The Personal Responsibility Party

It has been fashionable at least since the time of Saint Ronald for politicians to speak piously about “personal responsibility.” Since that time, too, it has been generally understood that those who most fervently preach this particular Gospel — including Saint Ronald himself — never mean for it to apply to Themselves; it is only for Others: Black people, poor people, gay people, any people who do not look or behave or think like they do. You know who they are: Those people. Such mind-bending blatant hypocrisy would make an ordinary mortal blush, at least; but our lawmakers are made of sterner stuff, and they make a virtue of denying their own actions. They are miracle workers.

An obvious case in point is the (second) impeachment trial of one Donald John Trump. Just listen to the comments of some of the jurors, oath-bound to do impartial justice: Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, suggests that “everyone should get a Mulligan.” One could reasonably infer, then, that Senator Lee’s estimation the fellow who robs a bank (or plans the robbery) should get a pass. As should the intoxicated driver, the junkie, the Ponzi schemer, the serial sex offender. The most obvious problem — but by no means the only one — with this very noble and forgiving sentiment is that Trump’s entire life has been nothing but Mulligans: his pandemic response; his Ukraine phone call (and first impeachment); his “grab ‘em by the p***y” Access Hollywood sniggering (“Just locker talk,” his wife would have us believe); and going back further, his six bankruptcies, his shuttered casinos, his Fair Housing consent decrees. The list goes on and on.

The Party of Personal Responsibility will take none for having created Trump and set him loose in the world; nor, for that matter, does it have the stomach to ensure that he, at least, is forced at long last to face responsibility for his failures and excesses. The late Leona Helmsley famously said, “Taxes are for the little people.” By which she meant, presumably, her many employees (both personal and corporate). Personal responsibility, then, is strictly for suckers. Leona at least spent some time as a guest of the state for her crimes. Republican senators — devout faithful of the Church of Personal Responsibility — don’t appear poised to convict Trump for anything, not even sedition against the United States. To do so would require not just selfless patriotism but a little self-knowledge. And a little acceptance of personal responsibility.

The Party of Stupid

Eight years ago Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal addressed the Republican National Committee at its winter meeting. Barack Obama had just been reelected, defeating Mitt Romney in an Electoral College blowout: 332-206. Jindal exhorted his fellow Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” and to “stop insulting the intelligence of voters.” RNC chair Reince Priebus conducted an “autopsy” of the GOP’s 2012 defeat.

Young people and minorities, the report concluded, viewed the GOP as a bunch of cranky old white men. The party could change its image by deemphasizing social issues and coming out in favor of immigration reform. A set of tactical recommendations got less attention but may have been more consequential: Based on the report’s ideas, the party shortened the primary calendar, reduced the number of debates, and began a huge investment in data and ground operations.

“The Final Humiliation of Reince Priebus” (The Atlantic 7/30/2017)

Over the last eight years the Republican Party has reemphasized social issues and rejected immigration reform. Rather than develop policies that might win more votes, the Republican Party has moved to suppress votes — the votes of minorities, especially. Rather than embrace the idea that among the rights of all Americans is the right to vote, and that exercising that right should be easy, the Republican Party promotes laws and policies that make voting more difficult: removing polling stations, restricting absentee voting, requiring voter ID — these are nothing more than poll taxes and eligibility tests by another name.

In today’s Republican Party, Bobby Jindal is out; Marjorie Taylor Greene is in. Science is out and Jewish space lasers are in. Big-tent rhetoric is out; xenophobia is in. And of course imaginary threats to American sovereignty, security, and stability are all the rage, while actual Russian threats to national security are ridiculed, denigrated, or ignored. And while Mitch McConnell and other “establishment” Republicans would like us to believe that this is an aberration, that the Party of Lincoln has not become the Party of Trump and that rebirth of a vibrant and sane — if conservative — party is not only possible, but inevitable, I have to disagree.

Trump didn’t co-opt the party or turn it to his own use; he didn’t create the infection nor did he drive it deeper: he is, rather, the apotheosis of the intellectual rot that began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran on the risible theory of supply-side economics: lowering tax rates will increase tax revenue. This demonstrably false idea — forty years of experience have proved, over and over and over again, that it just isn’t so — refuses to die. Economist Paul Krugman refers to it as a zombie policy, something which should be dead but isn’t; George H.W. Bush, running against Reagan for the 1980 nomination, rightly called it Voodoo Economics. As realized policy it has been an abject failure each and every time; and yet each and every time tax cuts fail to deliver the promised boom the GOP doubles down. Intellectual honesty would have inspired at least a little soul-searching, a reevaluation of the premise and (one would hope) the repudiation of a false god. Instead the rot spreads, a cancer on the party, devouring its adherents’ ability to think for themselves.

Trump is a symptom — a virulent, violent, repugnant, and highly infectious symptom. So is Marjorie Taylor Greene; and so too are the many elected officials who really do know better — but whose small, craven, pitiable need for approbation directs their legislative conduct. “The American President” provides a little insight here, as it so often does:

Lewis Rothschild : People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd : Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

Boys and girls, you were elected to lead: so, lead. Don’t take people where they want to go: explain to them, teach them, guide them to where they need to go. Leadership, real leadership, is hard. Maybe that’s why magical thinking and doubling down on demonstrably bad ideas are so rampant.

Shocking but not Surprising

Like most people here at home and around the world, the mob insurrection at the United States Capitol disgusted and revolted me. We must hope that this disgraceful coda to the Trump presidency is the death rattle of the Republican Party that enabled it, abetted it, encouraged it, and then stood by while thugs ransacked and defiled the Capitol, killed a police officer, and carried off laptops and national security briefings before being allowed to peacefully leave the building and head off into the night. It is not news to anyone reading this that even after the riot, when Congress reconvened to finish its constitutionally-mandated ritual, there were 140 House Republicans who voted to uphold the bogus objections to Arizona’s certified election results. One hundred and forty: two-thirds of the GOP caucus. Disgrace upon disgrace upon disgrace, and there is no bottom.

No. What we witnessed was not (as GOP hand-wavers and magical thinkers would have us believe) the voice of the people; it was an attempted coup.

No. “We just want an audit,” is not an excuse to riot, to mar public property, to commit mayhem, to murder a peace officer. (And no, “It’s public property,” is not anywhere near the same as, “it’s my property and I can do what I want with it.”)

No. “We heard there was fraud,” is not — as courts around the country ruled five dozen times — a legally recognized standard. Where are the facts? “Hannity told us” isn’t sufficient; show me the spoiled ballots. Prove it. (You can’t, because it’s a lie.)

No. Creating a crisis might create an opportunity for authoritarian crackdown, but it will be remembered in history as wholly illegitimate. Trump’s message to his followers, the recorded video of them breaking windows, staining statues, and defacing walls: it’s not too early to say that these things will join the Reichstag fire in the litany of shameless, shameful, notorious events.

No. Article II does not allow the president to do whatever he wants; we are a nation of laws, not of men — that is what we tell ourselves. No one is above the law — that is what we tell ourselves. The Executive is charged with seeing that laws are faithfully executed — that is what we tell ourselves.

If that is so, there must be consequences. If we believe what we tell ourselves, there must be consequences. Serious, terrible consequences. What is the penalty for treason? (For that is what it was.) Hint: it’s one of only three crimes defined in the Constitution of the United States. And it carries a penalty that the Trump administration shouldn’t find upsetting.

Cognitive Dissonance (Mental Health Edition)

“You will never take back our country with weakness,” says Trump, inciting his mob. Please remind me, because being weak and feeble-minded I have forgotten: who has been in charge of this country these last four very long years?

Another Day, Another Rebuke

The election has been over for weeks. Any lingering doubts should be put to rest by the decision issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. This should be enough to send the red-hatted MAGA hangers-on packing, but it will not be.

The New York Times reports on the case:

In a strongly worded decision, Judge Brett H. Ludwig, a Trump appointee who took his post only three months ago, shot down one of the president’s last remaining attempts to alter the results of a statewide race. The decision came just one day after the Supreme Court denied an audacious move by the state of Texas to contest the election outcomes in Wisconsin and three other battleground states.

Judge Ludwig’s concluding paragraph is all the more scathing because it uses the dry and colorless language of legal technocrats:

This is an extraordinary case. A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for reelection has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed issues of election administration, issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred. This Court has allowed plaintiff the chance to make his case and he has lost on the merits. In his reply brief, plaintiff “asks that the Rule of Law be followed.” (Pl. Br., ECF No. 109.) It has been.

The full decision is here.

Don’t Seat Them

Elections have consequences, intended and unintended. Into the morass of post-electoral fire-breathing and pearl-clutching comes a resolution introduced by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ).  Relying on the Constitution — which the MAGA crowd claims to revere — Rep. Pascrell has a simple proposal to deal with the 126 House members who signed on to the bogus Texas lawsuit: Don’t seat them in the next Congress. Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment says, in plain language, that they are ineligible to serve in federal office. Elections have consequences, after all. And those who would subvert our elections should pay a price.

The message to Democrats should be: Ignore the inevitable and insincere wailing about “persecution for political beliefs” that will follow. Don’t seat them. Ignore the tortured justifications for the over fifty lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign or its water carriers: there is no legally or judicially cognizable case and your complaints have been summarily dismissed by every court that has heard them. “We have a right to be heard in court” is not an excuse for willfully wasting time and money. It’s not a lost cause, and certainly not a noble one. It is an attempt to subvert democracy itself and install a permanent government of plutocrats and autocrats. Elections have consequences.

Republicans, we should note, are fond of repeating that elections have consequences. But let’s be clear: when Mitch McConnell piously intones that phrase, he means only the elections that keep him in the Majority Leader’s chair. The elections, in other words, that enable him to stymie legislation so desperately needed by the people of the United States — such as a second COVID relief bill that would enable people to pay their rent and put food on their tables; that would keep small businesses afloat and people employed; that would ensure sufficient PPE for health care workers, that would help the country get through the next perilous year with the coronavirus. But instead of useful legislation he peddles lie after lie after lie. “Compromise,” to McConnell, means, “Come meet me where I stand, while I keep walking backwards.” The House passed a $3 trillion relief bill; McConnell wanted half that; House negotiators moved to $2 trillion and McConnell wanted half that; now the bill on the table is $900 billion, and passage is in doubt. Politics is the art of the possible, but McConnell cynically moves the goal posts and then blames his Democratic opponents for failing to compromise.

Democrats, you have been playing the GOP’s twisted messaging game for a generation. Take charge, explain in plain language what is going on, and exact a price for the GOP’s sedition. Don’t seat them. Change the game, and make new rules. People will notice; you might even improve your majority. Elections have consequences, right?

Enough, Already

Seriously, enough. Enough of the frivolous lawsuits, the fraudulent claims of fraud, the fact-free fits of faux outrage. In the five weeks since Election Day, we have seen the same play fifty times: the Trump campaign screams about nonexistent fraud and sues to have election results reversed; absent any actual facts and any plausible legal theory which would allow the disenfranchisement of millions — for no reason other than the litigant doesn’t like the election result — the court summarily dismisses the case. Trial courts will have none of it; appellate courts won’t allow it; and the United States Supreme Court refuses to hear the case.

In the latest episode of this outlandish opera buffa is brought to us by the state of Texas, which wants to sue the states of Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in the US Supreme Court. What possible cause of action might Texas have? Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, has concocted the notion that these four states somehow damaged the Lone Star state when they changed their election rules to allow universal mail-in ballots — something which Texas surely could have done, as well, but chose not to.

Per The New York Times:

The lawsuit, filed by the Republican attorney general of Texas and backed by his G.O.P. colleagues in 17 other states and 106 Republican members of Congress, represents the most coordinated, politicized attempt to overturn the will of the voters in recent American history. President Trump has asked to intervene in the lawsuit as well in hopes that the Supreme Court will hand him a second term he decisively lost.

The suit is the latest in a spectacularly unsuccessful legal effort by Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn the results, with cases so lacking in evidence that judges at all levels have mocked or condemned them as without merit. Legal experts have derided this latest suit as well, which makes the audacious claim, at odds with ordinary principles of federalism, that the Supreme Court should investigate and override the election systems of four states at the behest of a fifth.

Of course, there will be no end to this farce: it has proved far too profitable for Trump, for whom a debt load of about $420 million comes due in the next year. Since Trump almost certainly hasn’t the cash, isn’t capable of writing a book worth a nine-figure advance, and has spent his 74 years avoiding spending his own money when grift and suckers are available, he has turned his electoral loss into a fundraising opportunity: donations to his “stop the steal!” fund are directed, in essence, into his own pocket. His credulous supporters don’t read the fine print and won’t believe anyone who has.

That the demands to invalidate the electoral results require a feat of dizzying mental gymnastics, cognitive dissonance on a scale rarely if ever seen, doesn’t seem to bother these self-styled defenders of democracy one whit. Consider: the election was rife with fraud on a massive scale, but only on the top line of the ballot. All the down-ballot races — races which the 126 members of Congress now clamoring for SCOTUS intervention won — were magically legitimate. It defies law, it defies logic, and it defies any real sense of patriotism, which would put country over party and long-term civic goals above short-term self-interest.

That this suit is without merit (and beyond redemption) hasn’t stopped Republican attorneys general of seventeen other states from seeking to join the fun — despite the irrevocable certification of election results in all fifty states. This is an unabashed attack on the core and fabric of democracy; it is, in a word, seditious: We don’t like the result so we must find a way, any way, to undo and overturn it. And if we can’t do that, can we at least undermine public confidence in all electoral outcomes? (We don’t care if it undermines our own victories as long as we can seize power and maintain control of the levers of government.)

This is not representative self-government. It is reprehensible self-serving. Enough, already. Republicans, you lost. Sit down, shut up, and muzzle your Dear Leader. He is doing the Republic great harm — and you, too, if you gave a care to history.

Professional Victims

Donald Trump wants you to know he is a victim. He also wants you to know that he is really, really rich; that he alone can fix it; that he has a very good brain. But above all he wants you to know that he is a victim, and that never in the history of the world been anyone more victimized. That is especially true now that he is — officially — what he most dreads being: not a victim, but a Loser.

True victims don’t bruit their victimhood about, don’t claim it as an excuse or use it as a lever: Job, for all his suffering, cursed only himself and the day he was born — never his tormentor; Christ accepted his fate, too, telling Pilate, in essence, “Do what you have to do.” Self-proclaimed victim status is a scam; Trump has been running this con in New York for at least forty years, where city regulations make it impossible — so he says — for any developer to make money. Never mind that successful developers profit hand over fist in Gotham: Trump is a victim! He has somehow thrived in spite of the regulations but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s a victim! The New York Attorney General investigates him for fraud (Trump University): he’s a victim! He purchased 400 acres of useless land in Westchester and Putnam counties for $2.75 million; when he could find no developer willing to build on it, he gave it to the State of New York and claimed a tax deduction — of $26 million. (Regarding this he’ll probably tell you he’s a genius.) His fake foundation is ordered dissolved for more fraud and self-dealing. He’s a victim! By a fluke of history he now occupies the Oval Office, where he presides over the smoking wreckage of our national government. He held the match and the Republican senate steadied his hand while he set the torch to all the guardrails of our democracy, while he tore children from their parents and put them in cages, while he teargassed peaceful demonstrators. But he is, absolutely, a victim. The rest of us? Suckers and losers.

One is tempted to marvel at the pathology of it. The mind of a sociopath is as fascinating as a high-speed train wreck: We can’t avert our gaze even as it lays waste to everything in its path. We should instead spend a few minutes analyzing how we got here — and then planning the long climb out, the years-long rebuilding of our national government, our national institutions, and our national pride.

Trump, after all, isn’t the only professional victim: the national GOP has been playing the victim card, too, and quite successfully. People of faith are victims of laws that apply equally to everyone; businesses are victims of workplace safety mandates, of environmental regulations, of antitrust laws, of minimum wage rules; people of great wealth are victims of estate taxes. Republicans are victims, of anyone who dares harbor a different vision of America.

That is not democracy, it is theocracy; and of a most twisted and degenerate sort.

Ockham’s Razor

Simple explanations — not implausible scenarios or convoluted conspiracies — are most likely to be correct. This well-known dictum is attributed to William of Ockham: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Pluralities — complexities in a theory — must not be asserted without necessity. Never suppose multiple, interlocking explanations when a single, simple reason is sufficient

It is a rule easily tested by common sense and everyday experience. Consider these two well-known, well-worn statements:

  1. The dog ate my homework.
  2. I didn’t do my homework.

Few people would choose (1) as the likeliest explanation: it is neither simple nor particularly credible. The addition of more details about the assignment’s encounter with domesticated animals (“My homework flew out the bus window and a cow ate it”) only serves to make the matter worse.

Donald Trump won’t admit he lost the election; more disturbing, many of his followers can’t accept the simple idea that although 74 million people voted for Trump, setting a record, over six million more voted for Mr. Biden. Having heard the phrase “rigged election” over and over, they conclude — without examining the premise — that it must be rigged; their guy lost, after all. Enter Sidney Powell, loudly proclaiming that Trump’s defeat could only be the result of fraud; and, moreover, a fraud so far-reaching that it was orchestrated by none other than Hugo Chavez — who died in 2013.

News flash for Messrs. Trump and Giuliani, and for Ms. Powell: That is how democracy works. “Your guy” doesn’t win every time; sometimes the other guy, the other party, the other philosophy of government, wins the day and has its chance.

Special attention should be paid, these days, to that phrase: Philosophy of government. For the Republican Party has ceased to have anything resembling an organizing principle; instead we have terse slogans (“Small government! Freedom!”) and a determination to use politics to remain in power, rather than to craft compromise legislation that will serve their constituents. The present spectacle — a legislature that cannot legislate, cannot provide financial relief for millions of people forced into unemployment during a pandemic — is more than just a case in point: it is a fitting finale to years of brinksmanship and gamesmanship instead of statesmanship, the logical conclusion to a decades-long showdown between a party that believes in government and compromise, and a party that believes only in its own ability to exercise raw power.

Nobody believes the kid who says, “The dog ate my homework.” Absent hard facts, the simpler solution is most likely true. Unlike the case of the wind blowing papers into the path of a grazing bovine — multiple credible witnesses swore they were on the bus and saw it happen — nobody has yet offered a single actual fact suggesting election fraud on any scale, let alone of a magnitude necessary to produce 81 million votes. The dog didn’t eat the homework, and Donald didn’t win the election. Both of them — and all of us — would be better off if they accepted reality.

Bad Faith

Just prior to Election Day a friend observed that we’re going to need new laws and new structures to prevent the corruption, self-dealing, and looting of the public treasury that have been the hallmarks of the Trump administration. “We can’t have ‘acting this’ and ‘acting that,’” my friend said. “We need to ensure accountability.” I told him that the laws already exist, and have for some time: but that enforcement is up to the Congress and the courts. With the Senate operating as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc.; and with a significant fraction of the Federal bench occupied by Trump appointees, the likelihood of anything actually being done is vanishingly small.

The problem isn’t that laws and structures don’t exist. The guardrails haven’t done much guarding these last four years, proving to be not such solid railings or firm barriers; rather, it turns out they are just suggestions, only as strong as public outrage and the other branches’ willingness and ability to enforce standards of behavior that have served the Republic well for two-hundred and forty-four years. I mention both “willingness” and “ability” because — as it turns out — the current administration has decided that the rules that have applied to every predecessor do not apply here. They have defied both congressional demands and court orders with alacrity, zealously undermining the institutions of democratic self-government while loudly claiming to speak “for the people.”

Well, the people have spoken and Donald Trump has been fired. He claims — falsely, as always — to have won with a “record” number of votes; and yes, his tally was indeed record-setting: more than ever for a second-place candidate. And let’s be absolutely clear: Biden’s victory was decisive, a margin of six million votes — nearly four percent. In an age when many elections are won and lost on razor-thin fractions, four percent is a landslide.

But the presidential falsehoods and GOP bad faith continue unabated: Dozens of failed lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions and attempts to strong-arm state elections boards and legislatures in Republican-led states will not change the outcome but they will undermine public confidence in elections, to the point where — as comedian Sarah Cooper tweeted recently — voters are asking courts to ignore the will of the voters. Reduced to its starkest terms: elections are legitimate if “we” win, but fraudulent if “they” win.

Of course it’s a bad faith argument. The essence of democracy — of voting — is that the outcome isn’t going to please everyone, all the time. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. That’s how the system works (when it works). Or as Christopher Krebs — fired last week for bucking Trump’s message that the election was fraught with fraud — noted last year, the purpose of elections is to convince the loser that he lost. This isn’t how we normally think about voting, but it’s dead on. Trump knows he lost; the people around him know he lost; Republican officials at all levels know that he lost. That they continue to sow doubt and stir up mistrust; that they say either nothing at all, or demur quaintly about “rights” to pursue false claims in court, says far more about them than it does about the actual results. They would cling to power by any means possible, the people be damned.

In 1982 the Republican candidate for New York’s 20th Congressional District (Upper West Side) lost overwhelmingly, 85%-15%. Of his defeat he remarked: “The people have spoken. The bastards.” If only today’s GOP could accept electoral outcomes with as much grace and dignity.