Whose Jesus?

Via Jennifer Rubin, we learn that the U.S. is becoming a nation of “nones.”

CNN reports, “For the first time ‘No Religion’ has topped a survey of Americans’ religious identity, according to a new analysis by a political scientist. The non-religious edged out Catholics and evangelicals in the long-running General Social Survey.” Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor, found that 23.1% of Americans identify as “No Religion.” In the survey, 23 percent say they are Catholic and 22.5 percent say they are evangelical Christians.

As recently as 1972, “nones” were only 5 percent of the population. So we’re looking at a significant cultural shift. Although I haven’t been able to find a precise breakdown of what percentage of the nones identify as atheist and what percentage are just alientated from organized religion, major reasons for converting to none include “I question religious teachings” and “I don’t like the position churches take on social/political issues.”

These days, if all you knew of Christianity was from television, including (hell, especially) the Christian Broadcast Network and Fox News, you’d probably think Christians by nature are ignorant, stupid and hateful. The young folks especially are fleeing organized religion — which is mostly Christianity — in record numbers. Rubin continues,

This and other studies have noted that the drop-off in religious identification is especially evident in the millennial generation. The American Family Survey conducted last year found, “For Millennials and even GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all. The Nones claim 44% of the 18–29 age group, and nearly that (43%) among those who are 30–44.” That is a dramatic change from other generations. “Among Americans older than 65, just 21% … say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. However, even that 21% is a five-point rise from where the over-65 group was in 2015, when just 16% identified themselves this way.”

How did this happen? My explanation:

There was a time, in the mid-20th century and before, in which essays by Christian intellectuals such as C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr showed up in daily newspapers and popular magazines. Of course, there also were characters like the infamous Father Coughlin who preached anti-semitism on the radio in the 1930s. But at least there were some highly visible examples of Christians in public life who were thoughtful, well-educated and, well, liberal about most things.

Beginning in the 1970s, mass media adopted the most backward, hateful and stupid representatives of Christianity, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, as the official spokespeople for “religion.” Much of this came about because right-wing political operatives such as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie were forming alliances with right-wing religious figures to support the “conservative” agenda. As cable news took off in the 1980s, these same political operatives no doubt saw to it that the “right” clergymen’s phone numbers were in the rolodexes of cable news producers. So it was that from the Reagan Administration to the present day, the public faces of “religion” generally and Christianity especially are hateful and stupid.

For me, the derp came to a head during the Terri Schiavo travesty in 2005, in which mass media was swamped with characters from the hyper-conservative wing of American Christianity. No other representatives of religion, any religion, were anywhere to be seen. I remember evening cable news programs featuring banks of talking heads, all right-wing Christian clergy (and Pat Boone, who was interviewed just about everywhere), all bearing false witness against Schiavo’s husband as fast as they could move their lips. The “Christian” message they delivered was that Schiavo’s life must be continued at all cost, whether she was still “there” or not, and that those who wanted to let her go in peace were anti-God. The many Christian clergy, never mind non-Christian clergy, who spoke out against this nonsense were not invited to be on the teevee.

Now? Well, there’s Pope Francis, who is pretty conservative. But not conservative enough for some people.

Strolling through St. Peter’s Square, the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, Steve Bannon surveyed the enemy camp.

The populist political consultant has a new target in his crusade against “globalism” — Pope Francis.

Yes. The wackjob white nationalist right considers Papa Francisco the enemy.

Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has expressed a consistent message on the type of “America First” nationalism championed by Bannon.

Two years ago, the pope cautioned against growing populism in Europe, warning it could lead to the election of leaders like Hitler.

He has called for compassion toward migrants, saying that fearing them “makes us crazy,” as well as other marginalized groups including the poor and gay people. He has also defended diversity.

Bannon is not alone; there’s a whole movement of hyper-traditional Catholics who want to bring down Pope Francis. Many of them have criticized him over the Catholic sex abuse scandal, which he could have handled better. But does anyone really think that’s why they are attacking him? Especially since most of the abuse went on long before Francis became Pope?

Over the past few days conservative Christian America has worked itself into a snit because Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay and married to a husband, has been speaking out about his devotion to Christianity. And other things.

Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has provoked a backlash from conservatives in the last few days after questioning the moral authority of evangelicals like Vice President Mike Pence who remain silent about President Trump’s personal conduct yet disapprove of same-sex marriages and oppose gay rights. …

… A devoted Episcopalian who fluidly quotes Scripture and married his husband, Chasten, in a church service last year, Mr. Buttigieg is making the argument that marriage is a “moral issue.” In a speech on Sunday to the Victory Fund, a group that supports gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender politicians, he said his relationship had made him “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware and more decent.”

He then directly addressed Mr. Pence, as one man of faith talking to another: “And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.”

Mike “the Weasel” Pence, of course, went into Christian martyr mode and pretended Buttigieg had attacked his “Christian faith.” This from the guy whose policies as governor of Indiana caused a preventable outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C. Also, too:

Mr. Buttigieg has cited Mr. Pence’s support for legislation that made it easier for religious conservatives to refuse service to gay couples as a reason he decided to come out publicly in 2015.

Since then, several right-wing commentators have declared that a gay man like Buttigieg couldn’t possibly be a Christian. They do this by defining Christianity, in part, as something that must be in opposition to homosexuality. If you aren’t willing to  discriminate against gays, you can’t be Christian, apparently.

Not all biblical scholars agree that the scripture calls homosexuality sinful. The idea that opposing interpretations of Christian teaching might be just as valid as theirs does not, of course, compute with righties. Note that these are the same people who scream incessantly that they and only they support “religious freedom.” But only on their terms. If they want to deny your right to follow your religion, they can simply deny it is one.

So it is that we see the noted religious scholar Erick Erickson declaring that Pete Buttigieg cannot possibly be a Christian. Erickson has also decided that the entire Episcopal tradition isn’t really Christianity, either. Apparently Episcopalianism is just a weird social club.

This divide over homosexuality and the Bible is not unlike the divide over slavery before the Civil War. Southern white Christians, reading the letter of the Bible, declared that since slavery is mentioned several times, God must condone it. Northern white Christians acknowledged that slavery was an accepted practice in the past but believed that Jesus’s teachings on caring for others made the brutality of slavery unacceptable. Same Bible, different interpretations. And the First Amendment says that government does not get to judge which interpretation is correct. But don’t expect that to stop righties from doing exactly that.

And this takes us to the highly visible support of depraved monster Donald Trump by many American evangelical leaders. This is about Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

What happened to turning the other cheek? I ask.

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins says. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

Oh? Where in the Gospels does it say that? And note that Perkins has defined “Barack Obama [who is Christian] and his leftists” as being not-Christian, without offering evidence.

Anyway, if the young folks are staying away from organized religion, I hardly blame them. I just wish mass media would allow something other than the clown shoe version of religion to get some equal time now and then.


Democrats, Purity Tests, and a Certain Kind of Rigidity

A few days ago Barack Obama, at a “town hall” in Berlin, issued a warning against progressives and “purity” tests. “One of the things I do worry about sometimes among progressives in the United States — maybe it’s true here as well — is a certain kind of rigidity, where we say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. This is how it’s going to be,’” Obama said. All these purity tests are going to fracture party unity and cause circular firing squads.

I admit I sometimes find myself getting annoyed by people who will not accept even a shade of difference from their ideal policy proposal. But IMO such people are a minority, and such people are not the Democrats’ real problem when it comes to purity tests.

The landslide defeat of George McGovern in 1972 may have persuaded the Democrats to avoid the appearance of radicalism, but by the defeat of Walter Mondal in 1984 a rising faction of the Democratic party believed that even the legacy of the New Deal was too far from the mainstream.

The Democratic Leadership Council formed in the 1980s to give the party a new direction, and that direction was to the Right. The DLC proposed to reduce the role of unions, get tough on crime, cut spending, balance budgets, “reform” welfare, and promote free trade. The DLC’s best-known chairman was Bill Clinton, and when Clinton won the White House in 1992 it enshrined the DLC agenda as party orthodoxy.

The DLC closed its doors in 2011, citing lack of cash. At the time, this was seen as a sign that the Democrats were moving in a more progressive direction. Ben Smith wrote in Politico,

“With President Obama consciously reconstructing a winning coalition by reconnecting with the progressive center, the pragmatic ideas of PPI and other organizations are more vital than ever,” [DLC co-founder Will] Marshall said.

The DLC’s demise is, however, is bringing no mournful elegies from the liberal groups who made its name a synonym for everything they saw as wrong with Bill Clinton’s party: what they saw as a religion of compromise, a lack of principle, and a willingness to sell out the poor and African-American voters at the party’s base.

“One of the things that’s happening right now in Democratic politics is that progressives are winning the battle for the party,” said Progressive Congress president Darcy Burner. “The corporate-focused DLC type of politics isn’t working inside the Democratic party.”

Yes, that was written in 2011. Somehow, in spite of all these “progressives,” the spirit of the DLC managed to live on in the Democratic Party. Michael Corcoran wrote for TruthOut in 2017,

“I don’t think the people who ran the DLC ever really left,” said Norman Solomon, a coordinator for RootsAction, in an interview with Truthout. “It is the same product, different name.” Indeed, the DLC agenda is carried out today by think tanks like the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and Third Way, which push the same regressive agenda but under different labels, and with less public scrutiny. As the Boston Globe described in 2014, Third Way usually works “behind the scenes — in the White House, the corridors of Congress, and the office suites of lobbying firms in downtown Washington.”

Note that PPI began as an offshoot of the DLC and was founded by the DLC’s Will Marshall. Also note that although from his photo he is only about 12 years old, Cocoran’s anlysis is worth reading all the way through. I am going to move on, though.

In 1992, the DLC approach may have been justified as a pragmatic accommodation to the dominance of Reaganism and movement conservatism. An influential paper from PPI argued in 1989 that Democratic “programs must be shaped and defended within an inhospitable ideological climate, and they cannot by themselves remedy the electorate’s broader antipathy to contemporary liberalism.” In other words, the Dems had to acknowledge that “liberalism” was a dirty word and that they were playing defense on the Right’s field. This, too, became party orthodoxy.

However, as the Right grew more extreme and less capable of so much as tying its shoes, never mind governing, Democratic Party orthodoxy didn’t adjust. Even after the “blue wave” years of 2006 and 2008, and the election of Barack Obama, Dem leaders remained stuck in 1992 and offered no real alternative to the Right. Democrats were rigidly fixed to the idea that they were playing defense in the Right’s field, and the only policy ideas that they would countenance were those considered to be “safe” and possibly even attractive to centrist Republicans.

What irks me about Dems who whine that the leftie-progressive wing are “purists” is that it’s the centrist-DLC-Third Way crowd, which has dominated the party agenda for many years, that set rigidly narrow limits on which policy ideas were considered legitimate and which were out of bounds and could not be taken seriously. Why aren’t they the “purists”?

They call themselves “pragmatic,” but what they really are is blind. They are the ones who rendered the Democratic Party irrelevant to much of the working class. They are the ones who pissed away Rust Belt votes. They are the ones who made room for the right-wing populism that made Donald Trump president.

Recently Bhaskar Sunkara wrote of President Obama’s “purity” remarks at The Guardian,

Of course, Obama retorts, “You have to recognize that the way we’ve structured democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you, and that by definition means you’re not going to get 100% of what you want.” But the real problem the Democrats faced in 2016 wasn’t that they were too strident in putting forward a purist progressive vision. Rather, Clinton ran a campaign mostly about shielding Americans from the nightmare of Trumpism and not presenting dreams for the future. When people say they have been falling behind for the last 30 years and your retort is: “I can fix that, I’m experienced, I’ve been in politics for 30 years,” you might end up losing an election.

And that, my dears, is the most succinct explanation I’ve seen yet for why people just plain didn’t turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

This primary, Sanders and Warren are actually giving people a positive, comprehensible agenda to vote for, one that can speak to the justified rage of so many who are not willing to settle for a world destroyed by climate change, another year without basic healthcare, or continued precarious employment feel. For Obama, “We have to be careful in balancing big dreams and bold ideas with also recognizing that typically change happens in steps.” But incrementalism during the Obama years was small steps to nowhere, ones that far from cementing a new progressive majority actually helped open the door to the populist right.

Paul Waldman also addressed the “purity” remarks,

He [Obama] became a viable candidate in 2008 in no small part because the party’s base was so disgusted with Democrats who voted for the Iraq War, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, Charles E. Schumer, and Harry Reid. Obama, who had publicly opposed the war as a state senator in Illinois, was alone among the major candidates in being able to point to his opposition, satisfying a purity test that candidates such as Clinton and Edwards failed.

And that campaign was as hard-fought as nearly any in memory. When Obama won, there were some hard feelings to be soothed, but it didn’t stop the party from uniting around him.

And today?

And while it’s true that many of the Democrats running for president are embracing policies that are further left than what they may have supported a few years ago, they’re doing what presidential candidates always do: responding to their party’s voters. And it happens that the things they’re advocating, such as universal health care, a higher minimum wage, marijuana legalization or stronger action on climate change, are pretty popular.

One must also remember that the Democratic Party is not one thing. It has a range of voices in it, and even if figures from the left such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more prominent than their counterparts might have been at an earlier time, they’re doing what they ought to do: push the boundaries, challenge the status quo and force new issues and perspectives into the debate. Then the party as a whole can hash them out, which is what happens in presidential primaries. The resulting agenda will be the product of that process and hopefully something the whole party can get behind.

This is what political primary contests are supposed to do. Candidates put their ideas in front of the public, and the public votes. But for most of the 1990s and 2000s the  Democratic Party has functioned as a huge barrier that only allowed the most modest and unoriginal ideas to be promoted.

Even its one progressive signature bill, the Affordable Care Act, was a warmed over Heritage Foundation idea that had been tried out in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. I would be the first to say that, as hard as it was to pass the ACA, a genuine single-payer bill wouldn’t have been possible in 2009. But it was the Democratic Party itself that had helped establish the parameters of what was too “radical” and what wasn’t.

You think the old DLC crowd isn’t still trying to set the agenda? This was in the New York Times this morning:

Senator Bernie Sanders, in a rare and forceful rebuke by a presidential candidate of an influential party ally, has accused a liberal think tank of undermining Democrats’ chances of taking back the White House in 2020 by “using its resources to smear” him and other contenders pushing progressive policies.

Mr. Sanders’s criticism of the Center for American Progress, delivered on Saturday in a letter obtained by The New York Times, reflects a simmering ideological battle within the Democratic Party and threatens to reopen wounds from the 2016 primary between him and Hillary Clinton’s allies. The letter airs criticisms shared among his supporters: That the think tank, which has close ties to Mrs. Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment, is beholden to corporate donors and has worked to quash a leftward shift in the party led partly by Mr. Sanders.

“This counterproductive negative campaigning needs to stop,” Mr. Sanders wrote to the boards of the Center for American Progress and its sister group, the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “The Democratic primary must be a campaign of ideas, not of bad-faith smears. Please help play a constructive role in the effort to defeat Donald Trump.”

Of course, much of the sniping of Sanders coming from the old Clinton crowd is about their irrational belief that he, and not her own shortcomings as a candidate, cost her the election in 2016. And I don’t want this to be just about Sanders, or just about the presidential field in 2020. This is about a powerful minority faction that assumes it has the sole right to determine who is a “real Democrat” and to set the agenda of the Democratic Party. And they don’t. Not any more.

Please also see The Wrong Way to Rebuild the Democratic Party (Politico, February 2017) by Leah Hunt-Hendrix; Even in Power, Democrats Are Proving To Be Their Own Worst Enemy (In These Times, January 2019) by Miles Kampf-Lassin.

This Is What Evil Looks Like

This week the Trump campaign was forced to withdraw a campaign video because Warner Brothers had objected to the unauthorized use of music from the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises. This is far from the first time the Trumpettes were caught using intellectual property without permission; you’d think they’d learn.

I didn’t see the video before it was taken down. But the descriptions of it are fascinating.

Trump tweeted out a two-minute video at about 4 p.m. that used Hans Zimmer’s “Why Do We Fall?” from 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises and showed the following text in the font from the film’s title card:

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they call you a racist. Donald J. Trump. Your vote. Proved them all wrong. Trump: The Great Victory. 2020.”

There’s a much longer description here that is worth reading. But the primary question I want to explore here — after what the bleep? —  is, what does this tell us about Trump and his followers?

The first thing that struck me was the incomplete use of the famous quote, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.” This quote is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Gandhi ever said it. What is it saying that the video added “Then they call you a racist” but left off the attack and the winning? Somebody is resentful about being called a racist, apparently. And how does winning an election “prove” that one is not a racist? Racists vote, alas.

More significant, to me, is the ambiguous use of “you.” Who is “you”? When I first read this, I read “you” as referring to Trump’s fans. But it can also be read as Trump referring to himself in the second person. And that’s what really fascinated me about this video. The blurring of identity between Trump and his fanatical base of voters says a lot, IMO.

Because he is a narcissist, Trump sees his fanatical fans as extensions of himself. His glory is theirs also; his “greatness,” which Trump sees reflected in their adoration of him, also reflects back on them. In his mind, they are a unit.

At the same time, many of our great social observers and philosophers — Erich Fromm, Eric Hoffer, Hannah Arendt — have long noted that alienated and insecure people easily surrender their own ego-identities and autonomy to mass movements and authoritarian strongmen. People march blindly into mass movements because the group provides something the individual feels is lacking in himself. Trump, to his fans, is a larger-than-life being of great power and certitude. By surrendering their autonomy to him, they feel that they absorb that power. Through Trump, they find connection, strength and a sense of belonging. The baffling, ambiguous world becomes a place of absolute clarity, with bright lines between good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lies, all as defined for them by Trump.

So the “you” is both Trump and his fans. But now let’s move on to the question of what Trump’s campaign promises other than The Great Victory.

Clearly, the withdrawn video offered validation. Your feelings and opinons are vindicated, it says. They call you racist, but you are right to feel as you feel, and they are wrong, and when we win we will be lords of the universe. Those who disrespect you will be shut up, at least, if not cast out.

Health care? Better wages? Access to higher education? Nah. Lords of the universe don’t need to worry about such things. Maybe the good stuff will come with the territory, once we overcome everyone we fear and hate. But in truth, Trumpism is not about government. It has no real ideology and no cause other than itself.

Greg Sargent writes that Trump’s appeal is built on cruelty, lies and hate.

At a fundraiser in Texas late Wednesday, Trump seethed that our military is constrained from getting “a little rough” at the border, because “everybody would go crazy,” preventing it from acting the way it would “normally act,” or how “another military from another country would act.”

He dimly realizes that most people would disapprove of U.S. troops firing on desperate families with small children, but he doesn’t really understand why. Empathy and compassion are alien to him.

Greg Sargent goes on to say that Trump genuinely believes that the border crisis — which is largely his own fault — will be a winning issue in 2020. He’s going to stoke up the fear and demagoguery to the eenth power. “Trump obviously believes that the worse this gets, the more easily he’ll persuade swing voters that the migrants are a criminal ‘infestation’ that must be repelled through cruelty or even force,” Sargent writes.

Indeed, Greg Sargent wrote elsewhere, cruelty is the point. It is not a means to an end; it is the end. Trump and his followers want the power to be cruel, to punish anyone they don’t like for, well, existing. The earth must be remade in Trump’s image, so that the faithful will have power and authority to hurt those they fear and resent. True power is the right to be cruel. True freedom is the power to deny freedom to others.

Yes, this is what evil looks like.

For the most rabid of Trump’s followers it hardly matters that he has betrayed them at every turn. He promised better jobs, lower taxes, better access to health care, and an end to the opioid crisis. He has utterly failed to deliver any of that; for the most part, he hasn’t even tried to deliver any of that. He doesn’t know how, frankly, and he’s not interested in learning. Other people were supposed to work out the details; that’s what flunkies are for.

But as long as he promises belonging, certitude and validation; as long as he promises punishment to those who are Not Us  it won’t matter. His base will not abandon him.

Fortunately, there aren’t enough of them to re-elect him. But, Democrats: Don’t screw it up this time.

Related, from the Mahablog archives:

This Explains a Lot (2006)

No Cause, Just a Movement (2010)

Why People Turn to Dictators (2016)

The Dumbest Line of Questions in Congressional History

Mark the name, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). He has set new standards of stupid in the House of Representatives. After you watch this, be advised that Massie actually has a master’s degree in engineering from MIT. So he might be presumed to know that a bachelor of arts degree in political science does not make one a scientist. Or else MIT needs to answer for this guy.

If you don’t want to watch the video — which is painful — here’s a partial transcript.


Toads on the Hill: Mnuchin and Barr

Okay, I said I’d write something about the Mnuchin and Barr testimony, so here it is.

First, Mnuchin is an asshole. He smarted off to Maxine Waters; I doubt he would have treated a white male committee chair so dismissively. More disturbing, Mnuchin clearly doesn’t appreciate that he is answerale to Congress and thinks such hearings are a waste of his precious time.

Here is the bigger takeaway:

Mnuchin acknowledged that Treasury Department lawyers have consulted with the White House general counsel’s office about the potential release of the president’s tax returns, even though the process was intended to be walled off. He emphasized that his staff wasn’t asking for “permission” from the White House, and he didn’t view it as “interference.” But he irked Democrats by saying that Republicans could have requested the returns of Democratic lawmakers and their major donors when they were in power.

“I am sure there are many prominent Democrats who are relieved that when Kevin Brady was chairman of the committee, he didn’t request specific returns,” Mnuchin said, referring to the Texas GOP congressman who lost his gavel in January.

What the bleep? People who understand how this works say that Congress has the authority to request and obtain any bleeping tax returns Congress wants, period. That Congress doesn’t spend all its time reviewing tax returns is probably because it has more pressing things to do.

Daniel Shaviro, law professor, New York University

This is not an issue on which there is any possibility of reasonable disagreement. Any well-informed person who disagrees either that the Ways and Means Committee has an obligation to demand Trump’s tax returns as part of fulfilling its oversight duties or that Trump is legally obliged to turn them over is either a partisan hack or contemptuous of the rule of law.

Further, the Secretary of the Treasury is not supposed to be involved in taxpayer-specific matters. Complying with the laws regarding tax returns is entirely the job of the IRS Commissioner. Mnuchin will be treading on dangerous ground if he interferes.

Trump’s argument is that he was elected president without having to release his tax returns; therefore, Congress can’t have them. Yes, that makes no sense at all.

In any event, it appears the IRS Commissioner is preparing to stonewall the request. He is “working on a letter” as a response. A letter is not Trump’s tax returns. This is going to get messier and probably go to the courts. See also: Mnuchin: You have no right to see M’Lord’s tax returns by Bess Levin at Vanity Fair.

Now, on to Barr, who testified again today. If there was any question that Barr would be nothing but a Trump toady — and I’m not aware that there was — now the matter is settled. He is acting as Trump’s personal attorney, not the people’s lawyer. Nothing he says about the Mueller Report, or anything else, can be trusted.

Barr is noticeably more interested in investigating the investigation than in dealing with whatever Mueller’s team found to be true. Paul Waldman:

That [Mueller’s] investigation confronted two broad questions: What was the nature of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and was the Trump campaign involved? We can argue about how to interpret everything the investigation eventually uncovered. But the Republican position — and we have to be clear about this, because it’s utterly bonkers — has in effect been that there should never have been any FBI investigation at all into the Russian attack on the U.S. election.  …

… Their theory is that there was a vast and ruthless conspiracy within the Justice Department and specifically the FBI — just for the record, probably the most politically conservative agency in the entire federal government — to destroy Trump.

Barr has assembled a team to review the counterintelligence decisions made by the Justice Department and FBI officials regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. Expect more bloviating about the bleeping Steele Dossier for the rest of eternity. Whether anyone other than Barr ever sees the Mueller Report remains to be seen.

Stuff Happened Today

Today the AG, Bill “Mumbles” Barr, testified to the a House appropriations subcommittee. Steven “Gloves” Mnuchin also testified to the same committee and also to the House Financial Services Committee. I will write about these events tomorrow, I promise. Feel free to comment.

Purges Won’t Help Trump

Let us begin by acknowledging that there are big problems regarding migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border. One might say those problems add up to a crisis, although the real crisis isn’t the one Donald Trump talks about, which is a figment of his imagination.

Make no mistake — there is a border crisis. The US is seeing something genuinely unprecedented: large numbers of children and families, often in large groups, crossing the border without papers to turn themselves in to US authorities. The immigration enforcement system, not particularly well-equipped to handle vulnerable migrants without papers at all, is cracking under the strain. The gap between what’s happening and the government’s ability to deal with it is, by most definitions, a policy crisis.

This crisis is being made worse by Trump’s utter failure to manage it. Instead of dealing with the real crisis, he keeps responding to the imaginary one.

So Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is out, because Trump needed to blame somebody for his own failures.

“Two senior administration officials said that Nielsen had no intention of quitting when she went to the meeting Sunday with the president and that she was forced to step down,” Nick Miroff, Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim and Maria Sacchetti report. “Trump told aides last fall that he wanted to fire Nielsen … She appeared to regain her footing after U.S. Border Patrol agents used tear gas to repel a large crowd attempting to break through a border fence — the kind of ‘tough’ action Trump said he wanted … The president grew frustrated with Nielsen again early this year as the number of migrants rose and as she raised legal concerns about some of Trump’s more severe impulses, particularly when his demands clashed with U.S. immigration laws and federal court orders.”

This is a central theme in all the news accounts of why Trump turned on her.

“The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum,” the New York Times reports. “She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations. Those responses only infuriated Mr. Trump further.”

I’m no fan of Nielsen, but by all accounts the real power in the White House now belongs to ignorant and malevolent dweeb Steven Miller. Apparently Miller is to Trump what Karl Rove used to be to George Dubya Bush. Be afraid.

Greg Sargent:

Trump fired Nielsen because he wants a “tougher” approach to the migrant crisis than Nielsen has implemented.

Along those lines, Politico reports that Nielsen’s ouster reflects Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller’s consolidation of power inside the administration. Miller is trying to bring in more immigration “hard-liners,” because he is “frustrated by the lack of headway” that the administration has made on immigration.

That “lack of headway” is that migrants keep coming to the border — the number could reach 1 million this year. Most of them are asylum-seeking families, and Trump is in a rage about them, leading him to lurch erratically from one posture to another.

Trump and his brain, Miller, can’t see any solution that isn’t even more draconian than what has already been tried and failed.

As President Donald Trump roils the capital over illegal immigration, his influential aide Stephen Miller is playing a more aggressive behind-the-scenes role in a wider administration shakeup.

Frustrated by the lack of headway on a signature Trump campaign issue, the senior White House adviser has been arguing for personnel changes to bring in more like-minded hardliners, according to three people familiar with the situation — including the ouster of a key immigration official at the Department of Homeland Security, whose secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, announced Sunday that she is resigning. …

… “There’s definitely a larger shakeup abreast being led by Stephen Miller and the staunch right wing within the administration,” said a person close to Nielsen, who resigned Sunday after months of pressure from a president who felt she was not tough enough on illegal immigration. “They failed with the courts and with Congress and now they’re eating their own.”

Indeed, Matt Shuham at Talking Points Memo reports that a purge has begun.

On the tail of the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the withdrawal of the nomination of would-be ICE director Ronald Vitiello, Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles is leaving his position, as well, CNN first reported Monday. …

…CNN also reported that there could be additional high-level removals at DHS in what one unnamed source described as a “purge.”

Per the report, DHS General Counsel John Mitnick and U.S. Citizienship and Immigration Services Director Francis Cissna “are expected to be gone soon.” CNN added that the White House could remove additional officials at the department as well.

NBC News also reported that there could be additional ousters, but did not confirm which officials could be fired.


The new acting head of DHS, Kevin McAleenan, is said to have proved himself by being willing to do Trump’s dirty work.

McAleenan has carried out some of Trump’s most controversial efforts to halt undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers from crossing the southern border.

The customs officers and Border Patrol agents he commands separated more than 2,800 migrant children from their families during Trump’s now-blocked “zero tolerance” policy.

His officers fired tear gas into a crowd of migrants attempting to approach the San Ysidro Port of Entry in November, leading to questions about the administration’s response to a rush of asylum-seeking migrants. … His overall approach to the southern border has remained consistently in line with Trump’s.

Other news sources are saying that McAleenan is not an ideologue or a fire-breather, so we should stop thinking the worst. Perhaps it can be said that McAleenan is a guy who just follows orders.

Going back to Greg Sargent — this column is worth reading all the way through — it appears that Trump doesn’t just want to stop people without proper papers from entering the country; he wants to end asylum seeking. This is not something he has the power to do, but he’s too stupid to understand that.

Warren Goes There

Yesterday I wrote that “If Dems are ever again in control of both houses of Congress, watch them end the Senate filibuster, ban gerrymandering nationwide, and institute all kinds of judicial and election reforms.”

Liz Warren has started that ball rolling already. She said this in a speech today:

For generations, the filibuster was used as a tool to block progress on racial justice. And in recent years, it’s been used by the far right as a tool to block progress on everything.

I’ve only served one term in the Senate — but I’ve seen what’s happening. We all saw what they did to President Obama. I’ve watched Republicans abuse the rules when they’re out of power, then turn around and blow off the rules when they’re in power.

We saw it happen again just this week. Republicans spent years — years — exploiting the rules to slow down or block President Obama’s mainstream judges and executive nominees. But now that they’re in power, they’re unilaterally changing those rules to speed them up and ram through President Trump’s extremist nominees.

So let me be as clear as I can about this. When Democrats next have power, we should be bold: We are done with two sets of rules — one for the Republicans and one for the Democrats.

And that means when Democrats have the White House again, if Mitch McConnell tries to do what he did to President Obama, and puts small-minded partisanship ahead of solving the massive problems in this country, then we should get rid of the filibuster.

Paul Waldman argues that Republicans have more to lose than Democrats if the filibuster is ended.

Consider the first two years of the Trump administration, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. A Democrat might say, “Imagine what they would have done without the filibuster!” The truth, however, is that they would have done almost exactly what they did do. Their top priority was a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, which they passed using reconciliation, which requires only 50 votes. They tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act but failed to get 50 votes to do so. And that was about the entirety of their ambitious goals.

It isn’t that there weren’t some other things they wanted to do. But they knew that doing them would be politically disastrous. If there were no filibuster, they could outlaw abortion, for instance, but it would be political suicide. So the filibuster actually helps the GOP, by providing an easy excuse for why it doesn’t do the extreme things its base wants.

Democrats, on the other hand, are the party that believes government should do big things to make people’s lives better. So they are almost always going to be the ones proposing ambitious and popular legislation that will be blocked by the filibuster, meaning that it is inherently more restrictive on them than it is on Republicans.

I don’t think Dems have a choice but to end the filibuster if they ever take back the Senate.They’d be fools not to, even knowing that some time in the future it could come back to bite them. If progress isn’t made there may not be a future.

See also: Warren hits it out of the park

Fix Bayonets! House Dems Countercharge

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863. Painting by Mort Künstler.

In a single day, House Democrats demanded President Donald Trump’s tax returns for six years, moved to get a decade’s worth of his financial records and prepared to issue a subpoena for the full Mueller report from the Justice Department.

Top House Democratic lawmakers and aides say the triple-headed attack was more by accident than design, but it’s also clear that April 3 marks a turning point for the new Democratic majority. In less than eight hours, House Democrats moved to an all-out investigative assault on Trump, one that the White House and Republican leaders blasted as unnecessary, openly partisan and a huge distraction from the country’s business. [Politico]

Am I enjoying this? You betcha. Anyway, since when did the current Republican Party give a hoo-haw about the “country’s business”?

The House also passed a resolution to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen. The Senate passed the resolution last month. Trump says he will veto it. But I wonder if Trump’s veto could be challenged in court.

The Yemen resolution invokes the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (WPR), which gives Congress the power to direct a president to remove troops involved in “hostilities” abroad if there has been no formal “declaration of war or specific statutory authorization” from Congress.

Not only does it serve as a censure of Saudi’s conduct in the war, it’s also a clear check on executive power; if the US wants to be involved in a war in Yemen, Congress has to declare it. The Republican-led Senate passed the resolution in March, and it now heads to Trump’s desk. The White House says the president plans to veto it.

It seems to me that if Trump continues to use U.S. military resources in the war in Yemen without the support of Congress, he is in violation of the Constitution. Not that he gives a hoo-haw about the Constitution.

But speaking of courts — the enemy has not been idle. See Dana Milbank, “Mitch McConnell undid 213 years of Senate history in 33 minutes.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in his latest move to seize power by dismantling the chamber’s centuries-old safeguards, was about to push through another vote to break another rule. But first he gave a speech blaming the other side.

“The Democratic leader started all of this,” McConnell proclaimed, his face blotchy red with anger.

Pointing at the Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), McConnell added: “He started this whole thing.”

If that weren’t preschoolish enough, the once-distinguished gentleman from Kentucky said a third time: “He started it! That was a sad day. This is a glad day.”

Schumer just smiled and shook his head.

Actually, Vice President Aaron Burr started “it” — the Senate tradition of unlimited debate, that is. That tradition has prevailed, more or less, in the Senate since 1806. Over that time, senators had the right to delay votes on presidential nominees they found objectionable. But McConnell undid 213 years of history in 33 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, holding a party-line vote to rewrite the rules of debate.

The gloves are off. If Dems are ever again in control of both houses of Congress, watch them end the Senate filibuster, ban gerrymandering nationwide, and institute all kinds of judicial and election reforms.

Back to the tax returns — as I understand it, the IRS has no choice but to comply with the request from the Ways and Means Committee. The law is unambiguous. Paul Waldman:

Trump himself doesn’t have to hand over anything; the demand is made directly to the IRS, which, under the law, has no choice but to produce the returns. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will apparently instruct the IRS to refuse, under the legal doctrine known as “The law doesn’t apply to Donald Trump.”

The House of Representatives will then sue to compel the IRS to comply with the law, and the IRS will lose in court, until the case reaches the Supreme Court. In any sane world Trump would lose there on a 9-to-0 decision, but there’s no way to tell how the conservative justices will rule.

Even after the Ways and Means Committee gets the returns, it’s going to take a long time to sort through them and make sense of the tangle of LLCs and other business elements carefully put together to create maximum opaqueness. But at least, and at last, we’re seeing Democrats bringing guns to the gunfight.

By now you’ve heard there’s been grumbling from Mueller’s team that the Barr summary was, um, not the whole story. Trump’s toadies are even now redacting anything the least bit incriminating to Trump. I have to hope that somehow, some day, the entire thing will be leaked. And if there’s even a hint that Trump or his “associates” are helping out with the redacting, that’s an impeachable offense.

Speaking of impeachable offenses, let’s talk about White House security. It’s a mess. In a sane world, Trump’s playing fast and loose with security clearances would be a bigger scandal than Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails and Obama’s beige suit and Monica Lewinsky and possibly even Teapot Dome put together. I trust the House Intelligence Committee will investigate.

Trump and the Roman Empire

Last night Trump gave a speech to House Republicans that suggests he is going stark, raving mad. Examples:

  1. He doubled down on the claim his father, born in the Bronx, was born in Germany. Trump’s grandfather was born in Germany, and perhaps he meant to say “grandfather.” But in his extended remarks, it is clear Trump was talking about his father and not his grandfather.
  2. He doubled down on the claim that wind power doesn’t work — the wind doesn’t always blow, you know — and also said that wind turbines cause cancer.
  3. He kept using the word “oranges” when he clearly meants “origins.” “I hope they now go and take a look at the oranges. The oranges of the, uh, uh, investigation.” Et cetera.
  4. He told the assembled Republicans that they should be more paranoid about vote counting. And then he added,

“Someone’s gonna leak this whole damn speech to the media,” Trump worried aloud. It was a valid fear, given that reporters were in the room and C-SPAN cameras were covering the speech live.

And the most troubling part of this story is that audience members didn’t run from the room, screaming. R. Eric Thomas covered the speech for Elle,

And that said conspiracy could reach all the way to the White House. I’m inclined to agree. I don’t want to start an international incident but it seems clear that the President himself is trying to make Trump look like a fool. We have to investigate.

Jennifer Rubin says that Trump is increasingly incoherent:

The Post quotes him at a Republican event on Tuesday: “We’re going into the war with some socialist. It looks like the only non, sort of, heavy socialist is being taken care of pretty well by the socialists, they got to him, our former vice president. I was going to call him, I don’t know him well, I was going to say ‘Welcome to the world Joe, you having a good time?’” Even when attempting to defend himself, he emits spurts of disconnected thoughts. “Now you look at that [presidential announcement] speech and you see what’s happening and that speech was so tame compared to what is happening now, that trek up is one of the great treacherous treks anywhere, and Mexico has now, because they don’t want the border closed.”

But there’s more. It’s becoming clearer that Trump officials are moving ahead with their own agendas, separate from what Trump says he wants, because what Trump says he wants is nuts even to the genetically challenged crew who work for him. Greg Sargent writes,

There’s a deep disconnect, or even a pathology of sorts, festering at the core of the Trump administration’s response to the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

On the one hand, Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s secretary of homeland security, is appealing to congressional Democrats to engage in a constructive effort to find real solutions to the crisis. Nielsen has embarked on a new private and public campaign to get Democrats to consider legal changes that will supposedly ameliorate the situation.

Yet even as this is happening, Trump is rampaging around like a madman, threatening or putting in place all kinds of unhinged responses, through unilateral action, that are utterly disconnected from the realities of the actual crisis. These actions will only make the situation worse, and they render constructive engagement far less likely, or even impossible.

Right now, even as Nielsen wants Democrats to help solve the border crisis, White House aides are frantically scrambling to figure out how to dissuade Trump from closing down the border entirely, telling him that this would do immense economic damage to the country.

Here is something else Trump said yesterday, about his border crisis. This is an official White House transcript, mind you:

And what we have to do is Congress has to meet quickly and make a deal.  I could do it in 45 minutes.  We need to get rid of chain migration.  We need to get rid of catch and release and visa lottery.  And we have to do something about asylum.  And to be honest with you, you have to get rid of judges.

We have to get rid of judges?

Every time — and you won’t even believe this, Mr. Secretary General — you catch somebody that’s coming illegally into your country, and they bring them to a court.  But we can’t bring them to a court because you could never have that many judges.  So they take their name, they take their information, and they release them.  Now, we don’t release too many.  We keep them.  It’s called “catch and keep.”  But you don’t have facilities for that.  But you have to bring them through a court system.  If they touch your land — one foot on your land: “Welcome to being Perry Mason.  You now have a big trial.”

So what they’ve done over the years is they release them into the United States and they say, “Come back in four years for a trial.”  And nobody comes back.  I guess 1 percent — 1 to 2 percent, on average, come back.  And nobody can understand why they come back.  They’re the only ones that come back.

So no judges, no trials, no hearings. No asylum, I guess. And no coherent sentences.

Republicans in Congress were able to persuade Trump to back off promising a big new health care initiative soon. Now it’s been put off until after the 2020 election. But on many Trump’s erratic pronouncements have given his own officials and Republicans in Congress a bad case of whiplash.

“Given that the president’s proposals range from the imprudent to the impractical, at best, congressional Republicans seem largely to be ignoring them in favor of their own priorities: nominations in the Senate, and highlighting Democratic radicalism and disunity in the House,” said Michael Steel, who worked under former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

However, the degree to which Republicans meekly go along with whatever the madman wants remains disturbing. (See “Trump’s Takeover of the GOP Is Almost Complete” in the New York Times.) At the moment, one suspects that, like Caligula, Trump will become more and more outrageous and out of control. However, it will be up to our broken political processes, and not the Praetorian Guard, to take him out.

Elsewhere: The House Judiciary Committee has approved a subpoena for the complete Mueller report.