Really, NRA?

A friend recently sent me a questionnaire he’d received from the NRA, along with a fundraising appeal warning that the November elections will “threaten your gun rights,” and explaining that the organization needs your money in order to protect its “pro-freedom” agenda. (I wonder when they’ll explain why that “pro-freedom agenda” required that they collaborate with Russian operatives…but I digress.)

The letter also disses all those polls showing widespread public support for background checks and other modest gun-control measures. (“Fake news!”)

If there is one thing academic researchers and legitimate political pollsters know, it is that the way you frame survey questions is critical: if you are trying to obtain an accurate reading of the public pulse, questions cannot be suggestive or loaded.

Of course, if political candidates and advocacy organizations were interested in accurate results, they’d hire a reputable pollster. The “surveys” and “polls” we all receive from various candidates and organizations are transparent efforts to separate us from our money; they are intended to push our buttons, not inquire about our opinions.

And the NRA has mastered the art of button-pushing. A few examples:

“Do you agree with the politicians and Hollywood elites who say the NRA is a terrorist organization?”

“Do you support a sweeping ban on semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and handguns?”

“Should law-abiding Americans be forced to undergo a background check?”

“Should the federal government limit your ability to defend yourself and your family by banning magazines with more than 10 rounds?”

“Should the federal government be able to register and track all firearms in the U.S. and retain personal information about those who lawfully possess them?”

“Would you ever knowingly vote for a candidate for Congress who supports new anti-gun restrictions as part of his or her agenda?”

There’s more, of course, but these “poll questions” should give you a flavor of the rest.

Before you laugh at the transparency of these formulations or dismiss the obviousness of the propaganda, it may be worth thinking about the political psychology behind the choice of words employed in what was an expensive mailing. Remember, these “polls” go to NRA members (including the friend who shared this), not to the general public–and although reputable surveys suggest that the majority of those members are far more reasonable than the organization’s leadership, they are still likely to be favorably disposed to the NRA’s mission.

They aren’t likely to be favorably disposed to “Hollywood elites.” They are very likely to resent being called a terrorist organization.

The framing of the support/no support questions is patently dishonest, but very effective. Do you favor a “sweeping” ban? Do you want the government “forcing” “law-abiding” citizens to do anything? Surely you are already worried that the surveillance state is keeping tabs on everyone, and you don’t want them “retaining your personal information.”

I’m sure you are leery of Congressional candidates who make gun control part of an (obviously nefarious) “agenda.”

The big problem with special interest organizations like the NRA isn’t that they represent majority opinion. They don’t–not even close. They are effective because their issues are so salient to the minority of people who do agree with them. (This is also true of anti-choice  and other single-issue voters.)

Because they care deeply about their particular issue, (and generally, not about many–or any–others) they vote. Reliably. And as a result, they exercise far more influence than their numbers would otherwise entitle them to. That’s one reason why the recent arrest of a Russian operative who used the NRA as her conduit to the Trump Administration and  Republicans in Congress was so alarming.

My single issue in November is the defeat of Trump enablers. It’s pretty salient to me….

 

 

 

The White Nationalist Party

America has been transfixed by Donald Trump’s very public betrayal of his oath of office–an oath which requires him to protect and defend our country. But that is hardly his only  betrayal of important American values.

As Dana Milbank reminds us, he has made bigotry politically correct again.

In a recent column, Milbank looked at the crop of Republican candidates who  surfaced after Trump’s election.

Behold, a new breed of Republican for the Trump era.

Seth Grossman won the Republican primary last month for a competitive House seat in New Jersey, running on the message “Support Trump/Make America Great Again.” The National Republican Congressional Committee endorsed him.

Then, a video surfaced, courtesy of American Bridge, a Democratic PAC, of Grossman saying “the whole idea of diversity is a bunch of crap.” Grossman then proclaimed diversity “evil.” CNN uncovered previous instances of Grossman calling Kwanzaa a “phony holiday” created by “black racists,” labeling Islam a cancer and saying faithful Muslims cannot be good Americans.

There was much more, and the GOP finally withdrew its endorsement. But Grossman is hardly an aberration.

Many such characters have crawled out from under rocks and onto Republican ballots in 2018: A candidate with ties to white nationalists is the GOP Senate nominee in Virginia (and has President Trump’s endorsement); an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier is the Republican candidate in a California House race; a prominent neo-Nazi won the GOP nomination in an Illinois House race; and overt racists are in Republican primaries across the country.

Milbank points to what has become increasingly obvious: As nice people flee the GOP, Trump’s Republican party now needs the support of people like this.

Some of these candidates go well beyond the bounds of anything Trump has said or done, but many have been inspired or emboldened by him. Corey A. Stewart, the Republican Senate nominee in Virginia, said he was “Trump before Trump.”

The party won’t back Stewart, but Republican lawmakers are tiptoeing. Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.), declining to disavow Stewart, noted to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper that people won’t see him as racist because “my son is named after a black guy.”

If there were only a few of these racists and anti-Semites, you might shrug it off. After all, both parties have had crazy or hateful people run for office (we’ve had some doozies here). They’ve usually been weeded out in party primaries, and they’ve rarely earned official support or endorsement.

In today’s GOP, however, they seem to be everywhere.

Russell Walker, Republican nominee for a North Carolina state House seat, is a white supremacist whose personal website is “littered with the n-word” and states that Jews are “satanic,” Vox reports.

Running in the Republican primary for Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s congressional seat in Wisconsin is Paul Nehlen, who calls himself “pro-white” and was booted from Twitter for racism.

Neo-NaziPatrick Little ran as a Republican in the California Senate primary, blaming his loss on fraud by “Jewish supremacists,” according to the website Right Wing Watch.

In North Carolina, nominee Mark Harris, in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program for top recruits, has suggested that women who pursue careers and independence do not “live out and fulfill God’s design.”

Another Young Guns candidate, Wendy Rogersof Arizona (where Joe Arpaio is fighting for the Republican Senate nomination), has said the Democratic position on abortion is “very much like the Holocaust” and the Cambodian genocide.

As Milbank notes–with examples– these candidates have plenty of role models in the administration and in Congress.  Plus, of course, the role-model-in-chief.

Thanks to Trump, today’s GOP is rapidly becoming America’s White Supremicist Party.

High Crimes and Misdemeanors–McConnell Version

In criminal law classes, lawyers-to-be learn about something called mens rea–a term that means “criminal intent.” In order to find someone guilty of a crime, it is necessary to prove that they intended to commit that crime. Otherwise, depending upon the facts involved, they may instead be guilty of gross negligence, or found not guilty by reason of incapacity.

If I had to defend Donald Trump against charges of treason, I would argue he lacked the mental capacity to understand what treason is.  After all, there’s plenty of evidence that he is seriously deranged and none-too-bright.

Mitch McConnell is another matter entirely.

NPR recently covered a speech by Joe Biden in which our former vice-President explained why the administration did not go public before the election with the information it had about Russian interference.

Former Vice President Joe Biden says he and President Barack Obama decided not to speak out publicly on Russian interference during the 2016 campaign after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to sign a bipartisan statement condemning the Kremlin’s role.

Speaking on Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden said the Obama administration sought a united front to dispel concerns that going public with such accusations would be seen as an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the election.

However, McConnell “wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment saying, essentially, ‘Russia’s doing this. Stop,’ ” he said.

Essentially, McConnell blackmailed the President. If the administration accused Russia of meddling, he would accuse Obama of manufacturing the allegation in order to gain a partisan advantage.

The former vice president’s account echoes reporting that first appeared in The Washington Post in June describing a meeting that occurred the same month between Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, then-FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco and 12 key members of Congress.

I have previously shared my belief that Mitch McConnell is the most evil man in America, and that was before I knew anything about this particular despicable episode.

Politicians and scholars have various definitions of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In my opinion, consistently advantaging the interests of your political party over your constitutional responsibilities and the welfare of the country qualifies.

I’m not talking about the various procedural games McConnell has always played; partisans in both parties engage in tactical efforts to advantage their “side” when they can. Refusing to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee–simply ignoring the Senate’s obligation to “advise and consent”–is another matter entirely. Not only was it a dishonorable breach of duty, McConnell had to know that he was doing long-lasting damage to the legitimacy of both the Senate and the Court–and further polarizing the country. He didn’t care; “winning” was more important.

As outrageous as that was, McConnell’s willingness to put his party’s interest above the security of the country–to ignore an attack by a foreign power on the integrity of the U.S. election, an attack that he knew had occurred and that he has subsequently confirmed that he knew had occurred–is every bit as treasonous as Trump’s slavish subservience to that foreign power.

McConnell–not Trump– is the real leader of today’s Republican Party–a party that, as a recent article in the Nation charged, has been and continues to be shamefully complicit.

Russiagate isn’t just the narrow story of a few corrupt officials. It isn’t even the story of a corrupt president. It’s the story of a corrupt political party, the one currently holding all the levers of power in Washington. After Trump groveled before Putin in Helsinki, many Republicans in Washington proclaimed their solemn concern, just as they did when the president expressed his sympathy for the white supremacists in Charlottesville last year. But all of them are fully aware that they are abetting a criminal conspiracy, and probably more than one.

Congressional Republicans have made it abundantly clear that the delivery of tax cuts and ideologically acceptable Supreme Court Justices to their patrons is far more important to them than protecting the security of the country they are pledged to serve.

Trump is stupid and insane. McConnell is smart and evil. They are both corrupt, self-serving traitors. Congressional Republican know that–and protect them anyway. What does that make them?

Despicable.

 

 

Legacies

Scott Pruitt’s resignation prompted a number of columns devoted to the “legacy” he leaves–if legacy is the right word for “stench of corruption.” Those columns did get me thinking, however. about the “legacies” of other elected officials and political operatives.

Mitch McConnell’s legacy, for example, will include the badly tarnished and diminished legitimacy of Congress and the Court. McConnell’s willingness to ignore the Constitution’s mandate that the Senate “advise and consent” to a Presidential judicial nominee not only besmirched the reputation of the Senate, but added another blow to a series of events–beginning with Bush v. Gore— that have compromised the Court’s reputation for integrity and evenhandedness.

For his part, Trump is likely to leave several legacies–all profoundly negative–if, as we hope and pray, he does at least leave us with a recognizable country. But it is worth noting one of those legacies–the responsibility that he and McConnell share for the Supreme Court’s politicization and corresponding loss of legitimacy.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, law professors Lee Epstein and Eric Posner considered the way in which the growth of partisanship has affected the Court’s reputation, and wondered “whether a Supreme Court that has come to be rigidly divided by both ideology and party can sustain public confidence for much longer.”

It hasn’t always been this way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the ideological biases of Republican appointees and Democratic appointees were relatively modest. The gap between them has steadily grown, but even as late as the early 1990s, it was possible for justices to vote in ideologically unpredictable ways. In the closely divided cases in the 1991 term, for example, the single Democratic appointee on the court, Byron White, voted more conservatively than all but two of the Republican appointees, Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist. This was a time when many Republican appointees — like Sandra Day O’Connor, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and David Souter — frequently cast liberal votes.

Today’s Justices are far more predictable, which is to say, far more ideological. And as Epstein and Posner note, it is much easier to assault judicial independence when the public sees the judiciary as just another political body.

The Court loses legitimacy when its reputation as an objective, nonpartisan arbiter of Constitutional fidelity is replaced by a belief that it is a political tool reflecting the priorities of the partisans who selected the Justices.  It’s worse when a majority of those Justices represent world-views held by only a minority of Americans.

In a recent article, Kevin McMahon considered the effect on the Court’s legitimacy.

Since Donald Trump lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, he is, by definition, a minority president, elected by a minority of the voters.

Similarly, I define a “minority justice” as a nominee who won confirmation with the support of a majority of senators, but senators who did not represent a majority of voters.

Consider Gorsuch. He was supported by a majority of senators – 51 Republicans and three Democrats. But the votes earned by those 54 senators only added up to a total of 54,098,387.

The 45 senators who opposed Gorsuch, all Democrats, collected 73,425,062 votes in their most recent elections – a nearly 20 million-vote difference.

There are now three Supreme Court justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Gorsuch – that fit the description of a “minority justice.” And they are the only three in the nation’s history.

Now, there is a possibility of a fourth “minority justice” – the second appointed by a “minority president.”

That raises a question that goes to the heart of the Supreme Court’s legitimacy in our democracy: Will this be a court out of line with America?

These are the questions that ought to keep our elected Senators and Representatives up at night–but very few of the people we have elevated to the federal legislature seem to know or care about anything other than winning and losing elections.

Their “legacies” will be the abandonment of America’s constitutional framework–and any concept of statesmanship.

 

Chilling…And Compelling

One of my favorite anecdotes about the early days of America’s newspapers comes from a friend who has edited a number of small-town papers and is something of a journalism history buff.  Early newspapers did no reporting; they were just compilations of the circulars generated mostly by the political parties. According to my friend, the masthead of one such publication  proclaimed “interesting, if true.”

That pretty much sums up my reaction to a recent, lengthy and unnervingly persuasive article in New York Magazine.

And that was before Trump’s disastrous, groveling presser with Putin in Helsinki.

The article was written by Jonathan Chait, whose previous work I have found solid (to the extent I am capable of making such judgments). Chait didn’t claim his thesis is proven, only that it is plausible. It was a “what if” speculation that looked at the entirety of what we knew before that outrageous betrayal of his oath of office .

The unfolding of the Russia scandal has been like walking into a dark cavern. Every step reveals that the cave runs deeper than we thought, and after each one, as we wonder how far it goes, our imaginations are circumscribed by the steps we have already taken. The cavern might go just a little farther, we presume, but probably not muchfarther. And since trying to discern the size and shape of the scandal is an exercise in uncertainty, we focus our attention on the most likely outcome, which is that the story goes a little deeper than what we have already discovered. Say, that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort told their candidate about the meeting they held at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer after they were promised dirt on Hillary Clinton; and that Trump and Kushner have some shady Russian investments; and that some of Trump’s advisers made some promises about lifting sanctions.

But what if that’s wrong? What if we’re still standing closer to the mouth of the cave than the end?

The media has treated the notion that Russia has personally compromised the president of the United States as something close to a kook theory. A minority of analysts, mostly but not exclusively on the right, have promoted aggressively exculpatory interpretations of the known facts, in which every suspicious piece of evidence turns out to have a surprisingly innocent explanation. And it is possible, though unlikely, that every trail between Trump Tower and the Kremlin extends no farther than its point of current visibility.

Chait goes through the lengthy chronology of Trump’s connections with Russia, a chronology suggesting that the situation may be much worse than we now suspect. As he notes, publicly available information about the Russia scandal is extensive, but disjointed.

The way it has been delivered — scoop after scoop of discrete nuggets of information — has been disorienting and difficult to follow. What would it look like if it were reassembled into a single narrative?

It’s tempting to dismiss the article as yet another conspiracy theory in an age that seems to encourage them, but as Chait points out, the people who seem most convinced of its likelihood are not the radio shock-jocks or other “usual suspects.” They are people like John Brennan, former head of the CIA, and other high government officials.

If Chait’s “what if” speculation proves true, calling it “chilling” is an understatement.

If that’s true, we are in the midst of a scandal unprecedented in American history, a subversion of the integrity of the presidency. It would mean the Cold War that Americans had long considered won has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of Reagan’s party’s abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent. It would mean that when Special Counsel Robert Mueller closes in on the president and his inner circle, possibly beginning this summer, Trump may not merely rail on Twitter but provoke a constitutional crisis.

And it would mean the Russia scandal began far earlier than conventionally understood and ended later — indeed, is still happening. As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.

After that disgraceful press conference, Chait’s “possibility” seems all too likely.