Early Storm Clouds

The next eighteen months are going to be unpleasant. There will be an election at the end. Donald Trump will stay, or Joe Biden, or some other Democrat, will be the next president – and then Donald Trump will stay. He’s already hinted that if he loses – unlikely but quite possible – it will be because the election was rigged, and then he won’t step down until someone proves, to him, that the election was NOT swung by massive numbers of fraudulent votes for the Democrat cast by illegal immigrants or convicted felons or Mexicans or gays or blacks or Asians or college students. Why should he leave office?

But that’s a long way off. This is just beginning, and it’s going to be nasty:

President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. repeatedly ripped into each other on Tuesday as unfit to lead the country as they both traveled to the battleground state of Iowa, giving voters a preview of what a general election matchup between the two men might look like.

In the most ferocious day of attacks in the six-month-old presidential campaign, Mr. Trump resorted to taunts and name-calling from morning to night, saying Mr. Biden was “a loser,” “a sleepy guy” and “the weakest mentally,” and claiming that “people don’t respect him.” Mr. Biden took a different tack, laying out ways Mr. Trump was “an existential threat” to the country, its international standing and its values.

And this had to come up:

Mr. Biden, who leads in early polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, also brought up subjects he had previously avoided with reporters, such as Mr. Trump siding with the North Korean state media’s insults on Mr. Biden’s I.Q.

“He embraces dictators like Kim Jong-un, who’s a damned murderer and a thug?” Mr. Biden said at his second event of the day, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. “The one thing they agree on: Joe Biden, he shouldn’t be president.”

That was odd, but Biden may have misjudged Trump’s base. Trump admires strong leaders – Putin and Kim and Duterte and al-Sissi in Egypt and Erdogan in Turkey. Trump despises weak leaders – Markle and Macron and Trudeau and that woman in New Zealand, and Trump never did condemn that Saudi prince for the torture and murder and dismemberment of that reporter. That Saudi prince is a strong leader. Kim had his half-brother publicly murdered in a quite public space, gruesomely. Kim is a strong leader. And many of Putin’s political enemies are shot dead in the streets of Moscow, or die mysteriously in the suburbs of London. So, when Biden taunts Trump for this business with Kim, Trump’s base loves it.

And this happens. Trump says Kim is wonderful. Kim must be wonderful. Kim says Biden is stupid and weak and old and whatnot. Biden must be all that. Biden says Kim is a real dictator here. Trump’s base agrees – yeah, but Kim is strong. Trust the strong man. Biden loses.

Or he doesn’t. He will fight back:

The sharpest part of Mr. Biden’s remarks in Davenport was his argument that, while the nation “can overcome four years of this presidency,” Mr. Trump would pose an existential threat to “the character of this nation” if he were re-elected and served another term. He portrayed Mr. Trump’s words and actions as antithetical to the nation’s “core values we stand for, who we are, what we believe in,” citing the president’s child separation policy at the southern border and referencing his remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va.

Mr. Biden also argued that Mr. Trump was a threat to “our standing in the world,” noting that the president has attacked NATO while embracing President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and saying he had shown poor character by using “crude language” and “embarrassing behavior that is burrowing deep into our culture.” And he said Mr. Trump was undermining American democracy by criticizing law enforcement agencies, defying the authority of Congress and using phrases like “enemy of the people” to describe a free press.

And that must stop:

“In 2020, we not only have to repudiate Donald Trump’s policies and values – we have to clearly and fully reject, for our own safety’s sake, his view of the presidency,” Mr. Biden said. “Quote: ‘I have complete power.’ No you don’t, Donald Trump.”

“‘Only I can fix it.’ Fix yourself first,” Mr. Biden said as the crowd enthusiastically drowned him out.

This will be the next eighteen months, but there was this at another town in Iowa:

While many of the voters who filed into his Ottumwa event shared Mr. Biden’s near-single-minded focus on Mr. Trump, praising Mr. Biden as someone who could appeal to moderates and independents, Cheri Scherr, 63, said she had hoped to hear “more about his ideas.”

“I wish he would talk less about Trump,” said Ms. Scherr, of Pella, Iowa. “We’re Democrats. We know why we don’t like Trump.”

That may be because of things like what Josh Marshall flags here:

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam was a CIA source. This Kim was assassinated by poison in 2017 in Malaysia, by all accounts by the North Korean government. He had lived in exile for a number of years. Trump got asked about this and he responded by pledging to Kim Jong Un that he would not allow the CIA to spy in this way “under my auspices.”

In essence he was pledging not to spy on North Korea and arguably apologizing for whatever relationship the CIA had with Kim Jon Nam.

Yeah, well, he likes murderous dictators. He seems to be in awe of them. Perhaps he wants to be one of them, for Christmas. His base wants that too, don’t they?

This will not end well, as Brian Beutler notes here:

Ever since it became clear Joe Biden would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, politically active liberals have been engaged in internal dialogue over why he routinely asserts such a generous view of the very same Republicans who goosed birthers, sabotaged the Obama administration, abetted a foreign attack on the last presidential election, stole a Supreme Court seat, and have participated in a spree of political corruption, crime, institutional vandalism, and deceit over the last two and a half years.

“With President Trump gone you’re going to begin to see things change,” Biden reiterated Monday. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.”

No one knows better:

These kinds of remarks fuel a bewildering debate, because nobody on either side of it wonders, even in passing, whether Biden might be right. It pits those who believe Biden is hopelessly stuck in a lost time against those who think he’s playing naive on purpose – because he thinks the quiet, offline masses want to believe this is all a phase or a bad dream.

But this is not a bad dream. Biden really does imagine a Republican Party from long ago, but now gone. They don’t know better. They argue things like this:

Michael Bogren, a Trump judicial nominee, is withdrawing from consideration amid a Republican backlash, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

Bogren, who was nominated to the District Court for the Western District of Michigan, faced growing opposition from Republican senators. Three Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee – Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina – said they would oppose his nomination and more were expected to emerge. He also faced criticism from conservative advocacy groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, Heritage Action for America, and Conservative Action Project.

Bogren’s withdrawal is a rare and embarrassing setback for the White House, which has had little trouble getting the GOP-controlled Senate to confirm President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.

Bogren and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But this was not acceptable:

At issue was a brief Bogren signed off on while defending the city of East Lansing against a Catholic couple that opposed same-sex marriage. The couple was barred from East Lansing’s farmers market after they refused to a host a same-sex marriage on their farm citing religious beliefs. In response, the couple sued.

East Lansing’s brief defending its position used analogies involving the Knights of the White Camelia, KKK and imams who do not believe women should drive. Those analogies offended Senate Republicans – particularly Hawley, who grilled Bogren on his views at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.

So, this Republican Party is still arguing that religious freedom trumps all the laws on the books. No one has to sell goods and services to those they find morally (religiously) offensive. A doctor can refuse to treat anyone who hasn’t yet accepted Jesus as their personal savior – or refuse to treat gays or Guatemalans. This is just the latest skirmish in a long war that won’t end anytime soon.

Steven Waldman’s latest book is Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Fight for Religious Freedom and he reviews how this happened:

I wonder what Antonin Scalia would make of the Republican legislators in Maine who just voted to allow people to use religious exemptions to avoid vaccinations for their children. And how he would feel about Republican Senators who are now opposing a Trump judicial nominee because he ruled against a farmer who didn’t want to host a same-sex wedding?

This position – in favor of strong religious exemptions to secular laws- is increasingly becoming the conservative party line. It’s a test of whether you support “religious freedom.”

Yet it was Scalia, the conservative hero, who, in 1990, ruled against Native Americans who used a religious freedom claim to justify using peyote, even though doing so violated anti-drug laws. Going down this path of allowing too many religious exemptions would, Scalia wrote, “lead towards anarchy.” We’d end up with “religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”

That was the warning, the warning everyone forgot, for good reason:

Back then, the judicial fault line tended to focus on whether you saw matters through the eyes of a religious minority or the majority. Conservatives bristled at the idea that claims of small groups of religious minorities should erode the rule of law or the majority culture.

What changed? Conservative Christians went from thinking of themselves as a Moral Majority to a Persecuted Minority. And with that, the politics of religious freedom got turned on its head.

That might mean that the 2020 election could hinge on “religious freedom” – protecting the rights of the vastly outnumbered and threatened Christians, and maybe the white man too, but Waldman explains how innocent this was at first:

Let’s review the history of what are now called “accommodation” cases – the instances when society decides to exempt a religious person from a secular law because it inadvertently infringes on their faith practice.

This concept – that religious freedom requires us to bend over backward to respect the sensitivities of the religious – is a relatively recent development in American history. At the founding of the country, Quakers and other pacifists were able to avoid military service and abjure swearing an oath, which also violated their religion. But, mostly, the courts took a consistent position: if the law is secular in its nature, and neutral in its intent, then religious people have to abide by it, even if their ability to practice is constrained. For instance, in 1878, Mormons argued that anti-polygamy laws infringed on their religious freedom because “plural marriage” was an article of faith. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them, saying that the Constitution provided freedom of belief, not freedom of actions.

Everything changed in 1943. The school board in Charleston, West Virginia was requiring kids to salute the American flag. It was not a law that picked on any particular religion. It was an entirely secular, neutral law. But ten-year-old Marie and eight-year-old Gathie Barnett refused to salute – because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their religion taught that flag saluting was akin to idol worship. The Supreme Court agreed with the Witnesses. Justice Robert Jackson declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

From then on, even if a law wasn’t intended to hurt a religion, it might still be viewed as unconstitutional if the harm it inflicted was significant or if the law’s secular purpose wasn’t important enough. In his dissent, Justice Felix Frankfurter prophesied that this new world would be fraught with constitutional danger. Religious minorities could end up with too many “new privileges.” The First Amendment, he wrote, “gave religious equality, not civil immunity.”

But wait, there’s more:

In 1963, the Court went even further. In Sherbert v Verner, it ruled that a South Carolina law that in effect pressured Seventh Day Adventists to work on Saturdays was unconstitutional. The Court said that a law can infringe upon someone’s religious practice only if there is a “compelling state interest” and no other regulation could be conjured to achieve that same goal. Otherwise, the state must accommodate the person’s religious practice.

Until this moment, religious freedom had been defined primarily as an absence of persecution and the separation of church and state. Now there was another element: the state had to bend over backward to avoid making a religious person choose between the law and his or her faith.

And that could be exploited for political purposes, and it was. Jesus tells me I must not ever rent to black folks. Jesus tells me that what that woman over there might do is a terrible sin and I must stop her. And the government says that’s not my business? What about my religious freedom? What about Jesus! There are a lot of votes in screaming out those words in total outrage, but Scalia knew better:

In 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court decided to pull back on religious freedom rights. When a member of the Native American Church asked for exemption from an anti-drug law that banned the use of peyote even for a religious service, the Court said no. The lead voice in restricting religious freedom was Antonin Scalia.

Oh well:

Congress eventually overruled the court with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – opening the doors for religious groups to make all of the religious freedom claims we see these days. We’re seeing religious exemption claims now applied in a wide range of situations. The Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee claimed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment protected it from liability claims by the victims of pedophile priests. The recent outbreaks of measles are at least partly attributable to too many parents claiming religious exemptions to avoid having their children vaccinated.

Timothy Anderson in 2015 claimed that his arrest for selling heroin violated his religious freedom because he had distributed the drug to “the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf and dead members of God’s Kingdom.” The court rejected the claim on the grounds that the heroin recipients didn’t realize they were partaking because of their religion. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a group of nuns sued a federal agency attempting to put a natural gas pipeline through their property, arguing that the move violated their religious freedom because “God calls humans to treasure land as a gift of beauty and sustenance.”

And so on and so forth, but Waldman sees a way out of this mess:

I’m inclined to think we need to reserve religious exemptions for rare cases.

But these are hard dilemmas – which is the bigger point. We have come to think of these accommodation cases as the equivalent of earlier attacks on religious freedom — like the hanging of Quakers or the imprisonment of Baptists for practicing their faith. Far from it. These cases arise because society has decided to bend over backwards to be extra sensitive to the religious.

It’s a worthy effort – if we keep this in perspective.

And thus it might be wise to keep this in mind during the next eighteen months:

If the government sometimes decides not to provide special exemptions from religious law, that’s not an egregious attack on religious freedom. If we start thinking of religious freedom as a superpower that enables anyone to avoid a law they don’t like, then religious freedom itself will become a farce.

But we may have a farce anyway. Trump is calling Biden names and Biden is snorting that Trump should just grow up. This is just getting started, and no one has mentioned Jesus yet, but they will. Jesus is a Republican. No, that cannot be. But lots of things cannot be. And there’s a storm coming. This was just the first night of that storm.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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