Saturday, September 04, 2021
Gerald Ford supported abortion rights. George H. W. Bush supported abortion rights for the first two decades of his political career. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed one of the most permissive abortion laws in the nation.
Over the four decades since 1980, however, the Republican Party has coalesced around a more radical brand of abortion politics. This week, the Republican-appointed majority on the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the state of Texas to impose the most restrictive abortion law since Roe v. Wade constitutionalized abortion rights in 1973.
This result has provoked dismay, and not only from the Texas women who will be surveilled and policed by the law. Yet the Supreme Court’s permission to Texas Republicans to proceed with their scheme should be welcomed—including by those who support abortion rights—as the crucial step toward a resolution of a half-century-long national culture war.
Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.
Pre-Texas, Republican politicians worried a lot about losing a primary to a more pro-life opponent, but little about a backlash if they won the primary by promising to criminalize millions of American women.
That one-way option has just come to an end. Most American voters have quietly understood for a long time that most politicians who claim to be “pro-life” are hypocrites. These politicians do not really mean what they say, or anyway, they do not really intend to do what they say. You might imagine that this assumption of hypocrisy would hurt. Sometimes it has. More often, though, it has protected politicians from accountability for the policies they advocate.
Today, accountability has suddenly arrived. Texas Republicans have just elevated abortion rights to perhaps the state’s supreme ballot issue in 2022. Perhaps they have calculated correctly. Perhaps a Texas voting majority really wants to see the reproductive lives of Texas women restrained by random passersby. If that’s the case, that’s an important political fact, and one that will reshape the politics of the country in 2024.
But it’s also possible that Texas Republicans have miscalculated. Instead of narrowly failing again and again, feeding the rage of their supporters against shadowy and far-away cultural enemies, abortion restricters have finally, actually, and radically got their way. They have all but outlawed abortion in the nation’s second-largest state, and voted to subject women to an intrusive and intimate regime of supervision and control not imposed on men. At last, a Republican legislative majority has enacted its declared beliefs in almost their fullest form—and won permission from the courts to impose its will on the women of its state.
If the Texas Republicans prosper politically, then abortion-rights advocates must accept that the country truly is much more conservative on abortion than they appreciated and adjust their goals accordingly. But if not, and I’m guessing that the answer is not, anti-abortion-rights politicians are about to feel the shock of their political lives. For the first time since the 1970s, they will have to reckon with mobilized opposition that also regards abortion as issue No. 1 in state and local politics.
[T]here’s already compelling evidence that Texas Republicans understand how detested their new abortion law will soon be—not only in New York City and Los Angeles, but also in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth. They took the precaution of preceding the nation’s most restrictive abortion law with one of the nation’s most suppressive voting laws. It’s as if they could foresee what Texas would do to them if all qualified Texans could vote. But the Texas voting law only impedes voting; it does not prevent it. The 2020 election showed that voter suppression can only do so much to protect a sufficiently unpopular incumbent.
In the off-year elections of 2014, Republicans won a huge victory. In 2018, they suffered a huge defeat. The crucial difference was turnout: 2014 saw the lowest turnout since 1942; 2018 saw the highest in a nonpresidential year since before World War I. The moral of the story would seem to be that Republicans do best when the electorate is satisfied and quiet; they face disaster when the electorate is mobilized and angry. Texas Republicans have just bet their political future in a rapidly diversifying and urbanizing state on a gambit: cultural reaction plus voter suppression. The eyes of Texas will be upon them indeed. The eyes of the nation will be upon them too.
Let's hope it turns out that Republicans have greatly miscalculated and will pay a price not only in Texas but across the nation and learn a harsh lesson that pandering to a shrinking portion of the population while enraging the majority is nothing short of a political death wish.
Making good on a campaign promise, President Biden directed the Justice Department and other federal agencies on Friday to oversee the review and declassification of documents related to the F.B.I.’s investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In an executive order, Mr. Biden instructed Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to publicly release the declassified documents over the next six months.
“When I ran for president, I made a commitment to ensuring transparency regarding the declassification of documents on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America,” Mr. Biden said in a statement released before the 20th anniversary of the attacks next week.
In 2019, William P. Barr, then the attorney general under President Donald J. Trump, declared in a statement to a federal court that documents related to the attacks should stay classified to protect national security. The move stunned the families.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden pledged last year to “err on the side of disclosure in cases where, as here, the events in question occurred two decades or longer ago.”
Some family members think that the documents could detail connections between the Saudi government and the hijackers who carried out the attacks.
The 9/11 Commission, which released its final report in 2004, found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks. But that phrasing left some to speculate that there might be evidence of involvement by other, lower-ranking officials.
As noted, the 9/11 Commission language leaves open the possibility - or perhaps the likelihood - that Saudi government funded "charities" and lower level officials played a role in funding the hijackers and their murderous activities. Saudi Arabia's horrific human rights abuses make it clear that murdering innocents is of little concern to the government, inclunding the foul crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.
A column in the Washington Post further elaborates on why it is important to learn the truth about the true role of the Saudi government and the "charities" it funds to spread Islamic extremism. Saudi Arabia is no friend of America. Here are column highlights:
By keeping — belatedly and under duress — a campaign promise, President Biden cauterized one wound from his miserable late summer. Commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will occur under the cloud of the Afghanistan war’s last days, but not marred by the anger of more than 2,000 family members of victims and first responders. They had said on Aug. 6 that Biden would be unwelcome at the ceremonies unless he released classified material pertinent to Saudi Arabia’s possible complicity with the 19 airplane hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis. On Friday, he took a tentative step in the right direction.
After 9/11, lawyers for the families filed suits against Saudi charities and individuals but could not sue Saudi Arabia until Congress in 2016 amended (over President Barack Obama’s veto) the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. A federal court granted the lawyers limited discovery, and they subpoenaed FBI material concerning the role of Saudi officials who supported some 9/11 hijackers when they entered the United States.
For years, the lawyers say, the FBI was dilatory. When the court ordered more FBI cooperation, the material the lawyers received was covered, at FBI insistence, by a protective order preventing them from telling their clients what they know about Saudi involvement, and requiring the lawyers to file almost all court submissions under seal. “We,” says one of the lawyers, “have never seen this level of secrecy placed on any lawsuit.”
After the families’ Aug. 6 statement, the White House and Justice Department promised to “re-review” the contested material for possible declassification. Because similar statements have been made by past administrations, the lawyers suspected Biden’s administration was stalling, hoping that after the 20th anniversary pressure for transparency would subside. But the families’ pressure persuaded an administration averse to more bad news.
The 9/11 Commission’s interestingly worded 2004 report found no evidence that the Saudi government “as an institution” or that “senior” Saudi officials “individually” funded the hijackers, but noted “the likelihood” that “charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.” Since 2004, FBI investigations have found more.
Last week, CBS News reported about a notebook that belonged to a San Diego Saudi “student” on the Saudi payroll and a close associate of those two hijackers. CBS: “The notebook contained a handwritten drawing of a plane and mathematical equation that might be used to view a target and then calculate the rate of descent to the target.”
The families might succeed in prying information from a government unused to yielding. Despite pressure, the CIA’s official history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle remained secret until 55 years after the event. It is impossible to imagine that national security was jeopardized by at long last releasing the history. It is easy to imagine how a government prone to foreign policy pratfalls could have benefited from studying one.
In his 1998 book on secrecy, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) . . . . Moynihan said secrecy is regulation, but unlike most regulation, which “prescribes what the citizen may do,” secrecy “prescribes what the citizen may know.” Excessive secrecy — secrecy breeds its own excess — necessarily makes the citizenry and government unnecessarily ignorant.
Information tending to substantiate Americans’ suspicions that Saudi Arabia has more 9/11 blood on its hands than is already known will not subtract measurably from Americans’ regard for today’s Saudi regime, which the CIA says directed, from the highest levels, the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The regime’s audacity was perhaps encouraged by the U.S. government’s pattern of protecting the regime with secrecy.
Biden, given more than 2,000 reasons to do so, seems to have opted for transparency. Or — skepticism is always in order — at least a promise to revisit a campaign promise. So, if he follows through on his promise, we are going to learn, among other things, this: National security is not diminished by information that diminishes Saudi Arabia’s good name, which it has already forfeited.
America needs to stop funding its enemies. But for its oil, Saudi Arabia would be nothing - suggesting yet another reason America needs to end it energy dependence on fossil fuels.
Friday, September 03, 2021
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s threat that Republicans “will not forget” if telecommunications companies comply with requests for email and phone records by the Jan. 6 committee marks a coming out of sorts.
For years, McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been former president Donald Trump’s factotum — a groveler and sniveler, held in obvious contempt by the object of his loyalty. You can usually identify the minority leader in a picture by his hunted expression.
But now McCarthy is emerging as a demagogue in his own right. His obstruction of a congressional inquiry is probably a violation of House ethics rules, and maybe even a violation of federal law. But that is presumably the point: McCarthy wants to show his chest hair and spitting skills in a party where toxic masculinity has become the dominant political philosophy.
It is possible, even probable, that the minority leader is also hiding something — either in his own conduct during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, or in the conduct of his caucus. But in his chosen response, McCarthy has fully adopted the MAGA conception of governing as gangsterism.
With the notable exception of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the GOP’s national leadership has now enthusiastically embraced as its platform the lawless pursuit and exercise of power. This creates a predictable cascade of further problems as the right’s entire ideological spectrum becomes red-shifted.
The American right has generally had three roles or slots that define its coalition: a governing conservatism, a movement conservatism and a populist right wing. Through most of my political lifetime, the governing slot consisted of moderate conservatives such as George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and John McCain, and legislative pragmatists such as Bob Dole. . . . . the governing conservatives sought the political support of centrists and desired legislative cooperation with Democrats (see No Child Left Behind).
The populist right wing consisted of people such as Pat Buchanan, who styled themselves as “peasants with pitchforks.” They practiced a transgressive politics, seethed about racial and ethnic changes in the country, and reserved their hardest criticism for the globalists of the Republican establishment. Governing Republicans wanted them to stay in the party, but not to define it.
Since the rise of Trump, and his effective solidification of control over the GOP, the content of these slots has moved two slots rightward. What was the Buchanan right is now the governing face of the party, further radicalized by its temporary access to executive power.
The role of movement conservatives is now played by Christian nationalists, true QAnon believers, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers of the conspiratorial right. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and her ilk do not so much push rightward as downward, into a rabbit hole of destructive insanity.
The right-wing populist slot is now filled by the militia movement, the Proud Boys, neo-confederates and various white supremacists. Their activism is more of the kidnap-the-governor-of-Michigan and brutalize-Capitol-Police-officers variety. They have been invited into the GOP coalition by Trump’s consistent refusal to adequately repudiate them. And people such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) feed their appetite for apocalyptic “bloodshed.”
Here is the problem: When a leader such as McCarthy fully embraces Trumpism — both its content and methods — as the essence of governing Republicanism, he is not only determining the predominant ideology of his party. He is also implicitly affirming the new ideological ecosystem of the American right — its lawless governing theory, its cultlike conspiracy theories and its threat of political violence. This is very much a package deal.
For this reason, the next two national elections may determine the future of constitutionalism and democratic liberalism in America. The political future is unpredictable and ever-changing. But here is something you can depend on: The elevation of McCarthy to House speaker would be a disastrous day for the Republic.
Thursday, September 02, 2021
Texas this week showed us what a post-democracy America would look like.
Thanks to a series of actions by the Texas legislature and governor, we now see exactly what the Trumpified Republican Party wants: to take us to an America where women cannot get abortions, even in cases of rape and incest; an America where almost everybody can openly carry a gun in public, without license, without permit, without safety training and without fingerprinting; and an America where law-abiding Black and Latino citizens are disproportionately denied the right to vote.
This is where Texas and other red states are going, or have already gone. It is where the rest of America will go, unless those targeted by these new laws — women, people of color and all small “d” democrats — rise up.
On Wednesday, a Texas law went into effect that bans abortions later than six weeks, after the Supreme Court let pass a request to block the statute. Because 85 to 90 percent of women get abortions after six weeks, it amounts to a near-total ban. Already on the books in Texas is a “trigger” law that automatically bans all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest, if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. At least 10 other states have done likewise.
Also Wednesday, a new law went into effect in Texas, over the objections of law enforcement, allowing all Texans otherwise allowed to own guns to carry them in public, without a license and without training. Now, 20 states have blessed such “permitless carry.”
And on Tuesday, the Texas legislature passed the final version of the Republican voting bill that bans drive-through and 24-hour voting, both used disproportionately by voters of color; imposes new limits on voting by mail, blocks election officials from distributing mail-ballot applications unless specifically requested; gives partisan poll watchers more leeway to influence vote counting; and places new rules and paperwork requirements that deter people from helping others to vote or to register. At least 17 states have adopted similar restrictions.
All three of these actions are deeply antidemocratic.
Texans overwhelmingly object to permitless carry. Fully 57 percent of Texas voters oppose such a law and only 36 percent support it, according to a June poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. The partnership’s April poll found that, by 46 percent to 20 percent, Texans want stricter gun laws — and support for tougher laws is 54 percent among women, 55 percent among Latinos and 65 percent among Black voters.
Texans also oppose banning all abortions if Roe is overturned, with 53 percent against a ban and 37 percent for one. Women oppose the ban, 58 percent to 33 percent. A narrow plurality (46 percent to 44 percent) oppose the six-week ban, too.
Furthermore, pluralities of Texans opposed the ban on drive-through voting and restrictions on early voting hours. The drive-through ban was particularly objectionable to Black voters (52 percent opposed to 30 percent in the April poll) and Latino voters (44 percent to 36 percent), as were the limits on early voting hours, opposed 52 percent to 28 percent among Black voters and 46 percent to 31 percent among Latino voters.
Texas became a “majority minority” state more than 15 years ago — and the country as a whole will follow in about two decades. But White voters still dominate the electorate. Latinos are about 40 percent of the Texas population, but only 20 to 25 percent of the electorate.
Texas legislators aren’t answering to the people but rather to the White, male voters that put the Republicans in power. The new voting law, by suppressing non-White votes, aims to keep White voters dominant. As demographics turn more and more against Republicans in Texas, their antidemocratic actions will only get worse.
Bad things happen when leaders don’t reflect the will of the people. This is happening already in Texas and some other red states. It will be happening more nationally if Republicans get their way.
In Texas, the legislature this term also banned the fictional menace of “critical race theory,” put in new restrictions on demonstrations and banned homeless encampments. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) also banned mask and vaccine mandates while the pandemic rages. Meanwhile the legislature failed to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-wage workers, refusing billions of federal health-care dollars for the state with the most uninsured residents in the nation. Instead, Texas cleared the way for people to buy beer and wine before noon on Sundays.
Less voting and less health care, but more guns and more booze: This is the present in Texas, and the future for all of us — unless we mobilize to arrest the Republicans’ destruction of democracy.
Wednesday, September 01, 2021
How does an empire die? Often, it seems, there is a growing sense of decay, and then something happens, a single event that provides the tipping point. After the Second World War, Great Britain was all but bankrupt and its Empire was in shreds, but it soldiered on thanks to a U.S. government loan and the new Cold War exigencies that allowed it to maintain the outward appearance of a global player. It wasn’t until the 1956 Suez debacle, when Britain was pressured by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the United Nations to withdraw its forces from Egypt—which it had invaded along with Israel and France following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal—that it became clear that its imperial days were over. The floodgates to decolonization soon opened.
In February, 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its military from Afghanistan after a failed nine-year attempt to pacify the country, it did so in a carefully choreographed ceremony that telegraphed solemnity and dignity. An orderly procession of tanks moved north across the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Amu Darya river, between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan—then a Soviet republic. The Soviet commander, Lieutenant-General Boris Gromov, walked across with his teen-age son, carrying a bouquet of flowers and smiling for the cameras. Behind him, he declared, no Soviet soldiers remained in the country. “The day that millions of Soviet people have waited for has come,” he said at a military rally later that day. “In spite of our sacrifices and losses, we have totally fulfilled our internationalist duty.”
Gromov’s triumphal speech was not quite the equivalent of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” following the 2003 Iraq invasion, but it came close, and the message that it was intended to relay, at least to people inside the Soviet Union, was a reassuring one: the Red Army was leaving Afghanistan because it wanted to, not because it had been defeated. . . . Meanwhile, the mujahideen guerrilla armies that had been subsidized and armed by the United States and its partners Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were in a celebratory mood.
For all the talk of internationalist duty, the Afghanistan that the Soviets left behind was a charnel ground. Out of its population of twelve million people, as many as two million civilians had been killed in the war, more than five million had fled the country, and another two million were internally displaced. Many of the country’s towns and cities lay in ruins, and half of Afghanistan’s rural villages and hamlets had been destroyed.
Officially, only fifteen thousand or so Soviet troops had been killed—although the real figure may be much higher—and fifty thousand more soldiers were wounded. But hundreds of aircraft, tanks, and artillery pieces were destroyed or lost, and countless billions of dollars diverted from the hard-pressed Soviet economy to pay for it all. However much the Kremlin tried to gloss it over, the average Soviet citizen understood that the Afghanistan intervention had been a costly fiasco.
[O]nly time will tell whether the old adage about Afghanistan’s being the graveyard of empires proves as true for the United States as it did for the Soviet Union. My colleague Robin Wright thinks so, writing, on August 15th, “America’s Great Retreat [from Afghanistan] is at least as humiliating as the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989, an event that contributed to the end of its empire and Communist rule. . . . Both of the big powers withdrew as losers, with their tails between their legs, leaving behind chaos.” When I asked James Clad, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, for his thoughts on the matter, he e-mailed me, “It’s a damaging blow, but the ‘end’ of Empire? Not yet, and probably not for a long time. The egregious defeat has hammered American prestige, however, delivering the geopolitical equivalent of egg on our face. Is that a fatal blow? In the wider world, America still retains its offshore power-balancing function. And despite some overheated journalism, no irreversible advantage has passed to our primary geopolitical opponent—China.”
It is true that, for the time being, America retains its military prowess and its economic strength. But, for two decades now, it has seemed increasingly unable to effectively harness either of them to its advantage. Instead of enhancing its hegemony by deploying its strengths wisely, it has repeatedly squandered its efforts, diminishing both its aura of invincibility and its standing in the eyes of other nations. The vaunted global war on terror . . . has effectively caused terrorism to metastasize across the planet.
Does the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan represent the end of the American era? On the heels of what appears to have been a disastrous decision by Biden to adhere to a U.S. troop drawdown that was set in motion by his feckless predecessor, it can certainly be said that the international image of the United States has been damaged. It seems a valid question to ask whether the United States can claim much moral authority internationally after handing Afghanistan, and its millions of hapless citizens, back to the custody of the Taliban. But it remains unclear whether, as Stewart suggests, the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan represents part of a larger inward turn, or whether, as Clad believes, the U.S. may soon reassert itself somewhere else to show the world that it still has muscle. Right now, it feels as if the American era isn’t quite over, but it isn’t what it once was, either.
It is important to remember that it was the Bush/Cheney regime that launched America's debacles in both Iraq and Afghanistan based on lies and hubris. While Biden's exit from Afghanistan was messy - and will be so for a while as the press sensationalizes various stories - the disaster was created by his predecessors, including Trump who agreed to a quick exit which to a large extent tied Biden's hands unless he was willing to accept far more casualties and a redeployment of more troops.
They were words no president has ever spoken, at least not since the Cold War began three-quarters of a century ago.
They spoke not of global responsibility nor the “indispensable” role of the United States, but of what this richest and most powerful nation could and should not do, and the astonishing financial and human cost of trying — and failing.
We are, President Joe Biden said, “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries … trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan — something that has never been done over centuries in Afghanistan history.”
We spent “$300 million a day for 20 years,” he said. “What have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?”
And while he talked of the heroism of our military, intelligence personnel and diplomats, Biden’s account of what veterans suffered was nothing less than searing: “A lot of our veterans and their families have gone through hell,” he said with more than a touch of anger as he talked of traumatic injuries, noting that “18 veterans on average die by suicide every single day in America, not in a far-off place.”
Much of the commentary on Biden’s speech today will focus on his defense of the Afghanistan withdrawal strategy — his celebration of the U.S. military’s mass evacuations and whether his promise to get those left behind has the ring of plausibility.
But perhaps more significant for American politics is that Biden seems to be embracing a belief now shared across ideological lines: America’s international role has been an exercise in overreach. For more than a decade, in fact, this has been a more powerful current than the foreign-policy establishment might like to admit. . . . And it lies at the heart of the appeal Biden made today: Whatever went wrong as we left Afghanistan, his argument went, we had to get out and we have to learn from that misguided adventure.
But in making this argument, Biden left a larger question unanswered: what are we to do about the immense global military machine that remains very much in place? As intent as Biden is on bringing the so-called forever wars to an end, the reality is that he and others skeptical of U.S. intervention abroad need to look not at particular conflicts, but at America’s massive military apparatus. Thus far, such criticism has been confined to the periphery of national security debates. But Biden may have laid the foundation for a more fundamental rethinking of the enormous, and largely unquestioned, amount of resources America expends in the name of national security.
The United States has a military budget of some $700 billion a year, supported by a web of multibillion-dollar procurement contracts that turn members of Congress into enthusiastic lobbyists for weapons that do not work and drain the treasury. We have 800 bases in dozens of nations around the world. Our spending, on armed conflicts and more generally on preserving this empire, staggers the imagination. Biden did not mention this in his speech, but the combined cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq engagements would more than fund his $3.5 trillion spending proposal. Critics of his domestic plans deplore that amount, but it’s only a fraction of what we have in fact spent not on child care, free community college, universal pre-K and better care for older people, but on a pair of largely futile conflicts — one bogged down for years in stalemate, another irreparably tainted by the false pretenses under which it began.
These numbers don’t lie. Since America gained superpower status in the early to mid-20th century, it has built a military footprint that all but guarantees the country will be tempted to try and solve problems far from its shores, whether counterterrorism, nation building, humanitarian intervention in a genocide or something else. This is the reality that Biden and future presidents similarly inclined toward restraint will confront.
It is not hard to imagine that this deeper message of Biden’s speech could emerge as a more salient political argument in the coming months. The upcoming midterm and presidential election cycles may feature debate not just about Afghanistan and how we left, but about what we have been committing lives and resources to for decades, and how much longer we are prepared to do it. Elements of the left and the right have already joined hands in opposing “muscular” U.S. policies in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. But the next step may be to question the premises that makes those policies possible — and their cost.
After three-quarters of a century, and tragic misadventures from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, I wonder if Biden’s speech today, with its clear caution that we cannot remake the world based on our illusions, may be the start of a larger debate about the U.S. military — a debate this country has never really had but is long overdue.
Tuesday, August 31, 2021
You don’t hear much these days about “economic anxiety.” Most observers acknowledge that the rise of the Trumpist right was driven by racial and social antagonism, not economic populism.
Yet there is an economic element to political extremism, just not what you’d think. Right-wing extremists, and to some extent even more mainstream conservative media, rely on financial support from companies selling nutritional supplements and miracle cures — and that financial support is arguably a significant factor pushing the right to become more extreme. Indeed, right-wing extremism isn’t just an ideological movement that happens to get a lot of money from sellers of snake oil; some of its extremism can probably be seen not as a reflection of deep conviction, but as a way of promoting snake oil.
Consider where we are right now in the fight against Covid-19. A few months ago it seemed likely that the development of effective vaccines would soon bring the pandemic to an end. Instead, it goes on, with hospitalizations closing in on their peak from last winter. This is partly due to the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant, but it also crucially reflects the refusal of many Americans to take the vaccines.
And much of this refusal is political. . . . . there’s a strong negative correlation between Donald Trump’s share of a county’s vote and vaccinations. As of July, 86 percent of self-identified Democrats said they had had a vaccine shot, but only 54 percent of Republicans did.
But vaccine refusers aren’t just rejecting lifesaving vaccines, they’re also turning to life-threatening alternatives. We’re seeing a surge in sales of — and poisoning by — ivermectin, which is usually used to deworm livestock but has recently been touted on social media and Fox News as a Covid cure.
OK, I didn’t see that coming. But I should have. As the historian Rick Perlstein has pointed out, there’s a long association between peddlers of quack medicine and right-wing extremists. They cater to more or less the same audience.
That is, Americans willing to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that Italian satellites were used to switch votes to Joe Biden are also the kind of people willing to believe that medical elites are lying to them and that they can solve their health problems by ignoring professional advice and buying patent medicines instead.
This is clearly true in the right’s fever swamps. Alex Jones of Infowars has built a following by pushing conspiracy theories, but he makes money by selling nutritional supplements.
It’s also true, however, for more mainstream, establishment parts of the right. For example, Ben Shapiro, considered an intellectual on the right, hawks supplements.
Look at who advertises on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. After Fox itself, the top advertisers are My Pillow, then three supplement companies.
Snake oil peddlers, clearly, find consumers of right-wing news and punditry a valuable market for their wares. So it shouldn’t be surprising to find many right-leaning Americans ready to see vaccination as a liberal plot and turn to dubious alternatives — although, again, I didn’t see livestock dewormer coming.
There are big financial rewards to extremism, because extreme politics sells patent medicine, and patent medicine is highly profitable. (In 2014 Alex Jones’s operations were bringing in more than $20 million a year in revenue, mainly from supplement sales.) Do these financial rewards induce pundits to be more extreme? It would be surprising if they didn’t — as conservative economists say, incentives matter.
The extremism of media figures radicalizes their audience, giving politicians an incentive to become more extreme.
So you can see how vaccination became such a flash point. Getting shots in arms is a priority for a Democratic president, which automatically generates intense hostility among people who want to see Joe Biden fail. And such people were already primed to reject medical expertise and believe in quack cures.
None of this would be happening if there weren’t a climate of anger and distrust for unscrupulous pundits and politicians to exploit. But the fact that extremism sells patent medicine creates a financial incentive to get more extreme.
Monday, August 30, 2021
Seventy-four hours. That’s roughly how much time separated the moment that Tropical Depression Nine formed in the Caribbean from the moment that the storm, transformed into a ruthless Category 4 hurricane named Ida, made landfall at Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Even less time—perhaps 60 hours—separated the storm’s promotion to hurricane strength and the first arrival of tropical-storm winds in Louisiana, the latter of which marks the moment that any official evacuation must be nearly complete. That’s when drivers need to start getting off the roads, and when local services are shut down until the storm passes.
It wasn’t enough time. While Ida was a well predicted storm, 60 hours of warning was too short for New Orleans officials to issue a mandatory evacuation order in the days before it landed. The limits of the city’s highways mandate that the city must issue an evacuation order at least 72 hours before tropical-storm winds make landfall. Officials said last year that the pandemic means they may need 82 hours of warning, to account for the increased difficulty of moving and sheltering people.
With wind speeds of 150 miles an hour at the moment of landfall, Ida—which eventually weakened to a category 3 storm this evening—is provisionally tied for first as the strongest hurricane ever to hit Louisiana. While the extent of damage at the most affected cities is still unclear, the storm has caused catastrophic power loss in New Orleans and forced doctors and nurses in at least one hospital to pump air into COVID-19 patients’ lungs by hand. It has destroyed at least one historic jazz site and knocked out 95 percent of U.S. oil production in the Gulf of Mexico. It also illustrates how climate change is making it even harder for cities in the path of major storms to govern effectively.
Scientists are confident that global warming is increasing rainfall from major tropical cyclones, just as it is increasing precipitation amounts from all types of storm. Scientists have observed that tropical cyclones are generally getting stronger worldwide, as well. A growing share of hurricanes are Category 3 or greater, according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But some researchers also believe that more hurricanes are following the route taken by Ida and getting significantly stronger in the hours before landfall.
The strongest storms, in fact, might only come about through rapid intensification. As Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami, has noted, all four recorded Category 5 storms to make landfall in the continental United States were tropical storms just 72 hours earlier. In the past few years, several prominent hurricanes have seemed to undergo this rapid intensification. Hurricane Michael, which carved a devastating path through the Florida Panhandle as a Category 5 storm in 2018, had been a relatively weak hurricane only two days prior to landfall. Hurricane Harvey, which deluged Houston in 2017, also intensified up to the moment that it came ashore.
If rapid intensification becomes more common, as Emanuel fears, then it will become harder for officials to make good judgments about hurricanes. Over the past few decades, meteorologists have gotten significantly better at predicting where a storm might go, but they still don’t always know how strong it will be when it gets there. That’s a problem, because decision-makers need to know both track and intensity to make good calls: Knowing a storm will pass overhead in three days is meaningless if you don’t know whether it will be Category 1 or Category 5 when it arrives. If major hurricanes can form in less than 72 hours, but local governments need more than 72 hours to prepare and evacuate, then we’re running up against the physical limits of hurricane preparedness.
Politicians could try to cope with rapid intensification by ordering evacuations even before a storm was certain to strike their city, but a needless evacuation can be costly. In 2005, nearly as many Houstonians died fleeing Hurricane Rita in cars as died in the storm itself. The answer, Hereid has proposed, may be to build better hurricane-safe shelters in cities so that people don’t have to leave a city for protection from a storm. For now, though, Americans are stuck with the evacuation plans and physical infrastructure that they already have: roadways and cities built for the wrong century, built for a kinder climate.
Some day a major hurricane will hit this area and I predict we will be woefully unprepared.
Sunday, August 29, 2021
The lawyers who battled for President Donald Trump in the days after the 2020 election are now fighting to salvage their professional careers—a fight they pretty much invited by openly flouting many of the core ethical precepts to which licensed attorneys are bound. Last November, we warned these lawyers that this could happen. Today, they face punishing financial and professional consequences, including the potential loss of their license to practice law. This is exactly what should happen.
On Wednesday, in a 110-page opinion that will likely serve as required reading in future law-school ethics classes, U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker delivered her comprehensive sanctions ruling against Sidney Powell and her merry band of “Kraken” lawyers. The ruling addressed in clear terms the difference between “cable-news lawyering” and the actual practice of law. “While there are many arenas—including print, television, and social media—where protestations, conjecture, and speculation may be advanced,” Parker wrote, “such expressions are neither permitted nor welcomed in a court of law.” Her ruling outlined how Powell’s team had relied upon affidavits riddled with baseless speculation and accusations contradicted by existing public evidence to advance their claims seeking extraordinary relief that would have effectively nullified the votes of millions of Americans in Michigan. As Parker wrote, “this case was never about fraud—it was about undermining the People’s faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so.”
The election was not stolen. There was not widespread fraud. You do not have to take our word for it. Look at the countless lawsuits littering dockets across the nation brought by Trump and his allies. They all failed in the end. Taxpayers were required to foot the bill for multiple recounts, and still the election results stood, including in those done by Republican state election officials.
Trump himself has yet to suffer any legal consequences. This is not entirely unusual for him. It was Michael Cohen, not Trump, who got into trouble for the Stormy Daniels payoff. Trump does not do his own dirty work: He outsources it, usually to his lawyers. Trump is also not bound by any ethical obligations or requirements: He can espouse whatever comes to his mind and push for it however far he wants.
But Trump’s ability to evade liability (for now) does not extend to his lawyers, particularly in a court of law.
For example, Rudy Giuliani, once known as “America’s mayor,” has had his law license suspended in New York and the District of Columbia, directly as a result of his role in pushing Trump’s false election-fraud claims in the courtroom. Likewise, Judge Parker’s opinion is a clear and unequivocal rejection of the method by which Powell and her legal team pursued litigation in Michigan.
In a courtroom, lawyers are ethically bound to do more than dump a far-fetched legal theory on a judge’s lap simply because it fits their (or their client’s) political narrative. You cannot file affidavits that contain materially false information, or that rely upon mere internet hearsay as a factual counter to the published data on issues such as voter turnout. You also cannot claim ignorance when signing election-fraud complaints supported by affidavits of which even a rudimentary review would have told you no laws were in fact violated.
Lawyers are given significant leeway and discretion in when and how they bring lawsuits, but they are expected—indeed required—to do basic due diligence prior to filing a complaint, such as reading the complaint before signing it, verifying the factual allegations in the supporting affidavits, or identifying whether any applicable laws might have actually been violated. Parker’s ruling outlines how Powell and members of her team failed to do these things, and instead exploited the imprimatur of legitimacy afforded to them as officers of the court to broadcast a reckless political fantasy that arguably contributed to the events of January 6. Those lawyers now must pay significant legal bills as a form of restitution, complete legal-education retraining, and, perhaps most important, face potential disbarment by the states in which they are licensed to practice.
That’s the cost of masquerading conspiracy theories as serious legal claims, and that is as it should be. As has been made clear since last November, courthouses—and the fundamental rules of procedure upholding their marbled corridors—can form the final line of defense between our hallowed democratic ideals and those who would see them destroyed in favor of one of the most dangerous attempts at a power grab in this nation’s history.
Everyone of them needs to pay sigificant fines and lose their law licenses. Nothing less will be adequate deterent to prevent future misconduct of this nature.
Believing you’re uniquely capable of bending things to your will is practically a requirement for becoming president of the United States. But too often, in pursuit of such influence over foreign policy, presidents overemphasize the importance of personal diplomacy. Relationships among leaders can build trust — or destroy it — but presidents often overrate their ability to steer both allies and adversaries.
But in both hubris and folly, none come close to matching Donald Trump. For someone who prided himself on his abilities as a dealmaker and displayed an “I alone can fix it” arrogance, the agreement he made with the Taliban is one of the most disgraceful diplomatic bargains on record. Coupled with President Biden’s mistakes in continuing the policy and botching its execution, the deal has now led to tragic consequences for Americans and our allies in Kabul.
Mr. Trump’s handling of Afghanistan is an object lesson for why presidents of both parties need to be better constrained by Congress and the public in their conduct of foreign policy.
Mr. Trump never believed Afghanistan was worth fighting for: as early as 2011 he advocated its abandonment. Once in office, his early infatuation with “my generals” gave the Pentagon latitude to dissuade the president from exactly the kind of rush to the exits we’re now seeing in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump wanted to abandon the war in Afghanistan, but he understood atavistically that it would damage him politically to have a terrorist attack or a Saigon comparison attached to his policy choices.
Thus the impetus for a negotiated settlement. The problem with Mr. Trump’s Taliban deal wasn’t that the administration turned to diplomacy. That was a sensible avenue out of the policy constraints. The problem was that the strongest state in the international order let itself be swindled by a terrorist organization. Because we so clearly wanted out of Afghanistan, we agreed to disreputable terms, and then proceeded to pretend that the Taliban were meeting even those.
Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw all coalition forces from Afghanistan in 14 months, end all military and contractor support to Afghan security forces and cease “intervening in its domestic affairs.” He forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban fighters and relax economic sanctions. He agreed that the Taliban could continue to commit violence against the government we were there to support, against innocent people and against those who’d assisted our efforts to keep Americans safe. All the Taliban had to do was say they would stop targeting U.S. or coalition forces, not permit Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to use Afghan territory to threaten U.S. security and subsequently hold negotiations with the Afghan government.
Not only did the agreement have no inspection or enforcement mechanisms, but despite Mr. Trump’s claim that “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no one’s ever seen,” the administration made no attempt to enforce its terms. Trump’s own former national security adviser called it “a surrender agreement.”
Mr. Trump and his supporters clearly considered the deal a great success — until just days ago, the Republican National Committee had a web page heralding the success of Mr. Trump’s “historic peace agreement.”
Instead of banking on other countries being charmed or persuaded that American leaders know their interests better than they do, presidents should return to the practice of persuading their fellow Americans of the merits of agreements with foreign powers. Congress can begin by reasserting its role in diplomacy and requiring specific authorizations for the use of military force rather than continuing to acquiesce to claims that existing executive authorizations can be endlessly expanded. It should refuse the shifting of funds previously authorized and appropriated for other purposes (Mr. Trump made such shifts to construct the border wall). It should reject foreign policy changes enacted by executive order rather than congressional approval, and it should force the Supreme Court to clarify the extent of the president’s war powers.
Agreements with foreign powers, whether states, international institutions or organizations like the Taliban, should be submitted to Congress for a vote. The best way to prevent catastrophic foreign policy mistakes is to require the 535 representatives of the American people to put their jobs on the line, become informed, and support, reject or modify a president’s program. Congress tried to slow or block Mr. Trump’s planned drawdown of U.S. forces. Members who supported the Taliban deal should be explaining why they thought the outcome would be different than the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan now.
Addressing foreign agreements as stand-alone votes would raise the profile and stakes even more. Supporting Mr. Trump’s Taliban agreement would have been — and should have been — a tough vote. There are reasonable arguments on the side of continuing the war and on the side of concluding it. America would be more secure today if Congress exerted its prerogatives more forcefully — both when Mr. Trump agreed to the Taliban deal, and when Mr. Biden continued it.
These are not partisan issues. They get at the heart of the constitutional separation of powers, a division that makes America strong and resilient. Restraining presidential fiat may mean that some foreign policy opportunities are missed, that some deals will remain out of reach. But it also insulates the president, and the American public, against bad deals by allowing for greater public scrutiny and oversight. As the debacle in Afghanistan shows, closer evaluation of Mr. Trump’s Taliban deal and of Mr. Biden’s withdrawal plans would have been preferable to the tragedy now unfolding.