2019 Recap: No Rest for the Weary

Beto, you look like I feel. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Excitement and dread.

These two moods best describe how I feel heading into a new year and a new decade. On one hand, I am eager to see how the United States presidential election and how impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump will shake out. On the other hand, I worry voters are prepared to repeat a very dumb decision they made back in 2016 on top of being concerned about the health of the global economy, the future of our planet, and the welfare of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised segments of the population. I’m getting my popcorn ready—and trying not to bite my nails as I prepare to eat it.

Where do you stand as we turn the calendar to 2020? Are you looking ahead, saying “good riddance” to 2019? Are you pumping the brakes, cautious about the hell that the coming year might have to offer? Or, if you’re like me, are you somewhere in between? Whatever your sentiments, this recap of the past year is designed to reflect on some of its prevailing themes, at least as far as this writer covered it. So without further ado, stop looking at those Baby Yoda memes and let’s take a look back on the year that was.

Tucker Carlson’s white power hour

FOX News has been a repository for false or misleading narratives and opinion journalism masquerading as real news reporting for some time now. Of late, though, its prime time lineup has seemed particularly reprehensible and soulless.

Trying to choose which of FOX’s personalities is the worst is a bit like deciding whether you’d rather be burned alive, poisoned, or shot. However you look at it, there’s a terrible option awaiting you. Sean Hannity is a shameless Trump apologist who serves as a propaganda machine for the president and who regularly traffics in conspiracy theories. Laura Ingraham likewise is a staunch Trump defender who has assailed Democrats for voting to impeach Trump and who has targeted liberal critics of her employer as “journo-terrorists,” inciting her followers to spew venom in their direction.

If one figure takes FOX News’s cake of hateful conservative rhetoric, however, that person might just be Tucker Carlson, who has demonized not just illegal immigration, but all non-white immigration to the United States, lamenting would-be immigrants as making “our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Not exactly lifting our lamp beside the golden door, are we, Tucker?

Depending on how you view American attitudes toward immigration, such an argument is either un-American or distinctly American, but it certainly goes against our stated values as that fabled melting pot of the North American continent. Tucker Carlson is a white nationalist who espouses racist views regularly from his position as a highly-watched political commentator. At heart, it doesn’t matter what he believes. His platform for cruelty and hate outweighs his protestations on the basis of free speech, and calls for boycotts of his program are more than warranted.

Candace Owens is a conservative grifter

Candace Owens makes a legitimate point: Blacks don’t necessarily have to vote for Democrats. In truth, they, like members of other minority groups, have probably been underserved by the Democratic Party. That said, this reality does nothing to absolve the Republican Party of being an exclusionary group of largely white males which harbors actual white supremacists. It also doesn’t mean that Owens has any legitimacy as a political activist.

Conservatives like Owens because she makes their talking points for them and because they can point to her as a token example of how the GOP isn’t just a repository for folks of the Caucasian persuasion. The problem with Owens’s service in this capacity is that she makes her arguments in bad faith and/or in ignorance of the true history of past events.

For example, she downplays the existence of racism in America despite her and her family members being a victim of it. Because she’s NOT A VICTIM, YOU LIBERAL CUCKS. YOU’RE THE SNOWFLAKE. Also, there was the time she tried to claim Adolf Hitler wasn’t a nationalist, as if to say that the Führer was fine except for when he took his act on the road. Right.

Candace Owens is someone who has filled a void among today’s conservatives to rise to prominence despite being a relative newcomer to the fold. But she’s an opportunist who owes her popularity in right-wing circles to YouTube more than the content of her speeches and she shouldn’t be taken seriously—you know, even if she was asked to testify before Congress.

Making America Great Againwhether you realize it or not

Americans frequently lament the political divide which dominates the nation’s discourse. When they can’t even agree on the same set of facts let alone holding different opinions, however, the notion that many of us are living in separate realities becomes readily apparent.

Take the case of a group of students from Covington Catholic High School attending a March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. and Nathan Phillips, a Native American and veteran on hand for the Indigenous Peoples March. Upon members of the Black Hebrew Israelites shouting epithets at the kids on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Phillips interceded to try to diffuse the situation, singing and drumming. The students, meanwhile, several wearing MAGA hats, mocked Phillips, with one boy, Nick Sandmann, standing face-to-face to him and smirking derisively.

Of course, that Sandmann and his family would be sent death threats is inexcusable. That media outlets and public figures would post hasty retractions and hold softball interviews with the fresh-faced white kid, all the while doubting their initial reactions to what they saw, though, is wrong all the same. Spare me the hagiographic sanctification of Sandmann’s “right” to do what he did. His privilege existed before this incident and will certainly continue long after it. Furthermore, the both-sides-ing of this case is appalling in light of the implied racism herein.

Alas, this is emblematic of America in the era of President Trump. If you believe him and his supporters, the economy has never been doing better, immigrants are a danger to the country, Israel is our only ally in the Middle East and that will always be the case, and he alone is the reason why North Korea hasn’t moved to nuke us. These are the falsehoods perpetuated by a Divider-in-Chief who, as he gives as a State of the Union address, only promotes more disunity.

There’s something about “The Squad”

Outside of Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, whose evident shadow presidency has loomed over Donald Trump’s tenure since before it began, no figures make Republicans and conservative pundits foam at the mouth quite like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, known colloquially as “The Squad.”

The congressional neophytes have been a frequent target for Trump and others, with the president himself playing every part the ugly American and suggesting they “go back where they came from.” Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent and was born in the Bronx. Pressley was born on American soil, too, as was Tlaib. Only Omar was born outside the United States and she eventually secured citizenship. These women are Americans and their patriotism shouldn’t be questioned.

Omar in particular has seen more than her share of abuse from detractors on the left and right. She and Tlaib, for their support of Palestinian rights and for their attention to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, specifically AIPAC, have been branded as anti-Semites. Being a Muslim and alluding to the corrosive influence of money in politics doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, however, and Omar’s forced apology only seems to make her point about the Israel lobby’s reach for her.

Party leaders like Pelosi may downplay the influence of these women as limited to their Twitter followers, but going after The Squad is ill-advised no matter where you land on the political spectrum. Centrist Dems may balk at their progressive ideals, but if they are not model Democrats, who is?

The irresponsibility of social media giants

Social media has greatly expanded our idea to communicate ideas to one another and share content. The bad news is not all of this material is equal in its merit and companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are unwilling or unable to handle it.

On YouTube, for instance, right-wing and far-right content creators have been given effective carte blanche to peddle their hate to impressionable young males, and pedophiles have been given access to random people’s videos through the service’s automated recommendation system. Twitter has been slow to respond to warranted bans for professional liars such as Alex Jones and has seemingly been content to make cosmetic changes to its interface rather than authentically enforce its stated guidelines.

Perhaps the worst actor in this regard, though, is Facebook, whose founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressly identified Elizabeth Warren’s prospects of winning the presidency as an “existential threat.” Earlier this year, the company announced a shift that would allow political campaigns to essentially lie with impunity in their advertisements, a shift that favors the Trump campaign, a haven for disinformation.

Zuckerberg has publicly defended this change on free speech grounds, weirdly invoking civil rights leaders amid attempting to justify Facebook’s abdication of its responsibility. But realistically speaking, Facebook has been derelict in its duty for some time now, failing to clearly state rules or enforcing them only in the most obvious and publicized instances. If companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter can’t police themselves, it’s high time we move to regulate them or even break them up to the point they can be effectively managed.

Hey, did you know there’s a process called “impeachment?”

Will they or won’t they? By now, we know they did, although, as some would argue, they could’ve done more with it.

I’m talking about impeachment, in case you were unaware or did not read the heading preceding this subsection. For the longest time, it seemed as if Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats were going to forgo bringing articles of impeachment up for a vote. As Pelosi stated publicly, there was the matter of beating Donald Trump in 2020 at the ballot box. She also insisted Trump impeached himself, even though self-impeachment isn’t a thing and that just made it appear as if she were waiting for the president to self-destruct or for someone else to do the Democrats’ dirty work for them.

Unfortunately for Pelosi and Company, Robert Mueller, while he could not clear Trump of the possibility of obstruction of justice in his report, also wouldn’t move to prosecute the president, citing DOJ precedent. With growing public support for impeachment not to mention an increasing number of House Democrats making their preference for impeachment known, it became harder and harder to resist the calls.

When news broke of Trump’s fateful call to Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky requesting an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as an admission of guilt regarding Ukraine’s framing of Russia for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (based on a debunked conspiracy theory, no less) all as part of a quid pro quo to secure $400 million in aid already earmarked by Congress, the path forward became clear. In September, a formal impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump was announced and in December, the House voted to impeach Trump on two counts: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Obstruction of justice was notably absent from these counts.

Support for or against impeachment has largely fallen along party lines. Justin Amash deserves at least a modicum of credit for breaking from his fellow Republicans and opting to impeach Trump, though his new identity as an independent who criticizes both parties equally isn’t exactly great. Jeff Van Drew, in switching from a Democrat to a Republican because he was unlikely to get re-elected, deserves nothing but scorn, as does Tulsi Gabbard for voting Present on the articles of impeachment. The concerns of vulnerable Democratic seats are well taken but aren’t numerous enough to merit withholding on impeachment altogether.

While winning the presidential election is critical for Democrats and losing House seats would clearly not be a desired outcome, at the end of the day, accountability matters. For Democrats to sit by and do nothing while Trump continues on a path of corruption and destruction would’ve been unconscionable. It took them long enough, but at least they did something.

The absolute mess that has been the Democratic primary

Joe Biden. Michael Bloomberg. Cory Booker. Pete Buttigieg. Julián Castro. Bill de Blasio. John Delaney. Tulsi Gabbard. Kirsten Gillibrand. Kamala Harris. Amy Klobuchar. Beto O’Rourke. Bernie Sanders. Tom Steyer. Elizabeth Warren. Marianne Williamson. And a bunch of dudes you probably didn’t even know were running or still are campaigning. Welcome to the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, ladies and gentlemen.

By this point in the race, we’ve lost some notable contenders, chief among them Harris and O’Rourke. Some, like Bloomberg, joined late. Howard Schultz never even joined and was unmercifully booed along his path to discovering he had no shot. More concessions of defeat will eventually come, but in the meantime, the field remains crowded as all heck in advance of the Iowa caucuses. It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in February.

As it stands, Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee, despite the absence of clear policy goals, a checkered record as a legislator, and apparent signs of decline. This is not to say the race is over, however. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are strong contenders, and Pete Buttigieg has seen his star rise in recent weeks. With a significant portion of prospective primary voters yet undecided, it’s still anyone’s proverbial ballgame. OK, probably not Michael Bennet’s, but yes, still very wide open.

In a theoretical match-up with a generic Democrat, Donald Trump loses frequently depending on the survey. While Biden and Buttigieg are seen as perhaps the “safest” bets based on their place in the polls and their centrist stances, in 2016, the centrist Hillary Clinton proved to be the loser and a moderate could well lose again to Trump in 2020.

Establishment Democrats may be loath to have a progressive like Elizabeth Warren or, worse yet, an independent and self-described democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket, a feeling exacerbated by Jeremy Corbyn’s and the Labour Party’s recent drubbing at the hands of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the UK. There are appreciable differences to be had between someone like Corbyn and someone like Sanders, though, including the very different situations facing the United States and a United Kingdom still trying to come to grips with the Brexit referendum vote. If the Dems are serious about beating Trump this coming November, a Sanders or Warren might just be their best hope to achieve this.

Quick items

  • Evidently, some Democratic donors are still in their feelings about Al Franken’s fall from grace. Even though, you know, Franken made his own bed and lay in it. Meanwhile, another fallen male celebrity of the #MeToo era, Kevin Spacey, continues to be creepy AF.
  • Michael Jackson’s image took yet another hit upon the release of the docu-series Leaving Neverland. Jackson’s most rabid fans, er, did not take kindly to this new production.
  • Anti-Semitism is on the rise and “lone wolf” attacks carried out by shooters sharing hateful extremist views continue to occur. But Ilhan Omar is the bad guy because she pointed out the connection between the Israel lobby and public positions on Israel. Is that you pounding your head on the table or is it me?
  • In my home state of New Jersey, so-called Democrats like Steve Sweeney have seen fit to challenge Phil Murphy on various initiatives for daring to question millions in tax breaks given to party boss George Norcross and companies linked to him. Nice to know where their priorities lie.
  • Sarah Sanders resigned from her post of White House press secretary, allowing the White House to finally, er, continue not having actual press conferences.
  • Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey dared to support Hong Kong protesters in their opposition to heavy-handed Chinese policies aimed at the region. China had a fit and cancelled various deals with the Rockets and the NBA. In general, China has a major influence on our economy and holds a lot of our debt, greatly impacting publicly-stated political positions. But sure, let’s talk about Russia some more, shall we, MSNBC?
  • Migrant families are still being detained in inhumane conditions at the border, and yes, they are still concentration camps.
  • Much of today’s political punditry, dominated by white males, continues to suck. Especially yours, Bret Stephens, you bed bug, you.
  • Mitch McConnell is still, like, the worst.
  • On second thought, no, Stephen Miller is probably the worst.

Pete Buttigieg is young and well-spoken, so apparently, some people think he should be the next President of the United States. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

I struggled for a while before settling on “No Rest for the Weary” as the title of this post. Why did I choose this? In trying to look back at the 2010s and identify a theme, a lot of what seemed to characterize major events was unrest. A global financial crisis. The uprisings of what was termed the Arab Spring. The emergence of ISIS. The annexation of Crimea. Brexit. The ongoing climate crisis.

Much of this has a chaotic feel to it, and what’s more, there’s little to no reassurance the 2020s will be any better along this dimension. As income and wealth inequality grow in the United States and abroad, and as more people become refugees as a result of a less habitable planet, there are plenty of reasons to worry we’ll reach some sort of tipping point unless dramatic corrective action is taken. In truth, we should really be further along than we are.

All this uncertainty and unrest is, well, tiring. It takes a lot to invest oneself in the politics and social issues and economics of the day. I myself continuously feel as if I am not saying or doing enough to contribute to the betterment of our society. Realistically, depending on one’s immediate circumstances, it can be a real struggle to want to be involved in the first place.

Despite the emotional and physical fatigue of it all, seeing what happens when Americans aren’t engaged with the issues affecting them or aren’t involved with the decisions impacting them at home and at work makes it all the more imperative that we stay informed and politically active. The Washington Post has adopted the slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” While they may be overstating their part in this a bit, I feel the maxim holds true. When we cede our power to those who seek to diminish us for theirs or someone else’s personal gain, we have lost a great deal indeed.

My hope is that all is not lost, however. I would not have wished President Donald Trump on this country for anything, but in the wake of his catastrophe, ordinary people are organizing and making their voices heard. This may have happened regardless of who won in 2016, but in America, Trump’s political ascendancy sure seems to have accelerated things.

What needs to happen and what I believe is already underway is a political revolution. You and I may have different ideas on how that will manifest. I believe a progressive direction is the best and perhaps only path forward. Much of our story has yet to be written. Whatever happens, though, it is through our solidarity as everyday people that positive change will be achieved.

In all, here’s hoping for a better 2020. There may be no rest for the weary, but there are enough people and big ideas at work to suggest a new dawn is on the horizon.

America Needs More Than a Reboot

Pete Buttigieg talks a good game. In his call for unity evocative of Barack Obama’s candidacy (and devoid of a signature policy), however, he’s taking a page out of a failed playbook and ignoring the extent of the country’s political polarization. (Photo Credit: CC BY 2.0)

Pete Buttigieg promises “a fresh start for America.” Joe Biden vows, in this new United States, there will be “no malarkey.” Evidently, the best remedy for this country is the equivalent of rebooting one’s computer, or in the case of the former vice president, to reset our abacuses. Or is that abaci? Are both acceptable? But I digress.

In supporting the centrist figures of Buttigieg and Biden, establishment Democrats and party supporters seek a return to how it was under President Barack Obama. In this respect, life under Donald Trump can be considered an aberration. When one of these men is in the White House, all the racists and xenophobes will go back into hiding and Republicans will magically come to their senses, ready to reach across the aisle and work together with their Democratic colleagues.

Right.

If this sounds absurd—which it should—we shouldn’t be surprised that these men’s platforms lack substance next to some of their primary competitors. Biden’s “vision for America” is little more than a love note to the Middle Class, the “backbone of the country.” (If you had the phrase “backbone of the country” in your presidential campaign drinking game, let this be a reminder to take a drink.) Buttigieg pledges to lead us to “real action,” someone who will “stand amid the rubble” and “pick up the pieces of our divided nation.” Presumably, he will also assemble all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

What is therefore evident is that these candidates are relying on something other than polished policy to elevate them to a potential showdown with Trump for the presidency. Mayor Pete admittedly talks a good game. He’s clearly intelligent and has charisma. Uncle Joe, well, really wants to remind you that he worked with Obama. Never mind the apparent decline of his mental acuity or his vague creepiness. He’s a good guy. Just ask Barack. Obama, Obama, Obama.

Speaking of Obama, it is in this context that we might consider who the closest logical successor to his political legacy is still left in the 2020 presidential race. After all, concerning candidates of color, Kamala Harris just bowed out of the race, Cory Booker may be next, and Julián Castro doesn’t seem to be tracking all that well in the polls. Also, Beto O’Rourke, who isn’t a person of color but is handsome, speaks Spanish, and rides a skateboard (so, um, cool?) has already dropped out. Is there no one young and articulate enough to pick up where his Barack-ness left off?

In his bid for unity, Buttigieg, who has enjoyed a recent surge in polling, most notably among prospective Iowa voters, seems ready to take on that mantle. Here’s the thing, though: America and its politics are a different bag than when Obama first got ushered into the White House. Freelance journalist Zeeshan Aleem, in a recent piece for VICE, asks the question, “Can someone tell Pete Buttigieg he isn’t Barack Obama?” To this effect, he avers that the mayor of South Bend, Indiana’s “quest for unity is about as naive as Obama’s.”

For Aleem, Buttigieg’s persuasiveness overshadows his blandness from a policy perspective. There’s also the matter of his seeming naivete, as outlined in a few examples. Buttigieg, for one, advocates for an impeachment process that goes beyond politics, evidently unaware that this matter is already and perhaps inextricably linked to partisanship. He also, in fighting the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on Medicare for all, appears to think Republicans are willing to compromise on health care. For that matter, Mayor Pete seeks to avoid any talk or policy directive that might be construed as “polarizing.”

Again, Buttigieg looks to be missing the mark. In this moment, congressional Republicans are as likely to compromise as President Trump is to voluntarily leave Twitter. Besides, despite his own charm and charisma, Obama wasn’t able to make much headway in working with the GOP—with Mitch McConnell among party leadership, it’s not hard to see why either.

As Aleem explains, moreover, when deals were struck, they weren’t necessarily a significant win for the average voter. The Affordable Care Act’s origins were steeped in conservative thinking, did not include a public option, and did nothing to challenge the power of the private health insurance industry. Obama’s economic stimulus package featured a concession to Republicans in the extension of the previous administration’s tax cuts and, as many economists and critics on the left argued, did not go far enough because it didn’t ask for enough.

So, here comes Mr. Buttigieg, ready to try a page from Mr. Obama’s playbook. If Obama couldn’t make his ideas work then, though, it begs wondering what chance Buttigieg has owing to a political environment that has only become more polarized. Aleem writes in closing:

Buttigieg’s talk about breaking the shackles of hyperpartisanship and coming together to save the republic is seductive, but nothing about the way politics has been evolving for decades suggests that it’s a sound strategy. Like Obama, he relies on charisma and optimism to make such a future seem possible. But the hard realities of polarization cannot be vanquished solely by good intentions.

In an age when widespread unity is a political impossibility, fear of being polarizing isn’t just out of touch—it could be an act of self-sabotage.

To say we are a divided United States is an understatement. Such a synopsis likewise ignores that it’s not just that we share different opinions depending on where we fall along the political spectrum or how much we engage with politics, but that depending on our immediate circumstances, we may as well be living in different countries. Add the magnifying effect residence in insular political “bubbles” has on polarization and the problem becomes that much worse, with discourse guided by mutual distrust and a failure to be able to agree on what is even factually accurate.

Mayor Pete wants a fresh start for America. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to grasp how fractured that America is, electorally speaking.


Looming over the ultimate decision Democratic Party primary voters will have to make is the concept of “electability,” a word underscored by red squiggles in my browser as if to showcase just how nebulous a concept it is. In the minds of voters and pundits alike, Joe Biden’s and Pete Buttigieg’s electability is key to understanding their prominence in the polls. By this token, “electability” is effective code for “ability not to alienate a wide enough portion of the constituency so as to defeat Donald Trump this coming November.” In other words, these men are the presumed safe bets.

If the last few election cycles in the United States have taught us anything, however, it’s that our ideas about electability may be built on faulty premises. How many people would’ve considered a relatively inexperienced legislator from Illinois—a man of color by the name of Barack Hussein Obama, no less—”electable” at the start of his campaign? Next to an unpolished outsider like Donald Trump, wouldn’t we have viewed Hillary Clinton a more “electable” candidate given her career in Washington, D.C. and her name recognition? That’s certainly not how the script played out.

Depending on how far we want to take our abstract notions of electability, we have the potential to talk ourselves out of plenty of good—if not great—candidates. Does it matter that Buttigieg is an openly gay man and, like, Obama, lacks the political tenure of other primary competitors? What about Bernie Sanders’s identity as a Jewish democratic socialist? Elizabeth Warren continues to be heckled for her claim of Native American heritage. Is she un-electable? Was Kamala Harris, a woman of color, too “tough” to be electable prior to dropping out of the race? Who decides these matters? And how do you reliably measure such a mythical quality?

As a progressive, I tend to feel I am more sensitive than most to ideas about who is “electable” and what is politically “feasible.” A majority of Democratic Party primary voters and delegates decided HRC was the best choice in 2016, a presumption of electability likely aided by major media outlets including superdelegate numbers alongside pledged delegate totals in delegate counts. As noted, the final outcome didn’t quite go to plan.

What if Bernie had won, though? Would we still have been hemming and hawing about his electability or would the Democratic National Committee have gotten behind him, exhorting prospective general election voters with full-throated cheers? With the role of superdelegates diminished and with Sanders in a real position to the capture the nomination this time around given his fundraising capabilities and his place in the polls, considerations of his viability are yet more relevant. Surely, in the name of beating Trump, establishment Democrats would be eager to support him as someone who consistently beats the orange-faced incumbent in head-to-head polls, right? Right?

Along these lines, policy positions continued to be argued about in terms of their pragmatism. Rather, time after time, what is apparent is that various progressive causes are not lacking the specifics or the public support to be “realistically” workable, but the political will. On the subject of climate change, facing a wealth of evidence that humans’ use of fossil fuels is helping accelerate a threat to the future of life on this planet, many Americans favor a Green New Deal or some comparable plan to address this catastrophe in a meaningful way. It makes political and economic sense. The biggest obstacle evidently is not our desire, but our fealty to the fossil fuel industry and other prime pollutors.

Therefore, when it comes to presidential candidates, we would do well to abandon thoughts of who “the best bet” is or which candidate preaches “political unity” the hardest. Both concepts are, at their core, illusory. A better tack is to identify the candidate who best elaborates our values and what is best for the country and the world—not just their careers.

Joe Biden wants a return to a fabled time when Democrats and Republicans worked arm in arm, pitching a vision in cringe-worthy fashion of an America that was problematic in his heyday and hasn’t aged well. Pete Buttigieg wants a fresh start to set America back on track, emphasizing a reboot (Reboot-Edge-Edge?) over substantive change, to a time when we weren’t embarrassed by our president, but when things weren’t as rosy as our retrospective glasses might reveal.

What America really needs, meanwhile, is more than either of those plans. We need a revolution inspired by someone like Bernie Sanders or at least someone with the reformist mindset of an Elizabeth Warren to level the playing field between everyday Americans and corporations/the wealthiest among us. Accordingly, and when we tell our children to dream big, we need to follow our own advice.

Subpoenas Aren’t Optional, and Other Impeachment Musings

Apparently, being Donald Trump’s personal lawyer means you forget how the law is supposed to work. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In May, when former White House Counsel Don McGahn was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee regarding information sought related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible conspiracy and obstruction charges for President Donald Trump and other members of his transition team, McGahn willingly defied the subpoena.

For a political figure like Trump and others around him, that McGahn would simply no-show members of Congress is, while almost unprecedented, not particularly surprising. We’ve thrown out the book on presidential behavior and politics as usual so often lately that the binding is cracked and our arms are worn out from the repetitive action.

Still, you would hope as a lawyer that McGahn would have some respect for the law and legal precepts. Besides, and at any rate, you’re, um, not supposed to be able to up and refuse a subpoena like that. As Committee chair Jerry Nadler put it, “Our subpoenas are not optional. We will not allow the president to stop this investigation.” He also warned that McGahn could face contempt charges for failing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

This was several months ago, when House Democrats were dancing around the very idea of impeachment and seeking an alternate route to accessing information about Trump’s potential impeachable offenses. It’s October now. Needless to say, the paradigm has shifted regarding the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry. With a majority of House Democrats and even members of the Senate/presidential candidates favoring impeachment, and with Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly indicating plans to move forward with impeachment proceedings, there is yet greater urgency to compel prospective witnesses to comply with congressional ultimatums.

Unfortunately, that urgency is lost on these witnesses themselves. Sure, the exact circumstances are different than they were a few months prior. Pelosi and Co’s. decision to finally go ahead with impeachment was brought about by a whistleblower complaint which has since come to light from an unnamed individual in U.S. intelligence made in August.

Among other things, the whistleblower alleges Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky multiple times to investigate Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, regarding his role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. Despite Trump’s assertions, there is no evidence either Biden did anything wrong within this sphere of influence. As with the focus on Hillary Clinton and her numerous supposed scandals prior to the 2016 election, however, the suggestion alone may be sufficient to sway the minds of voters. And to be clear, Biden, despite numerous bad policy positions (past and present) and the real possibility he is losing his mind, is still the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Please excuse me while I bang my head against a wall for a moment.

Seriously, though, this is serious business involving Trump. Asking for a foreign leader to investigate a political rival not as a matter of national security, but as a matter of personal political gain, may be a crime and is probably an impeachable offense. Either way, and getting to the central point about testifying before Congress, persons of interest within the context of an impeachment inquiry should not be treating subpoenas as if they’re tickets to some voluntary information session, some theoretical event. As Merriam-Webster defines subpoena, it is “a writ commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure.” It’s not a request.

Try telling that to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though, who has admitted he was on the call between Trump and Zelensky and has stated that he won’t comply with a House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoena, has vowed to fight the deposition of other State Department officials in the service of impeachment proceedings, and who has labeled the committee’s “request” (which, again, isn’t a request) as an attempt to “intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.” As Pompeo would have you believe, committee chair Eliot Engel will personally hold down each of these “distinguished professionals” and take their lunch money, whereupon they will be given wedgies and quite possibly will be forced into their own lockers.

Trump personal lawyer and morning talk show resident-crazy-person Rudy Giuliani also has commented about a subpoena in terms of something to which he may or may not accede. Evidently, Giuliani has received subpoenas from three different House committees, but claims that before a “proper” decision can be made, a number of issues have to be weighed, including attorney-client privilege, “substantial constitutional and legal issues,” and “other privileges.” What’s that, Mr. Giuliani? Adhering to the law might involve the Constitution and other legal principles? You don’t say! Never mind that attorney-client privilege might not actually apply in your case because you’re such a blabbermouth. But I digress.

For a House committee issuing a subpoena, when one of the objects of its investigatory powers fails to acquiesce to its summons, what recourse does it possess? Well, one option is to involve the courts. Regarding McGahn’s earlier refusal to appear before Congress and to try to nullify a larger strategy of the White House’s to shield presidential advisers from being held accountable, the House Judiciary Committee filed a lawsuit in August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force McGahn to testify. The White House has claimed McGahn has “absolute immunity” from being made to testify before the Committee, a concept which has been used by past administrations but hasn’t been fully tested by the courts.

The problem with this route? It, well, takes time. As stated in the New York Times article linked above, this case could take months or longer to resolve. With a presidential election little more than a year from now, this is obviously far from ideal. As Judd Legum, author of the political newsletter Popular Information, and others have pointed out, meanwhile, another possibility exists in invoking inherent contempt.

Congress hasn’t invoked inherent contempt in more than seven decades, but in this case and given the gravity of the Trump administration’s repeated attempted erosion of the Constitution and democracy overall, it seems well warranted. It certainly is a more direct path to try to get a particular target to comply. Upon the passing of a resolution to execute an arrest warrant, the desired party is taken into custody, tried for contempt, and if found guilty, can be detained or imprisoned “until the obstruction to the exercise of legislative power is removed.” The legislature can also fine the non-compliant party for failing to observe its authority, as Rep. Mike Quigley has publicly observed.

If House Democrats are truly forthright about wanting to carry out an impeachment inquiry with any due sense of efficiency, they shouldn’t hesitate to invoke contempt for those Trump administration officials and actual freaking lawyers who apparently don’t know what a subpoena is. Sure, it may feel like an extreme step to some, particularly among the president’s defenders. Then again, as Legum would insist, “these are extraordinary times.”


Despite the notion many of us looking on at this impeachment business from the cheap seats have been anticipating such action for a long time now, an unfortunate byproduct of this unfolding scandal is that we have even more coverage of Donald Trump now. Visit one of the major cable news sites and witness the litany of Trump-oriented stories available for your consumption. Trump lashes out. Trump attacks. Trump, at his worst. Trump this. Trump that. Even in potential infamy, Trump’s name is everywhere. He couldn’t have succeeded better on this front if he had tried.

What’s particularly bad about this state of affairs is it pushes news items important in their own right to the back pages. The United Kingdom is still in political turmoil, trying to come to grips with the results of a Brexit referendum vote that seemingly never had a chance of being implemented smoothly in the first place. Foreign interference in the 2020 election is probable if not certain, with Vladimir Putin among those laughing about the very suggestion. Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia have yet to face substantive consequences for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and war continues in Yemen, of which the Saudis, aided by American weapons and aircraft, are key players. U.S. manufacturing is on the decline. The border crisis is anything but resolved. Deforestation and fires continue in the Amazon, a direct result of an ill-advised policy shift by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In short, there’s a lot of bad shit happening right now, and the fevered news coverage surrounding Trump’s legal and political entanglements obscures these real problems.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t be paying attention to the events and players relevant to the impeachment process. Even with Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the rear view mirror, so to speak, what we’re witnessing with Trump is historic and its own animal.

All the same, we should be cognizant of what we’re missing by dwelling on this single controversy. Besides, even if Trump were to be impeached and removed by Congress, that wouldn’t be the end of Republican control of the White House and Senate, nor would it magically put a stop to a rise in hate crimes and overt right-wing extremism in the United States and elsewhere. It’s not like he’s the Night King. Removing him wouldn’t mean the end of ugly rhetoric here in the United States and it wouldn’t essentially spell doom for the Republican Party’s attempts to stack the federal judiciary, target entitlement programs for cuts, and do other harm to the social safety net and fairness in representative democracy.

Donald Trump, members of his administration, and enablers of his on the outside like Rudy Giuliani may not have much regard for the rule of law. That notwithstanding, we shouldn’t treat their flippant dismissal of congressional authority as something to be considered acceptable or normal. In theory, no one is above the law. The Democrats and American news media would be wise to reinforce this idea in both their speech and actions, especially if we are to have but the semblance of confidence in them as institutions going forward.

Self-Impeachment Is Not a Thing

Note to Nancy Pelosi: President Donald Trump will avoid the consequences of 100% of the impeachment proceedings not brought against him. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you believe Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump is about to “self-impeach.” Any minute now. It’s coming—just you wait and see.

Unfortunately, for people not enamored with our fearless leader or for fans of accountability in political leadership, this is not a new claim of Ms. Pelosi’s. Back in summer of 2017, amid sagging presidential approval ratings, Pelosi demurred on the subject of Democrats starting impeachment proceedings, predicting he would self-impeach. Again in May of this year, she said virtually the same thing, indicating her belief that Trump is “becoming self-impeachable in terms of some of the things he’s doing.”

We’re in August 2019, more than two years after those earlier remarks by the Speaker and with an election fast approaching. And wouldn’t you know it—the president has yet to impeach himself. Maybe because he can’t. Because self-impeachment isn’t a thing.

At the federal level, impeachment can only be brought about with the assent of the House of Representatives and the official in question can only be tried by the Senate. These provisions are contained in Article I, Section 2 and Article I, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, respectively. As for what charges may be grounds for impeachment, Article II, Section 4 states that the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In practice, however, lawmakers voting to begin impeachment proceedings have more commonly done so because of that official’s abuse of his or her position or for violating the public trust.

Article II, Section 2 also prohibits the president from granting pardons or reprieves for offenses against the U.S. in cases of impeachment, meaning Trump presumably couldn’t simply pardon himself. Still, the idea he could self-impeach is, to use a bit of highly technical political jargon, hogwash. And yet, members of the media continue to amplify Pelosi’s claim or at least don’t challenge it like they can or frankly should.

One of the latest such defenses of House Democrats’ inaction on this front comes from Julian Zelizer, CNN political analyst and Princeton University historian. As Zelizer argues, Pelosi “might have been onto something” when she made her comments about self-impeachment in May, evidenced by more than half of House Dems supporting starting impeachment proceedings, including House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler. While acknowledging that the very notion of self-impeachment is “silly,” Zelizer nonetheless bolsters the idea of a self-impeaching Trump by pointing to all the irresponsible, reprehensible and stupid shit the president says.

Like, for instance, suggesting the Clintons had Jeffrey Epstein killed. Or for going after “The Squad” and Elijah Cummings, telling them to go back to the crime-ridden, rat-infested places they came from. Or for calling immigrants and asylum-seekers coming across our southern border “invaders.” It is primarily Trump’s wayward public conduct and speech which keeps Democrats from putting the impeachment option aside, even more so than the contents of the Mueller report.

Thus, while Speaker Pelosi is a long way away from committing to impeachment proceedings, and while the process will all but surely come to die in the Senate as long as Mitch “I’m in the Personnel Business” McConnell is toeing the party line, Trump is serving as “his own worst enemy” by keeping the conversation alive. Not to mention he may be doing his re-election prospects a disservice by, you know, being a jerk.

Here’s the thing, though, Mr. Zelizer: you already acknowledged the silliness of the theoretical concept of self-impeachment. Why feed the narrative? Why not compel Pelosi and Co. to take decisive action on a matter that has a majority of House Democrats in agreement, a number which has grown steadily over the past few weeks and months?

Zelizer cites the “very real fears” about a backlash in moderate districts which formally bringing impeachment proceedings against Trump could create. To say there isn’t risk for staying this more cautious course or for pinning the party’s hopes on 2020, meanwhile, would be inaccurate. Those same Democratic representatives representing so-called “swing” or “purple” districts might share Pelosi’s sense of apprehension and refuse to commit to voting in favor of impeachment, which would never get her to the desired threshold for unanimous approval (whether that is by design is another story, but let’s the give her the benefit of the doubt for argument’s sake).

As for the looming presidential election, polling would seem to dictate Trump losing to most Democratic candidates, though we’ve been down this road before. Hillary Clinton was widely predicted by the political intelligentsia to carry the day in 2016. As we all know, she didn’t. This time around, Joe Biden is the leader in most polls and the presumptive “safe” establishment pick. He’s also an old white male in an era when a rapidly-changing electorate is increasingly dissatisfied with how it is (or isn’t) represented in Washington, D.C., his record as a legislator is not above reproach by any means, and he seemingly makes some sort of mind-numbing gaffe every other day.

This is the man who will motivate younger voters to want to get involved? This is the guy who inspires confidence that he has learned from past mistakes and is fit not only to take on the incumbent, but run the country should he win the whole shebang? Pardon me if I don’t feel so secure thinking about the prospects of a heads-up showdown between Trump and Biden for America’s future.

Politicians regularly deflect, distract, and evade to try to limit their sense of personal responsibility. At this point, it’s to be expected, and Ms. Pelosi is not above playing the game, so to speak, as an entrenched D.C. insider. For someone like Zelizer, a member of the free press, on the other hand, not taking her to task in lieu of laying into our man-child president is arguably a dereliction of duty. We get enough talking points as it is. Getting them merely re-hashed when serious critical commentary is needed does the news purveyors and their consumers both a disservice.


In stark contrast to the hemming and hawing of Democratic leadership and the concession to the “dangers” of impeachment by much of today’s punditry, Steve Phillips, author, civil rights lawyer, organizer, and political leader, for one, declares emphatically that “it’s safe to impeach Trump.”

Why is Phillips so sure on this point when the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Julian Zelizer are more equivocal on the subject? As Phillips explains, he has the math on his side.

Democrats, he finds, are inordinately concerned with the re-election prospects of representatives in contested districts. One representative cited within his piece says he believes “we have pay to close attention to what’s going on in the 30 or so swing districts, what are those people thinking.” The idea is that in these locales, Trump-backing Republicans balking at impeachment proceedings or talk thereof could sway the final results.

As Phillips points out, though, this number is inaccurate from the jump. Only 21 seats won by Dems last year came from districts Donald Trump carried in 2016, a minority of those flipped blue. From there, seven districts in which Democratic voter turnout was lower in 2018 than in 2016, won on the strength of turnout alone, can be removed from the discussion. Phillips highlights how significantly more Hillary Clinton voters came out in 2018 than did Trump voters “more satisfied with the political status quo now that they had their preferred person in the White House.” If registered Republicans were responsible in large part for flipping those districts, you would expect votes for Democratic congressional candidates to be higher, not lower given the unusually robust turnout for midterm elections.

Of those remaining 14 districts, Phillips removes another six congressional districts on the basis of wins unrelated to turnout. In other words, even if you took away of all the increase in turnout and gave it to Republicans, the Democratic candidate still would’ve been victorious on the strength of returning Hillary voters. Down to eight districts, Phillips then strikes three more of our original 21-count, underscoring unique circumstances by which factors other than “disaffected” GOP voters were decisive.

In GA-06, Stacey Abrams’ historic gubernatorial campaign likely fueled Lucy McBath’s slender victory (fewer than 5,000 votes) by driving people to the polls. In NM-02, Xochitl Torres Small’s similarly thin margin of victory can probably be best attributed to demographics (New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district is 55% Hispanic/Latino) as well as that the seat was open with the incumbent opting not to run for re-election. Finally, in UT-04, Ben McAdams yet more narrowly (less than 1,000 votes difference) upended black Republican and frequent Barack Obama critic Mia Love. Among the reasons why, Phillips considers the waning importance of being a black Obama detractor, McAdams’s name recognition and popularity, and the idea that, well, a white Mormon male would tend to fare better electorally than a black woman in Utah anyway. That’s the ol’ Beehive State for you.

That leaves five districts—MI-08 (Elissa Slotkin), NY-22 (Anthony Brindisi), OK-05 (Kendra Horn), SC-01 (Joe Cunningham), and VA-07 (Abigail Spanberger)—in which disaffected Republicans decided the outcome of the last election. While not necessarily to minimize these lawmakers’ potential contributions, numerically speaking, the electoral prospects of five moderate Democrats does not seem sufficient to outweigh the desire of many Americans and a rising tide of Democratic lawmakers to see party leadership move forward on impeachment.

All this before we get to the too-eerie parallels between Nixonian impropriety and what Trump has said and done and continues to do and say to apparently try to get himself impeached. This is to say that even without relying on Phillips’s figures, historical precedent might also compel Pelosi and other high-ranking Democrats to act.

In all, Phillips avers that “doing the right thing” is the right course of action not merely because it is a moral imperative, but because voters have signified through their turnout that they favor holding the president accountable, notably those registered Republican defectors from swing districts. As he puts it, they want Congress to hold this man accountable.

Which, to bring us full circle, requires the House to impeach. For Nancy Pelosi’s repeated references to self-impeachment, Trump can’t (and wouldn’t, anyway) do that. He also has yet to self-destruct and only grows bolder with the passing days and weeks, unchecked in any meaningful way and therefore incentivized to continue to lie, enrich himself, and espouse yet uglier views as the leader of the country. As the aftermath of the El Paso shooting demonstrates, Trump clearly isn’t getting better or more presidential. November 2020, no guarantee to be a boon for Democrats, shouldn’t be the Dems’ only option in standing up to him.

Putting “Getting Things Done” in Context

What has Bernie Sanders done? Only been a consistent leader on progressive issues in over 20 years in Congress (and even before that) and started a political revolution. How’s that? (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 3.0)

As a Bernie supporter dating back to 2016, many things stick in my proverbial craw, but one turn of phrase even today still grinds my likewise proverbial gears. When asked during a Democratic debate in October 2015 by Anderson Cooper whether she is a moderate or a progressive, Hillary Clinton remarked, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

Ooh! Sen. Sanders, did you feel that sick burn?

Without wanting to delve into Clinton’s history and go tit for tat, pointing out all the things she may not have “gotten done”—like, for instance, actually winning the 2016 presidential election—the litmus test of getting things done remains problematic because of how unevenly and borderline disingenuously it gets applied, specifically as it concerns authentically progressive candidates.

For that matter, I’ve witnessed it being used by supporters of one progressive candidate against another. You probably have an idea about where I’m going with this. Anecdotally, I’ve seen some Elizabeth Warren fans take shots at Bernie, asking, for all his 28 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, what has he, you know, done? Presumably, some of these Warren supporters were Hillary supporters from the last campaign cycle, so the same line of attack about what the senator from Vermont has accomplished may yet be fresh in their minds. For a select few, there may additionally be some misdirected resentment in accordance with the notion Bernie is not a “true Democrat” and was a chief reason why Donald Trump won. Poor Hillary. It’s never her fault.

Key to the do-nothing-Bernie argument is a glance at his legislative record, particularly the legislation for which he was primary sponsor actually getting enacted. His objectors will point out that, in over two decades in Congress, Sanders has only had seven of his resolutions/bills ratified: four from his time in the House, three in the Senate. Five of these motions enacted are germane mostly to his home state, including two pieces of legislation which served to designate post offices after someone specific. Not altogether scintillating stuff. The other two specifically addressed cost-of-living adjustments for veterans and updating the federal charter for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Again, you may find yourself uninspired unless you were specifically impacted by these changes.

What this line of thinking fails to account for is the context in which these bills were introduced. After all, this is Congress we’re talking about here, an institution not exactly known for its prolific productivity. The very GovTrack.us showcase of Sanders’s sponsored legislation linked to above helps explain this reality.

Does 7 not sound like a lot? Very few bills are ever enacted — most legislators sponsor only a handful that are signed into law. But there are other legislative activities that we don’t track that are also important, including offering amendments, committee work and oversight of the other branches, and constituent services.

Right. There’s a bigger picture to be appreciated. On the subject of committee work, Bernie is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Budget and a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; and Veterans’ Affairs committees. So there’s that.

Such analysis also doesn’t consider the over 200 bills/resolutions signed by the president to which Sanders added his name as a co-sponsor since being sworn in as a U.S. Representative in 1991. As it must be clarified, not all of these are watershed legislative achievements. I mean, from my count, nine of these co-sponsorships were related to commemorative coins. Still, to imply inaction on Bernie’s part is misleading.

Moreover, this ignores all the times Sen. Sanders has shown leadership on a bill that, through no fault of his own, hasn’t been passed. Look at his recent offerings. Recognizing the “climate emergency” for what it is. College for All. Medicare for All. Social Security expansion. Raising wages. Lowering drug prices. These were all proposed this year. Just because this legislation is dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled Senate with a Republican in the White House doesn’t confer meaninglessness. It signals the individual proposing it is willing to fight for things worth fighting for.

This is before we even get to the issue of when political expediency “gets things done” but not necessarily in a way that is productive for all Americans. Back in June, Joe Biden touted his ability to work with the likes of James Eastland and Herman Talmadge to pass legislation, waxing nostalgic on the “civility” that could be afforded to all parties.

Beyond the obvious problem that Biden is touting his ability to work with Southern segregationists in—let me highlight this in my notes—2019, that communal effort may not be what it’s cracked up to be. The former VP has received his due criticism from Kamala Harris and other Democratic rivals for allying with segregationists in opposition of busing to integrate schools. Next to his legacy as “an architect of mass incarceration,” as Cory Booker put it, Biden’s willingness to compromise paints him in a rather poor light. It certainly clouds his purported credentials of being a champion of civil rights.

It’s not just with Bernie either. Across the board for Democrats, it seems instructive to view legislative efforts through the lens of what party controls each house and who is potentially waiting to sign a passed bill in the Oval Office. Republicans, led by shameless obstructionist and judiciary stacker Mitch McConnell, control the Senate. Donald Trump, who appears to have a death grip on today’s iteration of the GOP, is president. Should we fault Sen. Warren for watching Trump and Co. dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her eyes? Should we admonish Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of The Squad for voting their conscience only to see Senate Republicans or moderate Democrats in either house stand in their way?

Centrists like Nancy Pelosi may sneer at progressives who “have their following” only to see their votes outnumbered or their voices drowned out by appeals to civility and expediency. Absent the ability to lead, however, the progress they seek is all but nullified. There’s a reason why figures like Sanders and AOC are so popular when Congress as a whole is not. The policy positions they embrace are, by and large, supported by the American public. What’s not lacking is their commitment. It’s the political will to see their initiatives through.


Key to the Clintonian-Bidenesque “getting things done” mentality is a firm belief in the value of bipartisanship, of reaching across the aisle in the name of advancing legislation. Say the right things. Make the right amendments. Pull the right levers. Eventually, a workable bill will come out. That’s how things are supposed to work, in theory. Reasonable people making reasonable policies.

Amid the dysfunction of today’s Congress, this ideal still appears to hold water with the general public. How else to explain Joe Biden’s continued hold on the top of Democratic Party polls after two poor showings in the debates and despite a history of gaffes and poor decisions? Unless some voters are simply happy enough to have some semblance of Barack Obama’s presidency back. If we could just go back to the days before the era of President Donald Trump, everything would be back to normal, right?

Maybe, maybe not. Biden may reminisce fondly about the days when Democrats and Republicans could get along peaceably or believe that once “sensible” leadership is restored to Washington, the GOP will cut the malarkey and retake the mantle of responsible stewards of the country. He arguably both underestimates the polarization of the current political climate and overestimates his own deal-making ability in doing so, though.

Today’s Republican Party isn’t your granddaddy’s Republican Party, simply put. Not when the president is lashing out against his critics on Twitter daily, getting policy directives from FOX News, and putting the nation on the path to a dictatorship. Not when members of the party are actively denying the severity of our climate crisis or pretending that white nationalism doesn’t exist. Not when party leaders are defending the inhumane treatment of migrants at our border and are sharing derogatory memes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues with impunity.

For those of us who aren’t old enough to recall an environment like the one Biden envisions, this is all we know of the GOP, and based on how low it has sunk and continues to sink, there’s every reason to believe it has reached the point of no return—if things were even that good to begin with. Once we take off our rose-colored glasses and re-appraise past decisions from intersectional perspectives, we may come to realize just how devastating certain policies spearheaded by both parties have been for Americans outside the so-called ruling class.

In addition to his checkered civil rights record, Biden’s cozy relationship with the banking, financial services, and insurance industries contrasts starkly with his image as a blue-collar champion. Given a crowded Democratic primary field and ample resources with which to evaluate his overall record, this may turn out to be a liability. That is, even if he earns the party nomination, there’s still the matter of the general election. Trump seemingly defied the odds against Hillary Clinton, in many respects a superior candidate. Who’s to say doubling down on someone like Biden won’t backfire, leaving us with a second term of President Trump? If he’s doing and saying all these reprehensible things now, what will this mean when he gets re-elected and has nothing to lose?

Going back to the days of bipartisan cooperation under past administrations may have its superficial appeal to voters, especially moderate whites who can better afford to be casual political participants. Even that relative comfort may be illusory, however. The climate emergency is not going to fix itself. Nor is the student debt crisis or the health care affordability crisis or our crumbling infrastructure or any other serious dilemma facing our world. Simply put, the stakes are higher now and Obama-era notions of hope and change dissolving into incrementalism aren’t sufficient. It’s going to take more than that. It’s going to take real people power.

Let’s therefore put aside vague, top-down conceptualizations of “getting things done” in favor of mobilizing voters and encouraging citizens to get involved at various levels of government. We’ve got the people. We only need the conviction to see it through. If you’re not on board with a progressive vision for our future, don’t worry about what is politically “feasible” or what can get done. Worry about getting out of the way of those determined to lead.

Do We Really Need Al Franken?

Al Franken’s alleged groping of several women may not be the same level of purported offense as that of Donald Trump or Roy Moore. That doesn’t mean we can’t hold him to a minimum standard of conduct, however, and it certainly doesn’t mean we “need him back” in any capacity. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/CC BY-SA 4.0)

As concerns the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, perhaps no figure encapsulates its potential divisiveness and difficult contemplations like Al Franken.

It’s been over a year-and-a-half since Franken resigned from his post as U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesota, but his case is one that media figures and political junkies alike feel the need to relitigate. Jane Mayer’s recent essay for The New Yorker is the latest high-profile entry in people’s meditations on whether he should’ve resigned.

Mayer considers a lot of angles in her examination of this subject matter: the precipitousness of his fall from grace after once being considered a possible challenger to Donald Trump in 2020, the regret he and numerous former colleagues feel, contrasts with Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s records, the evolution of accuser Leeann Tweeden’s account of sexual misconduct, the nature of U.S.O. shows like the one Franken did with Tweeden and the content of the skit prompting her accusations, character witness accounts on his behalf, proposed logical faults taken with Tweeden’s characterizations of the incident and ruminations on her credibility, FOX News personalities’ personal ax to grind with Franken, that allegations against Roy Moore were fresh in the minds of many, Franken’s physical awkwardness, allegations from other accusers, concerns about lack of due process, the role Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democratic colleagues played in calling for his resignation, the notion that not all accounts of abuse are made equal. In this regard, Mayer’s piece seems reasonably well considered.

This effort to reclaim Franken’s image is arguably not without its problems, however. On one hand, Tweeden’s failure or refusal to acknowledge the context in which the U.S.O. skit was performed and its content (there is a scene of a breast exam in the skit, to which the infamous photo of Franken and Tweeden presumably refers) are curious omissions. Acknowledging this wouldn’t make her accusations any less valid.

On the other hand, we might rightly object at various points in Mayer’s analysis. For one, comparisons to Biden and Trump are whataboutism, pure and simple. We’re talking about Franken here. Their supposed misdeeds are irrelevant to the deliberation at hand. Certain aspects of Tweeden’s life which apparently go to her believability are also of questionable application. Tweeden may have fabricated or embellished whether or not she could’ve gotten into Harvard in the past. She is a noted conservative who has professed admiration for Trump and has appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to talk about birtherism, and she may have a personal animus against the liberal Franken, whose political star was on the rise prior to the events which led to his resignation.

None of this means she is necessarily lying about being assaulted or interpreting Franken’s actions in this way, though, nor do the motivations of any of his accusers or the people who called for his resignation. Gillibrand, who continues to be lambasted for being among the first to publicly call for Franken’s resignation, points out that she didn’t end his Senate career—he did. He could’ve opted to soldier on despite the allegations against him and regardless of the strain it put on Gillibrand and Co.

Jeet Heer, national-affairs correspondent at The Nation, addresses Mayer’s article and notions that Franken was “railroaded” or otherwise was a victim of circumstances, as she might make it seem. Like Mayer, Heer alludes to Franken as a sort of “ghost” haunting the Democratic Party with claims he was all but forced out without consideration of due process.

Heer concedes that Tweeden’s account of unwanted touching and kissing “has all the earmarks of a politically motivated smear.” The problem: there are still seven other accusers. Mayer’s juxtaposition of this alongside Franken’s physical “obtuseness” makes for a strange defense. All his accusers are women and their allegations are of a sexual nature. It’s more than just his being a “hugger.”

There’s also the matter of Franken’s defenders weighing his actions against the Harvey Weinsteins and Strom Thurmonds of the world. Again, in contrast to partisan relativism, Heer speaks to “setting a minimum standard of respect,” regardless of political affiliation or likability. For that matter, all the people jumping at the chance to exonerate Franken or come to his defense because of what they “know” about him is not a guarantee. What they think they know may be dependent on their limited interactions with him or what he allows others to see. I’m not saying the reverse can’t be true, mind you, but human beings are, well, complicated.

As Heer cites Rebecca Traister, New York magazine writer-at-large, if Franken took a leave of absence to re-examine the effect his conduct might have had on women in his life and later came back to speak to women’s rights and the responsibility of men in the #MeToo era, he might still be serving the people of Minnesota in an official capacity today. It was his silence and the conviction he’d be given ample time and a thorough investigation into his affairs that was his undoing—fair or unfair.

Heer takes this a step further in closing by saying that Franken’s playing the victim betrays his lack of understanding of the whole situation and creates a barrier to any real sense of redemption in the future. He writes:

If we want #MeToo to be effective, we need to be careful to distinguish between major criminals and petty transgressors. We also need to figure out how to reintegrate figures like Franken into society. But you can’t have forgiveness without contrition. To this day, Franken sees himself as a victim. Until that changes, there can be no healing.

In his resignation speech back in 2018, Franken was anything but contrite. Instead, he insisted that he knows who he really is and considered it an irony that he was leaving office while Trump, who once bragged about groping women, is president and Moore, who has preyed on young women, has political aspirations. His parting remarks, draped in comparisons to the worst the GOP has to offer, offered sentiments of “no regrets.” It bears wondering whether his accusers could or would say the same, even assuming the small magnitude of his purported offenses.


A big question I have in relation to Jane Mayer’s essay and why The New Yorker felt the need to publish it is: why now? Why are we reconsidering Al Franken’s fall with everything going on with the 2020 presidential race looming, the Trump administration, and any number of crises facing the country and the world today?

Part of the answer would seem to lie with the notion we need someone like Franken in American political discourse. Last year, Bill Maher, in a brave act of defending another white male like himself, expressed the belief that we need a comedian like Franken to ridicule Donald Trump and take down other “rightwing blowhards.” In doing so, he assailed the credibility of Leeann Tweeden, minimized the charges of Franken’s other accusers, and shot back at “purists” who overreact only to suffer from buyer’s remorse later on.

More recently, Pete Buttigieg, when asked during a town hall whether he would’ve called for Franken’s ouster, replied that he “would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more.” It probably helps that Buttigieg has raised funds alongside big-bucks Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, who previously endorsed Kamala Harris despite the fact she was one of the first Senate Democrats to advocate for Franken’s resignation and who has made public positions on the end of Franken’s tenure somewhat of a sticking point. Evidently, the goal is to beat Trump by any means necessary—even it means compromising our moral standards.

To the extent that Franken could add to the discussion on resisting Trump, his absence is regrettable. Are his talents so unique that a void like his in American politics can’t be filled, however? This much seems dubious. To say that Franken was one of the more interesting members of the Senate isn’t saying much. For the integral role Congress plays in shaping the American experience, it is filled with boring people and uninspired ideas. This reality doesn’t obviate the public’s responsibility to hold these public servants accountable and to actively participate in issue advocacy, mind you. Then again, even if this doesn’t excuse voters tuning out, you can sort of understand why they do.

If the Democrats are that desperate to have Franken back because he is the only one who can stand up to Trump or the only one who possesses the requisite skill to ridicule him to the point it rattles him, however, it would seem there are bigger problems within the Democratic Party. It’s along the lines of needing Jon Stewart back as a voice of empathy, reason, and wit in late-night television. Do I miss him? Of course. But if we can’t find others who can approach his level of thoughtful criticism and oddball humor, we might be in more trouble than we know.

One of the lessons of the #MeToo era with which people still appear to be grappling is that men who abuse their fame or position of influence are infinitely replaceable. (The label of “abuser” does not apply to Stewart, to be clear; I invoked him simply as an illustration of my earlier point.) Louis C.K., while clearly talented, is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to stand-up comedy. Nor is Kevin Spacey God’s gift to acting. Without wanting to seem cruel, life goes on. If we can’t meet the need for artists, politicians, producers, writers, and other professionals without sanctioning their alleged violations of boundaries, we’ve clearly failed as a society. No amount of good deeds, intelligence, leadership skills, or talent should supersede another’s right to his or her bodily autonomy and physical safety.

Will Al Franken ever return to the limelight, and with that, U.S. politics? Who knows? In the event he doesn’t, it may be ultimately be unfair to him, though the number of credible accusations against him suggests otherwise. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t feel he needs to apologize because he did nothing wrong. Regardless, though some of us may want him back, that doesn’t signify a need. Yes, we should talk about how and whether to weigh the offenses in each case. Yes, we should discuss how to handle less-than-perfect accusers. But we can do so looking forward rather than back.

Go After “The Squad” at Your Own Risk

Note to Nancy Pelosi: Ilhan Omar has a following that is neither solely on Twitter nor limited to four people. (Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

SEND HER BACK! SEND HER BACK!

This was the scene at Donald Trump’s recent rally in Greenville, North Carolina, evidence that every time we think Trump and the GOP have hit rock bottom, there is a new low to which to sink. The audience’s chant was in response to the president’s remarks on Ilhan Omar, which wrongly characterized the first-term representative from the state of Minnesota as an anti-Semite, someone who “looks down with contempt on the hardworking American.”

Trump also criticized fellow freshman Rashida Tlaib, like Omar, a Muslim, as “not somebody that loves our country,” lashed out at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (eventually just calling her “Cortez” because he decided saying “Ocasio-Cortez” is too much work) for sponsoring the Green New Deal and for correctly reporting that the “concentration camps” at our southern border holding detained migrants offer substandard, inhumane conditions, and ridiculed Ayanna Pressley (“Is she related in any way to Elvis?”) for supposedly saying that “people with the same skin color all need to think the same” and somehow connecting her to violence committed by some anti-fascists (which pales in comparison to atrocities committed by white supremacists, but whatever).

Trump’s attacks on Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib amid his jabs at potential 2020 election rivals including “Sleepy” Joe Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders are no accident. He’s painting these newcomers to Congress as leaders of the Democratic Party, thereby trying to get his supporters to fixate on them, their ideals, their ethnicities, their religions, their identities as strong, outspoken women, and reject them and other Democrats as a function of subscribing to an anti-liberal, racist, sexist, xenophobic outlook on life.

As Trump would have it, these critics of his are the face of a party that hates America and everything it stands for, and if they don’t like it, they should leave or, more specifically, “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” Trump also tweeted that these “Progressive Democrat Congresswomen… (“progressive” in quotes, as if to doubt how interested in progress they really are) originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”

Trump’s public comments, as per the usual, are riddled with inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods. These particular diatribes against the four aforementioned women, however, are especially onerous and reflect egregious and dangerous rhetoric.

First things first, there’s the matter of labeling these women as “originally” from another country, as if they aren’t truly Americans. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx and is of Puerto Rican descent. Pressley is black and was born in Cincinnati, raised in Chicago, and eventually relocated to Massachusetts. Tlaib was born in Detroit, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. Omar is the only one of the four born outside the United States, originally from Somalia, but her family sought and secured asylum in 1995 and she became a U.S. citizen in 2000. These women are all American citizens and were duly elected to their positions in Congress by their constituents. Referring to them in any other capacity is to engage in unadulterated bigotry.

Well, that is, unless you ask Republicans or the president himself. Trump’s initial “go back” rant directed at AOC et al. sparked international outrage and condemnation. In the aftermath, the hashtags #RacistInChief and #TrumpIsARacist were trending on Twitter and continue to be used as part of the ensuing conversation about his verbal assault on the first-term congressional quartet. All the while, most members of the GOP have defended Trump against claims he is a racist. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body! He’s saying what many people are thinking! On the latter point, saying average Americans agree with Pres. Trump means that he’s not a racist is a logical fallacy. Popularity is not an indicator of moral rectitude.

On the Democratic side, meanwhile, the House voted 240 to 187 to condemn Trump’s use of racist language. All House Democrats recorded an “Aye” vote. Newly-minted independent Justin Amash joined them, as did Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan Brooks of Indiana, and Will Hurd of Texas. Of course, Nancy Pelosi was quick to specify that this was a vote to condemn Trump’s comments as racist, not the man himself. It would apparently be untoward to level such charges against him. Or to hold him accountable in any meaningful way. (But let’s bank on 2020 when we lost in 2016, right?)

Speaking of the Speaker of the House, it bears underscoring that it was her derisive remarks about Pressley, Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez which helped lead to the group receiving their unofficial nickname: “The Squad.” Back in November, Ocasio-Cortez posted a picture of the four of them together with the one-word caption “Squad” on Instagram. This moniker was invoked again by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in her profile earlier this month on Pelosi, in which the Democratic leader panned their vote against the House’s version of an emergency border funding bill, saying, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Since then and notably following Trump’s personal attacks, the use of the Squad nickname has increased exponentially. The widespread employ of this term is not without some pushback, to be sure. Some might see it as appropriative, deprecating, or sexist. On the other hand, it might be conceived of as intentionally exclusive on the representatives’ part.

These four congresswomen, however, have clarified that their “squad” includes, as Rep. Pressley puts it, “any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.” Which, in response to a piece by The Onion, evidently includes the octogenarian Bill Pascrell, my district’s representative. (Props, Bill, props.) By this definition, you or I might be considered members. It’s a concept with real grassroots appeal.

Trump’s harsh rhetoric hasn’t met with much approval outside his most ardent backers and his most shameless apologists on Capitol Hill and in the media. Moreover, his attempted claim that he denounced the “Send her back!” chant during the event is verifiably false, earning him further censure for trying to gaslight everyone.

As for Speaker Pelosi, her downplaying of The Squad’s influence as one segment in an ever-lengthening line of reprobation and dismissal of progressive Democrats has earned her scorn in her own right as out of touch, markedly from leftists and others who have remained critical of her steering of the Democratically-led House. If nothing else, her repudiation of these women of color and failure to come to their defense except when called out by the president is bad optics for a party that touts its diversity among its strengths. In fact, as Ocasio-Cortez believes, this pattern of behavior on Pelosi’s part doesn’t speak to some innocuous, unprejudiced treatment of The Squad—and she’s not alone in this assessment.

Through all of the slurs, the death threats, the denigration, and the lies hurled at these women, their commitment to their principles and their resolve hasn’t wavered. Consequently, their stars are only shining brighter. Rep. Omar, who received a hero’s welcome when she returned to her home state, addressed Trump’s vitriolic barbs directed at her, defiantly promising to be the “nightmare” the president has made her out to be. Hers was not a threat, but a warning: mess with The Squad and prepare to live with the consequences.


The comments Donald Trump made denigrating the members of The Squad and his refusal to squelch the chants of his attendees aimed at Ilhan Omar speak volumes about the president and the current state of the GOP. A common refrain from those paid to be in attendance and/or professionals within the political sphere (and thus presumably with at least a modicum of discernment apart from Trump’s faithful) as gleaned from social media was that it was one of the most frightening sights they had ever witnessed in the world of politics. Many of those same people felt a sense of dread, suggesting Trump was doing his best to get Rep. Omar killed. Other onlookers professed they’re beginning to understand how the atrocities of Nazi Germany could’ve happened from the very tenor of the event.

The few defections on the resolution about Trump’s racist language aside, Republicans’ inaction and silence on this front make one wonder what line could be crossed that would result in substantive intercedence on their part. For example, Lindsey Graham, one-time Trump critic, has apparently become a full-time sycophant, reversing course on the president after calling him a “race-baiting bigot” in 2015.

Mitch McConnell likewise defended Trump against allegations he is a racist, saying the president is “on to something” in his claims that these women want “to turn us into a socialist country,” dodging questions about the “Send her back!” chorus of nights earlier. Mitt Romney, in true Mitt Romney fashion, said Trump “crossed a line” but isn’t a racist. Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz. Paul Ryan, where was this semblance of a spine when you were Speaker of the House? Where is the conscience of these men, some of whom thought they could represent the entire country? Or was it all a big con, a ploy motivated by political opportunism? Can the same be asked of Trump and the Republican Party at large?

Lest we give the Democrats too much credit, leadership’s inability or unwillingness to rein in moderates bent on opposing the “far left” or defend The Squad against baseless accusations of anti-Semitism further emboldens Trump and his enablers. As far as the “Racist-in-Chief” is concerned, it may as well as be open season on Reps. Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar. I mean this in terms of his wont to say anything he wants without fear of reprisal, but returning to reported instances of death threats and even a planned plot to kill Omar, he doesn’t need to pull the trigger. Putting a target on their backs is enough. The Democratic Party bears some culpability here beyond signing onto a toothless House resolution admonishing the president for spreading hate from his bully pulpit.

The ugliness of Pres. Trump’s remarks, whether or not it’s a distraction from the horror of the concentration camps at the border or Jeffrey Epstein’s depravity or the implications of the Mueller report, drives home the notion that representatives of both major parties sooner or later need to take a stand. Republicans must decide at what point political expediency has its limits, consider whether they’ve ceded full control of their party to a fascist, and confront what this arrangement means for the long-term viability of the GOP. Democrats have to face the possibility that waiting for 2020 could take too long, not to mention that standing for something—anything—signals to their base that their cause is worth fighting for. Not merely to be hyperbolic, but the future of these parties and the concept of American democracy as a going concern might just depend on it.

As suggested earlier, popularity doesn’t equate to moral rectitude nor does it necessarily translate to votes or other forms of political engagement. For Democrats and Republicans alike, though, going after The Squad is ill-advised. In the face of adversity, these women are proud inspirations to other political entrants like them. To underestimate them and their supporters is to underestimate the power that everyday people coming together at the grassroots level possess when fully realized. In the end, it could be a costly miscalculation to make.