John Stoehr, The Editorial Board

The four stages of 'groomer speech'

Something I’ve been meaning to tell you. My dad is a pedophile. I’m not the victim. As always, though, there’s never just one. The ties that bound my family have largely come undone. Pain is now a feature, not a bug, of our lives. It’s a story without ending, nevermind a happy one.

So you can imagine what it felt like to see Republicans in the United States Senate using the word “pedophile” (as well as “child-predator”) during the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Their use of it was loose, irrelevant, warped and worse. The purpose was advancing conspiracy theories already spreading. The goal was smearing the new Supreme Court justice with the smell of evil.

Worst of all, by overusing it, they watered down the word. They hollowed out its primary moral essence. They created conditions in which my dad and other pedophiles can now plausible say their crimes aren’t as bad as they say. Just look at what the Democrats are doing.

Child abuse, predation, child molestation and rape – these are real problems responsible citizens much find humane ways of addressing while serving the often conflicting needs for rehabilitaton and justice.

These are real social, political and criminal problems.

By belittling them, the Republicans insult us.

They piss into the wounds of real victims, too.

That’s what you’d expect from a political party operating on the edge of political violence. Justice Jackson’s confirmation hearings were a case in point, according to Gabriel Rosenberg, a professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke. During our interview, Professor Rosenberg walked me through the four stages of “groomer speech.”

“You're seeing a way in which partisan interests are pursued through the figure of the pedophile, not because any of these people give a damn about the sexual well-being of children, but because it's an incredibly charged and politically potent thing they can hurl.”

On Twitter, you offered an analysis of the rhetoric surrounding Florida’s new Don’t Say Gay legislation. That rhetoric seems to weaponize words like “pedophile” and “child predator” and other things beyond the pale. You outlined four items. Can you explain?

The basic thesis of what I'm calling the “groomer panic,” which I think is coherently understood as a moral panic, or sex panic, is that has the capacity to be significantly more dangerous than comparable sex panics in the past in which similar sorts of rhetorical weaponization of the terms “pedophile” or “child predator” had been deployed.

It has the possibility of spilling into actual political violence.

I made four points.

First, “groomer speech” is using the metaphor of child sexual abuse to describe educational content that rightwing forces disapprove of.

This metaphor of violent physical harm is being used to describe a disagreement over educational content and the underlying speech acts constituting that content. There is a confusion about different kinds of harm and a confusion about the difference between speech and act.

Second, this confusion means concrete evidence of child sex abuse is no longer necessary. Instead, the evidence is the speech act itself.

It becomes the case then that anyone can be credibly accused of being a “groomer,” not because there's evidence of grooming, but because such person has dissented from a preferred framework among conservatives for the understanding of Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.

“Groomer” describes dissent from conservatism writ large.

There is specificity to the claim about “pedophile” that is itself unique and dramatic. I describe it as having an eliminationist intention.

Third, “groomer speech” is distinguishable from “subjugating speech.”

“Subjugating speech” might incite violence. It's possible. It has before. But broadly, it’s intended to justify social and political inequalities.

“Pedophile” is a specific term, however. It carries, at least in rightwing communities, a claim that the individual in question is pathologically invested in harming the most vulnerable members of society.

There's no interest in governing such individuals.

It's not about establishing them as second-class citizens.

It's about putting them to death.

That separates it from a general class of what I’m calling “subjugating speech” intended to degrade or lessen a person but isn't necessarily a suggestion that they and all people like them ought to be eliminated.

Fourth, “groomer speech” is not being directed at minorities.

At various points in American history, conservatives have accused gay people and other sexual (and sometimes racial) minorities of intending to prey on kids – they behave in a predatory fashion toward children.

What's interesting about “groomer speech” and what's most alarming about its use by the right is the charge being directed at powerful people who cannot by any measure be identified with a minority.

When Marjorie Taylor Greene said Mitt Romney is “pro-pedophile,” she's talking about the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

When James Lindsay called Nate Hochman, a writer for National Review, a “groomer,” he's talking about a conservative in good standing, or was. He's saying this individual also wants to abuse children.

This is radically different.

It's now about disciplining ingroup versus outgroup identity within conservatism writ large. It’s about reformatting and hardening the line between people who are conservative and people who are not.

In the end, conservatives are the good ones. They're anti-pedophile. Anyone who dissents from the conservative framework is therefore pro-pedophile. They constitute individuals who must be eliminated.

Ted Cruz used to talk about “San Francisco values.” Others talked about “the gay agenda.” Those are more abstract than “pedophile.” You’re saying we’ve arrived at a new and more explicit point in the evolution of conservative rhetoric. Is that accurate?

That's generally correct.

I would add that on the right, they're open to the idea of people who prey on children deserving the most extreme forms of violence.

I don't think anybody on the far right is trying to hide that.

That’s fundamentally important.

“Groomer speech” is deployed to advance virtually anything that fits within the broader political program of the conservative movement.

Right now, it's about targeting people who dissent from a particular kind of orthodoxy around interpretation of educational content.

But then we saw it coming into play in specious arguments about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record – that she was “pro-pedophile.” Therefore Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski [“moderate” Republican senators who voted for her confirmation to the Supreme Court] were also “pro-pedophile.”

It's spilling into confirmations of Supreme Court nominees.

That's a break from the past.

That speaks to the flexibility and centrality of the charge eventually becoming the basis of things like criminal policy, militarization, policing, tax policy and labor policy. It can become a basic rhetorical strategy the far right uses to justify whatever they want to justify.

You're with us and the children.

Or you're on the other side with the pedophiles.

I’m thinking of eugenics. The antipathy toward LGBTQ people comes from the idea that LGBTQ-ness infects white people. As a result, they don't have enough babies. With too few white babies, white people risk becoming a minority. How would you understand that?

During the early human eugenics movement, there was a great deal of enthusiasm in the United States for coercive sterilization of anyone who exhibited homosexual tendencies or who desired sex with men.

There was this idea that homosexuality constituted a dangerous social contagion that needed to be eliminated from society regardless of whether it could be passed on as a congenital defect. It was that grave.

Immediately after World War II, there was something the Lavender Scare period in which heightened concern about male homosexuality resulted in the creation of a lot of criminal psychopathology laws.

These law created legal justification for jailing and sterilizing gay people under the auspices of gay people preying on innocent children.

So the far right isn’t punching down. It's punching sideways – or even up in the case of senators. Is there a link historically between that and a leap into political violence? Do they go hand in hand?

I think Judge Jackson's confirmation hearings clearly illustrate how this works. The Republican Party did not want to see anyone vote for her. Various Republican senators fixated on a specious charge that she'd been light on sentencing people who possessed child pornography.

It was so specious that Andrew McCarthy, who is a notable and extremely right wing figure with National Review, basically labeled it “demagoguery.” He said there were better reasons to oppose her.

The right mobilized after labeling her “pro-pedophile.” From there, they disciplined GOP apostates by labeling them “pro-pedophile,” too. They wanted to show as much opposition as they could.

Actual sexual harm to children had nothing to do with it.

But once it got invoked, it became a disciplinary tool.

You're seeing a way in which partisan interests are pursued through the figure of the pedophile, not because any of these people give a damn about the sexual well-being of children, but because it's an incredibly charged and politically potent thing they can hurl.

That kind of irresponsibility, with no bottom, carries with it its own momentum. It can become more and more difficult to control.

The more pain Russians feel, the more incentive Putin has

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over his country. In a press conference Thursday, he called on NATO member nations to “close the sky.” He asked how many mothers and babies have to die before that decision is made. “If you don’t have the strength to close the sky, give us planes,” he said.

Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess master who’s become a democratic reformer, called for intervention, too. “We are witnessing, literally watching live, Putin commit genocide on an industrial scale in Ukraine while the most powerful military alliance in history stands aside.”

It seems like a good idea, right? Shoot down anything airborne. Give Ukrainians troops on the ground a chance to beat the Russians.

But the conventional wisdom, believed since the Cold War, is that military intervention would provoke the leader of a nuclear power. After all, the would-be czar failed to make up an excuse to invade. If the US and NATO get involved, Putin wouldn’t need to make up anything to do whatever else he wants to do to eastern Europe.

The US and European allies have chosen to squeeze Russia’s economy, which in turn squeezes ordinary Russians. It’s going to get bad fast, said Maxim Mironov, a professor of finance at the IE Business School in Madrid. “The inhabitants of Russia, even the educated, for the most part do not understand what awaits them,” he said Wednesday.

“Many people ask me to comment on the sanctions,” he said in Russian, according to Google Translate. “In short, my scientific conclusion as a professor of finance, doctor of the University of Chicago is FUCKED.”

Mironov said employment will fall while prices rise. Meanwhile, he said, “the Russians will face a shortage of basic products. I'm not talking about all kinds of iPhones, the import of which has already been banned, but food, clothes, cars, household appliances, etc.”

As one wag put it, it’s “Back to the USSR.”

It’s no joke, though. The point of sanctions is to punish Putin for invading Ukraine. Moreover, it’s to create conditions by which ordinary Russians can agitate for reforms even more than they already are. (Another theory is that those conditions might spark a coup d’etat.)

But what if they don’t work? What if we should prepare for all of this to get much worse, especially for the Ukrainian people?

To find out more, I got in touch with Sergei Guriev, a professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris. What he told me, after explaining the effects of sanctions, is they won’t do what we hope they will.

In fact, it’s the reverse.

We hope Putin will stop now that his economy is facing collapse (according to a new report by JP Morgan). He won’t, though, said Professor Guriev, because his economy is facing collapse.

The more pain ordinary Russians feel, the more incentive Putin will have to continue prosecuting the war in Ukraine, because only by winning will ordinary Russians feel their suffering was worth it.

“He needs to win it and tell the public he has won.

Can you explain how sanctions affect ordinary Russians?

Much higher prices. Therefore, lower purchasing power of their incomes. No access to many digital services. Drastic reduction of air transportation. A majority of the air fleet are Boings and Airbuses. In a couple of weeks, they will be grounded due to lack of maintenance.

Can you characterize the impact of, for example, BP pulling out of Russia, and Apple stopping all sales? How much will that be felt?

BP exiting Russia will reduce Russian oil output in the long run, as BP has superior exploration and production technology. Apple and Google? Just imagine your life without Apple Store and Google Play (as for the devices themselves, there are Chinese smartphones.)

Most Americans have no idea what SWIFT is. First, can you spell out what it is. Second, why does it matter to stopping a war?

SWIFT is an interbank messaging system. It allows fast and reliable execution of payments. Without it, payments are much slower and more expensive. Cutting Russian banks off SWIFT hits their profits.

But sanctions on the Russian Central Bank are more important.

Please continue.

Russia has $630 billion in foreign exchange reserves that defend the stability of the ruble. Now they are frozen, so ruble lost 30 percent when these sanctions were announced

Nominally, only about a half of these reserves is frozen (those in dollars, euros, yens and pounds) but the other half (gold and yuan) is also hit – as the Central Bank is sanctioned, nobody will transact with the Central Bank fearing "secondary" sanctions

The government is stopping people from leaving with money, no?

This is correct. Russia introduced many restrictions on taking currency out of the country. You can leave with no more than $10 thousand in cash. You cannot wire dollars outside Russia.

How about unemployment?

Russia traditionally has low unemployment (for demographic reasons and because unemployment benefits are very low). But we will see at least a temporary increase in unemployment – eg, employees of Ikea, carmakers etc. The airline sanctions will also result in redundancies

So Professor Mironov is correct: “We will face the shutdown of entire industries with all the ensuing consequences – a shortage of goods, mass unemployment, respectively, a fall in tax collection.”

Yes, absolutely.

We are likely to have a recession comparable to 1998’s. But whether it results in the immediate change of Mr. Putin's behavior, I cannot say.

Jobs down, prices up, shortages. Can Putin withstand this?

Yes, but this requires much tighter domestic repression.

In the last two days, all independent media has closed. The one remaining Novaya Gazeta (led by the Nobel-winner Dmitry Muratov) announced that it will stop covering the war in Ukraine.

There is a brand new law criminalizing dissemination of information different from the official position – with jail terms up to 15 years.

A big internet provider to Russia, Cogent Communications, is about to pull the plug. That would deepen the domestic repression, no?

Yes.

If the US economy collapsed, there would be hell to pay. That's not how things work in Russia, though. Is a coup likely?

Exactly.

Putin has built a system that introduces a disconnect between the public's unhappiness and pressure of that unhappiness on politicians.

Regarding the coup, potential coup plotters are scared that they are listened to and can be killed first. There are people around Putin with KGB background who agree with him and are very happy now.

He is thinking about his personal security all the time.

It is not easy to prepare a coup.

Is it accurate to say Putin has incentive to keep the war going?

He needs to win it and tell the public he has won.

The sooner, the better – and with minimal losses




The 'freedom convoy,' the anti-vaxx movement and why a minister murdered by the Nazis thought evil wasn’t the worst thing

On February 15, Bloomberg ran a story about the “freedom convoy” that seemed to illustrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who was part of the German resistance to the Nazi Party and to Adolf Hitler’s rise. His book, The Cost of Discipleship, is a meditation on “The Sermon on the Mount” in which Bonhoeffer splits the Christian concept of grace in two.

On the one hand is “cheap grace,” which is “without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

On the other hand, Bonhoeffer said, is “costly grace.” It “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.”

Indeed, resisting fascism by submitting “to the yoke of Christ” and following him cost him dearly. At age 39, the Nazis hanged him.

His theory of stupidity is featured in a letter written to friends a few years earlier. The letter, which is now known as “After Ten Years,” argues that evil like the Nazis isn’t the worst thing. Stupidity is.

“One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force,” he wrote. “Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless.”

Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.

Bloomberg reporters Jen Skerritt and Robert Tuttle were covering protests of the Canadian government’s requirement that truck drivers delivering freight across the US-Canadian border must be vaccinated.

Protests in Alberta and Manitoba, dubbed the “freedom convoy,” took the form of blockades of bridges and trucking routes, at odds with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declaration of emergency powers.

Skerritt and Tuttle interviewed one trucker. His name is Jake Klassen. His two campers and semi were in the blockade. He said Trudeau’s emergency powers were an attempt to “take everything from us.”

Then there is this part:

QUOTEQUOTEKlassen said he hasn’t been able to visit his nine-year-old daughter in months. She is receiving palliative care at St. Amant, a care residence in Winnipeg, but due to restrictions that require visitors to be fully vaccinated, Klassen and his wife can’t see her.

“Yes, that's absolutely stunning and sad,” said Victoria Barnett.

Barnett was director of programs on ethics, religion and the Holocaust at the National Holocaust Museum. She’s the author of many books on interfaith history. She edited a 2017 translation of “After Ten Years.” I asked if Jake Klassen exemplifies Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity.

*

Maybe, but as part of a bigger phenomenon. “After Ten Years” was his attempt to understand the first 10 years of National Socialism and what had happened to his compatriots, his church, his country.

He's trying to figure out why most Germans caved to Nazi ideology and why they became integral to what happened. The historian Klemens von Klemperer (himself a refugee) called the Third Reich a "consensual dictatorship" -- which is a pretty good description.

Go into that a bit more please. How was it consensual?

His main point is that stupidity is a moral failure, not an intellectual one. He's reflecting on the process by which people willfully become part of a larger movement or political group, etc. As they become increasingly involved, two things tend to happen:

  1. They become isolated (or they isolate themselves) from those who disagree with them or challenge them (and I would say also from news sources that would challenge their worldview) and
  2. They get a lot of reinforcement. One of the things that happened in 1933 after Hitler came to power was that Nazi Party organizations were founded for every demographic group – teachers, housewives, kids, etc. Everyone suddenly had a badge, a uniform, meetings to go to, new friends to meet etc. — and that was a big factor in creating a new sense of a larger German community serving a "grander" purpose (in the Nazi mindset).

A big part of that, of course, was identifying enemies and those who needed to be excluded -- Jewish citizens, political opponents, critical journalists, etc. But that early formation of consensus made life much harder, even by the end of 1933, for people who didn't agree with it.

What you're describing is collectivism, no?

The self-understanding of the German Volk was a collective concept personified by the "Fuhrer.” That's a big part of authoritarian or fascist regimes. Authoritarian leaders can do things without parliamentary approval, because they represent the "true" will of "the people."

But that also created a dynamic in Nazi Germany in which there was this mass adoration – almost a mass hysteria – for the person of Adolf Hitler. There are paintings portraying him as a messianic figure.

Bonhoeffer said there is no defense against stupidity. But if it's a moral failing, wouldn't a defense be private and public morality?

Ideally, yes.

Bonhoeffer's essay is an exploration of why that didn't happen. (Elsewhere, he explores the lack of civil courage) But Nazi Germany is a disturbing case study in the failure of leaders, institutions (such as the church), etc., to stand up in an effective way to National Socialism.

The best and bravest people were either arrested early on or got out. But he's pondering (and I think this is autobiographical) the failure of good decent people critical of the regime to be more effective.

That didn't happen. (Along the way, one must acknowledge that many of them became complicit). But by staying in and working from inside the regime, they also failed to offer a clearer example of resistance.

That's why by 1942 Bonhoeffer believes (as he writes here) that "only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity."

The trucker above says he's seeking liberation, too. Liberation from responsibility. How would Bonhoeffer persuade a man that he has agency and can visit his dying daughter by making the right choice?

One thing DB ignores is the psychology of all this. (He describes stupidity as a sociological problem). In Nazi Germany, we're also looking at the pressures and dynamics within a fascist police state.

In other circumstances, however (eg, the truckers' protests), this gets back to the peer pressures within a group that’s getting its information only from certain sources, in which there is a lot of pressure to conform to the will of the group (and a reward for doing so).

I've studied this in terms of the psychology of group behavior in Nazi Germany, but the literature on personality cults, mob behavior, etc., shows that the longer and more deeply a person gets involved in something like this, the less individual agency they perceive they have.

For Bonhoeffer personally -- he wrote as a theologian and person of deep faith -- that faith has the capacity to make someone see more clearly. But “After Ten Years” is a rather bleak assessment.

I'm reminded of something Michael Josephson said in 1989:

Success can be defined so many different ways but right now it is defined in a kind of how high is your position, how many people work for you, how high is your salary. When you get into that kind of yuppie version of success, you’re going to sacrifice things along the way. There’s not enough commitment to the ground rules of civil virtue.

A society focused on "success" (greed, selfishness) is a society in which a man won't do the right thing to see his dying daughter and as a consequence, will make sacrifices he can’t reverse along the way.

He's making an important point about what we value publicly and how that affects the individual's ethics and sense of responsibility.

I've been very disturbed by some of the very callous reactions during the pandemic – eg, the minimization of the deaths in nursing homes, the rush to get back to normal when thousands of people are still getting sick and dying (and when large sectors of the population -- children under the age of 6 -- can't yet be vaccinated).

But as I saw somewhere, the scale of the callousness has been on display for some time now in how we've dealt with school shootings, the high level of violence in our society and the much higher levels of violence experienced by people of color and the poor.

A society is measured in part by what we are willing to live with and by whether we are willing to change to make life better. Bonhoeffer, in his text, addresses this when he writes about the responsibility we are willing to take upon ourselves for the sake of a different future.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be doing what Bonhoeffer wished more Germans had done. He called out conservatives in the Parliament for standing with the Swastika and the Confederate flag.

I interviewed a number of Germans back in the 1980s when I was working on my first book (a collection of oral histories from people who had been in the Confessing Church) and I recall Kurt Scharf (a very brave pastor, who would later became a bishop) saying that if Germans had held mass demonstrations and marched in 1933 in solidarity with German Jews, they might have changed things.

Impossible to know in retrospect, that’s what’s important here (and for understanding Bonhoeffer as well) -- taking a public position not only draws a line for what can be tolerated, but it also serves as a model to others that it is possible to speak out. That's what he was writing about in the section on the lack of civil courage among Germans.

America needs a vision of ‘the good life’

I used to care about ideologies. I think that’s because I used to care about my public image more than I do now. These days, I’m less interested in whether someone or something is liberal or conservative. I’m more interested in whether they stand for or against democracy.

Still, it’s worth discussing. The press corps tends to treat schools of thought as if they were trapped in amber. Liberals always do X and conservatives always do Y, and so on. But ideologies live in the stream of history, same as the rest of us. They are complex and contingent.

A liberal in 1968 is not a liberal in 2000 is not a liberal in 2022. Each is a product of their times. Those times, in turn, are products of their respective pasts. In 1968, liberals were champions of the New Deal and Great Society. In 2000, liberals were “socially progressive, but fiscally conservative.” In 2022, liberals are, well, that’s to be determined.

Certain is liberalism was the center prior to and including the 1960s. Actually, that's an understatement. Liberals had a monopoly on political legitimacy. But by 1980, it was clear liberalism was in retreat. Ronald Reagan cemented “conservatism” as the center of the spectrum with a double ass-kicking the likes of which most will never see again.

Our discourse gets a thrill out of picking over ideologies as if they were angels dancing on the heads of pins. What they are, however, isn’t as important as what they do. What they do isn’t as important and when they do it, where they do it and to whom they are doing it.

Even so, it’s important to know how they have changed and why. That’s why I got in touch with Samantha Hancox-Li. She’s a contributor to Liberal Currents, a magazine dedicated to debating the many strains of liberalism, including Samantha’s favorite, small-r republicanism. She started with a history lesson that her fellow millennials may not see.

For most of my life, “conservatism” has been considered the center of American politics. Our press and pundit corps reflect that. I think it began changing with Obama. Is liberalism moving to the center?

I agree that conservatism was, for a very long time, the center of American politics. For many millennials, I think it would be helpful to go and look at Ronald Reagan's electoral maps – blood red, across the country (1980, 1984) – to get a sense of how central conservatism was.

Clinton barely won in 1992. That took a substantial amount of "triangulation" — tacking to the right, basically — as well as Ross Perot running as a spoiler. For several decades, conservative politics — which is to say, the conservative coalition — has been central to American politics. A lot of our older politicians (e.g., Nancy Pelosi) and media personalities grew up in that time and are still in that mindset.

The election of Barack Obama marked a sea change. A Black man with strong progressive language assembled a multiethnic, young majority-female coalition. This worked because Obama was a generational, inspirational figure, but also because America had undergone a profound demographic change since 1980 — the Obama coalition had already been around. It just couldn't win elections.

Crucially, Obama's election touched off an immense racist backlash. This wasn't foreordained. (I think had Hillary Clinton won the 2008 Democratic primary, our politics today would be profoundly different.)

This meant the core of the conservative coalition — white Americans — began "going full racist" in ways that alienated most of the remaining members, specifically, conservative Latinx and Asian voters. Even during George W. Bush's presidency, Republicans believed in trying to win over those voters. The racism and rabid anti-immigrant sentiment of the Obama years drove them to the Democratic Party.

So yes, I think liberalism defined as a multiethnic, multireligious, female-driven coalition of the Democratic Party is moving toward the center of American politics, by weight of numbers if nothing else.

During the Reagan-Bush I-Clinton-Bush-II years, liberalism was very rights-oriented. That changed with Obama’s election, too. He was the first Democratic president in my lifetime to talk about the duties of citizenship, the responsibilities of a free society and the rights of communities. He might have been a small-r republican.

Obama was very good at putting a coat of soaring rhetorical paint on what were in fact standard centrist Democrat policies. It was easy to project your own imagined version of progressivism onto him (which is why I think so many progressives became disillusioned in the end.)

But these deeper questions — a liberalism of rights versus a liberalism of responsibilities, the individual versus the community — I think these are important questions with ongoing relevance to our politics.

I'll throw some things out there so we can talk about them.

First, I think the "liberalism of rights" during the Clinton years has been rightly identified with (caution: dirty word) neoliberalism. I take neoliberalism to be a disposition for individualistic and market-oriented solutions to public problems. It represents a marriage of so-called "freshwater economics" and liberalism's longstanding focus on individual rights against government interference.

What neoliberalism promised was that by "getting government out of the way," you could achieve many of the collective goods that liberals used to want to achieve through collective action. You can see why that took root among Democrats during their defensive-crouch years. But we're now all living among the ruins of neoliberalism’s failures.

Second, the emphasis on "community" has its own history in "communitarian" thinkers of the 20th century, many of whom reacted to the overarching ambitions of the liberal order. The thinking was that there's an irreducible value to communities and communal practices, something that goes beyond any one person’s rights or welfare.

Personally, I’m skeptical of this rhetoric. It is often used as cover for conservative communities to go on oppressing others. See, for instance, the ease of NIMBYs picking up language about "the unique nature of our community" to strangle new housing developments.

Third, there's that last word term mentioned — small-r republicanism.

This is a philosophical tendency that I am very much in favor of.

I take small-r republicanism to be focused on re-orienting liberal thought from a blinkered focus on the individual versus the government to a sharper focus on a) protecting individuals from the arbitrary power of private actors and b) how private associations between individuals are an essential aspect of a stable liberal order.

Let's pick up that strain. Is there anyone you can think of in the Democratic Party, in the press corps or among public intellectuals who’s carrying the mantle of small-r republicanism? And why?

First, let me say more about what I take as the republican ideal.

In 1790, George Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island. He exchanged letters with the Jewish communities there. They were anxious to know whether they’d be welcome in this new country.

Washington promised that in America (and I'm paraphrasing here), “each man shall have his own fig and his own vine, and no one shall make him afraid," a passage that appears in several places in the Torah.

It's an evocative phrase. I think it encompasses an essential aspect of the republican ideal: that to live a flourishing life, to fully exercise their autonomy, individuals need a degree of material security as well as a degree of protection from the arbitrary power of other people.

What we call “civic associations” are possible due to material security and protection. I have resources to devote to causes and associations, and I don't need to be afraid of (private) retaliation for doing so.

The government doesn't impose associations or give them "special consideration" — they grow naturally from a free society. They are the bulwarks of that free society when it’s stressed and challenged.

So who is carrying this torch today? On some level, I’d say nobody in particular but also the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Most politicians aren't articulating things in this lofty way. But progressives are the ones banging on about the particular forms of arbitrary power that Americans are subject to — fear of your boss, fear of poverty, fear of medical expenses, fear of losing your home.

Progressives are the ones who insist on providing this level of material security and protection against arbitrary power (especially that of the extremely wealthy, the corporations and your boss) for normal people.

Elizabeth Warren has made these basic questions fundamental. I think Paul Crider of Liberal Currents has written interesting stuff about this tradition. I wish I had more names for you, but sadly I do not.

A longstanding critique of liberalism among actual Marxists is that it does not provide a "utopian" vision to work toward. This tension is evident among members of the progressive wing. Talk about that.

There is a genuine disagreement between the liberal and Marxist traditions! Liberalism as a tradition dates back to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both of whom were writing in the context of the English civil war and European wars of religion. They both came away from these experiences extremely skeptical of, essentially, theocracy (society built on a single state-defining conception of “the good life”).

While that skepticism has played out in various ways among various liberal thinkers in history, I’d argue that it’s nearly definitional to the liberal project – that no one else should define what your sense of the good life is. Society should be organized around giving you the opportunity to pursue your conception of “the good life” as you see fit.

This contrasts straightforwardly with orthodox Marxism.

One of Marx's key concerns in Das Kapital is the relation between laborer and labor, and the distinction between "alienated" labor and “unalienated” labor. Labor under capitalism is alienated. In the utopia, it will be unalienated. That's what makes that utopia worth pursuing.

This is a specific conception of the good life tied to labor and production. I don't think that should be society’s defining goal. If your good life is watching Netflix and eating popcorn, more power to you.

That said, I take your point that liberalism has, for many years now, managed to be distinctly uninspiring. That it has offered piecemeal, technocratic, "invisible nudge" solutions intended to make people's lives better without anyone noticing. It does not make your heart sing.

Is the republican ideal a remedy for that? The answer is yes, sort of.

Offering Americans an opportunity to prosper — the hope of prospering and of achieving their dreams — that's a powerful ideal.

But the issue here isn't so much messaging as it is the fact that this ideal seems terribly out of reach for most Americans. If we want the republican ideal to inspire, we have to start by making it real again.

Sadism and the far right: How Freud explains why Republicans are killing themselves

More Americans are dying from the covid in states run by Republicans than in states run by Democrats. In terms of cold political calculation, Democratic governors are striving to save supporters from death. Yet Republican governors seem content hurtling supporters toward it.

Why would they do that? When the former president refused to help “blue states” battle the new coronavirus, it was disgraceful and sadistic. Yet it was understandable (again in cold political terms). You’d think the Republicans would want to help their base. But thinking that would mean you’re thinking like a liberal. Republicans don’t do that.

When Republican leaders hurt their own – for instance, by fining business owners for asking customers to mask up, thus spreading the plague more widely – they are not undermining themselves. They are in fact feeding into an already established story about “real Americans” being the “real victims” while the real victims perpetuate political evil.

How do sadist policies work with masochistic outcomes to not undermine the whole project but instead deepen the commitment of Republican supporters to the cause of restoring America to greatness?

For an answer, I turned to Casey Ryan Kelly. He’s a professor of rhetoric and public culture at the University of Nebraska -Lincoln. His latest book is called Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood. In it, Professor Kelly applies Sigmund Freud’s concept of “the death drive” to understanding not only the former president’s incendiary rhetoric but also GOP incoherence.

I sent him the above image in order to ask: Huh?

I turned to the concept because I wanted to find what unified conservative incoherence. I was struck by, on the one hand, the GOP’s obsession with grievance and victimhood and, on the other, their preoccupation with strength, power and other similar attributes

Yeah, right. How does one square that circle?

For nearly 40 years, conservatives have forged their political identity on the assumption that they have been exiled from politics and marginalized by changes in the culture.

The problem is you have to square this idea with the fact that conservatives have made huge political gains that have ostensibly resulted in minority rule.

So they have to reconcile this contradiction. There is so much legitimacy in being able to claim one is a victim that conservatives are often manufacturing their own marginalization with trivial “culture war” issues: “critical race theory,” confederate monuments, Antifa and Black Lives Matter and so on.

This is an intoxicating elixer, because conservatives become attached and invested in their identity as marginalized (for instance, “reverse discrimination” is a bigger issue that racial discrimination against minorities).

My argument is that they compulsively restage an encounter with their own subjugation, endless repeating grievances and enjoying doing so.

The case studies in my book articulate how conservatives become attached to victimhood, because it enables them to disavow their privileges and overwhelming dominance of politics

So even as they fear humiliation, they seek it out? Or create conditions in which they will experience humiliation?

Yes, the trick is to engineer situations that appear to be discriminatory or unfair but without actually conceding any real substantive power.

For example, take free speech controversies on college campuses.

The plan is to invite a very controversial conservative speaker to campus that sparks liberal protests. The speaker is disinvited or the speaker withdraws based out of fear of "riots." Then the conservative news media run story after story about how oppressive campus culture is for conservatives.

There is very little at stake for conservatives but liberals come off as looking intolerant. Either they accept intolerant speech (like Milo Yiannapolis or Richard Spencer) or look like agents of intolerance.

The minor humiliation conservatives suffer from being disinvited pales in comparison to the cultural power they attain by looking like they are victims of discrimination.

They can then assert that white conservatives deserve to fairly engage in identity politics but from a position of material strength. It's a win-win.

Trump is a great case study in this as well.

His speeches at rallies are an incessant list of grievances, mainly concerning how his loyal supporters have been humiliated and the world is laughing at them. It's almost masochistic, like a Friars Club roast. Then he offers to fight on their behalf to overcome their humiliation. They willingly concede and trust in his power.

It seems the Republicans achieve a win-win-win by eliciting sympathy, or the appearance of sympathy, from pundits and political actors who are invested in their public image of being politically neutral. Think of the "anti-woke" discourse that's been in vogue of late.

Absolutely.

They get to look like they are the rational political center and anyone on the left who brings up evidence of historic and structural oppression is met with the demeaning label of "woke" or "triggered." The left looks out of control, overly emotional and irrational.

The timing is right. Social justice made tremendous gains after the murder of George Floyd, which occurred amid a transparently racist administration. Now that Trump is gone, "respectable white people," as I call them, and the press corps are more than happy to pile on to a white backlash that has been cascading since Biden's inauguration.

Conservatives are skilled at turning the tables on "social justice."

There is a great book by Alyson Cole called the The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror (2006) in which she examines how the victim’s rights movement is a perfect case study in how to portray the victims of discrimination in the criminal justice system as phony victims and the victims of crime as the true innocent victims of society.

While that is about a very specific case of the criminal justice system, you can see the concept of true victimhood play out to nullify and delegitimize police protests and Black Lives Matter.

Let's turn to Freud. Can you break down how his concepts apply? First, what's the death drive?

Freud found that World War I soldiers continually re-experienced their battlefield trauma as something that was not in the past but something being experienced as happening to them in the present.

He found that patients would continually return to this trauma but without adequately mourning it. As a result, they carried their trauma with them everywhere and it became assimilated into their identity.

He called this condition “melancholia.”

This signaled to Freud (as he writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) that all people compulsively repeat past experiences, and in doing so attempt to bind (or domesticate) the unpleasure of trauma, absence and loss.

He noted that his grandson used to throw a toy tethered to a string and say "fort" (gone) and retrieve the toy saying "da" (there). He argued that the child was domesticating the displeasure of his mother's absence, restaging his desire for her but in a scenario in which he controlled the absence and presence of the toy. His idea of "compulsive repetition" is that all people domesticate the displeasure of loss by revisiting past traumas.

The "death drive" for him is not so much a desire to return back to inorganic matter, but rather a compulsion to repeat that alleviated tension within the psyche by revisiting a moment in the past in which a person imagined themselves as being whole, complete and without psychic tension.

Culturally speaking, the death drive manifests in public discourse that returns to a nostalgic scene of our prior selves before we were fractured by trauma (i.e., “Make America Great Again”).

The trick is we were never "whole" or complete. We only imagine ourselves in that way to manage loss but sometimes without adequately mourning the past as the past.

So, in lay terms, we revisit traumatic moments to recover a version of ourselves that we believe to be coherent, stable and unified. The return is compulsive because we can never recover something we never had, so we do it perpetually.

That's what Trump does best, repeating himself. Is the rhetoric feeding the psychology or the psychology feeding the rhetoric?

I would say both.

Trump intones the same message repetitively: the world used to be better (sometime, anytime, in the past you wish to imagine). Your birthright entitlements were stripped from you: your history, your culture, your wealth were taken away by radical leftist democrats. Wouldn't it be nice to go back to when we didn't have to contend with so many mysterious and nefarious social forces (the 1950s or perhaps even earlier when people knew their place).

The repetition of this message invites his supporters to imagine themselves as victims of loss and trauma, and to long for a return to something better (even though the past was not any better. It had its problems too).

This taps into a psychical process we are all familiar with in how we might long for better days in the past. It’s both a reflection of the death drive deflected into the culture and taps into the death drive by staging an encounter with a fantasy of ourselves when we were great.

More Americans continue to die of the covid in GOP-controlled states than otherwise. In a sense, the death drive is literally driving Republicans toward death. Freud didn't have that in mind, obviously.

Indeed. I am fascinated with the notion that one must risk infection to demonstrate their conservative credentials. It is literalizing the death drive: prove your loyalty by avoiding any care or concern for your own health and safety. I've seen people call this getting covid to "own the libs." Conservative governors are also literally killing off their voting base at the same time.

They are driven to endanger their lives in order to keep faith with an imagined past that they are compelled to return to in order to maximize their feelings of dislocation and humiliation in the present. I'm getting dizzy.

It's a wild ride to go through the logic. I guess the way it becomes consistent is if we understand the psychological need it serves.

Nothing is ultimately more humiliating than conceding that you are not a fully autonomous person who owes something to others. The death drive plus radical individualism creates a toxic politics.

I don't mean to throw a curveball at you but … I've been reading an interview from 1989 between Bill Moyers and Michael Josephson. This is what Josephson says:

<QUOTE>The value of being ethical isn’t simply that every day you get every single thing you want but, in the long haul, you feel better about it and you’ve created a better society, because the cumulative impact of you or I being selfish is a terribly selfish society where we don’t know what to expect from people anymore.

If we translate the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” into “do unto others as you think they will do unto you,” or “do unto others as they have done unto you,” which are variations and excuses, we have an awful society.

I thought of this when you mentioned "radical individualism."

Wow, that comment ages pretty well. Once we disown that we have any debt or obligation to others, society becomes untenable.

I saw this a lot in how doomsday preppers intensified the logic of individualism to such a degree that quite literally anything that embodies collective duties is an affront to their humanity.

As a result, they'd rather short sell the social contract and build bunkers and treat their neighbors as threats to their way of life.

Elsewhere, Josephson says a “yuppie version of success” -- by which he means "greed is good" -- is going to force you to make sacrifices. What he meant was sacrificing your ideals or your soul.

But in the current context, it's even more profound. The death drive creates conditions in which the smallest sacrifice -- wearing a mask -- is seen as an intolerable affront to your liberty. In refusing to sacrifice anything, they end up sacrificing everything, meaning die.

It seems to turn into a suicide pact. In conceding nothing to other people's needs and safety, you actually doom yourself and nothing is really gained, except for the satisfaction of knowing you were right (even as you are put onto a ventilator).

Let's loop back to your book. Can you enlarge the idea of melancholia?

Melancholia is a kind of nostalgic longing (at its root, nostalgia means an "ache for home"). But what distinguishes melancholia from nostalgia is that the past is not seen as the past but as something experienced as happening in the present.

In mourning a loss, we typically reconcile that the past is precisely that and that it can never be retrieved. Even if it could, it would do us no good. Mourning and even some forms of nostalgia revisit the past but to establish a healthy relationship to our losses.

Melancholia represents a refusal to leave things in the past, and we develop an unhealthy and compulsive relationship. We cannot move past the event. The past begins to own us and actively shape our actions in the present. It's a fixation or habit we cannot kick.

The "Lost Cause" myth fits that, doesn't it?

Yes!

Here are the 2 words the GOP wants you to forget

With Joe Biden in the White House, the disloyal opposition is not unreasonably seeking ways to chip away at his legitimacy. One way is make-believing he didn't win.1 Another is make-believing the moral foundation by which the Democrats held the former Republican president accountable suddenly doesn't matter now that the president is a Democrat. This is the reason everyone's talking about Andrew Cuomo.

As you know, he's the Democratic governor of the state of New York. What you might not know is that a third woman has emerged to accuse him of sexual misconduct of some variety. (This time, he allegedly tried to kiss her without her consent.) Last year, the press corps cast Cuomo as Donald Trump's antipode, a state leader stepping up to combat the covid pandemic when the president failed to do any such thing. It has since been revealed that the governor did a terrible job, specifically that his administration allowed an estimated 9,000 covid patients to enter nursing homes around the state.

But it's sex that gets attention. Throughout his one and only term, Trump was dogged by one allegation after another of sexual misconduct, even rape. He never paid a price, because the Republicans shielded him from responsibility. This almost certainly cost the former president electoral support in the all-important suburbs, where affluent and educated white women found a safer embrace among the Democrats. Now that the Democrats control Washington, the Republicans have incentive to portray Biden and the Democrats as the party of hypocrites who refuse to hold their own accountable.

This is why you have seen in the last week silly attempts at moral equivalence between the parties where there is none. Times columnist Ross Douthat, for reasons related, I can only suppose, to his draconian pessimism of human nature, portrayed Cuomo as a fading "anti-Trump idol," as if his efforts were just another failed and disappointing attempt to redeem humanity's sin. Opinion programs on Fox were busy comparing Democratic outrage over Trump's alleged crimes to Democratic "silence" over Andrew Cuomo's. Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox co-host who accused its former top executive of sexual misconduct, co-wrote an op-ed for USA Today: "When it comes to harassment, Democrats cannot talk the talk if they are not willing to walk the walk."

The "if" clause I put in italics seems to me quite telling. For one thing, it suggests a true objective, which is not getting the Democrats to honor their stated moral convictions with respect to gender. The real goal is probably just getting the Democrats to shut the hell up about the GOP's indefensible behavior. For another, it swaps a hypothetical—something that does not yet exist—for something that does. The Democrats have walked the walk. They can talk the talk. Two words: Al Franken.

The former Democratic senator from Minnesota resigned in late 2017 amid the first wave of the #MeToo movement during which he was accused of sexual misconduct. (At first, it seemed like Franken had been targeted by right-wing saboteurs, but two years after quitting, nearly 10 women had come forward to accuse him of myriad crimes.) At the time, some said Franken should not resign unless Trump does. If the Democrats force him out, critics said, they'd be giving up without a fight. I thought that was wrong, politically and morally. I hope, in light of Andrew Cuomo's scandal, we all see that.

Why was it wrong? First, because it made morality relative and conditional. It also made the Democrats indistinguishable from the Republicans. By purging Franken, the Democrats declared that morality isn't transactional for them. Second, because transactional morality, if that had been the direction the Democrats had chosen, would have obscured a clear political opportunity. By sacrificing Franken, the Democrats gave the eventual nominee an advantage over to the pussy-grabbing GOP incumbent.

But the final reason transactional morality was wrong hasn't come to light until now. The Republicans want everyone to think the Democrats will stand by Andrew Cuomo the way the Republicans stood by (and remain committed to standing by) Donald Trump. They want the public to see the Democrats as talking the talk, not walking the walk. But everything about this gambit requires everyone to forget about Al Franken. The Democrats have a record of holding their own to account, and they will again.

Cuomo might dig in. But that's separate from what the rest of the party should do, which is call for his head. That's what's happening. After today's Times report relaying allegations by a third accuser, US Rep. Kathleen Rice wrote on Twitter: "The time has come. The governor must resign." Rice represents Long Island. She was one of the first to call for Franken's resignation, days before Kirsten Gillibrand did. First slowly and now quickly, the dominoes are falling around Andrew Cuomo. The end is in sight. Will that prevent the Republicans from accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy? Come on.

Call Trump's treasonous acts what they are

There's one thing I can rely on when I write about the president, the Republicans and their treasonable rhetoric and behavior. Like clockwork, a liberal reader will respond, saying isn't, in fact, treason. It's something else, perhaps disloyalty or sedition. The US Constitution is clear about treason's meaning. I should be more careful with my words.

Fair enough, but also fair is saying liberals are quick to doubt themselves. They are ready to compromise even when the Republicans hold compromise in contempt. They are prepared to appease authoritarians, because mild appeasement costs less than bold confrontation. To liberals, partisanship is the problem, not the solution. They refuse, therefore, even when refusing means failing to take their own side in a good fight.

If anyone represents the liberal view in this regard, it's Barack Obama. The former president said recently that, to effect real change, activists must meet people "where they are." That might be fine and dandy when it comes to police reform, but what if "where they are" is taking the side of a president seeking to overturn a lawful election? What if "where they are" is the Republicans saying and doing things with the express intent of harming the republic, because harming the republic tightens their grip on power? What if Republican dominance is predicated on betrayal? Partisanship is, therefore, not the problem. Asymmetry is. Symmetrical partisanship is the solution.

Donald Trump has moved from demanding in secret that election officials break the law to doing so out in the open. He's violating his oath of office, profaning the rule of law and pissing on the spirit of the Constitution. The Democrats could try impeaching and removing him again. But, in my view, they don't have to go that far. What they should do is point out the obvious for everyone's sake—that the president's words and deeds are treasonable. Anyone standing by his side is complicit. To my knowledge, no Democrat in the US Congress has dared use the T-word. It's long past time to dare.

Mounting a rhetorical offensive won't be easy. For one thing, the Democrats are usually on the receiving end of such accusations. Because many Democrats have experienced the pain of being accused of disloyalty, they'll likely hesitate to accuse Republicans of the same. For another, the Democrats will worry about members of the Washington press corps reporting "both sides." The president has frequently accused the Democrats of treason. They don't want to be seen as meeting tit with tat.

This more than anything else is why some liberals are making a fetish of treason's constitutional definition. If Republican behavior does not rise to the highest possible standard, why should the Democrats join the Republicans in the partisan gutter? What's the point given that Joe Biden will be inaugurated in 44 days anyway?

First, this isn't the gutter. This is the most basic principle of being an American. Elections are sacred or we invite a master to rule us. Second, while the Republicans are busy siding with Trump, real people are dying. Nearly 290,000 are dead from the covid plague. The death toll may be 345,000, according to a Times analysis. Twelve million people are about to lose unemployment insurance. Trump doesn't care. The GOP seems indifferent. The republic's injury isn't just constitutional, legal or even moral. It's literal. (Only 25 Republicans say Biden won the election, according to the Post.)

Third, on a more practical note, the Democrats, in failing to accuse the Republicans of disloyalty, are failing to give Americans a choice: Power over country or country over power? Are you partisan for a party or partisan for the country? The Republicans have chosen the former two for the last four years. They hope everyone forgets that after Trump is gone. They hope to return to principle in order to oppose Joe Biden. The Democrats, however, have a role to play—the role of never letting anyone forget.

The Democrats keep appeasing authoritarianism, because it's cheaper than facing it head-on. Under a fascist president, the Republicans altogether stopped appeasing democracy. They faced it head-on without cost. Indeed, they got most everything they wanted without having to continue with a phony flag-hugging charade. Their true nature was revealed, true character exposed. Now they want their principles back.

They can't have them.

Why Democrats act like they lost

When the pundit corps expressed worry, wrongly, about Bernie Sanders and the rise of quote-unquote socialism in the Democratic Party, Congressman Jim Clyburn said son, please. Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves. By the time the primaries are done with Iowa and New Hampshire, Black pragmatists in South Carolina are going to seal Joe Biden's fate. Clyburn was right. First, Biden won the nomination. Then he won more votes than any candidate in US history.

Though we owe Clyburn a debt, no one's perfect. Within a day or so of Election Day, the House Whip was out front again. Why did the Democrats lose seats in the House instead of gaining them, as expected? I think, more than anyone else, Clyburn can be blamed for the conventional wisdom that arose that day. The reason, he said, was quote-unquote socialism and all the messaging that arose from it. Largely thanks to Clyburn, the Democrats are now acting like losers, instead of the winners they are.

Then something peculiar happened. The same man who blamed quote-unquote socialism for the loss of House seats was talking up the champion of quote-unquote socialism. On CNN, Clyburn actually said that, "There are a lot of young people out there and some not-so-young people, like Bernie Sanders. I wish he would come into the administration. Bernie has a way of getting people to understand certain things."

What's going on here? On the one hand, you could say Clyburn meant it when he blamed quote-unquote socialism for the unexpected loss of House seats, but carved out an exception for an old friend even though he's a quote-unquote socialist. On the other hand, maybe Clyburn didn't mean it. Maybe he was searching for answers to hard questions like everyone does after an election. Maybe he was just being competitive. The party's progressive wing is rising. An oldster like Clyburn might not get what all the youngsters are talking about, but recognizes rivals when he sees them. The apparent conflict between competing wings of the Democratic Party, then, is probably not over quote-unquote socialism. It is probably over normal intra-party politics.

Remember that the Democrats were united against Donald Trump. It's natural, then, for unity to loosen up after a giant is slain. (Republican incumbents are indeed giants.) It's natural, moreover, for the various factions that united against a common foe to start jockeying for position postmortem, doing whatever they can, for as long as they can, to influence legislative affairs and achieve their respective goals. Sanders is not going to be in Biden's administration, because his place in the Senate is too valuable. But it's nonetheless normal for him to say, as he did last month, that he and his progressive supporters are going to hold the Biden administration "accountable." It's healthy for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others to say, as they did this week, that they oppose the appointment of "deficit hawks." They are reminding the president-elect that he owes "the left," and that "the left" has expectations.

Healthy intra-party politics can become unhealthy. The Democrats are, however, a long way from where the Republicans were a decade ago when billionaire donors really did build an "alt-right" hierarchy of power to primary conventional Republicans out of existence. They are a long way from where the GOP is now—when people like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accuse Georgia Democrats of voter fraud while worrying that such claims might deter Republican voters from turning out for that state's runoff elections next month. (The outcomes will determine which party controls the Senate.) I'm not saying the Democrats won't ever cannibalize themselves. I'm saying that reports of their self-cannibalization are, thus far, greatly exaggerated.

It probably won't ever happen, though. Consider the different ways the parties handle disagreement. For the Democrats, disagreement is expected. Independence of thought is valued. The party is a big tent. Lots of competing opinions, lots of competing goals. The trick is finding ways to balance them and move all factions forward at the same time. For the Republicans, disagreement is unexpected. Independence of thought is suspect. It suggests disloyalty. Loyalty matters above all. When Republicans disagree publicly, that's newsworthy. It signals weakness. When Democrats disagree publicly, that's newsworthy, too. But it's not weakness that's being signaled. It's strength. Republicans self-destruct at the sight of dissent. The Democrats, however, don't.

The Washington press corps, alas, doesn't quite get this. It doesn't fit into its amoral and two dimensional view that the parties are equally bad and equally good. For this reason, lots of normal people, even liberals, end up accusing the Democrats of being terrible communicators. "Why can't they get on message?" is a question I hear often. Even some Democrats appear to accept the charge as true, judging themselves not according to their considerable strength, but according to the Republicans' weakness. The result is making something healthy and normal, like intra-party rivalries, seem unhealthy and dangerous, like the rise of quote-unquote socialism. After four years of nonstop lying, the least the Democrats can do is speak truthfully about themselves.

The media is making a big mistake about Republican support for Trump's attempted coup

There's a presumption at work among members of the Washington press corps that needs rethinking. That presumption is this: the Republicans, especially those in the Senate, fear the wrath of voters who have balled up their identities with the rise and fall of Donald Trump. For this reason, all the Republicans, with rare exception, stand in silence while the president prosecutes what must be called an attempted coup d'etat.

This presumption is part of a larger generational context in which political, economic and financial incentives are pursued amorally, wherever they might lead, even if they tear into this or that social, ethical or democratic norm. Shareholder value must be maximized. Profits must be realized. Voters must be obeyed. They must, even if they poison the water, ruin livelihoods or bring America to the brink of despotism.

This presumption is usually hard to spot. It's found in and among the many rational-sounding reasons Republicans give for their continued support of the president. Sure, they might be complicit in the sabotage of the incoming administration, but what can they do? They must hold on to Trump's voters in order to hold on to the Senate. (Two run-off elections in Georgia will determine which party controls the upper chamber.) Importantly, these incentives are so fierce, they appear to give Republicans no choice.

The problem isn't that incentives impact elected officials. Of course, they do. The problem is that reporters allow these incentives to seem monolithic—as if there were not, in fact, many equally important incentives to consider. The impression is one of Republicans merely doing what constituents demand. If it were up to them, they say, they would oppose Trump. It's not up to them, so they don't. According to CNN's Carl Bernstein, many Republicans Senators "have repeatedly expressed extreme contempt for Trump and his fitness to be" president. All of them are said to be scared to death.

Presumably, this is why Bernstein outed 21 of them on CNN's "New Day." They are too scared to stand up to Trump. The current crisis is too dire to keep their names hidden. So: "The 21 GOP Senators who have privately expressed their disdain (to Bernstein) for Trump are: (Rob) Portman, (Lamar) Alexander, (Ben) Sasse, (Roy) Blunt, (Susan) Collins, (Lisa) Murkowski, (John) Cornyn, (John) Thune, (Mitt) Romney, (Mike) Braun, (Todd) Young, Tim Scott, Rick Scott, (Marco) Rubio, (Chuck) Grassley, (Richard) Burr, (Pat) Toomey, (Martha) McSally, (Jerry) Moran, (Pat) Roberts, (and Richard) Shelby."

I think Bernstein hoped outing them would put more pressure on them to act in the best interest of the republic. But he may be giving more credit than is due. To repeat, there are many incentives to consider when it comes to the behavior of elected officials. Another incentive is the oath of office by which they vowed to defend and protect the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic. Trump cheated to win in 2016. He cheated again when he involved a foreign leader in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the American people. The case for the president's removal was as clear as the outcome of the 2020 election. Very. Yet all the above Republicans acquitted Trump of treason.

But they were said to be afraid. They had to stand by him. OK, fine, but acquitting a traitor demands more than taking the GOP's word for it. What's so scary that they're willing to, as political scientist Steven White said this morning, "debase themselves" for "a man who will throw them under the bus the second it seems beneficial to him." Dissent's Richard Yeselson's answer nailed it: "(It's) always fascinating … how little 'courage' is really required. Nobody is going to the Gulag, nobody need rise up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Republicans are terrified of tweets, and afraid of, at worst, losing office. They are the most craven, contemptible governing class imaginable."

So the problem is one of choices. The Republicans do not fear Trump. They fear losing power. They are, in intent and in effect, choosing power over principles, power over promises, and power over patriotism. They could choose to explain for the good of the country that Trump should get out of the way. But they are choosing not to. We are left, then, with a reasonable conclusion: they believe sticking with Trump gives them an advantage over people who believe some things matter more than power. Sticking with Trump gives them an advantage over those of us who believe in democracy. They say they are afraid in order to gain advantage over people of good faith who fall for it.

Choosing death over democracy

I get why some do not get why 72 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. The covid pandemic has killed nearly a quarter million people in this country. It has brought the US economy to the brink of collapse. The president is a lying, thieving, philandering sadist. How could so many Americans say: "Yeah, I'm good with that"?

I get why that's hard to believe, but the thing we have to do, if we hope to move our country forward, is get over this disbelief. It's time to believe millions favor or tolerate organic homegrown fascism. It's time to believe millions voted against their material self-interests. It's time to believe they will kill themselves before admitting a mistake. America is no more exceptional than any other nation. We can and will eat ourselves. I don't mean to sound hopeless. I mean we can't solve the problem till we see it clearly.

There's probably no better illustration of this than Jodi Doering's interview on CNN this morning. Doering is a nurse in South Dakota. These days, she sees a lot of death. She said nearly all of her small town is dead from the new coronavirus. Doering sees patients who are denying the reality of the covid even as they are dying from it.

People are still looking for something else, and they want a magic answer, and they won't want to believe that covid is real. … It wasn't one particular patient. It's a culmination of so many people. Their last dying words are, "This can't be happening. This is not real." When they should be spending time Facetiming with their families, they're filled with anger and hatred. It made me really sad. I just can't believe those are going to be their last thoughts and words. … (italics are mine)
In the bigger picture, when you're trying to reason with people, "Can I call your family, your kids, your wife, your friend, your brother," and they say, "No, because I'm going to be fine," (and they're dying), "it just makes you sad and mad and frustrated, and then you know you're going to come back and do it over again.

When people would rather believe they're dying from lung cancer than from the covid—that's what Doering reported to CNN—what can you do as a nurse? Nothing, except get "sad and mad and frustrated." What can you do as a citizen? Well, pretty much the same thing. You cannot expect cooperation from people who believe cooperation is defeat, who will hurt themselves to hurt you, and who deny reality as they lay dying. You cannot expect a free and equal exchange from them. You can't expect democracy from them. All you can do is persuade as many people as you can to take the side of reason. That's what Joe Biden did when he won more votes than anyone ever. That doesn't mean the nation is ready for healing. It only means for now that all's not lost.

It's hard seeing fellow citizens as dangerous. That difficulty amounts to an incentive to find a reason, any reason, to explain why they're killing themselves. Some might say, "They must have been duped—by Fox News, by Russian disinformation, or by Donald Trump." Or: "These people are idiots. They don't know what's good for them. They can't make rational choices." There's something to these, but only something. The best explanation is the plainest. This is who they are. To look for other answers, as Jodi Doering said, is to look for "magic answers." They are choosing their fates. Dying isn't even the hard part. (Lung cancer is OK.) The hard part is conceding to the truth.

We have to rearrange our expectations. During the election, it was believed that voters would move toward Biden the more the covid and its economic fallout moved into their communities. It was believed imminent sickness, joblessness and/or death would open people's eyes. Turns out, it had the opposite effect. According to last week's analysis of election results by Buzzfeed, "COVID-19 deaths and unemployment had surprisingly little influence over the swings that happened at the county level. If anything, Trump did better in counties where more people have died of COVID-19."

We have to rethink our political thinking, too. It's often presumed Americans resist wearing face masks and other pandemic precautions due to the depth of their faith in individual liberty. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem gave voice to this when she said recently, "My people are happy, and they're happy, because they're free." Our heritage is rife with heroes choosing death over tyranny. "Live free or die," for instance. See also: "Don't tread on me." But nowhere is there a hero choosing death over democracy.

We must reconsider the credit we give. In places like South Dakota, individual liberty is being perverted in the interest of the group, of the tribe, of the collective, so that individual life, far from being sacred, is expendable. This is the collectivism we must face. This is the alternative to democracy we must fight. Winning the presidency means there's still hope. There's work to be done but we must first believe the unbelievable.

It's time to call out Mitch McConnell's treason

Despite being polarized, Americans really do agree on the fundamentals. Is the president above the law? No. Does every citizen have a right to vote? Yes. Should powers be separated? Yes. Are checks and balances good? Yes. Should people be free to worship as they wish? Yes. Are the people the ultimate sovereign? Yes. And so on.

Theory isn't the same as practice, obviously, but even so, there's only one correct answer to fundamental political questions. If there were other correct answers—if these questions hinged on differences of opinion—we would not be members of a political community whose outlines were established long ago. We would be part of another kind of political community, one none of us would recognize as familiar, legitimate or good. Our nation would be something else. It would not be America.

These fundamentals and the outlines of our political community that were derived from them constitute a contract among and between citizens and noncitizens. We agree to them, consciously or subliminally, because if we did not, we wouldn't participate in the union we all actually participate in. We'd be in something else that does not exist.

In the run-up to Election Day, CNN's Jake Tapper urged counting of every vote. He was not violating the norms of journalism. He was not taking a position. With respect to voting, there's no position to take. Counting every vote is what we do. If we do not count every vote, we are not America. Very few things in this country are either-or, right or wrong, but fundamental questions are. They are, because they must be. They must be, because we want them to be. We want them to be, because we are America.

The president and the Republican leaders are failing the test of fundamentals. Should they recognize as legitimate the outcome of a lawful democratic process? The only answer is yes. That's the only correct answer, because either the American people are sovereign or they are not. If they are not, we do not live in a representative democracy. Anything less than yes indicates unwillingness to participate in the union as it stands. Anything less than an immediate yes indicates a certain softness of dedication to the US Constitution and the republic. Yet Donald Trump, and now Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party, are refusing to recognize Joe Biden's victory.

I'm told this is theater. I'm told this is about fundraising. Campaign debts must be paid, after all. I trust some of this is true. I also trust history, though. No president has ever denied the reality of his defeat. (Biden has now eclipsed Ronald Reagan's share of the popular vote, 50.8 percent to 50.7. It is the highest for a challenger since Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932. And the counting continues.) No president has ever refused to concede in the face of a mathematical certainty. To my knowledge, no political party has ever gotten behind an incumbent's effort to steal an election.

That effort will fail. (I say "will" but honestly I'm as full of dread as you are.) The president's legal scheme has so far floundered. Every one of his suits has been thrown out, because there's no evidence of voter fraud on the scale he's alleging. On the off-chance of one of these lawsuits getting to the US Supreme Court, I'm guessing the conservative justices there will buy themselves legitimacy by dismissing the case outright. Accusations can work in politics, less in court. As GOP Sen. John Cornyn said: "In the end, they're going to have to come up with some facts and evidence."

But even in failure, the president and the Republicans will have accomplished something. (It will benefit the GOP, of course, not the president; Trump will face legal scrutiny the minute he's out of office.) They will have succeeded in three things. One, establishing doubt in Biden's legitimacy. Two, establishing the groundwork for obstructing his agenda. More important, though, is three. They will have deepened an assumption already at work in the background of Republican discourse. Democrats don't count. Anything they do, whether criticizing Republicans or beating them by a landslide in national elections, deserves any reaction up to and including murder.

In a very real sense, the Republicans are constituting a nation inside this nation, a confederacy of the mind and spirit to be made real so "real Americans" chosen by God can dominate the whole in God's name. They are constituting a separate and unequal system inside the one everyone else recognizes as legitimate, in which a small minority is privileged over a majority bound by law but not protected by it. They are, ultimately, on the path toward suicide. When parasites kill their hosts, they kill themselves, too.

The most extreme view among pundits is that the Republicans won't recognize Joe Biden's legitimacy. That's not extreme enough. They are creating a beachhead inside the United States from which to continue covert civil warfare against the United States. The Republicans are committing treason literally, yet they're being afforded respect, as if accepting the outcome of a lawful democratic process were a matter of opinion. Wrong. There's only one correct answer to that fundamental question. Anything less than fully accepting the people's will is desiring an America that will never exist.

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Republican judges are stomping on their own espoused values to defend Donald Trump's lies

I'm tired. I'm sure you are, too. The upside is there's only five days to go until Election Day. The downside is those five days are going to age all of us by a decade. Making the hours crawl by even more is a series of federal court cases making it clear that Republican jurists are inventing law to stop citizens from voting or to invalidate their votes. There may be a time, perhaps sooner than you think, for unorthodox politics.

When it comes to legal theory, I defer to authorities (here, here and here). Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is how I see things. "Conservative" federal jurists (note the quotes) are sticking their noses where they don't belong. It's one thing for them to overturn a state law violating the US Constitution. It's another to overturn a state Supreme Court's interpretation of state law according to that state's constitution. That's what happened with Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Minnesota. "Conservative" jurists, including five sitting on the US Supreme Court, overruled court-ordered extensions of mail-in deadlines. My friend, if this looks like a betrayal of conservatism, that's because it is.

It gets worse. Justices appeared to accept as true a jaw-dropping lie, which is that tinkering with election deadlines somehow compromises the integrity of the vote. The extensions, of course, are entirely reasonable. We are smack in the middle of a covid pandemic. More than 234,000 Americans are dead. Infections are spiking, especially in rural and swing states. (There were 88,521 new cases Thursday alone, according to data from Johns Hopkins.) Easing deadlines is what you'd expect from state officials honoring the letter and the spirit of their state constitutions. Yet Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned whether the pandemic were a true "natural disaster" (a criteria for extensions). Justice Samuel Alito said Pennsylvania's election will be "conducted under a cloud." Officials should, therefore, throw away votes received after Election Day.

What's going on seems pretty straightforward. The president has been yammering nonstop about "voter fraud." It's the only thing, Donald Trump says, that will make him lose to Joe Biden. The only outcome he will accept, therefore, is victory. This is not only extortion (vote for me or say goodbye to a peaceful transfer of power), it is extortion based on a whopper. Voter fraud on the scale he suggests is fictional. When it happens, it's in dribs and drabs, not anywhere close to wholesale. (When it happens, it's often Republican voters committing the crime.) And yet the president keeps lying, and now, evidently, Republican jurists are listening. By accepting as true a categorical falsehood, they make the lie real. (Their rulings, after all, constitute the common law.) By overturning a state court's interpretation of state law, they push the Big Lie all the way down to the level of local affairs. Dear Leader's Big Lie is everyone else's Big Reality. My friend, if this looks like what authoritarians do, that's because it is.

Some might look at this and despair. Don't. There's plenty we can do. This is a time for unorthodox politics, creative thinking, and moral guts. For me, I'd suggest Democratic secretaries of states (the elected officials ultimately responsible for elections in their states) ignore federal court orders. Keep counting votes pursuant to state election law or state court rulings. Count the votes as a form of civil disobedience. Count the votes as an expression of patriotism. Count the votes in order to honor the obligations of elected officials to state residents. Count the votes in defense of states rights. North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Minnesota all have Democratic secretaries of state. They should all risk being held in contempt. Our republican democracy demands no less.

I'm not encouraging lawlessness. I'll cite Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." In it, he said: "In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

My suggestion is, in reality, expressing the highest respect of a state's sovereignty, too. Remember the Republican jurists aren't just stomping federalism. They are making state elected officials complicit in the disenfranchisement of their constituents. State residents, if they choose to, would be right in punishing the complicit. If you're going to err in a republican democracy, do you err on the side of judges or the side of the people? That's a moral as well as a legal question. The answer should be plain.

Amy Coney Barrett's extreme religious views should be vetted

This is reprinted from The Editorial Board.

The Senate Democrats avoided Monday the subject of religion. During the first day of Appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings, they focused on health care and how Donald Trump's third nominee might rule after the US Supreme Court hears oral arguments next month on the Affordable Care Act. Avoiding religion was probably wise given the Republicans' level of fake outrage over fake "religious bigotry." The rest of us, however, don't need to play along. Barrett's Catholicism is fair game.

Yes, I know. Highly influential liberal pundits, and some liberal pundits striving mightily to become influential, argue that religion should be off limits. First, they say, because a person of sincerely held religious beliefs can adjudicate impartially. Second, there's enough to talk about without bringing up Barrett's faith. While I presume these liberals mean well (to be clear, in presuming this, I'm being generous), they're wrong.

They assume, for one thing, that religion and politics can be disentangled. Sometimes they can be. Sometimes they can't be. For another, these liberals behave as if politics is somehow taking religion hostage. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote last night: "When politicians use faith as an excuse to pass and uphold laws that seize control of people's bodies but not guarantee them healthcare, feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or welcome the stranger, you have to wonder if it's really about faith at all."

No, you don't have to wonder. It's about their faith, full stop. Millions in this country—white evangelical Protestants and conservative white Catholics chief among them—root their genuinely held religious beliefs in opposition to modernity, which is to say, in politics. There is, therefore, no appreciable difference between them. The more our society moves in the direction of greater freedom, equity and justice for all people, the more these revanchists believe their faith is under siege; and the more they feel their faith is under siege, the more prepared they are to go to war over "religious freedom."

I don't know if Barrett intends to help reverse Roe any more than you do. I do know—and you know—that that's why Donald Trump picked her. That's why she accepted his illegitimate nomination. Overturning Roe, or at least gutting it in order to permit the states to outlaw abortion, has been the goal for decades. The Republicans are so close to the prize, they're willing to sacrifice the presidency, the Senate and the court's credibility. The more our society moves in the direction of greater freedom, equity and justice for all people—the more American women enjoy a monopoly over their own bodies—the more the revanchists demand an minoritarian veto. They are demanding, and getting, an autocratic usurpation of the majority's will in the name of religion.

Not just any religion. A very specific strain of authoritarian and white Christianity. This strain believes that one person has a right to use another person, without her consent, in order to stay alive. The person being used by another person to stay alive has a moral obligation to forfeit the monopoly over her body, such that her body isn't private property so much as public property jointly owned by members of their shared faith. Importantly, if the person being used by another person to stay alive refuses, she is subject to various punishments, including, if the court overturns Roe, legal ones. There's a reason Republicans want to make Barrett's religion off limits. They don't want a majority to see outlawing abortion as the establishment of a state religion.

You can't see violations of the First Amendment if you insist that religion is off limits. What's more, you can't see the treasonous bad faith of the revanchists. They don't care about babies. If they did, they'd be up in arms over news of the president's treatment for Covid-19. He was injected with an "antibody cocktail" tested on stem cells derived from a baby aborted nearly half a century ago. White evangelical Protestants and white conservative Catholics usually say "fetal tissue," even in life-saving drug treatments, is a grave offense to God, but not this time. According to Business Insider, anti-abortion groups said it's OK, because the president wasn't involved in the original abortion.

That's bullshit, but at least they're dropping the charade. What they want to say but fear saying—because saying it out loud for everyone to hear would be too gothic and horrifying for mainstream America—is what they really mean. What they really mean is that it's OK for one person to use another person's body without his or her consent. The president, using remnants of the body of an aborted baby, didn't do anything wrong. He was exercising the God-given right that babies (men) have to access another person's body (a woman's). This right isn't just political. It's political and religious. Ignoring that means ignoring the parasitic ramifications of the anti-Roe project.

So don't ignore religion. It is central. None of this makes sense when it's not.

In 2020, undecided voters are dangerous radicals

I wrote last Wednesday that Joe Biden demonstrated ways of saving the republic from the mistake of electing a demi-despotic goon like Donald Trump. During the first of three scheduled debates, the president was a fire-hose of bullying, pouting and puling, rarely giving the former vice president a couple of quiet minutes to speak. He tested his rival until Biden decided at last to stop tolerating the intolerable: "Will you shut up, man?"

Then something amazing happened. As I was writing Wednesday's edition, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan nonprofit that organizes the debates and set the rules, said "that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," according to the Post. Implicit in this change was a remarkable consensus: that Trump is to blame for the chaos. Changes include cutting off the candidate's microphones while the other speaks. The commission, in so many words, will be forcing the president to shut up.

Later on the same day, something else amazing happened. CNN's Jake Tapper, who was the subject of Wednesday's Editorial Board, followed suit. His guest was Trump campaign Director of Communication Tim Murtaugh. In a clip shared widely, Tapper asks why the president refuses to condemn armed white-power groups. Murtaugh answers with accusations that Biden "palled around with" segregationists decades ago. It's a maneuver aiming to "prove" the president is no more racist than his opponent. Tapper grows impatient with the nonsense. Murtaugh increases the volume, running over Tapper's follow-ups until he signals to the camera operator to shut Murtaugh up.

Telling authoritarians to shut up isn't the only way, or even the best way, of dealing with them. But it's one of the tools the rest of us can use on confederates who have told us who they are when they exploit the rights and privileges of a free and open society to undermine a free and open society, even destroy it. Don't argue with them. Don't reason with them. Don't debate with them. Debating them civilly is making room at the table of civilization for renegades ready to flip the table over if they don't get their way. They will never respect you. Therefore, be sparing with your respect in return. The only thing they truly respect is a majority flexing its democratic power.

For the same reasons, we should be exceedingly wary of what I'll call the Nice Undecided Voters (NUVs). The NUVs are almost always super-white. They are almost always rural. They are almost always middle class and up. They get a lot of attention from the press corps in light of a vast majority of Americans making up their minds about 2020 way back in 2017. (This is why the president's aggregated job approval rating has rarely changed since he took office.) To reporters, the NUVs appear to be deeply concerned about the fate of the nation, conflicted about the decision facing them, and symbolic of the divisions riving the United States. Most importantly, the NUVs are people who care about their reputations in their communities, and appear to be searching for ways forward in accordance with their genuinely held principles.

Truth is, the NUVs are dangerous radicals. No other serious conclusion can be drawn from the Post's Wednesday report on the NUVs' reaction to the debate. The president encouraged white-power vigilantes to "stand back and stand by." He repeatedly tried extorting the electorate, musing about bad trouble if he loses. This is what someone says when he sits at the head of the table of American civilization, expects everyone else to behave according to a set of established rules, but reserves the absolute right to hold himself above the law in case he needs to flip the table over to get his way. Trump was telling us clearly who he is, but the NUVs interviewed by the Post either refused to see the truth, accepted the truth secretly, or lied about accepting the truth. In all cases, seeing evil but ignoring it or joining it is another form of evil made more sinister by the appearance of being nice, respectable, concerned, and patriotic undecided voters.

The NUVs are not undecided. They are undeclared. They fear making their preference for fascism known. They fear it will get in way of their nice respectable lives at the office, at church, at the bowling alley. This fear of social sanction is more powerful than their fear of Americans being taken out and shot. Or they want the freedom to dominate those they believe deserve domination without being held responsible for their behavior. They want to punch down without the possibility of being punched back. They cannot get what they want, however, if the rest of us deny them what they need to get it. If you revoke your respect, if you take back your welcome to participate into the public square of a free and open society—if that happens, you in effect shut them down. The intolerant are only as strong as our willingness to tolerate them.

So don't.

Trump's weakness has been laid bare

We're familiar with the explanations. Why did under half the electorate take a chance of a lying, thieving, philandering sadist like Donald Trump? Most respectable white people dutifully cite economics. Inequality is wide. Wages are stagnant. The white working class got hammered by globalization. Others, like me, cite racism. America's birther-in-chief minced Republican rivals with a rhetoric of unrepentant white-power demagoguery. While both lines of reasoning are compelling, I've always felt something fundamental was in plain sight but missing from our larger, collective understanding.

Cast your mind back to those moments after Barack Obama won his historic election but before the US Congress bailed out the biggest of the Too-Big-To-Fail banks. Wall Street had manufactured more wealth than God has seen by lending and lending and lending some more, got in life-threatening trouble as a result, then held the country hostage, in effect, saying, "Bail us out or the economy gets it." Then the banks got even bigger and bankers got even richer, handing themselves bonuses while normal people struggled to hold on to their jobs, their homes and their basic human dignity. Recall that before the "Tea Party" emerged as a nascent fascist movement, many of us, even pundits on the left, thought, "Yeah, these people are pissed for a very good reason."

Between 2009 and 2011, Obama signed into law society-changing legislation that came very close to reaching the heights of the New Deal and Great Society. Even admirers like me, however, must concede Obama's major mistake. His administration did not investigate and prosecute the super-white percent that hijacked America and held it for ransom. It is a plain fact no one was brought to justice for the panic of 2007-2008 that sparked a decade-long recession from which some people never recovered. From that we can suppose reasonably that lots of Americans just gave up. They lost faith in public morality. What was the point of working hard, playing by the rules, and striving for a better future when no one in power is held accountable? By the time of Hillary Clinton, who was (wrongly) perceived as a symbol of an establishment gone rotten, Trump, the flawed independent "billionaire," looked like a chance worth taking.

I'm not blaming Obama or Clinton for 62,984,828 Americans being partial or impartial to the president's lying, thieving, philandering sadism. These voters made their choice and should be held accountable. (I am also, for the time being, presuming good faith when I have in the past presumed none from these voters.) It is, however, important to understand voter behavior is contingent. It springs from a particular time and place. The present, moreover, is a product of the past. Clinton ran for president during a time when powerful political elites such as herself—and, importantly, her husband—were seen as complicit or willfully blind to profound nihilism and systemic corruption. If nothing really matters, why not vote for a combed-over schlub with a God-complex?

The schlub was the true fraud, of course. Anyone paying close attention knew this. Most, however, couldn't hear about his life of criminality through the din of "but her emails!" To the extent Trump's supporters understood clearly his bone marrow-deep corruption, it was probably to his political benefit, as the "billionaire" seemed like the glamorous playboy who figured out "the system" and beat it. Since white supremacy was Trump's primary mode of political communication, he seemed to be saying he would be a champion who'd make white people winners again ("Make America Great Again!") after eight years of losing (after a Black man's tenure as president, that is). Corruption didn't seem so bad as long as Donald Trump seemed successfully corrupt.

This is why reporting Sunday and Monday by the Times is devastating. Not the part about his being tax cheat. That's not going to affect supporters who have traded public morality—working hard, playing by the rules, and striving for a better future—for the promise of winning if they stick with Trump. What's going to affect them most is the fact that Donald Trump is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad businessman, that his properties are bleeding red ink, that he owes more money than he can possibly pay back, and that his personal finances are a house of cards. In this sense (the sense of being in indebted), Trump is quite normal. His supporters, however, don't want normal. They want the Übermensch they had been promised, the one they are still waiting for in many respects. If he's normal, what's the point of sticking with him?

To be sure, the president's allies in the US Congress and on Fox are busy attacking the Times for its reporting. They are going to do everything they can to prevent GOP voters from knowing the truth about the president. But the truth works in subtle ways, as does doubt. Loyalty to Trump depends on perceptions of super-strength. As he once said, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." That assumed he'd be shooting bullets. There's a good reason why he's worked hard to hide his tax returns, though. Truth is, he'd be shooting blanks.

It’s now clear Trump’s intent was criminal

As I write, I’m sitting with my daughter while she zooms into fourth grade. We’re about 40 minutes into class time. It’s taken this long to take attendance amid the sounds of dogs barking, ambulances blaring and infants crying. It’s taken this long, because every detail of teaching more than thirty 9-year-olds is magnified many times over. (If you’ve never had to navigate Google Classroom, consider yourself lucky.) It’s a microcosm of the maddening complexity of life in the time of the novel coronavirus.

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Biden destroys Trump's 'law and order' message

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Why Trump's reliance on authoritarian politics makes Kenosha so important to him

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Trump and white evangelical Christians are bonded by sadism

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No, Biden’s election won't end the nightmare

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Must we continue to respect stupidity?

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For the American right, masks are tyranny but Trump's secret police aren't

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By commuting Stone's sentence, Trump continues a criminal conspiracy that never ended

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The coronavirus pandemic has exposed what the GOP’s anti-tax rhetoric is really all about

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Why Tom Cotton hates a moral press

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John Bolton confirms what we already knew. Why don't we call it treason?

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Will white solidarity with Black Lives Matter doom Trump in November? Don't count on it

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Donald Trump is following China's authoritarian lead

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Pandemic shows that without suffering, our capitalist society would collapse

I don’t fault the press corps (too much) for misunderstanding the dynamics of the American class system. In addition to believing the myth of a nation without caste, most of its members are highly paid and highly educated, blessed with good luck and good parenting, and wouldn’t see a working class person if she were in front of them.

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