Making excuses for dictators is nothing new: 'Mr. Republican' and the Nazis

Readers may be familiar with Rachel Maddow's explosive new podcast, "Ultra." It tells the incredible story of a German spy who infiltrated Congress in 1940-41, inducing two dozen congressmen and senators to spread Nazi propaganda in floor speeches, op-ed columns and constituent mailings. Simultaneously, armed extremist groups began training for a violent takeover of the country. In many ways, the eight-decades-old story is a disturbing forerunner of the Trump era.

Contrary to our nostalgic memories of unity, America was deeply divided over the war in Europe, military aid to Britain, and whether fascism was the wave of the future that we might as well submit to. While political division on the eve of entry into the war was not uniformly partisan (some prominent Democrats supported isolationism), the GOP was by far the party that stood for America First and strict noninvolvement in foreign conflict.

That members of Congress would willingly become conduits for Nazi propaganda shows that for some, sincere concern to stay out of war was not their only motivation. There was surprisingly strong domestic sympathy for Hitler and the fascist powers. Those who actively worked for Germany crossed the line into subversion and treason, but even mainstream proponents of isolationism showed a tolerant understanding for fascism that, decades later, seems either shockingly naïve or disgracefully callous.

It is easy enough to write off Father Coughlin or Charles Lindbergh for their overt antisemitism and admiration of totalitarian regimes. But there is one America Firster who to this day is almost universally celebrated by the GOP as a statesman exemplifying pure, principled conservatism: three-time aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Robert A. Taft. He was such a pillar of the GOP that he was dubbed Mr. Republican.

He has neither Lindbergh's Nazi sympathizer reputation, nor the still-lingering stench of Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting a decade later. Mainstream historians, even while deprecating his politics and calling his opposition to aiding Britain misguided, nevertheless give him points for principle and integrity. Conservative think tanks churn out mini-hagiographies of Taft; National Review recently proclaimed him as Middle America's sorely needed answer to "wokeism," whatever that may be.

Taft's Senate career spanned from 1939 to 1953. He came to Washington as America was recovering from a shattering depression, and then had to confront fascist militarism. After World War II, the country faced challenges from two former allies, the Soviet Union and Communist China, with the stakes raised by the existence of nuclear weapons. How did Taft respond to this decade of existential crisis?

From the moment he entered office, he campaigned relentlessly against the New Deal, cleaving to Herbert Hoover's futile notion that rugged individualism and private charity would end the worst depression in modern history. In 1940 Taft wrote, "There is a good deal more danger of the infiltration of totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circle in Washington than there will ever be from any activities of . . . the Nazi bund."

While asserting the need for a strong military Taft nevertheless fought tooth and nail against preparing that military. He opposed both the destroyers-for-bases deal with Britain and repealing the Neutrality Act. He also voted against the Selective Service Act at a time when the German Army, fresh from a lightning conquest of Western Europe, had 4.5 million soldiers when the U.S. Army numbered only 269,000.

In early 1941, he opposed the Lend-Lease Act, saying "an invasion of the United States by the German Army is as fantastic as would be an invasion of Germany by the American Army." The German Army didn't reach America, but within a year, U-boats were prowling the eastern seaboard, sinking tankers and freighters almost at will. The rest of Taft's statement was also bunk: less than four years after his speech, the U.S. Army was advancing towards the Rhine.

In 1940, Taft suggested that "totalitarian ideas from the New Deal circle" were more dangerous than the Nazis. Eight months before Pearl Harbor, he said it was "simply fantastic" to believe that Japan might attack the U.S.

Eight months prior to Pearl Harbor, Taft stated, "It is simply fantastic to suppose there is any danger of an attack on the United States by Japan." On Sept. 22, 1941, he said, "There is much less danger to this country today than there was two years ago; certainly much less than there was one year ago." At the moment he spoke, the Wehrmacht was driving towards Moscow, Rommel's Afrika Korps ruled the North African littoral, and Admiral Yamamoto was refining his Pearl Harbor attack plan.

Many of us would be embarrassed to see our predictions read back to us later. But few deserve to be embarrassed as much as Taft. The man was a walking compendium of error. Even entry into the war did not cure his penchant for being wrong: wrong in a way that tended to absolve the enemy while condemning the U.S. government.

Four months after Pearl Harbor, he stated, "We need not have become involved in the present war," and even a year later, he publicly asserted that U.S. entry into the war was "debatable," which it was not: Japan attacked U.S. territory and Hitler declared war on the United States, not the other way around. Taft, like Republicans then and now, attempted to make political hay over wartime inflation. At the same time, though, he was a relentless opponent of the Office of Price Administration, tasked with dampening price rises. That, he said, would rob the businessman or the farmer of their liberty of setting prices as high as they wanted.

Taft questioned Henry Stimson's "competence" to run the Department of the Army and voted against confirmation — even though Stimson had previously been a secretary of war under Taft's own father, President William Howard Taft, and was to prove an effective leader in World War II. Moreover, Stimson was a Republican, nominated by Roosevelt as a gesture of bipartisanship. Taft opposed him out of knee-jerk obstinacy.

In 1944, Taft opposed an administration proposal to enable voting by the millions of GIs overseas. As David Brinkley writes in "Washington Goes to War," he offered obstructionist amendments to make the plan impossible to implement, but they were voted down. Brinkley relates that the senator complained that servicemen would be marched to the polling places and ordered to vote for FDR, presaging the current GOP's obsessive psychological projection about vote fraud.

At war's end, he criticized the Bretton Woods conference, from which emerged the financial institutions that laid the foundation for unprecedented prosperity in Europe and America. Almost 80 years later, a majority of congressional Republicans emulate Taft in opposing international organizations like the International Monetary Fund that have reinforced America's status as the world's leading financial power. Republicans are even now hinting that they might hold the country hostage over the debt ceiling increase, potentially plunging the world into financial crisis and triggering a sovereign debt default that could end the dollar's reign as the world reserve currency.

Then came Taft's most controversial stand. He attacked the Nuremberg Tribunal for unjustly applying ex post facto law (the crime of aggression), and for being victors' justice:

I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the 11 men convicted will be a blot on the American record, which we shall long regret.

In the trial, 11 defendants were indeed sentenced to hang, but seven others were given lesser sentences and three acquitted. As for the claim of ex post facto justice, Robert Jackson — the American prosecutor who believed aggression enabled all the other war crimes that followed — summed up the charge:

And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law, if it is to serve a useful purpose must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment. We are able to do away with domestic tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of their own people only when we make all men answerable to the law.

While the charge of aggression was unprecedented (all precedent must begin somewhere), the convicted defendants were also found guilty of ordering or committing acts against military and civilian victims which were already proscribed by law. According to Kim Priemel's "The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence," the judges demonstrated independence from their governments, and the defendants (who were allowed counsel and able to present defenses) were seen as receiving due process. The evidence of their guilt was overwhelming.

By that point, Taft's positions were backfiring on him. His condemnation of the Nuremberg trials and opposition to military voting, in particular, may have torpedoed his chances for the Republican nomination in 1948. He may also have doomed the nominee, Tom Dewey, who was heavily favored to win the presidency. When President Harry Truman called Congress into extraordinary session in 1948, Taft blocked even innocuous bills, angering voters and inadvertently contributing to Truman's upset re-election.

As might be expected, he voted against confirmation of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, saying it was "a waste of money" that was "more likely to incite war than to deter it."

As for standing on principle, however wrongheaded, a quality that qualified him for grudging admiration even from critics, that trait was sometimes malleable. In 1950 Taft blamed the UN for not averting the Korean war, saying, "We were sucked into the Korean war, as representatives of the UN, by a delusion as to a power which has never existed under the Charter."

Yet Gen. Douglas MacArthur's reckless pursuit of the North Koreans to the Yalu River, which brought Chinese intervention and a wider war, worked a change of heart in Taft. Now he was not only for the war, but when MacArthur insubordinately attacked President Truman's policy and advocated use of nuclear weapons, Taft stated this on the Senate floor after Truman made the correct decision to fire the general:

President Truman must be impeached and convicted. His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of series of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office. The American nation has never been in greater danger. It is led by a fool who is surrounded by knaves.

That the legendary anti-interventionist Taft supported a vain martinet whose tirades included lobbying for nuclear war suggests he might have been less than a rock-solid man of principle. The fact that the 1952 presidential campaign was nearing makes us suspect that he may have sought to exploit MacArthur's popularity to get the presidential nomination. But it was not to be: His record was too blemished.

Why dredge up this ancient history? It tells us not only that some political golden age of ur-Republicanism, just like all retrospective utopias, never existed, but that the icons of those myths were flawed, sometimes badly so. It also suggests that the Republican Party, apart from intermittent post-World War II periods of bipartisanship, never really changed.

This history tells us that some political golden age of ur-Republicanism never existed. The Republican Party, apart from intermittent post-World War II bipartisanship, never really changed. Robert Taft was the larval stage of what exists today.

It is true that today's GOP has sunk to unprecedented depths, crossing the threshold from a quasi-normal political party to an authoritarian movement and leader cult. On Jan. 6, 2021, a majority of House Republicans defended violent insurrection against constitutional order. The party's reliance on reflexive negativity rather than constructive alternatives and its knee-jerk propensity to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted have been features ever since the onset of the Great Depression. Robert A. Taft is not an alternative to the current GOP; Mr. Republican was simply the larval stage of what exists today.

The negativity and obstructionism that we witness daily from the GOP is straight out of their old playbook for contesting the New Deal and crucial areas of World War II policy. The positioning on issues is also much the same: Taft decried Roosevelt and Truman as warmongers, but turned on a dime to extol MacArthur, a general so imperious he was called the American Caesar. Likewise, current GOP issue positioning largely depends on whether a Democrat or a Republican is president.

Sentimental constructs like the "Greatest Generation" paint a false picture of unity during World War II. It is often hard to distinguish where the bitter-end isolationism of the highly influential press moguls William Randolph Hearst and Robert McCormick ended and sympathy for fascism began. It requires no speculation about Henry Ford, one of the richest and most influential Americans of the time: he was awarded (and happily accepted) a medal from Hitler.

There also are grounds for questioning whether, beneath the posturing about liberty and the Constitution, Taft had a sneaking sympathy for fascists, albeit not as overt as Lindbergh's. Denouncing the Nuremberg Trials as a gross miscarriage of justice fairly begs for explanation, as in the decades following the only critics of the tribunal were outright neo-Nazis like Harry Elmer Barnes or David Irving. This tarnishes his reputation and makes one wonder if he deserves inclusion in the Senate reception room's "famous five" collection of portraits of great senators, perhaps the Senate's greatest honor.

Likewise, did Taft really believe the New Deal was a bigger threat than Nazism, or was that a hollow rationale to camouflage a belief that Germany might as well rule Europe? We can similarly suspect that when Republican opponents of aid to Ukraine say they vote no for the absurd reason that helping Ukraine against Russia somehow means appeasing China (an ally of Russia), sympathy for an authoritarian dictatorship might be their real motivation.

That Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the keynote speaker at the recent CPAC convention only heightens the suspicion. A substantial overlap between Republican opponents of aid to Ukraine and those defending an attempted overthrow of constitutional government on Jan. 6 is hardly coincidental. Republicans have signaled the possibility of cutting off aid to Ukraine, an act which would have grave implications not only for Europe but would indicate U.S. unreliability throughout the world. If Republicans abandon Ukraine, it would sabotage the deterrent effect of any security guarantees to Taiwan against China, the country the GOP claims to take seriously as a threat.

The substantial overlap between Republican opponents of aid to Ukraine and those defending an attempted overthrow of constitutional government on Jan. 6 is hardly coincidental.

Republicans' willingness to hold hostage America's full faith and credit in 2023 is based on their alleged concern about the deficit — but only when a Democrat holds the presidency, a reflex that goes back to Taft. The goal is to force cuts in Social Security and Medicare, arguably the country's two most successful anti-poverty measures, one of which was proposed by FDR almost 90 years ago. In a sense, the GOP has never ceased running against Roosevelt and the New Deal.

As this is being written, our country is without a functioning House of Representatives. Twenty legislative terrorists from the GOP are holding their own leader, Kevin McCarthy, hostage in order to receive plenary powers to run the institution according to their whims. The overlap between these members and supporters of both the Jan. 6 insurrection and a Ukraine aid cutoff only increases fears that they would abandon Ukraine and destroy the full faith and credit of the United States from no deeper principle than the nihilistic urge to break things.

In 1940, the Wall Street Journal asserted that "our job today is not to stop Hitler," the dictator whom the editorial claimed had "already determined the broad lines of our national life at least for another generation." Note that the Journal, then as now the flagship of "respectable" conservatism, not only consigned Europe to Hitler's domination, but America as well, and for the following 30 years. The title of the editorial, "A Plea for Realism," is a reminder that in some quarters, "realism" means abandoning democracy and submitting to force.

As the Second World War passes from living memory, it is apparent that democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have forgotten its frightful lessons. Right-wing political parties in Europe and America have lurched towards racial populism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and have even tried to push antisemitism back into the realm of acceptable views. It is hardly coincidental that, once again, there is a major war in Europe.

If someone who had followed the debate over aid to Britain in 1940 were magically transported to the present, he would have little difficulty getting oriented to the global situation, both in its military precariousness and in the threat of advancing dictatorship. And if he heard Josh Hawley or Rand Paul proclaiming America First on the floor of the Senate, he could be forgiven for hearing the voice of Robert Taft.

The curious case of two generals named Flynn

Time flies whether one is having fun or not: it's now almost a year since insurrectionists worked to nullify your vote in a violent storming of the Capitol. Investigations of the attempted overthrow of the government thus far have proceeded with all the urgency of an interagency review of the price structure of cafeterias in federal facilities.

Michael Flynn's brother, involved as he was in the decision to delay mobilizing the National Guard, shortly thereafter received a promotion to head U.S. Army Pacific: a prestigious field command.

Politico now reports that a former District of Columbia National Guard officer, Colonel Earl Matthews, has written a 36-page memo blasting the Pentagon inspector general's review of the Army's response to the January 6th insurrection. Colonel Matthews also suggests that congressional oversight of the incident has been stymied by senior Army officials lying in their testimony.

As for the inspector general's survey of the Capitol riot, the Matthews memo concludes that the survey's deflecting of blame from the Army was "worthy of the best Stalinist or North Korea propagandist." This is not implausible, given the history of inspectors general finding few problems in the agencies they oversee.

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The memo's biggest tell is that it brands as "absolute and unmitigated liars" among the Army's congressional witnesses one General Charles Flynn, who at the time of the incident was the service's deputy chief of staff for operations. On January 6, he was stationed at the Pentagon, a couple of miles from the Capitol.

Does that name strike a chord? He is the brother of the ever-charming Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump's national security adviser, fired and then sentenced for lying to the FBI about unofficial communications with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 presidential transition. He was subsequently pardoned by Trump. Here is Mike in happier days among his congenial Russian hosts.

Flynn's subsequent career has been varied. Throughout the Trump presidency and beyond, he has acted as a tireless spokesman for Trump's interests, publicly advocating martial law to overturn the 2020 presidential election. He has also sworn an oath to QAnon, the bizarre conspiracy cult that has created a whole new form of contagious mass mental illness.

To be sure, Colonel Matthews's memo does not mention Michael Flynn, directly or indirectly. For a military observer like Matthews, who almost certainly had no personal knowledge of the relationship between the two brothers, it would have been improper for him to speculate.

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But he has already denounced General Charles Flynn for lying to Congress. If that charge can be substantiated by evidence, one would likely conclude he was covering up an inappropriate response by the Army to the riot. What other rocks might be turned over?

It certainly bears investigation. After all, CNN host Chris Cuomo's assistance of his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, to manage media fallout over accusations that the latter engaged in sexual harassment, was covered up for months. The recent revelation of their collusion was a media sensation.

While that story certainly had legitimate news value, why, for eleven months, has the Flynn fraternal connection virtually lain fallow? Charles Flynn was a key figure in the delay of the response to an attempted overthrow of the United States Government; his brother Michael a beneficiary of Trump's pardon who might have "owed" the president. And Trump, of course, was the one who most of all would derive advantage from a successful coup.

Clearing up this question is not only crucial to a proper investigation of the Capitol riot. Michael Flynn's brother, involved as he was in the decision to delay mobilizing the National Guard, shortly thereafter received a promotion to head U.S. Army Pacific: a prestigious field command. The posting indicates, among other things, the Army's evaluation of his performance in situations where sound judgment is critical.

It also comes at a time when military veterans—and also serving military personnel—are being recruited by extremist groups, Both categories were disproportionately represented in the mob that attacked the Capitol. It is imperative that military and civilian leadership understand the domestic extremist threat and take action against it.

READ: Michael Flynn ridiculed for appearing to forget words to Pledge of Allegiance — while remembering QAnon one

America's two-decade "forever war" in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in a U.S. military force enduring multiple tour of duty. It has unquestionably left at least some of the force, officers and enlisted alike, cynical and ripe for politicization.

History, of course never repeats itself exactly, but eerie parallels exist. There were masses of German soldiers who returned from World War I embittered and estranged by their pointless sacrifice, and inclined to blame the politicians for losing the war. They were readily recruited into the Freikorps militias, theoretically ad hoc formations to defend Germany's fluid border with a newly-created Polish state.

But they became increasingly involved in attacking the left political opposition in Germany's streets, developing a profound hatred of the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic. Their activity helped pave the way for the Third Reich.

A correspondent of mine, a Vietnam combat veteran and former Marine, wrote this about the potential recruitment of extremists from the military: "… We have lost the ideal of what we wanted in a military reflecting our society, our right-wing society has captured the military… If you walk the Pentagon halls there will be not ONE TV tuned to anything else but FOX."

If that description even approaches reality, it clearly explains the military's wretchedly miserable intelligence about the war in Afghanistan. It does not require inordinate cynicism, however, to suppose the officer corps knows all about the War on Christmas.

To be certain, there were many people in the military and civilian chain of command on January 6th, and a coincidence of family ties is not proof. But it and everything else connected with the event bear close investigation, both in view of an insider's accusations of perjury, and the knack of inspectors general for minimizing or whitewashing government dysfunction.

I am struck by how few people in our civilian government seem to be aware that it was sheer luck that an overthrow of the government miscarried, and that the danger has not gone away. On the contrary: unaddressed, the peril will only increase. Like the politicians of Weimar, they behave like rabbits mesmerized by a cobra.

Let's end the damaging cult of the Constitution

Imagine if the people of Germany's capital, Berlin, had no representation in the Bundestag. Picture the last presidential election in France resulting in Marine Le Pen defeating Emmanuel Macron while garnering millions fewer votes. Finally, suppose that Britain's parliamentary constituencies were created so that sparsely populated Scotland enjoyed vastly disproportionate representation.

Perform that thought experiment and you will understand why people in other developed countries shake their heads at the American system of government. For all the obligatory public reverence we render to our Constitution, it has served us poorly for decades. Its negative features stymie modern governance and democracy itself, while its good provisions have been perverted or are virtual dead letter. Worst of all, its very structure impedes sensible revision.

But it is also resistant to change for psychological reasons: the document is so invested with quasi-religious baggage that it has become a totem, foreclosing factual debate about its pluses and minuses. As a first step, before we even attempt to engage the rusty, clanking mechanism of constitutional revision, we need to be able to discuss the matter like adults and prepare the way for reform.

Both our major parties bathe the Constitution in adoration, but in distinct ways. Republicans hive to the cult of "constitutional conservatism," which treats it as a perfect, unchangeable charter bequeathed to us by infallible founding fathers in the manner of God handing down the Ten Commandments.

This does not prevent the GOP from making the most radical interpretations whenever it suits them. A huge Republican legal industry headed by the Federalist Society exists to stretch constitutional construction to the breaking point. Whenever a Republican occupies the presidency, conservative operatives will insist the intent of the founders was to grant the chief executive dictatorial powers equal to those of Kim Jong Un. When not convenient for them, the plain wording of the Constitution somehow is itself unconstitutional, as with Republicans' excuse making during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

Democrats were noted during the New Deal and Great Society for being expansive readers of the Constitution, particularly the commerce clause. That has changed as the two parties have essentially flipped positions on many matters of interpretation.

Now Democrats are content with a more restrained reading of the document. In the last few years, they have invoked it in vain attempts to rein in a lawless and runaway chief executive. But all it demonstrated was that several constitutional provisions, like impeachment, insurrection, treason and emoluments, have become amusing legal folklore, like Oliver Cromwell's prohibition of eating mince pies on Christmas day.

This nullification of constitutional jurisdiction over certain subjects is echoed by the broader public debate. The past four years have seen a collective national shrug over matters that the Constitution addresses in the plainest language as crimes of the utmost seriousness. Opinion makers have now redefined Trump's abundantly documented cooptation by a hostile foreign power as yesterday's news. One journalist, Jonathan Chait, who from the beginning had closely charted the ex-president's dalliance with the Kremlin, has now decided that we may be justified in inferring the worst: that our head of state was a foreign agent of influence. His takeaway? Hey, stuff happens, it may not matter.

Many other crucial provisions of the document are either as good as dead or perversely interpreted. If there was ever a situation that called for removal of a president for disability under the 25th Amendment (a comparatively recent revision of the document), it was Trump's presidency. Even Steve Bannon reportedly thought it should have been invoked. One can now doubt it will ever be used.

More venerable provisions have likewise fallen into decrepitude. If there is one matter on which the framers were clear, it was that Congress has the sole power to declare war. It is now 80 years since this provision was invoked, never mind the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and numerous other lesser conflicts.

The Eighth Amendment's prohibition on torture, codified in several laws and treaty accessions, seems likewise to have become dead letter as of Abu Ghraib. Similarly, President Bush nullified the Fourth Amendment's ban on illegal search and seizure with an executive order. Expansive use of the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law eagerly copied by states, has markedly injured the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, as well as impinging on the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on seizure.

Somehow, though, the Constitution's original provisions that impede democratic self-government remain fully in force. There has been wide comment on the anti-democratic features of the Constitution: the Electoral College, the wildly lopsided popular representation in the Senate, and the license for state legislatures to gerrymander at will (which arguably bypasses the 14th Amendment's one person, one vote interpretation).

Critics have correctly tied those features to the maintenance of slavery, an issue one would have thought might remove some of the Constitution's immaculate luster. Given the disastrous performance of the Electoral College in two of the last six presidential elections, these inequities of the Constitution have finally become more publicly appreciated.

An unrecognized problem is that the Constitution has existed virtually unchanged for so long (the last substantive amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, was adopted 50 years ago), and its controlling precedents are so old that powerful special interests have learned how to game it. A friend who had worked in the Department of Homeland Security remarked that one of the best methods to thwart terrorists is to periodically change the security protocols so that the bad guys can't game them. A similar situation applies with our computers; we must frequently update virus protection or malevolent persons will hack them.

So it is that any rational system of governance must occasionally be adjusted to prevent such manipulation. The wealthy and big corporations clearly get what they want by gaming the system. RICO may be a fearsome instrument against the little guy, but it and other statutes were not used to punish the malfeasance of large financial institutions following the 2008 crash. Such entities, which lavish money on our politicians, have the resources to ensure a peculiar due process which inevitably concludes in paltry fines and no admission of guilt.

That same lavishing of money on politicians is now enshrined within the sanctity of the First Amendment. Money equals speech, and one's ability to influence our system is proportionate to personal or corporate cash on hand. But if you are a citizen journalist with a cellphone camera who photographs inhumane or unsanitary conditions in a slaughterhouse, in many states you get no First Amendment protection; rather, you have engaged in slanderous commercial disparagement.

Alas, some of this gaming is performed not by special interests seeking to line their pockets, but by the supposed guardians of the Constitution. The executive has usurped war powers because Congress habitually shirks responsibility for matters of war and peace out of sheer cowardice.

Nowadays, appropriating money for war counts as implicit constitutional approval for a Congress terrorized by the potential political charge of "not supporting the troops." Likewise, the torture ban and prohibition of warrantless surveillance fell to the inability of members of Congress to explain that upholding the Constitution didn't mean they supported al Qaeda. These actions set a precedent, and the Supreme Court refused to rule against the executive. The Court evidently believes, based on a 1953 lawsuit ruling, that it has no writ to intervene in any matter the executive chooses to label "state secrets."

We eventually arrive at a herculean challenge: the Constitution is – at present – for all practical purposes impossible to change. Breaking a Senate filibuster is difficult enough, as it requires three-fifths of the full Senate membership. A constitutional amendment requires not only two-thirds of both the House and Senate, but three-quarters of all state legislatures. Given our current polarized political atmosphere, this is about as likely as discovering emperor penguins in the Amazon.

This inertia is symptomatic of a larger syndrome. The United States has reached a stage of chronic social and political stagnation, and even degeneration. Already in 2011, author Kurt Andersen noted the weird stasis in American culture involving everything from fashion to housewares to Hollywood movies to the architecture of our metropolitan areas ever since the Reagan era. Other than high tech gadgetry, the outward texture of American life has hardly changed, whereas each decade before had its own distinct "look."

That stagnation is reflected in our politics as well. Since roughly 1980, our politicians have recited from the same dreary playbook: culture wars demonization, bogus concern about debt and deficit, the American people don't deserve better and the government shouldn't do anything in any case. Incredibly, all these political mantras saw service even in a pandemic that has killed a half million Americans. Throughout this four-decade period, the Constitution has served as justification either for keeping things as they are or making them slightly worse.

The American government is older than most European state systems. The German Federal Republic dates from 1949, the French Fifth Republic from 1958, and virtually all other European states undertook radical transformation after World War II. Our Electoral College is an eighteenth century relic last seen in the Holy Roman Empire, which dissolved in 1803. Our Senate's minoritarian system of filibuster harkens back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's legislature, whose liberum veto required unanimous consent of all members. It was a major reason why the commonwealth could not fend off destruction by neighboring powers.

The top and mid-level personnel of our government have acquired their own distinctive "look," that of a retirement community. The Congressional Research Service has noted that the average age of a US senator in 2018 was 62 years, the oldest in the institution's history. In 1981, the dawn of the Reagan revolution of gerontocracy, the average age of a senator was 53. House members have aged similarly: in 1981 the average age was 49, now it is 57. The president is 78; the speaker of the House is 80; the majority and minority leaders of the Senate are 70 and 79, respectively.

America is overdue for reform and rejuvenation. The Constitution has served as a ready alibi for stopping reform, as it did in the Gilded Age. One should have no illusion that an overhaul of our government, including the Constitution, will be anything but a frustratingly long-term project. But it is at least thinkable. The Gilded Age was followed by an era of progress in which the Constitution was amended to provide for a federal income tax, a popularly elected Senate and the franchise for women.

But nothing will happen unless Americans at least talk about the Constitution's flaws and cease treating it like pagans worshipping a stone idol. Otherwise, we resemble a drug addict's family that fails even to candidly discuss the problem, let alone get the addict into treatment.

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