At the Heartbreak Hotel on Desolation Row

Let’s consider the Supreme Court’s radical right Gang of Five. They’re trying to take America back to 1953 or so, if not earlier, ignoring what the majority of Americans want.

Three of them (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett) are the only three justices in US history who were both (1) selected by a president (D____ T____) who lost the popular vote and (2) approved by a group of senators who represented less than 50% of American voters. (That particular president took office only because the national news media was fixated on the email practices of the Democratic candidate and the director of the FBI broke his agency’s own rules by releasing “news” that harmed the Democrat a few days before the election.)

One (Gorsuch) took his seat on the Court after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked consideration of Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, for a record 293 days, saying the upcoming election precluded any talk of a nominee.

McConnell got another one of them onto the Court (Coney Barrett) when he reversed the “rule” he’d invented for Garland. She was nominated by T____  just 38 days before the 2020 election (when votes were already being cast) — another record.

The fourth member of the Gang of Five (Alito) was nominated by a president (George W. Bush) who lost the popular vote the first time he ran. He might have also lost the Electoral College if the five Republicans on the Supreme Court had allowed Florida to keep counting votes (just think, President Gore would have meant leadership on the climate crisis and no Iraq war).

Alito is the author of the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which he called an “egregiously bad” decision. He apparently came to that conclusion after his 2006 Senate hearing, during which he told the US Senate that he’d look at abortion with an “open mind”.

The fifth justice (Thomas, nominated by George. H. W. Bush) ascended to the Court after lying to the US Senate about his bad behavior (the senators didn’t believe Anita Hill). He was the first Supreme Court justice approved by senators from states representing less than half the country. Although his wife openly supported the January 6th insurrection, he proceeded to cast the only vote in favor of keeping insurrection-related emails secret.

All five of the Gang are Catholics, as is the sixth Republican on the Court (Chief Justice Roberts, the second justice chosen by Bush #2). None of them told the Senate they would overturn Roe v. Wade if given the chance.

Meanwhile, the Republican justices have been making our politics less democratic, less representative of the nation as a whole, by allowing more money into politics, weakening the Voting Rights Act and refusing to do anything about the rampant gerrymandering of congressional districts. All of this has made it less likely Democrats will be elected and much less likely that conservative institutions like the Court, the Senate and the Electoral College will ever be made more responsive to public opinion.

In other words, we’re screwed.

The American journalist Alex Pareene explains why, furthermore, electing more Democrats might not make much difference:

One of the more consequential contradictions of the Democratic Party is that the vast majority of its staffers, consultants, elected officials, and media avatars, along with a substantial portion of its electoral base, are institutionalists. They believe, broadly, in The System. The System worked for them, and if The System’s outputs are bad, it is because we need more of the right sort of people to join or be elected to enter The System. . . .

Institutionalists, in my experience, have trouble reaching an anti-system person, because they think being against The System is an inherently adolescent and silly mindset. But believing in things like “the integrity of the Supreme Court” has proven to be, I think, much sillier, and much more childish.

In the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency a lot of very intelligent people tried to come up with ideas for how to change the Supreme Court, which is poised to spend years eroding the regulatory state and chipping away at civil rights. Expand it, perhaps. Or marginalize it. President Joe Biden, a committed institutionalist, formed a commission of legal scholars—from across the ideological spectrum, of course—to investigate what ought to be done about it. They failed to come up with any answers. “Lawmakers,” the commission wrote, “should be cautious about any reform that seems aimed at the substance of Court decisions or grounded in interpretations of the Constitution over which there is great disagreement in our political life.” You might be mad at the Court because of the decisions it produces, but it’s essential that everyone still trusts the processes that led to them.

This was a white flag. I think some people in the White House have some sick hope that the end of Roe will galvanize the midterm electorate. Something like that may indeed happen. But if they wish to understand why the president has been bleeding youth support for the last year they should try to imagine these young people (and “young”, at this point, has expanded to like 45) not as the annoying and hyper-engaged freaks they see on Twitter every day, but as ones they don’t see anywhere, because, having been urged to pay furious attention by people in the party, they discovered that those people had absolutely no realistic plans to overcome entrenched, systemic obstacles to progress. . . . 

The legitimacy crisis is that our institutions are illegitimate. For my entire adult life, beginning with Bush v. Gore, our governing institutions have been avowedly antidemocratic and the left-of-center party has had no answer for that plain fact; no strategy, no plan, except to beg the electorate to give them governing majorities, which they then fail to use to reform the antidemocratic governing institutions. They often have perfectly plausible excuses for why they couldn’t do better. But that commitment to our existing institutions means they can’t credibly claim to have an answer to this moment. “Give us (another) majority and hope Clarence Thomas dies” is a best-case scenario, but not exactly a sales pitch.

Unquote.

PS: The Rittenhouse Case

Another observer, Kurt Eichenwald, makes a good point:

. . . the biggest villains here are the Kenosha police, who refused to protect protesters by treating right-wing, gun-toting civilians as adjuncts to law enforcement. THAT is where politics & white supremacy should be most condemned – it’s institutional and allowed the streets to be filled with thugs like Rittenhouse, whose mere presence created the potential for this. But the presence of these dangerous people was not a crime.

These Brief Words About the Rittenhouse Case Sound Right to Me

Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, saying he wanted to protect private property. This was during unrest following an earlier incident in which a policeman repeatedly shot an unarmed black man. Confronted and pursued by demonstrators, Rittenhouse killed two and wounded another. He claimed his actions were self-defense.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo responded to Rittenhouse being found not guilty:

A few thoughts on this verdict. It’s probably obvious I think it was a bad verdict. But I think we have to look more broadly at the result. People disagree. Juries make bad decisions. There’s nothing new about that. But what we have in the country right now are three factors.

One is highly permissive self-defense laws. In some cases, the statutes are okay but they’re interpreted too heavily or entirely in the defendant’s subjective perception of danger. In other “stand your ground”-type cases, they’re just bad laws. But the upshot is similar.

You also have a situation where any yahoo is now allowed to bring a high capacity firearm into an already tense or potentially violent situation. Usually they come with a chip on their shoulder or a political agenda. Then if they get scared they can start shooting.

It didn’t get a lot of attention but the judge essentially threw out the law that bars minors from open carrying in Wisconsin. So literally a kid can now show up with an AR to “help” and that’s okay.

Finally we live today in a very polarized, very divided society in which some people’s lives and inner experiences count a lot more than other people’s. You can say that that really means white people’s count more. And that’s generally right. But it’s not only that.

As long as murder is okay as long as you were feeling the right thing at the moment you killed the other person, that makes something as foundational as killing wildly subjective and makes the decisions jurors make too dependent on their own private definitions of good guys and bad guys.

None of these factors are new exactly. But together they create something genuinely new in this political moment. Add in the increasingly public acceptability of political violence on the American Right and you’ve got a powder keg confluence of factors that will make resorts to violence and general murder safaris not only more common, but also acceptable under the law.

Unquote.

I’ll add two things. The first is that the extreme polarization in our society is the result of the right-wing’s descent into fantasy and authoritarianism. Countries with conservative political parties that are actually conservative, not insanely radical and not gun-crazy like the Republican Party, aren’t as polarized.

The second is that the judge dismissed the gun charge because the weapon Rittenhouse had wasn’t illegal, according to Wisconsin’s law. For whatever reason, “the law allows minors to possess shotguns and rifles as long as they’re not short-barreled. . . When [the prosecutor] acknowledged that Rittenhouse’s rifle’s barrel was longer than 16 inches, the minimum barrel length allowed under state law, [the judge] dismissed the charge (Associated Press). In other words, according to the letter of the law, it’s fine in Wisconsin for a minor to parade around with a dangerous weapon if its barrel is longer than 16 inches. The prosecutor could have appealed the judge’s decision, since it contradicted the spirit of the law, but didn’t bother. It wasn’t the prosecutor’s only mistake.

The More We Learn, the Worse It Looks

Wednesday could have been even worse. From The Guardian:

Two men who were seen carrying plastic “zip tie” handcuffs during the deadly riot at the US Capitol, suggesting plans to kidnap lawmakers in an attempt to overturn Txxxx’s election defeat, were arrested on Sunday. . . .

The news came as more graphic details of violence and brutality emerged. Before the arrests announced on Sunday, prosecutors had filed 17 cases in federal district court and 40 in District of Columbia superior court for offenses ranging from assaulting police officers to entering restricted areas, stealing federal property and threatening lawmakers.

Alarming footage of the riot continued to emerge. Some captured a bloodied officer crushed in a doorway and screaming. Other officers were reportedly beaten with pipes; one was seen tumbling over a railing into a crowd below. The officer had been body-slammed from behind.

Brian Sicknick, 42 and a 12-year veteran, died after he was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher while “physically engaging” the rioters, according to a statement from Capitol police. . . . 

Police arrested one man alleged to have brought guns and explosives to Washington; another was heavily armed and allegedly threatened to kill House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence”, the vice-president, were heard during the riot. . . . 

Prosecutors said additional cases remained under seal and dozens were sought by federal agents. The US attorney in Washington vowed that “all options were on the table” for charges, including possibly sedition.

According to the Secretary of the Army, domestic terrorism cases are being opened. Among the items recovered on Wednesday were long guns, Molotov cocktails and other explosive devices.

The Washington Post reported that confrontations between the mob and members of Congress and Capitol staff were imminent:

A mob nearly breached the Speaker’s Lobby with access to the House Chamber while [representatives] and staff were sheltering inside;

There was a similar moment when a right turn instead of left would have taken another mob straight to the Senate chamber; 

Eight staffers huddled together under a table in a conference room, one door away from the terrorists rummaging through Nancy Pelosi’s office;

Behind another door, Senate aides heard a woman praying loudly for “the evil of Congress to be brought to an end”.

Maybe the mob simply wanted to discuss election security with their elected representatives.

A member of the Capitol Police told BuzzFeed that he heard about the coming assault in a message from a friend:

“I found out what they were planning when a friend of mine screenshot me an Instagram story from the Proud Boys saying, ‘We’re breaching the Capitol today, guys. I hope y’all ready.’”

That was a heavily trained group of militia terrorists that attacked us,” said the officer, who has been with the department for more than a decade. “They had radios, we found them, they had two-way communicators and earpieces. They had bear spray. They had flash bangs … They were prepared.

Tonight, CNN has a new video. Someone who’s watched it says it shows “a MAGA rioter (in white hat and backpack) grab a DC Metro officer and pull him down Capitol steps, where he is stomped and beaten with an American flag pole”. These are the “patriots” the president “loves”.

The story that’s slowly being told is that nobody who works for the federal government or the District of Columbia anticipated an attack on the Capitol. They supposedly thought there would be another demonstration, similar to the one on December 12th, during which nothing much happened until after dark, when a few roving bands of the president’s supporters turned violent. That would imply that no government departments were monitoring the discussions on social media and right-wing messages boards that featured detailed discussions of the impending attack (see this article from Pro Publica).Or that whoever is supposed to keep track of domestic terrorism didn’t take the threats seriously. Or that they purposefully kept information about the threat to themselves. The issue will be investigated and at least some of the truth will be revealed.

Meanwhile, Business Insider reports that there are foreign observers who think the lack of security on Wednesday indicates that this was an actual attempted coup by elements in the government:

Insider spoke with three [European] officials on Thursday morning: a French police official responsible for public security in . . . central Paris, and two intelligence officials from NATO countries who directly work in counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations . . . 

They said the circumstantial evidence available pointed to what would be openly called a coup attempt in any other nation. None were willing to speak on the record because of the dire nature of the subject.

While they did not furnish evidence that federal agency officials facilitated the chaos, . . .  America’s international military and security allies are now willing to give serious credence to the idea that [the president] deliberately tried to violently overturn an election and that some federal law-enforcement agents — by omission or otherwise — facilitated the attempt. . . .

“These are not subtle principles” for managing demonstrations, “and they transfer to every situation,” the [French] official said. “This is why we train alongside US federal law enforcement to handle these very matters, and it’s obvious that large parts of any successful plan were just ignored.”

A Conservative Confesses

Matthew Sheffield is a conservative journalist who admits there’s something radically wrong with most “conservative” media. He wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

As a former conservative activist and journalist, it has been so frustrating to see my former compatriots spreading wild and unchecked claims about “voter fraud.”

As the co-creator of NewsBusters, the most prominent anti-media website, I was part of a decades-long tradition of complaining about media elites being “unfair” to conservative views. There is still much to that argument, but eventually I saw that I was missing context.

What I did not realize until I began expanding my work into creating actual media and reporting institutions such as the Washington Examiner (I was the founding online editor) was that U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism.

This became evident to me as I saw that conservative-dominated media outlets were MUCH more biased than outlets run by liberals. The latter had flaws that arose from a lack of diversities (note plural) but they operated mostly in good faith. That’s not how the former operated.

I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would some how counteract perceived liberal bias.

While I was enmeshed in the conservative media tradition, I viewed lefty media thinkers like @jayrosen_nyu as arguing that journalism was supposed to be liberally biased. I was wrong. I realized later that I didn’t understand that journalism is supposed to portray reality.

This thought was phrased memorably by [Stephen Colbert] as “reality has a well-known liberal bias”, which is an oversimplification but is more accurate than the conservative journalist view which is that media should promote and serve conservative politicians.

I also discovered as I rose through the right-wing media ranks that most conservative media figures have no journalism training or desire to fact-check their own side. I also saw so many people think that reporting of information negative to [Republican] politicians was biased, even if it was true.

If you would like to get a great look at the tensions and origins of conservative journalism, there is a wonderful, fabulous book by my friend [Nicole Hemmer], Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, which I cannot commend enough. My career was an updated version of what she chronicled.

People ask sometimes if conservative media figures like Sean Hannity or anyone associated with the Federalist could actually be so credulous as to believe unfounded and non-specific allegations of “voter fraud.” But the reality is that they don’t actually even think that far.

Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms “the left.” It doesn’t even have to be a fact. Trump’s numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.

This assumption is behind all conservative media output. They never tell you what their actual motives are. Most center-left people don’t realize just how radical many conservative elites are, largely because they don’t wear it on their sleeves.

Just as a for-instance of this point, most people have no idea that the top two Trump White House figures, Mike Pence and Mark Meadows, think that biological evolution is a lie.

This is an extraordinarily dangerous viewpoint in light of the SARS2 coronavirus epidemic because the entirety of virology and epidemiology is based on evolution. If you think it’s “fake” then you’ll believe ludicrous nonsense like “herd immunity.”

The same thing is happening with right-wing media and specious claims of voter fraud. Conservatives are willing to believe them even if there is no evidence, simply because anything negative about liberals is true. This mentality extends to the very highest ranks.

Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, and a bevvy of GOP elected officials have no problem parroting unverified rumors as fact because conservative journalism is about supporting conservatives, not about finding facts.

I tried for over a decade to inculcate some standards of independence and professionalism among conservative writers but my efforts made me enemies, especially when I argued that the GOP should be neutral on religion, instead of biased toward Christians.

I began work on a manuscript in 2012 fearing that Mitt Romney would lose his election because conservatives had not learned how politics actually works and that we should adapt to serve public needs and make peace with secular people.

I showed my manuscript to several people who I thought were my friends because I wanted to get the perspective of religious conservatives. Instead of helping me, some of them began trying to expel me from the conservative movement.

I eventually realized that many conservative activists were committed to identity rather than ideas. One of my friends literally told me in 2016 that he would support Senator Ted Cruz because “that’s what the Christians are doing.”

We’re at a critical moment in U.S. politics right now because the Christian identity politics that is the edifice of Republican electioneering is teetering. Millions of Americans have for decades thought that their countrymen are evil.

You can watch this play out right now on a television stage when you tune into Fox News as they cover the election. Fact-based journalists have finally realized that the identity rage of the GOP is going into a raging crescendo.

On an hourly basis now outside of the rage-filled lie-fests of primetime, Fox reporters are gently trying to explain to guests that they need actual evidence before accusing people of crimes. The guests, such as Gingrich, have NEVER been challenged like this on Fox.

Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Martha MacCallum, and others are trying to save conservatism from itself. It’s like watching a modern-day adaptation of Aeschylus or Sophocles. Sadly, the rest of us are not just spectators in this tragedy.

How American conservatism dies is the most important story, by far, of this moment. Conventional media will never tell this story because their business is built on the lie that Trump is an aberration rather than apotheosis. . . .

At the same time, the tens of millions of people who vote Republican are not deplorable. They are misled. And the mocking and tribalistic coverage that lefty media often engage in only makes things worse. Only love can defeat hate.

And just to clarify my point about people who are “misled.” It’s the people that Trump referred to when he said “I love the poorly educated.” They are the people who work hard, go to church, and feel they have no future in a secular America.

Not the leaders, but the led.

Unquote. 

Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens choose to be misled because it makes them feel better. This is a comment I left after reading “Welcome the Txxxx Voters Back”, a piece by a philosophy professor calling on us to be nicer to the president’s supporters (in my comment, I quote the author of the article while making a few changes):

Speaking for the majority of American voters, I hereby welcome the minority to join us in “[cultivating] an information environment in which people [can] distinguish between truth and falsehood, in which expert claims are [not] treated with suspicion, and in which fringe figures and theories are [not] valued more highly than mainstream ones”.

Unless more of the “conservative” minority are willing to do that, it’s not going to make a damn bit of difference whether we in the majority “appreciate the bond of citizenship” [and welcome them back] more than we already do.