Varon Panganiban / Flickr Donald Trump...
Varon Panganiban / Flickr

What does a constitutional crisis look like? If you’re waiting for the the secret police to come knocking on your door, or the maybe a few tanks in the streets, or perhaps a few of the more vocal people around you to suddenly disappear, that’s not it. That’s not the crisis. That’s what comes after.

The constitutional crisis comes when an authoritarian leader demeans the free press and the judicial system. It comes when that leader destroys the ability of the judicial system to act as a check on his actions. It comes when the legislature surrenders it’s authority. It comes … already. The constitutional crisis isn’t something that’s looming in the future, not even the near future. It’s here. We’re in the midst of it. This is what it looks like.

I wish very much that that I could stop referring to the article on Masha Gessen wrote on the evening of Trump’s election. The problem is that her article has proven to be both frighteningly prescient and deeply instructive. So I turn to it again, and again, and again …

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.


Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. …  It is a fact that the world did not end on November 8 nor at any previous time in history. Yet history has seen many catastrophes, and most of them unfolded over time.

Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU.

It has been 14 months since Trump took power. In that time, he has attacked the media over, and over, and over. And he has fired the acting Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and the Deputy Director of the FBI. At the Department of Justice, the Civil Rights Division, the Environment Division, the Civil Division, and the Tax Division are all being by temporary appointees put in place by Trump but not approved by the Senate. The State Department is empty of experience diplomats. The EPA has been turned into an engine for enabling the destruction of the environment by an oligarch in the making, who has walled himself off on a private floor guarded by a private army.

Trump means what he says. This is not normal. Our institutions are being actively, purposely, and rapidly destroyed, while the ability of the press to raise an alarm has already been seriously undermined. And accepting Trump’s actions now on the assumption that something can still be done in November is a very, very dangerous bet.

Rule #4: Be outraged. … In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.

Now. Let’s read some pundits. And plan.

Donald Trump’s war on democracy

Gary Younge and what it will take to end Trump’s regime

Even by Donald Trump’s standards, Tuesday was extraordinary. First came the tweet that he had fired his secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Then a state department spokesman issued a statement claiming Tillerson was “unaware of the reason” for his dismissal, and had heard about it on Twitter. A few hours later the spokesman had been fired too. Meanwhile the lawyer of porn actor Stephanie Clifford (stage name: Stormy Daniels), who allegedly had an affair with Trump, warned the country to “buckle up” as Clifford sought to extract herself from her non-disclosure agreement so she could “publish any materials, such as text messages, photos and/or videos relating to the president that she may have in her possession”. Back in Washington, the Trump team announced it would be hiring John McEntee, Trump’s former personal assistant, as a senior adviser for campaign operations. The day before, McEntee had been escorted from the White House because he is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for serious financial crimes.

If that seems like a lot for one day, it’s all just one story. Donald Trump said he would be good to people who said nice things about him, and punish people who crossed him. And he meant it.

Witnessing Trump’s presidency unravel so spectacularly provokes a perverse joy. The venality is so baroque, the vulgarity so ostentatious, the inconsistencies so stark, the incompetence so epic and the lies so brazen, it leaves you speechless. His vanity is without guile and the scandals that embroil him without end. Almost everything he says and does has been publicly contradicted, by himself, usually on Twitter.

All of which might be reason to feel a kind of joy, or at least satisfaction. If anyone was going to act to end the madness. But all the signals from Congress are that they will not.

Ronald Klain pledges his fealty … to Andrew McCabe

The McCabe case illustrates the fundamental asymmetry between Trump and his critics. For anti-Trump commentators and activists who embrace the rule of law as the central tenet of their resistance to the president, McCabe is problematic. According to reports of the findings of well-regarded Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, McCabe wrongfully leaked details of the investigation of Hillary Clinton, then was not fully candid with investigators about it. If true, this is not the sort of conduct that “rule of law” advocates are comfortable defending.

Which brings us to Trump’s two advantages over his opponents. First, until the details of McCabe’s case are public, many Trump critics have been restrained in their reaction to McCabe’s firing. They want to reserve judgment until the facts are in; they want to assess McCabe’s actual culpability before taking up his case.

Those who oppose Trump are still being held to standards that, for Trump, were discarded months ago. It’s very easy to keep winning battles if your opponents are forced to play by rules that you can ignore.

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out in their book, “How Democracies Die,” modern authoritarian leaders do not consolidate power by coming after wholly innocent people: They exploit the fact that almost every person with a long public career — those who could be a check on the leader’s power — has done something wrong, or something that can be cast as wrong, if scrutinized in a certain way. Former FBI director James B. Comey — fired for refusing to bend to Trump’s will — made substantial and hugely consequential mistakes in handling the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton.

Trump doesn’t have to win in court. He doesn’t even believe in court. He said it himself — due process takes too long. He rather just destroy first, ask questions never.

Max Boot and Trump’s one growing skill

The president recounted how Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had told him that the U.S. doesn’t have a trade deficit with his country. Trump said he contradicted Trudeau — “Wrong, Justin, you do” — even though “I didn’t even know. … I had no idea.” …

But Trump didn’t back down: He insisted that his “alternative facts” were superior to actual facts. …

Like Trump’s claims that Gen. John J. Pershing slaughtered Muslims, or that his inauguration drew record crowds, or that he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal immigrants had not voted, this is another example of a would-be dictator’s desire not just to sneak lies by us but to shove them down our throats. Trump is signaling that he doesn’t care what the truth is. From now on the truth will be whatever he says, and he expects every loyal follower to faithfully parrot the official party line. Or else.

Don’t expect Republicans to point out Trump’s admitted ignorance or deliberate lie. In fact, expect the to provide some explanation that supports Trump, even if it requires Herculean acts of twisting the facts.

As his presidency advances, Trump is becoming increasingly intolerant of disagreement and defiance, especially from aides who know what they are talking about. Economic adviser Gary Cohn tried to tell him that tariffs and trade wars are bad economics; Trump didn’t listen and Cohn resigned. Tillerson tried to tell him that scrapping the Iran nuclear deal is a bad strategy, and now he’s gone. National security adviser H.R. McMaster is said to be the next candidate for the heave-ho, because he reportedly rubs Trump the wrong way.

Why yes, that is a blood-dimmed tide. Thank you for noticing.

The Washington Post on McCabe’s last minute firing

More than the details of the case, President Trump’s tweet early Saturday celebrating the firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is what stands out: a marquee of bullying and unseemly behavior by a president. Mr. Trump acts like a nasty, small-minded despot, not the leader of a democracy more than two centuries old in which rule of law is a sturdy pillar. If there is doubt that the timing of Mr. McCabe’s dismissal was driven by political vengeance, Mr. Trump does everything he can to prove the worst with his own sordid words.

Donald Trumo’s words don’t sound like the mutterings of a nasty, small-minded despot. He is a nasty, small-minded despot.

As Mr. Trump knows, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been reported to be looking into possible obstruction of justice in the firing of Mr. Comey. Mr. McCabe could be a vital witness in such a prosecution. Now the president has attempted to discredit, and lauded the punishment of, a potential witness against him, an affront to the integrity and independence of law enforcement.

That is not an accident. Neither is the fact that Trump immediately followed firing McCabe by attacking the Mueller investigation.

Kathleen Parker is also reeling from Trump’s Great White Lies

The truth is the United States had a trade surplus with Canada to the tune of $2.8 billion in goods and services in 2017, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. But facts seem neither an attractant nor a deterrent to Trump, who at times reminds me of Don Quixote, the fictional knight-errant of 17th-century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. Quixote had read a few too many books of chivalry and, owing to some deterioration of his mental faculties, fancied himself a knight in shining armor.

Quixote is altogether too sympathetic a character to be compared to Trump —and far more grounded in reality. Because Trump’s admission of his big lie, was also a lie.

Not only did Trump invent the trade deficit, but also he may have made up the meeting itself. According to Canada’s National Post , Trudeau’s government isn’t sure which meeting Trump was referencing. There may have been a telephone conversation or two along those lines, or, quite possibly, Trump created a composite scenario drawn from both meetings and conversations.

This brings us to a new black hole in the fact-checking universe. Not only do weary researchers have to check Trump’s “facts,” but now they also have to check his facts about fictions. If the meeting didn’t actually take place — and the claim about the trade deficit was fantastic in the correct sense — then what is one ever to believe from this president?

The point of the story isn’t Canada, or anything to do with trade. The point of the story is simply Trump’s desire to be patted on the head and told he’s clever. Which is exactly the message he took from the laughter and applause when he described his fictional incident.

Gina Haspel’s nomination to run the CIA

Vincent Warren has a different idea of where Gina Haspel should work.

We’re on the brink of a full-throttled return to officially sanctioned US torture. Our impulsive president has said he wants to bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse” and has now named Gina Haspel as the new CIA chief. Haspel personally oversaw torture at a CIA black site in Thailand, and she even seemed to relish the role. …

While it is certainly not unusual for people who’ve overseen and participated in crimes against humanity like torture and genocide to be recast by their supporters as dutiful public servants, there are, in addition, two deeply disturbing trends – one old, one new – embedded both in the naming of Haspel to the position and her defenders’ characterizations of her.

Letting people who participated in these programs walk away may have seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But you can’t have truth and reconciliation when no one has admitted the truth or attempted to reconcile. What happened with the people who initiated the torture program, and the people who provided the false information necessary to start the war in Iraq, was that they were simply allowed to … walk away. As if they had done nothing wrong. And we’re still paying the price.

The unsung heroes of the age will be those who said no to a Trump administration job offer in the first place. But Gina Haspel will not be in that number because of her horrific record. The Center for Constitutional Rights recently submitted a filing with the International Criminal Court that brought Haspel to their attention. We wanted to highlight her impunity for torture and the heightened risk for a return to torture given her position as deputy CIA director.

Impunity breeds repetition. We will be following up with The Hague.

The Washington Post would be happy with a few answers.

Ms. Haspel was reportedly present when another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was interrogated and waterboarded three times. On the instructions of her boss, Jose Rodriguez, she wrote a memo ordering the destruction of videotapes showing the interrogations, even though the two had been told to preserve them for an ongoing investigation. Mr. Rodriguez was later reprimanded, but Ms. Haspel was not. …

Ms. Feinstein has called for the declassification of documents detailing Ms. Haspel’s role in torture and the destruction of evidence. That would help clarify whether she should be excluded from a job for which she otherwise appears to be well qualified. Ms. Haspel can also help herself by preparing to respond fully to senators’ questions about her role in Thailand. Above all, she must be willing to repeat the response given by her predecessor, Mike Pompeo, when he was asked at his confirmation whether he would accept an order from President Trump to reopen the secret prisons and resume waterboarding.

“Absolutely not,” said Mr. Pompeo. Given Mr. Trump’s occasional bluster about torture, such a definitive negative is the only response senators should accept.

If the Post is happy just because Haspel is willing to give the same facile responses as Pompeo, they’re letting her off extremely easy. Having spent the campaign both cheerleading for the release of documents stolen by Russia, and joined in denial that the Russians were involved in trying to assist Donald Trump, Pompeo is no role model for honesty.


Bernie Sanders and Oligarchs on the Potomac

The rapid rise of oligarchy and wealth and income inequality is the great moral, economic, and political issue of our time. Yet, it gets almost no coverage from the corporate media.

How often do network newscasts report on the 40 million Americans living in poverty, or that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major nation on earth? How often does the media discuss the reality that our society today is more unequal than at any time since the 1920s with the top 0.1% now owning almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%? How often have you heard the media report the stories of millions of people who today are working longer hours for lower wages than was the case some 40 years ago?

These issues get entirely as much play as you would expect from outlets owned by giant corporations who are far more invested than entertainment than news (ABC, NBC, CNN) and billionaires (CBS, Fox).

We need to ask the hard questions that the corporate media fails to ask: who owns America, and who has the political power? Why, in the richest country in the history of the world are so many Americans living in poverty? What are the forces that have caused the American middle class, once the envy of the world, to decline precipitously? What can we learn from countries that have succeeded in reducing income and wealth inequality, creating a strong and vibrant middle class, and providing basic human services to everyone?

I  share everyone of Sanders’ concerns. But I’m also concerned that, in the middle of a nation where democracy is on the edge of being crushed, the bigger question is “What are you going to do about it?” And I don’t find that answer here.

Putin and the UK

Anne Applebaum on why Putin isn’t afraid to taunt the UK

“Londongrad” is the nickname, not entirely affectionate, that wealthy Russians have bestowed upon Britain’s capital. The term doesn’t just designate a physical place, though many Russians do indeed live here. Londongrad is more properly a state of mind — encompassing not only the nonresident owners of large houses in Kensington, but also the British institutions, banks, law firms, accountants, private schools, art galleries, and even the Conservative Party fundraisers that have gone out of their way to accommodate them. …

For two decades, the British establishment has agreed not to think too hard about where the Russians got their money — how cash was stolen from the state, recycled in the West, then used to help bring Vladimir Putin and his ex-KGB colleagues to power. In return, the Russians spent a lot of that money in Britain, to the benefit of the British.

Which is exactly what they’ve done in the US — except most of the benefit has gone to a few real estate developers. Because rules put in place after 9/11 tightened down on other areas, but left real estate as a gaping hole for money laundering.

Now, the relationship is at a low point. The British were shocked — or should I say “shocked, shocked” — to discover that Russian operatives treat all of Britain like Londongrad. For a second time, they appear to have used a dangerous chemical agent in an attempt to murder one of their compatriots on British soil. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May eloquently condemned Russia for its use of a “military-grade nerve agent,” declared she would expel 23 Russian diplomats and charged that the Russian government has “demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.”

But that means she doesn’t understand the profundity of the problem — that the Russian government treats Britain with disdain because the Russian government thinks it has bought the British elite. Worse than that, it may be right.

Exactly who was it who won that Cold War thing again?

Gun Safety

Corey Brettschneider and the impossibility of negotiating with the NRA

Those seeking sensible gun regulation – like the 83% of Americans who support a mandatory waiting period for buying a gun and the 67% of Americans who agree with a ban on assault weapons – should not just accept the distortion of the second amendment as fact. Instead, they should loudly respond that gun regulation’s proponents, not the NRA, are the true defenders of the second amendment. In fact, both supreme court case law and the text of the second amendment itself support reasonable regulations on guns. As written, the constitution and the second amendment permit precisely the kind of regulation Congress should enact.

In 1991, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Republican appointee, explained why the text of the Second Amendment affirms the importance of gun regulation. The first words of the amendment, Burger pointed out, are “a well regulated Militia.” This language presupposes the idea that the militias should be regulated. So, Burger reasoned, if the amendment rests on the assumption that well-trained state armies could be regulated, then it is sensible to think it also allows Congress to regulate guns among the general citizenry.

Someone should try putting Warren Burger’s words under their own name and posting them on a right wing site, just to see how it takes for someone to claim that the poster doesn’t understand the Constitution.

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