They Should Be Talking About the Coup Memo

Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers had something in common this week. They mentioned a memo given to our former president showing how he could try to stay in office after losing the election. The news divisions of ABC, CBS, NBC and of course Fox didn’t mention it at all. Reporters for The New York Times only got around to mentioning it yesterday in the final paragraphs of a story about the Arizona “audit” fiasco.

From Tim Murphy of Mother Jones:

There was big news this week on what is known ominously and euphemistically as “the democracy beat,” and like all such news, it was bad.

On Tuesday, CNN published a two-page memo written by a lawyer for then-President D____ T____’s re-election campaign during the run-up to the January 6 certification of the Electoral College results. In six concise bullet-points, the memo outlined a process by which Vice President Mike Pence could use his powers on January 6 to throw out the electors from seven states that President Joe Biden won in the 2020 election. The plan counted on Republicans in those states to submit competing sets of electors, based on the false and fabricated premise that T____ had somehow won those states.

The memo’s author, John Eastman, is a lawyer—at the time, he was even a tenured professor at Chapman University School of Law—but what he created is not a legal document. It is by its nature extra-legal: It is a blueprint for a coup.

Eastman anticipated the possibility that some people would be mad. “Howls, of course, from the Democrats,” he predicted in bullet-point four, immediately following the line, “Pence then gavels President T____ as re-elected.” Yeah, man, no kidding.

It is a little weird to read all these months later about something that was also plain as day at the time. Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of a Barton Gellman article in The Atlantic that laid out the strategy that T____, with Eastman and others’ help, would pursue. Mother Jones and others covered closely the efforts from the T____ campaign to throw out votes in courts and disenfranchise entire states. . . .  January 6 happened on live TV. But what was described on those couple of pages is what all the stunts and subterfuge were building up to—notes, as it were, on a criminal fucking conspiracy.

There have not been a lot of attempts to depose elected American presidents in my lifetime, though I’m only 34. Not knowing for sure what happens when you dissociate “peaceful transfer of power” from “a society entirely predicated on it,” I sort of think this is a pretty big deal. This is a break-the-glass moment, as some have said, only someone else already broke the glass and took the axe and is running around with it.

But it is not such a big deal, apparently, if you watch network TV news. On Wednesday, Media Matters’ Matt Gertz reported that the total number of minutes devoted to the story on either the morning or evening editions of ABC, NBC, or CBS News in the first two days after the memo was published was zero. “In fact,” Gertz wrote, “the only national network broadcasts to mention T____’s coup memo were the late-night variety shows hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers.”

Americans get their news from lots of places, including from Late Night shows. And the networks are, broadly, still covering the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, including the latest moves by the House Select Committee to subpoena former top T____ aides. But the network TV news shutout on the Eastman memo does speak to a reluctance to directly engage with this new political reality.

. . . There is something about the specific pitch of the threat that perhaps strains the capacity of some institutions to process. They’re not programmed to take on problems like this—it disturbs the comfortable equilibrium that defines a lot of political media. Republicans come on to speak to one side of things, and Democrats come on (slightly less often) to speak to the other side of things, and there are arguments, and sometimes people win and sometimes people lose. But there is always, basically, a sense that everyone is sort of acting within the constraints of the same known universe. There are scandals, too. (In fact, that universe thrives on scandal!) But those scandals never really veer into the realm of the existential. 

But what happened at the close of T____’s presidency, and seems likely to happen again if we continue mostly ignoring it, is an existential problem. There’s no equilibrium here. A majority of Republican members of Congress supported an effort to overturn the election. They’re almost all still in office. A majority of the country’s Republican attorneys general backed that same plan. . . . They’re all still in power as well. . . . The people who thought that the biggest problem with January 6 was that the game wasn’t fixed sooner are strengthening their grip on the GOP and on institutions of state and local government, and everyone else with a future in the party is getting out of their way.

The day of the insurrection at the Capitol, I remember thinking—naively but in my defense very angrily—that there might even be expulsions from Congress as a result, that those complicit would have to pay. I might feel better now if anyone had. But while there were howls, of course, from Democrats, such chatter quickly died down on Capitol Hill. The only people who have suffered any recriminations are the Republicans in Congress who, however belatedly, stood up to all this. Last week, Indiana Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, one of just 10 House Republicans to support impeaching the president for inciting the insurrection, announced his retirement, citing the “toxic dynamics” within his party. Gonzalez’s personal security budget had gone up since the vote, and he was being challenged by a former T____ aide, Max Miller. The ex-president had already come to the district to campaign against him.

This is all an enormous crisis of legitimacy for a large swath of government at many different levels, which means it’s an enormous challenge for political media and everyone else. I don’t really know how we get out of it. But I guess I’d start with acknowledging the fact that the axe is missing.

Responding with Cool Reason to the Negativity About Biden’s Summer

David Rothkopf of The Daily Beast uses Twitter to inject some cool, refreshing oxygen into this summer’s frequently stifling political analysis (with a few comments from me):

And now, the latest Biden report from the Conventional News Network…

It’s been a rough summer for the president folks because

–Job growth slowing slightly (although yes, Biden has created more jobs in his first six months than any president in history) [I’d rephrase this to say that coming out of last year’s lockdown, we’ve had the fastest job growth since such things have been measured, which is at least partly the result of Biden’s recovery and stimulus programs]

–COVID spiking (although yes, the administration performed a miracle getting the vaccine out & the Republican Party has systematically undermined admin efforts to save lives)

–Afghanistan exit chat (although yes, the president ended a futile 20 year war and the administration managed to evacuate 125,000 people so far in one of the biggest humanitarian airlifts every, and ending wars is chaotic by nature)

–Infrastructure plans face opposition (although yes, that’s the way Congress works, the infrastructure bill represents a bipartisan breakthrough and much of the opposition is posturing)

–Fires, floods and storms! (although yes, Biden has put together an aggressive plan to combat the climate crisis, undone the huge damage done by his predecessor, gotten the US back into the Paris Accords, and made this a priority in the way no prior president has) [plus, you know it’s the weather, which presidents don’t control]

–Biden draws on his own personal experience while expressing compassion (although yes, the previous president was a sociopath and the story that being a genuine human made people uncomfortable was a cynical political spin job by the opposition…like much of the above)

Record economic growth, record job creation, record appointments to the court, the most diverse administration in history, massive effort to undo the damage done by predecessors, ushering in a new future oriented foreign policy and ending the disastrous post 9/11 era…

Restoring compassion, competence, a respect for the rule of law and a commitment to governance…although yes, we get it, he’s not perfect, not every goal is achieved, sometime his opponents succeed in blocking him, sometimes mistakes are made but he’s actually having a great year.

But let’s be honest, a slight dip in public opinion polls is inevitable when there’s so much misinformation and false bothsidesism in media coverage and what’s really important–support for his core policies remains high and bi-partisan.

Oh..and one more thing..the opposition does not offer any kind of credible alternative policies, focuses on obstruction, remains loyal to the most corrupt, incompetent, malevolent demagogue in US history, are systematically carving away the rights of American women and voters and are conducting an assault on democracy in the United States that may yet succeed. Biden is hugely successful if imperfect and much remains to be done. His opponents represent a threat to everything we have cherished about America’s values and our institutions.

But sure…let’s go with that old conventional wisdom, that easy if entirely inaccurate set of takes that are so popular these days. Who cares if it makes terrible outcomes in our country’s future more likely? Who cares if it is deeply misleading?

(P.S. This is not directed at any one media organization. There are many great journalists at work at almost everywhere you’d watch or read, if you don’t watch Fox or OANN. But among them, there are others who are helping to create the problem flagged here.)

Unquote.

Adding my two cents, I’m not sure if the Democrats should have bothered negotiating infrastructure with the Republicans, or just put everything into one big reconciliation bill that could pass with no Republican support. My big problem with what Biden has done so far, or hasn’t done, is that he hasn’t been able to get Senate Democrats to create an exception to the filibuster to protect voting rights. I’m also not sure Merrick Garland was a good choice for Attorney General, since Garland doesn’t seem very interested in what went on in the previous administration.

Understanding Their Perspective, and Thus Their Agenda

Jay Rosen of New York University recently listed the things he spends “most time puzzling about these days”. Here are his top two, although I’ve reversed the order, because one of them describes the world as most Republicans see it, a perspective that helps generate their warped political agenda:

        1) The Republican Party is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled . . . minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military. 

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainstream media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives. 

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. 

Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three. A counter-majoritarian [political party] thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures. 

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias. 

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the [journalistic] playbook about that.

        2) We have a two-party system and one of the two is [against democracy].

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the Big Lie that [somebody else] actually won

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that [the loser] won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership. 

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. 

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do . . . 

Unquote.

A thought occurred to me after reading Prof. Rosen’s post, so I left a comment:

It seems that the two biggest purveyors of right-wing propaganda and disinformation in the US are Fox News (the Murdochs) and Facebook (Zuckerberg). Do we have to accept the present behavior of these two institutions — actually, the behavior of these individuals — as facts of nature or are there practical ways to reduce their negative influence? Ways to address the problem have been suggested, but maybe there needs to be a more organized, targeted approach.

What do you do to sociopathic billionaires in order to get them to cease and desist? I don’t know, but that’s why people tried to assassinate Hitler.

If Only Silly Talk Fixed America’s Infrastructure

What’s known as Biden’s “infrastructure bill” is actually called “The American Jobs Plan”. There’s an 11,000 word summary at the White House site. These are the opening paragraphs from what would print out as twenty, single-spaced pages:

While the American Rescue Plan [the Covid relief bill] is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were. This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.

The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure. After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling. Our electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic outages. Too many lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet and to quality housing. The past year has led to job losses and threatened economic security, eroding more than 30 years of progress in women’s labor force participation. It has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure. And, our nation is falling behind its biggest competitors on research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and training. It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.

Instead of a debate about the details, we’re getting a stupid argument about the word “infrastructure”. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post discusses:

Republicans are still road-testing their attacks on the giant infrastructure bill Democrats are assembling, and while some are predictable (It would be disastrous to raise taxes on corporations!), their most frequent one is not only weak; it also shows how disconnected the debate in Washington can sometimes get from the things that actually affect people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the news media are giving them a big hand.

If this past weekend you tuned into the Sunday shows, where the conventional wisdom is lovingly shaped and admired, you would have seen the same theme replayed over and over about the infrastructure bill:

  • “This $2 trillion ask, only about 5 percent of the funding goes to infrastructure,” Margaret Brennan of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” asked Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Can you honestly call this a focus on building roads and bridges?” [Mr. Waldman lists three more examples from NBC, ABC and Fox, but one is painful enough.]

First, let’s be clear that the “only 5 percent” counts as “real infrastructure” talking point is utterly bogus. It defines infrastructure as only roads and bridges, leaving out railroads, water and sewer systems, the electrical grid, broadband, housing and any number of other things that you probably think of when you hear the word.

The idea that only roads and bridges are infrastructure is like saying, “You said your house needed work, but the floors and walls seem fine. Why bother fixing the leaking pipes and the broken roof and the electrical system that shorts out? That’s not really the core of the house, which as we all know is floors and walls and nothing else.”

But the more important question is: Why in the world would it possibly matter what definition of “infrastructure” we use?

Imagine it’s a few years from now. This bill has passed and as a result, the crumbling bridge in your town has been replaced and the roads have been resurfaced — no more banging your car over all those potholes. In addition, there’s a new senior center in town with all kinds of facilities and services, operated by a skilled staff making a living wage.

Do you think your neighbors will say, “I like the bridge and the roads, but the senior center? Sure, my mother-in-law loves her fitness class there, and they helped her solve that Medicare problem she had, but it just doesn’t seem like ‘infrastructure’ to me.”

Of course not, because that’s not what people care about. They want to know that government did worthwhile things with their tax dollars, whatever category you might put each line-item into.

Now it’s true that Democrats have indeed thought broadly about what to put in this bill, including things that are not installed by burly men in hardhats but that they believe are important. Republicans may find some of those things — like building housing, or improving care for the elderly and disabled, or promoting electric vehicles — not to be worthwhile. Which is fine.

But if that’s what Republicans think, they should explain why we shouldn’t actually build more housing, and we shouldn’t fund care for the elderly, and we shouldn’t promote electric vehicles. Just saying “That doesn’t sound like ‘infrastructure’ to me” is not an argument. This isn’t the Merriam-Webster editorial board; it’s the U.S. government.

So what if instead of asking Is this really infrastructure? about the various provisions in this bill, we ask Is this a good thing?

You can apply that standard to both road repairs and increased spending on elder care. Is this something important and worthwhile? Will funding it in the way that is proposed accomplish the goals we set out? Will it improve life for Americans?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then we should probably do it.

There may well be provisions in the initial proposal that don’t meet that test. But I want to hear Republicans explain why they think we shouldn’t invest in elder care or electric vehicle charging stations. Maybe their arguments are so well-informed and persuasive that we’ll say, “You know what, they’re right — Democrats should take that out of the bill.” I doubt it, but it’s always possible.

That’s how policy debate is supposed to work: We argue about which problems need addressing, then we argue about which solutions to deploy. If it all works out, the legislation that gets passed reflects the outcome of that deliberation, with the unworthy ideas jettisoned and the worthy ideas becoming law. But arguing about the definition of words such as “infrastructure” gets us precisely nowhere.

Yet because one of the parties is repeating this talking point, journalists feel that to be “tough” they have to use it to frame their questioning of the other party. The result is that we miss what’s really important.

Unquote.

Calling talk show hosts “journalists” is an insult to journalism. “Talking heads” would be more accurate. “Overpaid talking heads” to be more precise. We can hope, however, that talking about semantics will serve to educate the public, the politicians and even some talking heads.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia “Democrat”, says he can’t support putting the corporate tax rate back at 28%. Playing the sensible statesman for the folks back home, he thinks 25% would be all right. In a way, it’s good that he’s got so much power at the moment, providing the last vote for Democratic initiatives. It shows that Biden is trying to make progressive changes. If the president was being more conservative, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would be the 50th vote. So we’ll continue to hear Manchin’s pronouncements. He must love all the attention.