Walking the talk

For starters, they did ask—many times, starting before his term was even over, so don’t give me that “all they had to do was ask” bull.

The federal government tried and failed repeatedly for more than a year and a half to retrieve classified and sensitive documents from former President Donald J. Trump before resorting to a search of his Mar-a-Lago property this month, according to government documents and statements by Mr. Trump’s lawyers. (emphasis added)

The documents, including an unsealed, redacted version of an affidavit from the Justice Department requesting a warrant to conduct the search, make clear the lengths to which the National Archives and the department went before officials pursued a law enforcement action to recover the material.

The FBI knew that Trump had documents at his home in Florida that he was not supposed to have: he had already given them 15 boxes of official material in January of this year, and the FBI and the National Archives suspected there were more documents in Florida that should be returned to the government and that Trump was obstructing their efforts to retrieve them.  Why they thought that is undoubtedly in the redacted parts of the affidavit, parts we haven’t seen but which the federal magistrate judge did read and consider before approving the search warrant.

the affidavit states that the National Archives spent six months in the latter half of 2021 trying to get more documents. And then the FBI got involved. The Post…reported that all this year, Trump resisted handing much of anything over, to the point where his allies feared he was “essentially daring” the FBI to come after them.

Trump was also warned before he even left the White House that taking any official documents with him, let alone national secrets, was illegal under the Presidential Records Act. And even Trump’s attorneys agreed that the former president needed to give the documents back…

(snip)

Included in the paperwork with the affidavit was a formal notice that the redacted memorandum was being released. In it, the Justice Department writes that the redactions are necessary to protect “a broad range of civilian witnesses.”

“This language suggests that people inside Trump’s former administration, or at Mar-a-Lago, are providing information to the FBI,” [former federal prosecutor Barbara] McQuade said.

The redacted affidavit itself suggests that the investigation includes detailed monitoring of Mar-a-Lago to find out how many boxes of official material were still there and where they were being stored.

To be clear: the classified status of some of these documents is only part of the issue.  The laws make clear that no former president is permitted to take control of these types of records—”mere possession of these documents is a crime under some of the statutes cited in the affidavit, whether or not they are classified.”

Trump filed a legal motion this week, arguing that, as president, he had the right to declassify any classified documents and that his continued possession of the material was based on “executive privilege.” A judge should have no problem dismissing both arguments. First, while a president can declassify documents, there is a process for doing so; at the conclusion of the process, the special classified tabs and markings would be removed. Yet the tabs and markings are still on the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. Second, mere possession, much less declassification, of some documents, such as those marked OCORN, must first be approved by the originating agency. That doesn’t seem to have been done either. Third, a president—certainly an ex-president—has no executive privilege to hold documents that properly belong to the National Archives.

If you think about it, Trump’s argument that he had declassified the classified documents…doesn’t help.

On top of which, the whole “I raised my magic hand and the documents were declassified” argument has a distinctly “what excuse do they have today” air about it.

These actions by the FBI and the Department of Justice are reassuring: federal law enforcement is walking the talk about no one being above the law.  And to those who’ve been clutching their pearls for almost three weeks now at the audacity of the government for having the nerve to search the home of a former president, I think the best and easiest response is to say, we’ve never had any reason to believe that any other former president had ever committed acts that would call for government action like this.  But this guy has.  And if you’re straining to keep up with all the other investigations involving the former guy, here’s some help.

Say the truth

It feels like it’s been going soooo slooooowly, but maybe we’re going to see some movement.  Chairman Bennie Thompson says the first public hearings on what the House January 6 committee has learned will be held in early June, and committee member Jamie Raskin is describing what they have learned this way: “This was a coup organized by the president (Donald Trump) against the vice-president (Mike Pence) and against the Congress in order to overturn the 2020 presidential election” and “We’re going to tell the whole story of everything that happened. There was a violent insurrection and an attempted coup and we were saved by Mike Pence’s refusal to go along with that plan.”

Wait, what?  Saved by Mike Pence?

To be fair, I can remember feeling sort of satisfied at the time that Pence had finally stood up to his boss (I think there was some mention of overcoming obsequiousness in there) and refused to take part in such a blatantly illegal plan—a coup.  But I hadn’t considered that maybe we all owe Pence more of a debt than we realized.  Earlier this week MSNBC’s Chris Hayes laid out this interpretation.

I’m eager to see the evidence.  I’m eager to get on with it!  Not to rush to judgment, mind you, but it’s been almost 16 months: the legislative branch and the Justice Department and the court system have got to nail the people responsible for this illegal power grab, and do it soon…or we may find those traitors may be back in power in Washington and in a position to protect themselves forever.  We’ve got to take action to punish those who deserve punishment, and stand up to the haters.

None of the mechanisms to deter a rogue president would work to restrain a reelected Trump.

On that note, I was invigorated last week to stumble across a speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow.  In retaliation for her support of LGBTQ issues, one of her “colleagues” embraced the popular new right-wing slur by accusing McMorrow of “grooming” children for sexual exploitation.  In a fundraising message.  No evidence provided, of course.  But McMorrow didn’t just take it, or shrug it off; in less than five minutes she sent a positive message that hits the haters right between the eyes.

“Hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”

I want to take a lesson from Mallory McMorrow, and not to afraid to call them like I see them.  We need to make it OK again to say the truth that we see.  It’s how we can defeat the haters.

Democrats Ask if They Should Hit Back Harder Against the G.O.P.

If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that

There’s a lot of bad news out there these day:

  • Ukraine is being assaulted hour after hour, unprovoked; millions of its citizens are refugees, thousands are dead, Putin’s Russian army commits war crimes against a helpless civilian population,
  • and a former American president, the one that a federal judge publicly says has “more likely than not” committed a federal crime related to his on-going lie to the world at large about the integrity of the 2020 election, chooses just this moment to suggest that the Russian war criminal in chief should supply information on an imaginary crime by the son of the current president
  • that former president is the whining, pouting poster boy for the current wave of a revolting trend of the rich and famous being treated like they’re above the law; they are not, and the sooner that we see signs that Donald Trump and Mark Meadows and Ginni Thomas and the others (and you know who they are) are being investigated for the crimes that they appear to have committed, then the sooner the rest of America will stop believing that justice is for sale
  • (a bit of encouraging news on this front: a judge has held certifiable bad actor Alex Jones in contempt for refusing to comply with court orders to be deposed by the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims who are suing him for defamation for his despicable insistence (since recanted) that the whole thing was staged—step in the right direction!)
  • Bruce Willis is suffering from aphasia, a medical condition impacting his cognitive abilities to the extent that he’s announced he is giving up acting
  • in what should be no surprise to any sentient being anywhere, a medical clinical trial has found no sign—no sign at all—that there is any medical benefit whatever from the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19; woe be to the masking-and-testing deniers who were confident that unconventional therapy was the only kind worth trying

Pick up any newspaper or news app and you’re sure to find more of the same.  It’s discouraging.  It’s depressing.  It’s all real and it’s out there, and it feels like it’s coming in here, where I’m trying to stay safe and warm.  But something else entirely has really got me wondering about the sanity of the world out there, something that’s not in the papers.

Earlier this week I stopped at a local franchise of a national fast food restaurant for lunch, and the total was $9.95; I fished out a five and five ones and handed them to the young man at the cash register.  Yeah, he looked at me sideways a little, I think, probably for having the audacity to pay the tab with folding money instead of my debit card…reminded me of the times I’ve faced a teenager at the till who’s had a helluva time counting out the right change.  But not this guy; he knew precisely what was owed back, and he fished a single coin out of the drawer and held it up to show me, and he said, “Do you want the five cents back?”

Do I want the five cents back?  Do I want MY five cents back?  As my father might have said in such a circumstance, is the pope a Catholic?  Does a bear live in the woods?  Why wouldn’t I want my five cents back?  It is, after all, my five cents.  I can’t get a gumball for a nickel like I used to—it isn’t even made of much nickel any more—but it is still negotiable currency.  He didn’t ask if I wanted to donate the change to a charity, and he didn’t say (in so many words) that he meant to keep it for himself.  He seemed to sincerely just want to know if I wanted to even be bothered dropping the coin in my pocket.

What would you say to a question like that?

How P.J. O’Rourke helped me understand life, one week after he died

It’s been a particularly busy time for me lately.  I don’t know if it’s an increased rate of work-related nonsense, or the pounds of mail I’m sorting through each day from friendly, helpful folks who just want to make sure I’m aware of the value of their particular Medicare supplement plan, but it feels like I’m never getting in front of things.  Not even on top of them, really; more just hoping to hold on and be dragged along.  It was already midday today, after a morning physical at the doctor’s and a trip to the office to refresh my memory of how to get there, when I got to the morning paper and found this essay by Christopher Buckley on his friend, the conservative writer, satirist and commentator P.J. O’Rourke, who passed away last week.

I recall first noticing the name P.J. O’Rourke in the masthead and bylines in National Lampoon of the mid 1970s.  Among that group of friends, we believed NatLamp in this time to be the funniest thing alive, or National_Lampoon_(magazine)_cover_–_January_1973perhaps ever to have lived, and certainly that ever would live, and any of the persons who was writing what we were reading there was a gift from the cosmos.  Because it was always funny, and because its targets were everyone and everything, no sacred cows allowed, I assumed that all those people writing those things must surely believe in all the things I believed in.  It was at first a great surprise to me years later (the 80s or 90s) when I read something by O’Rourke and realized he had been a conservative all those years before; according to his Wikipedia entry, “Many of O’Rourke’s essays recount that during his student days he was a leftist, anti-war hippie, but that in the 1970s his political views underwent a volte-face. He emerged as a political observer and humorist rooted in libertarian conservatism.”

O’Rourke’s political philosophies weren’t in lockstep with either of the major political parties in this country.  Clearly not a Democrat, but he did not offer non-critical obeisance to the Republicans, either: as Buckley notes, O’Rourke believed Hillary Clinton was “wrong ‘about absolutely everything,’ except in one regard: She wasn’t Donald Trump.”  That’s pretty much why I voted for her in 2016, too, and have felt like I’ve been dogged by Joe Btfsplk’s cloud ever since when it comes to questions of politics and government.

Buckley says “P.J. O’Rourke’s death marks the end of a particular and an essential sensibility. He found humor everywhere and in everything, especially in his PJORourke-tributes-newsfellow Republicans,” and he makes a good case for today’s Republicans having no sense of humor at all.  I agree: how could anyone who takes Donald Trump seriously see the humor in anything else?  But it was this line from Buckley that really caught me: “The Trump era could have been one great big enormous sandbox for P.J. to play in. Instead, he found it dispiriting, a pageant of stupidity, boorishness and coarseness.”

Dispiriting.  A pageant of stupidity, boorishness and coarseness.  Gawd, how on the nose.  Thank you, P.J. O’Rourke, for inspiring your friend Christopher Buckley to put into words the feelings I’ve been fighting for years now.

Know your enemy

On Friday morning, after a night of insomnia fueled by worries about raising children in a collapsing society, I opened my eyes, started reading about efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to seize control of the state’s elections, then paused to let my tachycardiac heartbeat subside. Marinating in the news is part of my job, but doing so lately is a source of full-body horror. If this were simply my problem, I’d write about it in a journal instead of in The New York Times. But political despair is an issue for the entire Democratic Party.

It’s predictable that, with Donald Trump out of the White House, Democrats would pull back from constant, frenetic political engagement. But there’s a withdrawal happening right now — from news consumption, activism and, in some places, voting — that seems less a product of relief than of avoidance. Part of this is simply burnout and lingering trauma from Covid. But I suspect that part of it is about growing hopelessness born of a sense that dislodging Trump has bought American democracy only a brief reprieve.

One redeeming feature of Trump’s presidency, in retrospect, was that it was possible to look forward to the date when Americans could finish it. Covid, too, once seemed like something we’d be able to largely put behind us when we got vaccinated. Sure, Trumpism, like the virus, would linger, but it was easy to imagine a much better world after the election, the inauguration and the wide availability of shots.

Now we’re past all that, and American life is still comprehensively awful. Dystopia no longer has an expiration date.

Last week in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg worried about the future of our American democracy.  Like thousands/millions of others, I share her concern, and so should you.

The problem isn’t just that polls show that, at least right now, voters want to hand over Congress to a party that largely treats the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as heroes.

(snip)

What’s terrifying is that even if Democrats win back public confidence, they can win more votes than Republicans and still lose. Gerrymandering alone is enough to tip the balance in the House.

(snip)

Meanwhile, Republicans are purging local officials who protected the integrity of the 2020 election, replacing them with apparatchiks. It will be hard for Republicans to steal the 2024 election outright, since they don’t control the current administration, but they can throw it into the sort of chaos that will cause widespread civil unrest. And if they win, it’s hard to imagine them ever consenting to the peaceful transfer of power again.

(snip)

I look at the future and I see rule without recourse by people who either approve of terrorizing liberals or welcome those who do. Such an outcome isn’t inevitable; unforeseen events can reshape political coalitions. Something could happen to forestall the catastrophe bearing down on us.

Here’s a hopeful sign: two long-time contributors to Fox News giving a thorough and public explanation of why they just can’t take it any more.

…there are still responsible conservatives [at Fox News] providing valuable opinion and analysis. But the voices of the responsible are being drowned out by the irresponsible.

A case in point: Patriot Purge, a three-part series hosted by Tucker Carlson.

The special—which ran on Fox’s subscription streaming service earlier this month and was promoted on Fox News—is presented in the style of an exposé, a hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism. In reality, it is a collection of incoherent conspiracy-mongering, riddled with factual inaccuracies, half-truths, deceptive imagery, and damning omissions. And its message is clear: The U.S. government is targeting patriotic Americans in the same manner —and with the same tools—that it used to target al Qaeda.

(snip)

This is not happening. And we think it’s dangerous to pretend it is. If a person with such a platform shares such misinformation loud enough and long enough, there are Americans who will believe—and act upon—it.

This isn’t theoretical. This is what actually happened on January 6, 2021.

Over the past five years, some of Fox’s top opinion hosts amplified the false claims and bizarre narratives of Donald Trump or offered up their own in his service. In this sense, the release of Patriot Purge wasn’t an isolated incident, it was merely the most egregious example of a longstanding trend. Patriot Purge creates an alternative history of January 6, contradicted not just by common sense, not just by the testimony and on-the-record statements of many participants, but by the reporting of the news division of Fox News itself.

There are still many real conservatives who recognize that the Orange Emperor has no clothes, and who have not drunk the toxic brew that has let so many Republicans (and others) show true feelings they have always keep secret, until now.  Jennifer Rubin is one.

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Never Trumpers (now largely ex-Republicans) warned that he would corrupt the party in every way imaginable. His misogyny would morph in the party’s toxic masculinity and degradation of women, they cautioned. His infatuation with brutality and violence (boasting he would kill terrorists’ families, exhorting his supporters to slug protesters) would metastasize to the party as a whole. Boy, did those predictions pan out.

You only have to look at the vicious imagery showing the murder of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) deployed by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), the verbal attack on her from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) last year — and Republicans’ defense of both — to understand that their refusal to dump Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came to light was merely the prelude to an era of normalizing violence (especially against women), culminating in the Jan. 6 violent insurrection, which many Republicans, including Trump, tried to paint as nonviolent.

Threats and portrayals of violence against women have turned into a badge of honor for a party in which traditional notions about gender (back to the 1950s!) have become a key predictor of Republican support. Casting men (even a Supreme Court nominee) as victims of aggressive, “nasty” or unhinged women accusing them of wrongdoing has become standard fare in the Trump party.

Rubin cites Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, who is willing to lay the blame for the violence we’re seeing now at the core of Republican party voters: White evangelicals.

Today, for an alarming number of white conservative Christians, the mark of Christian faithfulness is not a love that inspires them to lay down their lives for their friends, but a defensiveness that lures them to take the lives of their fellow citizens.

The anti-democratic and white supremacist core of this worldview snaps into focus as soon as we ask just one question: What is the “America” they are saving? This question is at the heart of the MAGA ideology that has now fully overtaken one of our two major political parties.

That second “A,” for “again,” is the hermeneutical key that unlocks the obfuscation.  This nostalgia for a White Christian America has become the weapon of choice in the culture wars. In that vision of the country, white law and order reign, and with refreshments and pats on the back, white vigilantes are informally deputized as partners. And Black people protesting in the streets or even shopping in the local CVS are seen as suspect for not playing their properly deferential roles or staying in their assigned subservient places.

If Trump has done anything for us, he has peeled back a thin veneer of patriotic- and Christian-sounding words to reveal the core claim underneath it all: That God intended America to be a white Christian nation. That claim has literally generated—for those among the chosen— a license to kill anyone who threatens that norm and the confidence that those actions will not only be free of negative consequences, but be rewarded both here on earth and in heaven.

“Christian nationalism” is the threat.  Let’s start by defining the terms, thanks to Paul D. Miller at Christianity Today.

There are many definitions of nationalism and an active debate about how best to define it. I reviewed the standard academic literature on nationalism and found several recurring themes. Most scholars agree that nationalism starts with the belief that humanity is divisible into mutually distinct, internally coherent cultural groups defined by shared traits like language, religion, ethnicity, or culture. From there, scholars say, nationalists believe that these groups should each have their own governments; that governments should promote and protect a nation’s cultural identity; and that sovereign national groups provide meaning and purpose for human beings.

What is Christian nationalism?

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity.

What is the problem with nationalism?

Humanity is not easily divisible into mutually distinct cultural units. Cultures overlap and their borders are fuzzy. Since cultural units are fuzzy, they make a poor fit as the foundation for political order. Cultural identities are fluid and hard to draw boundaries around, but political boundaries are hard and semipermanent. Attempting to found political legitimacy on cultural likeness means political order will constantly be in danger of being felt as illegitimate by some group or other. Cultural pluralism is essentially inevitable in every nation.

Is that really a problem, or just an abstract worry?

It is a serious problem. When nationalists go about constructing their nation, they have to define who is, and who is not, part of the nation. But there are always dissidents and minorities who do not or cannot conform to the nationalists’ preferred cultural template. In the absence of moral authority, nationalists can only establish themselves by force. Scholars are almost unanimous that nationalist governments tend to become authoritarian and oppressive in practice. For example, in past generations, to the extent that the United States had a quasi-established official religion of Protestantism, it did not respect true religious freedom. Worse, the United States and many individual states used Christianity as a prop to support slavery and segregation.

There is much more here you should read.  Know your enemy, while there is still time to win the fight.

This is not about all Christians, or even all Christian evangelicals.  But those who think “freedom of religion” means everyone is free to practice their particular strain of Christian faith in their houses of worship and through the imposition of their religious beliefs in secular law, those who harbor a “nostalgia for White Christian America,” and who have been succeeding politically at achieving their goals since at least the days of the Moral Majority, those are the political enemies we need to get serious about defeating.  Right now, political despair be damned.