Those who call themselves “conservative” are the very opposite of conservative

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

November 22, 2021
Heather Cox Richardson

Yesterday, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, told Military Times that he expects Russia to attack his country in late January or early February. Russia has placed more than 92,000 troops at its border with Ukraine. 


In a visit to Washington, D.C., where he met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, took a broader view of the mounting tensions in central and eastern Europe. Russian president Vladimir Putin “is testing the unity of the European Union, he is testing the unity of NATO allies, he is testing our society, Ukrainians, he is testing Poland, the Baltic countries,” Reznikov said.


Indeed, although U.S. and European officials for weeks have been warning Putin to pull back from the Ukraine border, he has escalated his rhetoric against Ukraine, claiming that Russians and Ukrainians represent “one people—a single whole.” At the same time, he has backed a rising authoritarian in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin has established a joint military base in Belarus and backed Lukashenko’s use of Middle Eastern migrants to destabilize nearby Poland. Poland is a member of both the European Union and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which joined the U.S., Canada, and Western European nations together in 1949 to oppose first the USSR and then, after the USSR crumbled, the rising threat of Russia. 


What we have here is a proxy battle over the future of liberal democracy—government based on individual rights, civil liberties, free enterprise, and consent of the governed.
Since it declared independence from the old USSR in 1991, Ukraine has moved toward the European Union, a stance that threatens the wealth and power of oligarchs with ties to Russia who have consistently tried to regain control of the country. Part of Putin’s reach for Ukraine reflects that the Russian economy has underperformed under his 20-year rule; Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 significantly boosted Putin’s popularity in Russia, but that enthusiasm faded in the sluggish economy. 


But Putin’s attempt to undermine democracy is also ideological.
In 2019, he told the Financial Times that liberalism—the set of ideas necessary for freedom and embraced by America’s Founders—is obsolete.
Those governing principles have outlived their purpose, Putin said. The multiculturalism that comes from liberalism has led to the breakdown of traditional values and permitted migrants to “kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected, he said.” “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone.”


In that, he led the way for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who champions what he calls “illiberal democracy,”or “Christian democracy.” Replacing the multiculturalism, immigration, and nontraditional family structures of modern democracies with a society based on Christianity, nationalism, traditional families, and white supremacy will strengthen Hungary, he says. 


Putin, Orbán, Lukashenko, and others like them are advancing a very old version of society. They believe that a few men—white, Christian—should run the world and amass both wealth and power while the rest of us support them. While they attract voters with their cultural stands—attacking immigration and gay rights, for example—they have rigged elections, turned their economies over to cronies, and stifled the press. They have turned their nations from democracy to an authoritarianism that has been called “kleptocracy” or “soft fascism.”


In short, they want to abandon democracy for autocracy—government by a dictator.
Astonishingly, radicals of the American right have embraced this vision. Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson has been open about his support for both Orbán and Russia, and in 2022, the Conservative Political Action Conference will meet in Budapest, where, apparently, they think they will feel at home. Leaders on the American right hammer constantly on cultural issues, deliberately inflaming voters against immigration, Black rights, and transgender students on school sports teams, for example, as signs that American society is collapsing and that we must turn to Christianity and traditional values to restore our stability. 


Now, as Americans have chosen multiculturalism, civil rights, and equality, the American right has turned to the power of the state to impose their will on the rest of us, just as Orbán and Putin have used the state in their own countries. We are seeing calls from right-wing leaders to institute Christianity as the basis of our government, attacks on immigration and civil rights, and the systematic dismantling of our right to vote, that is, our right to consent to the government under which we live. 
That those who claim to love America, which once billed itself as the leader of the world, are taking their lead from minor authoritarian countries—the economy of Russia is comparable to that of Texas, while Hungary’s population is comparable to Michigan’s—shows the extraordinary poverty, or perhaps the extraordinary greed, of their vision. 


In 1776, the Founders of this country declared independence from monarchy, not just from England’s King George III but from all kings. In part because they could not see women or people of color as equal to white men, they could envision the concept of natural equality for everyone else. That, in turn, made them stand against the idea that some men should rule over others on the basis of their wealth, ancestry, or religion. 


Instead of these old forms of government and society, they stood firm on the idea that all men are created equal and that they have natural rights they bring with them into society. These rights include—but are not limited to (James Madison would later add the free exercise of religion, for example)—the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 
Governments, they said, are made by men to secure these rights, and they are legitimate only as long as those they govern consent to them.  


Our democratic government, based on ideas Putin and Orbán explicitly reject—the liberal ideas of individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise—is the heritage of all Americans, expanded as it has been since 1776 and imperfectly though it has been, so far, applied. 
In today’s America, those who call themselves “conservative” are the very opposite of conservative: they are dangerous radicals seeking to bring us to our knees by attacking the grand philosophy that made this nation great—and which, if we could finally make it a reality, could make it greater still—replacing it with the stunted beliefs of petty tyrants.

GasLit Nation: The Infrastructure of Autocracy

November 17, 2021

GASLIT NATION WITH ANDREA CHALUPA AND SARAH KENDZIOR

Welcome to month ten of post-Capitol attack America in which no elite operatives have been punished for the worst attack on the Capitol since 1812! This includes fascist felon Steve Bannon, who turned his surrender for subpoena dodging into a reality TV show starring himself. We discuss Bannon’s brazen criminality and why the lack of urgency from agencies tasked with accountability is so dangerous. In times of extreme threat, complacency is complicity. 18. This is part of a long and destructive pattern.

Michael “One religion under God” Flynn hates America

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

November 15, 2021

Last night, Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn spoke at the “Reawaken America” conference in San Antonio, Texas, designed to whip up supporters to believe the 2020 election was stolen and that coronavirus vaccines are an infringement on their liberty. Flynn told the audience: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”

This statement flies in the face of our Constitution, whose First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” James Madison of Virginia, the key thinker behind the Constitution, had quite a lot to say about why it was fundamentally important to make sure the government kept away from religion.

In 1772, when he was 21, Madison watched as Virginia arrested itinerant preachers for attacking the established church in the state. He was no foe of religion, but by the next year, he had begun to question whether established religion, which was common in the colonies, was good for society. By 1776, many of his broad-thinking neighbors had come to believe that society should “tolerate” different religious practices; he had moved past tolerance to the belief that men had a right of conscience. 

In that year, he was instrumental in putting Section 16 into the Virginia Declaration of Rights on which our own Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—would be based. It reads, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”

In 1785, in a “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” he explained that what was at stake was not just religion, but also representative government itself. The establishment of one religion over others attacked a fundamental human right—an unalienable right—of conscience. If lawmakers could destroy the right of freedom of conscience, they could destroy all other unalienable rights. Those in charge of government could throw representative government out the window and make themselves tyrants. 

Madison believed that a variety of religious sects would balance each other out, keeping the new nation free of the religious violence of Europe. He drew on that vision explicitly when he envisioned a new political system, expecting that a variety of political expressions would protect the new government. In Federalist #51, he said: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

Right on cue, Flynn’s call for one religion runs parallel to modern Republican lawmakers’ determination to make their party supreme. 

The 13 Republicans in the House who were willing to vote yes and give Democratic president Joe Biden a win with the popular bipartisan infrastructure bill are now facing increasing harassment, including death threats from Trump supporters. Although he talked about passing his own infrastructure bill, former president Trump opposed the measure on Biden’s watch, and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene called those voting for it “traitor Republicans.” 

Meanwhile, Republicans remain silent about the video released by Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ), showing a cartoon version of himself killing a Democratic congresswoman. Sixty Democratic representatives are sponsoring a bill to censure Gosar; not even the Republican Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), has condemned the video.

It turns out the plot to overturn the election of a Democratic president was wider than we knew. New information from a forthcoming book by ABC News chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl reveals that Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows was deeply involved. On New Year’s Eve, Meadows emailed to then–vice president Mike Pence’s top aide a memo outlining how Pence could steal the election for Trump.

On Friday, Meadows refused to testify before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, ignoring a subpoena. His lawyer, George Terwilliger III, said that Trump had told him not to testify on the grounds of executive privilege, but as far as I can tell, Trump has not actually made that claim over Meadows’s testimony.

That did not stop Meadows’s lawyer from taking to the pages of the Washington Post to try to defend his client. His op-ed was quite misleading both about precedent and about the limits of executive privilege: as the committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and vice-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) said, “there’s nothing extraordinary about the Select Committee seeking the cooperation of a former senior administration official. Throughout U.S. history, the White House has provided Congress with testimony and information when it has been in the public interest. There couldn’t be a more compelling public interest than getting answers about an attack on our democracy.”

But Terwilliger insisted the committee was out of bounds in demanding that Meadows testify. He indicated that the only reasonable compromise between the committee and Meadows was for the former chief of staff to answer written questions. 

Terwilliger seems concerned that Meadows will get caught in lies if he testifies. The select committee says that “Meadows has failed to answer even the most basic questions, including whether he was using a private cell phone to communicate on January 6th, and where his text messages from that day are.” That sure makes it sound like they have information on his actions that day, leaving him open to getting caught if he tries to lie. Written answers are much safer. 

Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee and member of the select committee, said today the committee would move forward quickly to refer Meadows to the Department of Justice for criminal contempt of Congress. 

As Madison foresaw, the Republicans’ attempt to cement their power endangers the country. On Friday, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released transcripts of interviews with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledging that Trump administration officials stopped them from talking to the public and altered their scientific guidance about the coronavirus, accusing them of trying “to harm our commander in chief, the President.” More than 750,000 Americans have now died from COVID.

Their power play hurts us abroad, as well. Tensions surrounding Russia remain high. Yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked to Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau to reaffirm U.S. support for Poland—a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—as Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko tries to destabilize Europe by forcing migrants over the Polish border. The State Department noted that the turmoil on the Polish border “seeks to threaten security, sow division, and distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine,” where Russian president Vladimir Putin has recently pushed a large military buildup.

But, as Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) pointed out this morning, “Senate Republicans are blocking the confirmation of our NATO and EU Ambassadors so as to deliberately hamper global security…because they believe global instability will hurt Biden, and hurting Biden is all that matters.”

GOP now tied to Trump’s insurrection mess

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

November 1, 2021

In the weeks after the January 6 insurrection, one of the things that struck me as an odd political calculation was how quickly Republican lawmakers fell back into line behind former president Trump. Anyone watching could see that the information about Trump’s involvement in that insurrection that would come out by, well, right about now—about a year before the midterm elections—was going to be bad. 

And here we are, and yes it is.

Today the Washington Post published a long report about the events before, during, and after January 6, compiled by a team of more than 25 reporters and additional staff who reviewed video and court transcripts, followed social media posts, and interviewed more than 230 people. The report lays the blame for January 6 on Trump and warns that we are in a fight for the survival of democracy. 

The report is horrific, full of images, tapes, and timelines of a far more violent attack on our government than has previously been put together. It shows how very close the insurrectionists came to getting their hands on then–Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump told them was the architect of their disappointment. 

What might have happened is the stuff of nightmares. 

The report concludes: “Trump was the driving force at every turn as he orchestrated what would become an attempted political coup in the months leading up to Jan. 6, calling his supporters to Washington, encouraging the mob to march on the Capitol and freezing in place key federal agencies whose job it was to investigate and stop threats to national security.” It notes that the former president did not make any effort to stop the attacks until it was clear they wouldn’t succeed, and that lawmakers assumed he was backing the rioters. 

The report lays out how, on January 6, Trump and his loyal lawyer John Eastman, the author of the infamous memo outlining a six-point plan for overturning the 2020 election, continued to try to steal the election even as rioters were running amok in the Capitol. As then–Vice President Mike Pence and his family were hiding for their safety from the mob, Eastman blamed Pence for the insurrection, saying that if he had only done as the memo suggested, the riot wouldn’t have happened. 

Then, when Congress resumed to count the certified ballots, Eastman argued that the delay in debate caused by the insurrection meant that Congress had run out of time to count the certified votes, as established by the Electoral College Act, so that the election should be thrown back to the states.  

The Washington Post report places the insurrection into context: “The consequences of that day are still coming into focus, but what is already clear is that the insurrection was not a spontaneous act nor an isolated event. It was a battle in a broader war over the truth and over the future of American democracy,” it says. “Since then, the forces behind the attack remain potent and growing.”

The Washington Post series raises a lot of questions. It notes both that FBI officials ignored a lot of red flags before January 6 and that Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, whom Trump put into office immediately after the election after firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, refused to approve the use of the D.C. National Guard to defend the Capitol for more than two hours after Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund requested help. 

Other news from the weekend suggests that there are things Trump does not want us to know about the insurrection. This weekend we learned that he is trying to block the National Archives and Records Administration from giving to the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol information that includes call records from that day, information about visitors to the White House around then, and so on: material that is generally a matter of public record. Only the current president can invoke executive privilege, and President Joe Biden has declined to do so over these materials. 

An older story involving the former president is also suddenly in the news. In October 2016, four computer scientists noticed unusual activity between the Trump organization; Russia’s Alfa Bank, which was connected to the Kremlin; and Spectrum Health, a Michigan-based healthcare organization connected to the DeVos family. The computer folks took their information to the FBI, which was already engaged in its own investigation of the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The story got folded into all the other material about the campaign and its ties to Russia, and was largely forgotten.

Then, earlier this month, a special counsel appointed by Trump’s Attorney General William Barr to investigate the Russia investigation indicted a cybersecurity lawyer for lying to the FBI. In the indictment, Special Counsel John Durham accused those computer scientists of advancing a story they did not believe in order to hurt Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. 

The computer scientists have come out swinging. They reject the idea that they were advancing a political attack and maintain that the weird connections they saw did, indeed, show coordination between Trump and the Russian-based Alfa Bank. They believed there was enough evidence to open a criminal investigation. They have accused Durham of misrepresenting their debates over the material, and they say their evidence is solid and reproducible. 

It is this mess to which Republican lawmakers have tied themselves.

The Washington Post suggests that they made that calculation in the immediate aftermath of January 6 because Trump continued to command his base and they worried about being primaried from the right if they didn’t support Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. And so they acquitted him in his second impeachment trial and supported the “audits” of state election results that had already been proved secure.

But that leaves a circle to be squared. 

Winning a primary by staking out turf as a Trump supporter would mean losing in the general election… unless state legislatures fixed elections so that Republicans would win, no matter who the Republican candidate happened to be.