Monday, June 4, 2018

It’s Not Good To Be The King

When the Constitution was written, the folks who wrote it did everything they possibly could to get away from a monarchic form of government.  They made all the people with power subject to election and to the rule of law, and they split the powers of the government between three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.  That seemed like a good way to do it; no one branch could overtake the other, and there was accountability so that if one got out of hand, the others could deal with them until order was restored.  The few executive powers that resembled those held by a monarch were limited to benign or even restorative abilities, such as the power of the pardon.  The Founders probably thought this would be sufficient; they had the optimistic yet cautionary view that we were inherently good but that firm control via common sense and the ballot box would be enough.

They didn’t take into account the possibility that we would get Trump.

The 20-page memo from Trump’s lawyers to Robert Mueller, written in January and leaked by the New York Times on Saturday asserts that the president has the power to do whatever he wants in terms of controlling the Department of Justice; fire the director of the FBI, terminate an investigation, pardon himself for anything he might have done while in office, and basically assume the powers of an authoritarian without worrying that anyone in the executive branch can stop him.

Indeed, the President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations.

People who have been to law school and have read this memo say that it is deeply flawed in both legal and logical terms.  The attorneys cite outdated statutes and take positions that stretch reason beyond the absurd.  But it is an insight into the defense strategy that will be mounted on behalf of Trump and sold to the GOP base at rallies as black-letter law: Trump is above the law and it’s good to be the Trump.

The only people who can bring an action against the president for violating the law or the Constitution is Congress.  They have done so twice in living memory: the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and the actual impeachment of Bill Clinton.  At those times — 1974 and 1998 — the Congress was held by the opposition party to the president, which means that their desire to prosecute the president was inherently a political one.  This time it’s different.  Trump is nominally a Republican, as is the House and Senate.  So the question then becomes do the people who have the power over the term of the current president believe more in the rule of law than they do in the integrity of their own party, their re-election, and their conscience that speaks to them when they’re outside of the glare of TV cameras and soundbites.

We decided over 200 years ago that we didn’t want a monarch any more (even if we do watch their royal weddings on TV) and gave ourselves and our elected representatives the power to control those who assume they have powers beyond those granted by law.  Whether or not Congress decides to do anything about that tells us more about the future of this country and our path forward as a constitutional democracy than the results of an election.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sunday Reading

They’ve Got Him At Jared’s — John Cassidy on Trump’s son-in-law’s problems.

It was only a matter of time before Jared Kushner’s conflicts of interest reëmerged as an issue. In January of last year, he resigned as head of his family’s real-estate firm, Kushner Companies, and partially divested himself of some of its assets, including his stake in 666 Fifth Avenue, an aluminum-clad midtown office building.

As I noted at the time, Kushner’s divestment was of a very limited and Trumpian form. Rather than selling off his assets to the highest bidder, or setting up a blind trust and hiring an outside expert to manage it, he merely transferred the ownership of some of his assets to his brother and to a trust overseen by his mother. It wasn’t immediately clear what Kushner had held onto, but it turned out to be substantial. The Timesreported on Thursday that “he retained the vast majority of his interest in Kushner Companies. His real estate holdings and other investments are worth as much as $761 million, according to government ethics filings.”

Kushner, who, unlike his father-in-law, can be prosecuted for violating federal conflict-of-interest laws, also promised to recuse himself from any government matters related, directly or indirectly, to his financial interests. It turns out that this recusal was also conveniently limited. Thanks to that same report in the Times, we know that it didn’t prevent Kushner from taking meetings at the White House with top executives from two financial firms—Citigroup and Apollo Commercial Real Estate Finance—that lent more than half a billion dollars to two Kushner family ventures in which, according to federal filings, he still owns a direct stake. One is a skyscraper in Chicago and the other is a collection of office buildings in Brooklyn.

Kushner’s personal lawyer, Kushner Companies, and the two firms all insisted to the Times that nothing untoward had taken place. They are asking us to believe that the meetings at the White House were not connected to the loans, which were extended during the normal course of business, with Kushner playing no role in soliciting or negotiating the deals. “Stories like these attempt to make insinuating connections that do not exist to disparage the financial institutions and companies involved,” a spokesperson for Kushner Companies told the Times.

Actually, it is primarily Kushner’s behavior and position that have been called into question. Even if he didn’t discuss any personal business with Joshua Harris, one of the founders of Apollo’s parent company, or with Michael Corbat, Citigroup’s chief executive, it’s hard to believe that he was unaware of the huge amounts of credit being extended to his family’s real-estate empire and its business partners by their firms. In most Administrations, senior officials routinely do due-diligence checks before meeting with individuals representing industrial or financial interests. Kushner appears to have blithely ignored this custom, just as, earlier, he failed to fulfill the requirement that people seeking security clearance complete official forms assiduously.

The issue goes well beyond casual oversights. Not only has Kushner’s presence in the White House made a mockery of federal guidelines designed to prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest, it has also raised national-security concerns. Many foreign governments view him not merely as a privileged son-in-law who lucked into the role of senior Presidential adviser but as a privileged son-in-law who lucked into the role of senior Presidential adviser and is desperate to raise large sums of money. In other words, he’s an easy target.

Kushner Companies co-owns 666 Fifth Avenue with another developer, Vornado Realty. In 2007, at Jared Kushner’s urging, the company paid $1.8 billion for the building—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a New York office tower. The property occupies a prime spot between Fifty-second and Fifty-third streets, but it was built in 1957 and needed extensive upgrades. It still has many vacancies, and the $1.2 billion mortgage, which reportedly has ballooned to almost $1.5 billion, is due in February, 2019. Right now, it is not entirely clear whether Kushner Companies is in a position to repay or refinance the loan. “The company hoped to knock the building down and put up another, twice as tall and far more luxurious, in its place,” Bloombergreported earlier this week. “It sought funds from investors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, South Korea, Israel and France. No investors were announced for the plan, described by many as prohibitively expensive.”

There is irony aplenty here. Kushner doesn’t look or speak or act like his father-in-law: to all public appearances, he is Trump’s antithesis. But much like Trump did in the late nineteen-eighties, Kushner overpaid for a trophy property, borrowing heavily, and subsequently encountered serious financial challenges that became public. On Wednesday, the Washington Postreported that U.S. intelligence agencies have learned that officials in at least four foreign countries—the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico—have been discussing ways of exploiting Kushner’s “complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.” An official familiar with the intelligence told the Post, “Every country will seek to find their point of leverage.”

The report also said that Kushner’s extensive dealings with foreign officials have raised concerns among some people in the White House and “are a reason he has been unable to obtain a permanent security clearance.” Last week, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, downgraded Kushner’s security clearance from top secret to a lower level that would prevent him from gaining access to many classified documents, such as the President’s daily intelligence briefing.

After observing Kushner being hit with a security-clearance downgrade and the damaging back-to-back stories in the Post and the Times, many political observers are now questioning his future in the White House. On Thursday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said, “Jared is still a valued member of the Administration,” and added that he “will continue in his current role.”

It wasn’t the most ringing endorsement, and there is some speculation that Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, are, like Hope Hicks, on their way out. Whether or not that will happen, who can say? But it certainly should. Having one cash-needy real-estate developer in the White House was always going to present big problems. Having two of them has turned out to be an outrage.

Voting At 16 — Lawrence Steinberg in the New York Times.

The young people who have come forward to call for gun control in the wake of the mass shooting at their high school in Parkland, Fla., are challenging the tiresome stereotype of American kids as indolent narcissists whose brains have been addled by smartphones. They offer an inspiring example of thoughtful, eloquent protest.

Unfortunately, when it comes to electing lawmakers whose decisions about gun control and other issues affect their lives, these high schoolers lack any real power. This needs to change: The federal voting age in the United States should be lowered from 18 to 16.

Skeptics will no doubt raise questions about the competence of 16-year-olds to make informed choices in the voting booth. Aren’t young people notoriously impulsive and hotheaded, their brains not fully developed enough to make good judgments?

Yes and no. When considering the intellectual capacity of teenagers, it is important to distinguish between what psychologists call “cold” and “hot” cognition.

Cold cognitive abilities are those we use when we are in a calm situation, when we are by ourselves and have time to deliberate and when the most important skill is the ability to reason logically with facts. Voting is a good example of this sort of situation.

Studies of cold cognition have shown that the skills necessary to make informed decisions are firmly in place by 16. By that age, adolescents can gather and process information, weigh pros and cons, reason logically with facts and take time before making a decision. Teenagers may sometimes make bad choices, but statistically speaking, they do not make them any more often than adults do.

Hot cognitive abilities are those we rely on to make good decisions when we are emotionally aroused, in groups or in a hurry. If you are making a decision when angry or exhausted, the most critical skill is self-regulation, which enables you to control your emotions, withstand pressure from others, resist temptation and check your impulses. Unlike cold cognitive abilities, self-regulation does not mature until about age 22, research has shown. (This is a good reason to raise the minimum age for purchasing firearms from 18 to 21 or older, as some have proposed.)

This psychological evidence is backed up by neuroscientific findings. Neuroimaging studies show that brain systems necessary for cold cognition are mature by mid-adolescence, whereas those that govern self-regulation are not fully developed until a person’s early 20s.

If the voting age were lowered, would that necessitate changing other laws to bring them into alignment? Of course not. We use a wide variety of chronological ages to draw lines between minors and adults when it comes to smoking, driving, viewing violent or sexually explicit movies, being eligible for the death penalty and drinking alcohol. Although the specific ages used for these purposes often lack a good rationale, there is no reason lowering the voting age would require lowering, say, the drinking age, any more than allowing people to drive at 16 should permit them to drink or smoke at that age as well.

In addition to the scientific case for lowering the voting age, there is also a civic argument. Consider the dozen or so countries like Argentina, Austria, Brazil and Nicaragua that allow people to vote at 16 in national, state or local elections. In such countries, voter turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds is significantly higher than it is among older young adults.

This is true in parts of the United States as well. In Takoma Park, Md., a city that permits 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections, that age group is twice as likely to vote than are 18-year-olds.

Why is higher turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds so important? Because there is evidence that people who don’t vote the first time they are eligible are less likely to vote regularly in the future. Considering that people between 18 and 24 have the lowest voter turnout of any age group in the United States (a country that has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout in the developed world), allowing people to begin voting at an age at which they are more likely to vote might increase future turnout at all ages.

The last time the United States lowered the federal voting age was in 1971, when it went from 21 to 18. In that instance, the main motivating force was outrage over the fact that 18-year-olds could be sent to fight in Vietnam but could not vote.

The proposal to lower the voting age to 16 is motivated by today’s outrage that those most vulnerable to school shootings have no say in how such atrocities are best prevented. Let’s give those young people more than just their voices to make a change.

Redefining Masculinity — Collier Meyerson in The Nation.

I would bet a large sum that my father has seen 90 percent of the films nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. And my guess, too, is that he cried during every single one of them. He’s not embarrassed to cry at movies, or television shows, or commercials. He’s a sap, pretty proudly. Or, he’s at least an unconcerned one.

Physically, my dad is strong; he plays lots of tennis. But he’s very skinny. He refers to his legs as sticks, and says they are not of the human varietal—that they more resemble poultry (he’s right, by the way). My dad is overwhelmingly kindhearted, he’s there for me, is super-keen on listening to my problems, and he’s affectionate. Poppi texts me at least three times a day to tell me he loves me and is proud of me. In fact, just now, as I was in the middle of writing this paragraph, he sent me a text that read, “I love you infinity times infinity and best in all of the galaxies and beyond through eternity.” And every time I publish a piece of writing, he sends out an e-mail announcing my new article to his friends, our family, his colleagues, my friends, and also, somehow, my colleagues.

This side of Poppi doesn’t quite fit our country’s definition of “masculine”—which we often assume includes attributes like strong, withdrawn, and violent.

But in other ways, my “sissy” dad is quite “masculine.” He’s got a bad temper, though it’s cooled with age. I remember visiting his office when I was a kid and seeing holes in the wall—when I asked, he’d say, sheepishly, that they were the result of his being frustrated after a phone call or meeting with a client, judge, or opposing counsel. Also, Poppi doesn’t like it when you disagree with him—fair enough, that’s natural; I don’t either. But he’ll interrupt you over and over and over to get his point across, drowning out any possibility of your actually finishing your thought. On days and nights when he watched football when I was growing up, I’d hear him clear across the apartment screaming into the television, “Oh, come onnnnnnnn, you [expletive expletive expletive]” in a tone that frightened me. Nowadays, I stay away from his room when he’s watching his football—and I’m pretty sure that’s why my mom got her own TV in the kitchen.

Reading this, you may think that my dad’s less-desirable behavior is pretty normal for a cis white guy, and I agree with you, it is. (I would know, I’ve dated lots of them.) But when I try to confront my dad, or most of the cis men who I am close to about their misogyny, their responses have always been a genuine—but unwelcome—shock. When I describe their unsavory qualities as rooted in what bell hooks calls the “disease” that is masculinity—punching walls, talking over women, screaming at a sporting event in a tone that should only be reserved for encounters with killers—they’ve looked at me quizzically, angrily.

Last week, comedian Michael Ian Black wrote a compelling and heartfelt piece for The New York Times titled “The Boys Are Not All Right.” Acknowledging, in the wake of the Parkland mass shooting that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers, that “Girls aren’t pulling the triggers. It’s boys. It’s almost always boys,” Black made a plea to interrogate the state of boyhood and manhood in the United States. He writes, “There has to be a way to expand what it means to be a man without losing our masculinity. I don’t know how we open ourselves to the rich complexity of our manhood.”

Black is starting from the same place that many of the men in my life are: that certain qualities of masculinity are natural and immovable, and what’s important is that we expand on its innate properties to include more feminine ones, instead of scrutinizing, or, dare I even say, proposing to rid ourselves of the whole category.

It might sound rash, getting rid of masculinity. But it’s really not a crazy thought. We only have to look back a little over 100 years to understand that, in America, the concept of masculinity was constructed to defend white supremacy and white male dominance over black men and women of all races.

In her seminal book on the issue, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, author Gail Bederman writes: “I don’t see manhood as either an intrinsic essence or a collection of traits, attributes, or sex roles. Manhood—or ‘masculinity,’ as it is commonly termed today—is a continual, dynamic process.” The first thing we need to do, according to Bederman, is stop arguing that masculinity has traits that are inherent. “Gender,” she writes, “is dynamic and always changing.”

Between 1820 and 1860, according to Bederman, more and more white men were beginning to identify as middle class: entrepreneurs, professionals, and managers. And with that distinction, there came about a new and important gender identification for men, one that centered around civility. As opposed to brutishness or violent tendencies, manliness during this period was focused on a civilized character, holding off on marriage to accrue wealth. And then a man should focus on providing a good life for his wife, his children, or his employees.

Between 1879 and 1910, the number of middle-class men who were self-employed dropped, from 67 percent to 37 percent, prompting another a shift. “Middle class Victorian men were obsessed with manhood at the turn of the century,” writes Bederman. They became “obsessed” with cowboy novels, and hunting and fishing. At the same time new epithets, like “sissy,” “pussy-foot,” “cold feet” and “stuffed shirt, ” emerged, indicating “behavior which had once appeared self-possessed and manly but now seemed over-civilized and effeminate,” writes Bederman. Around 1890, a noun defined as “the essence of manhood” took hold for the first time—now, manhood was called “masculinity.”

The idea, Bederman says, was that being “manly” had a “moral dimension,” and was defined by a dictionary at the time as “possessing the proper characteristic of a man; independent in spirit or bearing; strong, brave, large-minded, etc.” But then, when the economy tanked between 1879 to 1896, and with it the whole middle-class white-male “civilized” identity, the concept of “manliness” shifted again. After that, Bederman says, when men wished to invoke a male power they used “masculine” and “masculinity” to describe it. “The adjective ‘masculine’ was used to refer to any characteristics, good or bad, that all men had,” she wrote. The element of morality had been left behind.

The shift in white middle-class American male identification at the turn of the 19th century was also a way to justify white supremacy. “Linking whiteness to male power,” Bederman wrote, “was nothing new.… during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, American citizenship rights had been construed as ‘manhood’ rights which inhered to white males, only…Negro males, whether free or slave, were forbidden to exercise ‘manhood’ rights—forbidden to vote, hold electoral office, serve on juries, or join the military. The conclusion was implicit but widely understood: Negro males, unlike white males, were less than men.” But once “masculinity” came around at the end of the 19th century, and black men were fighting for “manhood rights,” a new idea had emerged. White middle-class men were starting to see themselves as maintaining a universal male quality: savagery. But the way they separated themselves from their black counterparts, was to articulate that they had evolved more. Bederman uses the example of National Geographic, which was first published in 1889 and gained popularity “by breathlessly depicting the heroic adventures of ‘civilized’ white male explorers among ‘primitive tribes in darkest Africa.” Similarly, she writes, “Anglo-Saxonist imperialists insisted that civilized white men had a racial genius for self-government which necessitated the conquest of more ‘primitive’ darker races.”

America’s new definition of masculinity was cemented during the 20th century. Though black men gained the right to vote, under Jim Crow laws, which last well into the mid-20th century, they continued to be subjugated by white men, who restrained black men’s economic possibilities and frequently portrayed them as uncontrollable rapists. From early westerns to the action films we watch today, white cis men overwhelmingly were cast as leads in the mass entertainment our culture consumes; guns became a rite and plaything of young white men in our country. And masculinity became a made-up excuse to dominate.

In his essay, Michael Ian Black writes: “I believe in boys. I believe in my son. Sometimes, though, I see him, 16 years old, swallowing his frustration, burying his worry, stomping up the stairs without telling us what’s wrong, and I want to show him what it looks like to be vulnerable and open but I can’t. Because I was a boy once, too.”

Black can’t show his son what vulnerability looks like not because he is biologically incapable of doing so. The block is one formed by habit, culture, and an American history predicated on white male domination—which produced a masculinity predicated on white male domination. Who says we have to hold onto that? It is only with the understanding that gender identification is moveable, malleable, and worth undoing that we can begin to make the boys all right.

Doonesbury — Next up.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Monday, January 29, 2018

Russian Role Model

Via the AP:

Russian protesters shouting slogans including “Putin is a thief!” gathered briefly around the Russian government’s headquarters while marching through central Moscow.

The lengthy march Sunday by the mostly young group of several hundred protesters came after a large gathering at Pushkin Square dispersed. The rally was among protests nationwide in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to boycott the March 18 presidential election.

The marchers headed down Novy Arbat, one of Moscow’s widest and busiest avenues, to the riverside government building colloquially known as the Russian White House. They shouted slogans and some threw handfuls of snow through the high, spiked fence surrounding the building before moving on.

Navalny himself was detained by police earlier in the day.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was detained by police en route to an unauthorized protest rally in Moscow, is expected to be charged with a public-order violation.

That charge could bring a punishment of 20 days in jail.

Navalny called for nationwide demonstrations Sunday to support a boycott of Russia’s March 18 presidential election, in which Vladimir Putin is seeking a fourth term. Navalny has been barred from running in the election.

Navalny was seized by police Sunday while walking to the Moscow protest. Russian news reports cited police as saying he was likely to be charged with violating a law on calling public demonstrations.

I’m sure that there was someone at the White House taking notes on this and filing it away for the 2020 campaign.  It could come in handy, y’know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Too Close

The only disappointment with Doug Jones’s win in Alabama yesterday was that it was so close.

That’s a difference of 20,715 votes; basically the population of Perrysburg, Ohio.  Put another way, 650,436 people in Alabama were willing to vote for an outlaw Jesus-shouter with a penchant for teenage girls over a barely liberal Democrat.  And there were more votes for a write-in than the margin of victory for Jones.

Yes, Alabama is a deeply red state.  The last Democrat elected to the Senate was 25 years ago, and he was a Southern Democrat, a distinction that made them a party unto themselves, and he switched to the GOP shortly thereafter.  (Southern Democrats were a hold-over from the days of Reconstruction who began to leave the party after the election of FDR and continued for the exit with Strom Thurmond in 1948.  They slammed the door shut after LBJ signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965.  They took their robes and crosses to the GOP in 1968 under Nixon’s Southern Strategy and took up permanent residence with Reagan in 1980.)  But one would hope that with such a deeply flawed candidate supported by an equally repulsive president, they would at least think twice about supporting their party’s nominee.  I take some comfort in the large number of write-ins, but a vote for Teddy the Wonder Lizard or Cap’n Crunch was still not a vote for Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones will have to run again in 2020.  I hope by then he can convince a few more Alabamaians that he’s worth their trust.  But for now, I’ll take the win.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Doug Jones Wins

I love it when I’m wrong like this.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In a contest that received national attention, Democrat Doug Jones is the apparent stunning winner over Republican Roy Moore in the Senate race in this deeply red state, according to an NBC News projection.

It took an extraordinary alignment of events, including a sex scandal involving teenagers, for Alabamians to elect their first Democrat to the Senate in 25 years, but they triggered a political earthquake that will be felt far and wide.

With 99 percent of the vote in, Jones was leading 50-49 percent, or 641,173 votes to 631,613 votes.

The apparent result is a rebuke to President Donald Trump, who had endorsed Moore despite the misconduct allegations and in contrast to much of the Washington Republican establishment, which had opposed the Republican candidate.

Moore adamantly denied the allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls decades ago, but the weight of the questions proved too difficult for him to overcome.

Stronger-than expected turnout, including from African-Americans, of more 1 million voters helped Jones.

Yip-yah!

A Ten-Point Lead?

If this Fox News poll is to be believed, Doug Jones has a ten-point lead going into today’s special Senate election in Alabama.

I don’t believe it.

There are a lot of reasons, both statistical and historical, to doubt that Alabama will suddenly flip that far, and the fine art of polling and analyzing tea leaves got the shit kicked out of it last year when every respectable poll had Hillary Clinton winning up until the moment the polls closed.  But even including all the comfort-food results that show Alabamians getting some courage to vote for a Democrat and make Trump look like a loser, it still amazes me that anyone would think that even given the choice between Moore and Jones, the race would be this close.  In any other situation, even in a deeply conservative state such as Alabama, the idea of electing this antebellum caricature of a racist homophobe and alleged child molester would gross out George Wallace at his worst.

We’ll know this time tomorrow.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Reading

We’re With Stupid — Timothy Egan in the New York Times.

It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.

The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

Lost in the news grind over Roy Moore, the lawbreaking Senate candidate from Alabama, is how often he has tried to violate the Constitution. As a judge, he was removed from the bench — twice — for lawless acts that follow his theocratic view of governance.

Shariah law has been justifiably criticized as a dangerous injection of religion into the public space. Now imagine if a judge insisted on keeping a monument to the Quran in a state judicial building. Or that he said “homosexual conduct” should be illegal because his sacred book tells him so. That is exactly what Moore has done, though he substitutes the Bible for the Quran.

I don’t blame Moore. I blame his followers, and the press, which doesn’t seem to know that the First Amendment specifically aims to keep government from siding with one religion — the so-called establishment clause.

My colleagues at the opinion shop on Sunday used a full page to print the Bill of Rights, and urge President Trump to “Please Read the Constitution.” Yes, it’s come to this. On press freedom, due process, exercise of religion and other areas, Trump has repeatedly gone into Roy Moore territory — dismissing the principles he has sworn to uphold.

Suppose we treated citizenship like getting a driver’s license. People would have to pass a simple test on American values, history and geography before they were allowed to have a say in the system. We do that for immigrants, and 97 percent of them pass, according to one study.

Yet one in three Americans fail the immigrant citizenship test. This is not an elitist barrier. The test includes questions like, “What major event happened on 9/11?” and “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?”

One reason that public schools were established across the land was to produce an informed citizenry. And up until the 1960s, it was common for students to take three separate courses in civics and government before they got out of high school.

Now only a handful of states require proficiency in civics as a condition of high school graduation. Students are hungry, in this turbulent era, for discussion of politics and government. But the educators are failing them. Civics has fallen to the side, in part because of the standardized test mania.

A related concern is historical ignorance. By a 48 percent to 38 percent margin Americans think states’ rights, rather than slavery, caused the Civil War. So Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, can say something demonstrably false about the war, because most people are just as clueless as he is.

There’s hope — and there are many ways — to shed light on the cave of American democracy. More than a dozen states now require high school students to pass the immigrant citizenship test. We should also teach kids how to tell fake news from real, as some schools in Europe are doing.

But those initiatives will mean little if people still insist on believing what they want to believe, living in digital safe spaces closed off from anything that intrudes on their worldview.

A Test For Liberals — Amy Davidson Sorkin in The New Yorker.

At the press conference last week in which Beverly Young Nelson described how when she was a high-school student, in 1977, Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, who was then a deputy district attorney, tried to physically force her to engage in oral sex with him, she also talked about her vote in last year’s election. “My husband and I supported Donald Trump for President,” Nelson said. “This has nothing whatsoever to do with the Republicans or the Democrats.” Yet Moore, and his campaign, wanted to make it exactly about that, even as other women came forward with charges against him. (As of last Friday, a total of nine had done so.) In a statement to the Washington Post, the campaign said, “If you are a liberal and hate Judge Moore, apparently he groped you. . . . If you are a conservative and love Judge Moore, you know these allegations are a political farce.”

From this perspective, the news, last Thursday, that Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, also had misconduct allegations against him looked to some like an opportunity to test a similar formulation. Leeann Tweeden, a radio host, said that in 2006, two years before Franken ran for office, she joined him on a U.S.O. tour to Afghanistan and Iraq, and he kissed her during a rehearsal, although she told him not to. He later posed for a photograph in which he appeared to grab her breasts while she was sleeping, wearing camouflage gear and a Kevlar helmet. If you are a liberal and love Al Franken, would you decide—indeed, know—that these allegations are a political farce? The answer, properly and unambiguously, is no.

A number of Franken’s Senate colleagues, including Amy Klobuchar, also of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, condemned his acts. Franken, after a first, halting apology, offered a fuller one, in which he said that he was “disgusted” by his own behavior and that he will coöperate with an ethics-committee investigation into the allegations. The committee, though, hasn’t sanctioned anyone in years. Last week, several women lawmakers reported that sexual harassment on Capitol Hill is pervasive, and that, as Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, put it, the system for dealing with it is “a joke.” During the past twenty years, Congress has paid out seventeen million dollars to settle claims of harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination, while keeping those payments secret. Speier also said that there were two cases involving current members of Congress.

In some ways, the Franken story is a small, sad proxy for his party’s Bill Clinton problem. Last week, as more sexual-harassment and assault charges came to light, some people started looking again at a rape allegation that Juanita Broaddrick brought against the former President. In 1978, Broaddrick, a nursing-home administrator, met Clinton, at that time the Arkansas attorney general, for a business meeting in her hotel room—to avoid the press, she thought—and there, she said, he attacked her. (A lawyer for Clinton has denied this.) A colleague says that she heard the story from Broaddrick immediately afterward, when she found her with torn panty hose and a swollen lip.

Broaddrick’s story came out, in 1999, largely thanks to Lisa Myers, of NBC News, after Clinton’s acquittal in his impeachment trial—a case that grew out of a sexual-harassment suit brought by Paula Jones—and the charge was left unresolved. Early in the impeachment imbroglio, Hillary Clinton had attributed her husband’s troubles to “a vast, right-wing conspiracy.” There was a well-funded conservative effort to target the President, but, in this instance, the charge feels too close to Moore’s assertion that liberals simply believe one thing, and conservatives another.

When Clinton ran for President in 2016, she may not have gauged how profoundly Bill Clinton’s record with women would hurt her. Just a month before the election, after the “Access Hollywood” video emerged, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, he brought Broaddrick and Jones to a Presidential debate. Clinton dismissed this as a stunt, meant to throw her off her game. But the key audience for it was purple-state women, particularly middle-aged or older working-class women, who might identify with Broaddrick, or be receptive, based on their own experience, to the contention that, as Trump put it, Hillary was Bill’s “enabler.” (Polls after the election showed that Clinton performed less well with those voters than her campaign had hoped.) For others, Clinton’s decision to make her husband an active part of her campaign—and the potential First Spouse—constrained it.

Many factors played into Clinton’s defeat, but at that juncture Bill cost her heavily, by keeping “Access Hollywood” from costing Trump the election. As hard as it is to hear, particularly given the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy and her laudable record on everything from climate change to children’s health, her nomination compromised the Democratic Party. There were other choices, early on; perhaps one of the fourteen Democratic women in the Senate in 2015 might have emerged. Voters in Alabama, where Moore is on the ballot in December—and in Minnesota, where Al Franken is up for reëlection next year—might remember that they have choices, too.

President Trump, for his part, tweeted that the “Al Frankenstien picture is really bad,” adding, “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment.” Some of that “lecturing” has been directed, with good cause, at Trump himself; he shouldn’t expect it to end. Efforts, like the President’s, to act as though one transgression can cancel out another suggest that the problem is just one of calculating how many Frankens add up to a Moore—how many charges of groping for one of attempted statutory rape. There is no abuse-indulgence account that each party can draw on, though.

That is also true in assessing their ideologies. The national Republican leadership has, to an extent, backed away from Moore—the Alabama state Party has not—but it had earlier supported him even though he said that he did not believe that Muslims ought to be seated in Congress or that gays and lesbians should have basic rights. That shows not only who Moore is but what the G.O.P. has become. Franken has worked hard for progressive causes in his political life. But, here, too, whatever points that earns him, or his colleagues, are not spendable in some market in women’s dignity. The Democratic Party is better than that.

The Simplest Way — John Nichols in The Nation.

Republicans elites feel so entitled to the Alabama Senate seat that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III vacated to become Donald Trump’s attorney general that they are meticulously neglecting the easiest strategy for keeping Roy Moore out of the Senate.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has called on Moore, the scandal-plagued former judge who now faces multiple allegations that as a 30-something prosecutor he molested teenage girls, to quit the Alabama race. But Moore’s not quitting. In fact, he says McConnell should resign.

So DC Republicans are spinning complex scenarios for keeping Moore out of their caucus. The scenarios have grown increasingly arcane, and unworkable. But they keep coming.

There has been speculation that if Moore is elected in the December 12 special election, he could be seated and then expelled. But there’s no guarantee that it will happen. Expulsions are rare, and there’s a reason for that: A super-majority of senators—two-thirds of the chamber—is required to overturn an election result.

Then there are the proposed write-in campaigns: for Strange, for Sessions, for just about any Republican except Moore. But write-in victories are almost as rare as expulsions. And the wrong strategy for a write-in run could end up splitting the anti-Moore vote.

It’s likely that McConnell and his compatriots will proposing convoluted political “fixes.” But none of them will be certain, or in some cases even likely, to block the judge.

Moore faces a credible opponent in Democrat Doug Jones, a former US Attorney with a distinguished record of defending the rule of law and prosecuting the violent racists who were responsible for the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. He is running a strong campaign; indeed, some polls are now giving him the lead in this intense contest.

Jones has been endorsed by a number of grassroots Alabama Republicans; he is even running television ads featuring them.

There is a very long history in American politics of voters crossing partisan lines to reject candidates they object to—or to support candidates who impress them. The 1924 Democratic nominee for president, corporate lawyer John Davis, frequently endorsed Republicans who were running against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There were “Democrats for Eisenhower” groups in the 1950s, “Republicans for Johnson” groups in 1964 and “Democrats for Nixon” groups in 1972. Bill Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1990 because a lot of cross-over voters preferred his libertarian-leaning Republicanism to his Democratic opponent’s social conservatism. And Barack Obama ran in 2008 with a long list of endorsements from prominent Republicans and former Republicans.

There are contests where it is ethically necessary to put aside partisanship and back a candidate from another party. There are also times when it is politically practical to abandon your party line for one election.

The Alabama contest meets the ethical standard, and the practical standard. A few wise Republicans recognize this. Asked last week if he would support a Democratic candidate over Moore, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake replied: “If the choice is between Roy Moore and a Democrat — the Democrat, no doubt.”

Flake added: “I would literally — if I were in Alabama — I would run to the polling place to vote for the Democrat.”

The choice in Alabama, as its stands now, is between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones.

If Mitch McConnell and his Republican allies are serious about keeping a reprehensible Republican out of the Senate, they don’t need convoluted strategies. They need only to recognize the reality of their circumstance—and the logic of the electoral calculus that Jeff Flake had already explained.

Doonesbury — What it’s not.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why She Won

There’s been a lot of talk about the election of Danica Roem to the Virginia House of Delegates because she’s the first transgender person elected to statewide office in the country.  Not only that, she did it by beating Republican Bob Marshall, one of the state’s most conservative delegates who proudly labeled himself as “chief homophobe” and authored an anti-transgender “bathroom bill” that thankfully died in committee earlier this year.

I’d like to think that the reason Ms. Roem won had nothing to do with her gender or how she identifies herself on her driver’s license.  I’d like to think that it had to do with the fact that she ran a campaign about doing things in her district that needed doing.  There are potholes that need to be filled.  There are schools that need to be funded.  There is healthcare that needs to be provided, and the rest of the day-to-day problems that crop up that need to be dealt with and then moving forward.  What was Bob Marshall doing?  Freaking out about where people urinate.

I’d also like to think that the people in her district have grown up enough to realize that the abstract worries about things such as LGBTQ issues and walls in Texas are less important than taking care of the potholes and schoolrooms.  It doesn’t matter what bathroom you go into as long as you are ready and willing to do the job when you come out.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Winning Where It Really Matters

It is very good news that Ralph Northam won the Virginia governor’s race, showing that “Trumpism without Trump” — championing his issues without embracing the man — doesn’t sell.  But even more important in the long run is that the Democrats made huge gains in the Virginia House of Delegates, their version of the state legislature.

Unofficial returns showed Democrats unseating at least 11 Republicans and flipping three seats that had been occupied by GOP incumbents who didn’t seek reelection. Four other races were so close that they qualify for a recount, and results will determine control of the chamber. The results marked the most sweeping shift in control of the legislature since the Watergate era.

Republicans, who have controlled the chamber since 2000, went into Tuesday holding 66 of 100 seats.

Several winners made history in a year in which a record number of women ran and Democrats fielded the most candidates in recent memory.

One Democrat became Virginia’s first openly transgender person to win elective office, unseating an opponent of LGBT rights. The election signaled a major shift in the gender of a body long dominated by men: Of the 14 seats Democrats flipped, all were held by men and 10 were won by women. And two of those women, both from Prince William County, became the first Latinas elected to the General Assembly.

“This is an unbelievable night,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) in an interview an hour after polls closed. “There were districts we didn’t think we had much of a shot in.”

The final results may not be known for a while since a number of the races are still too close to call and will need recounts, but even if the Republicans hang on, this is a major shift at the state level.

That is where it really matters.  State legislatures are where voting district lines are drawn and where gerrymandering takes place, creating GOP strongholds when there are a majority of Democrats in the region.  Medicare expansion, school funding, and infrastructure spending is determined by the state, doling out federal dollars as they see fit.  Gun laws, restrictions on reproductive rights, and even rules on who can pee in certain places all come out of the state capitol.  (It’s especially glorious that the Republican who proposed Virginia’s anti-transgender bathroom bill was defeated by Danica Roem, the state’s — and the nation’s — first openly transgender candidate.  Karma, ya done good.)

So while it is important who wins the presidency and who’s running the House and Senate in Washington, it’s at the state and local elections where the real work — and influence — gets done.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Year Later

Booman (Martin Longman) took a look back to what happened a year ago.

Like him, I’ve been dealing with the harsh reality that yes, this country really did elect a man who is incapable of empathy, of rational thought, and who treats women, minorities, and people who disagree with him as appallingly as he does in such a casual manner.  The most dismaying thing is how it has become normalized.  For a long time I and others have asked “Are we better than this?”

Looking back a year later, it’s a struggle not to succumb to a well-earned cynicism. We don’t like to repeat our mistakes, which makes it tempting to over-correct for them.

There were a lot of times when President Obama stood up and told the American people that we’re better than this, that we can do better and be better. It’s not a good feeling to know that the response was, “No, we’re not, and no we can’t.”

But Obama was right. Maybe the answer isn’t that when they go low then we go high, as Michelle liked to say. But one giant mistake doesn’t condemn us in perpetuity.

I actually find comfort and a cause for optimism that so many people were unable to imagine a Trump victory. It means that I wasn’t alone in having some standards or in believing that we can be better than this.

It’s just going to be harder and take longer than I was willing to imagine.

But it is worth it.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Monday, October 23, 2017