Things Are Not Getting Better

The news has not been good, leading various journalists to summarize the past few days the way Jamelle Bouie did for Slate:

After months of sustained public criticism from Trump, Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI. The rationale behind McCabe’s decision is still not entirely known, but there’s little doubt it involves the Russia investigation. In addition to being a verbal target of Trump’s, McCabe had become a bête noire of conservative media, the subject of baroque conspiracies about a “deep state” that is allegedly conspiring against the president….

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a … memo [that] accuses the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers, using partisan opposition research in order to attack Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine his presidency, and singling out officials like McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and former FBI Director James Comey, all targets of Trump and his allies in the GOP and conservative media… Democrats on the committee have called the document a “misleading set of talking points”, and federal law enforcement officials had warned that releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless”….

In the wake of this vote, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee also opened an inquiry into the FBI and the Justice Department… On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his support for both moves, calling for a “cleanse” of the FBI….

What began as Trump venting on Twitter has now become official administration policy, carried out with the blessing of White House aides who were at one time seen as bulwarks against such behavior. Bloomberg reported on a phone call between White House chief of staff John Kelly and senior officials in the Justice Department, where the former conveyed the president’s “displeasure” and reminded them of his expectations, albeit adding that the White House doesn’t expect them “to do anything illegal or unethical”.

To all of this, add the fact that—during this same period of time—President Trump declined to sanction Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election [after Congress voted almost unanimously for new sanctions to be imposed].

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said this about the president’s decision:

Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia. The President decides to ignore that law. Folks, that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country.

There should be, but there hasn’t been. Most of us are suffering from outrage overload.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Bouie wrote about “ICE Unbound”:

[The president has unleashed] the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, giving it broad authority to act at its own discretion. The result? An empowered and authoritarian agency that operates with impunity, whose chief attribute is unapologetic cruelty.

…. The most striking aspect of ICE under this administration has been its refusal to distinguish between law-abiding immigrants, whose undocumented status obscures their integration into American life, and those with active criminal records—the “bad hombres” of the president’s rhetoric.

Erasing that distinction is how we get the arrest and detention of Lukasz Niec, a Polish immigrant and green card holder who was brought to the United States as a young child. Last week, ICE agents arrested Niec …, citing two misdemeanor convictions for offenses committed when he was a teenager… A practicing physician, Niec now sits in a county jail, awaiting possible deportation….

Bouie didn’t mention Amer Othman Adi, a 57-year-old Palestinian who had been in the U.S. since he was 19. A married man with four daughters, he helped revitalize the city of Youngstown by opening several businesses. He was deported to Jordan on Monday night.

It all makes these Twitter thoughts from author G. Willow Wilson worth thinking about:

It may be time to start thinking about how we can effectively push back against authoritarianism once the last of the checks and balances have fallen.

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others–there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal”. Certain books vanish from the libraries.

The press picks a side. The military picks a side. The judiciary picks a side. This part should already feel familiar.

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

People still have rights, in theory. The right to vote, to serve on a jury, etc. The difference is that they begin to fear exercising those rights. Voting in an election will get your name put on “a list”.

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

Until one day we wake up and discover the regime has decided to postpone the 2020 elections until its lawyers are finished investigating something or other. Or until it can ‘ensure’ that the voting process is ‘fair’.

A sizable proportion of the citizenry will support the postponement. Yes, absolutely, we must postpone elections. The opposition is corrupt! Our leader is just trying to protect us! A dictator is never without supporters.

And hey, if we pull ourselves back from the brink and the midterms go ahead and the 2020 election is free and transparent and on time, you are cordially invited to point at me and laugh. Honestly. No one will be happier to be wrong than me.

 

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Secretary Nielsen Bullshits. Senator Booker Speaks.

Before today, very few people could identify Kirstjen Nielsen. She has been the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security for less than six weeks. But that means she is a senior official in the Trump administration, responsible for enforcing our immigration laws and making sure nobody travels to America with a bomb in their underwear. The Department of Homeland Security was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

Now Secretary Nielsen will be well-known. She testified (under oath) before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. Here’s the brief exchange that will make her famous:

Senator Leahy: “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?”

Secretary Nielsen: “I actually don’t know that, sir. But I imagine that is the case.”

It’s certainly peculiar that she wasn’t sure, or wasn’t willing to admit, that most Norwegians are white, especially since her position involves protecting America’s international borders; she attended the meeting at which the president made his infamous comment about Norwegian immigrants being preferable to those from Africa and Haiti; she has the ultra-Scandinavian name of “Kirstjen Nielsen”; and she isn’t seven years old.

I’ve recounted this vignette (one more moment in that ongoing story “America, How Could You Possibly Have Done This?”) to provide some context for something else that happened at today’s Judiciary Committee hearing. Senator Cory Booker was there. He used to be the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, an old industrial city that our president must think is a shithole. Now he represents New Jersey in the U.S. Senate. He could have asked Secretary Nielsen questions, but chose instead to make an eight-minute speech. The whole thing is worth listening to. He speaks with such intensity that it goes by quickly.

Senator Booker may be our president one day. What an upgrade that would be!

The President Speaks

It has been widely reported that the president privately told some members of Congress that the U.S. should limit immigration from countries he referred to as “shitholes”.

A few facts:

He really did say it. The only Democrat in the room reported what the president said and at least one Republican senator (Lindsey Graham) confirmed the story. Shortly after the meeting, White House staff defended the president’s statement, and even suggested that his “base” would approve of what he said.

It’s unlikely that we would have heard about this if there hadn’t been a Democrat in the room, which should make us wonder what other opinions the president is privately expressing.

What he said is consistent with other stupid, racist remarks he’s made (for example, all Haitians have AIDS and Nigerians mainly live in huts) and actions he’s taken as president (such as ending protections for immigrants and their children and trying to prohibit Muslims from traveling here).

The president’s defenders are trying to make this a story about mere “locker room” or “kitchen table” talk, just like they did when the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was made public.

They’re also trying to make it a story about the quality of life in these countries (“The president was just being honest. Would you liberals be willing to live in Haiti or Somalia? Why do people want to leave those countries?”).

The fact that the president used vulgar language has resulted in this story getting more attention than it otherwise would have received.

But the most important part of this story isn’t that he swore at a meeting in the White House. It’s that he vehemently believes that people from some countries would make better Americans than people from other countries. That’s been a popular view in some quarters since the 19th century. But it should be anathema to anyone who understands what it means to be an American and what the promise of America has meant to struggling people around the world.

Our first president wrote this in a letter in 1788:

I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong…

Our current president is beneath contempt and needs to go.

Mapping the 2016 Election

As the president and his co-conspirators plumb even deeper depths of evil and stupidity, it’s worth reminding ourselves how a serious candidate for Worst Person in the World got his new job. A good way to start is to take a look at this new map from the xkcd site. Each little blue person represents roughly 250,000 people who voted for Clinton. Each little red person represents the same number who voted for the evil, stupid guy. (There are also a few little gray people who represent third-party voters.)

xkcd

As you can see, the blue voters are clustered on the coasts and around Chicago. The red voters are spread more evenly around the country. There are 263 blue people vs. 252 red people. That roughly corresponds to the fact that Clinton got 66 million votes while her opponent got 63 million.

Since the United States tries to follow its 228-year old Constitution, however, each state actually held its own separate presidential election. Unfortunately, the Terrible Person won more states (30 to 20 for Clinton), including many of the relatively empty states in the western part of the country. Since almost all of those separate elections were and continue to be “winner-take-all”, whoever won a given state received all of that state’s “electoral” votes, no matter how large or small their margin of victory was. 

Thus, Clinton got 55 electoral votes for winning California by a very large margin and the Worst Candidate got 46 electoral votes for winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by very small margins. (Which shows that if you want to become president, it’s better to win lots of states, even by very small margins, instead of winning fewer states, even by very large margins.)

So, after all the electoral votes from all the states were added up, the Very Stable Genius won a big victory in the “Electoral College” (304 electoral votes to 227) and an important new job, despite getting three million fewer votes nationwide.

If nothing else, next time you see a map like the one below, showing who won America’s 3,000 counties, keep in mind that it’s a poor way to represent an election, assuming the election is based on people voting, not cows or tumbleweeds.

990px-2016_Presidential_Election_by_County.svg

Summarizing the Situation

David Frum, a conservative, summarizes the situation for The Atlantic:

Who and what Donald Trump is has been known to everyone and anyone who cared to know for years and decades. Before he was president, he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist. Before he was the country’s leading racist conspiracy theorist, he was a celebrity gameshow host. Before he was a celebrity gameshow host, he was the multi-bankrupt, least trusted name in real estate. Before he was the multi-bankrupt least trusted name in real estate, he was the protege of Roy Cohn repeatedly accused of ties to organized crime. From the start, Donald Trump was a man of many secrets, but no mysteries. Inscribed indelibly on the public record were the reasons for responsible people to do everything in their power to bar him from the presidency.

Instead, since he announced his candidacy in mid-2015, Donald Trump has been enabled and protected.

The enabling and protecting not only continues. It accelerates.

Before the Saturday morning tweets, what should have been the biggest story of the week was Trump’s success at mobilizing the Senate and the FBI to deploy criminal prosecution as a weapon against Trump critics. The Senate Judiciary committee—the Senate Judiciary Committee! The committee that oversees the proper enforcement of the law!—formally filed a criminal referral with the Department of Justice against Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous dossier about Trump’s Russia connections. The referral was signed by the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, without even notice to Democrats on the committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said; a startling abuse of majority status and a sharp departure from the norms of the Senate, especially a 51-49 Senate.

The Department of Justice can ignore such a referral. It’s ominous, however, that on the very same day, the FBI obeyed Trump’s repeated demands and reopened a long-closed criminal investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The FBI has come under relentless abuse from Trump, who complains about its refusal to do his will. Is it now yielding?

We also learned this week from The New York Times that aides to the Attorney General sought damaging information on Capitol Hill about FBI director Comey, indicating close cooperation between the White House and Main Justice to exert political control over the country’s chief law enforcement agency.

Michael Wolff [author of Fire and Fury] has drawn the most indelible picture yet of Donald Trump, the man. But the important thing about Trump is not the man; it’s the system of power surrounding the man.

In 2016, there were voters who genuinely, in good faith, believed that Donald Trump was a capable business leader, moderate on social issues, who cared about the troubles of working class white America—and would do something to help. There may well still be some people who believe this—but nowhere near enough to sustain a presidency.

What sustains Trump now is the support of people who know what he is, but back him anyway. Republican political elites who know him for what he is, but who back him because they believe they can control and use him; conservative media elites who sense what he is, but who delight in the cultural wars he provokes; rank-and-file conservatives who care more about their grievances and hatreds than the governance of the country.

After quoting much of David Frum’s article, Heather Digby Parton of Hullabaloo summarizes the situation too:

I had thought that maybe there were some Republicans who actually cared about the nation or at least cared about the integrity of the constitution and the Congress. There are not. A handful have said something but they voted with him and continue to help him expand his power by delivering that tax cut victory which, by the way, any of them could have stopped simply by saying that it raised the debt too much.

They didn’t have to do it. They really didn’t. They are all complicit.

It’s true that the Republican party has been complicit for years in creating a political environment that allowed an ignorant madman to become president. But they could redeem themselves in this moment and they are not doing it.

That scares me just as much as Trump. In order to enact their agenda, the Republican Party is enabling Trump’s authoritarian instincts. And that goes beyond the racism and xenophobia on which he ran. For most of them, that’s a very natural thing to do since they’ve always shared them. But I thought there might be a few elected officials whose paeans to freedom and the constitution were based upon some underlying principles. And I guess I assumed that a handful would be a tiny bit concerned about Russia interfering in the election and possibly compromising the president — even if he was a Republican.

It’s clear that every last one of them was full of shit.

Finally, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post also summarizes the situation:

We have a vice president elected specifically to take over if the president is incapable of serving; the 25th Amendment does not say “but in a pinch, let the secretaries of defense and treasury run the show.” What we have is a type of coup in which the great leader is disabled. He is propped up, sent out to read lines written by others and kept safely away from disastrous situations. This is not how our system works, however.

We’re playing with fire, counting on the ability of others to restrain him from, say, launching a nuclear war and, nearly as bad, jettisoning our representative democracy. Vice President Pence, the Cabinet and Congress have a moral and constitutional obligation to bring this to a stop.

Since all the evidence says Pence, the Cabinet and the Republicans in Congress will not only ignore but take a giant crap on their obligations, we need to stay informed, communicate, show up (e.g. Women’s March on January 20, 2018), donate (e.g. to the Democratic Party), make sure we’re all registered to vote and vote every time we get the chance (especially on November 8, 2018).

Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

It’s Not “Dementia Don” Anymore. Now It’s “Very Stable Genius”.

This morning, a few minutes after the president watched his admirers at Fox News talk about his mental health, three messages appeared on the president’s personal Twitter account. Here they are, presented as one amazingly coherent (for him) paragraph:

Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence. Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

It’s very hard to believe that the president still has enough of his marbles to have written that all by himself. It’s false to the point of delusion, of course, but well-written. I would have said someone else definitely wrote it, except that the peculiar way “T.V.” is written is one of the president’s stylistic quirks. (“T.V.” written as an abbreviation appears 32 times in the searchable Trump Twitter Archive; the simple “TV” appears much more often.) Perhaps the president dictated his response to somebody familiar with his unique style, and that person polished his ravings for  public consumption.

If the president did write that paragraph this morning (which I doubt), the explanation could be that he’s more competent after he’s had some sleep. We know he tires easily. (That new Fire and Fury book says he often gets in bed by 6:30 p.m.) His dementia probably gets worse as the day wears on.

At any rate, the president’s poor mental health is receiving additional attention, which is a good thing. Vox has an interesting interview with Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, who strongly recommends that the president receive (or be forced to receive, if necessary) an emergency psychiatric evaluation. Its purpose would be to determine whether he is a threat to public health. Dr. Lee says it isn’t a question of diagnosing him. It’s a matter of determining how dangerous he is:

Assessing dangerousness is making a judgment about the situation, not the person. The same person may not be dangerous in a different situation, for example. And it is his threat to public health, not his personal affairs, that is our concern….

[Once] you declare danger, you are calling first for containment and removal of weapons from the person and, second, for a full evaluation — which may then yield diagnoses. Until that happens, physicians and mental health professionals are expected to err on the side of safety and can be held legally liable if they fail to act. So we’re merely calling for an urgent evaluation so that we may have definitive answers.

In doing that, we are fulfilling a routine, public expectation of duty that comes with our profession — the only part that is unusual is that this is happening in the presidency….

Those who most require an evaluation are the least likely to submit to one. That is the reason why in all 50 states we have not only the legal authority, but often the legal obligation, to contain someone even against their will when it’s an emergency.

So in an emergency, neither consent nor confidentiality requirements hold. Safety comes first. What we do in the case of danger is we contain the person, we remove them from access to weapons [Note: including nuclear weapons in this case] and we do an urgent evaluation.

This is what we have been calling for with the president based on basic medical standards of care.

We shouldn’t expect the president to be given a formal evaluation any time soon, of course. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo seems to think it isn’t necessary anyway, although he doesn’t distinguish between being diagnosed and being evaluated as a threat. That’s because we (including Republican politicians) already know there’s a very serious problem:

We are now back on to the feverish debate about whether or not Donald Trump is mentally ill or suffering from the onset of dementia. The most important thing to know about this debate is that it simply doesn’t matter. If the entire psychiatric profession got together and examined Trump and pronounced him entirely free of any mental illness, his behavior wouldn’t be any less whacked or dangerous in a President….

In common sense, everyday rather than clinical language, Trump is clearly unstable, erratic, impulsive. In a word, he’s nuts and not well. As citizens, we are entirely able and entitled to make these determinations. They are ordinary English language descriptors that the psychiatric profession doesn’t control and shouldn’t want to control. The entire debate over whether Trump is “mentally ill” is simply a diversion, premised on the idea that we need either permission or dictation to say he is not able to safely or competently fulfill the job of President. We don’t. The observed behavior is really all that is necessary and all that matters.

So where does that leave us? As the pressure mounts, the president will likely become more unhinged and more dangerous. Unless he goes totally batshit crazy, it’s unlikely that his staff or Congressional Republicans will do anything about it. Even then, they might cover up his incapacity. That’s what happened when President Woodrow Wilson had a series of strokes in 1919. His wife and the president’s associates secretly ran the government in his place.

Sometimes quietly, the Trump administration continues its assault on working people, the poor, immigrants and the environment. Republicans in Congress and the Department of Justice are increasing their efforts to protect the president and his co-conspirators, even as the evidence against them mounts. Now they’re even going after the president’s opponents (yes, let’s investigate the Clinton Foundation and her emails again). Fox News keeps broadcasting state propaganda. Puerto Rico is still suffering. War, either in Eastern Europe, East Asia or the Middle East, is probably more likely than it was a year ago.

Fortunately, we made it through 2017 without too many crises, aside from the disastrous effects of climate change on the weather. The various investigations now underway may interfere with the Republican agenda. January’s new Congress might provide some oversight of the executive branch. If we make it through 2018 relatively safely, there may be better times ahead.

In that positive vein, here are some words from Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister who influenced Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, among many others. Parker believed that slavery would be abolished one day:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.