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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Phony Populism Is Leading America Toward Real Violence (Again)

Every time I hear somebody say that America's contemporary political climate is uniquely violent, I wonder: "Where were you during the Nixon years?" Too young to remember the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy? The Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention? The killings at Kent State? A "Weatherman" bomb factory detonating in Greenwich Village? Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army? The 1992 Los Angeles riots…

The list could go on indefinitely. Politics in America has been a blood sport basically all my life. I've gotten regular death threats for as long as I've written this column, starting during the Clinton administration. One guy used to phone late Friday nights from a pay phone outside a liquor store, threatening to murder me and rape my wife.

Detailed, graphic threats at that.

After the phone company traced the calls, the police assured me that anonymous callers are cowards who get a thrill out of talking dirty. He would never show up. As, indeed, he never did. I always wondered what he was doing with his other hand.

Cell phones have pretty much put an end to such calls. They can't find your number. It might surprise you, however, to learn how many guys are dumb enough to commit the crime of terroristic threatening in an email. These days, as soon as they start, I simply block them. But I also keep a file. The only interesting thing is the psychological projection: who they think they're talking to, and who they pretend to be.

Hairy-chested he-men, mostly. Guys who, in the immortal words of Fifties wrestling icon Dr. Jerry Graham, "men fear and women adore." (Donald Trump stole his whole act from the grappler billed as "The Arizona Assassin, but that's another story.) In my experience, real tough guys don't go around boasting about it. Only professional wrestlers and Republican politicians.

OK, that was a cheap shot. But consider Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) the congressman who tweeted a cartoon video of himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and attacking President Biden with a sword. Rather like my guy outside the liquor store, I'd say.

See, the thing that drives these boys crazy about AOC isn't simply her Bernie-crat politics, but her quick-witted New York bartender's demeanor: She's the kind of beautiful woman skilled at fending off jerks who make clumsy passes.

Politically speaking, I've got my own issues with AOC and "The Squad." Democrats who label themselves "Socialist" are doing the right-wingers' work for them. In much of the country, the label's simply toxic, and no amount of clever apologetics can make it less so.

But I digress. Sentenced to double-secret probation by House Democrats, Rep. Gosar was championed by virtually the entire GOP delegation in a scene right out of Animal House. Evidently it's perfectly alright to fantasize publicly about murdering a colleague and assaulting the president if you were just kidding.

And also, like, a total dork.

Then there's Sen Josh Hawley of Missouri, another virile Republican specimen last seen raising his fist in solidarity with Trump's January 6 insurrectionists. Hawley gave a recent speech at the National Conservatism Conference calling for "revival of strong and healthy manhood in America." Judging by media accounts, it sounded like a declaration of war against Ivy League gender studies departments, who Hawley thinks are responsible for young men wasting their precious bodily fluids playing video games and watching porn.

Literally, that's what he said.

"Hmmmm," observed the Washington Post's conservative columnist Kathleen Parker. "Why is it that the guys who look as though they've never so much as pushed a lawn mower are always the ones who want to saddle up and save the womenfolk?"

Cruel, unfair, and precisely on target.

My response to Hawley is as follows: Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch this week's Michigan-Ohio State football game. Do you still think effeminate girly-men are taking over the USA? Closer to home, the Missouri-Arkansas game would do.

Everywhere you look, privileged characters with fancy private school degrees are venting populist rage. Stirring up the mob. Not only Sen. Hawley (Stanford and Yale), but establishment figures like Sen. Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard), J. D. Vance (Yale Law) fill the air with violent invective.

To longtime conservative author David Brooks, they're "wrong to think there is a unified thing called 'the left' that hates America. This is just the apocalyptic menace many of them had to invent in order to justify their decision to vote for Donald Trump."

But the mob is definitely listening. At a right-wing rally in Idaho recently, a young man asked publicly when it would be OK to shoot Democrats. "How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?"

The crowd applauded. Lies and crackpot rhetoric have consequences.

So when will the shooting start?

This is America. Stick around.

Eric Clapton Denies The Pandemic, While His Guitar Gently Weeps

I've always thought of Eric Clapton as the Frank Sinatra of my generation: a consummate musical artist who's also kind of a jerk. Being a fan of Clapton has always involved making allowances for his personal history of impulsiveness and poor judgement: a one-time alcoholic and heroin addict whose signature song is a plea for the love of his close friend and former Beatle George Harrison's wife.

Even so, I have often found my own wife in tears listening to the paralyzingly beautiful extended piano and guitar coda at the end. We've listened to Layla many, many times, and traveled to hear him play it live. Clapton's genius lies not only in his sheer virtuosity, but his ability to wring crystalline emotion out of an electric guitar.

These Englishmen—Clapton, the Rolling Stones, The Who and others—took an under-appreciated African-American art form, the blues, ran it through their own sensibilities, and returned it to us highly-amplified and charged with grandeur. Pete Townshend has talked about his sudden realization that five blokes with electrified instruments could make as much noise as a symphony orchestra and thinking "Why not?"

And yet, and here comes the sad part, Eric Clapton once took the stage in Birmingham, England in 1976—stinking drunk, he has said in many subsequent apologies—and went on an extended rant about the importance of keeping England white. Channeling one Enoch Powell, basically the fascist-leaning George Wallace of Great Britain, he told his audience that "the Black wogs and coons and Arabs and f**ing Jamaicans don't belong here."

In a 2017 interview, Clapton told Rolling Stone that "It's incomprehensible to me, in a way, that I got so far out." He has elsewhere described himself as doing "really offensive things…I was a nasty person," and "full-tilt" racist.

His many black friends and musical collaborators over the years have by and large forgiven Clapton, if, indeed, they were ever aware of the incident—45 years ago, after all, and never repeated.

They describe acts of great personal warmth and generosity on his part. Since getting sober, Clapton has raised and donated an estimated $20 million in the past decade alone to the Crossroads Centre, the drug and alcohol rehab facility he built in Antigua in 1998. His efforts have helped thousands get clean.

Clapton's friend and longtime bassist Nathan East, a Black man raised in San Diego, put it this way in an interview with the Washington Post: "In the Olympics, they throw out the best score and the worst score," he said. "You get the measure of a person not on the day they did the very, very best thing they did and not the day they did the very worst thing they did." For him, "the beauty of music is that it really transcends language, color and politics."

The occasion of that interview, however, was what many fans of Clapton regard as his latest incomprehensible and perhaps unforgivable folly: Becoming a hardcore anti-vaxxer and recording an extremely silly protest song with Northern Irish singer Van Morrison:

Do you wanna be a free man

Or do you wanna be a slave?

Do you wanna wear these chains

Until you're lying in the grave?

That's right, blues fans, Eric Clapton has equated taking a Covid vaccine and participating in a (Tory-mandated) lockdown with being a slave. True freedom consists of running around maskless and unvaccinated in the middle of a worldwide disease epidemic. He has since vowed not to play at any venue where the audience is required to be vaccinated. At a concert in Austin, he posed for photos with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose efforts to render Texans defenseless against Covid have few parallels.

Granted, Clapton himself had a bad experience with the Astra Zeneca vaccine, probably not the best choice for somebody like him affected by peripheral neuropathy—nerve damage in the hands and feet. The artist says he lost use of his hands for three weeks, which for a 76 year-old musician already fearful of losing his ability to play, must have been frightening.

His great friend Robert Cray, the eminent blues guitarist has taken offense. A blues purist and multiple Grammy Award winner, Cray tried to impress upon Clapton how grotesque he found comparisons between vaccines and slavery. He got nowhere. Then came the Greg Abbot business, and, just like that, a 35 year friendship was over. He cancelled an agreement to open for Clapton on a 2022 tour. "I've told myself, I don't need to have a conversation," Cray told the Post. "I'd just rather not associate with somebody who's on the extreme and being so selfish."

I do think "selfish" is exactly right. "Childish" would be another. The intense monomania necessary to Clapton's artistry can't abide the same frustration we've all had to deal with during the pandemic.

Too bad. He was one of the greats.

Don't Get Too Excited About Virginia, Republicans

As a lifelong sports fan, it's been decades since I let a ballgame make me unhappy. Back when my sons would plunge into mourning over Razorback basketball losses, I'd remind them that somebody loses every game that's played. No point brooding; there will be another game soon.

I feel basically the same about off-year elections. A governor elected by a 51-48 margin, like both Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin and New Jersey Democrat Phil Murphy, won't be able to alter the fundamentals of political life in those states—much less anywhere else.

To choose the most obvious example, Gov. Youngkin will find it easy to fulfill his biggest campaign promise: banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the Commonwealth. That's because nobody actually teaches it, giving GOP "cancel culture" a big head start. It's an obscure academic doctrine metamorphosed into a Fox News phantasm.

Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's awkward statement that parents have no business dictating school curricula looks was an unforced error that may have determined the outcome. Many voters understood him to mean that parents should butt out altogether, a crucial mistake.

The whole episode couldn't help but summon memories of my young wife being summoned before a rural Virginia school board after teaching Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men to tenth graders. One parent found the phrase "blue ball" (describing a toy) to be sexually suggestive and demanded her firing.

The board exonerated her.

Meanwhile, I had done some substituting at the county's segregated black high school, with its worn, hand-me-down textbooks and rocks used as bases on the ball field. I wonder what Critical Race Theory would say about that?

Don't tell the children.

But I digress. McAuliffe's biggest blunder may have been running against the ghost of Donald Trump. A handsome suburbanite out of GOP central casting, Youngkin managed to hold Trumpist voters without alienating others—mainly by keeping the big blowhard out of Virginia and far from his campaign.

Otherwise, neither the Virginia nor New Jersey results did much to justify the melodramatic coverage—particularly on cable TV. Josh Marshall put things in perspective on his Talking Points Memo website:

"New Jersey's Murphy has won what the press portrays as a squeaker, almost illegitimate and certainly embarrassing, by a margin of 77,000 votes. The Great White Hope Glenn Youngkin, on the other hand, won his Virginia landslide victory of all victories by 79,000….

"We can add to this that Murphy is the first Democratic Governor of New Jersey to be reelected in 44 years. Meanwhile, going back 48 years the party which does not hold the presidency has won the Virginia's race all but one time. That was when Terry McAuliffe won in 2013."

In short, nothing fundamental has changed. The public nearly always turns against the party of an incumbent president during his first year, partly because the losers are more motivated. In 2009, after Barack Obama had defeated John McCain, Democrats lost both the New Jersey and Virginia governorships. The year after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democrats won in both states. Pendulum swings are inevitable.

That's why the most intriguing reaction amid the hullabaloo on the network news programs was voiced by the far right Gateway Pundit website. Why did Virginia Democrats let Youngkin win?

See in Trumpist precincts — Gateway Pundit proprietor Jim Hoft was feted at Mar-a-Lago only last weekend — the "Big Steal" is an article of faith, although Republicans haven't won a presidential race in Virginia since 2008. Trump lost there in 2020 by 450,000 votes.

"So where were the magical votes this year?" Hoft demanded to know. "Was this omission on purpose?" Was this part of a larger psyop on the American public?...Throw in McAuliffe as a sacrificial lamb knowing they can steal any future election at will?"

Well, I certainly hope so.

Because by any rational standard, President Biden had a string of remarkable successes last week, although you sure couldn't tell from the media coverage. Never mind his successful appearance at the world climate summit in Glasgow. On Friday, Labor Department jobs report showed the U.S. economy taking off, with 530,000 new jobs created in October, and revised figures from September adding 235,000 more. Unemployment edged down to 4.6 percent while the stock market reached record highs.

Then on Friday night, the House finally passed the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the largest transportation initiative in U.S. history. Passage of Biden's $2 trillion "Build Back Better" plan appears all but assured.

Meanwhile, the Covid death rate shrinks and vaccinations of children have begun. Yet "Dems in Disarray," is the perennial theme Washington pundits have chosen, and they're not easily dissuaded. On her CNN program last Friday, the lovely and quick-witted Erin Burnett badgered and talked over guests who advised patience on the infrastructure bill.

Come Monday, she demanded to know why Biden hadn't signed it yet.

Why Trump Is Desperate To Outlast The January 6 Select Committee

Here's the thing about starting fights: You can always get your butt kicked. As drunk as any barroom brawler on Trumpist lies, many Americans appear to be fantasizing about political violence. According to a poll reported in the Washington Post, "a large number of Republicans — 3 in 10 — believe violence might be justified 'to save our country.'"

That translates to about 12 percent of the American people, roughly thirty million. It's almost as if January 6 never happened. I fear the fever won't break until there's a real shootout and a bunch of people get killed. This is America, after all. Next time, the Proud Boys are apt to bring guns.

Also next time, the authorities will be better prepared. It appears that the single biggest factor in police and military unreadiness last January was sheer disbelief. Nobody imagined that a MAGA mob would actually storm the Capitol until they did it.

Alternatively, Trump could exit the scene, one way or another. There appears to be nobody else in American politics with his peculiar mix of shamelessness and showmanship to keep the MAGA masses enthralled.

That's why the work of the bipartisan congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection is so important, and why Trump is so determined to run out the clock — filing nonsense lawsuits to keep the evidence of his chicanery from being revealed before the 2024 midterm elections. Seditious conspiracy is a serious crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Not that anybody's about to prosecute a former president. Actually, it's more the cynicism and sheer incompetence of Trump and his inner circle that he needs to hide. Court filings showed him trying to prevent congressional investigators from examining more than 700 pages of evidence — including handwritten notes, call logs of Trump and former Vice President Pence, White House visitor records, and much more.

He doesn't even want people knowing who was there, much less what they were talking about before, during, and after the storming of Congress.

But we already know plenty.

"If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he told the crowd, vowing to march with them down Pennsylvania Avenue. A typically empty promise. He's always preferred to lead from behind. Indeed, it's doubtful Trump could actually walk that far in his girdle and elevator shoes.

"Let's you and him fight" is his favorite motto.

Nevertheless, Trump's henchmen understood. As Rep. Lynn Cheney(R-WY) has pointed out, "it appears that Mr. [Steve] Bannon had substantial advance knowledge of the plans for January 6th and likely had an important role in formulating those plans. The day before this all occurred — on January 5 — Mr. Bannon publicly professed knowledge that 'All hell is going to break lose tomorrow.' He forecast that the day would be 'extraordinarily different' than what most Americans expected."

Indeed Bannon's podcast spoke of "revolution." He urged listeners, "Let's get ready. It's all converging, and now we're on the point of attack tomorrow."

So was Bannon present at the White House on January 6? Were he and Trump in regular contact? They'd like to keep everybody from knowing.

Out in the street, groups styling themselves the "MAGA Militia" had established three checkpoints: "Cowboy," "Minuteman," and "Rebel."

Like a bunch of kids playing guns. Now those hombres are headed for the hoosegow, poor dopes.

For two months, Trump had been bitching and boasting about the "stolen" election he lost by seven million votes. On November 21 he tweeted: "The proof pouring in is undeniable. Many more votes than needed. This was a LANDSLIDE!"

Meanwhile, his Rudy Giuliani-led team of bad lawyers filed 60 separate lawsuits charging electoral fraud. Because nothing says "Trump" like a bullshit lawsuit. In an astonishing display of incompetence, they lost all 60 for lack of evidence.

Come January, Trump found yet another legal crank who persuaded him that Vice President Pence — a contestant in the election ,— had the constitutional authority to determine the winner. He told the mob outside the White House that everything depended upon Pence.

At 2:24 p.m., as the MAGA mob breached the Capitol, Trump tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

A chant went up in the crowd: "Hang Mike Pence."

John Eastman, the crackpot lawyer, emailed Pence's chief of staff, then hiding with his boss in the Capitol basement: "The 'siege' is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary."

Now he says he was just kidding, it was a purely academic exercise.

Trump followed the action on TV for another three hours. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy begged him to act, Trump refused. "You know what I see, Kevin? I see people who are more upset about the election than you are. They like Trump more than you do."Any questions?

Why We Still Love Baseball -- Even The World Series

So the World Series has come around again, evoking the usual mixed feelings. For one thing, I don't have a team this year, although I'll be pulling for Atlanta in honor of my friend Lauren, a serious Braves fan I pretty much talked into baseball when she was my student. As a sometime athlete and a serious reader with a taste for complex narratives, she was a natural.

Also, the Houston Astros cheated. Bigtime. Cunning and crude, the team's 2017 electronic sign-stealing, trashcan-banging scheme tipping hitters to incoming pitches could have been designed by Vladimir Putin. It wouldn't have bothered me if several Astros had been banished from baseball like Pete Rose, whose compulsive gambling hurt mainly himself.

All four of Houston's 2021 infielders--Yuli Gurriel, José Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman — participated actively. And their entire punishment, as Washington Post sportswriter Barry Svrluga puts it, has been "they get booed on the road."

So it can't be Houston, although all four are terrific athletes who never needed to cheat. What's more, they were reckless. Too many guys changing teams and talking to think so brazen a scam would stay secret.

But the real reason I'm lukewarm about the World Series is that it's the end of the season, and I'm never ready for that. From April through October, I begin every day with a cup of black coffee and the box scores, and end most evenings watching the Boston Red Sox. I believe I missed one game during the 2021 season due to a funeral or some damn thing…

OK, that's a joke.

But the advent of satellite TV and video recorders has made it possible for a serious fan to spend a couple or three hours every night in a Scheherazade-like trance following the never-ending story at a ballpark 1000 miles from home. (Also to fast-forward through commercials, pitching changes, and conferences at the mound.) It helps that I've always liked Boston and that the NESN announcing team is so companionable.

Sometimes I give my Arkansas wife pronunciation quizzes to test her ability to talk like former Red Sox infielder and broadcaster Jerry Remy. For example, how would Jerry say the name "Dustin Pedroia"?

"Pe-droy-er," she answers, as if to say, "Ask me a hard one."

See. my wife is a baseball coach's daughter who spent her formative years driving across Arkansas and Oklahoma in school buses filled with wisecracking ballplayers. In sixth grade, she carried an autographed photo of the great Brooks Robinson, her daddy's best player, in her billfold. OK, so she'd clipped it from the newspaper and forged the inscription. It's the thought that counts. Diane's often the woman laughing when others are gasping.

This morning I asked if she'd slept well, and she answered "three-run Johnson" — Red Sox color man Dennis Eckersley's slightly off-color phrase for a big home run. So she'd had a good night. "It's a beautiful thing," Eck will say.

Yes, she sometimes tires of my obsession, and I'm generally forbidden from detailed game accounts — particularly at bedtime. But stories revealing players' character and personalities are often welcome. The other day, for example, I told her about maybe the most thrilling pitching performance I'd witnessed this year during the seventh inning of the sixth game of the Braves-Dodgers series.

Braves leading 4-2, Dodgers batting, National League pennant on the line. Runners at second and third, nobody out. Fans going nuts; disaster looming. First-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols at bat, line-drive hitting machine (and former Red Sox) Mookie Betts hitting third. Atlanta brings in this great, hulking left-hander Tyler Matzek, somebody I'd never seen before.

Turns out Matzek got the "yips" a few years back and was out of the game. It's a baseball term for an inexplicable loss of control that turns a guy with pinpoint control and a 98 mph fastball into a guy who can't play catch with his brother without endangering his life. He told his wife he couldn't go on. They cried about it together.

But he got help, started at the bottom and worked his way back. So now he's trying to save the Braves' season in the biggest game of his life. But let Luke Jackson tell the story. He's the relief pitcher that made the mess Matzek walked into, facing three batters: double, walk, double.

"When manager Brian Snitker emerged from the dugout," Jackson told Sports Illustrated, "he felt only relief. 'Thank you,' he told the skipper. 'I can't buy an out right now.' Besides, he knew who was on his way: 'Tyler Nutsack,' Jackson said. 'That's what everyone calls him, because he's got to drag those huge balls out to the mound every night.'"

The coach's daughter laughed out loud at that. Lauren in Atlanta got a kick out of it too.

Because Nutsack struck out the side, and the Braves won the pennant.

To Win, The Democrats Need To Get Out Of Their Own Way

As the nation's political press obsesses over the fate of the administration's Build Back Better proposal, nothing less than the ultimate success or failure of Joe Biden's presidency is said to be at stake. And yet here's the great paradox: taken separately, the elements of the Democrats' social spending proposals poll extremely well.

According to a recent CBS News poll, support for federal funding to reduce prescription drug prices is favored by 88 percent of American voters. Adding Medicare coverage of dental, eye and hearing polls at 84 percent. Another 73 percent back expanding paid family and medical leave. And 67 percent think that universal pre-kindergarten programs for three and four year olds are a good idea.

Similarly, more than two thirds of voters support tax increases on corporations and high-income individuals to pay for these reforms.

And yet, only ten percent of Americans—ten percent!—know that all of these elements are major parts of the Build Back Better bill Democrats have been haggling over for months. (Along with free community college tuition,, a $3600 tax credit for each child under six, a $3000 credit for kids between 7 and 18, and enhanced child nutrition programs.)

Yet only 36 percent believe the bill's passage would be good for their families, while another one-third believe they'd be hurt. A bit more than half want the Biden initiative to pass.

What Americans do know, partly because of the news media's relentless focus on the bottom line, is the White House bill's proposed $3.5 trillion cost. Most appear only dimly aware that's a ten year projection. In short, the voting public is at best lukewarm over Joe Biden's signature issue.

No wonder the bill has been on life support, along with, allegedly, the Biden presidency itself. No wonder too that the president's overall approval numbers are seen as anemic—although recent polls from CNN and Fox News placed his favorability at 50 percent, higher than his predecessor ever achieved.

CNN, for its part, has downplayed its own favorable numbers. Correspondents cherry-pick weaker poll results to keep Wolf Blitzer fully apprised of Washington insider conventional wisdom.

And how has it come to this? Partly, it's the habitual ignorance and inattention of the American public. People have only a vague idea of what they want, and no idea how to get it.

Partly too, it's the fault of congressional Republicans, and the accursed Senate filibuster—so determined to wage political war against a Democratic president that the administration was forced to combine its entire legislative agenda into a single, one-size-fits-all reconciliation bill to have any chance of passing. (Reconciliation bills can't be filibustered.)

Under "normal" political conditions, which we may never see again, Democrats could have passed a trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure plan rebuilding roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and high-speed internet, and then considered the component parts of the Build Back Better plan one or two at a time—Medicare improvements in one bill, child tax credits in another, etc.Instead, they decided that Mitch McConnell's determination to prevent any and all Democratic bills from coming to a Senate vote made bundling them into a single reconciliation bill the only way to pass anything.

The Biden White House agreed.

Media critic Eric Boehlert blames the Beltway news media for failing to enlighten the public. Writing on his Press Run"website, Boehlert argues that "as Democrats work to pass both a huge infrastructure bill and even bigger social spending bill, dubbed Build Back Better, the Beltway press continues to do a great job ignoring the contents of the historic effort. Focusing instead on its cost and obsessively documenting the vote-counting process, the press has walked away from its job of explaining legislation."

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne agrees, writing "the relentless focus on the single number of $3.5 trillion has left most Americans clueless about what Biden wants to do."

Up to a point, I agree. Also with Dionne's larger point that the Democratic party "needs to spend less time on cultural issues and more on fighting for direct benefits to the working and middle classes, a cause that unites voters across racial and regional lines."

But the real fault here isn't with the news media, it's with the White House's inexplicable failure to sell its plan. People don't know what's in the Build Back Better plan mainly because President Biden hasn't told them enough: simply, clearly and repeatedly. If you want the public to understand the legislation, you've got to tell them you're going to tell them, tell them, and then remind them you told them. Over and over until it sinks in.

But the bully pulpit has been vacant. It's incredible that Democrats have gotten suckered into talking about nothing but the ten-year price tag—as if $3.5 trillion were even comprehensible to people. It's as tone-deaf and self-destructive as "Defund the Police."

To succeed, Democrats will first need to get out of their own way.

Trump's Mob: Gullible, Conspiracy-Minded, And Willfully Ignorant Of History

Driving home from the Dog Park, I was surprised to hear the (Dixie) Chicks terrific song Wide Open Spaces on the country oldies station. The group had been banished from country radio since 2003 after saying George W. Bush made them embarrassed to be Texans.

Now that Bush has made Donald Trump's unofficial Enemies List, the Chicks are evidently forgiven after 18 years. Meanwhile, most of my friends in Texas are embarrassed, but not because of Dubya — the make-believe rancher who's given up brush-clearing to paint portraits of lap dogs and his own feet.

And more power to him: the only Republican presidential candidate since 1988 to win an actual national majority. That was in 2004, with Bush still popular due to his ultimately disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. (I was myself removed from a college teaching job after a series of columns arguing that the Bush administration's case for attacking Saddam Hussein was transparently fraudulent.)

But I digress. Never mind that Bush was the worst president in living memory, dragging the country into futile wars on false premises and presiding over the 2008 banking crisis. Before the roof fell in, he did achieve an actual majority .

And a big part of what's going on in the United States today is that no Republican candidate—very much including Trump — has much chance of winning a national majority in the foreseeable future. This appears to have made an awful lot of Americans —particularly under-educated white ones, to be perfectly blunt — scared half to death.

Seemingly fearful of being relegated to second-class status, many "Real Americans," as they're styled on Fox News, appear eager to embrace minority rule. So long as they're the ones wielding power, that is. Tucker Carlson tells them that Democrats are scheming to "replace" them with aggrieved and undeserving voters of different races.

Because they're gullible and prone to apocalyptic thinking — "the rapture" was all the rage in evangelical circles not long ago — one result has been a succession of what can what can only be described as "moral panics" over largely imaginary threats such as "Sharia Law," "Cancel Culture," and "Critical Race Theory." Since 2010, for example, several states have found it necessary to ban Islamic religious courts from exercising legal authority.

As if.

Those states are: Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Tennessee. Notice anything else about them?

Even the stuffiest Republican thinkers can get all worked up over the follies of campus leftists, of which there's never any shortage. The Washington Post's George Will wrote a stern column recently about a fracas involving a professor of management at UCLA, who unwisely engaged a student who worried that having to take a final exam would injure "the mental and physical health of our Black classmates" traumatized by George Floyd's murder.

The professor replied with mild sarcasm, asking how he was supposed to identify Black students in an online course. Also. what about racially mixed students, of which UCLA has many? For this, the poor dope got suspended from teaching, banned from campus, and denounced by spineless administrators. (He's been reinstated and has filed a lawsuit.)

Well, he should have known better, although I'm prone to bickering and sarcasm myself. I'm also familiar with humorless campus leftists. My wife and I were once admonished by professorial guests for owning a Merle Haggard album. We thought Okie from Muskogee was funny; they thought it a fascist outrage. (Haggard himself was surprised so few got the joke.)

And speaking of "cancel culture," public school teachers and administrators nationwide are being harassed and run out of their jobs for the largely imaginary crime of teaching "Critical Race Theory."

In Grapevine, Texas, a Black high school principal got fired for the sin of writing a letter to colleagues expressing the anodyne view that "Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism." (Also for having ten years ago posted a Facebook photo of himself kissing his white wife.) In Queen Anne's County, Maryland a highly successful Black school superintendent was hounded from the district for expressing polite concerns about racial injustice.

Activists calling themselves "conservative" are besieging school boards across the country, basically arguing that history lessons about slavery and Jim Crow teach white children to be ashamed of their race and country. At Boise State University, they have proposed eliminating whole academic departments—Global Studies, Sociology and History—to combat left-wing dogma.

In other news, Trumpist Republicans are working systematically to rig the electoral system to bring their champion back to power regardless of voters' wishes. Never mind that Trump got more than 7 million fewer votes than Joe Biden in 2020, losing the Electoral College by 306 to 232. With GOP state legislators counting the votes, an identical outcome in 2024 would make Trump a big, big winner.

At least that's the plan.

When Melodrama Drives News Coverage, The Truth Is Obscured

This just in: Breaking News!

If you haven't noticed, the news business thrives on melodrama: It's hardly original to observe that cable TV programming in particular runs on Showbiz values.

Two cases in point:

Some on the left have been complaining about outsized attention given the Gabby Petito murder. Why all the hubbub over a missing blonde? Media moralists demand to know. What about the many Native American women gone missing in Wyoming?

As it happens, a Governor's Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons determined that such cases do get disproportionately less coverage in Wyoming media. But it's nothing to do with poor Gabby, whose body was found there in a National Forest campground, as virtually every media outlet in the USA has reported.

But why? Simple: Petito and the fugitive creep who seemingly killed her were already minor celebrities. They'd been posting videos of their cross-country camping trip on YouTube and Instagram. So there was plenty of video footage. Utah police who interviewed the couple after a roadside altercation provided even more.

The footage was riveting. Sad to say, the cameras loved her. Gabby Petito exuded a winsome vulnerability that people responded to. The boyfriend projected a kind of TV movie-of-the-week menace: weak and controlling, the kind of guy who hits women.

Second, her anguished family lives in New York, his in Florida, both major media markets. After he returned home without her and then vanished, a sorrowful drama was set in motion. Viewers responded emotionally, and the story acquired a momentum of its own. It's still not over.

But it's when the conventions of melodrama drive national political stories that the real trouble starts. Often enough, they too turn upon dramatic video. Consider the vexing question of "Who lost Afghanistan?" evoked by deadly chaos at the airport in Kabul—a responsibility shared by four U.S. presidents and every general who testified before Congress last week.

Footage of desperate Afghans hiding in the wheel wells of what they feared would be the last plane out, and then plunging to their deaths has dominated coverage for weeks. Millions of Americans incapable of finding Afghanistan on a world map were shocked.

As the debacle took place on Joe Biden's watch, there's no denying his responsibility. But his responsibility for what? A tougher question, all but impossible to reduce to a 15-second news clip.

Too often, creative editing comes to the rescue. Everywhere you looked last week, troubled anchors were nattering about whether Biden lied about his conversations with Pentagon advisers regarding leaving Afghanistan.

One CNN panel led by Ana Cabrera concluded that he'd denied that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised him to keep 2500 U.S. troops there, and that was a lie.

The alleged falsehood was documented by a brief video clip from an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos:

"So no one told—your military advisers did not tell you, 'No, we should just keep 2500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that'?"

"No" Biden said. "No one said that to me that I can recall."

The same truncated quote appeared many times on CNN and was employed by the New Yorker's Robin Wright to make the same point. Biden's words were in "stark contrast" to Pentagon officials' sworn testimony.

So would it shock you that the interview transcript shows that moments earlier, Biden said his advisers had been "split" about keeping solders in Kabul? In context, the president was clearly responding to the second part of the question, about keeping the country stable with 2500 troops.

Indeed, he continued directly to say "Look, George, the reason why it's been stable for a year is because the last president said, 'We're leaving.'"

And that's just a fact. In the 2020 Doha agreement, Trump promised to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan on May 1, 2021 if the Taliban would quit attacking Americans, which they did.

It also appears that none of Biden's Pentagon advisors thought Afghanistan could be pacified with so small a force. If the U.S. failed to withdraw, Gen. Milley testified, the Taliban would have restarted the fighting, "we would have needed 30,000 troops" and would have suffered "many casualties."

And that's precisely the outcome Biden told Stephanopoulos he was determined to avoid: endless war. Something Pentagon brass, in his experience, are all too fond of.

"I was present when that discussion occurred and I am confident that the President heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully," Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of Central Command, testified. "That's all any commander can ask."

"The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing," Biden also told Stephanopoulos, "I don't know how that happens."

Judging by their testimony, neither did anybody else.

Trump's 2024 Threat Is Serious-- But Ultimately He Will Lose

The big question isn't whether Donald Trump plans to run for president come 2024. Assuming that he's alive, relatively healthy, and not under criminal indictment, of course he will. He pretty much has to.

Never mind that at age 75, Trump looks like a stroke or coronary event waiting to happen. The show must go on. He needs all the cash he can raise. Otherwise, his lifelong grift could come to an ignominious, if not farcical end. Tax fraud convictions and spiraling bankruptcies would be the least of it.

And if he runs, Republicans will surely nominate him.

What's left of the party he's torn apart won't be able to help themselves. Formerly apostles of "small government" conservatism, the GOP has morphed into a quasi-authoritarian cult of personality.

And despite the staggering incompetence and low comedy that marked his 2020 "Stop the Steal" campaign, it's worth remembering that people laughed at Mussolini too. Charlie Chaplin's merciless satire of Hitler in The Great Dictator didn't appear until October 1940, a full year into World War II.

So it's definitely worthwhile heeding thoughtful warnings that next time an electoral coup might work. Although there's almost no chance that Trump could come anywhere close to winning a majority of American voters, GOP skulduggery could put him back in the White House. Assuming that a complacent majority allowed it to happen.

Longtime neoconservative author Robert Kagan, has recently published a thought-provoking Washington Post essay arguing that a constitutional crisis is already upon us. Kagan, who left the GOP in 2016, warns that "Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian."

Certainly, Republicans are doing all they can to game the 2024 presidential election. Should they retake Congress in 2022, they'll do even more. So while it's possible that efforts to prevent minorities from voting could backfire—discouraging older white voters while energizing African-Americans—putting Republican state legislatures in charge of certifying elections is an ominous development.

Had that been so in 2020, Trump's comic opera coup attempt might have succeeded. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa's book Peril, detailed a six-part plan dreamed up by right-wing law professor John Eastman, who harangued the crowd along with Trump and Rudy Giuliani on January 6. The scheme required Vice President Mike Pence to invalidate electoral votes won by Joe Biden on the grounds that seven states had sent rival sets of electors to Congress.

"If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election," Trump told the mob before promising to march with them to the Capitol and "fight like hell" to save the country.

"You can either go down in history as a patriot," Trump reportedly told Pence "or you can go down in history as a pussy."


Never mind the constitutional absurdity—how can the Vice President decide an election in which he's himself a candidate?—Eastman's scam failed for the simplest of reasons: no states sent rival delegations to the Electoral College.

Indeed, had they done so, the likeliest outcome would have been that Speaker Pelosi would have dissolved the joint session of Congress, leading to her temporarily assuming the presidency as the next in succession.


As usual, Trump had neglected to read the fine print. The fact is, he probably can't. But that's another issue altogether.

Kagan's point is that, next time, Trumpist legislatures will definitely send those rival delegations. Or worse. Some Republican-dominated bodies are even considering overriding their state's popular vote, if necessary, to re-install Trump.

Purged of dissenters like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, today's Republicans have become what Kagan calls a "zombie party" in thrall to a cult of personality. "They view Trump as strong and defiant," he writes, "willing to take on the establishment, Democrats, RINOs, liberal media, antifa, the Squad, Big Tech, and the 'Mitch McConnell Republicans.'"

In other words, basically a list of cartoon enemies. If my own hostile reader emails are any guide, this is certainly true. To Trumpists, their rivals are fundamentally illegitimate. It's basically a pro-wrestling audience, excited by spectacle. To them, Trump's egomania is a feature, not a bug. He'll give no quarter to his enemies—and theirs.

"A Trump victory," Kagan concludes "is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it."

Which is exactly why it's not going to happen. Kagan is a learned and intelligent fellow, but he has a melodramatic imagination of his own. As a co-founder of the "Project for a New American Century," he pushed hard for remaking the world by invading Iraq.

His warnings are well-taken, but Kagan badly underestimates the determination of the democratic majority.

Why Modern Americans Are Behaving Like Medieval Peasants

Americans are currently experiencing one of the most peculiar public episodes of my lifetime. Amid a deadly worldwide disease epidemic, many people are behaving like medieval peasants: alternately denying the existence of the plague, blaming an assortment of imaginary villains, or running around seeking chimerical miracle cures.

Feed store Ivermectin? I've administered it to horses, cows and dogs. But to my wife? No thank you. It says right on the label that it's not for human consumption. But at least you won't die of heartworm.

Donald Trump's idea of injecting bleach somehow never caught on, although one Florida family (where else?) was prosecuted for fraud after making a bundle peddling the stuff as medicine through their church. The charges were Federal. I'm only surprised Florida's governor didn't award them a medal.

Incapable of dealing with reality, too many exist in an odd state of denial. In essence, as a friend observed recently, "millions of Americans are engaged in a deeply weird suicide lottery."

Strangest of all, of course, is that a genuine miracle cure does exist. A scientific miracle that is: vaccines with the capacity to bring the pandemic to an end. Shackled by ignorance and paralyzed by fear, however, millions of our fellow citizens have refused to take it.

Propagandized by opportunists and madmen, and at war with everything known about communicable diseases since the life of Louis Pasteur (1822-95), many have taken refuge in humanity's most basic pre-rational instinct: tribalism.

And the tribe most Covid Fraidy Cats have chosen is Trumpist Republicanism.

Not all Republicans, of course. But far too many.

"No vaccine for us, we're Republicans." Anything to "own the Libs." Propagandized by the (fully-vaccinated) gang at Fox News—Tucker, Laura, Sean and the rest are all immunized as a condition of employment—millions of self-declared "conservatives" appear determined to defy reason, science and basic common sense to the end.

Even Trump himself took the shot, although when he mentioned it to an Alabama crowd, they booed, and he's since shut up about it.

As a direct consequence, the United States leads the developed world in Covid-19 deaths by astonishing amounts. America's daily Covid mortality rate is three times greater than the United Kingdom's, and four times that of France. As for the rest of the NATO countries, Canada, Germany and Italy currently have Covid death rates a bit lower than one per million of total population. The United States rate is fully SIX TIMES higher, and rising sharply.

In short, it's a self-inflicted wound.

Remember when we Americans prided ourselves upon our common sense practicality, our can-do ability to solve problems together?

That was then. As for now, well…

CNN's Jake Tapper gave Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves a hard time recently about the fact that his state not only leads the nation in Covid mortality, but damn near leads the world. Only Peru among the world's nations has a higher per capita death rate than Mississippi.

Needless to say, the state also has among the lowest vaccination rates. Not for nothing have Arkansans long said "Thank God for Mississippi," on the grounds that whatever embarrasses us here is worse over there.

Tapper asked Reeves what he planned to do about it.

"Deaths unfortunately are a lagging indicator," Reeves said, an unresponsive non-sequitur. He appeared no more capable of being embarrassed than a cow. He recently boasted that Mississippians don't fear death because they believe in the afterlife.

The Mississippi governor was stung because of something President Biden said recently about his fierce opposition to his mandating OSHA to require that workers in large companies get vaccinated as a matter of public safety.

"In Mississippi, children are required to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B, polio, tetanus, and more," the president pointed out. "These are state requirements. But in the midst of a pandemic that has already taken over 660,000 lives, I propose a requirement for COVID vaccines and the governor of that state calls it 'a tyrannical-type move'?"

He repeated himself for emphasis: "A tyrannical-type move?!"

Partly, vaccine resistance stems from sheer ignorance. On Fox News and elsewhere, people have been duped by opportunists to think vaccines can kill you, make you sterile, implant microchips in your blood, alter your DNA, or even turn your body into a large magnet. It appears that when people are frightened, no lie is too crazy to find believers.

This stuff isn't just irrational; it's anti-rational.

Of course, few actually believe that stuff. It's more a matter of who's making the argument. If Joe Biden, a known Democrat, is behind it, then the Red Tribe's against it. Even if it means risking death.

Yours, and of more interest to an "elitist" like me, mine.

Republicans invoke "state's rights," which is what they always say when their position is indefensible.

Sometimes, an element of force is required.

Fake Ex-President, Fake Billionaire -- But He's A Real Gift To Democrats

Be it recorded that on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, would-be president-for-life Donald Trump skipped the solemn memorial services held to honor 2,997 victims of al-Qaeda terror attacks in favor of shilling for a pay-per-view boxing match.

And not a real boxing match, but a sad-sack exhibition in which 58 year-old former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield allowed himself to be pummeled to the canvas in a single round by a MMA fighter he'd have knocked silly 30 years ago.

Fake sport, fake ex-president.

Fake billionaire, for that matter. Evidently, Trump needs the money. Maybe if they'd held the 9/11 ceremony at Mar-a-Lago or one of his financially-troubled golf courses, the great man might have shown up.

Something else Trump did on September 11 was to deliver a televised speech praising himself to devotees of the Unification Church (formerly known as "Moonies") the Korean sect begun by self-proclaimed Messiah the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Another payday, no doubt.

Everybody understands that Trump's narcissism won't allow him to appear in public as a former [ital] president, like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and their wives, who joined President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden in prayers for the fallen.

Come what may, Trump will never appear in public with Joe Biden.

To do so would grant legitimacy to the 2020 election results that make him a Big Loser, and undermining the fantasy he calls the "Big Steal." On September 10, Trump appeared on the conspiracist website The Gateway Pundit. "I do believe they are going to decertify the election," he claimed. "They know it was rigged."

Exactly who "they" are was left to the viewers' imagination. Along with whatever method of decertification Trump imagines.

Hint: none exists.

Despite being a world-class ignoramus, Trump's diseased ego has led him to one great truth: There are an irreducible number of gullible dupes in the world. If you tickle their prejudices, they will send you money.

"Our media is corrupt as can be," he explained, "but the people know what's going on and another poll came out. 70 some percent thought the election was, to put it very nicely, tampered with."

The actual number in a recent Politico poll was 66 percent of Republican voters who believe the 2020 election was rigged. The only "people" Trump recognizes. But the Republican Party is shrinking, partly due to conservative "Never Trumpers" bailing out and partly to demographic change, as older white voters die off and twenty-somethings increasingly vote Democratic.

Bottom line: 66 percent of Republicans constitute 29 percent of American voters, and falling. Less than one-third. Enough to populate Trump's red state rallies and keep him afloat financially for now. But not enough to keep the delusion alive indefinitely.

That's a big part of the reason we saw Trump and his protégé, radio talk-show host and would-be California governor Larry Elder, crying foul even before the vote-counting began in that state's recall election.

You'd almost think they expected to lose.

To keep True Believers writing checks, it's necessary to keep the Big Lie in play. But it's also why — and this is important — embattled Gov. Gavin Newsom did everything he could to turn the recall vote into a referendum on the Big Bad Wolf.

"Trumpism is still alive all across this country," Newsom said at an East Los Angeles rally with Black campaign volunteers. "Is it any surprise the entire Trump organization is behind this recall?"

At another campaign event with Vice President Kamala Harris, Newsom linked the recall to "the insurrection on January 6." He added that leading Republican Elder would "walk us off that same COVID cliff as Texas and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia."

Add Texas' new abortion ban to the mix, and Democrats have a trio of powerful issues that impact voters personally and stimulate turnout—always a big deal in off-year elections.

And not just in California. Democrats in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey are also running hard not only against the dread specter of Trumpism—but also Trump-accented Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas.

In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is running to replace term-limited Democrat Ralph Northam, is making a big deal of Trump's endorsement of Republican Glenn Youngkin. The GOP candidate has run ads disparaging the tactic. Without, however, rejecting the endorsement.

""With Covid, people are terrified, horrified — many people are just plain disgusted that people are not getting vaccinated," McAuliffe told the Washington Post. "And they're terrified about the Texas law," he added.

In an outburst of pure Jersey style, the Garden State's Gov. Phil Murphy recently confronted anti-vaccine hecklers. "You've lost your minds!" Murphy said. "You are the ultimate knuckleheads, and because of what you are saying and standing for, people are losing their [lives]."

Both Democrats appear comfortably ahead.

And they owe it all to Trump, DeSantis, and Abbott.

The Lone Star State Wasn't Always So Mean, Petty, And Vindictive

Confession: I have always felt warmly toward Texas, and I can't square the big-hearted, boisterous, self-confident place I've known with the petty, mean-spirited, downright vindictive anti-abortion law the state's Republican legislature and governor have endorsed.

Welcome to Beijing on the Brazos. It's as if 29 million Texans had surrendered to fundamentalist authoritarianism, brandishing Bibles like copies of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, vowing punishment against sinners and informing on their relatives and neighbors.

As I say, this is not the Texas I know: a sprawling, geographically and ethnically complex state larger than France, and which sometimes feels like the nation—as Texans never quit reminding you—that it was from 1836 to 1845.

Parts of Texas resemble Louisiana, others Oklahoma; the Texas panhandle feels a lot like Nebraska, and basically everywhere south of San Antonio like Mexico. The territory around Lubbock somewhat resembles the moon. Unless you really put the hammer down, it's a two-day drive from Beaumont to El Paso or Amarillo.

Texas can be hard to get your mind around. However, having lived there two different times, taught at University of Texas-Austin, and traveled everywhere reporting for Texas Monthly magazine, I've always felt an intoxicating sense of possibility. If I hadn't basically married Arkansas, I'd probably live somewhere near Austin.

To give you some idea, I interviewed a priest in Orange who sponsored two dozen Vietnamese immigrants, covered the great Rockdale football mutiny (undefeated state champs who went on strike against their coach), and hit the road with the Corpus Christi Seagulls, a minor league baseball team. I interviewed migrant workers outside Amarillo, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at UT-Austin, studied the heavens at the university's observatory in the Davis Mountains, and learned to handle a pistol from an ROTC instructor at Rice University. (Bottom line: don't.) I made pilgrimage to Alvin to interview the great Nolan Ryan.

You don't meet a lot of shy, retiring Texans. Willie Nelson is your classic example, also The Eagles' Don Henley. Buddy Holly, Beyoncé, Waylon Jennings and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Jerry Jeff Walker was raised in upstate New York, but his rendition of Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues," may be the purest example of slide guitar Texas nationalism extant.

Texas is filled with writers and journalists I admire, from Lawrence Wright and my pal Stephen Harrigan to the late Larry McMurtry. I once drove from Cody, Wyoming to Little Rock listening to Lonesome Dove and was tempted to carry on to Memphis just to finish the story.

Coming to the point, Texas was also home to two of the strongest American women of my own or anybody else's generation: Gov. Ann Richards and the inimitable Molly Ivins, the wittiest American journalist since H.L. Mencken.

Molly once observed of a Dallas congressman that "If his IQ slips any lower we'll have to water him twice a day." She described Bill Clinton as "weaker than bus station chili" -- unfair, in my view, but definitely memorable.

One can only imagine what either woman would have made of Texas' current Gov. Greg Abbott—a poser last seen vowing to protect the state from imaginary invasion during "Operation Jade Helm." Austin's own native hoaxer Alex Jones had persuaded thousands of dupes that networks of secret tunnels were being dug between vacant Walmart stores to help ISIS fighters infiltrate. Christian patriots would be imprisoned in FEMA re-education camps.

Sure enough, the invasion never came. Fresh from that mighty triumph, Abbott has now succeeded in passing an idiotic law empowering every testosterone-challenged goober in Texas to carry a gun anywhere: no lessons or permit necessary. That will cost dozens of lives, but it's the abortion law that's getting all the attention.

Look, there has been a strong undercurrent of authoritarianism in Texas culture since slavery times. But this takes it further: If a 13 year-old child gets impregnated by her uncle, Texas now demands that she bear a child. Otherwise, a vindictive relative or nosy neighbor can collect a $10,000 state bounty for filing a lawsuit against an abortion provider, putting them out of business.

It's like the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act on steroids. Already, a self-described "Christian" group has put up a website,, inviting people to inform on anybody obtaining or facilitating abortions. The cheapest form of cheap grace imaginable.

Anyway, it's official: Every Texas woman's womb belongs to the state. What's more, thanks to the cunning and cowardice of the US Supreme Court, every state where fundamentalist Bible Beaters hold sway will soon rush to enact it—even if it ultimately means political disaster, which I think it does.

Because Americans just won't stand for turning embittered ex-husbands and vengeful mothers-in-law into bounty hunters. So spare me the theological and biological fundamentalism. Nobody thinks abortion is a good thing; but it's sometimes the least-bad option. Other people's intimate life decisions are nobody else's business, in Texas or anywhere else.

In A Pandemic, Don't Try To Reason With 'Arkansaw Lunkheads'

During the early days of the Covid-19 epidemic, my brother and I congratulated each other that we had little to fear. Descended from hardy Irish peasants who lived in dirt-floored hovels among farm animals, we'd inherited sturdy immune systems and pretty much never get sick.

Or so we assured each other.

Except, come to think of it, our maternal grandfather Michael Sheedy died during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic at age 34. His own father had died earlier the same year at 56. Our mother was five years old when her grandfather and father succumbed to influenza. Although she rarely spoke of it, her childhood had been a difficult one. All this in Elizabeth, New Jersey where we were born.

So maybe we needed to be a little less cocky and more careful, we agreed. Indeed, we both got ourselves and our wives as close to the front of the Covid-19 vaccination line as we could. I stubbornly stayed on hold throughout an entire BBC-TV documentary to make an appointment at the university hospital; my brother drove three hours each way to get his shot at a pharmacy he found online. Hardly heroic, but the right call.

That said, I've got a ready answer when people ask me what it's like to live in a place like Arkansas filled with Covid-deniers and vaccine resisters: See, I've been there before. Our mother grew up fearful and superstitious, more apt to credit the florid imaginings of her craziest sister than any doctor. Radio commentator Walter Winchell—the Tucker Carlson of his day—once opined that the miraculous Salk polio vaccine "might be a killer."

And that was that. No killer vaccine for her children. No how, no way. Although we dutifully toured the iron lung exhibit on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights—scarier than any haunted house—and while I dutifully prayed for a polio-stricken neighbor named "Ronnie" every night, I never got immunized until I enrolled in the Peace Corps at 24. I never actually met Ronnie, and have no idea what became of him.

Until I asked him, I never knew that my brother did receive the Salk vaccine after first being denied enrollment in the second grade. Our younger sister too. I somehow slipped through the cracks. No way was our mother going to risk all three children without being compelled. Charismatic and forceful in other arenas, my father knew better than to argue. Or maybe he shared her paranoia. It was always hard to tell.

Meanwhile, the national press has been filled with stories about Arkansas' quaint folkways and consequent sorrows. The Wall Street Journal interviewed a nurse in Greenwood, over near Fort Smith along the Oklahoma border. Both her parents came down with Covid after attending their 52nd high school reunion in July and died within three days of each other.

Devastated by grief, the nurse, Shanda Parrish, says she still won't take the vaccine. It's too untested, she thinks. She has a brother living near Washington, D.C., who's worn out arguing about it. His parents needn't have died, David Herring told a reporter, but for fear and ignorance.

"Their age and health conditions—they should have gotten vaccinated really early," he said. "And then trying to talk to friends of theirs, and hearing these ridiculous things about depopulation and computer chips."

The Journal also interviewed a local physician (and Republican state legislator) named Lee Johnson. Dr. Johnson urges his patients to take the COVD vaccines, although he cautions that making people "feel defensive for their passionately held opinion isn't productive."

As a politician, however, Johnson voted for Arkansas' crackpot law forbidding school districts and private employers from mandating face masks. So it's hard to know what to make of him. After a Little Rock judge found the law unconstitutional, GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson hired a Democratic lawyer from Fayetteville to help him resist the Republican Attorney General's effort to have the state Supreme Court re-instate the mask ban.

Meanwhile, local school boards all over Arkansas are requiring students and faculty to mask-up, even as angry protesters invoke their constitutional right to infect others with a deadly disease. Vaccination rates are rising sharply. And just across the border in Springfield, Missouri, the Kansas City Star reports, anti-vax activists showed up wearing yellow Stars of David to emphasize their victimization.

In short, it's all chaos and dark comedy; Mark Twain's "Arkansaw lunkheads" in action. If only pediatric wards statewide weren't filling up with children on ventilators it would be quite funny.

Trump, see, thought Covid might interfere with his re-election, so he told his followers the disease was a Democratic hoax. Many Arkansans believed him. Some would rather die than admit error. Now, they're too scared to think straight.

Anyway, here's what I learned at my mother's knee: You can't reason people into common sense. Sometimes, you just have to force the issue.

Be Grateful For Trump's Comical Incompetence And Clown Henchmen

When push comes to shove, it may be Donald Trump's sheer, malign incompetence that saves the Republic. The more evidence accumulates about his crackpot schemes to overthrow the 2020 presidential election, the more they resemble the plot line of one of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels about a career criminal whose elaborate heists go hilariously wrong.

My favorite is Bank Shot, in which Dortmunder's intrepid gang hauls away one of those temporary mobile home banks one night only to realize—uh oh!—that Long Island is, indeed, an island, and that the cops have already blockaded the bridges. In the end, the fool thing rolls downhill and sinks into the Atlantic Ocean. There's a funny film version starring George C. Scott.

Just so: Trump's post-election scam featuring the likes of Ohio Rep, "Gym" Jordan, aka the Very Angry Congressman, and co-starring the mustachioed MyPillow guy and a bunch of comically-inept lawyers who have lost 64 consecutive court cases. Also featuring Rudolph W. Giuliani as A Guy Who Used to Be Somebody until he discovered the wonder-working powers of single-malt Scotch.

(A confession: I too once felt spray-on hair dye running down my face during a sweaty interlude masquerading as a blond professional wrestling heel. I was in the eighth grade.)

Ordinarily, Trump exhibits the low cunning of a Mob boss. Rule One is: never write anything down. It's clearly because he sends no emails or written directives that Trump himself has so far escaped New York tax fraud charges. The law requires proof of corrupt intent, and as long as nobody rats him out, the boss can plead ignorance.

If you believe that Donald J. Trump, a guy who stiffs pretty much everybody he's ever done business with (and currently refuses to pay Giuliani's legal fees) was unaware of Trump Organization tax avoidance scams exactly like those he learned from dear old Dad…

Well, you probably also believe that he won the 2020 election in a landslide. So let's move on.

Rule Two in the mob boss handbook is this: Never talk about it over the phone. That's one we've seen the big dope violate often. He's constitutionally incapable of keeping his mouth shut. First, when he tried to shake down the President of Ukraine into announcing a phony investigation of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

That one got him impeached, if not convicted.

Second, when he phoned Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger last January 2 urging him to "find" enough votes to overturn Trump's 11,779-vote defeat there.

"I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have," he said. "Because we won the state." Unwilling to cheat, Raffensberger recorded the call. The Washington Post soon had a copy.

Trump also tried to bully Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Arizona's Doug Ducey. Both resisted. Republican legislators in Michigan and Wisconsin also refused to play ball. All now face Trump-endorsed primary opponents.

Attorney General William Barr resigned in December, using a barnyard epithet to describe the quality of Trump's evidence of fraud.

An ordinary con man would back off and start planning his comeback. As the lamest of lame ducks, Trump had no power to make anybody do anything that conflicted with their principles or self-interest.

Lacking ethics of his own, he's blind to those of others. So he tried strong-arming acting attorney general Jeffrey A. Rosen, and deputy, Richard P. Donoghue over the phone.

As any competent lawyer would, Donoghue took notes.

DOJ lawyers, he wrote "Told [Trump] flat out that much of the info he is getting is false, +/or just not supported by the evidence—we look at allegations but they do not pan out." They told Trump that DOJ had neither the constitutional authority nor any intention of interfering in a presidential election.

Like some QAnon crank in his grandma's basement, Trump persevered: "Don't expect you to do that, just say that the election was corrupt, he insisted, and "leave the rest to me and the R[epublican] Congressmen."

Clearer evidence of criminal intent would be hard to find. Trump meant to overturn the election by any means possible. Exactly how much proof can be found of White House involvement in raising the January 6 mob remains to be seen. But the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers didn't just decide on a mid-winter camping trip.

Trump told the gathering mob that they needed to march to the Capitol and "fight like hell, or you won't have a country anymore." He vowed to march with them. Fat chance. He quickly retreated into the White House to enjoy the spectacle on TV.

So now the portly con man in elevator shoes has been quoted calling the cops who fought hours of hand-to-hand combat while the mob chanted "Kill Mike Pence" "pussies" and "cowards."

One thing you can bank on: He'll never say it to their faces.

Dragging The Vaccine Refusers Out From Under The Porch

Let's say there's an outbreak of deadly parvovirus in your neighborhood. Your beloved golden retriever Red, however, goes into a full-scale panic attack at the sight or smell of a veterinarian. You know the disease is highly communicable and potentially fatal.

There's a reliable vaccine, but the dog won't listen. Runs and hides under the porch. Fights the leash like a smallmouth bass on a hook. Rolls over on his back and has to be dragged, panting and drooling. Maybe even bites the hand that feeds him.

God forbid you should force the issue. No vaccine shot for Red. Even a dog has his rights, after all, among them the right to die in agony while shedding the deadly virus all over the neighborhood.

Put that way, the whole national "debate" over the Covid-19 vaccine seems kind of crazy, doesn't it? When the vaccine refuser is a golden retriever, we take action because we understand that the dog can't be reasoned with.

(When I lived in the country, I learned to administer my own vaccinations. I also prevented the animals from watching Fox News. It only riles up the cows.)

That said, I agree with the Republican governor of Alabama. Asked what it would take to convince her constituents to get vaccinated—Alabama is among the least-protected in the nation—Gov. Kay Ivey responded "I don't know. You tell me. Folks [are] supposed to have common sense. But it's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down."

Trouble is, folks tend not to have a lot of common sense when they're frightened. Not much more than their ancestors in 14th century Europe who blamed the Black Death on Jews poisoning wells. Also on Gypsies, beggars and foreigners generally. Many lepers were put to death.

Mainly, though, it was the Jews.

Dr. Fauci isn't a Jew, but he'll do for a certain kind of fool. I think we all know the kind I mean.

My man Charles P. Pierce of Esquire found an article about an Alabama physician on Dr. Brytney Cobia wrote a Facebook post about admitting young, previously healthy patients to a COVID ward in Birmingham.

"One of the last things they do before they're intubated is beg me for the vaccine," she wrote. "I hold their hand and tell them that I'm sorry, but it's too late."

After they die, Cobia continued: "I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same."

"They cry. And they tell me they didn't know. They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn't get as sick. They thought it was 'just the flu'. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can't."

She prays that people will learn.

Many white Southerners, Politico reports, "are turning down Covid-19 vaccines because they are angry that President Donald Trump lost the election and sick of Democrats in Washington thinking they know what's best."

Especially, of course, when they do.

Possibly they'll listen to Gov. Ivey or Dr. Cobia, but not soon enough, I fear. Besides, as in the 14th century, paranoia is worldwide. There was a recent anti-vaccine rally in London's Trafalgar Square, with a host of crackpots invoking imaginary, often self-contradictory horrors.

Vaccines are a Satanic plot for world domination; or they're a surveillance technology, turning your body into a 5G transmitter; or they alter your DNA; or they cause infertility. Or vaccines will just flat kill you.

Closer to home, the epicenter of the deadly pandemic surge in Arkansas, where I live, appears to be Branson, Missouri, the cornball country music capital of middle America.

"Branson has a lot of country-western shows," Dr. Marc Johnson, an epidemiologist at the University of Missouri School of Medicine told the Daily Beast."No vaccines. No masks. A bunch of people indoors and air conditioning, tightly packed, listening to music, possibly singing along, i.e. a superspreading [event]."

Yee-haw! The town's mayor has proclaimed "I DO NOT believe it's my place, or the place of any politician, to endorse, promote, or compel any person to get any vaccine." He's all about freedom and liberty, the mayor.

Only what about my freedom not to get infected because some country karaoke fan thinks Covid-19 is a hoax? Government and private employers can't force people to take the shot, but they can require them as a condition of employment. You already can't get into Yankee Stadium without proof of vaccination. NFL teams will likely require them too.

If people had any sense, you wouldn't have to drag them from under the porch. But history teaches that you must.

Flamboyantly Pious Ken Starr Had So Far To Fall — And He Did

Reprinted with permission from Chicago Sun-Times

Perhaps you recall the eminent "Judge Starr" of Republican legend and song, a pious Christian avatar of justice and sexual propriety. Back when he was dutifully investigating President Bill Clinton's sex life — "our job is to do our job," he'd tell TV crews staking out his suburban driveway, a soft-handed househusband obediently taking out the trash — Kenneth Starr posed as a man of firm moral views and unimpeachable integrity.

Fawning newspaper profiles depicted Starr as an uxorious fellow whose favorite pastime was going for Sunday drives with his equally pious wife, singing hymns together. Never mind that said profiles were often written by the same reporters to whom independent counsel Starr's prosecutors had been leaking damning, albeit misleading, tidbits about Bill and Hillary Clinton's impending indictment for "Whitewater" crimes.

Indictments that never came, for the simple reason that bringing trumped-up charges against prominent people endangers prosecutors more than defendants. The same psalm-singing crusader eventually published the infamous Starr Report, narrating in near-pornographic detail each and every one of Bill Clinton's furtive grapplings with Monica Lewinsky.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh mostly wrote it.

Forcing a shamefaced Clinton to face a nationally televised sexual inquisition probably saved his presidency. Millions of sinners in the TV audience cringed to see it, a possibility that never seemed to have occurred to the sanctimonious Starr or his journalistic enablers. Angry with Clinton for being such a damn fool, I never saw it coming myself.

So now comes Starr's professed former mistress to drive what should be the last nail in the rotting coffin of his reputation. Former GOP public relations executive Judi Hershman has published an essay entitled "Ken Starr, Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Epstein and Me" on Medium.

I confess I never thought the man had it in him for motel room romance.

That Starr is a world-class sexual hypocrite has long been obvious. Do you know how hard it was for a name-brand Republican holy man to get himself fired as president of Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university? Covering up gang rapes by the school's football team did it. Even Starr's practice of running onto the field in a cheerleading costume couldn't save him after the truth emerged in 2016.

To hear her tell it, Starr's former mistress is anything but a woman scorned. "Our affair ran its course after a year or so of occasional encounters and a steady exchange of affectionate texts and emails," she writes. "No fireworks, no drama." Rather, it was watching a recorded interview with one of the Baylor victims that "helped me understand how I could have been blind for so long to the pattern of misogyny coursing through Starr's career."

Shedding crocodile tears, Starr made a show of empathy, but then proceeded to do nothing on the victim's behalf. "Shamelessly and effectively," Hershman writes, "he shoved rape allegations under the carpet in the name of Christianity."

Starr's role in helping negotiate a sweetheart deal for serial child rapist Jeffrey Epstein (13 months in jail with daily 12-hour passes) also troubled her. "I confess I did not recognize Jeffrey Epstein's name at the time, but I knew what statutory rape was," Hershman writes, "and I couldn't understand why Ken Starr would be involved with him. 'Is this a church thing?' I asked. 'Are you trying to "cure" him? Why would you do this!"'

"Everyone deserves representation, Judi," Starr responded, adding, "He promised to keep it above 18 from now on."

As the world knows, Epstein failed to keep his promise. A man would have to be painfully naive to think a convicted pedophile ever would. Or deeply cynical to pretend to believe him. Take your pick. Starr's efforts on behalf of the billionaire child rapist also included a covert smear campaign against the female prosecutor who'd prepared a 60-count federal indictment against his lowlife client.

"Somehow," Hershman comments, "Starr's role as the nation's parson always comes back around to sex."

Also money, I'd add. Not for nothing was Starr once a tobacco company shill. I'd also observe that for a woman with no ax to grind, Hershman deploys some awfully sharp edges.

She even recounts a 1998 episode in which Kavanaugh, then Starr's prosecutorial understudy, staged a full-on primate rage display: physically intimidating and chasing her around a conference table over a disagreement she doesn't describe. She says she'd all but forgotten his "feral belligerence" until she watched him go ballistic over Christine Blasey Ford's allegations at his Senate confirmation hearings.

She thinks he's got no business on the Supreme Court.

But at least Starr himself never got there, to his eternal regret and the nation's good fortune. Instead, he ended up in that shyster's purgatory: defending Trump against impeachment.

"It's not just the hypocrisy," Hershman thinks, "it's the damage Starr's sham moral authority has done — to our nation, to our people."

At Funeral Of White Teen Killed By Cop, Sharpton Signals Yearning For Change

There's no doubt that left-wing culture warriors have done great harm to the Democratic cause. Some of it is mere foolishness. I've never forgotten being chided at a college talk several years ago for using the word "murderess" to describe a character in my book Widow's Web who shot her husband in his sleep and later orchestrated a plot to kill her defense lawyer's wife.

"Murderess," one professor said, was unacceptably "gendered" language. To quibble about it would have been pointlessly distracting. Even so, I've wondered about it ever since. After all, is "murderer" an honorific? To most people, "murderess" conveys something even more sinister; a meaningful distinction. What's gained by making language less precise?

But it's when cant touches upon real world concerns that the trouble starts. Consider the phrase "Defund the Police." Has there ever been a dumber, more politically maladroit slogan in American political history? Worse even than Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables."

Far worse, actually. Clinton's remark merely convinced people that she was a snob. Rhetoric about doing away with cops made voters think that liberal Democrats inhabit a different planet. In an interview with VOX, veteran political operative James Carville put it this way: "Maybe tweeting that we should abolish the police isn't the smartest thing to do because almost [bleeping] no one wants to do that."

Words matter, Carville insists. "You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like 'Latinx' that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like 'communities of color.' I don't know anyone who speaks like that. I don't know anyone who lives in a 'community of color'….This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you're talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language."

In the real world, for example, people wake up to headlines like these, which arrived in my inbox as I composed the preceding paragraph: "UAMS Officer kills gun-wielding man"; "Police ID man fatally shot at apartment complex"; and "15-year-old arrested in killing of Jacksonville man."

One medium-sized Southern city; one ordinary weekday in July.

Abolish the police? In which solar system, pray tell?

So no, what with homicide rates rising sharply nationwide, I was not surprised to see Eric Adams, a Black former NYPD captain who campaigned on making New Yorkers feel safe and restoring confidence in the city's police, winning a Democratic primary that makes him the city's de facto mayor-elect.

"The debate around policing has been reduced to a false choice," Adams declared. "You are either with police, or you are against them. That is simply wrong because we are all for safety. We need the NYPD — we just need them to be better."

Whether or not Adams can deliver, that's exactly how Democrats should be talking. Also, contrary to a lot of loose rhetoric, it's all about the guns. Property crimes—burglary and theft—are actually decreasing in many places. Gun battles between rival gangs and drive-by shootings of innocent bystanders are way up.

Although you've not heard about it in the national news, something else that happened in my backyard has convinced me that ordinary people are hungry for change. In the farming community of Lonoke, Arkansas roughly 35 miles northeast of Little Rock, a sheriff's deputy shot a 17 year-old white kid named Hunter Brittain to death during a 3 AM traffic stop. The boy was unarmed and had no criminal history. He'd been working late to fix his uncle's truck transmission.

Details are scant, because the state police have kept their investigation close, although a special prosecutor has been appointed. Also because the deputy never turned on his body camera, for which he's been fired. Nightly protests began outside the Sheriff's Department, growing steadily more intense. His family likened young Brittain to Minneapolis murder victim George Floyd. Even Little Rock media, however, showed limited interest.

Not until the Rev. Al Sharpton showed up in town to preach at Hunter Brittain's funeral along with Ben Crump, the attorney for George Floyd's family — virtually the only black faces among hundreds of mourners.

Sharpton referenced a can of anti-freeze the victim held as he died. "We've been frozen in our race; we've been frozen in our own class," he said to thunderous applause. "I believe today Hunter is calling to us. It's time for some antifreeze."

I've got my reservations about Sharpton, but the symbolism of his appearing was impossible to ignore: Americans are ready to talk.