'Playing the long game': A slow-motion coup by death-threat squad is happening underneath all of our noses

Michele Carew is the latest casualty in the Trumpist war on voting. The veteran elections administrator tendered her resignation to officials in Hood County, Texas, on Friday after a brutal campaign by Trump loyalists to oust her. Trump won 81 percent of the vote there, but Carew still found herself in the crosshairs of those seeking to entrench the GOP's control over election administration. They want to see Carew's duties reassigned to a county clerk, who is notorious for (what else?) sharing electoral conspiracy theories on social media.

Carew is one of many local election officials across the country who have chosen to quit rather than absorb right-wing abuse. Among 14 southwestern Ohio counties, one in four of their election officials has already called it quits. Pennsylvania is grappling with a similar exodus.

"These conspiracy theorists are in it for the long haul," county clerk Barb Byrum told the Associated Press. "They're in it to completely crumble our republic, and they're looking at these election administrator positions. They're playing the long game."

It all keeps coming back to the Big Lie. The Big Lie of voter fraud is a classic stabbed-in-the-back narrative. These fantasies crop up whenever fascists need to reconcile their conviction that they're strong and special with the reality that they've been shut out of power. They convince themselves that they would have won, if it hadn't been for the treacherous Other who denied them their glorious birthright.

In the most famous stabbed-in-the-back narrative, it was the German Army of World War I that supposedly could have triumphed had the craven politicians not betrayed them. Today, Donald Trump's supporters console themselves with the fantasy that they won the 2020 election, but Democrats, unions, Black people and the Chinese Communist Party cheated them out of power.

A good stabbed-in-the-back narrative also suggests a target at which to direct resentment and even violence. "Stop the Steal" was the rallying cry that Trump used to sic a mob on the Capitol on Jan 6.

Local elections officials are still bearing the brunt of Trumpist fury. A special investigation by Reuters documented 102 threats of death or violence against 40 local election officials. Those are a fraction of the true number of threats. Milwaukee election official Claire Woodall-Vogg estimated she'd received 150 threats since a Gateway Pundit, a massively popular conspiracy blog, published lies about her.

Election administration skews disproportionately female, like education and public health — two other spheres where GOP radicals have directed their ire. The California Voter Foundation, a watchdog group, estimates that 75 percent of local election officials are women.

"The common thread is that no one has any respect from women […]," Milwaukee elections official Woodall-Vogg said in an interview with CNN in which the mother of two small children recounted how her harassers delight in calling her a cunt and a whore.

In Georgia, Republicans are using a new state law to purge Democrats of color from local elections boards. At least 10 board members have been removed under the new state law or by local ordinances. Of these, at least 5 of the ousted members are people of color.

"I speak out and I know the laws," Ms. Lonnie Hollis, an ousted Black board member told the Times. "The bottom line is they don't like people that have some type of intelligence and know what they're doing, because they know they can't influence them."

Michigan Republicans are busily replacing local election board members with pliant functionaries who, they hope, will refuse to certify future Democratic victories. The state's former elections director warned that it would create "a mess" if 10 or 15 counties refused to certify the election. It would be more than "a mess." It would be yet another procedural coup attempt. The GOP is organizing to steal the next election in plain sight, but the Department of Justice has done little more than convene a task force to study the problem. The Big Lie must not be allowed to cast a shadow over our democracy.

Republicans' Arizona fiasco was a frontal assault on democracy — and it must be stopped

The Cyber Ninjas' sham review of Maricopa County's presidential election has drawn to a close. The self-styled investigators found no evidence of fraud and their hand recount was within spitting distance of the official result. Still, the grift rolls on: Arizona Republicans announced a busy schedule of hearings and investigations to rehash the report's non-findings. Unchastened by utter failure, Republicans are keen to replicate the Arizona debacle in other states, and similar efforts are already underway in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas.

"This is a situation of states' rights," said Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers as she unveiled a manifesto signed by dozens of Republican state legislators calling for audits in all 50 states. "No matter what the left says, we will keep this in the narrative."

It's gotta be about the narrative. It's not about the facts. Rogers and her allies went straight from fundraising on dire predictions of what the review would find to fundraising off lies that the "audit" proved everything they wanted to hear. Anything to keep the Big Lie of voter fraud alive.

Biden's win had already been upheld by two certified auditors and several courts of law when the Republicans in the Arizona State Senate hired Republican cranks to prove that Republicans won. What followed was not an audit but a fiasco.

The Arizona State Senate subpoenaed the 2.1 million ballots and handed them over to Cyber Ninjas, an obscure firm run by an avowed conspiracy theorist with no experience in auditing or elections. Even their name was a tell: Ninjas are assassins who forgo honor to fight for the highest bidder. They rejected the samurai code of benevolence, sincerity and loyalty – the very virtues needed to walk the Path of the Audit.

The ballot review cost at least $6.7 million, the vast majority of which came from far-right groups linked to the January 6 insurgency.

The Cyber Ninjas used worthless methods in a desperate bid to validate florid conspiracy theories. They scanned ballots for bamboo fibers and bombarded them with UV light in search of phantom watermarks.

Arizona has strict laws for transporting, storing and counting ballots, and the Ninjas blew off the few election laws they knew of. The count was marred by lax security, including unattended metal detectors and lapses in the chain of custody. The Ninjas' UV lights, which had no valid forensic purpose, may have damaged the ballots. Professional election auditors were shocked to learn that Cyber Ninjas mounted the ballots on merry-go-rounds so that they could whiz past the judges, a bizarre system that seemed designed to magnify errors.

The Ninjas wanted to go door-to-door, harassing voters under the guise of "canvassing," but that plan was shelved after the feds flagged the plan as possible voter intimidation. But failed Republican state lege candidate Liz Harris launched a "private canvass," which did the same thing. The Cyber Ninjas' draft report even claimed that Harris's canvassers were part of the official audit, a claim that was mysteriously absent from the final version.

And they're not just harassing voters. The Big Lie is also used to incite harassment of experienced, competent election officials in the hopes that they will quit and make way for GOP flunkies. Even if your audit fails to uncover evidence of fraud, you can still use it to undermine public confidence in the electoral system. And to be fair, any system that lets itself be inspected by the Cyber Ninjas has problems. Many experts are concerned that unethical and unaccountable Republican-allied contractors are casing election systems in search of weaknesses they can exploit.

These sham audits are intimately coordinated with Trump and his national Republican allies. Trump's "Stop the Steal" movement weaponized false allegations of voter fraud in swing states to recruit shock troops to intimidate legislators on January 6.

The Republican campaign to rifle through the people's ballots to sustain the Big Lie is a frontal assault on democracy, we cannot afford to let it spread any further.

Republicans show signs that they've given up on elections

On Monday, Republican recall hopeful Larry Elder refused to say whether he would accept defeat if he failed to unseat Democratic incumbent Gavin Newsom. The far-right radio host urged his supporters to go to the StopCAFraud website to report election voting "irregularities." The site, which was funded by Elder's campaign, claimed that "statistical irregularities" proved that the California governor had won the recall election by fraud. The catch was that the election wasn't until Tuesday and no votes had been counted.

In the post-Trump era, Republican losers follow a simple formula: Cry fraud, file frivolous lawsuits and fundraise off of them. You will lose in court, because there is no fraud, but it doesn't matter because every loss burnishes the GOP's "stabbed in the back" narrative.

The Elder camp claimed to have pseudoscientific statistical proof based on Benford's Law that Newsom's imaginary win was due to fraud — before the votes had been counted. This revealed both their pessimism about their prospects for the recall and their willingness to manufacture claims of fraud out of thin air.

The GOP started chumming these waters weeks ago. Elder's StopCaFraud page was anonymously registered in August and the WayBackMachine shows that the fictional fraud allegations were visible to the site's automated crawler as early as Sept. 6. The very next day, former President Donald Trump called NewsMax and said the California recall vote was "probably rigged." The following day Elder announced that he had lawyers ready to challenge the results. Fox News hosts have been claiming for weeks that an incumbent Democrat in California could only win by fraud.

Elder's blunder would be funny if it weren't scary. It's one more piece of evidence showing that Republicans have given up on elections. It's not a free and fair election if you don't intend to concede if you lose.

The lie of voter fraud is a myth that justifies violence. The January 6 insurrection happened because Trump convinced his supporters that the election was stolen and that violence was necessary to save democracy. Elder's website engaged in the same kind of incitement, insinuating that his supporters might have to reach for "the ammo box" if their legal challenge to Newsom's as-yet-non-existent-victory were unsuccessful.

The Republicans are stoking rage and paranoia that regularly bubbles over into intimidation and even violence. Nationwide, elections officials are being deluged with death threats from people who believe the electoral fraud conspiracy theories that now constitute the core of the GOP's ideology. A private detective hired by a local Republican organization held an innocent air conditioning repairman at gunpoint in Texas because he believed the man's truck contained "stolen ballots." Republicans are also using these conspiracy theories to justify voter suppression laws in states across the country.

Trump is out of power, but the legacy of Trumpism lives on. Trump's most enduring and destructive legacy may be the way he normalized frivolous charges of election fraud.

Here's the real reason grifters are pushing a dodgy 'cure' for Covid — instead of the vaccines

Proponents of ivermectin as a treatment for covid are now in damage-control mode after a series of stories about people overdosing on horse paste and sheep drench from feed stores.

Such luminaries as Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, Brett Weinstein and United States Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) stoked demand for the dewormer, only to have the craze blow up in their faces when the ginned-up demand outstripped the pharmaceutical supply and people started self-medicating with horse paste.

The zeal of the ivermectin prophets was self-defeating. The whole point of being an Ivermectin Guy is that you can indulge in anti-vaxx conspiracy theories while sounding smarter than the Microchip Guys. That's why they get so mad when you call it "horse paste."

Internet tough guy Joe Rogan will have you know that the ivermectin he (supposedly) took for his (supposed) covid was (supposedly) from a doctor. "Bro, do I have to sue CNN?" Rogan grumbled. "They're making shit up. They keep saying I'm taking horse dewormer." It's an image thing: Rooting for Team Horse Paste pushes you over the line from "bold independent thinker" to "utter crackpot."

The Basic Ivermectin Conspiracy Theory goes like this: There's a cheap cure for covid but Big Pharma doesn't want you to have it, because it's a generic drug. A more elaborate version, shared by the host of the aptly-named Dark Horse podcast on Tucker Carlson's show, posits that the government is refusing to acknowledge ivermectin as a safe and effective treatment for covid because to do so would somehow undercut the Emergency Use Authorizations for covid vaccines.

This makes no sense, given the government is funding an ivermectin trial. But it's not about the logic. It's about feeding the anti-vaxx fantasy that vaccine mandates will evaporate if we go all in on ivermectin. Human prescriptions for ivermectin soared from fewer than 4,000 a week pre-pandemic to nearly 90,000 a week in August.

Surging demand has caused shortages in pharmacies and feed stores alike. Docs and vets worry the fad will keep the drug out of the hands and off the hides of the creatures who really need it.

The hype beasts of the Intellectual Dark Web dangle a miracle cure in front of their credulous audience and pretend to be shocked when they hit up the feed store. Ivermectin boosters know that ethical doctors won't prescribe ivermectin for covid because there's no evidence it's safe or effective against the virus. Indeed, the American Medical Association strongly advises against prescribing ivermectin for covid outside of a clinical trial.

Ivermectin kills the covid virus in a Petri dish, but only at concentrations that will never be matched in the human body — even if you take enough to choke a horse. The most famous clinical trial purporting to show benefit in humans was withdrawn after it was determined the authors plagiarized the text from pro-ivermectin press releases and fabricated their data. The data are so implausible some experts question whether the trial ever happened. Pro-ivermectin trials have a funny habit of appearing as pre-prints making fantastical claims before being retracted amid allegations of fraud or conflict of interest.

Ivermectin has a good safety record when it's prescribed by a doctor or a vet to treat parasites, but ivermectin-related calls to the nation's poison control centers have quintupled, because people are guesstimating doses of livestock meds. It's a fool's game. No safe or effective dosage has been established for covid because there's no good evidence it works. Ivermectin partisans are always reminding us that some guys won a Nobel Prize for using ivermectin to treat something else. They're showing their ignorance of medicine. The drug, the dose, and the diagnosis actually matter.

However, the real harm of the ivermectin craze is not the relatively rare—though completely pointless—horse paste ODs. It's the much larger group of people who are using ivermectin as an excuse not to get vaccinated, whether they're currently taking the drug or not. If you're on the fence about vaccination, the myth that ivermectin cures covid makes it easier to skip your shot.

Some pundits have chided irreverent commentators for poking fun at people who eschew a free, safe and effective vaccine and pay for animal drugs that won't cure covid. Americans aren't eating horse paste because it's a noble rural tradition to self-medicate from the tractor supply. Grifters played on people's hopes for a quick covid fix and their fear of vaccines, and now their fans are paying the price.

The lab leak theory is falling apart

America's spies still don't know where covid came from. In May, President Joe Biden called for a three-month sprint to discover the origins of Covid-19, but according to a recently-released report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the body that oversees the 18 agencies that comprise the US Intelligence Community (IC), little progress has been made toward that goal. This shouldn't surprise anyone. It was sheer hubris to expect the IC to crack one of the major scientific mysteries of our time over the summer.

It's fair to ask why the president gave this mission to the IC in the first place. We normally look to epidemiologists and virologists to explain the origins of viruses, not spies. And the unclassified summary of the report implies that the spooks are leaning heavily on the same body of scientific literature as everyone else.

If covid spread from wild animals to people, like SARS, MERS and every other new human virus you care to name, the IC would have little to add to the discussion. They can't prove a negative. What evidence could prove that Covid didn't leak from a lab? Even finding covid in the wild and describing a plausible path of transmission to from the wilderness to Wuhan wouldn't definitively rule out the possibility that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

However, if there were a lab leak, the IC would be as well-positioned to prove it as anyone in the world. The IC's expertise is uncovering secrets, and if covid leaked from the WIV, there are a lot of people keeping secrets. Scientists at the WIV would know. Elements within the Chinese government would probably know, too — either because they were monitoring the institute the whole time or because their own investigations later uncovered it. China has a lot of raw data about the earliest phase of the pandemic that it's not sharing with the rest of the world. Lab leakers speculate that China is hiding the data because they're covering up a lab leak, but there are many possible motives for secrecy, starting with the fact that China is a leading purveyor of conspiracy theories that a lab in the United States leaked covid.

If anyone were keeping the secret of a lab leak, IC's job would be to hack, bug, wheedle or bribe that secret loose. So far, they've come up short. It's been almost two years. Not a shred of concrete evidence has emerged to tie covid to a lab. The unclassified summary tacitly admits as much. The one agency arguing for a lab leak reached this conclusion based on "the inherently risky nature of work on coronaviruses." They're not claiming to have eyewitness accounts, intercepts, genomic analyses or anything specific to back up this hunch.

Even if bat coronavirus research is risky in the abstract, a lab can't leak what it hasn't got. There's no evidence the WIV ever had covid or any virus similar enough to covid to genetically engineer it from spare parts. Last month, the IC revealed they were using supercomputers to mine a database of viral sequences that the WIV took offline in September, but apparently those efforts haven't panned out.

Meanwhile the body of scientific evidence pointing to natural origin continues to expand. More and more viruses similar to covid-19 are being found in the wild. The emergence of increasingly infectious covid variants casts doubt on the lab leak boosters' claim that covid was pre-adapted to be maximally transmissible to humans. The fact that covid can infect species as different as otters and tigers is further evidence it's a natural virus. It's hard enough to make a virus that can sicken one kind of animal, let alone many. Plotting early cases of covid on the map doesn't show them spreading outward from the WIV.

You often hear that "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence," often from people who have little evidence for a cherished hypothesis. But if you keep looking for something and never find it, that should raise doubts about whether you're looking in the right place.

An all-out push by the entire US Intelligence Committee failed to uncover one iota of evidence of a lab leak. How long must we keep searching before we pull the plug on a hypothesis once and for all?

The civilian wing of the Republican Party has lost control of its paramilitary wing

Recently, an exclusive Reuters report claimed the FBI has little evidence of a single overarching plot to overturn the election on January 6. The headline: "FBI finds scant evidence US Capitol attack was coordinated — sources." The story kicked off a self-serving game of telephone by right-wingers spinning an already threadbare dispatch into ever-more exculpatory narratives. Steve Bannon pronounced it a "massive win" while Republican Senate hopeful JD Vance tweeted, "Another narrative collapses." These strained readings of the report culminated in the bizarre Washington Examiner headline: "FBI confirms there was no insurrection."

In fact, the government has already uncovered far-reaching conspiracies to attack the Capitol and stop the certification of the election. It alleges that three major paramilitary groups — the Oath Keepers, The Proud Boys, and the Three Percenters — conspired within their own ranks to commit violence to keep Donald Trump in power. In addition to plotting within their own ranks, these groups reportedly coordinated with each other. The point that Reuters' anonymous sources were making was that there is as-yet little evidence these paramilitary operations were part of a single overarching plot orchestrated by a "civilian" leader, like Trump confidante and self-proclaimed dirty trickster Roger Stone. Maybe the paramilitaries acted on their own. This is a truly terrifying possibility given it would indicate the civilian wing of the Republican Party has finally lost control of the party's paramilitary wing.

Members and associates of the Oath Keepers militia have already pleaded guilty to conspiring to disrupt the certification of the election, and many others are working their way through the courts on similar charges. The government alleges extensive coordination among the Oath Keepers in the run-up to January 6 and ongoing communication with their leader while they stormed the Capitol. Multiple Proud Boys have also been charged with conspiracy and other serious offenses stemming from the assault on the Capitol. The government alleges, and independent media reports confirm, that teams of Oath Keepers and Proud Boys were in the vanguard of the assault on the Capitol.

Moreover, all three paramilitary groups were an integral part of the Trumpist "Stop the Steal" movement that staged a series of violent protests to intimidate election officials in swing states, cement the myth of voter fraud, legitimize the Trump team's frivolous legal challenges and radicalize supporters. "Stop the Steal" had an established M.O. by January 6: besiege public officials and attempt to bully them into certifying the contest for Trump based on wild allegations of voter fraud and the ever-present threat of violence.

There's no question that the civilian architects of "Stop the Steal" wanted to intimidate the lawmakers certifying the election. Organizer Ali Alexander explained his plan was to put "maximum pressure" on the lawmakers in a bid to coerce the GOP representatives they had not been able to lobby to join their cause. "If they [certify the election], everyone can guess what me and 500,000 others will do to that building," Alexander tweeted on Dec. 30. "1776 is *always* an option""

"I want to hear a huge shout-out for Enrique and the Proud Boys right now," "Stop the Steal" organizer Cindy Chafian commanded the crowd gathered in Washington on January 5 on the eve of the certification of the election. Chafian went on to thank the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and other paramilitary groups as unsung heroes. "I'm tired of the left telling us we can't talk about them," Chafian said.

Chafian was referring to Enrique Tarrio, the supreme leader of the Proud Boys, who had been scheduled to speak at the gathering, but found himself unable to attend because he'd been arrested two days earlier for burning a Black Lives Matter flag at a previous "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington. Chafian's fellow speaker, Cordie Williams thundered that, "Enrique is in jail right now for burning a flag that bastardizes everything we stand for, it makes me sick."

The "Stop the Steal" slogan was coined by Stone in 2016 and revived by his protegé Ali Alexander to transmute lies about election fraud into incandescent rage that it hoped to harness to keep Donald Trump in power. "'Stop the Steal' is a highly coordinated partisan political operation intent on bringing together conspiracy theorists, militias, hate groups and Trump supporters to attack the integrity of our election," Ben Decker, the CEO and founder of Memetica, a digital investigations consultancy, told CNN in November of 2020.

As the votes were being counted, Alexander organized a series of armed, violent protests in swing states geared at intimidating state election officials. The Oath Keepers provided security for "Stop the Steal" organizers, including Stone. The Proud Boys turned out in force to brutalize counter-protesters and even organized their own protest at the home of United States Senator Marco Rubio to pressure him not to certify. Stone addressed the crowd by speaker phone.

Tarrio and other high-ranking Proud Boys were so close to Stone they were allowed to post to his social media accounts. Stone was even kicked off instagram for his ties to the Proud Boys. Stone was so accustomed to surrounding himself with Proud Boys that The Daily Beast proclaimed the neo-fascist street brawlers "Roger Stone's Personal Army" in 2019.

Stone and Alexander's longstanding relationships with the paramilitaries are tantalizing circumstantial evidence, but hard proof that they or any "civilian" ordered shock troops to attack the Capitol remains elusive.

Stone and Alexander like to cast themselves as skilled operatives very much in control, even as they deny responsibility for the violence swirling around them. But if Reuters' sources are correct, they paint a very different picture: That Stone, Alexander and all their Republican allies and enablers are ineffectual dupes who have lost control of the toxic forces they sought to command.

Key myths about the Capitol insurrection were completely demolished at first Jan. 6 committee hearing

The January 6 House select committee began with a grunt's-eye view. Four police officers testified Tuesday, under oath and in riveting detail, about their parts in the struggle to fend off 9,000 armed and angry Trump supporters who stormed the United States Capitol to stop the certification of the election. Sergeant Aquilino Gonell likened it to a medieval battle. "We fought hand-to-hand, inch-by-inch to prevent an invasion of the capitol by a mob intent on subverting our democracy," he said.

The testimony and the questioning that followed methodically debunked self-serving GOP talking points about how the assault on the capitol was a peaceful gathering, a raucous but harmless protest or a spontaneous outburst. Many insurgents came armed and prepared for violence with the clear strategic objective of seizing the capitol building. Someone even planted bombs in advance of the main assault.

The officers described their colleagues' efforts to recover illegal guns from rioters before, during and after the battle. Some rioters were arrested on gun charges, but we'll never truly know how many people brought guns that day. We do know that members of the mob were armed with an array of weapons, including a hunting knife, a cattle prod, bear mace, flagpoles, and shields and batons wrested from police officers themselves, not to mention improvised weapons they fashioned from metal bike racks and barriers. The sheer size and fury of the mob was perhaps the most terrifying threat. Officers testified that they feared being literally torn to pieces or even lynched. They spoke of serious injuries and the trauma they and their families still live with.

Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone said he was dragged into the crowd, beaten and tasered until he suffered a heart attack. Fanone recalled insurgents lunging for his sidearm as well as one man yelling something like, "Kill him with his own gun!" Metropolitan Police officer Daniel Hodges recalled the agony of being crushed by the surging crowd into a door frame while a rioter beat his face with his own baton.

Some apologists say the crowd was simply caught up in the heat of the moment. The testimony established that the attack was premeditated. Hodges testified that, before the attack began, a group of white men in tactical gear, who looked to Hodges like they were "prepared for much more than listening to politicians speak in the park," approached him and fellow riot cops. One asked, "Is this all the manpower you have? Do you really think you're going to stop all these people?" US Capitol police officer Harry Dunn said he received a text message from a friend that morning with what purported to be a screenshot of a plan for storming the Capitol, including the injunction to "keep your guns hidden." The screenshot was entered into the record.

Asked what questions he felt the January 6 committee should investigate, Officer Fanone urged the committee to investigate whether there was any coordination between members of the Congress, their staff and the insurgents. Officer Dunn used a powerful analogy to describe what he wants—that of a hitman. If a hitman kills someone, he goes to prison, Dunn said. So too must the person who hired the hitman.

"It was an attack carried out on January 6, and a hitman sent them," Dunn said.

"I want you to get to the bottom of that."

You couldn't ask for a clearer mandate.

Alabama district attorney aims to prosecute a woman for taking a prescribed drug while pregnant

Kim Blalock's spine is a mess. At 36, the Alabama mom is battling a degenerative disc disease as well as arthritis and chronic complications from back surgery. Two months before she got pregnant with her sixth child, a car crash compounded her agony.

Now she has been indicted on a felony charge because, when she was eight months' pregnant, she refilled a legitimate opioid prescription to treat her crippling pain. If Blalock were to be convicted, her case could set a dire precedent, not only for pregnant people, but for anyone seeking a prescription for a controlled substance in the state.

Blalock says her orthopedist never asked if she were pregnant when she came in to refill her hydrocodone prescription, which she'd had for years. Weeks later, she gave birth to a baby boy with no sign of neonatal abstinence syndrome. A positive drug screen, however, triggered an investigation. Investigators confirmed Blalock had a valid prescription. A pill count proved she'd been taking her medication as prescribed.

Then, in a move that appears to be calculated to evade provisions of Alabama's chemical endangerment law that are carved out for pregnant women taking legitimately prescribed medication, Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly charged Blalock with unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

You may be wondering how someone who filled a legitimate prescription for a real medical condition could end up possessing those drugs unlawfully. You're right to wonder. The law concerns itself with people who get prescriptions for controlled substances by "fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, or subterfuge or by the alteration of a prescription or written order or by the concealment of a material fact or by the use of a false name or giving a false address." In lay terms, the law applies to people who pull some kind of scam, including using fake names, faking symptoms, doctor-shopping or altering scripts to trick pharmacists into doling out more than doctors order.

The DA is arguing that the fact that Blalock didn't volunteer that she was pregnant counts as concealing material information and that makes her guilty. Logically, not volunteering information is not the same as concealing it. And maybe at eight months along, Blalock assumed it was obvious from her appearance that she was pregnant. But how is a patient supposed to anticipate and volunteer all the information a doctor might need to decide whether to prescribe a controlled substance?

"According to the prosecutor's theory of this case, women must know the moment they become pregnant and announce it to all—or face possible criminal charges," wrote Lynn Paltrow in an email to the Editorial Board. Paltrow is the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, the legal nonprofit representing Blalock.

This level of overreach would be comical if it weren't so dangerous. Here's a lawyer who thinks he knows what an orthopedic surgeon would have done if he'd known his patient were pregnant. That the doctor didn't ask suggests pregnancy was not an important factor in his decision to prescribe the medication. If he should have asked and failed to do so, that would make Blalock a victim of oversight, not a criminal.

It's hardly a foregone conclusion that the doctor would have acted differently. Doctors sometimes prescribe opioids to pregnant people. After all, they can suffer same as anyone else, and pregnancy itself can cause painful complications. One analysis of the insurance claims of nearly a million pregnant women over a 15-year period found that about 12 percent of them got at least one opioid prescription during the later part of their pregnancy. And that's just opioids. The percentage would be even higher if you counted prescriptions for all controlled substances at all stages of pregnancy.

Blalock's lawyers at NAPW filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. NAPW argues the legislature never intended for the unlawful possession law to apply to pregnant women taking prescribed medication. The motion argues that there's no textual or historical evidence that lawmakers intended to criminalize pregnant women refilling their prescriptions. In fact, we can be extra-confident the legislature didn't mean to criminalize pregnant women who fill legitimate prescriptions, because in 2016 when it revisited the chemical endangerment of a child law that criminalizes drug use in pregnancy, it specifically exempted women who were taking prescribed medication.

This may be the first time a woman has been charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance for not disclosing her pregnancy to a doctor. It's a transparent attempt to get around the legislature's clearly expressed intent. If Blalock were convicted, it would set a dangerous precedent not only for pregnant people, but for anyone seeking medical care that might result in them being prescribed a controlled substance. There's no way to know what medical and personal circumstances patients would have to volunteer to their doctor to steer clear of a felony charge in Alabama.

Trump is trying to clean up his reputation by relying on an ancient blame game

Donald Trump aims to ride a COVID conspiracy theory to reputational rehab. "Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus," the former president said.

It's unclear why a president who failed to protect us from a bioweapons attack, or who failed to respond to the fallout of a lab accident, would be more sympathetic than a president who was outmatched by an ordinary virus, but let's set that aside. Trumpian rhetoric is not about logic. It's about arousing prejudice and grievance. Trump is playing the ancient game of scapegoating. He believes that if he can convince his supporters that COVID is China's fault, they'll forget the parts that were his fault.

Epidemics and conspiracy theories go together like crops and fertilizer. The imagery varies according to the technologies and anxieties of the era, but the basic logic never changes. In the pre-modern era, you were more likely to hear about poison and black magic. The tropes have since shifted to bioweapons and lab accidents. Faced with the horror of an outbreak, even modern people tend to forget that epidemic diseases are a natural and depressingly predictable feature of human history and existence. The conspiracists always say this time is different. This time our enemy hurt us on purpose.

More even-handed conspiracy theorists often allow for the possibility that our enemy hurt us by accident, on account of being inept, dirty and irresponsible. Theories that posit without evidence that the latest plague was an accidental release of a bioweapon, or an innocent experiment gone awry, fall into this category. Granted, lab leaks have occasionally resulted in outbreaks, but if you're pushing a lab-leak theory without evidence, and your theory involves someone covering up said lab-leak, you're probably indulging in conspiratorial thinking, especially if you're blaming an outsider for it.

There is no evidence that COVID was released from a lab. There is a mountain of evidence that animals infect humans with novel viruses all the time; that bats are a natural reservoir of numerous coronaviruses in the SARS family; that bats are constantly recombining them in their bodies; and that the wildlife trade is a vector for spreading them from bats to humans, often through an intermediate species.

After SARS, the question on every expert's mind was not: Will there be a more transmissible SARS? This pandemic was not just predicted. It was inevitable.

The idea that our enemies have caused the plagues that afflict us is one of the oldest propaganda tropes, much older than the germ theory of disease, let alone modern biolaboratory methods. During the plagues of the Middle Ages, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells. Europe saw multiple cholera riots during the 19th century, each independently sparked by rumors that the rich had deliberately poisoned the poor. (To their credit, the poor had correctly observed that the rich were less likely to die from cholera, but the killer was inequality, not poison.) During the great flu pandemic of 1918, Americans accused the Germans of releasing this viral scourge from U-boats, poisoning over-the-counter medicines, and other wiles—even though Germans were also dying from the flu. The AIDS epidemic spawned multiple sub-genres including a KGB-sponsored disinformation campaign code named "Operation Denver," claiming that HIV was an escaped US bioweapon. Historical records reveal that the goal of the disinformation campaign was to spread anti-American sentiment around the world and create controversy and division inside the United States.

When the original SARS coronavirus broke out in 2003, there was rampant speculation that SARS was a bioweapon. Foreign policy hawks blamed Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese activists pointed the finger at Washington. We later learned that humans caught SARS from trafficked palm civets in a live animal market, who caught it from bats. The civet connection was exposed relatively quickly but it took 15 years for scientists to find one cave that housed a colony of bats carrying between them all the genetic building blocks of SARS. They still haven't found a bat with a complete SARS virus in its body, but because bat roosts are such fertile environments for recombining new viruses from existing viruses, the discovery was strong enough to close the case.

When the MERS coronavirus hit in 2012, a now-familiar style of argument recurred: "Many of the features [of MERS] are paradoxical and cannot be explained by known principles of epidemiology," claimed a press release on behalf of an Australian professor who argued MERS could be a bioweapon. In other words, this is new. It's got features we've never seen before and can't readily explain, and it's scary. Ergo, it could be a bioweapon. Spoiler alert: It was camels, who probably caught it from bats.

In 2021, we're still battling the same knee-jerk assumption that if we don't fully understand something, it must have been created by someone we hate. Novel features of the COVID-19 virus are being cited as evidence of artificial origins. As soon as one potentially artificial feature is explained, the conspiracy mill generates a new one.

Scientists have yet to isolate COVID from an animal in the wild. Nevertheless, there's a huge body of evidence to support the idea that COVID-19 came from the same place the last two epidemics of deadly human coronavirus came from: From bats encroached upon by humans and their livestock, or from some intermediate host that was infected by a bat before being scooped up by a poacher and ferried to a big-city wildlife market.

It's now considered unlikely that COVID made the final jump from animal to human at the famous Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cases of COVID were observed, because the earliest known case had no connection to that market. But there's no particular reason that the jump would have had to have happened at the market in order for the virus to be zoonotic. And it's noteworthy that about two-thirds of the earliest known COVID cases were associated with either the Huanan Market, another market that sold live animals or another source of live or dead animals.

It's hard to accept that random mutations in lowly horseshoe bats upended human civilization for over a year. It's always easier, cognitively and emotionally, to blame our enemies for our woes. It's a trap any of us can fall into if we're not careful. And as usual, Trump is positioning himself to capitalize on human weakness.

Here's why Michael Flynn is desperately trying to cover up his call for a coup in the US

The second-most revered figure in the QAnon conspiracy firmament called for a military coup in the United States. Again. Retired three-star general and former Trump campaign national security advisor Mike Flynn called for the end of democracy during a question-and-answer session last weekend at a QAnon conference in Dallas.

"I'm a simple Marine," a grizzled audience member said, "I wanna know why what happened in Minamar (sic) can't happen here." The room erupted. Flynn waited for the cheering to subside and said, "No reason. I mean, it should happen here."

Flynn reportedly called the conference organizers to backtrack. He's now denying that he said what we all saw him say, but let's get one thing straight: Mike Flynn is a liar.

Trump fired him for lying to Mike Pence about Russia. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but he lied in his plea deal, so Trump had to pardon him. Now he's lying about how he called for a military coup in the United States. On video. This is nothing new for Flynn. After the 2020 election, Flynn privately urged then-president Donald Trump to send troops to "re-run" the election, an idea he'd previously floated in the media.

It's nothing new for QAnon either. QAnon supporters have been cheering on the coup in Myanmar since the military overthrew the democratically elected government in February. The junta has killed over 800 people, including more than 40 children, but QAnon supporters don't know anything about Myanmar's internal politics. They just like coups. After Trump's failed coup attempt on January 6, many of them found it comforting to know a military still could overthrow a democracy somewhere.

And why wouldn't they? The beating heart of QAnon's dark theology is The Storm, the military coup that is always right around the corner. The Storm is the day when Donald Trump and the armed forces liquidates QAnon's political enemies: Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, the media, and anyone who stands against them. The former president will retake his rightful place in the White House, democracy be damned.

According to a new poll, nearly a quarter of white evangelicals believe The Storm is coming to restore "rightful leaders." This mythology fits naturally with the Big Lie that Trump won the election. QAnon believers heard Donald Trump's call to come to Washington on January 6 as the coming of the storm. Many of them believed they were being summoned to take part in the long-awaited battle between good and evil.

Most normal people think of QAnon as the "pedo cabal" people. Indeed, QAnon talks a good game about saving the children from pedophiles. As disturbing as they sound, these child-abuse fantasies are good for recruiting unsuspecting converts. After all, everyone wants to prevent child abuse. QAnon has deep roots in evangelical Christianity and its most fervent proponents have thought long and hard—and written with uncharacteristic coherence—about how to best recruit. Attitude change begins with finding common ground. You can get almost anyone to agree that child abuse is a problem. That provides the common ground needed to begin a conversation in which the believer can plant seeds in the prospective convert's mind about other aspects of QAnon. This process is called "red-pilling," a reference to The Matrix, a movie during which the hero swallows the red pill to dissolve illusion and reveal ultimate reality.

The news media's focus on pedophilia obscures the core of QAnon's ideology, which is a longing for glorious, purifying and revelational violence. The pedophiles of QAnon mythology are the alter-egos of powerful Democratic politicians, Hollywood celebrities, journalists and Jewish financiers George Soros and the Rothschilds. These are the villains who will be purged by the military when The Storm is finally upon us.

Unfortunately for QAnon, normal people love democracy as much as they hate pedophilia. So recruiters don't open with talk of a coup. The faithful avoid talking about it to journalists. That's why Flynn is taking pains to walk back his comment. While The Storm is normal in QAnon circles, it's still taboo in the outside world.

Justice Stephen Breyer risks making a historic blunder

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is facing calls to retire before the 2022 congressional elections so that his successor can be confirmed while the Democrats have control of the United States Senate. The 82-year-old Breyer has signaled he's reluctant to retire because he doesn't want to be perceived as partisan.

But surely the principles that guide a judge on the bench are also relevant. Breyer's career can be defined by the defense of what he calls "active liberty," which boils down to democracy, the constitutional principle that the people should control government.

Breyer's judicial philosophy can be distilled to two key ideas. One, that the purpose of the Constitution is to preserve democracy and judges should interpret it in that light. Two that judges should take the practical consequences of their decisions into account. As a jurist, Breyer is often described as the most pragmatic justice. All of these are arguments for why the 82-year-old Breyer should retire immediately.

Breyer is famous for taking practical realities into account. In an ideal world, Supreme Court justices would have confidence that any president and any Senate would confirm a successor who would vote to uphold the basic norms of democracy. But we don't live in that world. In ours, one of the two institutional parties has rejected democracy.

Breyer is famous for saying justices shouldn't be "junior varsity politicians." But that's just the obvious truism that judges should decide cases on their legal merits, as opposed to fulfilling a policy wishlist for politicians who confirmed them, or imposing their own desired policies based on spurious arguments. For example, a judge shouldn't rule that a law is constitutional just because they like snowy owls or hate gambling. If the people elect legislators who seek to protect snowy owls or ban gambling, it's not for an unelected judge to second-guess that. It's the active liberty principle at work: People should be able to control the government through their elected legislators without worrying about unelected judges usurping that power.

Timing one's retirement at the age of 82 to secure one's judicial legacy, or indeed, to secure democracy itself, is the opposite of arbitrarily imposing one's policy preferences. A Supreme Court justice can step down for any reason. Surely, for Stephen Breyer, defending the active liberty of Americans would be a worthy reason.

Other modern Justices have more-or-less openly brokered their successors or implied it. Justice Anthony Kennedy tapped former clerk Brett Kavanaugh. Ruth Bader Ginsburg justified eking out a few more years by arguing that Hillary Clinton would be elected in 2016, implying that she planned to time her retirement accordingly.

Democracy is under assault by the Republican Party. Donald Trump was impeached for trying to overturn a free and fair election. The GOP is accelerating his anti-democratic ideology in his absence. Recognizing an anti-democratic movement isn't partisanship, it's pragmatism. David Atkins called the question in the Monthly this week: "What happens when Republicans simply refuse to certify Democratic wins?"

Joe Biden won the presidency with more than 81 million votes in what experts called the cleanest, smoothest election in American history, Atkins said. Trump tried to steal the 2020 election repeatedly, huddling with Republican state lawmakers, scheming to get GOP-controlled state legislatures to overturn the will of their voters, demanding that the Georgia Secretary of State find imaginary extra votes for him, and spreading outrageous lies about voter fraud. Trump finally called his supporters to Washington, DC, to disrupt certification of the electoral count. "It was a physical coup attempt designed to intimidate Congress into enforcing a legislative coup," Atkins said.

After the mob rampaged the Capitol, seven GOP senators voted for Trump's legislative coup. Forty-three GOP senators voted to acquit him for instigating the putsch. If Breyer doesn't retire soon, these people may end up confirming his successor.

The terrifying reality is that Republicans no longer feel compelled to acquiesce to election results. No matter how clean the contest, or how overwhelming the margin, there's always a conspiracy theory to explain why the GOP candidate is the winner. There doesn't even have to be a theory. Insinuation backed by a narrative of Democratic perfidy is enough. The fringe spreads lies and poisons faith in democracy, and more respectable Republicans are pointing to baseless fears as reason for saying that democracy must be further restricted to restore confidence in the process.

Trump is exiled to Mar-a-Lago, but his hold on the party remains unshakable. Leaders like Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy have made clear the party needs to toe the line in order to remain viable. And they're not wrong: Trump is holding the GOP hostage. He could destroy the GOP electorally by launching a third party.

Republicans who stand up for democracy are being systematically purged from the party. This week, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney will be ousted as conference chair by ambitious former moderate New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik who correctly sees the way to rise in today's GOP is to embrace Trump's Big Lie.

Time is of the essence. The Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Harris casting the deciding vote. A single death or resignation could tip the balance. What's more, the ruling party usually loses seats in the midterm elections. So Democratic control of the Senate is likely to be fleeting. And Democrats are at a permanent structural disadvantage to win the Senate back should they lose it. Republicans have also made it clear since the theft of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court seat that they will never confirm a Democratic president's nominee as long as they control the Senate.

Many hoped that Republican anti-democratic extremism would ebb after Trump, but it only appears to be accelerating. If Republicans get to pick the next nominee, they will likely pick an even more extreme candidate. By stepping down, Breyer would not be playing politics. Rather, he'd be honoring values that have defined his judicial career.

The real reason right-wingers hate vaccines

"Go get vaccinated, America," the president urged the nation last Wednesday in his State of the Union address. Joe Biden had a lot of good news to report to the US Congress on the COVID vaccination effort: 220 million shots have been administered in his first 100 days in office, everyone over 16 is eligible and 90 percent of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site. Vaccine manufacturing is booming. Supply will soon no longer be a limiting factor. Yet even as eligibility has expanded, demand has plateaued across the country and vaccination rates have dipped from their peak.

Time is of the essence. More transmissible variants of the virus mean a higher percentage of the population must be immunized to reach herd immunity. We're in a race between the finest that human civilization has to offer and venal dumbassery.

In one corner is science, bolstered by billions in public investment. Eighteen months ago, there were no vaccines for human coronaviruses. Today, there are multiple safe, highly-effective COVID shots. Better yet, thanks to wise public policy and all-hands-on-deck roll-out, they're available for free to any American adult. The president even announced tax credits to reimburse small- and mid-sized businesses that give their employees paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from vaccine side effects.

In the opposite corner are demagogues, clout-chasers and magical thinkers. These operators think they can gain political power, attention and, in some cases, money by undermining vaccinations against a disease that has killed more than 588,000 people.

Power-hungry Republicans like United States Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are positioning themselves as heirs to Donald Trump by opposing vaccinations. Johnson recently told a conservative radio host that distribution should have been limited to the truly vulnerable and he questioned the need for broad-based vaccination.

Johnson also attacked the civic-minded values behind the push for herd immunity. "What is it to you? You have got a vaccine and science is telling you it's very, very effective," Johnson asked, "So, why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?" The answer is obviously herd immunity, which offers protection for those who can't get vaccinated or whose immune systems can't respond to the vaccine.

It's a shrewd bet. Forty-two percent of Republicans say they probably or definitely wouldn't get a shot, even if it's shown to be safe. The "even if shown to be safe" proviso speaks volumes. Some Republicans claim to be against vaccination as a matter of personal liberty, but nobody's forcing them to get vaccinated. It's all rationalization.

Vaccine refusal is a tribal touchstone, even as vaccine hesitancy ebbs generally. Indeed, last summer's heavily armed anti-lockdown sieges of state legislatures were the dress rehearsals for the January 6 insurgency. Rejecting vaccines is about values, not facts. These right-wingers reject vaccines because vaccines represent science, the welfare state and the common good, which are antithetical to everything they hold dear.

Johnson isn't the only Republican riding anti-vaccine paranoia. Perhaps the perfect example of how vaccine denialism furthers extreme right-wing political ambition is Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano, who freely mixes anti-government and anti-vaccine sentiment. Mastriano beat the rush and came out against the COVID vaccine before it existed. He was also a central player in the bid to steal the election for Trump. (He actually had to be pulled out of a meeting with then-president Trump because he was found to be suffering from COVID.) But he recovered enough to organize bus transportation for the January 6 insurrection. Mastriano's antics have transformed him from an obscure legislator to a gubernatorial hopeful.

State legislators in 40 states have introduced bills that would undermine vaccine mandates. These bills are to legislating what vaccine denialism is to science. Few will become law, but they are potent messaging designed to further politicize vaccination.

Some entertainers are also milking COVID denialism for ratings and notoriety. Podcaster Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator better known for his takes on elk meat and DMT, and his willingness to host conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, opined that, "If you're, like, 21 years old, and you say to me, 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'll go no."

Rogan has 11 million listeners, many of them young. Predictably, Fox host Tucker Carlson defended Rogan's attempt to poison public understanding of vaccinations. Even Sean Hannity, who claims he's not anti-vaxx, flirted with vaccine denialism Tuesday, falsely suggesting there might not be any science behind the vaccine.

In a desperate bid to become Twitter's main character, a D-list Republican pundit gave the game away: "My primary reason for refusing the vaccine is much simpler: I dislike the people who want me to take it, and it makes them mad when they hear about my refusal. That, in turn, makes me happy." He's a troll, but he speaks the truth.

We're not just dealing with garden-variety vaccine hesitancy anymore. We're up against a cynical campaign to turn vaccination into a referendum on science, the welfare state and social solidarity. If that's how they want to play it, fine.

Vaccines are the greatest triumph of medicine. Public health is a crowning achievement of the welfare state. What we have done together to battle COVID is a testament to our love for ourselves, our neighbors and our country. Those are our values. The Republicans have called the question. Which side are you on?

Q is exposed. Will he face consequences?

A month before the sacking and looting of the United States Capitol on January 6, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the FBI for an updated assessment of the threat posed by QAnon. At a hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray assured the committee that the report would be available shortly.

A lot has happened since 2019, when the bureau flagged QAnon as a threat after a number of sensational QAnon-related crimes, including an armed assault on a pizzeria, a blockade of the bridge over the Hoover Dam and the murder of a mob boss. QAnon went on to back Donald Trump's Big Lie of a stolen election. Worse came to worst when insurgents in full Q regalia fought their way into the Capitol in a bid to throw out a free and fair election. Q hasn't been heard from since December 8, but the FBI has plenty of material to incorporate into its new QAnon threat assessment.

Another development in this sordid saga was the March release of Cullen Hoback's documentary Q: Into the Storm, which strongly suggests that the impresario of QAnon is Ron Watkins, the degenerate failson of the owner of the notorious 8kun message board. Which is … more or less what most knowledgeable observers thought all along.

The documentary lays out a strong circumstantial case that Watkins wrested control of QAnon by establishing his board, then known as 8chan, as Q's exclusive online home, booting the original Q, and assuming the old Q's digital identity. Hoback follows Watkins and his father Jim to the Capitol on January 6. The filmmaker shows how Watkins reinvented himself as a bogus "election security" expert and fomented voter fraud conspiracy theories on right-wing media. It was Watkins who seemed to bring down the curtain on Inauguration Day, urging the conspiracy's faithful to go back to their lives and focus on the "friends and happy memories" they'd made along the way.

What sets the documentary apart is that Hoback extracts the closest thing to a confession from Watkins that we're ever likely to get. Watkins tells Hoback that he's been anonymously posting on the QResearch message board for the last three years, teaching ordinary people to do intelligence work—which is exactly what Q did. Watkins hastily adds he never did so as Q. Hoback obviously doesn't believe him.

I leave it to the reader to decide if a "confession" from a professional liar is any more reliable than a denial from a professional liar. Either way, Q: Into the Storm has solidified the conventional wisdom that Ron Watkins is the main architect of Q.

The Watkins' main antagonist in the film, Frederick Brennan, is now calling for the arrest of Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins for their role in the QAnon conspiracy. United States Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, may have been inspired by the documentary when he asked Wray whether Watkins and his father could face charges for their role in promoting a conspiracy theory that inspired an insurrection against the United States and numerous acts of violence. To his credit, Wray said the FBI was focused on investigating violent plots, rather than policing speech online.

Even if it could be proven that Watkins is the ringleader of QAnon, he doesn't seem to have broken any laws. LARPing1 is not a crime, except perhaps against good taste.

The central theme of QAnon ideology is the glorification of political violence. The anons are awaiting "The Storm," a cleansing political purge in which the military will liquidate tens of thousands of Q's enemies and seize control of the government. As repellent and toxic as this belief is, it's legally protected speech. The First Amendment protects the right to wish that the military would overthrow the government someday.

A speaker only crosses the line if they're inciting imminent lawless action—i.e., telling people to violently overthrow the government right this minute. QAnon was crucial in popularizing the Big Lie that spurred the insurgency, but Q's writings are far too elliptical and non-directive to count as an concretely inciting. To put it more bluntly, they don't make enough sense. For the most part, Q spits out a bunch of riddles, acronyms and leading questions, and his fans read what they want into them.

A big part of running a site like 8kun is fielding requests from law enforcement to take down illegal content that users have posted, such as child porn and death threats, so Watkins probably has a solid grasp of the boundaries of free expression online.

The Watkins' nemesis, Frederick Brennan, argues that Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins should be arrested for impersonating federal agents. This legal argument seems far-fetched. Q certainly invited the inference that he was a national security big-shot, but Q was as vague about his fictional credentials as he was about everything else.

Moreover, the federal law against impersonating an officer of the United States is designed to be used against impostors who usurp the authority of the federal government to coerce their victims. Classic examples include the kidnapper who flashes a fake FBI badge to convince his victim she's under arrest, or the con artist who poses as an IRS auditor and demands a pensioner's Social Security number. Implying you're a government agent for internet clout probably doesn't cut it, even if said clout helps you raise money or sell ads. That's because the suckers are forking over that cash freely, and not because you ordered them to do so in the name of the state.

As satisfying as it would be to see Ron Watkins and Jim Watkins in handcuffs, it wouldn't solve the underlying problem, namely, that millions of Americans remain in the grip of right-wing conspiracy culture, including most of the GOP. Prosecuting the architects of this pathetic scheme would only validate their sense of persecution.

Glenn Greenwald grossly misfires in botched attempt to smear an intern

Brenna Smith, an investigations intern at USA Today, revealed over the weekend that various defendants awaiting trial for their role in the January 6 insurgency at the US Capitol are resorting to underhanded tactics to get around tech platforms' strict rules against transferring money to violent extremists. Smith and her colleagues—veteran reporters Jessica Guynn and Will Carless—conducted a meticulous investigation on a matter of great public interest. But no good deed goes unpunished. Not on Twitter.

"Congratulations on using your new journalistic platform to try to pressure tech companies to terminate the ability of impoverished criminal defendants to raise money for their legal defense from online donations," tweeted Glenn Greenwald, a pundit and frequent Tucker Carlson guest, directing his ire squarely at the young female intern, Brenna Smith, rather than at the ideas presented in her piece.

Greenwald offers no evidence that these defendants are indigent, as opposed to merely cheap, but let's assume they're unable to afford lawyers. If so, that's what public defenders are for. The right to counsel doesn't entitle you to ignore the terms of service set by private companies. There's no constitutional right to PayPal.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to an attorney, but not to any attorney you want, and certainly not the right to fundraise however you want to afford them. DC public defenders are known as some of the finest advocates available at any price, so it isn't even a sacrifice for an insurgent to accept a free lawyer if he qualifies for one.

Payment processors like PayPal and Stripe cracked down on hate groups after a right-wing extremist murdered an antifascist protester and injured dozens of others at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. PayPal's terms of service exclude those who promote "hate, violence or racial intolerance." The violence criterion alone disqualifies the Capitol defendants who, although innocent until proven guilty of the specific charges against them, promoted a violent effort to overturn an election.

Smith and her crew at USA Today reported on Sunday that some January 6 defendants who have been booted from crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe are resorting to deceit to keep their fundraising going. They are swapping out usernames and switching platforms in an attempt to keep the money spigot open. PayPal's hard line on hate groups is complicating the insurgents' lives, because the company also balks at processing credit and debit card transactions from independent crowdfunding sites.

The right to a criminal defense is a red herring. There's no rule against crowdfunding legal expenses, per se. Attempts to crowdfund the criminal defense of insurgents have not been labeled as violence in and of themselves. The bans apply to specific people who have been kicked off for prior bad behavior. These defendants gave PayPal et al. even more reason to ban them when they engaged in a campaign of subterfuge.

These technology companies are private entities. They can ignore, suppress, block or deplatform whomever they want for any reason. In this case, they're using that power wisely, and justly, to thwart extremist movements linked to a violent attack on our democracy. We shouldn't be complacent, however, and assume Big Tech will always act for good. But that's an argument for tougher regulation, or even for publicly-owned digital utilities to safeguard our freedoms online.

Greenwald's attack on Brenna Smith—who is an intern, I repeat an intern—shows now that he's opposed to the only other meaningful check on Big Tech, lieu of government regulation: A free press that scrutinizes its behavior and imposes reputational costs for bad behavior.

Smith's piece was straight reporting, not advocacy. The public deserves to know what the rules of Big Tech are, and whether they are being consistently enforced. People who disagree on the merits of PayPal's rules can still find value in accurate reporting about what they are, as long as they aren't blinded by ideology. Greenwald could cite Smiths' reporting to make his case that PayPal is committing an injustice against the MAGA chuds. It's telling that instead of thanking Smith and attacking PayPal, Greenwald chose to assail the intern instead of the billion-dollar company.

The Pulitzer-winning former top editor at The Intercept presents himself as a champion of free speech, but he demands that a young female journalist adopt a "stop snitching" ethic when it comes to insurgents fundraising online. The free press has no obligation to look the other way while insurgents hoodwink tech companies.

The link between Trumpland, QAnon, evangelical culture and child-sex predators

Ben Gibson, a failed Republican congressional candidate who shared QAnon content on social media, was arrested in December on four counts of child pornography. A few months earlier, Joshua Jennings was arrested on first-degree murder charges for allegedly killing his girlfriend's 10-month-old daughter. Investigators found that Jennings had plastered the QAnon associated #savethechildren hashtag all over his Facebook wall, interspersed with rants about killing pedophiles.

The central tenet of QAnon is that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controls all major institutions that must be cleansed by Donald J. Trump in a wave of purifying violence. Given that, it's odd that the faithful are so tolerant of child sexual exploitation in Trumpland itself. Trump used to party with billionaire child sex criminal Jeffery Epstein, and in 2002 described the financier as "a terrific guy," adding: "It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side." George Nader, high-ranking diplomatic advisor to Donald Trump and QAnon favorite General Mike Flynn, is serving 10 years in prison for child pornography and trafficking a minor for sex. Ruben Verastigui, a senior digital strategist for the Trump campaign, was arrested in early February on federal child pornography charges. Trump's 2016 Oklahoma campaign chair and a Trump delegate from Kentucky are currently doing time for child trafficking.

4chan, a loosely moderated, anonymous imageboard dedicated to pushing the limits of free speech, will inevitably attract more than its share of unsavory characters.

QAnon's preoccupation with child porn is a result of overlapping themes in chan culture, conspiracy culture, Evangelical culture, and parenting/wellness culture. The theory gelled in poorly moderated spaces where actual child porn and jokes about it were a fact of life.

QAnon was born in the fetid swamps of 4chan imageboard, where the speech was free and child porn was available to those who knew where to look. Child porn was officially against the rules, but the chans were founded as forums for unbridled free speech, so their moderation protocols are purposefully lax. Pedophilia jokes and tropes fit 4chan's shock-jock ethos. The unofficial mascot of 4chan is a character known as Pedobear.

Needless to say, the vast majority of chan users are not pedophiles, but a loosely moderated, anonymous imageboard dedicated to pushing the limits of free speech will inevitably attract more than its share of unsavory characters.

Pizzagate, the forerunner to QAnon, came about because 4chan users read John Podesta's hacked emails and mistook Podesta's genuine love of food for a coded language that was already in circulation on 4chan.

"Pizzagate exists because 4chan users had slang for child porn, like 'cheese pizza' (derived from 'CP')," explains Q Origins, the anonymous researcher who pieces together the prehistory of QAnon on the Q Origins Project Twitter feed, "This is why those same people glommed on to the idea that pizza was pedophile slang."

The early QAnon evangelists brought the fledgling faith to the larger world, starting with YouTube and Alex Jones' InfoWars. This was a critical step in QAnon going mainstream.

"Q" of QAnon fame was one of many chan users ("anons") who posed as anonymous government insiders doling out cryptic clues for readers of 4chan's Politically Incorrect board, /pol/. This genre was so common that anons nicknamed it "LARPing" (a derisive comparison to "swords and shields" live action role-playing). LARPers like FBIAnon and MegaAnon explored many of the same themes as QAnon, but never went mainstream. Q Origins speculates that QAnon has a life beyond the chans because of Q's ability to tone down the overt racism and sexism of /pol/ to a level closer to what you'd see on Fox News.

QAnon draws on all the conspiracy theories that came before it. Crimes against children, specifically ritualistic atrocities, figure prominently in conspiracy theories throughout history. You can hear the echo of Blood Libel allegations against the Jews in QAnon's belief in a Satanic cabal of child abusers.

Like all conspiracy theories, QAnon reflects the hopes and fears of its co-creators. If you spend a lot of time on an imageboard that's saturated with pedophilia references and studded with actual child porn, child porn probably seems like even more of a threat than it does to the average person.

The early QAnon evangelists brought the fledgling faith to the larger world, starting with YouTube and Alex Jones' media empire, InfoWars. This was a critical step in QAnon going mainstream. Chans are an insular world that is only navigable by people with a fair amount of technical sophistication and a high tolerance for obscenity and abuse. QAnon's spread across more user-friendly platforms, particularly Facebook, brought the theory to a normie audience, including evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals played a key role in fomenting a moral panic over imaginary child sex abuse in daycares in the 1980s and 1990s while overlooking sex abuse in their own churches. It's comforting to imagine that children are abused by The Other when the reality is that most children are abused by the people closest to them.

QAnon's focus on child trafficking also became a powerful recruiting feature as the conspiracy theory spread online within the massive parenting and wellness subcultures. Appeals to #savethechildren resonated with moms and some dads who wouldn't otherwise have been interested in QAnon. After all, every 21st-century parent worries about child abuse. Everyone's against child sex trafficking. It's a lot more socially acceptable to share content that's ostensibly about stopping trafficking than it is to talk about the other side of QAnon, the prophecy of political violence and authoritarian rule.

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