America's deadly minority rule problem

Friday morning, Americans awoke yet again to another round of headlines about a senseless mass shooting, this time with 8 people dead at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. After a year of an unimaginable amount of death from COVID-19, it appears Americans are returning to our regular pre-pandemic cycle of trauma, which is the random mass murder of people interspersed between an unending stream of street violence stemming from a country steeped in guns. We had barely started to embrace hope of the pandemic ending when these high profile shootings began again: Atlanta. Boulder. Southern California. South Carolina. Now Indianapolis.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

The frustrating thing is the majority of Americans know what needs to be done to curtail these murders, and they support doing it.

Polling from Morning Consult released just the day before the Indianapolis shooting shows that 2 out of 3 Americans want stricter gun control. This follows polling showing that 84% of Americans want background checks for gun buyers. Arguments in favor of gun control are winning the public debate. About 40,000 Americans die a year from gun violence. Voters want Congress to do something about it.

But Republicans barely bother to offer more than perfunctory arguments against gun control anymore. They know they don't need to, because no matter what happens at the ballot box, no matter how many Americans reject them and their views, they are the ones who will control the country, especially on matters such as gun control. Adam Jentleson, the former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who served as Senate Majority Leader for some time while Barack Obama was president, has dubbed it the "minority rule doom loop." As Jentleson describes it, the "doom loop" is one "by which predominantly white conservatives gain more and more power, even as they represent fewer Americans."

The doom loop consists of four interlocking components. Candidates who represent white conservatives—Republicans, in our ideologically sorted era—begin every election cycle buoyed by a sluice of voter suppression and gerrymandering (what I call electoral welfare), which makes it easier for them to win. Then antidemocratic features of the American system that have always existed but never benefited one party over the other in any systematic way help those same candidates take control of institutions such as the White House and the Senate, despite winning fewer votes and representing fewer people than their opponents. Once in control of these institutions, these newly elected officials use them to entrench their power beyond the reach of voters. If they are eventually voted out of power, they retain a veto over the agenda of the majority, which they use to block change and feed the conservative case that the government is "broken." This hastens their return to power—along the very path they greased with voter suppression.

Right now, we're in stage three, where Democrats were able to marshal enough forces to overcome the significant structural barriers to majority rule to win technical control of the government. But Democratic helplessness to pass gun control legislation is a cold reminder that Republicans, despite being walloped at the ballot box, retain most of the power in this country.

Yes, President Joe Biden was able to get an important coronavirus relief package passed through Congress on a party-line vote. But on the vast majority of legislative priorities for Democratsgun control, climate change, voting rights, health careRepublicans have the final word, due to the filibuster. That word is consistently "nope," with a side dose of "f*ck you" to the majority of Americans who voted against the GOP. And with Republican-controlled state legislatures rapidly introducing a bunch of bills to disenfranchise voters further, it may very well be tha we're entering a new era when Democrats can't even technically win elections, despite having the majority support among Americans.

And it's even worse than that passage from Jentleson indicates, because Republicans also have captured the courts through sleazy means, holding judicial seats open during Barack Obama's presidency, only to rapidly fill them when Donald Trump got elected. As Ian Millhiser of Vox argued in a recent Salon interview, the result is Republicans can go around the legislative process entirely to force their agenda on Americans who keep haplessly voting against them.

The minority rule doom loop isn't just unfair and anti-democratic. It's also deadly.

Nearly 20% of people who died in the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic have been Americans, even though we have less than 4% of the world's population. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would be alive today, but for Donald Trump's reckless mismanagement. What adds insult to injury is that Americans didn't even choose Trump as their president. Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes and, in a truly democratic nation, would have been president when the pandemic hit. Even her fiercest critics on the left had to admit that hundreds of thousands more people would be with us today if the competent woman — the person who got the most votes — had been allowed to actually have her win, instead of letting the electoral college install a sociopathic buffoon.

Truthfully, the death toll we're looking at from our continued insistence on letting Republicans win even when they lose is going to be unfathomable, because we can add "lack of health care" and "climate change" to the growing pile of deadly problems that Americans keep voting to fix, to no avail. The situation is only getting worse, as Republicans dig deeper into the idea they have an absolute right to rule, no matter what the voters say about it.

There is still, for the moment anyway, a solution.

Democrats could strip the minority party of their nearly-absolute veto power but abolishing — or at least reforming — the filibuster, a pointless anachornism in the Senate that was mainly used in the past to defend white supremacy. When they were in power, Republicans didn't think twice about nuking the filibuster when it got in the way of their main priority, which was controlling the Supreme Court. Without Republicans being able to stop any bill before it even got to debate on the Senate floor, Democrats could strengthen gun control, improve health care, fight climate change, and, perhaps most importantly, bar state legislatures from passing laws to deny Americans the legal right to vote.

Unfortunately, this common sense move is being blocked by two Democratic senators who are weighed down by an ignorance that is only surpassed by the size of their egos: Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Both of these senators keep foolishly insisting that filibuster is somehow a tool encouraging bipartisan engagement and debate, even though the reality is that it's being used by Republicans to unilaterally end all Senate debate before it even happens. Whatever the real motivations of these two — likely an outdated belief that "doing nothing" is the safest possible political position — their actions are stunningly immoral. People keep dying pointlessly in this country. They have the power to do something about it, but they flat out refuse to use that power.

It's farcical, in an existentialist-novel sort of way. American voters have been cast in the role of Sisyphus, where we keep pushing that rock labeled "Democratic victory" up that ever steeper hill, only to see all the hard work and sacrifice tumble to the ground right on the precipice of actually getting anything done. Our once great nation is being brought to its knees because a couple of scatterbrained Democratic senators can't bring themselves to admit they are playing handmaiden to Republican plots to destroy the tattered remains of our democracy. Americans keep voting and voting and voting for the right not to be senselessly killed. That we can't even get that shows that this thing we call a "democracy" is anything but.

GOP's anti-vaxx cult meant to hurt Biden

Vaccination rates are improving at a steady clip. As of Wednesday afternoon, almost 124 million Americans have received at least one shot and over 76 million are fully vaccinated. There have been no meaningful bad effects from either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and only a handful of extremely rare incidents that have forced the FDA to temporarily pause the administration of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The vaccines are safe, effective, and well-documented on social media. These are the exact conditions — basically, other people getting it first and proving it's safe — that many vaccine-hesitant Americans were telling pollsters that they wanted to see in order to convince them to get the vaccine.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

And yet, a new poll released Wednesday by Monmouth University shows the number of Americans — 1 in 5 — who refuse to get vaccinated has barely dropped from where it was in polls conducted in January and March. The only thing that's really changed is the excuse people are offering for why. In the past, 21% of Americans gave the "let others do it first" answer. Now only 12% of people are even bothering to pretend that condition hasn't been met yet.

Instead, what's becoming ever more clear is the reluctance to get vaccinated is about one thing and one thing only: Owning the libs.

"The number of people who have been skittish about the vaccine has dropped as more Americans line up for the shot, but the hardcore group who want to avoid it at all costs has barely budged," Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in the press release, adding that "much of this reluctance is really ingrained in partisan identity."

In fact, that might be most of it. As the Monmouth poll found, "43% of Republicans versus just 5% of Democrats" are refusing to get the vaccine altogether. Another recent poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov found that while overall vaccine hesitancy has hit an all-time low in the U.S., Republicans, unlike either Democrats or Independents, have for months remained largely unmoved in their unwillingness to get vaccinated.

The reasons for this are not mysterious.

Right-wing media networks like Fox News and various personalities have gone out of their way to signal to conservatives that refusing the vaccine is a way to demonstrate tribal loyalty and, even more importantly, demonstrate contempt for liberals. For instance, after CNN's Brian Stelter hosted a segment calling on Fox News hosts and other right-wing pundits to encourage vaccination through vaccine selfies, a number of those figures childishly flipped out, as if Stelter was their mommy telling them to eat their broccoli. The Blaze's Glenn Beck posted a picture mocking vaccine selfies, substituting the bird for the jab.

Fox News "comedian" Greg Gutfeld whined it's "none of your f**king business" who gets the shot, even though vaccination quite literally works through herd immunity and cannot be understood as a "personal" choice any more than driving through red lights is a "personal" choice.

The anti-vaccination sentiment is clearly building on a tendency on the American right to define "manhood" as an unwillingness to act like an adult who can handle even basic responsibilities, which is no doubt one reason why women are more likely to get vaccinated than men. Another problem, of course, is that right-wing media has been bombarding their audiences with anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, a problem that has only grown more intense this week, after the pause in the distribution of Johnson & Johnson vaccinations.

Tucker Carlson, who Media Matters' Senior Fellow Matt Gertz says "has become perhaps the nation's most prominent coronavirus vaccine skeptic," has taken to portraying vaccines as a massive hoax. On Tuesday, for instance, Carlson suggested that the vaccine "doesn't work and they're simply not telling you that."

It's a troubling situation, especially as widespread vaccine hesitation could very well prevent the U.S. from achieving herd immunity, and therefore letting COVID-19 spread widely as it continues to mutate.

That said, there are some things that Joe Biden's administration can do in order to fight this onslaught of pressure on conservatives from right-wing media to refuse vaccination.

First, as I've argued before, it's important to deny right-wing pundits their ultimate goal, which is drawing out the lockdown measures as long as possible, to tank the economic recovery and therefore hurt Biden's presidency. Even though it's less than ideal, it must be made clear that the time to roll back recommendations against parties and other gatherings is when supply outstrips demand for the vaccine — not when we reach herd immunity. If conservative media realizes that they're not going to be able to leverage the unvaccinated bodies of their own audiences against Biden, they may give up their anti-vaccination crusade.

Second, the Centers for Disease Control needs to dial back the hyper-caution in its messaging. There are some understandable reasons that the CDC still doesn't want to tell vaccinated people that eating out, going to church, going to gyms, and other such occasions are low risk. But refusing to do so is, unfortunately, sending an entirely different message, which is that being vaccinated has no personal benefit and thus there's no reason to bother. Carlson exploited this confusion during his latest anti-vaccination rant, literally asking, "If vaccines work, why are vaccinated people still banned from living normal lives?"

The solution to this problem is, in a large part, to start highlighting the freedoms that full vaccination gives you. Model the messaging on the upbeat ads for HIV prevention drugs that focus on the sexual pleasure and connection people who use the drugs can enjoy. Stop with the dour messaging that makes people feel like the shot changes nothing about their lives. (Masks will likely still have to be worn for many months, but otherwise, vaccinated people really should be able to return to something far closer to normal than the CDC is currently allowing.)

Third, more resources should be focused on getting people's individual doctors to push them to get the shot. Right now, COVID-19 vaccination has been focused on community health channels. This is totally understandable, as the swiftest way to get shots into arms is to have folks queue up in centralized locations. The problem is that this kind of communal health care repulses conservatives who — for totally grotesque and often racist reasons, to be clear — really hate the very concept of health care as a shared resource, an attitude that only got worse in the decade-plus of anger over Obamacare. But conservatives might take a different view if they could see the COVID-19 vaccine shot as individualized health care being offered to them by their own doctor.

Pro-vaccine GOP pollster Frank Luntz has conducted some research on this front and reported that if conservatives perceive the vaccine as coming from the government, they won't take it. But "the most compelling message we tested was that more than 90 percent of doctors who have been offered the vaccine have taken it." The "we're all in this together" message works on most communities but can injure the easily bruised egos of conservatives, who like to think of themselves as rugged individuals. Reframing the shot as something elite authority figures like doctors get and contextualizing it like a personalized health care recommendation just for them could help get a lot of conservatives to just get the shot already.

Some of these ideas understandably frustrate liberals.

Why should public health strategies have to change to accommodate stubborn people who are motivated by childishness, conspiracy theories, and racism? Why should we even have to worry about people who willfully listen to liars like Tucker Carlson?

Unfortunately, the reason, in this case, is that we really are all in this together. Conservatives who refuse to get vaccinated are going to spread disease — indeed, that's what right-wing media is counting on. So anything that can be done to reduce the political salience of vaccination, to make it seem less "liberal" and more like regular health care, can benefit us all. Besides, at least part of the strategy requires leaving conservatives behind if they don't want to get the shot, which means more freedom sooner for the rest of us.

Republicans settle on their strategy for dismantling democracy

Tucker Carlson recently got oodles of attention — which was what he wanted — for unleashing a literal neo-Nazi argument on his highly rated prime time Fox News show last week and, when called on it, doubling down Monday night. Carlson's "argument" is basically a rehash of the same idea that drove white nationalists to riot in Charlottesville in 2017. At its core is a belief that social and demographic changes in the U.S. are due to a shadowy conspiracy of "elites" (Democrats in Carlson's telling, Jews in the more forthright white nationalist version) trying to deprive conservative Christian white people of their god-given right to control the country.

"[T]he Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World," Carlson said, eyes glinting with impish delight. He circled around again on Monday, whining, "In order to win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country."

Carlson's arguments are, of course, utter nonsense, starting with the fact Democrats already win the majority of votes in national elections, and only lose power because votes of conservative whites are more heavily weighted in our electoral system. Here at Salon, Heather "Digby" Parton recently pointed out that it's ridiculous "to believe that immigrants are 'replacing' real Americans in a country where the only people in it who aren't the descendants of immigrants or trafficked African slaves are Native Americans."

Immigration foes have never come up with a satisfactory explanation for why it's anything but racist to argue that immigration was good in the past but is bad now.

Carlson doesn't even really try to hide his core appeal, using overtly racist terms like "Third World" and acting like feigning umbrage at the use of the word "racist" is sufficient rebuttal to the accusation. Instead of trying to actually defend his anti-democratic, racist arguments, Carlson instead chooses a much simpler tactic: Trolling.

His trolling comes in two forms, the "trigger the liberals" type and the more classic "neener neener" type. Neither really constitutes an argument in the traditional sense of the word. Both, instead, focus the attention of Carlson's audience on the emotional rewards of irritating liberals, instead of on the incoherence of what he's trying to argue.

The full quotes from Carlson's rant defending "replacement theory" really underscore how central liberal-triggering is to selling his audience on this nonsense. After offering a fake laugh, Carlson noted that he's "laughing" because "the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term 'replacement,'" and "they become hysterical because that's what's happening actually." The joke being that "replacement theory" may not make much sense, in other words, but it's guaranteed to make liberals upset. As making liberals upset is the prime directive of the modern conservative, that's a good enough reason to embrace what is literally a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory.

Carlson went on to claim that this is merely a "voting rights question," and that more voters in the system means "I become disenfranchised as a current voter." But Greg Sargent at the Washington Post did a noble job of pointing out the incongruity of "Carlson's underlying presumption that if representatives chosen by U.S. voters allow more outsiders admission to an expanded polity, this cannot be a democratic outcome by definition." Parton also took a shot at this silliness, noting "we are all going to be 'replaced' by the generations that come up behind us." Carlson, notably, isn't arguing against the practice of childbirth, which also "dilutes" his vote by adding new voters to the populace.

But Carlson isn't really trying to make sense. This is just a "neener neener" argument, drafting off the fact that liberals have been heavily focused on protecting actual voting rights against a wave of GOP voter suppression. Basically, it's Carlson saying, "You libs say you're for voting rights, but what if I said my voting rights depends on other people not getting to vote? Checkmate, libs!" It's not really an argument. It's about injecting noise into the discourse and is meant to confuse people, waste time by forcing liberals to carefully debunk it, and give his viewers something to say to rationalize their racism, even if it is literally nonsensical.

This "neener neener" type of trolling is swiftly becoming central to the entire GOP strategy around dismantling voting rights.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri are proposing using anti-trust laws to break up Major League Baseball to punish the organization for pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia in protest of the anti-voting law just passed there. This isn't because Cruz or Hawley believe in anti-trust laws. It's a neener-neener move of weaponizing liberals' own beliefs against them. It's part of a larger push by Republicans to parrot liberal criticism of corporate influence in politics by whining about "woke" corporations. No one actually believes Republicans have suddenly become concerned about monied power in politics. It's just a "neener neener" troll to derail debate about the actual anti-voting law, which conservatives know is indefensible.Indeed, the efforts to roll out "checkmate, libs" deflections beat new records in idiocy this week, when not just one, but two senior writers at the National Review — which is supposed to be the home of "intellectual" conservatism — tried to "gotcha" New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait on his pro-democracy writings. They did this by arguing — wait for it — that democracy is bad because it gave us Jim Crow and slavery. Yep, you read that right.

It makes us all stupider that it has to be said, but the flaw in this argument, of course, is that enslaved people and Black people living under Jim Crow did not, in fact, have the democratic right to vote. Indeed, Jim Crow functioned just like the Georgia law that these conservative "intellectuals" are defending, which is by undermining democracy in order to preserve white supremacy. As the Atlantic's Adam Serwer and the Washington Post's David Weigel pointed out, this is the equivalent of arguing that apartheid South Africa was a "democracy" despite disallowing the majority of Black citizens from voting.

But these kinds of tactics from conservatives shouldn't be understood as arguments. Instead, it's all just flat-out trolling. None of these "arguments" are offered in good faith. The point is, as Steve Bannon once famously said, "to flood the zone with shit," which is to say to derail efforts to inform and engage the public by pumping out so many dumb arguments, trolling tactics, and other distractions that few people can pay attention to what really matters.

Fighting back against these tactics isn't easy. Ignoring the trolls isn't good enough. If bad arguments like Carlson's aren't rebutted, they can spread even more rapidly, as not everyone has the critical thinking skills to spot the flaws right away. But it's also important not to let trolls waste too much of liberals' time and energy debating arguments offered in bad faith. Instead, the key to fighting back is to go meta, by pointing out as often as is necessary, that conservatives resort to such sleazy strategies because they know their arguments can't stand on their own. Going meta instead of taking the bait is the only real way to beat back the trolls.

New scandals have exposed a disturbing fact about Trump’s lingering impact on our society

Donald Trump is a bored old man whose main entertainment these days is making a fool out of Republican fundraisers with his unhinged rants, but, sadly for the rest of us, his impact will be long-lingering, from the mainstreaming of white nationalist rhetoric to the size of the lies Republican politicians feel emboldened to tell. One of the oddest, most annoying legacies Trump leaves behind has the potential to impact not just Republican politicians, but Democratic ones as well: that all they need to do when faced with a scandal, no matter how serious, is to dig in their heels and refuse to resign. Eventually, as Trump's time in office demonstrated, the press will get bored and move on.

The two current examples of this phenomenon come from different sides of the aisle but have a surprising amount in common with both each other and Trump: New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Congress' most "Florida man" member, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Both men are the kinds of politicians that invariably get described as "pugnacious," and have a reputation for running towards any microphone-and-camera set-up that they see. Both had reputations of being bullies, but that seemed not to bother their voters — and even seemed to please a chunk of their base. And both men are currently embroiled in the kind of embarrassing scandals that, in the pre-Trump era, would have almost certainly led to their resignations weeks, if not months, ago.

Gaetz, for his part, is being accused of participating in a sex work ring that involved at least one underage girl. Cuomo has been accused of harassing multiple women, including one woman who says he groped her. But both men are betting, with good reason, that if they just brazen it out, they will be able to survive the current storm and even win their re-election campaigns in 2022.

Blame Trump.

In his four years in office, Trump was a non-stop hurricane of scandals, many that were far more serious than what Gaetz and Cuomo are accused of doing. Trump weathered a sex scandal that was also a campaign finance scandal, a rape scandal, and various accusations of sexual assault. He was impeached twice, both times for efforts to cheat in or steal the election that could be understood as seditious. He settled out of court for committing fraud. He shamelessly used his businesses as go-throughs to collect bribes, both foreign and domestic. And that's just a taste of all the criminality and corruption Trump indulged in as president.

None of it mattered, at least while Trump was in office. (There's still hope he may feel the cold metal of handcuffs, like so many of his associates have in the past.)

The key to Trump's success at skirting justice was simple shamelessness. He refused to resign or even admit guilt, instead lashing out endlessly, forever making ridiculous assertions that he was the victim of an endless conspiracy by Democrats, the "deep state" and "fake news." The conspiracy Trump alleges would have required thousands, if not millions, of participants, and so it's unlikely anyone ever really believed his lies. But his strategy worked anyway, not because he hoodwinked anyone, but because he correctly bet that he could outlast the press interest in covering his scandals.

It's unclear whether Trump understood what he was doing or was simply just too narcissistic to ever heed calls for his resignation. Either way, his strategy was effective simply because the media, for better or worse, has a newness bias. Writing the same story over and over only works for a few tenured columnists at legacy news organizations. Everyone else — whether they are reporters, cable news pundits, or opinion writers — needs something new to say: new details, new takes, something even slightly different than what they were saying before. Being repetitive means losing readers and viewers. Sometimes the story can be dragged out, as happened with Trump's first impeachment, by investigations or testimony that unearths new details. But even then, as we all saw, there's a point where there's simply nothing more to be said. By hanging in past the sell-by date of any scandal, Trump demonstrated that the media will eventually move on and you can start the next phase: pretending it never happened.

This strategy is aided by a highly polarized partisan environment. In the past, scandals were more of a threat because there was always a chance that voters might punish a corrupt politician at the polls. Nowadays, however, both Democrats and Republican voters are fierce partisans, often more because they hate the other party more than they like their own. As such, there's almost nothing a politician can do — except be a next-level creep with a penchant for young girls, like Roy Moore — that will cause voters to vote for their opponent. Both Gaetz and Cuomo are taking advantage, knowing their voters would rather slit their own wrists than pull the lever for the other party.

For a brief moment, it did seem like the #MeToo movement would change things. The outpouring of rage and grief coming out of victims from decades of bottled up angst over sexual harassment or abuse was such that multiple politicians — including, most famously, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota — decided to resign rather than let their political allies suffer the fallout from scandals stemming from sexual misconduct. But that was early in Trump's presidency. It clearly has dawned on multiple politicians — including Franken himself — that even a #MeToo scandal is survivable through stubbornness.

The first major test of this came in Virginia, when that state's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, was revealed in early 2019 to have either donned blackface or a KKK hood at a college party in his youth. Rather than resign, as nearly everyone expected him to do, Northam stayed put. And eventually, as happened with Trump countless times, the press gave up and moved on.

To be certain, being able to brazen out a scandal still appears to be a privilege exclusive to male politicians.

Former Rep. Kate Hill, a Democrat from California, was forced to resign in early 2019 after a sex scandal — involving a consensual affair with a campaign staffer — that pales in comparison to either the Gaetz or Cuomo accusations. And while what Franken was accused of doing — groping women — was also much worse, he continues to have vocal defenders, even as Hill does not. The sexist double standard, especially around sex scandals, is firmly in place.

Still, this is likely one of Trump's lasting legacies. Scandals are unlikely to bring politicians — at least white, male politicians — down like they used to. Trump found the media's Achilles heel. And he exploited the unwillingness of voters to switch parties, even in the face of serious scandal. Barring actual imprisonment or being legally removed from office — which is still a possibility for Gaetz — there's almost no way anymore to hold a politician accountable for corrupt behavior. And we're all much worse off for it because politicians are going to be increasingly emboldened to violate ethical standards or even commit crimes, knowing there's unlikely to be any penalty for it.

Republicans got the Supreme Court they wanted: That will change America forever

For two whole years, Republicans had complete control of both branches of Congress and the White House under Donald Trump, but all they did of legislative significance was pass a massive tax cut for the rich and corporations. Republicans seem so uninterested in legislation, in fact, that the party didn't even bother to draft a platform during the 2020 campaign. Instead, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spent Trump's presidency cramming as many judges as he could onto the federal bench, working until the last possible moment of Trump's presidency on this takeover of the judicial branch. The result was a massive victory for Republicans, a thorough remaking of the federal courts — including, of course, the Supreme Court, which now has six right-wing justices, three of them appointed within Trump's single term.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Ian Millhiser, the senior legal correspondent for Vox, argues that this is no accident. In his new book, "The Agenda: How a Republican Supreme Court Is Reshaping America," Millhiser argues that Republicans have given up trying to pass their wildly unpopular policy agenda through the legislature, which only invites voter anger and backlash. Instead, the court capture is a way to go around the voters to impose the GOP agenda by fiat. I recently spoke with Millhiser about what this Republican-controlled court system means for America. Watch our "Salon Talks" conversation here, or read the following transcript, edited as usual for length and clarity.

As you note in your book, outside of a big tax cut for the rich in 2017, Republicans in Congress "enacted hardly any major legislation under Trump, at least until the pandemic." But you argue that we shouldn't mistake this for the GOP having no agenda at all.

If you go back maybe five years, the Republican Party had a hugely aggressive legislative agenda. There was the Paul Ryan budget: They wanted to voucherize Medicare, cut Medicaid in half and slash food stamps, all these things. And they campaigned on none of that in 2020. While Biden's trying to pass his agenda, Republicans seem to feel like a good use of their time is to complain about Dr. Seuss.

I've seen some writers say, "Hey, the Republican Party doesn't have any ideas right now." But the truth is, they've got a hugely aggressive policy agenda. They just have turned away from democracy as the vehicle to decide how policy is enacted. They control the courts, and they have a 6-3 supermajority on the Supreme Court, and they're pushing an extraordinarily aggressive agenda. I get into some parts of it in the book.

They are dismantling voting rights laws, they are making it so that agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor an the Department of Health and Human Services, can't regulate businesses, can't prevent emissions, can't make sure that your health insurer provides you with a certain baseline of coverage. They make it so you can't get into court, even when your rights are violated. On top of that, they're carving out certain special protected classes, like conservative Christians who don't even have to follow the laws. It's a pretty aggressive agenda.

If Donald Trump had campaigned in 2020, and had said, "We're going to render the Voting Rights Act completely useless, we're going to strip the EPA of its ability to control pollution and we're going to say that if you hold the right religious beliefs, then you're allowed to violate anti-discrimination laws," people would have thought that was a pretty impressive agenda that's as aggressive as any party has run on in recent years.

Which leads me to an interesting question. Do you think they set out to take over the courts deliberately, or was it something they backed into, realizing that this was the best way to pursue their agenda without paying a political price for it?

It's a good question. I think that, generally, parties that are confident politically don't tend to rely too much on the courts. So if you go back and you listen to what FDR had to say about the judiciary — and FDR was dealing with a very hostile Supreme Court that was striking down key portions of the New Deal. But what FDR did not do is put in place a bunch of justices who would just implement the New Deal for him. What he wanted was for the court to back the fuck off. He got elected in a landslide. He had a huge congressional majority. He argued, just let the democratic process work, and the court should just uphold his legislation. And if you look at, say, Nixon or Reagan's rhetoric regarding the court, it was basically the same.

Whatever you think of Ronald Reagan, he won two elections in a landslide. He had every reason to be confident that he could get his policy through using the democratic process with political legitimacy, without having to have some side body of unelected aristocrats doing it for him. You flash forward to the present, and Democrats have won seven of the eight last presidential elections, if you look at the popular vote. If the Senate wasn't as badly apportioned as it is to give extra seats to small Republican states, Democrats would have controlled the Senate, I think, continuously since the mid to late '90s. The Republican Party that we have now can't win free and fair elections.

Now maybe if they didn't have as many built-in advantages as they do they would moderate, and they would be competitive. But the particular hard-right Republican Party that is in place right now, they're not confident in their ability to win elections. And if you're not confident in your ability to win elections, there's one of two things you can do. Either you can try harder to win elections by moderating, or you can abandon democracy. When you control the Supreme Court, you have the option to abandon democracy.

Right now in Georgia, they've passed this very expansive voting restriction law that makes it much more difficult to vote, but also makes it very difficult for a free and fair election to be adjudicated correctly because they're doing all this weird stuff in the background to make it so that Republicans can throw out votes. I think that's the end game here. I've been seeing a lot of liberals on Twitter confidently declaring that the Supreme Court will throw this law out, that it's so clearly unconstitutional that we shouldn't be worried about it. What's your take on that?

This Supreme Court is really hostile to voting rights. So the backbone of our voting rights law is the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racists voting laws. And the reason why you have to think about race when you think about elections is because, in a typical American election, Democrats will win 80% to 90% of the Black vote, and about 60% to 70% of the Latino vote. That's been a consistent pattern for many, many elections in a row. So if you're a Republican state lawmaker, and you want to disenfranchise Democrats, you can use race as a proxy to identify where the Democratic communities are. The most troubling provision of this Georgia law isn't any of the stuff dealing with early voting or voting by mail or even the dumb provision saying you can't give people water while they're waiting in line. The most troubling provision of this bill is that it allows the Republican-controlled state elections board to take over any local election board.

And what local election boards can do in Georgia is they adjudicate voting disputes over whether an individual voter is qualified to vote. They can potentially shut down precincts in a locality, and then they can refuse to certify an election. So the big danger is that it's very easy to identify where the Democratic communities are in Georgia — not all of them, there are white Democrats in Georgia — but if you shut down the polling precincts in a Black neighborhood in Atlanta, you can be confident that 80% to 90% of the people who are disenfranchised because of that are going to be Democrats.

The danger is that they will use this power. They'll use race as a proxy to identify the Democratic neighborhoods, they'll shut down precincts, they will uphold a lot of ballot challenges, they'll say that people aren't allowed to vote, and they may even refuse to certify the results in those areas as well. Now, the way that that would have been handled in the past is that the Voting Rights Act has three prongs. First is "pre-clearance." States with a history of racist voting practices have to pre-clear their new election laws with officials in D.C., just to make sure they aren't racist. The second is called the "intent test": If you take an action with the intent to discriminate on the basis of race, that's not allowed. So if Georgia Republicans of the state election board take over the Atlanta local election committees with the intent to prevent Black people from voting, that would violate the intent test. And then there's the thing called the "results test," which is complicated, but the short of it is that certain laws that have a disparate impact on voters of color also have to be struck down.

If for instance, they're only throwing out majority Black districts, that's pretty clear.

Right, so the thing that you see in a lot of states — this actually didn't make it through in the Georgia bill — is that Black churches tend to hold "souls to the polls" drives on Sundays. A lot of Republican states are trying to get rid of early voting on Sundays, because Black people are unusually likely to vote on Sunday because of these voter drives held by the churches. If you write a law that says, "There's no voting on Sunday," there's nothing in it that immediately clicks "race" to you. But the result of that law will be that a lot of Black people won't be able to vote, or at least it will be harder for them to vote. That would ordinarily run afoul of the Voting Rights Act.

The problem you have is that the Supreme Court basically got rid of pre-clearance in the Shelby County decision in 2015. There was a case called Abbott v. Perez in 2018 that said that the burden of proof for a plaintiff alleging racist intent is so high that it's basically impossible to meet. If you can show that the lawmakers burned a cross while passing the law, then maybe the Supreme Court will say that that's not allowed — although Justice Alito will dissent. Anything short of that, it's just next to impossible after Abbott v. Perez to win all but the most egregious cases.

There's a case in front of the court right now called Brnovich, which goes after the results test. I don't know if the Supreme Court is going to dismantle the results test in one fell swoop, I think they're more likely to do it incrementally, a few pieces at a time. But still, if you don't have pre-clearance, you don't have the intent test, you don't have the results test, then you don't have a Voting Rights Act. If you don't have a Voting Rights Act, then you don't have safeguards against, say, the state election board in Georgia coming in and taking over all the Atlanta polling places and allowing conservative groups to come in and challenge tens of thousands of voters claiming that they aren't properly registered to vote. All of a sudden you aren't having free and fair elections anymore.

I also want to talk about abortion rights because there are a bunch of cases coming to the court, I suspect very quickly. South Carolina and Arkansas have passed almost complete abortion bans and Texas is about to. The Supreme Court is 6-3 opposed to abortion rights. Could they overturn Roe v. Wade?

Absolutely. Unless Justice Thomas and Justice Alito are lost at sea during the early phase of the Biden administration, I think Roe is doomed. Now, I think there are two questions. One is, how quickly it will be doomed? There's a case called Dobbs, I believe, in front of the Supreme Court right now, it involves a 15-week abortion ban. That's been sitting on the court's docket and they've been waiting to decide whether they're going to hear the case or not. Every week passes and they just do nothing with it. Maybe they're a little cautious. Maybe they realize that Democrats are mad right now about how things went down with the last few Supreme Court confirmations and they should maybe wait until there's a Republican Senate before they overrule Roe v. Wade. They might not do it right away, but it's coming.

The other thing is that I don't know that the Supreme Court will ever actually use the words, "Roe v. Wade is overruled." And the reason why is they don't have to. We had a bunch of cases — one out of Texas, one out of Louisiana — dealing with what are often called trap laws. These are laws that just put unnecessary and expansive restrictions on an abortion clinic. Your doctors have to have certain credentials that are hard to get and don't matter, your halls have to be a certain width, you have to have an HVAC system that costs this much money. There's no actual health purpose, it's just to run up the cost of running a clinic.

That's the equivalent of these voting restrictions, but on abortion.

Exactly. I think it's only a matter of time before some state tries to say that, "You can't vote unless you have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital." But anyway, once the Supreme Court opens the door to that sort of thing, they don't have to strike down Roe v. Wade. They could say, "Abortion is protected by the Constitution. But if a state wants to say that all abortion clinics need to be made out of solid gold, that's fine." Or, "Doctors can perform abortions, but before they do, they have to complete a special training class that can only be taught by the pope." Stuff like that, things that in theory leave the abortion right alive, but in practice make it impossible.

It doesn't even need to be as egregious as the class being taught by the pope, because the problem is that there's a moving target here. If the Supreme Court had upheld Texas' law with its admitting privileges and its hallways and stuff like that, Texas would have just passed another law that made it more restrictive and imposed more and more restrictions on a clinic. Maybe they'll wait until Planned Parenthood invests a bunch of money in a new $10 million facility that complies with all the legal obligations. And then they'll be like, "Sorry, we just looked at your operating room, and the ventilation systems aren't good enough. I guess you've got to shut this down." Eventually, if you're an abortion provider you're just not going to be able to keep up. You're not going to keep lighting money on fire and making improvements to your buildings, when five minutes later you're going to be told to do something else.

This is all very depressing, especially considering how much the courts have been captured by the Republicans. What can people watching this do to make this situation better?

The most important thing that anyone can do is vote. I have an entire chapter in here talking about a practice called forced arbitration, which is where if you do business with anyone, including your employer, your boss can send you an email saying, "If you ever want to sue the company, you can't. You have to go to a private arbitrator and we're going to pick the arbitrator." And all the data shows that arbitrators are more favorable to companies than they are to individuals. And you're also not allowed to bring a class action. So if we do something to all of our employees, all of you have to bring individual suits. You can't join together in a class action. And if you don't agree to give up all your rights this way, you're fired.

This "You get your steak knives or you're fired" approach was endorsed by the Supreme Court. But it's all statutory law, it's all this misinterpreted law called the Federal Arbitration Act that was passed in the 1920s. And because it's statutory, Congress can fix it. Now, for Congress to fix it, not only do we need to make sure that we vote for members of Congress who want to fix it, we need to eliminate the filibuster. We need to vote for members of the Senate who will eliminate the filibuster. And then the nuclear bomb that could be dropped on the Supreme Court is you can add seats to it.

The Constitution says, "There shall be a Supreme Court." It doesn't say how many seats there are. Congress could say that there are going to be 15 justices: "Look, now there's six vacancies, so Biden gets to appoint them." There's a Democratic majority, Congress could do that. I don't think they have the votes for it right now. Now, I don't think court packing is necessarily your option of first resort because if you add seats to the court you diminish the prestige of the judiciary. I don't think it leads to Roe v. Wade being saved. It leads to Texas saying, "We're just not going to follow Roe v. Wade anymore." But what court packing is useful for is: Well, why do we have nuclear weapons? We have them so we don't have to use them. The reason why the U.S. has a nuclear arsenal is so anyone who would think of attacking us knows we could destroy them, so they don't attack us.

If we can put the fear of God into the Supreme Court and say, "OK, I understand that you don't like voting rights, but we like voting rights, and we have this nuclear missile that we are going to launch at you if you come after the Voting Rights Act." If you can convince them of that, then you don't need to deploy the weapon.

Blame John Boehner for the 'Crazytown' afflicting the Republican Party

John Boehner is clearly worried about his legacy. The former Republican speaker of the House is on a mission to rehabilitate his image and position himself as a noble, principled conservative who is at odds with the current slate of bug-eyed Donald Trump enthusiasts and lying Dr. Seuss trolls. He's recently published "On the House: A Washington Memoir" and is on the media circuit, both heavily promoting the book and this cockamamie notion that Trump and other trollish Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida represent some big departure from a more dignified conservatism that Boehner claims to represent.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

"I don't even think I could get elected in today's Republican Party anyway. I don't think Ronald Reagan could either," Boehner writes in excerpts quoted by the Washington Post. He also claims that "I'm not sure I belonged to the Republican Party [Trump] created."

This is —and it cannot be stated firmly enough — a stinking pile of horse-generated plant fertilizer.

Ronald Reagan was a proto-Trump figure, a B-list Hollywood celebrity who got elected riding a wave of white grievance by making barely coded racist overtures. That is why people like Boehner loved Reagan so much, and why they remade the Republican Party into the perfect vehicle for Trump, a sociopathic narcissist whose racism and sexism was even less coded than the brand that Reagan was peddling.

Boehner has been grabbing headlines lately by dunking, in often incredibly entertaining ways, on Trump and Cruz, who Boehner instructed to "go f*ck yourself" in the audio recording of the book. But as fun as all this is, no one should be fooled. Boehner is one of the main architects of the version of the GOP he dubs "Crazytown" in his book, a Republican party that is oriented around bigotry and trolling — and completely uninterested in anything resembling good governance.

Boehner, it must be remembered, came up in Congress during the years when Newt Gingrich was the Speaker of the House, which was really the beginning of the era of Republicans focusing all their energies on trolling and hating Democrats. Boehner now is highlighting his role in trying to push Gingrich out of leadership and his supposed regrets for the role he played in impeaching Bill Clinton. In truth, however, he was a major part of the rollout for the "Contract With America," which was really the beginning of the Republican Party as we know it now, a force that is interested more in destruction than in responsible governance.

When he was speaker during the Barack Obama presidency, Boehner fully leaned into the role as a destructive troll, ready to pander heavily to the Tea Party forces that were in a full-blown panic over the idea of a Black president and ready to do whatever it took to destroy his presidency. Under Boehner's leadership, House Republicans developed a variety of strategies aimed at kneecapping the popular Democratic president and forcing his main legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, into failure. Republicans believed — and continue to believe — that the best way to win politically was to tank economic recovery and expanded health care access, and then turn around and blame the Democratic president for what they themselves did. Boehner's main strategy was centered around tactics such as hostage-taking and brinkmanship.

In 2011, after he took over the Speaker position, Boehner oversaw a deliberately induced debt ceiling crisis, threatening to force the U.S. into default and ongoing economic crisis if Obama didn't agree to $4 trillion in spending cuts, with a focus on slashing at Medicare and Social Security in particular. If Boehner had succeeded, it would have destroyed the fragile economic recovery that Obama had overseen since the crash of 2008, but luckily, he overplayed his hand and largely failed to get what he wanted.

Still, that didn't stop Republicans. Under Boehner's leadership, the GOP took another pass in 2013, engaging in more debt ceiling brinkmanship in a pathetic, failed effort to defund the Affordable Care Act. The result was a government shutdown for half of October 2013, which Boehner defended by falsely claiming that the Affordable Care Act was having "a devastating impact" on the country. In reality, as the subsequent years showed, it was only "devastating" for those who don't like working class people having health care, but otherwise Obamacare has largely been a success.

By indulging these kinds of antics, Boehner helped further radicalize the GOP, encouraging both Republican politicians and voters to believe that it would be better to burn the U.S. to the ground than to allow an increasingly progressive, racially diverse majority to govern. Under Boehner's leadership, blatant sexism, barely coded racism, and outright disinformation became central tactics in the war to gut Obama's presidency. For instance, Boehner made defunding Planned Parenthood a centerpiece of the debt ceiling and government shutdown showdowns, exploiting misogynist resentment in order to push his agenda of slashing social spending. And Boehner happily fed the "death panels" lie, which was a myth promoted by right-wing media that suggested the government was going to start killing old white people to free up health care resources for younger, more racially diverse Americans.

It is true that Boehner was pushed out of Congress in 2015 because he lost his appetite for using another government shutdown as leverage to take away women's birth control pills and Pap smears. So perhaps he really does think of himself as a victim of the right wing nuts, the people whose unchecked hatred of Obama, racism, and loathing of feminism turned them into political arsonists.

If so, Boehner is lying to himself. He is a true Dr. Frankenstein figure, taken out by the monster he helped create. For years, Boehner happily encouraged and led an increasingly paranoid, delusional right that was driven to political madness over the existence of a Black president and the social changes pointing towards a more progressive America. He let Tea Party racism flourish unchecked, viewing it as a valuable tool to garner support for his failed brinkmanship tactics. He helped pave the way for the rise of Trump, who harnessed all this white resentment and anger that Republicans cultivated under Boehner's leadership. And this should be his legacy, not some too-little-too-late last ditch effort to make himself over into a voice of reason and common sense.

Republicans wage war against US children

Republicans, having lost their decade-long fight to prevent same-sex couples from getting married, are now targeting an even more vulnerable population for the next round of culture war hysterics: Trans children.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

The GOP is clearly convinced that the way to win the 2022 elections is by stirring people up with lurid, false tales of predatory trans people. They've recently passed a slew of state-level bills attacking trans rights, especially in public schools. The victims are some of the people least able to protect themselves: Minor children, many who are already struggling with difficulties stemming from being trans, queer, or otherwise gender nonconforming — a category so broad that it could capture most kids, depending on the interpretation.

Last week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed two executive orders meant to bar trans kids from playing sports. On Tuesday, the Arkansas state legislature overrode a veto from Gov. Asa Hutchinson to pass a bill banning people under 18 from receiving any gender-affirming medical treatments, even though minors often do little more than take puberty blockers to give them time to make more permanent decisions. Now the North Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would not only do all of the above, but would also require schools to immediately report to parents if a student "has 17 exhibited symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor's sex." As many commentators pointed out, "incongruent" with someone's sex is an extremely subjective standard.

Especially in the eyes of rigidly sexist conservatives, most Americans have some behaviors that are incongruent with their assigned gender. Boys who like sports like basketball or soccer more than football? Girls who like books more than boys? Boys who exhibit discomfort at misogynist jokes? Girls who talk back when sexually harassed? Boys who cook breakfast for younger siblings? Girls who don't like makeup or like it more than Christians deem "modest"? Anyone could be targeted for behaving in a way a sexist school official feels is "incongruent" to their assigned gender. As Sarah Jones at New York's Intelligencer wrote, "co-sponsoring legislators have in essence devised a way to punish gender thoughtcrime."

The primary targets of this onslaught of legislation are trans kids, of course, who are in serious danger of being denied medical care and being bullied by institutions in ways that can be severely detrimental to their mental health. Trans kids are at alarmingly high risk for suicide, but medical treatment and accepting environments can do a lot to save their lives. By trying to deny kids these things, Republicans are sending a strong message that they would rather these kids die than live as their true selves.

The broad language in the North Carolina bill also points to a secondary purpose behind these bills: It's part of the long-standing GOP war on children's rights.

It doesn't get a lot of media attention, but for decades now, conservatives — especially the Christian right — have been on a crusade against any kind of children's rights or children's welfare policies they see as a threat to patriarchal authority or white conservative cultural dominance. Children exist, in this mentality, to be shaped into little right-wing automatons and certainly have no rights to be protected from abuse, to think for themselves, or to be educated about the larger world outside of the right-wing bubble.

The U.S. is the only member state of the United Nations, for instance, to not have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, as Karen Attiah reports for the Washington Post, "supports protections for children from forced labor, child marriage, deprivation of a legal identity, and grants both able-bodied and disabled children the right to health care, education, and freedom of expression." The reason the U.S. refuses to adopt the treaty is simply that American conservatives flat out do not believe children should have these protections. Groups like the Family Research Council tend to forefront fears that ratification will mean parents can no longer spank children, but the larger concerns are about children having freedom of thought and expression. Religious conservatives strongly believe that parents should be able to force children to adhere to their religious beliefs or to prevent children from learning about American history, science, or other topics where the facts might interfere with right-wing narratives.

Indeed, a major way that the GOP war on children has manifested in the past decades is in the fights over school curricula. When Barack Obama's administration embraced a set of national education guidelines known as Common Core, the American right lost their minds, claiming that coastal elites were trying to indoctrinate children.

"We don't ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children," then-governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley said in 2014. In response, a report from the Brookings Institute argued, "No employer or educator claims that algebra, computer science, or chemistry is different in California than in South Carolina (or in South Korea). Employers today hire based on what you know and what you can do, not on where you grew up."

Setting aside the technocratic framing of education as simply a matter of job training, the reason this argument falls on deaf ears for conservatives is precisely because they fear that education will free up children to grow up and move to California or South Korea. While conservatives would never say it in those words, "ignorant" is the kind of quality they're interested in cultivating in young Americans, because it makes youth easier to control. It's why 6 out of 10 Republican voters have a negative view of higher education, compared to 67% of Democrats who believe college education is a good thing.

Sex and gender issues have long provided conservatives an opportunity to stir up hysteria and drum up support for their hostile approach towards children's rights. For instance, Republicans have been able to pass laws in most states requiring parental notification or even permission for girls under 18 to get abortions. Under the George W. Bush administration, the federal government strong-armed the majority of school districts to replace sex education with "abstinence-only" programs that demonized contraception use, spread misinformation and shamed people who have premarital sex — a category that includes 95% of Americans.

These kinds of policies get passed because a lot of Americans, even ones who are more moderate or even liberal, have lingering hang-ups about adolescent sexuality and are easily persuaded by arguments that teenagers are "too young" to handle information about or access to reproductive health care. But these policies also create a backdoor way for conservatives to chip away at the very concept of minors having rights to education and autonomy. The results are horrific: higher teen pregnancy and STI rates and the sexual abuse of minors who are too ignorant of biology and disempowered to report on adults who hurt them.

The war on trans kids is more of the same.

A lot of Americans are ignorant about the realities of trans lives, and so are easily duped with lies about kids being "recruited." Conservatives then pass laws that allow them to both terrorize trans kids and use the power of schools to force their rigid notions of gender performance on everyone. It's a classic right-wing twofer, promoting both transphobia and the idea that minor children have no rights whatsoever, not even to their own private thoughts.

Trump's defense of Matt Gaetz just made life way harder for Republicans and the religious right

In the days since it's been revealed that Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is currently under investigation for sex trafficking of a minor, it seemed like most Republicans were throwing him under the bus. As Politico reported, even though Gaetz was among the most loyal and outspoken Donald Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, "neither Trump nor anyone in the ex-president's orbit is rushing to Gaetz's defense." Trump insiders appear to have gone out of their way to humiliate Gaetz further, leaking reports to the New York Times about Gaetz begging Trump for a pre-emptive pardon in Trump's last days in office. Gaetz's Republican colleagues were crawling all over each other to tell embarrassing or damning stories about him, from the time he reportedly showed them nude photos of women on the House floor to his fight against efforts to ban "revenge porn" in Florida. As an analysis from Media Matters shows, Fox News, which used to never get enough of Gaetz, has barely mentioned the congressman in recent days. Even professional troll Jacob Wohl has turned on Gaetz.

This article was originally published at Salon

But then, like a devil rising up to collect his dues from Faustus, Trump decided to go ahead and personally defend Gaetz. In a statement released on Wednesday, Trump denied that Gaetz had asked him for a pardon, adding: "he has totally denied the accusations against him."

The entire scandal represents the larger conundrum for Republicans, one that isn't going away just because Trump is no longer president. Politicians like Gaetz, and like Trump before him, hold the promise of broadening the GOP base to pick up a lot of voters that more traditional conservative politics, especially the kind peddled by the religious right, weren't appealing to. But while dirtbags like Gaetz and Trump hold a special appeal to previously ungettable voters, their very presence invites scandal.

As I noted in last week's newsletter, Trump and his "grab 'em by the pussy" aesthetic clearly had a secularized appeal to creeps and pigs — with the Proud Boys being a shining example — who find the religious right's approach to politicized sexism too constraining. Trump may have done his time letting evangelical ministers pray over him or holding a Bible like he was afraid it would bite him, but no one was fooled. On the contrary, understanding that Trump didn't really believe all that crap was a big part of the Trump's appeal, which brought him an eye-popping 15 million more voters in 2020 than Mitt Romney got in 2012.

The religious right that was once a backbone of the party's voting base is shrinking by the day, as older religious conservatives die and fail to be replaced by younger people, who are turning away from religion. By appealing to America's trolls and creeps — the people who Hillary Clinton famously, and accurately, described as a "basket of deplorables" — Trump held the promise of expanding the base, converting people who were often otherwise uninterested in electoral politics into Republican voters. And, as unpopular as he was among his colleagues, Gaetz held a similar promise of a GOP that was less dependent on a shrinking religious right by shoring up its appeal with dirtbags.

Until recently, it was reasonable — savvy, even — to imagine Gaetz had a good shot at making himself into the face of the Republican Party post-Trump. Gaetz seemed like just the man to pick up a specific strain of Trump voters, those who were open to a racist, misogynist message, but had no interest in the traditional showy religiosity of the GOP. Gaetz brought a Rush Limbaugh-esque "triggering the liberals" justification to his antics, replacing the traditional feigned piety of Republicans with a trollish delight in being the worst. And it was working for Gaetz, who was a rising star on Fox News, averaging a whopping 87 minutes a month of airtime on the network.

The problem with pandering to dirtbags, it turns out, is that they are, well, dirtbags. The qualities that made Gaetz so appealing as a Fox News figurehead are the qualities that also led to this scandal. Misogyny dressed up as religious conviction is a drag, but when misogyny is just men gleefully asserting their right to treat women however they like without consequence, terms like "sex trafficking," "revenge porn," and "sex with minors" are rarely far behind. And yes, the religious right has those problems, as well, but the trappings of faith make it easier to ditch the men — like Jerry Falwell Jr. — who get caught up in scandal, while still claiming, however falsely, to have the moral high ground.

No doubt many of the more traditional Republicans were excited throwing Gaetz out with the trash. There's a reason the religious right — as smarmy, hypocritcal, and dishonest as they are — survived for so many decades as the backbone of the Republican Party. Claiming to act out of "faith", no matter how much you're lying, puts a moralistic veneer on the deeply immoral beliefs that actually drive conservatives. Gaetz — like Trump — threatens to topple the whole enterprise by exposing how sleazy and opportunistic 21st American conservatism actually is.

Unfortunately for them, by coming out to defend Gaetz, Trump just made life way harder for the religious right.

With Trump out of the picture, there was a fighting chance that evangelical leaders could reclaim the GOP, and go right back to selling themselves as a party of "faith" and "family values," instead of a bunch of power-hungry hypocrites who happily throw in with shamelessly hedonistic unbelievers like Trump clearly is. Getting rid of Gaetz could have been the first step in the restoration of the old power structures of the Republican Party. But Trump is popular with Republican voters and nearly every Republican leader still clearly feels the need to kiss the ring. By defending Gaetz, Trump made it clear that Republicans aren't going to be able to just walk away and pretend this whole appealing-to-dirtbags thing never happened. Instead, he's tying the deplorables around their neck like an albatross and making it clear they can't go forward without them.

Republican delusion — not disinformation — is the bigger danger to American democracy

Perhaps it was inevitable, but now it's certain: Three months out from the violent insurrection Donald Trump incited at the U.S. Capitol, the majority of Republican voters have settled on a story that they can use to justify supporting what Trump and the rioters did. According to a poll released this week by Reuters and Ipsos, belief in conspiracy theories about the insurrection is widespread among Republican voters, with 55% claiming to "agree" or "somewhat agree" that the rioters were really "antifa" in disguise. Another 51% of Republican respondents agree or somewhat agree that the rioters — who look to have killed one police officer, violently assaulted hundreds of others, and were chanting "hang Mike Pence" as they ransacked the Capitol — "were mostly peaceful, law-abiding Americans." And a full 60% agree or somewhat agree with Trump's utterly false claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.

This article was originally published at Salon

These numbers are, needless to say, terrifying, precisely because they capture a level of delusion that is truly hard to imagine.

It's not clear how much overlap there is among adherents to the various conspiracy theories. It could be a situation where half of Republicans have thrown in with the "antifa hoax" lie and another half with the "not that violent" lie. Or it could be that a lot of Republicans believe both at the same time, even though the conspiracy theories contradict each other, as there's no point in screaming that "antifa did it" if you're also denying the well-documented violence of the insurrection. But research has long shown that conspiracy theorists don't care if their theories contradict each other. For instance, people who believe Princess Diana was murdered are also more likely to believe that she's still secretly alive. Conspiracy theories are rarely about a literal, sincere understanding of the facts, but closer to religious fables or myths — comforting narratives that a person tells themselves in order to justify an underlying belief system.

In this case, the underlying belief being rationalized is the Republican turn against democracy itself. Republican voters understand their ideology and party are both unpopular. They know that maintaining power means overruling the wishes of the majority of Americans. But rather than admit out loud — or possibly even to themselves — that they would rather end American democracy, they cling to these comforting conspiracy theories that let them tell a story where they're the heroes, not the villains trying to strip rights away from other Americans.

The reaction to the poll has largely been focused on the role right-wing disinformation campaigns run by major outlets like Fox News and Breitbart play in making Republican voters so delusional.

It's truly frightening and frustrating that half of Republicans believe the January 6th riot was "peaceful," even as the families of dead officers are still mourning those they lost.
Misinformation is deadly.
— BrooklynDad_Defiant! (@mmpadellan) April 5, 2021

There is no doubt that the firehose of lies coming from Trump and his media supporters matter. Still, it's important to understand that Republican voters have autonomy here. They aren't mindless ciphers, helpless to resist the allure of Fox News propaganda. They actively choose to watch Fox News and to reject truthful information. Anyone who has tried to correct a Republican friend or relative who is sharing misinformation can attest to this grim reality. They almost never thank you for setting them straight or get angry at Tucker Carlson for lying to them. They get defensive and double down on the lies. They prefer lies over truth.

In a sense, then, it's questionable whether Republican voters really "believe" that Trump really won the election, or that antifa was behind the insurrection, or that the insurrection wasn't really violent. At least, they may not believe it in the usual sense that we use the word "believe" to mean a conviction that a thing is true, such as believing the sun will rise in the east or that Prince wrote "When Doves Cry" in one night. Many of them likely are asserting it more as a show of tribal loyalty and, of course, as cover for their more unspeakable but truer beliefs, like the belief that white people are the only people whose votes should really count. As David Graham argued in February at the Atlantic, "Republicans are backing Trump not in spite of the insurrection but because of it." But they know that saying out loud that they want to overthrow democracy is bad. Instead, they cling to conspiracy theories, many of which contradict each other, that are proxies for their real but unspeakable anti-democratic beliefs.

Evidence that tribal loyalty and emotional desires trump empirical evidence with Republican voters was neatly demonstrated by the reaction, in the early days of Trump's presidency, to Trump's insistence that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Barack Obama's. Anyone could see that it was only a fraction of the size, but when researchers asked Republican voters about this in the days after the inauguration, over 40% were willing to make fools of themselves to insist that Trump's crowd was bigger.

Since then, the defiance and defensiveness of Trump voters has only ratcheted up, to the point where many, if not most, will deny the sky is blue if Trump asked them to. It's not because they "believe" the lies, so much as they believe in their own hatred of liberals, and will say or do anything in order to perform a rejection of what liberals believe. That's how so many Trump voters talked themselves into treating the pandemic, which was obviously real, as a hoax. And why they can look at a howling mob of violent insurrectionists waving Trump flags, and deny the evidence of their own eyes.

Misinformation is absolutely one of the worst problems in our country. The steady stream of right-wing lies is tearing this country apart. But it's critical to understand why misinformation is so powerful. Most Republican voters believe that their rapidly shrinking tribe should hold all the power, and are willing to sacrifice democracy itself to hang onto power.

What misinformation from Fox News and other outlets does is give Republicans excuses and rationalizations for continuing to hold repulsive beliefs that they know full well can't be justified on the merits. Fox News shamelessly pumps out lies on a nightly basis, and it's a threat to our democracy. But what's even scarier is that they have an audience so hungry for the lies that they would turn on even Fox News if the network ever stopped lying.

GOP cancel culture targets Georgia: Republicans want to silence critics of their war on voting

Donald Trump and Republicans tried to make the 2020 election all about "cancel culture." Free speech was under attack, they argued, not from government censorship, but something they regarded as much more powerful and oppressive: Liberal disapproval.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Many a tear has been shed over wealthy actors losing plum gigs for embarrassing movie studios with their bigoted tweets, or obscure books by famous authors being delisted voluntarily by their own publishing companies, or people making fun of a paranoid right-wing couple in St. Louis who pulled guns on peaceful protesters, or the librarian whose boss prevented her from humiliating herself by doing a rap presentation to onboard college freshmen. Free speech, they argue, is dependent not just on the absence of censorship, but the absence of any consequences whatsoever, including criticism from others who are using their free speech rights. It turns out there was one caveat to this right to speech unfettered by opposition, criticism, or consequences, however: It is a "right" enjoyed only by those on the right. For those who oppose bigotry, vote for Democrats, or express discomfort at overt racism, there is no limit to what can and should be done to silence them. This was always evident — see how Trump unleashed tear gas on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square — and is only becoming more clear in the fight over voting rights in the state of Georgia.

If ever there was a legitimate case of "cancel culture," it really should be the anti-voting bill that was signed into law late last month by Georgia's Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. When it comes to the right to express yourself as a citizen, the right to vote is about as fundamental as it gets. Moreover, the entire process of signing the restrictive law was draped in signifiers of the GOP contempt for the right of people of color to the franchise, including the arrest of state Rep. Park Cannon for merely asking for the right to witness Kemp's signing of the bill.

But when major corporations started to use their own free speech rights to speak out in favor of the right to vote, the self-appointed warriors against "cancel culture" on the right suddenly discovered their limits of tolerance for unfettered speech. On the contrary, the folks on the right start strapping on their canceling boots, ready to cancel anti-racist speech with every tool they have at their disposal — including the use of government force.

Georgia-based companies like Delta and Coca-Cola put out statements condemning the new law, which is designed to make it harder for people in urban areas to vote and easier for Republicans to invalidate the results of a free and fair election when they don't like the results. Major League Baseball (MLB) went a step further, pulling the All-Star game out of suburban Atlanta to signal disapproval of Georgia Republicans trying to cancel their state's own voters. In response, Republicans freaked out in a way that puts any liberal disapproval of racist tweets from actors to shame. Republicans in the Georgia legislature immediately started moving to formally punish Delta by revoking their tax breaks, which goes well beyond even the most robust cancellation campaigns instigated by liberals and straight into literal government censorship territory. Kemp flipped his lid, giving a speech in which he claimed that Republicans were the victims of "cancel culture," even though the actual people being "canceled" are voters in Georgia who vote in ways Kemp doesn't like.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham — who shamelessly switches back and forth between telling progressive athletes to "shut up and dribble" and whining about how liberal criticism "cancels" conservativesmade a robust pro-cancellation argument Thursday night. "We're going to punish you," she threatened, raging against anti-racist statements from corporations, and arguing, "these corporations are going to face the wrath of GOP officials as well as the tens of millions of American consumers." Rachel Campos-Duffy of Fox News didn't even bother to pretend there was no contradiction here, suggesting on Friday that it's time for "American conservatives to cancel sports" in order to force them to "respect" conservatives, i.e. by being silent in the face of racist voter suppression.

The same folks who cry foul every time liberals refuse to support public figures or companies whose opinions they disagree with suddenly discovered they love boycotts, actually — so long as the boycott is done in the name of silencing anti-racism. Trump, whose main campaign issue was literally opposing "cancel culture", came out in favor of canceling any opponents of Georgia's racist law. He released a statement calling on his followers to "boycott baseball" and threatened others who use free speech to speak out against racism with, "Are you listening Coke, Delta, and all!"

Twitter wits pointed out that Trump, a terminal Diet Coke addict, is unlikely to be party to his own calls to cancel the popular soda brand. But his position — that it's only "cancel culture" if conservatives are the ones being criticized — is widely shared among Republicans.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie accused the MLB of stoking a "raging fire," and complaining that "every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war," ignoring the fact that Republicans themselves started this by waging total war on Georgia voters for disagreeing about what leaders they preferred at the ballot box. A bevy of other Republicans put out similar statements, all based around the same principle: Consequences like boycotts are good to silence anti-racist speech, but consequences for Georgia legislators for literally trying to cancel people's votes are "cancel culture."

It certainly isn't consistent with any definition of the concept of "free speech." Instead, all of this is simply Republicans imposing "white people's Thanksgiving" rules on the entire nation, where people who express bigoted opinions — or even take bigoted actions — are politely indulged, but anyone who talks back is immediately castigated. It's consistent, alright, but not with any noble principle like "free speech." It's just consistent support for bigotry and oppression, and consistent anger at the very concepts of equality and fair play. By lashing out this way, Republicans have once again exposed the small-minded bigotry that fuels their party.

Church membership is in a free fall -- and the Christian right has only themselves to blame

The trend of Americans exiting the pews, never to return, has been steady for some years now and shows no signs of slowing down. According to a new Gallup poll released this week, only 47% of Americans polled in 2020 belong to a house of worship, which is the first time that number has fallen below half of the country since they started polling Americans on this question.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

But what's really interesting is that the collapse in church membership has happened mostly over the past two decades. Since Gallup started recording these numbers decades ago, church membership rates were relatively steady, with only the smallest decline over the decades. In 1937, 73% of Americans belonged to a church. In 1975, it was 71%. In 1999, it was 70%. But since then, the church membership rate has fallen by a whopping 23 percentage points.

It is not, however, because of some great atheist revival across the land, with Americans suddenly burying themselves in the philosophical discourse about the unlikeliness of the existence of a higher power. The percentage of Americans who identify as atheist (4%) or agnostic (5%) has risen slightly, but not even close to enough to account for the number of people who claim no religious affiliation. A 2017 Gallup poll finds that 87% of Americans say they believe in God. So clearly, what we're seeing is a dramatic increase in the kinds of folks who would say something akin to, "I'm spiritual, but not big on organized religion."

Blame the religious right. Until recently, the U.S. was largely unaffected by the increasing secularization of many European countries, but that started to change dramatically at the turn of the 21st century. And it's no mystery why. The drop in religious affiliation starts right around the time George W. Bush was elected president, publicly and dramatically associating himself with the white evangelical movement. The early Aughts saw the rise of megachurches with flashily dressed ministers who appeared more interested in money and sermonizing about people's sex lives than modeling values of charity and humility.

Not only were these religious figures and the institutions they led hyper-political, the outward mission seemed to be almost exclusively in service of oppressing others. The religious right isn't nearly as interested in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as much as using religion as an all-purpose excuse to abuse women and LGBTQ people. In an age of growing wealth inequalities, with more and more Americans living hand-to-mouth, many visible religious authorities were using their power to support politicians and laws to take health care access from women and fight against marriage between same-sex couples. And then Donald Trump happened.

Trump was a thrice-married chronic adulterer who routinely exposed how ignorant he was of religion, and who reportedly — and let's face it, obviouslymade fun of religious leaders behind their backs. But religious right leaders didn't care. They continually pumped Trump up like he was the second coming, showily praying over him and extorting their followers to have faith in a man who literally could not have better conformed to the prophecies of the Antichrist. It was comically over the top, how extensively Christian right leaders exposed themselves as motivated by power, not faith.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Gallup's numbers show numbers of religiously affiliated Americans taking a nosedive during the Trump years, dropping from 55% of Americans belonging to a church to 47%.

To be clear, the drop-off in religious affiliation is, researchers have shown, likely less about people actively quitting churches, and more about churches being unable to recruit younger followers to replace the ones who die. As Pew Research Center tweeted in 2019, "Today, there is a wide gap between older Americans (Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation) and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation."

All of which makes sense. It's rare that people abandon an ideology or faith that they've had for a long time. Once an adult actively chooses to belong to a church, it's hard to admit that you were wrong and now want to abandon the whole project. But young adults, even those who went to church with their parents, do have to make an active choice to join a church as adults. And many are going to look at hypocritical, power-hungry ministers praying over an obvious grifter like Trump and be too turned off to even consider getting involved.

In 2017, Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of "White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity," spoke with Salon about how the decline in religion is concentrated largely among young people. There's "a culture clash between particularly conservative white churches and denominations and younger Americans," he explained, noting that young people were particularly critical of anti-science and homophobic rhetoric from religious leaders.

"[C]onservative white Christians have lost this argument with a broader liberal culture," he explained, including "their own kids and grandchildren."

It's a story with a moral so blunt that it could very well be a biblical fable: Christian leaders, driven by their hunger for power and cultural dominance, become so grasping and hypocritical that it backfires and they lose their cultural relevance. Not that there's any cause to pity them, since they did this to themselves. The growing skepticism of organized religion in the U.S. is a trend to celebrate. While more needs to be done to replace the sense of community that churches can often give people, it's undeniable that this decline is tied up with objectively good trends: increasing liberalism, hostility to bigotry, and support for science in the U.S. Americans are becoming better people, however slowly, and the decline in organized religious affiliation appears to be a big part of that.

GOP manufacturing outrage to turn Biden's popular infrastructure bill into a culture war spat

Conflict drives engagement and ratings, so it should be no surprise that media coverage is framing President Joe Biden's infrastructure bill as controversial. "Biden's Infrastructure Plan Meets Skepticism, Signaling Fight to Come," reads the New York Times headline. "Biden's infrastructure plan faces controversy over price tag and design," reads the Washington Post headline. Politico's Playbook declares, "Fault lines form on Biden's massive infrastructure plan."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

But this kind of framing is misleading. It is true that congressional Republicans oppose this bill and there is nothing that Biden could do, any concession he could make, that would induce Republicans to vote for it. But with the actual public? Well, this bill is a big hit. It is even a bipartisan hit.

This follows polling from Data for Progress that shows 69% of Americans support the plan, including half of Republicans.

Republican politicians oppose the bill, alright, but it's because the bill is popular. The entire GOP political strategy, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is to block popular bills, and then run against Democrats for not getting anything done. If that means Republicans screwing over their own constituents, so be it.

The real story of the infrastructure bill is not, it turns out, one of a country divided against itself. It's a story about how unpopular the Republican agenda is. It's why the GOP has increasingly focused its resources on preventing Americans, especially people of color, from even having a chance to register their opinions at the ballot box. And it shows why right wing media so desperately clings to B.S. stories like the fake controversy over Potato Head's gender or absurd claims that Dr. Seuss is being "cancelled." Republicans need to keep the diminishing number of voters they do have distracted by culture war nonsense, no matter how fake it is, so those Americans don't notice that Democrats keep trying to do stuff those voters like.

"[C]ulture war filler narratives intended to excite and outrage right-wing audiences are taking up an increasingly large amount of airtime," Parker Molloy writes in an analysis at Media Matters, pointing to how, on Fox News, manufactured controversies over children's books and toys crowded out coverage of Biden's coronavirus relief package, which is also broadly popular.

"Unable or unwilling to adjust its actual policy positions to fall more in line with public opinion, the Republican Party has instead opted to play to its base's sense of grievance and victimhood," Molloy concludes.

Republicans are facing a conundrum, however. Many of them are beginning to question whether it was the right call to use the strategy of ignoring the Biden's last big bill, the American Rescue Plan, and distracting their voters with bright and shiny objects like the gender identity of toys. It might have kept the base riled up, but it did nothing to stop the bill, which is likely going to be a big boost to Biden's re-election prospects.

So they're trying something else with the infrastructure plan: Lying about it wildly, and trying to turn it into a culture war issue of the Potato Head/Seuss variety.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell kicked off this strategy Wednesday, arguing that the bill is not really an infrastructure bill at all, but a "Trojan horse" for some secret progressive agenda, and falsely claiming that the bill "would spend more money just on electric cars than on America's roads, bridges, ports, airports, and waterways."

In reality, the $621 billion earmarked for roads and bridges is the biggest part of the bill and is three and a half times more money than the $174 billion geared towards moving more Americans to electric cars. In addition, the bill has $100 billion to expand broadband internet to rural areas, a longstanding issue in McConnell's state, and another $100 billion to modernize the nation's electrical grid, something that the recent weather crisis in Texas highlighted as an overdue need. Plus, there's $213 billion to improve building infrastructure, including schools and veteran's hospitals.

In other words, it's a bunch of stuff that would really benefit red Americans as much as blue Americans. But it's quickly becoming clear that Republicans are going to adopt a strategy of hand-waving facts away in favor of freaking out about the environmentalist provisions, as if weatherizing buildings to make them more energy efficient is a direct assault on American manhood itself. In other words, they're going to try to turn this into the kind of culture war issue that gets their base going.

Sean Hannity rolled out this strategy for covering the infrastructure bill Wednesday night, when he took a potshot at the $80 billion "marked as a handout to Amtrak." That's only a small fraction of the bill — and a necessary one, since Amtrak is crucial to the densest parts of America. Still, right wing media has spent decades training their audience to hate and fear trains and other forms of public transportation as exotic forms of transportation for the "coastal elite." It might not be as exciting to Hannity's audience as Potato Head — or as the viciously racist propaganda against undocumented immigrant schoolkids he pivoted to during the same episode — but it gives his viewers a reason to believe this bill is "liberal" instead of an investment meant to help all Americans.

As E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post writes, Biden's plans are oriented around the idea that "active government can foster economic growth, spread wealth to those now left out, and underwrite research and investment to produce a cleaner environment and a more competitive tech sector," but come "wrapped in a big but thoroughly traditional government spending program that offers a lot of things to a lot of constituencies." Including, importantly, voters in rural and suburban areas who have also suffered from decades of neglect under Republican leadership.

Roads are popular. Schools are popular. Broadband internet is really popular. People want these things and Republican want to continue denying the public even the most basic of government services. Right wing media's singular goal will be to distract their audiences from these basic facts. They would rather talk about anything but their party's own policies, which even their own voters would realize stink — if they ever turned off conservative media long enough to hear about it.

Fox News made Matt Gaetz a GOP star -- and now he's trying to take Fox News' Tucker Carlson down with him

I'm not a fan of pro wrestling so I have never watched two grown men simultaneously try to throw each other out of the ring. But having watched the entire interview Fox News host Tucker Carlson held with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., on Tuesday night, I now see the appeal. No one grabbed anyone by the shoulders — the two were not even in the same room — but it was nonetheless a riveting pas de deux of insinuation and attempted blackmail. It was a rare moment of comeuppance for two of the most ridiculous, yet sinister, figures in American politics, and impossible to look away from.

It was, in other words, great TV. And that is what Fox News is good at, turning politics into a campy wrestling match, devoid of meaningful content but full of stock characters locked in asinine conflicts. The network's instinct for good TV has elevated figures like Gaetz, a spoiled mediocrity who, in another time, would simply be a faceless grifter warming the congressional seat Daddy bought him, at least until the feds caught up to him. In our era, though, his combination of bottomless self-confidence and a rich kid-honed skill at being a remorseless bully turned him into an aspirational figure for the Fox News audience, a role model for the trigger-the-liberals crowd.

But, as Carlson learned — with a chagrin he struggled to hide under his standard furrowed-brow fake concern face — the problem with prizing sociopathy in the people you elevate as figureheads is that often they turn their predatory gaze upon you. This is exactly what happened last night, when Gaetz, who the New York Times reports is under investigation in a federal sex trafficking probe involving a 17-year-old girl, decided that if he's going down, his buddy Tucker was coming with him.

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"You and I went to dinner about two years ago, your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine, you'll remember her," Gaetz said, rambling on about how his female friend was now supposedly being "threatened" by the FBI in a "pay-for-play scheme."

Carlson quickly denied remembering any such female friend and acted confused. The audience, however, picked up on what Gaetz was laying down.

Not that anyone should pity Carlson, who, along with the rest of the wretched propaganda network he works for, brought this on. They're the ones who turned Gaetz into a star, bringing this hairsprayed Donald Trump sycophant on-air at every opportunity. In her September 2019 profile of Gaetz for Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer reported that in "the past year, he has appeared more than 70 times on the network, and Sean Hannity has campaigned for him in Florida." Gaetz's presence on the network has not let up since then. Turn on Fox News any time, day or night, and you might catch the congressman spewing an endless stream of zany lies through lips set in a perpetual smirk. As never-Trump GOP consultant Steve Schmidt told Mencimer, "Being a sober, serious statesman is not the path to cable news stardom for members of Congress."

The saga that brings Gaetz to this moment is a complex one. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC laid out the background Tuesday night, detailing a sordid tale of Gaetz's close political ally, Joel Greenberg, a Florida tax collector who was investigated for corruption last year and then got hit with an array of charges, including sex crimes involving at least one minor. Now Gaetz himself is apparently under investigation. While the details of the investigation are still vague, notably, Gaetz went out of his way on Carlson's show to deny that "there were pictures of me with child prostitutes," a detail that is definitely not in the New York Times' reporting.

Hours before the New York Times piece was published, Gaetz appears to have leaked stories that he is considering resigning from Congress to take a job at right-wing cable channel Newsmax. When the story hit, Gaetz pivoted to a confusing explanation, which he first offered on Twitter and then on Carlson's show, about allegedly being blackmailed by "a former DOJ official." Whether that is true or not, it is worth noting that being the target of blackmail is hardly exonerating. On the contrary, it's generally understood that it's easier to blackmail the guilty than the innocent since innocent people typically have less to hide.

Whatever the truth of the matter is, however, it is the least surprising thing in the world that Gaetz, whose main personality trait is "chaos troll", would be caught up in something like this. Recklessness has been central to his brand from the get-go. His love of stunts and getting into trouble is why Fox News turned him into a star. Fox producers know that their audience is a sea of frustrated Twitter trolls who only wish they had Gaetz's impeccable talent at being the worst. The Tampa Bay Times, his local newspaper, called Gaetz an "entitled ne'er-do-well." It's made him a villain to liberals, but a hero to the Fox News audience, oriented as they are around the singular goal of "owning" the liberals.

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Indeed, Gaetz is just one of many camera-thirsty jackasses who, pumped by the Fox News style of politics-as-pro-wrestling, are jockeying — with great success — to be the public face of the Republican Party. Trump, of course, is the most obvious, but the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives is now replete with people that Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate described as "America's local ding-dongs and loose cannons," such as QAnon huckster Marjorie Taylor Greene, Hitler vacation home enthusiast Madison Cawthorne, and firearm fetishist Lauren Boebert. These elected representatives aren't interested in the boring work of governance, so much as they are what you might call "asshole influencers," here to shape the aspirations of people whose only political ideology is spite.

But, of course, the danger in elevating terrible people is they aren't particularly grateful to you for it.

Fox News made Gaetz, and this is how he thanks them, by trying to drag down their biggest star with him. It certainly was must-see TV, and no doubt Fox News producers are swooning for the ratings that Carlson's on-air humiliation garnered. But it was also a reminder that you can't drag politics down into the gutter without some sewage splashing on your expensively tailored suits. Carlson will probably survive this (though we can't say the same about Gaetz). Still, it was good to enjoy, if only for a moment, the Fox News host getting a strong taste of what he's been dishing out to the rest of the country for years.

Republicans use trans students to hurt all kids

Despite the rapidly changing times we live in, one truth remains eternal: Whenever conservatives claim they're "protecting" women, women better be on their guard, because they're always coming for our freedom.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

In the 19th century, chivalrous rhetoric about women being the "angels in the house" was used to ennoble antagonism against women's suffrage. Anti-feminists in the 1970s attacked the Equal Rights Amendment by falsely insinuating the housewives would be abandoned by their husbands. Reproductive rights opponents still justify onerous obstacles on abortion access by suggesting women can't be trusted to make important decisions about their own bodies. And, as the current protest movement in Great Britain demonstrates, women's freedom to socialize or even leave the house is often attacked under the guise of "protecting" them from violent men.

Chivalrous rhetoric is being dusted off once again to abuse some of the most vulnerable people in our society: young trans people, especially those who are still minors. Across the country, the New York Times reports, "Republicans are diving into a culture war clash that seems to have come out of nowhere," which is the growing hysteria over trans people competing in sports.

People are being whipped into a frenzy over false claims that young people assigned male at birth are transitioning to female for the opportunity to compete on girls and women's sports teams. And the story doesn't hold up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. Transitioning is often medically invasive and is almost always disruptive to someone's life on every level, not something one does just to get a gold medal at a high school track meet. But, as hysterias of the past demonstrate — think of urban legends like "Satanists hide messages in rock albums" and "people are hiding razor blades in Halloween candy" — many people's will to believe trumps common sense.

"Everybody must have seen the movie Juwanna Man and thought it was a real-life thing," Renee Montgomery, former Minnesota Lynx player and current co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, joked on the podcast "Lovett or Leave It". But as reporter Jeremy Peters notes, this panic isn't really coming out of nowhere, but "has been brought about by a coordinated and poll-tested campaign by social conservative organizations."

The GOP needs a highly emotional wedge issue that preys on people's worst impulses, like the homophobic panic over same-sex marriage that helped George W. Bush win a tight election in 2004. Trans people, unfortunately, make a perfect target, as many cis Americans, those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth, are ignorant about the realities of trans lives, making them easy to bamboozle with misinformation. But it has not passed the notice of people who actually care about women's sports that the conservatives claiming they want to "save" women's sports from trans athletes are the same people who have hobbled women's sports at every turn through underfunding and outright mockery.

"As a woman who has played sports my whole life, I know that the threats to women's and girls' sports are lack of funding, resources and media coverage; sexual harassment; and unequal pay," Women's World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday. "[W]hat if all these people claiming to be fighting for the future of women's sports would really fight for the future of women's sports? What if they suddenly said, 'We demand women's sports get equal resources, equal media coverage, and equal pay'?" Lindsay Crouse, a journalist and long-time champion of women's sports, wrote in the New York Times last week.

It's not really hypocrisy that all these right-wingers claiming to be "protecting" women's sports are also the same people who tend to otherwise treat women's sports like a joke. On the contrary, the attacks on trans rights are all tied up in the assumption that women's sports and female athletes are inferior. The myth that men are merely pretending to be trans in order to compete in women's sports depends on seeing women's sports as a consolation prize, an inferior product that someone only settles for if they can't get the real deal. Claire Thorton's interviews with trans athletes and their families for USA Today illustrate how conservative rhetoric around this is inherently reductive and demeaning to both the kids and to the very concept of women's sports.

"[Basketball] teaches you how to be a team player, it teaches you how to communicate, it teaches you how to work hard," explained Layne Ingram, a college women's basketball coach and a trans man who grew up playing boys basketball.

The push to discriminate against trans students ends up reducing the entirety of women's sports to not just athletes' bodies, but their genitalia, reinforcing notions that women's reproductive systems should define their entire existence. The primary victims of this shiny new GOP wedge issue are trans kids, but make no mistake, the rhetoric being employed hurts all sorts of kids, cis or trans.

The attacks on trans girls for supposedly not being "feminine" enough to play girls' sports also affect cis girls whose bodies or behavior don't conform to what sexists believe proper little ladies should look or act like. As Jett Jonelis, ACLU of South Dakota's advocacy manager, said in response to a GOP-sponsored bill that would ban trans kids from sports in the state, "These attacks on trans women and girls are rooted in the same kind of gender discrimination and stereotyping that has held back cisgender women athletes for centuries."

Many of the anti-trans bills in states open the door to gender-testing that affects all kids, trans or cis. Put bluntly, in places like Idaho, the anti-trans laws give permission to schools to force kids to submit to an investigation of their genitals, a process that will be no less traumatic for cis girls who "pass" the inspection. As with laws requiring women who want an abortion to undergo vaginal ultrasounds, conservatives cannot wait to punish women they see as transgressing their standards of femininity — either by being trans, by playing sports, or by getting abortions — by subjecting them to humiliating invasions of their privacy.

Such policing of gender expression, without regard to fairness, is neatly exposed by a case in Texas, where 17-year-old trans boy Mack Beggs was forced in 2017 to wrestle on the girls team and not the boys team. Beggs, who was taking testosterone to transition, ended up being utterly dominant in the sport. He took no joy in it, however, recently explaining to Yahoo! News that it was a "no-win situation" because "You have to wrestle against girls — but you really want to wrestle against guys."

Far from "protecting" girls sports, trans bans make a spectacle out of girls sports, humiliating both trans and cis female student-athletes.

Conservatives have long resented women's sports, especially since Title IX was passed in 1972, requiring public schools to treat men and women's sports equally. It's a provision that the right has spent decades trying — with great success — to undermine. Now trans athletes give them a twofer, a chance to both abuse a group of children and reinvigorate narratives that paint women's sports as silly and inferior. And if they can toss on genital inspections of female athletes and force high school girls to wrestle boys, it's only that much better.

No feminist should be fooled by this phony language about "protecting" girls and women in sports. Policing trans kids is about reinforcing the same rigid gender norms that are used to trap cis women all the time, with assumptions about how we should look and act — and what our bodies should be used for — based on our gender. The people who, given a chance, would kill Title IX in a heartbeat are not the champions of women's sports they pretend to be. They're just the same old bigots and sexist, who have only put fresh coat of paint on the same old regressive arguments they've always made.

GOP dogwhistles have become airhorns as Republicans openly embrace racism in Trump's absence

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has one word for how he felt signing a new law aimed at making it significantly harder for people — especially people of color and people living in urban neighborhoods — to vote in Georgia: "Proud."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

"I was proud to sign S.B. 202 to ensure elections in Georgia are secure, fair, and accessible. I appreciate the hard work of members of the General Assembly to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat," Kemp tweeted on Thursday, sending out a photo that drew immediate comparisons to an infamously repugnant 1960s era Alabama governor.

There is, of course, no evidence of voters cheating in Georgia elections, or that the new law — which imposes onerous restrictions on voting, makes it easier to challenge the eligibility of voters, and opens the door to GOP takeovers of election boards — in any way addresses fraud. The law does ban handing out water to people waiting in line to vote, however. Of course, that's not about preventing cheating but making sure voters are physically unable to handle the long lines in certain neighborhoods that were created by previous assaults on voting access. "Cheating" — like "fraud" — is one of those Trumpian code words to smear Black voters and imply there's something inherently illegitimate about people of color having the franchise.

While Kemp would undoubtedly deny the racist intent of the law if asked outright, the visuals behind his signing photo were unmistakeable. As journalist Jill Filipovic pointed out on Twitter, "a photo of all white men signing a bill that cements their political power by disenfranchising Black voters" is "not a gaffe," but "a deliberate message." In case anyone was missing the message, another set of visuals drove it home: State Rep. Park Cannon, a Black Democrat, being arrested for asking to attend the signing ceremony.

It might be hard to accept that Georgia Republicans, in the year 2021, would be actively trying to draw comparisons to segregationists and white supremacists of old. It's often assumed in the media people universally view the George Wallaces and Bull Connors as villains that no one would want to emulate or be likened to. But the grim truth is that Donald Trump's continuing popularity with the Republican base sends a clear signal to GOP politicians that their voters want their racism raw and unvarnished, not swaddled in the winks and code words that Republican leaders have long clung to for plausible deniability. So it's likely that Kemp is not only aware that the visuals from Thursday's signing, but that was what he was going for, knowing that the same ugly urges that fueled the pro-segregation movement in the 60s are fueling the Republican party now.

For further evidence, look to Tennessee, where Republicans in the state legislature are waging an all-out battle to preserve and honor the memory of the Ku Klux Klan's first Grand Wizard.

Slave trader and Confederate leader Nathan Bedford Forrest is an infamous figure, even by the standards of his fellow Confederate generals. Before he helped start and lead the KKK, he spearheaded one of the ugliest war crimes of the Civil War, the Fort Pillow massacre, in which captured Union soldiers, most of them Black, were murdered rather taken prisoner. Forrest was revived as a "hero" in Tennessee in the 1960s and 1970s by segregationists who were lashing out at the gains made by Black Americans in the civil rights era. A holiday honoring Forrest started in 1969 and a bust of his head was erected in the state capitol in the 1970s.

Democrats in recent years have understandably been trying to end the holiday and get rid of the statues honoring Forrest since these continued traditions are the moral equivalent of Germany having an annual Hitler Day and putting up statues honoring goose-stepping Nazis. But these efforts have met an unbelievable amount of resistance from Republicans. They are whining about "cancel culture" as if that is somehow worse than celebrating a racist war criminal and terrorist.

But despite an emotional presentation on Tuesday by Democratic Rep. London Lamar, in which she pointed out that Forrest "would rape me" and "take me away from my family" if "he was alive today," the Republican-controlled general assembly refused to take the annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Day off the calendar.

The battle over the bust in the capitol building is even nastier. In 2013, 2016, and 2017, Republicans in the assembly passed laws meant to make it significantly harder for both state and local governments to remove statues honoring Confederate leaders. Despite the obstacles, however, the state historical commission successfully voted earlier this month to remove the bust of Forrest in the state capitol. In response, state senators are moving to replace nearly the entire commission with lackeys who will keep the bust in place.

There is, of course, the usual lip-smacking from Forrest defenders about how this isn't racism but "preserving history." No one should buy that excuse, as there are ways to preserve history — perhaps honoring Forrest's many victims? — without treating a KKK leader like a state hero. The likelier story is the simpler one: Republicans in the state are super racist and want to honor the first Grand Wizard of the KKK to celebrate white supremacy.

Same story in Georgia. There's no point in tying ourselves in knots trying to find some more flattering story for what Kemp and his fellow Republicans are up to. They know they look racist. They're likely counting on it.

Trump may be gone, but the lessons his presidency imparted on Republican leadership clearly will linger. Republican politicians believe a little more shameless racism is what gets their base motivated and activated, and frankly, they are likely correct in this belief. Progressives need to respond by redoubling their efforts at anti-racist activism and registering people of color to vote. The only way that racism is defeated is an overwhelming show of political power because clearly, appealing to the better angels of white conservatives isn't working.

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