A time for courage and for antacids

The Thinker by Rodin

Five months from today we are likely to wake up and find that Joe Biden is our president elect. Donald Trump’s reelection seems increasingly unlikely, given that many polls now show Biden has a ten-point lead over Trump. Or maybe we won’t know. One factor in this election is that there may be a crush of absentee ballots that will take days to tabulate. But hopefully we are less than five months away before we can begin to return to some semblance of normalcy.

But can anything go back to normal after such a disruptive president as Donald Trump? Trump has been our gorilla in the china shop president, gleeful in breaking norms and rules. Given his advanced case of narcissism, as I speculated in an earlier post, he is unlikely to go quietly. In fact, he will go kicking and screaming, and will do his best to initiate a fascist state before then.

This week’s events alarmed most of us, which were preceded by last week’s alarming events with the death of George Floyd, unquestionably murdered by three officers of the Minneapolis police. You can watch all 8:46 seconds of it online, if you have the stomach for it. The murder caused predictable demonstrations followed by some looting and violence. Never one to miss an opportunity, Trump used the event to move us more dangerously close to fascism. He threatened to deploy active duty troops wherever needed, supposedly to restore order. There is a law called Posse Comitatus that prohibits just this, but of course Trump never seems to be concerned about his law breaking. He may use the Insurrection Act instead which other presidents have used, for example, to force integration in Alabama public schools but which most scholars agree is out of line for these events.

Chances are if it is even a fig leaf excuse, he will use it, which suggests dark days ahead. It was brought out on Monday when he ordered the Secret Service and Park Police to clear Lafayette Square of protestors who were peacefully demonstrating, all in order to stage a photo op in front of nearby St. John’s Church holding a Bible held upside down. To show what a man he was, the forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and a dangerously low helicopter hovering over protestors.

Clearly Trump hasn’t read the Bible, but even if he were a Christian he wouldn’t be the first Christian to ignore Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek. In pursuit of the Christian evangelical voters, his forces also pushed out a pastor of the church. All this was made much worse because the order apparently given by our Attorney General supplicant Bill Barr and endorsed by our Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Esper later seemed to walk remarks that active duty troops should be used to quell unrest.

The next day Trump engaged in another obscenity by staging himself next to a statue of Pope John Paul II, who must be turning in his grave in the Vatican. Meanwhile, protests continue. Even our little city of Northampton, Massachusetts had more than a thousand people protested in front of the police department. Our chief of police took a knee with protestors. A huge dance is underway nationally and there’s really no way to know how this will all turn out. For most of us with a lick of common sense, we know it’s likely to get much worse, not better.

Trump is feeling the heat, of course, but all he knows how to do is double down. None of this actually helps him get reelected, so it’s counterproductive. He and the Republican Party are hoping with enough voter suppression they will eke out a win somehow. Trump didn’t win in 2016 with his base; he just managed to convince enough other voters in a few swing states (just 80,000) to pull off his unlikely victory. To win he will have to persuade more than his base, but it’s clear he won’t bother. From the day of his election he’s believed that he can win reelection with just his base, which is slowly diminishing.

All this plus a COVID-19 pandemic. It has officially caused more than 100,000 deaths in the United States. Just his handling (or rather lack of handling) of that is enough to doom his reelection, but it only gets worse from here on. A country that has five percent of the population and 30% of its deaths is obviously doing things catastrophically wrong. A twenty percent unemployment rate won’t help either. As the deaths mount up, it will just shrink his base, which are disproportionately old and white. Many seniors seem to have woken up and Biden now leads among them, perhaps because the sense Trump would go after Social Security and Medicare if reelected.

But of course the election won’t matter if you can neatly create a dictatorship before then. Trump realizes he can’t stop the election and he is likely to lose it, but that doesn’t mean he can’t claim it was rigged and see if he can use the armed forces to ensure that he retains power. He seems to be doing all the things that wannabee dictators are doing, just ineptly. It remains to be seen whether the military would be true to the people or Trump. It sure looks like these demonstrations are being used by Trump to see what he can get away with.

In any event, if you’re not having trouble sleeping and you aren’t reaching for the antacids, you should be. There are some signs of hope, but it’s hard to know how much to read into them. George W. Bush, for example, spoke up for protestors without actually criticizing Donald Trump. Any Republicans left who are looking for cover for mildly rebuking Trump can site Bush. Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be staying on the sidelines either. We haven’t heard from our only other living ex-president, Bill Clinton, but hopefully he will pile on the criticism too.

None of this is likely to matter to Trump, but it is likely that whatever he attempts he may find himself hastily walking back. It may be that his ever-expanding line of privilege will finally make too many key Republicans turn against him. A bully’s power is actually very fragile. Republicans may be already sensing the electoral disaster likely to take many of them out now less than five months away. Some may be more scared of being voted out of office than hanging with a losing Trump.

As screwy as today’s events are, I know in my gut that the time between Trump’s defeat and the inauguration of his likely successor will be the most dangerous time for our country since the Civil War, or perhaps in our country’s entire history. It’s time to stock up on the antacids. It’s also time for many of us to show the backbone we haven’t, particularly many people of privilege, i.e. white and moneyed guys like me. This likely won’t be solved at the ballot box, or by liking someone’s tweets, but by uncomfortably personal, face-to-face, civic engagement likely happening tonight in a city near you.

Republicans are going for a dictatorship

The Thinker by Rodin

Things have been keeping me up at night lately. The latest thing to wake me up in a cold sweat at 4 AM was, of all things, judicial nominations. In case you haven’t noticed, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell has been working at a breakneck pace to put Trump’s judges on the federal bench. It’s pretty much all the Senate does these days.

Presidents of course are supposed to nominate people to the federal bench. It’s generally a good idea for the Senate not to tarry on these nominations as there are plenty of cases that need to be tried and in recent years federal case backlogs have been growing because of many judicial retirements. And that’s because until Trump came along, the Senate wasn’t confirming too many judgeships. Those they were confirming tended to bend toward the right side of the political spectrum.

To give you an idea of how bad it got, at the start of 2015, the last two years of Obama’s second term, there were 45 judicial vacancies. As more judges retired, Obama dutifully nominated 103 candidates, of which the Senate deigned to confirm just 22. During his last two years in office, Obama nominated 76 people. So there were a total of 98 candidates nominated by Obama, only 22 of who were confirmed. 54 nominations were returned. Effectively, less than a quarter of the nominees Obama forwarded to the Senate were confirmed in his last two years.

Obviously, Mitch McConnell was deliberately blocking these nominations, as he blocked Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. He was waiting for a Republican to win in 2016. Since then unsurprisingly things have picked up. After a slow 2017 where only 18 judges were confirmed (it took a while for Trump to nominate new people), 66 were confirmed in 2018 and through 7 more so far through March 2019. 91 judges that have been confirmed since Trump took office. That’s roughly four times the number that Obama got through in his last two years.

Unsurprisingly, there are no left-of-center justices being nominated or confirmed. Breaking with precedent like Mitch McConnell likes to do, he moved forward nominations that were disapproved by home state senators. Thus in the liberal 2nd Circuit which covers New York and New England, with the elevation of Judge Michael Park to the court, brought the number of Republican judges in the circuit to six. It is expected by the summer Republican judges will control the circuit court, meaning judges who disproportionately don’t have a mindset of the people they serve will be telling them what to do.

This stacking of the courts is having real world effects. Trump has plenty of reason to stack the courts because it is his “get out of jail free” card. He needs these judges to rule in his favor so he suffers no consequences for his many actions. For Republicans, it’s not so much saving Trump they care about as getting conservative judicial decisions. We got a preview of it this week when the U.S. Supreme Court broke with more than forty years of precedent in its Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt decision, which overturned its Nevada v. Hall decision. Basically, the decision invalidates the idea that states have sovereign immunity for suits filed in other states. In our federal system, states are supposed to be sovereign, but not anymore. Justice Breyer basically asserted that this precedent will be used to overturn Roe v. Wade, which rests on a similar assumption.

Toward that end various red states have been chomping at the bits to outlaw abortion. They are competing against each other to come up with the most restrictive anti-abortion law, on the hopes that the Supreme Court will uphold it. Georgia’s recently signed fetal heartbeat law, which outlaws abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected (at about the sixth week of pregnancy, when lots of women don’t even know they are pregnant), seemed to be at the top of the heap. But then Alabama outlawed virtually all abortions, including in the case of rape or incest. Its only exception: if the mother’s life is in danger. Georgia’s law would make it a crime for a woman to get an abortion out of state, and with the Hyatt decision it looks like the Supreme Court won’t object. Women who get abortions out of states could effectively become fugitives.

Our nation appears to be on the cusp of becoming a variant of The Handmaid’s Tale. Soon, if some states have their way, an 11-year-old girl raped by her own father will be forced to carry a pregnancy to term and probably care for the child for life too. And just as the Fugitive Slave Act at one time allowed federal marshals to go into free states to return escaped slaves to their masters, it’s more than possible that women who get pregnant in Georgia but get abortions outside of Georgia may be hauled by federal marshals back to Georgia to spend thirty years in prison for their “crime” which was inflicted on them by someone else without their consent. Left off the hook, of course, are the men who got them pregnant in the first place. Women are becoming chattel again, thanks to men like Mitch McConnell.

That’s why I woke up in a cold sweat at 4 AM. By stacking the courts with judges who don’t care about the law or precedent, they are poised to turn our nation into the dictatorship that Donald Trump so desperately wants. Republicans of course are all for all of this. They don’t care about democracy. They don’t even believe in a republic. They simply want to control power now and forever through any means, and they are working the legal channels to legally appoint judges to ensure future judges will always act illegally. Moreover, there’s no clear way outside of revolution for changing this.

We should all be breaking out in cold sweats like me every night.