This is my third post on ideas presented by Adrienne LaFrance in her Atlantic article The New Anarchy. These ideas center on what we can and should expect from our leaders with regard to the threat of anarchy.
The author states thatleaders in all parts of government must point out the dangers and single out perpetrators. She also states that violence must be confronted where it takes root, in the minds of citizens.
She sees it as the responsibility of our leaders to help us see when we going off track and undermining our civilization by attacking it violently and ultimately destroying the framework of our civilization.
I agree that violence does not just appear of its own accord. It begins with faulty perception of what is required to improve our way of life. There are people trying to take every opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of others and use power for their own priorities rater than for the good of our country. We will look at who this includes and what to do about them in more depth in the next post.
So where do these leaders come from? Some are interested in what is best for our country and for all of its citizens. At the other extreme are individuals who gain power through money where they buy influence or trade favors for electoral advantage.
We can’t just wait for leaders who will work in the best interest of our citizens. It should not be a surprise to find that our leaders end up in positions of authority and power through our votes.
We can elect protectors of our national values or people who use power for their own ends regardless of our needs. In that sense, the leaders we have are the result of how we vote. We all have responsibility for who our leaders are when we go the polls. We will look more closely at citizen responsibility in my next post.
This is another post stimulated by Adrienne La France’s article, The New Anarchy in The Atlantic. She stated that violence in America, which was at a peak just before World War I, “temporarily quelled the violence.” I had never heard of such a thing.
I wondered what the connection could be. How could a world war cause a reduction in domestic violence. The only explanation I could think of is there is a thirst for violence in any given society and at least in a good proportion of its citizens. War can satisfy this thirst.
The author offered her opinion that part of the explanation was that those inclined toward domestic violence left the country so they would not be subject to military draft. This suggests to me that at least some people preferred to engage in antisocial violence rather that participate in the officially approved violence of war.
I thought back to times in my life when I might have been disposed to violence. Once when I was in middle school, I recall having had a bully in the neighborhood who terrorized me as well as anyone else who crossed his path. It finally reached a point where I felt called to action. On the way home from school he made a taunting comment to me. I tackled him into a snowbank, and stuffed as much snow into his shirt as I could. I never had any further trouble with him.
My friends and I developed a game in which we tied each other up and bound the person involved to a tree. Then we waited to see how long it took for the person to work his way out and get freed.
Once we wondered how long it would take for a girl to work her way free. We tied a girl’s hands behind her back. Much to our dismay, she became frightened and ran, slipping on some stones and scraping her face. This was the dumbest thing I had ever done and it took quite a while to be seen as human again.
After eighth grade I went to a residential seminary where violence was frowned on. Just my luck to attract another bully who took to making fun of my mild obesity with rather original names he created for his pleasure and my mortification. I plotted for some time ways to get him off my back. Somehow his behavior came to the attention of the priests in charge and soon he was on the bus back home. That was the last time I had trouble with bullies or needed to plan how to deal with them.
I have had a very peaceful life since then. My father and two of my uncles always seemed to be raging about something, but no violence erupted, at least that I saw. I had three other uncles who were models of peace for me. My most peaceful uncle became a priest. I never saw him as anywhere near violence. I learned at his funeral that he had participated in the battle of the bulge and that exposure to violence does not always lead to adopting violent ways.
Adrianne LaFrance wrote an excellent and thoughtful article called The New Anarchy in the April 2023 issue of The Atlantic. I would like to comment on several points she made over my next few posts.
She writes that the conditions that making a society vulnerable to political violence are complex but well established:
highly visible wealth disparity
declining trust is democratic institutions
a perceived sense of victimhood.
intense partisan estrangement based on identity
rapid demographic change
flourishing conspiracy theories
violent and dehumanizing rhetoric against the “other”
a sharply divided electorate
and a belief among those who flirt with violence that they can get away with it.
LaFrance does not state how these conditions were determined to be essential for societal vulnerability to political violence but seems to imply that are self evident and commonly accepted. If we look carefully at what goes on in the lower levels of our society, we can see all of these factors at work in creating decay and chaos in our social structure. This is not the only time in our history or in the history of other societies.
Next we will look at an interesting conundrum.
If we look at what has been happening in the past few years, we can see the presence of all of them. It seems to me that there may be other factors as well but her list gives us plenty to think about.
All of these factors have not arisen by chance. Over the course of time, we have demeaned and marginalized each other and not taken seriously the needs of all our citizens. Those left by the wayside have been most prone to suffer from the factors mentioned and to fall prey to anger about being left behind.
The last time I posted here, I was wondering where we were headed as a nation in light of political conflict and disagreement in the country. We have maintained some semblance of normality in the Senate while the House of Representatives descends into chaos since its new configuration this month.
Electing a Speaker of the House made it clear that The House has no intention of trying to accomplish anything constructive in the near future. Recent announcements indicate that their main objective is to make Democrats look bad. They got some help this week from the debacle over President Biden’s forgotten classified documents.
I have been puzzling over the document fiasco and ha.ve some questions of my own, none of which has seen any adequate answers as far as I know.
When a document has been “removed”, does this mean that the original document has been released or just a copy?
What would prohibit someone from copying what had been borrowed and returning the document. Is there any law against this?
Does anyone keep track of what documents have been borrowed and by whom?
When someone with classified documents has their clearance ended (such as by leaving office), does anyone ask for “borrowed records” to be returned?
Is there a record of when documents are returned and by whom?
These are a few thoughts I have been having about the records controversies.
There is much more swirling in my head. I will get to work and try to make some sense of what is going on politically and how we might return to common sense.
Whether you’re winning or losing, it is important to always be yourself. You can’t change because of the circumstances around you.
Oprah once featured Eckhart Tolle in a series of interviews about his book, The New Earth. I decided to review my copy of his earlier book, The Power of Now, which lays the groundwork for The New Earth. His words interested me since I have spent so many years listening to people’s problems in my work as a psychologist.
He described a problem as “dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now and making it part of your sense of self.” I wish I had thought of problems that way when I was counseling. This reflection keeps popping into my mind every time I hear people complaining about situations in their lives.
Tolle went on to say that there are situations in all of our lives which we would prefer were not present. Sometimes we can do something about them. Rather than dwelling on how bad the situation is, this is the time to do something about it. Get on with it and don’t get stuck making it a problem.
Sometimes there is not much we can do about a situation, at least for now. In that case, the best we can do is accept the situation as it is and move on. Perhaps there will be something we can do about it in the future.
But what happens if we don’t take either approach? I can think of a time when I made my financial insecurity a problem. For quite a while, I did nothing about it. I just worried about it. I worried that I would never be able to retire, that I would be stuck paying off bills for the rest of my life and that I would not have the money to do the things which were important to me.
I could find no acceptable answer on my own. Finally, I got tired of worrying and asked people I thought could help me what I might do about it. Eventually, I learned how to stop worrying and do what I could to change my situation. How I did this is another story which I will tell some other time.
In the quote above, Tolle tells us what will happen if we continue to dwell on the situation and make it a problem. It becomes part of our sense of self. We make it our own and even start defining ourselves as a person with that particular problem. We are stuck regretting our past and worrying about our future. What a waste of our time. All we have is right now. We have the more viable choices of doing something about our situation or accepting it.
Do you have situations in your life you think of as problems?
How much time to you spend worrying about them?
What can you do right now about a problem situation?
If you can’t do anything, how about accepting it for the time being?
If you insist on worrying, how about setting aside part of each day for worrying?
Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available from Amazon
Consider how much more you often suffer from your anger and grief than from those very things for which you are angry and grieved.
We often think of anger as a bad thing. We try to avoid angry people if possible. We don’t want to get caught up in their rage and would prefer to maintain our distance and serenity if possible. There are times when anger is appropriate. We will explore Father Bambauer’s third consideration about anger.
We have considered how we jump to conclusions and talk ourselves into becoming upset over minor affronts or misunderstandings. We have also looked at the alternative choice of allowing our anger into awareness, letting it become a topic of rational thought. We can use this process to decide whether there is a good reason to be angry. Having a reason implies that we think about why we are angry rather than exploding in a burst of emotion.
What are some good reasons for being angry? Perhaps the most obvious reason is deliberate physical harm to us or to someone we care about. We can be attacked out of spite or overreaction and in response are rightly angry.
A deliberate attack on our reputation can be just as harmful. Lies about us can have a broader effect than physical violence. Long after the lie, our interactions with others can remain tainted and we can be seen as having even more faults than we actually have.
Another reason for anger is betrayal of trust. We come to depend on our spouses, relatives and friends to be there when we need them. Affairs, gossip and not following through on commitments are all ways of breaking the trust on which we base our relationships. These deliberate transgressions are all legitimate reasons for us to be angry.
You may have noticed that I used the word “deliberate” in describing each of the above examples. Our anger is justified when someone makes the choice to act in a way which is harmful to us. Mistakes and misunderstandings don’t count. The key element is the intention to cause us harm.
The tricky part is to know what is in someone else’s mind and what his or her intentions are. Do you recall a time when your intentions were misunderstood? In the course of ordinary events it is easy enough for us to misunderstand each other’s intentions. The heat of anger only complicates the task.
There are ways to judge whether an affront is deliberate and therefore worthy of our anger. We can ask others what their intentions are. Sometimes they will be honest and tell us what they had in mind. If we have told them how we feel about a certain behavior toward us, and they repeat it, there is a good chance it is on purpose.
Did you ever think of anger as something positive?
Seeing someone hurting another is an example of justifiable anger.
Be sure you understand others’ motivations when you are angry.
Be sure you understand your own motivations.
Try talking about it.
Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available from Amazon
Like many people, you might have awoken today to find #RIPTwitter trending on…Twitter. Like I predicted, Twitter’s collapsing at record speed.
To bring you up to date, the Gross and Awful Billionaire who bought it promptly delivered a bizarre, macho, steroidal, tech-bro ultimatum to its employees — they were told be “hardcore” or…quit. In an email, no less, to which they had to literally tick a box pledging their….loyalty? Hardcoreness? What is this, a cult? A paramilitary? Abusive management to say the least, and unsurprisingly, there was a mass exodus. And now Twitter’s future is in serious doubt — because these were the folks who kept its critical systems alive. And nobody can blame them for not wanting to keep on being demeaned and abused like that, and this is just week two.
And yet even that barely begins to sum it all up. I’ve been thinking about it. Why is Twitter dying this way so…wrong? It’s an especially striking, ignominious fate. There are good and bad ways to die, and this? This is an ugly way to die.
But why is that, exactly? Here’s what occurred to me.
Think about our world today. We have grave and serious problems, and all of us who are sane and thoughtful people know that — from climate change to mass extinction to ecological collapse, all of which are fueling an inflationary spiral, as our civilization runs out of basics. But there’s another kind of Big Problem that we face, too. Only this one’s an absence — and so it’s harder to spot, because, well, it’s about a thing that’s notthere.
What don’t we have? Look around the world. We don’t have a single functioning global system. A worldwide utility, if you like. We don’t have, say, a global system of super-high-speed underground trains that whisk you from Paris to New York in hours. We barely even have regular old high-speed trains linking countries. You can get from Paris to Barcelona in a few hours on the TGV — and that’s a major accomplishment. But it points to what we don’t have.
Here are a few more examples to make the point. What else don’t we have? We don’t have, say, a global system of roads, even. For many countries, highways don’t or barely exist, and building one is a major accomplishment that only recently happened. In plenty of nations, just having one or two is a Big Deal. Or, I don’t know, bridges. We don’t have huge mega-scale bridges linking countries, except for a tiny, tiny handful of examples, like the Oresund Bridge, which links Sweden and Denmark.
We have no global systems — utilities — at all. Think about the idea of civilization for a moment — the very thing that billionaires, ironically, preach about saving. Where should we be at this juncture in human history? Well, one criterion of a genuinely advanced civilization is surely planetary utilities. Just go down the list of what you already consider utilities. Education for everyone, transportation, healthcare, energy, and so forth. We don’t have a single one of those. We barely have them at the national level, so far. Not one is a worldwide utility, because in our civilization, there aren’t any…yet.
Twitter was something genuinely like the first worldwide utility. We don’t have ultra-high-speed transportation for everyone. We don’t have education, energy, even shelter for everyone. Not even food. Those things don’t exist as utilities yet — though some do as great global goals institutions like the UN have. The only example of anything close to a worldwide utility so far in human history has been…Twitter.
We’re used to thinking of it as the world’s public square. And critics are quick to poke holes in that definition. I myself have been included on that list. It’s not really a public square — LOL, it’s a company!! Yes, I know. Twitter might not have been the formal definition of “global public square” — but practically, in the real world, that’s what it was…trying to be. As in that’s how people used it.
People used Twitter just like the first proper worldwide utility. Have a phone, tablet, computer? Cool. Just…sign up. Log in. It’s free. Anyone from anywhere can join. And…get on the information superhighway. Sorry, that’s a hackneyed phrase, to some, maybe. But in this case, it was true. Think about how Twitter acted just like, well, you might expect a worldwide informational utility to.
You log in. And within seconds, you know. Is there some kind of emergency somewhere? Did a disaster strike here? Was there a tragedy there? Did this person who’s a household name pass away? One minute, five — and you’re caught up on the great tides of information sweeping the world that day, that hour.
And you could go even deeper if you really wanted to. How are people feeling about all that? What do they think about it? How’s the mood out there in the world today? Jesus, what, half a country’s underwater because of a mega-monsoon? Wow, inflation’s how high? Man, I feel anxious, worried, but maybe I’m not so alone in all that.
Now. It’s not a surprise, really, to the economist in me, that the thing that was like, being used like, evolving towards, the first worldwide utility, was informational. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Building a network of underground ultra-high-speed trains linking the major cities of the world is hard. Expensive. We don’t know how to do it, and we probably can’t power it without advances in renewable energy first, not to mention we don’t know how to finance such a thing, really. Information, on the other hand, is cheap. We can manipulate it in computers for fractions of pennies, and deliver it to you at a marginal cost of pretty close to zero. Those economics mean that information was always going to be the first worldwide utility.
You might say, well, so what? Who cares about “the first worldwide utility,” anyways? The answer to that is that every sane person does, even if they don’t know it. Because apart from those of us who’ve opted out of it entirely, the rest of us all want to live in an advanced civilization. Even the Awful Billionaire’s fans do — that’s exactly why they buy into his humanity-saving schtick. An advanced civilization is one that “saves humanity” precisely through things like worldwide utilities. And when those things are real, we’re all going to be better off, because of course that much more possibility is unlocked. Maybe that kid in some slum in India is going to be the next Einstein, now that he can get an education, books, shelter, food.
We all care about this, even if we haven’t really every thought about it, unless we’re a) liars b) dolts or c) sociopaths.
Twitter had problems. It’s true. It always did. And yet this moment is so poignant because in another way, it really was a high point for our civilization. The first something-like-a-global-utility in history, really. Where else, after all, could you go and just…interact…with people from around the globe, renowned, accomplished, intellectuals, journalists, writers, thinkers, artists, scientists, athletes, people living the experiences you were hearing about…getting information directly from them? Nowhere, really. We underestimate just what an accomplishment Twitter really was — and I don’t mean that in just the technological sense, that part was relatively easy. I mean it in the sense of millions of people came together to build something like a global community, which transcended boundaries of every kind.
When else has that ever really happened?
Now, that doesn’t mean that Twitter didn’t have a Big Troll Problem. Sure it did. Of course it did. There you were, excited to be able to talk to, I don’t know, this writer, that athlete, to get information about this or that, to share your feelings or opinions — and along would come some crazy a-hole and start threatening you with the kind of extreme violence that make Jeffrey Dahmer blush. And yet despite that, millions of people still came together to build a global community.
Think about that for a second.
All of that, of course, brings me to the cruel twist in the tale. Why does it feel so wrong, so gross, so actually repulsive for Twitter to die this way? Even for those who were kind of sick of Twitter’s descent into hate and disinformation — and I’ll come back to that? Because millions of people came together to build a global community…and the world’s richest man destroyed what they built in two weeks.
Or at least began to.
Let’s go back to the “town square” thing. What is a town square? On one level, it’s just a…stones and buildings. Take away the people, and a town square isn’t much of anything. When we say “town square,” we don’t really just mean the architecture — we mean the interaction. If I say “town square,” you don’t think “Oh, a place where Nazis hurl racist abuse at people and threaten the rest with rape and murder.” You think of a place where people are laughing and chatting and having coffee and walking their dogs and maybe even doing the promenade, dressing up nicely to see and be seen. A town square is about people. More precisely, it’s about the kinds of connections between people.
When I go to my favorite little European town square, with little Snowy, what happens? We were just there today. And there, a certain set of rules exist. Strangers stop and laugh and giggle. Your dog is so cute! Come say hi, I encourage them. Snowy grins up them. His little smile stops every little girl and grandma in their tracks. Sometimes, with all these strangers, I chat. Today, it was with a girl who turned out to have recently moved from Canada, and with an Indian couple, who were visiting. Connections are formed. They’re not always lifelong or even tight ones — they’re “loose ties,” informal connections, shuffling around. Sound familiar? It should, because that’s exactly what happened on Twitter.
All that’s probably called a milieu. It’s a complex word, for which there’s no really good proper English analog. It means something like “people who come together and affiliate in a certain way.” Not quite professional, not ultra-personal, but more of an..atmosphere. A kind of there’s-something-in-the-air. This is how we act here, together, and thus this is how we interact.
That’s what used to happen on Twitter, anyways. Back in the early days. Twitter was a good milieu, a place that had never really existed before, where people came together in that rarest of attitudes: good faith.
And then, for some reason, Twitter took a far-too-tolerant approach to hate and abuse and disinformation — and that atmosphere of good faith changed. People acting in bad faith began to pour in — and before you knew it, you were getting abused. But apart from a tiny number on the left, it was usually those on the far right who were harassing everyone else, intimidating them, shouting at them, and you were like, wait, what? Who even is this person?
The milieu on Twitter changed. When I’m in my ancient, famous town square, and I’m walking little Snowy, and people stop and smile and he grins up at them and we chat…the last thing that’ll ever — ever — happen is that…LOL…a Nazi comes up from behind us and starts screaming at us both to die. Maybe you see my point. Twitter’s management, sadly, began to change its own norms, and now hate and abuse weren’t just possible — they were omnipresent.
And yet despite all that, something remarkable happened: people didn’t give up on Twitter. They kind of sighed wearily and learned to shrug off the trolls and bots and fascists and haters…and persevered. Because on the other side was this thing called a global community. And it didn’t really exist elsewhere, in such distilled, raw form. Being part of it was something remarkable, which is why so many people did it every day — they might not have known it, but they were making this global community happen, enacting it.
But the idea that hate and intimidation and slurs and all the rest of it were what the point of all it was came to be championed, by the far right, as “free speech.” Despite the obvious fact that free speech is about the government not censoring, not being able to be a Nazi in a public square, hurling abuse at some poor couple leaning down to pet a cute dog. And the world’s richest man emerged as the leader of this bizarre, fanatical movement, its ideologue-in-chief.
The rest is history. They did what they were always going to do. The point of the far right is control and domination. Particularly, to control the kinds of interactions the rest of us can have. Love that person? Sorry, not allowed. Want to ride in the front of the bus? Sorry, your kind can’t. Your kid says he’s what? Sorry, they can’t be. Understand that, and you understand that this was going to happen from the moment Twitter was acquired — the far right’s purpose is to limit the kinds of relationships and interactions the rest of us can have to the ones they approve of, which are about knowing our place in a hierarchy of hate all-the-way-down-to-subhumanity.
You see why it feels so gross and repulsive now? Twitter was something like our civilization first attempt at a worldwide utility. It definitely wasn’t all-the-way-there. But it was still a major accomplishment, because, well, we don’t have any global utilities, systems, of any kind at all yet. And then the world’s Richest D-Bag came along and killed it. Why? To control the kinds of interactions and relationships the rest of us could have, because, well, he didn’t like them.
Think about that for a second. Here was the first attempt at a global utility — a worldwide community that millions of people built every day, hour, minute, despite the obvious problems that it had, of abuse and hate, of violent bigots and lunatic fascists getting in the way of the simple acts of relationship building and information sharing. And then, when they weren’t getting what they wanted — the lunatics and trolls — the world’s richest man bought it for them. Leaving the rest of everyone else — all those millions who’d joined, built, enacted this global community — to chew on the bitter cud.
Crazy, no? This is where our civilization is. We don’t have a single global utility. Instead, the world’s richest dude bought the only real attempt at one so far…and killed it. LOL. It’s poignant, because it’s so deeply sad, when you think about it that way. Not just because it’s unfair, not just because it’s antipathic, not even just because it reveals that the techno-tycoon’s schtick “saving humanity” as a joke, but because, above all, it’s so painfully stupid. Why would you want to kill a thing like that?
When the world says, “Give up”,
Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.”
Hilary Clinton criticized her election opponent for offering voters false hope. I began to wonder whether my writing would be perceived as offering my readers false hope as well. In everything I write I try to help them see the effect of their thoughts and actions on others and realize that they have the option of acting in ways which will better themselves and maybe even the world community.
What are the alternatives to hope? As I see it, they consist of despair and rage. In the news, we see more dramatic suicides which to my mind indicate a growing level of despair in our society. We read almost weekly of equally dramatic killings which seem to be prompted by rage whether for religious, political or other reasons. We call those responsible sick or deeply troubled.
I’m not suggesting there is any easy answer to despair or rage. They don’t seem to be related only to life circumstances. Some people living in what to us is squalor seem somehow content. Others of apparently good circumstance can become suicidal or homicidal. So where does hope fit in?
Hope alone is not enough. Hoping things will get better does not in itself bring about a betterment of our circumstances. But what if we mean by hope the possibility of life getting better? What if we act on that hope, start listening to each other and treating each other as valuable and important? Hope gives us the possibility and acting on it makes for a better world.
I remember many years ago reading Aesop’s fable describing the argument between the Wind and the Sun about which was stronger. They decided on a contest to see which could get a man to remove his cloak. The Wind went first. The harder the Wind blew, the more tightly the man clutched his cloak. In turn, the Sun smiled in all its glory and off came the cloak. The moral was that we can get farther with kindness than with brute force. This fable has been a theme of my writing over the past few years.
I have seen the futility of rage and despair and have never seen either lead to an improvement in anyone’s life situation. The more bitter a person becomes the more difficult life is and the harder it is to make it through each day and the easier it is to give up or lash out at someone. When something happens to bring us a ray of hope, life somehow seems again possible to manage. We might think we are being realistic instead of wallowing in negative emotions. But if our sense of realism includes not being able to do anything about our lives, we are still stuck.
Is there anything in your life you think can never change?
If this were a friend’s problem instead of yours, what would you suggest?
Even if you can see some options, do you think changing is too hard?
Maybe you just haven’t tried the right approach yet.
If you’re stuck, maybe you need to humble yourself and ask for help.
Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available from Amazon
The Jan 6 Committee Just Delivered Its Coup de Grace Against Trump” by umair haque, published in Medium.com 10/18/2022
It might not seem like it, but the Jan 6th Committee just delivered its coup de grace. A punishing, final blow in the case against Donald Trump — and in defense of American democracy. What happened at yesterday’s hearing was a remarkable series of moments — whose cut and thrust were to begin to finally do real justice for the indignities and abuses of the Trump Years.
What do I mean? What’s the coup de grace? The Committee began by summarizing its case to date. American media had spent quite a while falling for the oldest trick in the book — “It was just a tourist visit!” cried the fanatics, and so pundits replied, “no it wasn’t! It was a riot!” LOL, job done, catastrophe minimized, Big Lie spread. And so the Jan 6th Committee’s first job was to establish that, no this was no mere “riot.” It was something far, far darker: as they put it, a “sophisticated, multi-part plan” with the aim of thwarting the peaceful transfer of power.
In other words, Jan 6th really was a coup attempt. To put it even more precisely, the culmination of a series of coup attempts, which, following the usual pattern of autocrats, go from soft to hard. First come the legal challenges, then the procedural attacks, and when all that doesn’t work, usually finally, as all that fails, there’s a bloody, violent attempt by the autocrat’s forces, on the seat of democracy itself. All that was exactly what happened on Jan 6th, and in the months leading up to it: a long series of baseless legal challenges, then attempts to intimidate and pressure figures charged with certifying and counting votes (“I’m just looking for 11,000 votes!”), then fake slates of electors — and when all that wasn’t enough, finally, Jan 6th itself.
The Committee did stellar work establishing all that. And while it might have even been obvious, it’s crucial that such facts become part of the formal political record — as we’re going to shortly see.
So Jan 6th was no mere “riot” — but a link in a larger plan. The next stage was to establish that Jan 6th was made of no mere rabble, no mere spontaneous upwelling of justified anger, but something darker, too: a true hard coup attempt, made of armed paramilitaries, fanatics, led by extremists, itself planned and organized. The Committee, too, did stellar work in establishing this crucial fact as well: those weren’t “tourists,” and they were hardly just disgruntled farmers, either. They were formal members of supremacist paramilitaries, of right wing “militias,” who’d trained and practiced for just such an opportunity — to bring down the government, violently. They wore tactical gear and were heavily armed. They attacked the Capitol using military tactics and formations, like “stacks.”
This was a very real hard coup attempt — not just hillbillies rattling pitchforks, but fanatics and extremists who thought of themselves as officers and soldiers in armies, whose aim was to violently overthrow democracy itself. Incredibly serious stuff — especially given the context, which, remember, was much of the media insisting it was a “riot,” gullibly falling for the bait that it was just a “tourist event,” patting themselves on the back for disproving that lie, but in the process, only becoming complicit in another one. The Committee showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this was a serious hard coup attempt — an attempt to use hard power, real force, organized violence, to overthrow democracy.
But all of that left one question. How much was all of this Donald Trump’s responsibility, fault, how much of it a product of him? How much, specifically, was Jan 6th, and the events which led up to it, to be laid at Trump’s tacky doorstep?
To understand why that question matters, remember the point of the Jan 6th Committee hearings. It’s whether or not to issue a criminal referral to the Justice Department. To recommend, in other words, whether or not the President should be criminally charged. If the Committee doesn’t recommend a criminal referral, the President’s both legally acquitted and morally exonerated, because, well, then it’s unlikely the Justice Department tries him. But if it issues a criminal referral, pressure — significant, stern pressure — is put on the Justice Department to bring criminal charges, precisely because the Jan 6th Committee has at least morally implicated the former President. By saying, yes, this was his fault.
That was the point of this hearing. Not the criminal referral itself, yet — but the final element necessary for it. And that’s what lawyers call mens rea. Mens rea is basically “mindset,” or the “motive” in “motive, mean, opportunity,” if you like. The point of this specific hearing was to examine Trump’s mens rea — his mindset and motivation.
Why does mens rea matter? Well, let’s think of a murder case. There are degrees of murder — from first to third down to manslaughter. And what makes the difference between them isn’t really how bloody the crime is — but what the criminal’s mindset was. Was it a crime of passion, born in the heat of the moment? Was it merely an accident — a preventable one, due to negligence? Or was it something cold, calculated, planned — premeditated?
That, of course, is the highest form of murder there is. And so what the Jan 6th Committee was doing was saying something like this: “Over the last few months, we’ve established that, yes, this really was an attempt to murder democracy. But what degree of murder was it? Murder in the third, a crime of passion? Mansalughter — negligence, an accident? Or was it first-degree murder: premeditated, cold, calculated?”
Perhaps you see why all that matters. Let me make it even clearer. To send the strongest possible criminal referral to the Justice Department means establishing a clear mens rea. Indisputable evidence of a mindset, a motivation — of premeditation. Find that, and the highest possible burden of proof has been met: we have not just the smoking gun, but the murder plan itself. And having met that burden of proof, it becomes a duty to try the crime, or at least send the referral to try the crime.
In other words, the J6 Committee is trying to do as much work as it’s possible to do for the Justice Department, so that whatever referral it sends is bulletproof, indisputable, beyond any reasonable debate, and way past any reasonable doubt. In turn, that gives the Justice Department a slam-dunk of a case — one which it has little excuse not to try.
Hence, this hearing’s focus was on the last element necessary to really make legal fireworks happen, the missing link between smoking gun and violent crime: did the offender in question premeditate this murder attempt, plan it out, plot it, did he fire the gun himself, and always want to pull the trigger? Mens rea. Perhaps you see why it matters so much in legal circles — and why it does in this instance, too. Because here we’re examining something almost surreal: an American President, allegedly leading a murder attempt on American democracy. Did it really happen at his hands?
The evidence the Committee aired was remarkable. It had assembled an incredibly strong case — a bulletproof one, really — of mens rea. Meaning that the President knew he’d lost the election, didn’t much care, and then pressed the button on January 6th precisely to try and thwart the peaceful transfer of power. This was no accident, the Committee said: it was a potential case of premeditated murder. An attempt at it, anyways.
“The committee also shared an email from Tom Fitton, head of the conservative group Judicial Watch, to White House aides Dan Scavino and Molly Michael. The email was dated Oct. 31 — days before Election Day — and featured the words ‘We had an election today — and I won.’ It suggested that Trump should claim that the ballots ‘counted by the Election Day deadline’ showed he had won.
In a follow-up email, from Nov. 3, Fitton indicated he had spoken with Trump about the matter: ‘Just talked to him about the draft below.’”
How damning is that? By Oct 31 — well before the election — the President apparently was in on a plan to declare himself the victor even if he lost.
Then there was more from Cassidy Hutchinson, the former aide, who “added that, at another point, Meadows told her of Trump: ‘He knows it’s over. He knows he lost. But we’re going to keep trying. There’s some good options out there.’”
The point? “Claims that President Trump actually thought the election was stolen are not supported by fact and are not a defense,” Cheney said. “There is no defense that Donald Trump was duped or irrational.”
That part’s crucial. Trump knew the election wasn’t stolen. All the machinations to try and “take it back” were merely instrumental.Mens rea. He wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t misinformed. Not a defense. He knew exactly what he was doing. Premeditation.
I can keep going, but it’s worth watching for yourself if you haven’t. There’s no need for me to rewrite all that testimony here.
That brings us to the dramatic, unexpected ending of the hearing. The Committee members voted, in public, to subpoena the President. And they did it on camera precisely because — to paraphrase — they thought this matter was so crucial to a democracy they wanted to vote in the public eye, to show freedom from any interference. Subpoenaing a President is a big, big step.
Now, Trump’s probably not going to testify. If he does, he’ll just plead the Fifth, like so many of his odious ilk. But again, all this is about the point of the Committee’s work — the criminal referral, or not. It’s basically saying to Trump: this is where the evidence has taken us. And it confirms what your worst critics were saying — that this really was a hard coup, which followed numerous attempts at a soft coup, it was hardly a mere riot, instead it was made of armed paramilitaries. And you seem to have attempted to create it.
By telling them a Big Lie that you knew was a Big Lie — the election was stolen. Thus setting in motion a chain reaction of violence. Repeating the Big Lie, over and over, even though you admitted in private you’d lost, even though you knew you’d lost. The violence was created by you. Then directed by you. It was used by you, just a like a gun aimed at the heart of democracy. You pulled the trigger because you meant it — and nobody else pulled it but you. You’d thought it through — and you attempted this murder, knowing full well what you were doing.
See what all that does? Like Liz Cheney said, it rules out all kinds of defenses — ignorance, incompetence, negligence, an accident. And that, in turn, is what a genuinely powerful criminal referral has to be about, and to have a criminal referral at all, since this is a grave matter, concerning a President, it has to be powerful, beyond a shadow of a doubt. The Committee is doing its work carefully, but with incredible care and grace and concern. And it is setting the stage for a damning criminal referral.
Last night, the Committee made the case — an incredibly powerful one — that this was a premeditated murder attempt on…democracy itself. And that, it appears to be saying, will make us have to send a criminal referral onwards. Because while a President might have been able to plead many things — ignorance, negligence, the heat of the moment — and still get away with it, given the pressures and strains of such a position, this goes well beyond that. To the place where the law itself can’t be made to bend one iota of an inch. The place where democracy is, or isn’t. If you can’t try a case of attempted murder on democracy itself — premeditated, planned, calculated — by a President who used fanatics and lunatics as surely as a killer uses a gun…then what good is the word “democracy” at all?
Last night might not have seemed like it. But it was a triumph for American democracy. And more than that, a triumph of American democracy. Nations in which former heads of state can be brought to account this way, in public, through careful deliberation and bipartisan investigation, with painstakingly assembled evidence? They’re vanishingly rare. The Committee shows us that America still is one — a democracy of that grandeur and scale, despite all its flaws and problems and challenges.
We all know what’s coming next now, because this hearing left little doubt. A criminal referral, of historic proportions. We will see if American democracy is up to that challenge, too. For now, though let us take a moment to reflect on all the above, thank the Committee, and if not celebrate, then at least breathe a sigh of relief, that at least American democracy has some fire and might and truth left in it — especially in a world like this, going backwards at light speed. Last night wasn’t quite a turning point for American democracy, yet. But it might just have been crossing the final crucial miles before one.
Wait, What? covers the right from over on the left.
Yesterday, following a months-long investigation, The New York Times published that “more than 370 people—a vast majority of Republicans running for these offices in November—have questioned and, at times, outright denied the results of the 2020 election despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Earlier this month,The Washington Post reported similar findings: More than half of all Republicans running for congressional and state office this midterm cycle are 2020 election deniers. Forty-eight out of 50 states have Big Lie supporters running for some kind of office, from governor on down.
Since former President Donald Trump took control of the Republican Party, the party’s platform has evolved into a bizarre hodgepodge of election denialism and owning the libs. The owning-the-libs part is annoying but probably not terminal. However, the election denialism could, if left unchecked, end American democracy.
That isn’t hyperbole. The stakes boil down to a single basic question: If one of two major political parties no longer believes in free and fair elections, how can democracy still function?
It feels like we’re on the precipice of a disaster. And yet, the tone of most mainstream political coverage rarely reflects the terrifying possibilities implicit in the very news they’re covering. As the former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan told me, “The mainstream press doesn’t seem to quite get that American democracy is on the brink, or be willing to clearly state who’s driving that movement.” Should an election where one side no longer embraces democratic norms be treated like business as usual?
Whatever the case, this election season is very much not business as usual. Take, for instance, Nevada’s Republican Secretary of State candidate Jim Marchant, who told the crowd at an October 8 rally that he would “fix” elections if he wins his race. He added, “When my coalition of secretary-of-state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”
Of course, it’s been well established that the 2020 election was completely fair, and ditto its outcomes. But in the alternative reality of election deniers, is it possible that people will believe it’s not cheating if they interfere with election results they disagree with? Will they think that stealing an election is well within their rights—or, perhaps, that doing so is merely making the results fair? These are terrifying considerations to draw from a political candidate’s speech just weeks before a major election. Yet, as Media Matters pointed out, Marchant’s remarks went all but ignored by Nevada news outlets.
One of the most worrying election deniers on November ballots is the Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Essentially a female Donald Trump, Lake is already famous to many Arizonans from her time hosting Fox 10 local news. And also like Trump, Lake has a knack for stoking feverish support among her party’s base; she’s currently polling neck and neck with her Democrat opponent, Katie Hobbs. An Arizona Republican operative told The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey, in an article published last week, “[Lake] could talk about lizard people and you’d be like, ‘What is up with those lizard people? That is a great point!’” What happens when a truly magnetic politician is elected governor of a swing state on a “Stop the Steal” platform? How will someone whose entire campaign has hinged on election denialism help administer fair elections?
In September, President Joe Biden tried to highlight the election-denialism problem and gave the GOP an opening to answer these questions. Speaking in Philadelphia, Biden told the gathered crowd that he believes “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution … [or] the rule of law.” He continued, “They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
But instead of sparking bipartisan dialogue, Biden’s speech “for the soul of the nation” was met with Republican fury. The party’s response was swift—in fact, it began before Biden’s speech even started. Citing Biden’s recent remarks declaring Trumpism a philosophy of “semi-fascism,” GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy delivered a pre-buttal to the president’s Philadelphia address, stating, “When the president speaks tonight at Independence Hall, the first lines out of his mouth should be to apologize for slandering tens of millions of Americans as fascists.”
The message from McCarthy and his ilk, both before and after the speech, was clear: How dare you accuse us of doing what we’re doing. Hell hath no fury like a Republican called out for something they’re doing—such as denying the basic premise of the democratic process. Media outlets covered the GOP response; there was little reflection on its effect. We’re now just a few weeks from the midterms, and Republicans are continuing their election denialism with zeal. So we find ourselves in a country where one party no longer trusts our electoral system. This is uncharted territory.
Can democracy work if only one party upholds its tenets? We simply don’t know. The American democratic system has been through a lot, but it’s never sustained a prolonged period of attack by a significant number of elected officials and candidates running for offices across the board.
Now, less than a month out from the 2022 midterms, mainstream-media narratives are still approaching the upcoming election as though today’s political landscape reflects more or less the same stakes as a pre-Trump America. Meanwhile, ‘Big Lie’ Republicans are playing by their own truly scary rules. They are obsessed with changing the very system that has given us peace and prosperity for so many years. We know that these midterm elections will be fair—but will they be our last?