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Saturday, January 30, 2021

The new ideology

For many years now, I have watched the growth of a new revolutionary ideology based upon identity politics.  I have sometimes referred to it as postmodernism, the academic theory from which it draws a lot of its inspiration, and it now also goes under the name of "wokeness."  In the last decade that ideology has become mainstream, and it dominates the academia, the mainstream media, and much of the Democratic Party.  With respect to race, its buzzwords--diversity, equity, and inclusion--are now very common currency. It has just burst into the news again because the San Francisco School Board has decided to rename more than forty schools, stripping away the names of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Theodore and/or Franklin Roosevelt (no one seems to know which president this particular school was named after), James Monroe, William McKinley, Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster, James A. Garfield, Paul Revere, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Muir, Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan, Diane Feinstein, about half a dozen early Spanish settlers, and some prominent local figures.  One cannot understand this decision without understanding the ideology behind it--and this is all the more important because many people who now embrace it do not really understand it or where it came from.

I would like to stress before I begin that while my own views are unfashionable, they are far from unique, or unique to older white males ike myself.  Just as many women have never accepted many of the more extreme tenets of contemporary feminism, a number of black thinkers reject the critical race theory which is one aspect of wokeness and which evidently has played a major role in the San Francisco decision.  Youtube is full of fascinating and stimulating interviews with people like Glenn Loury (a Boomer), John McWhorter (an Xer), and Coleman Hughes (a Millennial) who completely reject the new ideology.  The comments on their youtube entries show that there are thousands of Americans of all races who reject them as well.  Plenty of evidence suggests that a majority of voters reject them--such as the recent referendum in California, the most diverse state in the nation, that refused to reinstate affirmtive action in university admissions by a wide margin.  None of this, howevr, has stopped the inexorable march forward of the new ideology. 

What is it and where did it come from?

Most fundamental to it, perhaps, is the idea that there is not, and cannot be, one single human reality with respect to political and social questions.  Postmodernism holds that one's view of such questions is inevitably colored by one's race, gender, and sexual orientation, and that these characteristics are more important than any common humanity that we all share in shaping our views and interests.  Academics have argued for decades that no particular views an be "privileged" over others, even if--or perhaps I should say, especially if--those views are held by a large racial majority of the population, or by most of its leadership class (and every society has a leadership class.)  This view led decades ago to the foundation of gender and ethnic studies departments, on the grounds that only members of a particular gender or race could contribute critically important views to the academy.  An alternative view, such as my own, might argue, first of all, that all our brains are sufficiently similar for us to reach a substantial measure of agreement on critical questions provided that we recognize our common humanity.  It might also argue that a cross-gender, cross-racial consensus on many issues is necessary for society to function, rather than to descend into a war of tribes.  Such views are increasingly unfashionable.

A second, closely related tenet of the new ideology holds that one's racial and gender identity defines one's life experience in almost every way.  In particular, it marks one either as an oppressor (white people in general, but especially white males), or one who is oppressed (everyone else.)  The whole diversity industry, including thousands of consultants, dedicates itself to propagating that view, and best sellers such as White Fragility implore, or try to shame, white people into acknowledging this crucial aspect of their identity, and to recognize themselves as privileged oppressors no matter what their actual feelings towards other races might be. This view also implies that oppressed groups must not be forced to submit to the leadership of members of oppressor groups, or forced to accept a culture that does not come from their own group.  I have seen this view emerge in many ways.  I have heard interviews about the Boston school district arguing that nonwhite students cannot get the education they need as long as their teachers are largely white.  Last spring, after George Floyd's killing, black reporters at the Washington Post submitted a letter to their superiors complaining that the idea of "objectivity" was simply an aspect of "elite whiteness."  That was one example of a tendency to attach racial labels to cultural characteristics.  A poster, "Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States," at the national Museum of African-American History--now removed--listed self-reliance, the nuclear family, an "emphasis on the scientific method," the "Protestant work ethic," and many other traits--some of them hopelessly dated and stereotypical--as specifically white characteristics.

Connected to these views is the view of American history embodied in the New York Times's 1619 project.  In this view, slavery was, and racism still is, "central" to American history.  Now I believe that slavery was the original sin of the American colonies and the young American Republic, and that its impact persists in many ways to this day.  I also agree that slavery was "central" to two important groups: slaves and slaveowners.  I know, however, that those two groups represented a pretty small percentage of the whole population, that they were confined to one part of the country after the American Revolution, and that a huge war eventually put an end to the status of slaves and slaveholders--though not, of course, to racism.  If, however, black people decide that one must view history only through the ideas of people who "look like me," and that their perspective is at least as valid as anyone else's, the conclusion that slavery was "central" to American history becomes inevitable.   Interestingly enough, this was not always the view of black activists.  In the 1850s, it was the white supremacist judge Roger Taney who argued that the Constitution protected slavery throughout the United States and that black people could not be citizens, while Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist and ex-slave, argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  The 1619 project went even beyond Taney, and continues to argue, without any evidence, that many white Americans fought the American revolution to preserve slavery.

The emphasis on race as a critical cultural and political factor has changed our use of language and, critically, our view of history, in ways that are largely unconscious.  The terms "African-American," "Native American," "Asian-American," and the less common "European-American" imply that we are all defined by where our ancestors were living in 1492.  This may never have occurred to you, but a moment's reflection, I think, will convince you that it is true.  (Certainly a letter to the editor I read decades ago made this point effectively: "The term 'Native American' is deeply offensive to native Americans of African, Asian, and European descent.")  More importantly, when one combines this view with the idea of white people primarily as oppressors of everyone else, the whole of US history becomes a crime and a tragic mistake.   That idea comes out in the San Francisco boards list of proscriobed names, which incude anyone who ever had any involvement in wars with Indians.  Closely related to this view is another one that I talked about in a much earlier post: the idea that virtue resides only among the oppressed.  Last but hardly least, pre-Columbian America has taken on the aura of a mythical golden age, a paradise of unspoiled humanity living in harmony with nature, which European civilization unfortunately destroyed.  

A broader perspective yields very different conclusions.  During the last few centuries of human history, agricultural societies replaced hunter-gatherer societies nearly everywhere in the world, and everywhere in temperate regions.  This must often have been a cruel process but it seems to have been an inevitable one.  Certainly it allowed humanity to multiply its population many times over, and to enjoy a much higher standard of living.  Even within hunter-gatherer societies, moreover, life was often a brutal, and sometimes genocidal, struggle among different tribes.  In what is now the US the Mound Builders once built an extensive civilization but it had disappeared before Europeans ever arrived. No group was ever more brutal than some of the nomadic tribes of Asia. When one judges the American experiment within a broader historical perspective, things look completely different.  What distinguishes it is the idea of human political equality, revolutionary in its day.  While that idea was not immediately applied to all inhabitants of the country in 1776 or 1787, it inevitably spread to them all within the relatively short time--in the whole scheme of history--of a century and a half or so.  

Taken together, these views explain why the San Francisco school board took the action it took.  They have explicitly stated that Washington and Jefferson had their names stripped from schools because they owned slaves.  If one believes that racial oppression has always been the "central" fact of American life, that does indeed become more important than leading the continental army to victory in the revolution, serving as the first President, writing the Declaration of  Independence, making the Louisiana Purchase, or anything else. Lincoln's proscription stems from the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862.  In August of that year, starving Dakota (Sioux) Indians, suffering from the loss of hunting grounds and the failure of the white authorities to provide food under treaties, went to war with the whites.   They initially won many battles, burned a number of white settlements, and killed an estimated 600 or more whites.  The federal government sent reinforcements, the Dakota eventually surrendered, and military courts eventually sentenced 300 of them to death. Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38, said to have been responsible for about 100 murders. Lincoln's name is presumably being stripped because he played a part in this episode in the long, sad struggle between whites and Indians whose hunter-gatherer  societies disappeared.  A single racial offense now qualifies one for unpersonhood, and in this case outweighs Lincoln's unique role in ending the institution of slavery within the United States.

The board could at least point to specific acts of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln to justify their proscription, and Sherman and Sheridan also commanded US troops in wars against the plains Indians.  But what about Paul Revere, who had no connection to slavery, or James A. Garfield, a convinced abolitionist, or Daniel Webster, who opposed the spread of slavery? A spreadsheet issued by the board answers these questions. It damns Garfield for having stated that Indian societies were destined to disappear, and Revere for having commanded an expedition to Maine during the Revolutionary War which was somehow "connected" to the "colonization" of the Penobscot Indians, What about James Wilson Marshall, listed merely as a sawmill worker at Sutter's Mill?  Why the naturalist John Muir?  The spreadsheet indicates that many of these people simply said things that would ban them from polite society today.  In one of its most bizarre entries, a school named after the Battle of Argonne Forest in the First World War is renamed because the battle was fought by segregated American units.  Most ironically, Daniel Webster is proscribed because he supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  So he did--as part of the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a free state.

White people did, indeed, define most of the principles upon which our institutions are based.  They did not however define those principles to use against nonwhites---they were weapons against other whites, specifically, the British monarchy and aristocracy that claimed superiority by birth. Because those principles as stated are race- and gender-neutral, they have spread around the globe to varying degrees, just as Jefferson, in his last letter, hoped that they might.  Most importantly, those principles of equality, equal rights, and majority rule, remain the only possible basis for the survival and prosperity of our nation.  Tribalism will only breed more tribalism  If this post leads anyone to think a little harder about where we are and where we are going, it will have been worthwhile.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Coup that Failed

 In December 1990, after the collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe and in the midst of Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to hold a reformed USSR together, his foreign minister and close collaborator, Edward Shevernadze, suddenly resigned and warned that the country was headed for dictatorship.  Observers in the West generally failed to take this warning seriously enough.  Seven months later, old-line Communists in the Soviet military and government tried to overthrow Gorbachev in a coup.  It failed, and the USSR fell apart less than six months later.  

A parallel event, it turns out, took place last December 14, when Donald Trump announced that William Barr was resigning as Attorney General.  Barr on November 30 had refused to endorse Trump's claims of decisive voter fraud in the recent election, and Trump had already expressed discontent with him.  Barr did not warn of any developments to come, and the two men turned his departure into a love fest.  Jeffrey Rosen, Barr's deputy, became acting Attorney General.  Less than three weeks later, the President apparently attempted a coup that would have replaced Rosen with the more pliable Jeffrey Clark, and put the DOJ squarely on Trump's side in the voter fraud controversy. 

Rosen and Clark had remarkably similar backgrounds, including long careers at the Republican law firm Kirkland and Ellis (which had also made Brett Kavanaugh a partner when he had almost no private legal experience) and service in the George W. Bush Administration.  (Other Kirkland and Ellis alumni include Ken Starr, William Barr, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Secretary of HSS Alexander Azar, and Robert Bork.) Clark was now heading two different divisions of the DOJ at once, the Environment and Natural Resources Division and the Civil  Division.  (Clark has long opposed the regulation of  greenhouse gases.)  According to the most thorough account of recent events in the New York Times, Clark by the last week of December had made contact with Trump via an  unnamed "Pennsylvania politician," and they had formed a plan.  Clark would take over the Justice Department and announce widespread investigations of voter fraud. He would also send a letter to the Georgia legislature asking it to undo the certification of Biden's victory in its state.  (Let me go on record: I strongly suspect that they planned to send similar letters to at least two other legislatures, including the Pennsylvania one, since undoing the result of the Georgia election alone could not have given the election to Trump.)  Clark met with Trump on Saturday, January 2 or Sunday morning, January 3, and then informed Rosen that he was going to replace him.  Rosen quickly called Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and arranged a meeting with him, Trump, and several senior Justice Department officials on that very evening of January 3.  After a long and bitter argument, one of the main features of Donald Trump's personality--cowardice--won out.  He agreed to leave Rosen in place, after everyone else in the meeting threatened immediate resignation if he did not. That left Trump with only one card to play: the incitement of the crowd of supporters he had already summoned to Washington three days later.  He played it.

The two-week postponement of Trump's Senate trial gives the House of Representatives time to submit a second count relating to this story.  They even have time, should they use it, to hold emergency hearings and take testimony from the key players. (Clark has already indicated that he would refuse to answer questions based on highly dubious claims of attorney-client privilege.)  Many stories suggest that Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators are moving towards votes for conviction, and these revelations should move them more quickly.  

We are extremely fortunate that Donald Trump doesn't have enough attention span to plan anything ahead.  I am shocked that so many well-educated and successful professionals like Barr and Clark have willingly collaborated in some of his most disgraceful schemes.  Trump did not however take the trouble to complete the Gleichschaltung of key agencies and put men like Clark in charge of the Justice Department and the Pentagon who would do anything he asked. (He did not make that mistake at state, where Mike Pompeo has been everything he could have hoped for.)  If he had, we might well have lost our democracy.  The Senate now has a chance to brand Trump's conduct as criminal for all time and ban him from holding federal office.  Let us hope that it does.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Hitting bottom?

 Last spring and early summer, I gave an on-line version of my favorite course, Generations in Film, which uses movies from the 1930s to the present to illustrate different generations and turnings.  Beginning with movies about young members of the GI generation like They Made Me a Criminal and Mister Roberts, the course traced the decay of American institutions, culminating with The Social Network and The Big Short.  Then, as I have often in the past, I ended with one of my favorite films of all time, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Set in the 1930s, this film features three main characters played by actors from the generation they are portraying: the Missionary Walter Huston (a Canadian, and their generations are a few years behind ours); Humphrey Bogart of the Lost Generation; and the young GI Tim Holt.  Strauss and Howe defined Missionaries as the Prophet archetype, the Lost generation as Nomads, and the GIs as Heroes.  They are thus parallel to today's Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, which is why I have always liked using the movie to wind up.  Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the movie you might want to skip the next paragraph--I don't want to spoil the great treat you have in store.

The film begins with Dobbs (Bogart), down and out in Tampico, Mexico, and his chance meeting with another, younger American, Curtin (Holt.) Later, spending a night in a flophouse, they meet the elderly Howard (Huston), talking about his many experiences as a prospector.  Before long, the three of them are embarked on an expedition into the mountains, where they eventually strike it rich.  Howard quickly emerges as the leader--rather like his contemporary FDR--not only because he's an experienced prospector, but because he knows the psychological pitfalls of the trade, as well.  Dobbs, it turns out, trusts no one, and is just out for himself.  Curtin tries to be a loyal teammate and is the only one with real plans for the future--he wants to acquire land and grow fruit.  Eventually they start for home with $35,000 apiece, but chance takes a hand.  Howard has to stay behind for awhile with some local Indians while Dobbs and Curtin continue alone.  Dobbs decides to try to make off with the whole haul himself and tries to kill Curtin, but fails.  Later he encounters bandits who kill him, and don't realize what it is that he has stashed on the back of is burrows.  Howard and Curtin eventually catch up, but by then, the wind has blown all the gold away. Philosophical as always, Howard bursts into hysterical laughter, and Curtin joins in. And then, Howard assures Curtin that he has plenty of time ahead of him--time enough to make three or four more fortunes.

It occurred to me preparing for that last class last summer that at the end, Howard and Curtin have hit bottom, with all their dreams in ruins.  And it also occurred to me that our nation today, wracked with partisanship and dysfunction, apparently unable to cope responsibly with the pandemic, and struggling under the yoke of a hopelessly inept leader, was waiting to hit bottom as well.  I could not however imagine exactly what that would look like.  Now we know.  We can't yet be sure, but I think we hit bottom on January 6, when an angry mob stormed into the Capitol in a vague, largely unorganized attempt to terrorize the House and Senate into refusing to certify Joe Biden's election--brought together and encouraged by Donald Trump, by far the worst President in the history of the United States.

Although much remains to be learned about the origins of those events, I cannot bring myself to describe them as an actual coup attempt.  We have survived Donald Trump because his primary characteristic isn't narcissism or power lust, but ineptitude.  Had he put the Pentagon in the hands of al all-out supporter and formed a secret organization to coordinate mob action all over the country as a pretext for martial law, storming the Capitol might have been part of a real coup, even a successful one.  That however was way beyond the capability of him or his minions.  A lack of organization characterizes political movements on both sides of our fence today. Black Lives Matter opposes organization in principle, since any leadership enjoys a privileged identity, the concept it is formed to combat.  Extreme Trump supporters are anarchists.  These are not the kind of movements that make successful revolutions.

The events of January 6, it seems to me, have done two things. First, they clearly established that Trump and his supporters have been engaging in indefensible behavior, including not only their insurrection, but the whole campaign against the election  That has finally united a significant number of Republican officials with all the Democrats behind the position that Trump must not only leave the White House, but also face disqualification from further political office through impeachment.  Meanwhile, Joe Biden is already planning an all-out attack on the pandemic and the recession it caused--a demonstration that the government can solve big problems.  And thanks to the Georgia electorate, he has a real chance to do so.  Narrow Democratic control of the Senate will not bring about a rebirth of the New Deal, or Medicare for all, but it will allow the Senate, as well as the House, to function, and to pass important relief measures.  That's the first step on the road to political recovery.

Joe Biden will take office as the first President from the Silent generation, of which he is one of the youngest members.  He was fully shaped by the last great era in which the US government could do things like building the interstate highway system, encourage the construction of millions of new houses and schools, and pass civil rights bills   He wants to revive that legacy.  Meanwhile, Generation X is taking over from Boomers in positions of power throughout our society--although Boomers, alas, still numerically dominate the Congress. Gen X will go along with new measures not out of ideology, ut out of necessity.  The conviction of Trump--and I think he will be convicted because Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment need to drive a stake through his political heart--will send a signa about acceptable behavior  We don't know whether we will face a long outburst of random political violence.  It might conceivably become necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus--a measure which the Constitution allows "in time of invasion or rebellion, as the public safety may require."  But in any case, for the first time in a long time--certainly since 2010--things seem to be moving in the right direction.  Let us hope that continues.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Real Analog to Trump

 On Wednesday morning, about 140 Congressmen and about a dozen Senators planned to argue in effect, that Joe Biden had not really been elected President.  Well after midnight that night, the House and Senate certified Biden's election.  Now, three days later, the impeachment of Trump is almost certain, he has been forever banned from Twitter, several key cabinet members have quit, Mike Pence is under pressure to invoke the 25th amendment, and his two foremost Senatorial defenders face pressure to resign.  Trump's spectacular fall, parallel to his extraordinary rise, confirms the parallel between his career and the most famous demagogue of the last century, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.  That parallel is worth exploring.

One important parallel relates to their personalities. McCarthy was an alcoholic who died in 1957 of liver failure, just three years after his political downfall Trump does not drink, but it occurred to me the other day that he is a perfect example of what some therapists call a "dry drunk"--someone who displays all the instability, narcissism, and continual rage of an alcoholic without drinking.  I googled this association and was astonished to find only a few hits, although one of them was this excellent article by a 12-step veteran.  The question  of why such people can exert such a hold on those around them--and in some cases, on the broader public as well--remains open.

Let us first review the key details of McCarthy's career.  A judge in Wisconsin, he reached the Senate in the Republican sweep of 1946 thanks in part to a split in his own party.  He made no real impression in Washington for three years.  Then, in February 1950, in a Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, he announced that he had evidence that 205 members of the Communist Party were working at the State Department.  This was what Trump's ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal called "truthful hyperbole." The evidence was simply a letter written by the Secretary of State to Congress in 1946, explaining that extensive security investigations had led to a "recommendation against permanent employment" for 284 employees of which 79 had been "separated from the service." McCarthy had subtracted 79 from 284, assumed without evidence that the rest still worked there, and converted them into Communist Party members.

Like Trump with his rants about NAFTA and immigration, McCarthy was building on a foundation of actual facts.  Alger Hiss, once a high State Department official, had recently been convicted of perjury for denying that he was a Communist spy.  We know now thanks to Venona intercepts that the Soviet spy network within the government was much larger than anyone realized at the time. McCarthy, however, never added anything to what was already known.  He accused many people of Communist ties in the next four years, but he never uncovered a single Communist himself.  Everyone he identified had either already been so identified, like Hiss, or was innocent of the charge.

 In addition, McCarthy, like Trump, tapped into the enormous resentment of large parts of the American people against the eastern (now bicoastal) elite, which seemed to feel that it knew best for everyone, and had led the nation into the Second World War and was about to lead it into the Korean War,. Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State who became McCarthy's no. 1 target, symbolized that elite then in exactly the same way that Hillary Clinton came to symbolize it in the 2010s. And just as the tide was running somewhat against the Democratic Party in 2016 after eight years in power, it was running against the Democrats in 1950-2 after nearly twenty  years in power.  After McCarthy's initial charges, a subcommittee of the Senate led by four term Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, a Democrat, investigated them and found them baseless. McCarthy threw everything he had against Tydings in his campaign for re-election that fall, including a faked photo of Tydings with the head of the US Communist Party, and Tydings lost his seat.  McCarthy also developed the same symbiotic relationship with the press that Trump has: although they knew most of what he said was false, they felt they had to report it--and he sold a lot of newspapers.  And he used the Senate floor the way Trump has used Twitter, blasting anyone who dared to stand up to him as a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy behind the cloak of Congressional immunity.

Like all such historical comparisons, this one illuminates the differences between two time periods, as well as the similarities between the main actors. McCarthy became a national figure and the center of controversy as a junior US Senator because of one speech in a small city in the heartland.  No sitting Senator today could get 1/10 as much attention from anything he or she said or did on the floor of the Senate or off of it, because we no longer take our politics so seriously,. Trump on the other hand became a national figure with a personal following no other Republican candidate in 2016 could match thanks to reality TV.  Radio personalities like Father Coughlin on the right and Drew Pearson on the left had enormous followings in the 1930s and 1940s, but none of them ever tried to parlay their stature into high office. And no one ever regarded McCarthy as a serious presidential candidate--even the man himself. 

Still crucially, McCarthy, like Trump, quickly got the active help and support of most of the Republican establishment, who welcomed a new weapon against the hated Democrats and thought that they could control him. Senator Robert Taft, the Mitch McConnell of the day, told McCarthy to keep swinging for the fences--"if one case doesn't work, try another."  Senator Richard Nixon, who had already made his name from the Hiss case, became a staunch ally.  Dwight Eisenhower kowtowed to him in his 1952 campaign for President.  McCarthy had accused General George Marshall of having handed China to the Communists, and Eisenhower planned to defend Marshall--who had made Eisenhower's career--in a campaign stop in Wisconsin.  Campaign operatives talked him out of it.  Trump took longer to win the support of the Republican establishment, but by 2018 they were firmly in his pocket, and loyally defended him in his impeachment trial, at enormous cost to the nation, in 2019. Eisenhower won in a landslide, and the Republicans narrowly regained control of the Congress.  That gave McCarthy an important committee chairmanship. 

Over the next year McCarthy turned out to be just as dangerous to a Republican administration as to a Democratic one.  His subcommittee on investigations continued terrorizing various government agencies with phony investigations, including the Voice of America, the US Information Agency, and the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.  That last investigation led to the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 and to his downfall.

The sources of McCarthy's political demise also make for interesting comparisons. One key episode was Edward R. Murrow's masterful attack upon him on CBS, beautifully dramatized nearly 20 years ago by George Clooney in Good Night and Good Luck,.  Fourteen years later Walter Cronkhite used his comparable prestige to help turn public opinion against the Vietnam War, but there is no nonpartisan television personality today with anything like that degree of respect.  Another big factor in the McCarthy hearings--at least as important as Joseph Welch's famous monologue--was the revelation that one of his staffers, Roy Cohn, had constantly interceded with Army authorities to try to get special treatment for his good friend and fellow staffer G. David Schine after Schine was drafted.  Every young American man had been subject to the draft for most of the last fourteen years in 1954, and they and their families were accustomed to standing up for their equal rights. Now we have lost that sense of shared service, shared sacrifice, and common rights.  Trump was a draft avoider, and proud of it.

The televised hearings showed McCarthy to the country as he really was, and the Republican Party now recognized him as an embarrassment with Congressional elections just months away.  They agreed to a new, bipartisan committee which majority leader Lyndon Johnson handpicked to ensure McCarthy's downfall. The committee found that he had brought disrepute upon the Senate recommended his censure.  While the issue was hanging fire, the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and Senate in the Congressional election.   A month later, the Senate "condemned" McCarthy by a vote of 67-22.  The parallels to Trump's downfall are almost exact.  Like McCarthy, he had turned against leaders of his own party after they failed to back his attempt to steal the election.  He had been heard browbeating the Georgia Secretary of State--a Republican-- and his own Vice President in the same way that McCarthy had publicly blasted an Army general before his committee. And last Tuesday, the day before the storming of the Capitol, Trump had cost the Republicans their Senate majority.  When he once again did the indefensible on Wednesday, they had no reason to defend him.

As Richard Rovere pointed out more than sixty years ago in his masterful polemic, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthy still had plenty of resources to work with early in 1955--including, like Trump, a devoted following of millions of Americans. But he fell apart because he could not live with defeat, and because most of the press now ignored him and he could no longer secure the attention he craved. In another hopeful sign, "McCarthyism" died with him.  Anti-Communist smears soon became unfashionable, the Supreme Court reversed itself on at least one key point, and within five years the Hollywood blacklist was broken. Indications suggest that Trump is staring at the same fate.   He now seems certain to be impeached and Mitch McConnell seems to be seriously considering convicting him to make sure that he cannot run for President again.  Much worse, for Trump personally, he has lost his Twitter platform, apparently forever.  (The major social media platforms have at least temporarily become the gatekeepers that define unacceptable speech, just as the major newspapers and tv networks were in the 1950s.)  He will probably try to create some new platform but anyone who can help him will come under enormous pressure not to. He has evidently contemplated living abroad, and I will not be surprised if he does.  Whether the tone of our politics will change remains to be seen.

Yet despite their parallel fates, the comparison of Trump and McCarthy still shows how much worse off we are in 2021 than in 1955.  McCarthy was never a serious candidate for higher office; Trump became President.  Between the 1950s and the 2020s, our political elites lost the confidence of the American people, and until they get it back we remain in grave danger.  The great crisis of 1929-45 gave us Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then the whole generation of GI politicians from JFK through George H. W. Bush.  Not a single comparable political or military figure has emerged from the crisis of the last twenty years. Trump won election because he realized that tens of millions of Americans rejected the bipartisan political consensus on issues like trade, immigration, and the shape of our economy.  He did not, of course, do anything to really help his voters, but they, and many Democrats as well, still feel the same way.  Our greatest task still lies ahead.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

The Possibilities for Wednesday in Congress

 Three months ago,  I discussed at length the law specifying how electoral votes must be counted in Congress on January 6, and how Senator and Representatives can raise objections to a state's votes, and potentially invalidate them.  Since then, the people of the nation have elected Joe Biden president, and more than sixty lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign have failed to overturn the count in any state.  Nonetheless, it is now clear that more than 140 congressmen and at least 12 GOP Senators will make some objection to the count, leading, in all probability, to a debate in each House.  Meanwhile, President Trump has called for large demonstrations in Washington on that day, and reports state that some demonstrators plan to try to block access to the Capitol.  Today I'm going to look at the legal basis--or lack of one--for the Republican objections, and to try to predict what might happen on Wednesday.

Passed in the 1880s, the law on the subject aimed to resolve controversies such as had arisen during Reconstruction, and most notably in 1876.  In that year, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida all submitted two sets of results, coming from competing state authorities. The Republican Rutherford B. Hayes needed the votes of all those states to win the Electoral College over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.  Detailed historical research into the election later determined that Hayes probably carried Louisiana and South Carolina fairly thanks to the black majorities in those states, but almost certainly lost Florida, and, therefore, the election.  With no obvious way to settle the dispute, many felt that the Civil War might be renewed. Eventually, thanks in part to a bargain that led to the withdrawal of federal troops (and thus the end of effective Reconstruction) in Louisiana and Florida, Congress created a 15-member commission, composed of five Congressmen (from the Democratic-controlled House), five Senators (from the Republican-controlled Senate), and five Supreme Court Justices, to advise Congress on the counting of the votes under the 12th amendment.  The Commission sided with the Republicans, with Justice David Davis, the swing vote, taking their side, possibly induced by a bribe.  Hayes was declared the victor.

The dozen Republicans led by Ted Cruz have now referred specifically to the 1876 precedent and called for the creation of "an electoral commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of elections returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed.”

Thinking about this, it seems to me that things could actually be worse.  The situation today differs in a critical respect from 1876, insofar as Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have all certified their Democratic electors and submitted their votes.  Although President Trump has personally tried to persuade Republican authorities in at least some of those states to dispute these decisions, they have refused to do so.  Now as it happens, someone did persuade the Republican electors in all of those states (I believe) to meet separately, cast ballots for Trump, and send them to the Congress.  The Republicans are not however arguing that Congress should accept those submissions as valid and award those electoral votes to Trump.  To have so argued would have created exactly the kind of controversy that led in 1876 to the appointment of the commission and the eventual Republican victory.  Instead, they simply want their commission to declare the results in various states in doubt.  That could in theory have allowed Congress to reject the electoral votes of enough states to deprive Biden of his majority and throw the election to the House of Representatives, voting by state, where Trump would win.  But rather than do that, they want the state legislatures in these states, most of which are dominated by Republicans, to award the electoral votes instead of the voters. 

The Republican problem is this: neither the 12th Amendment to the Constitution nor the relevant statute allows for action simply because one, or even both, houses of Congress question the results.  The law states that when at least one representative and one senator have objected to one or more state results, "no electoral vote or votes from any State which shall have been regularly given by electors whose appointment has been lawfully certified to according to section 6 of this title from which but one return has been received shall be rejected, but the two Houses concurrently may reject the vote or votes when they agree that such vote or votes have not been so regularly given by electors whose appointment has been so certified."  The law gives Congress  no power to reject results on a whim, or because of its own opinion about how an election was conducted: if the electors submitting the votes have been "regularly certified," then they must count.  To my knowledge there is no present dispute over the certification process for any of the electors from any of the controversial states, and thus, no remotely legal reason to accept their votes.  The law leaves the power to certify a state's electors with the state and only prescribes a role for Congress when the state has not managed to submit a clear and unchallenged result--unchallenged, that is, by state authorities.  Bush v. Gore was a terrible precedent (so terrible that the majority decision itself declared that it should not serve as a precedent) because it took the power to decide who had won the Florida election away from the state government of Florida.  Now the Republicans want to give the same power to a commission whose membership they do not even define. 

To get any action, the Republicans would need a majority in both houses of Congress.  They clearly will not get a majority in either one, since Democrats control the House and several Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Pat Toomey, had made clear that they will accept the election results. The number of Republicans who will join Cruz and company will tell us just how powerful Trump remains within their party.  Unfortunately, nearly two years will pass before any of them have to face the voters again. 

One other danger remains. In a White House meeting more than a week ago, Michael Flynn and lawyer Sidney Powell apparently encouraged the President to declare martial law to seize control of the process of counting the votes.  Representative Louie Gomert of Texas has called upon Trump supporters to "go the streets [sic] and be as violent as Antifa and BLM."  Neither Flynn  nor Powell is actually part of the government, and I don't think Trump has anyone below him in the chain of command that would go along with this.  But I will feel better when night falls on Wednesday, the Republican objections have been voted down, and Biden has been declared the next president.