Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Reading

Going Ugly — Amy Davidson in The New Yorker: The birther question reveals the id of the GOP.

…But even more outrageous, this week, was Trump’s tolerance of the questioner’s premise: that Muslims in America are “a problem.” Calling Obama a Muslim is not wrong because being a Muslim is bad; it’s wrong because he is a Christian, and so “Muslim” becomes a shorthand for impostor and liar, for deceptive secret agent. Trump, though, went well beyond not defending the President: he affirmed an attack on the millions of Muslim Americans who are as much a part of the national community as anyone else. The man in the T-shirt’s actual point, after all, was about the supposed training camps “where they want to kill us.” He wanted Trump to answer his question: “When can we get rid of them?”

The campaign did say, according to the Washington Post, that it understood “them” to refer to the “training camps,” not to a potential ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population as a whole. A campaign official also said that Trump was focussed on the part of the question about this larger phantom threat, and not on the part about Obama’s religion—as if entertaining an insult to an entire community, rather than just to the President, were a defense. Trump’s own statement seemed to underscore the man in the Trump T-shirt’s fears: “The media wants to make this issue about Obama. The bigger issue is that Obama is waging a war against Christians in this country. Christians need support in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake.” Donald Trump, Christian warrior.

Last week, in an effort to slow Trump’s momentum, the Club for Growth released ads portraying him as a liberal. Jeb Bush, too, has made the case that the problem with Trump is that he is inadequately conservative—as if, with Trump’s talk of building walls, the G.O.P. were being pestered by a moderate in its midst. Perhaps his comments in New Hampshire will persuade his competitors to confront his extremism instead. So far, they have been too fearful or too eager for the votes of people like the man in the T-shirt. Or maybe they agree; Ben Carson, for one, has talked about the possibility of staged civil disorder leading to the cancellation of elections. (Hillary Clinton, who was also in New Hampshire, said that Trump “should have, from the beginning, repudiated that kind of rhetoric.”)

It can’t be said that Trump didn’t have control of the exchange; he had, after all, broken in twice. And he had another opportunity to do so when, later in the event, another questioner rose to say, “I applaud the gentleman who brought up the Muslim training camps here in the U.S.A.—the F.B.I. knows all about that.” To which Trump replied, again, “right.”

“But America has also guns pointed at ordinary citizens here,” the second man said, and then hesitated.

“Don’t get nervous!” Trump said. “You’re on about seven television networks here—don’t get nervous!”

The man launched into a disjointed attack on the Bureau of Land Management. “How can we get in and stop them?” he said.

“So many things are going to change,” Trump said, and then offered some news-you-can-use for conspiracy theorists.

“Being in real estate, we have Army bases, Navy bases—so many are for sale,” Trump said. “And so many of them have been sold over the last short period of time.”

And just who is buying those military bases? The audience seemed to know. Evan Osnos wrote recently about the support for Trump among white supremacists and other extremists in this country. It can seem, though, as if they are not only listening to him but as if he is listening to them. Trump is learning the practice of politics in halls echoing with American paranoia. There has always been a strain of that, and he is not alone in playing to it: a number of Republican senators solemnly presented themselves as concerned investigators of Jade Helm, a U.S. military training exercise that, in some circles, was presented as a dress rehearsal for martial law. The man in the T-shirt has a theory; the man in the suit smiles. What is less and less clear, in the interaction between the potential Presidents and the crowd, is who is humoring whom.

No-Show and Tell — Zoe Carpenter in The Nation on the kangaroo court in Congress over Planned Parenthood.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held the first of several congressional hearings sparked by undercover videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood profits from illegal sales of fetal tissue. Less than 40 minutes had elapsed by the time someone quoted Adolf Hitler. The hysteria lasted for nearly four hours, marked by claims that abortion providers start their day with a “shopping list” of body parts to procure, about a fetus’s face being cut open with scissors, about fetuses who “cried and screamed as they died” but weren’t heard “because it was amniotic fluid going over their vocal cords instead of air.”

The hearing was engineered to repulse and horrify; it was not designed to reveal any credible information about Planned Parenthood or the Center for Medical Progress, the antiabortion group that made and edited the undercover videos. Neither Planned Parenthood nor CMP were asked to make representatives available to testify. Instead, Republicans called on two “abortion survivors” who lived after their mothers attempted to terminate their pregnancies, and issued emotional appeals against abortion, broadly. They also invited James Bopp, the Indiana lawyer who argued on behalf of the nonprofit Citizens United in the Supreme Court case that extended 1st Amendment rights to corporations. Among other things, Bopp argued in his testimony that fetal tissue donation encourages women “to choose abortions as an acceptable form of birth control.” Priscilla Smith, who directs the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice at Yale Law School, was the only witness who supported abortion rights.

Representative Trent Franks, the Republican chairman of the Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee, was particularly unhinged in his attacks, appearing to work himself nearly to tears as he described the videos that “irrefutably reveal” Planned Parenthood officials “haggling” over fetal tissue. Later, Franks was pressed on whether he’d actually seen full, unedited footage from CMP. After erroneously claiming that CMP had made it available online, Franks admitted that neither he nor anyone else from the GOP majority had seen the footage in its complete form. He also confirmed that committee Republicans haven’t asked for it.

Democrats were quick to point out the absurdity of holding a hearing about accusations based on film footage that no one on the committee has seen in its original form. Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, called the hearing “one-sided” and said that the videos revealed “no credible evidence that Planned Parenthood violated the law.” Representative Steve Cohen called it “the Benghazi of health care hearings.” Representative Hank Johnson likened the proceedings to a “third world show trial.” “Senator Joseph McCarthy would be proud of this committee today,” remarked Representative Jerrold Nadler.

The hearing is part of a broader push to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which receives about $500 million a year. (Under the Hyde Amendment, none of that money can be used for abortions, except in rare cases.) Conservatives are hoping to ride the momentum from the undercover videos to force the issue during budget negotiations, potentially leading to a government shutdown at the end of the month. “The horrifying thing about this hearing,” Smith said in her testimony, “is the mismatch between the allegations and concerns here about abortion [and] about fetal tissue research, and what is being considered, which is defunding Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion-related services.”

Perhaps the most ridiculous line of questioning came from Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, who wanted to know “why Planned Parenthood needs to get over half a billion dollars of federal funding every year when there are other pressing needs, such as feeding hungry children, that maybe we should be putting that money into?” Here’s how much Sensenbrenner cares about hungry children: In 2013, he and 216 of his fellow Republicans voted for a $39 billion cut to the food-stamp program.

In a memo released in advance of the hearing, Planned Parenthood pointed out that this is the 10th time since 2000 that secretly recorded videos and other accusations against the organization have led to congressional investigations. The evidence has never held up. But as Michelle Goldberg explained here, the latest videos—and witnesses like the two “abortion survivors” who testified on Wednesday—have a powerful visceral impact, despite their lack of grounding in fact. Republican Representative Steve King explained during Wednesday’s proceedings, “I don’t need an investigation to know what’s going on here.”

The Threat to the First Amendment — The New York Times editorial board on GOP anti-gay bigotry.

This past June, in the heat of their outrage over gay rights, congressional Republicans revived a nasty bit of business they call the First Amendment Defense Act. It would do many things, but one thing it would not do is defend the First Amendment. To the contrary, it would deliberately warp the bedrock principle of religious freedom under the Constitution.

The bill, versions of which have been circulating since 2013, gained a sudden wave of support after the Supreme Courtlegalized same-sex marriage nationwide. It is being hawked with the specter of clergy members being forced to officiate such marriages. This is a ploy, as the bill’s backers surely know: There has never been any doubt that the First Amendment protects members of the clergy from performing weddings against their will.

In reality, the act would bar the federal government from taking “any discriminatory action” — including the denial of tax benefits, grants, contracts or licenses — against those who oppose same-sex marriage for religious or moral reasons. In other words, it would use taxpayers’ money to negate federal anti-discrimination measures protecting gays and lesbians, using the idea of religious freedom as cover.

For example, a religiously affiliated college that receives federal grants could fire a professor simply for being gay and still receive those grants. Or federal workers could refuse to process the tax returns of same-sex couples simply because of bigotry against their marriages.

It doesn’t stop there. As critics of the bill quickly pointed out, the measure’s broad language — which also protects those who believe that “sexual relations are properly reserved to” heterosexual marriages alone — would permit discrimination against anyone who has sexual relations outside such a marriage. That would appear to include women who have children outside of marriage, a class generally protected by federal law.

This bizarre fixation on what grown-ups do in their bedrooms — which has long since been rejected by the Supreme Court and the vast majority of Americans — is bad enough. The bill makes matters worse by covering for-profit companies, which greatly multiplies the potential scope of discrimination against gays and lesbians.

These are radical proposals, but they are accepted without question by many in today’s Republican Party. In its current form, the bill has 148 co-sponsors in the House and 36 in the Senate — all Republicans but one, Representative Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. It has been endorsed by the Republican National Committee and at least four Republican presidential contenders. It is, in other words, a fair representation of right-wing reaction to the long overdue expansion of basic civil and constitutional rights to gays and lesbians.

Thankfully, the bill’s chances of passage are low. Even if it were to get through Congress, President Obama would surely veto it. Still, its symbolic power will embolden those looking for a legal justification to discriminate — whether they are individuals like Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who went to jail rather than obey the law and issue same-sex marriage licenses, or states, where similar legislation has a much better chance of becoming law. In Indiana and Arkansas, laws protecting such discrimination have already passed.

Both laws, of course, provoked a swift and emphatic backlash from the public and the corporate world, leading both states to scale them back. (Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence, embarked on a bumbling effort to claim that his state’s law would not provide cover for discrimination against gays and lesbians.)

Fear of a similar debacle at the national level may help explain why a committee vote in Congress on the First Amendment Defense Act, which conservative Republicans pushed for in late July, was not scheduled.

The best outcome at this point would be for the bill to die where it is. The First Amendment needs no assistance in protecting religious freedom in America.

 Doonesbury — The news.  In spurts.