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?

Cognitive Dissonance (GOP Encore Edition)

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has announced that come Wednesday (6 January 2021) he will object to the certification of the Electoral College result. Purportedly 140 Republican members of the House will do the same. This is not simply madness, it is shamelessly attempting a coup d’etat. Here. In the United States of America, where we fancy ourselves a beacon of liberty to the world, champions of democracy and justice. Does it get any worse than this? One wants to believe, desperately, that it does not. One is certain, after the egregious anti-democratic behavior and unabashed self-dealing of the last four years, that it does, it can, and it probably will. With just over a fortnight left in this worst of all possible administrations, the damage gets worse every day.

The immediate damage is deliberate, and seeks to hamper and hinder the incoming Biden administration even before it gets started (as described here by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). But the more lasting damage will be to our body politic generally, and — ironically, fittingly, and most deservedly — to the Republican Party specifically. The intellectual rot appears irreversible: when elected officials question not simply the legitimacy of an election, but the legitimacy of their own election, something is very wrong indeed. Apparently “democracy” and “free and fair election” are malleable terms. Fair elections are those in which “our guy wins” whereas any other result is ipso facto the result of unimaginable corruption and conspiracy.

But now come Hawley and with him Ted Cruz and ten more fully Trumpified senators who say they will not accept the outcome, as will 140 Republican members of the House. These people were elected on the very same ballots as Biden, and the inconsistency of their own twisted logic seems to bother them not one whit. We are forced to contemplate two, and only two, alternatives: that these elected officers are too stupid to realize the full implications of their false claims; or too craven to care. And which is worse in a public servant? Do we prefer them feeble-minded, or unscrupulous? Each of these dozen senators was invited to explain on television why they will not accept Biden’s clear victory; each and every one refused the invitation or declined to answer it. To dimwitted and unprincipled we evidently must now add rude. (That a sitting senator would refuse an invitation to appear on television is in itself another oddity.)

Forty years ago the GOP threw its principles overboard in order to win elections: in the place of conservative policy ideas that could be discussed, tested, and adopted (or discarded) as appropriate, the party adopted slogans and demonstrably false claims — the language of ad agencies and mountebanks. Tax cuts will increase revenue! Competition is a magical cure-all for all things political, economical, and educational! New immigrants — to this literal nation of immigrants — are coming to take your jobs! Politics became, in other words, a game. It was no longer about compromising to improve the lives of citizens and constituents; it was about winning elections and achieving, holding, and keeping power.

Decades of empirical evidence haven’t been enough to wipe away these failed ideas, emotional triggers masquerading as  public policy. Our society, our country, our world have all suffered needlessly as a result. We should all hope that the GOP’s most recent self-inflicted wounds prove at long last to be fatal.

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.

Pearl Harbor Day

As I have noted before, my father was at Pearl Harbor. More exactly, he was in the Army and based in Honolulu. The most he ever said about it was, “I was AWOL on Waikiki Beach.” Years later I found the journal he kept. The first entry is dated “Saturday, Dec. 13, 1941. 3:15 P.M.” It is typed on onionskin paper, now yellowed and brittle with age. He left very narrow margins — less than 2cm all around — to save paper. It was, after all, wartime.

This is the seventh day. I suppose I had better start from the beginning, or as near the beginning as I can.

Sunday morning, with Ben Glasser and Harold Davis, I went over to see Sam & Ellen Jacobs. I was due to go on guard that afternoon, but until then I was to help Sam clean up his yard. When we walked into the house, just a few minutes after eight, Ellen said something about a radio broadcast requesting all service men to return to their posts. I couldn’t understand it, inasmuch as we had just left, so I concluded that she had misunderstood the announcer. However Ben and Harold were a little uneasy so Harold decided to phone. Just then someone turned on the radio and I heard, “I repeat, the Islands are under attack. All police officers will please report to their stations immediately.” At the sometime we heard anti-aircraft fire, which to ben Sounded like 155’s. We wasted time but said goodbye on the way out, and hurried back to DeRussy. At the guardhouse I stopped for a drink of water and Sergeant Black, who was Sergeant-of-the-Guard, told me to get back to the battery as quickly as possible.

All this while I couldn’t believe that we were actually fighting. But still, I couldn’t convince myself that the military and naval authorities would be so foolish as to cry wolf, so from the moment I left the Jacobs’ until the time I saw Pearl Harbor aflame I was constantly debating with myself.

To get back: when we reached the battery we quickly climbed out of our civvies and into fatigue pants and o.d. shirt; shouldered our packs and grab the nearest rifles. Then we hotfooted across the parade ground to the gun-square where Ben was told to report to East Group and I was ordered to Battery Randolph. Harold had been a little quicker than either of us and I don’t remember when it was that I saw him next. I haven’t seen Ben since.

At Randolph I found most of the men already sweating with the ammunition. No one was pissing, we just kept the stuff running, a pretty steady rate, from the magazine to the spot where a truck was backed up and being loaded. After a while we got ahead of the truck, despite the fact that almost half of the men had been called back tot eh guns to help unload. But we didn’t slow up, just kept going back and forth. One of the first things I remarked upon to myself was that the stuff didn’t seem to be nearly as heavy as we had found it at Sand Island only the week before. We were so busy that we had no time to be tired — that’s the way I explain it now.

Every so often we could look up and see dogfights. AA bursts were clouding the sky, some of them breaking nowhere near a target. We concluded that their barrage was one of the main factors in driving off the enemy. Once we heard a loud report from the general direction of our guns and I thought that we were firing trial shot since most of the enemy had already disappeared. Later I learned that it was a bomb exploding somewhere the other side of Kalakauna Avenue. Anderson thinks it was a fragment from this bomb which almost struck him as he was standing outside the latrine, but I believe it was a piece of shrapnel from one of our own guns. When I heard about [it], during a slight break in the ammo carrying, I felt rather angry. What the hell do they want to go around bombing Calamaria’s craphouse for, I thought to myself.

So he wasn’t AWOL, and he wasn’t on Waikiki Beach. He simply didn’t want to talk about it. That chapter in his life was closed; I suppose not talking about it was the best way he had of keeping the past in the past and the door well shut. That diary cracked the door open. No wonder he left it in the most remote corner of his desk drawer. It was probably the first time those pages saw the light of day since he typed them.

Seventy-nine years ago today, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was also my aunt’s 21st birthday, a fact not recorded in my father’s journal. She — his younger sister — is 100 years old today: a centenarian. She has seen wars begin and end, presidents and congressmen and senators come and go: people and things that seem in their moment eternal turn out to be just passing through. Today I wish I could be there to celebrate — with friends, with family. With cake.

I’ve been plotting a trip to the Left Coast for a visit, but it’s obviously not to be undertaken right now. The best I can do is say, “Happy Birthday, Chane!” My birthday wish (though it’s not *my* birthday) is that this pestilence — of Biblical proportions — finally exits the scene. With luck, soon, and we can have a long visit, long overdue. I’ll even bring cake.

Friends and Countrymen

It is a great irony that social distancing, forced upon us by the pandemic, has in some ways brought people closer together. The other night I participated in a fascinating conversation among men of a certain age, the boys I grew up with. Our custom was to gather for dinner once or twice each year, those of us in New York, in the spring and again at Thanksgiving. But Covid put a stop to that and we adapted. We meet now every six or eight weeks, on Zoom: doctors and lawyers, CEOs and actors, journalists and teachers. Almost all of us are White and would consider ourselves, if asked, upper middle class. Our Black friends, so few in number, have been candid about their experiences on these calls. More candid, I would say, than when we met in person. The physical separation has, I think, freed us all to speak more plainly about the most urgent issue of the day. For this, in this season of Thanksgiving, I am grateful.

For years we were together eight or ten hours each day. We grew up together, had our minds and wits forged and sharpened in the same classrooms, by the same teachers and the same books. In this experience we are all the same, and yet — as the conversation illuminated — how we experience our lives, even today, is more dependent on the color of our skin than most (White) people in this country are comfortable even admitting to themselves, let alone discussing openly. And that difference in how we experience the very same things, at the very same time, in the very same room: that is the essence of White privilege. It has no place in a nation, in Lincoln’s immortal words, forged in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

J wryly scoffed at the complaint, common in some parts of these United States, that wearing a mask is somehow oppressive. “Black people have been wearing a mask their entire lives,” he said. Enrolled in a school with a coat-and-tie dress code, he returned home to a part of the city where coats and ties were, shall we say, not the norm. J had to fit in to two very different worlds. Wearing two different masks. “It could have been very different for me,” he said, “but I was embraced and accepted at school. That makes all the difference.”

G told us about running to catch a bus: every Black kid is told not to run, not to break stride, not to make sudden movements. Let that sink in: we live in a world where a kid endangers himself by breaking stride when he sees his bus half a block away. Now a teacher in a city high school, G reminds us that we all had to meet a high bar. “We have to expect more” in our schools. “It’s all about graduation rate, so kids get pushed through so the school isn’t financially penalized.” It doesn’t require a degree in education to see that puts the incentives in all the wrong places.

The school we attended is engaged, now, in a project that requires it to examine its past more openly than ever while it contemplates its future. It has for too long been an enclave of mostly White students; the question is how to be more inclusive in a city that is increasingly diverse, and increasingly unequal. It’s hard to be inclusive in Manhattan. High school kids can and do travel the subway on their own, but that’s putting a finger in the dike. The problems of income inequality and racial inequality, of social justice and racial justice, go hand in hand. We might wish to replay the past differently but we can’t turn back the clock; we can only use the rearward view of how we got here to inform a better path forward.

All men are created equal. No man, woman, or child is intrinsically better than any other, and no one should behave as if he is. We on the Zoom call are not a representative sample of America, but we are America. And we want a better America for everyone. Frank, open, honest talk shines a clearer light, for me, on some of the problems we face as a nation. Too many people are too eager to move on, paying lip service and mentally checking a box. But it’s that frank, open, honest talk that is critical to healing and moving on. Putting a name on something, as the cliché has it, removes its power. “Voldemort” isn’t nearly as terrifying as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” And “Tom Riddle” is less terrifying still.

Education is the single vaccine against racism, against inequality, against injustice. We have to expect more; our schools and teachers have to expect more. And we have to stop thinking that education begins and ends with formal schooling; we have to stop using euphemisms and trying to move on. Call systemic racism by its name; talk about it; internalize the conversation. And then, some day, we can all move on. We can all stop wearing masks.

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.