Just when you think we’ve had the dumbest political week in human history, Monday rolls around again.
It’s 2019. So I’m not holding out a lot of hope for the week that starts today (it’s barely Sunday, East coast time). Monday’s coming tomorrow.
But we sure had a humdinger this past week. We have a border crisis, a Middle East crisis, something edging pretty close to a China crisis, an opioid crisis, and probably a handful of other crises. But who cares about that?
The important thing was that we had a presidential tweet crisis and a Squad Crisis – none of which actually had to interfere with the fold of our knickers, unless we’re all big babies with less self-possession than an 18-month-old in a saggy diaper. There are remedies for these annoyances; since the principals involved are politicians, the remedies entail finding ways to outvote them.
Some people did some things, for sure. I thought we’d seen everything, and then Saturday gave us a Georgia state representative who first claimed that a man in the checkout line at the grocery store told her to “go back where she came from” – and then held a press conference outside the grocery store, at which the man himself showed up to challenge her version of the event, asserting forcefully that yes, he had called her the “B” word because she had too many items for the express line, but no, he most certainly did not tell her to “go back where she came from.” Moreover, he is Cuban, and he’s also a Democrat (like the representative, in fact; and as Internet sleuths quickly demonstrated from his Facebook page, he absolutely hates Trump).
Today I was verbally assaulted in the grocery store by a white man who told me I was a lazy SOB and to go back to where I came from bc I had to many items in the express lane. My husband wasn’t there to defend me because he is on Active Duty serving the country I came from USA!
— Erica Thomas (@itsericathomas) July 20, 2019
A few thoughts on this:
1. Let's see the surveillance video.
2. The man's FB page is filled with anti-Trump postings.
3. He says he's Cuban, not white. The AP identifies him as white.
4. A few days ago he defended The Squad.
5. Let's see the surveillance video. https://t.co/B8mShcoGmg
— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) July 20, 2019
There you go. pic.twitter.com/VtLhUQyHwG
— JPM (@JuniorPardoXVI) July 20, 2019
So, like, there. I guess. Whatever, man.
Choose a side in that one if it seems important to you. If it helps, the legislator apparently copped to having too many items in the express line, but said it was because she’s nine months pregnant.
I can tell you this: what there is no need for is the banal, reflexive lectures we’re hearing on how nobody should ever chant “Send her back!” or tweet about others going to the places “they came from” and seeing if they can fix the nasty problems there before criticizing this country.
Of course those are stupid, wrong things to lob at people as dialogue-stoppers. They’re like hollering “racism!” about everything. Smack yourself in the jaw and don’t do it.
But if all this volleying of dialogue-stoppers at each other, and all this rebuking and reproving each other, could fix our problems, they’d be so fixed by now you couldn’t pry them unfixed with a jackhammer and a blowtorch.
I don’t think our problems being too fixed is the situation we’re facing. So let’s start by acknowledging that what we’ve been doing, with the lecturing and hectoring and one-upping each other, isn’t getting us anywhere.
Before moving on, because I’m incorrigibly committed to solution-finding, I do have one thing to point out. If you need to chant in a crowd about a politician you object to – and for me, the need to chant doesn’t really come up in that context; I’m more of a “Block that kick!” type crowd-chanter, if anything – there’s one chant that’s always polite and appropriate. “Vote her out!” would be perfect in the case of Ilhan Omar (or insert your politician of choice here).
With that behind us, let me shift focus to a couple of things from the last week that we could more profitably reflect on.
The Democrats’ dilemma
This one is extremely important, and hasn’t been getting enough oxygen. Although both political parties are kind of a hot mess right now, the Democrats have especially tough going, largely because they’re looking for an agenda and a brand for 2020 and they can’t find one that’s actually unifying.
At a very vulnerable time, when they’ve got big dark-money donors and a disenchanted grassroots pulling them in different directions, the legacy Democrats are trying to fend off a challenge from the younger progressives whose emblems are “the squad”: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar.
The squad are not independent one-offs, if you take the trouble to research their histories. They were and are backed by radical PACs funded by dark money, and the PACs have been planning their next primary challenges, on a larger stage, since Election Day in 2018. Bernie Sanders isn’t radical enough for the squad’s backers, and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are obstacles: too legacy, too old, too conventional, too square.
But the pivotal dynamics of the Democratic problem may not be the one(s) that first come to mind. The reaction this past week to Trump’s tweets about the squad illuminate that, in a way that must not be missed.
“The President won this one,” a House Democratic lawmaker told the news outlet’s chief Washington correspondent. “What the President has done is politically brilliant. Pelosi was trying to marginalize these folks, and the President has now identified the entire party with them.”
This was something of a brilliant effect, at least superficially, whether you believe Trump intended it or not. But it didn’t just happen willy-nilly.
It happened because the legacy Democrats understood themselves to be constrained to align with the squad in this showdown. Avoiding that didn’t have to be a matter of aligning with Trump; that wasn’t “the” alternative. But the old-school Democrats have been unable all along to effectively repudiate the genuinely radical, even unthinkable positions espoused by the squad, up to and including classic forms of anti-Semitism, the demented charge that everyone in America is racist, and absurdly unrealistic policies on things like “climate change” and health care.
And during Trump Tweet Week, they failed the test again.
They failed it because they don’t see an alternative to falling in line with a radicalism that is under the protection of identity politics. And the crucial pressure point for that is not where you think it is. It’s not with the American people’s mindset. The people are disgusted by identity politics. It’s not with Nancy Pelosi or DNC Chair Tom Perez. It’s not even with the dark-money donors and their all-important checkbooks.
The pressure point for the enforcement of identity politics lies with the mainstream media.
If legacy Democrats don’t fall in line, they stand to lose the immunity they typically enjoy against negative media coverage. They fear they’ll be treated like Republicans. They fear they’ll be treated like Trump.
They have good reason for that fear. The first thing Ocasio-Cortez did when Nancy Pelosi got crossways of her was charge Pelosi with racism. Trump, of all people, defended Pelosi without hesitation, as I think most Americans would. Even if you don’t like her or her politics, few people would call Pelosi a racist.
But the mainstream media actually gave Ocasio-Cortez’s allegation respectful consideration – just as, this same week, they have covered the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing by lamenting that it was a sexist, racist, and who knows, probably a homophobic and xenophobic endeavor. That’s how far gone the media are today.
And so, one of the top leaders of the Democratic Party, long immune from such tactics, found herself being discussed as a potential racist as if she were a … Republican.
Every Democrat saw that, and probably felt his or her blood run cold. What we call the “mainstream media” have become astonishingly radical in the last two decades. And their project now is enforcing an agenda of radical politics by according potentially fatal bad coverage to anyone who breaches it.
Trump continues to withstand the most negative media coverage anyone alive today has ever seen. But a whole lot of Democrats are pretty much like the dozens of Republicans who retired from Congress in 2018: they didn’t sign up to try to work in this environment of cutthroat media coverage and blood on the floor.
As long as Democrats perceive the media to wield a hammer over them, they’ll find it very hard to avoid being maneuvered into alignment with the young radicals. That’s a serious problem for America.
What I would submit to your consideration, however, is this. The remedy is not to have some new government policy about media coverage. The remedy is for each of us – each voter, each citizen – to stop reflexively letting our minds be poisoned by easily perverted mantras like “racism!”
Richard Spencer, David Duke, and Louis Farrakhan are racists. Hardly anyone else is, starting with Donald Trump.
We will find that it isn’t possible to insist on one vilified group being “racist!” and not have that toxin destroy the atmosphere of politics for everyone. The good news is that mostly, what we need to do is stop looking at the mainstream media. If we stop accepting the input, we’ll stop thinking in toxically resentful ways.
And if we do that, the power of the media will be broken. That power won’t be able to herd Democrats around from one untenable position to another. The Democrats will have breathing room to find a way ahead, without succumbing as if they’re dialectically fated to a Bolshevik takeover.
The politics of personal attack
You might be excused for thinking we’ve had the politics of personal attack with us for a long time. And in the sense of what politicians throw at each other in election season, and what the media have no qualms about giving a boost to, that’s certainly true.
But there’s a form of personal attack that Congress has had a rule against for a long time, and that’s using pejorative scare-words, including political ones, against fellow members or other politicians in chamber debate and formal resolutions.
Unsurprisingly, when Nancy Pelosi stood up in the House this past week to condemn President Trump, her breach of that rule was one of the best illustrations we could have of what the rule is about. Pelosi called Trump a “racist,” and condemned him for “racism” – in spite of the fact that, however rude or ill-considered his tweeted comments were, it is legitimately debatable whether they were even racist at all.
She might have accomplished something for public dialogue by making a case that what Trump had tweeted could qualify as racist, and the House of Representatives viewed it with concern. I might not agree that it was racist, per se, but I would agree that the debate would be fair on those terms, and concerns not out of line.
Instead, Pelosi assumed the racism as the basis for condemning Trump. The Democrats running the debate and vote were flummoxed; Republican Representative Doug Collins stepped in to ask that the Speaker’s comments be stricken for breaching the rule, and Majority whip Steny Hoyer had to agree that was appropriate.
Pelosi claimed to have cleared her move with the House parliamentarian, but the parliamentarian said she hadn’t. Shortly thereafter, the House chair in charge of the floor agenda for the day, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, literally abandoned his post, refusing to be there for whatever insoluble problem was about to erupt.
Ultimately Pelosi did simply break the rule. The House Democrats, with Hoyer stepping in as chair, voted to accept her comments in breach of the rule, the vote on the resolution was held, and Trump was condemned as a racist (just as he was, over and over again, in the mainstream media coverage).
Too many modern ears don’t hear, incipient, the jackbooted Stalinism in this episode. This is the kind of summary language in which Stalin’s homicidal tribunals spoke in the 1930s, condemning people by the dozens for political crimes defined only in the terms of scare-words, and herding them out the back door to be shot.
It’s not a light, meaningless thing to let this happen. It opens a door that must remain closed, if peaceful, consensual, rule-of-law government is to remain our norm.
It’s extremely important, moreover, to be honest about how this happened. Trump didn’t force anyone to do this. He had no power to. People who were “better” than Trump in a moral sense wouldn’t be driven to start acting like the brutal deputies of Josef Stalin just because a president said annoying things. The toxicity of our current political environment isn’t caused by Trump. The causes of it long predated Trump’s emergence in politics.
Mondays, Trump tweets, and hyperbole from the progressive “squad” in the House are going to keep rolling around. We can spend all our time on inane arguments and pointless rebukes – and if we’re going to do that, put me down for the grocery store parking lot disputes over whether some random Cuban dude told a pregnant, express-lane-violating lawmaker to “go back where she came from,” or only called her the “B” word while virtuously hating Trump.
Or we can keep our eyes on what matters, like saving the Republic and breaking the radicalizing power of toxic media themes. I’ve found this to be true: you can’t start with hostility and suspicion and talk yourself into goodwill from there. It’s impossible. You have to start with an assumption that goodwill is always better, and talk yourself from there into the benefits of generosity, fairness, and the rule of law.