Tuesday, April 13, 2021

LOST CAUSES -- THEN AND NOW

One hundred fifty-six years ago almost to the day, Robert E. Lee surrendered his surrounded, starving and thoroughly beaten Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.  

Shortly thereafter, the Civil War came to an end.

Grant's terms, as historian Ty Seidule points out in his recently published and extraordinary volume, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning of the Myth of the Lost Cause, were generous: "No humiliation.  No prisoner of war camps. No trials and no hangings . . . Go home under parole and do not take up arms against the U.S. Government."  

Lee should have said thank you and silently retired.  

Instead, and almost immediately, he gave birth to and began the South's decades long adherence to what became known as the myth of the Lost Cause.

Seidule's book is about the cost of that myth.

Principally to black Americans.

But also to himself.

It is also about the courage needed to confront the myth and kill it.

On April 10, 1865, the day after his surrender, Lee issued General Order No. 9. It was his farewell to his troops.  In it he claimed their forces had been "compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources".  In a letter he wrote two days later to Jefferson Davis, Lee said he'd been outnumbered five to one.

Thus began the myth.

Like most myths, this one was hydra-headed.  In fact, the multiplicity of lies and half-truths that form its core account for its staying power.  It pretended to explain everything on the one hand while saving the defeated from humiliation and responsibility on the other.

The myth's first and most immediate claim -- made at the point of surrender -- was, as Seidule points out, "that only numbers and supplies caused Confederate defeat." 

This was not true.

As Seidule explains, Grant did not have the numeric superiority military professionals deem necessary for attacking troops, and though Lee's letter to Davis claimed he had only ten thousand soldiers left at the end, "more than twenty-eight thousand applied for parole in less than a week."  Lee's army had also fought at home within easy reach of food, supplies and a supportive citizenry.  And the Confederacy itself was large -- as Seidule notes, "The United States had to defeat multiple armies over a territory twice the size of modern France and Germany." 

The Confederacy didn't lose because it was outnumbered. It lost, as Seidule concludes, because the US Army "was better" -- the "best-led, hardest-fighting, best-provisioned, and most strategically and tactically proficient combat force [then] on the globe." It also lost because the Confederacy's "cause was so flawed." And because the north's leadership -- in Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and the Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who accomplished the herculean task of supplying troops over a fairly vast sub-continent --  was "unmatched."

The myth's next claim was that the cause of the war had been states' rights.  Southerners asserted they were being fleeced by tariffs that helped northern manufacturers but diminished the value of their exports (principally cotton) and that, in taking up arms, they were merely protecting their land against hostile invaders.

Wrong again.

The cause of the war was slavery. Or more particularly, the fear in the south that Lincoln's Republicans would succeed in limiting the institution in the western territories and that, over time, new non-slave states would combine with existing non-slave states to abolish the institution throughout the nation.  This was a reasonable fear. It was made possible by the Constitution itself, which permits both the creation of new states and amendments to the actual document. It was hardly, however, a foregone conclusion.   In the forty years leading up to the election of 1860, new states had been added and the issue of slavery had been hotly contested as that occurred. 

That Constitutional contest would have continued.

When Abraham Lincoln won the full, fair and free presidential election of 1860, however, the South decided that contest had to end.  Or, as he put it in his Second Inaugural: "Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and he other would accept war rather than let it perish."

"And war came."

Following secession, the Confederates wrote an openly racist constitution for themselves.  Unlike its federal counterpart, that constitution  enshrined slavery.  Unlike the Declaration of Independence, it also enshrined white supremacy.  Because it forbade any Confederate state from ever ending slavery, one irony -- as Seidule also notes -- is that it also gave the lie to any notion that states' rights mattered.  On slavery in the new Confederacy, only states that were for it had rights.

As America moved through the 19th century and well into the 20th, part of the myth of the Lost Cause was that slavery would have died a natural death.  This too, however, is a claim impossible to square with the actual facts.  In mid-19th century America, slavery was actually expanding. The cotton gin had made the south's plantation economy extraordinarily wealthy and the number of slaves, particularly in the deep south, was growing.  In fact, between 1840 and 1860, the number of slaves had almost doubled. 

Another part of the myth was that slavery was actually good for the slaves. 

That it civilized them.  

That Margaret Mitchell's "happy slave" in Gone With the Wind was real.

When in fact it was just another lie.  

Slaves were property.  Slaveholders whipped and beat them.  Black slave women were regularly raped by them.  Their mulatto children became slaves themselves.  Their own fathers denied them. And after the war and the brief period of Reconstruction, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, segregation and monument mania took over.  Collectively, and well into the 20th century, they terrorized blacks, stopped them from voting, lynched those who talked back (or dated whites), rigorously enforced segregation and racial apartheid, and pretended the Confederacy had been a noble cause defending a traditional society that benefited all its inhabitants.

Seidule is a professional historian and a retired brigadier general in the Army.  He grew up in Virginia and Georgia, got his bachelor's degree from Washington and Lee University and his masters and  PhD from Ohio State, served in the Army for over thirty years and taught at West Point for seventeen of them.  

His book is unsparing in its account of how the Lost Cause permeated all of those places and institutions -- how public schools were closed and private academies financed  to avoid desegregation in Virginia and Georgia; how the South in general and his college in particular turned Lee into a secular saint,  whitewashing his slaveholding past with false claims of opposition or gentility and erecting hundreds of monuments to an individual who was a traitor; how the Army named dozens of bases after slaveholders and secessionist soldiers, allowed its own hallowed burial ground at Arlington to honor them, for a time endorsed openly racist views of black "fecundity", and  resisted integration even after President Truman ordered it; and how West Point initially condemned those of its alumni who violated their oaths in fighting for the Confederacy, only to later erect memorials to them.

Today, a large part of the South along with other "red" or Republican states or legislatures are re-enacting their own version of the Lost Cause in passing so-called election reform laws.  

At last count, more than 250 of those laws had been proposed or passed.  Typically, they increase voter- identification requirements, shorten early voting periods, reduce the number of drop boxes in which voters can deposit their ballots, make absentee voting more difficult, and limit the ability to correct minor errors (like failing to put one's address on the envelope in which an absentee ballot is returned to be counted) or extend voting hours (a not uncommon occurrence in large metropolitan -- and therefore Democratic -- districts).  Though these changes disporportionately burden minorities, that is their point.  In the last election, Democrats and minority-voters used these mechanisms in much higher numbers than Republicans.

The genesis of these faux reforms is, like the genesis of the myth of the Lost Cause, the Big Lie.  

In the post-Civil War era and beyond, it was the lie that slavery was benign and irrelevant and that the Confederacy was outnumbered in its legitimate efforts to repel invaders and preserve its traditional society and economy.  

Today, it is Trump's lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that he in fact won.  Republican state officials knew Trump's claim was false and therefore refused, in spite of his demands,  to "find votes" or throw out those that had been legitimately cast. Because, however, Trump has persisted in repeating -- ad nauseum -- this Big Lie and 60% or so of self-identifying Republicans now believe it, Republican office holders face a dilemma.  Having failed to do Trump's bidding in 2020, either they can vote for these phony reforms and avoid again angering him and those he has brainwashed, the latter of whom vote in large numbers in Republican primaries . . . 

Or they can be honest, vote against them, and risk losing.

Guess what they have decided to do.

Just kidding.

If all of these so-called "reforms" become law, a large part of America in the 21st century will resemble the post-Civil War America of the late 19th and early to mid-20th.  Instead of voters getting to  choose their representatives, the representatives will get to choose their voters. This, of course, is exactly what happened in the post-bellum South.  By disenfranchising blacks en masse, erstwhile Confederates were able to ensure that white officials were elected and re-elected for more than a hundred years. In so doing, they were able to . . . 

Preserve segregation.

And flibuster anti-lynching and civil rights laws.

Even when the country made progress in the New Deal, FDR's program had to exclude blacks in order to garner the southern votes needed to secure its passage.

The supporters of today's proposed changes cry foul when anyone compares those proposals to what happened after the Civil War.  They argue that the right to vote doesn't include the right to vote on Sunday or the right to vote during a three week early voting period or the right to be called in to correct address mistakes on an absentee ballot or the right to have special pandemic-related rules turned into the norm.  

But why not?  

Even if the right to vote cannot preclude all sorts of administrative regulations, it is certainly inconsistent with regulations that disproportionately burden or exclude minorities.  In the old days, the South used poll taxes and literacy tests to kill the franchise for blacks.  Today, Republicans are removing mechanisms that facilitate minority voting but do not have any impact on the base Republican vote.  

To justify these new exclusions, the GOP is claiming that the reforms are needed to combat perceived  election fraud.  There is, however, no such fraud, certainly none at a level beyond the present system's ability to discover or cure.  Indeed, when ballot harvesting -- the collection by third parties of absentee ballots that the third parties then deliver to election officials -- has resulted in fraudulent votes being cast, it has been easily discovered and prosecuted.  And even those cases are rare.  In fact, I know of only one.  

It is true, of course, that the "perception" of election fraud is widespread among Republicans.  

But that is because a former President of the United States has been telling them this lie for more than five years.

The dirty secret is that Republicans do not want everyone to vote.  And to whitewash that desire, some of them are even arguing that everyone should not be able to vote, that the "quality" of the vote is as important as its "quantity."  

It is unclear precisely what the GOP means by this.  Is it that some people are not smart enough to vote?  Or that low-information voters, those who do not study the issues to any real degree or take much time deciding, are to be weeded out?  Or that voting will be undertaken more thoughtfully to the extent it is not made any easier?

I do not know.

What I do know is that it is not meant to exclude those who rallied to Trump on January 6 and then invaded and trashed the Capitol.

All of whom seem to have swallowed Trump's Big Lie . . .

Becoming, if not low-information voters, then at the very least bad-information voters. 

And many of whom, given the choices they made that day, can hardly count as particularly smart.

Intelligence, however, was never a feature of the post-bellum myth of the Lost Cause.

Nor is it a feature of . . . 

Today's.




Friday, March 26, 2021

BETTIN' ON BIDEN

‘"You are a lost generation."

In the original French: "Vous etes une generation perdue", attributed to Gertrude Stein during the inter-war years, who got it from an auto-mechanic in Lyon, France.  It was then popularized by Ernest Hemingway, who made it the epigraph in 1926 to The Sun Also Rises.

The auto-mechanic was not trying to be profound.  He was just frustrated that a young employee wasn't fixing Stein's car fast enough. 

Not enough focus.  

When Stein returned to Paris, however, she had something deeper in mind. The carnage of World War I had both destroyed a young generation and disillusioned its survivors.  Old values like patriotism or courage seemed pointless because they had been. Ennui took over, an aimlessness born of the notion that nothing really mattered, and decadence often followed.  It's easy to live in a bottle, or a loveless hook-up, when there is no future.  

The problem was that, Stein's young mechanic and passel of young writers having been sidelined by psychological torpor, the fools who created the initial crisis lived on, free to create the next one. 

Which they did.

You do not get Hitler's fascism without the draconian peace imposed under the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I.  The treaty itself was never accepted by Germans, who thought the "war guilt clause" an utterly unfair re-writing of history and for whom the treaty's required reparation payments were among the principal causes of the hyper-inflation in the 1920s that destroyed what little was left of the German economy and helped pave the way to Nazism. 

French conservatives, however, were hell-bent on insuring against the re-emergence of a powerful Germany, and American conservatives were hell-bent on killing the League of Nations, where diplomatic efforts backed by America might have empowered the more progressive views of Keynes and others who knew that austerity for Germany (or anyone else for that matter) could only end badly.

In the wake of the war, each nation's old guard -- Clemenceau in France and Robert LaFollette in the United States -- soldiered on, having learned the wrong lesson in Clemenceau's case (that Germany could or should be returned to a pre-1871 dis-united and dis-empowered state) and having failed to learn the new one in LaFollette's (that the hard and frustrating work of diplomacy was the only path to peace in what would be an increasingly inter-dependent world).

Even the old guard in Britain soldiered on.  When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924-1929, none other than the later-to-be acclaimed Winston Churchill insisted on yoking Britain to the gold standard of tight money that would ultimately help to unleash the Great Depression.

From this unhealthy stew of nostalgia for a past that could not exist and unwillingness to think anew either economically or politically, fascism was born.

America today is not in the same position as Europe in the inter-war years.

But there are disturbing parallels.

The first is that, as a matter of policy, there are no longer two political parties in America.  On policy, the Republican party has pretty much ceased to exist.  Although you hear occasional bursts of old complaints -- spending too high, deficit too large, border crisis -- the energy in the party is focused elsewhere.  In Congress, it is on preserving the filibuster and voting in block against any legislation proposed by the Democrats or the Biden administration. In the states, thirty of which have Republican controlled legislatures, it is on proposing laws (more than 250 at last count) that would restrict voting among Democratic constituencies.  

Toward that end, Georgia yesterday signed into law a measure reducing early voting from three weeks to one, banning mobile polling places, prohibiting third-parties from collecting absentee ballots, eliminating drop boxes outside early voting locations (and entirely in the four day period before election day), requiring driver’s license or equivalent identification (in lieu of matching signatures), reducing the number of Sundays for early voting, criminalizing the distribution of food or drinks by non-poll workers to those waiting on line to vote, cutting the period by which counties must certify their votes from ten to six days, reducing the period for runoff elections to four weeks, and requiring election workers to count the final vote in one sitting, however long.  

All of these measures disproportionately affect large counties, Democratic voters in those counties and large cities, and minority voters.  Some are ridiculous to the point of absurdity.  For example, one of the purported reasons for the changes was to ensure accuracy but at least two of them -- limiting the certification period and forcing counters to work all night -- make errors more, not less, likely.

As to minorities, "Pews to the Polls" has become a standard in black churches, where congregants were taken to the polls to vote after Sunday services; the days to do that have been reduced.   In majority non-white Fulton County, home to Atlanta, half of the 146,000 submitted ballots in 2020 were deposited in drop boxes. Throughout the state, wait times to vote were six minutes on average in precincts where 90% of the voters were white and 51 minutes in precincts where 90% of the voters were non-white.  In those non-white precincts, organizers often distributed free food and water and voting hours were extended to accommodate the long wait times.

The only provision removed from the legislation before it went to the Governor for his signature was a proposed ban on no-excuse absentee voting.  But that was done because absentee voting is used largely by those over the age of 65, and that group has been trending Republican.

Republican legislators claim the new statutes were needed to combat election fraud.  Though there is no evidence of such fraud on any widespread basis (and very little on even any basis), more than two-thirds of self-identified Republicans now think the 2020 Presidential election was stolen.  They think this, moreover, despite the fact that the claim has been rejected by both the courts which reviewed the election and the state officials -- including Republicans themselves -- who certified it.

The reason they do so is . . . 

Donald Trump.

Trump has been proclaiming and pushing the election fraud lie since the day he started running for the Presidency in 2015.  In the run-up to the 2016 election, he said he could lose only if there was fraud. After he won, he (falsely) claimed he lost the popular vote only because more than 3 million "illegals" voted.  That never happened.  In the run-up to the 2020 election, he recycled his claim that he could lose only by virtue of fraud.  And then when he lost, by seven million popular votes and 303-232 in the electoral college, he spent the entire period from Election to Inauguration Day claiming he had won.  On account of that lie, rioters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, delaying certification of the electoral college vote in Biden's favor, ransacking portions of the building (including the Speaker's offices), and resulting in five deaths.

Trump and the GOP legislators in thrall to his big lie are the closest America has come to actual fascism -- authoritarian diktat cloaked in a statutory garb that gives it faux legitimacy.  Though the party could have been rid of him once he lost, the fact that his lie has taken root within its base has frozen elected GOP officials throughout the country.  

Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy excoriated Trump on the evening of January 6 in the wake of the attack on the US Capitol, but neither of them was willing to impeach him. McCarthy has since visited and praised Trump, and McConnell has said he would again vote for him.  Their not-so-subtle about-faces were the product of fear that Trump's voters would beat them in primaries.  That fear, moreover, is rational.  All ten of the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after January 6, including Wyoming's Liz Cheney, now have Trumpist primary opponents in their next elections.  For the same reason, GOP state legislators are all-in on the vote fraud lie.

The GOP base did not get this way overnight.  

It did not wake up one morning in the last five or so months, or five or so years, and say "Voila.  It's election fraud causing us all our angst."  The lie took root for the same reason the lost generation led to Hitler.  They did not think they had much else to live for.  And the elites, including those in the Democratic Party, were not convincing them otherwise.  

I remember the '90s.  I ran for Congress twice then, once in 1992 as the Democratic Party nominee in New York's 19th Congressional district and two years later in the Democratic primary when the seat became open.  I lost both times and have one particularly searing memory of the '94 campaign. I ran as an unabashed New Deal Democrat. I believed Clinton needed to be the next FDR and the Democrats had to make life better for the falling-behind middle class.  I did not want "the era of big Government" to be over. Taking it all in, one of my opponents said "You're good on your feet but I'm not hearing any new ideas."

He was right.

I thought the old ideas would work just fine.

Fast forward to 2008.  After a near Depression, America elected Obama and his "audacity of hope", a mind-bending act of racial progress pregnant with unlimited apparent potential. Somewhere between Election and Inauguration Day, however, hope became less audacious.  It wasn't Barack Obama's fault. Ditto for Bill Clinton.  They both wanted to do big things. They both tried.  They were both stymied. 

By mid-term losses.

And the filibuster.

And the holy grail of bi-partisanship.

Meanwhile, the middle class, and especially those in ex-urban and rural areas removed from the computer-productivity growth taking hold in big cities and their suburbs, were either running in place or falling behind. Many if not most of them were one job loss or illness away from foreclosure or worse. And when worse arrived, opioids were not far behind.  

Poverty sucks.  So does forever falling behind.  And worrying about either for your kids sucks even more.  It's easy to get depressed.  I know very few who haven't (one is a cousin, and if his personality could be bottled and marketed, I'd patent and distribute it).  You look for answers.  And are tired enough to accept the bad ones.

So one Reagan, two Bushes, a Clinton, an Obama and a really bad Trump later, it's Joe Biden's time.  

Will it be better?  

Will Biden do what the others wouldn't or couldn't?  

Can he revitalize the middle and lance the fascist boil?

I'm betting on him.  

For two reasons.

One is psychological, the other political.

In the inter-war years of the 20th century, one politician stood out as different from all others.  That politician was Franklin Roosevelt.  In the 1920s, he was different for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. He was different because he was paralyzed, the victim of polio in 1921 at the age of 39. 

In the years that followed, he couldn't walk and could barely work.  The glide path to political power that his name and aristocratic upbringing had greased was suddenly closed.  But he willed himself -- catacombed in steel braces -- to stand up and then carry on, and in doing so, the dispossessed realized -- in the words of that famous worker crying years later as his funeral train passed by -- that he knew them even if they didn't know him.

That's Joe Biden's gift today.  

And accounts for his current purchase on the American soul.  

His father for a time was unemployed.  The family had to live with in laws and in crowded apartments. In the pre-financial aid era, he could only go to schools he could afford. His first wife and one year old daughter were killed in a car accident.  His oldest son died from cancer at 46.  Another is a recovering addict.  For thirty-six years, he commuted to work.  In 1988 he almost died from a brain aneurysm. Every time he is knocked down, he tries to get up.  And if you're down, he doesn't walk by, he picks you up.   

Not since Ronald Reagan has an American president so perfectly mirrored the current American psyche. The two Bushes were keepers of Reagan's flame, even as it sputtered and then burned out.  Clinton felt pain in an America where too many still did not.  Obama was a gift, proof that Jefferson's claims were not just empty rhetoric, and Trump was a tragedy, proof that hopelessness and fear can be turned into organized hate.

More than the others in their time, Biden is one of us in this time.  

He gets it because he's been there.

There literally is not one trial visited today upon America's struggling middle -- whether they are located on the middle of the economic ladder or in the middle of the country -- that he has not personally experienced one way or the other.

Unemployment, insecurity, illness, addiction, death and despair.

He’s seen it all.

So far, he has been pitch-perfect.  

His American Rescue Plan (ARP) has put money in pockets and Covid vaccines in arms. State and local governments will receive needed assistance to regain the revenue lost to the pandemic and schools will have the money to retrofit and re-open.  Obamacare will be enhanced and preserved. By all accounts, child poverty will be cut in half.  

70% of Americans support this.  

All of it.

In a world where, as he said yesterday, "politics is the art of the possible," infrastructure is the next agenda item to be then followed by voting rights.  The infrastructure bill -- which will have a "green" hue as the administration attempts to combat climate change -- is priced at $3 trillion and will have to be paid for in part with some high end and corporate tax increases, and voting rights will inevitably fail unless a Senate filibuster can be avoided (unlikely) or repealed (possible).  Without it, however, the GOP's voter suppression campaign will continue and succeed.  

At the border, humanity has been restored even as challenges remain, and abroad, China and Russia loom large.  The latter is an annoyance, a lifeless, commodified economy whose government consists of a corrupt oligarchy that poisons its opponents.  The former is a growing obstacle.  Both require allied efforts in a world where America cannot go it alone.  

China is a particular problem.  

Its version of capitalism is mercantile and whatever market freedom prevails within its borders will always be subservient to party loyalty.  This means that China will respect neither human rights nor intellectual property rights unless it has to.  This also means that, short of war, a unified western approach will be the only way to change Chinese behavior.  Trump's tariffs got China's attention and his trade czar, Robert Lighthizer, was delivering a consistent message.  But Trump's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty and his go-it-alone approach with Europe made it impossible for him to apply long-term, non-tariff leverage or even close a short-term deal.  Biden will not be able to change this until our erstwhile allies are back on board. 

And that will take time.

If Biden succeeds domestically, he may get that time, avoiding the fate of lost mid-terms that plagued his predecessors.  If he doesn't, China will still be a problem. 

But not our biggest one.

FDR became president in 1932.  With his New Deal -- a pragmatic amalgam that regulated corrupt stock dealers, offered the aged some semblance of security, and created jobs -- America avoided both fascism and communism.  

In 2021, the challenges are different but as daunting.  

A brewing fascism exists within.  It was seeded by Trump and is now being institutionalized by GOP voter suppression. In the hinterlands, its supporters in the GOP base have grown weary of government that does not work for them.  ARP, however, does. So will a big infrastructure bill.  Together, they can represent real progress delivered to real people by the realist of guys.

That’s why I'm . . .

Bettin' on Biden.   

Sunday, March 7, 2021

NORMAL

What is normal?

The dictionaries define it to mean usual, typical or routine. "The expected state or condition," says Oxford.   The word itself derives from the Latin word "normalis" which was classically defined as having been made in accordance with "a carpenter's square", the tool for "establishing right angles."  Bob Vila of This Old House fame calls it the "go to tool for framing, roofing and stair work". It has been around for centuries. 

The precision of the tool, however, hasn't migrated into the current meaning of the word. 

In today's "normal", there is play in the joints.  "Usual" or "typical" is not "always".  Or "precise". In fact, sometimes the messiness of abnormal is repeated so often that it becomes "the new normal", which in truth has to be a bit of an oxymoron.  Repetition takes time and typical requires data from more than one tomorrow.  If the new is routine or typical, maybe the old wasn't.

Maybe there isn't any normal.

Maybe we just create it . . .  

Perpetually turning the repetition perceived in our limited space- time horizon into routines that, from another perspective, are not all that usual after all.

Maybe things just appear normal.

Even though they aren't.

For the past four years, Americans pondered the challenge to normal that was their 45th President.  Many believe the 46th owes his position to the widespread perception that he, unlike his predecessor, is not abnormal.  On this view, an exhausted electorate replaced the narcissistic, self-appointed destroyer of norms with someone who respected them.  

At the end of the day, we tired of all the broken glass -- the absence of any real policy on health care, infrastructure, the environment; the dangerous world of lies where the response to disease was disinformation, where science was side-lined, where aides promoted “alternative facts”; the criminal obtruction and mob-like, omerta-induced pardons of admitted or convicted felons; the predicted (and ultimately deadly) transition abomination where delusion refused to acknowledge defeat; the constant drumbeat of one man's jaundiced ego in 59,553 tweets or re-tweets.

So, we replaced that with . . .

Normal.

And got to take a breath.

We should savor the moment.

Because it will not last.

In the month and a half that has been the incipient Biden presidency, traditional anchors have been laid and the ship of state has been at the very least steadied.  We are back in the Paris climate accord, consulting (rather than dissing) allies, re-peopling the various federal departments with secretaries and undersecretaries qualified to advance their missions,  combating Covid with experts and electeds singing from the same page, and distributing disaster relief with no reference to a state's red or blue political countenance.  

A product of almost a half-century in the political trenches, Biden understands that progress is always slow but can be steady. 

He doesn’t need to be on TV every day praising himself or stabbing opponents.  Other than his Inaugural Address, he has appeared just once, on a CNN Town Hall in mid-February.  On a daily basis, his press secretary talks for the administration.  She is calm and credentialed.  No one has been called fake news, banned from the press room, or had their credentials pulled. 

To his credit, Trump had fast tracked vaccine creation.   He was AWOL, however, on production and delivery.  To that end, and almost immediately upon being inaugurated, Biden used his authority under the Defense Production Act to ensure that the nation will have enough Covid vaccines and created a plan to get them effectively distributed and into the arms of waiting Americans.  

It's the difference between doing . . .

And tweeting.

For a President facing a once-in-a-century pandemic, it is also normal.

The administration's $1.9 trillion Covid relief package has moved through Congress and should be on Biden's desk in a couple of days. It will provide payments of $1,400 for those who earn less than $60,000 annually, extend unemployment benefits through September, and provide the funds states and localities need to retain first responders and open schools. It will also increase tax credits for children, so much so that experts predict the rate of childhood poverty may be cut in half. 

The right and the GOP claim the package is too big, that much of it is unrelated to Covid, and that it belies the President's pledge to be bipartisan.  Biden, however, sat down with a group of Republican senators shortly after being sworn in and made clear that their alternative proposal for less than a third the amount was a non-starter.  Following that meeting, the GOP did not come back with any counter-proposals, House Democrats voted for the bill, House Republicans universally opposed it, and Senate Democrats then amended it.   

They removed the minimum wage hike, reduced the amount of unemployment benefits, stopped states from using any of the funds to pay down public employee pension fund deficits and deleted two mega-transportation projects in New York and California.  

Mitch McConnell, however, still demanded that every Republican Senator vote against it.

Which they all did.

After the Senate Democrats voted for it, however, the amended bill was sent back to the House.

It is expected to pass on Tuesday, again on a party line vote.

In the world before Trump, this was the Republican party's standard modus operandi.  In 2009, in the midst of a financial crisis that threatened to turn into a Depression, no House Republicans voted for the Obama administration’s $787 billion recovery plan and only three GOP Senators crossed the aisle (one of whom, Arlen Specter, later switched parties) to support it.  Later in the administration, when Obamacare was being crafted, Iowa's Republican Senator Charles Grassley -- then the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee -- proposed a host of changes in negotiations with the Democrats only to admit that, even if they were all accepted, he still would not vote for the bill.  

Twelve years later, the Democrats and President Biden were not willing to be fooled twice.

In the country as a whole, the Covid relief package has bipartisan support.  Over 70% of the voters support it, including more than 50% of self-identified Republican. A number of Republican governors also favor the bill, aware that it provides funding they cannot replace and without which they will be forced to cut critical services.  Bipartisan support evaporates, however, among actual GOP House members and Senators. 

Why?

Two reasons.

First, the Congressional Republican party is not a governing party.   In fact, it hasn’t been for some time.  The party is about opposition and grievance.  Policy for the most part is entirely absent.  In the Trump years, Congressional Republicans did two things.  They passed the 2017 tax bill that lowered rates for corporations and the rich, and they stacked the federal courts with Federalist Society judges. On a whole host of other issues -- health care, climate change, gun safety, voting rights, income inequality -- nothing happened.  

This was intentional.

In the Senate, McConnell sat on over 400 proposed bills.  He wouldn't allow them to be debated or voted upon.  The GOP couldn't even come up with the infrastructure spending Trump promised in his campaign (and Democrats would have been happy to pass), and their repeated opposition to Obamacare finally died because they never had an alternative. Indeed, if one of the signature Congressional moments in the last administration was John McCain walking into the well of the Senate in the early morning hours to kill repeal of the Affordable Care Act, one of its signature comedies was Trump constantly promising a new health care plan "next week" or "soon" that he never actually delivered.

Second, even though Republicans do not control the House and now no longer (but just barely) control the Senate, the upper chamber’s current rules -- which require 60 votes to end any filibuster and bring a bill to the floor -- institutionalize a minority veto.  To avoid this barrier on Covid relief, Congress used the budget reconciliation procedure. This special rule allows legislation effecting spending, revenues or the federal debt limit to advance without being subject to the filibuster but limits the number of bills proposed annually under the procedure to three and requires that any one of them not trigger reconciliation for the same reason as any of the others.

After the Covid bill, Democrats will have only two more chances this year to pass legislation using reconciliation.  They are now debating which of their promised packages can be saved via that route.  The likeliest is the planned $2 trillion infrastructure bill.  For those that cannot, the Senate filibuster is a gauntlet that will have to be run.

So . . .

What's a governing party to do?

The Democrats have two options.  

The first is to obtain enough Republican support to remove the possibility of filibuster on any particular bill.  

This will take 60 votes, ten more than they now have. In 2022, there will be 20 Republican and 14 Democratic Senate seats on the ballot, and of the 20, those in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio will be open because Senators Burr, Toomey and Portman are retiring.  It is possible that Portman and Burr might provide additional support now for Democratic legislation on infrastructure.   Toomey is less likely to do so because he is a fiscal hawk.  And none of them are likely to do so on any other Democratic proposals.  Even  if they were, of course, Democrats would still need seven or eight additional Republicans to avoid any filibuster, and after Senators Murkowski (Alaska), Collins (Maine) and Sasse (Nebraska), not even remote possibilities exist on that score.

Nor do the prospects appear much brighter after 2022. Assuming the Democrats pick up those three open seats and hold all of their own (prayers for Georgia Sen. Warnock, please), the only other possible switches are in Florida (Rubio) and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson). So even then, a 55-vote majority would leave the Democrats five short of being filibuster-proof, two short if Murkowski, Collins and Sasse are in play on any particular bill.

The second option is to eliminate the filibuster.  

In his recently published book, The Kill Switch, Adam Jentleson argues for precisely this approach. 

Jentleson was former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's deputy chief of staff and is now a writer. As his book explains, the filibuster was created in the 1840s by John C. Calhoun to protect slavery. It was formally refined and made a part of the Senate's rules in the early 20th century and was then embraced by southern Democrats to insure the survival of Jim Crow.  Indeed, before the 1960s, the only proposed legislation it was used to successfully defeat were civil rights bills. And in the ‘60s, in the wake of Brown, the freedom rides and Selma, the historic civil rights bills overcame it only because (i) the Senate Republican caucus at that time had liberals in it and (ii) President Johnson out- maneuvered his southern Democratic opponents.

Since then, as Jentleson explains, the parties have “sorted” themselves.  The GOP has moved to the (far) right and "negative partisanship" -- the notion that it's more important to beat your opponent than pass an affirmative program -- has taken over.  Today, there is no such thing as a liberal Republican. Though red states comprise a minority of the country’s population, they can always elect at least 40 Republican Senators.   

As this reality increasingly interfered with the Senate's ability to get anything done , moves to end the filibuster gathered strength.  In 2013, the Democrats ended it on any lower court judicial nominees. Their reasoning was sound.  Before 2009, there had been 82 filibusters on all of the judicial nominees proposed by the forty-three previous presidents.  In the five years or so thereafter, however, the GOP filibustered 86 of President Obama's nominees.  

In 2017, the Republicans returned the favor and ended filibusters on Supreme Court nominees.  Having refused to debate or vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat vacated upon Justice Scalia's death, they did so to avoid the inevitable filibuster that would have been mounted once Trump sought to fill that seat with Justice Gorsuch.  

Today, therefore, and apart from judicial nominations, the filibuster lives on.

The procedure was created and defended to preserve the Senate's ability to engage in "unlimited debate".  As practiced early on, this literally meant that filibustering Senators or their allies had to continually speak on the floor.  In a strange way, it required courage. For all their transparent (if not then, certainly now) racism, John C. Calhoun and Richard Russell had to stand up and defend their views at length to their colleagues. Today, however, all a Senator has to do is announce he or she will filibuster and then go silent.  Far from demanding courage, the current practice rewards cowardice.

In 2013, when West Virginia's Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, in the wake of the massacre of Sandy Hook's first graders, proposed the bipartisan and widely supported universal background check on gun purchases, the two of them literally begged the bill's opponents to debate the issue -- to question them and challenge their arguments -- on the floor.   No one bothered.  Instead, in individual interrupted sessions over the course of a week, opponents delivered prepared remarks to a largely empty chamber.  In total, they spoke for two hours and twenty-four minutes.

It was hardly a "debate".

And it certainly wasn't anywhere near "unlimited".  

Can the Democrats kill the filibuster for good?

Right now?

Probably not.

Why not?

Because . . .

There are only 50 Democrats in the Senate today . . .

And Joe Manchin, one of the very legislators stymied by that 2013 filibuster on unlimited background checks, has said he will never vote to repeal it. 

Manchin claims that doing so would turn the Senate into the House.  He argues that repealing the filibuster would end unlimited debate and turn majority rule into minority silence.  His claims, however, are overwrought. For starters, the House these days is far from the lesser body Manchin assumes it to be.  Unlike the Senate under McConnell, it actually votes on bills and gets things done.  The votes are messy and they are close. But there isn't any legislation that won't be debated and voted upon merely because the minority opposes it. 

More importantly, eliminating the filibuster is by no means synonymous with restricting or cutting off debate. As the 2013 background check fiasco demonstrates, the tool is not being used to preserve debate in any meaningful senses; in fact, given that no one has to take to the floor and utter a word, it is actually being used to stymie debate. In truth, when today's Senate avoids filibuster and proceeds by unanimous consent, it has no problem agreeing on the number of total hours each side will have to debate. There is no reason such agreements could not be struck in the future, and barring that, the rules themselves could easily be amended to kill the filibuster while preserving the right to debate within reasonable time limits. No one will be silenced.

It's probably unfair to pick on Sen. Manchin.  

He represents a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the last two presidential elections and sees no need to walk the plank on a procedure the GOP deems critical to its survival, especially if doing so might lead to his defeat and the loss of Democratic control.  He also isn't up for reelection until 2024, and in the meantime, were the Democrats to win additional Senate seats in 2022, a more robust Democratic majority could eliminate the rule without Manchin's vote.  It is even possible that, were such a Democratic majority able to do so, the GOP might wave the white flag of compromise, lowering the threshold for a filibuster to, say, 55 votes, and requiring that filibustering Senators come out of the shadows and . . .

Actually debate.

I'm even willing to bet that this is what the veteran pol now in the White House, a half century of experience his guide, thinks may happen.

It's incremental.

And slow.

And frustrating.

Maybe even . . .

Normal.

Monday, February 15, 2021

AMERICAN WINTER

Victims of violent crimes generally tend to avoid week-long visits to the scenes of the crimes that victimized them.  Especially mere weeks after the crimes have occurred.  The violations are fresh, the post-traumatic stress real.  

The better venue at that point is a therapist's couch.

As opposed to the criminal's stage.

This was not an option in the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

The scene of the crime -- the US Capitol and its Senate chamber -- was the courtroom.  Victims of the crime -- the Senators themselves -- were the jurors.  Other victims -- the House managers presenting the case for conviction -- were the prosecutors.  And still others -- the working Congressional staffers and US Capitol police there on January 6 -- were spectators.

For all those victims, the trial became a series of reminders.

The Congress was reminded that, on January 6, it was only feet away from a violent mob bent on killing or kidnapping some of them in order to stop all of them. Senators Mitt Romney and Chuck Schumer were reminded that they were actually running into that mob -- and the uncertain fate that awaits the marriage of target with violence -- until Eugene Goodman of the Capitol police intercepted and redirected them.  Speaker Pelosi's staff was reminded that those who invaded the Speaker's offices in the hunt for their boss failed to find and attack them only because the mob couldn't breach the two closed doors behind which they lay hidden under a conference table, whispering into cell phones for police assistance.

And, sadly, at the end of the day, America was reminded that, even after the horror of January 6, the party of Lincoln is still . . .

The party of Trump. 

The single article of impeachment charged Trump with inciting insurrection. To find him guilty, at least seventeen Republicans would have had to join forty-eight Democrats and two Independents in concluding that he did so.  

That was not a heavy lift.  

In the sixteen hours they took presenting their case, the House managers laid out in meticulous detail how Trump had invited and incited the mob on January 6 to overrun the US Capitol in an effort to stop Congress from counting the Electoral College votes and certifying Joe Biden as the winner of last year's Presidential election. 

The vast majority of the evidence came from Trump's own mouth and tweets.  In the years and months leading up to last November's election, he had repeated on dozens of occasions the lie that he could lose the election only as a consequence of fraud, and in the two-plus months afterward, he repeated those and other false claims that the dead had voted, that Biden ballots had been invented, and that digital scanners had been programmed in favor of his opponent.  None of those claims were remotely credible and all of them had been repeatedly rejected either by courts that heard them or government officials who investigated them.

At the same time, on January 6, Trump urged his followers to "fight like hell" and "stop the steal". He praised Rudy Giuliani, who at the same rally had called for "trial by combat". In the past, he had praised a politician who body-slammed a journalist, rally-goers who physically attacked Trump opponents, and armed militia bent on killing a sitting governor.  In all ways, therefore, he had made it perfectly clear that, in "fighting like hell", violence was acceptable. Equally damning, once the riot started, anywhere from three to six people tried to convince him to immediately intervene and tell his supporters to stop.  He did nothing.  Instead, he enjoyed the carnage.

On January 26, forty-five Republicans voted to dismiss the impeachment case against Trump on the grounds that the Senate lacked jurisdiction because he was no longer President.  That motion was defeated and this should have been the end of the issue. Jurisdiction is a threshold question.  Once you have it, you cannot disclaim it.  In other words, once the full Senate decided it in fact had jurisdiction -- which it did in voting down the motion -- even those who voted for the motion should have decided the case solely on the basis of Trump's guilt or innocence.

That, however, was not good enough for Mitch McConnell.  

After voting to acquit, McConnell gave a speech demonstrating Trump's guilt beyond any doubt but arguing once again that the Constitution itself gave the Senate no right to hold the now ex-President accountable by convicting him on the article of impeachment.  McConnell based his claim on the views of Justice Joseph Story who in 1833 wrote the first treatise on American constitutional law and concluded in it that impeachment in fact was limited to current office holders.  

Story's position has been rejected by most scholars and previously by the Senate itself.  In fact, even Story himself was skeptical, qualifying his opinion by stating that it was subject to review by the Senate and that in any case the Senate's determination would constitute the ultimate authority on the matter.  Since then, the Senate has spoken twice on the issue, once a little less than two weeks ago in Trump's case and earlier in 1876 in the case of the impeachment of then ex-Secretary of War William Belknap.  In both instances, the Senate concluded that it had jurisdiction to try the impeachment of a former official.  In other words, it rejected McConnell's position.  

For good measure, even an ex-President, John Quincy Adams, has weighed-in on the issue.  

In 1846, while serving in the House, Adams told his colleagues that "I hold myself, so long as I have breath of life in my body, amenable to impeachment by this House for everything I did during the time I held any public office."

McConnell's speech was delivered with all the gravitas he generally marshals in the performance of his official duties.  Not the same, however, could be said for many of his confreres. On trial Tuesday, Missouri’s Republican Senator Josh Hawley perched himself in the Senate gallery above the floor where all his comrades were sitting at their desks.  With his feet casually up, Hawley reviewed paperwork as the House managers below presented stark video evidence setting out Trump's months long advance of the big lie, his express instructions to the armed and dangerous mob on January 6 that they march to the Capitol and "Stop the Steal", and the mob's violent and deadly attacks on Capitol police as it overran the building. 

Hawley, who had actually saluted some of the mob on his way into the Capitol that day, was among those who earlier claimed the Senate lacked jurisdiction. As noted, most Constitutional scholars reject this view. Their principal fear is that doing so will give chief executives permission to engage in high crimes and misdemeanors -- pretty much a la Trump and his "Stop the Steal" induced riot -- so long as those high crimes occur at the end of their terms. Hawley didn’t care. With designs on the 2024 GOP nomination, he covets the Trump base. Jurisdiction was one of his political life lines.

The other was sheer idiocy.

Even after the riot on January 6, when Congress returned to complete the work Trump’s riot had interrupted, Hawley still insisted on being one of the Senate sponsors demanding that Congress refuse to count Pennsylvania's electoral votes. That effort raised ignorance of the law to an art form.  The courts had already upheld Pennsylvania's vote, as they had Michigan’s, Wisconsin's, Georgia's and Arizona's, the selected targets of Trump's putsch. Hawley’s opinion to the contrary was nonsense.

As for the rest of the GOP, they were either bored . . . 

Or insane

The bored were variously described as "struggling to stay awake" (Indiana's Sen. Mike Braun), "not paying much attention" (Iowa's Sen. Marsha Blackburn), or "doodling" (Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul).  Florida's Sen. Rick Scott was seen examining "what appeared to be a map of Southeast Asia." 

The lunatic fringe was occupied by South Carolina's Lindsey Graham. 

Following the conclusion of Wednesday's session, Sen. Graham lambasted the Capitol police, saying they hadn't used enough deadly force on the mob.  Ashli Babbit, the 35 year old Air Force veteran shot and killed as she climbed through a broken window into the Speaker's lobby, apparently needed company.  Whether that company would have included more police officers -- and not just more mobsters -- went unasked (and unanswered), but this too is the GOP way.  Their favorite fundraiser/lobbyist, the NRA, routinely endorses a bullets uber alles approach to crime, even when that approach is likely to create, as it would have on January 6 (the mobsters had guns too), more dead bodies.  

But that was Graham's take regardless.  

Memo to South Carolina voters -- aren't you tired of being on the wrong side of our (un)civil wars?

After the House managers finished their case on Thursday, Trump's ever-changing cast of attorneys put on his defense. It lasted less than three hours and consisted of three assertions -- (1) that all politicians use the word "fight" without being accused of advocating violence, and Trump hadn't done anything different; (2) that in arguing that the election was flawed, Trump was merely exercising his First Amendment rights; and (3) that those who breached the Capitol on January 6 did so of their own accord and are being criminally prosecuted.  

Sometimes brevity is the soul of wit.  

This time, however, it was just . . .

Witless.

No other President has been like Trump and Trump himself has been like no other President.  

He is sui generis, unique.

 A set of one. 

You can search the speeches of others without finding any examples of Presidents or presidential candidates telling supporters to beat up opponents or equivocating before a crowd in the face of the obvious potential for violence.  No Democrat has ever done this. Trump, however, has either been advocating or winking at violence in the service of his political goals for years.  In the person of Marjorie Taylor Greene,  he has even created elected Republican acolytes. 

You can also search the speeches of other Presidents and presidential candidates without finding any who, in the immediate aftermath of a clear electoral defeat confirmed by election officials, the national media and numerous courts, claimed that he or she won by a landslide, demanded that state officials "find votes" that did not exist, or summoned thousands so that they could march on the Capitol to stop a pro forma count that they claimed, without any evidence whatsoever, constituted theft.  

Finally, you also will never find another President who, when faced with an armed and deadly attack on the US Capitol that threatened to take out other public officials, including the Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House, actually stood by, did nothing, and . . . 

Enjoyed it.  

The First Amendment neither sanctions nor excuses any of this conduct.

In the end, seven Republicans -- Senators Collins, Murkowski, Romney, Burr, Sasse, Cassidy and Toomey -- voted to convict Donald Trump.

Forty-three of their party colleagues voted "not guilty".

The seven who voted to convict will become this era's profiles in courage.  

As for the forty-three who didn’t, Chuck Schumer had the last word. Their "failure to convict Donald Trump,” he said, “will live as a vote of infamy in the history of the United States Senate.”

When the impeachment trial ended and Trump was acquited last Saturday, it wasn't the Democrats who lost.  

It was the country.

Now is the winter of our discontent.









 


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

ODD FELLOWS -- THE ROAD BACK

Insurrection. 

Impeachment. 

Inauguration.

If a year ago you had asked anyone what the chances were of those three words appearing in a sentence that would accurately describe the two weeks leading to January 20, 2021, you would have been told you needed professional help.  

The conventional Republican wisdom at that time was that Trump was an over-the-top but ultimately harmless showman,  always ready to walk to a line but willing to cross only those that either weren't all that important to voters in the first place (e.g., proper "presidential" speech or etiquette) or that in crossing he could later fudge as to their meaning (e.g., his "fine people on both sides" comments in Charlottesville in 2017 or his attacks on the Mueller investigation, the former of which he defended as a reference to the non-Nazi statue lovers in that crowd, the latter of which he escaped by turning self-enforced prosecutorial boundaries into legal exonerations).  

Even the nightmare that was Trump's response to the pandemic was spun toward some form of acceptable -- the denial, ridiculous pressers and idiotic messaging (ingesting bleach, for example) offset by a vaccine developed at warp speed.

On this view, Democrats would, as was their wont, overreact, a consequence of both their unwillingness to ever accept Trump as president and an identity politics that made it impossible for them to appreciate both the level of anger outside their metropolitan and suburban base and the fact that Trump's nastiness had actually connected with a lot of those who were angry.  Also on this view, Trump had delivered for his voters with a growing (pre-pandemic) economy, tax cuts, a cadre of conservative courts, and a level of frustration among his opponents -- "owning the liberals", as it were -- that more than made up for his foul-mouthed narcissism and compulsive lying.

Not to be outdone, the conventional Democratic wisdom back then was that Trump was a pathological liar and corrupt narcissist not remotely interested in or capable of doing the job but absolutely bent on retaining it at any price and regardless of consequence to the country at large.  

In their mind, his attempt to bribe Ukraine's president to announce a phony investigation of Joe Biden was emblematic of what his narrow and legalistic escape from Mueller's investigation had wrought -- a dishonest and unhinged megalomania. And his subsequent inability to competently manage the nation's response to the coronavirus pandemic, indeed, his distortion and politicization of it, confirmed their worst fears.

Conventional wisdom is conventional because in many respects it is correct.  And that may have been true of the competing conventional takes on Trump as well.  The conventions themselves, at least in their less extreme form, were not necessarily at odds with each other.  It was at least possible that over time Trump's dishonesty, narcissism and incompetence -- all Democratic tropes -- might have (more or less) peacefully co-existed with an economy running hot on auto-pilot while conservative judges in the background reined in perceived overreach and expanded the scope of their favored constitutional rights located in the Second Amendment and in the religion clause of the First.  

Trump defenders even had a practical rule on how one got there.

You had to, they said, take Trump "seriously but not literally."  Those who did could navigate Trump's verbal sewer and disordered psychology on their way to a more or less normal politics of competing interests where one side -- the GOP -- occasionally (but not always) won and the other occasionally (but not always) lost.  Those, however, who violated the rule -- who took him literally but not seriously -- would wind up increasingly frustrated, victims of their own unwillingness to concede that they were often as over the top as the President they -- so it was said -- never accepted as legitimate in the first place.

And then came January 6.

And that whole model just blew up.

It didn't blow up simply or only because the Trump-induced march on and riot at the US Capitol that day was an attempted coup.   It was that, of course.  But it was also a lot more than that.  And the more, hard as it may be to fathom, is probably even worse than the attempted coup.  

Discussing Hegel, Marx once said that "world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice . . . the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."  The attempted coup on January 6, however, varied that theme.  It was tragedy and farce all at once. 

Thousands stormed through police barricades, smashing windows, trashing offices, proclaiming electoral lies and asserting a patriotic superiority borne of both their own arrogance and an ignorance cultivated and harvested by the nation’s 45th President.  Many were bent on stopping the electoral vote count then in progress.  Others wanted to kidnap or kill elected officials, including the Speaker and the Vice-President.   In their attempt at an illegitimate putsch, they told the police "There's a million of us out there, and we are listening to Trump -- your boss." They breached the chambers of both legislative branches and rifled through the papers of the legitimate Representatives and Senators who only moments earlier had to be quickly ferried to secure locations because their lives were at risk.  Five people died.  One was shot trying to break into the House.  Another, a police officer, died from injuries sustained in the assault. Hundreds of Congressional staff sat terrorized in offices listening in abject fear to the outrage just beyond their locked doors.

Those tragedies, however, were intertwined with absolute farce.  

In the truest sense of that word.

Comic buffoonery, crude characterization and ludicrous improbability.

Milling about in the Senate, one rioter suggested that "while we're here we might as well set up a government." Why not?  Maybe the half-dressed guy sporting horns, face paint and animal fur could be appointed the Secretary of Costumes. Another looking through papers on his desk said "Cruz would want us to do this, so I think we're good."  Even better.   A sitting Senator with his authority still intact blessing the coup. 

Others were confused.  

"This don't look big enough," said one traipsing through the smaller Senate chamber. "This can't be the right place."  He was obviously a victim of too much internet, where the enemy is always bigger.  

At one point, giving voice to the absurdity around him, a cop calmly asked a group of rioters whether there was "any chance I could get you guys to leave the Senate wing?"  Apparently there wasn't, even though one of those illegals looked incredulously at the same cop and said "You should be stopping us."  In response, the cop pointed out that there were five of them, including the horned guy, but only one of him.  

Another selfie by the horned guy provoked another exchange. This one was of the cop-as-parent, rioter-as-child variety: "Now that you've done that," said the officer, "can I get you to walk out of the room, please."

He did.

He was arrested later in the week.

For more than being a jerk.

But for at least that as well.

About a year ago, a very smart friend who is an investment banker by day, accomplished historian by night, and local official in between, posed a question at dinner.  Apropos of the current American political scene, he asked "when did we start doing stupid?" I immediately responded:  "1980".  At first he appeared startled.  But then he reprised Ronald Reagan's famous line about "trees caus[ing] pollution" and we proceeded to congratulate ourselves in tracing a straight line from some of the Gipper's more famous gaffes through voodoo economics, non-existent WMD in Iraq, and Sarah Palin's word salad, leading to that champion of rank dishonesty himself, Donald Trump.  

Today, stupid has taken a far more insidious form than the occasional gaffe from an otherwise genial chief executive. Over 70% of Republicans actually believe the 2020 election was stolen.  There is nothing behind this claim, not a single fact that supports it, other than Donald Trump's lie -- uttered daily since election day -- that it was.  And that is all it has taken. That lie, like all his lies, was ingested by Trump supporters and their numbers then created the background for invented efforts to manufacture some patina of support by hundreds who should have known better -- the Giulianis, Cruzes, Hawleys and 130 or so Republican House members who decided to contest Arizona's and Pennsylvania's uncontestable electoral college votes on January 6.  Meanwhile, a mob -- clad in their flak jackets, helmets, horns and MAGA hats -- tried to take down the government all in the service of that lie.

Pace President Biden, the road out of this mess will require much more than unity. 

And pace President Lincoln, it will also require much more than the "better angels of our nature" summoned from the “mystic chords of memory".

My suggestion is that we try intelligence.

Which in the past has proven useful.

And from which there are small signs of progress even today.

Two days after the riot, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram took down Trump's social media accounts. And not since Samson's hair was cut has power dissipated so rapidly.  One survey reported that the amount of "misinformation” about the election declined by over 70% in the days that followed, and the two weeks after January 6 were characterized by something not seen from Trump's White House in the past 206 -- relative silence.  

This is a space in which sanity can begin to reclaim at least a part of the public dialogue.  

The problem with Trump as Twitter President was that he could always suck all the oxygen out of the room with his latest outrage.  Those outrages had to be reported and reacted to and analyzed by the media, and whenever anyone suggested some form of benign neglect in the interest of progress (or even a semblance of rationality), there was always the rejoinder that he was -- after all -- President and that journalists (of whatever stripe)  had a duty to disseminate what he was saying.  Without Twitter, Trump did not lose the right to be heard.  

But he did lose the opportunity to mainline lies unfiltered into the veins of the body politic.

Intelligence, in other words, works.

For the sake of resurrecting intelligence as a sought-after characteristic of public discourse, it is also important that the impeachment trial of Trump go forward.  

In the weeks to come, Republicans will argue that any such effort will be foolish at best or illegal at worst.  The latter claim is almost certainly false as ex-officials have been impeached in the past and the potential consequences of presidential impeachment -- which include a lifetime ban from holding any office of "honor, trust or profit" in the United States -- themselves contemplate the need for that possibility with the chief executive. 

As to the former, the argument is that impeachment will merely delay any effort at unity by solidifying the divisive commitments of America's competing tribes.  On this view, those who support Trump will treat him as a martyr and double down on his electoral fictions, the trial of which will at the very least re-broadcast them, and those who don't will meet the same fate they met last January in the form of another Senate acquittal.

I don't think so.

An impeachment trial is the only venue in which both Trump and his enablers can be held responsible. And, for a number of reasons, the chance they may escape should not become an excuse for short-circuiting that hearing.  For the same reasons, those now assuming an acquittal may very well be counting eggs before they are hatched.  At least a half dozen Republican senators, including their leader Mitch McConnell, appear open to conviction today and there is no guarantee ten more won't find their way to that result once the evidence is heard.

Trump incited a violent insurrection.  

He sent forth a mob to kill the constitutionally-required work of the first branch of the government in order to insure his continued but illegitimate control of the second branch of the government.  He and his seconds are now defending his January 6 rally speech by claiming that it never demanded or approved of violence and in fact at one point specifically sanctioned only "peaceful" protest.  

That defense has to be heard and refuted.

Because it is both false and dangerous.  

It is false because you cannot spend months inviting thousands to Washington DC for the express purpose of reversing non-existent electoral theft; fully understand that the group you summon will be (illegally) armed; literally observe them outfitted for battle as you speak; tell them to march on the Capitol while instructing them that they will "never take back [their] country with weakness";  and then pretend it was not your fault -- or your words -- that led to deadly violence merely because you sandwiched the word "peaceful" into what was otherwise an hour long jeremiad of the lies you have been spouting for three months.  And you certainly cannot do that if you are Donald Trump, having preached unmitigated aggression from the presidential pulpit for four years and having told rally goers in the past to bust heads.  

And then there is the overriding issue of danger.

The Roman Republic -- from which much of our own governmental architecture was inspired if not directly drawn -- began to collapse when violence became an accepted method of political combat.  That occurred in the late second and early first century BC as candidates for the two annual consul positions discovered they could command armies loyal to themselves rather than the republic and then fight or leverage their way to political power on the back of brute force.

January 6 was a test run to see if such an approach might gain traction here in the US.  

For Trump and the more violent extremists who stormed the Capitol that day, the hope was that a demonstration of armed strength would in fact coerce others -- most particularly, Vice President Pence -- into declaring the recent election illegitimate and thus force Republican state legislatures in a half dozen swing states to switch their state's electoral votes from Biden to Trump.  Had it succeeded, America would have ceased being a republic for the same reason Rome did.  Might would have made right.  Elections would have become irrelevant.  

For years after violence became a feature of its politics, Rome preserved its republican forms.  Consuls, praetors, tribunes and magistrates were elected and Senators appointed.  But none of that mattered.  Because long before Augustus, the republic had died.  January 6 could have been a similar crossroads for us and at the very least should therefore be a reminder.  

This experiment in republican government is fragile.  

It is by no means inevitable.  

Ben Franklin wasn't kidding when he told that inquiring lady in Philadelphia in 1787 that the founders had given them a republic "if they could keep it."  Keeping it  relies on what they thought of as civic virtue and you and I call good faith and basic honesty. It also requires a willingness to compromise and an eternal preference for ballots over bullets . . . 

And bullies.

America needs a re-boot. It needs to exorcise Trump's demon notion that truth either does not exist or does not matter.  There are no "alternative facts". It also needs to re-establish its republican bona fides. That may not occur even if the impeachment trial goes forward. But it definitely will not occur if it does not. If that happens, poltical violence will have escaped consequence.  Another Trump at another time will take another run at her.  

And next time . . .

The clowns may decide to stay home.

Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., America's 46th President, thus stands athwart a moment in history.  It is a multi-dimensional moment. A virus still plagues us.  Our politics divides us. And an insurrection almost ended us.  The capital (and Capitol) from which he delivered his Inaugural Address today was rimmed by 25,000 troops from the National Guard, there to preclude any reprise of January 6, and the mall he faced was flooded with flags, not people, in deference to Covid.

Since election day last November, Joe Biden had struck all the right notes.  He has been calm, deliberate and forthright -- the un-Trump as it were.  

Today he was all that and more. 

To the "riotous mob [who] thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground," he repeated the simple truth -- "It did not happen." In a "crucible for the ages, . . . America [had] risen to the challenge. The people [had] been heard, and . . . heeded."  

To the country, he then made a simple pledge.  On his watch, mob rule "will never happen.  Not today.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever."  And then another pledge: "I will always level with you. I will defend the Constitution.  I'll defend democracy.  I'll defend America."

He offered a laundry list of “the foes we face, anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.” As expected, his prescribed antidote was “unity”.  But not unity as a “foolish fantasy”.  “[T]he forces that divide us are deep and they are real,” he said, “But . . . they are not new.” “History, faith and reason show us the way of unity . . .  We can treat each other with dignity . . . We can . . . stop the shouting [and] end [our] uncivil war . . . There is truth and there are lies."

What will all of that look like?

Joe Biden is not elusive.  In fact, he is as easy to find as the Main Streets that produced him, the parents that guided him, the nuns that taught him, the ambitions that seized him, and the tragedies that confronted him.  He knows “there’s no accounting for what fate will deal you.”  There are “some days when you need a hand”, others when you’re “called to lend” one.  We're in this together because we have to be.

Even when we do not want to be.

Joe Biden is also not particularly eloquent. So today he left the eloquence to an elderly priest and a 22-year-old poet. The priest reminded us that “Dreams are built together”, the poet that “there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it/ If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Biden is brave enough.

Are we?




Friday, January 8, 2021

THE TRUTH IS NOT NOISY

When he was falsely accused of covering up Cardinal McCarrick's decades-ago abuse of seminarians and minors, Pope Francis told reporters at his first press availability after the charge that he would have nothing to say about it.  He told them they were all "responsible journalists" who could make their own judgments based on the facts and that, at some point in the future, he might comment.  

In the months that followed, the truth came out.  The Pope had not known of McCarrick's crimes, had immediately started the investigative process that led to McCarrick's laicization -- or removal from the priesthood -- once he was told of them, and also had not refused to enforce prior penalties against McCarrick (which had been privately requested by Pope Benedict XVI but ignored by McCarrick and unknown to Francis).

In his morning homilies shortly after the false charge had been made, the Pope embraced the notion of discernment.  "The truth is meek. The truth is silent.  The truth is not noisy," he said, and "lies . . . destroy the unity of a family, of a people."  The antidote is often silence. This is not to be confused with passivity or cynicism.  Years before, in a 1990 essay, a then Father Bergoglio explained, in the words of Austin Ivereigh, that "silence allows the different spirits to be revealed.  In a time of tribulation, that is never easy: in the electric storm of claims and counterclaims, truth and lies get fused, and everyone claims noble motives."  

Eventually, however, truth outs.  

Lies refute themselves.

But we have to let them do so.

The truth can be preached or revealed. 

But it cannot be forced on anyone

It has to come to them.

Wednesday afternoon, as a joint session of Congress began the largely ceremonial task of counting the electoral college votes for President and Vice-President that had been previously delivered to it  by the states, thousands of angry Trump supporters descended upon the Capitol, breached rather flimsy security barriers and a not particularly well organized police response, and then proceeded to vandalize offices and terrorize legislators in a ginned up effort to either stop the vote count or otherwise deliver to Donald Trump the second term he lost but has insisted -- now for months  and without any evidence whatsoever -- was stolen from him.  

Since November 3, Trump has insanely but repeatedly asserted that he won the election "in a landslide" despite having lost the popular count by more than seven million votes and not having come remotely close in the electoral college.  

He has invented claims that hundreds of thousands of illegal votes were cast for his opponent by dead people, non-registered citizens from other states and imposters; that digital technology was manipulated to count ballots for Biden; that poll workers triple-counted and otherwise created phony Biden ballots; and that legislative and administrative changes making it easier to vote by mail in this year of pandemic were themselves illegal.  

As to the first three of these claims, Trump and his attorneys have offered no persuasive evidence at all to support them and neither the courts which have heard them nor the state election officials forced to investigate them have found any.  As to the last, the legislated and administrative changes were legal and upheld by the courts.

During this entire period, Trump's tactics have become increasingly more unhinged. 

And dangerous. 

In November and early December, he lobbied Wayne County officials in Michigan to not certify Biden-heavy vote precincts and later asked state legislators to appoint his electors instead of the actual winners.  On December 20, he discussed imposing martial law in order to have the election re-run in selective states he lost.  Last week, he spent an hour on the phone with Georgia's Secretary of State asking that official to find the 11,780 votes needed to overtake Biden in that state.   And yesterday, at a rally with thousands of MAGA-hatted, Trump-flag waving supporters he had begged to show up in Washington DC on the day of the official electoral vote count, Proud Boys, neo-Nazis and QAnon conspiracists among them, he told them to march on the Capitol.  

"We will never give up," he said at the rally. Milking the lies he has told for months, he claimed “You don't concede when there's theft involved."  He asserted -- again falsely -- that "All Vice-President Pence has to do is send it back to the States to recertify, and we become president"; in fact, Pence had no authority to do any such thing. And then he told them to "walk down" to the Capitol "to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women,” the ones willing to do his bidding.  For the others unwilling to do his bidding, he had different advice. "You have to show strength," he said, "and you have to be strong."

So they marched to the Capitol.

Breached the barricades.

And went inside.

Though for most it probably counted more as a show of feral idiocy than strength, a pipe bomb was later found in the Capitol (as were pipe bombs outside both the Republican and Democratic National Committee offices in the Capitol neighborhood), windows and furniture were smashed, and both the Speaker's and others' offices were ransacked.  For the first time ever, a Confederate flag flew in the Rotunda.  Or at least "through" it, the flag carried casually like a cheerleader's half-time totem. A cocky, middle-aged poseur later identified as Richard Barnett was photographed boots up on one of the Speaker's desks.  Others were photographed loitering in the Speaker's chair in the House chamber and in the presiding officer's chair in the Senate.

As with Trump himself, much of the activity inside the Capitol was bravado and performance.  

The halls rang with deafening shouts of "Stop the Steal", the mob's go-to lie that was created and has been flamed by Trump for the past three months. At other times they yelled "Our House", an ironic claim of ownership in view of the fact that they were pretty much trashing the place. Later in the day, as the Capitol was emptied and order restored, one obnoxious trespasser told cameras that the "Capitol police did not take back the Capitol.  We gave it back."  Another announced that they had "stopped the vote".  

Much of the activity, however, was more serious. 

Apart from the property destruction and sheer terror created as they tried to breach interior space, the mob included leaders from the Proud Boys, one of whom is part of a group called "Murder the Media"; members of the National Socialist Club, a neo-Nazi group; and QAnon supporters, a conspiracist sect that claims the Democrats worship Satan and abuse children.  Journalists who remained inside reported at least one part of the mob looking for Vice President Pence in order to kill him.  Others reported blood and feces on statues and vile epithets uttered against Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Schumer.  One guy was wearing a "Camp Auschwitz" sweatshirt.

Over eighty were arrested.  Five people died.

Though Trump himself issued two statements while the Capitol was under siege, neither condemned the lawbreakers.

In the aftermath, there were some truth tellers but also a lot of "noble" claimants fusing "truth and lies" in the "electric storm of claims and counterclaims" that a handful of Trumpists had turned the pro forma vote count into at Trump's or his putative base's (and all of the nutjobs who had earlier trashed the place's) insistence.  

Of the former, Mitt Romney continued to shine.  Addressing the Senate after it returned to debate objections to the vote count, he berated Trump.  "What happened at the U.S.Capitol today was an insurrection," he said, "incited by the President of the United States."  Earlier, seething with anger in the secure location to which Senators had been removed when the Capitol was breached, he yelled at the Republicans advancing Trump's electoral lies -- "This is what you've gotten, guys."  

Back on the floor, Romney punctured whatever was left of the claim only six Senators remained willing to support.  As he put it, pointing out the silliness of Sen. Cruz's ten-day audit demand to satisfy the disaffected, "No Congressional led audit will ever convince those voters [who believe the election was stolen], particularly when the President will continue to claim that the election was stolen.  The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. The truth is that President-elect Biden won this election.  President Trump lost."

Because, however, truth is not, as the Pope put it, noisy, the nobility caucus also had its say.  

Opposing an objection to Pennslyvania's vote, Sen. Pat Toomey said "We witnessed today the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth. We saw bloodshed because a demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans."  At the same time, Toomey admitted he had voted for the demagogue.  

Which begs a host of questions . . .

About Sen. Toomey.

He can ask them.

The rest of us should leave him alone.

For his part, a folksy Lindsey Graham said "Enough is enough," placing himself among the judges and elections officials who have ruled the election legitimate.  One of those rulings, by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, came in a 4-3 decision that the challenges in that state to absentee and early voting had come too late. Lindsey was OK with that: "If Al Gore could accept five-four he's not president," said Graham, "I can accept Wisconsin four to three."  

All fine.  

And noble.

But he also said that he and Trump had had "a helluva a journey . . . From my point of view, he's been a consequential president."

Unfortunately, Graham was right.

One of those consequences was a woman shot that afternoon in the Capitol.  

She later died.

Another was a Capitol Police Department officer who died Thursday evening from injuries sustained during the attack.

A little before 4 am on Thursday morning, Vice-President Pence announced the final electoral vote -- 306-232 in favor of Biden/Harris.  Joe Biden officially became President-Elect and Kamala Harris Vice President- Elect.  Immediately thereafter, Trump's press office tweeted out a statement (the President's own Twitter account had been suspended by the company because it thought, correctly, that he had incited violence).  The statement read "Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th".

This, of course, is just another lie.

The facts do not bear him out.

Later on Thursday, the noise continued.  

Former Attorney General Barr said that "orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable," and that Trump had "betray[ed] his office and supporters."  Former Chief of Staff and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said that the Cabinet should exercise its right to remove Trump pursuant to the 25th Amendment.  Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Trump's longest serving Cabinet member, resigned effective next Monday.  She called the assault on the Capitol by Trump's supporters "entirely avoidable."  

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, and the former Chief of Staff and current envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, resigned immediately, as did the First Lady's Chief of Staff and the White House's social secretary.  For his part, Mulvaney said that Trump had had a "long list of successes" but that "all of that went away yesterday".  Meanwhile, potential resignations were reported involving other national security officials, including National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien.

Throughout the day on Thursday, there were calls for Trump's removal pursuant to the 25th Amendment. Speaker Pelosi said that if the Vice President and Cabinet were not willing to take this step, her caucus was prepared to impeach Trump again.  The Wall Street Journal issued an evening editorial calling on the President to resign.  Around 7 pm, Trump issued a video statement.  In it, he for the first time condemned the mob, promised they would be held accountable, called for healing, acknowledged he would no longer be President come noon on January 20, and said he would work to insure a peaceful and orderly transition over the next thirteen days.  

David Gergen, who has over the years advised four presidents (from both parties), was appearing on CNN at the time the statement was broadcast.

When it was over, Gergen marveled at its sheer "chutzpah".

John Donvan is a college friend of mine.  He is also an ABC news journalist and over the course of a forty plus year career has been stationed at and covered the news from capitals around the world.  On Wednesday on Facebook, he posted video footage that came over his desk in London in 1981 of a coup attempt in Spain, where armed military had burst into Spain's newly created parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and tried to stop it from voting to elect a new prime minister.  In recounting his reaction to the video at that time, he remembered feeling "so glad that [he] lived in a country where something crazy like that could never happen."

He then said no more.

Just arched his brow.

On the post, he wrote "In the end, no words".

The truth is not noisy.