 

They are an even brighter shade of crimson today. Yet we are, collectively, doing damn little about it. 

“Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real,” he writes of the professional political class and its failure to give this crisis the attention it demands. “Some of them, including President Joe Biden, have taken passing rhetorical notice, but their attention wanders. They are making a grievous mistake.”

Gellman reports that experts who were cautioning against hyperbole a year ago, like Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, now speak “matter-of-factly about the death of our body politic,” and believe that “The democratic emergency is already here.” ‘We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” he quotes Hasen as saying, ‘but urgent action is not happening.” 

Biden has spoken—sometime with soaring rhetoric, sometimes not—about the looming threat and the crucial importance of electoral integrity; indeed, it was a key part of his stump speech during the 2020 campaign, and voters responded to it. But since then, that grand rhetoric has not been matched with similarly dramatic action, or much action at all. Mostly what the President has proposed—not even enacted, but merely proposed—is “enforcement of inadequate laws, wishful thinking about new laws, vigilance, voter education, and a friendly request that Republicans stand athwart their own electoral schemes.”

Conspicuously missing from Biden’s speech (about voting rights, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on July 13th) was any mention even of filibuster reform, without which voting-rights legislation is doomed. Nor was there any mention of holding Trump and his minions accountable, legally, for plotting a coup…..

Democracy will be on trial in 2024. A strong and clear-eyed president, faced with such a test, would devote his presidency to meeting it. Biden knows better than I do what it looks like when a president fully marshals his power and resources to face a challenge. It doesn’t look like this.

By way of analogy, Bill Kristol argues in The Bulwark that Trump’s defeat in November 2020 wasn’t D-Day but Dunkirk, “an occasion to heave a huge sigh of relief, but ultimately a success that simply allows us to regroup and gather our energies and forces for a longer fight.”

The anti-democratic forces seem stronger at the end of 2021 than they were at the beginning. The Republican party seems to be more captive to authoritarian demagoguery today than it was a year ago following Trump’s defeat. Establishment Republicans seem to be even more willing to appease a rising anti-democratic Right than ever. The trajectory of the Republican party heading into 2022 is worrisome. At the start of 2020, people believed that the Republican party might become explicitly anti-democratic. At the start of 2021, all doubt was removed. And neither the party’s leaders nor voters have done anything to change that base fact.

On Medium, a reader named Leonardo del Toro recently made the salient point to me that few functional democracies, faced with a deposed head of state who just tried to mount a violent insurrection to overturn the vote that chucked him out, would allow him to go scot free, run for office in the next election, and even organize an openly violent political movement to back his bid—and, presumably, stand back and stand by in case he loses again.

Gellman again:

The Justice Department and the FBI are chasing down the foot soldiers of January 6, but there is no public sign that they are building cases against the men and women who sent them. Absent consequences, they will certainly try again. An unpunished plot is practice for the next.

In defense of the good ol’ USA, it must be said that we tried to hold Trump to account with an impeachment (his second, ahem), but that effort was blocked by the high-ranking members of his own party who constitute an openly seditionist bloc in our parliament. Unfortunately, far from mitigating the danger, that fact only makes it greater. 

In one mildly encouraging development, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Select Committee on January 6th, has recently said that the committee is looking at a referral to the DOJ for criminal charges against Trump for his role in the Insurrection, both for fomenting it and for failing to stop it once it began, even as senior Republicans, Fox News stars, and even his own family members pleaded with him to do so.

About goddam time. We shall see if Merrick “The Institutionalist” Garland (his WWE costume is a business suit) agrees. I hope so, but I have a scuba tank on standby in case I have to hold my breath. In any case, brace yourself for a slew of hyperventilating op-eds about how such a criminal prosecution would be bad for the country, create more divisiveness, set a terrible precedent for political score-settling by each incoming head of state, blah blah blah blah blah. 

Then remind yourself that when someone commits a horrific crime—particularly when that person is supposed to be the leader of the country—it’s collective political suicide if we don’t hold them to account.

(And it’s far from unprecedented to so. Ask Sarkozy. Or Berlusconi. Or Honecker. Or Fujimori. I could go on.)

THE JUSTIFICATION OF THE MEANS

We would do well to remember that it is this threat of physical violence that underpins the Republicans’ procedural efforts at an electoral takeover, even as the electoral takeover defends and excuses the threat of violence. It’s the kind of symbiosis of which Field Marshal Cinque could only dream. 

Back to you, Gellman:

Trump’s army of the dispossessed is hearing language from Republican elected officials that validates an instinct for violence. Angry rhetoric comparing January 6 to 1776 (Representative Lauren Boebert) or vaccine requirements to the Holocaust (Kansas House Representative Brenda Landwehr) reliably produces death threats by the hundreds against perceived enemies—whether Democratic or Republican.

The infinite scroll of right-wing social media is relentlessly bloody-minded. One commentator on Telegram posted on January 7 that “the congress is literally begging the people to hang them.” Another replied, “Anyone who certifies a fraudulent election has committed treason punishable by death.” One week later came, “The last stand is a civil war.” In response, another user wrote, “No protests. To late for that.” The fire burns, if anything, even hotter now, a year later.

I’ve written many times about how the right’s apocalyptic fearmongering and demonization of Democrats (literal in some cases) serves the twin purposes of retroactively justifying what was done in the past—the Insurrection, support of Trump in the first place, etc—and providing a pretext for even more extreme measures in the future. Before we humans annihilate our foes, we must first convince ourselves they are evil and/or sub-human and deserve such treatment. 

Damon Linker in The Week:

The right believes that the progressive left hates America; that it is an evil totalitarian cult which has infiltrated every institution; and that it is using a mix of business, bullying, and technological surveillance to deconstruct both masculinity and the United States as a whole in order to create a world without belonging.

If you believed this was true, what would you be prepared to do to stop it?

One suggestion, which (David) Brooks mentions in passing in his essay (“The Terrifying Future of the American Right”), is that such hype actually has a retrospective purpose—to justify past and present support for former President Donald Trump among people (like Cruz and Rubio) who once took a stand against him. Such support wouldn’t be necessary if the progressive threat wasn’t so dire,” the argument goes. But because it is, good, patriotic Americans have no choice but to rally around the most tireless and relentless fighter, who just so happens to be the former president and frontrunner for the 2024 GOP nomination.”

So what exactly is the American right giving itself permission to do? Whatever it takes to defeat its mortal enemy.

Historians and political scientists can tell us where this road leads. 

Gellman writes at length about Robert A. Pape, who runs the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST). Last June Pape conducted a survey in which about 8 percent of respondents “agreed that Biden was illegitimate and that violence was justified to restore Trump to the White House. That corresponds to 21 million American adults. Pape called them ‘committed insurrectionists.’” A Public Religion Research Institute survey the following November found that an even larger percentage of Americans, 12 percent, believed both that Biden had stolen the election and that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Pape’s study also revealed that white grievance was far and away the most distinguishing aspect of the group, noting, “The last time America saw middle-class whites involved in violence was the expansion of the second KKK in the 1920s.” 

Pape has compared Trump to the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, who lead the former Yugoslavia into years of genocidal war “by appealing to fears that Serbs were losing their dominant place to upstart minorities.” Milošević argued to his supporters that “The survival of a way of life is at stake. The fate of the nation is being determined now. Only genuine brave patriots can save the country.” These are the precise themes Trump and his Party are hammering. 

Pape also compares the situation to Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, when just 13 percent of Catholics in that country thought force was justified in the cause of Irish nationalism. Gellman writes that the Provisional IRA had only a few hundred members at the time, but that 13 percent of popular support was more than enough to sustain it, creating “’a mantle of legitimacy—a mandate…..that justifies the violence’ of a smaller, more committed group.” 

Like the Rittenhouse acquittal writ large, it is a twisted form of the “self-defense” argument. Linker again: 

If your political opponents are poised to stomp you into the ground and destroy you, aren’t you entitled to do whatever you can to defend yourself? After all, your very survival is at stake. At the individual level, the appeal to self-defense in the face of a lethal threat can lead to acquittal for taking a life. Following a similar logic, a distressingly large number of prominent Republicans seem ready to seek exoneration for the impending crime of killing American democracy. 

YOU KNOW IT’S BAD WHEN THE GENERALS ARE WORRIED

In case your drawers are not yet sufficiently soiled, consider how this impulse toward violence plays out in the US military.

A troika of retired generals, led by the outspoken Major General (Ret.) Paul Eaton, recently published an open letter in the Washington Post in which they warn of the danger our republic is facing. “We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.” 

They go on to note the alarming number of veterans and even active duty service members among the Insurrectionists on January 6, and the specter of the military taking sides in 2024, as previewed by the commanding general of the Oklahoma National Guard recently refusing an order from President Biden mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all NG members. (The danger, of course, is not only one of mutiny and civil war—which ought to be plenty alarming—but of how foreign adversaries might exploit that chaos.)  

The generals write of how ill-prepared the US military was for January 6th, though some might say that is a generous interpretation. (Were people like Trump’s acting defense secretary Christopher Miller unprepared, or were they deliberately aiding the Insurrection with their refusal to act?) Like Gellman and Mr. del Toro, they are also unsparing in their criticism of our collective failure to hold the leaders of the Insurrection to account, noting that “Not a single leader who inspired (the Insurrection) has been held to account,” and pleading for “the Justice Department, the House select committee and the whole of Congress” to “show more urgency.”

Yet General Eaton and his colleagues recognize that the military can no more wait for other institutions to lead the way than rank-and-file citizens can:

(T)he military cannot wait for elected officials to act. The Pentagon should immediately order a civics review for all members—uniformed and civilian—on the Constitution and electoral integrity. There must also be a review of the laws of war and how to identify and deal with illegal orders. And it must reinforce “unity of command” to make perfectly clear to every member of the Defense Department whom they answer to. No service member should say they didn’t understand whom to take orders from during a worst-case scenario.

That’s great, but a training pause for a civics class will not stop pro-Trump servicemembers who don’t give a rat’s ass about their Constitutional duty (despite maudlin claims of how much they revere that document), especially those who have already shown that they are willing to run roughshod over the rules to keep or put their guy in power. 

The generals do go on to recommend “intensive intelligence work….to identify, isolate and remove potential mutineers” and guard against propaganda and disinformation, and that the Pentagon “war-game the next potential post-election insurrection or coup attempt to identify weak spots.” Again, great….as long as those senior generals and admirals are not themselves Insurrectionists or Insurrection-adjacent. For there is, of course, an opposing cabal of pro-Trump retired flag officers, whom Eaton & Co. themselves acknowledge by way of emphasizing the danger, to say nothing of senior officers on active duty who are fanatically pro-Trump but quiet about it. 

You can decide for yourself which group you find more convincing. But the mere fact that our generals are choosing sides is alarming.

THE FUTURE OF A DELUSION

David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has spent more time covering Trump than almost anyone except maybe Tim O’Brien, believes Trump will not be the GOP candidate in 2024 because by then he’ll be under indictment for racketeering and fraud. 

From your lips to God’s ears, Dave. 

That assessment runs contrary to that of most of the other experts, like Gellman, or Nate Silver, but maybe. But cruel hopes of the law belatedly catching up with Donald after a lifetime of horrific behavior, both legal and illegal, have been tormenting decent Americans for years, eating away at any case that God exists at all, let alone has good hearing. I frankly don’t think even indictment would prevent his nomination—an opinion shared by Gellman—and in fact would probably help him fundraise and stoke anger and passion among his grievance-filled mob of supporters. 

Yet even if Trump is not the candidate, that will not mean the danger of looming autocracy is past. Not by a longshot. As we have noted over and over again, Trump is the symptom, not the disease. He is the logical result of the policies and strategy the Republican Party has been pursuing since the early ‘90s, and it will continue down that path even when he is dead and gone. Absent a Damascene conversion, it’s hard to see the GOP finding its way back to sanity. 

To me, a more convincing argument is the one Democratic operative Doug Sosnik recently made in the Washington Post that the Trumpist takeover of the GOP is already complete, marking the transformation of the once-proud GOP into the party of white nationalist authoritarianism.

As if dialed up from Screenwriting 101, Bob Dole’s death last month at the age of 91 was a perfect marker of that transformation. Dole’s passing was the occasion for lots of well-deserved tributes about his personal courage and service and think-pieces about what Republicans used to be. (The less said about his state funeral, at which Lee Greenwood befouled the Liverpool anthem “You Never Walk Alone” and trotted out the inevitable “God Bless the USA,” the better. Give me a US Army band doing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” at Colin Powell’s funeral any day.) 

There’s no denying that America would be far better off if the Bob Doles of the world were still in charge of the GOP, and God rest his soul. That said, Dole voted for Trump twice. That suggests to me that, like many of his elderly Republican colleagues, he was stuck in a pre-2015 mindset, where party loyalty was innocent enough and did not entail siding with seditionists….which is to say, he could not get his head around the sea change in American politics that we have recently experienced, or the threat that Trump represents.  

Admittedly, he was 93 the first time Trump ran and 97 the second. Few of his fellow Republicans have recourse to that same excuse. 

At a December 7th news conference, speaking about the jail conditions in which accused January 6th Insurrectionists are being held, Matt Gaetz said, “We are going to take power after this next election. When we do, it’s not going to be the days of Paul Ryan, and Trey Gowdy, and no real oversight, and no real subpoenas. It’s going to be the days of Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Dr. Gosar, and myself doing everything.”

I know for Big Lie Republicans that’s a feature not a bug. But for the rest of us, it ought to be terrifying. For once Gaetz is telling the truth: whatever one thinks of the Bob Dole GOP of the past, the future of the GOP is a hellish one.

SHINY BOOTS VS. PASS-AROUND HORS D’OEUVRES

The oddsmakers tell us that the GOP is likely to regain power in the midterms. Biden’s poll numbers are down, Youngkin won in Virginia, Republicans have momentum, yada yada yada. I have heard it so much from the mainstream media that it is beginning to take on the feeling of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So let me be clear that we ought not give up just yet on working within the system, even as we prepare for the near-certainty that our main effort will have to be outside it. 

November 2022 is both barreling toward us at freight train speed and simultaneously an eon away in political time. A lot can happen between now and then, and it would be playing into Republican hands for us not to put forward the best candidates we can, and mount an aggressive GOTV effort, and badger our elected officials to pass voting rights protections, and so on and so forth. The GOP and its amen corner at Fox et al would like nothing better than for us to despair and quit before the game is even fully played. That, after all, is a major goal of its propaganda campaign.

That said, we would be naïve not to understand that the odds of a Republican takeover are high, and what that will mean. Above all, it means we won’t be able to rely on elected Democratic officials to arrest a further slide into authoritarianism in the years that follow. 

Should this red wave occur in 2022, some have hopefully suggested that cocky Republicans will then overreach, as they did following their big midterm wins in ‘94 and ’10, after which Clinton and Obama both nonetheless sailed to re-election. Maybe that is so. But that was a different world, one that operated under different rules of engagement. The one in which we now live is far more polarized and partisan, to say nothing of the likelihood that the GOP will have an anti-democratic death grip on that electoral process come November ’24.

In his November 2020 piece, Gellman wrote, “It’s a mistake to take for granted that election boards and state legislatures and Congress are capable of drawing lines that ensure a legitimate vote and an orderly transfer of power.” Boy, did that turn out to be true. Especially when the GOP has, since that time, methodically stripped those entities of their independence, non-partisanship, and commitment to the principle of free and fair elections and instead embedded its myrmidons in key positions with a mandate to deliver victories to Republican candidates irrespective of the vote.

Once that insidious task is complete, Gellman’s next point becomes self-evident: “We may have to find a way to draw those lines ourselves.”

The last piece of journalism to rock the chattering classes like Gellman’s recent Atlantic article was Robert Kagan’s epic op-ed for the Washington Post this past October, “Our Constitutional Crisis Is Already Here,” which also sounded the alarm about the ongoing right wing coup. So I’m glad to see that at least some folks are aware of what’s happening and are going full Paul Revere in response. But I am also highly aware of how limited and absurd a collective case of the vapors among the readership of the Washington Post and The Atlantic really is. (Let me know when Men’s Fitness runs a cover story on it.)

As if to demonstrate my own membership in the Chablis Underground, I am reminded, as always, of the iconic bit from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1980), in which Woody’s character, Isaac, tries to recruit some other guests at a black tie cocktail party to confront a group of neo-Nazis:

Isaac: Has anybody read that Nazis are going to march in New Jersey? We should go there, get some guys together, you know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Guest #1: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times. It is devastating.

Isaac: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Guest #2: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.

In other words, it’s great that people in highbrow political periodicals are raising the alarm. We need folks all across the spectrum to do that. But it’s going to take a lot more than just consciousness-raising in NPR Nation for us to prevail in this struggle. 

Recognizing you’re in a flaming housefire is a good start, but only if you take action to put it out.  

IF YOU WANNA BE WOKE, YOU GOTTA WAKE UP

So short of Woody’s bricks and bats, how do we stop this coup and save the republic? 

Let’s start with the optimists first. 

Writing in Washington Monthly, David Atkins, who runs the qualitative research firm the Pollux Group, argues that “in the event of an attempted hostile takeover by a theocratic, anti-cosmopolitan fascist movement, a nonviolent civil resistance and general refusal to cooperate among military, business, and civil elites—plus mass civil disobedience by blue America writ large—should be able to stop it.”

If the Republican Party decides to declare victory by selecting conservative electors even when they lose, change the rules to ensure that they never lose again per the Hungarian model, and allow a Republican president unchecked dictatorial powers—all of which are not only possible but, in fact, likely outcomes within just the next few years—it will actually be doing so from a position of weakness.

Successful fascist movements and authoritarian coups generally require not only a fervent base of cruel, fundamentalist backers. They also need the support, cooperation, and acquiescence of social elites. Most of all, they need the public to roll over and go along with it.

Atkins notes that “democracy’s defenders have an advantage” in that they “represent the majority of America and are also the main drivers of the country’s culture and economy.” 

Blue counties produce more than 70 percent of America’s GDP. U.S. cities—overwhelmingly blue—are responsible for the vast majority of the country’s cultural and economic output. Blue states are overwhelmingly donors to the states that despise them and seek to disenfranchise them. The nation’s most successful companies are typically located in ultra-liberal areas. And the country is becoming more diverse and more urban every day. Americans under 40 are overwhelmingly progressive. This is the present and future of America.

Atkins also thinks that these demographic trends—increasingly urbanliberalyoung, and non-white—will force Big Business (which might naturally side with allegedly pro-business conservatives) to recognize on which side its Wonder Bread is buttered and apply pressure on the GOP. We know that this dynamic is real, because of the way the Republican Party already, regularly “now portrays itself as the victim of ‘woke’ corporate elites.”

In the Guardian, the intrepid Rebecca Solnit makes a similar arc-of-history-bends-toward-justice case. Seconding Atkins’ point about demographics, she writes hopefully that the forces of reactionaryism are fighting like cornered rats precisely because they know that they are in fact cornered, and quotes Michelle Alexander’s 2018 essay to the effect that “We are not the resistance. (We) are the mighty river they are trying to dam.”

I’m sure she’s right, by the numbers. But let’s not underestimate how long those panicked white nationalists can hold on in their death throes, and how much damage they can inflict along the way, and how painful that will be. 

Which brings us to the pessimists. 

Speaking to Truthout’s C.J. Polychroniou recently, the estimable Noam Chomsky bluntly argued that “if Trump and acolytes (return) to power….we will be well on our way to proto-fascism and to falling off the precipice.” You don’t need to be as smart as Noam Chomsky to have clocked that, though it’s nice he is around to summarize it so tidily.

Noam goes on:

Is there a way to fend off these grave political consequences? Not within the confines of the deeply corrupt and undemocratic political system. The only way that has ever worked, and can work now, is mass popular pressure—what the powerful call “the peasants coming with their pitchforks.”

In other words, the main pushback for the defense of the republic ultimately will have to come from outside the conventional political system. There are plenty of models, from Gandhi in India to Solidarity in Poland to MLK and the civil rights movement right here in the United States. 

Atkins seems to agree: 

The future of American democracy looks exceedingly grim under threat from a far-right authoritarian movement—and it’s not clear that any particular electoral or legislative response by Democrats can fix it. In short, it will take an unprecedented all-of-society approach to bring together many competing interest groups—from leaders of the business community to marginalized workers and everyone in between—to stop the MAGA train in its tracks.

So yes, we should try to passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Yes we should turbocharge our GOTV efforts. Yes, we should call out and mount legal challenges to extreme gerrymandering and obviously partisan Congressional redistricting.  Yes, we should push back against anti-democratic legislation to take the electoral process out of the hands of neutral administrators. Atkins believes that while they hold any political power at all, “Democrats should do everything in their power to pass bills that improve Americans’ lives, drag Manchin and Sinema to do whatever is possible to shore up majoritarian democracy, and run the best, most popular and effective campaigns possible.” 

But those things alone cannot stem the tide against a determined fascist party in a thermostatic two-party system.

Conservatives are guaranteed to make every attempt to turn America into the next Russia or Hungary. It will take coordinated, overlapping solidarity among both regular people and elites across various institutions to stop it.

Even Bill Kristol agrees, writing, “We have to be the source of our own rescue, the cause of our own liberation. And that work we have only just begun.” 

We Americans—white ones anyway—have long had the luxury of living in a country where we could rely on the mechanisms of official power to protect us from the more sinister forces that would do us harm and undermine our free and open society. That is not the norm in most of the world. We now find ourselves in that harsher, bare knuckles world. 

We better beginning acting like it.

*********

Photo: Solidarity protest in Poland, 1982. Chris Niedenthal / Forum.

What Rough Beast: Joan Didion for Boys

I came to Joan Didion late. As a teenage boy in the 1970s, the titans of so-called New Journalism who grabbed me were Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and their Beat Generation predecessors like Kerouac and Burroughs—the usual suspects. I’d encountered Didion in excerpts from The White Album and Salvador, but I was a grown-ass man before I began to really read and appreciate her in earnest. My loss. 

Those male writers fit the adolescent model that seemed tailor made for guys like me. But Joan Didion’s work was sneakier, subtler, and darker. Yes, darker than Hunter Thompson and William S. Burroughs, even though I’m not aware that she ever pulled a gun on anyone, much less the trigger. As I say, it took me a while to mature enough to appreciate it.  

(The 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold by her nephew-in-law Griffin Dunne is a good introduction to his aunt, both benefitting and suffering from being an insider account.)

People love Joan Didion the way they love Joni Mitchell, another California icon, transplanted though she is: as an artist with a dazzling and absolute mastery of her craft, whose work feels incredibly personal, as if directed individually at them. Like those male authors, she is an unmistakably American writer; what could be more American than drinking an ice-cold Coca-Cola for breakfast every morning? Her influence is towering, yet still underestimated; to mangle Eno’s famous comment about the Velvet Underground, it seemed like everyone who read her work went out and applied to a journalism or MFA Creative Writing program.

As a reporter, Didion’s talent for zeroing in on the crucial elements of any given topic and neatly dissecting them for the reader in eyepoppingly stylish prose was a match for Wolfe’s. Her writing on the Central Park Five—Six, originally, and now known more properly  known as the Exonerated Five—presciently looked ahead to contemporary battles over racism and the criminal justice system. (It especially resonated with my wife, who as a young documentary photographer had known and worked with one of the wrongly accused young men.)

As a screenwriter myself, I was also taken by Joan’s journalism about that part of her career. (I will include in that grouping her husband’s 1997 book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, which recounts their travails in scripting the 1996 Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer movie Up Close and Personal, which featured some real life characters I had dealt with myself at close range.) Certainly no one has captured the faux goodwill and passive-aggressiveness of contemporary Hollywood as well as she did when she wrote, in a piece called “Good Citizens,” from The White Album:“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Didion’s writing about her home state, far beyond just Hollywood, remains some of her best work, IMHO, as well as some of her most celebrated. That too struck a chord with me, as an almost accidental transplant to the state, decades behind previous generations of westward-bound searchers, and one who fell in love with it. Even now I retain a strong vestigial attachment to the Bear Republic, which takes a back seat to no state, not even Texas, in seeing itself as its own sovereign country. Few have captured the California myth better than Joan.

She can be forgiven for her admiration for the Doors, as I hope I will be. (The teenage years are hard and confusing.)

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, AND BACK AGAIN

I was well into adulthood before I discovered Joan’s writing about Hawaii. As it happened, the time she spent in the islands coincided almost exactly with the period I lived there as a teenager. Reading her stories for the first time, I was astonished at how perfectly she captured the place—from the perspective of a visiting haole, anyway—not only Honolulu, familiar to tourists, but unfashionable parts of Oahu like the Army post where my family lived in the late ‘70s, Schofield Barracks:

I have never seen a postcard of Hawaii that featured Schofield Barracks. Schofield is off the track, off the tour, hard by the shadowy pools of the Wahiawa Reservoir, and to leave Honolulu and drive inland to Schofield is to sense a clouding of the atmosphere, a darkening of the color range. The translucent pastels of the famous coast give way to the opaque greens of interior Oahu. Crushed white coral gives way to red dirt, sugar dirt, deep red laterite soil that crumbles soft in the hand and films over grass and boots and hubcaps. Clouds mass over the Waianae Range. Cane fires smoke on the horizon and rain falls fitfully. BUY SOME COLLARD GREENS, reads a sign on a weathered frame grocery in Wahiawa, just across the two-lane bridge from the Schofield gate. MASSAGE PARLOR, “CHECKS CASHED, 50TH STATE POOLROOM, HAPPY HOUR, CASH FOR CARS. Schofield Loan. Schofield Pawn. Schofield Sands Motor Lodge.

If my fourteen-year-old self had known Joan Didion was prowling around post, he would have been starstruck, if my fourteen year old self had known who Joan Didion was. (I was more consumed at the time with the likes of Gerry Lopez.)

She goes on to describe other places, like the red light district of Hotel Street, where I changed buses on my commute to 9th grade in Honolulu (on those days when the carpool wasn’t running, I feel compelled to say, at the risk of chipping away at my street cred). 

(I)t was in this sombre focus that I last saw Schofield, one Monday during that June. It had rained in the morning and the smell of eucalyptus was sharp in the air and I had again that familiar sense of having left the bright coast and entered a darker country. The black outline of the Waianae Range seemed obscurely oppressive. A foursome on the post golf course seemed to have been playing since 1940, and to be doomed to continue. A soldier in fatigues appeared to be trimming a bougainvillea hedge, swinging at it with a scythe, but his movements were hypnotically slowed, and the scythe never quite touched the hedge. Around the tropical frame bungalows where the families of Schofield officers have always lived there was an occasional tricycle but no child, no wife, no sign of life but one: a Yorkshire terrier yapping on the lawn of a colonel’s bungalow. As it happens I have spent time around Army posts in the role of an officer’s child, have even played with lap dogs on the lawns of colonels’ quarters, but I saw this Yorkshire with Prewitt’s eyes, and I hated it.

I….had lunch with my hosts at the Aloha Lightning NCO Club and was shown the regimental trophies and studied the portraits of commanding officers in every corridor I walked down. Unlike the golden children in the Honolulu bookstores these men I met at Schofield, these men in green fatigues, all knew exactly who James Jones was and what he had written and even where he had slept and eaten and probably gotten drunk during the three years he spent at Schofield. They recalled the incidents and locations of From Here to Eternity in minute detail. They anticipated those places that I would of course want to see: D Quad, the old stockade, the stone quarry, Kolekole Pass. 

It was in one of those bungalows that we lived at precisely that time (though we only had a mutt—a poi dog, in local parlance—not a Yorkie). D Quad was my father’s; his portrait was one of those commanding officers she studied; and one of the regimental trophies of which she speaks was a silver punchbowl his predecessors in that regiment—the 14th Infantry “Golden Dragons”—had brought back from the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the 19th century.

She writes of “barracks rats” who were “erasing Army hatred by indulging in smoke or drink or listening to Peter Frampton at eighty decibels.” The quads where those GIs lived were right across the street from our house, and I can tell you that in terms of the volume of the music blasting out from behind windows typically adorned with tinfoil in lieu of curtains (soldiers are very resourceful), 80 dBs is generous, though in my memory it was “Go Your Own Way” or “Trampled Under Foot” or “Brick House.” 

I was still reeling from that shock of recognition when I came upon her description of a commemorative screening of From Here to Eternity at Schofield (where much of it was set and had been filmed) in 1977, and realized I had been at that screening, in the company of my father. 

(E)veryone to whom I spoke at Schofield had turned out for this screening. Many of these men were careful to qualify their obvious attachment to James Jones’s view of their life by pointing out that the Army had changed. Others did not mention the change. One, a young man who had re-upped once and now wanted out, mentioned that it had not changed at all. We were standing on the lawn in D Quad, Jones’s quad, Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s quad, and I was watching the idle movement around the square, a couple of soldiers dropping a basketball through a hoop, another cleaning an M-16, a desultory argument at the Dutch door of the supply room—when he volunteered a certain inchoate dissatisfaction with his six years in the 25th Division. “I read this book From Here to Eternity,” he said, “and they still got the same little games around here.”

DISSENT

For my part, I’ll apologize halfheartedly for writing about Didion from such a solipsistic point of view, but only halfheartedly, because New Journalism had already broken the rules and put the reporter—not the putative subject—at the center of the story, and because her writing was so piercing that its impact was hugely personal for the reader. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The acclaim for Ms. Didion is not universal, of course. Take Tom Carson, formerly of Esquire, a brilliant writer and stylist in his own right (see Gilligan’s Wake), who has written of her carefully calculated public persona, and the disingenuous pose (my words) that showcases “her fragility in a sentence(s)…about as hesitant as a fighter plane.” ”Few writers,” Carson writes, “so happily stack the deck while pretending they’re just passive receptors of the cards they’ve been dealt.” He also makes the point that Didion actually was more appealing to a male audience than a female one.

All fair enough. All my literary heroes inspire strong passions and legions both of champions and detractors, except Robert McCloskey. Even those detractors admit Didion’s vast influence on postwar American letters. Revisionists gonna revise.

For me, coming to her work late in life was a revelation, one that sent me circling back to earlier times in my own life, allowing me to relive them with an adult perspective, and affording me an appreciation for prose that I was too callow to reckon with at the time. Lucky me I got a mulligan. 

I’ll sign off by turning it over to the woman herself, who wrote these prophetic words way back in 1968, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem:

Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, thing have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.

May she rest in peace and her legacy linger. 

******* 

Photo: Joan Didion in 1972, by Jill Krementz

The Respite Is Coming to an End

When Joe Biden beat Donald Trump to win the US presidency, I was one of tens of millions who rejoiced. Here in Brooklyn, as in many places all over America and the whole world, spontaneous parties erupted in the streets, a testament to how hated Donald was, and remains. (As the meme went: “Try to do your job in such a way that people don’t dance in the streets when you get fired.”)

But glad as I was, from the beginning I was also among those who worried that we were only entering a lull before the vile hate machine that is the modern Republican Party came roaring back on the counter. 

It was not hard to predict. But it is now impossible to deny that that is precisely what is underway. 

I wrote at the time that there could be no return to normalcy, but even that warning has proven a vast underestimation of the threat. 

Biden has been in office just under a year. Just under a year from now, with the midterms, and the probable Republican re-taking of the House of Representatives, we may be at the end of the phase in which he has appreciable control of the governance of the United States. Matters are likely to get dramatically worse from there heading into January 2025, which may well see the reinstallation of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. That event, not coincidentally, would likely mark the effective end of representative democracy as we know it in the United States.

Alarmism, you say? I don’t think so. All around us we can see the forces of white nationalist authoritarianism engaged in a second, far more methodical, far better coordinated, and already more successful attempt to do what they failed to do on January 6, 2021. If matters continue on this path, the Biden administration will prove only a brief respite before those forces snuff out the grand American experiment and secure a permanent, countermajoritarian chokehold on the erstwhile republic. That outcome is especially likely when we observe how tepid the response of our elected Democratic leaders has been thus far as regards this threat. 

I am not trying to be some Eeyore-cum-Schleprock-cum-Debbie Downer and kill everybody’s buzz. The die is not cast, but it’s damn sure being shaken and blown on, Nathan Detroit style. We should not stop fighting (NB: metaphor) against this threat, nor working with all our might on all legitimate fronts to stop it. But the chilling truth is, the defenders of American democracy—working within the political system, the confines of morality, and the realm of fealty to objective truth—are at a decided disadvantage against a foe that respects no law, no rule, no norm, no boundary at all, to include the use of lethal violence against their fellow Americans in order to seize and retain power. 

Therefore it has become increasingly clear that even as we work to stop a GOP takeover, we must at the same time look ahead—”over the horizon,” in the preferred Pentagonspeak of the moment—and gird ourselves for that possibility, and begin to think about how we will resist a looming right wing autocracy, one that promises to make the first Trump administration look like a ukulele-strumming stroll through the marigolds.

IS IT “PRESHY-ENSE” OR “PRE-SCIENCE”?

The unfolding Republican threat to American democracy is two-pronged. The first is the bubbling possibility of political violence by the kind of seditionists who attacked the Capitol on January 6th (and tried to kidnap and murder Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and staged the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville). The second is the lower-profile but equally hostile takeover of the mechanisms of government in order to control the electoral process going forward—chiefly by installing Trump loyalists in positions where they can deliver victories to Republican candidates up and down the chain, from local school boards all the way to the White House, irrespective of the actual vote. 

The two aspects are twinned, of course, and mutually reinforcing. 

In the new issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman has a provocative cover story in which he outlines the mechanics of that slow-motion coup in great detail. Titled “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” it is a kind of follow-up to his equally influential piece of a year ago, “The Election That Could Break America.” That story proved prescient and I’m afraid this one will too. 

Gellman’s predictions ahead of Election Day were pretty good. He predicted that Trump would challenge the results (a calamity against which the US had “no fail-safe”), predicted his meritless legal challenges, and predicted the attempt to interfere with the counting of the electoral votes and the pressure that would be put on Mike Pence. He even predicted the attempts by Trump, Meadows, Eastman, et al to get state legislators to set aside the popular vote and choose a slate of electors directly. 

“We are not prepared for this at all,” Julian Zelizer, a Prince­ton professor of history and public affairs told Gellman at the time. 

No shit.

Gellman was especially clairvoyant (not that it took a Kreskin) about Trump’s refusal to admit defeat, all the way to Elba-Lago:

Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.

It takes nothing away from Gellman’s psychic powers to note that Trump himself told us that in advance. Over and over again in both 2016 and 2020 he refused to commit to accepting the results of any election he didn’t win. Even in an election he did win, he obsessed over losing the popular vote and claimed, “baselessly but not coincidentally, that at least 3 million undocumented immigrants had cast fraudulent votes for Hillary Clinton.” (He just happened to have lost by 2,868,692.) So we should have been prepared. 

Gellman wrote: “(T)here is no version….in which Trump congratulates Biden on his victory. He has told us so. ‘The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,’ Trump said at the Republican National Convention on August 24.” We didn’t take him literally or seriously or whatever the hell we were supposed to do. But we should have.

Yet no one, not even Gellman, I think, fully contemplated the scope, duration, or above all the impact of that non-concession.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED

In the end, as we know, Trump didn’t generate enough confusion and doubt to enable him to hold onto power, though he damn sure tried. But he generated enough to create a fog of illegitimacy around his successor, and in so doing pointed the way for how the Republicans could take power back in 2024. They have been at it ever since. 

Gellman argues that ”the next attempt to overthrow a national election….will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect.”

For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.

Any Republican might benefit from these machinations, but let’s not pretend there’s any suspense. Unless biology intercedes, Donald Trump will seek and win the Republican nomination for president in 2024. The party is in his thrall. No opponent can break it and few will try. Neither will a setback outside politics—indictment, say, or a disastrous turn in business—prevent Trump from running. If anything, it will redouble his will to power.

Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Republican-dominated legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws to make it harder for Black and Brown Americans, as well as others expected to back Democrats, to vote. Some of those states have taken the power to certify official votes away from nonpartisan officials and given it to Republicans. Had these laws been in place in 2020, Trump would almost certainly still be in office.

Essential to this effort at all levels is the recruitment of capos willing to do the God-Emperor’s bidding. 

In 2020 Gellman wrote, “If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?” Turns out that’s exactly what happened, and the people who stopped him, chiefly, were a mere handful of principled, relatively low-profile Republican officials at the state and county levels. The GOP duly took note, and has methodically removed most of those officials and replaced them with fanatic Trump loyalists who are currently engaged in a frenzied competition to prove who loves the taste of Donald’s butt cheeks the most. 

Affirming a widely held view, the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse told Gellman that the integrity of these Republican officials was the crucial factor in the ultimate failure of the attempted coup. “I think you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more willing to follow the party line,” said Kruse, “and you get a different set of outcomes.”

“Today that reads like a coup plotter’s to-do list,” Gellman writes. “Since the 2020 election, Trump’s acolytes have set about methodically identifying patches of resistance and pulling them out by the roots.” Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, Doug Ducey in Arizona. (And these are Trump supporters…..just not supportive enough.) The Republican-controlled state legislature in Arizona has even passed a law forbidding the Democratic secretary of state from taking part in election lawsuits, as she did last year. “The legislature is also debating an extraordinary bill asserting its own prerogative, ‘by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration,’ to ‘revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election.’ There was no such thing under law as a method to “decertify” electors when Trump demanded it in 2020, but state Republicans think they have invented one for 2024.”

In Georgia, a new law has taken power away from the county authorities who normally manage elections and given it to “a GOP-dominated state board, beholden to the legislature, (that) may overrule and take control of voting tallies in any jurisdiction—for example, a heavily Black and Democratic one like Fulton County.” That board can also “suspend a county board if it deems the board to be ‘underperforming’ and replace it with a handpicked administrator” who will have the power to disqualify voters and declare ballots null and void.”

“Instead of complaining about balls and strikes,” Gellman writes, “Team Trump will now own the referee.”

If those people and provisions were in place in the weeks following the 2020 election, Donald Trump would still be in the White House today. The GOP is going to make damn sure they are there come ’24.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFEKT

In his new piece, Gellman writes: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.”

Donald Trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it again, and his position is growing stronger. Republican acolytes have identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are methodically exploiting them. They have set loose and now are driven by the animus of tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters who are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence, and reject democratic defeat. Those supporters….are armed and single-minded and will know what to do the next time Trump calls upon them to act.

The midterms, marked by gerrymandering, will more than likely tighten the GOP’s grip on the legislatures in swing states. The Supreme Court may be ready to give those legislatures near-absolute control over the choice of presidential electors. And if Republicans take back the House and Senate, as oddsmakers seem to believe they will, the GOP will be firmly in charge of counting the electoral votes.

Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, Donald Trump may be capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take that chance.

“Electors are the currency in a presidential contest,” writes Gellman, “and, under the Constitution, state legislators control the rules for choosing them.” In 2020, Trump tried to “decertify” electors after votes had been cast—an outrageous, Hail Mary ploy, and one that failed. In 2024, Trump and the GOP intend to circumvent that problem by attacking it further upstream, before the electors are even chosen. They intend to do that by controlling how the states choose those electors, and who in the state government oversees that process. 

News flash: they’ll be wearing elephant pins.

(Of course, the Republican attempt to subvert the vote goes far beyond just the presidential race, to include almost every level of elected office. Therefore the GOP has been assiduously laboring to ensure that it has ironclad control of the electoral process at every level, from local election commissioners to state legislatures to Congress and the presidency itself.) 

Anticipating that this effort might well end up in the courts, “Trump’s legal team is fine-tuning a constitutional argument that is pitched to appeal to a five-justice majority if the 2024 election reaches the Supreme Court.”

This, too, exploits the GOP advantage in statehouse control. Republicans are promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred electors instead.

Four conservative justices—Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas—have already signaled support for…..an absolutist reading of legislative control over the “manner” of appointing electors under Article II of the US Constitution. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s last appointee, has never opined on the issue. The question could arise, and Barrett’s vote could become decisive, if Trump again asks a Republican-controlled legislature to set aside a Democratic victory at the polls. 

It is no comfort to remember that Trump lost 64 of 65 legal challenges to the 2020 election, because Donald has upgraded his team considerably since then, the same way he “upgraded” the Supreme Court, from a reactionary point of view.

Trump is not relying on the clown-car legal team that lost nearly every court case last time. The independent-state-legislature doctrine has a Federalist Society imprimatur and attorneys from top-tier firms like BakerHostetler. A dark-money voter-suppression group that calls itself the Honest Elections Project has already featured the argument in an amicus brief.

“One of the minimal requirements for a democracy is that popular elections will determine political leadership,” Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School expert on election law, told me. “If a legislature can effectively overrule the popular vote, it turns democracy on its head.” Persily and UC Irvine’s (Richard) Hasen, among other election-law scholars, fear that the Supreme Court could take an absolutist stance that would do exactly that.

FAHRENBÄLANST

Another aspect of this insidious Republican crusade is more abstract, but possibly more important. 

Though Trump no longer commands the advantages of an incumbent president, Gellman believes that “the balance of power is shifting his way in arenas that matter more,” the informational one being perhaps paramount. For essential to his scheme is a relentless propaganda effort to marshal support from the MAGA base and even casual mainstream voters—call it “consciousness-lowering”—with a bullshit Orwellian justification for what the GOP is doing. 

Though his attempt to overturn the vote in 2020 failed, “the Trump team achieved something crucial and enduring by convincing tens of millions of angry supporters, including a catastrophic 68 percent of all Republicans in a November PRRI poll, that the election had been stolen.” 

Nothing close to this loss of faith in democracy has happened here before. Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost. Delegitimating Biden’s victory was a strategic win for Trump—then and now….

Trump has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his smoke. His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power. 

This is not some transient or loosely committed population. Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.

As Heather Cox Richardson writes, this large majority of Republicans who believe the Big Lie gives cover to GOP officials to undermine future elections under the risible rubric of “making the vote more secure.” Indeed, it provides a mandate for even more draconian steps, if necessary. Gellman again:

Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.

Trump’s army of the dispossessed is hearing language from Republican elected officials that validates an instinct for violence. Angry rhetoric comparing January 6 to 1776 (Representative Lauren Boebert) or vaccine requirements to the Holocaust (Kansas House Representative Brenda Landwehr) reliably produces death threats by the hundreds against perceived enemies—whether Democratic or Republican.

Rewriting the true history of January 6th is a key part of that campaign.

Gellman writes: “For a few short weeks, Republicans recoiled at the insurrection and distanced themselves from Trump. That would not last.” By this past October Trump was crowing in a statement released by his fundraising group, that “The insurrection took place on November 3, Election Day. January 6 was the Protest!” 

It is difficult today to find a Republican elected official who will take issue with that proposition in public. With Trump loyalists ascendant, no room is left for dissent in a party now fully devoted to twisting the electoral system for the former president. Anyone who thinks otherwise need only glance toward Wyoming, where Liz Cheney, so recently in the party’s power elite, has been toppled from her leadership post and expelled from the state Republican Party for lèse-majesté.

Trump is successfully shaping the narrative of the insurrection in the only political ecosystem that matters to him. The immediate shock of the event, which briefly led some senior Republicans to break with him, has given way to a near-unanimous embrace. Virtually no one a year ago, certainly not I, predicted that Trump could compel the whole party’s genuflection to the Big Lie and the recasting of insurgents as martyrs. 

During the (first) Trump administration, the mainstream media was constantly looking for the moment when the GOP would break with Donald…..as if the party was actively searching for a chance to do so. After January 6, I hope we have learned that such a moment is never coming, because the GOP does not want to break with Trump. Why would it, when he offers a once-in-several-generations means of inspiring fanatical support among the conservative electorate? 

So if he says jump, they’ll say how high. And if he says the sky is red and 2+2=5 and hang Mike Pence, they’ll salute and say “Three bags full, sir!” to that as well. 

Yet still Trump apologists scoff in condescension at the very idea that the man would ever do anything untoward, or that we should lose sleep.

I have written before—including just last week—about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s infamous essay of October 2020, “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” which was itself a response to Gellman’s Atlantic article warning of just that. In his new piece, Gellman takes measure of Douthat’s subsequent attempts to justify his embarrassingly wrong prediction, attempts which center on the idea that Trump failed in the end. 

“There are risks of foul play, (Douthat) writes, but “Trump in 2024 will have none of the presidential powers, legal and practical, that he enjoyed in 2020 but failed to use effectively in any shape or form.” Douthat argues that the odds of Trump’s overturning an election from outside the Oval Office are slim once we recall “his inability to effectively employ the powers of that office when he had them.” 

Gellman makes short work of that:

That, I submit respectfully, is a profound misunderstanding of what mattered in the coup attempt a year ago. It is also a dangerous underestimate of the threat in 2024—which is larger, not smaller, than it was in 2020.

It is true that Trump tried and failed to wield his authority as commander in chief and chief law-enforcement officer on behalf of the Big Lie. But Trump did not need the instruments of office to sabotage the electoral machinery. It was citizen Trump—as litigant, as candidate, as dominant party leader, as gifted demagogue, and as commander of a vast propaganda army—who launched the insurrection and brought the peaceful transfer of power to the brink of failure.

All of these roles are still Trump’s for the taking. In nearly every battle space of the war to control the count of the next election—statehouses, state election authorities, courthouses, Congress, and the Republican Party apparatus—Trump’s position has improved since a year ago.

2024 IS COMING IN 2022

This is all plenty terrifying all on its own. But it gets worse.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of an exhausted electorate, the point of (almost) no return is not the next presidential election three years away in 2024; it is the midterms, less than a year away, in 2022. 

As it stands right now, Republicans are tipped to re-take the House. If they do, they will already have their boot on the neck of democracy, making the rest of the slow-motion coup even more likely. What will that look like?

A GOP-controlled House will impeach Joe Biden. No ifs, ands, or buts. It might impeach Kamala Harris too. All of it will be on specious, frivolous grounds (trumped up, you might say) and they won’t get a conviction, but they will gum up the works, prevent the White House from doing much else, and above all tar Biden as corrupt and even criminal in the eyes of tens of millions of low-information voters.

The Biden agenda will come grinding to a halt while red America celebrates his subjection to this Inquisition. The GOP will then blame Biden and the Democrats for not getting anything done, and lots of Americans will look at the news on their TVs and smartphones and thoughtfully stroke their chins and say, “Hmmm, I agree.”

From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to a red wave two years later, putting the GOP back in charge of the Presidency, the Senate if they don’t already have it, a majority of statehouses  and governorships, and more.

The Republicans will gin up special committees on everything they can think of, from Afghanistan to mask mandates to Biden’s dog Major, all with the aim of crawling up the lower intestines of their Democratic colleagues as they haul them before Congress HUAC-style. In the process, Republicans will also suddenly recall their ferocious belief in the sanctity of subpoenas and start throwing people in jail if they refuse to cooperate. If you liked Benghazi, you’re gonna love this.

When they manage to get control of the Senate, too, they will do infinitely worse than that, like hold open indefinitely any vacancies on the Supreme Court—for years even—until they can get a Republican back in the Oval Office (and you know which one I mean). They will propose and pass outrageous legislation, reverse attempts to arrest the pandemic, ramp up their Atwoodian war on women, make sure firearms are as readily available as chewing gum in the checkout line, and generally behave unfettered by even the shred of principle that pestered them last time. 

And 30% of America will cheer.

And above all, they will change voting laws to further entrench the anti-democratic control of the electoral process that they desperately need to gain and hang onto power. Their entire reason for undermining the process in the first place is because they know that the demographic trends are against them and that they can’t win elections on a level playing field going forward. 

Once they get control, therefore, they are never going to give it up, or risk having free and fair elections ever again. Indeed, we may have already seen the last one.  

THERMOSTATICS FOR BEGINNERS

But maybe we can defy the pundits and the prognosticators—and the odds—and keep the GOP out of office. Right?

Two days before Gellman’s essay came out, the researcher David Atkins published a piece in Washington Monthly that was less discussed but just as seminal. In clinical, non-hyperventilating prose (readers of this blog may not be familiar with the style), Atkins elegantly laid out how “the American electorate seems to have an unalterable tendency toward thermostatic behavior,” and explained for us dummies what that means….which essentially is, the unalterable tendency to want to “throw the bums out”:

In layman’s terms, the electorate grows cranky and dissatisfied for reasons often out of government’s direct control (gas prices, a pandemic, economic fluctuations, and so on), and the party out of power gains an advantage accordingly. Voters of the dominant party become complacent even as the opposition grows angrier and more determined. 

(Contrary to the hopes of some—Democrats especially—hyperpolarization has not negated this effect. Neither, apparently, has behavior so egregious that some of us thought it might doom That Other Party for good.) 

Compounding the problem is what Atkins calls America’s “dangerously archaic and outdated two-party presidential system that fails to account for modern political realities.” He adds that “the mechanisms of accountability, such as impeachment and conviction, against a lawless president are nearly worthless if his own partisans refuse to take action.”

The part of Atkins’s article that falls under the rubric of “tell me something I don’t know” is this: 

The Republican Party has become an antimajoritarian, antidemocracy organization driven to extreme tactics. This is mostly based out of fear of permanently losing America’s culture war. The GOP only has a few actual policy ideas beyond owning the libs and causing blue America as much pain as possible, all while giving goodies to its donors and base. And it is willing to overthrow democracy to hold on to power. 

Extreme gerrymandering in statehouses and the US House of Representatives, plus disproportional representation favoring conservative rural whites in the Senate and Electoral College, is stacking the deck in favor of a radical minority—and Republicans have grown brazen about simply stealing elections for themselves even if those advantages prove insufficient.

Sadly, it’s Atkins’ view that “Democratic politicians have limited options right now regarding what to do about it,” and even changes to protect voting rights “still wouldn’t prevent Democrats from losing elections fairly and organically in the normal thermostatic way.” That is not a problem in a normal political system: it’s simply how the game is played. It becomes a real problem, however, when the opposing party is a neo-authoritarian one that has made no secret that it intends to hold onto power permanently, should it get back into the driver’s seat.

Which brings us to the really scary part:

So, the key challenge is this: Democrats would need to win every single election from here to prevent the destruction of democracy, while Republicans only need to win one. And the American system is set up so that Republicans will win sooner or later, whether fairly or by cheating. What to do?

If that is so, we’re fucked. 

OK, you can start hyperventilating now. 

THE MASTER’S TOOLS AND THE MASTER’S HOUSE

In summary, we are in a world of hurt. As The Atlantic’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg writes in a preface to this week’s issue, “We are close—closer than most of us ever thought possible—to losing not only our democracy, but what’s left of our shared understanding of reality.”

I myself have tried to remain hopeful, but I am increasingly resigned to the likelihood that, per Atkins, the Party of the Big Lie will eventually regain power one way or another—perhaps legitimately, through the thermostatic effect and general American dumbfuckery, perhaps through electoral suppression, chicanery, or even brute force—if not in 2024, then in 2028, or 2032, but eventually. And when they do, they will install permanent, unvarnished, right wing, white nationalist, Christian supremacist authoritarianism in America.

We will not be able to stop this eventuality from within the system, a system in which we play by the rules and they do not. We have to get ready to work outside the system. Atkins writes:

Blue America needs to start thinking about and planning for what “Break glass in case of emergency” measures look like—because it’s more likely a matter of when, not if. It not only can happen here; it probably will happen here. 

In the coming months, this blog will devote more time to what we must do to prepare for the possibility of full-blown, right wing, white nationalist autocracy in America, even as we struggle to avoid that fate. More of that to come in part two of this essay next week. 

In the mean time, let’s give Bart Gellman the final word:

There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without. 

Democracies have fallen before under stresses like these, when the people who might have defended them were transfixed by disbelief. If ours is to stand, its defenders have to rouse themselves. 

*********

Photo: Trump supporters—including David Viviano, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court (foreground, right, in Hillsdale College jacket) at a Trump campaign rally in Sterling Heights, MI in early November 2016. 

The Unkillable Zombie of States’ Rights

In last week’s dancing-about-architecture essay regarding The Beatles: Get Back I didn’t have to mention TFG or the Republican Party even once, which was a treat. This week, it’s back on your heads, people. And what could be more shit-sucking than wading into the debate about abortion? 

Gluttons for punishment, follow me…..

JUST A BUNCH OF REASONABLE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO OWN SLAVES

Over the past five years, the term “conservative” has ceased to have its proper meaning in American politics, especially when it comes to the punditocracy. With its only rational members having fled to a mainstream mediascape where Reality still reigns, the picked-over corpse of what now constitutes “conservative media” consists largely of con men, carnival barkers, and batshit conspiracy theorists hopped up on their own vitamin supplements, human growth hormone, and horse de-wormer. 

What those cretins have to say about abortion does not merit serious consideration. 

But consider what the few remaining, ostensibly “reasonable” conservative pundits have to say on the subject. The argument you hear from those folks goes like this:

“When Roe is rightly overturned, it won’t affect the legality of abortion or access to it in liberal states like New York, California, or Massachusetts. All it will do is return the rightful authority to restrict it to those states that wish to do so.” 

Seems almost reasonable, if the person saying it is a well-spoken public intellectual in a bowtie on CNN, and not a spittle-spewing protestor holding a graphic picture of an aborted fetus and screaming in the face of a 14 year-old girl as she tries to enter a Planned Parenthood clinic. 

But in fact, that proposition is dishonest and chilling in the extreme. 

This is the same old “states’ rights” argument that has plagued our nation since its very founding—pre-dating it, in fact, all the way back to 1619, you might say. It is the same one that ignited the Civil War and continues to be the animating force behind the most divisive issues roiling the United States to this day. And it’s no different when it comes from an amiable Republican politician in a fleece vest than from a Foghorn Leghorn-voiced Virginia slaveholder in a waistcoat in 1860.

Consider how readily the states’ rights argument on abortion could be applied to other matters…..including matters to which it was very memorably applied in the past:

If Alabama wants to have whites-only drinking fountains, racially segregated schools, a literacy test at the polls, if it wants to define marriage as an institution exclusively for heterosexual couples, or make homosexuality illegal outright, or deny women the vote, or Black people, or Democrats, what’s the problem? (Oh, wait—they’re already doing that.) If the majority of Alabamans are cool with that—I’ll pick on them, hypothetically, if you don’t mind, hypothetically—how is that any skin off the collective nose of Pennsylvanians, who are free to enact different policies as they see fit? Live and let live, n’est-ce pas

No, n’est not so pas. Not at all.

We are a Union whose entire existence hinges on a fundamental set of shared values. Not every value, but the most basic ones. There are laws of minor significance that can vary from state to state without harelipping the nation: what days of the week you can buy booze, what the speed limit ought to be, how long you can redshirt your pre-kindergartener to give him a leg up in the NFL draft. But there are other things that are inherent to who we are as a country and cannot be abridged if we want to maintain that national integrity. Things like equality for all under the law, protection of voting rights including unfettered access to the polls, and the rights to privacy, personal safety, and liberty. One of those fundamental values is, or at least ought to be, what Justice Elena Kagan has called “the fabric of women’s existence in this country.” 

In the 1957, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to protect Black schoolchildren as they entered the halls of Central High, which had been desegregated over the objections of the state government. He did that because the Supreme Court had ruled that the United States was not going to have a system of apartheid, not even with the separate but (putatively) equal facilities that an earlier Court had deemed kosher. 

Almost a century earlier we went to war with our own countrymen over the question of whether some states—claiming “states’ rights”—were going to allow the lawful bondage and enslavement of human beings. 

With Roe v. Wade—and the new laws in Texas and Mississippi (among others) that challenge it—we are now being asked to decide a similar question, something that can’t be allowed to vary across state lines if we want to call ourselves a civilized union. I would phrase that question as: do American women have autonomy over their own bodies, or not? The radically different way others would phrase it speaks to the breadth of the divide. 

It took a bloody civil war for America to conclude that our Black fellow countrymen are, gosh, full human beings and citizens deserving of equal protection under the law. The drama playing out now suggests that we have not yet concluded that women are too.

THE HIGHLY MOBILE GOALPOSTS OF “PRO-LIFE” COMPROMISE

In a democracy, we have to accept laws that accommodate a pluralistic range and diversity of views, irrespective of our own personal moral beliefs. Abortion falls into that category. The debate pits two equally adamant camps against each other: one that believes a fertilized egg is tantamount to a human being, and another that views the government’s Cambodia-like incursion into the uterus as hateful subordination of women as second class citizens. 

It is ironic that that first camp—which, opportunistically or otherwise, includes the entire Republican Party—analogizes its cause to that of 19th century anti-slavery abolitionists, yet uses the strategy of slaveholders of that same era to defend it.  

You might have noticed: the entire debate about abortion hinges on when life begins, the two irreconcilable extremes being a) at the moment of conception, and b) at the moment of birth. Neither view can have its way entirely in a functioning American republic, which is fine, because both are absurd. An acorn is not an oak tree, but neither is a fetus in the 32nd week just a hunk of inanimate tissue, particularly given the capability of modern medicine to maintain viability outside the womb.

(Not even worth discussing is an even more extreme Catholic position that even sperm, or an unfertilized egg, which is to say “potential life,” should be accorded the same rights and protections as a living human. That is a nonsensical, anti-scientific argument that would make murder out of a wet dream or the menstrual cycle itself. By that logic, we don’t even need to go to the point of ejaculation: just the tingling feeling I get when I see Penelope Cruz would constitute a mortal sin, notwithstanding the astronomical odds against matters proceeding from there. Or so it says in the TRO I was served with.) 

The whole point is that we are stuck with an insoluble philosophical question, à la Plato’s Beard, the only answers to which are arbitrary by definition and therefore unsatisfactory. In light of that, inflexible dogmatic positions like these two extremes are unworkable in a representative democracy. What we need instead is a reasonable middle ground that accommodates as much as possible the competing needs and desires of all parties involved. That is to say: a policy that gives American women their rightful autonomy over their bodies, and offers a fair window for responsible reproductive decisions, while still protecting the sanctity of life in terms of fetuses who are past the point of viability.

Something kinda like the system established as a result of Roe vs. Wade, yes? 

Because what we are currently litigating isn’t the incompatible views of life-begins-at-conception and life-begins-at-birth. It is the extremism of the former, versus a reasonable accommodation for a democratic society, which is what Roe—the existing law of the land—represents.

For the anti-choice movement, yes, the extreme does apply, with many of its members unwilling to make exceptions under any circumstances. But no credible voice in the pro-choice movement is insisting on abortion on demand up to the moment of birth. What the pro-choice movement wants is what Roe guarantees, when not restricted with insidious legal maneuvers that undermine the spirit of the decision: an American woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own body under reasonable conditions. 

I understand that for those who take the begins-at-conception position, any compromise, on democratic grounds or otherwise, is unacceptable. I would respectfully suggest that the real problem is the invalidity of their unfounded and extremist view, one which they insist on imposing upon the rest of the country. Indeed, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out, what they seek to impose is essentially a religious belief, raising questions of abrogation of First Amendment protections for the rest of us on behalf of one preferred religious group. (Tit for tat, evangelicals.)

Last week on “MTP Daily with Chuck Todd,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) specifically made the states’ rights argument, suggesting that the Mississippi case—Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—represents a kind of middle ground on this thorny issue…..a sort of Missouri Compromise, if you will. (Because we saw how well that worked.)

But Roe itself is already the compromise. Dobbs and its ilk would take away even that.  

And yet that is precisely what the Supreme Court is about to do away with.

I WISH I WAS IN THE LAND OF COTTON

It’s a bitter irony that Hillary’s loss in 2016 was driven in large part by sheer misogyny, and as a result the sexual predator host of “The Apprentice” was able to put three—three!—justices on the Supreme Court, a bloc that now looks set to overturn Roe and set back women’s rights in this country—and human rights—a hundred years. 

If I had told you in 1983 that this bozo Donald Trump, this cartoonish d-bag celebrity wannabe and butt of jokes in Spy Magazine, was gonna be in a position to do that—and also to foment a violent attempt to overthrow the government, and to command an army of tens of millions of pinwheel-eyed disciples—you’d have laughed me out of my parachute pants and Members Only jacket. 

For that matter if we were in a movie theater in 1951 watching Bedtime for Bonzo and I told you that that actor up on screen would serve two terms as president and become a deified figure in the Republican Party, you’d have asked me when the Constitution was going to be amended to allow chimpanzees to run for office.

Yet here we are.

In the New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin writes that “In a few months’ time, when (the Dobbs) decision is likely to be handed down, the right to an abortion as Americans have known it for half a century will, it appears, no longer exist.” (Along with Mississippi and Texas, some 19 other states are poised to make abortion literally or effectively illegal as soon as the Supreme Court gives them the nod.) 

She goes on to obliterate the dishonesty of the states’ rights position, and the callous indifference to our neighbors that it proposes:

There is a difference between living with a right and relying on the indulgence of a state legislature. And it is an insult to people in every state to say that they needn’t care about the liberty and well-being of people in another state who might be deprived of choice or pushed toward the sort of unsafe, illegal abortions that often cost women of earlier generations their lives.

David French, formerly of National Review, has made the eyebrow-raising argument that returning the issue to the states will calm matters, a position that likewise harkens back to attempts to find a “compromise” on slavery. (Calming matters, however, is not the paramount concern for either side.) By contrast, the Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes articulates the majority view that affirming Dobbs will do exactly the opposite. Count me on Team Charlie. 

Some of the other Republican arguments on abortion are particularly ironic at a time when issues of medical necessity, personal privacy, and governmental intrusion on bodily autonomy are at the forefront of the national conversation. 

In another conversation with Chuck Todd last week, Sen. Braun of Indiana argued that a  COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and even just weekly testing if you don’t want the vaccine, is an unacceptable medical intrusion on Americans, especially those who don’t have convenient local access to it. This from the Dept. of You Can’t Make This Shit Up.

The states’ rights amen corner makes a great show of venerating the Enlightenment ideals of egalitarianism and representative democracy as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. But in reality, those ideals are exactly what that corner opposes. (And of course we have the irony of many of those Founders themselves being slaveholders.) The right to operate racist, sexist, plutocratic mini-autocracies within the federal system is what “states’ rights” has always boiled down to…..and before you accuse me of hyperbole, let’s bear in mind that the kind of contentious, restrictive policies I laid out above are precisely the kind that this movement has fought for in the past, and wants to institute now. No one raises the banner of states’ rights—or needs to—so that Georgia can name the brown thrasher the state bird. 

In this talk of “states’ rights,” there is no discussion, you will note, of the burden that laws like Mississippi’s would place on poor and/or working women who can’t travel to another state to get an abortion, or for victims of rape or incest (or both, as the latter usually implies the former). That is because anti-choice advocates don’t really think anyone should be able to get an abortion, anywhere, anytime, ever, so they really don’t care. 

For here is the ultimate irony, and hypocrisy: if they succeed in gaining power at the national level, which seems likely, you can be sure they will try to outlaw abortion nationwide. 

Where’s your “states’ rights,” now?

THE WEDGE ISSUE TO END ALL WEDGE ISSUES

It is no accident that abortion has become such a prominent issue for the American right, and the reason is two-fold. 

First, it’s something that REALLY gyrates a passionate segment of the Republican base, which is an invaluable resource for any political party. (Why it gyrates them so is a matter for another day.) 

Secondly, it’s an issue that insidiously seeks to maintain and even further entrench the control of women by men in a blatantly inequitable, anti-feminist way.

A hyperpartisan wedge issue that lets the GOP advance the cause of white male patriarchy? That’s a no-brainer. The Republican Party is gonna put all its chips on that number every day of the week and twice on Sunday.  

Naturally, there are true believers who are genuinely and passionately convinced that life begins at the moment the lights go down and the needle drops on the Barry White record. But a huge segment of the national politicians who are “pro-life”—a majority, I would unscientifically wager—are cynics and opportunists manipulating the hoi polloi, while their own opinions may well be different, or at least indifferent. Do you really think Donald Trump is against abortion? Surely he has paid for plenty in his time…..or more likely, as Samantha Bee says, promised to pay for them and welshed.

The conservative position on abortion is certainly not about being “pro-life,” to use the preferred propagandistic term of the evangelical right. (Which is why I don’t feel bad about calling them “anti-choice,” an equally loaded term, but I would argue a perfectly accurate one.) 

To restate the obvious, where does that “pro-life” mentality go when it comes to providing childcare for working mothers, or food for hungry children, or medical assistance to the poor, or any of the other post-partum humanitarian issues on which conservatives suddenly turn Dickensian? As George Carlin quipped, the allegedly “pro-life” forces are all in on protecting babies….until they come out of the womb. After that, fuck you: you’re on your own. 

Many of these same people, of course, are also adamantly in favor of the unregulated availability of guns, including semiautomatic, high-capacity ones designed for the battlefield, and have little to say beyond ”thoughts and prayers” at the massacring of Americans, many of them children, with clockwork regularity. Some even send out Christmas cardsthat celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with what looks like Al Capone’s family portrait. 

It’s also no coincidence that the anti-choice forces characterize their crusade as about “saving babies.” It’s the most dramatic possible way of framing it, even if that framing elides crucial nuances and even scientific reality. As I wrote a few weeks ago, this is the same impulse behind QAnon’s fever dream of Satan-worshipping pedophiles among the Hollywood and Washington elite. In the scorched earth Gingrichian politics of the American right, it is necessary to characterize one’s foes as the most vile creatures imaginable, the better to justify the most extreme tactics to defeat them. So what could be worse than baby-killers? (Echoes of Vietnam, when that exact same appellation was hurled at returning GIs by a rabid antiwar left.)

The idea that a D&C at six weeks “kills a baby” is a triumph of bad science, bad linguistics, and bad faith argument. But it’s good for inflaming a certain passionate segment of the electorate and driving them to the polls (or merely into your camp should you decide to make the polls irrelevant). One might suggest that I am doing the same thing by invoking the ghost of American slavery. OK. I promise to stop as soon as they do…..in the mean time, I’ll stand by the validity of my analogy and put it up against theirs any place, any time.

PAGING CAPTAIN RENAULT

Like a number of conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, during his confirmation hearings, Bart “I Like Beer” O’Kavanaugh clutched his pearls and assured the US Senate of his deep, deep respect for precedent. Now that he is safely on the Court for life, with impeachment a highly unlikely (but not totally unfathomable) possibility, his enthusiasm for stare decisis seems to have waned considerably.

It goes without saying that questions about “precedent” asked of Supreme Court nominees are always coded ones that are really about a certain topic that dare not speak its name. But in his hearings three years ago, Kavanaugh said explicitly that Roe was “settled as a precedent” because “it has been reaffirmed many times over the past 45 years.” Indeed, he went out of his way to assure his various partners in this Apache dance—Susan Collins above all—that he had no intention of overturning it. But now that he has been presented with the chance to do so, he is damn near salivating at the possibility.

In the New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin writes of how Kavanaugh “rhapsodized” last week about the “history-making power the Court has,” rattling off seminal cases that overturned previous rulings that, in his view, were wrong. Among the triumphant reversals he noted were Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Obergefell v. Hodges. 

….and those are some of the most consequential and important in the Court’s history,” (Kavanaugh) said. If the Court, in the Dobbs case, thinks “that the prior precedents are seriously wrong,” can’t it pursue “the right answer” instead? If it never overturned precedents, he said, “the country would be a much different place.”

(Yes—one more to the liking of the neo-Confederate ethos the GOP supports, in terms of the list he ran down.)

Did you catch what Brett was up to? (If not, maybe PJ or Squee can explain, or Buster, or Ass Man, or Dr. Stinkfinger, or one of his other high school buddies.) He was casting Roe v. Wade as an egregious judicial error on a par with the policies of segregation, denial of due process in the criminal justice system, and marital discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. I’m surprised he didn’t include Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott, though the WaPo’s Hugh Hewittdid. Or maybe he doesn’t think those were wrong.

In truth, of course, what we are facing is just the opposite, as Kavanaugh’s colleague Justice Sotomayor keenly noted.

The Orwellian hypocrisy of acting as if overturning Roe is on a par with defending civil rights should come as no surprise: co-opting the iconography of the civil rights movement is all the rage in right wing America these days, where reactionary politicians now regularly invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to promote policies that are diametrically opposed to everything he stood for. (Virginia’s Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin is just the most prominent of many Republican politicians to do so, in his recent successful gubernatorial campaign.)

It’s what Ibram X. Kendi calls “the second assassination” of MLK, all over again.

In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman writes that “the conservatives on the Supreme Court lied to us all.” Very true, though we’ve known that all along. (Except Susan Collins, who is also the proud owner of a bridge in Brooklyn and some swampland in Florida.).

They weren’t just evasive, or vague, or deceptive. They lied. They lied to Congress and to the country, claiming they either had no opinions at all about abortion, or that their beliefs were simply irrelevant to how they would rule. 

It was all a lie, a scam, a con: the assurances that they were blank slates committed to “originalism” and “textualism,” that they wouldn’t “legislate from the bench,” that they have no agenda but merely a “judicial philosophy.”

Somehow that philosophy nearly always produces results conservatives want: undermining voting rights, enhancing corporate power, constraining the rights of workers, enabling the proliferation of guns, and now most vividly, allowing state governments to force women to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Waldman then walks us through what various justices said during their respective confirmation hearings, from Gorsuch to Roberts to Alito to Barrett, who “was already on record stating that abortion is a moral evil,” but during her hearings insisted, “I don’t have any agenda” and that it “would not be possible” to predict how she would rule on an abortion case. 

As Waldman quips, “That must be why Republicans were so desperate to get her on the court and so rapturous with joy when she was confirmed: Because they had no idea how she might rule!” (Ouch.) 

The cake-taker, though, might be Clarence Thomas, who astonishingly claimed that he did not have an opinion about Roe, and in fact had never even had a conversation about it. (That may be news to his wife, a hardcore arch-Catholic activist.)

The kabuki is not limited to SCOTUS nominees, of course. Waldman writes: “Like his Republican colleagues….Ted Cruz repeatedly insisted at confirmation hearings that the very idea that a Republican appointee might have a political agenda was deeply offensive to whatever fine nominee was before them.” 

But here is Cancun Ted speaking with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham last week:

“If we have six Republican appointees on this court,” (Ingraham) said, “after all the money that’s been raised, the Federalist Society, all these big fat-cat dinners — I’m sorry, I’m pissed about this—if this court with six justices cannot do the right thing here,” then Republicans should “blow it up” and pass some kind of law limiting the court’s authority.

“I would do that in a heartbeat,” Cruz responded.

“In other words,” Waldman writes, “We bought this court, and we’d better get what we paid for.”

EVERY SPERM IS SACRED

Speaking of precedent, when the Court considered Texas’s new vigilante anti-choice law this past fall, Kavanaugh was given pause by the idea that the same trick could conceivably be used (get it?) by another state—say, a Democratic-controlled one—to restrict firearms, for example. If Texas can refashion itself as Gilead, why can’t California institute sharia law (which we all know that us liberals are super keen to do)?

But overall, right wingers don’t seem too worried, as their general policy with this and all other matters is to interpret the law as they wish to benefit themselves, and reverse it on a dime for the other side.

Kavanaugh also made an explicit states’ rights argument in leading questions that he asked the Mississippi solicitor general, suggesting that the Constitution was neutral on the issue of abortion, and that a ruling for Mississippi in Dobbs would not prohibit the procedure, only leave it to each individual state to decide. The WaPo’s, Ruth Marcusmade short work of that fallacy, explaining how reproductive rights are clearly the kind protected by the 14thAmendment: 

To say that the Constitution is “neutral” is another way of saying that women no enjoy no protection, no liberty to decide what to do with their own bodies—or, more precisely, only so much protection as the state where they live chooses to grant them.

But the right wing still has plenty of surrogates in the media pushing its narrative.  

Ahead of last week’s arguments before the Supreme Court, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote a column titled “The Case Against Abortion” that neatly illustrated the intellectual disingenuousness—and sloppiness—of so-called conservatives on the topic. 

As the Gray Lady’s resident devoutly Catholic reactionary hiding behind a veneer of staid, above-the-fray “reasonableness,” Douthat began with two sweeping, related, and totally unsupported (and unsupportable) presumptions:

There is no way to seriously deny that abortion is a form of killing. At a less advanced stage of scientific understanding, it was possible to believe that the embryo or fetus was somehow inert or vegetative until so-called quickening, months into pregnancy. But we now know the embryo is not merely a cell with potential, like a sperm or ovum, or a constituent part of human tissue, like a skin cell. Rather, a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception, and every stage of your biological life, from infancy and childhood to middle age and beyond, is part of a single continuous process that began when you were just a zygote.

Say what??? What exactly in embryology tells us that “a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception,” other than Ross’s wish that it is so? How precisely does the act of avoiding the wet spot qualify as the choir-chiming moment at which the mythical soul achieves personhood?

Douthat goes on:

We know from embryology, in other words, not Scripture or philosophy, that abortion kills a unique member of the species Homo sapiens, an act that in almost every other context is forbidden by the law.

Again: wha????? Making a Misty Copeland-caliber jeté from his previous howler, Douthat neatly concludes that, since a freshly fertilized egg deserves the right to vote on “American Idol,” anything other than carrying that embryo to term involves “killing” a human being. 

In other words, he presents as indisputable fact the notion that human life OBVIOUSLY begins at conception and that therefore abortion is killing BY DEFINITION. (He stops short of the word “murder,” but he certainly implies that this killing is unjustifiable, as opposed to, say, killing in self-defense, or in warfare, or by legal execution.) Zero actual proof for either point, by the by, just a blithe restatement of the anti-abortion dogma, leaping over fundamental precepts of logic and reasoning that a college freshman learns in Philosophy 101. You may agree or disagree with Douthat, but you can’t just state those things without a cogent argument behind them. That’s the whole crux of this long-running and heated debate. 

Everything after that is pointless, once he insists that we accept those terms. 

Backing up a little, even the title of Douthat’s piece—“The Case Against Abortion”—is slanted, implying that the folks on the other side of the debate are super gung-ho and “for” abortion. They love getting abortions! They do it the way other people go bowling on Tuesday nights! 

The notion of “safe, legal, and rare” is not helpful when one is writing agitprop. 

The title also, in its oversimplification, implies endorsement of a total, no-exceptions ban on the procedure, which isn’t something even Douthat has proposed. But an op-ed called “The Case Against Abortion, Except In Cases of Rape or Incest or Lethal Threat to the Health of the Mother” doesn’t sing, does it? No one ever said this debate was big on nuance.

MY BODY, MY CHOICE (YOURS—NOT SO MUCH)

In some ways, though, we need not bother ourselves with Ross Douthat, as his credibility is less than zero. Every single day I want us all to re-post Douthat’s October 10, 2020 column titled “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” one of the most egregiously and embarrassingly wrong predictions in all of postwar American journalism. 

Yet he remains a columnist in the most respected newspaper in America.

Ross continues to try to qualify and rationalize that column, but both the column itself and his ongoing defense of it speak to his smugness and sense of entitlement. 

In closing, let us turn instead to Boston University history professor and Substack superstar Heather Cox Richardson, who reminds us that the Dobbs case is about a lot more than abortion. 

Make no mistake: it is not just reproductive rights that are under siege. If the Supreme Court returns power to the states to legislate as they wish, any right currently protected by the federal government is at risk. 

After 19 Republican-dominated states have passed election laws suppressing the vote and gerrymandering districts, a reactionary minority controls them. Although Biden won Wisconsin, for example, the state supreme court today left in place districts that likely will enable Republicans to control 60% of the legislative seats in the state (and 75% of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives). Ending federal protections for civil rights means handing to these reactionaries power over the majority of us.

So, contrary to the states’ rights argument, even if you don’t care about reproductive rights, or the legalization of bounties for citizens to snitch on their neighbors, shrugging your shoulders over the de facto outlawing of abortion in Mississippi and Texas (to start) opens the door to a very worrying area. What’s to stop the states’ rights crew from enacting laws that, say, disenfranchise women, Margaret Atwood style? Or Black people? Or Democrats? (Oh wait—they’re already doing that.)

At a time when voting rights are under assault in dozens of states—when American representative democracy full stop is facing an existential crisis—the notion that the Supreme Court might well affirm the right of individual states to wantonly do whatever the hell they please takes us far beyond even the seminal question of women’s rights and fetal heartbeats to the heartbeat of the republic itself.  

********

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Get It Be (or, Rashomon on Savile Row)

My friend Peter Millhouse was an RAF fighter pilot. In the mid-Sixties he left the service to work in film and TV in Swinging London, as it was only half-jokingly called, cutting a dashing figure around the King’s Road. In early 1969 he was working for Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of Let It Be, and claims to have been on the Apple rooftop for the Beatles’ famous, impromptu final concert.

Was he really there? I don’t know. For that matter, did he really claim that, or do I just remember it that way because I like to say that he claimed it? Like the man saysprint the legend

And legends are very much the topic at hand, both in the sense of “someone very famous and admired, usually because of their ability in a particular area,” as the Cambridge Dictionary tells us, and of “a very old story or set of stories from ancient times, not always true.”

By the time this blog goes to press, we might have hit the saturation point on think-pieces about Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary opus The Beatles: Get Back. But since everyone and their estranged stepbrother has felt qualified to weigh in, you can be damn sure I’m going to do so, lifelong Beatles fanatic that I am. (“Fanatic? That’s an understatement!” my wife is yelling from our bedroom. Yes, she can psychically tell what I am typing even from the other end of the apartment.) So I will try to rein in my voluminous thoughts about all things Beatle and instead focus this essay on a less-well-worked-over aspect of Jackson’s landmark project: what it tells us about the subjective nature of storytelling full stop.

I promise you I will get there eventually. 

I WAKE UP TO THE SOUND OF MUSIC

To be clear, I myself certainly wasn’t on the rooftop of 3 Savile Row in Mayfair, London, the home of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, on January 30, 1969. I was a five-year old in Columbus, Ohio with a father about to leave for his second tour in Vietnam and a mother on Valium. So I don’t really know what went on there, or in the ad hoc recording studio in the Apple basement, or at Stage 1 of Twickenham Film Studios. At best I can make only an educated guess about the relative accuracy of Lindsay-Hogg’s largely reviled 1970 film and Jackson’s mostly adored new one. But the mere existence of the two, and the sheer volume of interest in the story—both its human subjects and the new project itself—offer a rare opportunity to think about what we consider “truth” in the first place. 

By way of exposition for the non-cognoscenti, in January 1969 the Beatles embarked on a new album, eventually to be titled Get Back, that was meant to be a stripped-down “back to our roots” LP, recorded live, with mistakes included, and no overdubs—a new direction and a new challenge after the pioneering multitrack psychedelia of records like 1966’s Revolver and (especially) 1967’s Sgt. Pepper. The insanely short three-week timetable was to culminate in the band’s first live show (David Frost doesn’t count) since Candlestick Park in August 1966.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to document the process, and the concert, for a TV special, having previously directed a number of short “promotional films” for the Beatles—music videos, we would call them today. More recently, he had also directed another TV special, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, on which John and Yoko played a pair of tunes (“Yer Blues” and “Whole Lotta Yoko”) backed by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass), and Mitch Mitchell. Circus, however, had been a disastrous production that the Stones hated; it would not air for almost thirty years. Which probably should have been a red flag. 

For the Beatles, the problem was that they were perfectionists who were never really satisfied with the raw takes of the Get Back sessions, having become accustomed to building their songs methodically, using the still-new process of multitrack recording the way Leonardo used his brush. Also, the band was coming apart as its four members had all begun to move in divergent personal and professional directions. (There, I just saved you eight hours of TV-watching.) 

The band’s frustration was a measure of how far they had come from their first LP, 1963’s Please Please Me, which was recorded in a single day, almost entirely live. (Which is why, for instance, Paul sings solo on the chorus of “Love Me Do,” the rest of which is two-part harmony, as John’s lips were occupied with the harmonica for that section.) 

It didn’t help that Lindsay-Hogg asked them to reverse their usual nocturnal recording schedule, and leave Abbey Road studios for early morning calls in a cavernous, acoustically crappy stage at Twickenham, surrounded by colored lights and an army of cameramen and boom operators. Though matters improved in the second week, when they re-located to the newly constructed—if half-assed—studio in the Apple basement, the record never reached a level that satisfied the famous foursome. 

As a result, Get Back, and Lindsay-Hogg’s film, were shelved as the band returned to its usual methods to record Abbey Road. It was only later that they brought in the American producer Phil Spector to “salvage” the earlier album, now retitled Let It Be, which was released in May 1970, about a month after the announcement of the band’s breakup

I have a lot of love for that original Let It Be album, even with its bizarro aesthetic clash of warts-and-all one-take cuts, free association studio chatter (“Queen says ‘no’ to pot-smoking FBI members”), and Phil Spector’s over-the-top Wall of Sound embellishments. As a child, I bought it sometime in 1970—or more likely, early 1971—in its original pressing, complete with the now-rare red apple label. (I thought they were all red until 1973, when I bought the “Live and Let Die” single, with its standard green Granny Smith.) I have often told people it was the first record I ever bought, which was a fib. It was the second; the first was The Partridge Family Album. (NB: I was seven.)

The Fab Four themselves largely thought Spector’s production was a crime, not knowing that Phil had a much worse crime still up his sleeve. But like many fans, I grew up with that version: it was my introduction to the band, and I will always think of it fondly, even as I understand its shortcomings. 

Befitting its troubled gestation, that original version of Let It Be has since been worked over ad infinitum, including the 2009 remaster, and 2003’s excellent, McCartney-initiated Let It Be….Naked, which stripped away Spector’s lavish orchestrations in an attempt to return to the original spirit of the endeavor. (Get back to where you once belonged, indeed.) The new documentary is accompanied by yet another re-release, a special edition box set with 57 songs on five CDs, plus a Blu-ray and a 100-page book. For completists only, it even includes Glyn Johns’ May 1969 mix of the abortive, much-bootlegged original Get Back album, in case you want to own a record the Beatles themselves didn’t like enough to put out.

ACT NATURALLY

Lindsay-Hogg’s film, retitled to match, finally came out simultaneously with the album in May 1970, and for more than fifty years has been the final cinematic word on the demise of the Beatles. Somewhere I have a bootleg DVD of it, but it’s been years since I watched it, and I’m not even sure I ever did watch the whole thing. It is infamous as a depressing, inadvertent chronicle of the looming dissolution of the biggest and most influential band in rock music. For that reason, it’s been out of print for years, which may give you some idea how unhappy it made people. 

In 2017, word that Peter Jackson was revisiting the voluminous raw material from which Let It Be was culled sent Beatledom atwitter. (Not a new social media platform.) A feel-good trailer released last December, and widely circulated reports that this project was designed to re-write the last chapter of the Beatles’ history, led many to expect—and fear—a sanitized, saccharine take. The apoplexy among the Beatle faithful was palpable. 

But that presumption proved unfounded. Get Back actually spends plenty of time on the dysfunction of the band in its twilight, some of it very uncomfortable to watch, and all of it enlightening to anyone even vaguely interested in the artistic process. The new film in no way dispels the standard historical take about the band’s breakup, but it does paint a much fuller, more complex, and more nuanced portrait of it. It’s an elegy that also shows the camaraderie of four individuals who had been lifelong friends since their teens, who created a peerless body of work that changed the world, who experienced global fame at an intensity few others in human history ever have, and who, as George Harrison once pointed out, were the only four people on earth who could understand what the others had been through.

It’s fitting that the Get Back/Let It Be sessions should be the subject of competing film versions, in the same way that the record has been subjected to multiple revisions. There is also some irony that Lindsay-Hogg’s film was conceived for television but turned into a feature, while Jackson’s was intended as a feature and turned into TV, after the COVID-19 pandemic gave the director an extra year and a half to work on it. (Fitting also that it’s on Disney and not Apple TV, given the history of bad blood between the Beatles and the gang in Cupertino over that trademark.)

Get Back moves in strict chronological order, day by day, kicking off with the first known Beatles recording, “In Spite of All the Danger,” an Elvis-inspired McCartney-Harrison composition from 1958, put on tape at a friend’s home in Liverpool. As a fly-on-the-wall view of the creative process of some of the most accomplished musical artists of the 20th—or any—century, even if it was at the end of their partnership, it is unparalleled.

All my life, having not bothered to check the calendar, I blithely assumed the Let It Be sessions went on for months. It’s astonishing to think that all this creativity—and friction, and drama—unfolded over just 22 days. From a standing start, with just a few snippets of ideas and a handful of works-in-progress leftover from the White Album sessions (and some chestnuts dating back to the beginning of their career), the Beatles crafted an entirely new LP that, despite its sour reputation owing to their impending breakup, remains astoundingly accomplished. A number of songs, including both of George’s that made it onto the album, “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine” (along with “Old Brown Shoe,” which became the B-side to “The Ballad of John and Yoko” single in May of that year) were written overnight. 

But should we really be so surprised? After all, this was a band that put out 13 iconic albums in just about six years. That’s how long it took Guns & Roses to mike a single tom tom on Chinese Democracy

For most bands, the Let It Be album would be their masterpiece. For John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it’s only lesser Beatles—a B+.

Jackson’s film turns Lindsay-Hogg—who is inexplicably American despite his über-English surname, and widely rumored to be Orson Welles’ illegitimate son—from auteur of this drama to supporting character in it. He certainly has the Wellesian pomposity: If he nagged the band one more time about sailing a ship to Libya and performing in a torchlit ancient Roman amphitheater for an audience of “3000 Arabs,” I thought I might reach into the TV screen and whack him in the face with Paul’s Hofner bass myself. (The one with the 1966 setlist still taped to its body, which I would then sell on eBay.) 

But as many have noted, MLH deserves credit for his exhaustive documentation, even if he did interfere badly with the band’s already challenged creative process, not to mention illicitly recording a private conversation between John and Paul using a hidden mike. (If not quite on a par with Robert Durst‘s self-incrimination in The Jinx, it’s still pretty sketchy.)

There are so many wonderful moments, I won’t even try to touch on them all. I could write a lengthy blog on the topic of Glyn Johns’s coats alone. But to name just a few:

  • The mind-boggling scene of EMI being stingy with the Beatles’ requests for decent microphones and an eight-track machine instead of just four. (“The Beach Boys got eight tracks,” the band members note. “The Beach Boys are American,” they are told.)
  • The serendipity of their old Hamburg pal Billy Preston dropping by just when the band needed a keyboard player. 
  • The way the Beatles, with no discernible irony, consistently and respectfully refer to their late manager as “Mr. Epstein.”
  • Paul languidly working out “Let It Be,” to my ears one of the most moving and beautiful songs in all of Western music, while the rest of the band disinterestedly chats about set design. 
  • How everyone in the band wanted to play the drums.
  • The cavalier manner in which George quits the group (“I’m leaving the band now”), and the similarly cavalier manner in which John quickly proposes replacing him. (“If he doesn’t come back by Tuesday we’ll get Clapton.”) In my alternative history, Clapton lasts all of one day, after refusing to play on ‘that anti-Enoch Powell song,’ prompting Lennon to quip, “Get Jeff Beck on the line.”
  • On that same count, the band’s shocking nonchalance about a lineup that the rest of musicdom considers sacred. At one point they toy with the idea of making Billy Preston a permanent member. (“It’s hard enough with just four,” Paul quips.) When Ringo scotches the idea of going abroad to play the historic concert Lindsay-Hogg envisions, McCartney jokes about the availability of Jimmy Nicol.
  • The young roadie—a time-traveling Ed Sheeran lookalike named Kevin Harrington—who brings the band endless cups of tea (and glasses of wine), and in the final concert serves as a human music stand for John Lennon, who can’t remember his own nonsense lyrics. (“Where you can syndicate any boat you row-ow.”)
  • A quick shot of Linda noodling on a keyboard—bonus sub-movie, the birth of Wings.
  • In a moment worthy of Spinal Tap, the Beatles’ confusion over the codenames Lindsay-Hogg has assigned them, apparently without their knowledge. (“I can’t go to France.” “No, France is your codename.”) But the psychic connection runs deeper, as the original Let It Be film was a key model for This Is Spinal Tap, the greatest rockumentary of all time, even though it’s totally fictional.  
  • Glyn Johns, he of the aforementioned fabulous coats (and eyeglasses that Elton John would envy) as an unsung hero of this saga, not only for his artistic contributions but also his good advice—unheeded—warning the boys off Allen Klein.
  • Yoko’s apparently infinite patience. For five decades the second Mrs. Lennon has taken endless bags of shit for her ubiquitous presence at the Get Back/Let It Be sessions…..but in the series’ opening minutes we are bluntly shown that George Harrison brought not one but two Hare Krishnas to the studio with him, even if they sat further away from the amps. (Also in her defense, Jackson pointedly shows the other three Beatle wives visiting the sessions as well, though admittedly they weren’t there 24/7.) Yoko’s omnipresence is famously part of the myth of the Beatles’ breakup, but watching her sit there (mostly) silently for hours and hours on end—sewing, painting, going through her mail—my overwhelming reaction was that she must have been bored out of her own febrile mind. 
  • And lastly, maybe the most astonishing and widely remarked upon moment in the whole series: Paul McCartney jamming on his bass and formulating “Get Back” from out of the ether, in real time, right before our eyes. (Honorable mention: John ad-libbing a joke that will become the counter-melody in “I’ve Got a Feeling.”)

Then there is the climactic, legendary rooftop concert. 

I guess I always bought the notion that the rooftop show was thrown together and sloppy, a sad coda to their performing career. Peter Jackson’s film attests that it was very much otherwise. After farting around and fighting and procrastinating and playing golden oldies for three weeks, not to mention wringing their hands over whether they even wanted to play live again, or were up to it, it’s a shock to see the band get up on the Apple rooftop, plug in, and basically blow the doors off Mayfair, rocking exactly as hard as you would expect from the very best rock band in the world, one that was forged in the seedy nightclubs of Hamburg, playing eight hours at a pop night after night for demanding crowds of drunken sailors and hookers and gangsters and the occasional boho German university student. 

Maybe Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory is correct after all. 

DORIS GETS HER OATS

It is an understatement to say that Jackson’s film is a major addition to the Beatles’ saga, changing much of how we think about the final chapter of the band’s career. For fans, critics, historians, and other obsessives (my card is laminated), it’s as if an HD recording of the Last Supper turned up in an attic in Schenectady.

The achievement begins with the image itself. When we watch archival footage, even very well-preserved archival footage, the degradation of picture quality immediately connotes “age.” But this footage—shot on grainy 1960s vintage 16mm, not even Super 16 or 35mm—has been digitally scrubbed to the point where it feels like it was shot this morning. For sheer visual experience, it’s revolutionary. Apart from Jackson’s previous documentary, the World War I epic They Shall Not Grow Old, which engaged in similar mind-blowing restoration, I can think of no other film that offers this sort of surreal “time machine” effect….and with Get Back that effect is multiplied because it deals with a quartet of iconic global celebrities. It’s incredible to watch this 52-year-old footage that looks so impeccably pristine…..and to see the Beatles, still in their twenties, as if you’re in the room with them. (Some quibble that it’s too clean. Whatever, dude. I happened to watch the series with a friend who works for Kodak, who roared when George and Paul began debating the merits of various film stocks and their capacity for blowup to 35.)

That alone makes Get Back a unique experience and towering accomplishment. The technical achievement of teasing apart, isolating, and cleaning up multiple layers of audio is also astonishing, in a film that is, after all, largely about sound. 

For such a high profile commercial project, Get Back is also a challenging film that demands a lot of its audience, in almost Wisemanesque fashion. It’s close to pure cinéma vérité, apart from some supertitles and the opening pre-1969 recap, with no narration or new interviews. It asks the viewer to watch hour upon hour of observational footage with dense, overlapping dialogue (eat your heart out, Altman), much of it in thick Liverpudlian accents and working musician slang. Jackson could easily have made a three or four-hour version—still a marathon—that conveyed much the same message and found a wider audience. Maybe Disney calculated that the longer cut would be even more lucrative, or maybe they just bowed to the wishes of 800 pound gorillas like the Lord of the Rings auteur and the Fab Two plus widows. 

Of course, like a lot of fans, I could watch all 60 hours of raw footage, unedited, but that’s me.

Speaking of which, the editing‚ by Jabez Olssen, is masterful, particularly the interweaving of wild audio with non-sync picture—very much an artful, self-conscious approach to evoke the capital T truth in defiance of the literal lower case version. (Olssen also worked on various narrative films by Jackson, and cut They Shall Not Grow Old as well.) 

Without taking away from his achievement, let’s also bear in mind that this is an eight hour film culled from about 60 hours of footage and some 150 hours of audio tape. That’s actually quite a low shooting ratio by the standards of cinéma-vérité—about 7:1, just accounting for picture. Observational documentaries, including many I have worked on, frequently have shooting ratios of more like 100:1. Reportedly, Jackson’s preferred director’s cut is 18 hours long, giving us a shooting ratio of just over 3:1. At that point, per above, I say, just show me the rushes. I’ll watch ‘em. 

Jackson has said that he would like to release an extended director’s cut at some point, which I’m sure Disney—and its accountants—will be all in on. Me too. Will it be for everyone? Of course not. But when people get tired of writing about Shakespeare, or Da Vinci, or Picasso, we can discuss closure on the topic of the Beatles. 

Hell, I would happily watch Chris Farley talk to Paul McCartney about Die Hard. (“That was awesome.”)

“SEE YOU ROUND THE CLUBS”

Naturally, there is already the backlash, and then backlash to the backlash, both about the band and the film. “The Beatles are overrated. That’s our fault not theirs,” sniffed the Washington Post, while Inside Hook retorted, “No—you’re overrated.” I eagerly await the backlash to the backlash to the backlash.

While some of the critical assessments have to do with craft, or the amount of time devoted to the subject, most of them have to do with Get Back’s alleged veracity or lack thereof, both on its own and relative to the earlier Let It Be. It’s a natural question, even as it’s also one that ought to be filed under “Errand, Fool’s,” on the hill or otherwise. 

At the very beginning of each episode, a card informs us that “Numerous editorial choices had to be made during the production of these films.”

To that I say….oh, what’s the technical term? Oh yeah:

Duh.

All stories require that. That is the very nature of storytelling. Short of an unmanned, static surveillance camera, every angle, every cut, every single thing in the mise-en-scène of every film, narrative or documentary, is a choice. Even with a surveillance camera, the spot where it was placed and when it was turned on and off are choices that were made by some sort of intelligence behind the process. On a project with a swiping scope like this, the editorial task is massive.

A second card in each episode elaborates that “At all times the filmmakers have attempted to present an accurate portrait of the events depicted and the people involved.” 

That is slightly less obvious. Most documentarians do try to do that, except the ethically challenged, though the execution is by definition subjective.

Still, pretty much duh again.

Jackson is, um, a fairly accomplished filmmaker, so surely he knows how silly all that is. The obvious purpose of the cards is to pre-empt the inevitable whinging by individual Beatles fans—a passionate and opinionated lot—that the director misrepresented this or that, or didn’t include Ringo tying his shoes on Day 17.  

Such gripes will always arise, of course, but the consensus seems to be that Jackson has captured the “reality” or more ambitiously, the “truth,” of what went on. But the criteria for that verdict is howlingly abstract. What exactly are we measuring this veracity by? Our own irrational, emotional sense of what went on? Our assessment of what “feels” real? Our sheer hopes as fans, or as detractors, or Gerry and the Pacemakers partisans?

Even the opinions of the people who were there are suspect, as human memory is notoriously unreliable, and everyone—consciously or not, benignly or otherwise—has their own subconscious agendas. I cling to my RAF friend Peter’s claim of witnessing musical history, even if I totally imagined it.

The two viewers whose opinions matter the most, Mssrs. McCartney and Starkey, have been quite positive about Get Back. But Jackson himself addresses this phenomenon, speaking of the reactions of Paul and Ringo to the new film:

It’s not the story the way they remember parts of it, because they don’t remember it; it was more than 50 years ago. They lived through it, but they can’t remember it—except the miserable part of breaking up in 1970 and all the acrimony.

The British Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn—the dean of that field—has frequently had to correct mistaken comments by the surviving Beatles over this or that fact or piece of trivia or minutiae: who played what or when on what day and sat in what chair. It’s amusing, but not surprising, really. Who among us remember our own lives in that detail? It’s just that most of us don’t have armies of obsessive fans and whole academic departments devoted to cataloging our every move. (Sounds cool,  but it probably isn’t.)

Similarly, McCartney has said that decades of hearing the received wisdom about how he and Lennon were at each other’s throats in the band’s final months had him beginning to believe the myth himself. He says that he knew deep down—because he was there—that this gossipy narrative was never correct, that for all the moments of undeniable venom (see: “How Do You Sleep” and “Too Many People”), the feud was never as vicious or as lasting as prurient outsiders imagined—or wanted. Indeed, he’s said that he has had to mentally go back over his lifelong relationship with John to reassure himself of the truth, a truth he had been driven to question by sheer repetition, Stockholm syndrome style. One might retort that, per above, his memory is the less accurate barometer, especially given the preferred version in which he is emotionally invested. But the constructed narrative of a band of outsiders has no more credibility, wisdom of crowds notwithstanding, and arguably less. One might just as cogently argue that Lindsay-Hogg’s version is biased toward the dramatic “breakup” narrative that he wanted to tell, suppressing any joyous elements that might detract from that. Indeed, that is what Jackson, Paul and Ringo, and now the critical consensus are saying.

Some accounts—like a recent one in Pitchfork—paint Get Back as arising from a nearly mystical revelation: Jackson’s viewing of the original rushes, and his realization that they told a different story than the “canonical” one of bickering and conflict ahead of a looming divorce with which we were all familiar, Scenes from a Marriage, Merseyside Style

I don’t doubt that Jackson saw in the footage a different story than he knew from Let It Be, a story he wanted to see, or more charitably, the one he believed to be more accurate. I also buy the idea that the perennially upbeat Paul McCartney was keen on telling that version and championed the idea. I don’t buy, however, the idea that there was but one Platonic sculpture sitting within the raw footage, waiting to be chipped out. The mere fact that there already existed a different perspective on that material is a testament to the notion that there could be multiple perspectives on it. 

In that Pitchfork piece, the author, Jayson Greene, also says: “Get Back flows with the feeling of unmediated reality, of simply being in the room with the Beatles as they existed.” But that feeling is an illusion. Calling it “unmediated reality” is an insult to the artistry of the filmmakers, except as a backhanded compliment to the seamlessness and invisibility (or at least unobtrusiveness) of their hand. It’s an especially ironic plaudit for a film that states outright that it will, for example, sometimes marry wild sound to “representative picture,” a deft technique and beautifully done, but artifice nonetheless, and certainly not unvarnished recording of “reality.” 

While it is only human to seek some sort of verisimilitude from anything that purports to be “non-fiction,” contemporary audiences are very sophisticated, and typically understand that even non-fiction programming represents a subjective, carefully curated narrative. (Don’t they?) 

We don’t really know the Beatles as people, though many of us imagine we do, often to an unhealthy, Rupert Pupkin-ish degree. Indeed, that was very much part of what cost John Lennon his life. Not to get too navel-gazing about it, but can we ever really know anyone, or even ourselves? (I think some acid left over from the Pepper sessions got on my laptop keys.) Some who have gotten close to their heroes, be they the Beatles or others, have often found them wanting. Way back in the Seventies a pre-breakthrough Joan Armatrading famously turned down an offer to sing backup for Van Morrison because she didn’t want to become disillusioned by proximity to one of her role models. (In retrospect, a very wise choice. Looking at you again, Clapton.)

Comparing the two Beatles documentaries is ultimately unfair—Apples and oranges, some might say—but even so, I would bet Granny Smith-colored money that Jackson’s film is indeed the more accurate account, if only because of its much bigger palette. (Though of course that length would be pointless if not for the artistry with which it was utilized.) Jackson has intimated that he will be involved in a restoration and re-release of Lindsay-Hogg’s film in the coming months, so we can compare and contrast. That would be a menschy thing to do, and I think we can count on Peter to do so. Tarantino has also said he wants to show Let It Be at his film prints-only cinema in LA, the New Beverly

Perhaps someday Peter Jackson, or one his children, will recut Get Back into four separate films each showing the sessions from the perspective of a different band member (Quadrophenia, anyone?), and a fifth one from the POV of the ginger-headed kid holding John’s lyric sheet. I myself lay claim to a stage adaptation of the sessions from the perspective of the two Hare Krishnas as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tom Stoppard-style. 

So in that regard, The Beatles: Get Back is a kind of elongated Rorschach test, or if you prefer, a blank slate upon which the viewer can project his or her own preferred vision of the band, good, bad, or indifferent, but unchallengeable by objective reality or the historical record.

Print the legend indeed.

“I HOPE WE PASSED THE AUDITION”

One final quibble, since everyone else is airing theirs: Could we not get a full-length “Let It Be” at the end of the miniseries, rather than just a truncated one? Was there not room for that in a show with a running time of 468 minutes? We’ve had multiple full-length versions of “Get Back”—and yes, I know it’s a great song, and yes, I know it’s eponymous here—including three on the roof alone.

Just my personal beef. (Peter did warn us that he had to do some editing.)

But as I say, this is hairsplitting in a true masterpiece. So let us thank Peter Jackson and his team for this great gift to us, this labor of love, this peerless opus that gives us a rare window into the creative process of some of the most beloved and accomplished artists of our time. 

Let’s end, then, with a quote I love from Kurt Vonnegut, another Sixties icon, from his 1997 book Timequake:

I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, “The Beatles did.”

Yeah yeah yeah.

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Illustration: Original cover art for the Beatles’ never-released 1969 LP Get Back, parodying their first British LP, 1963’s Please Please Me.