Monday, January 11, 2021

Post and Pre

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.

- Timothy Snyder "The American Abyss"

This week's featured posts are "Sedition and Free Speech" and "The Capitol Invasion is Both an End and a Beginning".

This week everybody was talking about the Trump insurrection

Most of what I have to say on this topic is in one of the featured posts. But I only briefly touched on the friendly reception the insurrectionists got from some of the police, and didn't mention the racial angle at all.

Joy Reid nailed that point, contrasting her own experience in Black Lives Matter protests with the untroubled demeanor of the Capitol invaders:

The reason these people were so unafraid of the cops ... the reason they could so easily and casually, with their cameras on, film themselves throwing things through the walls of our Capitol, our property, going inside the Capitol, sitting in Speaker Pelosi's office, casually take pictures of themselves, have that played on Fox News -- they know that they are not in jeopardy. Because the cops are taking selfies with them, walking them down the steps to make sure they're not hurt, taking care with their bodies -- not like they treated Freddie Gray's body.

White Americans aren't afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops, even when they're committing insurrection. Even when they're engaged in trying to occupy our Capitol to steal the votes of people who look like me. Because in their minds, they own this country. They own that Capitol. They own the cops; the cops work for them. And people like me have no damn right to try to elect a president. Because we don't get to pick the president, they get to pick the president. They own the president. They own the White House. They own this country.

So when you think you own it, when you own the place, you aren't afraid of the police, because the police are you. And the police reflect back to them: "We're with you. You're good. We're not going to hurt you, 'cause you're not them." I guarantee you if that was a Blacks Lives Matter protest in D.C. there would already be people shackled, arrested, or dead.

As soon as they realized the attack on the Capitol -- which everyone in the world saw coming -- was a public-relations disaster, Trumpists began blaming it on Antifa, inventing the ridiculous story that antifascists impersonated Trumpists and committed all the actual crimes. The Washington Post traced the provenance of this conspiracy theory.

The genesis for the assertion appears to be an article published by the right-wing Washington Times that claimed that a “retired military officer” had provided information from a firm called XRVision that used facial recognition software to identify several people who invaded the Capitol — and that two of them were linked to antifa. A third was “someone who shows up at climate and Black Lives Matter protests in the West.”

XRVision spokesperson Yaacov Apelbaum corrected the story:

“XRVision didn’t generate any composites or detection imagery for the Washington Times nor for a ‘retired military officer,’ ” Apelbaum said, “and did not authorize them to make any such representations.”

What happened, Apelbaum explained, was that the firm “performed an analysis on the footage” and, in doing so, was able to identify three people. “We concluded that two of individuals … were affiliated with the Maryland Skinheads and the National Socialist Movements,” the firm determined. “These two are known Nazi organizations, they are not Antifa. The third individual identified … was an actor with some QAnon promotion history. Again, no Antifa identification was made for him either.”

XRVision did create graphics comparing people who had been at the Capitol with other photographs, Apelbaum said, which “were distributed to a handful of individuals for their private consumption and not for publication.”

One of the graphics includes a photograph of two people that can also be found on the website Philly Antifa. As noted by Twitter user Respectable Lawyer, though, the reason the photo of those people is on the website isn’t that they are antifa, but that they were believed to be fascists.

So: the people identified were fascists, not anti-fascists.

and removing Trump

My post on the Capitol invasion ends with the idea that democracy needs to defend itself vigorously against fascism. We can't even appear to give in to the attitude Joy Reid posits: that the fascists "own this country".

That idea has two pieces: The identifiable people involved in the attack need to be charged and sent to jail, and there has to be some kind of consequence for Trump inciting that riot. The first piece got off to a bad start, when rioters were allowed to mingle in front of the Capitol for hours and then head for home on their own, rather than being arrested. But law enforcement and the social-media hive mind are identifying a bunch of these people now, and some are being arrested. We'll see if they get what's coming to them.

As for Trump, Democrats are insisting that he not be allowed to leave office honorably: He needs to resign or be removed by Pence using the 25th Amendment, or get impeached again. Republicans want to just let his term run out, and are trying to play the "unity" card. Keven McCarthy tweets:

Impeaching the President with just 12 days left will only divide our country more. I've reached out to President-elect Biden today & plan to speak to him about how we must work together to lower the temperature & unite the country to solve America’s challenges.

This spirit of unity was nowhere to be found when McCarthy voted to disenfranchise millions of Democrats Wednesday, even after Trump had incited a violent insurrection. Any Republican who puts forward such an idea needs to be challenged: What are you going to do to promote unity? What concessions is your side offering to make peace?

You want to lower the temperature, Kevin? Get Trump to resign. That would save a lot of grief all around. In the meantime, Democrats should continue with impeachment. McConnell will no doubt drag his feet to delay a vote past January 20 and then claim the case is moot. But that's on him. Democrats should at least try to do the right thing.

Some conservative voices are joining the chorus. American Enterprise Institute Fellow Matthew Continetti writes in National Review:

There will be time to sort through the wreckage of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. There is not as much time — a little less than 14 days — to constrain the president before he plunges the nation’s capital into havoc again. Incitement to trespass, harassment, and destruction cannot go unanswered. The Constitution offers remedies. Pursue them — for no other reason than to deter the president from escalation. There must be a cost for reckless endangerment of the United States government. Trump must pay.

and the post-Christmas Covid surge arrived

Friday, new cases topped 300K for the first time, coming in at 315K. The previous day, deaths topped 4K for the first time, coming in at 4027. The 7-day average on deaths is now 3200, and still going up. In general, deaths lag cases by a week or two, and track at about 1.5% or so. So the 300K cases is consistent with 4,500 daily deaths before the end of the month.

I have hopes that the cases and deaths will start to drop sharply before long. I base this not on the vaccine, which continues to roll out slowly, but on my bargain-with-God theory. I think a lot of people knew they were taking irresponsible risks over Christmas, but offered God a deal: "Just let me get through the holidays, and I'll be good." I think masking, staying-at-home, and social distance compliance is probably picking up now.

and free speech (and its consequences)

The other featured post discusses the implications of Twitter banning Trump, and Josh Hawley losing his book deal.

and oh, by the way, the Democrats captured control of the Senate

Wednesday was a busy day. I woke up to find that Raphael Warnock had won his race against Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff was ahead of David Perdue. Later that day Ossoff's race was called, producing a 50-50 Senate that VP Harris will tilt to the Democrats. The late vote-count increased the margins in both races, with Ossoff ahead now by 1.2% and Warnock's margin over 2%, big enough that a recount is not necessary. Georgia law allows Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger until January 22 to certify the results, after which both new senators should be sworn in.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has a nice ring to it.

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The editor of Forbes calls for "a truth reckoning", which requires consequences for Trump's hired liars. Ordinarily, a White House press secretary stands to make millions after rejoining the private sector. Trump's should not.

Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above [Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, Kayleigh McEnany] and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.

This has got to hurt: The Professional Golfers Association doesn't want Trump's baggage.

"The PGA of America Board of Directors voted tonight to exercise the right to terminate the agreement to play the 2022 PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster," said Jim Richerson, PGA of America president, in a statement. Holding the tournament at Trump Bedminster, Richerson said, would be "detrimental" to the PGA of America's brand and put the organization's ability to function "at risk."

As if to bookend the images of white domestic terrorists freely roaming the Capitol, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced that the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times would not be charged with any crime.

Watching Graveley's statement to the press as it happened, I was not in a position to immediately confirm or refute the points he was making. But I was struck by the tone: He was speaking as a defense attorney for the cops, trying to persuade the public rather than inform it.

The great NYT reporter Neil Sheehan died this week, freeing The Times to publish the full story of how he got The Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg.

and let's close with the best new thing of 2020

Rachel Maddow used to close her show with an upbeat segment called "The Best New Thing in the World". The new things were usually off-beat and not terribly momentous, but just made you feel good to think about them. I have such a new thing here: In March of 2020, the South Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher had its photo published for the first time in the 130 years since the species had been described. "It has eluded scientists for over a hundred years because of its behavior. It is difficult to see as it perches quietly and darts invisibly from perch to perch."

Monday, January 4, 2021

Against the Nation

Right now, the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of our of country is underway. Those who are pushing to make Donald Trump President, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation. You cannot, at the same time, love America and hate democracy.

- Senator Chris Murphy

This week's featured post is "The Increasingly Desperate Attack on Democracy".

This week, everybody was talking about the Republican attempt to steal the election for Trump

As I explained in this morning's Teaser, I resent that Trump is continuing to make me pay attention to him. The world and the country face real issues that have nothing to do with him, his ego, and his prospects of going to jail. I would like to start focusing on them. But his attempt to intimidate Georgia's secretary of state into throwing the election, and his supporters' effort to block (or at least de-legitimize) Biden's victory, can't go unnoticed.

This attempt to establish an American autocracy should be a black mark that all these people wear for the rest of their lives. I agree with Jennifer Rubin:

These spurious challenges to an election should remind us that the GOP has become an authoritarian, unprincipled party whose only purpose is to retain power by whatever means possible. It should permanently disqualify these Republicans from holding office.

I discuss the details in the featured post.

and about vaccine distribution

Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, writes bluntly in the Washington Post: "Vaccination is going slowly because nobody is in charge."

Let’s start with a quick recap: As recently as early October, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said we’d have 100 million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020. One month later, that was reduced to 40 million doses. As recently as Dec. 21, Vice President Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, said that we were on track to vaccinate 20 million Americans by Dec. 31. Unfortunately, 20 million doses haven’t even gotten to the states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that we have vaccinated about 2.6 million people. Assuming the reporting lags by a few days, we might be at 3 or 4 million total. ...

How did we get from 100 million promised doses to just a few million people vaccinated? It is a lesson in misunderstanding American federalism and a failure of national leadership. The federal government and Operation Warp Speed saw their role as getting vaccines to the states, without considering what supports states would need to get vaccines to the people.

State public health departments are already worn down by pandemic, and the money appropriated in the CARES Act last spring is long gone. The Covid relief package just passed by Congress has new funding for states to spend on vaccination programs, but the new money, plus a plan for what to do with it "should have happened in October and November".

In the face of this unforced error, Trump is doing what he always does: blame somebody else. The slow delivery of the vaccine is the states' fault, he claims. (In a remarkable coincidence, all 50 of them are failing in exactly the same way.) In a tweet, Trump makes this systemic failure sound like his personal success.

The vaccines are being delivered to the states by the Federal Government far faster than they can be administered!

One of the most frustrating thoughts I have about the whole botched pandemic response, beginning to end, is that this is precisely the kind of thing Hillary Clinton would have been good at: a difficult organizational problem with a lot of details, requiring an understanding of how the various parts of government work and how they fit together.

The pandemic seems to have leveled off at a horrifying plateau, as we wait to see the size of the post-Christmas surge. We're currently averaging about 220K new cases per day and 2600 daily deaths, and have been for more than two weeks. The total number of American deaths has passed 350K.

and the Georgia senate runoffs

I haven't posted much about this because I don't know what to say. I don't have a clue what's going to happen.

The election is tomorrow. After November, I'm not trusting small margins in polls, but 538's polling average has both Democrats narrowly ahead, with neither polling over 50%. For what it's worth, polls in Georgia did pretty well in November. 538 had Biden winning by .9%; he actually won by .2%.

Two Senate seats will be decided. If Democrats win both of them, they will control a 50-50 Senate by virtue of Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote. Otherwise, Mitch McConnell continues to be majority leader.

Even if both Democrats win, it's a mistake to expect much out of the Senate. The filibuster is still in place, and to get rid of it Schumer would need all 50 Democratic votes -- something that's unlikely to happen. The main advantage that would come from controlling the Senate would be deciding what comes to a vote. For the last two years, Pelosi's House majority has been passing legislation about voting rights, Covid relief, DC statehood, and all sorts of other worthy causes. The Senate should have to vote on these things. If it does, some watered-down version might even pass.

Also, a Republican Senate will spend most of its time launching spurious investigations into whatever Biden conspiracy theory they can come up with.

But the idea that a 50-Democrat Senate will enable some kind of "socialist agenda" is just Republican propaganda.

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Nancy Pelosi gets another term as speaker.

Congress overrode Trump's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. Efforts to up the $600 payments in last week's Covid relief bill to $2000 went nowhere in the Senate.

Patrick Cage knew about Q-Anon before most of the rest of us did, because he makes regular bets on PredictIt, the political stock market. Back in 2018 he started noticing anomalies in the prediction markets: People were willing to bet money on prospective events that nothing in the news pointed to: say, that Hillary Clinton or Jim Comey or Barack Obama would be indicted by a certain date. After he won a few bets against these positions, he started studying the comments sections for explanations of what the bettors were thinking. And that's how he discovered Q.

The followers of Q, it turns out, don't just trade theories on social media. Some of them think they have real inside knowledge that they can use to make money. Cage has become a student of Q-Anon theories so that he can bet against them. He claims he hasn't lost an anti-Q bet yet.

If you have Q-Anon friends, you might want to show them this article. One of the best ways to dissuade them, I suspect, would be to get them testing their theories on prediction markets. You can explain away things you said on the internet. But you can't explain away a steady loss of money. If Q is so smart, why can't the people who listen to him get rich?

I've been resisting the recent trend of paying for subscriptions to individual writers -- sorry, Matt Yglesias -- but this week I made an exception for David Roberts' new blog Volts.

Roberts has been writing about environmental issues and their philosophical underpinnings for years. I started reading his stuff when he wrote for Grist, then followed him to Vox. I've quoted posts like "The question of what Donald Trump 'really believes' has no answer", and his discussion of "tribal epistemology". His 2012 exchange with Wen Stephenson about how the mainstream media covers climate change is just as relevant now as it was then.

An example of the kind of thinking I have appreciated from Roberts is his recent Volts post "Why I Am a Progressive", which includes a critique of philosophy's famous Trolley Problem (which you may have seen on "The Good Place"). The thought experiment is misguided, he claims, because it implies that the important thing in ethics is to find the right abstract rules, as if the height of ethical achievement is to become the perfect decision-making automaton.

As the Trolley Problem is structured, you, the moral agent, have an utter paucity of knowledge about the situation. You don’t know why you’re there, any of the people involved, any history, any detail. All you know is, one life or five lives. The problem is designed to make the agent (the decider) invisible, to isolate the decision itself away from embedded, embodied experience.  ...

All we have are the perceptual and analytic tools available to us, so we should focus on improving them. If you want trolley-style decisions made better in the real world, in real societies, you’re much better off focusing on agents than on any set of final principles. ... [W]hat we’d want operating in a real-world case of the Trolley Problem is not the perfect set of principles, but the perfect moral agent — the best possible decision-maker.

By contrast, the world we have now is determined by "harried people making thoughtless decisions based on crude heuristics and mental models". The surest path to a more moral world, then, is to improve that situation.

And so he winds around to the question he is supposed to be answering: why he's progressive. People make better decisions, he says, when they have the slack to take a step back and think things through, and they make worse decisions when they're hungry or afraid or worried about losing their place in the world. They also make better decisions when they have access to high-quality information. So, of course, you educate people about how to think clearly, and you make it easy for them to find good information. And then you create a society where as few people as possible live in fear or under stress.

I finally got around to reading Dan Kaufman's book The Fall of Wisconsin, which came out in 2018. It tells the story of how Scott Walker and an extreme form of conservatism took over the state where Bob La Follette invented the progressive movement a century ago. The short version is:

  • Walker's conservatives were backed by limitless amounts of money, which they used not only to overwhelm Democrats during election campaigns, but also to create a permanent infrastructure of organizing groups like Americans for Prosperity. Liberals organized issue by issue, election by election, and candidate by candidate, and so were always a step behind.
  • They had a long-term strategic plan and carried it out, systematically crippling centers of Democratic strength like the unions.
  • They were ruthless about changing the rules in their favor, instituting a voter-ID law that disenfranchised tens of thousands, gerrymandering legislative districts so extremely that repeated Democratic voting majorities can't dislodge the Republican leadership, and transferring power from the governor to the legislature after Walker was voted out.

But it's not just a story of diabolical Republican brilliance. The dysfunction of Democrats and progressives in general is a second theme. By taking a short-term non-strategic perspective, Walker's opposition allowed itself to be picked apart piece by piece. Walker succeeded in turning private-sector unions against public-sector unions, and non-unionized workers against unionized workers. Liberal whites in the small towns often failed to stand up for blacks in Milwaukee or Native Americans protecting the environment near their reservations, and those groups returned the favor. The thought "They'll be coming for me next" never seemed to register.

The Democratic Party in general showed a similar lack of solidarity, and worried more about losing the news cycle nationally than about supporting grassroot movements that channeled local energy. So in 2011 when Walker was taking collective-bargaining rights away from teachers and other public-sector unions, and tens of thousands of grassroot protesters occupied the state capitol building, President Obama was looking ahead to his 2012 reelection campaign and stayed away.

The lesson I learn from this book is that to be successful, the Democratic Party has to be strong locally, and has to stand for themes that manifest in issues people can see in their lives. Republicans have become the party of fantasy, focused on bizarre conspiracy theories (like Q-Anon), just-so stories (like rich people creating jobs with their tax cuts), meaningless pejorative labels ("socialists!") and fears disconnected from reality (like transgender acceptance allowing pedophiles to lurk in girls' bathrooms). Democrats can't win on that turf.

Democrats have to be the party of real people talking about what's going on in their lives: my groundwater is polluted, I can't pay my medical bills or my student debt, you can't live on minimum wage in this city, and so on. And if those stories sound foreign at first, because in some way we're different from the people telling them, trusted national figures have to encourage us to stretch our empathy, and explain how we may need others to be there for us someday. National figures need to invest their political capital in local issues, rather than pull back because those stories are not immediately popular.

and let's close with something restful

In Utah, a wildlife bridge allows for transit over Interstate 80. Back in November, the state Division of Wildlife Resources posted a video of the "traffic", which includes several deer, as well as coyotes, bears, and a bobcat who snares a mouse.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Long December

It's been a long December
And there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last.

- Counting Crows

This week's featured posts are my end-of-the-year summaries: "The Yearly Sift 2020: State of the Sift" and "The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the Year".

But it's 2020, so the news didn't slow down for the holiday week. Here's what's been happening.

This week everybody was talking about vetoes

Trump threatened to veto the $2.3 trillion package that includes $900 billion of Covid relief and money to keep the government open past today. Then he did nothing for several days. Then yesterday he finally signed it. The enhanced unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act ended Saturday, so his delay means that states won't be able to restart the benefits until the first week of January.

The announcement that he had signed the bill was quickly followed by a bizarre statement that makes the signing sound like something other than a capitulation. Trump's statement invoked the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, as if he believes this law does the opposite of what it really does.

Congress passed the ICA in response to President Nixon’s executive overreach – his Administration refused to release Congressionally appropriated funds for certain programs he opposed. While the U.S. Constitution broadly grants Congress the power of the purse, the President – through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and executive agencies – is responsible for the actual spending of funds. The ICA created a process the President must follow if he or she seeks to delay or cancel funding that Congress has provided.

The process is for the President to make a list of the desired cuts and then send it back to Congress, which can just ignore the criticism -- as it certainly will in this case. The President then must spend the money appropriated in the original bill. So the list of rescissions Trump announced (which may or may not ever appear; remember all the times he has said that a health care plan was coming) is just symbolic. Even Fox News says

with only a few days left in this Congress, such a request is nearly out of the question

In addition to "demanding" and "insisting on" changes in the bill he signed, Trump's statement falsely claims Congress has agreed to change Section 230 of Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects social media companies from certain lawsuits. (Trump would like to sue Twitter for continuing to flag his lying tweets about the election as "disputed".) Congress has also, the statement falsely asserts, "agreed to focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud which took place in the November 3 Presidential election".

It is unclear whether Trump issued this toothless statement to fool his supporters, or if his staff fooled him into thinking the statement somehow continues the fight. It does not. He surrendered.

On Wednesday, he did veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which is one of those must-pass bills that allows the government to do things like buy weapons and pay the troops. A vote to override is scheduled for this afternoon in the House, though Senate procedures may delay their vote until Sunday. The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee sent out a carefully phrased note to his colleagues.

Your decision should be based on what is actually in the bill rather than distortions or misrepresentations. ... Your decision should be based upon the oath we all took, which was to the Constitution rather than any person or organization

You mean, some "person" is demanding loyalty to himself rather than to the Constitution, and is spreading "distortions or misrepresentations" about the contents of the NDAA? Whoever could that be?

Trump's stated objections to the bill are tangential, to say the least.

Trump vetoed the bill after Democrats and Republicans refused to include his last-minute demand to repeal legal protections for social media companies [Section 230 again], which is unrelated to the defense legislation. He also objected to provisions that would remove the names of Confederate leaders from Army bases and place limits on his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Europe.

Trump describes the bill as "a gift to Beijing", which might be one of the "misrepresentations" Rep. Thornberry had in mind. The bill also funds a new cybersecurity effort, which probably is not going down well with Trump's handler in Moscow.

Amanda Marcotte has an interesting theory: Trump's vetoes and veto threats are intended to pressure Mitch McConnell into helping him steal the election.

To be clear, this isn't 11th level chess. It's actually Trump employing junior high school bully logic: McConnell wants a thing (this paltry coronavirus relief bill), and so Trump is threatening to take it away unless Trump gets what he wants (a successful coup). Trump, being very dumb, has not considered the possibility that McConnell couldn't give in to the extortion if he tried because there's actually no secret file in McConnell's office labeled "How To Steal Any Election."

and pardons

Three weeks ago in "Pardons and Their Limits" I talked in general about the issues involved in the pardons Trump might issue. Now we have some actual pardons to discuss.

The Washington Post sums up what's wrong with them:

Larry Kupers, the former acting head of the Justice Department Office of the Pardon Attorney, who served in the Trump administration until he left in mid-2019, said in an interview that the president has been abusive in failing to go through the normal channels to review requests for clemency.

Normally, such requests go through his former office and recommendations are eventually sent to the White House. Most of Trump’s actions have been made on requests that did not go through the office. “It is abusive in the sense that very few of his grants, commutations or pardons really went to any legitimate purpose,” Kupers said.

“The purpose of the pardon power set out by Alexander Hamilton — that is mercy and reconciliation and I would add to that forgiveness. I can’t think about any of his grants that come under those categories. They are all grants to cronies or are partisan in the sense that he wants to excite and please his base.”

One striking thing that you might miss or misunderstand: Writers trying to be fair to Trump are sure to mention the dubious pardons of previous presidents -- Ford pardoned Nixon; Clinton pardoned Marc Rich; Bush the First pardoned the Iran-Contra conspirators; and so on. What's important to notice is that the worst examples from America's past are the run of the mill now. Just about all of Trump's pardons are self-serving, corrupt, or otherwise damaging to America.

The latest batch included the pardon everyone expected: Paul Manafort, who gets his reward for keeping quiet about the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. His pardon ties a nice bow on Trump's obstruction of the Mueller investigation.

Among the partisan pardons are three corrupt Republican congressmen: Duncan Hunter, who was convicted of stealing campaign funds for personal use; Chris Collins (insider trading); and Steve Stockman (charity fraud). All three were clearly guilty of money crimes that served no political purpose; they were just greedy, and grabbed the money because they could. They all deserved their punishment, and could be poster boys for the swamp that Trump promised to drain. It is impossible to imagine a corrupt Democratic congressman -- or even a never-Trump Republican -- getting a similar pardon. The message this sends to corrupt Republican politicians everywhere is: Go for it. Even if you're caught, eventually a Republican president will pardon you.

But probably the least deserving beneficiaries of Trump's largesse are the four Blackwater mercenaries convicted of the Nisour Square Massacre. They killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including two children. There is no doubt they are guilty, or that their crime is heinous. I reconstruct Trump's thinking like this: They're Americans and they killed non-white foreigners, so who cares?

This is reminiscent of Trump's pardon in 2019 of convicted murderer Major Matt Golsteyn, of whom Trump tweeted:

We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!

It is hard to overstate how much damage these pardons (and Trump's overall attitude towards murderers in uniform) do to the reputation of the United States and the morale of our armed forces. What must our soldiers think, when they hear their Commander in Chief call them "killing machines"? Former head of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey tweeted in response to the first talk of such pardons:

Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.

The Blackwater pardons go beyond simple corruption. They are evil for evil's sake.

Josh Marshall's take on the pardons as obstruction is interesting: He doesn't think they matter that much. More important than sending people to jail is figuring out what happened, and he expects that to come out of the documents that will be available to the Biden administration.

A new President not invested in the cover up changes the equation dramatically. Everything that has been bottled up at the DOJ, in the intelligence services, in the President’s tax returns, in the voluminous records of the US government have been bottled up because of the President’s slow-rolling, mostly spurious claims of executive privilege or simple non-compliance. All that power disappears on January 20th and translates into the hands of Joe Biden. An ex-President has no privileges to claim whatsoever. In the past, incumbent Presidents have deferred to former President’s on claims of privilege. But that is purely a courtesy. All of these documents and records are the property of the United States government and they are under the control of the incumbent President, who will be Joe Biden in 26 days.

What Biden will do with this power, I can’t tell you. But it will be up to him. And there is quite a lot that remained hidden during Trump’s presidency that can now be uncovered.

In general, I'm against a tit-for-tat view of democratic norms. We believe in democracy and Republicans don't, so we have a different obligation to maintain its norms. It's frustrating, but necessary.

In this case, though, I think a exception is called for: Trump has violated so many norms that I think his claims of privilege deserve no deference from his successor. Give him his legal rights and nothing more.

and the Nashville bombing

A car-bomb rocked Nashville at around 6:30 on Christmas morning. It was placed in a touristy area of downtown, but at a time when tourists wouldn't be there. Police have identified the bomber and believe he died in the bombing, possibly intentionally. Officials are being careful not to assign motives before they have clear evidence. The bomber seems to have been a loner who purchased and assembled the bomb components himself.

The bomber clearly was trying to destroy property rather than kill people. Gunfire apparently was intended to draw police to the area, but the bomb-carrying RV warned people away by blaring a recorded warning that counted down to the explosion. He has been described as "a hermit", and there are reports that he had been giving away major possessions, as if he expected to die soon.

The bomb was next to an AT&T hub and knocked out some services, but no one knows yet whether that was the purpose. Unconfirmed speculation says that the bomber was paranoid about 5G. You may have seen a photo purporting to be the bomber wearing a Trump hat, but International Business Times claims the photo is a hoax. A scraggly beard makes the Trump-hat photo hard to compare to the clean-shaven photo released by police.

Trump spent the weekend golfing, with no comment on any of the news. Bryan Tyler Cohen makes a sage observation:

Just so we're clear, Trump is staying silent on Nashville until he finds out whether the person responsible supports him or not.

His concern with "terrorism" and "law and order" never includes violent acts by his supporters.

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Brexit finally got done, more or less.

WaPo's editorial board reviews the state of Trump's wall as he leaves office: $15 billion spent, environmental damage, and no benefit to speak of. Oh, and Mexico never paid a dime.

Here's the New Hampshire I remember:

In Concord on Monday December 21st of 2020 at ten a.m., a group of over one hundred people from across New Hampshire gathered at the now-closed state house steps to invoke their Right of Revolution as specified in Article Ten of the Bill of Rights of the NH Constitution.

The maskless gathering seemed to be motivated by the fairly meager emergency orders of Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who was described as "hiding in his home on Christmas Eve" like that was a strange thing to do.

The Trump claims of electoral fraud all fall apart when looked at in any detail. They rely on their bulk, not on their quality. Here, WaPo's Phillip Bump focuses on one. And Sidney Powell's secret "expert" witness isn't particularly expert.

and let's close with something judgmental

On bad days, I agree with Eileen McGann's "I Think We're Just Too Stupid for Democracy". Unfortunately, as she observes, "All of the alternatives are worse."

Monday, December 21, 2020

Keeping Faith

Nothing good can come of the confrontation between good faith and bad faith engagement. ... Indeed, pursuing good faith engagement with bad faith actors only enables and fuels this corrosive, anti-civic behavior.

- Josh Marshall

This week's featured post is "Beware of Bad Faith". Next week I'll resume the tradition of the Yearly Sift and announce a theme of the year.

This week everybody was talking about the Russian hack

Ars Technica describes the hack like this:

SolarWinds is the maker of a nearly ubiquitous network management tool called Orion. A surprisingly large percentage of the world’s enterprise networks run it. Hackers backed by a nation-state—two US senators who received private briefings say it was Russia—managed to take over SolarWinds’ software build system and push a security update infused with a backdoor. SolarWinds said about 18,000 users downloaded the malicious update.

So basically, major corporations and government agencies were hacked via an organization that they trusted to keep them safe from hackers. Wired summed up:

Any customer that installed an Orion patch released between March and June inadvertently planted a Russian backdoor on their own network.

So, ironically, IT departments that fell months behind on installing patches -- a lot of them, according to Wired -- escaped. Not all of the 18K users who installed the back door were the targets, though. Ars Technica:

the tiniest of slivers—possibly as small as 0.2 percent—received a follow-on hack that used the backdoor to install a second-stage payload. The largest populations receiving stage two were, in order, tech companies, government agencies, and think tanks/NGOs. The vast majority—80 percent—of these 40 chosen ones were located in the US.

Again, Wired puts this in simple terms:

This means there are really three subgroups within the potential victims of these attacks: Orion users who installed the backdoor but were never otherwise exploited; victims who had some malicious activity on their networks, but who ultimately weren't appealing targets for attackers; and victims who were actually deeply compromised because they held valuable data.

"If they didn't exfiltrate data, it’s because they didn’t want it," says Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker and founder of the security firm Rendition Infosec.

So the obvious question is: What did they want?

Identifying exactly what was taken is challenging and time consuming. For example, some reports have indicated that hackers breached critical systems of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for the US nuclear weapons arsenal. But DOE spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement late Thursday that while attackers did access DOE "business networks," they did not breach "the mission-essential national security functions of the Department."

Let me make a layman's guess about what that means: They didn't steal our nuclear secrets, but they got a lot personal information about people who could steal our nuclear secrets.

One thing the hackers wanted was an opportunity to hide their malware inside of other software companies' products. Josephine Wolff writes in Slate:

Even more worrisome is the fact that the attackers apparently made use of their initial access to targeted organizations, such as FireEye and Microsoft, to steal tools and code that would then enable them to compromise even more targets. After Microsoft realized it was breached via the SolarWinds compromise, it then discovered its own products were then used “to further the attacks on others,” according to Reuters.

This means that the set of potential victims is not just (just!) the 18,000 SolarWinds customers who may have downloaded the compromised updates, but also all of those 18,000 organizations’ customers, and potentially the clients of those second-order organizations as well—and so on. So when I say the SolarWinds cyberespionage campaign will last years, I don’t just mean, as I usually do, that figuring out liability and settling costs and carrying out investigations will take years (though that is certainly true here). The actual, active theft of information from protected networks due to this breach will last years.

Ominously, the government's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warns that we might not know the full extent of the attack yet.

CISA has evidence that there are initial access vectors other than the SolarWinds Orion platform. ... CISA will update this Alert as new information becomes available.

As for who did it, anonymous sources of The Washington Post blame the hack on:

Russian hackers, known by the nicknames APT29 or Cozy Bear, are part of that nation’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR

Predictably, Trump downplayed the hack and said that we don't know it was Russia. In other words, he once again said exactly what Putin wants him to say. Incidents like this are why so many people believe Putin has something on Trump. There may or may not be a pee tape, but there's clearly something. Ben Rhodes comments:

Trump stands down on hacking, says nothing about Navalny poisoning, downsizes US military presence in Germany, embraces Russian conspiracy theory about Ukraine and 2016 election, and debases US democracy into a corrupt grift for cronies. Those are Putin's returns just this year.

Trump also incorporated the hack into a new conspiracy theory to deny that he lost the election by seven million votes: Maybe it was China. Maybe they also hit the voting machines.

An aside: On social media, I am now refusing to get into the details of Trump's election conspiracy theories. Instead I simply say this: "There are numerous legitimate venues in which Trump made or could have made his claims: state and local election boards, secretaries of state, state and federal courts. In every case, those officials and judges -- including Republican officials and Trump-appointed judges -- found no reason to challenge Biden's win. It's time for Trump and his followers to accept the reality that he lost legitimately and by a wide margin."

In a discussion of what Microsoft has discovered about the attack, Microsoft President Brad Smith made a oblique criticism of Trump's "America First" foreign policy.

The new year creates an opportunity to turn a page on recent American unilateralism and focus on the collective action that is indispensable to cybersecurity protection.

Mike Pompeo, in contrast to his boss, said this:

This was a very significant effort, and I think it's the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.

In the middle of all this, the Pentagon has shut down transition briefings for Biden's people. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller claimed it was a mutually agreed upon holiday break, but Biden transition director Yohannes Abraham denies that.

and the transition

The effort to keep Trump in power in spite of the voters gets more and more radical as its more legitimate efforts fail. Recounts didn't work. There was no evidence of massive fraud to show to election boards or state or federal courts. Republican legislatures in swing states couldn't be persuaded to back a Trump power grab. So what does that leave? Violence.

The latest buzz in MAGAland is that Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act to take over the swing states by military force and hold new elections. (In other words: to start an insurrection rather than put one down.) Two criminal allies who benefited from Trump's pardon power, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, have both suggested this.

It's not going to happen. The military doesn't want that job, and I don't think our generals have some deep personal loyalty to Trump that they're looking for a way to express.

“When you're talking about a group of conspiracy theorists, and others who lack any kind of legal knowledge, they'll just pull that arrow out of their quiver when the rest don’t work,” said Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Once you eliminate military violence, the remaining option is yahoos with guns.

“What is the heart of the Second Amendment, pro-militia, anti-government patriot movement? It's the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment,” [Levin] said. “It says people can rise up against a tyrannical government. To me, this looks like the last exit on the Jersey Turnpike before we get to that spot.”

We're still waiting on what might be Biden's most important appointment: attorney general. That person is going to have to decide which of the Trump-era corruption cases is worth pursing and how to pursue them. What's in the national interest? What can states like New York handle on their own? Stuff like that.

It's getting lost in this Trump-centered moment, but the new AG is also going to be in the middle of efforts to redefine and reform American policing. There is going to be another George Floyd somewhere, and when there is, will the local community believe in the Biden Justice Department or not? Violence happens when the non-violent avenues for seeking justice seem closed.

and the virus

A second vaccine, this one from Moderna, has been OK'd for use.

We've already hit a glitch in distribution of the Pfizer vaccine. States suddenly heard from the federal government, without explanation, that their expected allocation of doses would drop by 1/3 or more. It seems to be a bureaucratic issue and not a manufacturing problem.

The UK is reporting a new strain of Covid-19 that spreads even faster. It doesn't seem to be any deadlier, though, and so far the belief is that the same vaccines will work.

It looks like a $900 billion Covid relief package will pass soon. I thank the voters of Georgia for forcing the two Senate runoffs on January 5. Mitch McConnell wants to sabotage the country as Biden takes office, but he needs to be able to argue that his Senate is not completely dysfunctional. So we'll get a too-small package rather than none at all.

As we passed 300,000 deaths this week, the US continues to set records for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The Thanksgiving holiday gatherings proved to be every bit as dangerous as public-health officials predicted, and Christmas is shaping up to be even worse.

My best guess: The pandemic will peak in mid-January, and then fall off fairly quickly as spring arrives and the vaccines start to take hold. Some really horrible stuff will happen between then and now, though, because many communities' hospital systems won't be able to handle the strain. In the spring, when the outbreak was centered in New York City, help could be pulled in from elsewhere. This time, there is no "elsewhere".

Whatever stories you have of bad behavior by covidiots, Texas wedding photographers can top you.

and you also might be interested in ...

Believe it or not, Brexit is still a thing. Britain's exit from the EU became official back in January, but there were still details to work out. Those details are still not worked out, and bad things start happening January 1 if they're not.

New reasons to doubt trickle-down economics:

[A] new paper, by David Hope of the London School of Economics and Julian Limberg of King's College London, examines 18 developed countries — from Australia to the United States — over a 50-year period from 1965 to 2015. The study compared countries that passed tax cuts in a specific year, such as the U.S. in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan slashed taxes on the wealthy, with those that didn't, and then examined their economic outcomes.

The conclusion: The tax cuts had virtually no effect on economic growth, but they did increase the incomes of the rich.

An announcement from the United States Space Force:

Today, after a yearlong process that produced hundreds of submissions and research involving space professionals and members of the general public, we can finally share with you the name by which we will be known: Guardians.

Three words sum up everything that needs to be said about our space-faring guardians: I am Groot.

Benjamin Wittes' look back on the Flynn pardon is worth reading. He puts the whole affair in context, notes the judge's skepticism about the government's actions since Barr became attorney general, and concludes:

I doubt, for reasons I won’t detail here, that it could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be an obstruction of justice. But I also have little doubt that it was one—that the whole story, taken together, describes a protracted pattern of conduct by the president that was specifically intended to influence the interactions of a key witness with both prosecutors and the courts. ...

He notes Flynn's subsequent airing of the notion that Trump could declare martial law in swing states so that the military could re-do the election, and comments:

The president, in other words, bought not merely Flynn’s non-cooperation with prosecutors. He appears to have bought as well the former intelligence officer’s vociferous and public support for his attempts to undermine the election he lost.

As we look toward the next rounds of pardons, this latter trade may be the fundamental one Trump is seeking to replicate.

I talked about the Dr. Jill controversy in the featured post, but I didn't get around to mentioning this speculation: I'm sure that if she continues teaching English in a community college, it is only a matter of time before Project Veritas puts a student/provocatuer in her class to tape lectures that they can deceptively edit into something scandalous.

Trump's takeover of conservative Christianity has not been completely unopposed. In this post, Pentacostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice collect 12 Trump-Christian leaders prophesying that Trump would win the election and serve a second term. These were not humble prayers that God might aid their favorite candidate, but proclamations that God had showed them the future.

Since Trump did not win the election and will not serve a second term, it's worth considering the possibilities here.

  • God tricked them. Believing this would challenge standard Christian beliefs about God's character and God's relationship with humanity.
  • They fooled themselves. Maybe they interpreted their own wishful thinking as the voice of God, although the theory that some demon pretended to be God and told them what they wanted to hear is also consistent with many branches of Christian theology. Either way, followers should be leery of any future pronouncements these 12 might make.
  • They lied. In my opinion, this is the most likely option. But I'm cynical.

Most likely, though, these pastors' sheep will not hold them accountable for their error in any way. The preachers will go on speaking in God's name, the gullible will believe them, and the money will keep rolling in. Later, the followers of these charlatans will complain that people like me treat them like they're stupid.

and let's close with something adorable

As we deal with the pandemic and wait for the end of the Trump administration, it's impossible to have too much cuteness in our lives. With that in mind, I offer a new species of greater gliders, who are related to koalas. They live in the Australian bush.

I think that if the new greater gliders handle their marketing rights wisely, they should never lack for eucalyptus again.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Shared Understanding

He leaves behind a society in which the bonds of trust are degraded, in which his example licenses everyone to cheat on taxes and mock affliction. Many of his policies can be reversed or mitigated. It will be much harder to clear our minds of his lies and restore the shared understanding of reality—the agreement, however inconvenient, that A is A and not B—on which a democracy depends.

- George Packer "A Political Obituary for Donald Trump"

This week's featured posts are "Opening Thoughts About the Trump Voter" and "This Week in the Trump Coup".

This week everybody was talking about the virus and the vaccines

The Pfizer vaccine got approval and is being administered starting today.

Meanwhile, we're seeing the predicted effects of the traveling and gathering Americans did over Thanksgiving. Friday, we set a record with 237,000 new cases. More than 17,000 Americans died in the last week. That's like a Vietnam War every month.

The new worry is that people won't take the vaccine. It isn't just the usual anti-vax folks, it's also a Catholic thing and anti-abortion Protestant thing, because the vaccines were developed using stem cells retrieved from aborted fetuses in the 1960s. The Pope doesn't seem to have this scruple, but he's not Catholic enough for some folks.

And then there are the wackos, like this Florida megachurch pastor, who

has advised his congregants not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, urging them to “believe in divine immunity” instead.

After all, divine immunity worked so well during the Black Death.

and the GOP becoming the Autocratic Party

This got covered in one of the featured posts. One thing I left out of that post: the racist nature of much of this weekend's violence. Black churches were targets, including a historic D.C. church whose Black Lives Matter banner was torn down and burned.

and you also might be interested in ...

One thing Trump's effort to overturn the election he lost (by over seven million votes) has pointed out is how the minority-rule bugs in our democracy can cascade.

  • The Electoral College allows a candidate to lose by millions of votes and still become president, as Trump did in 2016. If Biden's win in 2020 had been only 1% narrower across the board -- if he'd won by 5.5 million votes rather than 7 million -- the Electoral College would have flipped the victory to Trump.
  • Gerrymandering allows a party to control the state legislature even if a majority of the voters supports the other party. This is the case in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
  • If the state legislature can ignore the vote totals and choose electors on its own -- as Trump is trying to get them to do -- then a candidate can lose the popular vote not just nationally, but also in states that represent a majority of electors, and still become president.
  • If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, the election is decided by the House, with each state delegation getting one vote. If the minority-rule party controls -- or manages to gerrymander majorities in -- 26 state delegations, its candidate wins.

Currently, all these factors favor Republicans. So if they are put together, Republicans could hold the presidency with considerably less than the 46% of the vote Trump got in 2016. A Democrat could win a resounding landslide of votes, but lose the presidency.

John Le Carré, the author who rescued the spy genre from James Bond, died this weekend at 89. Critics are arguing over his greatest novel, and I admit to never having read A Perfect Spy, which tops many lists. But The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a novel writers (of fiction and nonfiction alike) should study as they learn their craft, because it is so perfectly tight. You couldn't edit out a single sentence without losing something.

Le Carré's most influential insight was that intelligence work requires intelligence more than derring-do, and is more about organizations than lone-wolf operatives. First and foremost, George Smiley was a guy who read the files better than you would.

The opening chapters of The Honorable Schoolboy are about picking up the pieces after catching the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The process involves finding patterns in what the mole had prevented British intelligence from doing or discovering -- assembling the gaps in the Circus' knowledge into a story of its own. James Bond would have been useless.

and let's close with something awesome

Prize-winning photos of the aurora.

Monday, December 7, 2020


All of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this.

- Gabriel Sterling, calling out his fellow Republicans
about threats of violence against Georgia election officials

This week's featured posts are "Republicans Start Reaping the Whirlwind" and "Pardons and Their Limits".

This week everybody was talking about the virus and the vaccines

We're at a significant point here. On the one hand, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are higher than they've ever been. The Thanksgiving holiday almost certainly spread the virus further, but that shouldn't fully show up in the numbers until next week. Winter is just getting started, a significant portion of the population is as resistant to good sense as ever, and Christmas is coming. So over the next month or two, things look pretty grim.

Personally, I'm noticing the pandemic hitting closer to home. For a long time, I knew people who knew people who had the virus, but my inner circle was largely unaffected. Just in this last week, though, I've heard about infections in two households connected only by the fact that I know them.

On the sunny side of the street, there are at least two viable vaccines, one of which is already approved in the UK. Both should start getting distributed here fairly soon.

The NYT posted a gadget to estimate where you stand in the line to get vaccinated. I thought being 64 would give me some advantages, but lacking any complicating morbidities or an essential job, I fall pretty close to the middle of the pack: About 185.6 Americans are in line ahead of me. My wild guess is that I'll be able to emerge from my hole sometime this summer.

Presidential adviser Scott Atlas has resigned. I have little to add to what Dick Polman wrote in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star:

Atlas, the White House pandemic adviser, was the ultimate MAGA appointee: ill-qualified for the job he got, woefully over his head while doing it, and people died because he did it.

He will not be missed.

and conspiracy theories about the election

Trump's increasingly desperate lawsuits continue to get tossed out of court, often by Republican judges, and sometimes even by Trump appointees. Conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote:

At stake, in some measure, is faith in our system of free and fair elections, a feature central to the enduring strength of our constitutional republic. It can be easy to blithely move on to the next case with a petition so obviously lacking, but this is sobering. The relief being sought by the petitioners is the most dramatic invocation of judicial power I have ever seen. Judicial acquiescence to such entreaties built on so flimsy a foundation would do indelible damage to every future election. Once the door is opened to judicial invalidation of presidential election results, it will be awfully hard to close that door again. This is a dangerous path we are being asked to tread. The loss of public trust in our constitutional order resulting from the exercise of this kind of judicial power would be incalculable.

I mentioned Gabriel Sterling's rant in one of the featured posts. But if you haven't seen it, you really should.

The straw that broke Sterling's back was a video circulating among QAnon supporters. Claiming to be a "smoking gun" demonstrating manipulation of vote totals, it shows Sterling's 20-something tech "using a computer and thumb drive".

The video is one of several that is going around on social media and being promoted by people like Rudy Giuliani as "evidence" that Biden stole the election from Trump. It's a great example of the advantage lies have over truth. By the time you debunk one such claim, five others have sprung up. And as soon as you deal with them, somebody will repeat the first one again.

One rule of thumb eliminates a large number of such claims: If Trump's lawyers haven't been willing to repeat the claim in one of their 40-some lawsuits, they don't believe it either. Anybody can rent a function room in a hotel and hold a "hearing".

If you're wondering why Trump is doing this when his effort has so little chance of success, all you have to do is follow the money. Trump has raised more than $200 million to "stop the steal" -- money that is mostly going into a leadership PAC he can spend however he likes. The actual cost of his lawsuits is only a fraction of that.

The longer he can keep this show going, the more money he can shake out of his followers. It's that simple.

While the rest of America debates whether to call Trump's attempt to overrule the electorate a coup, Trumpist groups are eliminating all doubt about what they want: An Ohio group called We the People Convention took out a full-page ad in the Washington Times (a flagship conservative newspaper) asking President Trump

to immediately declare a limited form of Martial Law, and temporarily suspend the Constitution and civilian control of these federal elections, for the sole purpose of having the military oversee a national re-vote.

OK, any crazy group can publish an ad in any paper that will take their money. But recently pardoned felon Michael Flynn retweeted the ad with the comment "Freedom never kneels except for God." If Flynn were still on active duty, he would be subject to Article 92 of the Military Code, which states that any service member who

with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of lawful civil authority, creates, in concert with any other person, revolt, violence, or other disturbance against that authority is guilty of sedition

and pardons

Trump won't admit he's on his way out the door, but he's preparing pardons that wouldn't be necessary if he thought he would maintain his control over the Justice Department. The possibilities being discussed raise a lot of constitutional issues, which I discussed in one of the featured posts.

and Trump's future

Depending on who you listen to, on January 21 Trump becomes (1) the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee, or (2) just another crackpot on the internet. I'm leaning towards (2), though his decline may take a few months to become clear.

Here's my thinking: For the last four years, ambitious Republicans hitched their wagons to Trump, figuring that one way or the other he'd be out of the picture by 2024, and his personality cult would need a new leader. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, Tucker Carlson, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and rest -- they all saw their Trump loyalty as a path to greater things.

But if Trump isn't going to get out of the way, or if he hopes to hand the GOP off to Don Jr. when he does finally leave, all those people have to recalculate. Maybe they don't want to be seen as disloyal, but they also don't want Trump to stay at the top of the Party. So they're going to be looking for subtle ways to undermine him or upstage him.

Even for his personality cult, the shine might begin to fade. Trump's primary virtue, from his base's point of view, was that he could strike terror into the hearts of the liberals that MAGA-hatters think look down on them. In that sense, the ultimate source of his power has always been people like me (and probably you). But come January 21, I might still be appalled at what Trump is saying, but I'm unlikely to worry too much about him. People looking to "own the libs" will need find somebody more fearsome than a has-been we've already beaten by 7 million votes.

Amanda Marcotte makes a similar observation regarding Trump's pathetic 46-minute Facebook monologue, which he billed as "the most important speech I've ever made".

Trump's self-pitying rant registered as pitiful instead of frightening. The speech barely touched the top headlines at most major news sites. ... The tone of most media coverage was more condescending than fearful. Outrage is quickly being eclipsed by annoyance at Trump for being a pest who doesn't know when to pack it up and go home.

Until now, identifying with Trump has made his cultists feel powerful. But not for much longer. Soon, he will make them feel even more like losers than they already do.

and the economy

Congress seems to be converging on a Covid relief package that is less than $1 trillion. Or maybe it will do nothing.

Meanwhile, the country is in a very bifurcated state: If you can work from home, or if you live off your investments, you're doing quite well. In fact, you're probably building up savings because there is so little to spend your money on.

But if you run or work at a small business that relies on face-to-face interactions with customers, you're hurting.

Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns.

Friday's jobs report was sobering. The pattern since the beginning of the pandemic has looked like this: Tens of millions of jobs went away in March and April, and they have been coming back since at a rate that would be phenomenal in any other circumstance.

That quick comeback seems to be over, and it ended well before the economy got back to where it was in February.

and you also might be interested in ...

Maybe democracy is making a comeback.

After years of passively watching nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland undermine democratic rule, the European Union finally drew the line this year and declared that disbursements from the E.U. budget and a special coronavirus relief fund would be contingent on each member’s adherence to the rule of law.

What is Bob Dylan's catalog of song rights worth? The exact answer is blowing in the wind, but it might be $300 million. I'm sure his financial people looked at the offer and advised him not to think twice.

According to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, student debt forgiveness is "the truly insidious notion of government gift giving". Free college for lower-income Americans amounts to "a socialist takeover of higher education".

Sadly, we will no longer reap the benefits of such billionaire sagacity after January 20. Living your whole life without ever wondering how you're going to pay for something gives you a deeper wisdom that the rest of us can't fathom.

Further fallout from Brexit: Scottish independence has "never been so certain", says First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

and let's close with something unintelligible

Back in the 70s, Italian singer Adriano Celentano noted how Italians loved American pop music, even when they couldn't understand the words. So he wrote the catchy song "Prisencolinensinainciusol", which is gibberish that sounds like American-accented English.

The weirdest thing is that his song doesn't just sound like American English to Italians, it sounds like American English to me too. It's gibberish, but it's clearly an American flavor of gibberish. I would love to hear a linguistics expert explain how that works.