Monday, September 25, 2023
FOR DECADES Americans have been moving to beautiful places that are vulnerable to extreme weather. Florida, once a swampy frontier, is now America’s third-most populous state. It is also the state most often hit by hurricanes. By 2015, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts boasted more than $13trn of real estate. Look West and the story is similar. Homes are proliferating in the wildland-urban interface, where nature and development anxiously coexist and wildfire season seems never to end.
It is climate change that makes extreme weather more common. But the financial cost of storms and fires depends, more than anything else, on how many homes people choose to build in risky places. After adjusting for inflation, there have been more billion-dollar disasters so far in 2023 than any year since America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping records. Losses as a proportion of GDP have kept stable over the past four decades. But there are big local exceptions: last year hurricane damage cost Florida between 7.5% and 10% of the state’s GDP.
Those who enjoy the benefits of living in high-risk areas (such as a majestic ocean view) should shoulder the costs. However, both federal and state governments ensure that they do not, by subsidising or suppressing property insurance rates in such places. This has encouraged reckless building. A new report from the First Street Foundation, a non-profit research group, finds that if proper account is taken of climate risk, nearly a quarter of all properties in the continental United States are overvalued. These 39m properties represent a climate-insurance bubble inflated by government.
Private insurers burned by huge payouts after disasters are abandoning risky markets such as Florida and California. Homeowners are turning to state-backed insurers of last resort, which offer less coverage for a higher price. When these plans cannot cover claims, taxpayers are often left with the bill. As climate change continues, the uninsurable parts of America will only grow.
At the federal level the National Flood Insurance Programme, which offers subsidised flood insurance to homeowners in hazardous places, is drowning in debt. America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the programme, is in the process of raising rates to keep it solvent. But property-owners are rebelling by cancelling their policies, and the politicians who represent them are threatening to intervene.
Such intransigence is bipartisan. State and national politicians, Democrats and Republicans, prefer to keep rates artificially low, constituents happy and their tax bases intact. This is short-sighted. So long as disaster risk is underpriced, people will take too much of it. And it is unclear how long taxpayers who live in comparatively safe places will be happy to subsidise insurance for those who don’t, especially when the subsidy-guzzlers are rich. . . . . Taxpayers should not be helping the Real Housewives of Miami build seaside castles.
Instead, policymakers should allow private insurers to set actuarially sound rates, so they can keep writing coverage. Realistic premiums would deter reckless new construction. They would also hurt existing homeowners, so politicians would probably have to keep offering government flood insurance, at least temporarily, to those who cannot afford anything else.
Eventually, though, some Americans will need to move to keep safe from rising seas, roaring floods and fast-encroaching flames. The government should ease the transition: for example, FEMA could offer buyouts to homeowners who cannot afford their insurance. But make no mistake: the longer politicians subsidise building in dangerous places, the worse the pain will be, and the bigger the final bill.
Sunday, September 24, 2023
To understand why Donald Trump is once again skipping a Republican presidential debate, realize that the conventional way of looking at the GOP’s nomination contest has things largely backward. Trump’s standing in the polls is less about his strength than about the weakness of the rest of the field — and the traditional Republican Party.
Trump wants his foes to stay weak. By not showing up, he reduces them to squabbling bit players trying to bring each other down while the major contenders offer pale imitations of his own message and values.
Republican voters once open to someone other than the former president are concluding that if they’re going to get Trumpism, they might as well go with the guy who invented it. And they’re getting little useful advice from party leaders who — as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told his biographer McKay Coppins — see Trump as a disaster but are too timid to say so publicly.
It didn’t have to be like this, because the strength of Trump’s lock on the party is vastly exaggerated.
Sure, Trump has an unshakable base, those who would stick with him if he were indicted a dozen more times. But that hard core accounts for no more than about 35 percent of the Republican primary electorate. There really is (or was) room for someone else to break through.
But not one of them has inspired real excitement, and the politician who once seemed best placed to take Trump on, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has had a miserable year.
As a result, Trump has been able to combine his base with a fair share of the largest group of Republicans: those with a more or less positive view of the former president but willing to support someone else.
Not so long ago, such Republicans were flocking to others, particularly DeSantis. Trump seemed anything but inevitable at the beginning of 2023. Many in the party blamed him (and the candidates he backed) for its disappointing showing in the 2022 midterms.
A mid-January poll for the Bulwark by North Star Opinion Research and GOP pollster Whit Ayres found that when Republicans were offered a choice among DeSantis, Trump and “another candidate,” 44 percent picked DeSantis to 28 percent for Trump and 10 percent for the unnamed alternative. When the other potential GOP candidates were listed by name, DeSantis led Trump by 39 percent to 28 percent.
Other polling early in the year generally showed Trump ahead, but mostly not by his currently prohibitive margin.
The sad news for the country is that Republicans let a real chance to end Trump’s career slip away. The opportunity may not come around again. Critics of the GOP enjoy observing that the more Trump is indicted, the more Republican voters flock to him. The timelines of his growing lead and his expanding list of felony counts do overlap, but there are better explanations for his comeback.
The most obvious is that his primary foes have plainly failed to impress voters. At least as important, they and Trump’s (often secret) party critics were unwilling to risk enraging him and his supporters. So they held back from throwing knockout punches when Trump was on the ropes. That’s no way to beat a brawler who’ll do anything to win.
Congressional leaders also seem to have calculated that their hopes of keeping their narrow House majority and winning back the Senate depend on voters whom Trump can draw to the polls — and traditional conservatives cannot. Trump is rubbing that in by forgoing the Wednesday debate in favor of a trip to Michigan, where he’ll pretend to be a friend of the state’s autoworkers. He was, in fact, a very antilabor president, but he sure knows how to play roles on TV.
The party’s paralyzing Trump dependency has only grown with its ongoing loss of middle-of-the-road suburban voters, small-c conservatives temperamentally who are skeptical of a contemporary Big-C Conservatism increasingly shaped by the Far Right.
The journey of suburban Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia is a microcosm of the GOP’s troubles. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, the paragon of old-style moderate conservatism, won 60 percent of the county’s vote, carrying Pennsylvania and the presidential election. In 2020, Trump got just over 36 percent, losing the state and the presidency.
In the short term, Republican strategists see no path to rebuilding a more moderate coalition. The party’s primary electorate is concluding that in a closely divided country, Trump is about as electable as any of his less-than-stellar rivals. The candidates who gather on Wednesday at the Reagan Library need to grasp that they’re on the verge of allowing the most dangerous man in American politics one more shot at power.
Saturday, September 23, 2023
“Axis Sally” was the generic name for women with husky voices and good English who read German and Italian propaganda on the radio during World War II. Like the Japanese women who became collectively known as “Tokyo Rose,” they were trying to reach American soldiers, hoping to demoralize them by telling them their casualties were high, their commanders were bad, and their cause was lost. “A lousy night it sure is,” Axis Sally said on one 1944 broadcast: “You poor, silly, dumb lambs, well on your way to be slaughtered.”
Tucker Carlson, who also repeats the propaganda of foreign dictators while speaking English, doesn’t have anything like the historical significance of Axis Sally or Tokyo Rose, though his level of credibility is similar. This is a man who famously wrote texts about his loathing of Donald Trump, even while praising the then-president in public; recently, the former Fox News host kept a straight face while interviewing a convicted fraudster who claimed to have smoked crack and had sex with Barack Obama. But when Carlson speaks on behalf of Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin, his words are repeated in Hungary and Russia, where they do have resonance: Look, a prominent American journalist supports us. I don’t know what Carlson’s motivation is—he did not respond to a request for comment—but his words also circulate in the far-right American echo chamber, where they are sometimes repeated by Republican presidential candidates, so unfortunately they require some explanation.
Carlson’s hatred of American institutions, and of many Americans, is the starting point for many of his diatribes. Recently, for instance, he appeared at an event in Budapest, organized by a Hungarian-government-funded organization, where he called the U.S. ambassador to that nation a “creep,” said he was “embarrassed that I share a country of birth with a villain like this,” and apologized for American foreign policy in Hungary.
But what is American foreign policy in Hungary? I asked the ambassador, David Pressman, to describe it to me. Pressman, who is gay, told me that when he first arrived in Budapest, his counterparts smirked at him during their meetings and asked if he wanted to talk about gay rights or other progressive causes. No, he told them. He wanted to talk about Russian and Chinese espionage and influence operations in Hungary, which are considerable.
Some examples: The most important Russian investment in Hungary is a nuclear-power plant whose financing is kept secret by law, presumably because the ruling party doesn’t want to reveal who is benefiting. Chinese interests are also financing a distinctly untransparent railway project in Hungary, have made an opaque investment in an environmentally unfriendly battery-manufacturing plant, and, a couple of years ago, with the help of the Hungarian government, tried to open a university in Budapest too. In 2019, Hungarian government officials also arranged for the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank, an institution set up in 1970 by the Soviet Union and its satellite states, to move its headquarters to Budapest, even throwing in a 10-million-euro subsidy as encouragement.
[T]he Hungarian deal with the “Russian spy bank,” as it is known in Budapest (it was once described by a group of U.S. senators as “an arm of the Russian secret service”), also freed the bank from Hungarian financial supervision, exempted it from taxes, and allowed bank employees to have diplomatic status and immunity in Hungary, an arrangement that could in theory help Russian spies enter the country and from there the rest of the European Union.
Orbán likes to portray himself as a leader who cannot be influenced, a man tough and immovable, in fact he often gives in at the last minute—he is famous in the European Union for doing so. But he needs to tell a different story to his voters about what happened. The invitation to the disgraced former Fox News pundit does that: While in Budapest, Carlson channeled Orbán’s anger and dislike of the United States and its ambassador, while studiously avoiding the real reasons for what is indeed an extremely poor moment for American-Hungarian relations.
During his comments, and during his interview with Orbán, both broadcast on his social media, Carlson stayed well away from banks and Russian spies. He didn’t mention Hungary’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership, or Hungary’s repeated vetoes of European sanctions against Russia. Instead, he denounced the United States for “the imposition of boutique sexual politics” on Hungary. Officials in the Biden administration, Carlson claimed, “hate Hungary not because of what it’s done but because of what it is. It’s a Christian country, and they hate that.”
This rant was based on a false premise, for there is no U.S. war on Christianity in Hungary. If American officials are angry at Hungary, that’s not because of what it is, but because of what it’s done. Once again: The conflict between Washington and Budapest over the past several years is about Hungarian corruption, especially corruption in the ruling Fidesz party, and Hungary’s deep ties to other autocracies.
Carlson is useful to Orbán because his words can help hide Orbán’s agenda at home—look, a prominent American journalist supports us—and abroad. By pretending that this is a culture war rather than a conflict over money and espionage, Carlson helps Orbán escape the consequences of his actions.
Vladimir Putin has been directing his citizens away from reality and toward imaginary culture wars for more than a decade. In September 2022, when the Russian president held a ceremony to mark his illegal annexation of southern and eastern Ukraine, he did not speak of the people he is torturing or holding in concentration camps, the children he has kidnapped and deported to Russia, or even the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who have died in his unnecessary war. Instead, he used the occasion to talk about the “satanic” West, claim he was defending Russia from “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction,” and again replace the real war, in which real people are killing and being killed, with a fictional culture war that exists in his head.
Carlson frequently uses Russian propaganda lines too, promoting fake stories . . . . You can see why. The real world is full of difficult, hard-to-explain problems; even the best solutions might require difficult trade-offs. Once, Americans did have at least a few politicians who nevertheless sought to find these solutions, and our political system seemed to allow us to have arguments about them. Authoritarians, by contrast, seek power in order to hide the problems, steal money, arrange favors for their friends, and manipulate the political system so that they can’t ever lose power. That’s what Putin did, and that’s what Orbán does too. Carlson is simply the American face, and the English-speaking voice, of that confidence trick.
Friday, September 22, 2023
The speaker of the House is the only congressional officer mentioned in the Constitution, other than a temporary Senate officer to preside when the vice president can’t. The speaker’s job isn’t defined, but surely it includes passing legislation that keeps the federal government running.
But Kevin McCarthy, the current speaker, isn’t doing that job. Indeed, at this point it’s hard to see how he can pass any bill maintaining federal funding, let alone one the Senate, controlled by Democrats, will agree to. So we seem to be headed for a federal shutdown at the end of this month, with many important government activities suspended until further notice.
Why? McCarthy is a weak leader, especially compared with Nancy Pelosi, his formidable predecessor. But even a superb leader would probably be unable to transcend the dynamics of a party that has been extremist for a generation but has now gone beyond extremism to nihilism.
And yes, this is a Republican problem. Any talk about dysfunction in “Congress,” or “partisanship,” simply misinforms the public. Crises like the one McCarthy now faces didn’t happen under Pelosi, even though she also had a very narrow majority. I’ll come back to that contrast. First, let me make a different comparison — between the looming shutdown of 2023 and the shutdowns of 1995-96, when Newt Gingrich was speaker.
Back in 1995, while Gingrich’s tactics — his willingness to employ blackmail as a political strategy — were new and dangerous, he had an actual policy goal: He wanted to force major cuts in federal spending.
Furthermore, Gingrich tried to go where the money was. The federal government is an insurance company with an army: The great bulk of nonmilitary spending is on the big safety-net programs, that is, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And Gingrich in fact sought deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.
He didn’t get them, and the government’s role in promoting health insurance coverage eventually expanded greatly — although Medicare has been surprisingly successful at containing costs. Still, Gingrich’s goals were at least coherent.
McCarthy, in his desperate efforts to appease his party’s hard-liners, has acted as if their refusal to approve federal funding is a Gingrich-like demand for reduced federal spending. He tried to pass a continuing resolution — a bill that would temporarily keep the money flowing — that involved deep cuts to certain parts of the federal government.
But there are three notable aspects to this attempt. First, even if he had managed to pass that resolution, it would have been dead on arrival in the Senate.
Second, unlike Gingrich back then, McCarthy tried to go where the money isn’t, slashing nonmilitary discretionary spending. That’s a fairly small part of the federal budget. It’s also a spending category that has already been subject to more than a decade of austerity . . . There just isn’t any significant blood to be gotten out of this stone.
Finally, even this extreme proposal wasn’t extreme enough for Republican hard-liners. I liked what one representative told Politico: “Some of these folks would vote against the Bible because there’s not enough Jesus in it.” The point is that the party’s right wing isn’t actually interested in governing; it’s all about posturing, and the budget fight is a temper tantrum rather than a policy dispute.
If the G.O.P. were anything like a normal party, McCarthy would give up on the right-wingers, gather up the saner Republican representatives — it would be misleading to call them “moderates” — and make a deal with Democrats. But that would almost surely cost him the speakership, and in general more or less the whole G.O.P. is terrified of the hard-liners, so the party’s positions end up being dictated by its most extreme faction.
As I said, all of this is very different from what happens on the other side of the aisle. You still sometimes see analyses that treat Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right as equivalent, but they’re nothing alike. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is, in fact, interested in policy; it tries to push the party’s leadership in its direction, but it’s willing to take what it can get. That’s why Pelosi, with only a narrow majority during Biden’s first two years, was nonetheless able to get enacted landmark bills on infrastructure, climate and technology, while McCarthy can’t even keep the government running.
Now, a protracted shutdown would be highly disruptive, and if past confrontations are a guide, the public would blame Republicans — which is what led Gingrich to back down in the 1990s. But it’s not clear that McCarthy, or whoever replaces him if he’s overthrown, would be willing or even able to make a deal that reopens the government. How does this end?
Thursday, September 21, 2023
Twenty years ago, the Republican Party started what may have been the most lifesaving government initiative in modern history. It turned the tide of AIDS around the world and has saved 25 million lives so far — equivalent to the entire population of Australia.
So it’s a reflection of the madness that has infected the Republican Party that today some conservatives are repudiating perhaps the best thing they ever did, battling the reauthorization of this program.
PEPFAR, which stands for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, has a legislative authorization that expires at the end of this month. And Republicans are now fighting that reauthorization.
Republicans should be extraordinarily proud of their boldness in crafting PEPFAR, which provides antiretroviral medicines to AIDS patients and operates in more than 50 countries.
The devastation of AIDS in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly in southern Africa, may be difficult for people today to understand. Intimacy became lethal. Estimates circulated that AIDS would kill 100 million people over the next 20 years. PEPFAR changed all that. It brought AIDS under control and gave countries their futures back.
The assault on PEPFAR accelerated in May with a report by the conservative Heritage Foundation warning without evidence that the Biden administration was using the program to promote a “radical social agenda” — including liberalized abortions.
Conservative critics, seeing a crusade forming, rushed to join. They noted that some PEPFAR dollars have gone to nonprofits that also, using separate resources, support abortions. That’s true. But longstanding American policy ensures that the accounts are separate and the U.S. dollars don’t pay for abortions. There’s nothing new here, and it’s particularly galling that Republicans preen as “pro-life” for attacking a program that saves lives on a scale like nothing before or since.
Unfortunately, some conservative organizations have said that in their political scorecards rating members of Congress they will count a vote to reauthorize PEPFAR in its present form as a vote for abortion rights. That makes it toxic for many Republican members of Congress who fear that they might no longer have a perfect “pro-life” record.
The Heritage Foundation critique also argued that AIDS is primarily a “lifestyle disease” and so “should be suppressed through education, moral suasion and legal sanctions” rather than medication. That phrase reeks of sanctimony. During the worst of the epidemic, I met Zambian women whose husbands were away working as miners; the women were terrified that when their husbands, whom they loved, came home on vacations, they would have to sleep with them — and risk death if their husbands had strayed.
The most dangerous thing a woman there could do, it was said then, was to get married. If American conservatives want to fight AIDS with finger wagging instead of antiretrovirals, those women will again be at great risk.
This crisis over reauthorization has to do with the fever that has beset elements of the G.O.P., leaving some senators and House members inhabiting what seems to be delirium. A P.R.R.I. poll in 2021 found that 23 percent of Republicans agree that “The government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.” Even now, some two-thirds of Republicans believe that President Biden was not legitimately elected. Only 40 percent of Republicans say that the benefits of Covid vaccines outweigh the risks (which is why research suggests that Covid may have disproportionately killed Republicans).
The denunciations of PEPFAR horrify the Republican Party’s grown-ups, who recognize how important the program has been. “This is America at its best,” Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state, told me.
“Let’s not throw away one of the really great moments when the United States took on this extraordinary challenge of people who were dying from this pandemic and intervened and started to save lives,” Rice said. “I just don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to continue to do that.”
PEPFAR is one reason polls show that Africa is one of the most pro-American parts of the globe. China is competing for hearts and minds there, and America’s struggle to reauthorize PEPFAR amounts to a gift to Xi Jinping.
PEPFAR reminds us of the complicated truth, which is that in 2003, Bush both began a catastrophic war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and also started a program that saved 25 million lives. Does that mess with our heads? Of course. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The ability to navigate a messy, contradictory world is a mark of maturity — and of governing.
Now it’s Republicans who need to muster the maturity to govern. And in that sense PEPFAR’s reauthorization is a test for a once great political party that now sometimes seems to be fighting psychosis.
Wednesday, September 20, 2023
The Kristen Welker era of “Meet the Press” is off to a bleak start.
The high-stakes sit down with disgraced former president Donald Trump was all risk and little reward for Welker as she assumed the esteemed moderator chair of “Meet the Press” for the first time Sunday. Television executives I surveyed before and after the interview were baffled that NBC News and Welker willfully chose to take on such a fraught assignment, given Trump’s notorious propensity to lie. As one television executive put it to me, “It was a crazy way to set the tone of what ‘Meet the Press’ would be under her.”
But the Peacock network opted to do it — and NBC News spent the entire week hyping Welker as someone who “met the moment” as a White House correspondent when “power was held to account” during Trump’s tumultuous presidency. Unfortunately, Welker failed spectacularly to meet the moment during her interview with Trump.
Welker allowed Trump to make a number of statements wholly untethered to reality on a range of critical issues without tenacious, resolute, or meaningful pushback. Trump, a rapid-fire lie machine, did his usual song and dance. He lied about the election. He lied about the insurrection that his lies had spawned. And he lied about pretty much every topic that Welker broached.
Throughout it all, Welker seemed ill-equipped to handle Trump’s trademark bravado. Lacking any noticeable fire in her belly, she at times timidly tried to set the facts straight. But Welker lacked the necessary fervor and apparent grasp of the subject material the massive platform requires to effectively counter Trump
It was a low moment in Welker’s otherwise pristine career. And it’s sure to have consequences for the storied Sunday public affairs show, given that Welker’s debut was NBC News’ chance to refresh the program, define what role it will serve in the 2024 election, and win over the hearts and minds of viewers.
While the episode will likely see better-than-usual ratings because of the debut of Welker and anticipated interview with Trump, it is a fair bet that the manner in which she executed the Trump sit-down will have alienated a not insignificant swath of the audience. CNN, for instance, saw a tsunami of criticism wash over the network in the wake of its (also disastrous) town hall with Trump this spring — and the network is still trying to win back viewers.
But the interview also speaks to a larger problem that — somehow in 2023 — continues to confound the news media and the well-compensated television anchors tasked with effectively holding power to account. Even after Trump subverted democracy during the 2020 election, inspiring an actual insurrection on the US Capitol, newsrooms continue to struggle with how to cover him.
It’s arguable that, at this juncture, there is really no need to interview Trump. After years and years of seeing how he dishonestly operates, what exactly is there to glean from a sit-down? The near-certain result is that the outlet will record a stream of lies rushing out of his mouth, mixed in with absurd grievances about how supposedly unfair the system treats him. Does any of that really serve the public?
Some news executives seem to believe that Trump can make “news” during interviews, but pressing him on policy issues rarely yields consequential results. The public is well familiar with Trump and already knows that he is a man estranged with the truth.
If it is necessary to interview Trump, newsrooms need to approach the task differently than they would any other interview. While there is a temptation among the D.C. class to pretend that newsrooms still operate in a 1990s-like era in which Republicans and Democrats are treated as opposite sides of the same coin, doing so is a grave error. The Republican Party of 2023 is very different than the Republican Party of yesteryear. And its leader, the twice impeached and four-times indicted Trump, is no normal politician.
When interviewing Trump, the goal cannot be to make “news” like one might attempt with a typical politician. The purpose of the interview must be to hold power to account. It must be about asserting the facts in a meaningful way and forcing Trump to confront them. He will still, of course, lie — but at least the audience might be able to see through the showmanship if the interviewer displays a firm grip on the subject matter and exerts command.
Unfortunately, few in the press who have taken on the assignment have proven capable of executing the difficult task in a compelling way. That doesn’t bode well for the news industry or, more importantly, democracy at large.
Tuesday, September 19, 2023
The United States of America is facing a threat from a sometimes violent cult while a nuclear armed power wages war on the border of our closest allies. And yet, many Americans sleepwalk as if they are living in normal times instead of in an ongoing crisis.
Americans have become accustomed to so much in public life that they would have once found shocking. But many of these events are not only shameful; they are a warning, a kind of static energy filling the air just before a lightning strike. America is in a state of emergency, yet few of its citizens seem to realize it.
For example, a single [Republican] senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, has been holding up hundreds of military promotions for months, endangering the national security of the United States. The acting chief of naval operations says it will take years for the Navy to recover from the damage. (Welcome news, no doubt, in Beijing.) Few people outside of America’s senior military leadership seem particularly concerned.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is going to open an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Why? Well, why not? Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised the extremists in his party that if they made him speaker, he would do what he was told. And so he has; the People’s House is now effectively being run by members such as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, fringe figures who in better times might never have been elected, and in a sensible House would have been relegated to the backbenches so far away from the rostrum that their seats would be in a different time zone.
Elsewhere, the governor of Florida and his vaccine-skeptic surgeon general are telling people under 65 not to get boosted against COVID. He apparently thinks that anti-science extremism will help him wrest the Republican presidential nomination away from Donald Trump, and so he is resorting to a deeply cynical ploy that could cost lives.
And then there is Trump himself, the wellspring of all this chaos. In a country that understood the fragility of its own freedoms, we would see him for what he is: the leader of a dangerous cult who has admitted to his attempts to subvert American democracy.
Last week, Special Counsel Jack Smith filed a request for a gag order on Trump to stop him from making more public attacks on prosecutors, witnesses, and potential jurors. As they say on social media, let that sink in: A federal prosecutor has asked a judge to stop the former president of the United States from threatening lawyers and witnesses in his case, and intimidating potential jurors.
As I wrote recently, this is not a normal election. (We haven’t had one of those in almost a decade now.) The GOP is not a normal political organization; the party withdrew into itself years ago and has now emerged from its rotting chrysalis as a nihilistic, seditionist movement in thrall to Trump. And Trump is not a normal candidate in any way: He regularly expresses his intention to continue his attacks on the American system and has made so many threats in so many different directions that we’ve lost track of them. Yet millions of Americans simply accept such behavior as Trump being Trump, much as they did in 2016.
[W]e might at least expect the media to report on Trump not merely as a candidate but as if they were following the developments around a dangerous conspiracy or the ongoing trial of the leader of a major crime syndicate.
Instead, we have Kristen Welker inaugurating the reboot of Meet the Press by leaning forward with focused sincerity and asking Trump, “Tell me—Mr. President, tell me what you see when you look at your mug shot?” That wasn’t even the worst of it. . . . .
Many of my colleagues in the media have already dissected Welker’s failure, . . . . It’s about the mainstream broadcast media. All of them. In 2016 broadcast media was totally inadequate to the job of covering an aspiring authoritarian … Today—even after witnessing an insurrection—they still don’t seem to understand the situation and their complicity in it.”
Democrats and their liberal allies claim to be in full mobilization mode to stop Trump and defang his threat to the constitutional order. But are they? . . . . . How many more times will Trump’s opponents in the pro-democracy coalition internalize the right’s criticisms—about inflation, about spending, about gasoline—and respond to them as if Republicans care one whit about policy?
Yes, gas is expensive. So is food. These are real issues, and people deserve to hear how their government will assist them. The solution to these problems, however, is not to normalize an authoritarian and thus pretend that one party, dysfunctional as it can be, is the same as a reactionary, anti-constitutional, and sometimes violent movement.
We don’t have to live in panic. Americans need not walk around all day with their hair on fire, talking about nothing else but the gathering dangers. . . . But we don’t have to live this way, either, with voters and institutions—and especially the media—pretending that all is well while charlatans, aspiring theocrats, and would-be authoritarians set fire to American democracy.
This is the Republican Party today. In the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, trying to corral a fractious majority, has ordered an impeachment inquiry into President Biden over his son’s financial entanglements, even as elements in his caucus push to shut down the government unless there are drastic cuts in spending. In the Senate, Mitt Romney announced his plan to retire, having declared to his biographer that “a very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”
In Wisconsin and North Carolina, G.O.P. legislators push the envelope of hardball tactics to remove or disempower Democrats in other branches of government. And in the presidential campaign, Republican contenders struggle to make the case for a non-Trump candidacy without antagonizing Donald Trump’s many supporters, and often avoid major spheres of public policy.
Together these depict a party that is preoccupied with antics that crash into the guardrails of American political life and conspicuously lacks a coherent, forward-looking vision for governing. A modern political party has devolved into a racket.
The country needs a right-of-center party. But today, as the G.O.P. has lost a collective commitment to solving the nation’s problems and become purposeless, the line separating party politics from political conspiracy has frayed.
[T]he Georgia election case against Mr. Trump and 18 others makes for a particularly powerful X-ray of the party. The sheer array and specific identities of those indicted in the case highlights how easily a conspiracist approach to political life, unconstrained by a party now incapable of policing boundaries or channeling passions into a larger purpose beyond raw hardball, can justify and compel illicit machinations.
The defendants in the Georgia case represent every major component of what scholars term a modern “party network”: formal party organizations at the state and local level (like the former Georgia party chairman David Shafer), informal activist and interest groups (like John Eastman of the Claremont Institute) and candidate-centered operations (like Harrison Floyd of Black Voices for Trump).
Beyond those indicted, the broader party work of evasion and deflection contributes to the conspiracy. The posture’s stock-in-trade is an “anti-anti” discourse, which focuses on excoriating foes rather than making explicit defenses of behavior or positive arguments about plans for the country. . . . . A conservative media ecosystem, including Fox News, helps enable a politics of performative antics and profits handsomely from it.
The Trump-focused personalism that has defined Republican politics since 2015 is more a symptom than the cause of the party’s pathology. . . . how aimless it has become beyond the struggle for power and the demonization of its enemies.
Conspiracism has a long provenance on the American right, reaching back to McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. So does a ruthlessly mercenary view of political parties. A speaker at the second Conservative Political Action Conference in 1975 deemed parties “no more than instruments, temporary and disposable.” Such activists soon occupied the party’s commanding heights.
Starting in the 1970s, Republicans won elections by marrying a regressive economic agenda with us-versus-them populist appeals. . . . . But the programmatic side of the party, under the leadership of figures like Paul Ryan (a Kemp protégé), came eventually to alienate even the party’s own base with an unpopular agenda more and more tailored to the affluent.
By 2016, as a demagogue unleashed a hostile takeover of a hollowed and delegitimized party, the conspiracism and the transactional view of political institutions had fully joined. Conspiracism brought about active conspiracy.
As the early political scientist Francis Lieber put it in 1839, “all parties are exposed to the danger of passing over into factions, which, if carried still farther, may become conspiracies.”
The Republican Party of the 21st century has succumbed to that danger, and so revived something of the brittle and unstable quality of politics in the Republic’s early years. This leaves the Republic itself, now as then, vulnerable.
Parties organize political conflict — what the political theorists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum term “the discipline of regulated rivalry” — but they also offer projects with visions, however blinkered and partial, for how societies should handle their challenges and build their futures.
Without that commitment to solve problems, the tendencies to conspiracism and ultimately conspiracy prove harder to resist. Barring the sort of fundamental course correction that typically comes only from the defeats of many political actors in multiple elections, those tendencies inside the Republican Party will endure long after, and regardless of how, Mr. Trump departs from the scene.
This is not to impugn every Republican. As confirmed by both the federal and Georgia election-related indictments, many Republican officials, like the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, resisted intense pressure to interfere with the election and did their duty. . . . . But these responsible individual actions simply cannot substitute for a conspicuously missing party project.
To see the personalism around Mr. Trump in the context of the entire party is to see past the breathless statements about his magnetic appeal and to observe a party more bent on destroying its enemies than on the tough work of solving hard problems.
As long as that remains so, the impulse to conspiracy will remain, and democracy will depend on keeping it in check.
Monday, September 18, 2023
Sunday, September 17, 2023
Once upon a time, presidential impeachment was a rare event. But with four of the five inquiries in U.S. history coming in the past 25 years, people seeking to understand and explain the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, launched Tuesday, have looked to the 2019 impeachment of President Donald Trump as an analogy. Both center on allegations of using elected office for personal gain, and both have been divided sharply along partisan lines.
The comparison is understandable, especially because some Republicans have explicitly framed their inquiry as a response to Trump’s impeachment, as Jonathan Chait writes. But the more useful comparison is to the House investigation into Benghazi from 2014 to 2016. Both inquiries are based far more on vibes and political machinations than they are on hard evidence. Kevin McCarthy’s longstanding ambition to be speaker of the House sit at the center of both. And the fate of the Benghazi investigation offers some indications about how this one could turn out.
Like the current impeachment inquiry, the Benghazi story began with U.S. involvement in a foreign country—in this case, Libya, where the Obama administration was reluctantly drawn into the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi. On September 11, 2012, Islamist attacks on two U.S. facilities in the city of Benghazi killed the U.S. ambassador, a Foreign Service officer, and two CIA contractors. Republicans blamed Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, for failing to prevent or respond quickly to the attack. Then-Speaker John Boehner initially resisted calls for a special committee to investigate the attack but eventually agreed.
The point of the Benghazi committee was to hurt Clinton’s chances at winning the presidency in 2016. We know this because Republicans were not subtle. As McCarthy, then the House majority leader, said in a September 2015 TV interview: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.
That frank confession that a congressional inquiry had been used as a tool of partisan warfare helped cost McCarthy the speakership. The same month, Boehner announced his retirement. McCarthy had been the clear favorite, but amid fallout from the interview, he suddenly dropped out, saying he couldn’t unite the caucus. He eventually got the gavel in January of this year, but now his speakership is once again on the line. As my colleague Russell Berman wrote Tuesday, McCarthy is a hostage of the far-right flank of his party, which forced him into announcing the impeachment inquiry. McCarthy’s ability to manage the process will in part determine whether he keeps his job.
The basis for the first Trump impeachment was clear from the start. A whistleblower alleged that Trump had tried to extort an investigation into (wait for it) Hunter and Joe Biden over dealings in Ukraine, using funds appropriated by Congress as leverage. The White House released a transcript of the call the same day that Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry. The rest of the inquiry turned up lots of new information about Trump’s attempt to use Ukraine as a pawn in his reelection campaign, but the basic allegation was clear from the start, and the question was not whether Trump had done it but whether it was a “perfect” call, as he insisted, or a serious breach of his oath of office.
In both Benghazi and the Biden impeachment, by contrast, it isn’t entirely clear what precisely the misconduct is. In the Benghazi investigation, everyone agreed that something bad had happened—Americans died. But Republicans had no clear theory of why that was Clinton’s fault. In the Biden case, a consensus has emerged that Hunter Biden engaged in brazenly unethical behavior (separate from his legal woes in the United States), but that doesn’t amount to wrongdoing on his father’s part. McCarthy’s stated rationales for the impeachment inquiry are flimsy, unproven, and incorrect, . . . .
Nonetheless, Republicans seem absolutely certain that Biden is wildly corrupt, and they would prove it if only they could get all the pieces of the investigation to come together, and if only they could find their witnesses, and if only those witnesses weren’t facing federal charges, and so on. This is a view propounded not just by the far right in Congress, but also by prominent voices in the supposedly sober and serious conservative press. Well, perhaps: Evidence of serious misconduct by Joe Biden might still turn up, but for the time being, the exercise looks like a transparent attempt to hurt Biden’s chances at reelection.
Much like Benghazi. For a time, the Benghazi committee looked like nothing more than a big fishing expedition. Despite more than two years of work, the committee did not find any wrongdoing by Clinton. Her own testimony before the committee, an 11-hour slog, was widely viewed as a victory for her, because she was in command of the facts and Republican committee members didn’t land any real blows on her. By the time the election rolled around, “Benghazi” was more of a punch line—against Republicans—than a live campaign issue.
One can easily imagine the Biden impeachment following that path. James Comer, the House Oversight Committee chair, who has been leading investigations into Hunter Biden, has appeared bumbling and ineffective. So far, no evidence suggests offenses that reach the historical threshold for impeachment. Moderate House Republicans show little appetite for impeachment, and getting a full House vote—much less a successful impeachment—looks very challenging for McCarthy.
But the Benghazi experience points to another possibility, too. Although the Benghazi committee couldn’t nail Clinton, one byproduct of the investigation was the revelation of Clinton’s private email server, which turned out to be a defining issue in the 2016 presidential election, and arguably cost her the presidency. Just because an investigation fails in its putative goal doesn’t mean it will fail in its actual goal.