Let Them Eat Cake, But Raise Their Taxes

Newly-elected Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) is the youngest person in Congress. She is becoming very well-known. Last week, she was asked about funding the Green New Deal, the plan to eliminate U.S. carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels within ten years. This is what she said:

Once you get to the tippie-tops, on your $10 millionth dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60% or 70%. That doesn’t mean all $10 million dollars are taxed at an extremely high rate. But it means that as you climb up this ladder, you should be contributing more.

Right-wingers immediately screamed that a tax rate that high would be the equivalent of slavery. They didn’t bother to point out that she was referring to the “marginal” tax rate, the percentage at which income over a certain threshold is taxed. That’s very different from taking 60% or 70% of someone’s entire income.

The economist Paul Krugman explains why the 60% or 70% marginal rate is an excellent idea:

The right’s denunciation of AOC’s “insane” policy ideas serves as a very good reminder of who is actually insane.

The controversy of the moment involves AOC’s advocacy of a tax rate of 70-80 percent on very high incomes, which is obviously crazy, right? I mean, who thinks that makes sense? Only ignorant people like … um, Peter Diamond, Nobel laureate in economics and arguably the world’s leading expert on public finance…. And it’s a policy nobody has ever implemented, aside from … the United States, for 35 years after World War II — including the most successful period of economic growth in our history.

To be more specific, Diamond, in work with Emmanuel Saez — one of our leading experts on inequality — estimated the optimal top tax rateto be 73 percent. Some put it higher: Christina Romer, top macroeconomist and former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, estimates it at more than 80 percent.[

Where do these numbers come from? Underlying the Diamond-Saez analysis are two propositions: Diminishing marginal utility and competitive markets.

Diminishing marginal utility [i.e. the value of something at the margin] is the common-sense notion that an extra dollar is worth a lot less in satisfaction to people with very high incomes than to those with low incomes. Give a family with an annual income of $20,000 an extra $1,000 and it will make a big difference to their lives. Give a guy who makes $1 million an extra thousand and he’ll barely notice it.

What this implies for economic policy is that we shouldn’t care what a policy does to the incomes of the very rich. A policy that makes the rich a bit poorer will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.

So why not tax them at 100 percent? The answer is that this would eliminate any incentive to do whatever it is they do to earn that much money, which would hurt the economy. In other words, tax policy toward the rich should have nothing to do with the interests of the rich, per se, but should only be concerned with how incentive effects change the behavior of the rich, and how this affects the rest of the population.

But here’s where competitive markets come in. In a perfectly competitive economy, with no monopoly power or other distortions — which is the kind of economy conservatives want us to believe we have — everyone gets paid his or her marginal product. That is, if you get paid $1000 an hour, it’s because each extra hour you work adds $1000 worth to the economy’s output.

In that case, however, why do we care how hard the rich work? If a rich man works an extra hour, adding $1000 to the economy, but gets paid $1000 for his efforts, the combined income of everyone else doesn’t change, does it? Ah, but it does — because he pays taxes on that extra $1000. So the social benefit from getting high-income individuals to work a bit harder is the tax revenue generated by that extra effort — and conversely the cost of their working less is the reduction in the taxes they pay.

Or to put it a bit more succinctly, when taxing the rich, all we should care about is how much revenue we raise. The optimal tax rate on people with very high incomes is the rate that raises the maximum possible revenue.

And that’s something we can estimate, given evidence on how responsive the pre-tax income of the wealthy actually is to tax rates. As I said, Diamond and Saez put the optimal rate at 73 percent, Romer at over 80 percent — which is consistent with what AOC said.

An aside: What if we take into account the reality that markets aren’t perfectly competitive, that there’s a lot of monopoly power out there? The answer is that this almost surely makes the case for even higher tax rates, since high-income people presumably get a lot of those monopoly rents.

So AOC, far from showing her craziness, is fully in line with serious economic research. (I hear that she’s been talking to some very good economists.) Her critics, on the other hand, do indeed have crazy policy ideas — and tax policy is at the heart of the crazy.

You see, Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy, based on the claim that tax cuts at the top will have huge beneficial effects on the economy. This claim rests on research by … well, nobody. There isn’t any body of serious work supporting G.O.P. tax ideas, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against those ideas.

Increasing marginal rates as income rises is called “progressive” taxation. It’s fair and practical. Republicans are against it, preferring a “flat” tax, where all income is taxed at the same rate. A flat tax let’s the rich keep more of their income. They say it’s fair and simple, but that’s not why they’re for it.

Start the Impeachment Process Now, Part 2

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, now famous for recently proclaiming “let’s impeach the motherfucker”, and political activist John Bonifaz present the case for the House of Representatives to immediately begin the impeachment process:

[The president] is a direct and serious threat to our country. On an almost daily basis, he attacks our Constitution, our democracy, the rule of law and the people who are in this country. His conduct has created a constitutional crisis that we must confront now. 

The Framers of the Constitution designed a remedy to address such a constitutional crisis: impeachment. Through the impeachment clause, they sought to ensure that we would have the power, through our elected representatives in Congress, to protect the country by removing a lawless president from the Oval Office.

We already have overwhelming evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses, including, just to name a few: obstructing justice; violating the emoluments clause; abusing the pardon power; directing or seeking to direct law enforcement to prosecute political adversaries for improper purposes; advocating illegal violence and undermining equal protection of the laws; ordering the cruel and unconstitutional imprisonment of children and their families at the southern border; and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments.

Whether the president was directly involved in a conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election remains the subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But we do not need to wait on the outcome of that criminal investigation before moving forward now with an inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives on whether the president has committed impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” against the state: abuse of power and abuse of the public trust.

Those who say we must wait for Special Counsel Mueller to complete his criminal investigation before Congress can start any impeachment proceedings ignore this crucial distinction. There is no requirement whatsoever that a president be charged with or be convicted of a crime before Congress can impeach him. They also ignore the fact that many of the impeachable offenses committed by this president are beyond the scope of the special counsel’s investigation.

We are also now hearing the dangerous claim that initiating impeachment proceedings against this president is politically unwise and that, instead, the focus should now shift to holding the president accountable via the 2020 election. Such a claim places partisan gamesmanship over our country and our most vulnerable at this perilous moment in our nation’s history. Members of Congress have a sworn duty to preserve our Constitution.  Leaving a lawless president in office for political points would be abandoning that duty.

This is not just about [the president]. This is about all of us. What should we be as a nation? Who should we be as a people? In the face of this constitutional crisis, we must rise. We must rise to defend our Constitution, to defend our democracy, and to defend that bedrock principle that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States. Each passing day brings more pain for the people most directly hurt by this president, and these are days we simply cannot get back. The time for impeachment proceedings is now.

Begin to Impeach the Motherfucker

Leading Democrats in Congress say they should wait for the Mueller investigation’s findings before talking about impeachment, even though they don’t know what the Mueller findings will be or when the investigation will end. Meanwhile, we have a president who is unfit to serve another day.

David Leonhardt of the NY Times makes the case for impeaching him now:

The presidential oath of office contains 35 words and one core promise: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Since virtually the moment [the president] took that oath two years ago, he has been violating it.

He has repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.

To shield himself from accountability for all of this — and for his unscrupulous presidential campaign — he has set out to undermine the American system of checks and balances. He has called for the prosecution of his political enemies and the protection of his allies. He has attempted to obstruct justice. He has tried to shake the public’s confidence in one democratic institution after another, including the press, federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary.

The unrelenting chaos that Trump creates can sometimes obscure the big picture. But the big picture is simple: The United States has never had a president as demonstrably unfit for the office as Trump. And it’s becoming clear that 2019 is likely to be dominated by a single question: What are we going to do about it?

The easy answer is to wait — to allow the various investigations of Trump to run their course and ask voters to deliver a verdict in 2020. That answer has one great advantage. It would avoid the national trauma of overturning an election result. Ultimately, however, waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.

He has already shown, repeatedly, that he will hurt the country in order to help himself. He will damage American interests around the world and damage vital parts of our constitutional system at home. The risks that he will cause much more harm are growing.

Some of the biggest moderating influences have recently left the administration. The defense secretary who defended our alliances with NATO and South Korea is gone. So is the attorney general who refused to let Trump subvert a federal investigation into himself. The administration is increasingly filled with lackeys and enablers. Trump has become freer to turn his whims into policy — like, say, shutting down the government on the advice of Fox News hosts or pulling troops from Syria on the advice of a Turkish autocrat.

The biggest risk may be that an external emergency — a war, a terrorist attack, a financial crisis, an immense natural disaster — will arise. By then, it will be too late to pretend that he is anything other than manifestly unfit to lead.

For the country’s sake, there is only one acceptable outcome, just as there was after Americans realized in 1974 that a criminal was occupying the Oval Office. The president must go.

Mr. Leonhardt then discusses reasons to impeach him. He has used the presidency to enrich himself, even making decisions favoring his business’s foreign customers. He has obstructed justice. He has subverted our democracy, just one example being his violation of campaign finance laws by directing the payment of hush money in at least two cases. 

Practically speaking, the next step is for the House of Representatives to form a committee charged with drawing up articles of impeachment. Holding hearings and confirming the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors would take some time. The time to start is now. 

So perhaps newly-elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib should have said “Let’s begin the process of impeaching the motherfucker” instead of what she actually said in that bar Thursday night. That would have been more precise. And I think we can all agree that calling him a “motherfucker” was too kind.

A Big Reason Why There Is a Monster in the White House

One of the 2016 election’s least reported stories was how a certain candidate benefited from starring in a “reality” TV show for the 14 years before he ran for president. The program was The Apprentice, sometimes known as Celebrity Apprentice. It was created and produced by a man named Mark Burnett, now the head of MGM Television. Burnett is the subject of an article in The New Yorker written by Patrick Keefe. Here are excerpts regarding the program’s star performer.

Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six [the New York Post‘s gossip page]. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success…. [Mark Burnett’s] legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world. “I don’t think any of us could have known what this would become,” … a producer on the first five seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me. “But Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”

Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which falsely presented Trump as its primary author, told me that he feels some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture. But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater,” adding, “ ‘The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.” Schwartz has publicly condemned Trump, describing him as “the monster I helped to create.” 

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But … Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, … the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. 

“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [one of the show’s editors] told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” [One of the producers] recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”

Trump maximized his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price. (After becoming President, he offered a similar arrangement to the Secret Service.) When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them.

More than two hundred thousand people applied for one of the sixteen spots on Season 1, and throughout the show’s early years the candidates were conspicuously credentialled and impressive. Officially, the grand prize was what the show described as “the dream job of a lifetime”—the unfathomable privilege of being mentored by Donald Trump while working as a junior executive at the Trump Organization. All the candidates paid lip service to the notion that Trump was a peerless businessman, but not all of them believed it…. Fran Lebowitz once remarked that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” and [one contestant] was struck, when the show aired, by the extent to which Americans fell for the ruse. “Main Street America saw all those glittery things, the helicopter and the gold-plated sinks, and saw the most successful person in the universe,” he recalled. “The people I knew in the world of high finance understood that it was all a joke.”

This is an oddly common refrain among people who were involved in “The Apprentice”: that the show was camp, and that the image of Trump as an avatar of prosperity was delivered with a wink. Somehow, this interpretation eluded the audience. [An editor] marvelled, “People started taking it seriously!”

The show was an instant hit, and Trump’s public image, and the man himself, began to change. Not long after the première, Trump suggested in an Esquire article that people now liked him, “whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.” [A Trump publicist said] that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him. All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking. He was a hero.”

The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.

Originally, Burnett had planned to cast a different mogul in the role of host each season. But Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” … Producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self … I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited… We didn’t have to change him—he gave us stuff to work with.” 

By the time Trump announced his campaign, ratings for “The Apprentice” had fallen, and the show had been repackaged as “The Celebrity Apprentice.” The contestants were now D-list celebrities… Still, everyone gamely pretended to take it seriously….

Burnett’s reluctance to discuss the Trump presidency is dismaying to many people involved with “The Apprentice,” given that Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show…. When Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

I asked [a psychologist] what kind of personality profile he might have prepared for Trump as a candidate for the show. He said he would have noted “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives—‘great,’ ‘huge,’ ‘horrible.’ ” What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, … and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” he said. “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

There has likely never been a man who, in his own lifetime, has been as widely spoken and written about as Donald Trump. Politics has never been so spellbinding. “It’s the reason people watch a schoolyard fight,” [the psychologist said]. “It’s vicariously watching someone act out and get away with it.” Burnett once remarked that “Lord of the Flies” is so absorbing because all the characters are suddenly transported into a world in which “the rules are changed, and convention, law, and morality are suspended.” It’s an apt paraphrase of the Trump presidency.

What Most of Us Expected

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post reminds us of what we were afraid of. It’s like Scrooge’s Christmas Future only it’s very much present:

When the new year begins next week, President [T] will have an acting chief of staff, an acting secretary of defense, an acting attorney general, an acting EPA administrator, no interior secretary, and no ambassador to the United Nations. The officials originally in all those positions have either been fired or have quit in various measures of disgust or scandal. His former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, national security adviser and personal lawyer have all pleaded guilty to crimes. His campaign, his transition, his foundation and his business are all under investigation. The United States’ allies are horrified at the chaos [T] has brought to our foreign policy. The stock market is experiencing wild swings [more like precipitous losses] as investors are gripped with fear over what might be coming and what [T] might do to make it worse — a situation alarming enough that the treasury secretary felt the need to call up the CEOs of major banks to assure them that everything is under control.

And, oh yeah, the government is shut down.

This, my friends, is exactly what we were afraid of when [T] somehow managed to get elected president two years ago. This is what we warned you about.

To give you a flavor of the president’s mind-set, here’s what happened over the weekend with regard to the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, widely regarded as the sanest of [T’s] national security team and one of the few original members of [T’s] Cabinet who did not show himself to be incompetent, corrupt, or both. The president’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria because of a single phone call with the president of Turkey was apparently the last straw for Mattis, who has watched in dismay as Trump has set about to degrade the alliances that have shaped U.S. foreign policy for the last seven decades. So Mattis tendered his resignation, saying he’d depart in two months to give the president time to find a replacement. And then . . .

President [T], who aides said has been seething about news coverage of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s pointed resignation letter, abruptly announced Sunday that he was removing Mattis two months before his planned departure and installing Patrick Shanahan as acting defense secretary. . . .

[T] decided hastily to remove Mattis in reaction to negative news coverage, according to senior administration officials, one of whom said the president was eager to retaliate against Mattis and show up the widely respected former general. Another official said [T] and other advisers suspected Mattis of being part of a campaign to stoke negative coverage about the president.


Nothing says “well-oiled machine” like that distinctly [T-pian] combination of paranoia and vindictiveness.

Meanwhile, the government shutdown is expected to last into the new year, a shutdown that is happening because a bunch of Fox News and talk-radio hosts criticized the president for not being tough enough in fighting for his ludicrous border wall. [T], always deeply insecure and eager to feed his base’s endless rage and desire for conflict, responded quickly to the accusation of weakness. “He spends ever more time in front of a television, often retreating to his residence out of concern that he is being watched too closely,” reports the New York Times.

Two years ago, as we were still trying to wrap our heads around the idea that [T] was actually going to be president of the United States, it was not uncommon to hear the hopeful prediction that things wouldn’t work out as badly as we feared. The weighty responsibilities of the office would turn [T] serious, sober, “presidential.”

That has not occurred. If anything, [T] has shown himself to be even more of a despicable human being than he appeared then, and utterly incapable of growing into the office. He is just as petty, just as impulsive, just as narcissistic, just as dishonest and, perhaps, even more corrupt than we realized. Not only does he seem to be using every available opportunity to exploit the presidency to enrich himself and his family, but a recent, meticulously documented nvestigation showed that [T], his father, and his siblings engaged in a years-long scheme to commit tax fraud on an absolutely massive scale, a story that, in the endless waves of White House madness, has been almost forgotten. And he continues to jealously guard his tax returns, to the point where any reasonable person would conclude that the information contained therein must at a minimum shock the conscience, if not providing evidence of outright criminal behavior.

It is true that [T] has not yet started World War III. And if you’re a Republican, he has done many things that pleased you, such as cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, or slashing regulations that protect workers, consumers, and people who enjoy breathing air and drinking water. If you thrill to the sight of immigrant children being ripped from the arms of their parents, then this presidency has been a joy. Indeed, just about the only fear about [T] that hasn’t come to pass is the conservative worry that he would be ideologically unreliable.

But in so many ways, he has shown himself again and again to be not just as bad as we thought, but worse. As as we look forward to the next two years, we must realize that there will be no stability, no settling down, no period of calm. The best we can hope for are brief moments when the lunacy pouring from the White House is more comical than terrifying. But most of the time, they’ll probably be both.

[Merry Christmas to all for whom it’s relevant and deserve one, and Happy Holidays to everyone else who isn’t horrible — LWF]

The Corruption of the Republican Party, Minus 400 Words

An internet person said: if you’re going to read one article this week, it should be “The Corruption of the Republican Party” by the American journalist and author George Packer. Of the article’s 2,100 words, I think the 1,700 below are the most important.

Why has the Republican Party become so thoroughly corrupt? The reason is historical—it goes back many decades—and, in a way, philosophical. The party is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start.

I don’t mean the kind of corruption that regularly sends lowlifes … to prison. Those abuses are nonpartisan and always with us. So is vote theft of the kind we’ve just seen in North Carolina…

And I don’t just mean that the Republican Party is led by the boss of a kleptocratic family business who presides over a scandal-ridden administration, that many of his closest advisers are facing prison time, that Donald Trump himself might have to stay in office just to avoid prosecution…

The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn’t an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them. It isn’t about dirty money so much as the pursuit and abuse of power—power as an end in itself, justifying almost any means…. it’s far more dangerous than graft. There are legal remedies for Duncan Hunter, a representative from California, who will stand trial next year for using campaign funds to pay for family luxuries. But there’s no obvious remedy for what the state legislatures of Wisconsin and Michigan, following the example of North Carolina in 2016, are now doing.

Republican majorities are rushing to pass laws that strip away the legitimate powers of newly elected Democratic governors while defeated or outgoing Republican incumbents are still around to sign the bills. Even if the courts overturn some of these power grabs, as they have in North Carolina, Republicans will remain securely entrenched in the legislative majority through their own hyper-gerrymandering—in Wisconsin last month, 54 percent of the total votes cast for major-party candidates gave Democrats just 36 of 99 assembly seats—so they will go on passing laws to thwart election results. Nothing can stop these abuses short of an electoral landslide. In Wisconsin…, that means close to 60 percent of the total vote.

The fact that no plausible election outcome can check the abuse of power is what makes political corruption so dangerous. It strikes at the heart of democracy. It destroys the compact between the people and the government. In rendering voters voiceless, it pushes everyone closer to the use of undemocratic means.

Today’s Republican Party has cornered itself with a base of ever older, whiter, more male, more rural, more conservative voters…. They could have tried to expand; instead, they’ve hardened and walled themselves off. This is why, while voter fraud knows no party, only the Republican Party wildly overstates the risk so that it can pass laws (including right now in Wisconsin, with a bill that reduces early voting) to limit the franchise in ways that have a disparate partisan impact. This is why, when some Democrats in the New Jersey legislature proposed to enshrine gerrymandering in the state constitution, other Democrats, in New Jersey and around the country, objected [and the proposal was withdrawn].

Taking away democratic rights—extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters—is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.

Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological. The Republican Party we know is a product of the modern conservative movement, and that movement is a series of insurgencies against the established order. Several of its intellectual founders … were shaped early on by Communist ideology and practice, and their Manichean thinking, their conviction that the salvation of Western civilization depended on the devoted work of a small group of illuminati, marked the movement at its birth.

The first insurgency was the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. He campaigned as a rebel against the postwar American consensus and the soft middle of his own party’s leadership. Goldwater didn’t use the standard, reassuring lexicon of the big tent and the mainstream. At the San Francisco convention, he embraced extremism and denounced the Republican establishment, whose “moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His campaign lit a fire of excitement that spread to millions of readers through the pages of two self-published prophesies of the apocalypse, Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. According to these mega-sellers, the political opposition wasn’t just wrong—it was a sinister conspiracy with totalitarian goals…

The insurgents were agents of history, and history was long. To avoid despair, they needed the clarity that only ideology (“the truth”) can give. The task in 1964 was to recruit and train conservative followers… Established institutions that concealed the truth—schools, universities, newspapers, the Republican Party itself—would have to be swept away and replaced or entered and cleansed…  these were not the words and ideas of democratic politics, with its ungainly coalitions and unsatisfying compromises.

During this first insurgency, the abiding contours of the movement took shape… Conservatives nursed a victim’s sense of grievance—the system was stacked against them, cabals of the powerful were determined to lock them out—and they showed more energetic interest than their opponents in the means of gaining power: mass media, new techniques of organizing, rhetoric, ideas. Finally, the movement was founded in the politics of racism. Goldwater’s strongest support came from white southerners reacting against civil rights…. Modern conservatism would never stop flirting with hostility toward whole groups of Americans. And from the start this stance opened the movement to extreme, sometimes violent fellow travelers.

It took only 16 years, with the election of Ronald Reagan, for the movement and party to merge. During those years, conservatives hammered away at institutional structures, denouncing the established ones for their treacherous liberalism, and building alternatives, in the form of well-funded right-wing foundations, think tanks, business lobbies, legal groups, magazines, publishers, professorships. When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, the products of this “counter-establishment” … were ready to take power.

Reagan commanded a revolution, but he himself didn’t have a revolutionary character. He didn’t think the public needed to be indoctrinated and organized, only heard.

But conservatism remained an insurgent politics during the 1980s and ’90s, and the more power it amassed—in government, business, law, media—the more it set itself against the fragile web of established norms and delighted in breaking them. The second insurgency was led by Newt Gingrich, who had come to Congress two years before Reagan became president, with the avowed aim of overthrowing the established Republican leadership and shaping the minority party into a fighting force that could break Democratic rule by shattering what he called the “corrupt left-wing machine.” Gingrich liked to quote Mao’s definition of politics as “war without blood.” He made audiotapes that taught Republican candidates how to demonize the opposition with labels such as “disgrace,” “betray,” and  “traitors.” When he became speaker of the House, at the head of yet another revolution, Gingrich announced, “There will be no compromise.” How could there be, when he was leading a crusade to save American civilization from its liberal enemies?

Even after Gingrich was driven from power, … he regularly churned out books that warned of imminent doom—unless America turned to a leader like him (he once called himself “teacher of the rules of civilization,” among other exalted epithets). Unlike Goldwater and Reagan, Gingrich never had any deeply felt ideology. It was hard to say exactly what “American civilization” meant to him. What he wanted was power, and what he most obviously enjoyed was smashing things to pieces in its pursuit. His insurgency started the conservative movement on the path to nihilism.

The party purged itself of most remaining moderates, growing ever-more shallow as it grew ever-more conservative… Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator from Arizona, … describes this deterioration as “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier. It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” The viciousness doesn’t necessarily reside in the individual souls of Republican leaders. It flows from the party’s politics, which seeks to delegitimize opponents and institutions, purify the ranks through purges and coups, and agitate followers with visions of apocalypse—all in the name of an ideological cause that every year loses integrity as it becomes indistinguishable from power itself.

The third insurgency came in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—it was the Tea Party. Eight years later, it culminated in Trump’s victory… In the third insurgency, the features of the original movement surfaced again, more grotesque than ever: paranoia and conspiracy thinking; racism and other types of hostility toward entire groups; innuendos and incidents of violence. The new leader is like his authoritarian counterparts abroad: illiberal, demagogic, hostile to institutional checks, demanding and receiving complete acquiescence from the party, and enmeshed in the financial corruption that is integral to the political corruption of these regimes. Once again, liberals … couldn’t grasp how it happened. Neither could some conservatives who still believed in democracy.

The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

As Bertolt Brecht wrote of East Germany’s ruling party:

Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The Battle of the Bands

Brian Wilson has a website. On that site, there are music lovers who have been playing a game for the past nine years. It’s called “The Battle of the Bands”. Someone posts videos for four songs. Usually there is a theme that ties the songs together. People then rank the four songs. They also post their own videos. There is discussion. It’s almost always very polite. Each battle lasts one week. You have to register on the site in order to participate. It’s free and nobody will bother you with annoying advertisements or solicitations. The whole thing is kind of fun.

Oh, one of the four songs has to have a connection to Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. 

This week’s battle is called “It’s Over”. These are the four songs.

The Everly Brothers — “Crying inthe Rain” (1962). Co-written by Carole King.

The Miracles — “Ooo Baby Baby”(1965). Co-written, produced and sung by Smokey Robinson.

Neil Young — “Like a Hurricane”(1977). This is a live version from 1982. The studio version is equally long. 

The Beach Boys — “I Just Wasn’tMade For These Times” (1966). Co-written with Tony Asher. It’sthe end of innocence? optimism? faith in one’s fellow human beings?


In case you’d like to visit and maybe even participate, please go here. The people who do participate are very nice and will thank you for showing up.

(Plus, we rarely discuss politics. Although it’s sometimes hard to resist, considering the present situation.)