Thirty years ago this month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus willfully and with malice aforethought sparked one of the most consequential confrontations of the nuclear age. The Idaho governor, a rangy, bald-headed one-time lumberjack from Orofino, took on the federal government in a way few, if any, Idaho politicians ever had before, or has since.
I have many vivid memories of working for Andrus those long years ago, but no memory remains more evocative than when the governor of Idaho called the bluff of the Department of Energy over nuclear waste. We are still feeling the ripples of that encounter and Idaho, thanks to dozens of subsequent actions, including a landmark agreement negotiated by Andrus’s successor Phil Batt, has gotten rid of a good part of its nuclear waste stockpile. If current state leaders are half as smart as Andrus and Batt they will fight to retain the leverage Idaho has to get rid of the rest.
On a crisp fall day in 1988 Andrus and I flew to Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town in the southeastern corner of the state at the time better known for its caverns than for its starring role in a governmental showdown. Carlsbad was once the potash capitol of the country and had long been a place where extracting value from the earth dominated the economy. When potash ceased to be an economic driver for the region the powers to be in Eddy County went looking for a future. They found some level of economic salvation in nuclear waste. Andrus was there to help realize their expectations and in the process help Idaho.
Years earlier, as Secretary of the Interior, Andrus had become a Carlsbad favorite for his attention to local issues – Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the domain of the Interior Department is nearby – and because of the respect he enjoyed the locals made him an honorary member of the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse. As a member of the august group Andrus was able to sport the outfit’s signature Stetson, a big hat hard to miss in a crowd. The Stetson was a scintillating shade of turquoise.
Wearing his colorful headgear, Andrus arrived in Carlsbad thirty years ago to “tour” the then-unfinished Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive cavern carved out of the deep salt formations under southeastern New Mexico. Years earlier the Department of Energy (DOE), then as now the single most incompetent bureaucracy in the federal government, had determined that the salt formations would be the ideal place to permanently dispose of certain types of extremely long-lived radioactive waste. Encased thousands of feet below ground in salt that had existed for hundreds if not millions of years and never touched by water, the waste would be safe. The science was sound even if DOE’s execution of a plan to prepare the facility for waste was deeply flawed.
Andrus’s WIPP inspection left him convinced that the only way to move DOE’s bureaucracy was to manufacture a crisis. His motive, of course, was to shine a light on DOE management failures, but also advancing the day when nuclear waste that had been sitting in Idaho for years would be permanently removed to New Mexico. He returned to Idaho and closed the state’s borders to any more waste, declaring, “I’m not in the garbage business any more.”
I remember asking Andrus if he really had the legal authority to take an action that seemed sure to end up in court. He smiled and said, “ I may not have the legal authority, but I have the moral authority. Let them try to stop me.”
The audacious action had precisely the effect Idaho’s governor intended. The nation’s decades of failures managing its massive stockpile of nuclear waste became, at least for a while, a national issue. The New York Times printed a photo of an Idaho state trooper standing guard over a rail car of waste on a siding near Blackfoot. DOE blinked and eventually took that shipment back to Colorado.
A now retired senior DOE official recently told me Andrus’s action was the catalyst to get the New Mexico facility operational. His gutsy leadership also highlighted the political reality that Idaho’s rebellion against the feds might easily spread. Subsequent litigation, various agreements and better DOE focus, at least temporarily, lead to the opening of the WIPP site in 1999 and some of the waste stored in Idaho began moving south.
With the perfect hindsight of thirty years it is also clear that Idaho’s willingness to take on the federal government did not, as many of the state’s Republicans claimed at the time, hurt the Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement, which Andrus zealously defended up until his death last year, continues to provide Idaho with the best roadmap any state has for cleaning up and properly disposing of waste. Idaho would be foolish to squander any of the leverage it has thanks to the work Andrus and Batt did to hold the federal government accountable.
But, of course, some Idahoans continue to talk about waste accommodation with DOE, even as deadlines for more removal and clean up are missed and the DOE behemoth stumbles forward. A former Texas governor who once advocated eliminating the agency now heads DOE. As Michael Lewis demonstrates in his scary new book The Fifth Risk, DOE Secretary Rick Perry is little more than a figurehead acting out a role that is both “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis’s telling, Perry didn’t even bother to ask for a briefing on any DOE program when he arrived.
Meanwhile Perry’s boss recently announced in Nevada, a state where waste is about as popular as a busted flush, that he’s opposed to eventually opening the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent repository for very high-level nuclear waste. Donald Trump made that statement even as his own budget contains millions of our dollars to work on opening the very facility.
Federal government incoherence obviously continues. Cece Andrus confronted it thirty years ago. He was right then and we can still learn from his leadership.
Paulette Jordan, the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, has created in a way rarely seen in the state’s recent political history a small donor fundraising juggernaut. Jordan has tapped into thousands of small donors in Idaho and across the country. From Clinton, New York to Longview, Washington from Aiken, South Carolina to Denver, Colorado people have been sending her money and in the process she has raised more than $1 million, a respectable figure for an underdog Democrat in Idaho.
A substantial percentage of Jordan’s fundraising haul has come from small, individual contributions, some as small as $5 and many less than $100. And many donors have given to her campaign multiple times. It is the kind of broad based fundraising that candidates dream about. Jordan’s contribution profile differs dramatically from her opponent, Lt. Governor Brad Little, who has mostly relied on the standard sources of GOP campaign cash – industry PACs, businesses, lobbyists and well-heeled supporters from across the state. As a result Little has outraised the Democrat by a lot and in the home stretch has held on to more cash for a final push.
Yet there is a confounding mystery at the heart of Jordan’s campaign: little of her cash seems to have made its way into what you might call a real campaign – direct mail, billboards, TV, radio, newspapers and social media. Rather hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on out of state consultants and, as the Idaho Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell documented recently, on food, travel and lodging – much of it out of state – by the candidate.
Jordan’s pre-election campaign finance disclosure report is simply one of the most unusual, which is to say unprecedented, documents of its type since Idaho voters mandated campaign finance disclosure 1974. To say the least the report raises more questions than it answers, while the campaign refuses to provide answers to basic questions about how and why it has spent its money. Consider a just few questionable details from Jordan’s October 10 report:
The campaign has paid at least four out-of-state companies in Wyoming, Vermont and Minnesota nearly $50,000 for what it says are various consulting services. Yet the companies appear to be “shells” with no actual place of business only a mailing address and a contact listed as a “registered agent.” One company is identified by the campaign as a Limited Liability Company with a post office box in Peru, Vermont, but the Vermont Secretary of State has no record of the company existing. Another company that has received payments from Jordan’s campaign lists its address as an apartment in Minneapolis.
One company with a Cheyenne, Wyoming address, lists Jordan’s campaign manager, Nathanial Kelly, as its president, secretary, treasurer and only director. Kelly is the same guy who recently tried to explain away why the campaign required its staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements. Kelly’s Wyoming firm only became active in August just about the time Kelly has said he was helping the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, with Jordan’s encouragement, to establish a federal super PAC.
A second Wyoming firm that received two $10,000 payments from Jordan since August is registered at the same Sheridan, Wyoming address as the federal PAC. This firm has not filed more complete information, including the names of incorporators, with the state of Wyoming because it isn’t required to do so until a year after it is formally registered. Meanwhile, the campaign insists that none of its resources have gone to helping establish the federal PAC, which Jordan has refused to discuss beyond criticizing the reporting that disclosed its existence.
The Jordan campaign has employed two different digital fundraising firms both located in Washington, D.C. and paid them more than $110,000. One firm started work after Jordan won the May primary. The campaign also reports payments to two separate campaign reporting and compliance firms with one firm joining post-primary. The campaign, which has had two high profile staff shake ups since May declined to provide information on how many different employees it has paid – it appears upwards of a dozen – has also utilized two different payroll services firms, but has also paid staff directly. (The campaign refused my request to provide information on who has been paid and how.) These set ups beg the question: why are two firms doing what appears essentially to be the same job.
The campaign also reported a $1,000 “contribution” to a California entity that lists the same Novato, California address as one of the reporting and compliance firms. When I asked who received the contribution I was told the money went to “an elected official who is consulting for the campaign as well.” A spokeswoman at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office says failure to disclose the recipient of a contribution from an Idaho campaign committee is a violation of Idaho law. That obviously is a problem for Jordan’s campaign, but her small dollar donors might also be justified in asking why would an Idaho campaign scraping for every dollar make any contribution to a candidate in California?
Campaigns, we all know, cost money. Personnel, technology, advertising and travel require money, the kind of money Jordan has been raising. But the real question for the candidate – and her thousands of small donors – is why so little of the more than one million dollars she has raised has been spent in a way that might actually reach, inform and motivate Idaho voters?
The campaign has talked about the importance of transparency and accountability in state government, but that clearly doesn’t extend to her campaign. Jordan’s latest campaign finance report is a black box of questions, contradictions and head scratching inconsistencies. It all begs another question: where has all the money gone and why?
This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.
Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.
Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.
Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.
Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.
For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.
Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.
Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.
Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.
Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.
The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.
Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.
My latest column that run Friday, October 5, 2018 in the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.
Most Americans today won’t recognize his name. When he resigned in disgrace from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 he mostly disappeared from public life, remembered now only as a footnote in the evolving story of increasing partisan hostility over membership on the highest court in the land.
It wouldn’t be correct to say that the politicization of the court began with Abe Fortas – judicial nominations are and have always been inherently political – but what happened to Fortas does provide a cautionary tale for today’s Senate as it struggles with the tortured process of assessing Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for a lifetime appointment.
Fortas, like Brett Kavanaugh, was not merely a creature of the political process but a deeply partisan political player who, like Kavanaugh owed his appointment to a flawed process engineered by a flawed president.
Fortas was, like Kavanaugh, a Yale Law grad, and was one of the bright young lawyers who populated the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1940s Fortas helped found a high-powered D.C. law firm – today’s Arnold and Porter – where he represented deep pocket corporate clients and maintained his extensive and lucrative political connections.
When his friend Lyndon Johnson needed legal help to make certain his contested 87-vote victory in a 1948 Texas Senate race would hold up under scrutiny he called Fortas. After Johnson won a landslide election as president in 1964, like most presidents he wanted to put his mark on the Supreme Court. Johnson being Johnson, he literally forced Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg off the court in order to appoint his pal Fortas. He was confirmed and that decision seemed, briefly, to cement a liberal lean to the Supreme Court for a long time to come.
But, in a variation of the old line that you can make God laugh by telling him your plans, Johnson – and Fortas –overreached. Badly. When, near the end of Johnson’s presidency in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement, LBJ was certain he could replace Warren as chief justice by ramming a Fortas nomination through a Senate controlled by Democrats. Shades of the current controversy – Johnson insisted on speedy Senate action. Don’t ask a lot of questions, he said, just confirm him – quickly.
Conservative southern Democrats and Senate Republicans refused to go along with the hurry up process, particularly after it was disclosed that Fortas had been the beneficiary of a sweetheart deal that paid him a tidy sum to teach at American University, a deal not financed by the college, but by former clients at his old law firm. It was also revealed that the justice had been a regular advisor to Johnson, counseling the president on PR strategy regarding the war in Vietnam, attending cabinet meetings and even drafting a state of the union speech for LBJ. Fortas, with the surety of a Brett Kavanaugh, dissembled about his involvement and ultimately a Senate filibuster killed his appointment as chief justice.
But even as Fortas stayed on the court, the drip, drip of scandal would not stop. And finally when another sweetheart consulting gig involving a shady friend was unearthed Fortas’s time was up. He resigned from the court in disgrace in the spring of 1969. He died in 1982.
So play this out 50 years later with another highly partisan court appointment. Kavanaugh has left not only a vast and still undisclosed paper trail of his activities and views of the George W. Bush White House, but now has had two appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee where, to be charitable, he has been at best guilty of less than subtle obfuscation.
The president of the United States has outsourced judicial vetting to the most extreme partisans in the community of GOP special interests who want to complete the full politicization of the court. He has, like LBJ in 1965, looked beyond talent and temperament to put a politician on the bench.
No matter what happens with the Kavanaugh nomination – let’s assume he is narrowly confirmed amid continuing controversy about his past and his truthfulness – the scrutiny, just like with Abe Fortas, will not suddenly disappear.
There is a better than even chance that Democrats will win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall and a feisty New Yorker by the name of Jerrold Nadler will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Last weekend Nadler seemed to be reaching back in time when he said: “We cannot have a justice on the SupremeCourt for the next several decades who will be deciding questions of liberty and life and death and all kinds of things for the entire American people who has been credibly accused of sexual assaults, who has been credibly accused of various other … wrong things, including perjury. This has gotta be thoroughly investigated. I hope the Senate will do so. If he is on the Supreme Court and the Senate hasn’t investigated, then the House will have to.”
Based upon what the Supreme Court should be – independent, free of obvious partisan taint, above politics to the extent that is possible – it’s easy to see that Lyndon Johnson made a historic mistake in 1965 appointing an unabashed partisan to the court. Johnson knew what he was doing. He wanted his guy in there. History shows us how that turned out. Donald Trump also wants his guy on the court, a judge who has wondered out loud if constraints on presidential power are appropriate and, credible questions of past conduct aside, believes he is being put upon only as “revenge on the behalf of the Clintons.” The lesson is clear: controversial, highly partisan nominees are bad for the court and bad for the country.
In his biography of Abe Fortas, historian Bruce Allen Murphy notes that a portrait of Fortas that once hung in a prominent place in the Yale law school has now disappeared from the New Haven campus. Does a similar fate await a new justice? We’re going to find out.
Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune
Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.
An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.
Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.
While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.
As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.
Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.
Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar
Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”
Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust?
Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.
It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.
The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”
The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.
Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Breaking: Three top aides to Idaho gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan resigned late Friday, according to published reports. The campaign had no immediate comment and two aides said non-disclosure agreements with the Democratic nominee’s campaign prevented them from commenting.
Earlier Friday my regular column in the Lewiston Tribune dealt with Jordan’s campaign. That column is below.
There are few universal rules in politics, but one rule certainly holds that no challenger wins a contest without making the incumbent the issue. Challengers who don’t take the fight to incumbents lose. Paulette Jordan, the Democratic nominee for Idaho governor, isn’t precisely running against an incumbent in Republican Brad Little, three-term governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s lieutenant governor, but Little has all the trappings and the potential downside of incumbency.
Little is an “establishment” Republican who vanquished two conservative foes in a divisive GOP primary. He’s been around Idaho politics for years – his father was a long-serving state senator – and he is, in effect, running for Otter’s fourth term, accountable for all the bad and ensured of only modest credit for the good. Yet, seven weeks in front of the November election Jordan, the insurgent challenger, has yet to lay a glove on the incumbent. She certainly isn’t making it clear, as she must if she hopes to win (or even come close), that the election is a referendum on 12 years of the Otter-Little administration. A skillful candidate would by now have exploited some of the many missteps of the last dozen years, but beyond supporting Medicaid expansion and offering pabulum about a more humane government, Jordan hasn’t offered specifics about much of anything.
Jordan, a novice statewide candidate, is also violating Tip O’Neill’s old truism that “all politics is local,” by largely ignoring the traditional means of politicking in Idaho. Jordan has received heaps of attention from CNN and national publications have devoted ink to her resume as potentially the first woman and first Native American governor in Idaho. Yet she regularly avoids engaging with Idaho reporters and was largely missing on the summer fair and rodeo circuit. One long-time weekly newspaper editor told me recently he hasn’t seen the Democratic candidate and doesn’t expect to. He’s given up on ever getting a phone call returned. It’s a common refrain.
Jordan should have taken a page from the surging campaign of Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke who is challenging Texas Senator Ted Cruz and seems to have made that race a virtual toss up. O’Rourke, running as the underdog in a Trumpishly red state, has crisscrossed Texas repeatedly holding town hall meetings with anyone who will show up. During a recent gathering in San Marcos, according to the Texas Tribune, “O’Rourke answered questions about what he thinks about impeaching Trump, how to address the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites and whether he supports Betsy DeVos’ efforts to bring guns to campuses (‘No,’ he said).”
In contrast, Jordan recently swapped time in Idaho for an appearance on a Saturday night CNN show where she avoided discussing any specific issue. Idaho voters, she said, were “ready for true compassion and governance again.” Jordan told CNN host Van Jones that her upbringing stressed love of country, love of the land, love of all humanity, but that such attitudes hadn’t been “reflected in Idaho for the last three decades.” That is a vacuous and dubious claim at best. Going back thirty years, for example, would take us to the third term of the last Democrat to win the governorship, Cecil D. Andrus, a man who championed good schools, fought the feds over nuclear waste storage, presided over a strong economy, advocated for human and civil rights and certainly loved the land. Andrus knew that any successful Democrat has to run with a real and specific agenda.
Jordan does seem to be attempting to expand the electorate, trying to appeal to disaffected Idahoans and younger voters. O’Rourke has much the same strategy in Texas, but he adds the critical ingredients of substance and presence. In other words he shows up and is willing to confront issues, even difficult ones, head on.
I have long argued that Idaho Democrats must find a new approach to running statewide campaigns, including strategies to expand the electorate. They need to focus on younger voters who much research shows aren’t particularly wedded to either political party. They need to play to their one true strength, years of commitment to improving educational opportunities. And they must relentlessly and enthusiastically engage voters. A brief hit on CNN is no substitute for a town hall meeting in Payette, a picnic in Orofino or knocking on doors in Soda Springs.
Jordan has apparently mastered one part of a new Democratic strategy. The University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, the polling outfit, has created an online 2018 Political Atlas for every major race in the country. The Atlasmeasures, among other things, a candidate’s social media presence and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram Jordan looks like a winner. One analysis gives her seven times as many Twitter followers as Little and six times as many followers on Facebook. Nevertheless respected political scientist Larry Sabato who helped invent these new measures calls the governor’s race “safe Republican.” That call is based on his detailed analysis of polling, Idaho’s electoral history, the quality of the candidates and other first hand intelligence.
A good social media presence is clearly an element of a challenges strategy, but it’s hardly enough by itself. The vast majority of Jordan’s social media followers appear to be fans from outside Idaho and therefore unable to vote for her in November. Perhaps that’s what you get when you base an Idaho campaign on profiles in The Atlantic or interviews on CNN.
Note: I’m pleased to be writing a new weekly piece for the Friday editorial page of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune. I’m looking forward to writing mostly about the state’s politics and history based on 40-plus years of being in and around campaigns, politicos, reporters and issues.
The regular blog will appear here as well from time-to-time.
I’ve long admired the Trib’s editorial page, an institution in Idaho that most of the state’s political junkies consider a “must read.” The page has long been the home of great editors and writers, including Bill Hall, Ladd Hamilton, Jim Fisher and Marty Trillhaase. I’ll hope to do my small bit to uphold that reputation.
Thanks…here is the first piece.
Idaho’s two Republican U.S. senators will vote soon to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court helping secure a very conservative court for a generation or more. That Mike Crapo and Jim Risch would support a Republican president’s judicial nominee is no surprise. They have eagerly participated in efforts to turn judicial confirmations into just one more hyper-partisan exercise.
Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court likely means the court will become as conservative as any since the 1930s and despite claims that a partisan like Kavanaugh will respect precedent, his appointment could well usher in a raucous period where much long settled law – Roe v. Wade and campaign finance limits, for example – will be up for reconsideration. Where a consensus selection might have reversed the partisan taint now infesting the court a polarizing choice will only make the court more political.
Meanwhile, the notion of “advice and consent” has given way to debate over process and documents. Any pretense that the Senate might actually conduct a bipartisan review of a nominee’s fitness and beliefs now seems as quaint as the concept of judges being above politics.
Both Crapo and Risch expressed support for Kavanagh well in advance of any hearings. Crapo, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee that will assess Kavanaugh’s fitness, needed just one meeting to pronounce Donald Trump’s nominee a jurist of “fairness, judgment, and temperament.” Risch was at the White House for the announcement of Kavanaugh’s appointment and immediately said, presumably with a straight face, that the selection reflects “President Trump’s deep commitment to upholding our U.S. Constitution.”
Other Republican senators, including members of the Judiciary Committee, have actually participated in mock hearings preparing Kavanaugh for his moment under the television lights. Confirmation of this type is a flagrant abandonment of the notion that a co-equal branch of government should actually conduct the type of inquiry required by our Constitution.
While it is true that high stakes judicial nominations have always involved political and partisan considerations – Democrats play the game, as well – Idaho senators in the past often exercised real independence, occasionally even against the wishes of presidents of their own party.
Idaho’s William Borah, never a get-along-go-along Republican, was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee in 1932 when he lobbied Republican President Herbert Hoover to appoint New Yorker Benjamin Cardozo to replace the distinguished jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hoover was reluctant, perhaps because Cardozo, like Holmes, had a reputation for judicial independence. Hoover also hesitated because New York was already represented on the high court. Borah rejected the geographic argument saying Cardozo was a respected national figure as important to Idaho as anywhere else. Borah also wasn’t pushing for a partisan, but for a deeply respected non-political judge. He may also have impressed upon Hoover that he would use all his substantial influence in the Senate to thwart any other nominee. Borah’s independence prevailed and scholars of the court now consider Cardozo one of the greatest justices.
There is actually a bit of a tradition of Idaho Republicans pushing back against Republican presidents and their court appointments and at times real bipartisanship has prevailed.
Borah, a remarkably independent senator, defied Hoover in 1930 and cast the deciding bipartisan vote against a Supreme Court nominee considered outside the mainstream.
Idaho Republican Senator Herman Welker bucked fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 when he voted against the nomination of John M. Harlan. Welker was locked in a bitter fight with the administration at the time and may have employed his vote to express irritation with Eisenhower, but by today’s standards Welker’s move was a striking example of senatorial independence.
And in 1969 Republican Senator Len Jordan, a pretty conservative guy, joined Democrat Church to oppose Nixon’s nomination of Clement F. Haynesworth. Haynesworth was denied confirmation on a bipartisan basis when evidence surfaced of the judge’s conflicts of interest.
When the Senate confirmed Eisenhower nominee Potter Stewart in 1959 on a broadly bipartisan vote Idaho’s bipartisan delegation – Democrat Church and Republican Henry Dworshak – voted for Stewart.
Nixon nominees – Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell – received overwhelming bi-partisan support, including from Jordan and Church. Gerald Ford nominated only one Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens in 1975, and Church and Republican Jim McClure where part of a unanimous Senate. In the early 1990s Republicans Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne supported Bill Clinton nominees Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, but since then partisanship has reigned supreme and consensus candidates have disappeared.
Crapo and Risch opposed Barack Obama’s nominations of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010 and both supported the unprecedented decision by the GOP controlled Senate in 2016 to not even hold hearings on Barack Obama’s nomination of a well-regarded moderate, Merrick Garland. Neither senator deigned to even meet with Garland. And after eliminating the filibuster on judicial nominees last year Crapo and Risch were part of the Republican majority powering through Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch.
Sadly confirmation hearings have become a kind of ritualized kabuki theater where all participants play a pre-determined role and where everyone knows the outcome before the opening gavel drops. That is not what the Founders envisioned. The current approach – obsequious deference by Republicans to any Republican nominee and an overwhelming emphasis on partisan consideration – debases the idea of “advice and consent” and will only further erode the independence of the Senate and the Court.
Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.
“I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.
“We just learned longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was granted immunity in the Michael Cohen probe, becoming the latest figure close to President Trump to cooperate with investigators. Weisselberg follows Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, David Pecker and, of course, Cohen. Pecker, like Weisselberg, had immunity; the others got plea deals.”
I composed most of what follows before we got the news early Saturday that Arizona Republican Senator John McCain had lost his fight with cancer. McCain, a flawed, often cantankerous politician of the old school, was also amazingly self-aware, a pithy, independent SOB who was tough and smart and funny. It seems strangely appropriate, as sad as it is, that John McCain left us just as Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly disparaged this genuine American hero, has begun his decent into utter disgrace.
This week, to remember Winston Churchill’s famous line, is not the end for Trump, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but almost certainly the end of the beginning.
One remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s historic debasement of the American presidency, perhaps the most remarkable, is how completely predictable it was. It was all there to see from the very beginning. Now the only question is how much more damage this profoundly corrupt and ignorant man will do before he’s done, because it is increasingly clear that he will be done.
A characteristic of too many people intimately involved in politics is the ability – or the willingness – to suspend belief in the cause of a partisan victory, no matter the cost. That kind of suspension of belief is an absolute hallmark of the Trump Era and what the man has done to the Republican Party. Normally sane, sober, serious Republicans – many of them in the know from the get go – nevertheless made a devil’s bargain, accepting Trump as their leader in exchange for the hope and expectation of political gain.
Now these Republicans, finally coming to grips with the consequences of suspending belief about their leader, are well down the path toward the chaos and defeat that was all too predictable. If there is any political karma many of them will get precisely what they deserve come November.
The warning signs of where Trump would take Republicans and the country are almost too many to recount – the racially charged announcement speech with references to Mexican rapists, the clown car cast of jokers surrounding the campaign – Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen – the mentally touched boasts, over the top superlatives and need for ego gratification (who talks like that?) and the “only I can fix it” policy pronouncements. All this nonsense was devoid of basic common sense and immune to even elemental fact checking, but Republicans from Paul Ryan to local legislators lapped it up.
When Trump promised to release his tax returns and then didn’t his explanation was as much a sham as a diploma from Trump University. The obvious question was simply “what’s he got to hide?” Plenty it would seem. It was well known that American bankers had long refused to do business with Trump and now his long-time lawyer and chief financial officer have flipped, helping, it would appear, to peel back the multiple layers of corruption that will eventually drive Trump and the political party he now owns over a cliff.
Republicans, at least most of them, have long known that he was a conman, a grifter, and as Melania and the rest of us now know he’s a shameless and constant liar about absolutely everything. None of it was a surprise. None.
Some Republicans have taken to saying the president’s growing body of critics suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but they have it just backwards. Those who somehow convinced themselves that this profoundly flawed individual would somehow pull off the responsibilities of the most difficult job in the world were the truly deranged ones. His life, his businesses, everything he’s touched amounts to one big con. The derangement was thinking a life-long wise guy, a liar and cheat straight out of central casting fit for an episode of The Sopranos, would change at age 70. No one, of course, really believed the office would change the abhorrent behavior, the boorishness, the cruelty or the racism. Trump is studiously ignorant. That won’t change.
Now, as James Fallows wrote recently in The Atlantic, Republicans “confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …
“… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.”
Devoid of empathy, imbued with a mean temper and an even nastier mean streak Trump was not the least bit prepared for the presidency and virtually every Republican who finally, sometimes reluctantly, but always with full knowledge, embraced him knew it. They knew all that has happened in recent days was not just possible, but likely. They knew even under the best case that a Trump presidency would be a certain kind of crappy show, a roiling cesspool of narcissism and self-interest. Yet, they have gone along settling for a tax cut for the best off and a Supreme Court that will be much more conservative than the country; going along all the way to seeing him implicated by his own lawyer in a felony meant to deceive voters about just what he is. The con man is now the “unindicted co-conspirator.”
Now what do Republicans do? They took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but they won’t even authorize a subcommittee to investigate porn star hush money that was designed to minimize political damage days before a presidential election.
“It’s getting a little ugly,” Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and next year’s presumptive GOP whip told Politico in what must be the most understated thing to come out of South Dakota this year. “Most of us need to work with the president where we can to move our agenda … it’s definitely a fairly big sideshow.” Right.
Trouble is “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” – Section 4, Article 2 of the United States Constitution – is a bit more than a sideshow. We knew all this was going to happen. It has. Now what?
What a remarkable contrast between the beginning of last week and the end. The week began with two men close to the president confessing to and convicted of felonies and the man with likely the most intimate knowledge of Trump’s “business empire” began cooperating with prosecutors. Meanwhile, the president verbally assaulted – yet again – his own attorney general (and seems close to firing him) for refusing to interfere with an investigation into Trump’s campaign and personal conduct. Hardly a cricket is heard from elected Republicans.
The week ends with bipartisan tributes to Senator McCain, a crusty, candid, principled Republican who repeatedly stood up to Trump, called out Vladimir Putin and suffered multiple insults from a man who couldn’t carry his briefcase or come close to matching his courage. In the scope of seven days we have all the proof we’ll ever need of the extent of the intellectual and moral rot that has overtaken the Grand Old Party.
Yet, Congressional Republicans know, and their tributes to McCain make clear, what they should be doing. The Arizona senator should be their model. That he is not is a national tragedy.
“[Putin] became convinced that the Western strategy was a regime change vis-à-vis Russia. That’s his distorted version of history. He believes that even Gorbachev may have been an unwitting dupe of the West, but he certainly sees Yeltsin, and the whole experience of Russia in the ’90s, as a period in which the West took advantage of Russia and tried to marginalize it as a global power.”
Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow from 2001-2005 under President George W. Bush
We now know – again – that agents of Russian military intelligence hacked emails of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her staff, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign committee. Special Counsel Robert Mueller acting, we should remember as a result of a “true bill” approved by a grand jury made up of everyday ordinary Americans, indicted twelve Russian military operatives for those crimes last week.
The indictment alleges “a detailed and wide-ranging conspiracy to hack into the computers” of the aforementioned political people and organizations “and to reveal information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The latest Mueller indictment also indicates that Wikileaks conspired with the Russians to inject the stolen material into the American political bloodstream and that more than one American citizen communicated with the foreign agents during the 2016 campaign.
As they say just before the commercial break: stay tuned we will be back with more.
“I would call it the rigged witch hunt, after watching some of the little clips. … I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
Despite the president’s many and fervent denials, I have always believed that someone in the Trump campaign orbit “colluded” with these Russians in order to maximize the timing and impact of the release of the stolen Democratic documents. The Trump campaign motive is pretty obvious. They wanted to win. They wanted to win so badly they were willing to countenance widespread foreign interference in an American presidential election. We don’t know this for sure, yet, but the Mueller indictment last week is clearly beginning to connect a lot of dots.
There are, of course, other plausible explanations for why a campaign would get caught up in this kind of sleazy, illegal, borderline treasonous activity. Maybe the Russians really do have some incriminating information on Donald Trump. Maybe he and his family are in hock up to their eyeballs to Russian banks and oligarchs close to Putin. Maybe a naïve Donald Trump, Jr. just got played when he took the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign. Any one of these explanations has the ring of truth. Perhaps they all ring in unison.
People still wonder why the smart guys around Richard Nixon, not to mention Nixon himself, thought they needed to break in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. Nixon was going to win re-election against any conceivable Democratic opponent that year, but still he (perhaps) authorized the break in and certainly sanctioned the subsequent cover up. People have long done stupid things in pursuit of political power.
But, while Mueller continues his careful, even scholarly pursuit of the truth in the Trump-Russia matter, it would be wise for Americans – those appalled by what we already know as well as those Trump fans who are still unbelieving that this is as serious as it is – to ponder another question. What did Vladimir Putin want from this Russian meddling with American democracy? What is his game? Why did he authorize this? The Mueller indictment makes clear the Russians, perhaps with American assistance, committed a crime. They clearly had the means and opportunity, but what was the motive?
What Putin Wants….
Here are some educated guesses as to the “why” on the Russian side.
First, Putin, like all dictators, has one overriding objective: he wants to stay in power. One can imagine that he has loved the international attention lavished on the latest news of Russian cyber espionage designed to stir discord in the American body politic. The image provided by the revelations is one of power and that image fits like a glove with Putin’s overarching objective: be seen as powerful to stay in power.
In a particularly perceptive piece in The Atlantic earlier this year, journalist Julia Ioffe recounted a fascinating story of how Putin has created the illusion of success – the U.S. hacking operation helps with this – out of the shambles that is the Russian economy and culture.
Ioffe wrote that, “A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: ‘You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft’—the state-owned oil giant—‘doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?’”
Ioffe writes that many Russians think the political hacking effort was, at least initially, less a strategic operation than a spontaneous reaction to the release of the Panama Papers, the trove of secret banking information that detailed, among other things, how Putin and his cronies have become very rich while looting the Russian economy. And remember Putin is, if he’s anything, an opportunistic, improvisational former KGB spy.
It doesn’t take the imagination of John Le Carre to see that once Russian military intelligence hacked all that political information and the release of the information deepened divides in the Democratic Party, divides that Trump skillfully capitalized on, and the opportunistic improviser doubled down. Why not implicate the Trump campaign, his son and campaign manager, in the scheme?
After all, if the Kremlin really does have something incriminating on an American political candidate, that leverage is only useful if the compromised candidate actually wins. Therefore they had to do all they could to make sure he won.
Putin’s second objective – remember he is a Soviet era KGB operative – is the age old Russian goal of being taken seriously, to be a world power, to influence events. To him the glory days of his country were when Russia had an empire, a sphere of influence in eastern and southern Europe which insured any Russian leader was a man of worldwide importance and, above all, power.
How best to recreate the old Soviet Empire with its Marxist ideology replaced by oligarchy? How to do what Stalin and every successive Soviet and Russian leader failed to do – divide and conquer the democratic West? Annex Crimea. Destabilize Ukraine. Threaten the Baltic republics. All were once part of the empire and they can be again.
Putin’s tactics aimed at the western alliance were transparently obvious. Sow discord in Britain and weaken the European Union by messing with the Brexit referendum. The same types of anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist agenda that powered Trump to the White House works for the fringe of the political right in the UK, in France, in Austria, in Italy. Putin, often funding such movements, has fanned those flames.
He must be surprised at how completely this strategy has prevailed in the United States. A recent Pew study found that 25 percent of Republican voters now have a favorable opinion of Putin, up from just 11 percent in 2015. A political party that once defined itself by its full-throated support for NATO and its embrace of world trade, a party that would have relegated to the dustbin of history a preening, ignorant con man like its current leader now cheers his every move, including a private meeting with Putin.
Pause for a moment to consider the events of the past week. The president of the United States, having already imposed punitive tariffs on most of our most faithful allies, publicly insults the German chancellor, ironically for being a captive of Russia, a charge on its face that is ludicrous. That performance roils the NATO summit. Then he verbally assaults the British prime minister, rattling the oldest, most enduring American foreign policy relationship. Then on the domestic front twelve Russian spies are indicted for interference with an American election – the president says nothing at all about this development in his Twitter account and dismisses the seriousness in other comments. Meanwhile, he heads to Helsinki to meet with the man who benefits most by this chaos, this assault on the western alliance.
And what does Putin get? Precisely the optics he wants back home.
“The mere fact of the meeting, followed by a joint press conference with the American President, will be a demonstration of power for Putin,” writes Masha Gessen in The New Yorker. “He needs to deliver nothing else. If, however, he is also able to nudge Trump toward a verbal acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in its old sphere of influence—something that Putin will almost certainly bring up in conversation, making Trump likely to parrot an attitude he instinctively understands—Russians will perceive it as Putin restoring Russia’s superpower status. Putin may also suggest a deal whereby the United States pulls out of Syria. Being able to make such an announcement would make Trump feel like the dealmaker he longs to be. To Russians, it would look like they had won the war. If any deal happens, though, it will be merely an accidental substantive bonus attached to a performance designed to be empty.”
Putin’s game is to preserve his power at home and extend it abroad. He controls, with the firmness of a secret police thug, all the Russian levers of power – the courts, the press, the economy. He is the master manipulator of Russian opinion. For most Russians the economy is a shambles and daily life a constant struggle, but Russian nationalism is a powerful thing. Putin is the symbol of that nationalism and he is poised, with the help of a profoundly flawed American president, to stand astride the globe as the powerful man of history he longs to be.
How did we get here? Why have so many once wise Republican politicians, foreign policy experts and Russian skeptics allowed Donald Trump to let Vladimir Putin win? The mere fact that a Republican president and the party that now slavishly follows him have so warmly embraced such a thuggish dictator is Trump’s greatest con and Putin’s greatest win.
Russian strongmen once based foreign policy on the acquisition of “warm water ports” – the last Czar thought his spoils of the Great War would be control of Istanbul – but Putin has something even better now. He is enjoying the spectacle an increasing divided western alliance, relishing an American sponsored trade war that holds the potential to destabilize the western economy; he delights in the rise right wing populism in Europe and U.S., particularly including its racist, nationalist, press hating authoritarian antecedents. And Putin has, perhaps most importantly, the luxury of having helped put in place a compliant, ignorant American president who revels in the kind of democracy busting behavior that Putin himself has mastered.
In 1954, Republican Dwight Eisenhower struggled mightily to dissuade British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from meeting with Russian leaders in the wake of Stalin’s death. Ike fearing a “propaganda feast” for the Russians at the expense of the western alliance. “[We must] throw back the Russian threat and allow civilization, as we have known it, to continue its progress,” Eisenhower wrote Churchill. “Unless [we] are successful . . . there will be no history of any kind, as we know it. There will be only a concocted story made up by the Communist conquerors of the world.”
The Communists are gone, as are the Eisenhower Republicans. But the motives of Stalin and a succession of Russian dictators, the motives of Vladimir Putin, remain very much with us. It is a truly amazing turn in American politics that a Republican president and the Republican Party are enabling this history-bending occurrence.
“This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany.”
– Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in an interview on MSNBC, about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.
The venerable Senator Feinstein is correct; we are not Nazi Germany – at least not yet.
But we are beginning, in some remarkably troubling ways, to resemble the ill-fated Weimar Republic that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A chilling new book – The Death of Democracy – tells the story of how a cultured, sophisticated people – Weimar Germany was the land of Richard Strauss and Bertolt Brecht, the home to Nobel Prize winners – tumbled into deep political division and then widespread street violence and then a dictatorship and tragedy.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic “created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection of individual rights and freedoms.”
“If Germany had long prided itself on being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history.”
We still wonder how it happened and why.
Part of the answer, Hett writes, was a breakdown in what was regarded in Germany as acceptable political behavior. Brown shirted toughs took to the streets intimidating political opponents and “others” – Jews and Communists, in particular. German politics became deeply polarized, while nationalism and a national sense of grievance grew. Jews were scapegoated as part of a vast global conspiracy that was somehow tied to Communism.
Hett argues, compellingly and disturbingly, that the rise of the Nazis was in large part a response to globalization and economic change. Major Nazi political theorists actually adopted a policy of “autarky,” the notion that “a country can cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, no imports, no exports, or foreign investments.”
Proving the old saying that “the only thing new is the history we haven’t read” is this remarkable statement from Hitler in 1928. “The German people have no interest,” he wrote, in a “German financial group or a German shipyard establishing a so-called subsidiary shipyard in Shanghai to build ships for China with Chinese workers and foreign steel.” Such an arrangement would not benefit Germany since, Hitler said, jobs that should benefit Germany would not be created in Germany. As the historian Hett notes, “The political mobilization of the late 1920s, especially among those Protestant groups who would become the Nazi base, was mostly about Germany’s vulnerable position in the world economy and financial system.”
When the German conservative establishment – business leaders, the military, Protestant evangelicals and importantly Great War hero Paul von Hindenburg – eventually turned to a bombastic Austrian veteran who preached a virulent form of nationalism heavily doused with racial animus – Jews were his “vermin” – Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. His Nationalist Socialist Workers Party had never commanded more than about 30% of the popular vote before he reached the top of German politics.
“These conservatives could have stopped Hitler in his tracks,” Hett writes. “Instead, they chose to use him.” Business leaders liked his talk of an expanding German economy, higher tariffs and his plans to crack down on labor unions. Military leaders, smarting from how the Great War had ended, appreciated Hitler’s pledge to rebuild Germany’s armed forces. Evangelical Christians flocked to him because he seemed to promise that he would marginalize other Catholic backed political parties.
Within a matter of weeks after being appointed chancellor, Hitler, a brilliant communicator with a flair for the theatrical, had consolidated power to himself. The burning of the Reichstag – the German parliament building – four weeks after he took office was a galvanizing event, an excuse to create a police state. Hitler blamed the fire on Communist conspirators, almost certainly a lie, and historians still debate whether the Nazis staged the whole thing.
Without regard to facts, Nazi paramilitary brown shirts began locking up political opponents, silenced the independent press and deepened the Nazi party’s appeal to very conservative German farmers and small business people who craved stability.
“The key to understanding why many Germans supported him,” Hett writes, “lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. Hitler himself, in the words of his biographer Joachim Fest, was ‘always thinking the unthinkable,’ and ‘in his statements an element of bitter refusal to submit to reality invariably emerged.’”
Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany thanks to a series of lies, boasts, grand promises and raw appeals to emotion, racism, hatred and strength. Many Germans thought the strutting, one-time postcard painter with the pasty complexion simply wouldn’t last. But while he played his role Hitler could be a necessary evil – a tool – to crush the liberal left, the trade unions, intellectuals and elites. History is made of such horrible miscalculations.
There are, of course, no perfect historic analogies. Each generation stumbles ahead or falls behind on it’s own accord, but it is also true that history contains valuable lessons that we would be wise to heed. This is such a moment.
When politicians say, as the American president did recently, that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.” We would be well advised to take them at face value. The American Constitution, of course, guarantees due process – to everyone regardless of legal status.
Dehumanizing your opponents is a tried and true tactic of authoritarians. When the president of the United States calls Hispanic or Latino human beings “animals” or “thugs” or “vermin” and refers to an African-American congresswoman as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” it is impossible to see such language as anything but dehumanizing.
By responding to the congresswoman’s incendiary and profoundly improper encouragement of harassment against Trump Administration officials with his own taunts – “be careful what you wish for” – the president doubles down on a politics of confrontation and demonization.
Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared the administration’s recent border separation strategy with the infamous “internment” of Japanese-Americans in 1942, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in modern American history. The actor George Takei, who with his parents was interned in one of the camps, has written that two big lies, including the fiction that a law exists demanding the separations, have fueled the authoritarian border policy.
“The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of ‘criminal’ today raises echoes of the wartime ‘enemy’ to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.”
As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote last week: “It is worth noting how often the president repeatedly conflates refugees with illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members. This is not an accident: He has targeted a group and given them characteristics — they are violent, they are rapists, they are gang members — that don’t belong to most of them. He then describes them with dehumanizing language. Democrats, he has tweeted, ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.’ The image of ‘infestation’ evokes, again, vermin and lice. A few weeks earlier, he spoke of MS-13 as ‘animals,’ once again making it unclear whether he meant actual gang members or simply those who distantly resemble them.”
Or as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists and other criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.”
When the president of the United States, against most credible advice and in the face of much history about how global trade works, imposes tariffs on imports from the nation’s closest allies and threatens retaliation against American companies it’s difficult not to conclude that he is playing on old fears about globalization.
Denigrating a Free Press…
When the president of the United States on a daily basis denigrates “the fake news” and criticizes news organizations and reporters by name it is impossible not to see parallels to the Nazi manifesto that declared that editors and contributors to newspapers “be people’s comrades” and that “newspapers which violate the general good are to be banned.”
The president has now actually uttered the words “enemy of the people,” a term Stalin often used, to label the press that routinely still calls out his lies and incompetence.
“One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialed in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.”
Americans, long content to embrace our myth of “exceptionalism,” now are grouped with a growing list of nations around the world where democracy is in retreat. Yes, it is happening here. We are exceptional, but not in the way Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt envisioned.
A new report by European researchers contend that 2.5 billion people – a third of the world’s population – now live in countries where democracy is on the run. As the study indicates, “In recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number ‘registering significant change toward autocracy’ has increased. Even worse, ‘the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy”—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—‘far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries.’”
“A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization,” the researchers note. “This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”
One can look back over the tumultuous last 18 months of American history in one of two ways.
One type of analysis would say: True enough, Donald J. Trump has upset a lot of traditions and norms in American politics. Other presidents have been liars, exaggerators, provocateurs who upset the status quo. We may not like all his language or emphasis, but the United States has been around a long time and navigated many challenging times. Trump has attacked judges and journalists, trashed Democrats and tarnished his GOP critics, but the system still works. We’ll be fine.
Another version of the same facts might well reach an altogether bleaker conclusion. The systematic dehumanizing of refugees and immigrants will last well beyond the current occupant of the White House. The disparagement of the independent press undermines, perhaps permanently, a vital check on misconduct and abuse of power. The criticism of judges, the claim that a special counsel investigation is “a witch hunt” and the suggestion that due process is an outdated concept are broadly damaging to the concept of the rule of law. The widespread abrogation by Congress of oversight of the executive branch – few oversight hearings, little if any complaint about manifest ethical transgressions and embracing policies and approaches Republicans would once have rejected totally – is an historic erosion of the time-tested systems of checks and balances. Nationalism, anti-globalism, trade wars, a growing cult of personality around Trump all show a clear and dramatic break with American values. This cannot end well.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett notes several times in his profoundly important book about the fall of the Weimar Republic that most Germans in the 1920s and early 1930s really didn’t want violence in the streets, didn’t want to see the “liberal” values of an enlightened society crushed, but for most it was difficult to tell in real time how bad things were becoming. And then it was too late.
“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shooting of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last month of the Second World War,” Hett says in summing up what happened. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”