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The white supremacy/milita problem

johnson

You can be forgiven if you missed a story a few weeks back that in more normal times would have received a great deal more attention. The details seem particularly important in Idaho and in the Pacific Northwest, but certainly no political figure in Idaho – or the region for that matter – has been drawing attention to the testimony of FBI director Christopher Wray.

“Racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, constitutes a majority of domestic terrorism threats, Wray testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on September 17. The FBI director also said, “We certainly have seen very active — very active — efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020,” specifically “to both sow divisiveness and discord, and I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly, to primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden in what the Russians see as a kind of an anti-Russian establishment.”

So, the Russians are doing it again, according to the Donald Trump appointed FBI director, and violence from white supremacist groups is the most serious domestic terrorism threat.

A few days after Wray’s testimony, and after a whistle blower complaint alleged an effort to cover up another assessment of the danger of white supremacist violence, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its own threat assessment. “I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years,” said acting DHS director Chad Wolf.

Because Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest more generally, has a particularly long and ugly history dealing with white supremacy let’s focus on what the FBI and DHS say is the single biggest threat when it comes to domestic terrorism – radicalized white guys with guns.

As Seattle journalist Knute Berger wrote more than two years ago in Seattle Magazine: “The Pacific Northwest has long been a sought-after enclave for people with extreme views and utopian, or dystopian, fantasies. On the far right this has included wannabe Nazis, dating back at least to the 1930s, when fascist William Dudley Pelley of the so-called Silver Shirts declared himself America’s Hitler and ran a campaign for president from Seattle in 1936. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Nazi presence emerged with various groups in Washington and what some dubbed ‘the Fourth Reich of Idaho.’”

Most in Idaho celebrated twenty years ago when the neo-Nazi Aryan Nation’s lost a multi-million-dollar jury trial and ended up in bankruptcy. The Coeur d’Alene Press celebrated the outcome as a “victory for justice” that “corrected the misconceptions about Idaho and its people,” but that assessment now seems outdated, if not flat wrong.

Far right agitator Ammon Bundy who led an armed takeover of a federal facility in eastern Oregon now roams Idaho at will, enjoying support from elected Republican officeholders. Bundy and some of his followers went armed recently to the Idaho Statehouse to intimidate and disrupt lawmakers. They caused physical damage but received only mild rebukes.

In August the Idaho Statesman published a long piece based on “interviews, acquired emails and letters, and a review of social media profiles” documenting the ties of various Idaho GOP elected officials “to groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the American Redoubt movement.” The newspaper noted that “Tom Luna, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did many elected officials whose ties to militia groups or extremist ideologies” who were mentioned in the story.

Washington state representative Matt Shea, a Spokane Valley Republican and a leader in the so called Patriot Movement who has his own ties to Idaho Republicans, eventually decided not to seek re-election this year after it was disclosed that he “planned, engaged in and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence against the United States Government in three states outside the state of Washington over a three-year period.”

Now comes news that a militant group – the Wolverine Watchmen – plotted to kidnap and try for treason the governors of Michigan and Virginia. The FBI broke up the plot and indicted six men. “The Wolverine Watchmen are not a Second Amendment militia or constitutional patriots in any sense of the word,” says John E. Finn, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University who has studied these groups. “If they are guilty of the charges brought against them, then they are terrorists.”

It requires minimal dot connecting to trace the arc of presidential pronouncements – “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Donald Trump said after the white supremacy march and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 – to the vast increase in right wing and often white supremacist violence. The president has also repeatedly vilified Muslims and people of color, including many elected officials.

You have to wonder why it’s become so difficult for Republican elected officials to connect these dots and avoid the “both sides” whataboutism argument about these threats to democracy and order. Idaho congressman Mike Simpson fell down this rabbit hole this week in an interview with Idaho Public Television’s Marcia Franklin.

Do you condemn white supremacy, Franklin asked Simpson? “Absolutely, absolutely,” he said, before instantly pivoting to a full-on attack on the Black Lives Matter movement and “these people” who “are out burning down our cities and stuff, that’s a problem.”

It’s possible, indeed intellectually honest, as Simpson must know to condemn the senseless property damage of protests in Portland and elsewhere and still acknowledge that there is a profound and long overdue racial reckoning taking place in the United States. You can condemn violence, including white supremacist and “militia” violence, and still believe that racism must be addressed. Not once, even in passing, did Simpson make the connection.

Franklin twice asked the 22-year House member if it was possible Donald Trump had contributed to “this type of rhetoric and behavior.” Simpson, with more than a minor pained expression on his face, said, “I don’t think he is.”

Then he again immediately shifted to Trumpian talking points, amplified a Fox News conspiracy theory and mispronounced the name of the woman of color running for vice president.

“I think what emboldens these people is when they get arrested and then you have the potential vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, and her, some of her campaign staff putting, and encouraging other people to put funds into a fund to bail these people out that are out burning down out cities, and stuff, that what encourages these people. You have to stand up to these people.”

For the record that is a gross misrepresentation of Harris’s action, but the real point is you have to stand up to these people – unfortunately these days that means a Republican like Congressman Simpson.
 

Are we listening?

stapiluslogo1

Whatever else you think about Democrat Rudy Soto’s campaign for Congress in Idaho’s 1st district, whether you approve of him and his platform, this much is clear: He’s doing what a candidate should do.

Soto is traveling the first district - no small place, 500 miles or so from top to bottom - intensively, and getting some news coverage. He’s holding events, and has made himself available to voters. He’s issued a pile of press releases (not in unreasonable numbers, but plenty of them) on pertinent and sometimes thoughtful subjects. He’s held his incumbent opponent - Republican Representative Russ Fulcher - to account, dissecting his record in some detail.

There are candidates who file for the office and then maybe show up for the debate but mostly just wait for the results on election night. Soto isn’t one of those: He’s a serious candidate.

There are other serious candidates out there, too, and these days, many of them - those running where they’re in a partisan or other minority - often feel frustrated, and often for good reason.

So my question, pointed not at the candidate but at the constituency: Is anyone listening?

That’s not a call for simply accepting his campaign case. It’s a call for giving it some serious consideration, something that’s probably not much happening.

Back a generation and more ago, more of us probably did listen more. When the heated Senate race between Democrat Frank Church and Republican Steve Symms was underway, both of them campaigned everywhere in the state, and people heard them out. Minds sometimes were changed. Many people resisted the urge to simply hop on Team A or Team B, and actually struggled with what they should do.

Now many of us live in a bubble, and we tend to dismiss people and arguments from outside it. Ask a Republican running in Seattle or Portland (there are a few) what kind of a listen they get in those places. You’d probably find the same for Democrats in Idaho outside of Boise and a few other small places: A reception that's ordinarily polite, but effectively dismissive.

This is not the way we the people are supposed to do politics: Take in one simplistic label (that of a party, usually, but sometimes something else) and decide that’s enough information. It isn’t, not if we’re correctly doing our jobs as self-governing citizens .

It’s a sad turn of events. In generations past, getting information at all about candidates, about the issues before us, was far more difficult than it is now; today, our access is broad. Our wisdom in making use of that access is what seems to be falling short.

We have no lack of useful options.

During the fall seasons of odd-numbered years, our household television is tuned mostly to C-SPAN and its showing of candidate debates around the country (the only kind of reality TV I can abide). They’re plenty dramatic and educational as well. When you hear arguments from South Carolina or Iowa reprised in Idaho, you get a fresh light on them; which make sense, and which don’t. You get a larger, broader picture than you might from a single local debate in which many of the issues may be personalized.

Debates and forums are well worth watching, and we watch as many as we can. (On the presidential level, I watched my first general election debate in 1976, and haven’t missed one since. This next week’s, if it happens, may be especially noteworthy.)

That’s one option, and there are many more. On the flip side, we try to be careful in parsing what we see in social media and other places where agendas often drive facts, rather than the other way around. It’s easy to drown in misinformation.

But one way to make smarter choices is - and this is actually not too hard to do in this season - to listen to the candidates. To Rudy Soto, and Russ Fulcher. And all the others. If they’re willing to put themselves out there to do your work, you can put forth a little effort to listen to them, and think about what they have to say. And then make up your mind.
 

Not so bad

schmidt

Last night, as the wind blew out of the west and showers threatened I heard some loud booms, then smaller ones off to the southwest. Had the civil unrest started? Were the local religious fanatics attacking city hall with bombs and bullets, formalizing their protest on the mask mandate? Had the local militia finally gotten organized enough to mount an attack on the old Federal Building (now owned by the local hospital)? Nope, it was just a “homecoming” celebration at the University, fireworks and all.

You might sense that I feel conflict amongst our citizens. You might feel it too. There is pressure mounting as the presidential election approaches.

But a little perspective might be in order. The times, pandemic and all, ain’t so bad.

Just think how this young country got off the ground in 1800. The framers had thrown this thing called the electoral college into our Constitution but they hadn’t thought out the wrinkles. The scheme back then was that state electors would vote for 2 candidates; the one with the most votes became President, runner up got Vice President. The 1800 election resulted in an electoral college tie between Jefferson and Burr. The House of Representatives did their Constitutional duty and decided for Jefferson, though Burr never forgave Hamilton when he threw Federalist support to Jefferson in the House. Three years later, Burr shot Hamilton, and now we can all see the musical on the internets.

Congress then amended the Constitution and “ironed out” the electoral voting. It remains “ironed out”.

Only 24 years later (1824) the House got to decide another Presidential race when four candidates (all in the same party) split the ticket. It took a month of back room deals, but Adams prevailed. Jackson was so pissed he resigned his Senate seat and vowed to come back in 4 years. And he did. No one was shot.

But the 1860 election did lead to shots fired. Sumpter, Bull Run, Gettysburg, remember? Even our president got shot and killed. Those were high conflict times.

But the shenanigans of 1876 take the cake. They make our current Presidents claims of coming voter fraud, refusal to admit defeat should he in fact lose, and calls to militants to “watch out” at the polls sound like bluff. The 1876 election was a donnybrook between Republicans and Democrats, though the labels were almost as tribal then as now. Democrats dominated the South, and a few Northern states. The Democrat (Tilden) won the popular vote, but couldn’t muster enough electoral votes, because, for some reason, four states were slow counting and then Oregon disqualified an elector.

Then, back room deal of all time, a “Commission” struck a deal to give the Presidency to Hayes, the Republican for the guarantee of removal of all Federal Troops from the Southern states. It was the end of reconstruction.

Jim Crow came home to roost. It was another 90 years before civil rights would be brought to the South. When it was, the Democrats lost that electoral vote block.

I’ll skip Bush v Gore, Truman and Dewey, but the point is: I’m not sure anybody’s way of life is threatened today like it was when slaves were the wealth of the Southern plantation owners. Maybe todays rich see Bernie’s socialist tendencies as a threat. Maybe todays wealthy venture capitalists could rouse up the white crackers to take up arms to protect their wealth.

Maybe they would have the success the 1860 plantation owners did, who got southern poor men to fight and die defending their right to own slaves, their wealth. Maybe that’s why Democrats nominated Biden. Who knows.

But those first cannon shots fired at Fort Sumpter in Charleston harbor back in 1860 were touched off by cadets from a local college, The Citadel.

You might see why civil unrest came to my mind. But it was just homecoming, with no football game.
 

Soto says he could do better

malloy

Talk with Congressman Russ Fulcher and you’ll get the idea that this year’s elections have all the drama of a yawning festival.

He figures, probably correctly so, that people have made up their minds about President Trump. As Fulcher puts it, “Everything he has done and said has been done and said. He either has the numbers, or he doesn’t.”

Trump is bound to win in Idaho, of course, and it doesn’t take a fearless forecaster to predict that Republicans will continue to occupy the Gem State’s congressional offices. Sure, it’s possible that Joe Biden will carry Idaho, Paulette Jordan will send Sen. Jim Risch into retirement and Rudy Soto and Aaron Swisher will pull monumental upsets in House races.

“I don’t see that happening, and that’s not a shot at Rudy or anybody else,” Fulcher says.

For now, at least, Fulcher is not taking shots of any kind at Soto, the 34-year-old Canyon County Democrat who is working his tail off on the campaign trail. Fulcher doesn’t see the need for comparing Soto to Bernie Sanders, or spreading fears about socialism of the Green New Deal.

“From what I can tell, he’s running an honorable campaign,” Fulcher said. “He’s giving voters a choice. It’s not like the primary campaign where there were flat-out lies.”

Soto is not so charitable toward Fulcher, comparing him to former Congressman Bill Sali – the one Republican who was bounced out of office after one term (2008) and suggesting that Fulcher has brought an “Ammon Bundy style of politics to Washington, D.C.”

Soto backs his claims with an independent survey that ranks Fulcher as one of the most partisan members of the House. “He can’t even get bill sponsorship from his own party,” Soto says.

Fulcher is part of the conservative-based House Freedom Caucus, and Soto wants to join the Problem Solver’s Caucus, which has members from both parties.

Soto says he’d work well with Congressman Mike Simpson and it would be “an absolute honor and privilege” to work with Sens. Mike Crapo and Risch (if he wins re-election). “They are at the forefront of bringing resources back to rural communities and I would be helping advance their initiatives in the House.”

Soto, a veteran of the Army National Guard, is no stranger to the Washington politics, having worked as a congressional staffer and on a variety of issues. He promises to limit himself to three terms and to vote against retaining House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying “it’s time for new blood.”

On that point, Fulcher will agree. He has complained for two years about how Pelosi handles business in the House. But for his congressional seat, he sees himself as the right guy for the job.

“I believe that experience matters and that I am uniquely qualified to represent Idaho,” he says.

“I’ll put my resume up against anyone with my knowledge of the state and deep roots here. I have a track record for building relationships not only with our delegation, but with other members. If they’re trying to paint me as someone who works on the right side of the aisle and never talks with anyone, that’s a bunch of baloney.”

But given the conservative nature of his district, he was not elected to be cozy with Democrats.

Fulcher wants nothing to do with Pelosi, or the party’s progressive agenda. “If you are in the Panhandle of Idaho and advertise that you are spending all your time across the aisle, that’s the quickest way to get unelected,” he says.

Fulcher heads into the election with a healthy degree of confidence. “I think most people in the first district know who I am. They may like me or not, but they know what they get.”

And as with President Trump on Election Day, the numbers will be there for Fulcher … or they won’t.

Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com
 

“Now we’re sort of the stupid party”

jones

Shortly after the President was diagnosed with Covid-19, long-time, high-level Republican operative Ed Rollins publicly lamented Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic.

Rollins, who is currently co-chair of the pro-Trump Great America super PAC, wailed, “There was a panic before this started, but now we’re sort of the stupid party.”

Rollins was referring to the events leading up to Trump’s contraction of the virus, including the September 26 super-spreading White House Rose Garden soiree to announce Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. There in the crowd were many unmasked Republican elite, crammed together, hugging and infecting one another, including the Trumps. It was a clear illustration of the consequences of ignoring the advice of epidemiologists.

Unfortunately, a bit too much of the stupid has found its way into the ranks of that Grand Old Party in recent years. It did not start with Trump, but he has certainly hastened the rush toward what Rollins bemoaned. The stupid is not confined to Trump’s pandemic response, however.

In the mid-60s, Congressional Republicans teamed with President Johnson to legislate civil rights and voting rights protections for people of color. That was in the proud tradition of the party founder, Abraham Lincoln. Now, Trump and his party are doing their level best to discourage and depress voting opportunities for minority citizens. Trying to shut American citizens out of the electoral process is not a smart thing to do. Disenfranchisement builds anger and frustration of the type we are seeing play out on the streets of many American cities today. It won’t end up benefiting the GOP in the long run.

Trump incessantly attacks the integrity of our elections, the very bedrock of our democracy. There is no credible evidence of significant fraud in our elections, but that has not stopped Trump’s diatribes against mail-in balloting and election security. Russian media largely echo his attacks on our elections in an effort to delegitimize our form of government. It is stupid to give Vladimir Putin aid and comfort in that devious enterprise.

Trump struggles mightily with the simple task of denouncing white supremacists and other dangerous extremists. It is a good way to garner the votes of Proud Boys, QAnon members, Boogaloo Bois, and various and assorted vigilantes and militias, but it puts the country at risk.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have identified “violent extremists who are motivated by white supremacy and other far-right ideological causes” as the “most significant terror-related threat facing the U.S.” Trump darkly hinted at the presidential debate that some of these people may be deployed to the polls on November 3. It is not too bright to give these types the presidential stamp of legitimacy.

The problem is not just with Trump’s misguided leadership, but with the total lack of leadership by Republicans in Congress. We have many smart people in the Senate and House, but they have given up on their sworn duty to stand up for constitutional government. Senators Risch and Crapo stand by mute while the President attacks our elections, fails to develop and employ a strategy to contain the coronavirus and plays footsie with extremists.

It is probably just craven cowardice, but is does make them look stupid. Maybe Rollins had it right.
 

It’s getting damned serious

rainey

It’s easy to hear of Michigan Governor Whitmer’s close call with a bunch of armed nuts out to kidnap or kill her and sort of say “damned shame,” put it off to the side and keep reading. But DON’T!

Let’s talk about your governor: Idaho’s Little, Washington’s Inslee, Oregon’s Brown, Montana’s Bullock, California’s Newson, Utah’s Herbert. Putting your own governor’s name in place of Whitmer’s brings the issue a little closer to home, doesn’t it?

While these camo nutcases call themselves “militias,” they’re not. The media should not keep reporting them as such. A militia is defined as “an armed civilian force meant to supplement a regular military.” These neighborhood terrorists don’t “supplement” anything. They operate strictly on their own. Their activities are terrorism. Period.

A friend of mine has coined the term for these home-grown terrorists who determine their “manhood” by the caliber of their weapons: “ammosexuals.” Pretty much sums ‘em up, doesn’t it?

In the Northwest, Idaho, Oregon and Montana have become the most recent locale’s for several ammosexual groups. Western part of Ada County and North Idaho are attracting a lot of new faces. Idaho’s had these folks around for years. Mostly up North. They like to jump into their cammos, grab their “manhood,” go out in the woods, sneak around pretend “targets” and occasionally even have some real “live fire” target practice.

For the most part, “normal” Idahoans have left them alone. But, recently, these guys have started showing up in town. Armed.

The Idaho Statehouse in Boise had a brush with them a couple months ago. Two guys with semi-autos broke a locked door in the balcony above the legislative floor. Their followers pushed in behind them and stood above the Senate which was in special session. One Senator, Mark Nye (D-Pocatello) wrote afterwards that he felt uneasy trying to do Senate business with the armed - and unwanted - “visitors” above them.

And, that’s exactly what these jerks do: try to intimidate with their clothing, with weapons, with “attitude.” Intimidation is their life-blood. Putting fear in those whom they confront is their “leg up.” Makes their juices - or whatever - flow.

As the Michigan case shows, there are other ammosexuals out there and they’re dangerous. The Southern Poverty Law Center tries to keep track of all of ‘em and has a long list of locations and many of their member’s identities. The FBI, not known for frivolous public comments, calls these “militia” groups “terrorists” and puts them on the agencies “to do list.” “FBI’s Most Wanted.”

A few years ago, an illegal mining operation in Southern Oregon near Grants Pass was told to shut down by the feds. The order was given several times but digging continued. Finally the BLM decided to put more teeth in the order. But, as feds approached the property, they were met by armed folks behind berms, “guarding” the mining. BLM backed off and subsequently closed the Grants Pass office.

There have been many little skirmishes like the Grants Pass story. Incidents that, though dangerous, ended quietly with one side or the other backing off. More often than not, it was some government agency. But, as Michigan details clearly show, there really are ammosexusals out there, ready to take confrontations with law enforcement to a more dangerous level.

The time has come to take these guys more seriously at both state and federal levels. While there are many details known about their existence and local talk about their activities fills a lot of bar conversation, little has been done to crack down. The Michigan case, filled with evidence about planned kidnaping, murder, attacking the Michigan Statehouse, capturing or killing state employees, holding “trials” and blowing up state property clearly shows we’re in a new and more dangerous place.

The dangerous situation in Michigan was defused by very fine FBI undercover work. Lots of audio tapes, some video, lengthy contemporaneous notes including names, dates and places. As the announcement of the 13 arrests was made, the agent-in-charge carefully noted only enough information was used to bring indictments, indicating there’s much more evidence to be unveiled at trial.

But, states where similar groups are known to be can’t leave it all up to the feds. No federal investigative agency is staffed to be everywhere at once. And, it seems these terrorist groups are in many states that have been more or less ignoring them. As Michigan shows, they can be exposed and caged.

Within the last couple of years, a national criminal database has been built which is available to state and local law enforcement. Many of these terrorists and their affiliations are listed therein. It’s available. But, some local agencies haven’t been participating. They should. The information is there for the taking.

People who think of these crazies as just a bunch of individual “nut cases,” need to recognize the real danger represented by their existence. The I-Net is their coordinating link. They “talk” to each other, share gun and ammunition updates, talk of plans to do this-or-that. They’ve acquired more powerful automatic weaponry, become more detailed and task-oriented in their activities and think of themselves as the only “real” Americans.

We may be neighbors and our kids may go to the same schools. But, they regard the rest of us as “the enemy.” Our laws mean nothing because they have their own and they see us as “violators.” Instead of being just some local nuts having fun playing soldier, these groups are organized, many interconnected, heavily armed and living by their own ”code.” A code the rest of us don’t recognize. And, they see themselves as a sort of “government” they want to “install” to replace the one they see as defective and weak.

Eventually, there’ll be a face-off. Maybe many face-offs. The time has come to go after them. If we keep backing away, their numbers will increase and the job of rooting them out will be harder and even more deadly. These may be a “bunch of crazies.” But, they’re getting stronger, better organized and more heavily armed. Their danger to the rest of us has been proven. They’ve got to be eradicated.

The Michigan case scares the Hell out of me. It ought to scare the Hell out of all of us.
 

An endorsement: Joe Biden

stapiluslogo1

In approaching a half-century of writing about politics, I’ve never written a candidate endorsement before. Now, in this fearsome fall of 2020, it’s beholden on us all to speak up.

This is an endorsement of Joe Biden for president.

I’ll try to keep this as short and simple as I can. The case can be made best at length - whole shelves, maybe libraries, of books make the case either for why Biden should be elected on November 3, or - especially - why the incumbent, Donald Trump, should not. But there seems little point in rehashing all of it; I’d be writing and you’d be reading (if you were that determined) for weeks.

You could argue that I made an endorsement - or, actually, anti-endorsement - four years ago. Then, I published a series of 100 posts outlining 100 leading reasons - not the only reasons, just those I thought most crucial - why electing Trump would be an enormous mistake. Nearly all of it, I think, holds up; the negatives those 100 posts pointed out then have sprouted over the last four years into much of the walking catastrophe we’ve seen since. Still, that was only an argument against, and it applied only to what might happen: Once in office, Trump should be judged primarily on the basis of what he has done there.

And we should remember a few of those reasons …

Trump has been the most dishonest public figure - not just president, not just political figure, but the most dishonest public figure of nearly any sort - in recent generations. Nothing he or the people who work for him can be relied upon, and that has been the case since day one. The outright lies alone number in the thousands.

Trump cannot be depended on to protect our country. We cannot even tell, from the weight of his actions and statements, whether his loyalty is primarily to this country. He repeatedly has taken the side of dictators and adversaries of the United States over our own people, over the troops he commands and the intelligence agencies that work for us. We know that he has held secret conversations - under unusual, even unprecedented conditions - with leaders of countries adversarial to us, and not reported back to us what was said. He and his family have had business dealings with several of them. He owes, we are told (and this appears to be undisputed) hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, we know not to whom.

Trump has done whatever he can to turn the government of this country - the government we pay for and that operates under our authority - into a service bureau for his personal benefit. He sees the Department of Justice not as an agency to deliver legal service for the country, rather as a personal legal service for him. One agency after another is seen in a similar light: The Department of State, in one atrocious example, has been perverted for use as a political dirty tricks operation. (And let it be remembered: The case for impeachment from a year ago was and remains rock solid.)

Trump has divided this country more than any president before him. The election of Abraham Lincoln may have helped trigger the Civil War, but he spent his whole presidency in a crusade for union and unity. In contrast, Trump has declared flatly his loyalty to people who “like” him and virtually declared war on everyone else. He has tried to start baseless criminal actions against his political opponents, leading supporters in chants calling for imprisoning his opponents. He has tried to undermine and damage one institution in this country after another, including the news organizations which are among the few checks on him. He has found one group after another to serve as a target to inflame his base, to the point of repeatedly encouraging white supremacists and their activities. He has lent implicit egging-on support to the id of his base to attack other Americans - which led with easy predictability to the recent conspiracy to kidnap and possibly kill a state governor; to which his response was to blame that conspiracy on the governor. The Trump Administration's own FBI has called groups like this one of the top threats facing the country today; Trump offers them comfort and support. (The frequently extremist court appointments many of Trump’s supporters like so much also have contributed, badly, to this nation’s divisions.)

Trump has demonstrated no awareness or understanding of the principles of justice and liberty this nation always has aspired to. He does not even give lip service to such concepts as freedom and the aspirations of individuals. He has made clear that in his world view, only one individual matters - himself.

Trump has undermined our ability to govern ourselves by making repeated statements and actions aimed at undermining our elections - most notably the next one, and perhaps worst of all by refusing to say he would accept the verdict of the election results. Or maybe worst of all his (and often his party's) efforts to jam, manipulate or suppress the vote - to deprive Americans of their right to choose their leaders. Either way, his statements and action show he is uninterested in a government of, by or for the people: He is a dictator wannabe, and will be if he can get away with it.

Trump is hopelessly incompetent. He was a vastly overrated businessman - by many accounts failing badly and needing his 2016 presidential campaign as a personal marketing gimmick - but as president he has been much worse. “I alone can fix it” was a lie from his first nominating convention; like a large wild animal in an antique shop, he has demolished or damaged nearly everything he has touched, not least the reputations of the people so unwise as to work in his administration, and the once-proud political party whose banner he carries.

Trump has turned fact and science into an irrelevancy. In a universe of "alternative facts," we have a government of only incoherence, whether the subject is climate change, foreign policy, education or almost anything else.

Trump has damaged our standing internationally. He has mindlessly torn up useful agreements and damaged our key alliances, and given priceless assistance to almost every nation around the world that wishes us ill. He has managed to get wrong almost everything about our most complex relationships - notably China.

Trump has damaged and continues to try to further damage the well-being of our people. The most obvious example is in his thoughtless and self-centered approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, a weak and counterproductive miasma that has made him the reason tens of thousands of Americans have died. Not content with that, his administration has moved aggressively to take health insurance coverage away (formerly through legislation and now through a still-alive legal case his administration is backing) from tens of millions of Americans - a breathtaking attack on his fellow Americans at any time, but bad almost beyond belief in a time of pandemic. He has damaged the governmental agencies he is supposed to manage; his attempts to wreck the Post Office, on an apparent mission of personal spite and for his attempted political benefit, is only one recent example. Trump’s base likes to credit him for an economy faring well pre-Covid-19, but that was simply a continuation of the economic structure set in place during Barack Obama’s second term; the economy’s collapse this year (by no means over) would have been far less painful under reasonably capable administration.

Much else - many other issues or concerns that ought to be disqualifying for a president or any other office of public trust, and probably ought to be included here - may be debatable. But these points are clear, established and for all meaningful purposes irrefutable. You need no more than the public record and Trump's own statements and actions to anchor them. There is no substantial positive case, for anyone other than a true believer, for the incumbent.

These problems are not ideological: They do not relate to a “liberal” or “conservative” point of view (whatever those may be). These problems are worse. Each and every one of these problems should constitute a clear disqualifier from the presidency.

Donald Trump is by a very long shot the worst president in the nation’s history, and whoever your choice for second place was a whole lot better.

And the subtext of all this, across the board, is that all of it would get much worse in a second term.

But enough about the incumbent. I write here to endorse Joe Biden.

The first point in doing that is to emphasize that none of what I just said about Donald Trump is or would be true of Joe Biden. Unlike the incumbent, he is not ignorant of the nation, its operating principles and aspirations, the needs of its people, or the functioning of its government. His loyalty to the nation and its people is without question. How successful he would be at healing the divisions is an unknown, but he would at least try, rather than deliberately become the human wrecking ball the incumbent is. He would almost instantly improve our standing in the world and our relationships with other nations. He would re-establish some stability and an ability to practically cope with problems (Covid-19, for one example), an ability the current leadership lacks completely.

But the case for Biden doesn’t rest just on a relative absence of negatives.

He is deeply experienced in governing, and he has a good track record. He was a loyal and from all appearances highly capable vice president, and a central advisor in the Oval Office for eight years; he knows how the place runs, and could step in competently on day one. He served respectably in the United States Senate for decades. His own state - during periods both when it was dominated by his own and by the opposing party (it has shifted over time) - approved of the job he did. He chaired two major committees, and was commonly spoken of positively by members of both parties. Republican John McCain famously was a close friend. Biden has not served in the military (and neither did Trump) but family members have, and he has had a close tie to the national defense (and he does not trash it, as the incumbent so often has).

Probably more important than all this, you can hear in Biden’s speeches and his interactions with people - not just now, in the campaign, but through the decades - his awareness and understanding of what the United States is, the principles that animate it and make it a special place. He understands those things and internalizes them.

Biden also has an understanding of the substance of the presidency, the serious problems and the changes coming, foreign and domestic. He does have a grasp of the real world, not the construct of fantasy-conspiracy illusions so sadly popular in his opposition.

Biden has shown a level demeanor, a calm temperament and an ability to cope intelligently and appropriately with setbacks and problems. He has shown that he understands the office of the president and the federal government are not about him but about the people of the country, and he has not only said explicitly but demonstrated that he can and will act in the office in the larger good, not on the narrow behalf of himself and his most intense supporters.

Oh, and while this ordinarily wouldn’t be so big a point of distinction between two presidential candidates, it is in this case: Joe Biden, from all appearances, history and description, is a decent guy who cares about other people. When that quality is so completely absent in the opposition, it does matter.

Much of this does not, in itself, make Joe Biden a super-spectacular choice for president. Many people I have known, including quite a few politicians of both parties, have had many of these qualities too. They are not on the ballot. Joe Biden is. And he has what it takes to be a good president.

Some elections I have seen over the last half-century have involved difficult choices. This is not one of them. Considering the alternative - and don’t delude yourself that anyone other than the Democrat or the Republican is a real option - this should be the easiest presidential choice of our lifetimes. Of our nation's history, for that matter.

So here’s the endorsement: In the general election, vote for Joe Biden for president.

(photo/Gage Skidmore)
 

Cult of personality

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In one of the many scenes of dark comedy in the 2017 film The Death of Stalin, the Soviet Union’s dictator is lying on the floor of his Kremlin dining room, obviously near death from a massive stroke. But the cringing sycophantic figures who discover their bosses’ lifeless body – Stalin’s henchmen and would be successors – are paralyzed with fear.

Do they call doctors and if so which doctors? Do they try to save Stalin or let nature take its course? One of them will surely emerge as the new leader, but how best to position for that opportunity?

“He’s feeling unwell, clearly,” says the actor playing Lavrenti Beria, the ruthless Soviet-era security chief who carried out Stalin’s purges until he, like so many others, faced his own show trial and death. Beria graced the cover of Time magazine in July 1953, by Christmas he had been executed.

“The problem, for all concerned, is the idea of a Stalin-free land,” film critic Anthony Lane wrote in a review of the film. “If they must jockey for his throne, which of them will be bold enough to start the fight, with their lord and master still breathing? What will happen if, by some miracle, he rallies and learns that certain underlings presumed to step into his unfillable shoes? Meanwhile, he needs the finest professional care, but regrettably most of the doctors in Moscow have been purged at Stalin’s command.”

The film, which was banned in Russia and several of the old Soviet states, is not a documentary, and some critics have pointed to its mistakes of history, but it is an effort to use a bleak comedy to showcase the perverse and ironic nature of the cult of personality that came to surround Josef Stalin. The fact that the most obvious truth – Stalin was very ill and might well die, which he eventually did – became unspeakable even for the powerful men who worked beside him inside the Kremlin.

As the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in his acclaimed biography of Stalin, at the time of his stroke and eventual death in 1953 the men closest to Stalin were obsessed with their own power and “the decision to do nothing suited everyone.” They waited for hours to summon doctors because, as Montefiore notes, “Stalin’s own doctor was being tortured merely for saying he should rest.” The slimy, vile characters around the dictator were “so accustomed to [Stalin’s] minute control that they could barely function on their own.”

While Stalin lay gravely ill the Associated Press reported that the official medical communique from the Kremlin – Stalin was ill but getting the best possible care – was broadcast over and over, amid rumors that he was on the verge of “a remarkable recovery.”

Another widely reported story noted how thoroughly the Russian people had been flooded with the image of the 5-foot 5-inch Stalin as a man of destiny, the “Great Genius Stalin.” During a radio broadcast, a Soviet commentator – presumably with a straight face – said, “There is not and never has been any other man in the world of so varied, so rich, so ubiquitous a genius…his forecasts make no mistakes. His instructions lead to the desired goal. His plans always come true.”

The buildup of Stalin “has been so great the average Soviet worker and peasant might well ask who could possibly take his place.” That was the point.

Truth was dead in the old Soviet Union long before Stalin was. The people around him couldn’t trust each other with the truth. The cult of personality, and the fear that perpetuated it, demanded adherence to the most fanciful lies and made a virtue of the most outrageous claims. It all eventually tumbled down amid vast death and destruction.

One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, Nikita Khrushchev, ultimately outed Stalin only three years after his death. The great man was a fraud, a murderous thug who purged his enemies and drove the country’s economy to ruin, Khrushchev said. Given his later role in the crisis over Berlin and Soviet missiles in Cuba, the reckoning with Stalin may well have been Khrushchev’s greatest gift to Russian history. The hardliners, after all, eventually drove him too from power, albeit to comfortable exile and not an early grave.

“It was not by accident,” the historian Anne Applebaum wrote this week, that another dictator, Benito Mussolini, “juxtaposed himself against his country’s most famous city squares and most beautiful buildings—the Duomo in Milan, the Colosseum in Rome. He sought to identify himself, physically, with these beloved national symbols, and thus with the nation, and many people loved him for this. Nor were the heavily staged, entirely artificial elements of his performances a mistake. Sophisticated observers such as [the journalist William L.] Shirer sneered, but plenty of people understood that Mussolini was offering theater, putting on a show, acting out a part…That was what they had come to see him do.”

Historians will devote countless paragraphs to assessing the spectacle – the tragedy becoming farce – that befell American life over the last couple of weeks: the Marine One helicopter rides back and forth to the south lawn, the army of white coated doctors outside Walter Reed, the cryptic Stalin-like medical statements lacking all detail and advancing all myth, the slow drive in the closed SUV to allow the great genius to wave to his adoring fans, the Mussolini-like scene on the Truman balcony, the salute, the false assurance that all is well since a great man is in charge.

Truth about powerful men – and the worst of the powerful have all been men – is an important thing, their medical records, their tax returns, their conflicts of interest actually do matter. Great men – and woman – can withstand scrutiny, the con men not so much.

As Tim Miller, who once worked for Jeb Bush and the Republican National Committee, put it: “The show must go on. Where, exactly, the rest of us go from here, I cannot say. What feats Republican senators will be asked to perform alongside Trump to prove their commitment we cannot guess.”

Oh, I’m afraid we can guess. The past is prologue and American democracy is feeling unwell, clearly.
 

What needs protection

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Responses to presidential tweets aren’t typical material for this space, but this was an Idaho-focused tweet, and it seems worth a few more than 280 characters.

President Donald Trump’s missive, part of a Wednesday tweetstorm, said, “DEMS WANT TO SHUT YOUR CHURCHES DOWN, PERMANENTLY. HOPE YOU SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING. VOTE NOW!” For reference, it was attached to a video showing arrests at Moscow of people involved in a “psalm sing” held by a local church.

Arresting people in the midst of religious activity sounds, on its face, pretty bad. But before you judge, you need to consider a few facts, as the president should have and probably didn’t.

Moscow city’s rules about wearing masks in public places (where distancing is not possible or unreliable) have changed over time, but they are not arbitrary. Latah County, mostly meaning Moscow, has reported more than 600 cases of Covid-19. The city describes its intent: “A combination of physical distancing and face coverings in Moscow is required when in public. In public spaces, social distancing is the most challenging piece of the puzzle to define. For instance, while any patron may fully intend to physically distance themselves from another in a store aisle, sometimes the best intentions don’t work out. These instances are when face coverings or masks are a great tool to help protect our friends and neighbors.”

The point is respecting and avoiding harm to other people, which I learned in Sunday School as a core principle.

Moscow Christ Church took exception. Moving beyond online activities (which many churches use as a prime option), and even moving well outside its church building, a group of parishioners parked themselves in front of Moscow City Hall and started a maskless and loud “psalm sing” - the kind of activity that has been shown, in hundreds of cases around the country, to spread Covid-19.

If the Christ Church group had simply wanted to engage in worship, they could have done that at their church, or another private location, and almost surely would have been left alone. (We’ll leave aside that these kinds of events, too, have been super-spreader incidents.) Choosing the location at City Hall was a political provocation much more than a religious activity, evidently intended to draw a response from city officials. A few arrests, including one of a county commission candidate (you can get a hint of the political purpose here), gave them what they presumably wanted.

A pastor of the church was quoted, “We wanted to make a statement we’re ready to head back to normal.” Deliberately engineering a street confrontation with local police sounds like an innovative way to do that.

The Christ Church building and organization have been unaffected; they were not shut down, or threatened (as they shouldn’t be).

But what some of its parishioners seem to have forgotten - as many anti-maskers have - is that the restrictions and rules around the pandemic are not just about their own freedom and even their own willingness to risk sickness and death. Personally, I don’t have a problem with their willingness to do those things as long as they don’t affect other people.

The problem is that events like a “psalm sing” in the middle of downtown in the middle of a pandemic do affect other people. It’s not just their own lives these singers were putting at risk: They were risking other people’s health and lives as well, and they have no right whatever to do that. They are making the same argument as (I’ve remarked this before, and probably will again) a drunk who wants to drive and justifies it with, “If I want to take the risk, why not?” The why not is that everyone else on the road is at risk too.

So the president’s tweet fails on two grounds.

First, no churches were shut down in Moscow. Christ Church continues to offer worship. Worship continues in America.

And second, the president fails to account for all the people put at risk of immediate harm. Public safety is one of the core services governments, local and national, are supposed to provide, and doing that is supposed to be part of the president’s job.