Tuesday, July 2, 2024

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for "official acts." Here's the context:
Never in the history of our Republic has a President had reason to believe that he would be immune from criminal prosecution if he used the trappings of his office to violate the criminal law. Moving forward, however, all former Presidents will be cloaked in such immunity. If the occupant of that office misuses official power for personal gain, the criminal law that the rest of us must abide will not provide a backstop. With fear for our democracy, I dissent.
You might not have seen this coming if you'd watched the confirmation hearings for the six justices who ruled in favor of presidential immunity. At least three of them made statements that no one - not even the president - is above the law.
Why the change all of the sudden? Josh Marshall nailed it. 

Because the GOP has been overtaken by a criminal, it is now time to give their leader immunity. 

I believe that Sotomayor's words in response will go down as one of the most consequential moments in our history as a country. But in her dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson took things a bit further and identified the root of the problem.
Ultimately, the majority’s model simply sets the criminal law to one side when it comes to crimes allegedly committed by the President. Before accountability can be sought or rendered, the Judiciary serves as a newfound special gatekeeper, charged not merely with interpreting the law but with policing whether it applies to the President at all...

In short, America has traditionally relied on the law to keep its Presidents in line. Starting today, however, Americans must rely on the courts to determine when (if at all) the criminal laws that their representatives have enacted to promote individual and collective security will operate as speedbumps to Presidential action or reaction...The potential for great harm to American institutions and Americans themselves is obvious...because the risks (and power) the Court has now assumed are intolerable, unwarranted, and plainly antithetical to bedrock constitutional norms, I dissent.

In other words, the six extremists on the court gave themselves the power to decide when/if a president can be held accountable for criminal acts. Over time this isn't so much about making the president a king as it is about taking power away from the legislative and executive branches and giving it to the courts. It continues what the court ruled just three days prior.

Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo fully consolidates the Court’s dominance over federal agencies within the executive branch of government. It is a radical reordering of the US separation of powers, giving the one unelected branch of government all of its own power, plus much of the power that Congress has vested in the executive branch.

What we see unfolding is that the one unelected branch of government with lifetime appointments has decided that they have the power to overturn rulings by previous courts (Roe vs Wade), decide when a president can be held accountable, and discard expert analysis by federal employees - directing policy based on their own beliefs.

None of this is an accident. Two men in particular have been focused on elevating the power of the court over the other (more democratic) branches of government: Leonard Leo and Mitch McConnell. Recognizing that the GOP was moving into minority status when it comes to elections, they have been working on this for years. Their dream of neutering the legislative and executive branches of government to set up a country ruled by a majority of extremist judges is unfolding right before our eyes. Sotomayor issued the correct warning when she concluded her dissent by expressing fear for our democracy.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Trump's attacks on Biden are no accident

According to the Washington Post fact-checkers, Donald Trump told over 30,000 lies during his presidency. During Thursday's ninety-minute presidential debate, CNN documented that he told over 30 lies. 

During a speech at the United Nations in 2018, heads of state and delegates laughed at Trump.

Trump has been found liable for fraud and rape. He's also been convicted of 34 felonies.

Over and over again Trump has promised to weaponize the federal government against his political opponents.

During his presidential term, some members of Trump's cabinet discussed the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment. 

You might be wondering why I'm rehashing some of the sordid history of this country's 45th president. It's because this happened during/after Thursday's debate.

  • Trump said this about Biden "I’ve never seen anybody lie like this guy...everything he does is a lie.”
  • Trump said that around the world Biden isn't respected.
  • Trump called Biden’s actions “absolutely criminal” and falsely alleged that Biden “gets paid by China” and is a “Manchurian candidate.”
  • Trump launched a groundless claim that Biden is weaponizing American justice against him. He called it "a system that was rigged and disgusting." 
  • Immediately after the debate, Republicans began calling on Biden's cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment.
Trump and his MAGA enablers chose those particular attacks for two reasons. First of all, as Karl Rove discovered years ago, the best way to defend your candidate against an attack is to accuse your opponent of the same thing. That way, when Trump's lies are documented, he simply accuses Biden of being a liar. The whole thing devolves into an argument of he said/he said.

Mike Lofgren explained how that works for Republicans by destroying public trust in government and its institutions.
There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn.

Secondly, that kind of "he said/he said" leads to headlines like this one at The Hill: "Trump, Biden accuse each other of lying."Rather than fact-check which one was lying and which one was telling the truth, it's easier to just act as a stenographer and report that both candidates accused the other one of lying. In other words, projection lays the foundation for the media's obsession with bothsiderism. When one candidate has demonstrated that he's a serial liar, that's a win for him.

During a more sane time, you'd be reading this kind of analysis all over the media because Trump's projection of his own failures onto Biden is so obvious. But these are, indeed, crazy times. I'm hoping this helps shore up your sanity just a bit. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The root of the problem is a theology that enables sexual abuse

As someone who was raised in a white evangelical Christian family and church, it deeply saddens me every time we hear that another leader of that community is guilty of sexual abuse. One of the latest is Robert Morris, pastor of Gateway Church in Southlake, TX. 

Thirty-five years ago Morris began sexually abusing Cindy Clemishire, who was only 12 years old at the time. The abuse continued for over four years. Once Clemishire spoke out against the abuse, Morris left the ministry for two years and received counseling. After that, he returned to the ministry and is now the pastor of a church that attracts an estimated 100,000 worshippers weekly. He also served on Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board during the 2016 campaign and has been a relentless MAGA cheerleader ever since.

From what I've seen, there are some individuals and churches attempting to document this kind of abuse in evangelical churches/organizations and develop ways to address the problem. But most of them focus on after-the-fact interventions designed to support the victim and hold the perpetrator accountable. No one seems to be willing to address the fact that sexual abuse is obviously rampant not only in Catholic Churches, but evangelical circles as well. 

In writing about Morris, Amanda Marcotte provided insight into the root of the problem.

As ex-evangelical therapist Jeremiah Gibson told Salon earlier this year, sex has never really been the issue with evangelicals. It's more about "the performance of gender" and maintaining a rigid gender hierarchy. While right-wing Christians talk a lot about "purity," that expectation only applies to women. Men, as the history of Christianity in America makes clear, largely get to do what they want, confident that the church will usually look the other way — even when the behavior is criminal or blatantly predatory...

The problem with expecting women — or in so many cases, underage girls — to bear the responsibility for maintaining "purity" is that it directly conflicts with another mandate placed on women in evangelical circles: total submission. Women were placed on earth by God, according to this theology, primarily if not exclusively to serve men...It's a lose-lose situation: Women are supposed to make themselves attractive and compliant, but if a man abuses or assaults her, that's her fault for not uttering the otherwise forbidden word "no." Furthermore, if she did say no but failed to fight him off, after a lifetime of being told that it's sinful "pride" to stand up for yourself, then that's her fault too.

That theology of "total submission" applies to children as well - which explains why young boys are also the victims of this kind of abuse. Once women and children have been properly schooled into a theology that tells them that men/fathers/pastors are at the top of a rigid hierarchy and that it is "sinful pride to stand up for yourself," the table has been set for sexual predators. 

In order to root out sexual abuse in the church, both Catholics and Protestants will have to grapple with a theology that actually enables the abuse. I have to say that I'm not optimistic that is going to happen any time soon. 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Dear Byron Donalds: The terror of Jim Crow was NOT good for Black families

Apparently it's not enough for MAGA to ban books that teach American history, suggest that Black people benefited from their time as slaves, or claim that the passage of the Civil Rights Act was a "huge mistake." Now Rep. Byron Donalds says that "Black families were better off during Jim Crow." 

In response, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke some truth on the House floor.

Now Donalds claims that he never said that Black people were better off under Jim Crow, but wants to emphasize that he was suggesting that "Black families" were better off. I'll let you try to figure out how that's different. But a few lessons from actual American history are important to correct the record. 

First of all, Donalds wants us to forget what slavery did to Black families.

Roughly half of all enslaved people were separated from their spouses and parents; about one in four of those sold were children. Ads for the Thomas L. Frazer & Co. Slave Mart in Montgomery, Alabama, boasted that it had “constantly on hand a large and well selected stock” of Black boys and girls.

Slaveholders threatened separation to maintain control, forcing enslaved people to live with the constant fear of losing a loved one. Even those who were not traded across regions could be sold away from relatives at an owner’s whim, to divide an estate, settle a debt, or as punishment.

Secondly, a myth has developed in this country that Jim Crow was about separate lunch counters, water fountains, and schools. I'm going to let Hamden Rice bust that one.

It wasn't that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn't sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement decided to use to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth's.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

According to research by the Equal Justice Initiative, there were "more than 4400 racial terror lynchings in the United States during the period between Reconstruction and World War II." This also happened during Jim Crow: 

The lynchings, beatings, and massacres were all part of the terror campaign that led approximately 6 million Black Americans to flee the South (often leaving family behind) during the Great Migration of the Jim Crow era.

As is often the case, I have no idea if Byron Donalds was being completely ignorant or sadistically inflammatory. But it doesn't matter. He can't whitewash our history. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

When it comes to the presidential race, are polls all that matter?

A little more than five months from the 2024 presidential election, conventional wisdom suggests that Biden is losing. But according to today's aggregate of national polls at the Economist, the race is tied. Even the right wing news site Real Clear Politics only has Trump ahead by about a point. Of course, that's national polls and the race will be decided by how candidates do in so-called "swing states," where Trump shows a bigger advantage. 

A lot of questions are being raised these days about the accuracy of polling. But even if we put that aside, it certainly seems to me that what they're telling us is that this race is incredibly close. National media tends to jump on every small tic upward or downward with pronouncements that, at this stage in the race, aren't justified.

So are there other indicators we should be paying attention to? How about the fact that Biden recently overtook Trump in at least one important measure: "the total number of donors who have given to his campaign, which is often seen as a proxy for voter engagement?"

There's also something important happening at the RNC and state Republican parties. I was particularly struck by something Lara Trump said just before she was elected co-chair of the RNC. She vowed to spend “every single penny” of Republican National Committee (RNC) funds to reelect Trump to the White House. Perhaps she made that statement out of ignorance about the RNC's role in helping to fundraise for state parties and down-ballot races. But I'd put money on a bet that she meant every word. 

According to Max Burns, it's even worse than that.

A growing number of state Republican operations are either broke or perilously close to it...

Republicans can thank Donald Trump for their current financial problems. Trump’s deal with the RNC requires the party to run its donations first through his Save America PAC — which already paid over $50 million toward Trump’s personal legal fees in 2023 alone. That was before RNC co-chair Lara Trump mused about skipping the middleman making the GOP pay Trump’s legal bills directly.

What Lara really meant was, "no money for state parties and down-ballot races" because it's all going to pay Trump's legal fees. WOW!

This raises a couple of questions when it comes to presidential elections: (1) do local/state GOTV efforts matter, and (2) is there such a thing as "reverse coattails?" 

On the second question, Amanda Lipman (co-founder of Run for Something), thinks the answer is a resounding "yes."

In addition to polls, these are some things to keep an eye on over the next five months.  

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Bill Barr explains why Christian nationalists are so loyal to Trump

Former Attorney General Bill Barr is in the news again. After basically asserting that the former president is unfit for office, he is now endorsing Donald Trump. 

Barr said, “Between Biden and Trump, I will vote for Trump because I believe he will do less damage over the four years.”Barr went on to describe the difference between both parties in stark terms, insisting that the “the threat to freedom and democracy has always been on the left.”

“I think the real threat to democracy is the progressive movement and the Biden administration,” he said.

This has everyone scratching their heads in an attempt to understand how Barr can suggest that policies he disagrees with are a more serious threat to democracy than someone who attempted to overthrow an election and is now facing numerous felony charges. 

But there are a couple of things to keep in mind about all of this. The first is that Bill Barr (much like his pal Leonard Leo) is representative of the Catholic version of Christian nationalism. Most of us have been scratching our heads for years now trying to understand why this religious sect remains so loyal to Trump. In a speech he gave at Notre Dame in 2019, Bill Barr helped us answer that question. 

The former attorney general began his speech by making the claim that "in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles." In other words, he posits that our founders thought that democracy would only work if people allowed religion to control their evil impulses.

Barr went on to claim that "over the past 50 years religion has been under increasing attack" leading to "the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system." He then says that every social pathology - illegitimacy, mental illness, suicide, drug addiction - is the result of progressives who are militant secularists pushing religion out of the public square. He joins forces with the kind of rhetoric we hear from dominionists.

Secularists, and their allies among the “progressives,” have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.

In short, Barr believes that progressives are out to strip this country of it's Judeo-Christian moral system, which will make democracy unsustainable. That is the house of cards around which Christian nationalists have built their support for Donald Trump - at least on the surface. But as Fareed Zaharia explains, it goes much deeper than that. 

Zakaria points out that over the last 30-40 years, women, Blacks, Hispanics, gays, etc, are "rising out of the shadows into the mainstream," which is creating a major backlash not only in this country, but around the globe. Zakaria also suggests that Trump's superpower was his ability to tap into that backlash. Interestingly enough, that is exactly what white supremacist Richard Spencer said back in 2015.

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

The reason Barr and his fellow Christian nationalists support Trump is that they are engaging in what Doug Muder called the Confederate mindset (emphasis mine).

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

The very idea that, as Obama once said, we are continuing to "perfect our union" is anathema to the Confederate mindset.  Those are the stakes we're grappling with today. 

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Did Zelenskyy play a role in Speaker Johnson's about-face on aid for Ukraine?

Since I wrote about the role white evangelical Christians played in influencing Speaker Johnson to support U.S. aid to Ukraine, I found a piece by Jonathan Larsen that expands on that theme. Putting all of the information together indicates the following timeline:

January 1, 2024 - Ukrainian evangelicals met with Johnson and presented him with a letter urging him to support U.S. aid to Ukraine (emphasis mine). 

In the letter, the leaders of the Ukrainian Churches call on the Speaker of the House of Representatives M. Johnson to "continue supporting the struggle of the Ukrainian people for liberty, independence, and freedom of religion with your wisdom and all other possible means, including the weapons, that our defenders at the forefront of freedom and democracy so lack , in particular, those weapons for which the political and military leadership of Ukraine is asking."

February 4, 2004 - Speaker Johnson said that the bipartisan Senate bill authorizing aid to Ukraine was "dead on arrival" in the House. 

February 5, 2024 - Ukrainians evangelicals addressed a group of Christian nonprofits in Plano, TX.

Speaking through an interpreter, Atonyuk described Russia’s assault on Ukraine as an “evil project” to destroy freedom, including religious liberty.

“We are looking for ideas, projects and partnerships with our fellow Christians in the United States, because together we can stop this evil project,” he said. “Our Lord Jesus Christ will prevail. We are praying for this, and we are looking for partners who will stand with us.”

March 28, 2024 - Johnson spoke with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.  

April 2, 2024 - Zelensky met with Ukrainian religious leaders (emphasis mine).

"I would like to ask you to communicate with each other not only here, within our country, but also abroad. This dialogue is very important for us now. After all, the church has a great influence on society, on state leaders. And so this is a very important signal for us regarding the support of our partners," [Zelenskyy] emphasized.

April 5, 2024 - Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy's top aid, wrote an article for The Hill titled "Ukraine's Evangelicals Need U.S. Support."

[S]ince Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and initial occupation of Eastern Ukraine, Putin stands as an adversary of Christianity, freedom of religion, and the church itself. Churches have been shuttered, ministers detained and tortured, and religious freedom suppressed. The full-scale invasion of 2022 intensified and brought this assault on Protestantism to newly-seized territories...

It is time for American and Ukrainian evangelicals to come together once again to ensure religious tolerance in Ukraine.

April 8, 2024 - Evangelical leaders in the U.S. (including Richard Land) wrote Johnson urging him to support aid to Ukraine. 

As you consider efforts to support Ukraine, we humbly ask that you consider the plight of Christians. The Russian government’s decision to invade Ukraine and to target Baptists and other evangelical Christians in Ukraine has been a tragic hallmark of the war.

April 12, 2004 - Johnson went to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump.

“I stand with the speaker,” Trump said at an evening press conference at his gilded private club.

Trump said he thinks Johnson, of Louisiana, is “doing a very good job – he’s doing about as good as you’re going to do.”

April 14, 2024 - Appearing on Fox News, Johnson said, "We’re going to try again this week, and the details of that package are being put together right now. We’re looking at the options and all these supplemental issues.” (emphasis mine)

April 17, 2024 - A second letter was sent to Johnson signed by several U.S. pastors.

We remind Congress that religious freedom is a basic human right that must be protected everywhere. We pray Congress has the courage to stand in solidarity with people of faith. Ukrainian Christians deserve the freedom to worship in peace and embrace their faith without fear.

We call on Congress to provide Ukraine with the financial and military support required to defend herself, stop the bloodshed, and secure freedom of religion within her borders.

April 20, 2024 - Johnson brought a bill for U.S. aid to Ukraine up for a vote in the House. It passed by a vote of 311-112.

It's clear that both Ukrainian and U.S. evangelicals are aware of the fact that using terms like "religious freedom/liberty" will trigger someone like Johnson in a way that details of the battle situation would not.

What stands out to me is the fact that Zelenskyy might have played a critical role in all of this. A few days after he spoke with Johnson - and probably saw that an argument based on Russia's military actions wasn't having any effect - Zelenskyy held a meeting with Ukrainian religious leaders asking them to communicate with their colleagues abroad because "the church has great influence on...state leaders." That was followed a few days later by an article in The Hill (a moderately right-leading publication) suggesting that Ukrainian evangelicals needed U.S. support. 

If my assumption is correct, Zelenskyy is an even more impressive leader than I thought. 

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...