Another Answer To “What’s WRONG With These People?”

A lot of them are ignorant.

At least, if a recent report from the (admittedly leftish) New Republic is at all accurate. That article looked at the GOP crazies’ enthusiasm for a government shutdown, and found that–in addition to their antipathy to government in general–several of them appear convinced that a government shutdown would prevent the prosecutions of Donald Trump from continuing.

If this is really one of the motives for our current dysfunction, it rests on a misconception.

A government shutdown would not end the four Trump prosecutions! Two of them, of course, are being undertaken at the state level, in New York and Georgia, so Congress has no power over those at all. And the two federal ones, both led by Jack Smith, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Florida, are protected from any shutdown. In the past, reports NBC News, federal criminal matters have been exempted from government shutdowns. A Justice Department memo from 2021—long before Trump was indicted anywhere, so presumably written not with him specifically in mind—states that in the event of a shutdown, “criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property.”

It’s hard to believe that people elected to the Congress of the United States are so ignorant of the rules promulgated by that government, but there is massive evidence that several of them really are that clueless. Marjorie Taylor Green comes to mind…. and how many times have you watched a political advertisement in which a candidate promises to do something that is either patently illegal or–as a practical matter– impossible? I always wonder whether the candidate really believes s/he can accomplish whatever it is, or whether (more likely) s/he thinks voters are too ignorant to know better.

That said, according to the linked article, most elected officials do know better.

Very few of them believe this garbage. As Mitt Romney told McKay Coppins recently, GOP senators regularly criticized Trump behind his back and once “burst into laughter” after he left the room. The House is more extreme than the Senate, so maybe a dozen of them really believe Trump’s narrative. But most don’t. And yet they say it and say it and say it, with conviction.

The only thing that explains the culture warriors who aren’t acting out of ignorance or stupidity is venality. Only a dishonest calculus can account for their public pronouncements: If pandering to a crazed base–a cult–is what it will take to avoid a primary challenge from the even-loonier Right, then that pandering will take priority over both personal integrity and the clear interests of the American public. There’s no bottom to their cupidity and self-interest.

Representative Andy Clyde—the guy who called January 6 a “normal tourist visit”—is seeking to add amendments to the appropriations bill to remove all federal funding from all three prosecutors (Smith, Fani Willis, and Alvin Bragg). Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene want to defund Smith. And Jim Jordan (of course) wants legislation dictating that the department can’t spend money on “politically sensitive” investigations.

Can these people possibly get more corrupt? (Don’t answer that.) But this is what happens when reality is turned on its head. Trump has created a “reality” that is the direct opposite of real reality. In real reality, ample evidence exists to suggest that Trump committed serious crimes, and he tried, right in front of our eyes, to lead a violent coup against the United States. But in Trump reality, it’s all McCarthyism.

The past few weeks have demonstrated just how little today’s Republican Party cares about governance or the American people. The GOP House members have vacillated between paralysis in the face of events requiring crucial decision-making, and toyed with installing a legislative terrorist as Speaker.

The last paragraph summed up our situation:

And let’s remember the bigger picture with respect to democracy. When one of two political parties is led by people who either (a) genuinely believe a fascist interpretation of reality or (b) don’t, but pretend to out of fear of a strongman and his well-armed followers … well, if that party takes power, democracy is kaput. We’ll find out soon enough how much of the country cares.

We will indeed.


Tom Nichols Says It Best

I try never to miss an article or book by Tom Nichols, who writes for the Atlantic. He has a way of distilling observations into pithy statements that resonate with me (Probably because I agree with them…) A recent essay was particularly “on point.”

Nichols was addressing the situation in Congress, a situation that–sorry for my language–can only be considered a complete and utter shit-show. He began by dismissing the punditry’s seeming belief that the chaos and egomania on display are a betrayal of the Republican voters who voted for these buffoons.

The ongoing drama over electing a speaker of the House is not about governance. It’s about giving Republican voters the drama-filled reality show they voted for and want to see—even at the expense of the country.

Evidence supporting this view is abundant here in Red Indiana, where voters have returned culture warriors like Jim Banks to the House. Banks has enthusiastically supported Jordan, and is one of the many un-productive, anti-“woke,” theocratic and anti-woman fringe characters so beloved by the GOP base. He’s not the only one, but he is one of the worst.

Nichols takes a hard look at the current hard-to-believe debacle that is the Republican caucus:

Like many Americans, I have been both fascinated and horrified by the inability of the Republican majority to elect a new speaker of the House. I admit to watching the votes like I’m rubbernecking at a car wreck, but perhaps that’s not a good analogy, because I at least feel pity for the victims of a traffic accident. What’s happening in the House is more like watching a group of obnoxious (and not very bright) hot-rodders playing chicken and smashing their cars into one another over and over.

As I watch all of this Republican infighting, I wonder, as I often do, about GOP voters. What is it that they think will happen if Jim Jordan becomes speaker? Jordan has been in Congress for 16 years, and he has almost nothing to show for it. He’s never originated any successful legislation, never whipped votes, never accomplished anything except for appearing on Fox and serving up rancid red meat to his Ohio constituents and MAGA allies.

And therefore, as speaker, he would … what? Order up more impeachments, perhaps of Biden-administration officials? Shut down the government? Pound the gavel and prattle on for hours in his never-take-a-breath style? (Jordan’s the kind of guy who probably would have interrupted the Sermon on the Mount.) Perhaps from a position of greater power, he could more effectively assist Donald Trump in undermining yet another election in 2024.

If the continuation of this governance nightmare seems incredible, Nichols points out that it is the consequence of the GOP’s devolution into a White Christian Nationalist cult focused exclusively upon performative signaling and utterly uninterested in governing.

The disorder in the GOP caucus is not some accident or glitch triggered by a handful of reprobates, but rather a direct result of choices by voters. The House is a mess because enough Republican voters want it to be a mess.

This accusation might seem unfair: Jordan is just one member from a super-red (and blatantly gerrymandered) district, and many of his Republican colleagues are furious about this humiliating bungle. But right-wing voters have shown no inclination to punish people such as Matt Gaetz and other political vandals; indeed, Gaetz and his like-minded colleagues are rapidly becoming folk heroes in the Republican Party.

Nichols admits that it isn’t much consolation to recognize that Republicans like Jordan and Banks are doing what their voters want them to do, which is presumably bring government to a halt. After all,  their antics endanger us all.

But to treat the GOP as merely dysfunctional is worse than a distraction; it is a fundamental error that offers the false hope that a mature and governing majority is somehow within reach, if only Jordan or Gaetz would get out of the way….

The twists and turns of the Trump years, in which many elected Republicans became big spenders, critics of law enforcement, and apologists for the Kremlin, illustrated that MAGA voters have almost no interest in anything like conservatism, or even in coherent policy. Instead, they want to indulge resentments and grievances that have little to do with government and everything to do with boredom and dissatisfaction in their own lives. A few years ago, I wrote a book about how such voters project that anger and sourness onto everything around them. Their ennui spurs their desire to see chaos, so they argue that the existing order needs to be shaken up, or burned down, or defunded.

Republican voters want entertainment, not governance.

Send in the clowns? Don’t bother–they’re here.


A Legislative Terrorist

As you all know, I am on a cruise, writing these posts from a spot on the Pacific Ocean. I’m currently six hours earlier than those on Eastern time, and thanks to the time difference and intermittent problems with Internet access, my grasp of the news is hit-or-miss. I’ve been following the incredible chaos playing out on the floor of the House of Representatives with what can only be called a feeling of unreality.

Evidently, Jim Jordan just lost his second attempt to be elected Speaker.

Jordan is easily one of the most despicable individuals ever to hold political office–and certainly one of the least able, least ethical, least accomplished people ever to be nominated as a leader of the legislative body. If successful, he would be third in line for the Presidency–a thought that makes me want to hurl.

Representative Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from California, really summed up the insanity of nominating someone like Jordan for Speaker. Aguilar began his brief talk by nominating Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (who garnered more votes than Jordan), and blaming extremism and partisanship for the unprecedented chaos of the House. He urged  Republicans to “embrace bipartisanship to do the work the American people had sent them to Washington, D.C., to conduct,” an exhortation he must have known would fall on deaf ears.

Aguilar went on to point out that Jordan is the “architect of a nationwide abortion ban, a vocal election denier, and an insurrection inciter.”

He has “spent his entire career trying to hold our country back, putting our national security in danger, attempting government shutdown after government shutdown, wasting taxpayer dollars on baseless investigations with dead ends, authoring the very bill that would ban abortion nationwide without exceptions, and inciting violence on this chamber. Even leaders of his own party have called him ‘a legislative terrorist.’

Aguilar pointed to Jordan’s opposition to disaster relief, veterans’ relief, support for Ukraine, and military aid to our allies, including Israel, and added: “This body is debating elevating a speaker nominee who has not passed a single bill in 16 years. These are not the actions of someone interested in governing or bettering the lives of everyday Americans.” Jordan as speaker would mean the Republican Party would “continue taking marching orders from a twice-impeached former president with more than 90 pending felony charges.”

Aguilar’s litany was entirely accurate. (It was also incomplete–he omitted the scandal of Jordan’s coaching days, when he closed his eyes to the sexual abuse of his young athletes.)

What boggles the mind is that 200 House Republicans would ever vote to put someone accurately labeled a “legislative terrorist”–someone described by John Bohner as a destroyer, not a builder– in charge of anything, especially an American lawmaking body.

Sinclair Lewis warned us: it can happen here.

Thomas Edsall recently devoted a column to the state of American democracy, and included a quote from Liliana Mason that goes a long way toward explaining the otherwise inexplicable:

The election of Trump is the culmination of a process by which the American electorate has become deeply socially divided along partisan lines. As the parties have grown racially, religiously, and socially distant from one another, a new kind of social discord has been growing. The increasing political divide has allowed political, public, electoral, and national norms to be broken with little to no consequence. The norms of racial, religious, and cultural respect have deteriorated. Partisan battles have helped organize Americans’ distrust for “the other” in politically powerful ways. In this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of “us versus them” and “winning versus losing” is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party.

We have evidently devolved as a nation into very strong, opposing tribal identities –in one of which racism plays a prominent role–and we now elect “lawmakers” who privilege their tribe’s “winning” over anything remotely resembling the common good. 

Edsall also quoted Levitsky and Ziblatt, authors of a recent book on the perilous state of American democracy:

By 2016, America was on the brink of a genuinely multiracial democracy — one that could serve as a model for diverse societies across the world. But just as this new democratic experiment was beginning to take root, America experienced an authoritarian backlash so fierce that it shook the foundations of the republic, leaving our allies across the world worried about whether the country had any democratic future at all.

The results of the current effort to install a Speaker will be a clue……


Diagnosis And Prescription

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, David French shared his theory that the recent, astonishing number of sign-ups to Meta’s Threads occurred–at least in part– “because Elon Musk did to Twitter what Donald Trump did to America.”

Not that Twitter was so great before Musk acquired it–as French quite accurately notes,  understanding what Musk did to Twitter doesn’t require an exaggeration of Twitter’s virtues before Musk, “any more than we should exaggerate the health of our body politic before Trump.”

Even before Musk, Twitter had become a toxic force in American culture, so toxic that I wrote last year it might be beyond repair. The site lurched from outrage to outrage, and the constant drumbeat of anger and crisis was bad for the soul.
So, yes, when Musk purchased Twitter, it needed help. Instead, he made it worse. Much worse.

For all of Twitter’s many flaws, it was still by far the best social media app for following breaking news, especially if you knew which accounts to follow. It was also the best app for seeing the thoughts of journalists, politicians and scholars in real time, sometimes to our detriment. It wasn’t the American town square — there are still many places where we talk to one another — but it was one of our town squares. Twitter mattered.

French enumerates the numerous decisions that have made the platform much worse–decisions that rather clearly rested on Musk’s flawed understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.

French’s essay makes a point that is applicable not just to the marketing of a social media platform, but to policy–and for that matter, human decision-making–more generally. As he says,

The new right’s theory of culture and power is fundamentally flawed, and both Trump and Musk are now cautionary tales for any conservatives who are willing to learn.

According to French,

The new right’s theory of power is based on a model of domination and imposition, and it just doesn’t work. In the new right’s telling, the story of contemporary American culture is the story of progressive elite capture of the nation’s most important institutions — from the academy to big business to pop culture to the “deep state” — followed by its remorseless use of that institutional power to warp and distort American values.

And what’s the new right’s response to its theory of the left’s use of power? Fight fire with fire. Take over institutions. They tried to cancel us? Cancel them. They bullied us? Bully them.

The “cautionary tale” to which French alludes is actually pretty simple: in order to fix a problem, you need to diagnose it properly. Medical personnel understand that–duh!– if the disease being treated isn’t the disease from which you’re suffering, you won’t be cured. If a social dysfunction is rooted in X and policymakers insist upon addressing it by attacking Y, the likely result will just be additional dysfunction.

That axiom is simple, but of course, its application can be complicated. The actual roots of many social problems are complex. That said, a significant cause of America’s political divisions can be found in the wildly different diagnoses of the country’s problems offered by the GOP cult and by more thoughtful Americans.

The cult is convinced that America’s problems are rooted in a modernity that has discarded “tradition,” by which they mean the dominance of White Christian males. The cult’s frantic efforts to outlaw abortion and its attacks on efforts to increase diversity, inclusion and equity grow out of that diagnosis. The most recent example: House amendments to the bill funding the military– funding that passed only after the far Right attached provisions limiting abortion rights, gender transition procedures and diversity training in the armed forces.

When a diagnosis–an explanation of causation–is rooted in fantasy, the medicine prescribed is likely to make the condition worse. Gun violence won’t be ameliorated by making more guns available to “good guys;” the working poor won’t be helped by reducing taxes on presumed “job creators;” history won’t disappear if we pass laws against teaching it…

What happens when a sizable portion of the polity misdiagnoses reality–when the “medicine” imposed by people in power is exactly the wrong prescription? We’ve seen the result. As French put it, a government that needed reform “encountered a politician who broke far more than he built. A social media platform that needed repair was purchased by its most prominent troll. The results were predictable.”

We inhabit a complicated world. It isn’t always easy to locate the roots of our problems–but government by people whose diagnoses and prescriptions are  reliably simple and just as reliably wrong won’t cure what ails us.


Reptiles And Invertibrates

America is about to embark on two years of legislative chaos–introduced by the embarrassing spectacle of Kevin McCarthy’s total surrender to the craziest MAGA members of the Republican caucus. His eventual “victory”–if you can call securing a title via total emasculation a victory–was facilitated by the remaining caucus members who were too spineless and/or venal to object.

One of the best descriptions of the House Republicans came from Bret Stephens, in his weekly back and forth with Gail Collins in the New York Times.

A few honorable exceptions aside, the G.O.P. is basically split between reptiles and invertebrates. McCarthy is the ultimate invertebrate. He went to Mar-a-Lago just a short while after Jan. 6 to kiss the ring of the guy who incited the mob that, by McCarthy’s own admission, wanted to kill him. He hated Liz Cheney because of her backbone. But he quailed before Marjorie Taylor Greene because she has a forked tongue. He gave away the powers and prerogatives of the office of speaker in order to gain the office, which is like a slug abandoning its shell and thinking it won’t be stepped on. A better man would have told the Freedom Caucus holdouts to shove it. Instead, as a friend of mine put it, McCarthy decided to become the squeaker of the House.

Among McCarthy’s numerous concessions were promises to put some of the most prominent members of the lunatic caucus in charge of committees and “investigations.” It’s hard to choose the most appalling. Jim Jordan at Judiciary is certainly a contender, but for sheer shamelessness, Scott Perry is hard to beat.

Rep. Scott Perry said that being under investigation shouldn’t disqualify him from taking part in any examination of federal investigators conducted by newly empowered House Republicans.

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” the Pennsylvania Republican said: “Why should I be limited, why should anybody be limited, just because someone has made an accusation? Everybody in America is innocent until proven otherwise. I would say this, the American people are really, really tired of the persecution and instruments of federal power being used against them.”

Perry pooh-poohed the notion that allowing him to investigate the investigators poses a conflict of interest, suggesting that all elected officials get accused of things, and implying that accusations against him fall within the “it’s just politics” category. As the linked article notes, however,

Perry, the head of the House Freedom Caucus, has been under investigation in relation to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots and other efforts to keep former President Donald Trump in office after he lost the 2020 election; the House select committee on Jan. 6 referred Perry for a review by the House Ethics Committee. His phone has been seized by the Justice Department.

He doesn’t have to worry about the House Ethics Committee–the GOP intends to abolish it.

Following the 15 votes that finally installed McCarthy,and his merry band of reptiles and invertebrates, Jennifer Rubin reflected on the evening’s speeches, observing that “Jeffries governs in poetry, Biden in grace — and the GOP in thuggishness.”

After quoting from Hakeem Jeffries lyrical speech (if you haven’t listened to it, you really should–it was inspiring), Rubin wrote:

All the more impressive for speaking without notes or a teleprompter, Jeffries set a tone for Democrats that was both contemporary and high-minded, fun and sophisticated. With the cadence of a preacher and erudite vocabulary of a professor, he perfectly encapsulated the difference between his party’s optimism and accomplishment and his opponents’ bitterness even in victory.

As she said, in a Congress that is likely to see very little legislating thanks to an unhinged and chaotic majority, Jeffries filled the void with inspirational words and a values-based message.

As Rubin notes, there is an enormous difference  between the very human and compassionate vision consistently displayed by President Biden and now echoed by Hakeem Jeffries and that of today’s Republican Party.

Violence (whether inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023) and toxic masculinity seem to be endemic to a party that scorns the police who defended them two years ago and minimizes the brutality of the mob.

This is a crowd that delights in mocking the vulnerable and bullying the defenseless, persecuting refugees, elevating their selfish aims over the needs of others and fanning bitterness and vengefulness….

The Republican Party aim is to define America as a White Christian nation, bolstered by an apocalyptic fear of the Great Replacement conspiracy and a perpetual sense of victimhood….

One doesn’t even need to know the two parties’ policy positions to know there is a world of difference in their vision and character. Poetry and grace on one side, thuggishness and fury on the other. Americans cannot say they lack a stark choice.