The Election And Sally Bowles

Last weekend, my husband and I joined a group of supporters and staff of Indianapolis’ Cabaret Theater on a weekend trip to New York. It was the first time we’d participated in these annual outings to Broadway to enjoy musical theater. This year, the entire group had tickets to the revival of “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club.” Participants could choose from a wide variety of other shows as well, but the Cabaret revival was the common denominator.

Most Americans are familiar with previous iterations of Cabaret, but I will readily admit that this particular production had a new and concerning resonance for me.

It had been at least eight years since my husband and I had been in Manhattan, and several things seemed different on this particular trip. On a personal note, I was struck–and impressed–by how much cleaner Midtown was, and how kind and helpful people were. My husband has mobility issues that require the use of a mobility scooter, and doormen, restaurant personnel, theater ushers–even people on the streets– were unfailingly solicitous and helpful. These are not, I will note, adjectives I might have used to describe such folks on past visits.

As we braved the crowds on the streets in the theater district, it also occurred to me that the faces I encountered were the faces that upset and enrage the predominantly rural folks who make up the bulk of the MAGA movement. Native or tourist, the people we passed reflected a cosmopolitan universe: young people with purple hair on bikes or scooters, Black, brown and White men and women talking on their phones, women with hijabs, Hasidic men with fur hats… the wildly diverse America that MAGA does not want to recognize.

What really made an impression on me, however, was the performance of Cabaret. The music and staging of this particular revival were exceptional, but what really gave me chills were the similarities between Germany just before the Nazis assumed power and the United States poised on the brink of November’s election.

Let me be clear: I’m not referring to the cruelty of the Nazi assault on Jewish Germans, although it was heartbreaking to see the naiveté of the Jewish character, Herr Schultz, who insisted that “this will all blow over. After all, I am as German as they are.” Those of us who know what came later are aware of the prevalence of the sad belief of so many German Jews that it “couldn’t happen” in such a civilized, culturally-advanced country.

No, the character who summed up the nature of the real threat–then and now–was Sally Bowles, who insisted to her lover Cliff that “politics has nothing to do with us.”

Sally wasn’t the only character to dismiss so-called “political differences” as irrelevant to the lives people live. The young operative who had befriended Sally’s lover was astonished when the swastika on his armband made Cliff recoil (after all, that’s just politics, and we’re friends). But it was Sally’s utter incomprehension about why national politics should matter to her at all–why the events consuming Berlin should cause her to rethink a return to performing at the Kit Kat Club–that forced me to consider the millions of Americans who simply go about their daily lives without paying any attention to the national news or the daily revelations about the plans being made for a second Trump term.

It’s a political truth that most Americans pay little or no attention to national political campaigns until after Labor Day. (Until the expenditure of truly obscene amounts of money on electronic ads in the primaries, primary elections were low-key events interesting mostly to party insiders.)

That disengagement from politics may have been harmless when America’s two major political parties shared a basic understanding of their responsibilities–when their disputes were primarily about how to go about achieving broadly agreed-upon goals. But–just as in the Germany of Cabaret’s time–that is no longer the case. MAGA Republicans, aka Christian Nationalists, want to utterly transform what it means to be an American, just as Hitler’s Nazis wanted to redefine what it meant to be a German.

We’ve seen this play before. We know how it comes out–and how many innocent people were sacrificed to its madness.

I have repeatedly posted about the importance of turnout in the upcoming election. Unless the millions of Americans who are America’s version of Sally Bowles wake up to the fact that their lives and the lives of their children will be irreparably altered if Trump and his ilk win, America in 2024 will repeat the tragedy of 1929-30 Germany.

It could happen here.


It’s We, The People

Robert Kagan recently published a lengthy excerpt from his recent book  “Rebellion: How Antiliberalism is Tearing America Apart — Again” in the Washington Post.

In it, he dismissed a variety of explanations for the MAGA embrace of Trump–discarding arguments that the movement is a result of rapidly changing technology, widening inequality, unsuccessful foreign policies or unrest on university campuses. Instead, he pinned it on failures of We the People.

It is what the Founders worried about and Abraham Lincoln warned about: a decline in what they called public virtue. They feared it would be hard to sustain popular support for the revolutionary liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence, and they worried that the virtuous love of liberty and equality would in time give way to narrow, selfish interest. Although James Madison and his colleagues hoped to establish a government on the solid foundation of self-interest, even Madison acknowledged that no government by the people could be sustained if the people themselves did not have sufficient dedication to the liberal ideals of the Declaration. The people had to love liberty, not just for themselves but as an abstract ideal for all humans.

Kagan worries that too many of us no longer care about preserving the system the Founders bequeathed us–a system based on the principles of universal equality and natural rights. Preserving that system, he says, “plain and simple, is what this election is about.”

“A republic if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin allegedly said of the government created by the Constitutional Convention in 1787. This is the year we may choose not to keep it.

Kagan follows that sentence with an extended recap of what most Americans know–about the intent of the January 6th insurrection, about Trump’s candid announcements of his goals, about the unconscionable failure of the Senate to use impeachment, the mechanism provided by the Founders, to negate the threat of further insurrection. Then he gets to the crux of his argument.

So, why will so many vote for him anyway? For a significant segment of the Republican electorate, the white-hot core of the Trump movement, it is because they want to see the system overthrown. This should not come as a shock, for it is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it is as old as the republic. Historians have written about the “liberal tradition” in America, but there has from the beginning also been an anti-liberal tradition: large numbers of Americans determined to preserve preliberal traditions, hierarchies and beliefs against the secular liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The Founders based the republic on a radical set of principles and assertions about government: that all human beings were created equal in their possession of certain “natural rights” that government was bound to respect and to safeguard. These rights did not derive from religious belief but were “self-evident.” They were not granted by the Christian God, by the crown or even by the Constitution. They were inherent in what it meant to be human.

That paragraph introduced a lengthy historical discussion in which Kagan reminded readers that MAGA is really nothing new. Throughout our history, significant numbers of Americans have rejected the classical liberal foundations of the nation’s constituent documents–and especially the notion of civic equality.

For two centuries, many White Americans have felt under siege by the Founders’ liberalism. They have been defeated in war and suppressed by threats of force, but more than that, they have been continually oppressed by a system designed by the Founders to preserve and strengthen liberalism against competing beliefs and hierarchies. Since World War II, the courts and the political system have pursued the Founders’ liberal goals with greater and greater fidelity, ending official segregation, driving religion from public schools, recognizing and defending the rights of women and minorities hitherto deprived of their “natural rights” because of religious, racial and ethnic discrimination. The hegemony of liberalism has expanded, just as Lincoln hoped it would, “constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of colors everywhere.” Anti-liberal political scientist Patrick Deneen calls it “liberal totalitarianism”….

Kagan reminds us that the fury on the Right against “wokeness” is nothing new. “Anti-liberal movements in America, whether in defense of the White race or Christianity, and more often both together, have always claimed to be suffering under the expanding hegemony of liberalism.”

There is much more, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety.

Bottom line: MAGA’s Christian Nationalism is nothing new. In November, We the People will either defend our “natural rights” or we will lose them.


Allow Me To Translate..And Pontificate

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall once again returned to the subject of political polarization, and–as is his typical approach–quoted scholars on the subject. As a former member of that tribe, I will admit that the problem with quoting academics is the occasional impenetrability of the language. (It’s not a problem limited to academia–not long after becoming Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I was counseled by a member of the national staff to stop sounding like an “ACLU lawyer.” Every career has its jargon…)

At any rate, allow me to quote–and then translate–one of the scholars who responded to Edsall:

Interventions to reduce affective polarization will be ineffective if they operate only at the individual, emotional level. Ignoring the role of polarizing politicians and political incentives to instrumentalize affective polarization for political gain will fail to generate change while enhancing cynicism when polite conversations among willing participants do not generate prodemocratic change.

In other words, polarization isn’t just a matter of individual hostility for those on the other “team.” Political leadership bears considerable responsibility for MAGA resistance to democratic norms. The polarization reflected in our everyday conversations is cultivated by political “culture warriors” like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Green and her Indiana clone, Jim Banks. As a different scholar (one evidently more comfortable with normal English usage) put it:

I don’t think any bottom-up intervention is going to solve a problem that is structural. You could reduce misperceptions for a day or two, or put diverse groups together for an hour, but these people will be polarized again as soon as they are exposed once more to campaign rhetoric.

A recent study evidently found that widespread popular opposition to anti-democratic policies is insufficient to prevent their adoption. That research found that what the scholars called “backsliding behavior by elites” occurred irrespective of a lack of public approval or support; and that much of the problem is rooted in the fact that “Americans, despite their distaste for norm violations, continue to elect representatives whose policies and actions threaten democracy.”

In other words–and this will most definitely not come as a shock to any citizen who’s been paying even the slightest attention–virtually all of the current dysfunctions of governance are caused by the various doofuses we’re electing. (I cannot restrain myself from reminding you, dear readers, that it is frequently thanks to gerrymandering that we are electing these performative, anti-democratic culture warriors.)

As another scholar opined,

Whatever techniques might exist to reduce citizen animosity must be accompanied by efforts to reduce hostility among elected officials. It doesn’t matter if we can make someone more positive toward the other party if that effect is quickly undone by watching cable news, reading social media, or otherwise listening to divisive political elites.

In other words–as several of the researchers contacted by Edsall confirmed– positive effects of efforts to intervene and ameliorate polarization “are almost immediately nullified by the hostile rhetoric in contemporary politics.”

A professor of psychological science at the University of California-Irvine attributed the persistence of polarization to what he dubbed a “moralized political environment,” and that phrase resonated with me. I am hardly the only person to see today’s political disputes as evidence that contemporary political combat takes place between partisans who hold significantly different values. 

As Edsall noted,

The issues dividing the parties have changed. When the two parties fought over size of government, taxes, social welfare programs, it was possible for partisans to imagine a compromise that is more or less acceptable even if not ideal. Compromise on issues like abortion, gender roles, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, the role of religion is much more difficult. So losing feels like more of a threat to people’s values.

From my vantage point, we have moved from good faith arguments about the proper approach to various issues–the “how”–to arguments about “whether.” Rather than debating, say, the best way to feed poor children, we confront self-identified “pro life” politicians who simply oppose spending any tax dollars on food for poor children. Rather than debates about America’s global role and the least dangerous way to approach Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, political figures like Braun and Banks vote–as conservative George Will wrote–“to assure Vladimir Putin’s attempt to erase a European nation.” Etcetera.

We aren’t having “political” arguments. We are having deeply moral ones.

Survey research confirms that a majority of the American public is on the right side of those moral debates–but that obsolete political structures allow MAGA Republicans–a statistical minority– to ignore We the People.

Political structures empowering ideological minorities are the reason we can’t just “make nice” and “all get along.”


Not Even A Festivus For The Rest Of Us…

Unlike most Americans, I was never a big “Seinfeld” fan, but many of the sitcom’s jokes became widespread–none more than its promotion of “Festivus for the rest of us,” a “celebration” for those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

What brought that mythical holiday to mind was a very unfunny report from Talking Points Memo about America’s growing Christian Nationalist movement, a movement that–if successful–will leave no room for alternate (i.e. nonChristian) holidays. The sub-head really says it all: “From traditional Christian-right figures to secret societies envisioning a ‘national divorce,’ a growing contingent of radical activists is planning for Christian supremacy.”

The report was written by Sarah Posner, a journalist who has covered the Christian Right for two decades.

Over the past three years, I began to more frequently use the term “Christian nationalism” to describe the movement I cover. But I did not start using a new term to suggest its proponents’ ideology had changed. Instead, the term had come into more common usage in the Trump era, now regularly used by academics, journalists, and pro-democracy activists to describe a movement that insists America is a “Christian nation” — that is, an illiberal, nominally democratic theocracy, rather than a pluralistic secular democracy.

To me, the phrase was highly descriptive of the movement I’ve dedicated my career to covering, and neatly encapsulates the core threat the Christian right poses to freedom and equality. From its top leaders and influencers down to the grassroots — politically mobilized white evangelicals, the foot soldiers of the Christian right — its proponents believe that God divinely ordained America to be a Christian nation; that this Christian nation has come under attack by liberals and secularists; and that patriotic Christians must engage in spiritual warfare to rid America of demonic forces, and in political action to restore its Christian heritage. That includes taking political steps — as a voter, as an elected official, as a lawyer, as a judge — to ensure that America is governed according to a “biblical worldview.”

Those of us who occupy a far more secular America have been laboring under the misapprehension that religious wars are things of the past. Those of us who are comfortable in a society formed in large part by changes introduced during the Enlightenment–respect for science and empiricism, belief that governments derive their powers from the people, not from deity–have a hard time recognizing, let alone understanding, a worldview that remains rooted in the 16th Century. But that is the worldview that has spawned today’s politically active megachurches, and what the article calls “culture-shaping organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

These “Christian soldiers” want governance according to their vision of a biblical worldview. They oppose church-state separation, want expanded rights for conservative Christians, are dead-set against abortion and LGBTQ rights, and are extremely hostile to trans people and trans rights. (Here in Indiana, Jim Banks–currently the unopposed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, often called “Focus on the Family’s man in Washington, is a perfect example of a Christian Nationalist “warrior.”)

Posner and several others have noted the prominence of Christian iconography at the January 6 insurrection, and the growing willingness of MAGA Christians to tolerate, even welcome, virulent racists, anti-Semites and other extremists in their midst. As she writes, “Their entire alliance with Trump is one of sharing political and ideological space with the overtly antisemitic, racist, Islamophobic, nativist extremists he elevated to mainstream status in the GOP.”

Posner describes the various strands within Christian Nationalism, but notes commonalities as well: they “believe they are restoring, and will run, the Christian nation God intended America to be — from the inside.”

They will do that, in their view, through faith (evangelizing others and bringing them to salvation through Jesus Christ); through spiritual warfare (using prayer to battle satanic enemies of Christian America); and through politics and the law (governing and lawmaking from a “biblical worldview” after eviscerating church-state separation). Changes in the evangelical world, particularly the emphasis in the growing charismatic movement on prophecy, signs and wonders, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, and Trumpism, has intensified the prominence of the supernatural in their politics, giving their Christian nationalism its own unmistakable brand.

Every single MAGA politician elected in November will be a foot-soldier for Christian Nationalism. A Trump victory would give them free reign to remake America in accordance with a “Godly” vision–a vision that was expressly rejected by the nation’s Founders.

The world that these Christian Nationalist politicians inhabit (and want to impose upon all of America) is pre-modern, intolerant, anti-science, anti-democracy. It has no room for “the rest of us.”


Why Does Anyone Support This Buffoon?

I don’t get it.

Read a recent, snarky Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post. It began with a visit to Trump-speak–a language bearing less and less relationship to American English.

The Very Stable Genius is glitching again.

This week, he announced that he is not — repeat, NOT — planning to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He apparently forgot that he had vowed over and over again to do exactly that, saying as recently as a few months ago that Republicans “should never give up” on efforts to “terminate” Obamacare.

“I’m not running to terminate the ACA, AS CROOKED JOE BUDEN DISINFORMATES AND MISINFORMATES ALL THE TIME,” the Republican nominee wrote this week on his Truth Social platform. Rather, he said, he wants to make Obamacare better for “OUR GREST AMERICAN CITIZENS.”

Joe Buden disinformates and misinformates? For a guy trying to make an issue of his opponent’s mental acuity, this was not, shall we say, a grest look.

Milbank offered some additional examples of Trump-speak: “We’ll bring crime back to law and order,” “We just had Super Tuesday, and we had a Tuesday after a Tuesday already,” and “You can’t have an election in the middle of a political season.”

Whenever I am reminded of Trump’s intellectual lapses and/or his inability to use the English language, I marvel that this is the guy MAGA folks think should control the nuclear codes….

Much of Milbank’s column was focused on Trump’s selective memory. When he recently recited the time-honored political question “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Milbank theorized that he’d “forgotten all about the economic collapse and his administration’s catastrophic bungling of the pandemic.”

As the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about banning the abortion pill, Trump also conveniently “forgot” his previous emphatic support for that ban, and his proposal to ban it fortuitously disappeared from his web site. Given that polling shows some 7 in 10 Americans opposed to such a ban, the Heritage Foundation also experienced a website “glitch” that conveniently obscured that part of the Foundation’s Plan for 2025.

As Milbank wrote,

The Heritage Foundation-run Project 2025, to which Trump has unofficially outsourced policymaking for a second term, said that a “glitch” had caused its policies — including those embracing a mifepristone ban — to disappear from its website. The Biden campaign said it was “calling BS on Trump and his allies’ shameless attempt to hide their agenda,” and the missing documents returned — including the language calling abortion pills “the single greatest threat to unborn children” and vowing to withdraw regulatory approval for the drugs.

Evidently, the House Republicans didn’t get the polling memo.

The extremism isn’t just at Project 2025, stocked with former Trump advisers. The House Republican Study Committee, which counts 80 percent of House Republicans as members, put out a budget last week that would rescind approval of mifepristone, dismantle the “failed Obamacare experiment” and embrace a nationwide abortion ban from the moment of conception.

Sometimes its a convenient loss of memory; other times, it’s obvious mental illness compounded by jaw-dropping ignorance. Take Trump’s “explanation” of why Truth Social’s stock wasn’t listed on the New York Stock Exchange:

He said he didn’t list the company on the New York Stock Exchange because it would be “treated too badly in New York” by Democratic officeholders. So he instead listed the company on Nasdaq, which is based in … New York. Trump said the “top person” at the NYSE “is mortified. … He said, ‘I’m losing business.’ ” As CNN pointed out, neither the president nor the chair of the exchange is a “he.”

Then there’s the most recent grift: selling bibles.

Trump is getting kickbacks for selling the Gospel — marketing God the same way he sold Trump-branded “Never Surrender High-Tops” sneakers last month for $399 a pair and, before that, digital trading cards showing Trump as a superhero.

“All Americans need a Bible in their home, and I have many. It’s my favorite book,” Trump said in the video promoting his new bible hustle.

Trump’s campaign shows a video at rallies announcing that “God Gave us Trump,” and he has called himself “the chosen one.” He’s shared a post calling him “the second greatest” after Jesus. And Milbank reports that Trump recently posted a verse from Psalms, topped by a message likening Trump’s suffering in the fraud case to the Crucifixion. 

There’s much, much more–but it all begs the question: who in their right mind looks at this pathetic sociopath with his limited (and rapidly declining) intellect and his God complex and says “yes, that’s my guy!”?  Is giving his supporters permission to express their racism and hostility to “elitists” really enough to outweigh the daily evidence of his manifest unfitness?

I don’t get it.