Little news stories are sometimes the big news stories. They’re portents. They’re the canary in the coal mine, the dead canary. The air is toxic. It’ll kill you, but the story is small. Katie Mettler is a general assignment reporter for the Washington Post and she was assigned this minor story:
Rep. Rodney Garcia, a state lawmaker in Montana, told a roomful of Republicans he believes the U.S. Constitution says socialists can be jailed or shot simply for being socialists. Garcia initially made the statement at an election event and then he reiterated it to a Billings Gazette reporter.
The Republican Party in Montana swiftly rebuked him.
This was odd, but not that odd. Trump did say, once elected, he would have Hillary Clinton arrested, for treason or something or other, and at the Republican convention, Mike Flynn, now about to be locked up, led the “lock her up” chants that became a staple at all Trump rallies. They still are – but Trump never had her arrested, and he didn’t have her executed for treason, blindfolded and shot. Some called for that, but they were fringe figures. No one took Trump literally, even if they took him seriously. No one was shooting anyone – but Rodney Garcia is a literal-minded man:
Garcia’s inflammatory assertion first came Friday night, after former interior secretary Ryan Zinke gave a speech at the party event in Helena. According to reporting from the Gazette, Garcia said he was concerned there were socialists “everywhere” in Billings, which he represents in House District 52.
Billings Gazette reporter Holly Michels later asked Garcia to clarify his remarks, and the lawmaker doubled down.
“So actually in the Constitution of the United States, if you are found guilty of being a socialist member you either go to prison or are shot,” Garcia told Michels.
Garcia was not able to say where he finds that in the Constitution, the Billings Gazette reported.
Yes, there has a bit of misunderstanding here:
Anthony Johnstone, a law professor at the University of Montana, told the Washington Post that “nothing in the Constitution of the United States authorizes the government to punish socialists or anyone else on the basis of their political beliefs.” In fact, the First Amendment prohibits punishing political speech, and the Constitution of Montana “expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of political beliefs,” Johnstone said. All state lawmakers swear an oath to uphold those doctrines.
People often misunderstand the Treason Clause in Article III of the Constitution, interpreting it to justify punishment of political opponents, Johnstone said. The framers, he said, “were careful to define treason narrowly so it could not be used for merely political purposes.”
Rodney Garcia doesn’t see it that way:
In his interview with the Billings Gazette, Garcia said it was fair to shoot or jail socialists in Montana and across the country because they are enemies.
“They’re enemies of the free state,” Garcia told Michels. “What do we do with our enemies in war? In Vietnam, Afghanistan, all those. What did we do?”
This is only logical, or it isn’t:
Spenser Merwin, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, released a statement criticizing Garcia’s remarks.
“Under no circumstance is violence against someone with opposing political views acceptable,” Merwin said.
But what about Venezuela? Look what socialism had done there! That once-wealthy nation was now in chaos and its people starving, because Venezuela had nationalized the oil industry and socialized everything. And that ruined everything. People need to know that. And soon Venezuela would be an even worse hell hole. It would become Norway or Denmark or even Sweden. No, wait. He didn’t say that about Norway or Denmark or Sweden. They’ve nationalized a lot of their industry and banking systems but they’re bad examples. They’re exceptions, somehow, perhaps because all those people up there are white people. And they call themselves democratic socialists. But that only makes them more dangerous, because they’re so attractive, and dangerous:
Garcia told the Billings Gazette that based on Facebook advertising he has seen, he believes there is an influx of socialism in Montana that is “very dangerous.”
“They’re teaching that to kids,” Garcia told the newspaper. “Thank God my grandkids know it’s wrong because I teach them. And it’s a very dangerous situation.”
Garcia’s 2018 opponent in the race for House District 52 was a transgender woman named Amelia Marquez who is also a self-described democratic socialist. She told the Billings Gazette she wishes Garcia “would continue to focus on the issues rather than this constant worry over things that are somewhat ludicrous.”
But Garcia is not alone:
President Trump said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he thinks Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a communist.
Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Trump in an interview that aired prior to Super Bowl LIV for quick reactions to a number of Democratic presidential candidates, including Sanders.
“I think he’s a communist. I mean, you know, look, I think of communism when I think of Bernie,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“Now, you could say socialist, but didn’t he get married in Moscow?” Trump added, with Hannity interjecting to note Sanders went to the former Soviet Union on his honeymoon.
“I think of Bernie sort of as a socialist but far beyond a socialist,” Trump continued. “At least he’s true to what he believes.”
This is the same stuff, but while Garcia sincerely believes what he says, Trump is a bit more cynical and pragmatic:
Trump’s comments were broadcast a day before the Iowa caucuses. Senator Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, has been leading in the most recent polls in the state…
Trump himself has tweeted several times in recent weeks in an attempt to create a rift between Sanders and the broader Democratic Party, accusing the Democratic National Committee of attempting to “rig” the primary process against the senator.
Trump wants to run again Bernie. He can shout “socialist” and “communist” over and over, and say nothing else at all, and win.
Actually he can do anything he wants now, as Philip Rucker explains here:
The evidence of President Trump’s actions to pressure Ukraine was never in serious dispute. After a systematic presentation of the facts of the case, even some Senate Republicans concluded that what he did was wrong.
But neither was the verdict of Trump’s impeachment trial ever in doubt. The Senate’s jurors are scheduled to etch an almost-certain acquittal into the historical record on Wednesday.
The impending judgment that the president’s actions do not warrant his removal from office serves as a testament to Washington’s extraordinary partisan divide and to Trump’s uncontested hold on the Republican base. The expected acquittal also has profound and long-term ramifications for America’s institutions and the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, according to numerous historians and legal experts.
In effect, they say, the Senate is lowering the bar for permissible conduct for future presidents.
So, perhaps, Trump too can shoot socialists dead in the streets, because the Constitution hardly matters now:
“It’s a dispiriting moment for an American system that in many ways was founded on the insight that, because humankind is frail and fallen and fallible, no one branch of government can have too much power,” said Jon Meacham, an American historian and author. “The president’s party, instead of being a check on an individual’s impulses and ambitions, has become an instrument of them.”
Rucker sees that:
Since the moment House Democrats opened their impeachment inquiry in September, Trump has projected a sense of persecution and self-pity. He called the effort a coup to overthrow him and defraud the results of the 2016 election.
Again and again, Trump proclaimed on Twitter, “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” – although the notes from his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not seem to exonerate him. Rather, the notes made plain Trump’s scheme to get Ukraine to open an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
With Trump commanding such exceptionally high approval ratings among Republican voters, however, even senators who acknowledged his actions were wrong voted Friday to block new evidence in the trial and pave the way for acquittal.
And that’s what’s new:
William A. Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, said acquittal “was not only perfectly predictable, but in my judgment, completely inevitable.”
“The United States political scene is as deeply polarized along partisan lines as it has been for at least a century,” Galston added. Noting Trump’s high ratings among Republican voters, he said, “It would take a very brave Republican indeed to break ranks with the president under these circumstances.”
And of course there was this:
One of the president’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, proffered a sweeping argument on the floor of the Senate last week that Trump using the powers of his office to pressure Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into the Bidens was not impeachable or illegal because it was done in pursuit of his reelection.
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz said during the trial.
In the face of stinging criticism from constitutional scholars and legal experts, Dershowitz said later on Twitter that his comments were being mischaracterized. “A president seeking re-election cannot do anything he wants,” Dershowitz wrote. “He is not above the law.”
Still, Dershowitz’s argument was persuasive for some Republican senators looking for arguments with which to defend Trump irrespective of what the evidence showed.
Rucker reviews the back-and-forth on that. He really IS above the law! That’s what Dershowitz said! No, no, no, I didn’t say that! Yes, you did! No, I did not! And so on and so forth, into madness:
The nation’s founders gave Congress oversight responsibilities and powers of impeachment as a check on the executive. Yet, with this week’s likely acquittal of Trump, Meacham argues, the Senate instead has become a tool in the president’s perpetuation of his own power.
“It is not hyperbolic to say that the Republican Party treats Donald Trump more like a king than a president,” Meacham said. “That was a central and consuming anxiety of the framers. It is a remarkable thing to watch the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and the Bushes become an instrument of Donald Trump’s. That’s a massive historical story.”
Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said that “some of the president’s actions in this case – including asking a foreign country to investigate a potential political opponent and the delay of aid to Ukraine – were wrong and inappropriate.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who challenged Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016, suggested that he did not necessarily consider the president innocent, either.
“Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office,” he said. “I will not vote to remove the president because doing so would inflict extraordinary and potentially irreparable damage to our already divided nation.”
The evidence and logic and the law say get him out of there. Rubio concedes that. But around forty percent of the nation would be angry, and that’s too unpleasant to consider. So let it ride, and sound like a fool and a coward for letting it ride, but that’s okay.
No, it’s not. That’s what E. J. Dionne says here:
The Republican-led Senate has sent a very clear message: President Trump can get away with anything.
Now, only the voters can stop him – and no one is more aware of this than Iowa Democrats, who cast the first votes of 2020 on Monday night. Their desperation to find the right champion against Trump was only intensified by the Republicans’ cowardice.
It was painful to watch 51 senators vote away their power to hold the president accountable by rejecting a demand for witnesses and documents in the impeachment trial. The Senate calls itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Those words will now provoke only derision and sorrowful laughter.
This was no ordinary roll call. It was a direct assault on American democracy and our core freedoms. Whatever the flaws of our system, we could once believe that a president who tried to bring down a political opponent by conspiring with a foreign government – and using American taxpayer dollars in the process – would be punished. The Trump 51 told us that such faith is for suckers.
And that changed everything:
After last week, we know with certainty what the alternative future – the one with Trump and his Senate subordinates in power – looks like. Ours will be a government where the strongest rebuke to a lawless president will be: Could you please, pretty please, possibly consider not doing something like that again?
Now, only the voters can stop him, but Alexandra Petri mocks that:
How dare the Congress, a body full of partisans whose diets are restricted to milk, water and loose individual candies from a Pennsylvanian’s desk, act as though they have the right to remove a duly elected president of the United States, the man who embodies the will of the voters, Donald J. Trump?
Some would argue that the actions of a body of directly elected representatives, selected by the very same voters, but more recently, would better reflect their will than an election four years ago, but we all know that is nonsense. The will of the voters found its highest and best expression in the election of President Trump, and anything that seems likely to remove him from power or even just inconvenience him a little goes against their will. If the Founders had wanted it to be possible to legitimately remove from office a president the people had selected, they would have made three equal branches of government and devised a specific mechanism for this to occur by a two-thirds vote, or something!
This is why the prospect of another election fills me with so much alarm. We know the voters want Donald J. Trump! They said so, resoundingly, with a minority of their votes, in 2016. Dare we risk overturning that election by holding another? Suppose he were not to win it! That would certainly go against the will of the voters. It would be just as much an overturning of 2016′s results as this impeachment is…
That’s cute, but clever irony may not be the answer to any of this. The younger of the New York Times’ conservative columnists – Ross Douthat – the one that isn’t David Brooks – sees a way out of this:
Donald Trump is not a Caesar; he does not bestride our narrow world like a colossus, undefeatable save by desperate or underhanded means. He is an instinct-driven chancer who has exploited the decadence of his party and the larger system to grasp and hold a certain kind of power.
But he is also a reckless and distracted figure, a serial squanderer of opportunities, who barely won the presidency and whose coalition is united only in partisan solidarity and fear of liberalism. He may not be removable by the impeachment process, but is not a king; he is a widely hated, legislatively constrained president facing a difficult re-election.
All you have to do is beat him.
In short, he is not a force of nature and could have lost four years ago:
Trump could have been stopped in the Republican primaries the old-fashioned way – by being beaten at the polls. His base was limited, his popularity fluctuated, and if his rivals had recognized the threat earlier, campaigned against him consistently, strategized with one another more effectively, and avoided their own meltdowns and missteps, there was no reason he could not have been defeated.
Douthat also sees no reason he could not be defeated now:
I have left the outrage to my liberal friends, watching them put their hopes in Robert Mueller’s investigation, in law-enforcement and intelligence-agency leaks and whistle-blowing, and finally – though with less real hope, and more grim resignation – in the House’s articles of impeachment.
Now that last effort is ending, as everyone with eyes could see it would, with the Republicans who failed to beat Trump when it counted declining to turn on him now that partisan consolidation and improving national conditions have sealed their base to him. The mix of expedience and cravenness with which the institutional GOP approached impeachment is no different than the way the institutional GOP behaved during Trump’s initial ascent – and it leaves Trump’s opposition no worse off than before. A failed impeachment doesn’t give him new powers or new popularity; it just shows that the normal way to be rid of an unpopular president is the way that Democrats must take.
All you have to do is beat him.
And now that may be easier:
Liberal hand-wringing about their structural disadvantages ignores the advantages that Trump keeps giving them – the fact that in the best economy in 20 years he can’t stop making people hate him, can’t stop missing opportunities to expand his base, can’t stop forcing vulnerable Republicans to kiss his ring and thereby weaken their own prospects.
Impeachment has only extended this pattern, with Republicans voting to shorten the trial even when it makes them look like lackeys, and too cowed in many cases to even take the acquit-but-still-condemn approach that Democrats took with Bill Clinton.
So now most of the country thinks the president did something wrong, most of the country thinks Republicans are protecting him, and most of the country is open, entirely open, to voting Trump and the most vulnerable Republican senators out in nine short months.
So those Democrats – and Douthat is not one of them (yet) – need to get it together:
American liberals are fortunate to have Trump as their Great Foe. If he were merely as disciplined and competent as Boris Johnson or Viktor Orban, to choose leaders with whom he has a few things in common, he would be coasting to re-election.
Instead it is very likely that he will lose. But it was likely that he would lose in 2016 as well. One essential lesson of the Trump era is that likelihoods are not enough; if you want to end the Trump era only one thing will suffice.
You have to beat him.
Douthat might help. He’d like his party back. But then here’s the monumentally discouraged Maureen Dowd:
During a meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower in June of 2016, with the opéra bouffe builder improbably heading toward the nomination despite a skeletal campaign crew on a floor below, I asked when he would pivot.
We all assumed he would have to pivot, that he would have to stop his belittling Twitter rants, that he would have to cease attacking fellow Republicans like John McCain, that he would have to get more in line with the traditional stances of his party, that he would have to be less of a barbarian at the gates of D.C.
He crossed his arms, pursed his lips and shook his head – a child refusing vegetables.
How naïve he was, I thought to myself. But I was the naïve one. Trump has forced the world to pivot to him.
So this is a massive historical story:
The state of the union is upside down and inside out and sauerkraut. Trump has changed literally everything in the last three years, transforming and coarsening the game. On Friday night, he became, arguably, the most brutishly powerful Republican of all time. Never has a leader had such a stranglehold on his party, subsuming it with one gulp.
And the failed impeachment sealed the deal:
McConnell let Mitt Romney and Susan Collins vote to allow documents and witnesses such as John Bolton, knowing two could strain at the leash safely. The rest of the senators fell into line as sycophantic clones of Mike Pence. The impeachment trial amounted to one side being earnest and one pretending to be. It was exactly what Nancy Pelosi feared would happen before she was reluctantly drawn into the show trial.
“Now the State of the Union is going to be the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man coming down the street and standing in the rubble of what’s left of the Congress,” keened one Democrat on Friday night. “The Republican Party has now lost whatever control they could exert over this president, any oversight they could have. It’s gone. The state of the union is there is no union. How can there be, when one side is petrified of their Godzilla?”
And there’s this:
Senator Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, dismissed Republicans as “a cult of personality” around Trump.
“This trial in so many ways crystallized the completely diametrically opposed threats that Democrats and Republicans see to the country,” Murphy told The Times’s Nicholas Fandos. “We perceive Donald Trump and his corruption to be an existential threat to the country. They perceive the deep state and the liberal media to be an existential threat to the country. That dichotomy, that contrast, has been growing over the last three years, but this trial really crystallized that difference. We were just speaking different languages, fundamentally different languages when it came to what this trial was about. They thought it was about the deep state and the media conspiracy. We thought it was about the president’s crimes.”
That’s a rather fundamental misunderstanding, but Dowd sees the larger pattern here:
I feel like I have spent my career watching the same depressing dynamic that unspooled Friday night: Democrats trying, sometimes ineptly, to play fair, and Republicans ruthlessly trying to win.
I watched it with the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. I watched it in the 2000 recount with Bush versus Gore. I watched it with the push by W., Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to go to war in Iraq. I watched it with the pantomime of Merrick Garland.
Democrats are warning Republicans that they will be judged harshly by history. But in the meantime, the triumphant Republicans get to make history. And a lot of the history that Republicans have made is frightening: the endless, futile wars, the obliviousness to climate change, the stamp on the judiciary.
And thus she comes down here:
As with so many other pivotal moments in modern history, Republicans wanted to win, not look for the truth. And history, God help us, is written by the winners.
So go shoot a socialist. That odd little story from the far edge of Montana is actually the big story, the massive historical story. The canary just died.