Here is why GOP gerrymandering will backfire on Republicans

Ron Watkins, the guy most QAnon experts believe is one-half of the duo — with his father Jim Watkins — to be the infamous Q of QAnon (He denies it) is now running for Congress. Watkins has relocated to Arizona from Japan, where he was believed by most QAnon researchers to have written the "Q drops" — along with his father — by pretending to be a high-placed D.C. official in the Donald Trump administration. He's planning to run as a Republican against Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom O'Halleran.

Watkins didn't pick Arizona's 1st district out of any real connection to the area, or even the state. The district has become a hot commodity because, after a robust bout of gerrymandering by the GOP-controlled state legislature, it's believed that the congressional seat will likely turn over to a Republican. Subsequently, the race is a magnet for a lot of Republicans with congressional dreams and a better base of donors than the denies-he-is-Q guy.

GOP political consultants are quick to downplay the possibility that Watkins could win. Arizona Republican political consultant Stan Barnes told Will Sommer of the Daily Beast that a guy "who's allegedly related to the QAnon phenomenon has no chance of winning." But as Sommer pointed out, "QAnon connections haven't proved disqualifying" for Republicans like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado. Indeed, Donald Trump incited an insurrection on the Capitol that was manned heavily by QAnoners, and he is the current favorite to win the 2024 election. Watkins is squirrelly, will likely be outspent, and his sleazy history includes giving an interview in a brothel — so I wouldn't bet in his favor. Still, he's not crazy to think that he's got a shot.

Blame gerrymandering.

Across the country, Republicans — who already control the majority of state legislatures — are working swiftly to redraw election maps to marginalize Democratic voters and create as many non-competitive Republican seats as possible. Most of the political coverage of this, for understandable reasons, is focused on how this will further enshrine the Republican power, giving them what could very well be permanent control of the federal government, despite the fact that most voters actually cast their ballots for Democrats.

RELATED: New round of GOP gerrymandering in Southern states could be the most racist yet

But another, less intended consequence of gerrymandering is that it will speed up the Republican race to the bottom.

GOP gerrymandering empowers an ever-larger cast of idiots, conspiracy theorists, con artists, and open white nationalists to win national office. The situation is bad now, with Congress home to characters like Taylor Green, Boebert and Florida's Rep. Matt Gaetz, currently under federal investigation for sex trafficking of minors. But it's about to get much worse. Very soon the clown car will unload its passengers into primary campaigns for all of these newly safe Republican seats created by gerrymandering.

Here's how it happens: In districts with safe seats for one party or another, the election that counts is not the general, but the dominant party's primary election. This lack of general election competition creates all sorts of problems, but it's less of an issue in Democratic districts, where the diversity of the coalition at least creates real ideological debate in primaries. For Republican candidates, however, the incentives are completely skewed.

The kinds of people who vote in Republican primaries are ... well, not America's best. Without having to worry about running candidates who have to compete against Democrats for moderate voters, GOP primary voters can just go with whatever candidate excites them the most. And what speaks to Republican primary voters is sadism, racism, and a deep commitment to wild conspiracy theories. Gerrymandering makes it so that America's worst voters also happen to be the only voters who count at all in an increasing number of districts.

This is how we got Gaetz, who won with nearly 65% of the vote in his staunchly Republican district, Taylor Green, who drew nearly 75% of the vote, and Rep. Paul Gosar, who flaunts his white nationalist yearnings and got nearly 70% of the vote in his deeply conservative Arizona district. Having a heavily Republican district is an open invitation for the worst people to run, secure in the knowledge that as long as they can win over the Newsmax-addled, Facebook-meme-sharing hard right nuts that vote in GOP primaries. After that, it's a red carpet straight to national office.

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Gerrymandering is not just a problem on the district level, either.

We can see from statewide offices what happens when Republicans don't feel they need to compete with Democrats in general elections. In both Florida and Texas, the incumbent Republican governors — Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, respectively – are running on what can be fairly described as a pro-COVID-19 platform. Both have waged all-out war on any effort to stymie the virus's ability to spread to as many bodies as possible, with a doggedness that is indistinguishable from what they'd do if they were trying to get their own constituents killed.

They aren't doing this to win any popularity contests in their states. On the contrary, polling shows repeatedly that the majority of Americans want leaders to fight the virus, not help it spread. In fact, their actions are causing Abbott and DeSantis to see big dips in their approval numbers. But neither of them cares because both states passed draconian voter suppression laws that shield Republican politicians from having to answer to the majority of their state residents. Having secured what they likely see as an easy GOP win through voter suppression, both Abbott and DeSantis are focused instead on pleasing Republican primary voters. Doing that means maximizing the sadism and the plain old nuttiness. As Adam Serwer wrote in the Atlantic, Abbott is "too afraid of his own base to act responsibly."

Such fear-based governance will only become more and more the norm as Republicans shut Democrats out of the ability to compete in general elections, meaning that Republican primaries loom ever larger as the only elections that count. The only way to win in many Republican primaries is to show you can out-crazy the other candidate.

So it's no wonder the guy who is alleged to be Q is running for office in Arizona. When all the political incentives favor a race to the bottom, the people who are already living in the sewer have a strong advantage.

What do 'centrists' want? Cutting back Biden's agenda isn't moderate — it's reckless

It appears that some version of President Joe Biden's jobs-and-infrastructure plan is still alive and could very well be passed soon, despite the strenuous efforts of some of the shadier Democrats in Congress to kill it. The Washington Post reports that Biden is agreeing to scale back the bill from the original $3.5 trillion price tag to $1.9 trillion, largely to placate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two centrist holdouts who have been vocal about their belief that the original bill is simply too big.

The Post describes Biden's new number as a possible "truce among Democrats' warring left-leaning and moderate factions." This language is misleading, however, for two major reasons. First, the vast majority of Democrats — 96%, to be exact, a group that encompasses both progressive and moderates— support passing Biden's original bill. The holdouts are just a handful of problem children, whose motivations are often more about ego and corruption than ideology. But just as importantly, such framing falsely implies that this is a clash between spendthrift progressives and the more fiscally restrained moderates.

In reality, however, Manchin and Sinema (and their buddies in the House) are the ones being financially irresponsible.

Their demands are short-sighted and often self-serving. They will only end up costing the country far more money, both in the short and long run, than would be spent if this bill were simply passed as-is. Biden's bill is about investing in climate, social, and health care infrastructure the country needs to prosper in the longer term. And without those investments, Americans are going to be facing serious problems that cost way more money to solve.

This isn't just a long term issue, either.

As Kate Riga of Talking Points Memo pointed out on a podcast last week, one way the original bill was going to "bring in a lot of money" was by allowing Medicare to negotiate on drug prices, bringing down the overall price tag of the bill. But Sinema has been blocking this provision, clearly more interested in pleasing her drug industry donors than saving the taxpayers money. This is in line with her opposition to raising corporate taxes to reduce the burden on ordinary taxpayers. None of this is the behavior of a "moderate" who is simply trying to be fiscally responsible. This is the behavior of a corporate sellout who is focused on funneling cash from ordinary people's wallets into the pockets of the already wealthy.

As Axios reports, the price gouging of the drug industry is completely out of control. For instance, Indocin, a common drug used to treat arthritis, cost $198 in 2008. The price has since ballooned to $10,350 a box. This is largely due to the fact that Medicare is blocked from aggressive drug price negotiation, allowing drug companies to charge whatever they want, and bill it to the taxpayer. This is corrupt, exploitative and basically theft — and it's what Sinema is protecting. There's nothing fiscally responsible about that.

Manchin's opposition to provisions to help ease the country off fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy follows the same pattern.

As Rebecca Leber of Vox writes, "There is nothing moderate or debatable about the catastrophic changes that global emissions are wreaking on the climate." The uptick in hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other catastrophic weather events brought by climate change don't just cause immense human suffering. They're incredibly expensive. As CNBC reported in January, the costs from extreme weather events cost $210 billion in 2020 alone, and, by all measures, the situation is rapidly getting worse. Contrast that with the $150 billion over 10 years proposed in the Build Back Better plan to encourage utility companies to switch to renewable energy — money that Manchin opposes spending.

This is clearly not about saving the taxpayers money, especially not in Manchin's home state, where the costs from flooding are sky high and expected to get even worse. The people who stand to profit from inaction are Manchin himself and his buddies in the dirty energy industry. Manchin is heavily invested in coal and has become a millionaire from it. And his campaign coffers are heavily filled by the fossil fuel industry, including donors who are typically more associated with the GOP than the Democrats.

As with Sinema and Big Pharma, Manchin's interests aren't really about fiscal responsibility. It's about enriching the already wealthy at the expense of people who live paycheck to paycheck. Worse, he's sacrificing the future of American children for short term profit.

That's not the only way Manchin, who is 74 years old, is abandoning the futures of the youngest Americans. Manchin is demanding a drastic rollback of proposals meant to help parents afford to raise their children in a healthy manner, from affordable childcare to the child tax credit. Again, the excuse for this is cost, but, as Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in the Washington Post, spending money on kids when they're young ends up saving taxpayers money while also improving prosperity for all:

When we underinvest in children, we pay the price for the rest of their lives, through higher spending on remedial education, reactive health care and criminal justice. Meanwhile, multiple studies have found that universal pre-K programs, for example, result in higher college attendance rates, lower arrest rates, lower welfare usage and lower unemployment — while subsidized child care can lead to improved health as adults and keep parents in the workforce.

True fiscal responsibility requires understanding the importance of smart investment. Money spent on infrastructure, child development and health care now can save Americans from having to face exponentially bigger bills down the road. This is basic common sense, and it's unlikely that Manchin and Sinema are so ignorant as to have never heard the phrase "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure." They just prefer forcing American taxpayers to forgo that ounce of prevention because they and their wealthy benefactors profit more from the pound of cure.

Giving into the demands of these two lobbyist addicts may be the only way for Biden to pass his bill, but it should serve as a reminder that corruption in D.C. is not a fringe concern. It's a financial drain on everyone but the wealthiest Americans who can afford to buy themselves a senator or two.

Fox News, Joe Rogan and the Proud Boys: How the fragility of the male ego fuels the far-right

The Proud Boys had another rally in California over the weekend, and a telling moment was clipped and shared by Ron Filipkowski, a lawyer turned chronicler of the far-right. One speaker, armed with a bullhorn, pointed to a group of Proud Boys and declared, they "got some single real men over here looking for some housewives." The men in the clip then joined together for a photo, flashing the "OK" symbol that has been appropriated as a way for white supremacists to signal each other while also — always — trolling the left.

In the space of a minute, it was a perfect illustration of the two-step process that the far-right has used for years now to recruit new followers: First, bait insecure men with fantasies of female submission. Once they're in, recruit them to white supremacy.

The misogyny-to-white-supremacy pipeline has long been well-documented, but in the past year and a half — with the rise of QAnon and the anti-vaccine movement, both perceived as more female-friendly than groups like the Proud Boys — the centrality of misogyny to authoritarian recruitment has faded somewhat from the discourse. Recent events, however, have been a strong reminder of how crucial gender anxiety is to far-right recruitment.

Authoritarians prey on insecure men, feeding them a story of how all their gnawing self-doubts can be silenced by embracing an unapologetically male chauvinist attitude. They recruit such men with a fairy tale about how the modern world is scary and confusing. The solution, they say, is to return to rigid, unforgiving gender roles that just so happen to value straight, cis men above all other people.

Last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson — who has perfected the art of trolling as a far-right recruitment strategy — managed to get some juicy bait out there, by sneering at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for taking paternity leave. Buttigieg, who is the first out gay man to be a Cabinet secretary, recently adopted a pair of twins with his husband. Carlson didn't hesitate from being a real pig about it, wondering if Buttigieg was "trying to figure out how to breastfeed."

As feminist writer Jessica Valenti noted in her newsletter, in the past, Carlson has done segments of his show denouncing "fatherless" homes and claiming children brought up in them are "poor, uneducated and have disciplinary problems." But now he, a father of four, is making fun of men who actually want to be present in their children's lives. "Are fathers necessary for stable families and children, or is spending time with your kid a sign of weakness and something to be laughed at?" Valenti asks.

What this dissonance reveals, of course, is all the hand-wringing about "fatherlessness" is just a feint. After all, many divorced or separated fathers are deeply involved with their children's lives. No, as the Proud Boys rally this weekend showed, what's really at stake is anger at women for rejecting subservience. Single mothers, same-sex marriages, and egalitarian marriages all show that there's nothing inevitable about male-dominated marriage. That threatens men who are attracted to the dominance fantasy of traditional marriage to silence their own nagging sense of inadequacy.

It's not just Carlson and the Proud Boys who have figured out how to monetize male mediocrity and fragility.

Podcaster Joe Rogan has made a mint off of appealing to the sea of men who want an easy boost to their self-esteem through chauvinistic chest-thumping, rather than developing real skills and a personality. Rogan can be a little more subtle than Carlson about it, but ultimately, they're playing on the same set of anxieties and insecurities in American men, and prescribing the same toxic masculinity as a supposed cure.

In Rogan, it's easy to see, for instance, how refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine got encoded for the fragile masculinity set as a way to "prove" their manly bona fides. He falsely claimed that "healthy" men who are "exercising all the time" don't need the vaccine. He repeatedly suggested that vaccine mandates were somehow an assault on freedom, rather than what they are: a common sense health measure that helps free everyone from far more miserable pandemic restrictions. Taken together, it paints a picture of vaccination as the behavior of supposedly weak men. Unsurprisingly, then, Rogan ended up with COVID-19 and had to admit that he had kept finding excuses to put off getting a vaccine he had routinely insinuated was emasculating.

Carlson went after a gay man with a breastfeeding joke. Rogan's preferred target for exercising his gender anxieties is all too often trans people.

Rogan has repeatedly used his show to make fun of trans people, paint being trans as a perversity, and elevate anti-trans bigots as somehow experts on the subject. Now that comedian Dave Chappelle has joined in making being transphobic a point of pride, unsurprisingly, he and Rogan are going on tour together. The obsession with trans people isn't just gross, it's a little confusing. Why do these cis men care so much about the lives of trans people who have nothing to do with them?

The ugly truth is that trans people, because they're a small and misunderstood minority, just feel like an easy punching bag for these insecure men to take their gender anxieties out on. The very existence of trans people is a reminder that gender — and therefore gender hierarchy — is a social construct, and therefore can be analyzed, criticized, and even changed. Or, as in that famous 2019 rant from a One America News Network host, transgender penguins are a threat to the "family unit" and everything conservatives hold dear.

For men who rely heavily on their belief in male superiority to bolster their self-esteem, the realization that gender is socially constructed is a distressing thought, and they take their rage about that out on trans people.

The irony is that no one proves the truth of gender's social construction more than the men who flock to Carlson and Rogan's show or join groups like the Proud Boys. None of them clearly feels confident that manhood is much of a biological, irrefutable fact that they claim it is. Instead, they are constantly trying to "prove" it, from demanding female submission to bashing trans people to refusing a vaccine. If masculinity isn't a social construct, then one wouldn't need to put so much work into socially constructing it.

It's funny to laugh at the deep-set insecurities that drive this kind of behavior. However, it's a problem for the entire country and one that's getting worse, not better. The people marshaling all this silly male angst aren't just making money from it. They're building an authoritarian political movement, one that is backing Donald Trump, the perfect avatar for inadequate men who think being a sexist bully somehow makes you a "real" man.

Democrats hit the panic button

Democratic voters are depressed, demoralized, and tuning out — and there's no use in denying it.

President Joe Biden's economic agenda is stuck in the mud, supported by 96% of Democrats in the Senate yet blocked by two senators whose massive egos and lobbyist addictions are causing them to turn against the party. Biden failed to enact vaccine mandates early enough or broadly enough so now millions of Fox News-addled Americans still are resisting vaccines, prolonging the pandemic and contributing to the national sense of despair. On top of that, Donald Trump has faced no real consequences for his attempted coup while the various criminal apparatchiks he surrounds himself with are also walking around happy and free. So efforts to stop the next coup are moribund, hitting the wall of Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who love that lobbyist-pleasing filibuster more than they love democracy.

Biden and Democrats were able to pass the American Rescue Plan early in his administration, and that staved off a worse situation. But "well, it could be worse" is an unsatisfying message, especially when the country is in dire straits and the threats against democracy are only escalating. The sense that this country is in a nosedive hasn't changed, even if the rate of descent has been temporarily slowed down.

Unsurprisingly, then, Democratic voters are increasingly giving up hope.

Biden's approval ratings are down and he's taking a hard hit among the very voters Democrats need to win in 2022 and 2024. As NBC News reported this week, "A Pew Research Center poll found that from July to September, Biden's approval rating fell by 18 points among Black voters, 16 points among Hispanics and 12 points among women." His approval is down 13 points among Democratic voters. As Cleve Wootsen writes in the Washington Post, the "Black and other minority voters who helped fuel Biden's victory" have started to "see what they consider unfulfilled promises and dwindling hope for meaningful change."

Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post details a similar phenomenon in which "female voters, whose engagement and activism fueled the gains that Democrats made during Donald Trump's presidency, are increasingly tuning out politics." Pollsters report that women in focus groups register a "sense of growing political ennui." One pollster noted that Black women especially are saying, "It doesn't matter who we elect, it's all the same."

This is really bad, especially as Republican voters are fired up by their bottomless sense of aggrieved entitlement and ready to turn out in 2022. Add to that voter suppression and gerrymandering, and it's looking like a bloodbath for Democrats in the midterms if they can't turn this ship around.

To be entirely fair to Democratic leadership, they seem well aware that they have a serious problem on their hands, and they are trying to do something to change the growing sense that Democrats are a do-nothing party.

The first big test of whether or not Democrats can show even a modicum of initiative and spine is in the handling of Trump crony Steve Bannon, who could soon be held in contempt of Congress for his refusal to answer a subpoena pertaining to Trump's coup and the January 6 insurrection. In theory, this is a jailable offense and Bannon should be in danger of a dramatic perp walk. Bannon clearly believes Democrats don't have the guts to do it. Democrats, however, are insisting otherwise.

"He will be prosecuted, that's our expectation," Rep. Adam Schiff of California told MSNBC. "He apparently feels he's above the law. But he's about to find out otherwise."

Big talk, but can they make good on it?

The process of actually doing so — described by CNN as "a series of steps needed to move forward," including holding meetings, writing a report, and referring it to the House for a vote, then referring it to the Justice Department — doesn't inspire confidence. Every step allows the notorious cowards in the party to get cold feet and telling themselves an idiotic story about how inaction somehow plays better with the voters than action. No wonder Bannon is so sure he'll get away with this.

Looking to the legislative agenda, there's a similar question about whether or not Democratic leaders, who clearly understand that their future success depends on current accomplishment, can get anything past the do-nothing obstructionists in their own party.

Voters want the entire package Biden promised, $3.5 trillion price tag and all, but Manchin (sigh!) is demanding they shrink the size of it. The good news is it appears most of the Democratic caucus is ready to play ball, understanding that doing something is better than doing nothing. House Democrats are strategizing about how to cut the topline number to placate Manchin, without giving up on must-pass policy items.

The remaining problem appears to be Sinema, who is, if it can be believed, an even worse person than Manchin.

Arizona's senior senator is reportedly still insisting that a smaller infrastructure bill that she helped craft with Republicans be passed before the larger bill. Her motives aren't exactly mysterious — this is a transparent effort to trick the 96% of the party that disagrees with her into giving her what she wants, so she can then renege on the deal and kill the bigger bill. Sinema isn't as clever as she thinks she is, but she is unfortunately powerful. Her combination of ego and idiocy may prove fatal to Biden's agenda.

Finally, there's voting rights and democracy reform, without which, there is probably no stopping Trump's out-in-the-open plans to steal the 2024 election.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is still trying to get bills to prevent at least some of the GOP efforts to gut democracy. Next week, he is bringing up for a vote the Freedom to Vote Act, a pared-down version of earlier voting rights legislation that Manchin claims to believe will attract enough Republican votes to overcome the filibuster.

Of course, it will not. The GOP is unified in their opposition to democracy. Even the two anti-insurrectionist House Republicans who are on the January 6 commission reject bills to shore up the right to vote. But Schumer's clear hope is that Manchin will see the entire GOP vote down a bill Manchin put so much hope in, and will change his mind, allowing filibuster reform so that voting rights can be protected.

I'm not holding my breath. Manchin's commitment to the filibuster is likely not as principled as he claims, but rooted more in protecting wealthy interests that constitute his donor base, who feel threatened by the possibility of real progressive change. But as repugnant as Manchin is acting, his behavior is just the symptom of a larger problem, which is the institutional morass making it hard for Democrats to make any of the changes necessary to stave off the looming threat of a total GOP takeover and, eventually, Trump's second term as president.

Still, it is actually quite remarkable how, despite all the roadblocks and institutional failures, a strong majority of Democrats on Capitol Hill do seem to understand both the problems the country faces and what the solutions should be. That wasn't always true, as anyone who has witnessed decades of do-nothing centrist control over the party can attest. In many ways, that makes the 2022 electoral bloodletting that is the likely result if Democrats can't turn the ship around even more tragic. These are mostly folks that are trying, and simply running up against a wall built by generations of their forebears who feared all change.

No wonder voters are so depressed. A party that refuses to listen to voters is frustrating, but so is a party that hears them but still can't do anything about it. Either way, it may not feel to many worth the effort to even vote.

The QAnon playbook: Republicans make school board meetings the new battleground

In the Donald Trump era, GOP politics are mainly about trolling. So it's no surprise that Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel manifested this week as an in-flesh version of an egg avatar tweeting memes about DEMON-crats and the glories of horse paste. The unlucky recipients of Mandel's trolling were members of a school board in a suburb of Cincinnati, where Mandel showed up to grandstand despite not having children in the district. His complaints were incoherent — a muddled mix of whining about mask mandates, screeching that "children should not be forced to learn about to pick a gender," and something about the district's book-keeping practices — but of course, actually making sense was not the point. The point was to get attention by being a jerk.

So Mandel walked himself through the standard troll protocol: Escalate obnoxious behavior until the target is forced to block you, or in this case, kick you out. Then sanctimoniously declare yourself a victim to your own followers, martyred by the censorious liberals who can't handle the truth bombs you were supposedly dropping.

Mandel followed this script faithfully. He declared on Twitter — freely and without a hint of self-awareness — that his "free speech" was being suppressed. He was just there to "defend moms and dads," he sanctimoniously insisted, before accusing the school board of "using kids as pawns in a political game."

As with most accusations leveled by right-wingers, this was really a confession.

The Ohio school board — like every other school board affected by the coordinated assault by unhinged right-wingers screaming about mask mandates and "critical race theory" — is just trying to navigate the difficult problem of educating children during a pandemic. It's Republicans who are using kids as political pawns, staging these increasingly ridiculous confrontations at school boards. It's nothing more than political theater to motivate the GOP base for the 2022 midterms.

They learned these tactics from the QAnon cult.

QAnon is, at its heart, a fascist movement dedicated to ending American democracy and, like many fascist movements, regards their leader, Donald Trump, as a god-like figure. But coming at people straight with that pitch is a tough sell. So, instead, the QAnon pitch is about "the children." They lure people in with lurid conspiracy theories about a worldwide pedophile cult, the sort of thing that, if it were true, really would be a cause to take action. Once in, the lies about "saving the children" serve as a justification, both to outsiders and to silence doubts in the followers. How can you call them fascists when all they want to do is "save the children?"

The beauty of using "the children" as a cover story is that it is blanket permission to be a monster. Any level of harassment or even violence can be justified, as long as protecting the innocence of children is invoked. (See: The attempted overthrow of American democracy by QAnon fanatics.) No wonder Republican operators have been inspired to take a page directly out of the QAnon playbook to manufacture this nationwide assault on school boards. Using imaginary threats to children as a recruitment-and-rationalization strategy works.

Republicans' cleaned up the conspiracy theory a little, as accusing Tom Hanks of pedophilia is a tough one to trick mainstream journalists into repeating. So the mainstream GOP version of the conspiracy theory is now "critical race theory" and something about how mask mandates are a sinister effort to wrest away parental authority, instead of a common sense health regulation. But the basic gist is the same: Pretend to believe that evil liberals want to hurt children, and use that as a permission slip to act on every antisocial impulse.

To be certain, Republican organizers have long understood that their base is composed of wannabe trolls just aching for an excuse to freak out in public. This understanding was harnessed in the early years of Barack Obama's presidency to protest his economic stimulus and in the GOP effort to prevent the Affordable Care Act from passing. The "Tea Party" started off as a total Astroturf affair, funded by the Koch brothers and organized by GOP operatives, built to look like a "grassroots" uprising of conservatives supposedly irate at social spending programs. But it tapped into a very real longing among everyday Republican voters to have racist temper tantrums in public. They just needed a cover story, and the Koch brothers gave it to them. Pop on a tricorner hat, drop the "without representation" part of the American revolutionary complaint about taxation, and now it's "patriotic" to scream barely coded racist vitriol at the local town hall meeting. The current assault on school boards follows the same formula.

"The sudden interest in school boards is not an organic grassroots movement of angry parents," but "an effort orchestrated by seasoned right-wing political operatives," Judd Legum at Popular Info writes, in a piece that identifies both the organizers, drawn heavily from the GOP consultant class and their GOP-linked funders. These people are then laundered into "concerned parents" — with no mention of their political affiliations — on Fox News. The organizing is deliberately constructed to look amateurish, as if this were just local parents having authentic reactions to local politics, instead of a well-financed national movement to construct a mass hysteria, aimed solely at the goal of electing Republicans.

The strategy works very well, because, as GOP operatives understand the scream-at-waiters-and-flight-attendant energy of America's Kens and Karens. Add to the mix the QAnon-esque fake concern for "the children," and that anti-social energy becomes explosive, as school board members across the country are finding out to their dismay.

No one should be fooled. Neither the organizers behind this Astroturf effort nor the ordinary Republican voters caught up in the excitement care one whit about American children. If they did, they sure wouldn't want them spreading COVID-19 in schools. In a broader sense, people who actually care about children want to fight climate change, want families to have access to affordable and quality child care, and want children born into homes where they are wanted and welcome — all values Democrats stand for (well, mostly) and Republicans universally oppose. Children are not harmed by learning racism is bad or by being protected from the novel coronavirus. But if these QAnon-style tactics work to elect Republicans in 2022, American children's futures are in very real peril indeed.

The Facebook whistleblower has exposed a dark reality about right-wing radicalization

There's been a steady drip of revelations for some time now about how much damage Facebook has known its various social media platforms are doing and how little they have done in response. On Sunday, the source of much of this information finally revealed herself on "60 Minutes." Frances Haugen worked for Facebook's "civic integrity" division, a job she says she took because fighting dangerous conspiracy theories was important to her. But she says Facebook wasn't interested in shutting down disinformation at all. Instead, the company sought the appearance of taking the problem seriously while doing as little as possible to interrupt the flow of lies, conspiracy theories and right wing propaganda. The reason, according to Haugen, is simple: Pure profit motive.

"There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen told Scott Pelley. "And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money."

Haugen carefully documented all the ways Facebook demonstrated internally that they knew their platform was a conduit for right wing disinformation and ultimately did as little to stop it as they could get away with. As Haugen explained, the reason was not because of some sinister plot to make America more fascist, but "the incentives are misaligned," because people "enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction." The more anger they get exposed to, she argued "the more they interact and the more they consume," leading to more money for Facebook.

This is true across the board, of course. Anyone who spends time on the social media feeds of progressives can see how outrage drives traffic, and unfortunately leads to a lot of people grandstanding for attention, even if doing so means ginning up outrage over objectively stupid controversies. Competitive outrage is a weakness that appears to be widespread among human beings.

But when it comes to the specific problem of disinformation fueling performative umbrage-taking, then there's no contest between left and right. Right wing lies proliferate far faster than anything the left could even imagine. Research shows that "more engaging but false stories tended to support beliefs held by conservatives, while viral news stories that were also true tended to support beliefs held by liberals," as CNN reported in June. Repeated analyses of fake news spread about the 2016 election shows "most of the fake news was favorable to then-candidate Donald Trump," U.S. News & World Reported explained.

On any given day, the Facebook Top 10 Twitter feed shows that the most popular Facebook posts of the day heavily favor right wing sites that are heavily committed to perpetuating right wing notions rooted in disinfo, such as anti-vaccine sentiment or claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

Most people — especially liberals, journalists and Democratic politicians — have a mental model of how disinformation functions that is all wrong. The assumption is that audiences are passive vessels, wide-eyed innocents who are being taking advantage of, due to their gullibility. People are described as being "susceptible" to misinformation and disinformation because of an assumed lack of education, or other factors like being older and less internet-savvy that are believed to make them less able to tell the difference between good information and bad information, especially online. Fixing the problem certainly would be a lot easier if that were true.

But Facebook allows disinformation to proliferate because doing so makes them money. This complicates the entire situation. Disinfo is everywhere because of old-fashioned market demand. Ordinary people, especially conservatives, crave lies and actively seek out and reward those who will feed them the lies they so dearly desire. The consumers of disinformation are not innocent victims being exploited for their naivete. They are complicit actors, sharing and driving up demand for lies, because doing so helps them further their goal of undermining American democracy.

This is something that journalist Brooke Binkowski of the website Truth or Fiction is constantly trying to hammer home: Disinformation is permission, not persuasion.

That means people seek out and repeat fake news and other disinformation because it helps them recommit to their pre-existing beliefs. They may even be fully aware that what they're reading and sharing isn't true. Ultimately, they don't care. The mere fact that the disinfo is already out there circulating is, in itself, a form of social permission: If other people are lying to advance their political goals, Facebook users can believe it's OK for them to engage with and promote the lie as well. That's why figures like Mike Lindell will tell lies that are so outrageous that it's unlikely anyone believes them, such as the claim that nearly three times as many people who voted for Trump will demand his reinstatement. Often, the ridiculousness of the lie is the point. It helps conservatives detach from a lingering fondness for facts, and commit wholly to a strategy of lying their way into power.

Market demand also helps explain why Fox News has gone all-in on spreading anti-vaccine sentiment. Partially it's because the network is committed to putting Republicans in power, and the hosts clearly see prolonging the pandemic as bad for Biden's presidency. But it's also about money. As Roger Sollenberger and Asawin Suebsaeng of the Daily Beast recently reported:

One Fox News insider succinctly described the anti-COVID-mandate segments and vaccine-resistant commentary as "great for ratings." Another current Fox employee said the numbers clearly demonstrated that there are vanishingly fewer subjects these days that get "our viewers more excited or engaged than" those kinds of segments.

None of which is to say that the criticisms of Facebook for allowing disinformation to spread are misplaced, or that Haugen is wasting her time. As the January 6 riot and widespread vaccine refusal both show, disinfo campaigns can cause serious damage. Indeed, if disinformation wasn't powerful, it's unlikely that people would engage in it at all.

But it's important to understand that power of disinformation comes not from fooling people, but rather from stirring them up and creating a social permission to become ever worse versions of themselves. Fighting the problem means understanding it. Disinfo wouldn't work if there was no audience for it. It's part of a larger problem, in which huge numbers of Americans are excited to embrace fascism and are just looking for an excuse — even if it's based on a bunch of obvious lies — to go there. Cleaning up social media is necessary. But that can be only one part of the more comprehensive solution we clearly need for the growing problem of American authoritarianism.

Befuddled media portrays infrastructure delay as Biden's loss -- but here's the truth

Late Thursday, the House's progressive caucus did what the long-received wisdom in D.C. believed they would never do: They stood their ground in the face of centrist sabotage.

Months ago, conservative Democrats demanded that President Joe Biden's ambitious infrastructure and jobs agenda be divided into two separate bills. They promised that doing so was just a way to get bipartisan support for some of it. But progressives feared that it was actually a way to destroy the parts of Biden's agenda that are popular with voters but not so popular with right-wing lobbyists.

Well, progressives had their fears confirmed this week.

A small centrist minority of Democrats, led by Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, made it quite clear that they very much always intended to renege on their end of the pass-both-bills bargain the second Congress passed the only bill they care about, which is a small and bipartisan infrastructure bill. But rather than be bullied into accepting the betrayal, the progressive caucus in the House refused to vote for the smaller bill when the time came, forcing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to delay the vote that was scheduled for Thursday. Now much of the mainstream press, in a bout of epic wrongness, is portraying the delayed vote as a blow to Biden.

"House Delays Vote on Infrastructure, in Big Setback for Biden Agenda," reads the front page of the New York Times.

The Washington Post described the delayed vote as "a major setback for President Biden's economic agenda."

"The left defies Pelosi as Biden's big hopes are in limbo," declares the CNN headline.

But this framework is deeply misleading. Progressives who are forcing a delay on the vote aren't threatening Biden's agenda. They are the people who are trying to save it.

The actual threat to Biden's agenda is the small group of centrist Democrats. No matter how much they swear up and down that they aren't trying to gut Biden's agenda, their actions speak otherwise. There is absolutely no other reason for them to demand that a small, bipartisan bill pass by itself. It's clear that the second they get what they want, they will renege on their agreement to support the bigger bill supported not just by progressives, but by the White House and the majority of the Democratic caucus.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York explained the strategy of saving Biden's agenda from centrist sabotage on MSNBC.

"The read that we have is that they'll just dump the second one [the BBB bill], leave the other one out to dry and just never actually vote on it." - Rep. Ocasio-Cortez on why progressives are insisting that the infrastructure bills remain paired. @AOC
— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) September 30, 2021

Unfortunately, the media has been portraying this fight as a battle between "progressives" and "moderates." But that is a flat-out false understanding. The vast majority of Democrats — including most who are more moderate — want both bills to pass and object to Manchin's and Sinema's antics. Progressives just happen to be the ones who are standing up for the majority of Democrats, as well as the majority of voters. Activist Bree Newsome pointed this out on Twitter, noting the press is "ignoring how public sentiment actually aligns w the progressive caucus b/c US govt is to the right of most Americans."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who heads the progressive caucus in the House, also objected to the mainstream media framing:

The Build Back Better Act isn't some fringe wish list — it's the Democratic Party's agenda.
From child care and paid leave to Medicare expansion and climate action, we can't have an equitable recovery without it.
— Pramila Jayapal (@PramilaJayapal) September 30, 2021

Both women are right. The larger Biden agenda isn't the realm of a progressive minority but is broadly popular with the public. An August poll from Data for Progress shows that strong majorities of Americans back not just the small, bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the larger $3.5 trillion proposal that would expand childcare, improve health care, and fight climate change. Indeed, even as Republican voters have kneejerk opposition to it, they aren't that ginned up about it. Less than a third say they "strongly" oppose the bill. As Dan Pfeiffer points out in his Message Box newsletter, "Republican voters cannot get fired up to oppose one of the biggest expansions of the social safety net in decades," making passing this bill about the smartest political move possible for Democrats right now.

But, as I note in the Standing Room Only newsletter, Sinema and Manchin have been impervious to both reason and shame. The only language they clearly respond to is power. By flexing their muscle, progressives have finally rattled the confidence these two have that they can tank the Democratic agenda while getting everything they personally want. As Heather "Digby" Parton writes at Salon, both Manchin and Sinema started to show cracks in their grandstanding obstinance Thursday, meaning "that the two bills — and thus Biden's agenda — still have a chance for passage."

Indeed, the surest sign that progressives are trying to save, not tank, Biden's plan is that the White House appears to be quietly backing progressive's hardball play. As Politico reported on Thursday, sources close to the White House have signaled that "they are not displeased with all the talk about voting down the infrastructure package" and hope "the prospect of a progressive revolt will only add to the pressure they're attempting to exert on" on Manchin and Sinema.

If, as the headlines claim, this vote delay is a "setback" for Biden, it's an odd thing for Biden to be quietly supporting it. But of course, it's not a setback, so much as the only possible hope of saving the Biden agenda. Progressives are displaying the will to use the power that Democrats all too often shy away from. It's one reason Democrats have so long struggled to pass their policies, which in turn contributes to the general malaise that leads to lower voter turnout and bad electoral outcomes for Democrats.

Half-a-loaf is not enough to fire up voters for what is going to be difficult midterm elections, due to all the voter suppression and gerrymandering Republicans have been engaged in. Progressives are taking a big risk, but there is no possibility of a reward without it.

It turns out Elizabeth Warren was right all along

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren made fighting corruption her number one priority. It may not have seemed that way in the press, which tended to characterize the senior senator from Massachusetts as a female Sen. Bernie Sanders. Most coverage focused heavily on her bold economic ideas, such as a wealth tax. But when she was actually asked what her major focus in politics was, Warren never hesitated to say that fighting corruption should come first — because of her commitment to passing progressive economic policies.

"The rich and the powerful have been calling the shots in Washington forever and ever," Warren told Vox's Ezra Klein in 2019, explaining why she was intent on passing a massive anti-corruption bill meant to curtail the influence of lobbyists and influence of moneyed interests on Capitol Hill.

"Look closely, and you'll see — on issue after issue, widely popular policies are stymied because giant corporations and billionaires who don't want to pay taxes or follow any rules use their money and influence to stand in the way of big, structural change," she wrote in her plan announcement.

Warren's view is, sadly and perhaps surprisingly, not popular. Republicans clearly don't view corruption as a bad thing these days — that's one more reason why they love Donald Trump. But even on the left, where everyone says they're against corruption and voters in particular always sign off on the idea that ending corruption is a good idea, there's a gulf between saying you're against it and actually working to eradicate it. If more agreed with Warren to make corruption a priority target, we might not be watching President Joe Biden's bold agenda slowly fall apart now.

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When it comes to brass tacks, not enough people are willing to put in the effort required to make fighting corruption a real agenda item. Activists are more likely to put their time into causes like health care and climate change. Democratic politicians, when they get power, are also attracted to policy fights that offer tangible rewards, such as increased social spending, rather than the more abstract and far-flung discourse about lobbyists and corruption. And voters definitely reward politicians for these priorities, which is one reason why Warren lost handily in the primary to Sanders and Biden.

But as the current debacle playing out on Capitol Hill demonstrates, Warren was right all along. Democrats and their voters may want to pass progressive legislation that addresses wealth inequality, climate change and lack of health care. But corrupt business interests keep stopping them. It's like trying to make a dress when someone keeps stealing your sewing machine. You can have the pattern and the fabric and the vision, but if you don't have the means to put it all together, you will never get that dress made.

Biden and Sanders are learning this the hard way as their dual vision for the Build Back Better plan — an expansive set of bills meant to address climate change, reduce poverty, ensure child care, expand health care, and build up American infrastructure, among other things — teeters on the edge of collapse. After spending months carefully constructing a two-track plan where moderate Democrats would support the progressive agenda, in exchange for progressives supporting the moderate agenda, a handful of centrist Democrats in the House and Senate are about to blow the whole thing up by reneging on their end of the bargain. And while there are multiple reasons for this backstabbing behavior, it's hard not to notice the undue influence of lobbyists.

The two biggest names in the Senate Betrayal Caucus are, of course, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both are throwing their weight around, clearly trying to derail Biden's agenda while claiming to have no such intention. Instead, they come with an endless array of incoherent, even nonsensical, explanations as to why they can't just suck it up and vote for the two-bill track the Democratic caucus agreed to vote on. There's now an entire cottage industry built around psychoanalyzing these two: What do they want? What will get them to "yes"? Why won't they just tell us what they want, so we can give it to them? Why are they making so little sense?

Everyone has a favorite reason, but the likeliest is the boring one: They're being dodgy because they don't want to be honest about their real motives. Looking at their track records, it's hard not to notice that both deeply enjoy being wined and dined by some of the sleaziest lobbyists and fundraisers on Capitol Hill. Manchin, for instance, blew off fellow Democrats begging him to support voting rights in favor of going to a fundraiser held by oil and gas executives who have a financial interest in keeping working people from voting. Sinema is deep in cahoots with industry lobbyists who want to tank Biden's agenda, holding fundraisers with anti-Biden groups and taking money from the pharmacy industry, right before doing an about-face to block fair pricing drug policies she previously claimed to support.

It's not just those two. The price control policy for pharmaceuticals is one of the most wildly popular items in the Biden agenda — at least with voters. But a small group of Democrats in the House pulled that item out of the bill, and they're barely trying to pretend it's for any reason other than to appease pharmaceutical lobbyists. They likely know that politicians and voters may say they oppose corruption, but that actually doing something to stop it never becomes a priority.

Lobbyists have Sinema's ear, but her own party and voters do not. The Democratic party in Arizona is threatening a vote of no confidence against her, and her response was somewhere between a shrug and throwing them the finger. Activists are crowdfunding for a primary challenger against her. It is possible she is such an egomaniac that she thinks she's going to have a great re-election after teeing off her own voters, of course. But it's also hard not to wonder if she isn't influenced by the knowledge that she's all but guaranteed a well-heeled job in lobbying if she loses re-election. Notably, a lifetime ban on politicians becoming lobbyists is part of Warren's anti-corruption bill. If it was law, then Sinema might be making more pro-voter choices, rather than treating her constituents as an annoying inconveniences.

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Corruption isn't a sexy issue, but focusing attention on it can pay huge dividends when it comes to advancing progressive causes. Take gun control, for instance. Decades of rational argumentation and emotional appeals did little to move the needle, policy-wise. Even in the face of children being murdered in schools repeatedly, Republican politicians have successfully blocked all bills, and Democrats didn't even bother making it a priority when they got power. Eventually, however, gun control advocates started to look away from the ideological arguments and toward the influence of the gun industry, through its main lobbying arm, the NRA.

Once they did that, real progress started to happen. Investigations revealed that the NRA was a thoroughly corrupt organization and that its leadership was on the take. Then the lawsuits started to fly. Now the organization is in very real danger of collapse — not because of its views, but because of its corruption. It might be too late, and Republicans may be too dug in on their gun mania to ever start to moderate. But without the NRA in their ear all the time, there could be a real chance to persuade even just a few Republicans to support common sense reforms that are backed by the majority of Americans. But only if the NRA is gone — and coming at them from a corruption angle was the path to this possibility.

It's admittedly a tough sell, even to Democrats. Most Democrats have been happy to back bills that tackle the issue in similar ways to what Warren proposes, and many seem to understand that they would benefit from a more level playing field, where wealthy interests have less influence over policy and politics. Still, as with most legislation that Democrats want to pass, anti-corruption bills have been torn apart on the shores of the filibuster. And the two people who are doing the most to make sure the filibuster remains and anti-corruption bills have no chance of passing? You guessed it: Manchin and Sinema. Corruption on Capitol Hill is a grotesque house of mirrors, and until that changes, real progress will be an impossibly tall hill to climb.

Centrist Dems broke a promise on infrastructure. They should not get their 'bipartisan' victory now

When the two-track plan to pass President Joe Biden's ambitious jobs and infrastructure program first emerged, many progressives understandably thought it was a trap. To summarize an impossibly complex situation: Earlier this year, Biden proposed a giant bill that would contain huge chunks of the progressive agenda. Some of it was GOP-friendly, such as building roads and bridges. Some of it — childcare funding, policies to reduce climate change, and health care expansions — was not. But centrist Democrats refused to vote for the entire bill through budget reconciliation, which only requires a party-line vote, because they wanted to say they were "bipartisan." So a scheme was concocted: Put the GOP-friendly items in one bill that could pass on a bipartisan basis, and put the rest in a bill to pass on a party-line vote.

So Democrats concocted an intra-party deal: Progressives vote for the moderate-pleasing bill, and, in exchange, moderates vote for the progressive bill.

"The moderates couldn't pass a bipartisan bill without the more progressive wing of our caucus," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Politico in August. "And the progressives couldn't get a big, bold bill without the moderates."

Some progressives, however, smelled a rat. They feared it was scheme concocted by Republicans and centrist Democrats to carve out the most important and most popular parts of Biden's agenda and put it in a separate bill that would be easier to drown in a bathtub. But no, progressives were told, there was no intention of doing any of that! As assurance, progressives were promised that both bills would be passed at once, so no one would be tempted to renege on the deal.

Turns out progressives were right to be paranoid. Centrist Democrats, led by — who else? — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are, to be blunt, reneging on their end of the bargain. They are demanding that the skinnier bipartisan bill be passed first. While they keep claiming they'll vote for the more ambitious bill — after slicing and dicing it to be less ambitious, naturally — there is no reason to believe them. They are, after all, people who break promises. The wise thing to assume at this point is that they are trying to trick progressives into holding up their end of the bargain, at which point, centrists will drop any pretense of playing ball and abandon the most important parts of the Biden agenda.

"During a private meeting with the president, Sinema made clear she's still not on board with the party's $3.5 trillion social spending plan and is hesitant to engage on some specifics until the bipartisan infrastructure package passes the House, according to a person who spoke with her," Politico reported Wednesday morning, confirming not just that Sinema is a snake in the grass, but also not half as clever at hiding her schemes as she thinks she is.

As a business lobbyist admitted to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, "their optimal scenario is that the infrastructure bill passes and the reconciliation bill goes down to defeat entirely."

Progressives shouldn't let them get away with this. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already delayed a vote on the skinny bill from Monday to Thursday, clearly in hopes that the centrists will stop reneging and the deal can be salvaged. But if centrists haven't backed down from their unsubtle efforts to derail the Biden agenda, then it's time for progressives to make good on the "F around and find out" threat. Progressives should refuse to vote for the skinny bill, and stand by their demand that it's both bills or none.

There are many Democrats who are panicked at this proposition, fearing that the slim infrastructure bill is better than passing nothing. But while that is a legitimate concern, it pales next to the larger problem of rewarding saboteurs and letting the GOP continue to use a handful of centrists as puppets to control the Democratic agenda. It really comes down to the very basic principles of contracts: If bad faith actors are allowed to renege on deals, they will continue to use false promises to entrap the good faith actors time and again.

The good news, as Joan Walsh of The Nation pointed out on MSNBC on Tuesday night, is the presence of "a couple dozen progressives who are saying they will not vote for this infrastructure bill if it's not tied in some way to a future, larger, more generous, robust, necessary reconciliation bill."

The progressive caucus reiterated their intention publicly to vote down the bipartisan bill unless centrists hold up their end of the bargain. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont backed them up on Twitter, noting that "If the bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed on its own on Thursday, this will be in violation of an agreement," and "it will end all leverage that we have to pass a major reconciliation bill."

As Sanders noted, this isn't just about keeping everyone in the Democratic caucus honest, but about substantive political concerns. The skinny bill makes "no serious effort to address the long-neglected crises facing the working families of our country, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor," he argued, adding that it also doesn't address "the existential threat to our country and planet with regard to climate change."

From a moral point of view, the last point is by far the most important. As former Barack Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer noted in his most recent newsletter, the progressive bill "is our best, and perhaps last, chance to do something meaningful about climate change before it is too late." As another former Obama aide, John Podesta, warned the Democratic caucus in a memo, "There is no time. There is no next time."

Plus, if they can force centrists to pony up the promised votes, progressives may be saving moderate Democrats from themselves. Rep. Katie Porter of California made this point eloquently in an interview with the Washington Post, noting that the items in the bigger bill "will immediately begin to improve the lives of Americans and will begin to immediately improve our economy." Basically, all good stuff that Democrats can campaign on for the midterms. The smaller bill, on the other hand, is mostly focused on long-range infrastructure projects that will not be noticed by the voters that Democrats need to win in 2022.

Voting down the bill risks, of course, getting nothing done at all. That would be a shame. But it is better than the alternative, which is rewarding these childish and lobbyist-driven antics by a handful of Democrats. Appealing to their higher angels — or to the fate of the planet — clearly isn't moving people like Manchin and Sinema, who care more about being flattered by right wing fundraisers than they do the future of humanity. The moral of 2021, in many ways, is that some folks simply can't do the right thing unless they face consequences for doing the wrong thing. Threats only work if you make good on them. Progressives have to show they're serious, or this small minority of bad actors will never lose control of the Democratic agenda.

Time to start firing the unvaccinated: Trump fans are overdue for a lesson in consequences

For those readers who only peruse headlines — which, as anyone who has access to news website analytics can tell you, is a shockingly huge percentage of readers — the impending first round of vaccine mandate deadlines are looking like very scary business indeed.

This article was originally published at Salon

Not for people who are afraid of needles, mind you, but those who are afraid that mass resignations and firings — and subsequent staffing shortages of essential workers — are coming.

"These Health Care Workers Would Rather Get Fired Than Get Vaccinated," reads a Monday morning headline at the New York Times.

"New York Hospitals Face Possible Mass Firings as Workers Spurn Vaccines," reads another from Friday.

"Rural Hospitals Worry They Will Lose Staff Because Of Biden's New Vaccine Mandate," warns an NPR headline from over the weekend.

"New York May Use The National Guard To Replace Unvaccinated Health Care Workers," read another.

The state of New York is the first test case of what actually enforcing a government-issued vaccine mandate looks like. Monday is the deadline for health care workers in the state to get the jab or get the pink slip. As the New York Times reports, "resistance to vaccine mandates has so far stopped most states from threatening to fire unvaccinated workers." But New York's newly appointed governor, Democrat Kathy Hochul is calling the unvaccinateds' bluff. Rather than caving in and letting them keep their jobs, she is prepared to call the National Guard to fill in the shortages left by the upcoming firings.

Despite the media doom and gloom, the truth is Hochul needs to be commended for her spine. And every other Democrat who wants to see this pandemic actually come to an end (which should be all of them!) should follow suit. Staffing shortages are a pain, especially during a pandemic, no doubt. But staffing shortages are a minor issue compared to the damage being caused by the unchecked spread of COVID-19, which is increasingly due to one cause: right-wingers who have made refusal to get vaccinated a culture war and identity politics issue. Unless such folks start tasting real consequences for their behavior, the U.S. is going to see another dark winter, as the virus continues to wreak havoc on our economy and health care system. Putting up with staffing shortages is a small price to pay to make sure that Trumpers — a class of people clearly unused to the idea that actions have consequences — actually start feeling real pressure to get vaccinated.

These dread-inducing headlines and anecdotal stories about health care workers quitting are concealing what is actually the far more important story: Vaccine mandates work.

A few paragraphs under the scary headline about "mass firings" in the New York Times comes the actual numbers: "As of Sept. 22, state data shows, around 84 percent of New York's 450,000 hospital workers and 83 percent of its 145,400 nursing home employees had been fully vaccinated." That is almost 10 percentage points over what the same state data set shows as the overall vaccination rate in the state. There are similar positive results in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio mandated vaccines for public school workers, resulting in a 90% vaccination rate among teachers, which is 9 percentage points over the city average. Hospital systems that instituted an earlier vaccine mandate have seen even better results. New York Presbyterian, for example, set the deadline for last Wednesday and already 99% of the system's 48,000 workers are vaccinated.

The effectiveness of mandates has been documented outside of New York as well.

As Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a former White House health policy adviser who works for the University of Pennsylvania now, told Fierce Healthcare, "healthcare systems that have actually mandated this" have " retained over 99% of their workforce." The article goes on to list over a dozen hospital systems that have implemented mandates. In every case, the fraction of workers lost was tiny — certainly well worth losing to protect patients and the larger community from COVID-19.

There's been a similar success at United Airlines, which will start putting workers on leave this week if they don't get vaccinated. A full 97% of employees have thus beat the deadline.

The number of unvaccinated health care workers is still alarmingly high in New York, and fears of staffing shortages are real. But part of the problem is that the refusal to get vaccinated is being driven by partisan politics. As the New York Times reported about vaccination rates Monday morning, "the racial gaps — while still existing — have narrowed," but the "partisan gap, however, continues to be enormous." The geography of vaccination rates mirrors the political geography, to the point where "almost every reliably blue state now has a higher vaccination rate than almost every reliably red state." The gap also shows up on the county level, with death rates much higher in Trump-voting counties than in ones that went for President Joe Biden.

There's a lot of reasons conservatives cite for this refusal to vaccinate, though ultimately it all boils down to a desire to "own the liberals." But a lot of this pettiness is intertwined with a right-wing bravado. To be blunt, white privilege has long shielded many conservatives from the concept of facing consequences for their actions. We see this in a lot of obnoxious right-wing behavior lately, from tantrums over COVID-19 mitigation measures in public places to the attempted insurrection on January 6. Who can forget how many of the arrested Trump supporters expressed genuine shock that they might actually face a legal consequence for participating in a violent effort to overthrow democracy? This lack of familiarity with consequences is likely why there are so many holdouts, even in the face of vaccine mandates. Bluntly put, a lot of them probably don't think that leaders are serious about these threats to fire them, and won't believe it until it happens. As with the Capitol rioters, there's a persistent disbelief on the right that they will ever face real consequences for their bad actions.

This right-wing overconfidence is why sites like HermainCainAward and SorryAntiVaxxer have such popular followings. Watching people pay with their lives after displaying such certainty their anti-social behavior will never result in a consequence may not be the most righteous use of people's time, but is understandable when the rest of us are suffering because of Trumpist hubris. The problem with highlighting COVID-19 deaths to scare the Trumpers straight, however, is that they can always tell themselves that they're not going to be the ones who die since 98.4% of people in the U.S. do survive.

That's precisely why vaccine mandates are so important. The absolute certainty of losing a job is going to motivate a lot more people than the more abstract risk of dying of COVID-19.

But for that threat to become real, well, it has to be real. This means that it's not enough to threaten to fire people who won't get vaccinated. Employers and governments have to follow through. Hochul is right to do whatever it takes to make sure that the unvaccinated get their pink slips this week. If leaders back down in the face of vaccine resistance, the Trumpers will double down, and continue spreading COVID-19 in a pathetic effort to "own the liberals." Threats cannot be empty, especially when facing stubborn people who believe themselves impervious to consequences. Threats need to be backed up with action. It's time to start firing the unvaccinated.

Occupy Wall Street set the tone: A decade later, how protests against inequality made the GOP worse

Occupy Wall Street — which started 10 years ago on Friday — has long been understood as a historical novelty, a movement that swiftly rose to national prominence and almost as swiftly sunk below the waves, destroyed by the in-fighting and mission drift that unfortunately tends to plague leftist movements. But, a decade out, it's clearer than ever that the movement had an impact far beyond its own existence.

Inspired by the Arab Spring a year before, a group of protesters started camping in Zucotti Park, which is near Wall Street and in the heart of Manhattan's Financial District, with the message: Americans can no longer tolerate escalating wealth inequalities. It started off with a few hundred people, but spread rapidly across the country, touching the lives of countless Americans. It came down to the simple slogan: "We are the 99%!"

The motto, like the movement, represented Americans who work, day in and day out, but can't seem to ever get ahead. Meanwhile, the 1% — people who make at least $422,000 a year by most recent estimates — are gobbling up an ever-bigger share of the pie. And the ultra-wealthy hoard even more. Recent estimates show that the top .1% of American families has more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. So a few rich people hoard all the cash while everyone else is forced to scrape by on increasingly mean resources.

Occupy Wall Street may be gone, but these truths that it exposed cannot be unseen.

After decades of conservative propaganda pitting the middle class against the working poor, here was the harsh reality: The reason middle-class people struggle to pay for homes or college tuition is not "welfare queens," but a billionaire class sucking up all the wealth. Republicans had spent decades slashing taxes for the rich and gutting spending on everyone else while triangulating Democrats stood by and let it happen — and in many cases, actively participated. This really was a rich vs. everyone else problem.

In a lengthy piece for the Atlantic, journalist Michael Levitin makes a persuasive case that Occupy didn't die, but was a seed that bloomed a thousand plants: The climate change strikes, the growth in the organized labor movement, and even the disorganized wage rebellion. It also framed a "populist economic message that thrust anti-corporate lawmakers such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez into the electoral spotlight."

It also, I would argue, had a profound effect on the mainstream of both major political parties.

Occupy Wall Street didn't just drag the Democrats to the left but also ruptured the traditional messaging and hierarchy of the Republican Party. It made the Democrats a better party, with a more coherent economic and social message that created a coalition between the working class and middle class. But it also destabilized the multi-decade libertarian politics of the GOP — driving out figures like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — and created an opportunity for white nationalists and other culture war authoritarians like Donald Trump to remake the party in their own image.

Let's start with the good news: Occupy's impact on Democratic politics isn't limited to the prominence of Warren, Sanders, and AOC. It moved the center of the party to the left, and far earlier than a lot of folks realize.

Barack Obama had mishandled the economic recovery of 2009 in many ways that had exacerbated the inequality problem. Within a month of Occupy, Obama was using the "we are the 99%" and he shaped his 2012 campaign around this economic message. (He also did better economically in his second term.) But the biggest piece of evidence for the shift is in the current president, Joe Biden. In the 90s, Biden was one of the worst Democrats in the Senate on the issues of class and economic inequality, earning him the moniker "Senator from MBNA." He spent the decade fighting tirelessly to pass a bankruptcy bill that benefited banks but ruined the lives of countless ordinary Americans. He was held off for years through the efforts of then-Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren but eventually got it done during the George W. Bush administration. That Biden is currently unrecognizable to the modern Biden, who has been laser-focused on passing two massive jobs and infrastructure bills — one literally written by Sanders — which are meant to be funded by raising taxes on the 1%. His old buddies in the banking industry are now his enemies, spending lavishly on propaganda and disinformation campaigns to derail the bills.

The shift isn't just in Biden himself, but the whole party. Centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as well as nine in the House, get an inordinate amount of media attention for their threats to derail Biden's progressive economic agenda. But that shouldn't distract from the remarkable fact that the vast majority of Democrats are fully on board with this expansive agenda that would do a great deal to shrink the wealth inequalities that plague us. That's a huge shift from 2005 when Biden got 41% of Democratic senators to back his bankruptcy bill that severely hurt the middle class to benefit the banks.

But what is just as remarkable is the shift that has happened in the GOP since the days of Occupy.

In the pre-Occupy days, things were simple for Republicans. The party was guided by the priorities of wealthy class warriors. The hoi polloi voters were brought along with deceitful arguments, leading them to believe their economic problems were due not to the rich taking all the money, but mythical "welfare queens" living high on the taxpayer dime. And the GOP base, who are motivated by racist and sexist bigotries, was ready to buy that myth. But by the 2012 election, the usual order of things was being threatened by this new, more truthful narrative about how the rich are screwing over everyone else.

Even before Occupy, Paul Ryan's 2011 State of the Union rebuttal — where he called social spending a "hammock" that "lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency" — went over like a lead balloon. And when GOP nominee Mitt Romney was caught making a similar argument — claiming 47% of people are lazy government dependents instead of hard-working Americans — it was the nail in his 2012 campaign. This, even though Republican voters had swooned to similar rhetoric in the age of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. Nowadays, the majority of Republican voters believe the rich need to pay more in taxes. Even in red states, minimum wage hikes and the Medicaid expansion pass when they're put up on ballot initiatives.

What's happened is that the GOP base has started to decouple their priorities — which are all about culture war, white supremacy, and sexism — from this libertarian economic agenda. This is ultimately why Donald Trump has such Svengali-like powers over the base. (It certainly isn't his personal charisma, as much he'd like to think otherwise.) He gives the base what they want, which is red meat bigotry that is unfiltered through this bow tie Republican talk about "hammocks" and the "47%." Plus, Trump promised to protect Social Security and Medicare, broad social programs the base loves and depends on. He was lying, of course — his only real legislative "achievement" in office was cutting taxes for the rich — but his mere existence has created a path forward for this wing of the party, which outnumbers the richer wing by a whole lot.

Of course, most Republican leadership is still in this for the money, and the racism is just an added bonus. And to keep the masses satisfied, they've been escalating the culture war antics at a dizzying pace, amping up the authoritarian conspiracy theories, gutting reproductive rights, and bringing back the racist politics of Jim Crow. It's not that the leadership disagrees with the culture warriors on any of these issues, to be clear. But they're putting a higher priority on them than they used to, so that they can keep up their agenda of cutting taxes and slashing social spending in peace.

This shift of power is most evident in the politics of COVID-19. For extremely complicated but equally stupid reasons, the refusal to get vaccinated has become a sacrament of right-wing culture warriors, their way of showing their dedication to the cause of owning the liberals. In the past, this would not have flown with the GOP leadership, because the ongoing pandemic is a major threat to corporate profits. But even though Republicans have never been anti-vaccination before, all of a sudden they've discovered this suddenly incontrovertible "right" of right-wingers to infect whoever they wish with COVID-19. And only COVID-19. Republican support for all other vaccine mandates has not changed.

This is the first major test of what happens when culture war priorities conflict with the wealth accumulation priorities of the GOP, and, well, the culture warriors are winning. It doesn't mean that the Republican Party is going to suddenly soften on their multiple decades of support for growing the piggy banks of the rich. But it does mean they are going to get even more baroque and hateful, as they keep trying to find some kind of culture war distractions to keep the base from abandoning them over their economic policies.

Everything has tradeoffs, I suppose, and this is the bizarre one that we've faced in the decade since Occupy Wall Street: Democrats got way better, but somehow Republicans lost their goddamn minds.

That might not have been such a big deal in a better political system. The GOP is swiftly becoming a minority party, while the American population lurches left politically. In our political system, however, disproportionate representation and voter suppression gives Republicans a real shot at permanent minority rule, as long as they can keep their voters on the hook with horse paste and abortion bans.

None of that is the fault of Occupy Wall Street, to be clear. They set out with one mission in mind: Wake people up to economic inequality and get folks to start taking action to change things. On that front, they succeeded. The Democrats have power and they are trying, most of them anyway, to pass bills that directly address the concerns Occupy raised. That's a big shift in what was only a decade, especially with so many moneyed interests going against them. If America can survive the assault on democracy, we're in a great position, politically, to really address the economic problems that have plagued us for decades. That, I'm sad to say, is a very big "if."

Stop the malarkey, Biden: Ban the unvaccinated from airplanes already

On September 18, a group of MAGAheads plans to "rally" in Washington D.C. on behalf of the Capitol rioters who are facing charges for their crimes, deeming them "political prisoners." There is a dispute about how worried folks in D.C. should be about this event. Journalists who follow the insurrectionist movement closely don't think many people will show up. Law enforcement, however, is clearly worried, "taking no chances" and putting up fences around the Capitol and keeping the National Guard on standby.

Regardless of what happens, there is one clear moral to the story: President Joe Biden should have banned the unvaccinated from flying weeks ago.

Sure, the reason he should have done it is to save lives, stop the spread, and help return American life back to normal. But, hey, thwarting the travel designs of the fanny pack fascists would have been a nice added bonus.

Jokes aside, the recent victory of California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom over a recall effort instigated by the "get COVID-19 to own the libs" crowd should be a sign to Democrats that they need not be afraid of ruffling the feathers of the willfully unvaccinated. (Though always wear a mask and carry hand sanitizer when around such ruffling.) The Republicans behind that recall effort made a big bet that they could convince pandemic-weary Californians to punish Newsom for the continued hassles of mask mandates and other pandemic mitigation measures, even though there haven't been meaningful lockdowns in California for months.

Newsom's campaign, on the other hand, bet that Californians, the majority of whom are vaccinated, would blame right-wing COVID-deniers for dragging out the pandemic by refusing to get vaccinated. Newsom campaigned heavily on a message about the importance of pandemic mitigation measures, running ads highlighting how his main opponent, Larry Elder, promised to rescind vaccine mandates for school and health workers that Newsom had implemented. Newsom's strategy worked, leading to a landslide victory with 64% voting "No" on the recall in an election which, mere weeks ago, was looking like it might be too close for poll predictions. Exit polls found that only 30% of voters thought Newsom's COVID-19 policies were too strict.

"We said yes to science. We said yes to vaccines," Newsom said in his victory speech. "We said yes to ending his pandemic."

The Biden White House clearly has been paying attention to polls that show growing support for vaccine mandates, which no doubt contributed to the decision last week to roll out executive orders mandating vaccines for federal workers, health care workers, and any company with more than 100 employees. The announcement is broadly popular, with 62% of Americans backing Biden's plan. It's no surprise, as 76% of adults have received at least one shot, but are being forced to adhere to mask mandates and other social distancing protocols because of vaccine refusers.

"We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin," Biden said while announcing the executive orders.

Biden's clear understanding of the resentment growing amongst the vaccinated is why it's all the more confusing that he still won't ban the unvaccinated from boarding an airplane. Such a move would be the quickest, cleanest way to send the message that remaining unvaccinated is not a viable option any longer. Getting the ban in place before the holiday travel season would give people both an incentive to get it done and do it in an urgent fashion. It would also help control the spread of the coronavirus by limiting the travel options of the unvaccinated.

On top of saving lives, banning the unvaccinated from planes is popular, with 61% of Americans supporting it in a recent Gallup poll — making vaccine mandates for planes even more popular than vaccine mandates for workplaces or even dining in restaurants. It would also be a more egalitarian move, making it so rich anti-vaxxers can't evade the mandates that are coming down on ordinary workers.

The political pressure is mounting, as well.

On Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of Biden's top health advisors, came out publicly in favor of banning the unvaccinated from planes. Last week, Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced a bill that would require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test for travel by train or airplane. But such legislation is unnecessary, as the same power Biden used to mandate masks for air travel can be used to mandate vaccines.

When asked why Biden hadn't instituted a vaccine mandate for air travel yet on Pod Save America on Monday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain responded by saying that the administration continues to look at it, but they are concerned about the "burden on the vaccinated having to show proof every time you go on to an airplane, having to wait at longer lines in TSA."

Of course, that is a political way of saying they're worried about some redhat yahoos clogging up the airport with public tantrums about being turned away by the TSA. And no doubt that will happen — though probably less often than one would fear. Such stunts require purchasing an airline ticket for the sole purpose of filming yourself throwing a fit and then not flying anywhere. It's a lot of upfront costs even for the most dedicated clout-chasers of right-wing social media. But sure, such incidents will still cause delays of probably 10, 15 minutes for the unlucky travelers who fly on those rare days.

So the administration shouldn't worry that travelers will blame them. On the contrary, the viral videos of grown adults having childish meltdowns in airports will only hurt Republicans, as the vaccinated majority will only get more fed up with these right-wing antics.

And if they're really worried about it, the administration can put out a travel advisory telling people to build more time in for security lines, just as we did in the years after 9/11. In the grand scheme of sacrifices made to help end this pandemic, giving yourself an extra half-hour to make a flight is a minor one that most travelers will happily abide by.

The Biden administration clearly can read a poll, which is why they've started to lean harder into vaccine mandates and political messaging that, correctly, blames the willfully unvaccinated for prolonging a pandemic that should be in the rearview mirror already. The hesitance to add vaccine mandates for travel is, under the circumstances, baffling.

Time is running out.

The latest date that people can start the two-shot vaccine protocol, in time to be fully vaccinated to fly on the day before Thanksgiving, is October 27. That's less than 6 weeks from now. The sooner that the holdouts realize they need to get their shots to salvage their holiday travel plans, the better. The time to ban the unvaccinated from planes is now.

Defining 'terrorism' 20 years after 9/11

The definition of "terrorism" is, in theory, not that difficult to understand. The Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The FBI further teases this out by defining domestic terrorism as motivated by a desire to "further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences" and international terrorism committed by those "inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations." So terrorism is violence, usually of the showily public sort, committed to achieve a political end. It is really that simple. And yet, getting people to agree to a definition of "terrorism" has been notoriously difficult even in the best of times. After 9/11, the situation became impossible.

Conservatives have spent the past two decades successfully bullying anyone who pointed out that the category "terrorist" encompassed a lot more people than Islamic fundamentalists violently striking out against Western institutions. The result, 20 years after the events of 9/11, is the current situation in the U.S. The same Republicans who started the "war on terror" and spent years defending indefensible foreign policy on the grounds of "homeland security" have, under Donald Trump's leadership, organized themselves around coddling and minimizing the much more pressing threat of domestic terrorism.

After the attack on the Capitol on January 6, which was absolutely a terrorist attack by any reasonable definition, Republicans are more committed than ever to turning a blind eye to terrorism and allowing violent extremists to control American politics.

It's arguable that, for conservatives, this is just a return to the historical status quo. Most terrorism in American history has been committed by homegrown radicals who are motivated by white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism, or other far-right ideologies. That was true in the late 19th century when President Ulysses Grant unleashed the newly formed Department of Justice to shut down the KKK, which was the terrorism arm of a larger movement to force formerly enslaved people back into second-class citizen status. It was also true in the various periods of American history, such as the 1920s and 30s, when mass lynching became a tool for white supremacists to kneecap Black economic empowerment. Critically, it was true in the decade before the 9/11 attacks, which bore witness to a rise of racist and Christian fundamentalist terrorism, including the targeted shootings of abortion doctors. One of the most famous terrorists of the 1990s was Eric Rudolph, a Christian fundamentalist who bombed abortion clinics, a lesbian bar, and the Atlanta Olympics of 1996, all in protest of what he saw as evil progressive values. Another was Timothy McVeigh, a white supremacist who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people — 19 of whom were children at the building's daycare — in a strike against what he saw as a "liberal" federal government.

Now the logic driving McVeigh and Rudolph — that vigilantes should be able to force right-wing views on a public that has rejected them democratically — is becoming the standard operating logic of the Republican party. We see this in the GOP cover-up of Trump's January 6 insurrection. We also see this in the new abortion ban in Texas, which bypasses law enforcement altogether and empowers self-appointed bounty hunters to chase down anyone suspected of helping women abort their pregnancies.

After 9/11, there was an effective campaign on the right to erase this extensive history of right-wing violence from the American conception of "terrorism." George W. Bush leaned heavily into using "terror" as a vague word connecting Islam and violence. The "war on terror" was used as cover to invade Iraq, a sovereign nation, and depose their president, even though there was no connection of Iraq or Saddam Hussein to 9/11. Bush's defenders would also pretend like his leadership protected Americans from terrorism, even though Bush's own FBI recorded multiple incidents of domestic terrorism linked to American politics, including the white supremacy and anti-choice movements.

It was so bad that the right was able to bully Barack Obama's administration into ignoring that homegrown right-wing terrorism is still terrorism.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo warning that "[r]ight-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans." It wasn't a surprising observation. Just such recruitment is how McVeigh, the most famous terrorist of the 90s, got radicalized. Republicans nonetheless went full tilt in faking outrage, using the "honor the vets" cover for what was clearly a campaign to conceal the very real terrorist threat emanating from the extremist right. Unfortunately, the administration caved and withdrew the report, which turned out to be incredibly accurate, as one in five people who were arrested for participating in the January 6 insurrection were veterans. Distorting the word "terrorism" to make it a Muslim-only thing served not just the racist purposes of the right, but their own political goals.

The sad fact of the matter is that terrorism works. That is true of 9/11, which functioned exactly how Osama bin Laden wanted it to, by provoking an American overreaction that would radicalize young Muslims to his holy war. And it's true stateside, as demonstrated by the way the "mainstream" anti-choice movement works in tandem with terrorists to scare doctors away from providing abortion, a relationship which became even more explicit after the Texas ban. The January 6 insurrection proves this unfortunate truth once again, as evidenced by the Republicans who have stuck by Trump and denied the seriousness of the terrorist attack he incited. Running cover for domestic terrorists pays political dividends for Republicans, as those folks are using violence to achieve conservative political ends that more peaceful legislative means cannot.

Trump had what you might call a friendly relationship to the terrorist impulse from the very beginning. Trump's unsubtle winking and nodding to white supremacist terrorism started early during his campaign, in August 2015, when he praised two supporters who beat up a Mexican-American man by calling them "passionate" and saying they "love this country." He proceeded to escalate for years, most infamously when he called neo-Nazi rioters "fine people" in 2017 and culminating on January 6, when he incited the assault on the Capitol.

It is true that, in the face of rising white supremacist terrorist acts like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 or the El Paso Walmart shooting of 2019, all linked to racist rhetoric Trump and his supporters routinely espoused, it became harder and harder to pretend that white supremacist terrorism wasn't a real thing that was killing real people. Even Trump's appointed FBI director, Christopher Wray, admitted to Congress in 2019 that, "A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we've investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence." Despite all this, Republicans have stood by Trump and refused to admit that what he's unleashing on the U.S. fits the definition of "terrorism."

On the contrary, Republicans have only doubled down on equating the word "terrorism" with that single strain of political violence committed by Islamic extremists. Even worse, many conservative pundits and Republican politicians have become even freer than they were during the Bush administration in conflating all Muslims everywhere with terrorists, which is the equivalent of saying all Christians are terrorists because of Eric Rudolph.

We see this in the demagoguery around the admission of Afghan refugees to the U.S. after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, which Republican politicians and Fox News pundits have routinely equated with allowing, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, "terrorists coming across the border." This is the same McCarthy who tried to block an investigation of the January 6 attack, and who continues to buddy up to Trump, the man who instigated the whole thing.

It makes a grim sort of sense that Republicans are growing increasingly anti-democratic. They can't win people over by persuasion and so turn to blunt force in order to get their way. The GOP increasingly leans on the same logic as terrorists. That's why their anti-voting laws have echoes of the Jim Crow laws that were coupled with racist terrorism in the past. And that's why their new abortion law relies on right-wing vigilantism. Mother Jones recently released an important video of their reporter Becca Andrews connecting the Texas law to the Capitol insurrection and right-wing militias, all rooted in a terroristic approach to gaining power.

In an atmosphere of what pundits delicately call "political polarization," it's an open question of whether the word "terrorism" can be meaningful used anymore.

A huge bulk of American terrorism is related to the Republican Party, and not just because domestic terrorists and Republican politicians have the same general policy platform. We literally experienced a terrorist attack meant to gain the White House for a Republican who lost the election. But the American conception of "terrorism" has always been one of fringe actors lashing out against the powerful, not as a support system to help the powerful gain more power. It's been 20 years since 9/11, but it's still an open question whether we can update our image of "terrorism" to encompass what it really looks like in 2021.

Whether Greg Abbott is ignorant or just a liar matters for the future of democracy

So often progressives, many of us missing the school days of gold stars on our spelling quizzes, love nothing more than to dunk on Republicans for saying stupid stuff. And boy, don't conservatives know how to weaponize that "um, actually" gene they trigger against us? Take, for instance, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Like most ambitious Republicans, he is a consummate troll who is happy to say seemingly dumb things to attract liberal outrage, attention which bolsters his fame and credibility in the eyes of the right. (He likely learned well from his fellow Texas Republican, skilled troll Sen. Ted Cruz.) Playing dumb, for right-wingers, is often the smartest move you can make.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

And so, with depressing predictability, Abbott said some foolish things on Tuesday, when a reporter asked him why he would force a victim of rape or incest to carry the pregnancy to term. Abbott started by insisting the law "provides at least 6 weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion." This is flat-out untrue, unless Texas has some secret access to time travel technology, because the ban kicks in a mere four weeks after the actual conception and only two weeks after the typical missed period date. ("Six weeks" refers to the time since the first date of the last missed period, which is easier to measure than the moment sperm hit egg.) He then went on to insist that rape victims don't need abortion, because "rape is a crime," which is a little like saying gunshot victims don't need hospital care because shooting people is a crime. He then insisted that the state will "eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas," which seems like the thing they should have already been doing if it's as easy as all that.

The A students of left saw these comments and immediately diagnosed their source as ignorance, as if Abbott's problem is that he slept through high school biology, and not that he's a glib liar. Even the usually more astute Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., stepped into the trap, stating on CNN that Abbott "speaks from such a place of deep ignorance," and "I'm sorry we have to break down Biology 101 on national television."

To be fair to Ocasio-Cortez, she is speaking to a national audience that keeps hearing the term "six weeks" and doesn't understand that pregnant people have, at most, two weeks to navigate the byzantine Texas law to obtain an abortion. Using this as a moment to educate viewers probably felt like a priority over talking about how Abbott is a lying troll.

Still, it's frustrating to see Abbott's rhetoric framed as ignorance instead of sadistic lying, because, frankly, that lets the people behind this law off the hook. Ignorance is a forgiveable sin, easily corrected with education. But most of the folks involved with writing and passing anti-abortion laws understand biological facts and standard medical practice perfectly well. Indeed, they leverage that knowledge to craft clever laws that sound reasonable on their face, but actually make providing safe abortion impossible. For instance, the last time Texas tried to ban abortion, they did so by requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, which sounds reasonable to the average person. What peeople in the know — including the law's drafters — understood, however, is that abortion doctors couldn't get hospital privileges. Hospitals only give such privileges to doctors who actually admit patients, and abortion doctors don't do that, because abortion is a safe outpatient procedure akin to getting a cavity drilled.

It's the same story with the latest ban. The people behind it are playing a little game. They know the media will use the standard medical terminology "six weeks." That sounds like a long time, but patients actually have, if they're very lucky, only two weeks.That kind of media manipulation is not a matter of being dumb, but being both clever and deeply evil.

We know that Abbott is deliberately lying, and not just dumb, for a couple of reasons. For one, he says "at least six weeks," when he knows full well that "six weeks" refers to the cut-off, not the baseline. (And, again, that's six weeks since the beginning of the last period, not actually six weeks gestation.) Even if he doesn't know the first thing about menstrual cycles, we can rest assured he knows the difference between a floor and a ceiling. Second of all, that crap about eliminating all rape is so dumb that literally no one who says something like that can believe it. Remember, Abbott successfully sued the person whose negligence left him in a wheelchair. He understands full well that legal justice is not the same thing as erasing the physical effects of an injury. Watching a rapist go to jail doesn't ameliorate the pain of forced childbirth.

Whether or not anti-choicers are liars or just ignorant may not seem like a meaningful distinction, but in reality, it's crucial to understand the difference.

For one thing, it's important to remember that conservatives deliberately say dumb things in order to attract dunks, because it allows them to play the victim of liberal know-it-alls. So understanding that they act out of malice and not genuine stupidity can help liberals avoid taking the bait.

Even more importantly, anti-choicers have, for decades, successfully exploited stereotypes that they are dim-witted Bible-huggers to escape responsibility from some truly heinous behavior. Take, for instance, a 2014 case in which the Supreme Court struck down a Massachussetts law giving abortion patients a 35-foot buffer zone to walk to a clinic without being harassed by anti-choice protesters. The lawyers for the protesters portrayed their clients as simple-minded but sweet grandmothers whose desire to "counsel" young women should be indulged. In reality, the protesters who surround the clinic are resentful bullies who are only too happy to talk about abortion patients like they're sluts and who sneeringly denounce women for wanting "to have their careers [and] their education." Their motives weren't gentle ignorance, but unvarnished sadism.

And most importantly of all, there's danger in ascribing to stupidity what is born from enmity, which is the threat of underestimating your opponents. The Texas abortion ban isn't something that idiot anti-choicers stumbled into by accident. It was carefully crafted by highly educated, intelligent people who spent years researching ways to overturn Roe v. Wade while pretending that's not what they did. They are manipulative and diabolical, and have had incredible success, despite holding views that are wildly unpopular. It may feel good to write such people off as "ignorant," but that is the last thing they are. They're smart as hell, and that is why they're so dangerous.

The Satanists are right: Texas' abortion ban is a direct attack on freedom of religion

Trolling is largely associated with humor-impaired right-wing bullies, but there are still some on the left who know how to troll with wit and style while serving the forces of good instead of evil.

Take, for instance, the Satanic Temple of Salem, Massachusetts, a perennial thorn in the side of Christian fundamentalists who try to pass off their theocratic impulses as "religious freedom." The Temple, which is a pro-secular organization and does not literally worship Satan, routinely pulls stunts like suing states that display Christian imagery on public grounds to make them also display Satanic imagery. The group also stands for reproductive rights, and as Brett Bachman reports for Salon, is fighting the Texas abortion ban by declaring that abortion is one of their sacred rituals, making the ban a major imposition on their free expression of religion.

The Satanists' trolling worked. The move triggered all the right people, by which I mean misogynist prigs who have way too much interest in other people's sex lives.

Texas Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw's tweet was an immediate contender for the Self-Aware Wolves hall of fame. It's the Satanists — whose mission is "to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits" — and not Crenshaw who are clearly on the right side of history and human rights.

But this move by the Satanic Temple serves a higher purpose than trolling forced-birth advocates like Crenshaw. The Satanists are highlighting an issue that often gets lost in the debate over reproductive rights: The anti-choice movement is just one part of a larger effort by Christian fundamentalists to covertly turn the U.S. into a more theocratic state.

Anti-choice politics are driven by a small and shrinking group of hard-right white evangelicals who wish to foist their religious views on the majority, in violation of the First Amendment-enshrined value of free exercise of religion. The Texas abortion ban is tied to a larger agenda to undermine LGBTQ rights, replace science with religious dogma, and otherwise violate the constitutional prohibition of the establishment of religion.

Conservatives go to great lengths to hide how much being anti-abortion is about forcing all Americans to live by the religious tenets of the white evangelical minority. Indeed, Republicans will often try to pretend "science" is motivating abortion bans, as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie did over the weekend on ABC, when he declared, "One of the reasons you're seeing a decline in abortion is an increase in science and how much more people know about viability." He then went on to baselessly claim that people are "much more appalled by the act of abortion than they were back in 1973."

As with pretty much everything that's said in defense of abortion bans, Christie spouts lies all the way down.

Support for abortion rights has remained steady since 1973 and strong majorities want Roe v. Wade to stay put. In 1973, scientists understood perfectly well how embryonic development worked and that understanding hasn't meaningfully changed since then. Embryos are not "viable" two weeks after a missed period, which is when the Texas abortion ban kicks in. Indeed, the pretense for banning abortions so early — the "fetal heartbeat" — is also a lie. As actual medical scientists and doctors told NPR, there is neither a fetus nor a heart that early in pregnancy, but more "a grouping of cells that are initiating some electrical activity" that GOP legislators misleading call a "heartbeat."

Unfortunately, these kinds of lies about "science" are common among anti-choicers. As scientists Nicole M. Baran, Gretchen Goldman, and Jane Zelikova wrote in Scientific-American in 2019, GOP legislators "actively misrepresent the work of scientists, using rhetoric to deceive the public and stoke emotional outrage," and the ideas animating abortion bans "are appallingly unscientific, and they are dangerous."

We've all been accustomed to the cynical ease with which Republicans lie, but the anti-choice lies about "science" are ridiculous even by the basement-level standards conservatives live by. These are the same folks who reject the very real science of climate change and COVID-19 vaccination, even though their anti-science views are leading to mass death and destruction. (And then they lie and claim to be "pro-life.") And it's all to serve theocratic forces who really got this anti-science ball rolling by trying to force schools to teach Christian creation myths in lieu of evolutionary biology.

It's not science that fuels this assault on abortion rights, it's religion — specifically the religion of white Christian fundamentalists.

A 2020 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows that 67% of white evangelicals want to ban abortion, compared to only 37% of Americans overall. Even the majority of Catholics support legal abortion, despite decades of church opposition to reproductive rights. A similar 2020 poll from Pew Research shows the same results. Strong majorities of Black Protestants, white non-evangelical Protestants, Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated all support Roe v. Wade. The only group where a majority opposes abortion rights is white evangelicals.

The anti-abortion movement cannot be meaningfully separated from this theocratic movement of white evangelicals, or, for that matter, from white supremacy. It's all one big bundle of intertwined ideas, and all the same people pushing it. These are folks resolutely opposed to a multiracial democracy, and instead have a vision of the U.S. as a white supremacist state where their far-right religious views shape the laws that everyone has to live by. And despite the fact that Ten Commandments explicitly forbid bearing false witness, these theocrats lie and lie and lie — about science, about the law, about their intentions — because they know full well that their mission is anti-democratic and violates the constitutional precepts about freedom of religion.

Abortion rights are often marginalized as a "woman's issue" in American political discourse. That's offensive in itself, as women are more than half the population and access to reproductive health care affects the lives of everyone, not just women. But truly, this Texas abortion ban goes beyond even these material questions about health care access. It cuts right to the heart of the struggle defining our era, between a secular, pro-democracy majority and an authoritarian minority who wants to force its racist, theocratic view of America on the rest of us.

The Satanists get it. No amount of right-wing lying about "science" will change the fact that this abortion ban is a direct attack on freedom of religion.

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