How Alarmed Should We Be?

Plus: Our weekly mailbag

Happy Sunday. It’s rainy here, so maybe a good day to re-watch Idiocracy. Or is that too on-the-nose?

ICYMI, Eugene Robinson asks: “How dumb can a nation get and still survive?”

I’m afraid we are going to find out. From his piece:

T.S. Eliot wrote that the world ends "not with a bang but a whimper,” but I fear our great nation is careening toward a third manner of demise: descent into lip-blubbering, self-destructive idiocy.

How did we become, in such alarming measure, so dumb? Why is the news dominated by ridiculous controversies that should not be controversial at all? When did so many of our fellow citizens become full-blown nihilists who deny even the concept of objective reality? And how must this look to the rest of the world?

I had some thoughts about this the other day:

I was thinking of guys like this:


How alarmed should we be?

An interesting debate is developing over how seriously we should take the rolling Trumpian coup.

Bill Kristol has been sounding the alarm for months. Robert Kagan wrote an epic piece arguing that “Our constitutional crisis is already here.” (If you haven’t done so, you should read his whole article.) Ross Douthat, who famously reassured us one year ago today that — “There Will No Trump Coup” — continues to argue that the threat is overblown because Trump is too incompetent to pull it off.

Now the Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg has weighed in, as well.

Jonah writes:

Ross Douthat has gotten a lot of grief for writing that Trump’s “threat to constitutional norms is one of many percolating dangers in the United States today, not a singular danger that should organize all other political choices and suspend all other disagreements.” But he’s right. 

There’s a bit of straw man there since I’m not sure who is arguing that we should “suspend all other disagreements.” (We certainly don’t here at the Bulwark. See here, and here, and here, and here, and here. )

But it raises the question: how big a deal is the coup really? Is it a big enough deal to root for the Administration not to fail? (And, yes, there is a very real distinction between “supporting” everything in the Biden agenda, and urging/nagging/rooting for him not to screw the pooch.)

When you have time, you should watch this. You might not be a Maher fan, but he’s not wrong.

Also ICYMI this: “The hollowness of the ‘but it didn’t work’ defense of Trump’s attempt to retain power.”

It didn’t work in 2020, no. Happily. But guerrilla efforts are strengthened by probing defenses. You learn where the opponent is weak and where it’s strong. Maybe that involved a sloppy effort to throw things at the wall. But if you learned where the wall was weak, it was worth it.

Meanwhile, last night in Iowa….

DES MOINES, IOWA — Nine months ago, Republicans were questioning Donald Trump’s place as the lead fixture of their party. Saturday night provided the clearest evidence yet that they want him right there.

Not one year removed from surviving a second impeachment, the former president rallied before thousands of his most loyal supporters across the Iowa state fairgrounds on a balmy Midwestern evening. He regaled them with his stories from the White House, his falsehoods and complaints about the 2020 election results, and his criticisms of the Biden administration on everything from immigration to the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And this morning, the Number Two Republican in the House of Representatives.

Finally, via Pew:

Two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they would like to see former President Donald Trump continue to be a major political figure for many years to come, including 44% who say they would like him to run for president in 2024, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted Sept. 13 to 19.

Spoiler alert: He’s running.


We Get Mail

Another huge week for the Bulwark mailbag. A reminder that there are two ways to give feedback: (1) Bulwark+ members can comment on any of my Morning Shots… and (2) you can keep your darts and laurels, rants and raves coming to cjaysykes@gmail.com.

A small sample of this week’s mail:

**

Hi Charlie

I am a former liberal who has not really changed positions but can see that I no longer fit in with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  After reading Bulwark on the free site I finally became a subscriber.  I appreciate your work and share your concerns over the dangers to our Democratic system.

We used to speak derisively of one-party states.  All the while not recognizing that a good chunk of people in our country live in one party states.  Both political parties have unstable coalitions.  On the Republican side you have MAGA + Business interests + libertarians.  For a long time conservatives like yourself played a duck and weave game with the MAGA folks figuring you could use their votes to advance your agenda.  But then they took your ball away.

Something similar is happening with the Democrats.  Today the Democrats are this odd coalition of the technocratic elite with certain minority groups.  The technocratic elite played the same duck and weave game.  Will the result be the same?  I sure hope not.

David Gaynon


I am fairly further left than you, and I am getting major tea party vibes from the 'progressive' left in congress. If they genuinely wanted progress they would push for small, but incremental, improvements, and then swing for the fences when those measures succeeded and they had the votes to do so (assuming they ever did).

The way that faction of the Dems operates now, it seems apparent that they either don't care about their policies actually being enacted, but want to show their base they 'fought', or that they are the worst politicians that have ever lived. 

All they want is a quick hit which fails. The actual path to success ( a long, incremental, legislative process) would see them branded a failure and 'sell-out'. 

They want to make major changes and also avoid scrutiny of those changes by trying to steamroll their opponents and avoid any discussion, let alone any consensus, and are only supported by a small, but enthusiastic group within their party, 

It's the tea party, They are slightly less shitty than the tea party. But otherwise the same.

Chris B.


I was utterly appalled that a bunch of folks followed Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into a bathroom and videotaped her (evidently the video consisted mainly of a closed stall door, but that doesn't make it any more defensible). I'm just as ticked off at her as the next LibDem, but this is NOT ACCEPTABLE….

Every day, it seems that one reads about Jan 6 insurrectionists who are being quite rightly dressed down by federal judges. Is it white or Republican or Confederate "privilege" that makes these defendants behave that way? What in the world makes them think that they can talk to *any* judge (let alone a federal one) in such a disrespectful manner?? I get it that bad behavior can be contagious. But we cannot afford to have the basically decent Democratic party infected in that way. The folks who videotaped Sen. Sinema in a bathroom are downright and unequivocally despicable.

Raj Seshu


Hey Charlie!

As always, love what everyone at The Bulwark team is doing—especially Sarah with her terrific new podcast, so I wanted to start off by saying thank you.

Just an observation, and maybe this is disagreeable, but it seems to me that if you took the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s, the Birchers of the 1950’s, and the anti-vaxxers of the 2000's and rolled them all together, you’d get modern Trumpers. The core of the Trumpist philosophy is no more than a resurrection and recombination of some of the nation’s worst political movements in history. What do all three of those groups have in common? They’re all conspiratorial as shit, which is a reflection of the omitted-context information environment they were all living in.

The modern post-2014 conservative movement came to fruition in the wake of massive distrust of “lamestream media”—popularized most notably early on by Sarah Palin, which led conservatives further down rabbit holes of nonsense when they moved to unconventional (mis)information sources post-Tea Party/personalized Google search engines (both right around 2010). Ferguson ‘14 was the first time I had heard any right-wing voters being interviewed by the news mention Donald Trump—a crazed militia member who claimed that “Donald Trump is this country’s last hope!” A year later, the orange albatross came down the golden escalator, propelled by his early move into the conservative crazy with Birtherism—another harbinger of conservative future from the 2000’s, and quickly cleaned up the regular GOP poster boys who rapidly found themselves on the short end of the popularity stick.

Just some observations on the trail of crazy conservatism that started sometime around 2008-2010, rapidly accelerated between 2012-2014 (Romney loss, Ferguson), and was primed and ready for the 2015-present period. That’s the political metamorphosis I saw over time.

Travis in Denver


I have been listening to your free podcasts for a few months now.  Today I signed up so that I can read and listen to more because I absolutely love them.  I am very worried about the political climate that we are facing today.  I am dumbfounded everyday with the amount of misinformation and basic knowledge of right and wrong. 

I own a  small business in a small town that is now overrun  with complete Trumptardism.  I can barely get on Facebook at all anymore because it is filled with so much hate, untruths, and ridiculous  political views it is upsetting.  For the life of me I will never be able to comprehend that so many are against a safe effective vaccine for an illness that is killing people everyday.  That we have elected political leaders that not only do not stand for truth and democracy but are actually trying to destroy it.  That we had a fair and free election and so many still believe that we did not even though there is no proof or facts to show it was not legitimate.  I am hopeful that extremism on either side is not as common as it seems but my hope is fading….

 I have two very young adult daughters I wonder everyday why our great country is electing people like MTG and Lauren Boebert while criticizing Liz Cheney and Jamie Herra Butler.  To me that is like saying I would rather my daughter be crazy, lie, and spread hate and fear instead of being honest, intelligent, well spoken and to do the right things.  

Amanda G.


We Get More Mail

Watching the "infrastructure" clown car careening around would be amusing if it wasn't so sad. It seems to me that the "progressives" are playing the whole thing wrong, and in any case, really need to look in the mirror.

It's not about two senators. They are who they are, just as "progressives" are who they are, and in a broad church or "big tent" political party, all get tolerated. What happened that made the two "powerful" is that the expected romp for the party in the Senate and House in 2020 didn't happen. If for example the Democrats had another five or ten Senate seats what Joe Manchin thinks or doesn't think and how Kyrsten Sinema thinks  or not would be meaningless. In 2020 the Republicans aimed their fire at the "progressives" as much as at Joe Biden, and the results really speak for themselves. While Biden won the popular vote handily, down-ballot Democratic candidates did not do nearly so well. At the time, some candidates in swing seats complained they were being tarred with a Squad brush. That may have been unfair, but it was the reality.

For the "progressives", then the problem isn't Manchin and Sinema. They have to face reelection and as Tim Miller pointed out, Trump tromped in West Virginia. Manchin can win there precisely because he's moderate and doesn't sign on to the urgency of climate change etc in a state where fossil fuel industries count. If "progressives" want to win their case, they have to win more seats in more states. That's their problem. And its their problem. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema singly or doubly aren't their problem at all. 

It's not realistic for them to want to pass their dream bills on wafer-thin majorities. The "mandate" they claim just isn't there. If they can take out some Senate seats and enlarge their House majority next year the prospects will be much better. Chasing a woman into a toilet isn't likely to achieve that and failing to get real about a male who is really standing between the Democratic majority and a Republican majority isn't either. Their chances aren't great really, but they have only themselves to blame. They blew it in 2020. and their resentful harassment of more conservatives members of their party just goes on making the same mistake. 

Steve Evans


Hi, Charlie,

I consider myself a far left progressive. In theory, I agree with the Bernie Sanders' and AOC's of the world. However, often, when listening to some of you moderate/middle types I feel a bit more dubious about pushing my beliefs on a whole bunch of people who don't want to live in a socialist paradise (only slightly tongue in cheek). So, while I preferred Warren, I voted for Biden in both the Primary and the General. If you'll allow me to paraphrase a legend, I believe the arc of the political universe is long but bends towards progress, and so I am ok with incremental improvements and didn't want to risk an L in 2020.

I'm telling you all this to establish that in general, I agree with the politics of those Sinema-stalkers. And, in general, I'm displeased with Ms. Sinema. I understand that she represents her voters, and they approve of her, and that (generally) means she's doing her job and doing it well. Someone on your podcast (or one of the other Bulwark pods) said the problem is she seems to enjoy sticking her finger in the eye of the left, and that's what is triggering people. I would agree with that.

However, Sinema DOES have to represent her district, and if those ladies don't like the job she's doing, they should convince enough of their fellow constituents to elect someone else. But instead, they're out there behaving badly, making themselves, and us, look bad, and not really making a good case for themselves. Abrams didn't go around yelling at or harassing GA senators, she went and talked to voters. Organized them. Got out the vote. And made significant change.

Instead, these women have convinced themselves that the way to get things done is to make themselves look SO BAD by comparison that people like me now feel sorry for Sinema. I tell my kids all the time, if you overreact to something, you run the risk of becoming the bad guy of the story. And alienating your 'friends.' And making yourself look crazy. I'm very frustrated that some rando political neophytes can suck up so much oxygen and that my fellow progressives waste so much energy defending what is clearly not appropriate (to say the least). Embarrassing to say the least. Sigh.

Julie Falcon

New Jersey


Hey Charlie 

I think it's pretty uncontroversial at this point to say that a pretty large portion of the American electorate today would favour breaking up the Union. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good idea (it really really REALLY isn't) or a better option than people deciding to just talk to their fellow citizens and turn off their social media feeds, let's take a moment to posit a false choice: secession or civil war?

Hear me out. America's galloping polarization shows no sign of slowing down. While there are regions of the country that are politically "purple", the majority of the country sorts pretty comfortably into red or blue enclaves. The federal system of power sharing between these enclaves is unbalanced and unrepresentative, favoring rural areas and disenfranchising the areas with the most wealth, growth, and diversity. The center cannot hold, and nobody seems interested in fixing the problem because it might (might!) cost them power in the short term. A majority of Americans see themselves as nearly two separate nations/tribes/teams already, culturally distinct and politically hostile.

So, if we have to choose between breaking up the country or going to war to maintain its coherence, which is preferable? I'm asking hypothetically, but speaking seriously. The First American Civil War (looks pretty ominous like that, huh) was incredibly destructive and deadly. The weapons involved had a bare fraction of the destructive potential of today's national military arsenal. The systems of supply and logistics, both for military operations and civilian living, are far more complex and serve a far larger population than during the 1860's. If the country is determined to tear itself apart, wouldn't a post-Soviet style breakup be preferable to insurrection, rebellion and war?

I ask as a foreigner (Canadian) strategically and economically reliant upon US hegemony, yes, but also as the descendant of a Founding Father. The question isn't academic. A large, armed minority in your country already wants to do this. So do Americans fight and kill and die to preserve a disunified Union? Maybe hope the people will come to their senses when struck by a national tragedy or something (cough-cough-COVID-cough)? Or do you try to lessen the damage as the pieces fall apart? 

I hope the Bulwark's team is right, and that forging a rational center will offset the madness of the wings. But if it doesn't work, well... secession, or civil war? 

Cheers,

HH 


And Even More

Dear Charlie,

Like Mona, I found Ian Bassin's piece in The Bulwark last week extraordinarily compelling, but I was puzzled at her assessment of its message, which seemed to be that progressives should moderate their goals in order to prevent the anti-authoritarian coalition from splintering. Here is what Bassin actually said:

' . . . this lesson ought to be heeded by the full anti-authoritarian coalition. Which means not just Democrats, but pro-democracy Republicans.

'Mitt Romney and other Republican senators ought to understand the importance of unified opposition, too. Because while Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and the seven Republican senators who voted to convict in Donald Trump’s second impeachment have been admirable, they have not yet collectively done the thing that saves democracies from authoritarian takeovers: forming a governing coalition with their traditional opponents, even if only on issues about democracy itself, to block the autocrat’s path to power.'

Bassin wrote this weeks after Cheney and Kinzinger agreed to serve on the House committee investigating the events of January 6th, so he clearly doesn't see that service as a large enough step for them to take. I should mention right here that I'm not sure I agree with Bassin on this; taking additional steps toward the Democrats might actually make Romney, Cheney, and Kinzinger LESS effective. But I think that if Bassin is to be mentioned on the podcast, his ideas should be given a fair hearing.

Mona also said that the current legislative struggles of the Democrats reminded her of the 'mistake' the Obama administration had made during the negotiations over the Affordable Care Act. This also baffled me, because I am very certain Mona remembers that the ACA passed, and also through the reconciliation process. Today, it is popular enough that every Republican attempt to kill it has failed, sometimes spectacularly. Where exactly was the 'mistake'?

'Smart. Conservative. Never Tribal' is the slogan. As Meat Loaf used to say, two out of three ain't bad. Of course the Bulwark is a tribe, and there's nothing wrong with that, because the scientists will tell us that human beings are naturally tribal creatures, even if trends in comparatively recent human history have conspired to make us more individualistic.

I couldn't help but smile at a recent exchange you had with Amanda Carpenter, during which the two of you fondly reminisced about having found each other, because it recounted a charming moment of two members of the same tribe taking comfort in their shared identity, and everybody needs that. As frustrating as it can be to hear you constantly wag your finder at Democrats, I know it would be too much to expect you to give it up, because I understand that it is one of the most important elements of your tribal culture.

But The Bulwark needs to recognize that it is a SMALL tribe, and small tribes often need to form alliances with larger tribes and/or groups of tribes. The Bulwark will shift the overall weight of the alliance slightly to the right, but not enough to set the general agenda. I had to wait almost until the end of today's program before you admitted that progressives like Pramila Jayapal (whose name you should really just learn to pronounce already, instead of always apologizing in case you have pronounced it wrong; it's really not very difficult) have shown some flexibility about the final price tag of the reconciliation bill. I'm sure that your flashbacks about the Freedom Caucus are quite harrowing, but lumping Jayapal in with them is simply not fair.

I can only conclude that your orientation packet from us here at the Global Leftist Conspiracy has gotten lost in the mail. Please direct all inquiries to:

L. De Joy