Sunday, December 03, 2023


The New York Times and The Washington Post have stories today about Donald Trump's "I'm rubber, you're glue" response to charges that he'll destroy American democracy if he's elected president again. The Times reports on a campaign speech Trump delivered yesterday in Iowa:
At the Cedar Rapids event, aides and volunteers left placards with bold black-and-white lettering reading “Biden attacks democracy” on the seats and bleachers. At the start of Mr. Trump's speech, that message was broadcast on a screen above the stage....

Mr. Trump ... claimed the president and his allies were seeking to control Americans’ speech, their behavior on social media and their purchases of cars and dishwashers.

Without evidence, he accused Mr. Biden of being behind a nationwide effort to get Mr. Trump removed from the ballot in several states. And, as he has before, he claimed, again without evidence, that Mr. Biden was the mastermind behind the four criminal cases against him.
The Post reports that Trump
accused Biden “and his band of Marxists, Communists and Fascists” of trying “to crush free speech, censor their critics,” and “criminalize dissent.”
But here's some odd analysis from the Times story:
Mr. Trump’s speeches on Saturday reflected how sharply he is focused on the general election rather than the Republican primary contest, in which he holds a commanding lead.
Really? It seems to me that all this persecution talk is laser-focused on the Republican base. Trump is talking about Biden the way hardcore Republican voters talk about Biden -- not just as a totalitarian persecuting Trump, but as a totalitarian persecuting them. The claim that the Biden administration is "seeking to control Americans' ... behavior on social media" is the one that made Elon Musk a folk hero on the right. The notion that Biden and his team want to "crush free speech, censor their critics, [and] criminalize dissent” alludes to the widespread belief on the right that the January 6 insurrections were just innocent patriots who are now subject to a witch hunt, while evil Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters get away with all sorts of illegal conduct. It also refers to the belief on the right that the FBI categorizes right-wingers who speak up at school board meetings as "domestic terrorists" (it doesn't) and investigates them just for expressing opinions (it doesn't). And they fixate on stories of right-wingers being subjected to heavy-handed treatment by law enforcement, such as Mark Houck, an anti-abortion activist who in 2022 was charged with shoving an elderly protester outside a reproductive health clinic (which is a federal offense), an arrest Houck and his allies say involved a SWAT team (the FBI denies this); Houck was tried and acquitted.

None of this is being talked about in the mainstream media, but it's an obsession on the right. The notion that the government wants to prevent consumers from buying the cars and dishwashers they want is also an obsession on the right. Liberals and people in the middle aren't worried.

It seems to me that Trump is trying to roll up the score in early primary states -- but maybe this is also how he intends to run in the general election. If so, I don't think it will win over swing voters. I've said that all the talk about the very real threat Trump poses to democracy is probably not resonating with voters in the middle. As I wrote two weeks ago, "a president who threatens democracy might not frighten an electorate that thinks the democracy we have isn't doing a very good job for them." Trump's claims of Biden administration totalitarianism will probably also fall flat with swing voters. They weren't protesting on January 6. They don't make angry speeches about vaccines and transgenderism at school board meetings. And they're not Donald Trump either.

So I hope Trump keeps talking this way throughout 2024, because undecided voters will tune it out. And I hope President Biden will talk less about democracy and more about the concrete things Trump will do as president: attempting to repeal Obamacare, worsening climate change, appointing judges who'll further restrict abortion, separating immigrant families, allying himself with theocratic book banners, demonizing political opponents and vulnerable groups, giving the rich another massive tax cut. Everyone who sees Trump as a threat to democracy is already on alert. I don't believe most people in the middle care about what happens to democracy.

Saturday, December 02, 2023


Joe Biden and Donald Trump probably won't be the only high-profile candidates on presidential ballots in 2024 -- No Labels wants to run a candidate, Robert Kennedy Jr. will probably have the money to get himself on all or most ballots, and there'll be candidates from the Green and Libertarian parties. Pollsters have begun testing the impact of a multi-candidate race on the outcome, and they generally coclude that the minor-party candidates will take more votes away from Biden than from Trump.

One reason is that most of these pollsters are asking respondents about a field that includes Cornel West, who announced his presidential candidacy last June. He'd be unlikely to take votes away from Trump, though he'd surely take quite a few from Biden.

But don't worry, because Cornel West probably won't be on your state ballot. He's too much of a fuck-up.

A Forbes article published yesterday (paywalled, but you can read it here, though unfortunately without links) makes this clear:
Cornel West has been a fixture of American society for more than three decades, publishing books, teaching at Ivy League institutions, commenting on cable news, collaborating on music with Prince—even popping up in sequels to the Matrix. Ubiquity provided liquidity, with West earning an estimated $15 million or so over the last 30 years. But oddly, as he mounts an independent run for president, his net worth resembles that of a first-year adjunct professor. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” says West....

West burst onto the national scene in the 1990s with Race Matters, a compilation of essays that sold more than 500,000 copies. He traveled the country to deliver speeches, hauling in more than $500,000 a year. Much of the money flowed to him with no taxes deducted. West blew it—on many things, especially women—leaving little left for Uncle Sam by the time tax season arrived. The liens piled up: $144,000 in 1998, $105,000 in 2000, $205,000 in 2001 and so on....

West, now on his fifth wife, says he’s earning about $115,000 a year today at Union Theological Seminary, which also provides him with free housing. Delivering speeches and teaching on Masterclass helped boost his income to about $500,000 in 2022, he thinks. Still, he says paying off old debt eats up most of his income: “Things are always so tight for me.”

His latest act of financial recklessness: Running for president. West is on sabbatical from Union Theological Seminary now, which allows him to continue collecting a paycheck. But the sabbatical will end next year, likely before his campaign does, so West expects to have to transition to an unpaid leave of absence.

All told, West’s current net worth appears to be close to zero. He has about $225,000 of equity in his home in Princeton, New Jersey, which he co-owns with the university. And his retirement savings fund is worth $280,000. That equity outweighs his $465,000 in outstanding tax liens, but only by $40,000, leaving West little breathing room if other debts pop up.
Robert Kennedy Jr. is a lunatic, but he has a household net worth of $15 million, in addition to many rich friends and supporters, particularly in the tech industry and Hollywood. (He also has quite a few Republican backers.) RFK Jr. raised $8.7 million in the third quarter, and a Kennedy-affiliated super PAC raised $11.3 million in the days following his announcement that he intended to run for president as an independent. Forbes tells us that West raised only $250,000 in the third quarter.

West abandoned two political parties in the four months following the announcement of his candidacy -- first the People's Party, which he left after eleven days, then the Green Party. He now needs to get himself onto state ballots, with little money, no party infrastructure, and not much infrastructure of his own. NBC reports:
West has only about 10 staffers (his wife helps handle media requests). He has conducted no internal polling. He has held only one public campaign rally. His bank balance is two digits shorter than those of his rivals — he's raised hundreds of thousands so far while others have brought in tens of millions. And he’s sworn off outside help from a super PAC which could have helped make up the difference.
So we're looking at Kanye West 2.0. Ye's 2020 presidential campaign qualified for ballot access in only 12 states, none of them swing states, and he received 67,906 votes, or 0.04% of the vote.

Ye was a billionaire at the time. Cornel West ... isn't a billionaire. He might not have mental problems as severe as Ye's, but he's not a careful steward of his own life. Unless he latches on to (or returns to) an actual political party, I predict he'll be a non-factor in 2024. He won't even be Ralph Nader (though Jill Stein next year might be Jill Stein).

Friday, December 01, 2023


There's a lot going on today -- George Santos has been expelled from the House, Sandra Day O'Connor has died, The New York Times has published a report asserting that Israeli officials knew about Hamas's October 7 attack plan well in advance and were warned in July by a female signals intelligence analyst that Hamas soldiers were conducting training exercises that matched the attack plan. (I'm sufficiently familiar with women's frequent complaints about workplace disrespect to wonder whether this warning would have been taken more seriously if the sigint analyst were a man, though that's just speculation on my part.)

But I want to talk about Catherine Rampell's latest Washington Post column, which I don't expect to get a lot of attention.

Rampell points out that Donald Trump isn't the only Republican candidate who wants to fire large numbers of career civil servants in the federal government if elected president. It's no surprise that Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy want to do this -- but until I read Rampell's column, I didn't realize that that nice Nikki Haley wants to do it too:
... Haley, who’s supposed to be the grown-up, “moderate” alternative to these histrionic boys, has offered her own more genteel-sounding version of the proposal. She has pledged to impose a “term limit” on all civil servants, so that every public worker would be fired after a maximum of five years.

Not just elected officials in Congress or the Senate. Everyone in federal government.

This sounds like a clever idea until you think about it for, oh, two seconds. It means we’d have to purge and replace every single air traffic controller every five years. Also all the nuclear physicists working for the Energy Department and rocket scientists at NASA, whose depth of expertise can’t easily be recreated on a five-year deadline.

Add to this list food-safety inspectors, who assess sanitary conditions at slaughterhouses. Statisticians who tabulate labor-market data. Epidemiologists who track outbreaks. Arabic and Farsi speakers throughout our intelligence services.
If Haley were to be elected president -- or, far more likely, were to sign on as Trump's running mate and then be elevated to the presidency because Trump could no longer serve -- I don't believe she'd put term limits on every federal employee. She'd probably leave the air traffic controllers and (most) scientists alone. Her focus would be on federal employees who do the work Republicans don't want done: regulating business, collecting rich people's taxes, ensuring that the country has clean air and clean water. Republican presidents have traditionally sabotaged agencies focused on these goals through a practice known as "regulatory capture" -- choosing agency heads who've worked for the industries they're supposed to regulate. This would be an expanded form of regulatory capture, because there wouldn't be any underlings dedicated to the intended goals of these agencies. There'd just be opponents of regulation all the way down.

Oh, and Rampell tells us that Haley has another totally moderate idea:
Haley wants to have Congress vote on every federal rule and regulation. Once again, this has the gloss of thoughtfulness, until you do the briefest of homework about its likely consequences.

Congress ... can barely get its act together to keep the lights on. Do you really want to require lawmakers to vote on every bit of minutiae usually left to subject-matter experts, such as aviation safety standards or the technical specs for mammography equipment? There are thousands of these rules issued each year.
Many of these ideas come are part of the Heritage Foundation's Project 2025. Today, Axios reports that Haley is very much aware of this plan:
We're told Project 2025 officials have briefed the Republican campaigns of Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Halley and Vivek Ramaswamy — and even the independent campaign of Robert Kennedy Jr.
This is why the Koch network endorsed Haley. It's why Jamie Dimon wants Democrats to rally around her.

I'm not persuaded that Trump as president will remake America as thoroughly as pessimists like Robert Kagan fear -- I think he'll be too focused on ending his own legal troubles and exacting revenge on individual enemies. But while Haley probably won't suspend elections or throw politcal enemies in prison, she might finish the GOP project of repealing the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Progressive Era. She's not a moderate, and we shouldn't feel reassured if she agrees to run with Trump.

Thursday, November 30, 2023


Henry Kissinger died yesterday at the age of 100. If you want to know why Kissinger was hated by so many people, read Spencer Ackerman's comprehensive and merciless Rolling Stone obituary, "Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies" (paywalled, but you should be able to read it if you open it in a private or incognito window).

I can't add much to that piece. Kissinger was a monster, and the world is a better place without him. What I can tell you is that he could be a bad person in small as well as large ways. You should focus on the outsize acts of evil for which he was responsible, but in addition to those, the bastard once publicly lied about me and my work colleagues, inventing a work error on our part to avoid taking responsibility for a scholarly error of his own.

In the early 1990s I was working at Simon & Schuster, and I oversaw the copyediting and proofreading of a Kissinger book titled Diplomacy. Ernest R. May, a Harvard historian, wrote about the book in The New York Times Book Review. May noted some sloppy scholarship on Kissinger's part:
"Diplomacy" makes the types of mistakes for which students fail to get pass degrees in history.... it describes the Hossbach memorandum of November 1937 as recording Hitler's avowal of plans for wars of conquest before "an assemblage of almost all of Germany's general officers."
In fact,
... the Hossbach memorandum ... recorded a meeting involving only seven people: Hitler himself, Col. Friedrich Hossbach (who took the notes), the foreign minister, the war minister and the commanders in chief of the army, air force and navy. Not even the chief of staff of the army was officially informed. These facts are doubly significant because many German generals later denied knowing Hitler's intentions. Their protestations smoothed Germany's cold-war rearmament. While scholarly research has since established that many generals actually knew more than they admitted, Mr. Kissinger's mistaken description of the Hossbach memorandum blurs understanding not only of the Third Reich but also of the German Federal Republic.
Kissinger fired off a long letter to the Book Review taking issue with this and other aspects of May's piece; it was published three weeks later. On the subject of the Hossbach memorandum, Kissinger threw low-level Simon & Schuster workers -- my colleagues and me -- under the bus:
Professor May correctly points out that the phrase that Hitler revealed his plans to "almost all of Germany's general officers" is inaccurate. In fact -- as my own research showed -- only top general officers representing the German High Command were present. In the final stages of copy-editing, the word "top" was inadvertently dropped from before "general officers."
That was a lie.

Kissinger's original manuscript didn't include the word "top" in this sentence, and he never added it, despite having more than one opportunity to do so. I made photocopies of these documents -- the work at the time was all done on paper -- and I still have them. Here's that sentence in Kissinger's manuscript, with the copy editor's handwritten changes:

Here's the sentence in the first round of proofs, in which Kissinger's changes were entered by hand. He didn't add the word "top."

Nor did he add "top" in the second round of page proofs, which he also reviewed:

Kissinger's lie about this is a tiny immorality compared to the monstrous deeds he's known for. But it's the pure pettiness that offends me three decades later. Diplomacy was a 912-page book. Kissinger could have acknowledged his own mistake -- errors are inevitable in a work of that length. But his ego wouldn't allow him to do that, so he blamed the help.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023


First, this happened:
An influential super PAC backed by the Koch brothers announced it is endorsing Nikki Haley in the 2024 presidential primary....

In a memo released on Tuesday morning, Americans for Prosperity Action said it planned to commit its extensive grassroots organization to helping Haley, and it will launch mail and television advertising campaigns to boost their on-the-ground efforts. Over the summer, the group announced it would plug up to $70 million into political races this year. It is the first time the group has weighed in during a presidential primary.
And now we have this:
Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in an interview Wednesday that he would advise former President Trump pick 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley as his running mate.

During the New York Times’s DealBook Summit, Andrew Ross Sorkin asked McCarthy who the “right person” would be for Trump to pick as his vice president among Haley, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), and 2024 GOP presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)....

“Now if I was picking for purely political decisions, what it looks like today is the anti-Trump vote is going to Nikki Haley,” [McCarthy said]....

McCarthy said that is why he would select the person who could convince those voters to support the Trump ticket, saying, “if that person is with you, maybe they’d be with you too.”
I don't think the Koch endorsement will do any good -- Haley is far behind Trump in the polls, even in Iowa, New Hampshire, and her home state of South Carolina. Ron DeSantis won't drop out before Iowa. Chris Christie won't drop out before New Hampshire. The anti-Trump vote will continue to be split, and it's not that large to begin with. So Haley can't win the nomination. I know that Koch and his allies are rich businessmen who find it inconceivable that the world might not give them exactly they want every time they want something, but if they want Trump to lose this nomination, they've probably blown it.

Yet perhaps the Koch endorsement is just part of the plan. McCarthy might be sending a GOP establishment signal to Haley that she really should consider accepting the #2 slot from the man who now calls her "Birdbrain" -- and to Trump that he can improve his chances of winning if he picks her. (Sad to say, that's probably true. Haley is becoming a new Liz Cheney -- a bog-standard Republican who's respected and even admired by some Democratic voters.)

I'm sure the Kochites sincerely believe that their candidate might upset Trump in the primaries. But as a Plan B, they may be hoping to elect a safe, biddable GOP vice president, in the hope that she'll take over if Trump's felony cases lead to a conviction.

We assume that a reelected Trump will quickly put together a Justice Department that will dismiss all the federal charges he faces, and maybe even declare that he can't be tried or convicted on state charges as long as he's president. But what if this is taken to court and the Republicans on the federal bench -- all the way up to the Supreme Court -- rule that he can't clear his name that way, precisely because they and their billionaire patrons would vastly prefer a President Haley to a President Trump? In other words, what if the plan is to put her in place and let the Supreme Court depose him in favor of her?

Trump is a stupid man, but I think he's an idiot savant in matters like this. I think he'll pick someone like Kristi Noem as his running mate because she doesn't seem as ambitious as Haley (or Ron DeSantis, or Vivek Ramaswamy) -- and also because he might actually recognize that the GOP establishment trusts Haley and would be happy to see him go if she's the VP. Maybe he'd even run with Marjorie Taylor Greene, recognizing that no Kochite wants her as president.

I don't know how this will play out. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023


Matt Gertz of Media Matters reports:
Major news outlets devoted dramatically less coverage to former President Donald Trump describing his political enemies as “vermin” earlier this month than they provided then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” remark in the week following those respective comments.

According to a Media Matters review:
* The Big Three broadcast TV networks provided 18 times more coverage of Clinton’s 2016 “deplorables” comment than Trump’s “vermin” remark on their combined nationally syndicated morning news, evening news, and Sunday morning political talk shows.

* CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC mentioned Clinton’s “deplorables” comment nearly 9 times more than Trump’s “vermin” comment.

* Print reports that mentioned Trump’s statement outnumbered those that mentioned Clinton’s 29-to-1 across the five highest-circulating U.S. newspapers.
There are obvious explanations for this: The "liberal media" isn't liberal. After years of insults, Trump is considered "colorful," not malicious or dangerous. Coverage of politics, in the words of Jay Rosen, focuses on the odds (of a particular candidate winning), not the stakes (for America).

But there's another reason Trump's words -- his promise to “root out the communist, Marxist, fascist and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country” -- went underreported: In our political culture, we expect liberals and Democrats to be attacked, demonized, and subjected to group slander. It's commonplace, and it's been commonplace since long before Trump entered politics. But it's considered shocking when one of us attacks right-wingers or Republicans as a group.

We can trace this back to Richard Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, who called the administration's opponents an "effete corps of impudent snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativity." But the modern era of attack politics began with Ronald Reagan, whose innovation was to deliver anti-liberal and anti-Democratic insults in a gee-whizzy, folksy manner, which made them seem benign and all-American. In 1984, The New York Times told us,
The President's humor is usually directed at the Democrats, but it's gentle. He mocks but never wounds....
Here's a beloved Reagan joke:
But I remember the story about a fella who was running for office as a Republican. And he was in a rural area that wasn’t known to be a Republican area and he stopped by a farm to do some campaigning.

And when the farmer heard he was a Republican his jaw dropped and he said wait right here while I go get Ma. She’s never seen a Republican before. So he got her. And the candidate looked around for a podium from which to give his speech.

And the only thing he could find was a pile of that stuff that Bess Truman took 35 years trying to get Harry to call fertilizer. So, he got up on the mound and when they came back he gave his speech.

And at the end of it the farmer said that is the first time I’ve ever heard a Republican speech. And the candidate said that’s the first time I’ve ever given a Republican speech from a Democratic platform.
Get it? Get it? It's funny because the Democratic platform is literally shit.

After Reagan left office, others on the right refined his methods, in angrier and cruder ways: Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, ran a successful scorched-earth campaign against Michael Dukakis. Rush Limbaugh attacked "feminazis" and other supposed enemies of common decency and good sense. Campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein crafted ads for Republican candidates that attacked Democrats as, in the words of one political scientist, "ultraliberal, superliberal, embarrassingly liberal, foolishly liberal and unbelievably liberal.” Newt Gingrich's political action committee recommended insulting Democrats and liberals with words such as "anti-child," "anti-flag," "bizarre," "pathetic," "radical," and "traitors." And then there was Fox News, and there was the Drudge Report, and Breitbart and Newsmax and World Net Daily and Infowars. There was the Tea Party. And then there was Trump.

For years, Democrats have taken abuse and the political culture hasn't reacted with disgust. It's normal now. It's not considered normal when Democrats return fire. That's the state of play in 2023, and we shouldn't be surprised when Trump and his speechwriters take full advantage of it.

Monday, November 27, 2023


Rolling Stone reporters Tessa Stuart and Asawin Suebsaeng think this is self-evidently absurd:
The man who essentially ended the federal right to abortion thinks that he can now run for president in 2024 as a “moderate” on the issue....

According to ... two sources and other Trump allies and aides familiar with the situation, Trump and his team are looking past the primary towards a general-election fight against President Joe Biden — and they think they can somehow run the former president as a supposed “moderate” (as three sources put it) on abortion....
Democratic operatives, of course, assume that most Americans know Trump's position on reproductive rights in granular detail (because all the people the operatives know presumably do). I think many Americans, including some who don't pay a lot of attention to politics, know that Trump appointed the justices who make up the Supreme Court's anti-abortion supermajority and have strong opinions about that. But I wouldn't assume that everyone knows it.
“It’s a complete joke,” says Pat Dennis, president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century....

“It defies reality that Donald Trump and his advisers are greenlighting ads touting Trump’s role in killing Roe v Wade while millions of women in 21 states live every single day under laws severely restricting abortion access — and somehow simultaneously they have a strategy to moderate his position on the same issue?” Biden campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “No one is buying that, and it obviously won’t work. Donald Trump spent his first term laser focused on ripping away a fundamental freedom from millions of women and he did it — and now he will live with the consequences next November.”
We live in a country where Republicans like Liz Cheney (who voted with then-President Trump 92.9% of the time) and Adam Kinzinger (who voted with Trump 90.2% of the time) can be called "moderates" for a few key moments of anti-GOP apostasy, even while they cling to very Republican policy positions. So Trump doesn't support a national abortion ban. People who spend a lot of time thinking about reproductive rights -- including many people who aren't otherwise very political -- know that this doesn't make up for Trump's judicial appointments. But the rest of the public needs to be reminded of Trump's abortion policies repeatedly -- especially in his own words:

We can trust the Biden camapign to run ads in which he boasts about getting Roe overturned -- can't we? We can, right? And we'll hear this relentlessly throughout the general election campaign. Won't we?

I think it'll happen -- spreading that message is such an obvious thing for the Biden campaign to do. But in addition, I hope the press asks Trump whether he'd sign a national abortion ban if a bill reached his desk. I want him to say no and lose some anti-abortion absolutist voters, or say yes and lose some of the voters he wants to impress with his "moderation." And I want him asked whether he'd ever appoint a pro-choice judge to the federal bench. Again, either way he answers could lose him votes.

But Trump isn't crazy to think he can get away with calling himself a moderate on this issue. We have such a low bar for Republicans who want to be called moderates.