Category: The State

Thoughts on Russiagate, Mueller, and Trump’s Prospects for Reelection

I find myself in a peculiar position with regard to the Mueller report (assuming—big assumption, I know—that we have a good enough sense at this point of what’s in it). On the one hand, I was part of the Russiagate skeptic circle. I didn’t doubt that Russia had attempted to influence the election, but I didn’t think that attempt had much if any consequence; those who did, I thought, were grasping at straws. Nor did I think there was a strong case for the claim that Trump actively colluded with that effort and had thus put himself and the United States in hock to Putin. The evidence of all the active anti-Russian measures on the part of the US since […]

A State of Emergency or a State of Courts?

The Washington Post reports this morning, “If President Trump declares a national emergency to construct a wall on the southern border, only one thing is certain: There will be lawsuits. Lots of them. From California to Congress, the litigants will multiply.” One of several elements of our time that I don’t think proponents of the authoritarianism or fascism thesis truly confront is just how much of Trump’s rule is mediated and ultimately decided upon by the courts. Whenever Trump does something, everyone automatically assumes (and rightly so) that whether he can do it or not will be settled not by his violence or the alt-right’s strongman tactics or white supremacist masses in the streets but by an independent judiciary. Now […]

What does Trump’s pending declaration of emergency mean about his power and the state of his presidency?

What does Trump’s pending declaration of a state of emergency, so that he can commandeer funds to pay for his wall, mean politically? What does it tell us about his power or powerlessness? I’ve talked on many occasions about Steve Skowronek’s theory of presidential power. In that account, presidential power is dependent on two factors: the strength and resilience of the existing regime, and the affiliation or orientation (supportive or opposed) of the president to that regime. The strongest presidents are those who come to power in opposition to an extraordinarily weak and tottering regime, who shatter that regime and construct a new one. Think Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan. The weakest presidents are those who are affiliated to a weak […]

Beer Track, Wine Track, Get Me Off This Fucking Train

Yesterday, on Twitter, I tweeted a version of this claim: Beto, Harris, Klobuchar, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker: The basis of their candidacies is ultimately them, their person. That’s what they all have in common. Sanders and Warren are the only two candidates whose basis is a set of ideas, well worked out over the years, about the economy and the state. The tweet was one part of a much longer Facebook post, in which I elaborated the point. Here’s a short excerpt from that post: Among the many reasons that I have no time for the first set of candidates is that I’m so tired of these quintessentially American campaigns that are so wrapped up in the personality of the candidate, […]

On that dreadful Brexit movie

We saw that Brexit movie on HBO last night. God was it dreadful. Set aside the fetish for elite movers and shakers behind the scenes, the conspiratorial mindset of master manipulators of public opinion. (It’s kind of a weird moment where everyone across the spectrum seems to have their own versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.) What was most grating about the film was how utterly familiar and clichéd was the lead character Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was the mastermind behind the Leave campaign. In Benedict/Cummings, we get—inadvertently, I’m quite convinced: self-importance; failed attempts at oracularity that wind up being platitudinous; incomprehensible scribbling on the white board, meant to signal that we’re in the presence […]

The Future of the Supreme Court in the Liberal Imagination

Imagine you’re a law student today—remembering how Gorsuch was appointed for a seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland; thinking about how Kavanaugh was appointed despite the obvious truth of Christine Blasey Ford’s claims about his attempted assault on her; and anticipating the very real possibility that Trump may get yet a third appointment to replace Ginsburg. The Supreme Court of your future will consist of a six-person right-wing majority. Two justices of that majority will forever have the stench of credible charges of sexual assault or sexual harassment hanging over them. Four justices of that majority will forever be the appointees of presidents who didn’t win the popular vote (or five justices if you throw in Alito, who […]

The Scandal of Democracy: Seven Theses for the Socialist Left

1. The Supreme Court has always been the scandal of American democracy. How do you justify the power that nine unelected judges—almost all of them, historically, white men—wield in a society that styles itself a democracy? 2. That scandal reached a peak in the last third of the twentieth century, when a combination of hard-right judicial theorists (Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia among them) and nervous liberals started worrying about what was called “the counter-majoritarian difficulty” or the “counter-majoritarian dilemma.” 3. The result of that reconsideration of the Court and judicial review was, among other things, the theory of constitutional interpretation that we call originalism. Originalism held that the only justification for the Court reviewing and overruling the decisions of […]

The Day Zach Galifianakis Saved Obamacare

The website for Obamacare was launched on October 1, 2013. That was the same day the 2013 Republican-led shutdown of the government began. The 16-day shutdown—which was essentially caused by Ted Cruz, who held up the passage of a spending bill because the Democrats wouldn’t agree to defund the Affordable Care Act they had just passed—failed. But one of the reasons the Republicans never paid a price for the shutdown was that it got completely overshadowed by the clusterfuck of the failed launch of the website, which was called Healthcare.gov. The failure of the Healthcare.gov caused no end of tsuris for the entire Obama administration, but especially for Brad Jenkins, who was the Associate Director of the Office of Public […]

Why the argument for democracy is now working for socialists rather than against them

One of the most fascinating things, to me, about the current moment and the revival of socialism is how the whole question of democracy—not substantive or deep democracy, not participatory democracy, not economic democracy, but good old-fashioned liberal democratic proceduralism—plays out right now on the left. Throughout most of my life and before, if you raised the banner of socialism in this country or elsewhere, you had to confront the question of Stalinism, Soviet-style sham elections, one-party rule, and serial violations of any notion of democratic proceduralism. No matter how earnest or fervent your avowals of democratic socialism, the word “democracy” put you on the defensive. What strikes me about the current moment is how willing and able the new […]

The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse

During the Roosevelt Administration, they were known as the Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse). They were Justices Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Van Devanter. They voted, again and again, against the New Deal. This is what they looked like. Tonight, with Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh, we have the Five Horsemen. They are Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and, once he’s confirmed, Kavanaugh. They will vote, again and again, against whatever progressive legislation Congress and the states manage to pass in the future. This is what they look like.              

Did Anthony Kennedy ever sniff glue? And other stories of nominations past

Last week, after Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, Donald Trump declared, “Outside of war and peace, of course, the most important decision you make is the selection of a Supreme Court judge.” As we await Trump’s announcement on Monday of this most important decision, let’s take a gander at the history of nominations past. 1. In 1990, when George H.W. Bush was casting about to replace retired Supreme Court justice William Brennan, the consensus candidate in the White House was Ken Starr. 2. Starr got nixed by Dick Thornburgh, who was Bush’s Attorney General. Thornburgh thought Starr was too much of a squish, not sufficiently hard-right, especially about presidential power. 3. Today, Thornburgh is one of […]

When the Senate was a goyisch old boys’ club

As I head into the home stretch of Clarence Thomas, I’m poring over the more than three-thousand-page transcript of Thomas’s Senate Confirmation hearings in 1991. One of the eeriest revelations from that reading is not how much the Senate in 1991 was an old boys’ club; that we already knew from Anita Hill. Nor is it how much the Senate in 1991 was a white old boys’ club; that we already knew from Thomas. No, what really comes out from the hearings is how much the Senate of 1991 was a goyisch, even WASP-y, old boys’ club. Some of the most uncomfortable moments of the hearings, for me as a Jew, is to see the subtle, almost invisible, ways in […]

Oedipus in Berlin: How a German television series about the Cold War re-tells an ancient myth

If you’re looking for an excellent television series to watch, I highly recommend The Same Sky, a German production about Berlin in 1974, which you can now stream on Netflix. I had been complaining on Facebook about how amid all the new detective shows from abroad—especially the noirish/Anglo/Nordic TV series —it was hard to find a series that didn’t rely for its suspense and thrills on either the sexual abuse and rape of women or harm to children. The series Fortitude is one of the worst offenders on this score.  At one point I thought I was going to literally throw up and had to run out of the room to the bathroom. I didn’t throw up, but I didn’t go back […]

Democracy is Norm Erosion

Two or three weeks ago, I had an intuition, a glimpse of a thought that I pushed away from consciousness but which has kept coming back to me since: The discourse of norm erosion isn’t really about Trump. Nor is it about authoritarianism. What it’s really about is “extremism,” that old stalking horse of Cold War liberalism. And while that discourse of norm erosion won’t do much to limit Trump and the GOP, its real contribution will be to mark the outer limits of left politics, just at a moment when we’re seeing the rise of a left that seems willing to push those limits. That was my thought. And now we have this oped by Steven Levitsky and Daniel […]

Trump’s power is shakier than American democracy

“As soon as Trump became a serious contender for the presidency, journalists and historians began analogizing him to Hitler. Even the formulator of Godwin’s Law, which was meant to put a check on the reductio ad Hitlerum, said: ‘Go ahead and refer to Hitler when you talk about Trump.’ After Trump’s election, the comparisons mounted, for understandable reasons. “But as we approach the end of Trump’s first year in power, the Hitler analogies seem murky and puzzling, less metaphor than mood…. “There’s little doubt that Trump’s regime is a cause for concern, on multiple grounds, as I and many others have written. But we should not mistake mood for moment. Even one that feels so profoundly alien as ours does now. For that, too, has a history in America. “During […]

When it comes to domination—whether of race, class, or gender—there are no workarounds

Thomas Edsall says some frustrating, historically shortsighted things in this interview with Isaac Chotiner. After calling for the Democrats to be more moderate, to trim on issues that divide the country—the presumption being that moderation in one party breeds moderation in the other or that moderation in one party checks the extremism of the other (we’ll come back to that)—Edsall brings up the infamous Boston busing battle of the 1970s. This exchange ensues: Q: So what do you draw from the busing controversy then? What advice would you have given racial justice advocates in the 1970s? A: The goal of school integration was a crucial and important one. The mechanism to achieve it—of pitting working-class whites against working-class blacks—was not […]

What’s wrong with the discourse of norm erosion?

We’ve now had, in less than 20 years, two presidents elected over and against the expressed preferences (not in a poll, but in actual ballots) of the majority of the voters. I think most Democrats, liberals, and leftists would agree that both of these presidents were or are disasters. So these two elections were democratic catastrophes on both procedural and substantive grounds. Yet the single most important determinant of these two disasters—the fact that we have a Constitution that creates an Electoral College that privileges the interests of states over persons—cannot, by the terms of the discourse, be counted as a norm erosion. Indeed, when it comes to this main determinant of the Electoral College and how it works, there […]

Forty Years of The Firm: Trump and the Coasian Grotesque

In his classic article “The Nature of the Firm“—which I wish would be put on the list of required reading for political theorists; it really should be in our canon—the economist R.H. Coase divides the economic world into two modes of action: deal-making, which happens between firms, and giving orders, which happens within firms. Coase doesn’t say this, but it’s a plausible extrapolation that making deals and giving orders are, basically, the two things businessmen know how to do. In the last year, it’s occurred to me, on more than one occasion, that Trump is a Coasian grotesque. Making deals and giving orders: that’s all he knows how to do. Except that he doesn’t. As we’re seeing, he’s really bad […]

If you don’t think that some day you’ll be looking back fondly on Trump, think again: That day has already come.

Back in March 2016, I made a prediction: If, God forbid, Trump is elected, some day, assuming we’re all still alive, we’ll be having a conversation in which we look back fondly, as we survey the even more desultory state of political play, on the impish character of Donald Trump. As Andrew March said to me on Facebook, we’ll say something like: What a jokester he was. Didn’t mean it at all. But, boy, could he cut a deal. When I wrote that, I was thinking of all the ways in which George W. Bush, a man vilified by liberals for years, was being rehabilitated, particularly in the wake of Trump’s rise. Yesterday’s speech, in which Bush obliquely took on Trump, was merely […]

“It’s Scalias All the Way Down”: Why the very thing that scholars think is the antidote to Trump is in fact the aide-de-Trump

Mike Allen is reporting this morning: Trump was upbeat and brought up a Kim Strassell column in The Wall Street Journal, “Scalias all the way down,” giving the president credit for “remaking the federal judiciary.”‘ I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. While political scientists warn against the norm erosion of the Trump presidency—and dwell on the importance of the courts, the Constitution, and the rule of law as antidotes—the most far-seeing leaders of the conservative movement and the Republican party understand that long after Trump has left the stage, long after the Republican Party has lost its hold over the political discourse and political apparatus, it will be Trump’s judiciary—interpreting the Constitution, applying the rule of law—that […]