Still the Party of Trump

February 15, 2021

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The United States Senate has voted to acquit Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection after the 2020 election. Seven Republicans joined all fifty Democrats in the most bipartisan vote for conviction in history, but it fell ten votes short of the needed two-thirds majority.

President Trump’s first impeachment was for abusing the power of his office to get himself reelected. He asked the government of Ukraine to open an investigation of Joe Biden in return for U.S. military assistance. Many Republicans acknowledged that the evidence supported the charge, but questioned whether the matter was serious enough to constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Now some Republican Senators, notably leader Mitch McConnell, are ignoring the evidence for a different reason, the claim that the Senate lacks jurisdiction over a president who has already left office. Most constitutional scholars say that it must have that jurisdiction, in order to hold a president accountable for offenses he commits in his final days in office and to bar him from seeking office again. McConnell is hardly the right person to raise this objection anyway, since he was the one who insisted on scheduling the trial for after the Inauguration in the first place. This is not McConnell’s first act of Machiavellian duplicity. He was also the one who insisted that an Obama Supreme Court appointment could not be considered in a president’s final year in office, but a Trump appointment could be considered in his final few weeks in office.

The real reason for acquittal has nothing to do with legal technicalities, and everything to do with the power of the pro-Trump faction in today’s Republican Party. Most Republican Senators could not bring themselves to convict him, no matter how egregious his conduct. For months Trump waged a campaign to convince his followers that only fraud could prevent his reelection, despite the fact that his approval rating had never reached 50% in four years. He actually convinced a majority of Republicans that he did win, without presenting any significant evidence of fraud. When he exhausted his legal means of contesting the election, he turned to illegal means, such as pressuring state officials to find him additional votes and pushing Vice President Pence to exceed his constitutional authority by refusing to accept the state results. Then Trump called his forces to the Capitol, not to stand on the periphery of the Capitol grounds to chant or pray while the votes were counted, but to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.” And while the Capitol was being invaded, he not only refused to do anything to stop it, but poured fuel on the fire by tweeting that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.” How could any Senator fail to see this as inciting an insurrection? McConnell himself said, “Trump’s actions preceded the riot for disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty. There’s no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”

What I have been arguing, especially in my last post, is that Trumpism is not just an aberration in Republican politics. It is the culmination of a disturbing transformation that has been going on for some time. One way to describe it is to say that the party has been transforming itself from the party of limited government to the party of hostility to government. The first is a healthy aspect of a two-party democracy. The second is a danger to democracy.

In America, free-market capitalism and democratic government grew up together and still need each other. Capitalism has been an engine of economic growth, but democracy has constrained its most inegalitarian tendencies. Unregulated capitalism allows the accumulation of vast wealth and power, which are too easily used to the detriment of workers and consumers. From time to time, democratic reforms such as antitrust laws and worker protections are enacted to keep the playing field reasonably level. While Republicans defend free-market capitalism against the threat of state socialism, Democrats defend democracy against the threat of plutocracy, the rule by a wealthy ownership class.

In this context, the presidency of Donald Trump, the authoritarian billionaire, has turned out to be dangerous to our democratic institutions. He has undermined respect not only for our election process, but for Congress, the legal system, federal agencies, the intelligence community, journalism and science. But his peculiar combination of plutocracy and populism has been too tempting for Republicans to resist. How can a plutocrat be a populist? Well, by co-opting a large segment of the working class who used to vote Democratic. By dividing the electorate along racial, ethnic and religious lines so that they vote their cultural identities and privileges instead of their economic interests. By blaming economic distress on foreigners, immigrants and minorities and trying to wall the country off from the world through border walls and high tariffs. By denying and ignoring real problems like climate change, the pandemic, the threat of technological change to existing jobs, and gross economic inequality. And by characterizing reasonable reforms as socialist threats to liberty.

Republicans were already pursuing such strategies before Trump took them to an extreme. He joined them in proposing tax cuts that were a huge gift to corporations and the wealthy, and that deprived government of revenue it needs to address pressing problems like the pandemic. Aside from that, his legislative agenda was mostly negative, opposing reforms such as Obamacare and efforts to combat climate change.

The debate over the Affordable Care Act is an excellent example of the coalescence of Republican and Trumpian interests. As Paul Krugman points out in Arguing with Zombies, it was actually a moderate measure that relied mainly on the private insurance market, as opposed to the single-payer systems of many other wealthy democracies. It required insurers to accept people with pre-existent conditions, but it also required healthy people to carry insurance. (Otherwise, insurers might have to raise premiums sky high as they insured the people with the greatest claims.) Then it subsidized premiums for low-income consumers and called on states to expand Medicaid for the poor. Krugman says that “Republicans hated Obamacare not because they expected it to fail, but because they feared that it would succeed, and thereby demonstrate that government actually can do things to make people’s lives better.” They never came up with a more conservative way of covering everyone, so they resorted to a campaign of deception, calling the ACA a government takeover of medical care and claiming that government “death panels” were going to decide who lived and who died. Trump then took the deception to a higher level. He claimed that he had his own plan to cover preexisting conditions at much lower cost, and that he would present it in a few weeks. He was still saying that four years later.

The Trump presidency has suited a Republican Party that prefers obstruction to governance and deception to truth. Krugman says that it no longer contributes very much to democratic policy debate, which requires both sides to acknowledge demonstrable facts and seek solutions in good faith. Supported by right-wing media propaganda campaigns, Republicans have created a monster within their own base, a mob of misinformed anti-government extremists who now pose a threat to democracy. Republican leaders like McConnell might prefer not to live with them, but they cannot seem to live without them either. What remains to be seen is whether the pro-Trump majority and the anti-Trump minority can live with each other within the same political party, or if that party comes apart at the seams.

A Perfect Storm for Democracy

September 25, 2020

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In my previous post, I expressed my concern that a deliberate slowdown of mail delivery by the US Postal Service could interfere with the integrity of our presidential election. Now that I’ve read “The Election That Could Break America,” Barton Gellman’s cover story in The Atlantic, I think I may have understated the problem. The shenanigans at the Post Office may only be the tip of the iceberg of efforts to thwart the will of the voters.

Consider how the following factors may come together:

  • a traditional pattern in which low turnout tends to favor Republicans
  • an ongoing Republican effort in many states to make it harder for people to vote
  • an autocratic president who will not accept an election result as valid unless he wins
  • a pandemic that discourages in-person voting, especially among voters who take the virus seriously
  • a clear preference for mail-in ballots among Democrats
  • an attack by the President and his Attorney General on mail-in ballots

This week, President Trump refused to commit himself to a peaceful transition of power, saying:

Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster…. Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.

Some commentators have wondered if Trump might refuse to leave the White House even if he loses. Gellman believes that’s the wrong question, and I agree. The much more likely scenario is that Republicans prevent a clear Biden victory by interfering with the voting process or the counting of mail-in ballots. Gellman describes what’s been going on already:

Republicans and their allies have litigated scores of cases in the name of preventing fraud in this year’s election. State by state, they have sought—with some success—to purge voter rolls, tighten rules on provisional votes, uphold voter-­identification requirements, ban the use of ballot drop boxes, reduce eligibility to vote by mail, discard mail-in ballots with technical flaws, and outlaw the counting of ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive afterward. The intent and effect is to throw away votes in large numbers.

And that’s just the beginning. Gellman also describes the plan to resume and expand election-day activities that a court ruled improper after the gubernatorial election of 1981.

According to the district court’s opinion in Democratic National Committee v. Republican National Committee, the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls.

Since then, the RNC has been under a consent decree requiring them to get advance approval for any such operations, but that has now expired. Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, has been recorded as hailing that expiration as a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal,” and promising a much larger operation with 50,000 poll monitors in 15 contested states.

If the election is close, any delay in counting mail-in votes could produce the appearance of a Trump victory on election night—a so-called “red mirage”—followed by a very slow movement toward Biden in the following days—a “blue shift.” We already saw something like that in Florida in 2018, when Republican candidates Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott saw their election-night leads shrink over the following days. Trump tweeted that the mail-in ballots were fraudulent and should be disregarded. Gellman quotes a legal advisor to the Trump campaign promising a similar situation on a national scale this time: “There will be a count on election night; that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent—pick your word.”

Unfortunately, there are many ways of making your mail-in ballot vulnerable to rejection: You have moved recently; you used a slightly different version of your name; your signature doesn’t match closely enough; you signed on the wrong line; or you failed to use the inner security envelope. Challenges and lawsuits, legitimate or frivolous, could affect what votes get counted. If the process in a swing state is dragging on as December 14 approaches—the day the Electoral College votes—the outcome could be settled by a court ruling as it was in 2000, or by a state legislature. If the mail-in ballot becomes the “hanging chad” of 2020, the voters may not have the final say.

Trump has already said that he expects mail-in voter fraud (of which there is hardly any evidence) to force the Supreme Court to intervene, which is one reason he wants to fill the vacancy on the court before the election. And under the Constitution, states can select electors any way they want, so a state legislature could use claims of fraud—or just electoral confusion—as an excuse to legislate their preferred outcome. Republicans control the legislatures in the crucial battleground states of Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Republican leaders in Pennsylvania are already discussing that strategy.

Another possible scenario is that a state ends up with two rival slates of electors, one believed to be elected and the other selected by the legislature. The Constitution says that the President of the US Senate, that is, Vice President Pence, counts the ballots of the Electoral College, so he would get a large role in deciding his own re-election. Another scenario is that neither candidate wins 270 electoral votes, and the House of Representatives chooses the President. But since each state delegation only gets one vote, a small red state like Wyoming would count as much as a big blue state like California, another advantage for Trump. In some scenarios even Congress could not determine who the real president is, in which case Trump might win again because of the Supreme Court.

We have never had a president so openly contemptuous of our democratic institutions and norms. That makes this election especially crucial for preserving them, but it also makes this election especially vulnerable to their violation. That is all the more true because the Republican Party is now the party of Trump, enabling his undemocratic impulses for their own gain. They are using each other, and they deserve each other. But the rest of us deserve better.

In the end, elections come down to numbers. The larger the vote margin for the majority’s choice, the harder it will be for a minority to thwart the will of the people by getting votes discounted. We must all do our best to make ours count.

Trump Goes Postal

August 14, 2020

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The dispute over funding for the US Postal Service is not one of your garden variety budget battles. It has a surprising relevance to our democratic election process, in a year when the outcome is especially crucial to the future of our democracy. That may sound overly dramatic, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.

Consider the following facts, and then tell me I shouldn’t be alarmed.

This year most states are allowing widespread voting by mail, either for any reason at all or because a voter feels that the coronavirus makes in-person voting too dangerous. Only Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, and New York have failed to widen the voting so far.

Democrats and Republicans are seriously divided in their interest in and support for mail-in voting. In a Monmouth poll released several days ago, 72% of Democrats but only 22% of Republicans said that they are very or somewhat likely to vote by mail. Partly that is because the virus has hit Democratic areas and constituencies harder, such as Black and Latino voters in large cities. But it is also because President Trump has played down fears of the virus and played up fears of fraudulent voting. The facts, of course, do not support his position on either point.

Knowing that voting by mail is more important to Democrats, Republicans have been busy filing lawsuits in multiple states to resist its expansion.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service has suffered a loss in revenue as a result of the pandemic, but they have received much less assistance from federal relief efforts than private companies. Trump threatened to veto an earlier aid package if it contained Postal Service funding, so a $13 billion grant was replaced with a $10 billion loan. Apparently, that loan came with strings attached, so that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin could have more authority over the agency, pressing them to initiate cost-cutting measures.

In an interview with Maria Bartiromo yesterday, Trump acknowledged that the Postal Service needs additional funding in order to implement mail voting:

Now, they need that money in order to make the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in-voting, they just can’t have it.

Nevertheless, he continues to oppose the spending requested by the Postal Service and passed by the House of Representatives. Mnuchin is representing the White House in the negotiations, and he explained his own opposition to postal funding by saying that “voting rights is not our game.”

Our recently appointed Postmaster General was one of the top fundraisers for the Republican National Committee, and also named chief fundraiser for the Republican National Convention that was to be held in Charlotte. He was rewarded with the Postal Service position despite his lack of postal experience. He has “unveiled a wholesale reorganization of agency’s executive ranks, restructured operations and instituted a hiring freeze, building on other cost-cutting measures already being blamed for significant mail backups” (The Washington Post).

The USPS General Counsel has already sent letters to almost all states notifying them that the Postal Service may not be able to deliver ballots in time to meet state deadlines, especially if they are not mailed first class at 55 cents apiece. In the past, ballots were sent at bulk mail rates but still given priority.

I see three impending scenarios here, all disturbing.

First, Trump agrees to sign off on the USPS funding, but only if Democrats agree to reduce funding for other forms of stimulus, such as unemployment benefits or assistance to save state and municipal jobs.

Second, the Trump administration succeeds in messing up the mails enough to tip the election in his favor.

Third, Trump loses the election but declares the result invalid due to mail-in voting “irregularities”. He then uses the Justice Department under William Barr–who also opposes general mail balloting–and the courts, to try and overturn the election. And lest we forget, the Republicans have a Supreme Court majority because Mitch McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering President Obama’s last nominee.

We can imagine even more sinister outcomes, where Trump uses his personal Homeland Security forces to “secure” the election by arresting the apparent winner, but let’s stop there.

Now tell me I’m imagining things.

Time to Get Real

June 30, 2020

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Well, it looks like Donald Trump’s term in office may end very much as it began, with our intelligence community reporting hostile actions by the Russians and the President covering up for them as best he can. Apparently, strong evidence that the Russians put a bounty on the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan became available several months ago. Not only did the President do nothing about it, but he continued to support his friend Putin in other areas of his agenda, such as joining the G7 nations. Now he claims that he was never briefed. Perhaps not, considering that telling truth to power has never been encouraged in this administration.

Does this story sound familiar? Even before Trump took office, our intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia was interfering in our election process. His response was to dismiss the finding as fake news, accept Putin’s denial, and do his best to obstruct the investigation. He also concocted his own story of election malfeasance, attributing his failure to win the popular vote to fraudulent voting by undocumented immigrants. More recently, when he was caught trying to blackmail Ukraine into discrediting Joe Biden, he dismissed that reporting as fake news too, and once again obstructed the investigation.

When we look back on Trump’s years in office, what we see is a president whose ability to create convenient fantasies is only exceeded by his inability to tackle real problems. He is consistently long on denial and short on leadership.

Do too many Americans lack affordable health insurance? No, the problem in Trump’s mind is the Affordable Care Act itself, which his administration is still trying to get the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional. He claims to have a better and cheaper plan, which he has never revealed.

Do too many communities still suffer from systemic racism, over-aggressive policing and mass incarceration? No, the problem in his mind is the people who are protesting those things.

Have new technologies destroyed too many good jobs, requiring new investments in education and training? No, the problem in his mind is just foreign competition and immigration, which can be dealt with by trade tariffs and a wall.

Does climate change threaten the future of the planet? No, the problem in his mind is environmental regulation, which interferes with the fossil fuel industry’s aim of producing as much fossil fuel as quickly as possible.

Does the coronavirus pandemic call for strong federal leadership to increase testing, track the infections, equip our health care providers, and promote safe behaviors? No, the problem in his mind is that testing is turning up too many cases, and safety restrictions are depriving Americans of their liberties.

Now that Trump is in real danger of losing the presidency, does voter suppression or further help from the Russians threaten the 2020 election too? No, the problem in his mind is that mail-in ballots—the most sensible way of voting during a pandemic—will fraudulently elect Joe Biden.

In all of his denials and phony claims, Trump has been aided and abetted by Congressional Republicans. He can rely on them to block any serious attempts to deal with the country’s problems, while covering for him when he commits corrupt acts. Senate Republicans acquitted him in his impeachment trial, although many admitted privately or publicly that he had probably done what he was accused of doing. The party in general has evolved to the point where Republicans focus far more of their efforts on retaining control of government than on actually governing. A sweeping generalization, I realize, but I stand by it.

Many of our social problems are ticking time bombs that have great destructive potential. We cannot afford four more years of fantasy.



Trump Beyond Reach of Law

February 3, 2020

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Let me get this straight. The House of Representatives has impeached President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The abuse of power is that he allegedly made assistance to Ukraine–a contrary invaded by Russia–conditional upon its government’s initiation of investigations that would help Trump’s reelection campaign. That scheme included illegally holding up military aid already authorized by Congress. The obstruction of Congress involved refusing to comply with lawful subpoenas for witnesses and documents related to the investigation of the abuse of power.

The response of Senate Republicans to the obstruction charge is to assist Trump in the obstruction by blocking any attempt to obtain the very witnesses or documents that Trump is withholding. That makes Senators accomplices to the obstruction. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted as much when he promised to coordinate the Senate trial with the White House to get Trump acquitted, just before he raised his right hand and swore an oath to consider the evidence impartially.

The response of Senate Republicans to the abuse of power charge was first to deny that it happened. Now it has evolved into an admission that it happened, but Trump should be acquitted anyway. Why? Because his intent was only to get reelected, which he thought was in the “public interest.” And because the people should decide his fate in this year’s election. You know, the same election that Trump has been trying to corrupt. And what’s to stop him now? We have a justice department that says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. We have a Senate majority that says that he shouldn’t be impeached. We have a Congress that can’t even exercise oversight because Trump acknowledges no obligation to provide witnesses or turn over documents.

The Senate has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation for a fair trial. That’s not too surprising, considering that it has not been functioning as a democratic institution for some time. The Majority Leader refused to provide even a hearing for a highly respected, moderate Supreme Court nominee who had previously been praised by both parties, despite the constitutional obligation to “advise and consent.” Meanwhile, he fills the courts with judges whose views are far to the right of most Americans. Few bills passed by the House or sponsored by Senate Democrats are even debated in the Senate. That includes bills to protect the integrity of our elections against foreign interference. This Senate will go down in history as an enabler of the most serious assault on our democracy in our lifetimes.

One can only hope that our faith in democracy–although shaken by this administration and its congressional enablers–will not be destroyed. Very often in public affairs, the tide does turn. Truth comes out; corruption is revealed; the rule of law is strengthened; would-be dictators fall; and commitments to democratic principles are renewed.

Don’t forget to vote, or at least try to!