John Stoehr

There was one inescapable conclusion from the first Jan. 6 hearing

Michael Fanone made news during testimony before the House select committee investigating the January 6 sacking and looting of the United States Capitol. While recounting his experience, which included electrocution "again and again and again with a taser," thus triggering a heart attack, the Metropolitan police officer said, "I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room, but too many are now telling me that hell doesn't exist or that hell actually wasn't that bad."

Fanone then punctuated the last word in the following sentence by pounding his fist on the table: "The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful." (Boom!)

Fanone was talking about the indifference of the Republicans in the United States House of Representatives. If the Post's reporting this morning is any indication, the GOP appears bent on proving the point. Sure, it might be disgraceful to show indifference to the men in uniform who put their lives on the line to protect elected officials, but really, who's got the time to watch a "political charade"? Per the Post:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he was "booked in all these different meetings." Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told reporters he was tied up with a committee hearing. Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who rose to her position after her predecessor was sacked for criticizing Trump's role in the attack, declined to say whether she watched. Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.) said he did watch—but only the opening statement from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who has joined the panel in defiance of her party, not the officers' testimony.

Indifference isn't the only thing they're proving. The four police officers told their stories of being assaulted, beaten, maced, or nearly murdered. That, however, wasn't the painful part. These are hardened experienced cops, after all. The painful part, a sentiment expressed by each of them, came later when they realized everything they believed in—duty, sacrifice, loyalty and honor—meant nothing to these Republicans. Over and over, testimony kept returning to a variation on a familiar theme: betrayal.

Again, Officer Fanone: "My law enforcement career prepared me to cope. … Being an officer, you know your life is at risk whenever you walk out the door, even if you don't expect otherwise law-abiding citizens to take up arms against you. But nothing, truly nothing, has prepared me to address those elected members of our government who continue to deny the events of that day, and in doing so betray their oath of office."

Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, who fought in Iraq, said: "While I was at the lower west terrace of the Capitol working with my fellow officers to prevent the breach and restore order, the rioters called me traitor, a disgrace and that I, an Army veteran and a police officer, should be executed. … Now the same people who we helped, the same people who we gave them the borrowed time to get to safety, now they are attacking us. They are attacking our characters. They're attacking Officer Harry's character, people who never served in the military or law enforcement. It's a disgrace."

I emphasize that last bit for a good reason. Betrayal was the first of two big themes. The second, related to the first, was unvarnished contempt for it. Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges, who also gave testimony Tuesday, was literally pinned between the mob and a door frame for so long that one of the insurgents beat his face repeatedly with his own baton. Hodges then watched video of the moment as evidence entered into the record, surely feeling re-traumatized. And yet people who never served in the military or law enforcement have the gall to attack the character of these men.

Again, Sgt. Gonell: "For me, it's confounding that some people who have sworn an oath, elected officials … they're forgetting about that oath. They're not putting their country before their party. And that's what bothers me the most, because as a former soldier, I know what that inherits, that oath. … You got people right now in front of the justice department, asking to release some of the very same people [i.e., insurgents] to be released, even though we are testifying about the trauma and the agony, everything that happened to us, is pathetic and they shouldn't be elected official anymore" (my stress).

Yes, they have the gall. According to HuffPost's Igor Bobic, United States Senator John Kennedy said he dismissed Tuesday's hearing as "Pelosi's partisan pageantry." "Just because she loves drama doesn't mean I have to watch it," the Republican said. "This is the speaker's attempt to try to link the atrocities of Jan. 6 to the Republican Party."

Actually, it isn't. That's for another time, though. For now, I think what needs saying but has not been said to the extent it should be is that the Republicans have made being an American a partisan issue. They have made being an American so partisan that it's now "pathetic," as Sgt. Gonell said. This seems the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from Tuesday's testimony. These cops are sworn to service irrespective of partisanship. They protect Republicans and Democrats in equal measure. The oath they take is binding in its loyalty to principle and the Constitution, not to party.

The takeaway then is that being an American is so politicized there are now two sides to the controversy. One side is for democracy. One side is against it. One is for the Constitution and the principles it enshrines. One is for the GOP and its fuhrer. One side honors duty and sacrifice. One side belittles them. One side sees selfishness, disloyalty and betrayal as fair game. One side has unvarnished contempt for treason.

"You are great law enforcement officers and heroes to law enforcement officers across the country. … But you are [also] great Americans and you are heroes to all of America," Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of the select committee, said. "And long after you are gone, you will be remembered as heroes to our country, along with your fellow officers, and those who attacked you, and those who beat you are fascist traitors to our country and will be remembered forever as fascist traitors" (my stress).

He was talking about the insurgents.

He was talking about the Republicans.

Here's who's really to blame for the new wave of Covid

The covid pandemic is surging among people who are not vaccinated thanks to the wildfire spread of the highly contagious delta variant.1 Some of the unvaccinated are reachable, as Editorial Board member Magdi Semrau argued in her latest piece of brilliance. Many are not. These are supporters of the disgraced former president.

They are not vaccinated by choice. Vaccinations are free, widely available, and highly recommended. They work. Yes, some vaccinated people are getting sick, but they are vanishingly small in number. Refusing to get vaccinated is like refusing to wear a seat belt with the most obvious difference being that the latter is not contagious.

It seems to me we are forgetting that this is a choice grown men and women are making not only for themselves but for their loved ones and their communities. We seem to be forgetting that, or even overlooking that, as if they are not responsible for their own death and dying as well as the death and dying of the people around them.

I have seen some liberals express genuine sympathy in the wake of story after story of people dying after swearing up and down they'd never get the covid vaccine. Yes, there is something ultimately tragic about arrogant sonsabitches getting killed off by their own arrogance. But let's not permit our Shakespearean sensibilities get the better of us. These people are choosing irresponsibly. Even the dead should be held to account.

Blaming the dead is distasteful, but morality demands we get over that. If we don't, we ourselves are acting irresponsibly. Yet the discomfort of looking a dangerously immoral person square in the face and saying they are making dangerously immoral choices is so painful even ER docs search for excuses, any excuse, that will get them out of the moral obligation of squaring off truthfully with a dangerously immoral person.

Last week, CNN interviewed Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician. Every single covid patient during the prior week was unvaccinated, he told Brianna Keilar. He didn't blame them, though. He blamed Fox News. "We are in a highly Republican area, about 40 percent vaccinated, about 70 percent voted for the former president," Davidson said. "When you see what's being put out there on the air waves … it is undeniable that these messages are getting through to patients. They are avoiding something that can prevent them from getting extremely sick and potentially dying."

Public information is critically important to the individual's choices. But in blaming Fox for the dangerously immoral choices of dangerously immoral people, Davidson overvalued public information while undervaluing a plain fact. Normal people don't need good public information to trust doctors and medical professionals. We know this is true. It happens all the time. As Davidson said, if a patient comes to his ER with chest pains, they don't resist him when he orders an EKG. So they know better. Ditto when it comes to vaccines. They know what they should do. They are choosing not to.

The rest of us seem to fear saying so. We are behaving like some of the children of unvaccinated people. We are acting like we have to go behind their backs to get them to do the right thing on account of asking them to do the right thing risks arousing their rage. But in respecting that rage, we are making it the centerpiece of our politics such that our politics ends up venerating unvaccinated people instead of venerating the children who went behind their backs to get vaccinated. We should but don't hold dangerously immoral people to account for their dangerously immoral choices. We should but don't celebrate dutifully moral people for their dutifully moral choices.

The Republicans and some Fox talking heads have recently urged supporters of the disgraced former president to stop stalling and get vaccinated. I'm not the first to notice how diametric this was, after a long period during which the Republicans and some Fox talking heads did everything they could to demonize the vaccines to the point where getting vaccinated was tantamount to getting a beat-down. The reason for this about-face should be as plain as the coronavirus itself. The Republicans and some Fox talking heads are partly responsible for the fact that the pandemic isn't over yet.

It could be over, but let's not give unvaccinated people a pass. While some "vaccine hesitant" people really can be reached, as Magdi Semrau has explained, diehard supporters of the disgraced former president would rather die hard than admit defeat (i.e., get vaccinated). We need to explain what they are doing. We need to face their rage with courage. After that? Absent mandates, it's their choice. While there's something tragic about arrogant sonsabitches getting killed off by their own arrogance, I'm not sure I should feel sympathetic. How much sympathy do I have to the person who refused to wear a seat belt before dying in a car wreck? Not much.

How a lesson from a legend of country music exposes the fragility of American conservatism

I've told this story before, but it seems to me worth retelling. It's about how old-fashioned American values, specifically manliness and chauvinism, are not necessarily at odds with the demands of a pluralist egalitarian democracy of the 21st century. They can be updated, as long as the men espousing them embody their liberal strains. They should be updated given our current discourse is dominated by fear of being censored. The story is more improbable by the fact that it begins with the late Merle Haggard.

Merle Haggard, for those who do not know him, was a legend in country music. He was an icon whose macho credibility was presumed and therefore never questioned. Unlike Johnny Cash, a peer who merely sang about being in prison, Haggard really was incarcerated, though briefly. He found stardom singing to roughnecks about times hard and good. His hits included "Workin' Man Blues" and "Okie from Muskogee."

These two songs were anthems to the conservative white-power backlash of the 1970s—an era in which respectable white people recoiled from the failures of the Vietnam War and the successes of the civil rights movement. Haggard's working man was white, he was rural and he loved America, unlike those dodging the military draft or rioting in the streets. He helped seed the field for Ronald Reagan's triumphalism. In other words, Haggard might be the last man to teach us something about liberalism.

For certain, the lesson did not take hold until long after I interviewed the music legend. I was, at the time, an arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News, a daily in coastal Georgia. Haggard and his band were touring the area. I got in touch. After talking about music, the conversation turned to politics. This was 2003. The then-president was preparing the country for the invasion of Iraq. I can't quote at length. The article seems to be lost, alas. But this much I remember. It jumped out at me.

"Why're we scared?" he said. "We're America."

Recall the prevailing tenor of all political discourse in the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was fear. Compounded fear. The attack itself was scary enough, but the George W. Bush administration inflamed it to justify invading a nation that had no role whatsoever in the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans. It was in that atmosphere that the bard of the working class asked what we're so scared of.

It was a great question, because it was counter-intuitive. (That's why it jumped out at me.) You were supposed to be scared. Like, if you weren't, something was wrong with you. But neither Saddam Hussein nor Osama bin Laden posed an existential threat. They didn't, nor ever could, destroy us. The US beat the Japanese, the Germans, the Russians and (probably in Haggard's mind) the Viet Cong, too. Yet the White House and press and pundit corps acted like Al Qaeda were the new USSR. We're the most powerful nation the world's ever seen, Haggard seemed to say. "Why're we scared?"

The last time I told this story, it was in reference to the disgraced former president's desire for a military parade. The United States has nothing to prove, I said, and no one to prove it to. "Yes, Russia is again rising, and China may be a military adversary a long way down the road," I said. "For now, however, America has nothing to fear militarily when it can drop bombs from space and hit targets the size of pie plates." A military parade was all about Donald Trump's shattered-glass ego. It was a silly attempt by a pained and hollow man to substitute the symbols of courage for the substance of it.

While President Biden is doing everything he can to unwind 20 years of global war, we are still in the grip of fear. I don't mean fear of authoritarian politics. That's real. I mean fear of censorship, of a leftist ideology as dangerous as fascism, a story being told not just by right-wing pundits but liberal-moderate pundits fearing for their lost authority. That story is almost totally fictional. And yet we are spending so much time telling it. In the name of white American men, I'm asking: "Why're we scared?"

Seriously, why? I live in New Haven. It's majority Black and brown. If anywhere fits Tucker Carlson's enslaved-white-man nightmare to a T, it's the Elm City. Yet when I walk into a local deli owned and run by South Asian immigrants, patronized by Black and white workers and workers of color, it's like I'm parting the Red Sea. Non-white people, especially women, apologize to me as if they were breathing the air and taking up the space that were by rights mine. There's nothing I can do, except be humble. Social conditions are bigger than all of us. But let's be real. Being white is going to be a privilege, like it or not, for a very long time, no matter how "woke" America becomes.

I say this not because I like it, but because my fellow white American men are acting like they are facing an existential threat, as if the whole country (meaning us) were in the throes of a crisis of censorship. Censorship is at the heart of the so-called cancel culture debate. It's so broadly defined, as I said last week, that it has now come to mean anyone disagreeing with me is censoring me. Anyone disagreeing with me is, of course, exercising their right to free speech. Virtually every debate over "cancel culture" has at its heart that fact. No one is cancelling anything. Everyone is speaking freely and, we should hope, responsibly. White American men are not and probably won't ever be victims. Nearly everything about this country works in our favor. Yet we are pretending to be victims. We are pretending to be scared. "Why're we scared?"

If you believe someone else's presence equals your absence—if you believe you deserve to breathe the air and inhabit the space occupied by Black people and people of color, and that when Black people and people of color don't move out of your way at the local deli, it offends you—well, you should be scared. Very. Democratic culture isn't going backwards. But if you believe someone else's presence compliments yours—if you believe the local deli can accommodate you if you'll just wait your turn—there's room to move. You don't need to be a woke liberal. You can be a manly chauvinist like the one who wrote "Okie from Muskogee." Indeed, woke liberals have something to learn.

That's the moral of my story. The takeaway. Woke liberals are often depicted as brittle snowflakes. It's the reverse, though. Americans who believe someone else's presence is the same thing as their absence are the brittlest Americans of all. Merle Haggard wasn't like that. If he can welcome a Black president (he did1), if he can oppose a fascist candidate for president (he did), anyone can. Love of country does not mean, or should not mean, being able to destroy another. Those who believe that should be mocked, should be ridiculed and should be subject to the same level of scorn expressed by Merle Haggard, the legend, in 2003. "Why're we scared?" he said. "We're America."

Are we really in a crisis of 'censorship'?

Newspapers and magazines and any kind of media in printed form have always, and I mean always, reserved the right to publish or not publish whatever they feel like publishing or not publishing for whatever reason—even just because. I come from printed stuff. This belief is baked into me. When newspapers and magazines and any kind of media in printed form decide not to publish something, it's not nor ever will be censorship. It's reserving the right to publish or not publish whatever for whatever.

This right to publish or not publish whatever they want for whatever reason is rooted in the history, tradition and constitutional guarantee of the rights to free speech, free thought, free expression and free inquiry. People who do not own the local newspaper have the equal right to raise hell when the paper doesn't publish their letters to the editor, when the newspaper won't run their press releases, but the local newspaper is not silencing them or canceling them—and it is not censoring them. Everyone in America has the right to free speech. No one in America has the right to be published.

Newspapers and magazines and any kind of media in printed form used to be the exclusive venues for the expression of public opinion. Obviously, that's still partly the case, but Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have expanded the square infinitesimally. Instead of writing for the New Haven Register, and hoping to have a modicum of influence on the political thinking of my neighbors, I now write this newsletter, hoping to have a modicum of influence on the political thinking of my fellow Americans. The principles of free speech, however, are the same. If Substack, the platform I'm using, stopped working with me, for whatever reason, there might be serious consequences, but among those would not be credible allegations of censorship. Substack has the right to publish or not publish whatever for whatever.

I'm making a big deal about this for a good reason. We are in a moment in our history where politics is slowly taking our culture further, a few steps further, in a liberal direction. The election of an out-and-out fascist in 2016 unleashed a torrent of political energy, especially with respect to women (#MeToo) and Black people and people of color (George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, DACA, the border wall and Muslim ban). The unseating of a sitting president by an anti-racist and anti-fascist coalition is, to me, the greatest illustration of this forward movement. One of the consequences of this torrent of history-changing political energy has been that "white people—white men, in particular—face a little more scrutiny today than in the past," wrote Thomas Zimmer, a historian and visiting professor at Georgetown University, recently:

Note that it's really just the threat of scrutiny, the potential of being held to account is enough to cause the next round of reactionary panic. In practice, the power structures that have traditionally defined American life have unfortunately held up fine. … It's clear that the anxieties underlying these reactionary moral panics are shared not just among conservatives. There's a whole universe of white male centrist/liberal pundits who are almost exclusively dedicated to fighting back against these supposed dangers from the "Left." … These moral panics appeal to the white (male) mainstream, because the threat to elite impunity is real. Put simply, "PC," "#MeToo, "cancel culture" and "wokeness" have made it slightly more likely that people get into trouble for racist, misogynistic and disrespectful behavior.

In other words, the more liberal we get, the more likely people benefiting from the status quo are going to bitch and moan about censorship. As we debate "cancel culture" and other terms made up by those who benefit from the status quo, the meaning of censorship has expanded so aggressively and in so many directions it has come to mean anything that's not unfettered, unchallenged, highly lubricated and friction-free speech. Censorship is now so uncritically defined that it means anyone disagreeing with me is censoring me. Again, Professor Zimmer: "You can see why white men with big public platforms from across the political spectrum see 'persecution' where I see progress: If you believe you are entitled to say and do whatever you want without legal or cultural sanction, 'leftist' activism is a threat."

There's that word, "entitled." We have confused entitled speech for free speech. They are not and never have been the same. But as we move through this moment in history, in which we reexamine how we elected a fascist and, furthermore, the social and political conditions from which he arose, we are blurring them. In the process of protecting the privileges of those who have benefited from the status quo, we are, ironically, protecting the conditions that made us weak enough to elect a fascist.

Facebook, Twitter, or any social media platform banning anyone for any reason is not censorship. It is not silencing. It is not cancelling. It is that platform exercising its own right to host, or "publish," whatever it wants for whatever reason. It is an exercise of that platform's right to free speech, free expression, etc. We live in a time in which there are unprecedented ways to express oneself. You don't need Facebook to be a free citizen. Write a blog! Write a letter to the editor! Speechify from a soapbox in a public park! We are acting like we're entitled to a Facebook account. When it bans someone for whatever reason, it's big bad censorship. No, it's not. Instead, it's complaining about not getting what you want when you want it. It's acting more like a consumer than a citizen, more like a spoiled child than responsible grownup. People who see themselves as victims are people ready to put a dictator in the White House.

When Twitter bans a former president, that's not censorship. When Facebook bans a former president temporarily, that's not censorship. When someone criticizes someone else, calling them a racist, that's not censorship. When organized groups build social pressure to force public or private institutions to live up to their stated ideals, that's not censorship. When someone says, "Hey, you can't say that!" that's not censorship. When a crowd shouts down a speaker, that's not censorship. When a Black person or person of color tells a white person to take a seat, that's not censorship. When a town enacts noise ordinances or when it outlaws the breach of peace, that's not censorship. When a state outlaws the distribution of child pornography, that's not censorship. When the government asks social media platforms to stop hosting misinformation about the health, safety and efficacy of the covid vaccines, that's not censorship. All of these are acts of free speech or counter-speech. All of them are legitimate politics.

It's effective politics, from the point of view of people who benefit from the status quo, to get as many people as possible to think it's censorship. That way, people don't have to think about whether it's a good idea to let a massive social media platform keep hosting misinformation about the health, safety and efficacy of the covid vaccines in a pandemic that's likely to kill a million Americans before it's all over. That way, people don't have to think about the role of white supremacy in the shaping of the republic. They don't have to think. They can instead dismiss it, as if it were illegitimate. And while they are doing that, people who benefit from the status quo, especially white men, can enact laws that actually do infringe on the right to free speech. Many states, but especially southern states, are now outlawing teaching the history of slavery. This, my friend, is what censorship is: when a government forbids learning and knowledge, because ignorance and poverty are better for people who benefit from the status quo.

The revealing comments of an unvaccinated Republican suffering from Covid

An Editorial Board subscriber asked a question this morning the answer to which I thought would make a good piece today. In response to Wednesday's column, about what liberals often don't understand about authoritarianism, Eleanor asked why I said "nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here."

I'm not sure I understand what you mean. This sounds kind of like the Calvinist idea of people being fundamentally sinful and only being salvaged by God's grace. Except in this case authoritarianism is the original sin and democracy is the grace. Seems like the way you formulate the issue in this piece kind of mimics the stark fatalism of the WEPs. I'm probably making a facile analogy, here, but this is what it seemed like to me. Could you expand on what you meant in this piece?

I can see how my argument might be mistaken for something similar to what's offered by authoritarian white evangelical Protestants (WEPs). I can see how it might be seen as the same argument! That is, if I did not make room, as the WEPs do not make room, for universal equality. But I do, and that was part of the point of Wednesday's column.

Liberals often do not, or cannot, imagine human affairs completely devoid of universal equality. So they look for reasons why some Americans are authoritarian. Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, a quintessential liberal, suggested strongly on Monday that the reason is because they are lonely. No, I said. It's the reverse. They're not authoritarian, because they're lonely. They are lonely, because they're authoritarian.

I took my assertion another step, though. I said the truth about authoritarianism in the United States is far uglier, scarier and more dangerous to liberty, democracy and the common good than most liberals, but not just liberals, seem to know. "Nothing causes authoritarianism," I said. "It has always been here. It will always be here." Looking for a cause is looking at the problem backwards, because even if it were possible to make people feel less lonely, that's not going to make them any less fascist. The problem has no policy solution, because to the authoritarian, the problem is democracy. "We" can't coexist with "them." "Their" presence is our "absence," and that's unthinkable. This is war. One of us is going to win. One of us is going to lose. And someone's going to die.

Sounds terrible, right? How can I say this about other people, other Americans? I get why people like Gary Abernathy, a Post writer, took offense. The disgraced former president's supporters, Abernathy said this morning, "have every right to be insulted by being accused of believing a 'big lie,' and by the implication that they are violent, or traitors, or mindless sheep—racist sheep, of course. They're fed up not just with the overt insults, but also with more subtle digs … Trump supporters aren't going away, and those who continue to paint them as the lowest forms of life reveal themselves to be more interested in perpetrating stereotypes and nurturing divisions than in achieving what's needed for our nation to survive—reaching across our political chasm, respecting our differences and finding common ground where we can."

How can liberals reach across our political chasm, respect our differences and find common ground where we can? By talking to Trump supporters, Abernathy said, and by listening to them. Indeed, that kind of thing is music to the liberal's ears.

Thing is, though—we have been listening. David Begnaud, the correspondent for "CBS This Morning," talked to a Donald Trump supporter. Scott Rowe was recovering from the covid in a Louisiana hospital. Begnaud listened respectfully. He discovered an authoritarian prepared to die for his beliefs. That might sound noble if not for the fact that Scott Rowe was prepared to die to prevent the government from saving his life.

Begnaud: Before you got sick, if you would have had a chance to get the vaccine and prevent this, would you have taken the vaccine?
Rowe: No.
Begnaud: So you would have gone through this?
Rowe: I would have gone through this. Don't shove it down my throat. That's what local, state and federal administration is trying to do. Shove it down your throat.
Begnaud: What are they shoving? The science?
Rowe: No, they're shoving their agenda. The agenda is to get you vaccinated.

Gary Abernathy is right, morally speaking. We should listen. But he's wrong, morally speaking, too. We have been listening. When authoritarians say they'd rather die than do what the enemy wants, even if the enemy wants to save the authoritarian's life, we should believe him, instead of making silly excuses. We should also stop pretending that just because he's an American, he believes in universal equality. There is no such thing in the authoritarian's world. There is only "us" against "them." "They" can't exist at the same time "we" do. Someone's gotta go. Even if it's though death by the covid.

I suppose I am Calvinist in the sense that I believe some people are simply like this. They have zero feeling for empathy, morality or universal equality. But this belief is grounded in something older than John Calvin. Democracy is young. Authoritarianism is ancient. That democracies contain authoritarian attitudes and authoritarian politics isn't surprising, because democracies like ours contain multitudes. "Nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It will always be here." Knowing this shouldn't make us less vigilant, as if all is lost. It isn't lost. It should make us more vigilant knowing democracy needs tending. It's not going to survive on its own.

To understand the American authoritarian mind, look to evangelical Christianity

Michelle Goldberg is a superlative Times columnist. To my way of thinking, she's a quintessential liberal. I mean that in ways positive and negative. Positive in that she's a warrior for liberty, morality and self-government. Negative in that Goldberg does not, and probably cannot, understand the authoritarian mind, nor its perennial threat to us. Liberals are right to have sympathy for the devil. But there's such a thing as too much.

In her newest column, Goldberg talked about her experience reading Michael Bender's book about the 2020 presidential election, Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost. Bender, who's a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, recounts not only "White House disarray and Trump's terrifying impulses," Goldberg writes, but "the people who followed Trump from rally to rally like authoritarian Deadheads."

Bender's description of these Trump superfans, who called themselves the "front-row Joes," is sympathetic but not sentimental. Above all, he captures their pre-Trump loneliness. … There are many causes for the overlapping dysfunctions that make contemporary American life feel so dystopian, but loneliness is a big one.

Goldberg suggests strongly that loneliness might be the cause of the current drift in the United States toward authoritarianism. She quotes The Week's Damon Linker, who cites Hannah Arendt: "Lonely people are drawn to totalitarian ideologies." "'The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships,' Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism, describing those who gave themselves over to all-encompassing mass movements."

I love Arendt, but she's wrong here. She has things in reverse. I don't know if the chief characteristic of the mass man is brutality and backwardness, but I do know that loneliness is the result of brutality and backwardness. In other words, authoritarianism causes alienation, not the other way around. Democracy does not, and cannot, constitute "normal social relationships" to the authoritarian way of thinking, because democracy, to the authoritarian way of thinking, is a moral perversion of the natural order of things, which is to say, "normal social relationships": God over Man, men over women, black over white, etc. Democracy always runs against the grain of "God's law." The authoritarian is always already alienated—from her nation but mostly from herself.

Goldberg cites the American Enterprise Institute's Daniel Cox, who found a link between loneliness and support for the disgraced former president. The "share of Americans who are more socially disconnected from society is on the rise," Cox said. "And these voters disproportionately support Trump." His survey found that "17 percent of Americans said they had not a single person in their 'core social network.'" He added that these "socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his re-election than those with more robust personal networks."

Like I said, Michelle Goldberg is a quintessential liberal. She's reading Cox's findings as loneliness causing authoritarianism. It's the reverse, though. How can I be so sure? If loneliness causes authoritarianism, what are potential solutions? Among them would be more social networks, more community, more human bonding, and so on, right?

Guess what? White evangelical Protestants are very social, very communal and very bonded by religion and conviction. God over Man, men over women, black over white, etc.—God's law is the basis for their "normal social relationships." White evangelical Protestants are, moreover, united by their collective authoritarian belief that they have been chosen by God to rule America in God's name for the purpose of hastening the End Times, so that anything is justified as long as it serves Him. Put more plainly, nothing matters but authority and power. There are plenty of lonely people in this world, but making them less lonely isn't going to make many of them less fascist.

How can the authoritarian be alienated from her nation but especially herself while at the same time appear to find connection in communities like white evangelical Protestants? That's a very good question! It gets to the heart of the real problem. The authoritarian mind is taught to never ever ever come to its own conclusions about the world. Truth is whatever Dear Leader says, not what your eyes and ears tell you. This "education" begins before birth and lasts a lifetime. As a consequence, there's no such thing as independent thinking. There's no such thing as freedom of choice. In the collective, there's no such thing as you. As a result, you will always be lonely. Big rallies might seem communal, but they're illusory. You're filling a hole that can't be filled.

Goldberg again cited Hannah Arendt who "described people shaken loose from any definite place in the world as being at once deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being: 'Self-centeredness, therefore, went hand in hand with a decisive weakening of the instinct for self-preservation.'" Goldberg said the pandemic did that. It shook people loose from "any definite place in the world." No, it didn't. The covid, the lockdowns, the isolation—these did affect authoritarian minds like they did all other minds. The difference, however, is that the authoritarian mind was already shaken loose from its definite place. And their always already-present anxiety rose to ever more feverish pitches the more democracy prepared to overthrow their fuhrer. We should not ease this mind with sympathy. We should break it with more democracy.

Again, it's the reverse. Being "shaken loose from any definite place in the world" does not necessarily make you "deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being." Not if you're already there. If so, already being "deeply selfish and indifferent to their own well-being" is what shakes you loose "from any definite place in the world." Indeed, you aren't selfish so much as selfless in the most literal sense, as in there's no daylight between you and the collective. You have no sense of self-preservation because you never developed a self to preserve. This makes it very easy for authoritarian people to throw their lives away for the leader. And that's what Michael Bender's reporting shows.

"Toward the end of Bender's book, Saundra reappears," writes Goldberg, referring to a Trump supporter mentioned earlier. "She'd just been at the Capitol for the Jan. 6 insurrection and seemed ready for more. 'Tell us where we need to be, and we just drop everything and we go,' she says. 'Nobody cares about if they have to work. Nobody cares about anything.'1 If you give people's life meaning, they'll give you everything." I don't know why we should read this in any way that's not literal. Saundra says she doesn't care about anything, because she doesn't. Sympathy won't change that.

The thing about quintessential liberals like Michelle Goldberg is they don't imagine, probably because they can't imagine, human relationships completely devoid of the principle of political equality between and among individuals. They can't imagine being uncertain of who they are in the absence of authority. When you don't or can't imagine such a life, the authoritarian mind can seem so confounding that you search for some concrete reason for its suicidal behavior. To the liberal, loneliness seems to be rational cause for authoritarianism. The truth, however, is far uglier, scarier and more dangerous to democracy than most people, not just liberals, seem to know. Nothing causes authoritarianism. It has always been here. It always will be here.

How the pandemic put the final nail in the coffin of the right-wing idea of liberty

I'm still stuck on the idea that if we're nicer to Americans refusing to get vaccinated, they'd be more likely to get vaccinated. That seems akin to hostage-takers being more likely to release hostages if we meet their demands. Anyone who thought about this morally for five minutes would realize anyone willing to take hostages in the first place is untrustworthy, much less committed to releasing hostages after their demands are met. Meeting their demands actually incentivizes them to take even more hostages.

Americans refusing to get vaccinated are similarly engaged in power politics, not an fair, honorable and equitable exchange. What's good for them is not their own health and well-being. What's good for them is not enlightened self-interest. What is good for them is maintaining a political advantage, real or imagined, that "us" has over "them."

So the more we ask anti-vaxxers nicely to please get vaccinated pretty please with sugar on top, the more incentive they have to say no. The more they say no, the more we have to keep asking. Yes, we're asking them to do what's best for them and their loved ones, but they don't see that. What happens after hostages are released? No more advantage! I'd say most people think politics is about problem-solving. Anti-vaxxers think politics is war by other means. To get vaccinated is to concede defeat. And that's unthinkable.

That the real defeat would be their own deaths by the covid does not undermine my point here. It underscores it. A founding principle of the anti-vaxx movement, started long before the covid came, is individual freedom. In this story, they are the heroes. Laws, regulations and people who think politics is about problem-solving—they are the villains. Once people get it in their heads that giving in to laws, regulations and problem-solving is the death of their liberty, it's not hard to imagine them accepting as good the real thing. In this sense, they're less hostage takers than suicide bombers.

It should be said this idea of freedom is upside down, backwards and prolapsed. It should also be said that's the case for many Americans, not just anti-vaxxers. Freedom is usually seen as freedom of choice, freedom to do what you want, freedom to not do what you don't want. That's the myopic legacy of conservative politics in the United States, stemming back to the rise of industrialism and to the slave masters before that. My hope is the pandemic is revealing to us what individual liberty can be. It can be what we do together as a political community for the sake of individuals but also for the sake of the common good. It's about the equitable use of the government for achieving such ends, especially solving collective problems, like a pandemic that has killed nearly 625,000. That means making people, by force if needed, do what they should.

Coercion is often seen as freedom's antipode, but again, that's the legacy of the history of conservative politics. States and localities make people do stuff all the time with very few residents carping about their lost individual liberty. (This includes getting vaccinated!) That anti-vaxxers deny this shared reality in addition to refusing to get vaccinated, adds insult (to our collective intelligence) to injury (to the republic). Editorial Board subscriber Jim Prevatt expressed this double-whammy when he said: "Tell me again why is it that people get to decide whether or not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. I don't get a choice about whether to murder somebody. I don't get a choice to drive without a driver's license or to exceed the speed limit or run a red light or go to Switzerland without a passport. Why do people get a choice not to take the vaccine when they might very well expose somebody else who will die from it?"

Mr. Prevatt echoed sentiments expressed by Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president said that "the legitimate object of government is 'to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.' Making and maintaining roads, bridges, and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools; and disposing of deceased men's property, are instances." I'm pretty sure he'd include vaccinations against the covid.

Mr. Prevatt joins Editorial Board member Claire Bond Potter in updating Lincoln's view to meet the equity demands of a multi-racial republic. In a piece about the collapsed Florida condo, and speaking of the role of building regulations, Claire said "individuals do not make the best decisions for themselves. They make self-interested ones. Government is there to make the hard political decisions that individuals cannot, or will not, make on their own. Politics is how we, as a people, make good on a social commitment to care for each other."1 Claire didn't say this but I'm confident she'd agree this applies to people refusing vaccinations. If you can't be trusted to "make good on a social commitment to care for each other," you'll have to be forced to.

So far, vaccination mandates are not uniform. They are a patchwork of local and state laws, and requirements by individual institutions, such as colleges and public schools. There is no national mandate, not even for the military. In their absence, however, the tide is shifting away from the idea that we should be nicer to people in order to get them to do the right thing. No, they should do the right thing for its own sake. The tide is also shifting away from the legacy of conservative politics. Government is not the opposite of individual liberty. Government can be the way of realizing it fully.

'This is insane': There's a big problem in the media's approach to vaccine 'skeptics'

Henry Enten used to be a very fine writer for FiveThirtyEight before he became a talking head for CNN. I don't hold that against him, though. He's a number-cruncher. In this day and age, we need number-crunchers. And we need them to do more than crunch numbers. We need them to throw up their hands on television in absolute exasperation for the fools who refuse to get a free vaccination for their own good.

"This is insane," Enten said Friday on CNN's morning show, "New Day." "Just .8 percent of those who died in June were fully vaccinated. Look at that—99.2 percent were unvaccinated." Enten went on to say: "My goodness gracious, could you find a clearer statistic than this, that the vaccines work? I don't believe you can. This is why it's so important for folks to get vaccinated. We know they work and this number clearly, clearly shows it. … Folks, get vaccinated. My God. My God! I run out of words, because it's just so clear and people are being just so freaking silly. It works. Get vaccinated. It works.1

This is good, but I think Enten and the rest of the national press and pundit corps should do more. They should express, when appropriate and relevant, not only disapproval for those who won't save their own lives against yet another variant of the coronavirus more contagious and deadly than the last. They should show disrespect, even contempt at times. I'd argue that the more the press corps, and hence respectable white people in this country, keep respecting people who cannot, or will not, take responsibility for their own lives, the longer this covid pandemic is going to endure.

Don't they already show disrespect? That's certainly one of the tropes we have, since 2016, accepted as true without scrutiny. Americans living and working "on the coasts" don't understand "real Americans," their values and culture, and their way of life. Liberals, Democrats and "the educated" think they know better. They think they are better. All of this together has been called the "liberal media bubble" or some such thing. Donald Trump's surprise victory in 2016 seemed to prove the accusation, launching story after story after story about "real Americans" eating in diners, ruminating on public affairs. The "liberal media bubble" atoned for its sins.

To the extent that this was true, it's false now. What are people like Henry Enten asking? Not voting for a certain candidate. Not supporting a certain policy. The "liberal media bubble" is asking Americans to get a free vaccination known to prohibit catching a deadly disease. Nearly 100 percent of the covid dead last month were not vaccinated. If you're skeptical of vaccinations working, as Enten said, "this number clearly, clearly shows" they work. Once the data has been established, though—once something has been shown to be true independent of human agency—all anyone can do is speak truthfully. We don't, however, have to respect people who can't, or won't protect themselves and the people they love. Anyway, we tried respect already. Remember all those diner articles! Let's try something new. Let's try disrespect.

Some conservatives say disrespecting skeptics only makes persuading them more difficult. "The American people are unruly and in a sour mood about their authority figures," wrote National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty on Friday. "The 40 percent of people who reported their initial hesitance have barely budged so far — despite millions wasted on public education and ham-fisted attempts to prevent them from sharing their concerns and fears. If vaccine advocates really do want vaccination uptake to increase more than they want to feel superior, they have to change course."

Yeah, no. If "the 40 percent of people who reported their initial hesitance" were genuinely hesitant, they'd be convinced that vaccines are safe and effective by the fact that nearly 100 percent of the covid dead last month were not vaccinated. They would be convinced despite "millions wasted on public education and ham-fisted attempts to prevent them from sharing their concerns and fears." They would make up their own minds, something conservatives tell us is important to them. But because they are not convinced by truth independent of human agency, it's fair to conclude persuading them was a fool's errand all along. They were never "skeptical." They were decided.

I don't know why we should respect people who don't respect themselves, except in an effort to get them to do what they won't do for themselves and the ones they love. But data isn't going to cut it. Science isn't going to do the job. So-called skeptics are going to need social pressure, social coercion, and that's where the "liberal media bubble" comes in. It must not keep respecting ridiculous excuses for bad behavior. The right and moral response is deep disapproval at the very least, contempt at the very most.

Republicans are caught flat-footed as Biden makes inroads to the heart of Trumpism's appeal

The GOP has been historically against sending money directly to people. They are ideologically opposed to it, but there are practical partisan considerations, too. When a majority of normal people receive aid and comfort from the government, a majority of normal people tends to think highly of it and, in turn, support that government with votes. The Republicans are not stupid. They know that means the Democrats win.

For this reason, it was a stroke of genius, I would say, that the president and the Congressional Democrats built into the American Relief Plan Act the ability to send advanced child tax credit payments directly to normal people's bank accounts. To be clear, the amount of money isn't that much more than what the status quo had been. Americans with kids over 6 had gotten $2,000 per kid; now they get $3,000. But because all this was sorted out at tax time, most people didn't feel it the way they are now feeling it this week as direct payments arrive. I'm guessing lots of people did not even know the cash was coming until they checked their accounts and their eyes popped out.

You can't buy that kind of reaction. Nor can you buy the partisan loyalty that comes with it. You can only do that by thinking politically, which is why the Republicans, even when they come out in favor of "welfare," always insist that it be built into the federal tax code so that people don't really feel the government's support, as it's all wrapped up with getting tax returns filed. In truth, some people might end up owing the government, depending on their earnings for that year. But that won't change the impact being felt this week. At tax time, they'll be too busy getting their taxes done.

The Republicans are responding by raising the boogeyman of "Big Government." I won't bother quoting anyone. (Fine, if you insist, google "Marsha Blackburn"). But the boogeyman isn't what he used to be. It was based on two linked ideas. One, that there's only so much money to go around. Two, that undeserving (non-white) Americans are cheating deserving (white) Americans out of their fair share. The GOP dominated most of the last 50 years with that linked combo. The covid pandemic unlinked it. The government had to step in. It had to float the economy. Sure, there are still white people worried about being cheated, who oppose non-white people getting any help. But plenty more won't care as long as they are getting their fair share. They are.

Advanced payments being sent directly to the bank accounts of normal people are probably going to scramble the effect of the Republican's rhetoric. Think about it. The disgraced former president pretty much campaigned on the idea that you better vote for me or the far-left socialist-communist-totalitarian Democrats are going to win, tank the economy and send us all to the bread lines. All that nonsense was really racist coding. They wouldn't dare smear Barack Obama as a Black man but they did call him a socialist when they weren't calling him a food-stamp president, a post-colonial Kenyan Marxist or denying that he was an American at all. Dog-whistling (or bull-horning) is highly effective when there's a widespread belief that there's only so much money to go around. The pandemic changed that. There is plenty of money with the right political will. And that political will is not coming from the Republican Party.

I don't think the Republicans quite understand this. I don't think most people quite understand the inroads being made by Joe Biden and the Democrats into "populist" terrain previously held by the disgraced former president. Again, think about it. Donald Trump tapped into that great populist strain that's always already present in American politics. He invoked the powerful and enduring image of "the common man." He got average Joes to think of themselves in hard opposition to political elites in both parties. (Hillary Clinton was Trump's antipode. Mitch McConnell is.) At the end of the day, though, he never delivered for "the common man." Not even once. To be sure, he delivered a "good feeling" of seeing "us" stomping "them." But he never delivered materially, not in ways Joe Biden and the Congressional Democrats are delivering, soon with a $4.1 trillion infrastructure package, now with cash money.

Steve Bannon, though evil, was astute when he insisted at the beginning of the former president's one and only term that he push for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. According to Trump's then-advisor, that was key to Trump's "economic nationalism" and to cementing his hold on "the white working class." He said that while the Democrats mewled and puled about racism—what we would now call "cancel culture" and "wokeness"—the president, as "tribune of the people," would deliver in ways no Republican president delivered before, thus rewriting the rules of Washington. That never happened, obviously. For one thing, Bannon got the boot. For another, the Republicans in the Congress didn't want any of that. They kneecapped the president, leaving in their wake endless jokes about the imminence of "Infrastructure Week."

Bannon didn't fear socialism the way most Republicans feared socialism as long as it was a socialism for white people only. In this, he was renewing, or trying to renew but failing, the old Jacksonian democratic spirit, flipping the social and political order, putting the Herrenvolk on top. Joe Biden is similarly but universally "populist." Instead of excluding most people, he and the Democrats are including most people. They are expanding the economic pie, taking populist politics and making it popular so only the cast iron-shelled bigots and ideologues among us feel like an injustice is being done.

With enough normal people feeling enough support from the government over a long enough period of time, it's not hard to imagine the former president's supporters, the ones who are not completely indoctrinated, falling away, perhaps wondering even if all that talk was just talk. At the very least, they might think before voting about how it felt to have a government on their side compared to a government that only said it was.

The cynicism in much of the American press plays right into the GOP's hands

Earlier this month, I introduced you to the concept of the Very Serious Debate Club. This is about half the pundit corps in Washington, I guessed, columnists and talking heads who believe everything in politics is as good or bad as everything else, and that nothing matters except whether or not they appear to be on the winning side. They are immensely clever, highly educated, almost always born successful and hence respected. At the same time, they don't really care about much of anything they say, because the point of debate isn't being wrong or right but instead the glorification of the debater.

In short, they are cynical, opportunistic and amoral. If politics has clear moral sides—for instance, whether free and fair elections are central to the identity of a country like ours that claims to be a democracy—members of the Very Serious Debate Club will strive mightily to ascertain ways of muddying up the moral picture so that those who do take sides seem to be the real culprits since extreme points of view, however moral or immoral, are presumed bad bad bad, even if an extreme view is pro-democracy.

The president took a clear moral side in a speech Tuesday. He went so far as to name the enemies of the republic. "There's an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections," Joe Biden said. "An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are as Americans. … Bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country.1 It gives me no pleasure to say this. … But I swore an oath to you, to God, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That's an oath that forms a sacred trust to defend America against all threats, both foreign and domestic."

The speech arose from efforts by state Republicans to codify into state law Donald Trump's Big Lie about voter fraud being the reason he lost the 2020 presidential election. Anyone reading between the lines, which is to say anyone can read between these lies, could see that Trump and the Republicans are those domestic threats.

This provoked a fiery response from Henry Olsen, a columnist for the Post who I normally regard as a conservative but harmless polemicist—"harmless" in the sense that he occasionally said fascism was bad during Trump's one and only term. But it appears I was wrong. In his column on Wednesday, Olsen wrote that the president is just as bad as the former president in that his speech was "demagogic and dangerous."

It's bad enough that Trump is telling his minions he won the election, causing them to distrust our elections process. Biden's overheated accusations push his followers to the same conclusion. We can't have a functioning democracy if activists in both parties neither trust nor accept the outcome. Next year's elections will be free and fair in every state, just as they were in 2020. It's a shame that Biden, who says he wants to heal the country, is instead adding his voice to those that tear it down.

This is what the Very Serious Debate Club does so very well. It takes an immoral act—like restricting universal suffrage in states like Georgia with "election integrity measures" designed to address a theoretical crime that does not exist in any way meaningful to election outcomes—and equates it with a moral act—in this case, Biden demanded that the Congress pass two pieces of legislation that would shore up and expand voting rights as maximally as possible. These two things are not the same. That fact is obvious to any morally sentient being. But the Very Serious Debate Club makes a living pretending simple things are complex, complex things are simple, and in the process invents a "moderate position" that adds partisan heat but no political light.

Olsen adds his own twist by accepting without thinking the Republican position with respect to "election integrity measures" (those are his actual words) and by soft-balling what Georgia's election laws actually do. Read it for yourself, but I found the biggest holler to be when he said this is one of the most expansive voting access laws in the world. Sure! If you ignore completely the fact, according to Post's Peter Stevenson, that they expand "voter access, particularly in ways that will be visible in rural areas"! In other words, according to Stevenson's explanation of Georgia's laws, they are likely to make voting "disproportionately more difficult for poorer voters and voters of color."

That Olsen has to reach for fraud to make a case that the president's speech was "demagogic and dangerous" suggests it takes a dangerous demagogue to know a dangerous demagogue (meaning Olsen). But I don't think he is. I think he's just another member of the Very Serious Debate Club. He's clever enough to see that Biden's speech is a time for the old canard. "Making the GOP the fall guy for Trump's despicable post-election lies—and claiming the party is anti-democratic as a result—seems to be their solution," he said. "This may not succeed with the people they need the most: the educated suburbanites who used to vote Republican before Trump."

So—don't get mad at the Republicans for their immoral behavior or you might end up losing Republican voters who are not nearly as mad. That's not just a canard. That's a deeply cynical canard, which is why the Very Serious Debate Club, even though its members include plenty of liberals, is fundamentally in the service of the Republicans. The more Americans believe that nothing matters, that the game is rigged and that morality has nothing to do with winning, the worse things are for normal people and the common good, which is better for the Republicans. That's why the right and patriotic response to the Very Serious Debate Club is democratic contempt.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.