Hold onto your hats on January 6th

It sure would be nice if it were January 20th already. Unfortunately, we still have more than two weeks to go. To no one’s surprise, Trump isn’t going quietly. In the interim he plans to make things as dangerous as possible for our country. It’s also likely that once out of office he’ll spend most of his time trying to undermine the Biden Administration, aided and abetted by plenty in Congress who in the meantime will make one last quixotic attempt to overturn the election on Wednesday.

Wednesday is when Congress counts the electoral votes submitted by the states. Like on the day electoral votes were cast in state capitals, Trump plans to make mischief. He is urging his supporters to protest in Washington, protests that have effectively carried on for about a month as his supporters seem to have taken up long-term residence at the Hotel Harrington. Members of his party in both the House and Senate are planning to object to the votes submitted by certain states that gave Biden a majority in the Electoral College. They are alleging numerous ballot fraud issues, none of which have passed the muster of state or federal judges or various recounts (three times in parts of Georgia) where the alleged voter fraud took place.

Since the House will be controlled by Democrats, it won’t go anywhere but the process may take a couple of days to play out, since votes for each state can be challenged and each challenge requires two-hour meetings by both houses of Congress. You can bet Trump is working the phones to get more Republican senators to fall in line in this doomed effort. All this plus the planned protests on Wednesday raises the likelihood of violent protests.

The Capitol is a very secure building but even it is under potential threat. I haven’t read any news stories about what if anything is being done to add extra security to the Capitol. I sure hope it’s quietly being done. Presumably all the Capitol Police will be there. If I were DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, I’d be quietly putting all DC police on this beat too, and have DC’s National Guard ready and waiting. The game here might be to shut down Congress so no counting can finish. It technically wouldn’t keep Trump in power as his term expires at noon on the 20th and would leave Nancy Pelosi as the acting President. But it could spark the large-scale civil unrest that many groups like the Proud Boys seem to want to unleash. A government in anarchy is at least not one controlled by Democrats, or anyone else for that matter.

We’ll see how much of this worst-case scenario unfolds, but it’s all because Donald Trump is incapable of accepting his defeat. And that’s because he suffers from malignant narcissism, a condition that is seemingly shared by many of his supporters. With a few exceptions like Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, those supporting Trump in Congress know their protests are pointless and won’t change the outcome. This is just a flanking maneuver for the one thing they truly care about: being unchallenged in a 2022 primary.

So, my worst-case scenario seems to be happening much later than sooner, but is underway nonetheless. The process is designed to sort through these issues much earlier, which is in fact what occurred. It was just that Trump was incapable of accepting the results.

What if anything should be done in response? What’s playing out, on a macro level, is really the reaction of Republicans realizing they are moving toward a permanent minority status. Unable to broaden their coalition because compromising their principles is a non-starter, all they have left that they haven’t tried is to unconstitutionally wrest power away from those to whom voters have granted it. In other words: to break the law and perhaps start a new civil war in the process. The mere idea of permanent minority status is unacceptable and it appears any means necessary to keep it from happening is okay with them. As for Trump, it’s all about protecting his fragile ego which can’t abide with the shame of being certified a loser.

But things may get worse before Congress counts the electoral votes. If voters in Georgia elect two Democratic senators on Tuesday, control of Congress passes narrowly to the Democrats (with a split Senate and with Vice President Elect Kamala Harris the tie breaker), effectively one-party government. A lot of this may be self-inflicted. Trump himself has already suggested these Georgia runoff election outcomes will be illegitimate. Many of his minions have urged Republicans not to vote in the election, apparently blaming Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims, making this scenario all the more likely.

The uneasy and tacit rules of governing seem to be becoming unglued. Democracy itself appears to be breaking down in the United States. All this feeds the outcome that Trump supporters seem to clearly want. In other words, chaos is not a bug in their system, it’s now a feature. Even if they don’t prevail this time, by breaking precedents they are creating a future where they expect to get their way regardless of how the voters vote.

This should be and is terrifying. Hold onto your hats.

Biden’s most important task

So I was listening to this podcast, talking about the rise of neoliberalism and opining that it is likely in its last gasps. A poorly named philosophy, neoliberalism is actually better named neoconservatism. It’s the idea that freedom comes through markets and that the more we orient society to enable entrepreneurs and free markets and clip the government’s wings, the more everyone’s boat rises and freedoms expand.

The opposite of course has happened. Income inequality is now at record levels. What new growth there is goes almost entirely to the rich. The only mystery is why it was hung on to for so long. It hung on in part because there are a lot of shysters out there. Its most recent example is Donald Trump, a so-called populist who pulled the wool over the eyes of his supporters so well that they still support him, even though he has systematically tried to impoverish them.

Remember the Trump who was going to do all these magical things like give us something better than cheaper than Obamacare, and almost instantly, and was going to bring back jobs to the United States? You got to hand it to Trump, though. Right now, he is still picking the pockets of his supporters, still getting them to send his campaign money, even though he has lost the election. Most of these donations goes to an entity which allows him to channel it right back into his pocket. These loonies though are still smitten with Trump, still convinced our election was rigged (but only against Trump, apparently) and have no problem with totalitarianism to keep Trump in power. If he somehow succeeded though, based on his track record, he would just find more ways to fleece them and the rest of us. That’s his biggest skill.

In 2016 Trump sounded a lot like Bernie Sanders; it’s just that Sanders was the true populist. People followed Trump because he told them stuff they wanted to hear. You know his base wants a lot of progressive policies; after all, Florida voted for him while also approving a $15/hour minimum wage. Many progressive ideas are popular with Trump supporters. They just get lost in supporting class warfare. They can’t seem to figure out that by supporting it they are undermining their own prosperity.

Anyhow, if this podcast is true, neoliberalism is in its last days. The reaction to Trump’s defeat is strong evidence that his supporters are coming apart at the seams because they can’t get their way. Is a new, more progressive era at hand?

I’m hoping it is and there are certainly signs that time should prove this true. The hard part is getting from here to there. One constant has been the obstinance from red states, who seem to be all for white supremacy and income inequality. It’s just that red states are becoming fewer. Georgia is looking purple and may start to look blue if both Democrats win their runoff races next month. There’s more early voting in Georgia for these races today than there was before the presidential election. Polls proved unreliable in the November election, but what polls there are in the Georgia Senate race suggest Democrats Warnock and Ossoff have slim leads.

I spent more than thirty years in Virginia and watched it moved from red to purple to consistently blue. Arizona is definitely looking like a purple state. North Carolina and Wisconsin seem to be becoming purple too. You have to look hard for a state that is bucking the trend. I can only see Ohio trending more red.

The challenge of the moment is keeping our fragmenting country together. The Trump base has never been a majority, but they are a large minority and they apparently have few limits. Republicans in general have been playing a high stakes game for decades, methodically investing the time and resources to turn things their way. Now though it seems like they feel it slipping from their grasp. It’s this anxiety that is driving crazy stuff, like violent Proud Boys marches in Washington, D.C. Their tactics though only work as long as they work. With voter suppression losing its edge, and states moving slowly toward less gerrymandered districts, the extremes are feeling marginalized. In the past this would be a sign to expand their coalition by moving toward the middle, but Trump won’t let them.

President Elect Joe Biden has many things to tackle once he assumes office. But arguably the most important task will be to restore our democratic republic. Rule of law must reflect adherence to our actual law. Our government needs to function again.

How many years has it been since Congress not funded government through continuing resolutions? Congressional committees used to have real power; now most are fig leaves. The real power in Congress rests in its majority leader in the Senate, since he seems to control everything, most importantly its agenda. The situation in the House is not much better. Nancy Pelosi too is exercising powers largely beyond those traditionally granted to the Speaker of the House. So we get crazy things like an omnibus spending bill where members have two hours to read it before voting yea or nay and no opportunity to debate it. Agencies get by from year to year on continuing resolutions with little changing of their priorities and missions as a result of Congressional deliberations. Congress needs to do its job in the way it was set up to do it. Most of those in Congress though are arguably superfluous, since their power amounts to electing their majority leader or speaker, done every two years at best.

If we can’t run the government the way it was intended to be run, if power can’t be shared more equitably, if its members can’t even agree to a modicum of respect and compromise, things will only unravel more. Joe Biden at least seems to understand this. Let’s see how much he will actually be able to accomplish.

An adult in charge

And that’s basically it. One month from today, we’ll have an adult in charge of our country again.

For four years Trump has run the government as if Dennis the Menace were in charge. He was aided and abetted by the Republican Party, but make no mistake: The Republican Party itself didn’t want Donald Trump. They just discovered that they had no choice. Trump crashed their party so it was either adapt and be his fawning sycophant or do what only a relative handful of Republicans did: become Never Trumpers. Coincidentally they are also no longer Republicans, because the Republican Party is now basically the Trump Party.

It was crazy while it lasted, but in a month the party should be over. You know it’s still crazy because Trump sure appears to believe that somehow, he will still be president after noon on January 20. Too many Republicans in Congress are still afraid to state the obvious. I mean, the Electoral College voted last week so that’s that.

Well, not quite. It’s likely Trump believes that when the certification gets challenged in Congress on January 6 that somehow that verdict will get undone. Or there’s the less subtle route. Last Friday, Michael Flynn — his short-lived national security advisor who Trump pardoned — along with attorney Sidney Powell reportedly tried to talk Trump into a military coup. Just until the election could be rerun properly, mind you; “properly” meaning Trump is declared the winner, the only possible correct result.

It sounds like our next attorney general will have new charges (sedition) to file against Michael Flynn. Anyhow, for reasons I discussed in an earlier post, a coup is extremely unlikely, in part because it appears the military voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. But also because the military swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the president. So did Trump, but Senate Republicans decided that it didn’t matter when your party is in charge.

Anyhow, one of the few things that made me feel better since the election was to watch our president elect behave, well, presidential. He’s busy doing the stuff that presidents traditionally do before they take office, albeit with fitful cooperation from the Trump Administration. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has finally acknowledged the obvious. Frankly, for all his words, I suspect McConnell is secretly relieved that Biden will be the next president. At his heart, McConnell is an institutionalist. Trump wanted to blow up the government. McConnell knows that is reckless; indeed, the surest way to get Republicans out of power is to blow it up. Institutions he cares about, like a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, can’t have much sway if government no longer exists. Also, he could be replaced with someone Trump would prefer more.

Biden’s picks so far have lived up to his promise to create an administration that reflected our diversity. It’s pretty breathtaking, really. Barack Obama’s administration was certainly reasonably diverse, but it was still mostly full of insider white guys. Frankly, had Bernie Sanders somehow won the presidency, I doubt his picks would be as diverse as Biden’s. They would definitely be more progressive, but I doubt we’d have an Interior secretary nominee who is Native American, a sign that Biden truly gets it. An insular figure like Trump would wreak havoc on his political opponents; Biden is wise enough to bring them along and put them to work, making them vested in the outcome.

Biden is smart enough to know he doesn’t know everything, and that he can only be effective through others. Trump never understood this at all; he values only subservience and loyalty. Only someone who has led a completely insular life where they never were accountable to anyone like Donald Trump can think they will always know more and be smarter than others. In his own way, Biden is creating another Team of Rivals, similar to what Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln did. The ramped-up diversity in Biden’s picks brings out more opinions and perspectives. The effective president spends most of their time listening, not giving orders. In short, Biden’s approach so far is very smart and bodes well for his administration.

Biden also understands that government and business are two completely different spheres and they really don’t mix. Trump’s term has pretty much proved this; he saw the presidency as primarily a way to satisfy his own ego while hopefully profiting from it as well. Government is in the business of serving the people, not the other way around.

Now if we can just get through this final month. Biden is not even president yet and already has a 55% approval rating. Trump never broke fifty percent and spent most of his time in the low forties. Citizens can smell competence, which Biden has aplenty. He may not be the president we want, but it sure looks like he’ll be the president we actually need for this moment.

Time to draw a line in the sand on Republican traitors

Before the election in a number of posts I said that the time between Election Day and Biden’s inauguration would be one of the most challenging constitutionally for our country we’ve ever experience. I outlined many scenarios on how it could play out which I placed in many posts. There were too many variables in the election to know precisely how it would play out, but so far, I at least feel vindicated in my general assessment of this interregnum – not that it was too hard to figure out.

We are amidst the curse of living in interesting times. One of the challenges though of times like today is to figure out how to successfully navigate them so that better times (rather than chaos) lay ahead.

I figured we’d be in the streets at the moment, but right now it’s Trump supporters who are in the streets … and in the courts. Thousands of Trump supporters are in the streets of Washington, D.C. as I write, shouting for four more years of Donald Trump. It’s their constitutional right to protest and providing their protesting doesn’t lead to violence they should vent their spleens. They are protesting because they believe that Trump’s loss was stolen from them, even though after fifty lawsuits not one of them has produced any evidence that judges could accept. Just yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision seemed to put an end to it all, refusing to hear a case from Texas asking the court to overturn the results in four key states that voted for Joe Biden.

But of course, that won’t quite be the end of it. Monday the Electoral College votes in the fifty states plus the District of Columbia and certifies their electors. One of my fears is that Trump would put the U.S. military around some of these state capitols to keep the electors from doing just this. We’ll see if this happens. But it’s likely when Congress opens the votes on January 6, 2021 there will be objectors. This ain’t over until it’s over. Like Nixon’s helicopter scene, we won’t really know Biden is president until he is sworn in and a military attaché with the nation’s nuclear codes is by Biden’s side.

But it probably won’t be over even after then. We don’t know yet the results of Georgia’s two senate seat elections, but it’s likely if Republicans maintain a majority of senators that Mitch McConnell will be pressed to obstruct as much of the Biden Administration’s agenda as possible, possibly including refusing to vote on most of his cabinet and other choices. Indeed, Trump is likely to try to run a shadow presidency from Mar-a-Lago or wherever he ends up. I’ve suggested it might be Russia once the lawsuits and criminal charges are filed. Trump will demand attention and it will be up to us and the media to keep granting it to him or not.

Friday’s Supreme Court decision tossing out Texas’s case, joined by more than a dozen Republican state attorneys general and 120 Republicans in Congress, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the bulk of Republicans don’t want democracy and would prefer an autocracy where they are in charge instead. By signing on to this suit, they publicly engaged in sedition against the United States. It is this action that I think must be challenged. An implicit line in the sand was drawn that was stepped over when Republicans joined wholeheartedly in this effort. Now another and enforceable line in the sand should be drawn: The House of Representatives should not seat any member of Congress that seditiously joined in this lawsuit.

It’s been done from time to time. My brother today reminded me that we have a great uncle who wasn’t seated in the U.S. Congress in 1869 after the Civil War because his loyalty was questioned as a Democrat. The House, like the Senate, sets its own rules and it can simply refuse to seat representatives by a majority vote. Most of these representatives are already in Congress and won reelection. All of them, like Donald Trump, swore to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States. Their actions of sedition and treachery though prove through their signatures that they didn’t live up to their sworn oaths when it mattered. So, I say, refuse to seat the whole lot of them! Let that be democracy’s line in the sand. Let that be how we rise to the moment.

It can be done. Democrats control the House, even though they lost seats, so if Democrats stay united on this it can happen. The U.S. Constitution specifically allows each house of Congress to set their own rules. The rules for the current Congress have been set, but the rules for the next Congress have not. Refuse to seat them and require that governors of the many states send interim replacements, but only those who will swear fealty to the Constitution of the United States and publicly avow that they will not subvert the will of the people expressed through the voting process.

Of course, I’m not unmindful of the backlash this would cause. It’s hard to believe that it would be much worse than what we’ve already endured. But we need to think of the future and protect the most important thing of all: our republican form of democracy and our constitution and the many laws derived from it, including our freedoms. This is no time to be weenies about our democracy. It’s a time firmly avow by taking all necessary action to ensure nothing like this can happen again. In 2024, it should be simply unthinkable because of the emotional shock that we inflict now.

The most charitable workaround would be to seat those members who publicly disavow their actions at the House podium and promise to never subvert the electoral process or our constitution again. But I wouldn’t want this. I think they should all be permanently unseated. The price of their treachery must be borne. They should feel lucky if the least that happens to them is that they never take their seats. I would hope the Justice Department would look into seeing if any criminal charges apply and if so to go after these miscreants aggressively.

Republicans no longer find democracy convenient

So our Supreme Court has decided not to hear a case from a Trump supporter to overturn the results of the election in Pennsylvania and award its Electoral College votes to Trump. That’s good and should not be a surprise given that the Constitution allows each state to decide how to award its Electoral College votes. It’s simply not a matter for the U.S. Supreme Court. Like almost all states, Pennsylvania decided to give all its Electoral Votes to whoever wins a plurality of the votes cast.

Still, you never know and it’s unlikely the court has received its last plea to change the election results. Now Texas wants the court to overturn the four swing states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia) electoral votes too, and hopefully that’s as unlikely to get a hearing for the same reason.

In fact, “Safe Harbor Day” (December 8) has passed, meaning Congress must presume the certified Electoral College votes from the states are not to be questioned. This means, absent a coup, Joe Biden will be our 46th president. He’ll be it because (duh!) he won a majority of the Electoral College votes, or will when they are officially cast on December 14th in state capitols. It would seem then that if you want your party to win the presidency, you should figure out how to lawfully collect a majority of the Electoral College votes cast in free and fair elections.

If this were eight years ago, the Republican Party would do a post mortem and would figure out what it figured out then: we need to expand our base and maybe move toward the middle so we attract more voters. Of course, in 2016, the Republican Party did just the opposite but won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by three million votes.

In 2020, the Republican Party seems to be even more obstinate. It’s clear they won’t try to broaden their coalition since compromise and coalition building cannot be tolerated. Instead, their take away seems to be they must cheat instead. They did their best in this election but somehow it failed them. The most likely lesson that they’ll take away is to double down on the cheating. For one thing, their conservative courts are not nearly conservative enough since a large number of their judges, particularly in the hinterlands, haven’t gotten the message and have (gasp!) followed the rule of law instead.

The lesson they seem to be taking away is that they can’t allow democracy to happen unless they can ensure they control democracy. In that sense they have plenty in common with the Chinese government and also Henry Ford, who famously declared you could buy his Model T in any color you want, as long as it was black.

This seems to be the enduring legacy of Trumpism: a party that will no longer feel the need to be moored to the Constitution because, well, their being in charge ultimately trumps a silly constitution. Unless things fracture within the party, as I hoped, that seems to be their driving concern: to take by force that which they believe must be theirs, because they can no longer stand the idea that they can’t be in charge.

God help us.

K-ing our way to a recovery

My Thanksgiving was spent with family. Only in this case, family means my wife and me, plus two cats who got a few scraps of turkey with their supper.

It was a scaled down meal absent some of the extra fatty dishes my wife makes during the holidays, like her cheese souffle. Also missing was our daughter, who likely wouldn’t have shown up anyhow because she lives four hundred miles away, but had planned to visit us a few earlier. But she needed a fresh covid-19 test and couldn’t get one in a short enough timeframe to satisfy the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So, her Thanksgiving was similarly downscaled but, in her case, it was a rotisserie chicken that her cat helped consume.

The same thing will play out for us at Christmas. In fact, it’s been this way since we returned from a cruise last March, one of the last cruises to go out before covid-19 shut cruising down. We’re socially isolating, along with our many retired neighbors. There is no community holiday party this year. Our condo association’s annual meeting will be on Zoom. Socializing is now saying a few words to neighbors behind our masks at the mail kiosk.

But the end is now in sight, with at least two very promising and very effective vaccines likely to be available soon. As seniors, we’ll likely be nearer to the head of the queue than most. But really, we should be one of the last. There’s a good reason we haven’t contracted covid-19: we hardly ever go anywhere; retirement give us the privilege/luxury to do so. It helps not to be particularly extroverted. For us, coping is not that hard. It’s a bit like serving a sentence of home confinement. A trip to the store once or twice a week is the closest we come to mixing with society. Here in Massachusetts, virtually everyone wears masks outdoors and in stores. It would be truly extraordinary if we somehow contracted covid-19.

We’ll survive this thing pretty easily and comfortably. As for our country, not so much. We’ll likely surpass 300,000 covid-19 related deaths by the end of the year. By the time this is contained, the total is likely to be between 400,000 and 500,000 deaths, and may be higher. This would make it actually worse than the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919.

It’s easier to ignore perhaps because it’s affecting minorities disproportionately, and anyone who has to go out in the real world regularly, which are generally blue-collar types. This was true of my niece Cheryl, who teaches Chinese. She likely acquired it from a student and brought it home to her immune-compromised husband. She wore a mask but it wasn’t enough. Both of them survived it and neither required hospitalization, although there was some rough going. The rest of my siblings remain unaffected, or at least never exhibited symptoms. Most have jobs that allow telecommuting. They do sensible stuff just like us: go out infrequently and always wear masks.

It does get comical at time. I have a sister who retired to Titusville, Florida. Every time she goes out, she’s virtually the only one wearing a mask. Floridians by and large believe in freedom, which in this case means their right to infect others, a right recently upheld by the Supreme Court, at least as it pertains to religious services, as I noted in my last post. In the past, the Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech meant you couldn’t yell fire in a crowded theater. Our latest version of the Supreme Court though thinks its equivalent is fine in houses of worship. Go figure.

Anyhow, my sister observes her fellow neighbors doing stupid stuff. The family across the street brought in extended family and friends for a raucous Thanksgiving meal. It’s likely that part of this extended family will catch the disease from this socializing, but she reports Floridians for the most part just don’t care. They are enjoying their freedom to be mindlessly stupid. My sister and brother-in-law will survive where some of this family may not.

Trump and the Republican Party are giving us hundreds of thousands of Darwin Award winners. A decade from now we’ll look back on this pandemic and wonder how we could be so stupid. For many there wasn’t much choice: it was either that or starvation. After providing initial relief to keep people home, Congress subsequently decided the pandemic wasn’t that big a deal, and wouldn’t pony up more money to reduce our death rate by keeping people solvent while waiting safely at home.

It’s not too hard to predict that the rollout of a vaccine will go badly too. Guidance from the CDC on who should get the vaccine first is likely to be followed in a scattershot manner by the states. Probably twenty percent of us will refuse to get inoculated, letting it linger. But there are also staggering logistical issues in producing and distributing the vaccine. It will likely require two shots and super cold temperatures for storage, plus the candidate vaccines seem to have a shelf life of about a week. For some, they will refuse it because the shot hurts a lot. I’ve had the shingles shot and it’s a lot like that. It did hurt for a few days, but I got better. In any event, a true recovery is likely to arrive later rather than sooner, despite the quick production of an effective vaccine. It’s likely to be another six months before we get a sense that we have gained some control over the disease. The longer we dawdle in doing a good job, the worse our economy will fare compared with other countries.

Perhaps Republicans don’t care because it fattens their bottom line. This is turning out to be a K-shaped recovery, meaning that if you own stocks or can work from home, you’ll probably emerge a winner. Otherwise your personal economy is likely to sink you further toward or into poverty. In that sense only, Republicans have done a good job: they’ve improved the bottom line for those with wealth.

In February before the pandemic became a tangible thing, I moved a lot of our portfolio into bonds convinced that it would be a U-shaped recovery. It is, but not according to the markets. I did keep our net worth up for a while compared with the collapsing financial markets, but I didn’t expect the Federal Reserve’s success at propping up businesses would work so well. With fewer expenses due to the pandemic and markets soaring in spite of our anemic economy, our wealth is soaring.

I can’t find much to spend all this new wealth on, but I do feel guilty for having it. In reality though government responds to those with wealth, and that’s why we’re doing so well. It’s all those other suckers who keep the economy going who fall by the wayside.

Those and stupid people like my sister’s neighbors. Those of us with some wealth, who can easily socially isolate and wear masks will emerge from this triumphant. But our society will be markedly less stable than it was before the pandemic.

So hold onto your hats. The real reaction to the pandemic might show up in 2022.

The Supreme Court puts freedom of religion above freedom from dying

So this is what a conservative majority of the Supreme Court looks like, eh? With her recent confirmation, we have a 6-3 conservative majority with the addition of now Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In one of Justice Barrett’s early decisions, she quickly showed the conservative majority’s power and proved Chief Justice John Roberts the newest “moderate” on the court. In a recent  5-4 decision, the Supreme Court nixed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to temporarily ban worship at houses of worship in the state’s hot covid-19 zones.

Places packed with people of course are natural zones for spreading this coronavirus. Infections there get passed on, not just to congregants in these houses of worship, but to people outside them, some of whom will also pass it on. It all spreads the disease but, hey, your right to worship in the First Amendment is apparently is more important than your desire to not catch this often-deadly disease. Maybe this is because there is no amendment is in the Constitution saying you have the right to a functioning public health system that can take obvious measures in the name of public health.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the opinion said. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Thanks for clarifying that, justices. It’s not like Governor Cuomo issued an edict closing houses of worship permanently. He did it until the disease was under control in these hot zones. This allowed worshippers, but also those who don’t worship there or practice religion at all, to avoid infection and potential death. Until now, this was a perfectly reasonable standard. Now, the Supreme Court is okay with you being dead of covid-19 if it temporarily infringes on someone else’s religious liberty.

I’d like to say this is something new, but the conservative majority has been around since the George W. Bush era. It now just has another member and an expanded majority. Sometimes these decisions expanding liberty are good, such as in the case of allowing universal gay marriage, even though marriage is not a right actually spelled out in our federal constitution. But at other times, it’s been bad. The Supremes decided you have the right to own a gun no matter what, and since that time lots of people have died who would not have had they upheld common sense gun control laws where it was obviously needed.

The premise of liberty seems to be that risk is inherent in the exercise of liberty. It’s just that until fairly recently, this risk was born on those wanting to exercise their liberty instead of everyone else. While about a third of gun-related murders are suicide, the rest are homicides, most likely inflicted against family members, neighbors or other intimates. This decision is just more of the same, except had Justice Ginsberg not died and had not Justice Barrett so quickly replaced her, it would likely have been 5-4 the other way. In other words, sanity would have likely prevailed.

The Supreme Court’s decision here essentially is a death warrant for at least thousands of Americans, and will sicken tens or hundreds of thousands more. Most likely, if you could poll these people (it’s hard to poll dead people) they would disagree with this decision, but apparently, they don’t matter. Preventable death is an unfortunate consequence of having so much liberty.

This is what happens when you put ideologically strict constructionists in our courts. Real life is not allowed to have any impact on their decisions. Instead, these decisions are based not on what our founding fathers really thought about these liberties, but on what they think they might have thought about them, had these founding fathers never interacted in the real world at all.

It’s likely that this court will find new and similar ways to expand liberty, like by denying women the liberty to have an abortion because the liberty to fetal life is somewhere in the U.S. constitution, in their minds. Fetuses without brains even capable of cogitating will be endowed with future freedoms thanks to our enlightened Supreme Court, I’m betting. I’m betting this court will find ways to reduce social benefits because laws like social security weren’t explicitly in the Constitution either. And we’ll all feel freer if we stand on our own two feet, and pay-as-you-go for life, they will figure. Freedom through bad circumstance and a rigged economic system make living better!

I just hope we survive all this liberty. Chances are many of us won’t. And we’ll enjoy a new unarticulated freedom inherent in the Constitution: the right to a premature and miserable death so that others can exercise their freedoms stupidly and/or with malicious intent.

What progress!

Review: The Queen’s Gambit

I used to write various movie reviews. I put that on the back burner for four years because Donald Trump happened. With Trump (I hope) safely neutered, let me return to a more traditional space: occasional art critic. I’ve got a Netflix limited series that you should definitely watch: The Queen’s Gambit.

Certain stories will infect you, in a good way. They have just the right combination of plot, characters, twists and turns. These stories elevate times and people. The movie Selma comes immediately to mind. For us White Americans in particular, it took us into a time and place and inside the minds of Black Americans struggling under oppression that we needed to see and, more importantly, feel.

The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix exclusive, is a limited series that opens up and elevates its characters in a good way. As an infectious story, it will grab you from the opening minutes. Thanks to a compelling script, excellent directing and an amazing casting, it takes you through a profoundly intimate experience.

It’s probably true that I identified with it because I played chess as a kid. But chess is merely a frame for the fascinating character of Beth Harmon:  an orphan, child chess prodigy and substance abuser. It’s really about her intense and overwhelming struggle to put order into and elevate her deeply dysfunctional life. It’s these latter aspects that make it memorable and infectious, not the chess.

In putting her life together under these improbable circumstances, she rises like as phoenix from the ashes. Like Frodo who has to go to Mount Doom to destroy the one ring that is destroying him, Beth Harmon has the unenviable tasks of rising above the mess that life has thrown her. It includes a mother who kills herself, a weird and repressive orphanage she ends up in, racism, hard knocks and her unexpected interest in chess.

It’s hard to overstate how well Anya Taylor-Joy brings to life Beth Harmon. She is brilliant and believable, but so were the actresses who play younger versions of her. What may be unbelievable to some is the idea of a female chess champion. Chess is not considered to be something that women pursue seriously, who are perceived as not very left-brained by nature. Yet there are quite a few women grandmasters out there, just mostly unknown outside of Russia or China. In Beth’s case, a gruff janitor playing by himself in the basement of the orphanage becomes her unlikely gateway into this world. When Beth’s brilliance is finally realized, she easily wins a state championship that she enters as a complete unknown.

Beth gets adopted as a teenager, but her adopted father is an absentee father who abandons her mother, which leaves her adopted mother popping pills. Beth is familiar with pills too, because all the children in the orphanage get them, mostly to keep them pliable. Beth becomes addicted to them, and she thinks the pills are what makes it possible for her to succeed in chess. She thinks it gives her the edge, particularly against some of the best chess players, to win her games.

Despite her seemingly insurmountable problems, it turns out that help can be found in unlikely places. Her adopted mother may be strung out on pills herself, but there is a kind heart beneath her that rises to the occasion of having a new daughter in her life. And in a chess world full of nerds there are enough people to who can see the deeper woman to rise to support her, even while many of them lust for carnal knowledge of her.

In short, the supporting characters too rise above mere supporting roles too and become complex and fleshed out characters in their own right. There’s not one poorly cast character among them and they all bring just the right touch and complexity to their roles. The world of the 1960s is meticulously rendered for the screen. Aside from the stellar direction, the cinematography is amazing in its own right. The series has a real film noir feel to it, with chess matches in foreign places like Paris, Moscow and Mexico City adding complexity, intrigue and many memorable characters. These include Vasily Borgov, a Russian grandmaster and the world’s highest-ranking player, as well as Beth’s biggest challenge. It all gets perfectly resolved in the final seventh episode. It should leave you, like me, in tears at the end.

It’s just amazing. Go watch it.

Republicans don’t believe in either democracy or republican government

It’s taken two and a half weeks, but things have finally reached the totally alarming phase of our post-election madness. With just a couple of exceptions, all Republicans in our federal government seem to be aiding and abetting the corruption of our election and ending our democratic government as we’ve known it.

The good news is that Trump and the Republican Party’s tacit acceptance of his tactics stand little chance of achieving the goal of somehow reversing who will be our next president. The bad news is that if we harbored any illusions that Republicans were not a wholly corrupt party, it’s been blown away by recent events.

Today, Trump has members of the Michigan Republican legislature at the White House to persuade them to somehow give Michigan’s electoral votes to him instead of Joe Biden, who won a majority of them. In reality there’s not much Michigan Republicans can do. The same is true in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, all key states whose votes would need to somehow swing into Trump’s column to pull off this electoral coup. To do what he wants done would have required mendacity and a lot of preplanning. Trump has plenty of mendacity, but almost no ability to plan anything.

The same can’t be said about Republicans in general and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular. For more than thirty years they’ve executed an arguably brilliantly devious and mendacious plan to give Republicans disproportionate electoral impact. It’s been done through gerrymandering to the extreme, wholesale voter disenfranchisement strategies, and abetted by a conservative Supreme Court that said those predominantly southern states didn’t need preapproval by the federal government anymore before changing their voting laws and apportioning legislative districts. The Supreme Court said it was a relic of the past. What Trump is doing today in the White House is proof of how catastrophically wrong this decision was. Our courts have gotten so conservative principally because the Senate has been largely controlled by Republicans and Mitch McConnell, and they won’t approve any but the most conservative jurists.

Democracy is the direct rule of the government by the people. You can still find it here in New England, where major decisions are made by whoever attends periodic town meetings. Republican government means allowing the people to vote for representatives, who hopefully reflect their will in local, state and federal legislatures.

Gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement have been extremely effective in muting the powers of certain voters. It takes extraordinary civic engagement, like we saw in the recent election, to overcome its effects. The Electoral College offers an additional hurdle by giving rural states disproportionate power to select our president.

As Trump’s actions today prove, even that high hurdle is not a bar too far for our president and Republicans in our government to corrupt. Trump’s efforts though are very last minute. A more mendacious future Republican president or presidential candidate won’t make these same mistakes.

I had hoped that this election would bring the end of the Republican Party. I’m likely to be proven wrong on this. Instead, the election is demonstrating just how deeply polarized our country is and how for most Republicans there is no bridge too far for them to cross to achieve their goals. The so-called Law and Order party has no respect for the law, and the only order they will allow is order they declare.

All of this points to how fragile our system of government actually is at the moment. It also shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Republicans don’t want a republican form of government. They want total control. They don’t want to brook or allow any dissent. They are completely happy with an autocracy, as long as the autocrat is one of their own. Apparently, Trump will do fine.

All this points to a nation that is likely to become increasingly ungovernable as there will be virtually nothing both parties can agree on. The job of one party will be to wholly obstruct the other. And at least for Republicans, rules and the law be damned. It’s all completely fair as long as it works to achieve their aims.

So, I expect we will be marching in the streets. It’s just going to happen later instead of sooner. We’re going through a slow-motion national train wreck. And we’re doing it as the worst possible time, with one party wholly corrupt, with a court system holding but teetering, with a pandemic rapidly worsening, and a president who will obstruct any action that would allow for a peaceful and planned transition of government to Joe Biden.

God help us.

Six days later and my stomach is still queasy

I figured I’d be out in the streets pretty soon after the election was called, not necessarily to celebrate Joe Biden’s win, but because we’d see violent actions by right wingers trying to foment insurrection, civil war, revolution or all of the above. That hasn’t happened, which is good. But I’m not at all convinced it won’t happen.

For now, Trump is hoping for a Hail Mary outcome that is unlikely to happen. Even if somehow, he could flip the results in a couple of states, which is almost impossible, Biden’s likely win with 306 electoral college votes means one or two states wouldn’t matter. So far Trump hasn’t egged on his right-wing fanatics, perhaps mindful that doing so would expose him to criminal charges once out of office. So far though the consequence of his actions hasn’t seemed to deter him. So, this may be a card he’s holding close to his chest, waiting for a special moment. Perhaps that day will be December 14, when the Electoral College meets in each of the fifty states, or January 6, 2021 when the votes are certified in Congress.

In the meantime, Trump’s acts are worrisome. He’s so far playing the wannabee dictator’s handbook. He fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, presumably because he publicly said the armed forces would not support a coup attempt. Attorney General Bill Barr has told the Justice Department it’s okay to look into election fraud issues, even though none were found. If you were going to try to carry out a coup, you’d want your toadies in all the key posts. He’s got the Justice Department in his pocket, hopes to have the Defense Department in it too and is making noises like he’s about to fire CIA Director Mark Esper. The FBI technically reports to Bill Barr, but it would be good to get rid of its director too, Christopher Wray. Trump’s got experience firing FBI directors, and he’s not enamored with Wray, so it’s not unrealistic to think he’s going to get ousted soon.

A real coup would be hard to pull off without the National Guard supporting it, and it’s pretty unlikely he can pull that off. In any event, there are chess pieces in play. Until January 20, Trump controls the government, so a coup would depend on how actively his government takes steps to pull one off. We may get half-hearted measures or a huge new Saturday Night Massacre as many levels of government leaders rebel.

Or it could all be worry for naught. Trump is notoriously distractible. Staff could keep him playing golf at one of his many resorts while he stews and tweets. It’s unlikely that right wing militias would do anything without his egging them on. After all, he told the Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by”. Good soldiers as they are, they are waiting for his orders.

Meanwhile of course he is continuing to deny reality and is ordering the government not to let a transition proceed. He still is tweeting but he’s keeping a low public profile, which is unusual for him. You can get a sense of the state of his mind by his tweets, which are now predominantly in uppercase.

In short, expect to stay on pins and needles until we see Biden sworn in and our armed forces fall in behind him. I do hope Biden appoints a presidential photographer and makes his first assignment to hang out at the White House. If Trump has to be bodily evicted, it should be captured for posterity.

Whence then for Trump? If you read me regularly, I expect him to flee this USA. I’m actually hoping for it, as he’d only do it if he figures he might get arrested. The cases against him and the Trump Organization are mostly civil, but it’s certainly possible the Manhattan District Attorney or the New York State Attorney General has a criminal case or two ready to prosecute on January 21.

It would be best if Trump left the country permanently and was always afraid that if he returned he would be indicted and possibly hauled off to jail for fleeing justice. If Trump is guilty of criminal charges, I’d love to see him in prison. But it’s probably better for our country if he stays away permanently. It’s like sending Napoleon to St. Helens. He won’t be wholly neutered but he’ll be mostly neutered, particularly when he violates Twitter’s terms of service. Not being president, his account will be easy to shut off. Twitter recently turned off Steve Bannon’s account after he called for beheading Tony Fauci.

Even with Trump out of the picture, our democracy is in a very fragile state. The seventy or so million people who voted for Trump implicitly are okay with ending democracy and having an authoritarian of Trump’s ilk ruling by fiat instead. There is a cancer on the Republican Party that I don’t think can be cured and many have noted Trump’s success and will imitate his tactics in future campaign. However, they are unlikely to be as ineffective. The Republican Party deserves to die, but right now I don’t see a split within the party severe enough where this can happen, although I predicted it would. Maybe I will be vindicated with time.

Real rule of law needs to return, and structural reforms are urgently needed to shore up our democracy. Unless Democrats win two Senate seats in a Georgia special election, it has virtually no chance of happening before 2022. There are so many issues that need fixing all at once and insufficient political capital to do them that the long-term prospects for a functioning government in our country seem bleak. Biden’s election brought us a ray of hope, but it’s just a ray. Biden’s plan for unity and comity are likely to go nowhere. If Republicans retain the Senate, their agenda will probably be party line obstruction on all levels. There is simply no incentive for them to fix our systemic issues, as they are likely to lose more power if they do. Past initiatives to broaden their party have fallen on deaf ears.

So, while I am obviously glad that Biden and Harris were elected, the odds against them are Herculean. We narrowly won an initial battle, but winning this war against democracy looks iffy at best. At least we should get some breathing room.