Sunday, November 29, 2020


Weekend Roundup

Table of contents:


I'm getting bored with this, just going through the motions, and Thanksgiving holiday no doubt depressed the news feed (Vox is way down, which may reflect turnover there), but started early enough there's still quite a lot here.

I'd like to dedicate this column to Lou Jean Fleron, who celebrated her 80th birthday today. Sixty-some years ago, she and her little brother Ken Brown attended a speech by Sam Rayburn (Speaker of the House, from Texas), and it inspired them both to study politics and become Democrats. Both wound up teaching political science. They've always been my heroes and role models, and no one has had more influence or provided more inspiration for my own considered political views than Lou Jean. I failed to write up the requested "story" for her Festschrift today, so the least I can do is dedicate this to her.

Trump's Election Fraud

As more votes have been counted, well, see Tim Dickinson: It actually was a landslide: 80 million votes and counting for Biden. Also note: "At 51 percent, Biden's share of the vote is the highest of any presidential challenger since FDR ousted Herbert Hoover in 1932." Trump got a lot of votes, too, but in the popular vote Biden is leading by over 6 million. The Electoral College margin appears to be 306-223. That it is that close attests to how the Electoral College bends the playing field in favor of the Republicans -- the party which has won four presidential terms while losing the popular vote, something the Democrats have never done. (The only other time a minority vote-getter became president was John Quincy Adams, in 1824, at a point when the Federalist Party had collapsed and the Whig Party not yet founded, so all major contenders were Democratic-Republicans. Andrew Jackson got the most votes, but no one got an Electoral College majority, so the House chose the president, in a deal brokered by Henry Clay.) Lots of people complain about the Electoral College, but with one party systematically benefitting from it -- and for that matter a party with nothing but contempt for democracy -- there's little chance of change. The only chance Democrats have is to win elections by even larger margins than Biden won this one.

Alexander Burns: Trump stress-tested the election system, and the cracks showed.

Gail Collins/Bret Stephens: Can this get any more pathetic? "The president and his enablers may look like fools, but they are causing real damage."

Aaron C Davis/Josh Dawsey/Emma Brown/Jon Swaine: For Trump advocate Sidney Powell, a playbook steeped in conspiracy theories.

Eliza Griswold: Trump's battle to undermine the vote in Pennsylvania.

Richard L Hasen: Trump's legal farce is having tragic results: "There is nothing funny about the Republican Party's multipronged attack on voting rights."

Rosalind S Heiderman: Wisconsin recount confirms Biden's win over Trump. Biden's lead actually increased by 87 votes.

Josh Marshall: The short, happy, bizarre defenestration of Sidney Powell.

Cameron Peters:

Daniel Politi: Biden sees lead increase in Milwaukee County after Trump pays for vote recount.

Philip Rucker/Ashley Parker/Josh Dawsey/Amy Gardner: 20 days of fantasy and failure: Inside Trump's quest to overturn the election.

Robert Shapiro: No, it wasn't a coup attempt. It was another Trump money scam.

Other Election Matters

Trip Gabriel: How Democrats suffered crushing down-ballot losses across America.

Will Wilkinson: Why did so many Americans vote for Trump? "To the dismay of Democrats, the president's strategy of ignoring the pandemic mostly worked for Republicans." I think that much is true. Trump's own illness story, his treatment and recovery, breathed substance into his message that we shouldn't let fear of the virus dominate our lives. Many people admired his defiance, even if they recognized he wasn't very smart or conscientious. Still, that only helped so much.

How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy's throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn't occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can't render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.

Mr. Trump has a knack for leveraging the animosities of polarized partisanship to cleave his supporters from sources of credible information and inflame them with vilifying lies. This time, it wasn't enough to save his bacon, which suggests that polarization hasn't completely wrecked our democracy's capacity for self-correction: Sweeping a medium-size city's worth of dead Americans under the rug turned out to be too tall an order.

Biden Prospects

We're starting to see announcements of Biden's picks for the cabinet and key staff positions -- see Joe Biden's cabinet begins to take shape.

Doug Bandow: Team Trump determined to drop foreign policy bombs in the way out: "Everything the outgoing administration is doing today seems coordinated to obstruct the Biden team tomorrow."

Christopher Campbell: The Biden popular front is doomed to unravel. Title makes sense but I'd argue that both left and right wings of the Democratic Party need each other more than they need to fear or dominate the other, that neither can afford to lose the other, especially given that Republicans even without Trump remain a unifying threat. But this article has little to do with its title. Much of it is a strange rationalization of Trump's unexpected success. And it ends with an observation that the dividing line between the parties isn't capital vs. labor (as it was during the New Deal/Great Society era) but growing vs. declining states/regions.

Megan Cassella/Ben White/Tyler Pager: Biden unveils diverse economic team as challenges to economy grow: "The president-elect intends to name Cecilia Rouse, Neera Tanden and Wally Adeyemo to senior roles in his administration." Article assumes Janet Yellen is pick for Treasury Secretary. Most of the commentary I've seen concerns Tanden, who runs the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, but is infamous as a critic of Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Tanden was picked to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Sanders is on the Senate Budget Committee.

Nancy Cook: Trump's 2016 transition defined his presidency. Biden's might, too. "The hallmarks were all there during Trump's transition -- off-the-cuff decision-making, high staff turnover and bitter internal battles. So far, Biden's transition has publicly been the opposite."

EJ Dionne Jr: Why they fight: "The Democrats are a big-tent party. The GOP isn't. That explains everything." Glancing through the comments, I see that Dionne's view -- basically a variant on the old Will Rogers joke (quote included) -- is limited by being inside the tent. One could imagine (and maybe even relish) the "democratic wing" purging the Party's more conservative elements, like the Republican right-wing did to "purify" their party. Indeed, that's likely to happen, although I doubt the left will ever be as successful as the right has been. But for now, the big difference isn't the diversity of opinion within the Democratic Party, but the fact that Democrats still imagine themselves as representing and supporting the entire country -- even regions, components, and classes that provide them little support -- whereas Republicans focus narrowly on their supporters, even if only to reinforce prejudices.

Jen Kirby: Joe Biden's foreign policy vision takes shape as he selects his team. Nominees to date:

  • Antony Blinken: Secretary of State (grade card)
  • Alejandro Mayorkas: Secretary of Homeland Security
  • Avril Haines: National Intelligence Director
  • Jake Sullivan: National Security Adviser
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield: UN Ambassador
  • John Kerry: Special Presidential Envoy for Climate

More on these people:

Jackson Lears: Don't wish for a restoration: One common reaction of Democrats to Trump has been a wave of nostalgia for Obama, and that's been a driving force behind Biden's campaign. As Biden stocks his administration, it is inevitable that he will draw heavily on Obama veterans. However, I'm more inclined to view Obama's years as opportunity wasted -- not just through inaction but through futile attempts to appeal to elite but conventional interests:

The great danger is that much of the Biden administration will likely be composed of Washington insiders who are devoted to the failed policies of the past -- austerity at home, overextended military commitments abroad. To cling to those policies would be to pretend that the populist challenge to the Washington consensus in 2016 never happened.

This is part of a New York Review series of short articles on the 2020 elections. Also see:

  • Ben Fountain: What has minimalist democracy gotten us?

  • Wallace Shawn: Developments since my birth. That would be 1943. I've thought a good deal about my own birth date (in 1950, a week before a Chinese volunteer army reversed American gains in Korea) as a pivotal date in the decline of the nation.

    Barack Obama seemed to love the old rhetoric, and he may have been despised by Trump and his followers not simply because he was the first person of color to become president, and not simply because of the elegance of his speeches and the refinement and sense of self-respect evident in his demeanor, but because the words he used somehow harked back to the ethical aspirations expressed by President Kennedy (never mind that neither he nor President Kennedy lived up to them).

    Over the decades of my life, America's morale has declined, I'd say. There was a dignity to feeling kind and good. It was enjoyable. On the other hand, the lack of connection between what we felt we were and what we actually were was dangerous and led to the death of a lot of people. . . . But for those countless others, in the cities and towns of the USA and in countries far away, to whom America has not been good, the face of America has always and forever been the face of Donald Trump.

Ralph Nader: Biden needs to report Trump's wreckage in Executive Branch as markers.

When the Bidenites take over on January 21, they will find hollowed-out government law enforcement and shelved research projects. They'll see offices empty after government scientists and other civil servants were forced out. Other public servants will be sitting in what the Japanese call "window jobs," ordered to stop working on vital matters ranging from limiting climate disruption to stopping Wall Street rip-offs. The Trump administration turned important government jobs into do-nothing positions.

Heavily censored federal CDC workers, benumbed from prohibitions on what they can say, and who were ordered not to speak the words "climate change" will receive their rescuers with deep relief. EPA workers who were ordered to repeal or weaken over 100 environmental safeguards -- unleashing deadly toxins into people's air and water -- will feel the breaking of the restraints imposed on sound science.

Specialists who were told to weaken or eliminate about 50 occupational health and safety standards and literally shut down enforcement at OSHA will also start to see the early dawn.

Biden's team will discover destruction or theft of public records, spectacles of looting and plunder of public trust and public property.

They will hear stories of corporate lobbyists coming in and out of the agencies as if they owned the government because they did. Trump turned over the federal government to Big Business, as has never before happened, brazenly, openly, and endlessly. His nominee to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) into nothingness, marauding Mick Mulvaney, openly said the agency's mission was to protect Wall Street Big Banks and unscrupulous payday lenders!! Mulvaney abandoned tens of millions of defrauded Americans. . . .

Unlike the entering Obama Administration back in 2009, the Biden Administration must come in with a determined mindset as they begin restoring the rule of law and reversing Trump's cruel and crazy policies. Biden's team will also need to start restoring past services and initiating new services for the citizenry.

They must not let the Trumpster outlaws escape and become immune fugitives from justice. If Trump's wrecking crew escapes the arm of the law, for sure they and their base will return with a vengeance in two and four years.

Osita Nwanevu: The Democrats' maddening cowardice is carrying over into the Biden era.

Richard Silverstein: Biden's Middle East policy will face an unholy right-wing alliance.

Jamie Stiehm: Why Biden has it harder than FDR and Lincoln: For starters, he doesn't have their Congressional majorities, and most likely won't have any sort of majority in the Senate. But even though Obama had a majority in Congress in 2009, he had a great deal of trouble getting his relatively modest legislative proposals passed.

Astra Taylor: How the Biden administration can free Americans from student debt.

Laura Weiss: The government's human cruelty will outlive Trump: "Immigration agencies won't suddenly clean up their act when the president leaves office. What's Biden going to do about their systemic abuses?"

The Covid-19 Pandemic Surge

Latest map and case count: 13.3 million+ cases (14 day change +12%), 266,357 deaths (+29%), 91,635 hospitalized (+38%). The change rates have lowered a bit, but still 1 million cases in the last week (151,247 on Nov. 28). At the current rate, we'll hit 18 million cases and 300,000 deaths by January 1. Note that constant rate is not the worst possible scenario (see Higgins below).

Bryce Covert: New York's feckless, scientifically illiterate response to the Covid second wave.

Marissa Higgins: Amid holiday season, Dr Anthony Fauci gets brutally honest about possible coronavirus spike.

Umair Irfan: Covid-19 vaccine efficacy results are not enough: "What the latest Covid-19 vaccine announcements from AstraZeneca-Oxford, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Moderna can and can't tell us."

Melody Schreiber: Pharma executives are profiting from Covid vaccine press releases: "The timing of the announcements, and their lack of detail, are raising worries about insider trading and unrealistic expectations."

Still More on Donald Trump

Isaac Arnsdorf: Trump races to weaken environmental and worker protections before January 20th.

Dan Barry: 'Loser': How a lifelong fear bookended Trump's presidency: "The president's inability to concede the election is the latest reality-denying moment in a career preoccupied with an epithet."

Kyle Cheney/Josh Gerstein: Trump pardons former national security adviser Flynn. The first, and in some ways, the safest of Trump's post-election pardons. Even so, Trump made Flynn wait in line behind the Thanksgiving turkey. More on Flynn:

Zak Cheney-Rice: Losing hasn't changed Trump's stance on white supremacy: "His continued resistance to renaming military bases that honor Confederates -- though it has no obvious political benefit -- confirms his true beliefs." Doesn't strike me as a very good example. In fact, I don't think Trump qualifies as a white supremacist -- unlike some of his followers, and many of their forebears -- although he often has racist impulses, and consistently rejects all efforts to acknowledge much less correct past racism. I'd also argue that his position does have political benefit, at least within his base, which is all he really care about. A lot of Trump supporters are in denial about racism, both past and present, and one reason Trump is important to them is that he saves them from having to examine their own beliefs and acts. On the other hand, it's very likely that all of those bases will be renamed under Biden, and the issue will die there.

Lee Fang: Another official dismissed at the Pentagon as Trump continues unusual shake-up.

Lisa Friedman: EPA's final deregulatory rush runs into open staff resistance.

Charlotte Klein: Here's what a lame-duck Trump might do: List from subheds follows. The ones to worry about are the irreversible acts, especially military strikes.

  • Pardon his cronies and the connected
  • Attack Iran's main nuclear site
  • Bring back firing squads
  • Make it easier to pollute
  • Preserve Confederate monuments
  • Make it even harder to claim asylum

Philip Allen Lacovara: Yes, the Biden administration should hold Trump accountable. Author is "a former president of the DC Bar, served as counsel to the Watergate special prosecutor." More thoughts on prosecuting Trump:

  • Andrew Weissmann: Should Trump be prosecuted? "Being president should mean you are more accountable, not less, to the rule of law." Weissman "was a senior prosecutor in the Mueller investigation."

Martin Longman: How Trump killed political blogging.

Jonathan Martin/Maggie Haberman: How Trump hopes to use party machinery to retain control of the GOP.

Eric L Muller: The one word that bars Trump from pardoning himself: "The question shouldn't be whether the president can pardon himself but whether he can grant himself a pardon -- and those are not the same thing."

Olivia Nuzzi: The final gasp of Donald Trump's presidency.

Madison Pauly: Will Trump's accusers finally get their day in court?

Walter M Shaub Jr: The presidential transition meets Murphy's Law: In this case, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, the very literal embodiment of Murphyism. Since this article, Trump allowed Murphy to release transition funds. But she still stands as a prime example of how Trump's intransigence is reflected among his loyal minions.

Asawin Suebsaeng: Trump's already gaming out a 2024 run -- including an event during Biden's inauguration.

Jeff Wise: The people v Donald J Trump: "The criminal case against him is already in the works -- and it could go to trial sooner than you think." Opens with the example of Silvio Berlusconi, who went from billionaire media magnate to prime minister of Italy to jail. I wrote about the Berlusconi precedent four years ago (which built on something I wrote in 2006, Mobsters in Suits), so it seems fitting that other people are writing about it now.

Obama Has a Book to Sell

Barack Obama's memoir, A Promised Land, came out last week, as did most of the press coverage.

Murtaza Hussain: Obama book explains how birtherism made Trump's presidency.

Fred Kaplan: Obama had a remarkable grasp of complexity and ambiguity. Is that good for a president?

Around the World

Ramzy Baroud: Expansion and mass eviction: Israel 'takes advantage' of Trump's remaining days in office.

Dave DeCamp: Israel suspected in assassination of top Iranian scientist: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, "head of an Iranian military nuclear program." More:

Jason Ditz: Israeli airstrike kills 19 in eastern Syria, mostly Pakistani militia members:

Continuing a tactic of anticipating a US-Iran War, Israel seems to keep trying to provoke the conflict, with a Thursday morning strike in eastern Syria killing at least 19 Shi'ite militia members, declared "pro-Iranian fighters" by the Israeli press. . . .

This is the third Israeli attack against Shi'ites in Syria in just over a week. Iran did comment on the first one, which killed mostly Iraqi and Lebanese Shi'ites, and threatened retaliation over it. They did not specify when or how they would retaliate.

Roger Harris: US intervenes as Venezuela prepares for high stakes election.

Jacob Silverman: Mike Pompeo is a global arsonist. Can Biden put out his fires?

Other Matters of Interest

Joel Achenbach: Did the news media, led by Walter Cronkite, lose the war in Vietnam? Why is this even coming up now? As someone who lived through the era, and who regularly watched TV coverage in real time, I can assure you that the news media was fully behind the war effort until the hypocrisy and false claims became undeniable. Even so, they never quite grasped the real lessons of the war, which is why any suggestion that the war was ever winnable is so risible. The "revisionist" argument that the US could have prevailed had it not been for the American people's loss of willpower is nothing more than the "stab-in-the-back" claim that aided the rise of the Nazis in Germany, its "success" leading to yet another, even more disastrous war. Look at the people pushing it in the 1990s, and you'll find the same people who led us into Afghanistan and Iraq, who used martial myth to rally support for the Bush and Trump regimes, and the interminable waves of right-wing zealots in Congress and the Courts.

David Atkins: Not everything can move to Substack or the Times. Evidently, two (of three) co-founders of Vox have left: Ezra Klein to the New York Times, and Matthew Yglesias to do his own thing at Substack. Others trying their hand at Substack subscriber newsletters include Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and Matt Taibbi. (Article doesn't mention Taibbi, but does name Casey Newton, who used to cover Silicon Valley for The Verge.) I figure Sullivan-Greenwald-Taibbi to be temporary holding patterns: all three have grown apart from their hosts, but I doubt any of them are viable as isolated oracles. I'm more troubled by the Vox founders, not least because Vox has been my most reliable news filter over the past four years. Perhaps its business model has failed, and the founders have jumped ship based on inside information. But to my mind, leaving your own company to work for the behemoth New York Times or to freelance (which, again, may just be a stall) seems like a bad move.

Paul Demko: How one of the reddest states became the nation's hottest weed market: I suspected as much last time I visited Tulsa, where I saw billboards touting access to "medical marijuana," and my right-wing relatives (not to my knowledge actual users) bragging about how easy it is to get.

Christopher Bonanos: David Dinkins deserved better: "His mayoralty was not the overt failure that it once seemed." The former New York City mayor died last week, at 93. Dinkins was mayor from 1989 to 1993, following Ed Koch, and followed by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

Jonathan Chait: 'Republicans remain opposed to any policies that would reduce fossil-fuel use'. That seems like a far more explicit declaration than even the oil, gas, and coal companies are used to pushing. Until recently, they've been satisfied just throwing shade on climate change concerns, but more and more they're losing out to renewables on purely economic terms -- never mind the fact that what makes fossil fuel sources affordable is how the industry has escaped having to pay for its externalities.

Charles Duhigg: How venture capitalists are deforming capitalism.

Todd C Frankel/Brittney Martin/Andrew Van Dam/Alyssa Fowers: A growing number of Americans are going hungry: "26 million now say they don't have enough to eat, as the pandemic worsens and holidays near."

Amanda Frost: The Supreme Court has to choose between Trump and the nation's founders: "Are the court's conservatives the devout originalists they claim to be or partisan hacks? A key immigration case will provide the proof."

Michael M Grynbaum/John Koblin: Newsmax, once a right-wing also-ran, is rising, and Trump approves. More on Newsmax:

  • Alex Shephard: How Newsmax became Trump TV: "Chris Tuddy's conservative cable news network is gaining viewers by telling them Trump can still win."

Rebecca Heilweil: Parler, the "free speech" Twitter wannabe, explained.

Sean Illing: A historian on the perils of chaotic White House transitions: Interview with Eric Rauchway, author of Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal. I mentiond this piece in Music Week, but figured it bear repeating, and belongs here. The transition from Hoover to Roosevelt in 1932-33 is relevant inasmuch as it started with an incumbent president being thrown out in favor of a new party, in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis -- less of an economic crisis now, but the pandemic more than makes up the difference. It was worse then because the transition period was two months longer, but less bad then because Hoover didn't have many of the powers that presidents have today (e.g., the ability to launch nuclear weapons at supposed enemies). It was similar in that Hoover, like Trump today, refused to recognize the election results as a popular verdict on his administration, and continued to pursue his dangerous policies until the very end.

Ian Millhiser: The Supreme Court fight over Trump's last-ditch effort to rig the census, explained: "The Court must decide whether to follow the Constitution's clear test -- or to rubber-stamp an illegal effort by Trump."

Jeffrey St Clair: Roaming charges: Dumb all over, again.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: The liberal establishment is 'a stranger to self-examination': "A conversation with Pankaj Mishra about Biden's closer-than-expected victory, the sterile state of mainstream intellectual culture, and his new book Bland Fanatics."