Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sunday Reading

Peter Wehner in The Atlantic: A field guide to the Yellow-Bellied Republican.

Those hoping for a quick snapback to sanity for the Republican Party once Donald Trump is no longer president should temper those hopes.

The latest piece of evidence to suggest the enduring power of Trumpian unreality is yesterday’s announcement by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri that he will object next week when Congress convenes to certify the Electoral College vote.

Hawley knows this effort will fail, just as every other effort to undo the results of the lawful presidential election will fail. (A brief reminder for those with faulty short-term memories: Joe Biden defeated Trump by more than 7 million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes.) Every single attempt to prove that the election was marked by fraud or that President-elect Biden’s win is illegitimate—an effort that now includes about 60 lawsuits—has flopped. In fact, what we’ve discovered since the November 3 election is that it was “the most secure in American history,” as election experts in Trump’s own administration have declared. But this immutable, eminently provable fact doesn’t deter Trump and many of his allies from trying to overturn the election; perversely, it seems to embolden them.

One such Trump ally is Tommy Tuberville, the newly elected senator from Alabama, who has suggested that he might challenge the Electoral College count. And there are others. But what makes Hawley’s declaration ominously noteworthy is that unlike Tuberville—a former college football coach who owes his political career in a deep-red state to Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary against Jeff Sessions—Hawley is a man who clearly knows better. According to his Senate biography, he is “recognized as one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers.” A former state attorney general, Hawley has litigated before the Supreme Court. He graduated from Stanford University in 2002 and Yale Law School in 2006. He has clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts; he taught at one of London’s elite private schools, St. Paul’s; and he served as an appellate litigator at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

It is one thing for Hawley to position himself as a populist, something he had done even before he was elected in 2018; it is quite another for him to knowingly engage in civic vandalism and, in ostentatiously unpatriotic ways, undermine established norms and safeguards. This is precisely what Senator Hawley is now doing—and he is doing so in the aftermath of Trump’s loss, when some political observers might have hoped that the conspiracy mindset and general insanity of the Trump modus operandi would begin to lose their salience.

A longtime acquaintance of the Missouri senator explained to me Hawley’s actions this way: “Hawley never wants to talk down to his voters. He wants to speak for them, and at the moment, they are saying the election was stolen.”

“He surely knows this isn’t true,” this acquaintance continued, “and that the legal arguments don’t hold water. And yet clearly the incentives he confronts—as someone who wants to speak for those voters, and as someone with ambitions beyond the Senate—lead him to conclude he should pretend the lie is true. This is obviously a very bad sign about the direction of the GOP in the coming years.”

Think about this statement for a moment: The incentives Josh Hawley and many of his fellow Republicans officeholders confront lead them to conclude that they should pretend the lie is true.

Those who have hoped that Republicans like Senator Hawley would begin to break free from Trump once he lost the election have not understood the nature of the change that has come over the party’s base.

Trump was the product of deep, disturbing currents on the American right; he was not the creator of them. Those currents have existed for many decades; we saw them manifested in the popularity of figures such as Sarah Palin, Patrick J. Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Oliver North, and many others. But their power grew in force and speed over the past decade. In 2016, Trump tapped into these currents and, as president and leader of the Republican Party, he channeled those populist passions destructively, rather than in the constructive ways that other Republicans before him, such as Ronald Reagan, had done. (Even if you’re a progressive who loathed Reagan, the notion that he was a pernicious and malicious force in American politics in the style of Trump is simply not credible.)

What is happening in the GOP is that figures such as Hawley, along with many of his Senate and House colleagues, and important Republican players, including the former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, are all trying to position themselves as the heirs of Trump. None of them possesses the same sociopathic qualities as Trump, and their efforts will be less impulsive and presumably less clownish, more calculated and probably less conspiracy-minded. It may be that not all of them support Hawley’s stunt; perhaps some are even embarrassed by it. But these figures are seismographers; they are determined to act in ways that win the approval of the Republican Party’s base. And this goes to the heart of the danger.

The problem with the Republican “establishment” and with elected officials such as Josh Hawley is not that they are crazy, or that they don’t know any better; it is that they are cowards, and that they are weak. They are far more ambitious than they are principled, and they are willing to damage American politics and society rather than be criticized by their own tribe. I’m guessing that many of them haven’t read Nietzsche, but they have embraced his philosophy of perspectivism, which in its crudest form posits that there is no objective truth, no authoritative or independent criteria for determining what is true or false. In this view, we all get to make up our own facts and create our own narratives. Everything is conditioned on what your perspective is. This is exactly the sort of slippery epistemic nihilism for which conservatives have, for more than a generation, reproached the academic left—except the left comes by it more honestly.

The single most worrisome political fact in America right now is that a significant portion of the Republican Party lives in a fantasy world, a place where facts and truth don’t hold sway, where “owning the libs” is an end in itself, and where seceding from reality is a symbol of tribal loyalty, rather than a sign of mental illness. This is leading the party, and America itself, to places we’ve never been before, including the spectacle of a defeated president and his supporters engaging in a sustained effort to steal an election.

The tactics of Hawley and his many partisan confreres, if they aren’t checked and challenged, will put at risk what the scholar Stephen L. Carter calls “the entire project of Enlightenment democracy.” This doesn’t seem to bother Hawley and many in his party. But what he should know—and, one hopes, does know, somewhere in the recesses of his heart—is that he has moved very far away from conservatism.

Whether the Republican Party can be salvaged is very much an open question. I don’t know the answer. But here is what I do know: Patriotic Republicans and conservatives need to fight for the soul of the Republican Party, for its sake and for the sake of the nation. America needs two healthy and sane political parties. Trump’s departure on January 20 should open up space for at least a few brave and responsible figures to arise, to help ground the GOP in truth rather than falsehoods, reality instead of fantasy, and to use the instruments of power for the pursuit of justice.

Their task won’t be easy; right now the political winds are in their face rather than at their back. Trump’s hold on the GOP remains firm, and separating from Trump and Trumpism will trigger hostility in an often angry and radicalized base. The right-wing ecosystem is in a mood to find and (figuratively) hang traitors, whom it defines as anyone in the Republican Party who doesn’t acquiesce to Trump’s indecency and paranoia. Which in turn means that those hoping to lead a Republican reclamation project need to find ways to be shrewd and persuasive, to be crafty while maintaining their integrity. They need to connect with the base but find ways to elevate it instead of pandering to it. In better times, many Republican leaders have done so, starting of course with Abraham Lincoln, “the great hero of America’s struggle for the noblest cause,” in the words of his early 20th-century biographer Lord Charnwood. But others have done so as well.

Our collective hope should be that principled Republicans will find their voice and prevail—one courageous step at a time, one act of decency at a time, one year at a time.

The DeVos Disaster — The New York Times weighs in on the destruction Betsy DeVos wreaked at the Department of Education.

The departing education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will be remembered as perhaps the most disastrous leader in the Education Department’s history. Her lack of vision has been apparent in a variety of contexts, but never more so than this fall when she told districts that were seeking guidance on how to operate during the coronavirus pandemic that it was not her responsibility to track school district infection rates or keep track of school reopening plans. This telling remark implies a vision of the Education Department as a mere bystander in a crisis that disrupted the lives of more than 50 million schoolchildren.

If the Senate confirms President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee, Miguel Cardona, as Ms. DeVos’s successor, he will face the herculean task of clearing away the wreckage left by his predecessor — while helping the states find a safe and equitable path to reopening schools.

Beyond that, the new secretary needs to quickly reverse a range of corrosive DeVos-era policies, including initiatives that rolled back civil rights protections for minority children as well as actions that turned the department into a subsidiary of predatory for-profit colleges that saddle students with crushing debt while granting them useless degrees.

There is still more to learn about Mr. Cardona. But at first glance, the contrast between him and his predecessor is striking. Ms. DeVos had almost no experience in public education and was clearly disinterested in the department’s mission. Mr. Cardona worked his way up from teacher to principal to education commissioner of Connecticut. Moreover, he seems to understand that a big part of his job involves using the bully pulpit to advance policies that benefit all schoolchildren and protect the most vulnerable.

Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared, with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math.

However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.
Coronavirus Schools Briefing: It’s back to school — or is it?

Beyond that, parents need to know where their children stand after such a sustained period without much face-to-face instruction. Given these realities, the new education secretary — whoever he or she turns out to be — should resist calls to put off annual student testing.

Research has long since shown that a summer vacation can wipe out a month or two of student learning. Making up for an even more serious learning shortfall will require planning that should begin now. An obvious first step would be to use the summer of 2021 for summer school or catch-up tutoring. If the Biden Education Department decides on this approach, it will need to petition Congress to fund the project. The states are too cash poor at the moment and could not undertake such a venture on their own.

The Education Department should also recognize that this pandemic will not be the last one. That means developing a list of best practices and strategic schools plans that can be swiftly rolled out when another medical crisis occurs with a different infectious agent.

In addition to addressing worrisome matters like these, the new education commissioner needs to revoke a series of department communiqués that had the effect of letting school districts off the hook for discriminatory disciplinary practices and other potential violations of civil rights law. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights exposed the depth of this problem during the Obama years, when it released data showing that excessively punitive policies were being used at every level of the public school system — and that even minority 4-year-olds were being disproportionately suspended and expelled.

The new administration needs to underscore the message that these damaging practices are unacceptable. This means renewing civil rights guidance to school districts and opening investigations after credible reports of wrongdoing.

The DeVos administration sold out to predatory for-profit colleges and their various abettors within a nanosecond of taking office. To get a jump on reversing this particular set of policies, the new education secretary can begin rule-making processes where necessary and inform the courts that it will no longer defend against lawsuits filed by state attorneys general and others who have dogged the DeVos department in court for buddying up to the for-profit industry and attacking student borrowers who deserve to have their student loans forgiven because they were defrauded by career education programs.

The department should immediately begin rule-making to reverse Ms. DeVos’s gutting of the “gainful employment” rule, which was supposed to cut off access to federal student aid for career training programs that buried students in debt while failing to prepare them for the job market.

Pending in court is a lawsuit filed by 22 states and the District of Columbia charging that Ms. DeVos unlawfully rescinded an Obama-era rule that allowed students who had been defrauded by career colleges to have their federal loans forgiven. The department should stop defending against this lawsuit and revisit loan discharge claims by borrowers who remain saddled with debt even though the schools they attended were shown to be engaged in fraud. The DeVos version of the so-called borrower defense rule was so onerous for defrauded borrowers that Congress passed a bipartisan measure blocking it. That measure, however, was vetoed by the president.

In yet another sop to the for-profit industry, Ms. DeVos disregarded a scathing indictment by her department’s career staff, reinstating an accrediting body that had been stripped of its authority for exercising lax oversight. The organization was the accreditor for two for-profit institutions that collapsed, leaving tens of thousands of students with debt and useless degrees. The new education secretary would do well to closely scrutinize the department’s methodology for evaluating accreditors.

Yet another set of lawsuits has shown how the companies that are handsomely paid to collect student loans aggravate the debt crisis by giving advice that costs borrowers money while earning the companies cash.

The Department of Education lies in ruins at precisely the time when the country most needs it. The president-elect and his new education secretary, whoever that turns out to be, need to get the institution up and running as swiftly as possible. Given the dire context, there is no time to waste.

Doonesbury — Your mission…

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. Hawley is apparently a smart guy but also a dyed in the wool right winger. He couldn’t be posher – he went to an expensive exclusive prep school for god’s sake. He was also president of the Federalist Society chapter when he went to Yale Law. Probably half careerist and half that he was a reactionary right winger, both requirements for being a Federalist. Later he worked on cases like the Hobby Lobby one. Uh-oh.

    Hawley was raised Methodist, but he and his family now attend an Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and he identifies as an Evangelical. Uh-oh, again.

    So he’s throwing in on the Trumpist election fraud thing. Meanwhile, the Hawleys own a house in Northern Virginia, which they bought in 2019 after Hawley was elected to the U.S. Senate, after selling their Columbia home. Hawley’s voter registration has his sister’s address in Ozark. Sounds like illegal voting to me. So he’s another Talibangelist populist hypocrite. Highly educated, but being a Christianist seems to function like a lobotomy except for the opportunist part of the brain. See also: Piyush “Bobby” Jindal.

    It probably helps that Hawley looks like a dumb cracker.

    And ALL the Biden appointees “will face the herculean task of clearing away the wreckage left by his predecessor”. Now in the Georgia run-off elections two of the most 1%ers in Congress are also running as ignorant rubes. Republicans in Congress have shown themselves more than willing to block everything Democratic for twelve years. I don’t expect them to change any in terms of their advice and consent function with Biden appointees.

    I hope Biden’s bipartisan talk is mostly aspirational and that he plays hardball with these assholes unlike Obama. At least he can’t be the Angry Black Guy.

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