Conspiracy, GOP

Anatomy of a Conspiracy

During a career devoted to little more than climbing the political ladder, Idaho Senator James E. Risch has been defined by a handful of moments when his outrageous behavior made news.

Risch’s greatest hits include the time he sprinted around the gallery of the Idaho state senate ordering state police officers to arrest demonstrators who had the audacity to object to something the then legislative leader was involved in.

Risch brought the U.S. Senate to a prolonged late-night halt in 2018 when he objected to a provision in a spending bill to name a central Idaho wilderness after a political rival, former governor Cecil D. Andrus. Risch threw a “temper tantrum” during which the Idaho Statesman editorial board called “a petty and embarrassing episode.” Andrus, who disliked few people made an exception for Risch, and the former governor had been dead for months when Risch displayed his pique.

The Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune ran a classic headline about the scene: “Risch picks fight with dead man, loses.”

When the Senate debated whether to impeach Donald Trump for his shakedown of the Ukrainian president, Risch fell asleep. A sketch artist captured the diminutive ultra conservative napping, head in hands. Spokesman Review columnist Shawn Vestal noted, correctly: “Nothing so clearly represents the nothing-matters, say-anything nature of the GOP response to impeachment, the collective, cynical shrug in the face of a slam-dunk case, as Sleeping Beauty Risch.”

Artist version of Risch napping during Trump impeachment trial

In contrast to his embarrassments, Risch’s accomplishments rarely make news for the simple reason he doesn’t do politics that way. He’s a partisan striver, always touching the right conservative talking points, always on the attack, but never doing the hard work of actually addressing an issue that might be important to his constituents. But that MO is good enough anymore to get a replacement level Republican elected and re-elected in Idaho. And Risch has been elected time and again – with one notable exception – since the 1970’s.

Look up “career politician” in the dictionary and you’ll find a photo of Jim Risch.

Risch has clearly reached the zenith of his political career. After a short run as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Risch is now the ranking Republican on what once was considered the most prestigious committee in the Senate. This week the junior senator from Idaho used that position to advance a right-wing conspiracy theory growing faster than Pinocchio’s nose.

For weeks there has been a constant drumbeat of conspiracy to the effect that President Joe Biden is a tottering idiot, not in command of the government let alone himself. You can see this lie promoted daily on Fox, OANN, at Breitbart, and the Rupert Murdoch owned New York Post. Trump himself suggested this week that former president Barack Obama “is probably running the government now anyway, according to many.”

Many people are saying this is head slapping, crazy-town nonsense, but Risch fanned this silliness during a Senate hearing this week, repeatedly asking Secretary of State Antony Blinken about a “mute” button that some unnamed official in the White House allegedly uses to cut off Biden, presumably to keep him from blurting out, like Risch, something silly. Blinken said, repeatedly, it was nonsense.

As reporter Amber Phillips noted: “The senator’s line of questioning seemed derived from conservative media. Fox News commentators were questioning the same thing that same morning, noted Daily Best media report Justin Baragona.”

Assessing Risch’s descent down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole Dana Milbank wrote, “The episode is worth unpacking because it shows, in miniature, how misinformation infects the Republican Party, rapidly spreads through partisan media and contaminates elected GOP leaders — who amplify and defend the falsehood, even when it’s shown to be wrong. This is how lies are born.”

Short story: when Biden was in Boise early in the week he met with Idaho’s governor and wildland fire officials at the National Interagency Fire Center. As is typical with the White House – any White House – a press “pool” is allowed to “spray” the gathering and then is ushered out. This is what happened in Boise. Biden’s mic wasn’t cut. The pool coverage of the event ended. It’s routine. It’s not a conspiracy.

(Some Idaho reporters were miffed that they had limited access to Biden, which I understand, but that is a separate issue. The White House – any White House – typically tightly controls this kind of access. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they do.)

Risch took this little non-issue, subsequently amplified by a Republican National Committee social media posting and a New York Post article and made a federal case of it. More importantly, Risch used almost half his time during a hearing where Blinken was on the hot seat about the clearly badly handled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan talking about a make-believe White House “mute” button. None of his questions were designed to illicit real information. It was all a performance for the cameras.

If there is a better example of how unserious American politics on the political right has become, I don’t want to see it. But Risch’s motivation was as clear as his questions were crazy. He was angling to land on Fox News, and of course he did the obligatory “hit” with Bret Baier.

Risch is, by the way, 78-years old, the same age as the president he attacks for being too old for the job.

But one suspects there is even more to Risch’s motivation for raising his phony issue with the secretary of state, and in the process channeling a Trumpish conspiracy. There are no coincidences in politics and often cause and effect.

Less than a month ago, conservative Idaho firebrand Bryan Smith excoriated Risch in a newspaper op-ed for his vote in favor of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Smith, a leading figure in the ongoing effort to push the Idaho GOP to the rightwing edge of the earth, said Risch’s vote – and Senator Mike Crapo’s – was proof that the Republican senators have been in office too long.

“The fact is that the longer Risch and Crapo serve in Washington, the more they become like the liberal swamp they claim they are fighting against,” Smith wrote, attempting to make the case that Idaho’s senators are closet liberals.

Risch has always been a purely transactional politician, so what better way to shut down attacks from the flat earth right than to embrace a favorite conspiracy theory of the flat earth right. You can’t reason with them, might as well fully join them.

It would be tempting to treat Jim Risch’s latest embarrassment as just another example in the long history of his blatantly ill-natured partisanship, a part of his life-long effort to protect his hard right flank, but unfortunately it is more than that. Risch’s performance is now the Republican brand: conspiracy, conceit and contempt for truth.

Idaho voters should have muted him a long, long time ago.

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Additional Reading:

A few other items worth your time…

9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed

Great piece in The Washington Post on the books of the last two decades that explore the events of September 11 and the aftermath.

“Rather than exemplify the nation’s highest values, the official response to 9/11 unleashed some of its worst qualities: deception, brutality, arrogance, ignorance, delusion, overreach and carelessness. This conclusion is laid bare in the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — the works of investigation, memoir and narrative by journalists and former officials that have charted the path to that day, revealed the heroism and confusion of the early response, chronicled the battles in and about Afghanistan and Iraq, and uncovered the excesses of the war on terror. Reading or rereading a collection of such books today is like watching an old movie that feels more anguishing and frustrating than you remember.”

Here is the link:


Trump-Era Corruption Eclipses Even Teapot Dome

Good piece in The Bulwark where the author argues – I agree – the corruption in the recent Trump Administration makes Warren Harding’s corruption seem pretty tame.

Trump corruption worse than Teapot Dome

“The Teapot Dome saga began in 1921, in the first months of Warren Harding’s administration. At the center of the scandal loomed Albert Fall, a lawyer from New Mexico who was in his second term in the U.S. Senate when his close friend Harding tapped him to be secretary of the interior. Harding’s first choice for the job—the oilman whose money had done much to win Harding the Republican nomination—died after being shot by his mistress. Harding knew Fall, an anti-conservationist, would be amenable to using the office to pay back the oil interests.”

I like the piece, but do have one nitpick historical correction. The author mentions Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana as at one point leading the Teapot Dome investigation. It’s a mistake repeated many times and I have never understood why. Wheeler was an investigator of the Harding Administration, but his focus was on the Justice Department and Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Wheeler’s Montana colleague, Senator Tom Walsh, was the lead investigator of the oil leasing scandal.

Shameless plug: I wrote a book about Wheeler and all this.

In any event…it’s still a good piece. Link here:


100mph fastball? 450ft home run? Why that’s no problem for Shohei Ohtani

And a great baseball story. The Japanese ballplayer who pitches as well as he hits, or is it the other way around.

“As his fourth season concludes, Shohei Ohtani showed he can do more than acclimate himself to a new culture or put himself in position to be the American League’s Most Valuable Player. At 27, Ohtani is beginning to assert the kind of multidimensional dominance that few athletes have displayed.”

From The Guardian:


Thanks for following along. Stay safe.

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