Democracy and fascism: Empty words on the edge of the abyss

We are not, in fact, in the middle of a decisive or apocalyptic battle between democracy and fascism. I mean it — we're not. Let's start there.

Those words are at best rough approximations or terms of art, used to describe amorphous sets of phenomena that cannot easily be crammed into two opposing buckets. At worst — and given the political and cultural tendencies of the 21st century to this point, we should always go with "at worst" — they are dangerous oversimplifications, desperate attempts to make a murky situation where no one and nothing is what it seems to be fit into some borrowed or invented template from World War II or the Cold War or the American Revolution or God knows what else.

I've made a version of this argument before, on the basis that those words give both sides too much credit for internal coherence — "in both cases, what it says on the box is not exactly what's inside" — and also that their definitions have been stretched to the point of meaninglessness.

When we try to describe the intensely polarized partisan conflict in the United States and the renaissance of the authoritarian far right in Europe and the war in Ukraine as all being aspects of a global "democracy versus fascism" smackdown, I'm afraid we reveal that we don't know what the words mean, and that in fact they may not mean anything.

Consider, for instance, that almost everyone presents themselves as standing up for "democracy," as they claim to perceive it. Republicans who want to rig elections, nullify the popular vote or limit the franchise to people like them certainly do, and if we look at the troubled history of so-called democracy in America, we may be compelled to admit that they have a point.

In the recent midterm elections, it was rhetorically useful (and somewhat surprisingly so) for Democrats to define themselves as defending democracy against the kinda-sorta-fascists who seek to destroy it. To be clear, I'm at least partly sympathetic to this argument, but as is customary with the Democratic Party, it's an entirely negative case: Vote for us because we're not the mean, crazy Nazi bigots! We promise we will do something about worsening inequality and widespread corruption sometime very soon! But right now we need to hand-wave you on to the next election and the one after that, which will decide the future of our country!

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have sometimes used the word "democracy" to describe their semi-shared agenda, for heaven's sake, while making clear that what they mean by that is something quite different from the decadent, corrupt and declining "liberal democracy" of the West. If that sounds categorically preposterous to right-thinking people like you and me, it's nonetheless a highly effective troll, aimed directly at the uncomfortable fact that we don't know what the word means and have never been able to fulfill its hypothetical promises. The truth of the matter is painful: Our "system" unquestionably has more of the external markings of democracy than theirs does, but its internal functions are severely compromised.

On the other side of the ledger, pretty much no one wants to be called a fascist these days, with the possible exception of internet edgelords like Nick Fuentes, whose apparent function in the political economy is to make extreme-right Republicans like Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene seem almost normal by comparison. I'm not suggesting that Fuentes and his ilk aren't potentially or actually dangerous — Gosar and Greene certainly are — only that in the current global and American context overt neo-Nazis serve as chaos agents who cloud our perceptions, not as points of illumination.

Consider, for instance, that Putin has repeatedly justified the Russian invasion as a campaign to "denazify" Ukraine, a patently insincere claim that contains just enough granules of deep-down plausibility to be a little bit troubling. Of course the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish by ancestry, is not a "Nazi" regime, and the role played by far-right paramilitary groups in Ukraine's defense is relatively minor. But Ukraine is also a hilariously dreadful example of "democracy," plagued by profound institutional corruption and moving decisively backward on political freedoms, civil liberties and all the indicators of social democracy.

My own sense is that while there may be good reasons for people and governments in the West to support Ukraine against Russia — the conception of a nation-state, and the right of its people to autonomy and self-determination, are modern inventions, but ones for which most of us feel instinctive sympathy — it's distinctly unhelpful to call it a grand conflict between democracy and fascism, or to pretend that clarifies anything.

In a fascinating essay for New Left Review, Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko unpacks the "decolonization" of his country in the aftermath of a "deficient revolution" that overthrew the previous pro-Putin authoritarian regime but could "neither achieve the consolidation of liberal democracy nor eradicate corruption," while worsening "crime rates, social inequality and ethnic tensions."

"Paradoxically, despite the objective imperatives of the war," he writes, Zelenskyy's government has pushed through a wide range of neoliberal reforms, "proceeding with privatizations, lowering taxes, scrapping protective labour legislation and favouring 'transparent' international corporations over 'corrupt' domestic firms." The plans for "post-war reconstruction" offered at a conference in Switzerland last summer, Ishchenko continues, "did not read like a programme for building a stronger sovereign state but like a pitch to foreign investors for a start-up."

That article, it seems to me, offers crucial guidance in understanding the true nature of the increasingly perilous U.S. proxy war in Ukraine, which may, unhappily, be more about defending a particular set of global economic interests than about anything as grand and vague as "democracy." It also may lead us toward a recognition that the left-wing and right-wing critics of that war — an unwieldy "Halloween coalition" of peace advocates and America First isolationists — make a number of important points that should not be ignored, even as that lures too many of them (as I see it) into an unacceptable moral compromise with tyranny.

But that might be too much to chew on this weekend. I'll return for now to the premise I began with: The overloaded blimps labeled as "democracy" and "fascism," which float above our flattened cultural landscape unmoored to anything real, are meant to be reassuring (at least to those of us who say we're in favor of the former) but in fact are precisely the opposite. We project our hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies onto them, but more than anything our anxieties. We don't know what they mean, we don't know which one is "winning" and, somewhere deep down, we're not quite sure which one we really want.

Fired Trump official talks about the threat to democracy -- and how Ukraine's struggle has 'inspired the world'

If Carl von Clausewitz's famous maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means holds some truth, then the border zone between the two — the pathway into war, or the way around it — is where the mysterious art of diplomacy is practiced.

Marie Yovanovitch is a lifelong diplomat. She had spent her entire career representing American "soft power" in a variety of challenging contexts and under presidents of both parties, right up to the point when she abruptly and unexpectedly became a household name. As U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, Yovanovitch became an important supporting player in Donald Trump's first impeachment, as the principal target of a smear campaign that even now, three years later, is too convoluted and nonsensical to be easily explained.

The short version -- which isn't all that short -- is that Rudy Giuliani, the very definition of an unreliable narrator, became obsessed with Yovanovitch and decided to blame her for the fact that his attempts to dig up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden in Ukraine were going nowhere. Along the way, Giuliani and a number of his dubious associates tried to concoct a conspiracy theory linking the Ukrainian government to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, in a transparent and idiotic attempt to deflect attention from Robert Mueller's report and the Trump campaign's connections to Russia.

In her new memoir "Lessons From the Edge," a rich and interesting career history that covers much more than her disastrous Trump entanglement, Yovanovitch makes a convincing case that she knew virtually nothing about Giuliani's Ukraine skulduggery or about Hunter Biden's admittedly shady business dealings there. She was taken completely by surprise, she reports, to get star billing in Trump's infamous "perfect" phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, then Ukraine's brand new president.

What seems clear to me, after reading her book and speaking with her by Zoom for half an hour, is that Yovanovitch is exactly the sort of person Trump and his minions identified with the "deep state" -- a judicious, cerebral rule-follower who saw herself as serving a long-term narrative of "American interests" that was largely independent of politics, and had only incrementally shifted from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama. In a sense, they were correct to see her as an enemy: Yovanovitch makes clear in her memoir that she came to understand the Trump administration as an Americanized version of the blatantly corrupt power politics she had observed for years as a senior diplomat in Ukraine, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

Another reason Yovanovitch's story is fascinating now, of course, is because of how it may have shaped what has happened since. In the historical rear-view mirror, the events that linked Trump, Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin in 2019 are now shaped by the far more traumatic events of 2022, which have thrust Zelenskyy onto the world stage and made Putin appear alternately more malicious and more delusional than ever before.

As you might expect, Marie Yovanovitch measures her words carefully, and expresses disagreement in tones of studied quietness. She knows both Ukraine and Russia well, and says that while she could see these events taking shape well ahead of time, like most of us she did not believe things would go so bad so quickly. She told me I was welcome to call her Masha — she was born in Canada to Russian-émigré parents — but I don't believe I ever did. As Donald Trump found out, this is not a person to be taken lightly.

We have to start with a subject that can only be difficult for you. Personally and professionally, you have ties to both Russia and Ukraine that go pretty deep. At the risk of sounding like an interviewer on "The View," what has this been like for you personally?

It's hard to find the right words. Initially, it's hard to believe that we are now one month into this war of choice. There is no reason for this war. Ukraine was not a threat to Russia, and yet here we are. And 30 days later, here we are. Originally, when the invasion first started, I was using the words "unimaginable," "devastating," etc. Now that just seems so trite.

Originally, I thought, "Oh my God, everybody I know has got a target on their back." But it turns out that everybody in Ukraine now has a target on their back. Whether you are six months old or 60 years old, you have a target on your back. We can see this indiscriminate killing and targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. It's devastating. And obviously devastating, most of all, to the people of Ukraine.

From your knowledge of both of these nations and the time you've spent in both of them, did you see this coming? Did you think it was likely to get this bad?

While I was in Ukraine — and of course I left in 2019 — I did not believe that Vladimir Putin wanted to, so to speak, own Ukraine. I thought he wanted to destabilize Ukraine, so that it would not be a reliable partner for the West. He was doing that with his — I mean, it was a hot war in the Donbas region. Every couple of days, another civilian or soldier would die. It was a hot war, even though it was not a headline in the United States. There were cyber attacks. There were assassinations of high-level individuals. There was all sorts of economic punishment, during those eight years. I thought that was probably going to be enough for Putin.

I did feel that Putin would probably become aggressive again, because that has been his pattern with Georgia in 2008, in 2014 with the first invasion of Ukraine, and then now. But I wouldn't necessarily have predicted that it would be Ukraine. But then, in the fall of 2021, when we started seeing the encirclement of Ukraine by Russian forces, and of course the Biden administration started releasing intelligence, in what I considered to be just a brilliant move, well, it started becoming apparent that there would be an invasion. But even in February, I did not think that he was going to try to take the whole country. I did not think that, but here we are.

That's an interesting point about U.S. strategy. It seemed as if Antony Blinken or someone close to him had the idea that by revealing information about Russian movements — that maybe otherwise you wouldn't — they were hoping to limit Putin's options. Is that a correct interpretation?

That's how I would interpret it. I think that there's some belief that it set Putin back, in terms of the timeline of the invasion and various other things. Even now, when the Biden administration is releasing information that there could be a false flag operation around a possible chemical weapons attack by Russia, that has to make them think. It's not as smooth as I think Vladimir Putin would have liked.

Yeah, it's not going smoothly, to put it mildly. Are you surprised by the difficulty that the Russian military seems to have had? And on the other side, are you surprised by the fierce resistance from the Ukrainians?

When I was in government, we always used to talk about how we needed to remember the Russians are not 10 feet tall. Nevertheless, I certainly thought that they had been spending the last 20 years investing in their military and honing their capabilities. I thought they were far more capable than what we are seeing right now. I think some military experts had predicted that the corruption, the lack of leadership, the lack of reforms in the Russian military would lead to, if not the results we're seeing now, at least not the kinds of successes that Putin had imagined.

But I am surprised by the incompetence, basically. Not just on the military side, where they don't demonstrate the kind of tactics that you would expect in a modern military, but also the logistics. I think it was Napoleon who said that an army marches on its stomach. These guys, their stomachs seem to be somewhere in Moscow, as they are trying to attack Ukraine.

As far as the Ukrainians are concerned, I knew they were going to fight back. As you probably know, I spent six years in Ukraine, first in the early 2000s and then again from 2016 to 2019, as ambassador. The Ukrainians love their freedom. They are unruly. They are fighters. They don't want us to tell them what to do, and they certainly don't want the Russians to tell them what to do! So I knew they were going to fight back.

But I have to say, the uncommon courage that they are showing is remarkable. I think it's inspiring for the whole world. It's obviously Zelenskyy at the top, reflecting that Ukrainian spirit, but also binding his nation together, uniting them in this common cause and inspiring them, but also inspiring the world. But you also have the little grandmothers who are making Molotov cocktails: They're ready for the Russian soldiers to come to their village! Yeah, that's the Ukraine I know, the Ukrainian people I know.

Obviously no one, and especially not you, would have wished this on the Ukrainian nation or the Ukrainian people. But it seems like one of the ironies here is that Putin has created a level of social and political unity in Ukraine that did not exist previous to this. Is there some truth to that?

I think that is absolutely right. He managed to do that in 2014, too, with the first invasion. I was really struck when I came to Ukraine two years later, after a pause of a number of years, how proud people were of their country. I mean, Ukraine is an enormous country. And while there are regional differences, for sure, nevertheless, people saw themselves as part of one united Ukraine, which wasn't necessarily the case before.

Vladimir Putin had a lot to do with it, and that's not the only thing he's managed to accomplish. He has managed to kick-start NATO, an organization that many felt had seen better days. President Biden was just at NATO, and a number of deliverables or agreements have just been announced. It's ironic. All the things that Putin says he wants, he's getting the exact opposite. He's getting more NATO, not less. He's getting a nationalistic Ukraine, not a supplicant country that is bowing down to Russia.

Yeah. The law of unintended consequences seems to be in full effect. That's also true with President Zelenskyy, who has become an international hero. It might sound demeaning to call him a celebrity, but it's true. I know you didn't work closely with him, but I don't have the sense that his presidency was an unqualified success up to this point.

No, I think that's right. Even before this invasion, Ukraine had a lot of challenges, as many countries do. It's still a developing democracy, a developing market economy. Obviously, they were fighting this war on their eastern border. There were a lot of challenges. They were trying to move forward on reform and so forth, but it's always hard. It's hard for us, in the United States, to reform. Nobody does it, unless there's some sort of a crisis.

So, I think you're right that Zelenskyy, as his predecessors did, had challenges in governing and producing the kinds of results that the people of Ukraine want to see.

I don't believe you know Vladimir Putin personally, but you spent a good deal of time in Russia earlier in your career. Where do you fall in terms of interpreting him? There's the notion that he has become irrational and hot-headed, and there's the argument that he is a rational actor, who is pursuing logical aims according to his understanding of the world.

That is such a hard question for me to answer, because some days I'm in one camp and other days, I'm in the other. But I do think that he has his own worldview, incorrect though it may be, in terms of the history of the last several hundred years, and of the modern era as well. I think he misrepresents that. I think he's wrong in many of his conclusions. I mean, it's just ahistorical, the sorts of things that he talks about. But if that is your context and you are an autocrat and you pretty much have squashed all the opposition or jailed them or driven them out of the country, then you're probably not getting great facts.

There's been much made in the press recently that the minister of defense and the head of the military have not been seen in a couple of weeks. What does that mean? Are they on the outs? Does it just mean they're in the bunker, redoing war plans? I mean, who knows? But my guess is that Putin was being told that his military could take Kyiv in a couple of days. Clearly that was not right. So he's getting bad information. He's probably very angry. And none of that is a good combination, especially when he's hinting at the fact that Russia is a nuclear power. For every other country in the world, that's a taboo. It's not part of the arsenal of war. But with Russia, it's part of their military doctrine, and those hints are very frightening.

A friend of mine who's a historian thinks it's possible that within Putin's regime there's actually less internal dialogue and discussion than there was during the Soviet period, except maybe under Stalin. Most of the time, there was at least an inner circle, the Politburo, where there was some degree of disagreement and debate. Putin doesn't appear to permit anything like that.

Yeah. As you know, I'm no longer working for the U.S. government, so I don't have the information that maybe others might have. But it seems to me that his close-in people, who have been with him since his KGB days, since his time in Petersburg, all moved to Moscow in the early Kremlin days. They've been together for over 30 years. Most of them are not only intelligence, but counterintelligence. That is a very special breed of people because they're paid to be paranoid, right? They're paid to look for the plots. So that probably also informs their worldview. It's unclear to me to what extent they have open discussions and can tell the boss the truth, so he can make better decisions. But one hint that we got was the national security council meeting that was videotaped and then released, where Putin was dealing with his colleagues like a teacher addressing schoolboys and humiliating some of them, in a very public way.

To me, what was interesting was: This was a taped session. They could have cleaned that up, but they didn't. That was what Putin wanted to send out to the world. I think he made it very clear that there was one person making the decisions and that the other people in the room were really nervous, at a minimum. Some people were afraid.

One central current in your book, and you express this very judiciously, is the idea that the kinds of political, governmental, social and cultural problems that you encountered in former Soviet nations — systemic corruption, to put it bluntly — began to crop up in the United States during the latter part of your career, as if it were a virus or an infection that started to spread.

Yeah. I mean, when I returned to the United States, fast forward to the July 2019 "perfect" telephone call between President Zelenskyy and President Trump. That transcript was released in September, which was when I found out that I featured in that phone call. That is so unusual, I can't even tell you. I featured in it in a particularly disturbing way, but even worse was the fact that the president of the United States was clearly trading on his office and his influence and holding up an arms shipment in order to get a personal or political favor from another country.

That sent a signal around the world, that this is a guy who's trading on his office. I'd seen that in other countries, but I never thought I would see it in the United States. That doesn't mean that I've agreed with every decision that our presidents have made over time. Far from it. But even when I disagreed, I didn't think that people were doing it for some personal reason.

I think that's the foremost thing, because that is such a betrayal of the American people. We should be able to expect that when we elect a president, that individual is working on our behalf, for our national security, not for his or her own interests. So that was really disturbing. And then just the verbal attacks on journalists, the scapegoating of minorities and women, just so much of the rhetoric was really disturbing to me.

And then we had our presidential elections, where the president of the United States refused to accept the results and actively worked with others to try to reverse those results. I want to say culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection, except I think some people are still trying to reverse the results. I never thought I would see anything like that in the United States, never. So yeah, I think our democracy has challenges. We need to work hard to defend it and tend to it, if we are going to preserve it.

Is there a feedback loop operating in the world around that issue? There's a lot of tension around democracy, and whether it actually still works. There are segments of the American right who have allied themselves with Putin, even if they've backed away from that recently. There's a sense that democracy and capitalism no longer have to be linked, for example, and that democracy has degraded in many places.

To a certain extent, yes, I think that's true. But I just take issue with the premise, and probably you do as well, because I think that democracy obviously is not a perfect system. No system is. Some clever person said democracy is the worst system in the world, except for all the others.

All you need to do is look at the Ukrainian people. They have a choice to follow the Russian model or to follow the European model. They have repeatedly made the choice of turning to Europe. Because they don't think about it, and I think most Americans don't think about it, in terms of democracy, capitalism, the rule of law. Those are important terms, but I mean, in my everyday life, I want a good job. I want my kids to have prospects. I want to live in peace. I don't want to have to give the policemen a bribe just so I can keep driving down the road.

That's what the Ukrainian people want. They look at Russia, and they're not seeing any of that for themselves. They look to the West, and they see some real prospects for themselves and for their children. I think if you ask ordinary people, that's what they want. I think that democracy and capitalism actually do provide the best results, over time, for the most people.

You mention some misgivings about the creation of the oligarch class under the Yeltsin government in Russia. In the mid-1990s, massive amounts of capital was allowed to flow upward very quickly, creating a class of essentially unaccountable ultra-rich people who had immense power in society. I'm not saying that I know what could have been done differently. You would know better than I. But the U.S. rode along with that, in the interests of keeping Yeltsin in power, and I would say the effects have been disastrous. I mean, that set the table for Vladimir Putin and the Russia we see today. Do you disagree with that?

Yeah, I don't disagree. Well, I think that the Russian government asked us to help them, back in the days of the early 1990s, set up a market economy. So we did the best that we could, but everything had to be done at the same time. You're literally flying the plane while you're fixing the engine and also the wings and everything else. So it was inevitable that some things were going to go wrong.

In the early 1990s, the choice seemed to be between Yeltsin, a reformer, somebody the U.S. had a good relationship with and who seemed sober-minded about his nuclear arsenal — those were all very important issues — and in the period that you talked about, in the 1996 elections, Yeltsin looked like he was going to lose to Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate.

And then they cooked up this deal with the very, very wealthy businessmen, the oligarchs, although that term was not common yet. The oligarchs gave the government money and in exchange they got shares of government-controlled companies. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, loans for shares. But of course, the oligarchs kept those shares and owned those companies, which they got for a song. It was the further rape of the Russian people, in my opinion.

Should we have criticized Yeltsin really harshly, and maybe given Zyuganov, the Communist, a leg up? I mean, I was so junior, I wasn't aware of any of these conversations. But I think there must have been a decision that we weren't going to go there. I do wonder whether there was some narrow lane we could have found, where we could have noted our concern.

Maybe that was done privately, behind closed doors. Honestly, when people are talking about their political survival, as Yeltsin was at that time, I'm not sure how successful we would have been, had we said something publicly. I think the West, and especially the United States, did lose some credibility there, as people found out about this deal that was cooked up. So yeah, I mean, that was a really sordid episode. It built the foundation for many things that were to come.

One of Putin's principal complaints, which gets echoed by critics of U.S. policy both on the left and the right, is about the eastward expansion of NATO. As I'm sure you're aware, this was controversial from the start. There were some old-guard foreign policy people in the U.S. who argued that it was a mistake to push NATO further east than Germany, and that it was likely to lead to future conflict with Russia. Do you think there are valid reasons now to question that policy?

No, actually I don't. I mean, obviously one can always review history and draw certain conclusions and so forth. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, I don't recall it as being super controversial. In fact, a number of people were talking about Russia ultimately joining NATO. This was a demand-driven enlargement. The Poles and others came knocking on NATO's door. It wasn't like we were looking for countries to join NATO at all. It was an engine, along with EU membership, for building up those economies, building up those democracies and building up their security as well. I think there were a lot of benefits to enlargement.

And then in the mid-2000s, Putin started this revisionist history: The breakup of the Soviet Union was the biggest disaster, etc., etc. When I look back at the 1990s, and I was there for some of it, the Russian people were getting the lion's share of the attention. The other countries were all complaining, because the lion's share of these pots of money was going to Russia. President Clinton brought Russia into the G7, making it the G8. We had the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which set up a special partnership for Russia in the 1990s.

I mean, there's a lot to look back on, where we were trying to reach out a hand to Russia, and Yeltsin was actually clasping that hand, to try to bring them in to the community of nations in an important way. It's a big country. It's a nuclear country. It has lots of potential. We were hoping that by bringing them in, they would see how they could develop further.

That's the last point I want to make: It's true that the U.S. is a powerful country, and we have a lot of influence in the world. But citizens of other countries and leadership of other countries, they have agency. We tend to look at things, understandably, as, "What did the U.S. do during this time period? Was it our fault? Could we have done something different?" All of which is legitimate, but I think certainly a country like Russia has agency. It can choose its own path.

We've been doing a couple of thought experiments here. So here's another one for you. If NATO had withered or if NATO had said to Poland and other entrants, "No, sorry, doors are closed," do we imagine that right now Putin would be this pussycat who was all about love and flowers and being a good member of the international community? I don't think so. I think he would have come to this anyway, that Ukraine is not a real country and the Ukrainians are just little Russians. I think he would've gotten his way, one way or the other.

How much does Putin really represent Russia? You must have thought about this question.

Yeah. This is not universally shared, but I believe that Russia is an historically expansionist country. We've seen that over the centuries. I think Putin is in that tradition, of trying to rebuild, whether it's the Soviet Union or the Russian empire or whatever you want to call it. But everything that I'm hearing from friends or friends of friends in Russia, is that people don't want this. They think of Ukrainians as fellow Slavs, as brother Slavs, and they don't want this war.

Carl Bernstein on journalism, Trump and history: 'The truth is not neutral'

Carl Bernstein's memoir of his apprenticeship in reporting, "Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom," is on the surface a story about journalism, and about America, in a historical period that to most of us now seems long in the past. Bernstein's first job in the business came in 1960, as a 16-year-old "copy boy" for the Evening Star, at the time the No. 2 daily in Washington, D.C. (The Star ceased publication in 1981, part of a wave of newspaper consolidation that prefigured the industry-wide collapse of the internet era.) This book begins there, allowing for a bit of back story, and concludes in 1966, after Bernstein had left the Star and spent a year at the Elizabeth Daily Journal in New Jersey (a paper that, almost unbelievably, had a circulation of 50,000). He was about to return to Washington and take a job with the Star's better-known competitor — but that story is not this one.

I was both relieved and delighted to discover that "Chasing History" is not an elder statesman's nostalgic account of the Good Old Days, nor a reverse-engineered personal history of how a Great Man rose from obscurity. It's both subtler and more interesting than that, as well as an immensely entertaining read — jam-packed with famous names and juicy anecdotes — for anyone who cares about the past and future of journalism, or the lessons to be drawn from that tumultuous period of American history.

Bernstein's future employer, the Washington Post, mostly plays a role in this story as the snooty, less enterprising competitor to the Star. His future reporting partner at the Post, Bob Woodward — alongside whom Bernstein became a household name and half of the most famous investigative team in our profession's history — only appears in the acknowledgments. Richard Nixon certainly comes up, first as a defeated presidential candidate in 1960 and then, two years later, as a defeated gubernatorial candidate clear across the country in California. (Bernstein acknowledges, in passing, that his destiny and Nixon's would cross paths in the future.)

What at first appears to be a story about the past turns out, as is so often true, to be a story about the present, or perhaps an illustration of Faulkner's famous pronouncement that the past isn't dead, and isn't even past. In our recent conversation for Salon Talks, Bernstein told me that he hadn't exactly been conscious, while writing "Chasing History," that so many of the themes of his youthful career would resonate in 2022 — he made the connections at an intuitive level, which is after all what writers do. He knew his book was partly about racism and race relations, a beat he frequently covered as a young reporter and one of the Star's strengths (despite its nearly all-white newsroom, which was certainly not unusual.) One of his mentors at the paper, Mary Lou Werner — herself one of the first prominent female news reporters — had won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the racist "massive resistance" against school desegregation in Virginia.

But Bernstein could not have foreseen how many of the "local" issues he covered as a teenage cub reporter — battles over racial issues in education, over voter suppression and false claims of voter fraud (yes, really!) or over the threat of right-wing insurrectionist violence (again, really) — would resurface in our drastically different era, clad in new rhetorical garb but reflecting the same unanswered questions that have tormented America since the beginning. He had a lot to say in our conversation, about the state of journalism then and now, about the contradictions of truth-telling in the Trump era, about the imperiled state of our democracy. (When the video was off, we debated which of us has deeper parental roots in the American left: I think it's a tie.)

I didn't even ask him about being played by Dustin Hoffman in the most famous of all journalism movies, or about his period of full-on celebrity in the late '70s and '80s, when he reportedly dated Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor and Martha Stewart, among other famous women. What I loved about Carl Bernstein's book was the same thing I most enjoyed about talking to him personally: the endless curiosity and the sense of discovery. You can spend your life chasing history, as he has done with illustrious results. You never quite catch up to it.

Carl, maybe the most interesting thing about this book is what it's not about. It's not about your career at the Washington Post or your partnership with Bob Woodward or the reporting on Watergate that led to "All the President's Men," both the book and the movie. It's about how you broke into this business as a teenager at the Washington Star, a daily paper that hasn't existed for more than 40 years now. So why tell that story?

This book is, as you indicated, about the five-year period from age 16 to 21 that I worked in my apprenticeship at probably the greatest afternoon newspaper in America, the Washington Evening Star in my native city, I'm a second-generation Washingtonian. So the book is not written from the point of view of the old man looking back: Nothing in the action of the book, except for an epilogue, says anything about the future. It ends in 1965, and it covers this amazing five-year period of my life when I go to work as a copy boy at this amazing newspaper, and for the next five years, this kid, and it's written in the voice of the kid, gets to have the greatest seat in the country.

It's remarkable. Could it happen today? Probably not. But I was able to have this apprenticeship with the greatest reporters of their day, and greatest editors, during a period of civil rights, the Kennedy presidency and assassination, the beginning of the Great Society, the beginning of the war in Vietnam, and also this kid covering cops, con-men, the streets and alleyways of the capital, which is a very different city than the marble columned halls of government, shrines and emblems of the nation. There is an integration in the book of our lives in Washington at the time, and particularly what I was doing as a young reporter and a copy boy with all these opportunities.

It's a mix of the high and the low. That's really what reporting is, as a matter of fact. So there is a straight line from this book to Watergate and "All the President's Men," but the future is never mentioned.

I think you avoid the usual pitfalls of nostalgia really well. I mean, you talk about how the Star was a great newspaper but you never strike that elegiac tone of, like, "Everything was better then, everything is worse now."

That's very true, because it's about, again, an experience that is absolutely formative in my life, and it's told as I experienced it. So what I hope comes through the pages is the kid being open to all of these different forces, including everything I know about how to be a reporter and these people who became my family. I was by far the youngest person in that newsroom. Even when I left as a reporter at age 21, the copy boys were still older than me, or a good number of them were.

It's also the experience of this kid in the capital of the United States, watching history in front of him, but without a recognition that these were hinges of history. The last week or month that I was at the Star, I covered the Voting Rights Act of 1965. What are we talking about today? What's the news on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times? It's about the restoration or stripping of that Voting Rights Act that I covered in 1965. So you get a sense of the country, in my five years at the Star -- which bracketed the years of the Civil War, 100 years later exactly.

I grew up in Jim Crow Washington, Washington was a segregated city. I went to legally segregated public schools in the capital of the United States. I'll bet you that one-fiftieth of the people watching us right now know that the capital of the United States had segregated public schools until Brown vs Board of Education. In fact, Brown did not apply to the District of Columbia, because it wasn't a state. There had to be a separate case, Bolling vs Sharpe, which was about the District of Columbia public schools that I was in. I was in the sixth grade when our schools were finally integrated. The restaurants downtown, when I grew up, Black people couldn't eat at them. They had to stand at the lunch counters.

I talk about the first sit-ins with my parents, who were left-wing people and were very instrumental in desegregating downtown Washington. They took me with them when I was eight, nine years old, to these sit-ins at the lunch counters and at the Tea Room in Woodward & Lathrop department store. A lot of the book is about civil rights, which I got to cover. The first thing I did when they made me a reporter at 19, it was a horrible, terrible thing, I was sent to National Airport to spend the day with Rita Schwerner, who was — she didn't know she was a widow yet. Her husband was Mickey Schwerner of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. At that moment they were searching for the three men in Mississippi. They were found about 72 hours after I met with Rita Schwerner, under a levee in Mississippi, victims of the horror that was going on in the South at that time. So that experience was formative, and it's an experience that was formative for the country, as well as for journalism.

The Rita Schwerner chapter in your book is extremely moving. I think every journalist should read that. You talk about what you realized when writing that story: There's a crucial difference between a story as an assembly of facts, which may be accurate in themselves, and presenting them in a context in which they make sense. That's a difficult thing to pin down, and I think you express it very well.

The line in the book — I remember reading it when I wrote it and saying, "Ah, I've been able to express this," is that the truth is not neutral. I learned that covering civil rights and I learned it particularly from Southern reporters who were covering civil rights. Among my mentors was Mary Lou Werner, the state editor of the Washington Star. She had won a Pulitzer for covering "massive resistance" to desegregation in Virginia. It's another amazing thing about the Star: When I went to work there,, the head copy boy gave me a tour of the newsroom, which is described in the book, in the opening of the book, and he took me down the center aisle on either side of which was the reporters' desks.

He told me about three of the great reporters in the newsroom, they were all women. Miss McGrory, as he put it, Miss Ottenberg and Miss Werner. All three were Pulitzer winners, two of them in the last two years. So that was what this paper was about. What I learned covering civil rights was that when you see and hear the widow of one of the three men shot to death and put under a levee in Mississippi, there aren't two sides to that story. In journalism I think we're burdened by the myth of objectivity. Being a reporter is the most subjective of acts. Why is that? Because you're choosing to define what is news, that's the primary thing.

What is news? What are you looking at? What's important? Then, going about the reporting, the perseverance, the refusing to use just one source, but going to one source after another, all the things that the movie of "All the President's Men" shows so well. You can see a straight line from this book and knocking on doors to "All the President's Men." It's about the methodology. One of the problems today in news is that the methodology, which should be preeminent and prominent and we should be using these amazing tools that we have to work more rapidly and give more depth to our stories -- but the reporting, the basic reporting, has to be done the old way.

What's going on in our newsrooms today? People aren't going outside the newsroom, they're using Google, they're occasionally using the cellphone, but by and large — there are thousands of people doing what's called news in this country, and this is not about nostalgia — they don't go out of the office, they don't knock on the doors, they don't develop sources. The biggest problem in journalism today: We're lazy.

I agree with you 100%. I think it's a chronic problem that is larger than journalism, right? It's a social problem, a cultural problem.

Let me stop you right there, because you just used the term "cultural problem." The other element, and this is different from the time I was at the Star, is that the big story in this country today is the culture of America. It's not what's going on in the capital, it's what's going on with people in this country, including state legislatures, including politicians, including the Capitol building in Washington, but also the people and what is on their minds and what is in their hearts and what is in their prejudices and what is in their hatreds. We are in the midst of what I would call a cold civil war, for most of the Trump years and before that. It goes back 20, 30 years.

Trump ignited it, it's no longer cold, it's reached a point of ignition. That's where we are. We look at journalism and politics as separate entities, no. It's about the culture of this country. This book is hardly just about race, it's about covering a plane crash, it's about going to after-hours clubs in the middle of the night, it's about interviewing Barry Goldwater by ham radio, as I did the day that he was nominated to be president of the United States.

That's an unbelievable story. Share that one.

It's a funny story. I had heard that Goldwater was a ham radio operator and that he had taken his equipment out to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco with him so he could play at being a ham radio operator while he was getting nominated to be president. It was stupefying, and I said, "Maybe I could interview him by ham radio." So I got in touch with his press secretary, who thought it was a great idea. I found this ham radio operator in Arlington, Virginia, and we got on the ham radio and Goldwater says, "I'm Zero Kilowatts, this, that and the other thing."

We radioed back, "We're Wonder John Roger whatever." We proceeded to have this interview hours away from when he was nominated, it was hilarious, got on the front page. But here's the kicker to the story, and it's not in the book. Here's where you go from here to Watergate to today. Woodward and I, when we wrote "The Final Days," about the end of Richard Nixon's presidency, we went to see Barry Goldwater, who remembered this interview that I had done with him by ham radio. Goldwater was drinking a Scotch and he went and got his diary, and he told us how he and the leaders of the Republican Party, after Nixon's tapes had come out — the Judiciary Committee in the House had voted impeachment articles — now it was going to be certain impeachment and trial in the Senate. Nixon thought that he could beat it, like Trump. He thought he'd be acquitted by the Senate.

Goldwater, the former presidential nominee, a conservative in his party, organized the Republican leadership to go to the White House. They sat across from Richard Nixon, and Nixon asked Goldwater, "Barry, how many votes do I have in the Senate?" Goldwater looked at him and said, "I'm not sure, Mr. President, maybe four right now. But you certainly don't have mine." At that moment, Nixon knew he was through and he resigned two days later. But the Republican Party was not ready to put up with this criminal presidential conduct. Look at the Republican Party today. Why do we have a seditious president that has been able to have a seditious movement following him? Because the Republican Party has been craven. It has been taken over by these seditious forces who are willing to do anything that Trump says should be done.

We had a coup, a conspiracy by the president of the United States to undermine the free electoral process in this country, followed and enabled by the Republican Party. You have to go back to the Civil War to have this kind of sedition, but never have we had a seditious president or a totally seditious political party. Look at what's going on about Jan. 6 and the investigation. A year ago, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said exactly what was true: The president was responsible for this. Now he's trying to conspire to shut down a legitimate investigation of this sabotage of democracy, of this sedition.

Recently we saw two members on the House floor, two Republicans who were wiling to go onto the floor during the talk about the Jan. 6 insurrection. Who were they? Liz Cheney and her father, the former vice president, exercising his privileges as a former member of Congress. Astonishing. So there is a straight line from this book to Watergate. I just never make the connection out loud.

I definitely agree that the kind of training and rigor you write about in this book is more difficult to find these days. I tell younger reporters that there's a big difference between your personal opinion, which should not play a role in reporting, and the historical and social context that's necessary to understanding an issue, to telling the truth. The term I use is "rational inference," meaning things that we can reasonably conclude based on the evidence. A lot of people don't understand how to walk that line.

Well, here's the other difference between the period when I worked at the Star and even at the Washington Post and today. I don't know the exact percentage, but certainly huge numbers of people, maybe most people in this country, are looking for news and information to reinforce what they already believe.

So the same bifurcation that we have in the country, the same polarization, exists in terms of consumption of news. It's a horrible thing. At the time I'm describing in this book, at the time of Watergate, most people were open to the best attainable version of the truth, the complexity of the truth. That's not the case today. Going back to the point about how this is cultural, not political. We have a culture where a huge percentage of our people is not interested in truth. This is a sea change.

Were you conscious when you were writing the book that it wasn't about the '60s, that it was also about today? I mean, a lot of it is about race relations, a lot is about voting rights. You even write about the emergence of right-wing violence, such as around civil rights. That feeling kind of snuck up on me: that in a lot of ways this book is not about the past.

Not while I was typing, but after. One of the things that happens, if you're a writer, not just a reporter — one of the great things I got to do at the Star was study some of the greatest writers for newspapers in America. Mary McGrory comes to mind, but there were many others. There was a rewrite man, who as I describe him, could make the words jump like trout. I studied these people and how they wrote and how they reported. There was a guy named John Sherwood who would ply the Chesapeake Bay in his sloop and find these islands where the oystermen still spoke almost in Elizabethan dialect, and write these rhapsodic pictures. Every year at the beginning of oyster season, he would use the same lede: "Behold the succulent bivalve."

I actually shared that with Salon's staff this morning. Completely irresistible.

So when you write, and this is true sometimes even when you're just writing on deadline, but it's really true when you're writing a book, you don't know. You're in a different place when you're writing, and then you look at the paragraph or the sentence and you say, "Oh, my God." There are times when I was doing that in this book and I would say, "That's Donald Trump." You see these resonances, and that is also what reporting is about. So the book does this jumping trick, maybe. Did I set out to do the jumping trick? No, it happens with the writing.

Before we end, let me briefly tell you a Washington Star story, although it's before your time. On the wall behind me I have a picture of my mother that was published in the Star, I believe in 1946. She was leading a march to the White House against the Ku Klux Klan. She's got heels and a summer dress on and she's wearing a placard that says, "Outlaw the Ku Klux Klan." If you're wondering whether she was connected to an infamous left-wing movement, as I know your family was, the answer is absolutely yes.

Wow. Well, you know, my father was a union organizer, my parents were members of the Communist Party in the '40s, the book mentions that. Obviously there is a commonality in your mother's story.

It seems very likely they knew each other. My mother was a union organizer at the time too, and her husband was a reporter for the Daily Worker.

Really? You might even have more serious left-wing credentials than I do, from childhood. There's a key paragraph in this book when I describe what I do as learning about the best obtainable words, and the truth in this paragraph comes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the realization that the Star and reporting were a refuge for me from the discomfort I felt in ideology. My parents, even though they were left-wing people, my father actually detested ideology. He would call people in the party, for instance, "trolley car guys," because they followed a line.

Remember, the Star was the conservative paper in Washington. The Post was the liberal paper. My father got me an interview at the Star because his union was the United Public Workers of America, the government workers' union, and the Star had covered a strike by his union with great fairness. The Post had a government columnist who was a red-baiter, and covered the strike looking for subversion, rather than covering the fact that government workers at government cafeterias and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing couldn't get a dollar an hour.

So my father got me an interview at the conservative Washington Star, which — in those days, the joy we took in beating the Washington Post and being a better newspaper was part of the esprit of the newsroom. We were a better paper than the Post partly because the line between church and state, between opinion and reporting, was absolute at the Star. It was not at the Washington Post, until Ben Bradlee got there and said, "Enough of this. We're here to report the news." Does that part stay in the interview, I hope?

Of course it does. That's a great story.

Maybe you think you just dreamed Mike Lindell and Lauren Boebert: You didn't -- and they were the fun parts of 2021

This long, long year began with high hopes that it would be better than the tumultuous election year of 2020, which also saw a summer of hopeful but traumatic protests and the onset of the most significant global pandemic in a century. We awaited the arrival of a new president, believing — oh, so innocently! It hurts to remember — that politics might become "normal" again. The idea that American life could be boring in 2021 was seen as a positive, am I right?

Well, so much for that. Was this year exhausting, soul-draining, mind-boggling and sometimes terrifying? I'd check all those boxes. But boring? Not so much. Five days into the year, Democrats won an unexpected double victory in the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, giving them a tenuous congressional majority after the puzzling and disappointing election results of November 2020. But you may recall what happened the day after that, on the 6th of January, when a joint session of Congress was to certify the electoral votes and declare Joe Biden the next president. It was a formality! Sometimes the opposition party squawks about it — as Democrats had done in 2001 and 2005 — but the business gets done and the country moves on. That's just how it is!

OK, so much for that too. It seems unnecessary to point out that that day — and its as-yet-unfinished aftermath — was the biggest news story of the year. And then things really got weird. We began to realize, gradually and uncertainly, that the Philip K. Dick alternate-universe dream state of the Trump years wasn't done with us yet. It was like Neo realizing that what he takes to be the real world is still inside the Matrix — or, more to the point, it was like when the characters in a "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequel realize they're still asleep and there's no escape from the guy with the long spiky fingers.

Whether all the stuff that happened in 2021 really happened is perhaps a question for cosmologists and philosophers to dwell on in the years ahead (assuming there are any). What I can tell you is that the biggest stories in Salon's News & Politics vertical in 2021 focused on an extraordinary array of dubious characters, most of them newly arrived on the national scene, or at least new to the national spotlight. The good news is that most of our widely-read stories didn't focus directly on that guy who finally evacuated the White House last Jan. 20. But they certainly reflected his radioactive glow.

To cite the obvious examples, in 2020 Mike Lindell was still a guy who sold pillows on cable TV; Lauren Boebert was an internet conspiracy theorist, viewed as a joke even within the already-delusional Republican Party; and Joe Manchin was an obscure senator from an obscure state, arguably the last living specimen of the genus "conservative Democrat," an important power bloc in Washington as recently as my 1970s childhood. I'm willing to bet you've heard more about those three people in the last year than in your entire life up till then (and quite possibly a lot more than you wanted to).

But that's not our starting point! Let's take these in chronological order.

Sen. Tom Cotton campaigned on his "experience as an Army Ranger" — but he didn't have any

Barely two weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Salon investigative reporter Roger Sollenberger (since departed, and we miss him!) performed something of a demolition job on the reputation of Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who had positioned himself as a potential 2024 candidate and Trump heir by literally calling for the military to put down the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 — with lethal force, if necessary. Roger simply noticed a fact that was already in the public record, but had been politely ignored: Cotton had built his political career on his military record, and specifically on the oft-repeated claim that he had served as "a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan." Which simply wasn't true: Cotton had attended Ranger school, which allowed him to put a nifty little pin on his uniform, but "was never part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the elite unit that plans and conducts joint special military operations as part of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command." The Cotton '24 campaign seems to have stalled out since then.

The entire Trump campaign was a scam — and it is not over

Our only really big Donald Trump story of the year — you remember him! — was a commentary by long-running Salon columnist Heather Digby Parton, based on a New York Times report revealing exactly how much of a shameless, unscrupulous grift the 2020 Trump campaign had been. As Heather observed, the campaign seemed to run on the same principles as "Trump University," the multi-level seminar scam that wound up costing its notoriously cheap namesake a $25 million settlement:

[T]he campaign and its online fundraising platform WinRed hustled its most loyal supporters out of tens of millions of dollars with deceptive donation links on their emails and websites. It's unknown to this day how many people unknowingly signed up for weekly recurring donations and "money bombs" (agreements to donate a lump sum on a future date), but there were so many requests for refunds that at one point, 1-3% of all credit card complaints in the U.S. were about WinRed charges. … The sheer number of refunds to Trump donors amounted to a huge no-interest (and profitable for WinRed) loan to the campaign … [and] Trump's post-election "Stop the Steal" fundraising at least partially went to pay off those "loans" from the campaign, making the whole scheme very Ponzi-esque.

Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

It's always gratifying, as an editor, when you publish a story you know is important but you suspect very few people will read — and you're totally wrong. That happened in June, when Salon contributor Phil Torres, an academic philosopher who writes for us a few times a year, made his decisive rift with the "New Atheism" movement associated with intellectual luminaries like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Phil was once a true unbeliever, you might say, and wrote that when New Atheism emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as a counterweight to fundamentalism of all sorts, it

appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what's right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

His conclusion 15 or so years later was very different:

What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized.

Joe Manchin's "highly suspicious" reversal on voting bill follows donation from corporate lobby

Only days later, the gentleman from West Virginia made his first prominent appearance of 2021 in our digital pages. That came with Igor Derysh's report on the striking connection between Joe Manchin's flip-flop on the For the People Act — the voting-rights package passed by the House — and the sudden inflow of political donations to Manchin from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bill. This was long before we understood what a central role Manchin would play in torpedoing Joe Biden's presidency and rendering the Democratic majority useless, but the writing was on the wall.

As Igor wrote, Manchin was literally a co-sponsor of For the People when it was first proposed during the Trump presidency, but for reasons he has never adequately explained, changed his mind when it came to the prospect of actually passing the bill. Manchin's op-ed announcing his opposition "echoed the Chamber's talking points" and came shortly after the pro-business lobby "which has launched an expensive lobbying effort against the bill, resumed donations to Manchin's campaign for the first time since 2012. Reuters described this flow of corporate dollars as a 'reward' for Manchin's opposition to numerous Biden administration's initiatives, as well as his stalwart support for the filibuster, which has almost certainly doomed the For the People Act."

DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state

With Tom Cotton consigned to political oblivion and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri too deeply implicated (if that's even possible) in the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis became the leading alterna-Trump in Republican politics. (Whether DeSantis' master will allow him to run for president all on his own remains to be seen.) Salon's Brett Bachman was among the first journalists to notice perhaps the weirdest trick of DeSantis' troll-like governorship: a legal requirement that students and faculty at Florida's public universities must register their "political opinions and viewpoints" on an official survey.

As Brett wrote at the time, this is "part of a long-running, nationwide right-wing push to promote 'intellectual diversity' on campuses" and appears to reflect Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson's accusation that the Sunshine State's public universities were "socialism factories," an odd claim about institutions far better known for football than for Marxist study groups. In his already-patented fashion, DeSantis offered no specific explanation for why such a law was necessary and tried to sound vaguely reasonable, saying only that he knew "a lot of parents" who were concerned "about their children being 'indoctrinated' on campus."

Why did Lauren Boebert lead a late-night Capitol tour three weeks before Jan. 6?

Salon reporter Zachary Petrizzo spent much of the year trying to untangle the puzzling personal, professional and political stories of Rep. Lauren Boebert, the newly-elected Colorado Republican with a passion for guns and a number of connections to QAnon, the MAGA movement and the conspiratorial far right. But of all Zach's essays in Boebert-ology, nothing went deeper than the intriguing tale of a late-night U.S. Capitol tour she took with several family members on Dec. 12, 2020 — which was the same day as the big "Stop the Steal" pro-Trump rally in Washington, and roughly three weeks before she was sworn in as a member of Congress.

That last part is what makes this tour an unsolved mystery:

There are several unanswered questions about this visit, which appears to have violated normal Capitol protocol in various ways. It's not clear who authorized it, since Boebert was not yet a member of Congress and had no official standing in D.C. It's perhaps even stranger that it occurred on a Saturday night, when the Capitol complex is closed. … It's true that Boebert was a member-elect at the time, but that's an important distinction: She certainly was not a sworn member of Congress and had no office, no staff and no official status in the Capitol complex. It's even more puzzling that this tour took place on Saturday night. The guidelines for member-led Capitol tours state they are only available on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The only conclusion to draw here — which we did not make in the context of a carefully reported news story — is that someone in the Trump administration (like, a very well-placed someone) gave one incoming member of Congress special access to the U.S. Capitol after hours. We still have questions! And they will never be answered.

Rudy Giuliani ridiculed after clip of him shaving in airport restaurant goes viral

Sometimes in journalism, you just have to give the people what they want. And sometimes what they want is a viral video of Rudy Giuliani, the former LifeLock spokesperson and mastermind of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference, shaving in a restaurant at JFK airport. As Salon's Jon Skolnik reported in August, the eating-while-shaving clip — amplified in mockery by comedian Michael Rapaport — was viewed more than a million times on Twitter within about three days.

Mike Lindell's meltdown begins: He recently sold a MyPillow plane to fund Dominion lawsuit

Zach Petrizzo's other principal beat of 2021, as no regular reader of Salon can possibly have missed, was his on-again, off-again bromance with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the man who has brought restful sleep to millions and who spent much of the year vowing he would somehow bring Donald Trump back to the White House. I haven't tried to count the number of stories Zach wrote about Lindell; it feels like one of those hypothetical numbers mathematicians theorize about but cannot precisely calculate.

Lindell's various deadlines for "reinstating" Trump to the presidency — a thing that cannot in fact be done, we shall remind you — have all come and gone with the goal nowhere in sight. But the acme or nadir of Lindell news came when Zach and Jon Skolnik worked together on a report that the pillow guy had been forced to sell one of his private planes to raise money to defend himself against the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems.

Leading up to Lindell's August "cyber symposium" in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was intended to prove his extravagant claims about the 2020 election (but clearly did not do so) the plane registered to MyPillow was used in a number of Lindell's schemes, including his alleged efforts to transport and conceal Dominion and Smartmatic voting machines at various locations across the country. (No such machines materialized at his Sioux Falls event, despite many promises that they would.) … Asked whether he had sold an airplane to raise money, Lindell called one Salon reporter "flying pond scum" and "slime."

(I don't actually know whether that was Jon or Zach.)

Black flag: Understanding the Trumpists' latest threatening symbol

Sometimes in journalism you try to answer the questions everyone is asking — and sometimes you answer the questions no one has even thought to ask. Such as: What's the deal with the MAGA people and the all-black U.S. flags, which are barely recognizable as flags at all and are exceptionally unlikely to be linked to Black Lives Matter (at least in any positive way). Salon senior writer Chauncey DeVega, always attentive to the symbology of the scariest corners of the far right, was on the case in October:

Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, "socialist liberals," Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be "enemies" of "real America."

Salon could find no historical evidence for the MAGA World claim that black flags were used by the Confederates in the Civil War to signify "no quarter" against Union soldiers, but it appears that Trump followers, the "patriot" movement and other neofascist types believe it. Which isn't great.

Democrats hit the panic button. Is it too little too late for Joe Biden?

A few days after that story ran, columnist Amanda Marcotte captured the mood shift so many of Salon's readers were experiencing as the nation moved into fall: The pandemic wasn't over (and we didn't even know about omicron yet), Biden's agenda was going nowhere, the 2022 midterms were looking bleak and the Republican campaign to undermine or overthrow democracy was gaining speed. In other words, "normal" and "boring" were not happening — and not likely to, anytime soon:

President Joe Biden's economic agenda is stuck in the mud, supported by 96% of Democrats in the Senate yet blocked by two senators whose massive egos and lobbyist addictions are causing them to turn against the party. Biden failed to enact vaccine mandates early enough or broadly enough so now millions of Fox News-addled Americans still are resisting vaccines, prolonging the pandemic and contributing to the national sense of despair. On top of that, Donald Trump has faced no real consequences for his attempted coup while the various criminal apparatchiks he surrounds himself with are also walking around happy and free. So efforts to stop the next coup are moribund, hitting the wall of Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who love that lobbyist-pleasing filibuster more than they love democracy. … No wonder voters are so depressed. A party that refuses to listen to voters is frustrating, but so is a party that hears them but still can't do anything about it. Either way, it may not feel to many worth the effort to even vote.

I'm sorry to leave you on a bummer as we head into another year, the traditional season of renewed hope. But the premise of our business, which isn't always pleasant, is to tell the truth as we understand it, not to tell people what we think they want to hear. You can't create change or create a more hopeful future without facing reality — and political reality right now, in the United States of America, is kind of harsh. Find love and joy where you can, cherish your moments with friends and family as we turn the page to the New Year. Gather what strength you can. We're going to need it.

Democracy vs. fascism: What do those words mean — and do they describe this moment?

There's considerable talk about "democracy" and "fascism" these days, as the poles between which our society is supposedly suspended. But what do those words actually mean? If we admit, as I think we must, that in both cases what it says on the box is not exactly what's inside — that those are approximations or generalizations or terms of art — do they really help us understand the reality of this dark and puzzling historical moment, or are they just getting in the way?

This article first appeared in Salon.

Joan Didion would have tried to ask those questions, and to answer them. We should all lament that she will not wage that struggle, in full awareness that we might not have enjoyed the results. Didion understood, above all, that imprecision of language reveals imprecision of thought, and that the failure to "observe the observable" — her famous dictum for journalists — leads reporters and writers away from a genuine effort to tell the truth (however conditional and uncomfortable that may be) and into the self-flattering realms of fantasy, propaganda and myth.

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Which is where we are, I'm afraid, with "democracy" versus "fascism." The democracy that Americans have been taught to venerate, and that many of us now seek to defend, is a limited and specific historical phenomenon, which has been on a downward trajectory of slow decay and creeping paralysis for at least 30 years. One core problem that the Democratic Party and many people in the political and media castes have been unwilling to confront directly is that defending institutions that patently do not work is a position of pathetic weakness, not to mention near-certain defeat.

As for the homegrown authoritarian movement some of us designate as fascism, it is rather like an opportunistic infection. The Trumpist insurgency did not cause the crisis of democratic legitimacy, and could not have taken hold or spread so rapidly in an actually functioning democracy. While it certainly bears some hallmarks of classic 20th-century fascism — hazy notions of racial, tribal or religious purity, and a fantasy of a lost golden age — it lacks many others, and in any case Hitler and Mussolini did not invent those phenomena. This particular populist uprising is both something new in American politics — in that sense a telltale sign of a world power in terminal decline — and something very old, the residue of deeper conflicts that long predate the concepts of democracy and fascism, or for that matter America.

It was Joan Didion who told us — decades ago, in essays so far ahead of their time they were understood as flights of literary fancy — that it was more accurate to say that politics was a subset of show business than the other way around, and that American political conventions had become scripted spectacles of pseudo-democracy, formally and structurally akin to the sham elections held in the Soviet Union. She made those observations while covering the presidential campaign — in 1988.

Didion never wrote anything about Donald Trump and his so-called movement, so I won't presume to know what she thought. Her declining health in recent years was only part of the reason; according to her nephew, the filmmaker Griffin Dunne, who directed the 2017 Netflix documentary "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold," she simply didn't find Trump all that interesting:

I haven't talked to her in great detail about this, but I think that someone like Trump is just a less interesting figure for her to weigh in on because there's really no subtext. He's so impulsive and everything comes out of his forehead; what she specialized in, when writing about politics, was the message that politicians were trying to send and what the message really was. There's no there, there with Trump, and he's not even consistent.

Every remotely honest journalist, and a great many civilians as well, can relate to that: The absence of subtext, of coded or hidden meanings, is exactly what made the Trump presidency so addictive and/or so infuriating, depending on your perspective, and why he remains the focus of media fascination nearly a year after leaving the White House. (This is hardly a trade secret, but even on Salon stories about Trump tend to attract more readers than stories about Joe Biden, and that's clearly not based on political preferences.)

But seeking to decode the supposed binary (or perhaps the dialectic) of "democracy" versus "fascism," in hopes of uncovering what those terms conceal or what they reveal, is unmistakably a Didion-like project. What we call "democracy," in the context of the Trump movement's efforts to overthrow it, is structured by antiquated representational rules, an ungainly federal system and an entrenched partisan duopoly, which in practice have led to increasingly undemocratic or anti-democratic outcomes.

In the interests of observing the observable, I am compelled to point out that roughly half the American population — overwhelmingly among the poor and the working class — typically does not vote, and most of those people either view the political system with cynical detachment or ignore it altogether.

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None of the dogmas shared by liberals infuriates me quite as much as the sanctimonious tendency to blame non-voters for Democratic defeats. This is inevitably framed in terms of an imaginary cadre of white middle-class radicals who were too puritanical to vote for Hillary Clinton or Al Gore (or whomever) but ought to have known better. To the extent that group exists, it is inconsequential, whereas the set of lower-income and poor people who never vote — which crosses all possible racial and regional boundaries — is enormous, and to a large extent constitutes the defining characteristic of American "democracy." Hand-wringing liberals are notably reluctant to discuss that latter group: It would be politically unsavory to blame those people for abstaining, but unacceptable to admit that their refusal to participate in a system that does not represent them is not irrational.

To use the Marxist term — something Joan Didion would likely never have done — our system is a "bourgeois democracy," now facing its inevitable moment of crisis. That is a descriptive term, not an insult: A bourgeois democracy is structured around the primacy of property rights, a "free market" and individual freedoms, all concepts that effectively did not exist before the 18th-century Enlightenment. In the classic Marxist analysis, Democrats and Republicans represent the interests of competing factions within the property-owning middle and upper classes. In the larger context of American political history, that's far too simplistic. But in terms of the last half-century or so, and how we got where we are today, it's also not blatantly wrong.

Another, somewhat subtler article of liberal or progressive dogma — and a far more convincing one, until very recently — is that if poor people were to vote in much greater numbers, Democrats would win every election and Republicans would be forced to face radical change or political doom. That dogma may still be correct in a larger sense; it certainly hasn't been systematically tested. But the great surprise of the 2020 election (echoed on a smaller scale in the 2021 off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey) was that dramatically higher turnout did not produce a Democratic landslide, but rather a far more muddled political landscape. Joe Biden's victory was much tighter than polls suggested; Democrats expected to win seats in the House but wound up losing 13 — and only "won" a 50-50 Senate (I would argue) thanks to Donald Trump's petulant pot-stirring in the Georgia runoff elections.

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Returning once again to the doctrine of observing the observable, this offers us important clues about two different but closely related phenomena: the current state of the Democratic Party, and the class character of the Trump insurgency. There's a great deal of discussion about the former topic, but the latter has become virtually untouchable (at least on the liberal-progressive "left"), for much the same reason that the non-voting population is viewed as an implacable, undiscussable feature of the landscape. Both questions, if examined too closely, threaten not just to undermine the supposed stability of the supposed democratic system, but to reveal that the stories we tell ourselves about how that democracy works, and even about how it could be improved, are not true.

It is true, of course, that an exclusive or primary focus on class in American politics has sometimes been used to demote or defer the importance of racism and white supremacy. The cadre of mainstream journalists who staged anthropological interventions in heartland diners after the 2016 election, and came away with tales of "economic anxiety" among the white working class, were justly derided for both cluelessness and condescension. Race and class have never been independent variables in American history, or at least not since the early 17th century. There is no way to consider one without the other; the friction and interaction between them, to a significant extent, is the story of American history.

RELATED: Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

It does not follow that in order to correct for racism we must abandon all considerations of class, although that question has provoked a useless and destructive internal debate within the Democratic Party. It certainly doesn't follow that the role of class conflict in history is irrelevant to understanding the (blatantly racist) MAGA movement, which cannot strictly be defined in terms of its present-tense socioeconomic status or its irrational and alarming beliefs.

In my next article on the vexed relationship between "democracy" and "fascism," I will approach that third-rail issue in American politics, and propose that the class character of the Trump rebellion is baked in more deeply than we can readily perceive. On one hand, we do indeed confront a predominantly white and predominantly rural subset of the working class that has abandoned what we now call "liberalism" (or been abandoned by it). On the other, we confront an entrenched pattern that goes back well beyond the invention of such terms, to the very beginnings of capitalism, when the "peasants" were likely to side with monarchs and aristocrats against the bourgeois revolutionaries who offered them a new vision of "freedom," which they concluded (with some justice) was a trick.

Democrats and the dark road ahead: There's hope — if we look past 2022 (and maybe 2024 too)

Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen the Democratic Party at its worst and, approximately, at its best — or at least the best it's capable of at the moment. But here's the problem: No version of the current Democratic Party seems remotely prepared for its date with destiny, as the only electoral force standing in the way of a Republican congressional majority in 2022 and a triumphant resurgence of Trump-style discount-store fascism in 2024 (whether or not Donald Trump is personally involved).

This leads us, I think, toward, an inescapable conclusion, but one the left-liberal-progressive quadrant of the electorate is largely unwilling to face. Let me set up my defenses first: I'm not advocating fatalism or passivity. If you're deeply invested in firewalling the Democratic majority in 2022, and plan to sink your time, money, energy and some percentage of your soul into the Senate race in Ohio or North Carolina or Pennsylvania, or any of the two or three dozen House races that could go either way, have at it. Action is always preferable to inaction. Of course it's possible that Democrats could beat the odds, defy both the laws of political physics and the relentless grind of Republican redistricting and hold onto one or both houses of Congress. It could happen!

But, y'know, don't bet the grandkids' college fund on that or anything. My point is that those who are committed to the redemption, restoration or fulfillment of America's "multiracial democracy" (as Salon's Chauncey DeVega often puts it) need to take a longer view. Politics and history will not suddenly come to an end if (or when) Kevin McCarthy — who is, yes, a repulsive and craven idiot — becomes speaker of the House in January of 2023. Indeed, I think it's possible that a new kind of politics will be necessary after that. While we're there, we might also need to consider the still darker possibilities that may arrive after that, which will also not cause the sun to drip blood or the Four Horsemen to emerge from a smoldering cleft in the earth … you can guess where I'm going. Yeah, him: The Great Pumpkin. But before we indulge, let's consider where we are.

I probably don't need to go over the painful evidence of recent days, but let's summarize. After the supposedly unexpected (but honestly completely predictable) victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race — and the actually unexpected near-political-death experience of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (a center-left darling of the moment), against a GOP nonentity with no discernible agenda and a spell-check-defying surname — we entered the ritual period of Democratic gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, as prescribed by scripture.

Democrats had supposedly gotten too woke, too radical, too defund-the-police, too obsessed with niche racial or social justice issues that alienated "ordinary Americans," a term of art used in different ways by different members of the media and political castes, but always to mean people we regard as earnest and honorable, but unfortunately not that bright. This was a particularly hilarious charge to fling at Terry McAuliffe, the Virginia loser, who appears to be (and may actually be) an automaton assembled at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and whose entire campaign was structured around the indisputable fact that however much of a lifeless Clintonite retread he might be, he wasn't Donald Trump.

But the fact that the indictment was prima facie ludicrous was obviously beside the point. As a subsequent New York Times editorial written in baffling doublespeak appeared to argue, McAuliffe had somehow been contaminated by all the wild-eyed tax-and-spend radicalism of "progressives" in Congress, with their ridiculous SJW demands for — um, well, for child care benefits and parental leave policies and universal pre-K and lower drug prices for seniors and other stuff that is massively popular across the political spectrum.

See, the Democrats' current dilemma is not entirely or exactly or even mostly about the supposed Bernie vs. Hillary ideological and generational conflict that has created so much internal discord over the past five or six years. Here's why: The so-called moderates within the party no longer have any clear policies or principles to defend, beyond the Reagan-era reflex that if we scare the normies too much, we'll lose. (Translation: If we talk about race and racism too much — or actually at all — we'll alienate middle-income and lower-income white people in the suburbs and rural areas. Who, admittedly, already hate our guts — but we're sad about that.)

They used to have real positions! Let's be clear about that: Once upon a time, centrist Democrats were for free-trade agreements and the unregulated flow of finance capital and defunding the welfare state and fiscal austerity and "muscular" foreign policy, along with — let's be fair! — expanded civil rights and economic opportunities for women, Black people, LGBTQ folk and other marginalized groups. Some of this was just cynical or tactical politics, an effort to defang or outflank Republican attacks, but some of it was entirely authentic: The era of big government is over, the information economy is here, entrepreneurship is the social movement of the future, a rising tide lifts all boats — and yes, sorry, I'll stop now before you need to vomit again.

I'm pretty sure there are still Democrats out in the wild — Kamala Harris, possibly; Pete Buttigieg, definitely — who subscribe to some semi-updated version of that 1992 "New Democrat" wisdom. But after the Great Recession and the gradually accumulating bummer of the Obama presidency and the noxious collective brain-fart of the Trump regime and the last two years of a goddamn pandemic that has probably already killed a million Americans (and unquestionably will before it's over), the stern but benevolent turning-you-down-for-a-loan act just doesn't fly anymore. Well, except for the "muscular" foreign policy that both parties pursue without question, but doesn't much interest folks out here in internet-land, the puzzling and humiliating quadrillion-dollar Afghanistan fiasco aside.

Joe Biden, the oldest person ever elected president, has figured most of this out, perhaps because he's been around so damn long he never fully bought into any particular version of Democratic orthodoxy. But way too many of the "moderate" Democrats of 2021 have become like the Soviet apparatchiks of the 1980s, muttering the bromides they think may allow them to hold onto power, but depressingly aware that it's all kind of a con and nobody outside their crumbling palace even pretends to believe anymore.

At least Joe Manchin is both blatantly corrupt and trapped in his own Depression-bootstrap fantasy of the past, the last living specimen of the "conservative Democrats" who were a major power bloc well into my 1970s childhood. And at least Kyrsten Sinema is flamboyantly and performatively corrupt, the out bisexual Gen X senator with the deliberately mismatched outfits of the sort fashion magazines used to call "kicky," inhaling whopping sums from Big Pharma and voting down a minimum-wage increase on her way to the They Might Be Giants reunion concert. (If they ever officially broke up; I'm not sure, but I bet the gentlelady from Arizona knows.)

You have to respect and even admire them, in a way. No, wait: I don't mean that at all. You don't. But at least they know what they stand for, which is "this is how the world works, suckas," or to quote the final line of a great and anguished film, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." A whole lot of other Democrats are hopelessly pinioned between the corporate donor class they have lovingly cultivated and the increasingly restless "progressive base," and must also reckon with the fact that in our deeply undemocratic system their fragile majority literally rides on a few thousand randos in exurban "swing districts" and "purple states," who are entirely likely to vote based on the price of gas or whether the Amazon guy was a dick or some half-processed fragment of COVID misinformation. In that context, "Oh shit, let's not spend all this money" becomes an understandable response, although not an admirable or defensible one.

So my point is not that Democrats can save themselves by waving the red flag and embracing the most fulsome version of the Bernie-AOC agenda. There's something to be said for that, along the lines of the old proverb that tells us it's better to be hanged as a thief than a beggar. (Even setting aside the fact that most of the stuff in that agenda would be amazing.) But nobody can possibly know whether that would work in electoral terms, and it's not going to happen anyway.

My point, in fact, is that the current version of the Democratic Party is screwed six ways from Sunday, partly due to structural factors beyond its control and partly due to its own haplessness, incompetence and corruption. I don't know what will happen in 2022 — except, sorry, yes I do and so do you. Fight against a Republican majority all you want, but also be prepared for the likely outcome, which will be grim and unpleasant at every level but will also create new opportunities for struggle, and perhaps a necessary confrontation with reality.

I really and truly don't know what will happen in 2024, because there's a lot of terrain to traverse before we get there. Joe Biden, if he runs again, will have the built-in advantage of incumbency, and there's no reason to believe that every single tendency of political reality has been reversed just because You Know Who won that election that one time. But we might as well face it: It's definitely within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump returns to power, either in his own skin or by way of some mini- or micro-Trump, running as his minion or puppet but yearning to break free. It could happen through "legitimate" means, thanks to the absurd and antiquated Electoral College, or through flat-out fraud and quasi-constitutional legislative override and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, which hasn't happened since the white-dudes-with-beards era of the 19th century.

Yeah, that could definitely happen, and it would be bad news. Will it mean the end of democracy forever and the inauguration of a Thousand-Year Reich ruled for all time by a gaggle of white supremacist douchebags? No, of course not. Will it suck? Yes. Will it suck worst of all for people who don't have all the unexamined privileges of someone like me? Yes. But to pretend that the deeply offensive and moronic (and evil) prospect of a Trump 2.0 regime will mean the end of history and the end of politics and "a boot stamping on a human face forever" is insulting and untrue. Why do we think we're special? In almost every European nation, not to mention the nations of the developing world, there are living people who have survived periods of fascistic or autocratic rule and come out the other side. Millions of people live under such regimes right now. It might just be our time to get schooled by history.

As for the Democrats: There's hope! It's long past time for progressives or liberals or even (hypothetically) moderates to rebuild the party from the ground up. That's what happened in the Republican Party during and after the Reagan era, which is why a party that only represents white people outside metropolitan areas, and holds an incoherent assortment of extremist views, has veto power over our entire political system. It's finally starting to happen on the Democratic side too, and if there's a way to redeem American democracy, and renew our poisoned and paralytic two-party system, that will begin at school boards and city councils and boards of supervisors and other unglamorous instruments of local government.

For at least the past 30 years, the Democratic Party has exclusively played defense, trying to win presidential elections and carve out legislative majorities and then govern from above, hoping against hope that the combination of gradual demographic change and incremental policy adjustments could change the political culture and turn back the rising right-wing tide. We're normal and reasonably competent and mostly well-intentioned, Democrats announced, to the delight of the vanishingly small proportion of the public who view politics in rational and unemotional terms. To say that it hasn't worked would be, quite literally, the understatement of the century.

You don't have to agree with Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the other prominent progressives within the Democratic coalition about anything at all to appreciate that they have shifted the party's internal paradigm. Beneath the media narrative of Democratic defeat and despair in the off-year elections just concluded, there were dozens of progressive victories in local elections, and a degree of grassroots energy not seen since the 1970s.

Does that mean that democratic socialism or ultra-woke intersectionality or some iteration of a "race-class narrative" is the path forward? That's exactly what's up for grabs; nobody knows. If you think you have a role to play, get in on the action now. Will progressives and Democrats and Americans have to go through a really, really dark patch in the years ahead in order to reach those answers — a period of real danger and possible violence and almost certain trauma, which will require courage and patience and sacrifice, and whose ending is uncertain? If you've read this far, you know what I think. Draw your own conclusions.

Let's face it: Mitch McConnell has the Democrats trapped

We've got a fair number of repentant former Republicans roaming loose on the political landscape these days. They like to tell us that the onetime Party of Lincoln must be thoroughly defeated and destroyed before it can be rebuilt as a respectable, mainstream center-right organization. That's an encouraging team-building exercise, I guess — if we set aside everything about observable reality and play an extended game of Let's Pretend We're Grownups, like a bunch of eight-year-olds trying on Mom and Dad's Clinton-era wardrobe.

Even looking past the question of whether the reconstructed GOP 2.0 these folks imagine would be remotely viable (as to which: ha!), we still have the question of who's going to defeat the exceptionally nasty current version of the Republican Party, and how. These GOP apostates, it's worth noting, were totally OK with cutting taxes for the rich and running up massive deficits on endless, pointless, destructive overseas wars. They find themselves deeply shocked, however, by the party's swerve into overt racism, know-nothingism and borderline fascism, elements of the Republican coalition they believed could be kept in the basement indefinitely.

This call to arms by ex-Reaganites is presumably meant to fire up Democrats, who have been told repeatedly over the past 30 years or more that America's changing demographics were certain to deliver them a permanent majority coalition someday very, very soon. In this less-than-inspiring vision of utopia, benevolent intersectional liberals would govern wisely and forever, while Republicans would be consigned to regional, resentful rump-party status until and unless they gradually became a lot more like Democrats.

As you may have noticed, this keeps on not happening, and at this point the "emerging Democratic majority" is starting to sound like old-time Soviet dogma about true communism being just over the horizon. Yes, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections — while managing to lose two of those anyway — but for a variety of reasons I don't need to rehearse here have found it impossible to hold or build congressional majorities, or to do much of anything with them when they have them.

More important than any of that, although absolutely related, is how Democrats have responded to the obvious Republican assault on democracy over the last couple of years, in the manner of a truckload of Brookings Institution scholars stuck in cold molasses, determined to consider all sides of the question fairly and not to let anyone accuse them of acting hastily. I'm not suggesting that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer haven't expressed genuine alarm or said more or less the right things, because they have. But as you have perhaps observed, they haven't leveraged those words into action: They haven't ditched the filibuster or expanded the Supreme Court or passed any of the bills in front of them that are meant to fortify the right to vote, for the love of Jesus Christ.

This isn't a nice thing to say about a bunch of mostly sane and approximately reasonable people, but here's the truth: If you set out to design a left-center political party that was fated to surrender, little by little, to authoritarianism — because of circumstances beyond its control, because of internal indecision and ideological fuzziness, because it faced an entrenched and deranged opposition party, because of whatever — you could hardly do better than the current version of the Democratic Party.

This raises the question of whether the Republicans are the only party that needs to be badly defeated in order to recover a sense of purpose. Don't get me wrong here: It would be far preferable if the Democrats could work out how to win power and then use it effectively. I'm not advocating voting against them out of some contrarian or puritanical impulse, and I'm not even dragging out the old Bernie vs. Hillary generational and ideological conflict for another go-round. (Of course that remains an important source of friction, but it's genuinely not the central issue right now.)

If the current mishmash that is the Democratic Party simply isn't up to the task, if it's imprisoned by its donors and trapped in an old political paradigm while facing the birth of a new one, if it can't summon up the energy or determination to act decisively on behalf of supposedly shared principles, then what the hell is the point? Maybe they're the party that needs to be torn down and rebuilt, especially since the other one is an entirely lost cause.

Consider 2021 — yeah, I know you don't want to, but we don't have much choice. After the election of Joe Biden and the improbable reverse parlay of winning both Senate seats in Georgia — almost entirely thanks to the chaos-agent intervention of Donald J. Trump — liberals and progressives and normies of all descriptions exhaled audibly. We were back to "normal"! The nightmare had passed! Maybe the long-awaited Democratic majority had arrived at last, if only in ass-backward and highly precarious fashion … except nope, nobody believed that for more than a few minutes, considering that the day after the special elections in Georgia was the sixth of January.

I'm not saying that Mitch McConnell wanted to lose the Senate majority (I bet he had some choice words about Trump in private), but no one has ever accused Mitch of not knowing how to play the angles. He quickly understood how to turn the ambiguous results of 2020 to his advantage, and they were undeniably ambiguous: Democrats breezed into that election expecting big wins across the board, but instead lost most of their House majority and fell short in several prominent Senate races, failing to gain seats in Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

While regular people celebrated a victory and the supposed end of the Trump era, Democratic leaders and insiders looked ahead to the 2022 midterms and began to whimper uncontrollably. McConnell could smell the fear, to put it bluntly, and rubbed his hands with Montgomery Burns-like glee. With a 50-50 Senate and Biden's entire legislative agenda hamstrung by the filibuster and the nonsensical or corrupt Ringwraith fantasies of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, he had the Democrats trapped. They knew it and he knew it.

In a display of ruthlessness and cynicism that's impressive even by his standards, McConnell will force all 50 Democratic senators to vote on a budget and on raising the federal debt ceiling, which in quasi-normal times (and even under Trump) was done by bipartisan agreement. This will either force them to crumple and capitulate to whatever it is he wants (short version: more goodies for rich folks) or will create an invented wedge issue Mitch believes he can use to win back both houses of Congress next year. Republicans will pretend to run on fiscal responsibility but will actually run on a bunch of culture-war bullshit and promises to rig all future elections and unquestioned loyalty to a decrepit and defeated leader they all privately think is nuts. I'm sure looking forward to that, aren't you?

If Democrats lose conclusively to those people, then they deserve it. That's a dark path, perhaps darker than any of us wants to contemplate. But I think there's no avoiding this date with destiny, for the Democrats or the Trumpers or our entire so-called democratic experiment. If you see another one, light the way.

Beyond the crisis of democracy: Does anyone still believe in liberalism?

There's been considerable chatter over the past few years about the crisis of democracy — sometimes more clinically described as a "democratic recession" or "democratic deficit." And for good reason: When Donald Trump stripped the flesh off the American body politic, he revealed a disease that has become endemic throughout the so-called Western world.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Faith in the power and goodness of democratic self-governance, previously as unchallenged and ubiquitous as belief in God during the Middle Ages, has decayed into the empty, hopeful rituals of the Anglican Church. Even those who insist they still believe are clearly troubled: Supposedly democratic elections are too often won by overtly anti-democratic or authoritarian leaders, and too often result in governments that ignore what the public actually wants and pursue policies that blatantly favor the rich and powerful and make inequality worse. (As, in fairness, nearly all governments tend to do.)

But the important question is not whether this is happening — the answer is obvious — but why. Trump and Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte and all the other pseudo-democratic usurpers around the world didn't arise out of nothing. To suggest that they all simultaneously tapped into a current of know-nothing darkness and bigotry and moral weakness that has been there under the surface of society all along, like undiscovered crude oil, is not a remotely adequate historical or political explanation.

To see so many marginal democracies tumble into the abyss — and a great many well-established ones tiptoe right to the edge — suggests that something else is going on, a deeper pattern we aren't ready or willing to look at. That deeper pattern isn't just a crisis of democracy in the narrow sense, meaning a system or mechanism for selecting hypothetically representative leaders, because that itself is a symptom or symbol. It's about the failure of liberalism, which is an especially confusing word in the American context but in larger historical and philosophical terms describes the amorphous and often contradictory set of beliefs that supports democracy — and without which democracy becomes impossible or meaningless.

Liberalism, in that broader sense, has dominated an increasing proportion of the world since the early 20th century and virtually the whole planet since the end of the Cold War. It's a tradition that included (until very recently) both the conventional left and the conventional right in the United States and most other Western-style democratic nations. It's not so much a coherent philosophy as a basket of principles, many of which are frequently in conflict: Free trade and the primacy of the capitalist "free market," the expansion of civil rights and civil liberties, freedom of the press and artistic expression, universal equality before the law and a contested role for the state, which is sometimes highly interventionist and sometimes much more hands-off.

To put it mildly, there's been a lot of disagreement within the liberal tradition about which of those principles is most important. Old-school "classical liberals," for example, eventually became known as conservatives or libertarians, while the "new liberals" divided into camps most often described today as moderates and progressives. In the wake of World War II and then the Cold War, liberalism writ large began to imagine itself as the end stage of human history, promising a world — in the infamous (and false) words of Thomas Friedman — in which no two countries with McDonald's franchises would ever go to war.

But as two important recent books about the liberal tradition — Pankaj Mishra's "Bland Radicals" and Louis Menand's "The Free World" — argue in different ways, that confidence was hubristic, and liberalism had already undermined itself at its moment of apparent total victory. The most generous thing we can say is that liberalism sometimes delivered on some of its promises (and only to some people), but never came close to fulfilling all of them. As for the liberal tradition's willingness to accommodate heated internal debate, as well as to wrestle with its own errors and blind spots, that was seen (with some justice) as a defining virtue — and was also, from the beginning, a critical weakness.

Most of the invigorating essays in Mishra's collection revolve around the insight that the disastrous failures of liberal foreign policy — so vividly illustrated in Afghanistan over the last few weeks — cannot be understood as aberrations or even contradictions. From the beginning, the liberal promise of expansive civil rights and ever-increasing prosperity (for the citizens of liberal nations) relied on overseas imperialism and ruthless exploitation, what we might today call the outsourcing of inequality. Furthermore, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on other nations (who were understandably uncertain it was a good idea) — through coercion and bribery and outright force, if necessary — was built into the model all along, even if that became embarrassing in the 20th century and had to be described with euphemisms about "freedom" and "self-government."

Menand's book is a sprawling, ambitious study of Western (and mostly American) culture during the Cold War years — from the avant-garde to Elvis Presley, from academic literary criticism to "The Feminine Mystique" — which could fairly be described as the greatest accomplishment of the liberal era. One of the central threads running through his history is the way this amazing cultural explosion began to pull the postwar liberal consensus apart, such that by the end of the Vietnam War, most American writers, artists and intellectuals saw themselves as enemies (or at least critics) of the American state, especially in terms of its global-superpower role.

In other words, while the crisis of electoral democracy seems to have appeared suddenly in the Euro-American backyard over the last 5 to 10 years, like a nasty invasive weed — and is still viewed by many observers as an almost inexplicable phenomenon — the implosion of the liberal order has been a long time coming. It's hard to see that clearly through the ideological haze, given that the media and political classes in the U.S. and most other Western nations (outside the far right and far left) remain steeped in a post-World War II worldview where some version of liberalism — however much amended, repaired and clarified — is the natural, inevitable and desirable order of things.

If liberalism remains the only paradigm available to resist the rise of Trump-style autocracy, as generally seems to be the case, then we're in deep trouble, and the dread so many of us feel about the inexorable erosion of democracy is fully justified. Does anyone today — literally anyone — possess the kind of universalist, upward-trending faith in liberal progress that drove the mythology of John F. Kennedy's brief presidency or the moral clarity of the civil rights movement?

In bizarre, upside-down fashion, Donald Trump's entire "Make America Great Again" campaign can be understood as a half-conscious attempt to rekindle that kind of collective passion, if only as ghoulish racist parody — the liberal soul, transplanted to a fascist body. (Trump's most insane followers in the QAnon cult briefly convinced themselves that John F. Kennedy Jr. was still alive and would return as Trump's running mate or spirit animal or something.)

Only someone with a time machine could tell us whether it will be possible to redeem or renew the better aspects of the liberal tradition as a vibrant force against the rising tide of jingoism, tribalism and autocracy. What we can say right now is that every few years someone emerges on the world stage who is embraced by the media and political caste as the savior of liberalism — or, worse yet, as the "transformational figure" who will overcome political paralysis and division — and it never ends well. No doubt Bill Clinton and Tony Blair think it's profoundly unfair that they have been consigned to the dustbin of history just because they made catastrophic compromises with the forces of evil. Emmanuel Macron actually believed he could make friends with Donald Trump, and that hubris may also pave the way for the far right's return to power in France, for the first time since the Nazi occupation.

Let's consider the most famous example, whose lessons "liberal" Americans (in all senses of the word) have not yet begun to understand. In the United States we have told ourselves a more sophisticated version of the above-mentioned narrative about how the current of ignorance and darkness running beneath our society has endangered democracy. It possesses some historical plausibility and, almost by accident, is a little bit true. In that story, the election of Barack Obama — which seemed to inaugurate a new era in American history and to symbolize a fulfillment of America's democratic promise — triggered the benighted racists in flyover country so badly that they all flocked to the banner of a TV con man who ran for president on a platform of blatant white-supremacist fantasy.

There's something to that, as public opinion research makes clear: Overt racial hostility is the decisive marker between white people who voted for Trump and white people who didn't. But to view that as a linear, limited cause-and-effect equation is the most mechanical and ahistorical kind of pop psychology, not to mention massively condescending. Like nearly all political analysis in our perishing republic, it's focused on symbols and signifiers, and not at all on the actual substance of politics. Obama himself would surely tell you that if his presidency had been successful, it would not have provoked such intense antipathy among many working-class and middle-class white people in the heartland — groups among which he did reasonably well in the 2008 election.

Obama came to office hoping to put an end to the era of red-blue political division and change the terms of American public discourse. Even his extensive post-presidential fanbase doesn't talk about that too much now, because it makes his entire project sound hilarious and doomed, like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. His utter and complete failure to do those things — like all other failures of all other liberal politicians — usually gets blamed on Republican intransigence, entrenched public prejudice or his own lack of Beltway backroom negotiating prowess. (Or just on Joe Lieberman.)

Biographers and political historians will chew on those factors for decades, no doubt. But to suggest that if this or that tactical or strategic decision had been made differently the Obama presidency might have had a different outcome — and a less gruesome aftermath — is to deliberately miss the deeper and more uncomfortable lesson.

Barack Obama was the most charismatic and eloquent political leader most of us will ever see. He won a landslide election (over a widely respected conservative war hero) as the last great defender of liberalism. His presidency failed because he was the last great defender of liberalism — maybe, in retrospect, something like the Mikhail Gorbachev of liberalism —not because Mitch McConnell was mean to him or because Revolutionary War cosplayers terrorized members of Obama's party into pretending they didn't even know him. Or rather, all those things amount to the same thing: Obama believed he could make us believe in the promise of liberalism again, but he couldn't because we don't, and because none of these golden-boy savior-hero types can ever do that. He tried and we tried, and it was a nicer exercise in nostalgia than the one that came afterward. So at least there's that.

Is the Trump 'reinstatement' fanfic actually dangerous, or just hilarious? (Spoiler: Yes)

Mike Lindell, the Minnesota pillow entrepreneur and enthusiastic promoter of election-fraud conspiracy theories, appears to see himself as a crusader for truth and justice, undaunted by the scorn and mockery of those who refuse to take him seriously. (A category that encompasses nearly everyone in politics and the media, including many allies and supporters of Donald Trump.) Nothing about Lindell's performance seems insincere, which is one of the things that makes him stand out in a landscape of near-universal mendacity.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Lindell is probably the proximate source of the torrid fanfic fantasy that Donald Trump will somehow be returned to office in August, through some as-yet-unexplored method of undoing presidential elections because you really, really want to. (Lindell himself has already tried to kick this imaginary can down the road to September, but online true believers heard August, so August it is.) Trump reportedly likes the sound of this, and why wouldn't he? Then again, he also liked the idea of buying Greenland, setting off nuclear bombs inside hurricanes and injecting bleach to kill the coronavirus.

It's disheartening enough, to begin with, that this delusional scenario, evidently whispered into the morose ex-president's ear by a pillow salesman, has produced an entire wave of news stories about what Trump thinks and why he thinks it (an especially barren field of inquiry, suggestive of Nietzsche's maxim about staring into the abyss). I don't really know what term to apply to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who launched this idiotic meta-news cycle with a completely unsourced tweet about what Trump supposedly says or believes, but never deigned to write an actual article making this claim. "Bullshit" and "chickenshit" are two words that come to mind.

Now that various Trumpist ghouls, ranging from moonbat ex-general Michael Flynn to seemingly undead attorney Sidney Powell to the booze-addled wombat and self-professed Leninist known as Steve Bannon, have come out as maybe a little bicurious about an extra-constitutional August "reinstatement," we face a larger problem than the sheer stupidity and hopeless Trump addiction of the mainstream media. How seriously do we have to take this? Of course an August reinstatement is preposterous, but it also seemed preposterous that Trump and his allies would seriously try to block the pro forma certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6. Is this just standard-issue Trumpian wish-casting, or an actual attempt to incite or inspire another violent uprising?

I think the only clear answer is that, as usual in TrumpWorld, there is no clear answer: The August fantasy is both fanciful and hopeful, an impossible dream that just maybe can be filled with enough hot air to become a terrifying parade float IRL. How seriously you take the threat is largely a measure of how you evaluate what is being threatened, that being our so-called democracy, which even Joe Biden and the Democrats — after years of aggressively blithe denial — have lately been forced to acknowledge isn't working all that well.

One overlooked but important question that may shed light on this murky narrative is how and why the aforementioned Mike Lindell — who was literally 86'd from the White House in the latter days of the Trump regime, purportedly for proposing a coup attempt that was too extreme for chief of staff Mark Meadows and presidential counsel Pat Cipollone — has worked his way back toward the center of the Trumpian fantasy. On the most basic level, this isn't mysterious: The problem with Lindell, from the point of view of blatantly cynical right-wing operatives like Meadows and Cipollone, is precisely the sincerity and earnestness I mentioned above.

Mike Lindell is a mark. Indeed, he's a high-profile mark, a veritable whale, in one of the biggest con jobs in the long history of American right-wing grift. There's a sucker born every minute, P.T. Barnum supposedly said, but some of them are self-made. Inner-circle Trumpian wise guys like Meadows and Cipollone surely were not averse to staging a pseudo-legalistic coup to overturn the election (as the record makes increasingly clear), but they needed to keep it somewhat within the realm of we're-just-following-the-rules plausible deniability. More to the point, they weren't going to entrust any aspect of planning their coup to a guy from Mankato who got rich (and, honestly, not that rich) running a BOGO pillow scam on the internet, and who they knew for certain was the object of a sustained shakedown by people a lot like them.

Exactly how many millions of Lindell's bedding fortune have been siphoned off to Diamond & Silk, Dinesh D'Souza, "Sheriff" David Clarke and assorted other hustlers, hucksters and self-appointed geniuses from the cobwebbed sub-basement of the pundit-and-consultant class — all of them no doubt assuring him that his great moment of vindication is just over the horizon — is anyone's guess. But if the MyPillow Guy were the tragicomic protagonist of a satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis or Jonathan Franzen — or, let's say, a prestige Netflix series starring Joaquin Phoenix or Christian Bale — by this point in the narrative we'd understand that it wasn't going to end well.

As I observed in an earlier article about "Absolute Proof," his incoherent two-hour "docu-movie" or pseudo-news broadcast or whatever it is, Lindell's most telling delusion is the blithe salesman's confidence that sooner or later we'll all agree with him. He is alternately baffled and reproachful toward the media and the legal system, which have refused to engage with his elaborate and contradictory fables about the myriad ways the 2020 election was corrupted.

That state of affairs, Lindell appears to believe, cannot last. He lost his temper with Salon reporter Zachary Petrizzo last week, but in context that felt more like earned exasperation than outright bile: He cannot understand why Zach (and every other "terrible, horrible" non-OANN journalist who ever talks to him) will not report truthfully on this world-beating story of all time, which Mike himself cannot exactly explain in linear fashion, except to insist that the truth is out there.

Unlike the ex-president he venerates (and virtually everyone around him), Lindell strongly prefers the sunny side of the street. He does not live in a "post-truth" universe where reality is whatever the Leader says it is. He believes in the truth and knows he has seen glimpses of it, and is convinced that at the end of days it will set us all free. Ultimately, he is an optimist, even a utopian (terms that Donald Trump's best friend, if he had one, would never apply to him). That doesn't mean Lindell is not dangerous — quite the opposite, as the history of utopian dreams gone awry ought to make clear. But in politics it effectively renders him an outcast, not to mention an object of pity and scorn to the profoundly cynical Republican political class he is trying to infiltrate.

Consider Lindell's latest indecipherable video collage, published on his website Frank (the one that never quite became a social media platform), which is called "Absolutely 9-0." That refers to his oft-stated belief that once the right evidence is assembled in the right way (presumably by him), we'll all sheepishly admit that we've been had and the Supreme Court will vote unanimously to overturn the 2020 election and return Donald Trump to the White House.

Don't even bother protesting that there's no conceivable legal or constitutional way to accomplish that. As a counterargument, that's roughly equivalent to informing a Santa-believing eight-year-old that the physics of reindeer flight don't make sense. Just stop and ponder the math: Lindell believes, or claims to believe, that in the near future Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor (and of course the other six justices) will accept the inexorable logic of his arguments and vote to "reinstate" the Trump regime. There will be no more partisan division or mutual recrimination. The lion will lie down with the lamb and we who were so very, very wrong about so many things will be humbled and repentant. And generously forgiven, I suspect, in Mike Lindell's imagination.

The only conclusion I can reach here is that as Trump slips further into post-presidential isolation and weirdness — simultaneously the dominant figure in the Republican Party and Old Man Shouting at Cloud — and professional hard men like Meadows and Cipollone drift away to better-paying gigs, zealots and lunatics like Lindell and Michael Flynn (who are very different cases) have clawed their way closer to the exiled prince's throne.

The long-term effects of that mooncalf renaissance are impossible to gauge from here. Trump will not be returned to power in August, and any attempts to make that happen on the far-right fringe — although perhaps extremely unpleasant in the moment — will appear even more benighted and pathetic than Mike Lindell. But another seed has been planted, and whatever sprouts from it will serve to further justify the Republicans' widespread and more or less legal campaign to subvert, undermine and reshape electoral democracy to suit their needs. Trump himself may be rendered increasingly irrelevant, or may stage a comeback even more grotesque than his initial ascension to power. That question, at least arguably, is not all that important.

Either way we have arrived at the situation predicted by sociologist C. Wright Mills more than 60 years ago, when he wrote that "men and women of the mass society," now "driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern," would come to feel themselves "without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power." Mills concluded: "At the end of that road there is totalitarianism." That's the utopian endpoint Mike Lindell longs to wish into being.

MyPillow Mike Lindell's new Trump election fraud movie is an 'incoherent' and 'bizarre' mess

Trying to watch MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's "Absolute Proof," a two-hour "docu-movie" designed to convince its viewers of what they already believe — that Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 election was the result of a vast and incoherent conspiracy, or an overlapping set of conspiracies — reminded me of an experience I had once at the Cannes Film Festival. (That isn't a sentence I expected to find myself writing.)

This article first appeared in Salon.

At the premiere of Jean-Luc Godard's "Film Socialisme" some years ago, I found myself sitting next to a prominent British film critic I knew slightly. There's no saving seats for your friends at a Cannes premiere; everybody piles into the ginormous theater in a wild scrum, and you sit wherever you can. If you catch sight of someone you recognize, so much the better. Well, this was late at night and after the lights went down and Godard's hypnotic, non-narrative and deliberately baffling film began, my British acquaintance promptly went to sleep. As far as I could tell, he slept through nearly the entire movie — which is admittedly rough going — so I was especially impressed that he published a review of it the next day. Which was thoughtful and funny!

I didn't fall asleep during "Absolute Proof," I promise. But I'm not going to claim I watched all of it with keenly focused attention. It is simultaneously so bizarre, so boring and so amateurish — without form or depth or any variation in tone, and seemingly endless — that it becomes impossible for a viewer to follow the supposed arguments that Lindell and his interlocutors are making for more than a minute or two at a stretch.

Evidence would suggest that the decision to package "Absolute Proof" as something vaguely resembling a movie, at least in terms of running time, came after the fact. Lindell repeatedly refers to it as a "show" and sometimes as "today's show," and performs both his stream-of-consciousness monologues and rambling interviews from behind a news-anchor type desk bearing the mysterious logo of the "WVW Broadcast Network." (That appears to be a one-man Christian media outfit run by Brannon Howse, who is credited on Lindell's website as co-creator of "Absolute Proof," and should perhaps be considered its director.)

Arguably, "Absolute Proof" has more than a little in common with "Film Socialisme," political orientation aside: It resists all structural and narrative conventions, makes no effort to tell a clear story, contradicts itself and leaps from subject to subject, and could fairly be described as a meditation on what has gone awry in our society. There are jagged mid-interview edits, unexplained fadeouts, occasional surges of faintly troubling soundtrack music and interpolated video essays composed of stock footage: the blinking lights on a broadband modem, the U.S. Capitol at night (dramatic foreshadowing?), someone using an iPad, a stylized spinning globe.

I watched the film on Lindell's website — it hasn't been "censored," but no longer appears on major platforms like Facebook or YouTube, and even on the low-end right-wing cable channel OANN is shown only with a legal preamble essentially warning viewers that none of it is true — and was unable to prevent myself from toggling away sporadically to read email or look up what European soccer games were streaming later or search on Autotrader for cars I'm never going to buy. (I might like to imagine myself as the sort of person who would buy an ultimate Republican-dad car, like a Lincoln SUV, both out of some double-switchback ironic impulse and because I genuinely liked it. But I know I'm not.)

I think cars were on my mind because Lindell has the classic demeanor of a showroom salesman. I don't mean to be insulting. I'm not talking about the odious and slimy salesman who keeps interjecting your first name into his sentences and maneuvers you into buying something you don't want on egregious terms. Lindell is more like the guy who gradually wears you down with relentless Midwestern good cheer and a series of non-sequitur anecdotes until you sign up for the useless $500 service contract just to make it stop.

When Lindell calls out the mainstream media for refusing to pay attention to his grab bag of miscellaneous non-evidence about voter fraud — which is sometimes about small numbers of people in Nevada who allegedly voted when they shouldn't have, and sometimes about a communist coup involving the Chinese government, the FBI and (of course) Dominion Voting Systems — he doesn't get middle-school-girl pissy like Donald Trump or artificially hot under the collar like Ted Cruz. He mostly seems sad and disappointed, but still able to imagine an America where decent people do the right thing.

After chuckling about the fact that suddenly all the journalists who ignored him and treated him like a buffoon want to talk to him — "your CNN, your New York Times, your Worshington Post" — Lindell poses a rhetorical question to our entire profession: "Why dontcha become a real journalist and go, 'Wow,' and take this story and run with it?"

He's fond of the disappointed question, which now that I think of it resembles a sales tactic. ("Andrew, why wouldn't you go ahead and buy that Lincoln and do a good thing for your family? Is it really gonna be about the interest rate?") That's exactly the tone he strikes in a direct address to the former attorney general, lamenting his public announcement that there had been no significant election fraud: "Bill Barr, if you're watching — why would you say something like that?" A few minutes later, he makes a similar inquiry of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, again based on what we must consider the faulty assumption that she is riveted to the screen by this crackpot video hosted by a pillow salesman.

Let's pause here to acknowledge that, out in the real world, Mike Lindell tried to convince Trump to stage an actual, literal coup-d'état in the last days of his presidency, and was apparently 86'd from the White House by chief of staff Mark Meadows and presidential counsel Pat Cipollone, neither of whom is likely to go down in history as a hero of democracy. So, yes, I understand that Mr. MyPillow should be considered, in a certain light, as extremely dangerous.

I'm not arguing that he isn't. If anything, the fact that Lindell comes off on camera as a likable bumbler rather than a sanctimonious dickhead, that he is incapable of following a sentence from beginning to end in comprehensible fashion, and that it's impossible to tell how many of these fractured fairy tales of electoral misconduct he actually believes undoubtedly makes him more dangerous, rather than less. There's been a lot of speculation that maybe Republicans can achieve full-on American fascism by nominating a smarter, smoother and more competent version of Trump, but maybe that's looking at the problem the wrong way around. A dumber, nicer Trump could be a far more effective instrument. Mike Lindell would genuinely feel sorry about some of the things he'd have to do as America's dictator, and he'd want to make clear to us that, for gosh sakes, he didn't hate anyone.

There's no point in trying to detail or debunk the various conspiracy theories floated in "Absolute Proof," which are assembled and delivered in such scattershot fashion that it's clear the audience is already supposed to know the words and sing along. If you're looking for evidence that Lindell isn't quite as big a dope as he appears, and may have his eyes on a prize bigger than his bedding empire, that arrives in the ingenious premise that Trump's electoral defeat — although of course illegitimate — was a blessing in disguise.

So many people showed up to vote for Trump, Lindell tells us, that they "broke the algorithm" — maybe the one inside the Dominion voting machines, maybe the ones in servers in Germany or Italy or Communist Party HQ in Beijing — that was supposed to ensure an easy Biden victory on election night. That led to all the supposed shenanigans by Democrats and their RINO allies (although, again, Lindell isn't given to calling people names) that flipped states Trump had actually won to Biden, which in turn — and at last! — caused true patriotic Americans to sit up and pay attention. As Lindell puts it, "This is the most attack on our country, I'm telling you, ever."

This is of course opposite-world thinking on a world-historical scale, in which the political faction that tried its damndest to overturn a clear election result imagines itself the victim of a fanciful web of interlocking conspiracies to destroy democracy. All of this was providential, however, because it led to — well, to what? To the widespread red-pilling of far-right America, to an unwatchable and probably accidental movie that Jean-Luc Godard might pronounce a work of genius, and perhaps to Mike Lindell's next and greatest sales pitch.

Democracy's dance of death: Trump is gone — kinda. But the crisis is still here

We have recently been told, by ever so many earnest commentators, that the United States faces a dire historic choice between democracy and fascism — or, in the more optimistic reading, has recently faced one and surmounted it, if only just.

This article first appeared on Salon.

If that reflects a desire to make the nation's current predicament — and for that matter the world's — seem like a dramatic struggle at the edge of the abyss, along the lines of World War II, that's understandable. Maybe it's an improvement that the mainstream media abruptly woke up to the dangers of Donald Trump's regime, just as it was leaving office — although the sudden pivot to "Get thee behind me, Satan" after years of pretending that things were more or less normal is more than a little suspicious.

But if we are struggling with someone or something on the cliff's edge, the landscape is shrouded in darkness. We can't see the precipice and we're not quite sure who our opponent is. Or exactly who "we" are. Are we at a dark historical crossroads, marked by intense internal conflict over the nature of what we used to call "Western civilization"? Absolutely. But I'm not sure either of the options we characterize with the terms of art "democracy" and "fascism" has yet revealed its true nature.

What we've seen over the last few weeks, since the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump's supporters, should make clear to all non-hypnotized observers that America's two-party system is locked in a death spiral it seemingly can't escape. Despite the efforts of Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney and a number of other prominent Republicans, their party is completely unable to free itself from the undertow of an ex-president who was comprehensively defeated, tried to stage an impromptu coup-d'état on the cheap, and lost the Senate majority they thought they had saved from the fire.

(I'm not giving Mitch and Liz any medals for valor, by the way, although they deserve a little credit for being able to think strategically beyond the middle of next week — and for finally dropping the pretense that they don't hate Donald Trump like poison. To be completely fair, Mitt Romney has distinguished himself as a man of principle throughout this period — although, let's face it, he's also kind of a prick.)

Does that make the Republicans a "fascist" party? Honestly, that's giving the shambling zombie shell of the party that once represented old money, hardware store managers and small-town Presbyterian ministers way too much credit. Say what you will about Adolf Hitler — please, people, I know that phrase is an unacceptably dark joke — the guy spent a full decade diligently building a political organization and a mass movement that had a clear set of ideological principles and policy goals. All Donald Trump did was to grasp that the Republican Party was collapsing under the massive weight of its own ideological and political failure, and then stage a hostile takeover built on social-media insults and rage memes borrowed from Fox News and the late Rush Limbaugh, he of the Presidential Medal of Total Domination of All Media, or whatever it's called. Has that raised the national temperature and led to various acts of right-wing violence? Sure, but it's lard-ass couch-surfing fascism, at best, not a genuine mass movement committed to seizing power.

I am 159% not here to tell you that there's no difference between our two political parties, or that the Democratic Party's internal conflict (which is at least about real things, including ideology and generational change) is as bad as the so-called crisis within the not-quite-post-Trump GOP, or even that Joe Biden is a hapless historical nonentity whose presidency will wind up on the rocks sooner or later. None of that's true — well, OK, except possibly the Biden part, but he seems like a good guy on the whole who sincerely wants to patch the gaping holes in the sinking ship, and it's way too early to have any idea how he'll come across in the longer arc of history.

But the Democrats are hilarious, at least if you have an appetite for bleak humor. I'm not just beating up on the "liberals" and "moderates" either, as much fun as that is; the occasional or begrudging Democratic allies on the "left" — which I suppose is more or less where I identify — are also behaving like idiots. Having essentially lucked into control of both houses of Congress and the White House, after an election in which they underperformed across the nation in pretty much every state not starting with "G" (or containing a "Z") the Democrats are doing what they do best: Fine-grained, small-bore and deeply unimpressive reform legislation, internecine battles over issues where the general public wants big policy changes but the party's funders don't, and attempted purges of the left, both coming from the center (which is at least to be expected) but also from the left, some of which has uselessly concluded that the growing progressive caucus in Congress are a bunch of DINO corporate sellouts.

In the near term, this points toward another rebound cycle of dispiriting political defeat: Republicans could easily recapture both the House and Senate in 2022 (although they certainly won't win the most votes nationwide) on an incoherent non-agenda of reheated MAGA rage and conspiracy theory, effectively Trumpism without Trump and QAnon without Q. A brand new gerrymander built on the Trumpified racist wreckage of the 2020 census could once again create a built-in Republican congressional majority that it will take Democrats another several cycles to break down — even assuming that this dysfunctional political system continues to creak along in its familiar pattern, which is definitely not a safe assumption. I don't even want to speculate about the 2024 presidential election, which looks from this distance like one of those game-theory hypotheticals that has no viable solution (mixed with one of those low-budget Italian horror movies in which demons come off the screen and eat the audience).

On a larger scale, though, it's long past time for Americans to face the fact that we're not the only nation in the world that's going through this kind of crisis, and that our locked-in two-party system — which has nothing to do with the Constitution or the law — is itself a massive part of the problem. The bipolar two-party systems that defined most major European democracies during the postwar decades have already collapsed, or been rendered unrecognizable. In France and Italy, the two formerly-major center-left and center-right parties have effectively disappeared. In Britain, the once-socialist Labour Party hasn't won an election, under anyone except neoliberal reformer and George W. Bush lackey Tony Blair, since 1974, while the ruling Conservative Party, under Boris Johnson, has reinvented itself along vaguely Trumpian lines as the party of "Little England" throwback nationalism.

In a non-parliamentary system like ours, where the two parties have deep institutional roots and formidable fundraising power — yet have become increasingly detached from grassroots organizations and their own base voters, not to mention the ability to govern effectively — that kind of "revolution from within," however chaotic and disruptive it may be, apparently isn't possible. We're stuck with this thing we call "democracy," which isn't democratic, while trying to fend off a wave of angry yahoo populism that isn't quite "fascism," but expresses the legitimate anger of a significant proportion of the population in approximately the worst possible way. In game theory, there's always a solution that offers you the best possible chance of survival. That must be true here, I guess. But whatever that solution is, we haven't found it yet.

Trump, the Proud Boys and the Kraken: Is the #EndofDemocracy just a meme — or the real thing?

We're in a period of transition — but transition from what, or to what? Nobody's quite sure. From one president to another, purportedly, but that's the least of it. From a barely functional two-party democracy to some other, choose-your-adventure system of pseudo-democratic, zero-sum partisan warfare? From coup attempt to street conflict and civil war? From a set of vaguely shared political ideals and epistemological assumptions — the famous "democratic norms" — to the total collapse of meaning and language?

Yeah, all of those, or maybe none of them. I would suggest that the crisis of democracy — or what I have previously described as World War IV, an overlapping but larger phenomenon — has entered its decadent or rococo phase. (Can history repeat itself as farce if it was never anything else in the first place?) Comical or fantastical figures like Jenna Ellis, with her Christian-gift-shop degree in constitutional law, or Sidney Powell, the once respected attorney gone deep into discarded plotlines from "Alias," or Michigan voter-fraud testifier Mellissa Carone, who we cannot be sure is not a Kristen Wiig character, or Michael Flynn, the defrocked general turned QAnon-curious wannabe putsch leader, might once have seemed too extreme to be credible. Now they're pretty much normal, and the old-line conservative normies are the weirdos.

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What will American politics be like after Trump? First of all, he's not going away

Over the last couple of weeks, the media caste has been indulging in extensive literary meditation in how and whether we can break our addiction to Donald Trump. "We" in this case is a large category: There's no question that everyone from tabloid-TV talking heads to Ivy-educated columnists has flocked to Trump like ants to a sticky-bun picnic, but also that our readers and viewers have enabled and encouraged us at every step.

When people asked me, during the first year or two of the Trump phenomenon, why Salon didn't simply ignore him, I would mildly reply, "Well, you should see the numbers." It was and remains true that stories about the awfulness of the Trump regime — about its total fascist victory, its impending downfall or anything in between — outperform every other category of reporting, commentary or analysis we can possibly offer. (In fairness, over the past few months recipes and food stories have been doing well too. I wonder why!)

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Trump lost — but did democracy really win?

What unfolded across the United States on Saturday afternoon was breathtaking: an extraordinary explosion of relief and exuberance, not quite like anything else most of us now living have ever seen. While the comparison to V-E Day — which marked the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany in May 1945 — may be over the top, the emotional resonance was similar.

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Trump goes nightmare-scenario

None of us have seen a year like 2020 — and now it has finally snapped the tether that seemed to hold it to the realm of reality. After a relatively calm Election Day, leading into a nail-biter evening that left the result very much in doubt, President Trump did exactly what many observers feared he might do, prematurely declaring victory over former vice president Joe Biden, even though millions of votes in several important states remain uncounted.

It was a rambling, incoherent and extraordinary speech even by Trump's standards, delivered in an extraordinary setting — the East Room of the White House, rather than a campaign headquarters at a Washington hotel, as would be traditional for an incumbent president running for re-election. Whether it represents a genuine attempt to subvert democracy or was just an example of "Trump being Trump" and letting off some steam depends on one's perspective. Vice President Mike Pence attempted to assert the latter interpretation, arriving on stage after Trump had concluded and making relatively normal remarks about "the integrity of the vote," while of course praising Trump in fulsome terms and urging him to "make America great again, again."

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