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What’s That Sound?

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun, over there
Tellin’ me I got to beware.

Stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

There’s battle lines bein’ drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speakin’ their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind.

Stephen Stills, For What It’s Worth (1966)

With a zeal and purity of purpose that only youth can bring to a cause, students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are doing something unprecedented in the tragic history of school shootings. Surviving students – teenagers, most of them too young even to vote – are leading a national movement for reform of our gun laws. They have adopted “never again” for the name of their organization, intentionally or otherwise labeling our epidemic of school shootings a holocaust, a crime against humanity. They are hell-bent to be the survivors of the last mass shooting.

Some of the students are strikingly articulate, remarkably capable public speakers. Stephanie Ruhle, of MSNBC, interviewed a surviving senior, David Hogg, the morning after the shooting, and was – in her own words on the air – “blown away” by his eloquence and by the sophistication of his call for legislative action.

Hogg spoke plainly, like a real person, without the circumlocutions that politicians give us. He pointed out that we have become inured to truly shocking facts, like the fact that our school children engage in “active shooter drills” as routine as fire drills. He pointed out that the shooting he and his sister had survived was the 18th school shooting in this country just this year. His brought us back to being shocked by facts that we had stopped being shocked by.

Hogg was interviewed on CNN two days later. When Alisyn Camerota asked him what message he wanted to send Congress, he was ready. He turned to talk directly to the camera, as if he had done dozens of TV interviews before, and he demanded action in place of useless talk about “thoughts and prayers.” Then he preemptorily devastated any politician who failed to act: “We’re children. You guys, like, are the adults.”

Perhaps most widely noted of Hogg’s classmates is Emma Gonzalez, whose speech at a “Not One More” rally just three days after the massacre was an inspiration. Gonzalez spoke for 12 minutes, mostly reading from a sheaf of papers she called “my AP Gov notes.” Her grief was immediate and palpable, as she repeatedly had to wipe tears from her eyes so she could keep reading and keep speaking. Her anger was also palpable.

Gonzalez opened with a condemnation of our politicians’ inability to move from “thoughts and prayers” to action to protect children from mass murder. Parkland’s survivors had to be there instead of home grieving, she said, “because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.”

Gonzalez contrasted countries where mass shootings are rare to the United States, where mass shootings are so common that there is a Web site that compiles lists of them. She insisted that, regardless of shooters’ mental health, the frequency of mass shootings is not solely a mental health issue, but is also a gun issue.

Gonzalez turned to the NRA, calculating that the NRA’s contributions to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign amounted to $5,800 for each American shooting victim during 2018 alone:

“Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump? If you don’t do anything to prevent this from continuing to occur, that number of gunshot victims will go up and the number that they are worth will go down. And we will be worthless to you. To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you.”

Gonzalez concluded with the most powerful passage in her speech. She accused “the people in government” of lying about gun violence. She said that it seems to fall to high school students, to children, to call out the lies. Then she laid out a series of those lies, each followed by the Never Again response:

“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS. They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.”

The children, the high school students who survived the Parkland massacre, understand something that adult gun control advocates have not understood. We have gotten lost in arguing the factual merits of the NRA’s ever more bizarre claims about the futility of gun control. I’ve personally fallen down that particular rabbit hole – for example, after Micah Johnson shot 14 armed, on-duty Dallas police officers, I argued that surely this incident should put to rest the NRA’s lie that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

The Never Again students’ approach is better: instead of disproving each lie in what is an unending stream of lies, the students just “call BS.” We know they’re right. We know the lie is a lie. We know that legislators could decrease the frequency of mass shootings, and we know that legislators’ excuses for not legislating are lies. Huge majorities of Americans agree on some basic stuff like universal background checks for gun and ammunition buyers; barring gun purchases by violent criminals, convicted stalkers, suspected terrorists and the seriously mentally ill; and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Today the students are in Tallahassee to meet with Florida state legislators and demand action instead of “thoughts and prayers.” On March 24, the students are going to march on Washington to demand action from federal legislators.

There is something happening here. Our children are leading us because the adults have failed. Our children have of necessity become proponents of their own protection, because the adults have failed. Our children are shaming us for our failure.

I say, let’s follow the kids. Let’s follow them to Washington, to our state capitals. Let’s attend their rallies. Let’s join their movement, but let’s not try to take control of it. So far, the teenagers are doing a better job of it than we ever did.

 

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Information Warfare Against the United States of America

There is much of interest in today’s 37-page indictment of three Russian companies and 13 Russian individuals on conspiracy and other charges in connection with the Russian campaign of interference with our 2016 elections. Perhaps the most breathtaking section of the indictment is paragraph 10c, which gives the lead defendant’s own description of its 2016 election interference campaign as “information warfare against the United States of America.” We can only hope that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s deeply detailed description of Russian “warfare” against us will prompt our own Congress to give a little more priority to fighting election interference and a little less priority to fighting Mueller’s investigation.

Most Americans who aren’t in denial about Russian election interference probably assume that the interference campaign was approved, if not orchestrated, by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Today’s indictment doesn’t explicitly say so, but it includes a hint.

The defendant charged with managing the interference campaign is a Russian company called Internet Research Agency LLC. Two other defendants, Russian companies named Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, allegedly “controlled funding, recommended personnel, and oversaw [Internet Research Agency’s] activities.” The indictment asserts, essentially in passing, that the two Concord companies hold “various Russian government contracts.”

The indictment does not say another word about those contracts, but the implication is that the Russian government used the Concord companies to fund the interference campaign by Internet Research Agency and its employees. The indictment alleges that Internet Research Agency was a sizable company – for instance, the indictment says that, by July 2016, Internet Research Agency employed 80 people just in its “translator project,” which was the corporate division focused on social media. In addition to the translator project, the indictment mentions two other corporate divisions: a data analysis group and an IT group.

In announcing the indictment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein felt compelled, in extravagant deference to his boss’s delicate ego, to emphasize “repeatedly” that the indictment does not allege that Russian interference changed the outcome of the election. But the indictment does outline a sophisticated, multi-faceted effort to influence the election outcome.

The Russian interference campaign was long in the planning – Internet Research Agency was registered as a Russian corporation in 2013, and by April 2014 the social media campaign was underway.

Defendants posing as Americans operated social media groups designed to attract American audiences, and they used viewing metrics to monitor the success of their efforts. They tracked the number of American viewers and the level of viewers’ engagement, such as likes, comments, and re-posts. The indictment mentions one social media group that attracted more than 100,000 followers – and, remember, there were 80 Internet Research Agency employees charged with setting up these groups.

Defendants used these social media groups to address divisive American political issues like immigration, to post derogatory and not necessarily truthful information about presidential candidates other than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and to support those two. Beginning in 2015, defendants bought social media advertising and organized political rallies in support of their favored candidates. Posing as Americans, defendants communicated with American political activists to coordinate their activities, the obvious intention being to amplify their effect.

Posters received technical guidance on things like the ideal ratios of text, graphics and videos to use in posts, and they received feedback on the content of their posts – for instance, one poster was admonished for having too few posts “dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton,” and was instructed “to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton.”

During the general election campaign, defendants undertook an effort to discourage African-Americans and Muslim Americans from voting at all, or to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

So yes, it’s true that the indictment does not allege that Russian interference changed the outcome of the election. What the indictment does allege is a well planned, well funded, long-term campaign of social media posting and advertising, supplemented by campaign rallies successfully promoted on-line. Political campaigns pay for advertising and rallies because it is universally believed that advertising and rallies influence voting – politicians all refer to it as “getting our message out.” The likelihood that no votes were influenced by the Russian campaign is nil; it is certain that the Russian effort had some effect, and it is impossible to measure how big that effect was.

Another notable aspect of today’s indictment is that it alleges no “collusion” – no knowing cooperation by any American with Russian efforts to influence the election outcome. On the contrary, the indictment alleges sophisticated and complex efforts by the Russians to present themselves as Americans. Internet Research Agency deployed some of their computers and other hardware in the United States, and set up virtual private networks that would appear to be American. They used faked American identities, or, in some cases, they used stolen identities of real Americans – consequently the indictment includes six charges of “aggravated identity theft.”

The indictment explicitly and repeatedly says that Americans who communicated with the defendants thought they were communicating with Americans, not Russians. In other words, the defendants’ efforts to conceal their Russian identities were successful. Of particular interest, the indictment alleges that members of the Trump campaign were among the Americans who unknowingly communicated with the defendants or others working with the defendants. The indictment doesn’t specify which Trump campaign members and it doesn’t detail the communications. Whatever communications the indictment refers to, it doesn’t refer to the Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort took with a group of Russians including Natalia Veselnitskaya. Trump Jr. was told right from the start that he would be meeting with a “Russian government attorney.”

Partisans hoping this indictment would allege Trump campaign collusion with Russian interference will be disappointed. There isn’t a hint of collusion to be found, let alone an explicit accusation. This might mean two things. It might mean that Mueller’s investigation has found no collusion, or at least as yet has not produced sufficient proof of collusion to support criminal charges. It also might mean that this indictment is not the last indictment to come on the question of Russian interference.

Curiously, the indictment refers three separate times to a conspiracy among “persons known and unknown” to the grand jury. The unindicted conspirators are apparently Russian, or at least are not American, because the indictment alleges that “defendants and their co-conspirators” traveled to the United States to gather intelligence for their operation, and that “defendants and their co-conspirators” posed as Americans to communicate with American activists.

The indictment does not say why the known co-conspirators were not indicted. One reason is that they may be cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. It seems likely from the indictment, with its details about the corporate organization and personnel of Internet Research Agency, and its budget and finances, that Mueller had the benefit of inside assistance of some kind – although it’s possible that his investigators hacked into Russian computer systems. That would be poetic justice of a kind, I suppose.

The only other reason I can see for not indicting known conspirators would be that a further indictment is coming. If further indictments are in the works on the subject of Russian interference (as opposed, for example, to indictments for obstruction of justice), then it is possible that collusion might yet be charged.

Mueller’s history of integrity is top notch, so I don’t consider it plausible that he timed the indictment with political goals in mind. Still, the timing is especially apt. The scope and detail of the Russian election interference that he alleges are chilling, and, combined with the unanimous Congressional testimony this week by American intelligence chiefs that Russian interference with our 2018 midterms is already underway, the indictment commands serious attention and demands serious action. The indictment says that the Russians who ran the campaign of election interference regarded themselves to be at war with the United States of America, and declared warfare against us cannot be dismissed as an excuse by Democrats for losing an election.

Trump has worked hard to divert attention from the original purpose of the Mueller investigation, which was to determine the full extent of Russian election interference. Trump wants to re-cast the investigation as one into “collusion,” which enables him to attribute partisan motives to investigators. Today’s indictment is a forceful reminder that, whether there was collusion or not, the Russians hacked an American presidential election and we have done precious little about it.

Today’s indictment also carries an unstated charge. A government official who now persists in opposing the Mueller investigation risks the very harshest judgment that history can render, which is aiding and abetting a declared enemy of the United States of America.

The Untamed Demagogue

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat concedes that Donald Trump ran for president on a platform of “wildly irresponsible and authoritarian rhetoric.” If Trump implemented his campaign promises, “disasters would ensue.”

But Douthat argues that Republicans in Congress and in Trump’s cabinet have effectively “contained” Donald Trump’s authoritarian or destabilizing promises. As evidence, Douthat offers a “short list” of Trump’s campaign promises that have not been implemented: reinstating torture, shaking up NATO, abandoning American allies to Russian influence, pulling out of NAFTA, loosening state libel laws, launching a trade war with China, pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, installing cronies and relatives in high judicial posts, banning Muslim entry to the United States, and deporting millions of illegal immigrants.

On its own terms, I have three objections to Douthat’s argument. First, Douthat glosses over the partial implementation of several of the promises on his list. It is true that none of the campaign promises on Douthat’s “short list” has been fully implemented, but many of them are in progress.

Second, at least some of Trump’s campaign promises have fallen short not due to containment by Republicans in Congress or the cabinet, but due to judicial intervention. Most prominently, Trump’s Muslim first two steps toward a Muslim ban were thwarted by federal court orders, not by Congressional Republicans, and his third attempt is largely in effect.

And third, Trump has been in office just over a year. Trump’s ability to deliver on his campaign promises will certainly expand over time. Congressional independence has visibly shrunk – last July, Congress voted by veto-proof margins to preserve Barack Obama’s Russia sanctions, but I doubt that veto-proof majorities could be mustered for that purpose today. We will also see erosion of judicial resistance to Trump’s authoritarian campaign promises, as Trump continues to nominate partisan conservatives to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court, and as the Republican-controlled Senate continues to confirm them in unquestioning haste.

Douthat stated his argument in opposition to an argument published in this month’s Atlantic, titled “Boycott the Republican Party.” The thesis of the article is that

“The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him.”

The Atlantic authors draw this conclusion from their thesis:

“the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to . . . vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former).”

In other words, the argument runs, it is the duty of a patriotic conservative to vote for Democrats until Trump is stopped – whether because Trump is gone or because the Republican Party has regained its moral compass and sufficient spine to stop enabling Trump’s authoritarian and destabilizing efforts.

The undoubtedly redoubtable Douthat doesn’t differ very much with that premise. Douthat calls himself “a conservative who opposed Trump, attacked the party for nominating him, argued that he could reasonably be removed from office for unfitness, and generally regards the G.O.P. as a broken vehicle for serious policymaking.” He calls “the acquiescence of leading Republican politicians to the rise of Donald Trump” a “moral abdication and . . . and a reason to root for their defeat.”

But Douthat maintains that some Republicans are standing up to Trump, and those Republicans should be allowed to remain. Douthat names only one name, a senator who isn’t up for re-election until 2022; I can think of no Congressional Republican who is both standing up to Trump and running for re-election in 2018. But Douthat seems to think there are some, and so he argues for a more discriminating vote. Douthat argues that conservative voters who object to Trump should oppose specific Republicans who are enabling Trump but support specific Republicans who are not. Douthat seems to perceive more enabling in the House, and more containing in the Senate, and he allows that maybe conservatives should vote for Democratic House candidates and Republican Senate candidates in 2018.

Douthat acknowledges that Trump is just one year into his presidency, and therefore that all judgments of Trump’s presidency – Douthat’s presumably included – are “provisional.” And Douthat acknowledges the possibility that events would change his mind, the first on his list of such possibilities being “if Trump were to actually fire Rosenstein and Mueller and close down the Russia investigation and Senate Republicans did nothing.”

But here’s the problem with that: if we wait for Republicans to do nothing before we decide to toss them out, it’s too late. If Trump fires Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller and shuts down the Russia investigation, and Republicans in the Senate do nothing, it will avail us little to vote at the next election to throw the Republicans out.

How confident can we be that a Republican-controlled Senate would act effectively to contain such an outrageous abuse of power by Republican President Trump? If we’re 90 percent sure, then maybe Douthat is right, and maybe conscientious, patriotic anti-Trump conservatives can afford to take a chance that a Republican-controlled Senate will do its job. What if the odds are 80 percent? Or 70 percent? What if it’s just 50-50? How low do the odds have to go before we’re unwilling to bet the future of American democracy?

I personally am a relatively risk-averse guy. I’ll put five bucks into the office March Madness pool, because I can afford the probable loss of five dollars. But the bigger the stakes are, the better the odds have to be to get me to bet. And the stakes don’t get much bigger than the future of democracy and the rule of law. I won’t bet those stakes unless the odds in my favor are right up against 100 percent. And there really isn’t any denying that a Democratic-controlled Senate is much more likely to take action against Trump’s authoritarian excesses than a Republican-controlled Senate is.

Conscientious, patriotic anti-Trump conservatives must vote for Democrats in 2018, up and down the ballot, in federal, state and local elections. Neither sitting the election out nor voting for third-party or write-in candidates would be as strong a rebuff to Trump’s enablers as would be the election of Democrats. The enabling will continue until Republican losses shake Republican leadership out of its moral stupor. Voting for Democrats is the most direct and effective means to that end, and the only way to take the Republican Party away from Donald Trump.

 

“Bias” at the FBI

Judges are held to a higher standard of impartiality than members of any other profession. The American Bar Association’s model code of judicial conduct has just four “canons,” or general rules, and three of them have the word “impartiality” or “impartially” right in their titles; the fourth one instructs judges that they must conduct their “personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office,” the chief such obligation being impartiality.

But nowhere in those canons, in the rules implementing the canons, or in the commentary explaining the rules and canons, is there any prohibition against judges holding political opinions. The canons, rules and commentary focus exclusively on the public expression of political opinions – for instance, a judge may not contribute to a political campaign, make speeches on behalf of a political organization, or publicly endorse a candidate for public office. A judge may hold political opinions, even very strong partisan opinions, and may express those opinions privately – for instance, within her family, to friends, in the voting booth.

I served for a little more than ten years as an administrative law judge in New York City government, where I was subject to the ABA’s model code of judicial conduct. I was appointed to three five-year terms by three different mayors: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. I had voted against Koch in the Democratic primaries, and I strongly disagreed with his politics, especially during his third term – which is when I was appointed. I disagreed even more strongly with Giuliani’s politics, and voted against him all three times he ran for mayor – the time he lost, and then the two times he won. And although I found a lot to like in Bloomberg’s mayoralty, I never preferred him to his Democratic opponents, for whom I voted all three times that Bloomberg ran for mayor.

Yet no one ever asked me for my political views, and no one never ever raised a question whether my political views impaired my qualification to serve as an impartial adjudicator. In fact, when Giuliani’s chief of staff, Randy Mastro, interviewed me for re-appointment in 1994, he seemed to assume that many Giuliani appointees, and maybe me specifically, had voted against his boss: “We’ve appointed a lot of people who disagree with us,” Mastro told me very matter-of-factly.

Criminal prosecutors are held to a standard of impartiality that is significantly less rigorous than the standard applicable to judges. District attorneys, who are the chief municipal-level prosecutors across the country, run partisan campaigns for their offices. A candidate for district attorney is publicly known to be a Democrat or a Republican, and often campaigns aggressively on that partisan loyalty. Yet we expect our district attorneys to investigate and prosecute criminal allegations even-handedly, regardless of their own party loyalties and regardless of the partisanship of the accused.

In 43 states, attorneys general are similarly elected. In five states they are appointed by governors, and in Maine the attorney general is elected by the legislature – both governors and legislators being partisan actors, fully expected to favor appointees who hold political and partisan views similar to their own. Only in Tennessee is the attorney general selected by the state supreme court, which provides a level of insulation between the attorney general and partisan politics. We don’t expect state attorneys general to hold no political opinions, but we expect them to enforce the law without regard to partisanship.

And finally, of course, top federal law enforcement officials are politically appointed. In the Department of Justice alone, more than 200 officials are appointed by the president and subject to confirmation by the Senate.

It has never been required that Justice Department lawyers or FBI investigators have no partisan political views. It has only been required that those lawyers and investigators set aside those opinions and investigate and prosecute crimes even-handedly.

Until now.

Republicans in Congress have joined Donald Trump in decrying anti-Trump views held by individuals employed within the Department of Justice, including the FBI. Republicans claim that those partisan opinions prove the unfairness of the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

There are at least two things that are odd about this. First, no one is suggesting that Republican partisanship constitutes bias in the same way that Democratic partisanship supposedly does. No one is suggesting that Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, or any of the other Republican Party members who earn their paychecks from the Department of Justice is incapable of investigating and prosecuting allegations against Republicans. No one is suggesting that Trump not be allowed to appoint Republicans to replace all of the United States attorneys that he fired last March 10.

Second, the anti-Trump opinions that individual Justice and FBI employees are known to have expressed are not fundamentally different than the anti-Trump opinions that many, maybe even most, Republican leaders and elected officials themselves expressed during the 2016 Republican primaries, and even during the general election campaign, especially in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” audio disclosure. Perhaps my favorite was former Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who colorfully called Trump “a malignant clown — unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States.”

What seems especially problematic to me is that the opinions that are now being exploited to show an infestation of bias at Justice and the FBI were all privately expressed – text messages and e-mails, not public speeches or op-ed pieces. And those privately expressed opinions only came to light because Congressional committees, chiefly the House Intelligence Committee, forced them to light.

There is a precedent for this. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy made his name, and his legacy, with the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” For McCarthy, a person’s political views were the fair subject of inquiry, because, he felt, even formerly held political views, if McCarthy disagreed with them strongly enough, disqualified a person from public office – or even from acting in or directing Hollywood movies.

Of course, McCarthy expanded beyond Communist Party membership. He sought to expose people who had merely associated with Communist Party members – anyone who has a Communist friend, the logic goes, must be a Communist, and is disqualified from employment as fully as the Communist himself – thus terms like “fellow travelers” and “Communist sympathizers” and “pinkos” came to the American vernacular.

Now that Devin Nunes has successfully exposed the Department of Justice and the FBI as deep state hives of Democrats and their fellow travelers, he has promised to move on to other agencies, including the State Department. This is especially ominous, ringing as it does with overtones of McCarthy’s famous list: “I have here in my hand,” he said in 1950, “a list of 205 [State Department employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”

McCarthy never released even one name from his alleged list. But his name was made, and his popularity soared among Cold War-era Americans fearful of the Communist spread from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe and China. McCarthy’s legacy is the methodology named after him: McCarthyism is the use of innuendo instead of hard evidence to support allegations of disloyalty, and the use of allegations of disloyalty to discredit and disable political opponents, appealing to popular fear instead of reason.

If you work for the federal government, Devin Nunes wants to know: are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Democratic Party? Do you now hold, or have you ever held, a critical view of Donald Trump? And he intends to read your e-mails and text messages to find out.

Some prominent Republicans, mostly out of government in the commentariat, but also a few in government, like Arizona Senator John McCain, have questioned Nunes’s tactics. But the news media, especially after a year of unrelenting attacks from the highest office in our Republic, no longer has the stature and credibility that enabled Edward R. Murrow to bring McCarthy low:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.”

As yet no one has shown the courage and the character to confront Nunes, as Joseph Welch confronted Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Even if such a person exists today, I’m not sure it would make much difference.

So I suggest that this is the question on which hinges the future of American democracy: in our era of Trumpism, which more than anything else is devoted to the subjugation of institutions to the personality of the president, is there any American institution left with sufficient clout and credibility that its representatives could effectively stand up to today’s McCarthyism?

 

Dr. Jackson is Lying

Donald Trump just completed his first physical exam as president. The White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, reports that the president is in “excellent” health, but Dr. Jackson knows that’s not true.

In particular, Dr. Jackson reports Trump’s height as six feet and three inches, and his weight as 239 pounds. The inaccuracy of both numbers is obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention.

Trump’s 2012 New York State driver’s license gives his height as six feet and two inches. His pre-White House doctor, the comically famous Dr. Harold Bornstein, used to list Trump as six feet and two inches tall. And if there’s anything we know for sure about Trump, it’s that he never understates his own size – when it comes to Trump’s opinion of Trump, size matters. So when Trump told the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles that his height was six feet and two inches, we can be confident he was not underestimating.

Furthermore, pictures of Trump standing next to his one-time Republican primary rival, Jeb Bush, show that Bush is distinctly taller than Trump. And Bush, it seems that everyone agrees, is six feet and three inches tall. Trump is easily more than an inch shorter than Bush, as this exemplar clearly shows. If you Google “images of Trump standing next to Jeb Bush,” you’ll find any number of similar photos.

Dr. Bornstein gave candidate Trump’s weight as 236 pounds. Many doubted that figure, and in fact numerous press reports before then had given his weight as 267 pounds, although Dr. Bornstein claimed that Trump had lost 15 pounds in the previous year.

But even if Trump really weighed in at 236 pounds in 2016, that would mean that Trump has gained only three pounds since then. It was widely reported in May 2017 that Trump had gained weight – not an observation typically triggered by three pounds. A quick photo comparison of pre-presidential Trump to the bloated buttocks and massive midsection of the current Trump conclusively proves that the weight gain has been much more considerable. There is simply no way that Trump weighs just three pounds more now than before he moved into the White House.

Why would the White House lie about Trump’s height and weight? It’s important to Trump that everything about Trump be excellent – even the best ever. You’ll remember that Dr. Bornstein reported to us in December 2015 that Trump’s health was so “astonishingly excellent” that if elected he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

Body mass index is widely used as a rough calculation of a person’s weight category: severely underweight, underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obese. The most widely accepted BMI threshold for obesity is 30.

BMI is a metric calculation: a person’s BMI is the person’s weight in kilograms divided by the person’s height in meters, squared. At the height and weight Dr. Bornstein reported, Trump’s BMI would have been 29.5, just short of obesity. Had Dr. Bornstein correctly reported Trump’s height, his BMI would have been 30.3, or slightly obese. Had Dr. Jackson correctly reported Trump’s height and his post-inaugural weight gain, the BMI might be as high as 35.

An obese person is not necessarily in bad health. But by definition, a person who is obese is not in “excellent” health, which is the lie that Dr. Jackson told us.

What’s remarkable to me about this story is not that Trump’s narcissism won’t allow him to admit to obesity. What’s remarkable to me is the ease and frequency with which Trump is able to prevail on people of accomplishment and reputation to lie on his behalf. It’s not just Dr. Jackson, who is a rear admiral in addition to being the White House physician, and until now has been widely admired as a “straight shooter.” In recent days we’ve also seen two United States senators and a cabinet secretary lie – repeatedly, and in the case of the cabinet secretary, under oath before a Senate committee – to cover up Trump’s racist rant against “shithole countries.”

Lying to cover up a president’s obesity is silly. Lying to cover up a president’s racism is very, very serious.

         *          *          *

One more thing. The fact that President Trump has “perfect” cognition in no way implies that he is not mentally ill; it only means that his mental illness is not dementia. I never doubted President Trump’s cognitive abilities, and I never suspected that he suffers from dementia. It’s always been clear to me that Trump’s mental illness is a fairly severe case of narcissistic personality disorder. Check out the “symptoms” section under “narcissistic personality disorder” on the Mayo Clinic’s web site and see if you can find one that Trump doesn’t have.

 

Senate Midterm Update

Alabamians went to the polls last month to choose between a child molester and a Democrat, and, to their undying credit, they chose the Democrat. Doug Jones thus became the first Democrat to win an Alabama Senate election since 1992.

Jones’s upset victory was huge, but it will likely be short-lived. Jones was elected only to complete Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unexpired term – the seat comes up again in 2020. Alabama’s voting record in recent decades strongly suggests that Jones will not win re-election.

But before we get to 2020, we have the 2018 midterms. And after Alabama Democrats need to gain only two seats, instead of three, to win control of the Senate. That means a Democratic take-over of the Senate, which looked nearly impossible before Jones won, is now merely improbable. My unscientific opinion is that Jones’s win doubled the Democrats’ chances of taking control of the Senate this year, from maybe 10 percent to maybe 20 percent.

When I first wrote about the 2018 Senate elections two months ago, I said that 12 of 33 Senate races were potentially competitive. There are now going to be 34 Senate races, and I think ten of them may be competitive.

New Jersey came off my list of competitive states after New Jersey’s Democratic Senator Bob Menendez drew a hung jury on November 17 in his trial on corruption charges. Had he been convicted and had he resigned while Republican Governor Chris Christie was still in office, Christie would have appointed a Republican to take Menendez’s place pending a special election. That appointee would have held some advantage of incumbency to offset the state’s strong Democratic lean going into the 2018 election.

Federal prosecutors may not re-try Menendez (the jury broke 10 to 2 for acquittal), but even if they do, and even if they win a conviction this time, with Democrat Phil Murphy having succeeded Christie in Trenton, the seat seems pretty safe for Democrats. Perhaps for that reason, no major challenger to Menendez has entered the race.

Utah also comes off the list. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch was running lukewarm approval ratings and was polling poorly. But his withdrawal from the 2018 race clears the way for Mitt Romney’s widely expected entry into the race, and Romney is wildly popular in Utah. Although Romney hasn’t formally announced yet, news reports are unanimous in saying that he will.

Lastly, Texas comes off the list. Senator Ted Cruz looked vulnerable early in 2017, and he even polled even with his likely Democratic challenger, Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke, last April. But Cruz spent 2017 restoring his appeal to his base, which mainly seems to have involved bowing down before The Donald. In any event, Texas has been restored to normalcy, which in this case is not to be confused with sanity, and Cruz is now polling almost 20 points ahead of O’Rourke.

Two states stay on the potentially competitive list despite Democrat-favorable developments there.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown caught a big break when Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel withdrew from the race, citing his wife’s illness. Mandel and Brown had been running close in early polling. Republicans are looking around for another candidate, and who they come up with will determine whether this race stays on the competitive list.

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp caught a similar break when Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer declined to run against her. The state has only one congressional district, so Cramer has repeatedly proved his state-wide appeal. Heitkamp has favorable approval ratings, but the state’s natural Republican lean would have made Cramer a formidable candidate. As it stands, Heitkamp’s likely Republican opponent is a state senator, and polls show even that race is going to be tough.

I’m adding one state to the potentially competitive list, although it’s probably a long shot. After incumbent Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker announced his retirement, both parties quickly came up with strong candidates to replace him.

Republicans are likely to nominate Representative Marsha Blackburn. Blackburn enthusiastically rejects reality-based policy-making. She subscribes, for instance, to the view that Obamacare provides for “death panels,” and she maintains that the Obamacare web site violates federal privacy protections for health care records, because it asks users “Do you smoke?” (On the other hand, Blackburn backed a measure to allow internet service providers to collect and sell users’ browser information without their consent.) Blackburn denies climate change and evolution, and she regards net neutrality as “socialism.”

Democrats will probably nominate former governor Phil Bredesen, who announced his candidacy on December 7. Bredesen was elected governor in 2002, and in 2006 he was re-elected by almost 40 percent of the vote, winning all 95 counties. He’s regarded as a moderate – he’s in favor of capital punishment, for example. Since leaving the governor’s mansion in 2011, Bredesen has run a solar energy development company, a nice factoid for voters who might prefer a reality-based senator.

There isn’t much in the way of polling yet, but the only non-partisan poll so far has the race very close, with Bredesen two points ahead of Blackburn. That’s good enough for me to add Tennessee on the competitive list, although, as I say, I think it’s a stretch.

Still, Tennessee becomes the third plausible pick-up for Democrats – Arizona and Nevada being the other two. With three pick-ups possible, Democrats have a little wiggle room, although just a little – they can lose only one competitive race out of 10 and still take the Senate.

In Nevada, Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen continues to run a strong race against Republican incumbent Dean Heller.

The Arizona race was shaken up this month when former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jumped in. Arpaio is of course a hard-right conservative who, as sheriff, defied a federal court injunction against racial profiling, resulting in his conviction for criminal contempt of court. President Trump promptly pardoned Arpaio.

Arpaio’s candidacy most directly challenges Kelli Ward, a Republican state senator who entered the race before Republican incumbent Jeff Flake announced his retirement. Ward’s candidacy famously won Trump’s praise, in a tweet denouncing Flake as “toxic.” Ward’s chief competition for the Republican nomination had been Representative Martha McSally, who is what passes for a moderate in today’s Republican Party. McSally had already been gaining on Ward in primary polling, and Arpaio’s candidacy splits the hard-right vote with Ward, benefiting McSally.

Representative Kyrsten Sinema, the likely Democratic nominee, has run slightly ahead of McSally and Ward in most head-to-head polling, but there isn’t any polling with Arpaio yet.

As of now, the seat Democrats are most likely to lose is in Missouri, where two-term incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill has been polling behind likely Republican nominee, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley. Interestingly, the first poll in the race by a top-rated pollster, Public Policy Polling, was also the first poll in the race to show McCaskill in the lead – albeit by only one percent of the vote.

Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, a 75-year old three-term incumbent, is in for a tough race if Republican Governor Rick Scott decides to challenge him. Scott can’t run for re-election in 2018, and he hasn’t declared his intentions, but his aggressive solicitude toward hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans looks like an effort to reduce Nelson’s advantage among Puerto Rican voters.

Democratic incumbent senators in Indiana (Joe Donnelly), Montana (Jon Tester) and West Virginia (Joe Manchin) ought to be in trouble, given that Trump won their states by 19, 20 and 42 percent, respectively. There isn’t any polling available yet in Indiana or Montana, but the incumbents there have maintained favorable approval ratings. In West Virginia, Manchin is polling well ahead of the main contenders in the Republican primary.

To round things out, Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate created an unexpected chance for Republicans. With Franken’s seat up for special election, that makes 34 Senate seats on the 2018 ballot – 26 held by Democrats and only eight held by Republicans. But the appointment of Lieutenant Governor Lisa Smith to hold the seat pending a special election in November is sufficiently reassuring that I’m not moving Minnesota into the competitive column, at least not yet.

 

 

I think the 2018 elections will be unusually national in focus, with state and local issues playing smaller than usual roles. This is consistent with the fact that a large majority of voters believe that President Trump is “working against me,” and 44 percent are “embarrassed” to have Trump as their president.

I previously predicted that the 2018 midterm elections will be a Democratic wave, which is really just another way of saying that the election will be primarily about national issues, not state or local issues. It’s the wave phenomenon that puts the Senate into play at all.

Our Proud Shithole Ancestry

Americans, more than citizens of other immigrant countries, celebrate their pre-immigrant nationalities. New York City alone hosts literally scores of annual parades and festivals for that purpose, from the Albanian Parade to the Vietnamese Moon Festival. Citizens of other immigrant countries, like Australia and Israel, don’t seem to maintain such strong identification with their pre-immigration countries.

Our affinity for our pre-American heritage doesn’t necessarily diminish over the generations. New York’s Irish-Americans’ first parade in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was in 1762. New York’s Italian-Americans’ first parade in celebration of Columbus Day in 1892, the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first landfall in the Americas. Two centuries on, Americans’ pride in their Irish and Italian origins is undiminished.

Celebration of national origin is at least partly a way to combat prejudices against that national origin. Irish and Italian immigrants were regarded as inferior by the Protestant Anglo-Saxons who got here before them, and today’s heirs to those two immigrant groups are painfully aware that their national origins were not always celebrated here in the New World.

A different kind of prejudice was at issue when German-Americans held their first parade in New York City in 1957, shortly after World War II, when German-Americans’ loyalty was questioned. They carefully named the parade after Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military officer who became a hero of the American Revolutionary War.

Fully two-thirds of Americans reported English ancestry to census-takers in 1790. There never has been, as far as I know, an annual English-American parade or festival, perhaps because none was ever needed. English-Americans were firmly in charge of the early United States, and have never been subjected to widespread discrimination or stigmatization.

As a general matter, people who are well off where they are don’t pick up and leave their countries, their cultures, their friends and neighbors, and everything and everyone they have ever known to try their luck in a new country, among a strange people, with a culture and customs that are strange and sometimes even offensive to them. The Irish potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century killed a million Irish people, and drove a million more to emigration. The less-remembered Irish famine of a century earlier killed nearly 40 percent of the population and drove the first wave of Irish-American immigration. As recently as the 1980s, poverty drove large numbers of Irish natives to the United States – many of those immigrants, by the way, immigrated illegally; until the Ronald Reagan immigration amnesty of 1986, an Irish accent in a New York City restaurant worker was a reliable indication of undocumented status.

Even England, which during early American history was the world’s richest country, endured deep and desperate poverty during the Industrial Revolution – just read pretty much any Charles Dickens novel to see what I mean. As a general matter, it was those poor, not their overseers, who left England for America.

In even just the few days since Donald Trump decried immigration from “shithole countries,” there has begun a reactionary effort by anti-immigration ideologues to re-cast his remarks as nothing more than a factual observation that living conditions in some countries are very bad. This is a deliberate lie; everyone knows that Trump meant no such thing.

Trump’s complaint was not about the countries, but about the people from those countries. His point was crystal clear: he doesn’t want more people from “shithole countries,” he wants more people from countries like Norway; people from poor countries are unfit for immigration to the United States. He wasn’t condemning bad living conditions, he was condemning the people who would come here to get away from those conditions.

Furthermore, Trump’s complaint was not about all poor countries, but poor countries not primarily inhabited by white people. He didn’t mention Albania, Armenia, Bosnia, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro or Serbia, white-populated countries that are poorer than, say, black-populated Botswana or Gabon. His concern was immigrants who are black, Hispanic or Arab.

For the most part, the media have treated Trump’s despicable comment as one that was intended for the audience of those few present in the room. I don’t believe that. I think Trump knew his comment would be leaked, and in fact intended that it be leaked, to appeal to and shore up his base. My guess is that Trump was worried that his base would be mad at him for his televised openness to legislative authorization of Barack Obama’s DACA program. My evidence is that Trump didn’t issue an immediate denial, but sent his deputy press secretary out to accuse his opponents of putting foreign countries ahead of the United States, a dog whistle to the base; and second, a few hours later, Trump spent the evening phoning around for opinions about how his base would react to the episode.

This was the moment of truth for the Republican Party, the moment when President Trump’s racism became no longer a matter of opinion but a matter of demonstrated fact. This was the moment when President Trump made clear that his slogan, Make America Great Again, really means Make America White Again. This was the moment when President Trump confessed – or bragged – that the purpose of his presidency is not to improve the economic lot of the forgotten American worker but to restore white privilege.

Many Republican commentators and conservative intellectuals have risen to the moment to reject Trump’s racism and his racist agenda for America. But for the most part, the Republican Party establishment – party officials and Republican office-holders – have not. The Republican Party establishment thus shows itself willing to mark its party as the party of white privilege, in order to gain the benefit of conservative federal judicial appointments and tax breaks for the unneedy, at the cost of rejection by the rising non-white majority for generations to come.

 

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