Victory in warfare is like art or pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
What we have in Afghanistan is not victory by any definition, though it’s pornographic in that plenty of people got fucked.
President Biden recently announced that he will honor the treaty his predecessor made with the Taliban to withdraw all US forces from that country by the end of 2021. In fact, he named the date of that withdrawal as September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that led to this long and brutal campaign of US involvement there. The announcement has rightly gotten a lot of airplay, but the reaction to it has defied standard partisanship and cut across the usual ideological lines.
On the right, there are neo-isolationists who cheer the decision, given that—with a strong odor of xenophobia—they want the US to disengage from the world altogether and hunker down inside a mythical Fortress Amerika. But there are also plenty of more conventional conservatives who take the hawkish position that it’s a colossal mistake and portends disaster.
On the left there are hardliners who—while generally down on Biden—are also applauding, as they think all American foreign policy is imperialist and evil and don’t ever want to apply US power abroad. But there are also staunch internationalists carrying the torch of JFK who lament the abandonment of our allies and the likely return of a hateful, medieval theocracy to that historically sorrowful land.
It’s complicated, man.
If this were an American version of Brexit, I would cop to being on the side of “Remain”—with a severe qualifier. I do fear that the Taliban will regain power….in fact, I would bet money on it. But I also don’t think our current strategy can or should be maintained. Call that a cop-out if you will, or call it a recognition that security policy rarely offers up clean, black-or-white situations or choices.
The real lesson that the literal no-win situation in Afghanistan ought to teach us—again—is the limits of military power.
A GOLDEN TICKET
As a politician, foreign policy is Joe Biden’s métier, and has been throughout his long career in public life.
That doesn’t mean he’s always right. In fact, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates famously wrote in his 2014 memoirthat Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” It was a quote Team Trump tried to wave like a red rag during the presidential campaign, except that most Americans realized that Trump’s own record on that front was a thousand times worse. Biden has made some mistakes over half a century of public service, but he never actively sided with our enemies.
Also, some of the errors Gates puts in Biden’s “L” column are errors Gates himself committed too, like supporting the invasion of Iraq. So let’s take his shade-throwing with that in mind.
That said, among Biden’s most notorious bad calls was his advice to Barack Obama not to proceed with the raid on Abbottabad that killed Bin Laden. So, as much as I like and admire Joe and think he’s doing a helluva good job as President of the United States thus far, I don’t think he’s infallible.
I don’t know if the decision to carry through with Trump’s knee-jerk commitment of February 2020 to vacate Afghanistan will prove smart or not. But I do understand the politics of it, as the current circumstances offer Joe Biden a rare opportunity. By insisting the US credibility requires that we honor Trump’s impulsive, deeply flawed treaty, he can get us out of an unwinnable war while largely avoiding the responsibility for the collateral damage that will result.
It does involve a certain amount of smoke-and-mirrors. Notwithstanding the fig leaf, US credibility is not really on the line here, in terms of keeping our word. The treaty mandates a US withdrawal on the agreed-upon timetable only if the Taliban abides by their end of the bargain. But they have not, which would be legitimate grounds for Biden to say, “The deal’s off.”
But keeping the deal offers Joe—and the US—some tempting benefits.
Most of America, from our elected officials down to the average citizen who pays attention to such things, are eager to get out of Afghanistan, which at close to two decades and counting is already the longest war in American history, and one that seems increasingly pointless and unwinnable: what the great war correspondent Dexter Filkins has called “the forever war.” I won’t go so far as to say the President’s rationale is cynical, but it enables him to achieve that goal, and accrue the attendant credit, while laying the blame on the last dude for all the bad stuff that will surround it. That won’t have any effect on right wing America, of course, which never blames Trump for anything, even the things he is patently responsible for. But it will work with a significant segment of the mainstream, and perhaps with history as well.
It would be almost political malpractice if Biden did not exploit this gift from gods.
Of course, when the Taliban regain power, which they almost inevitably will, there will be blame aplenty to go around, and it may be President Kamala Harris (or still Joe Biden, or maybe the odious Tom Cotton) who will have to deal with it. Then the fingerpointing and “who-shot-john” will really begin….what we in the Army used to call the desperate search for the low man on the chain of blame.
But ugly as that will be, in and of itself, that fact does not justify staying a losing course.
YOU WIN SOME, YOU LOSE SOME
The opposing view hinges on the idea that there must be some better solution than disengagement.
I’ll wait for someone to explain to me what that is.
It’s true a flatout withdrawal risks squandering whatever progress we have made over the past twenty years, and all the American and Afghan blood and treasure already expended, as the odds are very very high that the Taliban will simply swoop back in and reinstall their vile regime.
But an open-ended combat commitment—which is to say, an active, never-ending counterinsurgency—is not a realistic option. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the US is propping up an unreliable regional partner that can’t stand on its own, while making no appreciable progress toward building a stable democracy that can. On balance, that argues for an end to the pursuit of a lost cause, even if it is only the lesser of two evils.
Some, like the eminently reasonable former NATO SACEUR Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, have respectfully suggested that keeping even a battalion of US combat troops incountry might be a wise move, acting as a kind of tripwire to deter Taliban aggression , not unlike the role of the old Berlin Brigade (1961-94). Biden’s own Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines issued a similarly pessimistic dissent. (Isn’t it a pleasure to see the US IC speaking honestly and without fear of retribution from an enraged, sociopathic president?) Short of that, the US may be able to maintain a covert intelligence and special operations presence in the region, but that won’t forestall the return of the Taliban, only give us early warning and allow for limited clandestine activity and assistance to the Afghan government.
But a clean break has some advantages too, and not just the aforementioned political ones that will allow President Biden to justifiably claim he ended our country’s longest and most grindingly frustrating foreign war. To be freed from the drain of our commitments in Afghanistan—financial, logistical, and human—will be welcome, and benefit US foreign policy mightily in terms of opportunity cost.
In the end, however, this whole debate really misses the point. An argument over whether we are prematurely pulling out of Afghanistan elides the bigger question of whether our current strategy there would ever work, no matter how long we stay, or if indeed any workable strategy even exists. If we had a such an approach, matters would be very different, but over twenty years of fighting we’ve never been able to develop one, suggesting that something is deeply wrong with the DNA of the entire endeavor.
SNATCHING DEFEAT FROM THE JAWS OF VICTORY
From the very beginning the US has pursued a shortsighted vision in Afghanistan reminiscent of Vietnam, where battlefield success was the metric of choice untethered to its political ramifications.
“In the eyes of America’s uniformed leadership the United States was ‘winning militarily’ in Afghanistan for the entirety of the conflict,” opined Professor Jason Dempsey of the Center for a New American Security in 2019, writing in the military affairs website War on the Rocks. “For nearly eighteen years, US military commanders declared solid progress as they rotated through Afghanistan,” wrote Dempsey, who served as a civilian adviser to the Afghans as well an active duty infantry officer both there and in Iraq, then drily went on to note that US gerbil wheel in Afghanistan had resulted in a headline worthy of the Onion:
As with Nixon-era “Vietnamization,” the Pentagon of the early 21st century had been focused on standing up an Afghan national army capable of defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the battlefield without recognizing that that is but one part of functioning, viable democracy, necessary but not sufficient. As Dempsey writes, the DOD’s plan betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of Afghan society and culture “in building a military for a nation that did not exist.”
Way back in September 2001, the idea presented to the American people was that the Taliban was a totalitarian junta with no appreciable public support, savagely oppressing the majority of Afghans, and that its forcible removal by the United States would therefore allow democracy to flower in that country, with the help of Western nationbuilding.
That remains an accurate assessment. (The United States’ culpability in creating the Taliban in the first place, during the 1979-89 Soviet war in Afghanistan, is a separate story.)
The problem is that we didn’t carry through on the second half of the equation. After evicting the Taliban with shocking speed and relative ease in just a few months in late 2001, we patted ourselves on the collective back and very quickly shifted our attention to invading Iraq for no apparent reason, at a time when we should have been pouring our energies into ensuring security, stability, and the slow establishment of nascent democracy in a place where the odds were stacked against all three. That postwar phase of the Afghan invasion was, in fact, the far more difficult and painstaking and time-consuming part of the job—never the United States’ strong suit. By bollocksing it up as we did, we ceded whatever victory we had won, and give the lie to notion that we were in the “postwar” phase at all.
(In fact, subsequent events even tarnished the pride we took in the quick military victory in the first place. Some would say that the Taliban merely beat a strategic retreat, knowing that they could wait us out.)
Distracted with a separate, pointless, and totally avoidable quagmire in Iraq, we found ourselves allied with some of the most corrupt and incompetent elements in Afghan society, while fighting a slow, grueling war of attrition against a very very patient and experienced enemy, and without the resources or bandwidth to win it.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Pentagon was frequently criticized for its planning goal of being able to fight “two-and-half wars” simultaneously. It was a formulation that struck many lay critics as both warmongering and arbitrary, and absurd in its Catch-22-like clincality. But it turned out that was almost exactly what the US armed forces were asked to do in Southwest Asia, and it was just as hard as the military experts expected.
Over the centuries, Afghanistan has successfully resisted invasion by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Persians, the British, the Soviets, and now us (among others). Not for nothing is it known as “the graveyard of empires.”
We had a very small window in which we had a chance to secure our military foothold in Afghanistan and begin the difficult process of nationbuilding and creating democracy there. That window closed with a definitive slam when we irrationally invaded Iraq. And so the Iraq war continues to prove to be a foreign policy disaster almost without peer since the Second World War, much worse than Vietnam in the scope, impact, and duration of its negative consequences. Our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is only the latest and most stark example, but it won’t be the last.
RIGHT AGAIN, CARL
So how do we proceed? Notwithstanding our own culpability in creating this dilemma, is there any possible way to end the war in Afghanistan without the country again descending into crushing totalitarianism and once more becoming a base of operation for terrorists?
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Clausewitz (I have all his albums). So I will again cite—if slightly modify—his most famous aphorism:
War is (only) the extension of politics by other means.
In that regard, force alone is highly limited in what it can achieve in the interest of national objectives—a lesson the US, like many nation-states, seems to have a very hard time learning, even though it has been repeatedly, painfully demonstrated to us. (See Southeast Asian War Games, 1954-75, Second Place Trophy.)
To that end, there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan. We cannot bomb and shoot our way to democracy in a land where the necessary conditions do not yet exist for it, and show no signs of appearing. Therefore, we are not ultimately dealing with a military question at all but a political one, of which military affairs are only a subset, and a highly subordinate one at that.
The only way we can defeat the Taliban once and for all is by destroying their appeal to any significant number of Afghans. That is an effort that is not principally in the realm of trigger-pulling, but of so-called soft power. (Which, as I have written, is also the only way we can defeat the violent Trumpist insurgency here at home.) Having blown our best chance to do so in 2003, it will be infinitely harder now, if not impossible. Given that, Biden’s choice to withdraw, under cover of Trump’s folly, even with all its drawbacks, may prove to be the most prudent available course.
And If there’s one lesson we take away from it, it’s that you can’t win a war by force alone, and you definitely can’t win it when you start a second war before you’ve finished the first.
Photo: US wounded in the Korengal Valley, eastern Afghanistan, October 2007. Lynsey Addario for The New York Times.
In case you’re misled by the relationship of the picture to the headline, let me be clear that I come to bury John Boehner, not praise him.
Yeah, the retired Ohio Congressman and former Speaker of the House just published a kiss-and-tell that excoriates Donald Trump and the GOP that Boehner once led. In the book (On the House: A Washington Memoir) and the press he has done to promote it, Boehner has wailed on the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh, and Michele Bachmann (remember her?); called Trump’s Big Lie about a stolen election “bullshit” and lamented how Don hoodwinked his loyal followers; pulled no punches in calling the proto-Trumpian Tea Party that dislodged him from his position as Speaker “far-right knuckleheads” and “political terrorists” (“They weren’t conservatives. They were crazy”); dubbed Sarah Palin “one of the chief crazies”; and in general been withering in his contempt for what the Republican Party has become.
I love seeing Republicans rip into each other, especially when one of them is actually speaking the truth about the madness that has gripped that party over the past fill-in-the-blank number of years. (I’d go up as high as 100, but certainly accelerated since 1964.) I was delighted to see a prominent Republican, even a retired one—a former Speaker of House as recently as 2015, no less—go off on Trump and his allies like that.
And yet Boehner reports that he still voted for Trump last November.
JOHN’S NON-CHANGING STRIPES
In some ways it’s not a shock.
Boehner’s 2015 ouster, humiliating as it was at the time, proved a blessing in disguise for him, as he was thrown blissfully clear of the shitstorm that hit his party that summer. Yet from comfy retirement, he was a reliable Trump supporter, even if he clearly relished not being enmeshed in the grinding, day-to-day nightmare of politics in the MAGA regime.
In 2019, long after Trump had exhausted any “give him a chance” goodwill and proved worse than even his worst critics predicted, Boehner told the Caxambas Republican Club on Marco Island, FL where he and his wife live half the year, “Donald Trump, in my view, by and large, has done the right things.”
Among the “right things” he cited? The deficit-busting 2017 tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and the disastrous trade war with China. (You’re welcome, Ohio!) It’s true that the tax cut was a bullseye for traditional Republican priorities (NB: not a compliment), even if it was more shameless than usual, and Sinophobic xenophobia ticks a time-honored GOP box too. But whatever happened to “fiscal conservatism” and “free trade”? Like most Republicans, Boehner seemed fine with a wholesale rejection of some of the fundamental tenets that had long guided his party and its ideology, in a Faustian bargain for power with the Donald.
And now Boehner wants to come out of his Florida hidey-hole and act like an éminence grise, taking his old party to task?
Despite his support for Trump, Insurrectionist Nation is unsurprisingly not too pleased with Boehner.
Ted Cruz—back from Cancun and ever the grandstander—theatrically posed a signed copy of Boehner’s book in his fireplace after “some smartass,” in Rafael’s words, gave him a copy. (At least his house has heat now.) It’s understandable, given that in the book Boehner calls Cruz a “reckless asshole” and a “lunatic,” but there’s never been any love lost between these two. Previously Boehner had called Cruz “Lucifer in the flesh,” (a description he repeats in the memoir) and said that he’d “never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” For the cherry on top, The Insider reports that “Boehner added an unscripted, ‘PS, Ted Cruz, go fuck yourself’ in the audiobook recording of the memoir.”
(Insert catfight sound here.)
As I say, I welcome Boehner’s critique as part of the national conversation. It can’t hurt. I doubt it will sway many conservatives, given how deep the Kool-Aid runs over there and how solidly that community’s flat earth beliefs have calcified. If watching Trump try to foment the violent overthrow of the government didn’t sour them on their boy, I doubt a self-aggrandizing book by a has-been Congressman whom they already kicked to the curb once before will. But it can’t hurt.
But how can you think your former party has gone batshit crazy, bemoan its descent into Know Nothing demagoguery, and blame Trump for mounting a coup d’etat, and then still vote for him? Mere partisanship is not sufficient to explain it. It speaks to the deeper disease within the GOP.
It’s the same problem I have with my own conservative friends, some of whom voted for Trump twice, and now want to go on as if there was nothing alarming about the past five years, or their role in it.
Sorry, fellas: we’re not gonna let you get away with that.
COME ON GUYS, DON’T OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT!
“I voted for Donald Trump. I thought that his policies, by and large, mirrored the policies that I believed in,” Boehner told Time Magazine.
Gee, which ones? Blowing up the deficit? Kidnapping children? Soliciting the help of a foreign power to win an election? Spreading lies that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans? Inciting a violent insurrection that aimed to overturn a fair election and murder his own vice president?
Or maybe it’s just their shared affinity for orange skin tone.
For the record, Boehner said he didn’t push back harder against the Capitol insurrection because he’s “retired.” From simple human decency, I gather.
“I try to stay out of the day-to-day rumble of politics. I really didn’t need to speak up,” he said.
Like many Republicans, Boehner cited Trump’s pell mell packing of the federal judiciary with right wing judges as a greater good that overrode almost everything else. (Even if one thinks having hardline reactionary jurists is a good thing and not monstrous in its own right, is that really a utilitarian calculation that justifies Trump’s other horrors?)
Boehner told Time, “I thought the choices for the Supreme Court were top notch. At the end of the day, who gets nominated to the federal courts is really the most important thing a president does.”
As my pal Walter Sujansky writes, “Uh, yeah. Much more important than upholding the very concept of democracy as enshrined in a 230-year-old constitution that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to achieve and defend.”
Boehner also told Time, “If it were me, I would get the party back to the principles of the Republican Party: fiscal responsibilities, strong national defense. They need to reinvigorate the party based around our principles and our ideals, not around personalities.”
What a bunch of bullshit. Where was he when Trump was licking Putin’s boots or destroying 75 years of postwar American security policy or adding over a trillion dollars to the deficit, all of which happened while he was telling senior citizens in Florida that Trump was doing “the right things”?
He can’t even say that the insurrection changed his view. January 6th did not come out of nowhere, but was only the culmination. Election Day 2020 came after months of Trump pre-promoting the Big Lie and undermining confidence in the integrity of the vote for millions of Americans, a sickness that continues to fester. Was Boehner cool with that? I guess so, because he still pulled the lever marked “R.”
To wake up and clear his throat in polite objection only after the attack on a Congress he used to lead in the building where he used to work is utter dishonesty.
To be fair, Boehner was not entirely silent about the insurrection. On January 7th, he tweeted this:
I once said the party of Lincoln and Reagan is off taking a nap. The nap has become a nightmare for our nation. The GOP must awaken. The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic.
But in the wake of the insurrection he has not expressed any regret about his November vote, suggesting that he thinks having Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court is a fair tradeoff for that too.
Rather than some sort of speak-truth-to-power hero, Boehner is typical of the broader Republican approach to Trump: Hold your nose and vote for him because, uh, judges.
Boehner is not the exception to the Republican rule. He is the rule. He was willing to overlook Trump’s weaponizing of race and gender, his decidedly un-conservative approach to debt and deficit, his open disdain at the idea of being “presidential,” all because Trump nominated conservative judges to the Supreme Court.
That’s the deal Republicans made with themselves way back when Trump won the nomination in 2016. Boehner was no different.
John Boehner and the rest of the Republican leadership eagerly embraced the raw power politics that had come to define the GOP over the preceding decades, the racist dogwhistling, the McCarthyite demonization of their Democratic opposition—all the things that paved the way for Trump. They were willing to make the devil’s bargain to get what they wanted—whether it was tax cuts for the rich, or a federal judiciary packed with right wing zealots, or the chance to gerrymander Congressional districts for the next decade. They can’t now look at the shitshow that resulted and tut tut over it. And when they try, we ought to slap them like Sidney Poitier did in In the Heat of the Night.
Boehner wants to be seen as a good guy, but he ain’t. He wasn’t then and he isn’t now. He’s part of the goddam problem.
He gave his recent phone interview to Time from his beachhouse in Florida, where he reported that he was sitting on his lanai looking out “at a nice, white beach” on the Gulf of Mexico.
How perfect. A man who was Mitch McConnell’s partner in crime in blind, hyperpartisan obstruction of the Obama administration (before he was forced out by an even more fanatical wing of his party) a man who backed Trump for four years when he no longer had any professional stakes on the line, is now enjoying well-feathered tropical retirement while trying to have it both ways, positioning himself as a unicorn-like “decent” Republican even as he continues to abet the indecent ones. (Which is a redundancy.)
John Boehner is a living embodiment of the hard truth that Trump’s rise was not a hostile takeover of the GOP, as it is sometimes portrayed: it was the logical end result of a morally bankrupt party that had abandoned all principle in the pursuit of sheer power. And it was “mainstream” Republicans like Johnny Boy that allowed it to happen—facilitated it, in fact—and even now are complicit.
Post-Trump, the GOP wants to be seen as a legitimate political party again, and is trying to gaslight us into thinking that is so, even as it continues to defend the Big Lie, downplay January 6th, and worship at the altar of Trump. But when the best it can offer as voices of reason are people like John Boehner who still enable and abet Donald with their actions, even if they offer all-but-meaningless criticism of him with their words, that posturing will continue to be a cruel joke.
Dear RNC: Wake me when Adam Kinzinger is your nominee. I don’t like his Freedom Caucus ideology, but at least he has integrity and the courage of his convictions. Not holding my breath, by the way.
As for the former speaker, let me deploy his own words back at him:
New York City-based polymath and Renaissance woman Dixie Laite describes herself as “Writer, Bullshit Slayer, Mayor at Dametown.com.” Over the past four years, her blog by that name, which she initially started to celebrate dames of yore and the classic actresses of Old Hollywood, has morphed a powerful voice against Trumpism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other ills besetting our country.
By way of biography, I can’t improve on Dixie’s own self-description:
Dixie Laite was born in a log cabin she built with her own two hands. She walked twenty miles to school, through the snow, uphill, seven days a week, all year long. As a teenager she invented many new and useful things including a dazzling array of reasons why 1) she cannot come to school today, and 2) you cannot get to third base.
Dixie spent her early years in Miami, watching Thirties movies and working at a variety of jobs including making hotdogs at the Orange Bowl and running a mechanical bull in cowboy bar in Fort Lauderdale. She attended the University Pennsylvania where she studied philosophy, history, and theology, where the big money is. After moving to New York City, Dixie taught second grade and Harlem and the South Bronx, became a bodybuilder and personal trainer, and went on to become National Project Director for Thirteen/WNET‘s National Teacher Training Institute. She morphed into a web evangelist and was recruited to work on the Oprah Goes Online website for the Oxygen Network, eventually becoming Editorial Director of Oxygen.com, as well as an on-air personality on its daily live show “Pure Oxygen.” Dixie went on to become an Editorial Director at Nickelodeon and then Senior Editorial Director at TeenNick. She has also worked as a freelance writer, speaker, digital content strategist, and branding and social media marketing consultant.
Dixie lives in Manhattan with her long-suffering husband Jeff, an insanely spoiled dog named Dr. Waffles, five noisy parrots, and a stuffed two headed duckling called Bobsy. She will be very glad to pass away without ever having cooked a single meal.
Oh, and she once smuggled pair of sugar gliders under her sweatshirt on a plane.
I spoke with Dixie via Zoom in New York.
THE MIND-BODY PROBLEM
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you become a teacher?
DIXIE LAITE: After graduating college I moved to the Bronx with my boyfriend—always a great career move, girls—and started teaching second grade in the South Bronx and then in Harlem. I loved being a teacher, but I did not major in education and I had never been a student teacher. I learned on the job. I was really good at it, and I think it’s because I didn’t know what I was doing. Every day I learned a lot about myself and about other people. There are amazing similarities between managing second graders and managing adults. (laughs)
I was young and very empathetic about children who were looking for love and affection. I still had the neediness and vulnerability that I felt as a kid myself. It’s cliché, but I got a lot of satisfaction out of giving the kids personal attention and love and compliments, because it was clear that a lot of them did not get that at home. When you feel like you need those things, the best thing to do is give it to other people. In retrospect, I think if I hadn’t had that job, I might have stacked on a lot more poor life decisions, but instead all that need for love and affection was channeled into giving it to those children, and having them to be compassionate to and engaged with.
TKN: So naturally, that led you to becoming a bodybuilder.
DL: (laughs) Right. While I was a teacher, I needed money to supplement my income. There was a “help wanted” sign at a gym, and it was winter, so they couldn’t see under my coat, and I lied and said, “Oh yeah, I know all about bodybuilding and weight training.” So, I got that job and then immediately joined another gym so I could train there in order to look the part at the gym where I was going to be working. (laughs) We’re talking about early-mid Eighties when muscular women were not as common as today, so people would literally shout nasty things at me out their car windows if I was just wearing a tank top on the street….and I was maybe as muscular as like Serena Williams is today. It’s just that I was an anomaly back then.
Weight training ended up becoming a consistent part of my life from then on. I worked as an occasional personal trainer, and I created and taught workshops on “bodybuilding for women” for The Learning Annex. I loved being able to do something that had a reliable “a + b = c” trajectory; it gave me a measure of control that’s so often missing from life. Frankly, it was also something about which I could feel genuinely proud. And—obnoxious—I confess to moving next to men in the gym when I did my 25-lb. lateral raises. (laughs)
TKN: And how did you come to start your blog, Dametown?
DL: I’ve been an old movie aficionado since I was like eight or nine, and I was very inspired and comforted by women in Thirties and Forties movies because the 1970s zeitgeist just rubbed me the wrong way. Most people don’t realize how much agency women have in those 1930s movies—a lot more pass the Bechdel test than the movies and TV shows from while I was growing up. Compare any Barbara Stanwyck or Claudette Colbert movie to The Love Boat or Charlie’s Angels and you’ll see what I mean.
So I thought I would start a blog that celebrated old Hollywood and dames of yore that people didn’t know about, and then expanded it to other women like Dorothy Parker or Anita Loos. Because it’s one thing to be a cool chick today—like your wife, Bob—and be strong and funny and courageous and fight for what’s right, but all of that is a hundred times more impressive in the patriarchal world of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties.
TKN: So give me your definition of a “dame.”
DL: A dame knows it takes balls to be a woman. She knows the ropes, she’s proactive about negotiating life in every sphere: career-wise, relationship-wise, everything. She’s not flawless and she’s not necessarily tough, but she wants to become her best self. She’s independent, she’s self-reliant, she’s smart. Ideally, she’s funny, ideally she’s brave. I mean, she’s Barbara Stanwyck. (laughs)
TKN: But your blog has expanded a lot beyond that. It’s really covered a lot of cultural ground.
DL: Yeah. I knew that what I should do is have the “thousand true fans.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that expression, but the idea is that it’s better to have a thousand true fans than 10,000 sort-of fans. So, the smart thing to do would have been to make Dametown about the women that we just talked about and really promote it to the psychographic that might enjoy those stories. But I’d get distracted with, “Oh, they got rid of Al Franken? Fuck that!” And I would write an essay about how mad I was and put that up on the blog. And when I met my birth mother I thought, I have to just write something about that. So, I’d put that there. I’m going to be 60 next year, and I’ve noticed a lot of things about women my age and older, things about navigating life that don’t get talked about a lot in mainstream culture. That led to me getting asked to write a column about that – “Age Against the Machine” as well as an advice column, “Dear Dixie”, for Jumble & Flow, and I tackle that now on Dametown, too. I knew what I was doing was wrong branding-wise, but I just started writing about anything I wanted because it wasn’t a business and I wasn’t disciplined enough to turn it into a brand.
TKN: I can relate.
THE PARADOX OF ABUSE
TKN: Talking about the empathy that you had for your schoolkids, do you want to talk a little bit about growing up and your childhood?
DL: I was adopted because my parents thought they couldn’t have children, though they had a biological child, my younger brother, less than two years later. It gave me a sort of “Thanks for playing—we’ve got Adam now” feeling.
My being adopted really affected me but it was a topic I wasn’t really allowed to discuss, and that made my sense of isolation and alienation all the worse. One of my earliest memories is being at a mall with my parents and desperately trying to steer them away from seeing this little girl with straight blonde hair. Mine was curly, though they straightened it when I was little. I was terrified they’d see this other little girl and think, “Oh, we could have had one like her.”
I got some attention in school for being intelligent, but I didn’t feel like it was valued at home. I was put into a gifted school, but since my brother wasn’t, I felt guilty, like it was something I should hide. I was also kinda weird, you know, being into old movies, wearing nightgowns to school so I could channel Jean Harlow. I guess every kid has issues, but this feeling of being abrasive, weird and unlovable is still something I struggle with to this day, a half a fucking century later.
When I was about eight my mother had what was then called a nervous breakdown and was sent to a place where they gave her electroshock therapy and stuff like that. Now, as an adult woman, I have a lot of sympathy for her because I can see that she didn’t want to become a mother, or even have gotten married. Even as a five-year-old, it just made no sense to me. Later she told me that she married my dad because she was 21 and she felt like an old maid.
She was in that institution for a year while my brother and I lived with our dad. Unfortunately, when she came out, she’d made a few shady friends there and that led to my being sexually abused. Of course, I didn’t know I was being sexually abused; that wasn’t “a thing” back then. As far as I knew, I was the only girl on Earth to whom any of these things ever happened.
Like a lot of kids that are sexually abused, I had mixed feelings about it, because it hurt physically and I felt transgressed, but on the other hand, these abusers were my friends, they were nice to me, they gave me attention, they gave me affection. I felt like they were my best friends; I looked forward to spending time with them and the attention they’d give me. They thought things I said were smart and clever. They asked to look at things I would write in school. It’s a complicated situation, just like women who stay with abusive husbands. It’s a braid of love, affection, abuse, and trauma.
I tried to have closure with my dad about it, years later. The only time I ever mentioned the sexual abuse to him was when I was maybe 24 and the subject got changed really fast. I could see that he didn’t really want to talk about it. I never brought it up again till one day I was on the phone with him when I was about 50 and I mentioned that I was going to see the gynecologist, but that Jeff, my husband, had to come with me. And he said, “Why does Jeff have to come with you?” And I said, “Because those exams are very stressful for me. It’s like I have PTSD.” And he was like, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “Dad, because of the thing,” and he’s like, “What thing?” and I said, “The thing I told you about, about being sexually abused.” And he said, “Oh, are you still harping on that?”
It was only the second time I’d ever brought it up in my life. I might have even dropped the phone, I was just so hurt.
THE END OF OL’ BLUE EYES
TKN: So that’s a perfect transition to talking about where we are as a country. I feel like we as a nation have been in that kind of abusive relationship.
DL: Yes. Except for the love and affection part. Except for any positive things whatsoever.
TKN: On the one hand, I feel like there’s this grief and the sadness for what has happened to the country—this revelation that 74 million of our fellow Americans are cool with white supremacy and racism and everything else. So it’s a kind of soiling of the country. But then the other part of it is, is whether what got soiled was really true in the first place.
DL: I don’t think it was soiled. It’s like that Nathaniel Hawthorne story “The Young Goodman Brown,” set in Puritan times, where the main character goes into the woods one night and discovers that basically his whole town is actually in this secret Satanic society. When he wakes up in the morning he has no way of knowing if it was all a dream or if everyone one he knows and everything he’s come to believe about his Christian village is all fake. It’s a secret society, so no one will ever admit to it. “Is my mother in that thing? Is my neighbor? Is my wife?”
When I was a kid and I read that story, it really spoke to me because I knew what went on behind my closed doors. Nothing about life was the way it had been presented to me.
For me, I feel like the end of my innocence was not the sexual abuse: it was seeing Frank Sinatra in concert when I was like 13. I had seen him in old movies as an inexperienced, skinny guy with a beautiful crooning voice who had to have the girls take the lead. And then one day in 1974, when I was 13, a neighbor got me a ticket to go see Sinatra in Fort Lauderdale or something, and I snuck out of the house and took like three buses to get there, and the Frank Sinatra I saw there was an older bloated Frank Sinatra who made a lot of sexual jokes and was just the opposite of what I’d had a crush on. He was the Sinatra we all know now: the gross, Rat Pack Sinatra. But I wasn’t aware of that, and it was like being punched in the gut.
That Frank Sinatra thing was just like the cherry on top of like the sundae of all these things that I thought were good and true and that you could depend on were not in fact reliable and not what they seemed. It sounds so silly, but I would call that night the end of my innocence. I left there so depressed and had an entirely different view of the world from then on.
And that’s how I feel about America now. You grow up your whole life…..indoctrinated is too strong a word, but you feel patriotic, you feel like “I’m an American, this is my country.” And now I feel like a woman without a country, just like I felt like a girl without a family. All these years I’ve teared up at the National Anthem or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” but now I just I feel nothing about being an American. Now I think of the genocide that gave us the land itself. I think of slavery. I think of 74 million people voting for someone who is okay with white supremacy. It’s like “Young Goodman Brown,” because it was there all along. Yes, people get further indoctrinated through Fox News and stuff, but if it’s not already there, you’re not going to get brought along. I don’t care how much Fox News you watch, if you go around saying “White supremacy is fine,” you can’t blame that on Fox. That’s on you.
THE BLACK BALLOON
DL: People who voted for Trump the first time around were scary enough. When I asked about the Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, one relative told my husband, “Well, that wasn’t supposed to come out.”
TKN: Like that was the problem.
DL: Exactly. That very response encapsulates a lot of the problem for me. It’s all about the willingness to turn a blind eye and just shrug your shoulders at such flagrant racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. Trump couldn’t be a more brazenly imbecilic. You can’t just blame media outlets or op-ed pages or your pastor, because it’s right there for you to see for yourself—it’s on videotape. He shows you constantly how stupid is, how bigoted he is, how anti-science he is, how much of a sociopath he is.
TKN: But that’s a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes. People took a long time to realize that his supporters were not put off by the Access Hollywood tape. They loved it; they thought it was great. That made them like him more.
DL: But the people that shrug it off scare me more than the people that actively like it.
Look, Trump happened, and I heard his dog whistles of anti-Semitism and racism—and not even dog whistles but just flagrant misogyny and all that—I knew there were going to be people who would embrace that. I’m from the South, I’ve known racism and anti-Semitism all my life. I’m more scared of people that I didn’t think were racist, who would get mad at you if you called them racist, but who were all too eager to vote for a racist……to vote for Trump twice, even after he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” People who identify as super Christian, but are happy to shrug their shoulders at pussy-grabbing and rape and all these other things.
So I’m repulsed by Trump voters, but I’m just as scared of, and truly disappointed in, non-Trump voters who act like this is all no big deal. People forget that Hitler and the Nazis were voted into power.
TKN: Well, this is the famous banality of evil. There is the tiny subset of Stephen Millers who are really truly evil, but they are far outnumbered by the sort of passively complicit folks you just described. And we’re all in danger of being that person, of being complicit by shrugging our shoulders and looking away and not standing up when we see this sort of thing happen. And that’s how the Stephen Millers and his ilk get away with it.
DL: Silence is complicity. That’s my mantra.
TKN: Were either of your birth parents Jewish?
DL: My birth father’s name is Tom Sorenson. His brother, Ted Sorenson, who was an advisor and speechwriter for JFK, is my uncle. I think it’s a pretty open secret that he ghostwrote Profiles in Courage. My birthfather had a Jewish mother, so that makes him Jewish according to Jewish tradition, and it makes me a quarter Jewish, biologically. But culturally, hair-wise, “Don’t put too much ice in my ginger ale” wise, and in pointing out to my Gentile husband everyone who’s Jewish while we’re watching TV (“Julie Newmar, totally a Jew!”), I am 100% Jewish.
I was adopted into a Jewish family, so I identify as Jewish. I learned about the Holocaust very early in life. The Holocaust has been like that movie The Red Balloon, where that balloon follows the kid everywhere. I have a black balloon that’s following me my whole life, and that is the Holocaust. I’m never really able to shed it.
I have such bad dreams at night about them coming for the Jews again that I sleep with a big sharp knife in my nightstand. It’s probably just a primitive thing that makes me feel like I have some token of control. I know it’s stupid—like I’m gonna fight off these attackers. But at least one of them is going to go out with me.
TKN: The analogy to the Nazis has been a fraught one throughout the Trump years, because it invites right wingers to scoff about liberal hysteria and Godwin’s Law and all that. But it’s instructive in terms of the slippery slope, even if we’re not making a direct comparison, which we’re not.
Along those lines, in a recent post on your blog, called “YOU Have to Step Up to Save Our Fragile Democracy,” you wrote:
You think I’m an alarmist? If I said a year ago that half the country would believe an election was stolen, that domestic terrorists would break into Congress at the behest of an American President who would then go unpunished, you’d have called me hysterical. Less than a century ago sophisticated civilizations participated in widespread genocide, or largely turned the other way. Can it happen again? Yes. The initial signs and steps are happening right now, before our eyes.
DL: Right. We were very close to Trump just staying there and never leaving.
TKN: I agree— it’s a cliché, but we dodged a bullet. It could have gone the other way, and we’re not done yet: it could come back, and if it does, I think I might get in a knife of my own to keep in my nightstand. Because after they come for the Jews, they’ll come for the bloggers.
DL: I think the bullet we dodged is very temporary. Look what they’re doing with all the Jim Crow stuff designed to keep black people from voting. Remember, Biden only won Georgia by about 11,000 votes. These anti-democratic disenfranchisement things make all the difference. And corporations just caved, because they’re afraid of not getting what they need or want from the Republicans in power, even if it means sacrificing all ideals. I see the same thing with corporations and people. Sure, they’re all against racism and they’re all for democracy, but they’re all talk. “All hat, no cattle.”
I have relatives who know what’s happening in our country, but they don’t say “boo” to their relatives or anyone who supports what are essentially white supremacist and autocratic policies and ideology. It really bothers me. I’ve said to my husband and mother-in-law how hard it is for me when they just shrug their shoulders about their relatives who embrace these things. I guess they think as long as you’re not actually wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt it’s OK. But keeping mum around those you know who support laws and people and policies is leading us down a very dangerous fascist road. I mean, do you only stand for things when it’s comfortable for you? Are you going to speak out against bigotry and autocracy when it’s too late?
They say it on Fox all the time. They actually say it. “You Antifa, Marxist and BLM people are forcing us to have to choose fascism.” And they will choose it, and with all their rigging of districts and voting rights, they’ll win. And the next guy won’t be as clownish and ineffective as Trump. He’ll be smart and very, very dangerous.
ONE OF THESE DAYS, ALICE
DL: Here’s why I think it’s important to speak up. When I was a teenager I saw a TV movie, Intimate Strangers with Dennis Weaver and Sally Struthers about domestic violence. Now, this was a looong time ago, but I remember Dennis Weaver and his cohorts at work would make jokes about belting their wives, like Jackie Gleason, you know, “Pow, to the moon, Alice!” But Dennis was constantly beating the shit out of Sally and at one point he gets in trouble for it, and his co-worker, played by Larry Hagman, asks, “What happened? And he says. “Well, I hit her—you know, how we get our wives?” And Larry Hagman says, “No, we don’t actually hit our wives. That’s terrible.” He was surprised and taken aback by the disapproval of his co-workers and the guys he plays golf with. Them saying, “That’s not cool, buddy” seemed to have an impact. And that always stuck with me as being a powerful change agent: peers expressing intolerance of bad behavior, or bigotry, homophobia, sexism, etc.
In our country—and I’ve read this in your essays, too—I really don’t think there’s going to be any kind of unity or a kum-ba-ya moment with those people who go on and on about how Colin Kaepernick was a hateful disgrace to our flag but we’re totally fine with the insurrection. Because of Fox News and Breitbart, the country mice hate the city mice. Even if Biden’s poll numbers stay good, even if he does the greatest things, I think there’s just two universes, and no matter how well Biden does, I don’t think we can win Republicans over via policy change, or Biden’s effectiveness, because Trump’s ineffectiveness didn’t seem to turn them off. The fact that a lot of Democrats feel like they can earn respect and create bipartisanship through their policies and their effectiveness—I really think that’s impossible.
When I see CPAC and all this other stuff, I think we’re now living in two divergent realities, only one of which cares about facts. You can’t have unity when one side has facts and the other side doesn’t. You linked to that Rebecca Solnit article. Facts and delusion can’t meet in the middle. There’s no standing shoulder to shoulder for an abolitionist and a slaveholder. And I’d like to think there’s no middle ground when it comes to white supremacy and those who oppose it.
Apropos of that Dennis Weaver movie, my personal belief is that it would make a difference if people would let Trump voters know, “Hey, I’m disappointed in you.” You can stay friends with them or whatever, but just let them know that embracing white supremacy or white supremacy-adjacent ideology and behavior is not something we admire. I feel like that is the only hope we have. We don’t have time to screw around.
In my lifetime, homophobia has dwindled not because of PSAs or TED talks and even laws, but just because after a while, if you called someone the “f-a-g word,” other people would look at you askance. And that’s what largely changed the behavior, even more than policies. Now a lot of people get that it’s morally wrong to be prejudiced against gay people and they speak up when peers say something homophobic. Or at least, they should.
TKN: Well, with Trumpism, it seems to have gone backwards. As recently as a few years ago, you couldn’t go around espousing openly racist views in polite society. If someone felt that way—and I know that plenty of people still did, despite our wishfulness to the contrary—they had to keep it subterranean. And then all of a sudden it was above ground again.
DL: Trump allowed them to give voice to this thing. A lot of people that live between the coasts feel denigrated or condescended to by people who know how to spell. They embraced Trump because he was anti- what they were anti-. It’s not so much that he was pro what they were pro, because Trump’s not really pro anything. But he was anti-intellectual, and he was anti-equality, and he was anti-science, and he would make fun of climate change. He made them feel good about their own dumbness.
TKN: He said, “I hate the same people you do,” and a certain segment ate that up.
DL: I hear people say all the time, “I’m not smart, but I’m street smart.” But they’re not street smart. I don’t know what street it is that they think they’re street smart on. They’re constantly making choices, political choices, that do not serve their interests. They vote in ways that fuck them over. That’s not smart.
Personally, I like smart people. I want a smart person, with a medical degree, to operate on me. I don’t have fear and antipathy towards people who are smart.
TKN: Yeah. I don’t resent the pilot because he or she knows how to fly the plane and I don’t. Believe it or not, I actually prefer a pilot who knows how to do that.
TKN: In that same post on Dametown, you wrote: “This is not a friendly disagreement. This is not the same ole time-worn battle between two political parties. We cannot afford to avoid uncomfortable conversations or send strongly worded letters. Our country’s democracy is on the brink.”
DL: Yes, and the fear of having uncomfortable conversations is a very slippery slope. I don’t think that every German who wasn’t Jewish hated Jews. But the Holocaust happened because too many Germans were willing to go, “Yeah, well, that’s sad about the Rosensteins, but what are you going to do?”
TKN: Well, that’s your whole point: that the silent but complicit folks are more dangerous ultimately than the vanguard that is truly evil.
DL: Yes, if I have a thesis at all, that is my unpopular thesis. Because I know I’m supposed to be mostly mad at Trump. I’m supposed to be mostly mad at his cronies. I’m supposed to be mostly mad—and I am very mad—at cowards and quislings like Mitch McConnell, and men like Ted Cruz who went to Ivy League schools and who aren’t stupid and who know better, but just for their own self-aggrandizement are willing to be the evil henchman. I despise them, but they can’t exist without the 74 million voters for Trump. But as I said, the people I’m most scared of are the people that shrug the evil off. So it’s like a daisy chain, each person in the chain shrugging off the evil that’s ahead of them.
I’m not saying people have to ostracize or shun Trump supporters, but I’m saying just let the wife beater in the cubicle next to you know, “This is not cool.” Just have those uncomfortable conversations. We’re at a point in history where we can’t afford not to.
I don’t like being confrontational. I’m a huge coward. I’m really a fearful, insecure, want-to-be-liked-by-everybody kind of girl. I don’t even want the receptionist at the hair place to be mad at me. But when it comes to these philosophical and political ideas, I cannot afford to keep my mouth shut.
I was going to a chiropractor who turned out to be a Trump supporter. I was seeing him twice a week, and I said, “I’m not coming here anymore because you being a Trump supporter makes me uncomfortable and I can’t give you my business.” And he tried to talk me out of it, and I said, “It’s not like I hate you. But I really don’t like your decisions, and you don’t realize it, but your decisions have a personal effect on me as a Jew and as a woman and as a person who lives on Planet Earth and the country can’t afford your unwise, ignorant political decisions. So, you do you and I’ll do me, but I’m not cool with it.”
TKN: Well, you’re braver than me because my wife and I found out early in the Trump presidency that our dentist had been Trump’s dentist when he lived in New York—and beyond that, was a supporter and even an advisor on his healthcare panel, such as it was. So we left. But we didn’t have a confrontation, though we probably we should have, like you did, we probably should have said, “We’re leaving because of this.” We just ghosted him.
DL: Well, I don’t think you should beat yourself up for that, but even now you could send him an email, in a gentle way, like, “You’re a kind person, a good person. But by making this choice, you may not realize it, but you’re supporting A, B and C.” And we don’t have to argue about it, but think about it for a while. This is what you support.”
I believe with every fiber of my being that at this moment in time, it’s really important for everyone to step up and have those uncomfortable conversations: with friends, family members, neighbors, chiropractors. If you live in New York City and you vote for a Republican for president, or if you live in Kentucky and you vote for a Democrat, you could argue that your voice wasn’t really being heard because it’s not going to make a difference…but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote for who you want to vote for. So even if I doesn’t do anything if I switch chiropractors, I still have to do that because of the person I want to be, and because of the country I want us to be. Too much hangs in the balance not to have those kinds of conversations. And maybe that conversation will just stiffen that person’s resolve to like Trump even more. But I think each person has an ethical responsibility to speak up for what’s right. I just feel so strongly about that. Sometimes conversations can’t be pleasant. I learned that early in life. And it’s not for everybody, but that’s how I feel about myself, and that’s how I feel about the country, and that’s how I feel about democracy, and the fragile place our democracy is in.
I can’t fuck around by going to a Trump-supporting chiropractor.
In the first half of this essay we looked at our need to combat Trumpism and the violent threat it poses as a new phase in the Bush-era “Global War on Terror.” In part two we dive into aspects of that campaign that go beyond conventional law enforcement, military, and intelligence operations.
Like fixing potholes.
THE LIMITS OF BRUTALITY
While the so-called Global War on Terror succeeded in neutralizing Al Qaeda as an urgent threat to the Western world, it failed (thus far anyway) in defeating Islamist extremism at large. Eradicating an ideology—religious fanaticism, fascism, communism, or any other—is a much taller order than beating any given army, terrorist organization, or paramilitary force.
Indeed, “Al Qaeda”—the Base, in Arabic—is itself a Western term for a multipronged global movement of radical militants, with Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a handful of others at its core, and a vast web of admirers, freelancers, lone wolves, and copycats spread all over the world. Its fluid nature meant that it was less defeated in the conventional military sense than merely dispersed, like mercury dropped on the floor, to reassemble spontaneously in new and sometimes even more lethal forms. In that regard, the successful destruction of Al Qaeda as a combat effective organization was a mirage, leading only to the rise of its successor, ISIS—or ISIL, or the Islamic State, or Daesh, or whatever you wish to call it.
Which brings us to the limits of conventional “force” full stop.
Certainly soldiers, spies, and law enforcement officers are the speartip of stopping the “violent” part of violent extremism, whether abroad or at home. But there is a hard limit to what force can accomplish. Ultimately a radicalist movement can only be fully defeated by the obliteration of its credibility and appeal to potential members…..and that is as true of Trumpism as it was (and is) of Islamist fundamentalism.
It is the animating mentality behind the movement that needs to be conquered in order to put a permanent end to the violence, rather than just containing it. Only when no more recruits can be attracted in any appreciable number, leaving just an insignificant and manageable lunatic fringe, will the cause be dead. This is an effort that is in the realm of politics—force being only one aspect thereof—and diplomacy, and journalism, and yes, even entertainment: soft power, to use the term of art.
In other words, it is in the realm of persuasion, which is not always or even primarily carried out with the barrel of a gun.
DELIGHTFUL, DE-LOVELY, AND DE-RADICAL
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting we beat our truncheons into tambourines and strike up a chorus of “Free to Be You and Me.” (A great song, though, despite the banjo.) We are very much in a violent, low intensity conflict against Trumpist insurgents, and yes, there will be blood: let’s not fool ourselves to think otherwise. But victory will ultimately be won not just—or even primarily—with gunshots and handcuffs, but in the much-maligned battle for hearts and minds.
It begins with destroying the Trumpist narrative.
Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, writes: “An important component of counter-radicalization is depriving both the radicalizer and the radicalized the affirmation that comes from the delusion that they’re part of some greater good.” In this case, part of that is ending the delusion within MAGA Nation that they are somehow patriots, as they envision themselves. That means destroying Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, and the hideous con that one is a democracy-defending hero for taking up arms against Joe Biden.
Last week FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that what happened on January 6th was no ordinary rally that got out of hand, let alone the jovial picnic Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin risibly claimed. It was a deliberately planned attack with the overt goal of assassinating federal officials and overturning a fair election. Figliuzzi himself adds something he says Wray was too circumspect (or that was too politically incendiary) to say: that this attack was incited at the highest level. That is to say, the presidential level.
In other words, the Capitol insurrectionists screaming “1776, bitch!” weren’t patriots trying to overthrow a monarch for the cause of liberty: they were the royalists trying to subvert the express will of the people and install a despot through bloodshed and murder.
MAGA Nation, of course, sees it the other way round, as they have been fed a toxic hoax by that very despot, one that they eagerly gobbled up: the myth that they were the ones from whom the election had been “stolen.” It will not be easy to disabuse these folks of that belief, especially when they get their news only from Fox and its ilk and are rarely exposed to the actual facts, only to relentless repetition of the right wing counternarrative.
Here again we see the sinister impact of the balkanization of our media. Appeals to reason don’t work with people who are in denial of objective reality. Reason only comes into play once those folks have been dragged clear of Cloud Cuckooland. That process has to begin with something other than a PowerPoint presentation.
The effort to break that chokehold and disseminate the truth will therefore be long and hard, and books will be written about its complexities. That is the nature of “information warfare”—if it weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. But it’s central to starving the Trumpist forest fire of its oxygen, and discrediting the right wing demonization of Joe Biden as the second coming of Pol Pot.
That cause will be greatly aided by concrete achievements that rob the Big Liars of their cred.
NATIONBUILDING BEGINS AT HOME
As I wrote two weeks ago, our best hope for driving a stake through the dark heart of Trumpism and killing it once and for all is the success of the Biden administration: in fighting COVID, in reviving the economy, in creating a better and more equitable society for all Americans. (I am aware that that last objective will actually alienate some of our fellow citizens, the ones who are keen to maintain a deliberately inequitable society. They can fuck right off.)
The more successful Biden is, the more life improves for ordinary Americans, the more the inherent decency, competence, and integrity of this administration is revealed, the less appealing the Big Lie will look.
Republicans therefore will oppose Biden tooth and nail, even at the expense of public health, of improved infrastructure, of human lives, and of the welfare of the republic. It is already demonstrably underway. Witness the lockstep GOP opposition to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief package, a wildly popular bill (favored by 76% of all Americans by some accounts, including six out of ten rank-and-file Republicans) that brings desperately needed economic and public health aid to millions of suffering Americans.
And the GOP response? Every single Senate Republican voted against it, making laughable, height-of-hypocrisy claims about its cost, after they passed a tax cut for the 1% with an almost identical pricetag in 2017. And that unanimous “no” vote came only after the aforementioned Ron Johnson—who is giving Ted Cruz a run for his money as an American laughingstock—demanded that that Senate clerks read all 668 pages of the bill aloud to delay its inevitable passage. (Note: An estimated 880 Americans died of COVID while Johnson carried out his stunt.)
Heather Cox Richardson is among those who have sagely noted that Republicans are openly terrified that the COVID relief package and similar legislation will work, thereby destroying the central tenet of Republicanism going all the way back to the New Deal, the idea that Government Is Bad. In that sense, the prospect of Biden’s success presents an existential crisis for the GOP. No wonder they are willing do everything they can to stop him, no matter how many Americans their efforts harm or even kill.
But let’s not get too optimistic too fast.
If COVID is eradicated and some semblance of normal life resumes, if the economy rebounds, if jobs come back, if the social safety net is strengthened, if there’s equality of opportunity and peace and prosperity, will that make mainstream American conservatives say, “Hey, these Democrats really know what they’re doing. I guess Donald was full of shit after all”?
Some will. But many will not.
As we well know, tribalism is not about reason or logic or policy. If it was, millions of working class and middle class Americans would not vote for a reverse Robin Hood Republican ticket that insults their intelligence with lies while it shamelessly robs them blind in order to line the pockets of plutocrats.
It’s a bitter irony then, as the WaPo’s Greg Sargent notes, that the GOP might not be punished for its shameless opposition to anything that helps the American people. Red-hatted Americans will get the benefits of this Democratic legislation anyway—as well they should—and, distracted by Fox News hysteria over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, may well forget or ignore the fact that Republicans did nothing to help them, while lapping up the GOP’s white grievance rhetoric. That is the irrational nature of tribalism, circling us back to the imperative of breaking the right wing media bubble that we just discussed.
Republicans will of course play this to the hilt: they are natural-bomb throwers who relish being on the outside looking in, as their idiotic, adolescent anti-governmentalist gainsaying works much better when they are out of power and criticizing from the bleachers than in power and actually forced to govern. Already we have seen Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker crowing about the jobs that will be brought to his state by the COVID bill—a bill he voted against.
So I hope Sargent is wrong. If not, at a certain point we have to stop blaming the con men and start blaming the marks.
HEALING FROM HATE
A few weeks ago this blog featured an interview with the filmmaker Peter Hutchison regarding his new documentary Healing from Hate, about former White nationalists who turned on the neo-Nazi movement and are helping others do likewise. Quick synopsis: Getting the swastika tattoo removed from one’s neck is actually the easiest part.
But what these “formers” (as they call themselves) are doing one-on-one with their erstwhile comrades holds lessons that can be writ large for all of America as we deal with the aftermath of Trumpism.
Whoa whoa whoa, I hear you saying. “Aftermath” of Trumpism? Far from it.
As a million pundits have been screaming since well before the election (this one included), Trumpism did not end with Donald’s exile from Twitter and dispatch to pathetic retirement in what Keith Olbermann calls Elba-Lago. (Let’s hope its more like St. Helena.) In the same way that we have long known that Trump is the symptom and not the cause of what ails America, his demise didn’t end this nightmare, only signaled the beginning of a new phase in it.
But that phase is very much the one that Healing from Hate is dealing with: the process of getting people out of the cult and re-integrated into sane society, and repairing the damage that that cult has done.
So while even concrete successes by the Biden administration may not be enough to break the irrational grip of Trumpism, there are techniques that can be used to slowly, methodically peel (some) people away from their blind allegiance to a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive way of thinking. There are lessons from deprogramming people from cults, in building one-on-one empathy, in the value of testimony from former members of the group itself, so-called “trusted messengers.”
I know Trumpists are insulted by the very idea that they need to be “de-programmed” at all, finding it emblematic of the condescension that drove them into Trump’s greasy little arms in the first place. I get it. I know that’s not necessarily the verbiage one wants to use in the process of trying to woo people out of that movement. But at the end of the day, that’s the painful reality and we do no one any favors, least of all the republic, by pretending otherwise and maintaining the charade of a Krugmanesque “parties differ on shape of planet” false equivalence.
In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum cites a program that re-integrated former members of Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) back into society, offering “the hope of a positive future, and providing training and counseling designed to help them assimilate.” She notes that “true believers” who are “deep down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, are part of an intense, deeply connected, and, to them, profoundly satisfying community. In order to be pried away from it, they will have to be offered some appealing alternative”—the same approach favored by “psychologists who specialize in exit counseling for people who have left religious cults.”
It is the same approach the “formers” in Hutchison’s documentary take with people whose whole identity and the community that supports it is often intertwined with their far right hate movement.
Remember, the people in the Capitol really believed that they were on a mission to save America, that it was patriotic to smash windows and kill and injure police. Before they can be convinced otherwise, they will have to see some kind of future for themselves in an America run by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress.
THE POLITICS OF POTHOLES
This process is slow and painstaking. Not for nothing do counterinsurgency experts within the Pentagon and the national security community refer to the GWOT as “the Long War.” Phase II will be long as well.
Moreover, from the progressive point of view, there is always one big, nagging worry about this strategy.
In the same way that there is no reasoning with Trumpists, meeting fascists halfway is a game for suckers. It’s appeasement, it’s morally wrong, and it never works.
So let me be very clear that I am not advocating that.
This is not be about making nice with racists and autocrats, or normalizing their behavior, or finding some sort of “compromise.” Understanding and empathy must be steps toward breaking the appeal of neo-fascism, not accommodating it. As Elizabeth Warren acidly replied when asked about Republican cries for “unity”: “How about if we’re unified against insurrection? How about if we’re unified for accountability?”
In that same piece in The Atlantic, Applebaum offers a different approach:
Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste—countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged.
In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.
Ms. Applebaum notes, “’Who won the 2020 election?’ is, for these purposes, a bad topic. ‘How do we fix the potholes in our roads?’ is, in contrast, superb.”
The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.
(T)the Biden administration, or indeed a state government, could act on this principle and, for example, reinvigorate AmeriCorps, the national-service program, offering proper salaries to young people willing to serve as cleaners or aides at overburdened hospitals, food banks, and addiction clinics; sending them deliberately to states with different politics from their own. This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.
DUMBO AND THE ORIGINAL SIN
All these approaches are worth considering and incorporating as part of the broader campaign to break the psychological back of Trumpist sedition in America. The idea that we can beat Trumpism without that element, with just arrest warrants and criminal prosecutions, is a non-starter.
But there remains an elephant in the room (so to speak) when it comes to what animates the modern Republican Party in the post-Voting Rights Act era.
In the years since it defined itself in opposition to the New Deal, the GOP has seized on something even stronger and more visceral than the libertarian mythology of Horatio Algerism, and that force has metastasized since the days of Nixon (and the Southern strategy), and Reagan (and his welfare queens), and Bush (and Willie Horton).
Millions of Trump supporters were inflamed by insidious, dishonest appeals to White grievance and resentment…..by demagoguery and divisive, racist claims that they are being robbed by an “Other.” That is vile, to say the least, on the part of the politicians doing the pandering. But like the man said, you can’t con somebody who doesn’t wanna be conned, so I don’t put all the blame on the grifters. The Republicans’ racist political approach only works because there’s already a receptive audience for it.
We will not be able to defeat the violent insurrectionist movement that is Trumpism without dealing with the systemic, institutionalized racism that is marrow deep in these United States.
If it was easy to obliterate racism, it would have happened already. But there are powerful pragmatic factors propping racism up—most of them economic. As we have seen all too painfully, it is a damned useful tool for dividing people and allowing the powers that be to maintain control through the sowing of hate and divisiveness. Trumpism is but the latest manifestation of the Lost Cause, of the Confederate and neo-Confederate strain in our history, even—appropriately—waving its hateful battle flag…..one whose origin goes back to the very pre-colonial founding of this nation on the backs of enslaved people of color.
This is the John Birch “paranoid style” that is threaded throughout American life. But once it was a lunatic fringe of American conservatism; now it’s the dominant strain. It would go a long way toward healing this nation if we could drive it back onto the distant frontier where it belongs.
For the threat to the republic is not merely from violence, but from an immoral idea that undermines the very foundation of American democracy, and that’s not something that riot cops, National Guardsmen, or even undercover detectives are best equipped to fight.
We will not be rid of Trumpism and this violent threat until we reckon with the vile ideology that is at its core.
Shortly after the Capitol insurrection, I wrote a piece for this blog titled “How to Tell You’re in a Guerrilla War,” suggesting that we might soon look back on January 6th as a Ft. Sumter moment, when the United States awoke to the fact that we are undeniably in a counterinsurgency against domestic terrorists who intend to continue a campaign of political violence against the legitimately elected Biden administration.
In the two months since then, we have seen more and more evidence of just how deep and dangerous that threat is.
We have learned that among the insurrectionists at the Capitol were Republican lawmakers from at least seven states and at least one serving, Trump-appointed State Department official. The percentage of insurrectionists who were current or former members of the US military was revealed to be an alarming one in five, roughly triple the representation of veterans in the general population. (Vets make up a slightly smaller percentage of the first batch of 150 people arrested and charged, about 14%, which is still about double.)
Writing in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum reports that since the election, the Bridging Divides Initiative, a group that tracks domestic political violence, has noted a steep rise in the number of local politicians and public figures besieged in their own homes by armed protestors and militia members. Public health officials have been harassed and even resigned after threats from anti-maskers, while Republican officeholders who dared criticize Trump have been subjected to death threats. As Applebaum writes, “We may never know how many more Republicans in Congress might have voted for Trump’s impeachment…had it not been for the ominous messages they were receiving online.”
Hanging over all this, of course, is the fact that one of our two major political parties is openly dedicated to spreading the Big Lie that at the heart of this insurgency: the howling falsehood that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, who is rightly still President of the United States, or should be. That lie is also being relentlessly promoted by a very well-funded right wing mediasphere, with a giant nationwide audience drinking deep from its trough every day.
This, my friends, is an explosive situation. We have to face the fact that millions of our fellow countrymen are onboard with this madness. These people deny the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency and fancy themselves freedom fighters against it. The most extreme among them believe in a batshit crazy conspiracy theory involving lizard people, a Hollywood-based ring of devil-worshipping pedophiles, and a secret alliance between Donald Trump and Robert Mueller.
Applebaum reports that “In December, 34 percent of Americans said they did not trust the outcome of the 2020 election. More recently, 21 percent said that they either strongly support or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol building. As of (late January), 32 percent were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.”NPR reports that an eyebrow-raising 39% of Republicans polled did say that they believed violence might be necessary to “protect America,” however that is defined.
That there haven’t yet been additional acts of political violence does not mean the danger has passed. Far from it. In an insurgency, the actual incidents of bloodshed—assassinations, bombings, riots—can be few and far between, even as the seditious movement roils and grows beneath a surface of general calm.
And make no mistake: there will be more acts of violence by the most hardcore factions within the Trumpist underground, like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the Boogaloo Bois or one of the many other self-styled paramilitary militias. (Canada has already declared the Proud Boys a terrorist organization.) The collapse of Parler and the de-platforming of “alt-right” movements from Facebook, Twitter, and the like have denied them a forum—which is a good thing—but also driven them to subterranean social networks where their communications and planning are harder to track.
In a New York Times piece from late January titled “How to Defeat America’s Homegrown Insurgency,” Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq mission manager, and director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from 2004-06, writes:
Three weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States might be a candidate for a comprehensive counterinsurgency program. But that is where we are.
Given impetus and, they believed, political cover by former President Donald Trump, the capering idiots who filmed themselves in the Capitol…..may be easy to identify and arrest now, but there are others—well armed, dangerous and now forewarned—who had a glimpse of what may be possible in the political environment Mr. Trump created.
Grenier goes on to describe the long American tradition of gun-toting religious conservatives gripped with xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and general White grievance—a demographic Trump has weaponized:
(T)he extremists who seek a social apocalypse….may be relatively small, but even a small slice of a nation of over three hundred million is substantial. Without a program of effective national action, they and their new adherents are capable of producing endemic political violence of a sort not seen in this country since Reconstruction.
So yeah, guerrilla war. Not an overstatement.
For almost twenty years, the United States has been fighting a grueling military campaign against foreign-born and bred terrorism, including the grinding wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as the Frommian sacrifice of civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act here at home. The results have been very mixed. But at the very least by now we ought to know quite a bit about how to defeat a violent insurgency, shot through with near-medieval religious fanaticism, impervious to reason, slavishly devoted to its cult leader, and engaged in asymmetrical warfare against the USA.
So what lessons can we take from that fight that might help us win this one?
Following September 11th, the Bush administration launched what it euphemistically called the Global War on Terror, a broad international campaign that included not only the aforementioned invasions and military operations in dozens of other countries from Somalia to Niger to Yemen and beyond—many of them still going on—but also the establishment of the Guantanamo prison complex and black sites around the world, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and a radical reimagination of domestic surveillance, heightened police presence, and curtailment of civil liberties at home.
The merits of that campaign in both scope and execution is a separate debate. But the label attached to it was both deliberately deceptive (or indicative of a wrongheaded philosophy) about the strategic goal.
“Terror” or “terrorism,” of course, is not an ideology; it is a political strategy, a method of warfare, not the cause for which the war is waged. In that sense, a war on “terror” makes no more sense than a war on trenches.
A better description of the GWOT was a global War on Violent Islamist Extremism. I very deliberately use the term “Islamist,” as opposed to “Islamic,” to connote a distorted form of the Muslim faith, and to distinguish it from the legitimate, peaceful form to which the vast majority of its mainstream adherents subscribe.
One might very well say that what we are engaged in now is a domestic War on Violent Christian Extremism.
Once again, I am taking care to distinguish the foe here as the Church of Trump, one that has hijacked the name and iconography of Christianity proper and applied it to a bloodthirsty, racist political insurgency that is in diametrical opposition to the teachings of the man from Nazareth. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, if Jesus were to turn up in tomorrow and preach what he preached in Galilee, the Capitol insurrectionists would be the first to assail him as a commie and nail him to a tree.
(I have long suspect that Christian supremacists, for all their Islamophobia, sometimes secretly envy and admire the determination of the Islamists they demonize, the way feckless Democrats sometimes admire the blind obedience and unity of obstructionist Republicans. The parallels in philosophy, method, and objective between American evangelicals and Middle Eastern theocrats like the Taliban, the Shiite mullahs of Iran, or the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia are self-evident.)
The international front of the GWOT is not over. Al Qaeda has been destroyed as a combat effective force, but successor organizations like ISIS and others remain a threat. (What happens in the coming months in Afghanistan promises to mark a fraught new evolution.) But if we want to continue with the Bush-era nomenclature and think of the Global War on Terror as a single continuous campaign, misnamed though it is, it’s clear that it has entered a new phase, one where domestic Christian terrorists, not foreign Islamist ones, are the greatest and most urgent threat, and the US homeland, rather than Fallujah or Kabul or Mogadishu, is the primary battlespace.
As warfighters like to say, you gotta worry about the crocodiles that are closest to your canoe. And in this case, they tend not to be wearing kaffiyehs, but red baseball caps.
Let’s repeat that. The counterterrorism pros—not a group known for being bleeding heart liberals—say that White nationalists represent a greater danger than ISIS, greater than Al Qaeda, greater than MS13, greater than a reunion of the surviving members of the Eagles, greater than the skate rats who hang out in front of Wawa and hassle you for change when you’re going to buy Ben & Jerry’s.
I hate being right: Oct 2020 book proposal “Win or lose, come early 2021, the United States will find itself quite possibly facing an underground of armed white men who will start waging a clandestine war against the constitution itself in the defense of the cult of Donald Trump”
Just last week FBI director Christopher Wray testified to these facts as part of the Congressional probe into the events of January 6th, even as GOP senators like John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn and Chuck Grassley dishonestly attempted to promote the lie that left-wing extremists—“antifa,” the right’s favored quasi-fictional bogeyman—are just as much a threat, and were the alleged false flag agents provocateurs behind the Capitol insurrection.
But it just ain’t so, folks, and all the Republican gaslighting in the world won’t change that.
(Josh Hawley’s big concern, meanwhile, was the FBI allegedly violating the insurrectionists’ privacy.)
Of course, it’s no wonder that Cruz, Hawley, et al would like to promulgate this illusion, given that they were personally implicated in fomenting the bloody events of that January day, and—like much of the GOP—remain accomplices in spreading Trump’s toxic lies that threaten to undermine American democracy full stop. The week before, both men were among those who voted against confirming Merrick Garland as AG, which is as you might expect, given that Merrick Garland—who prosecuted Timothy McVeigh—might soon be prosecuting them.
The GOP’s Sedition Caucus represents a very worrying turn, unprecedented in modern American history. When the House Minority Whip Steve Scalise refuses to say point blank that Joe Biden won the election, when Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley continue to sit in the US Senate instead of in the dock as criminal defendants charged with inciting an insurrection, when gun nuts and QAnon believers like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are right wing media darlings, we are in dangerous and uncharted political waters.
Donald Trump sees himself as president-in-exile, and commands a fanatical army of violent supporters who are ready at his order (or more likely, his vague, plausible-deniability-laced suggestion) to engage in paramilitary revolt against the government of the United States.
Don’t think so? Please note that Trump refuses to be referred to as a “former” president, insisting instead on being called “the 45th President of the United States”…..which is technically accurate, but insidiously implies the present tense. It’s as if the Kansas City Chiefs went around calling themselves “Super Bowl champions.” (They were….in 2020. But not this year.)
Heather Cox Richardson describes Trump’s recent appearance at CPAC, where his “supporters doubled down on the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election” while speaking “from a stage shaped like a piece of Nazi insignia.”
Trump himself packaged this lie in words that sounded much like the things he said before the January 6 insurrection. He claimed that he had won the election, that the election was “rigged”……He attacked the Supreme Court in language that echoed the attacks on his vice president, Mike Pence, that had rioters searching him out to kill him. “They didn’t have the guts or the courage to make the right decision,” Trump said of the justices.
This is not the language of a Florida retiree content to play golf and cheat on his wife. This is the language of a demagogue who incited one violent putsch, suffered no legal or political repercussions from its failure, and is now firing his followers up for another try, with the senior leadership of the Republican Party abetting the cause.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the possibility that Trump might run again in 2024. He might or he might not; we’ll see. But the idea that a garden variety presidential campaign by Trump or a Trump acolyte is our biggest worry is wildly misplaced.
Republicans have made it clear that they intend to seize power once more, through legal means or not. The 2024 election may be only windowdressing for a party that has once tried to seize power through violent means, and not only has failed to punish the seditionists, but actually bowed to them and instead censured their critics within the GOP. Do we really think that after all that, four years from now the Republican Party is going to content itself with a peaceful presidential election process that it might very well lose?
After all, we did just fail to have a traditionally peaceful transfer of power. One of our two major parties—having failed in a coup attempt—now claims that the current administration is illegitimately elected, the result of massive, coordinated fraud. The logical extension of this position would seem to be that the American constitutional order deserving of our allegiance no longer exists.
So we are at the edge of crisis, having repulsed one attempted authoritarian power grab and bracing for another.
SKINNY-DIPPING IN THE DEAD SEA
The CIA veteran Robert Grenier proposes a three-pronged counteroffensive to fight the Trumpist insurgency.
The first and most obvious element is a law enforcement one, to find and prosecute those who have committed or are planning to commit violent acts. Pointedly, he argues we have the mechanisms to do so without abrogating civil liberties or the need to “import terrorist designations that should apply only to foreign groups beyond the reach of domestic law.”
The second prong is to isolate the far right insurgents from the support of the general population, and specifically, of mainstream or moderate Republicans who might otherwise give them cover.
The active insurrectionists are just the vanguard. In Mao’s overworked dictum, the people are the sea which the guerrilla fish swim……and in America right now, there is an ocean of right wing Know Nothingism in which the Proud Boys and their fellow travelers are doing the backstroke. Grenier:
Just as Al Qaeda in Iraq depended on a much larger community of disaffected Sunnis for tacit support and recruitment, we face the prospect of there being a mass of citizens—sullen, angry and nursing their grudges—among whom the truly violent minority will be able to live undetectably, attracting new adherents to their cause.
The fantasy that the presidency was stolen from Mr. Trump, which has gripped so much of the country, will not easily be broken. (But) We must establish, undeniably, what actually happened in the election. That requires neither new laws nor a thought police: It’s not something for the government, but for all of the nation. We must all earnestly engage in an effort to listen to others’ ideas, no matter how daft they may seem; to understand where such ideas come from, no matter how hateful the source; to meet assertion with reason and evidence, not counterassertion.
I’ll admit I am skeptical about this point. Grenier himself concedes that he is not “saying that all thoughts and ideas have equal validity: They do not.” And we all know that hardcore Trumpists are impervious to facts, no matter how respectfully conveyed.
But if I read this correctly, Grenier seems to be suggesting that if we can calmly, slowly make inroads with the more reasonable swath of Republicans (it’s a sliding scale), we can begin to deny the extremists the support and cover they need.
Maybe. But it will be hard when, per above, the GOP has become the barely legitimate political front organization for a nationwide terrorist movement. (I’d make the comparison to Sinn Fein, except that Sinn Fein was at least fighting for a defensible political goal, even if the methods that its clandestine military wing employed were questionable at best.)
BROTHER, CAN YOU AID A CRIME?
When it comes to the dangers of a supportive community for would-be insurgents, the extent of White nationalism within the military is particularly concerning—so much so that the new SecDef Lloyd Austin ordered a training pause to address it. Two days of getting yelled at by the First Sergeant not to be a Klansman will not solve the problem, but it’s evidence that the Biden DOD is at least taking it seriously.
Which is good because this past week we learned that in the midst of the January 6th assault on Congress, amid desperate pleas for help from Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, from the Chief of the Capitol Police Steven Sund, and from the commander of the DC National Guard Major General William Walker, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Lieutenant General Charles Flynn—Mike Flynn’s brother—was on the phone from the Pentagon arguing against sending in National Guardsmen, on the grounds that it wouldn’t look good.
One might say that was a purely tactical opinion and didn’t reflect any shared politics between the Flynn brothers….but why then did the Army flat out lie that Charlie Flynn was even on the call, until the truth was forced out? Doesn’t look good, fellas.
The possibility that Trumpism commands sympathy if not active allegiance from a significant chunk of the rank-and-file, to say nothing of key leaders, is understandably alarming. I was somewhat encouraged to read recently about a new movement to convince American veterans to take the credibility and “moral capital” conferred by their service and lend it to the anti-extremist cause. But last week I also learned that two friends of mine—Trump supporters—have sons headed to West Point. Of course there is no guarantee that the sons share their fathers’ views, but they very well might. And intellectually, of course, I already understood that a goodly percentage of USMA cadets might be right of center, and didn’t need this anecdotal affirmation to worry me further. But the personal nature of it really drives the point home.
Does being a Trump supporter automatically equate to being a violent seditionist? Maybe not, but it doesn’t exactly imply deep and abiding respect for the rule of law.
PRELUDES (NOT BY T.S. ELIOT)
This brings us to the third prong of Mr. Grenier’s strategy, which is to destroy the influence of the insurgents’ Dear Leader, a logical pressure point when dealing with such an extreme cult of personality.
Trump, Grenier writes, has made the “transition from mere subversion of the constitutional order to open incitement of mass violence.”
By shamelessly espousing the politics of white grievance and convincing so many that he actually won re-election, Mr. Trump has created the conditions necessary for the extremists’ success. They know better than to take his recent, ritualistic admonitions against violence at face value, and so should we. He will continue to be their champion, and his self-serving lies will be their most potent enabler.
In January, Grenier suggested that a conviction in Trump’s second impeachment trial would help, calling it “not only a just punishment for his crimes but also a national security imperative.”
Ahem. No doubt.
He also noted that exoneration would have the opposite effect: “Those of us versed in counterinsurgency know that in violent extremism nothing succeeds like success, and that the opposite is also true.”
Or to put it another way, as the meme says, a failed putsch with no consequences is more correctly referred to as “a dry run.”
In the second part of this essay, coming soon, we will look at the “soft power” and “nationbuilding” sides of combatting the Trumpist insurgency, and whether it is possible to win an information war against people who don’t feel any loyalty to objective reality.
During the final stages of last fall’s presidential campaign, as weary but hopeful Americans began to contemplate the possibility of a Biden victory, there were a lot of cautionary voices warning that, as welcome as the return of rational, adult supervision would be, the notion of a full reversion to pre-Trump, pre-COVID “normalcy” was a pipe dream. (I was one of them.)
That warning is very much proving correct. We are still wrestling not only with the pandemic, of course, but also with permanent changes to the American way of politics wrought by the events of the last four years.
But in one area, there has been a return to so-called “normalcy,” one that is being eagerly embraced by the Republican Party, and that is the notion that the GOP is a reasonable political party that acts in good faith and deserves to be heard.
News flash, folks. It ain’t. Not by a long shot.
Call me naïve, but for some reason I foolishly thought that after Trump was unceremoniously evicted from office, and competent grown-ups who had not sworn allegiance to Evil™ once again took charge of the federal government, there would be a wholesale repudiation of the Republican Party as a force that had any credible claim to national leadership. Need I count the reasons why? (I refer you to the previous two hundred and two posts on this blog.)
But apparently you can kidnap and cage children as a matter of deliberate policy, preside over the deaths of half a million Americans through sheer malevolence, and try to overthrow the government on your way out, and still demand to be treated like legitimate public servants.
The GOP did so much damage to this country in so many different ways over the past four years (we can go back further if need be, but four years will suffice) that by any rational measure it ought to be disqualified from raising its voice at all for the foreseeable future. Not in the sense of any kind of formal exclusion, of course, only in the sense that no sentient American ought to give the Republican Party the time of day unless and until it undergoes a radical reformation of a kind it seems unlikely to undertake.
Because far from looking sheepish over what it’s done, the GOP is acting as if everything is business as usual. Because it can.
Obviously, Republicans still have a voice because they still command the loyalty and support of about half the country. Why that is so is a separate mystery so hard to crack that it would cause Agatha Christie to throw her typewriter out the window like she was Keith Moon. That loyalty is especially—and painfully—apparent in the Senate, where only Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote giving the Democrats control (assuming it’s OK with Joe Manchin).
So let us briefly survey some of the world-beating chutzpah, hypocrisy, and madness in which the GOP continues to engage, even after its putative leader has been exiled to Florida to watch TV and cheat at golf and send angry letters about his continued persecution like Ben Stiller in Greenberg writing to Starbucks and American Airlines.
For the purposes of time, we’ll confine ourselves just to recent events.
1. BYE BYE BIPARTISANSHIP. Retiring Ohio Senator Rob Portman recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post complaining that Biden isn’t being sufficiently bipartisan because he pushed through a COVID relief package on a party line vote.
Boo hoo, Rob. First, I refer you to the last four years of scorched earth tactics, during which your team cackled “elections have consequences!” as it did whatever the hell it wanted and reveled in Democratic apoplexy. Secondly, Biden and the Democrats have been forced to act alone because the closest Republicans have come to negotiating on COVID relief was not remotely a serious counter offer. And lastly, the whole reason we need this bill, Rob, is because of your side’s wanton failure to acknowledge and arrest the pandemic in the first place.
(To add insult to injury, Portman framed Biden’s alleged partisanship as “repeating Obama’s mistake”—as if Barack spent four years declining iPhone calls from a thirsty Mitch McConnell desperate for bipartisan compromise.)
(I)f Republicans were interested in bipartisanship, they could have put forth a real counteroffer for a COVID-19 rescue bill to elicit a response from the White House, not a puny proposal a third the size of Biden’s package. They would have taken into account the overwhelming public support among voters for Biden’s plan (76 percent in the Politico/Morning Consult poll, including an astounding 60 percent of Republicans). And they could have resisted whipping a vote they were certain to lose so as to deny the president any bipartisan support.
The vast majority of Republicans did none of those things.
Republicans have zero—none, nada—ground to stand on in complaining about bipartisanship. They have shown scant sign they are interested in that sort of politics. Perhaps they should start with more fundamental values: Decency and honesty. Both are in short supply.
So Rob, please take your gold watch and get the fuck out.
2. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Then there is the ongoing attempt to gaslight America about what happened on January 6th. Last week Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin sat in the US Senate and with a straight face advanced the theory that the Capitol insurrection was actually a “jovial, friendly” garden party spoiled only by the false flag antics of insidious anti-Trump saboteurs.
Even some Republicans were embarrassed by that, but it’s the prevailing narrative in Fox Nation. Sadly for that crew, the DC District Attorney, the FBI, and the federal prosecutors of Merrick Garland’s DOJ tend not to agree.
3. THY WILL BE DONE. Another member of the Sedition Caucus is Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. You remember him, right? The guy who made like Angela Davis to the insurrectionists outside the Capitol? Hawley kicked off the whole January 6th situation by announcing he would vote to decertify Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, and carried through with that plan even after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building and tried to murder various members of the federal government, including the Vice President, who hails from Hawley’s own party.
Hawley’s position at the time was that the Senate ought to brazenly throw out the will of Pennsylvania voters and decide for itself to whom the state’s 20 electoral votes should go. In other words, as the WaPo’s Philip Bump put it, Hawley went forward with a maneuver “aimed at specifically the same outcome as that sought by the rioters who’d stood on the Senate floor hours earlier.”
So it was pretty remarkable to watch Hawley at CPAC this week making a self-righteous speech positioning himself as the great defender of the will of the people. Bump writes:
“We can have a republic where the people rule or we can have an oligarchy where Big Tech and the liberals rule,” Hawley said. “And that is the choice, that is the challenge that we face today. It’s a perilous moment.”
It’s worth noting the dichotomy he draws here. Either “the people” can rule or “the liberals” can—as though liberals aren’t Americans who have a voice in government. The reason “the liberals” have power in Washington at the moment is that more Americans voted for Democrats in the 2020 election.
But Hawley still insists somehow that the opposite is happening.
“That’s the fight of our time: to make the rule of the people an actual thing again, to restore the sovereignty of the American people,” he said a bit later.
Of course, no one should be surprised at the hypocrisy of a callow, hyperambitious little punk like the junior Senator from the Show Me state. After all, he is a member of the party that during Trump’s first impeachment howled that with only eleven months to go before election day, we ought to let the American voters decide Trump’s fitness for office or lack thereof…..and then when those voters did, insisted that we ought to disregard that decision. (Hawley, of course, was among those voting to acquit Trump, both times.)
4. SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE. Then there was Georgia’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is feuding with the Democratic representative across the hall, who has a trans child and flies a trans flag outside her office. In response, MTG posted a mocking sign outside her own office reading “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. ‘Trust The Science.’” (This while the Senate GOP caucus prepares to play the role of Strom Thurmond in blocking the Equality Billexpanding civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community. ‘Cause that will look good to history.)
Above and beyond the implicit cruelty of ridiculing a colleague’s child, “trust the science” is a rich battle cry coming from the climate change- and COVID-denying GOP (and yes I know she put it in quotes because she thinks she’s the one being ironic about the pandemic, but she ain’t, which is the greatest irony of all).
5. CRUZIN’ FOR A BRUSING. I don’t have the energy to dunk on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Cancun), who has already been hit with a landslide of well-deserved shit for his recent trip to Mexico, although we could dunk on him from here to eternity and never deliver the amount of opprobrium he deserves for all the sins of his political career.
I’m not sure what’s more astounding: that Ted Cruz was so tone-deaf that he thought that abandoning his freezing, dying constituents to go party in tropical Mexico was a good look, or that he thought he could get away with it. (Cruz then compounded his error by blaming the trip on his daughters. Dad of the Year, Ted!)
Whether this will spell the end of Cruz’s political career remains to be seen, but if it does, it will be ironic that a vacation did him more damage than fomenting the overthrow of the US government.
Yet incredibly, he may survive both: after all, Texans have elected this guy twice already, a man so loathsome that even the highly-loathsome-in-his-own-right Lindsey Graham “joked” that if you shot Cruz dead on the floor of the Senate in front of all 99 of his colleagues you still couldn’t get a conviction. (I am also fond of the quip from Cruz’s undergraduate roommate at Princeton that, given a choice for President of the United States between Ted and someone chosen at random from the phonebook, he’d taken the rando.)
And can you believe the press still speaks seriously of Cruz having presidential ambitions?
6. PLAYS IT AS IT LIES. Speaking of presidential campaigns, perhaps the most worrying thing Republicans are doing right now is continuing to defend Trump’s Big Lie that he actually won the election and that the Biden administration is illegitimate.
We need not rehash how incredibly dangerous this falsehood is for the republic, nor debate whether it’s scarier if Republican leaders genuinely believe it or are only cynically exploiting it for personal gain. (Let’s call those two factions the Marjorie Taylor Greene Camp and the Lindsey Graham Camp. Both odious beyond belief.)
Asked live and point blank on ABC whether he believes Trump won the election, Republican minority whip Steve Scalise looked like Ralph Kramden on “The $99,000 Answer,” going full homina-homina as he lawyerly noted, “Joe Biden is the president,” then threw his own party’s supporters under the bus by claiming that the Capitol insurrection was the work of rogue criminals and had nothing to do with Trump.
Like others in the GOP leadership, Scalise is trying to walk a tightrope in a party that can’t decide if it’s going to stick with Trump’s lie no matter how toxic it is for the country, or try to gently extricate itself—if only for pragmatic reasons—and go back to being just a regular old-fashioned cabal of despicable reactionaries and not the extra evil batshit crazy kind.
Right now it’s trying to do both.
Good luck with that fellas.
7. TWEETY BIRD. Lastly in this week’s roundup, there is the Republicans’ faux outrage over Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee to head the OMB, with various GOP Senators clutching their pearls and falling back on their fainting couches with concern over her “temperament” and “partisanship,” stemming from her oeuvre of blistering tweets during the Trump years.
Just so I’m clear: it’s now the position of the GOP that mean tweets disqualify someone for public office, is that right?
The WaPo’s Dana Milbank sums it up well in a piece called “What Terrible Things Did Neera Tanden Tweet?”:
Can you believe that Neera Tanden called Hillary Clinton the “anti-Christ” and the “real enemy”?
Oh, wait. It was Ryan Zinke who said those things. Fifty-one Republican senators (and several Democrats, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia) confirmed him as secretary of the interior in 2017.
And how about the times Tanden allegedly called the NAACP a “pinko organization” that “hates white people” and used racial epithets?
My bad. That was Jeff Sessions. Again, 51 Republican senators (and one Democrat, Manchin) voted to confirm him as attorney general in 2017.
Surely Tanden went beyond the pale when she “liked” a tweet calling then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry a “traitor” and “Vietnam’s worst export,” and when she suggested Clinton supporters leave the country.
Except Mike Pompeo was the one who did those things. He won confirmation as secretary of state in 2018 with the votes of 50 Republicans and six Democrats, including Manchin.
But, really, the most appalling thing Tanden said was that Muslims have a “deficient theology” and they “stand condemned.”
Whoops. That wasn’t Tanden but Russell Vought. Just last year, 51 Republicans voted to confirm him as director of the Office of Management and Budget—the same position Tanden is up for now.
And lest we forget the capper, every one of these 50 Senate Republicans, along with Manchin, voted to confirm Richard Grenell as Ambassador to Germany, an honest-to-goodness Internet troll with a long record of insulting women’s appearance. (Later, you’ll recall, he was Trump’s acting Director of National Intelligence.)
And we have not even talked about the king of mean tweets himself, The Donald.
Why don’t these hypocrites have giant ZZ Top beards given how hard it must be for them to look at themselves in the mirror to shave? (The women too.) Or, to rephrase The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer’s memorable formulation, is the hypocrisy the very point? Is this Tanden bullshit by Senate Republicans just the latest purposeful, sadistic demonstration to their followers that they are willing to be openly dishonest whenever it suits them, especially when it’s a woman of color who suffers as a result?
Or perhaps, as Milbank points out, what really irks Republicans isn’t that Tanden’s tweets were mean “but that, for the most part, they were true.”
Tanden called out Trump’s misogyny and racism in referring to his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “crazed, lying lowlife” and a “dog.” Tanden also labeled Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton a “fraud,” criticized the GOP and its funders for “gleefully supporting an alleged child molester” like Roy Moore, and compared Sen. Ted Cruz to a “vampire.” (The Vampire Anti-Defamation League is especially upset about that one.) She also skewered Mitch McConnell for blocking bipartisan attempts to harden the US electoral system against foreign attack.
So far, I got no criticisms.
It’s no coincidence that the Cabinet nominees over whom the GOP is digging in its heels are women or people of color or both. Also in its crosshairs is Xavier Becerra, who would be the first Latinx Secretary of health and Human Services, and who is getting pushback over abortion (of course) and because he’s not a doctor. (Neither was Alex Azar, of course. In fact, Azar was a pharmaceutical executive, probably the worst imaginable conflict of interest for the job. Yet Republicans were predictably fine with him.)
Likewise Rep. Deb Haaland, of New Mexico, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, who would be the first Native American Cabinet officer of any kind. Haaland’s crimes? Her “radical” environmentalism—such as acknowledgment that climate change is real, with which a majority of Americans concur—including a 2020 tweet that “Republicans don’t believe in science.” Among those lining up against her is Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.), a climate change skeptic, who calls her tweets “concerning.”
Milbank claps back:
No, senator. What’s “concerning” is that, after four years of excusing lies, racism, vulgarity, lawbreaking and self-dealing by the Trump administration, your idea of healing is to defeat Biden nominees for speaking the truth.
Did I say QED before? Let’s put it here again.
GO ASK ALICE
This, as I say, is but a brief sampling of recent Republican atrocities.
So let’s be clear. The Grand Old Party has no business presenting itself as any kind of reliable steward of the public trust. Their efforts to do so ought to be dismissed out of hand. So say five hundred thousand dead, children in concentration camps, and the first non-peaceful transfer of power in 240 years of American history, to name just the greatest hits.
Still, I am not astounded that Republicans are brazen enough to say and do the things they are currently saying and doing: their shamelessness is well-established. But I am astounded that we are letting them get away with it. That’s the Alice in Wonderland world in which we continue to live, even after Donald’s departure.
It’s not unusual, of course, for a party to command that kind of support even when it is so blatantly terrible. Lest we forget, just six years after Nixon resigned in disgrace in the worst US presidential scandal to date (before Trump Hank Aaaroned Nixon’s Babe Ruth), the GOP was back in the White House, which it then held for the next twelve years. It’s true that Trump’s twin scandals of pandemic and insurrection are far greater sins than Watergate, but American tribalism is far worse today than it was in the 1970s, and the tempo of the newscycle far faster, and the power of hyperpartisan right wing media far greater. It would be foolish to think a similar comeback can’t happen again in the 2022 midterms, or in 2024, or 2028, for the GOP if not Trump himself.
The situation is especially fraught give how deep the fanaticism Trump’s dead-enders runs.
While the GOP is in the midst of a painful identity crisis at the national level, at the state level the civil war is over and Team Trump won in a rout. Witness the Inquisition-style censuring of Kinzinger, Cassidy, Burr, Cheney and others who have dared turn on Trump, even mildly. At CPAC they literally brought in a graven image—a golden idol of Trump in red, white, and blue boxer shorts and flip flops—that has Jeff Koons on the phone to his attorneys to sue for copyright infringement. (“It’s definitely not an idol,” the sculptor, Tommy Zegan insisted to the New York Times. “I was a youth pastor for 18 years. An idol is something somebody worships and bows down to. This is a sculpture. It’s two different things.”)
Oh, and if your irony quotient has any headroom left, please note that the statue was made in Mexico, where Zegan lives.
Ultimately, the question posed by this essay is just a variation on one that we have been asking since November 3rd, when some 74 million Americans voted to give Donald Trump four more years….and even more voted to increase the Republican presence in the House, and damn near enabled them to hold onto the Senate as well. Why do people continue to support this openly neo-fascist, would-be theocratic party that is openly rife with corruption, eager to suppress your vote, and espouses a long-discredited snake oil brand of reverse Robin Hood economics that hurts the very people it claims to champion?
I dunno. Why does Radio Shack ask for your phone number when you buy batteries?
I know that just asking the question invites withering criticism for being a coastal elite (is it my fault I like the beach?), for being snotty and condescending and mulishly unable to comprehend the appeal of Trump and Republican Party to millions of my fellow Americans. It’s remarkable that I still don’t understand it, having been subjected to scores of beard-stroking thinkpieces on that very topic by the likes of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times, and their ilk, the collective efforts of all the intrepid feature writers dispatched to the American hinterlands like Napoleon Chagnon in the Amazon to write those ethnographic studies of Red Hat Nation, all imploring us liberals to reach out and understand our right wing countrymen. I am still waiting for the denizens of real ‘Merica and its own proprietary Fourth Estate to expend even an ounce of effort to understand the 81 million of us on this side of the divide.
But I kid. Because at the end of the day, I actually do understand quite well why so many of our fellow citizens support a party that is a froghair away from becoming an American Taliban. I just don’t think they’ve made a wise choice.
The fact is, empathy and an end to blind hypertribalism are crucial to any kind of healing in this country. So is remembering our shared Americanness. That does not mean ignoring or condoning the sins of the last administration and its enablers; on the contrary, there can be no unity without accountability. It also does not mean meeting fascists and racists halfway. But it does mean breaking the spell that those very forces of racism and authoritarianism are eager to exploit.
Our best hope for wooing these people out of their cult is the success of the Biden/Harris administration. Early signs are guardedly encouraging, with Biden holding a 59% approval rating at the time of this writing, an outrageously high number given the polarization of the country. (For context, Trump never topped 47% at any time in his entire presidency.) Joe’s approval rating on handling the pandemic is even higher, at 67%.
These numbers suggest that not only Democrats and independents but even some Republicans are onboard, and they will stay there if we keep focus, and refuse to let the rotting zombie corpse of the GOP act like it has anything valuable to say, or any moral credibility to say it.
Photo illustration: The soul of the GOP personified, with apologies to Bozo.
Credit: Getty Images/Ringer illustration.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Cancun) joke stolen from Dana Milbank.
Once upon a time, American Nazis had to keep it on the down-low. You couldn’t go around with a swastika tattooed on your neck, or wearing a t-shirt reading “Hitler died for your sins,” or openly proclaiming “Jews will not replace us!” and expect to be taken seriously in mainstream political dialogue in the United States.
It’s still the sort of thing that raises eyebrows in a job interview.
But ever since the rise of a certain failed real estate mogul-turned-game show host, the inveterate racism, White supremacism, and homegrown domestic terrorism that we fooled ourselves to think was a thing of the past has come bursting forth, newly normalized by one of our two major political parties, one that decided to weaponize and embolden that movement for its own gain.
Of course, that party had long cultivated that audience, somewhat discreetly, from the Southern Strategy to Willie Horton to Brian Kemp…. but beginning in 2015 it seemed to realize that there was no need to dog whistle when a bullhorn worked even better.
I would like to say that the United States is currently grappling with how to reckon with that aftermath of that neo-Nazi renaissance. I would like to say that, but it’s premature, because we are still very much in the midst of that battle. The forced retirement to Florida of the aforementioned game show host has not ended that racist resurgence, only marked a new phase in its ongoing poisoning of American society.
The filmmaker Peter Hutchison’s new feature documentary Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation examines the root causes of that sort of violent extremism through the bold work of Life After Hate, a remarkable organization founded by former skinheads and neo-Nazis now engaged in helping other refugees from the self-styled “alt-right.”In the film, we see members of Life After Hate—“formers,” as they are known—working one-on-one with current members of White supremacist groups who are in the midst of the difficult and dangerous process of de-radicalizing and disengaging from those organizations. The film premiered at DOCNYC in 2019, and with uncanny timing, was released theatrically on January 22 in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. (It is now streaming on all platforms.)
This chilling, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful film offers a bracing view into how individual members of hate groups can make their way back to sanity, and in the process, hints at a roadmap for our country at large.
THE PARADOX OF BELONGING
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Peter, I don’t need to tell you, your film could not be more timely.
PETER HUTCHISON: It’s a really weird thing, because I started this before Trump took office, at a time when people were talking about the rise of the alt-right and what that meant, and how that tied in with economic dislocation and disenfranchisement, and just starting to talk seriously about White entitlement and things like that. Then everything exploded once Trump got into office, and eight months later Charlottesville happened, which just blew everything up in the air.
I was convinced that I was going to lose access to everybody that I’d been working with for three-quarters of a year at that point, because all of a sudden these guys became hot. Every major news outlet wanted to talk to them. They were getting swamped with media requests and documentary film requests and offers for book deals and television series. Everyone wanted to commodify them.
TKN: You’re talking about the guys who had left the movement.
PH: Correct. But these guys said to me, “Listen, we’ve had people come to us before wanting to make documentaries and TV series and stuff. But we’ve spent the last eight months really getting to know one another. We’re signing an exclusive agreement with you because we trust you and we want you to tell the story.”
So that was a great lesson.
And every couple of months there would be another high profile incident, and my team and I would be like, “Oh, we missed our window to get this film out while it’s topical! If only we were further along!” Because Vice will swoop in with their resources and film for two days and crank out a doc feature that ends up on TV the next week about the exact topic you’ve been working on for a year.
But I think the patience paid off. Every few months there was another incident, and the film only became more relevant and timely—sadly. Then of course the whole insurgency in DC dovetailed with the release of the film; we literally rolled out digitally two weeks later. Who knows what’s going to happen next?
TKN: I’m afraid to ask.
PH: Me too. I don’t want the film to be timely! I certainly want my film to be seen and to make some kind of impact, but by the same token, we have to ask why is this ramping up instead of ebbing away?
TKN: How did you begin to earn that trust from the beginning, when you first approached these guys? I presume they were wary.
PH: Yeah. They had gone down the path with other filmmakers or production companies, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of exploitive doc filmmaking out there. A lot of these outfits didn’t care about these formers’ psychological well-being, they didn’t care about their evolution as people, they didn’t care about their fragility. I’m lucky that I have a clinical background, which helped because we could really talk about the psychological vulnerabilities that these guys go through when they’re leaving the movement and how tenuous that process is, and how raw they are, and how you have to keep your ethics at the forefront when you’re working with those kinds of subjects.
The head of Life After Hate, Sammy Rangel, is a really, really amazing guy. He has a really solid clinical background, which is why he’s running the organization. We had so many long talks about what made sense and what didn’t in terms of formers’ development as they move out of those groups, and I think I may be the only filmmaker who even bothered to have those sorts of conversations with him. That’s gradually how the trust began to build. I also spent time with all of these guys individually before I really started filming them. I traveled with them and would maybe shoot a presentation that they were giving, and we got to know one another. A couple of these guys are very close friends of mine to this day.
TKN: What sort of vulnerabilities are we talking about in particular?
PH: The reality is that when you walk away from a hate group like these guys did, you walk away from everything. You’re walking away from your community, your family, your friends, oftentimes your livelihood, and you’re wandering in the wilderness.
And there’s an even bigger piece of it, which is that the very thing that brings a lot of these guys into the movement, the thing that makes them so vulnerable and set up for recruitment, is needing some sort of identity, needing a sense of belonging, and a sense of empowerment, and community, and meaning in their lives.
REDEMPTION WRIT LARGE
TKN: To back up a little, I should have said right at the beginning that I really loved the film. I thought it was super well done and powerful, and these guys were so moving. The characters that you chose are all so smart and articulate and introspective. In a way, I guess it’s a self-selecting group: that’s the kind of person who would eventually withdraw from a hate group in the first place, and you’ve got to be like that to survive everything you just described. But it was still really striking. They’re a remarkable group of guys.
PH: I couldn’t agree more. But the piece of that I think people probably miss, or don’t pause to consider, is that yes, they’re all resilient and evolved guys, but you’re also seeing them at the end of this evolutionary process. They’re grownups now. They spent that decade trying to figure out who they were in relation to their hate group affiliation and it wasn’t easy for any of them. So I think what’s easy to miss is that it’s not a smooth path: it’s years and years in the making. And like you say, there’s a degree of self-selection. These are the guys who made it to that point. There are guys who do not.
A prime example is the gentleman in the film named Thomas Engelman, the big bald guy with the eyepatch whose old comrades took a hit out on him that went sideways. Unfortunately he took his own life this past August. It was absolutely horrible.
TKN: I was struck by the willingness of these guys to speak at all. It’s one thing for the leaders of the group like Sammy or Frankie Meeink (the inspiration for the Edward Norton character in American History X) to be open to it, but it’s another thing for guys like Thomas and Randy who are still in the process of getting out. I mean, it’s hard enough do what they’re doing in leaving a hate group, but then also to be in a film about it at the same time, was really incredible.
PH: Yeah. And we had long conversations around, “Hey, are these guys ready to be on film?” And Life After Hate felt that of all the people who were going through this process at the time, these two guys would be good subjects. We all thought they were in a good enough spot that they could participate in this, and were two unique individuals who really have important stories that shed light on what’s happening.
Thomas was someone that Life After Hate saw as a potential leader—kind of the next generation of formers to come up through this process. And nobody knows why he took his life; it was a surprise to everybody. He seemed like he really had his act together, he was doing a lot of outreach for the organization, he was an incredibly articulate guy, very, very open and in touch with his emotions and his evolution. It just underscores what these formers go through during that initial period in leaving a hate group, even the ones who seem to have the most resolve or be the most resilient. No one’s ever going to know what he’s struggled with, what shame or self-doubt or loss of hope. But whenever I watch the film now, that’s one of the things I think about the most: what was he going through? That’s why it’s so important that these guys have this support group. Without it, this transition doesn’t happen.
Sammy’s story is absolutely remarkable, too—even the sliver of his upbringing that you glean from the film is really only the tip of the iceberg of what he’s been through. The time that he spent in prison is so tragic and scarring that we couldn’t fit it all in the doc and keep the story balanced. I mean, this guy never even finished high school, and over the past 12 years not only does he go on to college, he got his master’s degree and his clinical certifications. He’s just an incredibly insightful and adept and introspective guy. He’s one of these people who’s been able to take his pain and his tragedy and use it as a tool. He really understands human nature and what these guys are going through on a fundamental, emotional level.
TKN: That’s apparent in the movie. Just a snippet of what he talks about regarding his background was devastating; I was reeling. And then you see how good he is at doing this. Those experiences would destroy most people. They would never get up from that.
PH: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the really important lessons in this, as Michael Kimmel (the sociologist whose book inspired the film) points out. There’s this notion that no one is irredeemable. These guys prove that, and that’s a lesson to everybody. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with hate groups. This is a much larger philosophical lesson.
TKN: It’s almost religious, redemption-wise. I felt it. And it made me think about my own lack of empathy toward not just these guys, but even far less violent people on the other side of the political divide, people who I’ve been so angry at for four years. When the guys in Life After Hate talk about using compassion and empathy to reach out and save people, it made me maybe think about myself and how I can’t do that.
PH: And the corollary here is that if no person is irredeemable, then no nation is irredeemable. And it gives me hope that there is a redemptive capacity in our story as a nation.
TKN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. We see in the film how difficult it is to get an individual out of that movement. First they have to want to come out, and even then they’re up against all the challenges that you outlined. So how do we apply that, writ large, to the whole country?
PH: I think there are some fundamentals, and I think the place where we start is precisely what I just mentioned. No one’s irredeemable. Everyone has the capacity to change and evolve, and there are fundamental lessons in the film around how that happens. I’m not saying that the 74 million people who voted for Trump are hate group members—that’s not where I’m going with this. But when these formers talk about the most transformative experience for them, it’s when someone extended compassion to them and empathy when they least expected it. And it was extended by someone from whom they least deserved it, whether it was Frankie’s experience with the Jewish antique dealer in Philly, or Randy’s experience in Gainesville.
(In the film, we see a White nationalist named Randy Furniss get separated from his neo-Nazi comrades at an alt-right rally and set upon by a group of Black counterprotestors who appear set to brutalize him. But a Black DJ named Julius Long protects him, marking the beginning of an unlikely friendship.)
Julius and Randy’s relationship is the perfect example. Julius saves Randy from this crowd that’s beating the shit out of him and spitting on him and punching him in the face and stuff, and takes him aside and has an open conversation with him. Julius genuinely has curiosity and compassion and courage. He wants to know, “Why do you believe this shit? I really want to understand it.” And I think that that’s a big piece of what we’re missing. We don’t want to understand one another anymore. There’s this side and that side and you’re wrong and I’m right and you’re fucking crazy and I’m the sane one.
I think it’s driven by these media filters where we get our news and information. We hear the term “civil war” thrown around all the time, and I think people believe that the people on the other side of the political aisle are their enemies. We’ve lost the capacity to even have curiosity for why the other person believes what they believe. But that genuine curiosity has the innate capacity to transform relationships and the way people view and think about themselves and the world. I know it sounds maybe “new agey” or airy fairy or whatever. But I think that’s really where it has to start.
PH: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. It’s a fantastic book he wrote 20 years ago. He talks about how just a generation ago, we hadn’t self-siloed where we live, where we get our news, what we do for entertainment. He talks about how, after church, he and his whole community used to go bowling together. People of all different political affiliations and ways of thinking about the world. And in that simple act of bowling every Sunday, you would get to understand why someone who was on the other side of the political aisle believed what they believed.
You also learned to respect them because you spent time with them. It’s very rare anymore that people spend time with people who have a different set of beliefs than they do. And I’ve seen some really excruciating fallout from that this past four years, I’ve seen families break up, I’ve seen families go into therapy to try and wrestle with this idea of, “How could you be a Trump supporter? You’re a heinous, evil, demented person.” Or vice versa. And Putnam talks about this phenomenon that if we’re not gonna spend time doing things with people who don’t share our precise viewpoint, of course we’re never going to understand how they think or what they believe.
And to bring it back to the film, I see it mirrored in these stories of these hate group affiliations. Who do you hate? You hate people you’re not exposed to. You can’t “other” someone who lives next door, who you work with, who you go to school with, who you go to church with. You “other” a race or a culture that you don’t understand: the immigrants coming from Somalia or south of the border to take your job and destroy your way of life, or the Jews who are behind a global conspiracy to take over the planet.
I think about it a lot. In the community where I grew up, I didn’t know what a Jew looked like till I went to college.
TKN: Me too. I never met a Jewishperson until I was eighteen and moved north.
PH: Yeah. And we both ended up marrying women who are Jewish. (laughs) I joke about it with my wife. We had a whole repertoire of Jewish jokes when we were kids, but we didn’t know any Jews. It’s just really easy to hang your troubles and anxiety and your fears on people that you don’t know or understand. And I think that’s a very, very, very dangerous set-up.
TKN: That was one of the lessons of the film that I thought was so valuable, because as a country we’re trying to reckon with that. How do we heal? How do we have unity without normalizing racism, without appeasing Trumpism or QAnon, but having the empathy and compassion that you just talked about, the capacity to try and figure out, “Why do you believe this stuff? How did you go down that path that led you to storm the Capitol?” Not to say, “Oh, we both have a legitimate viewpoint, even though you want to lynch people,” but so that we can prevent it from happening again.
January 6th felt like the beginning of an insurgency or a counterinsurgency or even a civil war, but you don’t win those by force, at least not solely by force. You win them through soft power. Anne Applebaum has a big piece about that in The Atlantic right now. And these guys in Life After Hate are doing that on a one-by-one level and it was remarkable to watch.
PH: I do think there are a lot of lessons there that can be scaled up, and that we can all try and take with us out into the world and our daily interactions with people. You don’t know when it’s going to have an impact. You just don’t know.
TKN: I was also very interested in the discussion in the film about how the White nationalist movement morphed from being skinheads in Doc Maartens to being guys in suits who are savvier—and scarier in many ways. Some of these guys seem to have a foot in both those worlds.
PH: It’s fascinating to see some of the early footage of them on some of these talk shows, like Jerry Springer. One of these guys—I think it might have been Frankie—was actually on that famous episode that ended up in a real brawl: not a World Wrestling Federation type brawl, but a real brawl, where the chairs got thrown and the White supremacists got in a fistfight with the audience and the other people on stage.
And then you see their evolution—which I think mirrors the political evolution—of putting on the suit and tie, getting rid of the Doc Maartens. You’re right: it’s scary. But it is a political evolution, and when you see some of the actions of our representatives on the floor of the House and Senate, there are some very clear examples of men who are dressed up in a nice suit and tie who are representing these same ideas.
TKN: At one point in the film, Tony McAleer talks about how tech has accelerated this White power movement, because you can consume the indoctrination faster—as fast as you want, in fact. Conversely, he also says you can tiptoe into it now, you don’t have to take the big risk of, say, going to a skinhead rally.
PH: And all of that has accelerated since the film was finished. In this COVID reality that we’ve dealt with the last year, the only way we’ve had to communicate and engage with one another is through technology, and I think that has accelerated a lot of this, as well as these alternative platforms for messaging and communicating, so that these conversations don’t have to take place on Facebook or Twitter anymore. There are dedicated platforms where these ideas can move really fast, which a lot of people feel was responsible for the offense at the Capitol on January 6th.
IDENTITY POLITICS FOR PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO HATE IDENTITY POLITICS
TKN: At one point in the movie, somebody—it might be Sammy—talks about how some of the people that they’ve reached out to, people who are in the midst of trying to disengage from hate groups, have actually like called them up and said, “I’m thinking of going into a synagogue and shooting people up.” And they’ve talked them down.They’re like a suicide hotline—or a homicide hotline, I should say. And it’s amazing that somebody who’s on the edge of doing that is also on the edge of reaching out for help. These guys in Life After Hate are literally saving lives…..not just the lives of the formers, but would-be victims as well.
PH: That’s right. But it also sheds a really important light on the emotional state of the person who’s considering going and doing something violent like that. I keep coming back to this time and time again. The reality is that there’s so much more at play here than the ideology. There are some very, very fundamental psychic issues around power and meaning and I think it applies not only to the members of these organizations but also to these guys who are leaders and in a position of power.
I don’t know if Richard Spencer believes what he says. But I do feel very strongly that he has a deep need for power and for being seen. I think you see that on different levels within these organizations. For the person who’s going into blow up a synagogue or shoot up a Baptist church: is it really the ideology? Does it have to do with some tragic, fragile sense of self? Most of these guys, ideology is not why they enter these groups to begin. Ideology is secondary.
And on a more subtle level, I think there are parallels to be drawn for the 70 million plus people who voted for Trump. He’s tapping into something that’s very, very crucial for people in terms of feeling empowered and that who they are as American people is valued. Obviously his policies aren’t helping those people. It’s something else—a very emotional, a very emotional response.
TKN: Someone else in the film talks about how it can even start as a pose, for whatever reason, but then you play it for so long that it becomes real. Years ago when I was in film school I made a student film about a guy who worked at Rocketdyne in the early ‘60s, who started writing about the moon landing conspiracy as a joke. In fact, he initiated the idea. His name was Bill Kaysing. He’s passed away now, but he admitted to me very openly that he started it as a gag, but he got so much attention that slowly he began to believe it. He convinced himself of this batshit theory and that became his whole persona. It’s like what we were saying at the very the beginning of this conversation. That became his whole world, and he couldn’t give that up.
In high school Miller was known as a provocateur: he was like a shock jock trying to get a rise about of people. Probably he has internalized it now and really believes it, because it works for him. But it could have been something else he latched onto.
PH: Right. I’ve been doing a deep dig into Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich this past couple months as part of a different project, but you see a lot of similarities in Hitler’s political development. When he started out there was very little indication that anti-Semitism would play a significant role in the way he thought about politics and the world. But like you say, it was working for him. And the more it worked, the more he believed it. That’s what it becomes, but that’s not where it started. The drive for power is where it starts.
Peter Hutchison is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, activist, NYU faculty member, and New York Times bestselling author.
The companion pieces in trilogy with Healing From Hate are Angry White Men: American Masculinity in the Age of Trump, based upon the groundbreaking work of sociologist Michael Kimmel, and Auschwitz: Journey into Reconciliation, which follows former neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Tony McAleer (also featured in Healing from Hate) on a personal journey of atonement through the Polish death camps.
Peter’s previous documentaries include Requiem for the American Dream: Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power (Netflix), which was a New York Times Critics Pick and the #1 top-selling doc on iTunes. The companion book (Seven Stories Press) debuted at #6 on the Times Bestseller list. Among his other films are What Would Jesus Buy? (Sundance Channel) with producing partner Morgan Spurlock; the award-winning SPLIT: A Divided America (IFC Choice Indie); its follow-up SPLIT: A Deeper Divide (Documentary Channel); and Awake Zion(Film Buff), which was the closing night film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.
Hutchison holds an MS in counseling psychology.
PHOTO: A “probate” wishing to become a citizen of the KKK’s Invisible Empire is blindfolded prior to a “naturalization” ritual. Credit: Anthony Karen.
When 2020 ended, I was among many who celebrated the end of that annus horribilis. 2021 is already better under the stewardship of Biden & Harris. Even so, amid that improvement, it has also brought us, in just six short weeks, two of the darkest days in modern American history.
One of course was January 6th, when we saw a bloodthirsty mob sack the US Capitol and try to murder a slew of federal officials and overturn a free and fair election. The other was February 13th when the Republican Party refused to hold accountable the president who fomented that attack.
Worst President’s Day weekend ever.
No one really thought there were going to be 17 Republican votes to convict; how could there be, when so many Senate Republicans told us outright both before and during the trial that they had already made up their minds? (So much for their oath as jurors.) How could there be, when Senators like Graham, Lee, and Cruz openly and brazenly coordinated with the defense team?
Hell, I was surprised we got seven. I’ve been very hard in these pages on Collins and Sasse in particular, and while their votes to convict do not absolve them of their past shamefulness, let’s give credit where it’s due, along with Romney (again), Murkowski, Toomey, and—surprises—Burr and Cassidy.
It is deliberately hard to remove a US president via impeachment. For context, this was still the largest and most bipartisan vote to convict in US history, covering four Senate trials over 152 years (half of which starred Donald Trump). Indeed, for the first time ever, a bipartisan majority of US Senators decreed that an American president is guilty of high crimes and unfit for office. I would venture that with the passage of time, the power of the House managers’ case will loom even larger than just the 57-43 number.
And so will the cowardice of the 43 votes to acquit.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN JURISPRUDENCE WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
There is little to say about Trump’s “defense” that hasn’t already been said. The retired Florida man and his lawyers were so contemptuous of the process that they barely bothered to mount one, using less than three hours to engage in shameless whataboutism (while denying they were doing so), showing a montage of random, out of context sound bites (while openly accusing the House managers of doctoring their own footage, which is an outrageously slanderous allegation), and arguing—irrelevantly—that the President has extra-special First Amendment rights above anyone else’s.
But a collage of clips from Madonna, Johnny Depp, and Maxine Waters that had zero practical impact isn’t remotely comparable to the aggressive propaganda campaign and solicitation of violence that Trump and his enablers engaged in over months, let alone the lethal results. Also: none of them are President.
But there was a subtext to that, video, which Jake Tapper dubbed “a Sean Hannity mixtape.” In The New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin quotes House manager Del. Stacey Plaskett, of the Virgin Islands, who said, “It is not lost on me that so many of (the speakers in the videos) were people of color. And women—Black women.” Sorkin adds: “As Trump surely knows, that message won’t be lost on his supporters, either.”
In a twist worthy of a John Grisham thriller, we also got the eleventh hour revelation of a screaming match between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in mid-riot, in which Kevin called the White House pleading for help, and Donald replied, “Well Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” prompting McCarthy to scream back, “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”
I think he knew, Kev. Because he owns you.
As Jennifer Rubin notes, just how low is Kevin McCarthy that even after all that, in the weeks following January 6th he still kept silent about what he knew, voted against impeachment, and even trekked down to Florida to kiss Trump’s ass, er, ring.
In prison they have a word for people like that, but I won’t use it because I’m too woke. (#sexismisbad, amirite?)
MESSAGE FROM MOSCOW
As far as Trump’s defense goes, the conventional wisdom is that Republican Senators needed cover to justify why they voted to acquit….but do they? Their base already believes this is a witchhunt. All they needed was the flimsiest of fig leafs, and Trump’s legal team seemed to dead set on giving them the flimsiest leaf humanly possible.
Which brings us to Mitch McConnell, whose bizarre and infuriating speech at the end of the proceedings was a master class in utter hypocrisy and howling cynicism, even by his own Olympian standards in those arenas.
McConnell affirmed Trump’s guilt as established by the House managers, but insisted that the Senate had to acquit him on a technicality, which is to say, timing, because he is no longer in office.
First of all, that issue was settled with very first vote of the trial, in which the historical precedent for trying a former official was firmly established, and the Senate voted to affirm it. Mitch, of course, is not a constitutional scholar, but 144 people who are wrote an open letter during the trial confirming that position. The Constitution leaves it to the Senate to decide its own rules when it comes to impeachment, and once it did so, the jurors are supposed to abide by that and rule on the evidence, as Richard Burr (R-NC) did. But Mitch has never been big on rules that are inconvenient for him.
More to the blood-boiling point, even if it were true that a former president can’t be tried, McConnell himself is responsible for that timing, by refusing to allow this trial to happen before January 20th. In so doing, he personally created the conditions he now claims tie his hands. To state the bleeding obvious, would he and the others have stood on this specious technicality—let alone created it—if it had been a former Democratic president?
So Mitch’s grave, sanctimonious closing statement condemning Trump was so much bullshit. MSNBC legal analyst Ari Melber tidily summarized his position: “Trump did it, but the only time we could try him was when I prevented it.”
It was largely a speech aimed at corporate donors, the backbone of the old school plutocratic wing of the GOP, who need a pretext to continue supporting a Republican Party that would forgive Donald Trump for a sin like this….which they are glad to do, but know it’s shitty PR, absent the facade of Captain Renault-like posturing like Mitch’s.
And there was still more hypocrisy in McConnell’s attempt to have it both ways. He railed self-righteously against Trump’s Big Lie, but it’s a lie that he actively abetted. Transparently, he passed the buck to the criminal justice system for further prosecution of Trump’s transgressions, throwing the onus onto the Biden Justice Department (ironically, to be led by Merrick Garland) which he knows will be a fundraising extravaganza for Republicans as they rail against the never-ending Democratic vindictiveness. Indeed, that fundraising effort began within minutes of the acquittal, MSNBC reported.
In closing, McConnell claimed that in coming to this conclusion he engaged in “intense reflection.” Which I always thought vampires were incapable of.
Most Republican Senators predicated their not guilty vote on the idea that Trump’s actions did not constitute incitement, or short of that, in any way render him unfit for office.
These same Republicans are members of a movement that believes Hillary’s email protocol merited “locking her up,” that Benghazi justified two years of multimillion dollar investigations at taxpayer expense (yielding nothing), and that Bill Clinton deserved removal for lying about an affair…..but fomenting a violent insurrection gets a pass? Again, the Republican defense is that Trump did no such thing, but it’s risible. Even if one takes the indefensible position that his actions didn’t constitute “incitement,” and that he is somehow still fit for public office, the majority of the GOP refuses even to criticize him on the matter or acknowledge its gravity. Such is the behavior of pathetic, shit-scared little weasels.
George Conway is among many who have said that Republican cowardice in Trump’s first impeachment is what led to January 6. There can be no doubt. Indeed, it was Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House manager in that trial, who told us in his closing statement a year ago that, if left in office, Trump would soon do something like he did in Ukrainegate yet again.
Trump alone never could have wreaked such mayhem on our democracy, on our Capitol. His mob is not just the thugs who attacked cops with flagpoles on January 6th; it also includes some of the elected officials inside the besieged building, the ones in suits who advanced and promoted Trump’s election lies, just as they had advanced and promoted so many of his other lies for the previous four years. Of course, they are standing by him now.
Lead House manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) hit the nail in his closing statement, addressing a group that likes to describe itself as “the world’s greatest deliberative body”:
This is almost certainly how you will be remembered by history. That might not be fair. It really might not be fair. But none of us can escape the demands of history and destiny right now. Our reputations and our legacy will be inextricably intertwined with what we do here and with how you exercise your oath to do impartial justice.
SEE DONNY RUN
As Tim Miller writes in The Bulwark, we now live in a world where Donald Trump might very well be president again. Miller specifies that that is not a prediction that he will run, let alone win, or that the odds favor it (which they don’t), but merely that it is now a possibility in purely practical terms, since the US Senate did not see fit to prevent it.
On that front, my friend Scott Matthews has pondered whether the failure to convict and bar Trump from office might actually come back to haunt the GOP, not only in terms of public demonstration of its shamefulness, but by keeping a Trump candidacy in the mix for the next three-plus years, cockblocking other Republican hopefuls (like the conniving Nikki Haley) or at least severely complicating the situation. Only time will tell, as I used to say at the end of my undergraduate history papers, when I wrapped them up at 4:30 a.m. on the morning they were due.
But does Trump even want to be president again? Or does he just wanna be on Twitter? He loves to be the center of attention, of course, but he is also lazy and selfish, and would prefer to play golf and raw dog porn stars than have to, ya know, work.
Maybe he will run just for the legal protections the office provides, ‘cause he’s gonna need it. As even McConnell pointed out, Trump still faces criminal prosecution at the federal, state, and municipal levels over this and many other crimes. (I would add the International Criminal Court to that list.)
And of course there’s future conduct to consider as well. I’ve compared Trump to OJ before, in numerous ways, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Trump follow his lead again in squandering his acquittal with new crimes, just as he did after skating on Russiagate and Ukrainegate. Guard your trophies, folks.
Since Trump has not been barred from running again, the practical impact of the impeachment will largely be to lay down a marker that at least some members of the body politic will not tolerate insurrection—an important point, even if you’d think it was self-evident—and to (further) stain Trump as the worst US president ever. Though conviction and disqualification would have been preferable, that’s still no small thing, even if in terms of concrete impact, his de-platforming from social media may well have a more severe repercussions.
If Trump does choose to run again, he will have to do so without the help of Jack Dorsey and his preferred megaphone, and while bearing the scarlet “I” of twin impeachments, and our collective memory of all the horrors he wrought, from caged children to half a million dead to a violent attempted self-coup.
Still, watching the behavior of right wing America through all this, I am not ready to write that off as an impossibility.
Republican Senators willing to excuse Trump for his incitement of an insurrection that attacked our peaceful transfer of power are tying the Republican party to the former president and to an ideology that would end our democracy.
What led the rioters on January 6, 2021, to try to hurt our elected officials and overturn the legal results of the 2020 election was Trump’s long-time assertion that he won in a landslide and the presidency had been stolen from him.
This big lie, as observers are calling it, is not one of Trump’s many and random lies, it is the rallying cry for a movement to destroy American democracy. He is building a movement based on the idea that his supporters are the only ones truly defending the nation, because they—not the people who certified the 2020 election—are the ones who know the true outcome of the election. He is creating a narrative in which he is the only legitimate leader of the nation and anyone who disagrees is a traitor to the Constitution.
As (House manager David) Cicilline noted, even after the riot Trump refused to repudiate that big lie. And now, even in the face of impeachment he has not repudiated it. Indeed, he has doubled down on it, refusing to admit he is a “former” president. His supporters haven’t admitted it, either, including his supporters who sit in Congress. None of those who challenged the counting of the electoral votes on January 6 and 7 has admitted it was a political stunt. Now, they are arguing that impeachment is a partisan attack on the part of Democrats.
Trump is not trying to win just this trial: he is trying to win control of the Republican Party and, through it, the country.
I’ve recycled the title of this essay from the last time craven Senate Republicans let the worst president in American history off the hook, the final installment in a four-part series on the Ukraine impeachment collectively titled “Travesty.” At the time I had no idea there would be a reprise just a year later, with even higher stakes.
The GOP has now told future presidents, “If you don’t like the results of a given election, feel free to send a mob to try to overturn it.” It has also given the green light to violent political intimidation at the everyday level.
One of the reasons that the abortive decision to call witnesses was hastily reversed, we are told, is that the House mangers discovered that numerous would-be witnesses were too afraid for their lives to testify. No doubt some Republican Senators were afraid too. In the words of former Assistant US Attorney Daniel Goldman (one of the prosecutors in the last impeachment), we have gone from a point where Republicans feared a mean tweet from Trump, to one where they fear for their physical safety from an army of thugs that Trump commands…..and that is surely emboldened by his acquittal yet again.
When you let a criminal off the hook, what do they usually do? Commit more crimes of course. Within hours of his acquittal Trump was already firing up his followers and talking about holding new rallies as part of his Nixonian-style comeback. Those followers, similarly emboldened, are no doubt getting their zipties and tasers and tactical gear ready.
Former Republican strategist Kurt Bardella, now of the Lincoln Project, has opined that the GOP is now a domestic terrorist party and should be treated as such. (In this he is echoing Noam Chomsky, who has been saying something like that for years.) It’s impossible to look at what just happened in the past six weeks and offer a rational rebuttal.
If and when there comes more violence, what will these Senate Republicans say?
“Not my fault,” I presume, as all cowards do.
In the meantime, the rest of us will be left with the damage that they have done to the republic, and the shame that they brought on us all.
Donald Trump has always been his own worst enemy. The most damaging wounds to his political career have all proceeded from self-inflicted incidents: firing Jim Comey, releasing the Zelenskyy transcript, and above all, promoting the Big Lie of the election that was supposedly “stolen” from him.
But the own goal of all time was the January 6 insurrection.
Imagine if he had not fomented that violent attempt to overturn the election and murder various federal officials. He would be in an infinitely stronger position right now, to say the least, and perhaps even poised to run again in 2024.
Instead? Not so much.
I realize that others suffered far more from the events of that day, including the people who were murdered, and American democracy itself. And he may yet survive this, politically, and even rise again to menace the republic—indeed, that is one of the very things at stake in this trial. Own goal or no, his chokehold on the Republican Party is currently very much in evidence, given that the Senate is all but sure to acquit him.
But history’s judgment has already begun, and the trial is a watershed in that process, and all the shameless Republican rank-closing in the world will not change that.
That has surprised me. As important as impeachment is on principle, I somehow expected this trial to be more or less a formality. Knowing that the craven Republican caucus will surely block his conviction, the point of the trial seemed to be to draw a line in the sand—to fall back on Gulf war tropes—to say that such behavior cannot be allowed to stand, even if the GOP is perfectly fine with it. I did not expect the trial to be such a powerful indictment defining Trump’s shameful legacy, or to reshape political dialogue in the US going forward, which it is now clear that it is doing.
The Republican position (check your kama sutra) is that Donald Trump gave one little speech at a rally, said nothing untoward, and then a bunch of folks spontaneously got out of hand just by sheer coincidence. If some of them came to that rally already prepared for violence, well, that’s all the more proof that it had nothing to do with what Trump said that day.
This is what the members of the GOP would have us believe, though most of them don’t believe it themselves, desperate as they are to convince us that they do.
That fairy tale was always ridiculous on its face. But this past week, the House impeachment managers obliterated it for all time, in the process powerfully defining for all America—and for posterity—the chilling truth of what really happened on January 6, 2021. The counternarrative will continue to persist in the swamps of right wing media, (which includes four million Fox viewers nightly). This is a party where gaslighting has become not just a technique but the entirety of its ideology. But for the rational world and the judgment of history, the facts have now been dramatically established.
Shall we recap, briefly? Let’s just begin with the day’s events, setting aside for now all that led up to it.
Trump chose the date for the rally, taking over an event that had been originally set for four days earlier by its organizers, a group called Women for America First—a legally very significant fact in its own right. He and his White House team were intimately involved in its planning, right down to choosing the speakers, setting the order of events, and even selecting the music. Trump promoted it heavily, for weeks, including his famous tweet “be there, will be wild.” His two adult sons spoke at the rally, as did their wives or girlfriends, and his personal lawyer Mr. Giuliani (who exhorted the crowd to engage in “trial by combat”). Trump himself spoke in the fiery language of political rabblerousing and incitement to violence, familiar to anyone with brainwave activity, egging the crowd on and using the words “fight” or “fightIng” 20 times—“peacefully” only once. (Or is this another case where we’re supposed to take him seriously but not literally….or is it the other way around? I can never remember.) In any event, video of the crowd’s reaction makes it clear how much this galvanized them.
Needless to say, Trump has a long tradition of encouraging physical violence, and has celebrated and defended it over and over, from Charlottesville, to the “Liberate” rallies and the attempted kidnapping of Gretchen Whitmer, to running a Biden campaign bus off the road. Trump had seen his supporters engage in violence before, and thrilled to it, and he knew he could get them to do it again. Online chatter from right wing extremists shows the same thing, and the House managers keyed the rise in discussions of violence to precise moments in Trump’s speech on the Ellipse.
Of crucial legal significance, the rallygoers had no permit to march to the Capitol; that was a plan Trump himself put in their collective head in knowing violation of the rules, and they did so at his urging. (Perhaps the Senate will convict him holding a march without a permit—$25 fine.) After all, there was no event planned at the Capitol to which they would go; their only purpose there would be to “stop the steal,” which had been the focus of his remarks.
Despite telling the crowd that “I’ll be there with you,” Trump watched the events unfold on TV from the White House, where he was reported to have been delighted at the violence, and confused why his aides didn’t think it was great that these people were fighting so hard for him.
The video of the attack that the House managers showed—much of it never before seen, from Capitol surveillance cameras—was beyond chilling. Several officials, including Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, Mitt Romney, and Chuck Schumer—came within moments of being captured by the mob, and we can be confident what grisly fate awaited them had that happened. We can see the absolute viciousness and bloodlust of the insurrectionists, who killed a police officer by smashing his head with a fire extinguisher, savagely beat others with hockey sticks, crutches, their own shields, and even flagpoles bearing the Stars & Stripes (a bit on the nose, don’t you think?), all the while calling the cops “traitors” and chanting “USA! USA!” (ruining the 1980 Olympics for me) and “Fuck you, police” and “Fuck the blue!”
When NWA said that, they were vilified, but at least they weren’t simultaneously claiming to be members of the Police Athletic League.
In one video that serves as a companion to the Stars & Stripes moment, rioters can be seen viciously beating police officers while waving a Blue Lives Matter flag. (But I guess that jibes with Lindsey Graham, who screamed at Capitol Police officers during the siege for allowing the building to be breached, and even now continues to blame them for not doing a better job of protecting him.)
Those battle cries, along with “Hang Mike Pence!,” will live in infamy, but to my ears, the one that was most chilling, and most telling, was the one heard over and over throughout the day, the one that went: “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!”
Kinda says it all.
To that point, the rioters themselves are powerful witnesses for Trump’s culpability, so overt and self-acknowledged is their slavish devotion to the orders issued by their Dear Leader.
Multiple insurrectionists, many of them now under arrest, have proudly proclaimed that they did what they did because Trump told them to. Some of that testimony took place on camera during the riot. One rioter screamed at a cop, “There are a million of us, and we are listening to Trump!” Another can be heard shouting at the police, “We were invited by The President of the United States!” The rioters even read a Trump tweet verbatim through a bullhorn….and not just any tweet, but one Trump sent attacking Pence as a coward right after being told the Vice President and his family were being evacuated by the Secret Service to save them from the mob that was hunting Pence down in order to lynch him. In other words, Trump launched an attack on his own VP at the exact moment when Pence was in maximum danger, and Trump knew it.
The mind reels.
Even after the horrific scope of the situation had become clear, Trump had to be pressured into making a statement telling the rioters to stand down, and it took hours until he finally, grudgingly agreed to do so (kind of). Similarly, he had to be strongarmed into including any appeal for calm in that videotaped message, which—incredibly—began with a repetition of the claim that the election had been stolen and an affirmation of the rightness of his followers’ fury, ad-libbing the infamous lines “You’re very special,” and “We love you.”
(As calls for calm go, it wasn’t going into any textbooks. By contrast, House manager Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas showed samples of Trump’s all-caps tweets like STOP THE STEAL and STOP THE COUNT, noting that that is what it looks like when Trump genuinely tells someone to stop doing something.)
Even the fact that the mob eventually did begin to disperse when Trump finally spoke, albeit weakly, speaks to their fealty to him and his control over them.
That evening, long after it was clear just how horrific the day’s events had been, Trump tweeted this:
These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love and in peace. Remember this day forever!
Confronted about his behavior a few days later, Trump said his speech at the rally was “totally appropriate.”
WORST HEIST MOVIE EVER
Trump’s own former advisors H.R. McMaster, John Bolton, John Kelly, Jim Mattis, and even Mick Mulvaney and Bill Barr (Bill Barr!) have laid the blame for January 6th at his feet. (Libtards!) Even McConnell did so in its immediate aftermath, though he is now hedging his bets, as did Kevin McCarthy before Trump reminded him who his daddy was.
But of course Trump’s culpability is not limited only to what happened on the 24 hours of January 6th. If anything, his actions leading up to that date are even more damning.
As the former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg noted, the story of a bank robbery is not just the story of the moment the gun is pointed at the teller. It’s the story of the planning, the recruiting of the crew, the reconnaissance of the target, the purchase of the getaway car, the acquisition of the guns, the construction of the alibis, the rehearsals, the stickup itself of course, and then also the escape, the dividing of the loot, the laundering of the cash, and on and on and on.
So too with this violent attempt at a self-coup.
Let’s state for the record what we all know: for months, both before and after November 3rd, Trump spread the vicious Big Lie that the election was rigged and that it was being “stolen” from him. This was the animating force behind the entire “stop the steal” movement that culminated with invasion of the Capitol, and—make no mistake—continues even now as a low-boiling domestic insurgency that regards Trump as still the rightful president-in-exile.
That alone is impeachable, irrespective of any violence.
The Capitol insurrection was no spontaneous event, a rally that simply got out of hand, with a few rogue criminals operating independent of White House guidance. It was a deliberately organized attack by a desperate defeated president who had run out of other options in his quest to hang on to power, and turned finally to outright armed sedition. This rally was held on January 6th for a very specific reason: because that was the day that Congress was to certify the Electoral College vote, and Trump’s last chance to overturn the election, short of declaring martial law. (Which his disgraced national security adviser and convicted felon Lieutenant General [Ret.] Michael Flynn was urging him to do. Trump reportedly considered making Flynn his chief of staff and/or director of the FBI in the closing weeks of his term.)
Writing in Slate, William Saletan asks the pertinent question that Trump’s lawyers must, if this were a proper trial, without a foreordained outcome, be forced to answer: “If Trump wasn’t directing the mob to attack or threaten Congress, what was he telling it to do?”
(Along those same lines, my friend Scott Matthews points out that the focus on Trump’s culpability for inciting violence is understandable, but a bit of a red herring. Even absent violence, his mere—mere!—rhetorical attacks on the integrity of the election and the peaceful transfer of power have done grievous harm and are deserving of impeachment and banning from future office-holding.)
Meanwhile, significantly more evidence has also come out about pre-coordination for the insurrection.
Trump’s purge of DOD and US IC officials in December, for example, suddenly makes a lot more sense. One of the puppets installed in that purge, Acting SecDef Chris Miller, issued a preemptive order on January 5th limiting National Guard intervention in the next day’s events, strongly suggesting that the Trump administration knew that there was going to be violence, and blocking in advance federal authorities’ ability to contain it. (Steve Bannon and others are on record with statements suggesting that they too knew there would be violence, and encouraging it.)
On that same day, January 5th, numerous Congressmembers are credibly alleged to have given private tours to individuals who would storm the Capitol the next day, tours that functioned as reconnaissance. Small but significant numbers of the insurrectionists did seem to have alarmingly suspicious and specific knowledge of the layout of the notoriously confusing Capitol building (and even maps), including the location of the offices of their key targets, like Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently revealed just how close she came to being murdered as well.
We also know now that Michael Flynn’s brother Charles, an active duty lieutenant general and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the whole US Army, was in the room at the Pentagon when the decisions were being made not to send the NG to the scene of the insurrection. Not that anyone is saying he shares his brother’s views, and he would rightly be involved in that decision-making process in his job as DCSOPS, but it’s not a great look, especially since the Army initially denied he was there. (He has since been given a fourth star and a high-profile command.)
On the follow-the-money front, the Trump campaign gave $3.5 million to the organizers of the rally. (For that matter, a great deal of Super PAC money went to the members of Congress like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz who were trying to decertify the Electoral College vote, not to mention Trump himself.)
Meanwhile, the FBI reports that it has found “evidence detailing coordination of an assault. But I don’t need an FBI investigation to tell you that the people who arrived with Kevlar helmets and body armor and zip ties and tasers had more on their mind than just a polite expression of their First Amendment right to peaceful dissent. And I don’t need a weatherman to tell me that they did so because they’d been given the go sign from the highest levels that their behavior was welcome.
SEE NO EVIL
In short, the only people who can see Trump’s words and actions and still refuse to hold him accountable—at least politically and morally, if not legally—are those engaged in willful denial. Unfortunately, that group includes some forty-odd Republican US Senators. Witness the highly performative expressions of outrage by Graham, Hawley, Rick Scott, et al in attacking the House managers for having the temerity even to bring this case.
Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine that they would be so forgiving if it was a “Democrat” president who had done this.
As many have noted, the Senators are not only the jurors in this trial but also among the victims of the crime, witnesses to it, and in some cases, accomplices in its commission. Surreally, the trial is taking place in the crime scene itself; some of the Senators are sitting in the very desks that violent insurrectionists commandeered five short weeks ago. Yet none of that seems to have done anything at all to penetrate the all-powerful bubble of GOP venality.
Donald Trump (1) stoked the fire by lying about the election (2) summoned the mob, (3) incited the assault on the Capitol, (4) failed to condemn it even once, (5) tweeted attacks on VP Mike Pence even as he sheltered in place, (6) was derelict in his duty, and (7) afterward, celebrated the insurrection.
This ought to test the capacity of even the most hardened Trumpist to deny the enormity of Trump’s conduct. But, don’t worry, they will find a way.
“Both sides” are just as partisan, you say? We don’t know, because no US president has ever done anything even remotely like this before. But even if that were so, it of course does not justify excusing Trump or anyone else now.
As a matter of principle, Trump should be convicted. He spent two months telling flat-out lies designed to undermine American democracy and keep him in power even though he had lost the election. He demanded that the vice president of the United States violate the Constitution. When Mike Pence refused, he ordered a violent mob to march on the US Capitol, which they did while chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”
But that argument falls apart right at the top, with the words “As a matter of principle.”
We’re talking about Republicans, folks.
The behavior of Senate Republicans is setting a new low for moral cowardice and dereliction of duty. I wrote last weekthat I looked forward to the spectacle of these venal bastards gazing at their shoes and cringing when presented with video evidence of what Trump wrought. It turned out not to be that much fun….but it was certainly a stark display of history’s verdict being rendered in real time.
The trial has already achieved one of its major objectives by creating an indelible historical record of the events of January 6. The “timeline” video introduced into evidence on Tuesday was a stunning, damning record of the events of the day as they unfolded. That 14-minute video will come to define the Trumpadministration for future generations. A hundred years from now, children will study it in school.”
Of course, for that very reason, numerous Republicans chose not even to watch it. “During the video of the insurrection, Trump supporters Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) looked at papers on their desks, Rick Scott (R-FL) looked at papers on his lap, and Rand Paul (R-KY) doodled.”
And Josh Hawley sat with his feet up, ignoring the trial and working on his “Magnum PI” fan fiction. I thought my opinion of Hawley was already lower than the Marianas Trench. Then I read this and discovered, hey whaddaya know, it can actually sink even lower. (You might recall that the right wing wanted Obama impeached, or worse, for putting his feet up in the Oval Office. One man’s nonchalance is another man’s uppity, I guess.)
(The mob was) looking for Pence, and shouting Pelosi’s name. They were carrying weapons. We were minutes away from an even bigger tragedy. And the Republican Senate still can’t bring itself to condemn the man who inspired them, incited them, told them they were patriots.
So what of Donald’s actual legal defense? Paul Begala nailed it during the opening statements when he tweeted, “Trump is apparently being represented by the law firm of Meandering & Furious.” It’s funny because it’s true, as comedians like to say. (Not.) What’s really infuriating is that Trump has bozos like this as his legal team and yet he will still get acquitted.
But as Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote in The New Yorker, “what looks like incompetence may be better understood as contempt for the process.”
In response to the chilling videos of violence at the Capitol, Republicans have already deployed their defense: “Yes, that was horrible, but it was just the actions of a few criminals. Nothing to do with Donald.” This claim flies in the face of everything we’ve just discussed, but that is the flag they are planting.
This argument is essentially a First Amendment one, which I’m sure we’ll hear more of when Trump’s team has its sixteen hours beginning today. But the First Amendment defense is a particularly dishonest one.
In a contentious appearance on MSNBC, the vile Robert Ray, Ken Starr’s successor in the Whitewater investigation, who was also on Trump legal team for his first impeachment, was one of many right wing lawyers sneering at the idea that Trump’s words constitute “incitement to violence” by the standard of a criminal trial. But Ray and his ilk all know very well that an impeachment trial is not a criminal proceeding but a political one, and the same First Amendment protections don’t apply. (Ray’s main point, however, which he kept repeating over and over, was that none of this matters because there won’t be enough votes to convict regardless. But he meant it as a boast, not a disgrace, which is what it is.)
(T)he First Amendment, which is meant to protect citizens from the government limiting their free speech and other rights, has no real place in an impeachment trial. Senators are not determining whether Mr. Trump’s conduct was criminal, but whether it sufficiently violated his oath of office to warrant conviction and potential disqualification from holding future office.
Among those 144 lawyers was legendary constitutional law attorney Floyd Abrams, who noted that there are lots of things that are protected speech that the President of the United States could legally say that would still be impeachable offenses. A sampling:
“I think it would be great if China invaded and occupied the US and I’m going to work to make that happen.”
“Black people shouldn’t have the same rights as White people.”
All those things are betrayals of the presidential oath that would be high crimes and misdemeanors justifying impeachment and removal. So is a president telling millions of his slavish followers that the election was rigged.
There is no doubt that Trump’s abuse of office—his lies about election fraud, his strong-arming of state election officials including Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, his advocacy for unconstitutional interventions in the Electoral College, and, finally, his incitement of protesters to march on the Capitol—warrant impeachment and conviction. The House prosecution brief prominently quotes Republican Representative Liz Cheney’s emphatic judgment: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
Then there are the specious Republican claims about how we as a nation ought to “move on” and forget about January 6th, and oh yes, Trump’s responsibility for it, and their own. My favorite was Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, scolding Democrats for wasting the Senate’s time when it should be focusing on COVID relief…..after Senate Republicans sat on House Democrats’ proposals for COVID relief for months. Which he opposes in any case.
We’ve dismantled these cries previously in this blog, but they’re like the unkillable Michael Meyers in those Halloweenmovies.
In live commentary on the trial’s opening statements, Alan Rappeport of the Washington Post noted that Trump lawyer David Schoen argued “that the impeachment proceedings—rather than the insurrection—weaken America’s image around the world.” The WaPo’s Katie Benner followed up, seizing on Schoen’s claim that “the trial “will tear this country apart” and “bring us to the brink of civil war,” noting that he “does not address the idea that a violent attack on Congress in order to undo an election could have a deleterious impact on the nation.”
But the Republican abomination goes beyond these rhetorical ploys and into overt, flagrant perversion of justice. Cruz, Graham, and Mike Lee of Utah openly met with Trump’s defense team on Thursday to discuss strategy—you know, the way jurors always coordinate with the defense in a trial? (Much the same way Mitch McConnell brazenly told the press he was coordinating with the White House during Trump’s first impeachment.) It goes without saying that they ought to be summarily disqualified and removed as jurors, had we not become accustomed to such rank contempt for proper jurisprudence, even in a purely political procedure.
HISTORY HAS ITS EYE ON US
As I write this, Trump’s legal team (such as it is) is about to begin the detailed presentation of its defense, one that promises to be a festival of lies, deceit, and misdirection building on their specious opening argument and taking the aforementioned gaslighting to a whole new level.
The infuriating part, of course, as Robert Ray boasted, is that it almost certainly won’t matter, as a majority of Republican Senators have already made it clear that they are not impartial jurors as demanded by their oath and are going to acquit no matter what. In fact, they have been shameless in flaunting their contempt for the very process.
But we should not be surprised. As Hillary Clinton tweeted, “If Senate Republicans fail to convict Donald Trump, it won’t be because the facts were with him or his lawyers mounted a competent defense. It will be because the jury includes his co-conspirators.”
So with little hope of conviction (and the practical benefits of Trump being disqualified from holding office again), Democrats are instead using the trial to disqualify him by a different means. As Professor Melissa Murray of NYU law school notes, the Democrats are cleverly making their case directly to the American people that Trump is unfit to hold office, irrespective of an acquittal…..and that the party that is defending him is unworthy of the support of any thinking American with a shred of respect for the rule of law.
Therefore, as Truax notes, “Trump isn’t on trial—the Republican Party is.”
The pundits are constantly reminding us that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. (I got it already.) That is the unspoken crux of Republican willingness to acquit Trump despite the manifest evidence of his guilt. So it’s gratifying to see Democrats approaching the process with the same political calculations.
The putative winner of a trial is not always the actual winner. No one thinks of the Scopes trial and remembers what a great defense of creationism William Jennings Bryan made, even though he “won.” Does OJ walk the streets a national hero and appear on our TV screens in ads for Hertz and Dingo and Schick and Foster Grant after being “exonerated” in a LA courtroom?
Not so much.
So Trump’s legacy in not in question. But this is not merely a matter of history; it is very much an ongoing crisis. We dodged a bullet (so to speak) in getting Trump out of office. If we don’t hold him accountable for commanding an army of violent thugs in an effort to overturn an election, and we don’t bar him from running again, we may find ourselves in a situation where he is President again, and feels utterly unshackled in using those forces and other forms of violence to stay there for life.
If it’s early February, it must be time for another impeachment of Donald Trump.
Yes, I know that’s what his defenders say as well, bitterly. But parties differ on shape of planet.
In mid-May 2019, I published a blog called “Who’s Afraid of the Big I?” arguing for the Trump’s impeachment based on the conclusions of the Mueller report. That essay was the third in a series, following posts on why Trump richly deserved that fate, and the appalling Republican rank-closing to protect him, “a die-in-place effort that makes thefanatical deadenders of Imperial Japan look like wishy-washy dilettantes,” as I wrote at the time. Not much has changed, except that this time both aspects are even worse.
Of course, Trump was not impeached over the Mueller report, but seven months later, he was impeached over a completely different, though related, scandal. Man, the guy had criminality to burn. From the great beyond, Nixon must be doffing his cap. (The Wifi in the seventh circle of Hell is pretty good.)
I want to look at the same issues again now, as we prepare for something even weirder: this second impeachment of Donald Trump, after he is out of office. This, of course, has never before happened to a US president, and is something almost no one ever predicted, not even the most savvy and/or Trump-critical observers. But then again, almost no one ever predicted that Trump would send a mob of Confederate flag-waving, body armor-wearing, gun-toting goons to invade the US Capitol, assassinate his own vice president, and try to keep him in power by force.
THE PEOPLE VS. DONALD TRUMP
The House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) will no doubt definitively show Trump’s culpability for the January 6th attack on the US Congress. (That, my friend Justin Schein says, is the proper way to describe it—as an attack on people, and not just a building—and he’s right.)
They will show how Trump spread the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him, and in fact laid the groundwork for that lie for months beforehand, not to mention doing his level best to undermine the vote in that very election.
They will show how, after he was fairly and decisively defeated, he exploited every legal maneuver to try to overturn the result, losing some 60 lawsuits in the process. They will show how, when legal options were exhausted, he and his surrogates (like Lindsey Graham, who will be one of the jurors even as he is implicated in the offense) turned to illegal ones, pressuring state lawmakers to cheat, to decertify their state’s votes, and generally to disregard the will of the people. Though will show how he pressured his own VP in the same way.
And finally they will show how, as his last ditch effort at hanging onto power illegally, he summoned his furious, radicalized followers to a rally on the National Mall, fired them up with more lies and open calls for violence (a longstanding trend in his rhetoric), and sent them down to the halls of Congress to attempt a violent seizure of power. This was not a peaceful protest that—oops—got out of hand. It was a well-orchestrated assault, funded by well-connected Republican groups, promoted by the White House itself, planned and coordinated by its most violent followers, who came equipped for battle, with reconnaissance beforehand conducted with the aid of sitting Republican members of the US Congress. There has never been anything like it in American history, and Donald Trump must answer for it.
I am very confident that the Democratic case for the prosecution will be a juggernaut.
So let’s look now at the Republican defense. It has two major, process and substance, and the tea is very weak on both.
On the former, Trump and his defenders claim that it is unconstitutional to impeach a president after he has left office. But the Senate has already rejected that argument, as well it should, with five Republicans joining the unanimous Democratic majority. Of course, for conviction, the burden is reversed, and the prosecution will need 67 votes to prevail. But in terms of sheer legality, this Republican claim has no basis, either in the US Constitution or simple logic. (A nice summary of the whole issue is here.)
Federal officials have been impeached after leaving office, and reason demands that they be subject to that procedure. In 1876 Grant’s Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached (and acquitted) of corruption even after resigning from office. The Senate affirmed its right to do so in a 37-29 vote. In 1989, the US Supreme Court affirmed the Senate’s broad powers in terms of who it may impeach and under what rules, in considering an appeal from a US District Court judge in Mississippi, Walter Nixon (no relation, but it’s ironic), who had been impeached, convicted, and removed from office on corruption and bribery charges. (Thanks to former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg for that citation.)
A variation on this claim is the so-called “January Exception,” the idea that a president can’t be impeached for actions taken in the final two weeks of this term—the equivalent of “garbage time” in sports. I’m not a constitutional scholar, nor a professional sportswriter, but I don’t see that in the owner’s manual for our representative democracy either. As former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has argued, If that were so, a president could commit any crimes he or she wished in his final weeks of office—murder, bribery, conspiracy with foreign powers—knowing that there would be no time to try him before the end of his term.
And of course, the entire line of argument ignores the fact that Trump was impeached before he left office, on January 13th, meaning that his Senate trial could well have started (and indeed concluded) while he was still president for those remaining seven days….except that Mitch McConnell prevented that from happening. Now McConnell has voted with those who say Trump can’t be impeached for that very reason.
So let’s dispense with that laughable claim.
When they eventually lose their argument about process, Republicans will claim that Trump did not do anything impeachable. This argument, put forward by the likes of the aforementioned senior senator from South Carolina, would have us believe that the Democratic effort to convict Trump, even if legal, is driven by sheer personal vindictiveness. (They tried this with Russiagate and Ukrainegate as well.)
Again: risible. If fomenting a violent insurrection to overturn a fair and just election in order to hold on to power is not impeachable, wtf is?
The Republicans will reply that Trump did no such thing—that all he did was exercise his right to free speech. In fact, they have already made this claim even ahead of the trial. “If this speech is considered incitement for insurrection,” said Trump’s new lead counsel. David Schoen. “then I think any passionate political speaker is at risk.”
What utter bullshit. The House managers have already taken on this ridiculous but predictable claim, arguing, as the Washington Post reports, that the First Amendment was never intended “to allow a president to ‘provoke lawless action if he loses at the polls.’”
“I have a dream”…….”Ask not what your country can do for you”…..”All we have to fear is fear itself”—that is passionate political speech.
“Let’s go down to the Capitol take back this stolen election by force!” is not.
It’s worth stopping here to note that the Capitol insurrection is the child of the nauseating “Liberate” rallies of the summer of 2020, and the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Moreover, it is the malignant grandchild of the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000, when Roger Stone organized a paid mob of aggressive Young Republicans to pound on the doors of the Miami-Dade County election board until the terrified canvassers stopped the recount. It worked then, so it is any wonder that the technique has metastasized? But now the rioters have traded their Oxford shirts and khakis for camouflage and Kevlar, and went right to the heart of the federal government, carrying nooses for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi.
KABUKI, REPUBLICAN STYLE
I’m quite sure that Rep. Raskin & Co. will go on to demolish everything else the GOP throws up next week; we can postpone a thorough review until the trial unfolds.
But what is already clear is that Senate Republicans will be in a tough spot, because Trump really does not want to mount a defense based on process, or even substance really. He wants to defend himself on the grounds that he actually did win the election, and that his supporters were right to storm the Capitol and attack the Vice President and members of Congress in order keep him in office for a second term. That was the point that caused him to lose his previous legal team last week, at the eleventh hour, because he wanted those lawyers to go before the US Senate and argue that the Capitol insurrection was justified.
And here’s the kicker: Despite the utter madness of that argument, Trump will almost certainly win a second acquittal. Forty-five plus Republican Senators may not buy the argument that he was within his rights to try to overthrow the government—although they might, given their collective, unprecedented reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Biden administration—but they will at the very least find a way to AGAIN excuse him of responsibility, a reprise of their shameful shielding of Trump’s actions re Ukraine at this same time last year, even as these high crimes are much, much worse, and his culpability much, much more obvious.
But in order to do that, Republicans are going to have to participate in a very public, nationally televised, ritual of shocking self-abasement. Luckily for them, they are good at that.
The (Democratic) effort to present new video evidence and witness testimony appears designed to make Republican senators as uncomfortable as possible as they prepare to vote to acquit Trump, as most have indicated they will do. The prospect of injured police officers describing the brutality of pro-Trump rioters to Republicans who regularly present themselves as advocates of law enforcement could make for an extraordinary, nationally televised scene.
I look forward to watching fifty Republican Senators squirm as they watch video of Trump whipping up the crowd on the Ellipse, followed by twenty different crowdcast iPhone camera angles of a violent assault on the US Congress, Trump acolytes chanting “Hang Mike Pence,!”, a Capitol Police officer being beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, and MAGA flag-waving seditionists shouting “Trump sent us”…..and then voting to acquit anyway.
In other words, Senate Republicans are going to have to stand up, one by one, even as Trump howls, “Hell yes I ordered the Code Red!!!” and say, “Nah, he didn’t.” Case dismissed.”
Good luck with that, fellas. The whole world will be watching.
Even as the trial itself is probably a foregone conclusion, the politics swirling around it remain volatile.
The duty to impeach on principle, and to lay down the law against future presidential malfeasance, was never in doubt in 2019 and 2020 and is even less so now. But practical and tactical arguments remained—mostly dishonest ones from the right, but some genuine ones from the left as well—about why impeachment was nonetheless a fraught proposition for the Democratic Party. The arguments from back then will sound familiar, because we are hearing them again now.
From the friendly side, there was a lot of talk about whether the commitment to principle was outweighed by the goal of maximizing our chances of ousting Trump at the polls the following November. I disagreed, writing in May 2019:
(T)his utilitarianism, even if correct, creates an immense moral hazard. It is Congress’s sworn duty to hold a criminal president accountable, and failure to do so would be an egregious act of negligence and a terrible portent for the future, no matter what the electoral impact.
But I also rejected the whole premise of this false equivalence:
…..this theory presumes that impeachment by the House without a conviction in the Senate will hurt Democratic chances in the election. But we don’t know that that is so; in fact….it might be quite the opposite. In any case, it’s not at all clear that pursuing impeachment and winning the next election are mutually exclusive choices that require a binary calculation.
In other words, timidity on impeachment (cowardice, if we want to be blunt), even above and beyond the demands of principle, would cost us on Election Day.
(S)trictly as a matter of practical politics, the best defense against Trump has to be a powerful offense. I fail to see the benefit for Democrats, heading into the 2020 election, of being seen as such fraidy-cats that they shirk their constitutional duty.
Does it “play into Trump’s hands” to speak of impeachment? I think it plays into the president’s hands to disappoint the Democratic base and come across as weak and frightened. Voters who saw the need to hold Trump accountable decided to give Democrats some power—and now expect them to use it.
Considering that the Dems went on to win the White House, the Senate, and hold the House in November 2020, Robinson’s argument looks vindicated, notwithstanding other intervening factors unforeseen in May of 2019—like 400,000 dead from a pandemic—that had a hand in it.
One of the Democratic voices arguing against impeachment in 2019 was former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, who in an op-ed for the New York Times that April suggested that leaving Trump in office for the rest of his term would actually do the Republican Party much more harm by letting him continue to ruin their “brand.”
I objected to that approach on principle and still do, but it did turn out to be true following the craven Senate acquittal…..although I don’t think Mr. Lockhart or anyone else imagined at the time that the damage would include 500,000 dead Americans and an economy ravaged to near-Great Depression levels.
(Lockhart’s argument) blithely ignores the massive damage being done by Trump. In that regard it feels like something that could only have been written by a privileged member of the professional political class, one consumed with 202 area code gamesmanship, and not personally threatened by things like loss of health care, or clean water, or deportation to Guatemala….
Lockhart’s argument prizes partisanship over the public interest, treating the red-blue pachyderm/donkey competition like a sport, and not the existential national emergency it is.
Secondly, this argument vastly underestimates the resilience of reactionaryism. Yeah, the old white male demographic is dwindling in its political power, but to imagine that five-and– half more years of Trump is going to destroy the Republican Party from within is the worst kind of naiveté. It is more likely to destroy American democracy as we know it but leave the Republican Party intact, cockroach-like, and indeed more far-right wing than ever, blaming Democrats, immigrants, women, and people of color for the mess that the country is in.
And plenty of people tuned to Fox will believe that and still pull the GOP lever.
Turns out it didn’t even take five-and-a-half years for Trump to do that kind of damage, only one-and-a-half.
Meanwhile, post-January 6th, Republican submersion in the Kool-Aid is proving even deeper than we thought.
Of course, even if Trump is acquitted—again—this second impeachment will still have great value, even beyond a stand on principle, valuable as that is. As the New York Times’ Charles Blow argued in 2019:
I say that there is no such thing as a failed impeachment….The Senate has never once voted to convict. So, an impeachment vote in the House has, to this point, been the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president. I can think of no president who has earned this rebuke more than the current one. And, once a president is impeached, he is forever marked. It is a chastisement unto itself. It is the People’s House making a stand for its people.
To Mr. Blow’s point, Trump is now the only US president ever to be impeached twice, and in a single term, to boot. If that’s not a withering indictment of him as far and away the worst president in American history, I don’t know what is.
(Andrew Johnson fans, spare me your teeth-gnashing. Andy’s abominable sabotage of Reconstruction was a precursor to Trump’s attempts to bring back the Confederacy, so he can share in Donald’s infamy.)
The impeachment offers another benefit to Democrats. Even if (when) Trump is again acquitted, the opportunity to present in public, on live television, a ironclad case for his criminality regarding January 6th is invaluable. It is not the Senate but the court of public opinion in which the House managers will be making their argument, and not to a jury of Senators but directly to the American people.
Nancy Pelosi was very canny about impeachment the first two times it was on the table, and took a lot of heat for how long it took her to get onboard over Ukraine. As I said at the time, I suspected she was “merely keeping her powder dry until the big fat orange target is in her sights at point blank range.”
So it’s significant that she didn’t hesitate for a moment this time. Trump sent people to assassinate her, and Mike Pence, and others. You can understand why she thinks he ought to be made to answer for that.
WHAT WE HAVE ON OUR HANDS IS A DEAD ELEPHANT
In 2019 I wrote:
The Republican Party is broken. You can’t have a functioning democracy when one of the two political parties refuses to act in good faith, and barring a sudden burst of integrity (ha ha just kidding), it’s hard to imagine the GOP returning to anything resembling principled participation in the American political process anytime soon.
And that was before the GOP got onboard with the violent overthrow of a democratically elected President from the opposing party.
(I)t is worth noting how the entire responsibility for saving the republic is being laid at the door of the Democrats, because not a single sentient American that I know of believes that the Republicans will lift even a pinkie finger to do the right thing.
For three years, going all the way back to the campaign, we have been hearing that Trump would finally cross a line that would alienate sufficient numbers of GOP leaders or voters. But nothing he has done has yet constituted that line, including the most outrageous revelations of entanglements with foreign powers, national security nightmares, hush money payments to porn stars, tariffs that violate what was once sacrosanct conservative dogma, outrageous attacks on our NATO allies and shoulder-shrugging over state-sponsored murders by Middle Eastern theocracies, the surgical attachment of his lips to Vladimir Putin’s white Russian butt……and on and on.
If the GOP is no longer a good faith partner willing to participate in a legitimate representative democracy, the Democrats’ path forward is a fait accompli. It’s not a matter of whether we are in a streetfight with a neo-autocratic white nationalist crime syndicate. That battle is already joined. The only question is how best to win it.
That assessment has proven true in spades. Even so, almost no one would thought Trump would go as far as he ultimately did, or that the GOP would be fine with it.
We are now seeing the logical end of the descent of the once-proud Republican Party. In my previous essay I quoted Paul Krugman, and I’ll do it again, as what he wrote in May of 2019 remains as true today as it was then:
It’s later than you think for American democracy. Before 2016 you could have wondered whether Republicans would, in extremis, be willing to take a stand in defense of freedom and rule of law. At this point, however, they’ve already taken that test, and failed with flying colors.
The simple fact is that one of our two major parties—the one that likes to wrap itself in the flag—no longer believes in American values. And it’s very much up in the air whether America as we know it will survive.
THE LUXURY OF A BLIND EYE
Last week in these pages, I made an argument that one can currently hear all over the non-insane portion of the United States: that there can be no unity in America, no healing from the Trump years, no repair and forward progress without a reckoning for what we just went through. In other words, accountability.
We will see a first step in that process when Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in the US Senate kicks off tomorrow.
It ought also to be remembered that even in its shameless dishonesty, the Republican cry for unity is a tacit admission that Trump fucked things up. Bad.
The New Yorker editor David Remnick reminds us of the words of Jonathan Schell in that magazine in 1973, writing about Watergate.
Schell wrote, we are not allowed the luxury of seeking out the truth about high crimes and misdemeanors and then simply ignoring what is discovered.
“In a democracy,” he observed, “certain forms of truth do more than compel our minds’ assent; they compel us to act.”
This week, the Senate begins deliberations in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial—and the resulting verdict will tell us much about the direction of our country. There have been only a few other moments of such political consequence in American history.
How will we fare? Not glowingly, given Republican telegraphing of the inevitable acquittal. But perhaps, as with the last impeachment and the pre-determined acquittal that followed that one, we will witness at least one of our two major political parties demonstrating its belief in the rule of law, and the idea that a defeated president is not within his rights to attempt a violent seizure of power.