Day By Day, It’s Getting Worse

David Rothkopf, a political scientist with years of experience in academia, government and the private sector, spoke out on Twitter yesterday. He is not a radical leftist by any means. Quote:

Something broke in America this week. We have been spiraling downward since Trump’s election, but this week, we crossed a line. The President and his men began asserting that they were above the law–and effectively no one in our system did anything to stop them.

The Attorney General sneered at the Congress and placed himself imperiously above its questions. He continued to arrogate onto himself what portions of the Mueller Report–paid for by the people, essentially in its totality to the Congress to do its duty–we would see.

He asserted again that he was the final arbiter of whether obstruction of justice by the president had taken place. He even went so far as to imply that law enforcement authorities carrying out their duty to protect America were somehow “spying”, perhaps illicitly on the Trump campaign. (Ignoring that the reasons for the investigation in question were not only sound…but the core reason…that Russia had sought to aid the Trump campaign in the election had been proven again by Mueller.)

At the same time, the Secretary of the Treasury and the head of the [Internal Revenue Service] determined to violate a law that required in no uncertain terms for them to provide the president’s tax returns to the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee.

At the same time a purge at the Department of Homeland Security took place and it became quickly clear it was because the president and his team were frustrated that officials would not act in violation of the law. We learned that the White House promised pardons to those who break the law, encouraging a crime and abetting it. We learned that they considered an egregious abuse of power that would involve releasing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities controlled by Democrats.

We saw the president complain that our military would not rough up immigrants. We saw him continue the charade of an emergency at our southern border which was an excuse for him illegally divert government resources to an unnecessary, racist, vanity project.

The president repeatedly called law enforcement officers who investigated him traitors, guilty of treason–a crime that carries with it the death penalty. We discovered that the president considered appointing his grossly unqualified daughter to be head of the World Bank.

It is the stuff of the world’s most dysfunctional governments. But rather than generating a response from within our system commensurate with the threat, nothing occurred. The [Republican] leaders in the Senate circled round the president and supported his abuses.

In so doing, they sent a message that they would never challenge him much less convict him of the myriad crimes he has committed. The checks and balances our system was built upon are gone. Worse, the courts are being packed with Trump cronies–often unqualified.

Agencies are being left to appointed caretakers some outside the normal chain of succession, many unconfirmed for their current posts by the Senate. Political opponents tip-toed around these crimes daring not to appear “too extreme.”

This is how democracies die. The rule of law is slowly strangled. The unthinkable becomes commonplace. The illegal becomes accepted–from violations of the emoluments clause to self-dealing to Federal election law crimes to serial sexual abuse.

What once was black and white blurs into grey. Right and wrong, old principles, enduring values, fade from memory. Authoritarians arrive in our midst not in tanks but in bad suits and worse haircuts.

I have long thought our system was better than this–more resilient. But candidly, I’m no longer sure. I remain hopeful…hopeful that the next election cycle can redress these manifold wrongs. But it will not be easy. It will be too close. Trump may be with us for six more years.

Why? Because we allowed ourselves to become inured to the unthinkable. We are dying the death of a thousand cuts. Right now, this week, the president and his band of thugs are winning. They have become unabashed in their attacks on the law.

They are daring someone to enforce it. But what if…what if the courts rule against them but they ignore it? What if the Treasury Secretary has violated a law and no one arrests him. What if the president steals and canoodles with enemies and he goes unpunished?

Their crimes will only grow more egregious and their ways will only grow more ingrained in our system. Their violations will in fact become the system itself. Corruption will be the norm-greater corruption,to be sure, since it it was corruption that got us here in the first place.

Our only hope is recognizing the seriousness of our situation. This is not politics as usual. This is not an erosion of what was. This is a full blown crisis, the greatest American politics has faced in half a century…perhaps much longer.

It is not a time for equivocation. It is not a time for patience. It is time for those who seek to protect the rule of law to step up to protect it or the chance may not soon again return.

Unquote.

I’ll add that the president also tweeted a video yesterday that made it look like Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim women now serving in Congress, had minimized the 9/11 attacks. It was an invitation to his most demented followers to teach her a lesson. This from a person whose first reaction to 9/11, delivered that day on television, wasn’t an expression of sorrow or anger. It was that one of his buildings was now the tallest in Lower Manhattan.

Selected Comments on Evil and Rank Stupidity

As the worst people in America continue to run most of the federal government, here are a few choice comments from the Twitterverse.

First, from Michael Cohen, columnist for The Boston Globe:

A lot of crazy things have happened over the past 2.5 years … but that so many people are simply accepting the conclusions of the Mueller report based on the word of an attorney general who wrote an unsolicited 19 page memo bashing Mueller’s probe might be the craziest.

The idea that any of us would take the word of Barr about the conclusions of Mueller’s report at face value, without seeing the underlying evidence, is practically surreal.

And don’t get me started on media criticisms: have we all just collectively forgotten that more than a dozen Trump campaign aides met with Russian officials and virtually all of them lied about it? Or that Trump repeatedly & flagrantly tried to interfere w/the investigation?

Were journalists simply supposed to ignore that? Were they supposed to ignore the fact that Trump’s son, campaign manager and son-in-law met with Russian officials promising dirt on Hillary Clinton (and lied about it) as if this wasn’t evidence of attempted collusion?

Do we all have collective amnesia over the president taking the word of Putin, repeatedly, over US Intel agencies on the question of Russian interference in the election?

Let’s be clear: none of know what Mueller found. None of us have seen the evidence. Until we do none of us know anything.

Next, from Will Wilkinson, Vice President of Research at the Niskanen Center:

The crescendo of furious gaslighting following Barr’s propaganda summary suggests a plan was place to exploit the gap between the submission of the report and public revelation of what’s in it to delegitimize Mueller’s actual findings and the ongoing investigations.

Trump’s “one weird trick” is the shameless public delegitimization of anyone aligned against his interests.

Our idiot media still isn’t capable of understanding how to not be co-opted by Trump’s reality-bending propaganda machine, and continues to get played like a burgled Stradivarius.

Barr’s cover-up gambit means Mueller will certainly be called to testify under oath in the House.

That’s why we’re getting the full-on blitz to mischaracterize his findings: to lock the media and public into a favorable narrative nowhere in evidence, before he actually speaks.

The media’s atrocious gullibility, which is letting this happen without serious resistance, is even more scandalous than the credulity that herded public opinion behind the invasion of Iraq. Because we already *know* this administration does nothing but lie.

The Trump machine is making a lot of political hay with necessary legal distinctions. Barr says Mueller didn’t establish conspiracy or coordination between the campaign & “the Russian government,” which doesn’t imply there wasn’t plenty with Russians hard to pin as agents of Putin.

Barr says Mueller supplies evidence of obstruction, then uses the fact that he doesn’t establish conspiracy to a certain legal standard (which doesn’t at all rule it out, in fact) to argue in a shady way that there was nothing to obstruct, so he let’s Trump off scot-free.

Trump has gone to pains to confuse people into accepting that the legitimacy of congressional oversight depends on a prior, narrow legal finding of criminality, which it has done everything it can to prevent. 

Trump’s hand-picked AG (confirmed by a lapdog Senate, with a record of shielding presidents from scandal) telling us what the report says & sitting on it doesn’t settle anything. But spinning it like it does to prevent congressional oversight tell us a lot. This is far from over.

From Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University:

This week is starting to remind me of the 2000 presidential election. This is what I was thinking.

Republicans declare victory before the results are actually in.

Republicans count on the national media to quickly repeat their conclusion. Pack journalism gets to work.

When serious concerns emerge about the results, Republicans stand by the initial declaration of victory.

Meanwhile, charge that Democrats are being “sore losers” by asking legitimate questions about what is going on.

The GOP then tries to force an ending to the controversy by running out the clock.

After the Supreme Court stops the Florida recount in December 2000, Republicans act like there is a clear mandate and national consensus about the results. Never look back.

From Ryan Cooper, National Correspondent for The Week:

The discourse around this report has revolved far too much around who gets to gloat about making correct predictions, and whether the media exaggerated this or that, which risks letting the content of the report get lost in the noise. Better by far to focus on the actual facts at hand, which are not at all favorable for Trump.

Contrary to many blaring news headlines, the quoted sentence of the report does not say there was no evidence of coordination, but that it “did not establish” it. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the lawyer saying goes.

The Trump administration’s approach here — carried out in concert with Attorney General Barr — is pretty clearly to try to muddy the waters around the Mueller findings to make it appear as though Trump is completely free of sin.

In reality, just what is publicly known about the Mueller investigation is incredibly damning. A foreign government interfered with a U.S. election, the Republican candidate embraced it, and the rest of the party leadership connived to prevent bipartisan action to stop it.

Seven Trump or Republican associates, including Trump’s campaign manager, national security adviser, and personal lawyer, have been convicted of various felonies in the biggest white-collar crime investigation in years, and another is on trial.

Finally, from Michelle Goldberg, columnist for The New York Times:

The media’s biggest failure in Russiagate is letting Trump get away with pretending to be exonerated by a four-page letter from Trump’s own AG that quotes Mueller saying his report “does not exonerate him.”

Understanding Identity Politics

If you’ve heard the phrase “identity politics” and think maybe liberals and progressives engage in it too often, this long article by Sarah Churchwell, a professor at the University of London, will put your mind at ease. She shows how identity has been key to American politics since colonial times:

We hear a great deal these days about how the right’s hostility to “identity politics” . . . enabled the rise of Donald Trump. In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an increasingly aberrant left that has allowed itself to be distracted by narrow questions about groups whose niche concerns do not rightly pertain to the proper functioning of democracy. Their identity-based complaints are marginalizing the left, leaving it out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans, who primarily worry about how to pay the bills….

This argument is made not only on the right. Liberal academics . . . have recently chided progressives for championing causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, thus provoking . . . the “left-behind” Trump voters. The counterblast from these left-behind Americans will, they argue, defeat progressivism, which needs to get practical and focus on regaining power through calls to commonality, rather than difference . . . because identity politics “absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored…. they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness’. . .”

The good news for anyone feeling perturbed is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left … The United States was founded on identity politics, per The Economist’s description: political positions based on ethnicity, race, sexuality, and religion. There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants. A handful of those migrants, traveling on the Mayflower, called themselves “Separatists” and decided to start a new society based on their religious beliefs, in which church membership would be a requirement of political representation. That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement, to name just a few of the most consequential instances. Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.

That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws. [She warned him] against putting “unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all Men would be tyrants if they could”…. John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” The masculine systems established by the framers meant that women didn’t get the vote until 1920, still earn a fraction of what men earn, and remain subject to a state asserting control over their bodies that it doesn’t assert over male bodies. That is identity politics.

Prof. Churchwell goes on to examine the history of populism and anti-elitism in America, and the notion of the “common man”:

From Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer to Jackson’s resourceful frontiersman, from the rugged individualist cowboy to the blue-collar steel worker, this was the nation’s backbone, the salt of the earth: national identity forged through a mythic conceptualization of the “common man” as a “real American” who lived in the “heartland” or, as time went on, “Middle America.” These rhetorical associations continually cemented the idea that there was something central to American life about this particular identity, while other identities were marginal, fringe, extreme, or alien.

By the twenty-first century, . . . [two Republican] candidates in a row were elected in part because they successfully deployed the populist stylings and demeanor of the “common man,” despite their inherited wealth and elite education.

Her conclusion:

Difference is a fact of life, to which divisiveness is only one response. Inclusiveness is another: not just tolerating but celebrating difference, fighting for the rights of all, not just the few. To be a truly representative democracy, America will need to stop thinking in terms of the representative common man.

She recommends thinking in terms of common decency instead.

Putting the Government Shutdown in Context

If you want to understand why our partial government shutdown is now the longest in history, all you have to do is read this one article in The New York Times. Its title is “In Business and Governing, Trump Seeks Victory in Chaos”.

Throughout his career, the supposed master of negotiation has followed the same pattern over and over again. Make demands, ignore advice, refuse to compromise and don’t worry about any damage done. All that matters is being “the winner”:

Quote:

Three decades ago, [Trump] waged a public battle with the talk show host Merv Griffin to take control of what would become [Trump’s] third Atlantic City casino. Executives at [his] company warned that the casino would siphon revenue from the others. Analysts predicted the associated debt would crush him.

The naysayers would be proved right, but throughout the turmoil [Trump] fixated on just one outcome: declaring himself a winner and Mr. Griffin a loser.

As president, [he] has displayed a similar fixation in his standoff with Congress over leveraging a government shutdown to gain funding for a wall on the Mexican border. As he did during decades in business, [he] has insulted adversaries, undermined his aides, repeatedly changed course, extolled his primacy as a negotiator and induced chaos….

“He hasn’t changed at all,” said Jack O’Donnell, who ran a casino for [him] in the 1980s …

[The president] briefly seemed to follow a more conventional approach for a president seeking consensus: encouraging his party leaders in Congress to negotiate a deal. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, shepherded a compromise in December that would have kept the government open and put off negotiations over a wall and other border security measures.

[Trump] was expected to sign off on the deal, but then came the suggestion from conservative critics that he had caved in to Democrats — that he was a loser. It was a perception [he] could not bear, and he quickly reversed course.

He also reverted to lifelong patterns in business …

His lack of public empathy for unpaid federal workers echoes his treatment of some construction workers, contractors and lawyers whom he refused to pay for their work on his real estate projects. The plight of the farmers and small-business owners wilting without the financial support pledged by his administration harks back to the multiple lenders and investors who financed [Trump’s] business ventures only to come up shortchanged.

And his ever-changing positions (I’ll own the shutdown; you own the shutdown; the wall could be steel; it must be concrete; then again, it could be steel) have left heads in both parties spinning…

“I think he was always a terrible negotiator,” said Tony Schwartz, co-author … of The Art of the Deal.

That book, published in 1987, was intended to be [Trump’s autobiography]. Mr. Schwartz said that he created the idea of [Trump] as a great deal maker as a literary device to give the book a unifying theme. He said he came to regret the contribution as he watched [Trump] seize on the label to sell himself as something he was not — a solver of complicated problems.

Rather, Mr. Schwartz said, [Trump’s] “virtue” in negotiating was his relentlessness and lack of concern for anything but claiming victory.

“If you don’t care what the collateral damage you create is, then you have a potential advantage,” he said. “He used a hammer, deceit, relentlessness and an absence of conscience as a formula for getting what he wanted”…

In recent weeks, … his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney … pursued a rather standard tactic in ending the impasse over border security and a wall: He tried to find middle ground between the $1.3 billion to which Democrats had once agreed, and the president’s demand for $5.7 billion. But upon learning of Mr. Mulvaney’s efforts, [Trump] snarled in front of a crowded room that Mr. Mulvaney had [“fucked it all up”] …

During his years in business, [Trump] earned a reputation as someone whose word meant very little. When a commitment he made no longer made sense, he walked away, often blaming the other party with a fantastical line of reasoning.

To win financing from Deutsche Bank to build a Trump Hotel in Chicago, for example, [he] personally guaranteed $40 million of the debt. When he could not make his payments during the 2008 financial crisis, Deutsche Bank executives were open to granting him more time to repay the loan, a person briefed on negotiations later recalled.

But before a compromise could be reached, [Trump] flipped the script. He filed a lawsuit and argued that the bank had helped cause the worldwide financial meltdown that essentially rendered [him] unable to make his debt payments. At the time, Deutsche Bank called the lawsuit “classic Trump.”

The bank eventually settled…. [Trump] expressed his gratitude to the lawyer who fought on his behalf by not fully paying his bill….

From the time he built his first Manhattan apartment building, [Trump] left a string of unpaid tabs for the people who worked for him.

The undocumented Polish workers who did the demolition work for that first building, Trump Tower, eventually won a $1.375 million settlement. Since then, scores of lawyers, contractors, engineers and waiters have sued him for unpaid bills or pay. Typically, he responds by asserting that their work did not meet his standard.

That might sound familiar to furloughed federal workers. [Trump] recently retweeted an article, attributed to an anonymous senior official in his administration, arguing that 80 percent of federal workers do “nothing of external value” and that “furloughed employees should find other work, never return and not be paid.”

[Trump] has claimed [absurdly] that “maybe most” federal workers going without pay are “the biggest fan” of his use of the shutdown to fund a border wall. In ordering thousands back to work without pay, he has put the pain for the shutdown on them…

During his years in business, [Trump] rarely displayed an interest in details or expert opinions that might have informed whether his plans would actually work. That pattern has also emerged in the shutdown dispute.

Thirty years ago, his claimed defeat of Mr. Griffin turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

Within months of completing construction on his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, he could not pay interest to the bondholders who had financed the project. Having overpaid and overleveraged himself on other deals, banks forced him to turnover or sell almost everything.

His wealthy father helped bail him out. But [Trump] blamed everyone else. He fired nearly all his top executives and stopped paying contractors who had built the casino.

In describing the border wall, [he] has expressed unending confidence in its efficacy. Others, including Representative Will Hurd, a Republican whose Texas district includes part of the border with Mexico, have described it as a tall speed bump, nearly useless without technology to spot illegal crossings immediately and dispatch border agents to quickly respond.

End quote.

Our president has taken 800,000 federal workers and thousands of contractors and private businesses hostage. The Democrats in Congress have done what they can to reopen the government. They have also told the president that they will negotiate border security once everyone is back at work and being paid. Either the president or Congressional Republicans (without the president’s involvement) can end the shutdown. But they have to be willing to see reason and give up their hostages first.

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 Election, and More Democracy in Chains

It’s taken almost a month to count almost all the ballots. We now know that the Democrats did extremely well in November’s election. Nationwide, Democratic candidates received 59.5 million votes against 50.5 million for the Republicans. A 9-million vote margin is the largest in the history of midterm elections. Winning 53% of the vote against 45% for the Republicans was the biggest percentage difference in a midterm election since 1974, the year Nixon resigned.

As a result, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, winning 235 seats to the Republicans’ 200. They also won many state and local races. One result is that most Americans will have Democratic governors starting in January. The Democrats might have taken the U.S. Senate but for the fact that they were defending 26 seats in this election vs. 9 seats for the Republicans. Ten of those Democratic seats were especially vulnerable, representing states that voted for the candidate now known in various indictments and plea agreements as “Individual-1”.

What nobody knows is how well the Democrats would have done if Republican efforts at voter suppression hadn’t been so successful. The Center for American Progress published a long article two weeks ago on “Voter Suppression in the 2018 Midterm Elections”. The authors discuss voter registration problems, voter purges, strict ID and ballot requirements, misleading instructions, malfunctioning equipment, intimidation, harassment, poll closures and long lines, as well as gerrymandering. The authors are too polite to say so, but Republican officials were responsible for each example of bad behavior they cite.

An article from Vox describes what went on in two large southern states:

For example, in Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp used his position as secretary of state to purge an estimated 107,000 people from the voter registration rolls just because they had not voted recently — with the majority of counties purging black voters at higher rates than whites. He put another 53,000 voter registration applications “on hold” — 70 percent of which were from black Georgians. And when people showed up to vote in predominantly black counties, they faced impossibly long lines produced by the closure of 214 polling places since 2012, as well as faulty voting machines. Later, we would learn that 700 voting machines were left wrapped and unused in a nearby warehouse in Atlanta.

All of this happened on top of Georgia’s existing strict voter ID law, which imposed an additional barrier to voting that disproportionately disadvantaged black voters. Nationwide, 25 percent of black Americans lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8 percent of whites. A variety of systemic barriers make it harder for people of color to obtain a photo ID. For example, many older black residents lack birth certificates or other required documentation to get an ID. As a consequence, strict voter ID laws like Georgia’s have been shown to significantly and disproportionately reduce turnout among black and brown voters.

Similar issues were reported in Florida, where in addition to purges and polling place closures, there were widespread reports suggesting thousands of voters never received the absentee ballots they requested, and absentee ballots that were submitted by black and Latinx voters were rejected at higher rates due to “signature mismatch”.

Was it a coincidence that the Republican candidates for governor won close elections in both states last month?

The fact is that voter suppression has been official and unofficial Republican policy for decades. I just finished reading Democracy In Chains, a book I wrote about two weeks ago. The key sentence in its 235 pages of text is the one in which the author quotes a Nobel Prize-winning economist named James Buchanan. The late Mr. Buchanan deserves to be known as the intellectual godfather of today’s Republican Party. He is quoted as saying that what we Americans need to do is to get rid of “the sacrosanct status of majority rule”. Minority rule, assuming it’s the right minority, would be much better. That sums up today’s radical Republican Party.

If you want to read more about Democracy In Chains, an almost unbelievable description of Republican efforts to install minority rule, please go here.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change.

MacClean discusses one case in which the right’s “stealth program” was implemented. The key figure in her book, a Virginia Tech economist named James Buchanan, helped transform Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973:

For it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that [Chile’s] capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power….

If Jim Buchanan had qualms about helping to design a constitution for a dictatorship or the process by which [it] was ratified, … he did not commit them to print…

What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he … called the free society reconciled himself … to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile. The new Chile was free for some, … the same kind of people who counted in Virginia in the era when [Buchanan fought desegregation]. It was also, always, a particular kind of freedom the libertarians cared most about. One Chilean [rejoiced] that “the individual freedom to consume, produce, save and invest has been restored”.

… Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. [The new constitution] was a “virtually unamendable charter”, … radically skewed by the over-representation of the wealthy, the military and the less popular political parties associated with them. Buchanan had long called for binding rules to protect economic liberty and constrain majority power, and [the constitution] guaranteed these as never before”.

Among the right-wing “reforms” instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship were lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, devastating restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, a less independent judicial system, limits on the government’s ability to issue regulations, school vouchers in place of funding for public education and forcing state universities to become “self-financing”. If this list of “modernizations” sounds familiar, it should. It’s the public agenda of today’s Republican Party.

Since it isn’t good public relations for a political party or government to say it’s against majority rule, however, the right’s intention to install and maintain minority rule isn’t publicly stated. But after seizing power, Pinochet ruled as a dictator for years. In the U.S., the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have given more political power to corporations and the rich, while undermining the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican politicians in states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have made it less likely that poor people and certain minorities will vote, all the while claiming they are only interested in fighting a phenomenon, voter fraud, which they know is extremely rare.

The good news is that the resurgent Democratic Party is dedicated to making voting easier and more representative. In addition, there are efforts underway in a number of states to eliminate gerrymandering of congressional districts and to make the undemocratic Electoral College irrelevant. Others are calling for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be given full voting rights. Changes will come eventually, since the majority still has some power. Meanwhile, if you want to understand our current politics, read Democracy in Chains