The aim of those attacking our elections is to discredit our democracy

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 28, 2022

At about 2:30 am, police in San Francisco responding to a call discovered that an assailant had broken into the San Francisco home of House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and attacked her husband, 82-year-old Paul Pelosi, with a hammer, shouting, “Where’s Nancy?” The attacker apparently tried to tie Mr. Pelosi up “until Nancy got home” and told police he was “waiting for Nancy.”

Mr. Pelosi suffered a fractured skull and serious injuries to his right arm and his hands. He underwent surgery today. He is expected to recover.

Speaker Pelosi was in Washington, D.C., at the time. The House speaker is the third-ranking officer of our government, second in line to succeed the president. An attack on her is an attack on our fundamental government structure.

Those who knew the alleged attacker, 42-year-old David DePape, say his behavior has been concerning. His Facebook page featured conspiracy theories common on right-wing media, saying Covid vaccines were deadly; that George Floyd, the Minneapolis man murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin, actually died of a drug overdose; that the 2020 election was stolen; and the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “FARCE.” He reposted a number of videos by Mike Lindell, the Trump loyalist and chief executive officer of the MyPillow company, lying that the 2020 election was stolen.

Matthew Gertz of Media Matters reviewed DePape’s blog and found it “a standard case of right-wing online radicalization. QAnon, Great Reset, Pizzagate, Gamergate and all there, along with M[en’s] R[ights] A[ctivist]/misogyny, hatred of Blacks/Jews/trans people/’groomers,’ and anti-vax conspiracy theories.”

According to Harry Litman, the legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, DePape has been booked so far only on state crimes, including attempted homicide and elder abuse. According to Joyce White Vance at Civil Discourse, evidence that he went after Mr. Pelosi in order to intimidate Speaker Pelosi or stop her from performing her official duties would constitute a federal crime.

The attack on Mr. Pelosi comes after right-wing figures have so often advocated violence against the House speaker that the rioters on January 6 roamed the U.S. Capitol calling for her in the singsong cadences of a horror movie. Before she ran for Congress, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said Pelosi was a “traitor” and told her listeners that treason is “a crime punishable by death,” and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) once “joked” about hitting Speaker Pelosi with the speaker’s gavel if he becomes speaker himself, prompting laughter from his audience.

Whipping up supporters against a perceived enemy to create a statistical probability of an attack without advocating a specific event is known as “stochastic terrorism.” Without using that phrase, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) explained it today: “[W]hen you convince people that politicians are rigging elections, drink babies blood, etc, you will get violence. This must be rejected.”

Right-wing media channels immediately spun the home invasion and attack into Republican talking points, saying that “crime hits everybody” and that “this can happen anywhere, crime is random and that’s why it’s such a significant part of this election story.” Some tried to pin the attack on President Joe Biden, blaming him for not healing the country’s divisions; Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin said of Pelosi and her husband: “There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.” Aaron Rupar of Public Notice called out how few Republicans publicly condemned the attack and how many tried to pin the blame for it on Democrats.

Late yesterday, Twitter’s board completed the $44 billion sale of the company to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. Musk has promised to be an advocate for free speech and to reopen the platform to those previously banned for spreading racist content or disinformation—including former president Trump—but his actual purchase of the site might complicate that position.

In the technology magazine The Verge, editor Nilay Patel wrote, “Welcome to hell, Elon.” The problems with Twitter, Patel wrote, “are not engineering problems. They are political problems.” The site itself is valuable only because of its users, he points out, and trying to regulate how people behave is “historically a miserable experience.”

Patel notes that to attract advertising revenue, Musk will have to protect advertisers’ brands, which means banning “racism, sexism, transphobia, and all kinds of other speech that is totally legal in the United States but reveals people to be total a**holes.” And that content moderation, of course, will infuriate the right-wing cheerleaders who “are going to viciously turn on you, just like they turn on every other social network that realizes the same essential truth.” And that’s even before Twitter has to take on the speech laws of other countries.

Musk clearly understands this tension. Trying to reassure advertisers before the sale, he tweeted: “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!” Car manufacturer General Motors has temporarily stopped running ads on Twitter until its direction becomes clearer.

Today, racist and antisemitic content rose sharply as users appeared to be testing the limits of the platform under Musk. The Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies disinformation on social media, noted that posters on the anonymous website 4chan have been encouraging users to spread racist and derogatory slurs on Twitter. The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, which focuses on civil rights law, backed this observation up today when it noted that on October 27, an anonymous post on 4chan, which users immediately spread to extremist Telegram channels, told followers how to increase antisemitic content on Twitter.

In the first 12 hours after Musk acquired the site, the use of the n-word increased nearly 500%.

After a few high-profile accounts appeared to have been reinstated, this afternoon, Musk tweeted that he is creating a council to figure out a content moderation policy, and that no major content decisions or reinstatements will happen until it creates a policy. At the very least, this should protect Twitter from becoming associated with new accounts promoting violence before the midterm elections.

And that is a concern. Today, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and U.S. Capitol Police warned of violent extremism surrounding the upcoming midterm elections, including attacks on “candidates running for public office, elected officials, election workers, political rallies, political party representatives, racial and religious minorities, or perceived ideological opponents.”

The aim of those attacking our elections is to discredit our democracy.

White Declaration of Independence

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 16, 2022

In an interview this morning with CNN’s Dana Bash, Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake refused to say that she would accept the results of the upcoming election– unless she wins. Former president Trump said the same in 2020, and now more than half of the Republican nominees in the midterm elections have refused to say that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election because, they allege, there was voter fraud. This position is an astonishing rejection of the whole premise on which this nation was founded: that voters have the right to choose their leaders.

That right was established in the Declaration of Independence separating the 13 British colonies on the North American continent from allegiance to King George III. That Declaration rejected the idea of social hierarchies in which some men were better than others and should rule their inferiors. Instead, it set out a new principle of government, establishing that “all men are created equal” and that governments derive “their just power from the consent of the governed.”

Republicans’ rejection of the idea that voters have the right to choose their leaders is not a new phenomenon. It is part and parcel of Republican governance since the 1980s, when it became clear to Republican leaders that their “supply-side economics,” a program designed to put more money into the hands of those at the top of the economy, was not actually popular with voters, who recognized that cutting taxes and services did not, in fact, result in more tax revenue and rising standards of living. They threatened to throw the Republicans out of office and put back in place the Democrats’ policies of using the government to build the economy from the bottom up.

So, to protect President Ronald Reagan’s second round of tax cuts in 1986, Republicans began to talk of cutting down Democratic voting through a “ballot integrity” initiative, estimating that their plans could “eliminate at least 60–80,000 folks from the rolls” in Louisiana. “If it’s a close race…, this could keep the Black vote down considerably,” a regional director of the Republican National Committee wrote.

When Democrats countered by expanding voting through the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more commonly known as the Motor Voter Act, a New York Times writer said Republicans saw the law “as special efforts to enroll core Democratic constituencies in welfare and jobless-benefits offices.” While Democrats thought it was important to enfranchise “poor people…people who can’t afford cars, people who can’t afford nice houses,” Republicans, led by then–House minority whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, predicted “a wave of fraudulent voting by illegal immigrants.”

From there it was a short step to insisting that Republicans lost elections not because their ideas were unpopular, but because Democrats cheated. In 1994, losing candidates charged, without evidence, that Democrats won elections with “voter fraud.” In California, for example, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s opponent, who had spent $28 million of his own money on the race but lost by about 160,000 votes, said on “Larry King Live” that “frankly, the fraud is overwhelming” and that once he found evidence, he would share it to demand “a new election.” That evidence never materialized, but in February 1995 the losing candidate finally made a statement saying he would stop litigating despite “massive deficiencies in the California election system,” in the interest of “a thorough bipartisan investigation and solutions to those problems.”

In 1996, House and Senate Republicans each launched yearlong investigations into what they insisted were problematic elections, with Gingrich, by then House speaker, telling reporters: ‘“We now have proof of a sufficient number of noncitizens voting that it may well have affected at least one election for Congress,” although the House Oversight Committee said the evidence did not support his allegations.

In the Senate, after a 10-month investigation, the Republican-dominated Rules Committee voted 16 to 0 to dismiss accusations of voter fraud in the election of Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu that cost her $500,000 in legal fees and the committee $250,000. Her opponent, whose supporters wore small socks on their lapels with the words “Don’t Get Cold Feet. Sock It To Voter Fraud,” still refused to concede, saying that “the Senate has become so partisan it has become difficult to get to the truth.”

There was nothing to the cases, but keeping them in front of the media for a year helped to convince Americans that voter fraud was a serious issue and that Democrats were winning elections thanks to illegal, usually immigrant, voters. Amplified by the new talk radio hosts and, by the mid-1990s, the Fox News Channel, Republicans increasingly argued that Democrats were owned by “special interests” who were corrupting the system, pushing what they called “socialism”—that is, legislation that provided a basic social safety net and regulated business—on “real” Americans who, they insisted, wanted rugged individualism. If Democrats really were un-American, it only made sense to keep such dangerous voters from the polls.

In 1998, the Florida legislature passed a law to “maintain” the state’s voter lists, using a private company to purge the voter files of names believed to belong to convicted felons, dead people, duplicates, and so on. The law placed the burden of staying on the voter lists on individuals, who had to justify their right to be on them. The law purged up to 100,000 legitimate Florida voters, most of them Black voters presumed to vote Democratic, before the 2000 election, in which Republican candidate George W. Bush won the state by 537 votes, giving him the Electoral College although he lost the popular vote.

Voting restrictions had begun, but they really took off after the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring preclearance from the federal government before states with a history of racial discrimination changed their election laws. Now, less than a decade later, Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been open about suppressing Democratic votes, easing voting restrictions for three reliably Republican counties devastated by Hurricane Ian but refusing to adjust the restrictions in hard-hit, Democratic-leaning Orange County.

Open attacks on Democrats in the lead-up to this year’s midterms justify that voter suppression. Last week, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) suggested that Black Americans are criminals who “want to take over what you got,” and Republican candidates are running ads showing mug shots of Black men. Today, Trump chided American Jews for not sufficiently appreciating him; he warned them to “get their act together…[b]efore it’s too late.” Republican lawmakers have left those racist and antisemitic statements unchallenged.

Those attacks also justify ignoring Democratic election victories, for if Democratic voters are undermining the country, it only makes sense that their choices should be ignored. This argument was exactly how reactionary white Democrats justified the 1898 coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, when they overthrew a legitimately elected government of white Populists and Black Republicans. Issuing a “White Declaration of Independence,” they claimed “the intelligent citizens of this community owning 95 percent of the property” were taking over because those elected were not fit to run a government. Like the Wilmington plotters, Trump supporters insisted they were defending the nation from a “stolen” election when they attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to cancel the results of the 2020 Democratic victory.

It was not so very long ago that historians taught the Wilmington coup as a shocking anomaly in our democratic system, but now, 124 years after it happened, it is current again. Modern-day Republicans appear to reject not only the idea they could lose an election fairly, but also the fundamental principle, established in the Declaration of Independence, that all Americans have a right to consent to their government.

Prayer Warriors for Herschel carry a lead pipe with a flag on it

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

October 4, 2022

Anti-abortion Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker did not, in fact, sue the Daily Beast over the story he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion. Instead, his son Christian Walker took to social media to call his father out for lying, abuse, and abandonment and to call out MAGA Republicans for continuing to support his father while claiming to believe in “family values.”

Walker’s supporters immediately blamed the son for hurting his father’s campaign. The candidate himself stayed away from the media, attending a private event sponsored by “Prayer Warriors for Herschel.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, organized to elect Republicans to the Senate, and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both reaffirmed their support for Walker. They will continue to keep spending to boost his campaign. Still, concern about the outcome in Georgia has prompted the right-wing super PAC Club for Growth Action to plan a massive $2 million ad buy in Spanish for the Nevada senate race, backing Republican Adam Laxalt against Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

Dana Loesch, a former spokesperson for the National Rifle Association and a former writer and editor for the right-wing media outlet Breitbart, made the position of party leaders clear: “I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles,” she said. “I want control of the Senate.”

It is unclear if this scandal will hurt Walker with supporters who have already swallowed lies about his businesses, academic achievements, relationship with law enforcement, unacknowledged children, and accusations of domestic violence. But abortion is a key issue—perhaps THE key issue—in this election, and the demonstration that a Republican Senate candidate is calling for a nationwide abortion ban even as he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion will likely not sit well with those upset about the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Republicans are determined to take control of the country no matter what it takes.

Today, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson, who is up for reelection, revised his August story about his role in overturning the 2020 election. After saying his part in the delivery of fake electoral votes to the vice president was only “a couple seconds,” he now says that he texted with Wisconsin-based lawyer Jim Troupis, who was working for Trump to overturn the results of the election in Wisconsin, for about an hour. He also downplayed the events of January 6 as not an “armed insurrection.”

In the Washington, D.C., trial of the Oath Keepers today, though, prosecutors played a recording of a November 2020 meeting in which Oath Keepers planned to bring weapons to Washington and “fight” for Trump. The gang’s leader, Stewart Rhodes, said it would be “great” if protesters were there, because violence would enable Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.

“Pepper spray is legal. Tasers are legal. And stun guns are legal. And it doesn’t hurt to have a lead pipe with a flag on it,” codefendant Kelly Meggs told attendees.

A lawyer for the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol revealed in court today that the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, Kelli Ward, repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when testifying before the committee. Ward was one of Arizona’s false electors.

Also today, in a story about Trump’s disregard for the correct handling of classified records, Washington Post reporters Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima, and Jacqueline Alemany said Trump White House chief of staff John Kelly, a former Marine Corps general, told them that Trump “rejected the Presidential Records Act entirely.”

The Presidential Records Act is a federal law.

In contrast to the course of the current Republican Party, President Joe Biden has focused on demonstrating that democracy works. Today, the CHIPS and Science Act, which provided $52 billion in public investment in semiconductor manufacture, appeared once again to pay off: Micron announced that it would spend up to $100 billion over the next 20 years to build up to four plants in upstate New York near Syracuse to build computer chips. The company estimates that the project will create almost 50,000 jobs generally over the next 20 years, with about 9,000 of those in the plants themselves.

“To those who doubted that America could dominate the industries of the future, I say this,” Biden said in a statement. “[Y]ou should never bet against the American people.”

Today, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson brought an important new philosophy to the law when the Supreme Court heard arguments over Merrill v. Milligan, a voting rights case. This case concerns Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which, as summarized by the Department of Justice, “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups identified” in the act.

In 2021, Alabama’s legislature cut the state into seven districts that “crack and pack” Black voters. About 27% of the residents of Alabama are Black, but they are either “packed” into one district or “cracked” among the others, diluting their overall strength.

Registered voters, the Alabama chapter of the NAACP, and the multifaith Greater Birmingham Ministries sued under the Voting Rights Act. A district court of three judges, two of whom were appointed by Trump, agreed that the redistricting violated the law and gave the legislature two weeks to redraw the map to create two Black-majority districts.

The state immediately filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court, which was granted, allowing the states to use the original map for this year’s elections.

In today’s arguments, Alabama Solicitor General Edmund G. LaCour Jr. claimed that states must draw districts that are “race neutral.” When Justice Jackson pressed him to explain, he turned to the Fourteenth Amendment, saying it “is a prohibition, not an obligation, to engage in race discrimination.”

Jackson then turned on its head the so-called “originalism” that has taken over the court. “I understood that we looked at the history and traditions of the Constitution and what the framers and founders thought about,” she said, “and when I drilled down to that level of analysis, it became clear to me that the framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment in a race-conscious way.”

She’s right, of course, and while she followed up with more Reconstruction history, she could have gone even farther: when President Andrew Johnson vetoed the 1866 civil rights bill on the explicit grounds that it was not race neutral (among other things), Congress repassed it over his veto and based the Fourteenth Amendment on it.

Jackson’s approach was about more than this case, important though it is. She brought to the court what has been called “progressive originalism” or, perhaps more accurately, legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern’s term “egalitarian constitutionalism.” The Reconstruction Amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th—give to the federal government the power to protect individual rights in the states, and originalists’ avoidance of them has always stood out. Those amendments launched an entirely new era in our history; scholars call it a “second founding.”

Now, it appears, that second founding has an advocate on the Supreme Court.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Putin

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 30, 2022

After a two-month stalemate, earlier this month Ukraine launched a game-changing counteroffensive against the Russians occupying their eastern territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. 

Over the summer, Ukrainian forces destroyed Russian arms, command centers, and supplies behind Russian lines with U.S.-supplied long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), then began to talk of a counteroffensive in the south, near Kherson. To guard against such a move, Russia moved many of its soldiers from the northeast to Kherson, leaving its northeastern troops stretched thin. 

On September 6, Ukrainians moved, but not near Kherson in the south. Instead, they struck hard on the weakened northeastern lines, cutting quickly through the stretched and disheartened Russian occupiers and capturing more than 6000 square miles in less than a week. Russian troops abandoned their weapons and fled. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin had launched the war on February 24 with the expectation that a lightning-quick attack would give him control of Ukraine before other nations could react, much as when he had invaded Crimea in 2014, or Georgia in 2008. 

But he did not reckon with the careful rebuilding and training the Ukrainian military had undergone since 2014 as it worked to hold off Russia. He also misjudged the strength and commitment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which former president Trump had worked hard to dismantle. In office only a year at that point, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had made reconstructing the world’s democratic alliances a top priority.

Those alliances held against Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation as they had not before when Putin had bought appeasement with promises: “Don’t believe those who try to use Russia to scare you, who say that, after Crimea, other [Ukrainian] regions will follow,” he said in 2014. “We don’t want to carve up Ukraine. We don’t need this.” In 2022, international sanctions began to bite into and then to bring down the Russian economy, while shipments of weapons and economic support kept the Ukrainians supplied. Rather than a quick, successful strike, Putin found himself in a drawn-out and deeply unpopular conflict. 

The Ukrainian counteroffensive tightened the screws further. Putin responded to it on September 21 by hinting that he might use nuclear weapons and calling for what initially was described as “partial” mobilization, a move he had tried to avoid because of its potential to turn the Russian people against him. Immediately, Russian men headed for the country’s borders, while civilians and draftees, provided with few supplies and no training, began to resist. 

Putin also announced that the four occupied regions would hold referenda on joining Russia and would be part of Russia as soon as those referenda occurred, so any attacks on them would be considered attacks on Russian territory. With this upfront admission that the vote was predetermined, Putin’s move was clearly designed to enable him to keep the Ukrainian territory he seems about to lose. It also violated international law by attacking another nation’s sovereignty, and Biden and other democratic leaders condemned it in advance.

Then, on September 26, the Nord Stream pipelines on the floor of the Baltic Sea that send natural gas from Russia to Europe appear to have been sabotaged with TNT in what appears to have been a warning that Russia could attack the critical infrastructure of NATO countries. In this case, neither of the pipelines was in use, and blowing them up might simply have been a way to get rid of them in such a way to collect insurance on assets that are losing value as Europe turns to alternative energy. 

But the explosions might also have been a warning that the seven major pipelines delivering Norwegian gas to Europe could be next. Former president Trump promptly “truthed”: “Do not make matters worse with the pipeline blowup. Be strategic, be smart (brilliant!), get a negotiated deal done NOW. Both sides need and want it. The entire World is at stake. I will head up group???” 

Today, in a televised ceremony, Putin announced that the sham referenda had taken place and that “there are four new regions of Russia.” The four territories, which Russia does not fully control, cover about 18% of Ukraine. Putin’s speech seemed to indicate a concern that the countries under his sway are sliding away. He focused on the “West,” claiming that Russia itself is under attack from western democracies. “The West is looking for new opportunities to hit us and they always dreamt about breaking our state into smaller states who will be fighting against each other,” he said. “They cannot be happy with this idea that there is this large country with all [these] natural riches and people who will never live under a foreign oppression.”

He offered to negotiate for an end to the war, but said that the “four new regions of Russia aren’t up for negotiation.” 

Journalist Anne Applebaum, who is a specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, identified Putin’s actions as a war not just on Ukraine, but on world order and the rule of law, a system embraced by the democratic world. It is, she writes in The Atlantic, “a statement of contempt for democracy itself.” That world order says that big countries cannot attack smaller countries and that mass slaughter is unacceptable. In contrast, in Putin’s world, she writes, “Only brutality matters.”

Secretary of State Blinken tweeted: “Today, we took swift and severe measures in response to President Putin’s attempt to annex regions of Ukraine—a clear violation of international law. We will continue to impose costs on anyone that provides political or economic support for this sham.”

In turn, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO. Ukraine’s membership in the organization would require other NATO countries to send troops to fight Russia. Admission to NATO requires the consent of all 30 members, and that consent is unlikely to materialize in the midst of a war, but Zelenky’s announcement overshadowed Putin’s. 

Zelensky appealed to the ethnic minorities conscripted into Russian armies not to fight, telling them that more than 58,000 Russian soldiers had already died in Ukraine and warning them that they do not have to die for Putin. If they do come, he warned, those who are sent without dog tags should tattoo their names on their bodies so the Ukrainian authorities can inform their relatives when they are killed.  

“The United States condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory,” President Biden said. “Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere. Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.” 

The U.S. announced new sanctions against Russians and Russian entities and will continue to provide aid to the Ukrainians. In what sounded like a reference to the damaged pipelines, Biden told reporters “America’s fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory, every single inch,” Mr. Biden said, adding: “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have advanced around the city of Lyman and appear to be on the cusp of encircling the Russian troops there. Lyman is a key logistics and transportation hub, and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, says its loss “will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping.”

Today, a Washington Post op-ed by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum-security penal colony on trumped up charges, bore a title unimaginable a year ago: “This is what a post-Putin Russia should look like.”

Florida hit by Hurricane Ian. Can Russia survive Vladimir Putin?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

Heather Cox Richardson

September 28, 2022

More than 1.5 million Florida residents are without power as Hurricane Ian is pounding the southwestern coast and moving inland. The hurricane was close to a Category 5 storm when it made landfall about 3 this afternoon, with the predicted 12-foot storm surge materializing near Fort Myers. It has been slowing since it hit land, but the damage, including to this year’s orange crop, is already considerable.

This destructive storm highlights the distance between reality and the ideology that calls for getting rid of the federal government.

As a newly elected congress member in 2013, now-governor of Florida Ron DeSantis was one of the 67 House Republicans who voted against a $9.7 billion federal flood insurance assistance package for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Now, with Florida on the ropes, DeSantis asked President Joe Biden for an emergency declaration to free up federal money and federal help even before the storm hit, and said Tuesday, “We all need to work together, regardless of party lines.”

Since the 1980s, the argument for dismantling the government has been that federal regulations hamper the operation of the free market, thus slowing economic growth, while the taxes required to maintain a bureaucratic system take money away from those who otherwise would invest in businesses. The avowed theory is that a freely operating market will free up money on the “supply side” of the economy. Flush with cash, investors will theoretically pump that money into new enterprises that will hire workers, and everyone will prosper together.

Yesterday the Congressional Budget Office released a study of trends in the distribution of family wealth between 1989—immediately after President Ronald Reagan began the antiregulation and antitax push—and 2019. In those thirty years, total real wealth held by families tripled from $38 trillion to $115 trillion. But the distribution of that growth was not even.

Money moved toward the families in the top 10%, and especially in the top 1%, shifting from families with less income and education toward those with more wealth and education. In the 30 years examined, the share of wealth belonging to families in the top 10% increased from 63% in 1989 to 72% in 2019, from $24.3 trillion to $82.4 trillion (an increase of 240%). The share of total wealth held by families in the top 1% increased from 27% to 34% in the same period. In 2019, families in the bottom half of the economy held only 2% of the national wealth, and those in the bottom quarter owed about $11,000 more than they owned.

The relative invisibility of these statistics after forty years under Republican ideology has enabled today’s Republicans to insist the Democrats are “socialists” who are trying to redistribute wealth downward even as our laws are clearly redistributing it upward.

Last night, California governor Gavin Newsom, who is running for reelection, insisted on MSNBC’sAlex Wagner Tonight that Democrats must push back against the Republican domination of culture wars. Newsom pointed out that 8 of the 10 states with the highest murder rates are Republican states and that the gun death rate in Texas is 67% higher than that in California. Newsom expressed dismay that Democrats aren’t better at advocating their policies.

That omission is likely a result of the fact that after World War II, it never occurred to most Americans that anyone here would need to defend democracy. And yet we are now facing the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy,” which argues that democracy’s protection of equal rights weakens societies by destroying their moral core and by splitting the people internally. Its adherents call for limiting the vote; privileging white, heterosexual Christian citizens; and standing behind an authoritarian leader who will stamp out opposition—that is, a system that is not a democracy at all.

There is a direct correlation between growing economic inequality and the growing popularity of authoritarianism. Scholars of authoritarian systems note that a population that feels economically, religiously, or culturally dispossessed is an easy target for an authoritarian who promises to bring back a mythological world in which its members were powerful.

But, having lifted strongmen into power, they learn that they were only tools to put in place someone whose decisions are absolute and who is no longer bound by the law.

Today the New York Times published a series of telephone calls from Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The men were poorly equipped, badly commanded, completely disillusioned, and utterly disgusted with Russian president Vladimir Putin, while their people back home complained that the economy was collapsing and the gains of the past 30 years were being swept away.

Meanwhile, Russia has had to strip its troops away from its borders to replace the soldiers lost in Ukraine, and the situation does not appear to be improving. The calls published in the New York Times were captured before Russia’s current mobilization, which has prompted a mass exodus out of the country. Since last week, 53,000 Russians have fled to Georgia; more than 98,000 have fled to Kazakhstan.

In the U.S. today, Zachary Cohen, Holmes Lybrand, and Jackson Grigsby of CNN reported on footage taken by a Danish film crew that followed Trump loyalist Roger Stone for about three years for a documentary. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has seen the footage and permitted the release of certain clips from around the time of the 2020 election and the January 6 attack.

In July 2020, Stone was already saying that Trump’s team would not accept the results of the election, clearly expecting that Trump would lose. The day before the election, he said: “F*ck the voting, let’s get right to the violence.” Like Steve Bannon, Stone also said that Trump should simply declare victory, saying: “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” The filmmakers later recorded him asking for a pardon for his participation in the insurrection, noting that since Trump had already pardoned him once, after his conviction for lying to lawmakers about his actions and his relationship to Russia in the 2016 campaign, no one would care if Trump pardoned him again.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presided over Roger Stone’s trial for lying to lawmakers about his ties to Russia during the 2016 election, called out “high-ranking members of Congress and state officials” for being “so afraid of losing their power” that they won’t contradict Trump when he lies that he won the 2020 election. She warned that the courts must hold the line against the lies and the violence Republican lawmakers are encouraging.

Meanwhile, Trump’s demand for a special master to review the materials FBI agents took from Mar-a-Lago on August 8 has put him on the spot. The demand for the review seemed designed to slow the examination of the documents with classification markings, but those have now been exempted by an appeals court, and special master Judge Raymond Dearie is puncturing Trump’s wild claims that he declassified documents or that the FBI planted them at Mar-a-Lago by asking Trump’s lawyers to put those claims in writing for the court.

Dearie has asked them to identify which of the 200,000 pages of documents not marked classified Trump wants to claim are covered by attorney-client privilege or executive privilege. If he wants to claim executive privilege, he also must explain why the executive branch, currently run by President Biden, has no right to see those documents.

Dearie has also asked them to verify by Friday the inventory written by the FBI agents of what they recovered or to note what items on it were allegedly planted. So, the lawyers must either admit that Trump held classified documents or claim that he declassified them (there is no evidence that he did), assert that the FBI planted those documents, or lie. Instead, they are trying to avoid verifying the inventory.

That review will cost Trump a lot. He has to pay a vendor to digitize the roughly 200,000 pages, then pay $500 an hour for the review, plus the cost of his own lawyers.

While those machinations are taking place, today, for the first time since 1969, the White House held a conference on hunger, nutrition, and health. Biden is bringing together the private sector and government to try to end hunger in America by 2030. The 1969 conference under President Richard Nixon led to a big expansion in food assistance programs. Now, a variety of companies and foundations have pledged $8 billion to address food insecurity, while Democrats in Congress are calling for more free meals in schools and extending school food programs through the summer. Biden has also called for making the expanded child tax credit permanent.