Politics & Policy

He Just Can’t Help Himself

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

By Saturday, the long-simmering fight between Nancy Pelosi and her allies on one side and the “squad” associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other had risen to an angrier and more destructive level at the Netroots Nation conference.

Representative Ayanna Pressley, an African-American Massachusetts Democrat, appeared to argue that Democrats who were critical of the freshmen Democrats — including members of the Congressional Black Caucus — were not authentic representatives of their respective minority groups:

We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.

Maureen Dowd unveiled a column for Sunday that tore into the “Justice Democrats” aligned with Ocasio-Cortez as enraged radicals who accuse anyone not aligned with them as racists.

The progressives act as though anyone who dares disagree with them is bad. Not wrong, but bad, guilty of some human failing, some impurity that is a moral evil that justifies their venom…

[Saikat Chakrabarti, A.O.C.’s 33-year-old chief of staff] sent shock waves through the Democratic caucus when he posted a tweet about the border bill comparing moderate and Blue Dog Democrats — some of whom are black — to Southern segregationists in the ’40s.

Rahm Emanuel told me Chakrabarti is “a snot-nosed punk” who has no idea about the battle scars Pelosi bears from the liberal fights she has led.

African-American Democratic representative Gregory Meeks is talking about attempting to recruit a primary challenger to AOC.

As discussed at the end of last week, this sort of party-destroying fight is how an idea like identity politics begins to die — when its own practitioners start to realize how inherently divisive it is, how subjective the definition of racism can become, how bad-faith arguments can flourish, how quickly the accuser can become the accused, and how it reorganizes all discourse into a hierarchy of competing grievances, making cooperation almost impossible.

Republicans were, to tweak Noah Rothman’s joke, on the verge of schadenfreude overdose.

There is an old maxim, sometimes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself. Sunday morning, President Trump chose to interfere, just as Democrats were in the process of destroying themselves.

These are his Sunday morning tweets, in their entirety, because many of the president’s defenders insist he is being quoted out of context:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly……

…and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how….

….it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

The only member of the squad who “originally came from countries” beside the U.S. is Ilhan Omar, born in Somalia. Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York City, Rashida Tlaib was born in Detroit, and Ayanna Pressley was born in Cincinnati. Three of the four “originally came from” the United States of America, and presumably Trump doesn’t mean that our government is “a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.”

It is fair to read his remarks as contending that Tlaib should return to the Palestinian territories (her parents immigrated from there), that Ocasio-Cortez should return to Puerto Rico (where her mother was born; Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917), and that Pressley should return to someplace in Africa, even though her mother and father were both U.S. citizens and, to the extent she has discussed her family, her ancestors “immigrated” many generations ago — involuntarily if they were slaves.

Whether or not Donald Trump believes immigrants are not “real Americans” — the man did twice marry immigrants, after all — he certainly has no problem with making statements and arguments that feed into the notion that immigrants are not “real Americans.” He certainly seems to think that AOC, Tlaib, and Pressley have some sort of obligation to fix problems in the lands of their ancestors before attempting to change laws in the United States, and that Omar must do the same in a land she left when she was six years old. Or perhaps the way to interpret Trump’s remarks is that someone born in America to immigrant parents, like Ocasio-Cortez or Tlaib, doesn’t meet his personal definition of “real Americans.”

There’s a small mountain of legitimate gripes about AOC’s “squad.” Beside the “snot-nosed punk” traits driving other, more experienced Democrats crazy, Ocasio-Cortez and her allies have received far too little criticism for their theoretical fantasyland policy ideas, in which the United States can replace 88 percent of all of its energy sources in a decade and that in that same time period, all 120 million buildings in America can be either upgraded or torn down and replaced with more energy-efficient construction. They want economic security for those unwilling to work, an eventual ban on air travel, and for the Federal Reserve to loan the federal government $10 trillion.

In an act of political stupidity that is simply jaw-dropping, Trump manages to focus in on the least-legitimate lines of criticism, that these women supposedly come from some other country and that they are “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” They’re all elected members of Congress. Love them or hate them, they all legitimately won House races in heavily Democratic congressional districts. Each one has the same one vote out of 435 that every other member has.

At the exact moment that Democrats are realizing the toxicity of identity politics, Donald Trump endorses the notion that these women are defined by where they come from.

Not only did he attack the “squad,” he managed to do it in a way in which no other prominent Democrat can continue to criticize them publicly, lest they be perceived as echoing the president’s contention that they should go back where they came from. At the exact moment the accusations and counter-accusations were set to do lasting damage, Trump just had to jump in and give them an attack that would unify them all. It often seems like Trump would rather have a bad news cycle that focuses on him than a beneficial news cycle that focuses on someone else.

Trump could have and should have stayed quiet and let the Democratic infighting worsen and intensify. Failing that, it would have been easy to make a jab free of any xenophobia — something like, “Interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democratic congresswomen contending Nancy Pelosi is racist and that the Congressional Black Caucus doesn’t represent black voices. I’m sure Pelosi would be happy to send them on some long foreign trip to get them out of her hair and out of the headlines!”

Instead, Trump made a comment that unites Democrats of every stripe and reminds them of their primary objective in the 2020 cycle, winning back the White House. The biggest change from the 2014 and 2016 elections and the 2018 midterms is that the suburbs, and in particular, suburban women, recoiled from Trumpism. Trump fans can argue, “ignore the tweets, focus on his policies,” until they’re blue in the face. Significant numbers of voters in key demographics in key states aren’t willing to compartmentalize like that. Everyone around the president can read a poll and knows that his rage-tweeting is a liability; it is perhaps the biggest liability in a presidency that, with prosperity and a perception of peace, ought to be comfortably cruising to reelection.

Trump fans will insist that this is all just kvetching from a guy who never liked the president. They’ll insist that because they like Trump’s rage-tweeting (and perhaps the suggestion that AOC, Omar and the rest aren’t really Americans), a majority of the country does also. They’ll insist that the polls are wrong, and that Trump will overperform his current numbers. (To keep the presidency, Trump will need to overperform his current level of support by ten percentage points in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.) They’ll insist that because AOC and Omar and the rest are unpopular — and they are — that no one will mind Trump’s contention that they should go back to other countries.

Democratic divisions may well derail the party’s effort to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. But if that scenario occurs, it will come about in spite of the president, not because of him. Some might argue that all that Trump needs to do for the next fifteen months or so is just let the Democrats destroy themselves with radicalism and identity politics and endless accusations and counter-accusations.

Trump’s supporters seem more committed to doing what’s necessary to ensure his reelection than he is.

ADDENDA: Was New York City better or worse off that Mayor Bill de Blasio was off in Iowa when the blackout hit Saturday night?

As he’s learning, and Pete Buttigieg learned after that police shooting in South Bend, sometimes there’s a real risk to running for president when you’re still serving in an executive office. The U.S. Senate might not miss a half-dozen members of the Democratic caucus off campaigning in primary states, but residents of cities tend to ask where the mayor is when a crisis hits.

Politics & Policy

Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi’s Allies Trade Accusations of Racism and Ignorance

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addresses the Center for American Progress (CAP) 2019 Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch podcast, my co-host Greg Corombos observed that the leaders of the Democratic party will never back away from identity politics and the race card until they find themselves getting bitten by it as well — and we may be reaching this point.

We’ve come a long way from that happy Rolling Stone cover featuring House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, as well as Representative Jahana Hayes. Now Ocasio-Cortez is contending that Pelosi is giving her grief because of the color of her skin:

When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post. “But the persistent singling out . . . it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful… the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.

The accusation infuriated Pelosi’s allies, such as Representative Wm. Lacy Clay, an African-American Democrat from Missouri.

“What a weak argument, because you can’t get your way and because you’re getting pushback you resort to using the race card? Unbelievable. That’s unbelievable to me,” Clay said. “I could care less. I could really care less. I agree with the Speaker. Four people, four votes out of 240 people, who cares.”

The Missouri Democrat also described Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti and the progressive group Justice Democrats as “juvenile” and “ignorant.”

The Justice Democrats have endorsed a progressive primary challenger against Clay and other centrist Democrats. Chakrabarti last week sent out a tweet comparing centrist Democrats to “new Southern Democrats” that “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.”

“It shows you how ignorant and little history [Chakrabarti] knows, how ignorant he is to American history. How dare he,” Clay said.

A long, long time ago, CNN had me appear opposite liberal blogger John Aravosis regularly — a nice guy with what appeared, at least to me, as irrefutable credentials as a progressive in good standing. Back in June, during the whole “concentration camps” comment controversy, Aravosis’s patience appeared to run out:

They’re not concentration camps. And I’m sorry, I’m tired of being forced to defend the same three freshmen members of Congress because they repeatedly say dumb things and never seem to learn from the experience. She just handed the GOP a gold mine for its PR strategy. Congrats.

A month earlier, he had pleaded, “It’s time for the most outspoken members of the freshman Democratic class in Congress to just stop. Seriously, you didn’t think wading in on the Holocaust, calling it calming,’ and then getting the history wrong was going to be problematic?” On Twitter, the reaction to Aravosis’s criticisms was about what you would expect. But if he’s saying it, there are probably quite a few liberal Democrats with long memories who are also thinking it but reluctant to say so publicly.

Corey Richardson offered an assessment he knew would be controversial but felt needed to be said, that Ocasio-Cortez was “the perfect encapsulation of the Millennial ethos in the idea that showing up with an opinion should be rewarded and that somehow, people with experience are an impediment to their entitlement.”

Both houses of Congress have been institutions where seniority is valued and perhaps the most important element of leadership is your ability to develop relationships with your fellow members. This may or may not be a matter of being the most liked person in the room, but it means that a good member of Congress knows his peers, what they stand for, what sorts of ideas and proposals their state or district would support and which ones it wouldn’t, regularly demonstrates clarity in communication to colleagues (if not the public), and reliability. They know when to push the issue, when to twist the arms, when to wait, and when to back off and agree to disagree. Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy may not be universally liked among their peers, but they’re just about universally respected. And they’ve all been there a long time. They’ve paid their dues. They’ve stood alongside their colleagues in both good times and bad.

Some people might look at this and sneer that it’s “the insider Washington game.” Perhaps, or perhaps that’s just how you get things done when you’re part of large institution with lots of people with differing experiences and viewpoints. There’s a reason that just about every book and advice column advocates networking and getting to know a broader range of people. Getting other people to do what you want — to vote for your amendment or bill, to hold a hearing on a topic you find important, to allocate money to one of your priorities — is hard. They are more likely to agree if you’ve built a trusted relationship with them.

A lot of people who are used to getting their way in other environments come to Washington and are stunned when their old methods don’t work. In his first big test of Congressional negotiations, Steve Bannon met with the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus and declared, “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Except, they did have a choice, and exercised that choice on the first version of the legislation. Perhaps at Breitbart.com, Bannon got used to negotiating with people he could fire.

Ocasio-Cortez may be used to people backing down when she accuses them of racism. Or she may believe that her ability to garner massive amounts of media coverage and numerous social media followers give her leverage over other Democratic House members. But the average Democratic House member doesn’t worry much about what Ocasio-Cortez’s 175,000 Twitter followers think; that average Democratic House member is much more worried about what his roughly 747,000 constituents think.

Thinking of Ocasio-Cortez’s lament about the workload discussed yesterday, these populist outsiders pride themselves on being so untainted by experience in the process of governing that they have no idea what the office they’re running for actually involves. They jump onto social media and publicly trash colleagues who disagree with them like they’re dealing with bad service in a restaurant chain.

A 2016 Peggy Noonan column discussed the phenomenon of those who think they understand how the world works but actually do not:

This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism. They have received most of what they know about political history through screens. They are college graduates, they’re in their 20s or 30s, they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is superficial.

They grew up in the Internet age and have filled their brain-space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect.”

 Yesterday at the White House social-media summit, a correspondent for Playboy (!) and Sebastian Gorka got into a predictable “I’m tougher than you” shouting match and scuffle. Once again — people come to Washington with one way of getting what they want from someone else, and they’re surprised when it doesn’t work. Boasting of your toughness and threatening to beat someone up might work in a dark alley or a bar in a bad neighborhood. Maybe it even works in some corporate boardrooms. It doesn’t work in the courtroom, in a legislature, in a debate or in a public advocacy campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez would be a lot more dangerous to her foes if she had bothered to read any of Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, and how he gradually and methodically accumulated power in his Senate career. (LBJ proved remarkably adaptable at winning friends and influencing people, particularly older colleagues.) Perhaps that’s part of the cost of seeing yourself as a revolutionary. You’re so convinced that you represent the New Era and are so disdainful of the old ways that you refuse to learn anything from history.

ADDENDUM: It’s here! The pop-culture podcast with Mickey White, with a lot of talk about the third season of Stranger Things. This episode is broken into two parts. I’d like to say that was deliberate, but we lost the connection after about ten minutes and didn’t want to restart our conversation from the beginning.

I finished the season last night. In today’s world, when you go online to see what other people thought, you’re pretty likely to encounter an assessment that involves running every bit of the content through the Social-Justice Warrior Woke Mass Spectrometer for any molecules that are “problematic.” The irritable, drinking-too-heavily, explosive-temper town sheriff Jim Hopper is problematic? Sure. But that seems besides the point compared to the giant monsters that keep eating people in this town. Hopper is demonstrating “toxic masculinity”? How exactly do we think a law-enforcement officer who’s never quite figured out how to cope with the death of his daughter, the end of his marriage, the pressures of suddenly becoming the father of a teen girl with her own emotional issues, and his fear of expressing his feelings for Joyce would behave? How many emotions beyond anger do we think a small-town Midwestern sheriff in 1985 would be comfortable expressing in those circumstances? What, did we expect him to start discussing his feelings on a therapist’s couch?

Politics & Policy

The Jeffrey Epstein Scandal Could Be Worse than We Know

Geoffrey Berman, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photograph of Jeffrey Epstein as he announces the financier’s charges of sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, in New York, U.S., July 8, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton /Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Seven-to-ten burning questions about the ever-worsening Jeffrey Epstein scandal, why Democrats have convinced themselves that they have yet another Great Southern Hope, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emphasizes how heavy her committee workload is.

Burning Questions about the Jeffrey Epstein Scandal

Even by the standards of stomach-turning celebrity criminal scandals, the bits of information about multi-millionare Jeffrey Epstein and allegations of an underage sex-trafficking ring are utterly bizarre, pointing to something perhaps even bigger and worse going on. Just the reports out this morning prompt at least ten big questions.

One: How did Jeffrey Epstein make his fortune in the first place? One claim is a massive Ponzi scheme.

Two: Could Epstein really have been connected to some sort of intelligence service? In yesterday’s press conference, labor secretary Alex Acosta offered a weird, vague, contradictory, meandering answer when asked about this. If Epstein was working for some sort of spy agency, which one? What was the aim, to collect blackmail on prominent figures? Who was being blackmailed, and what did they do?

Three: Why did the office Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance try to keep Epstein from being registered as a top-level sex offender? “A seasoned sex-crimes prosecutor from Mr. Vance’s office argued forcefully in court that Mr. Epstein, who had been convicted in Florida of soliciting an underage prostitute, should not be registered as a top-level sex offender in New York.” The judge denied the request and declared, “I have to tell you, I’m a little overwhelmed because I have never seen a prosecutor’s office do anything like this.”

Four: After Epstein was labeled a “Level 3 sex offender” — meaning the worst — Epstein was required by law to check in with the NYPD every 90 days. He never checked in at all over an eight-year span. How did that not generate any consequences?

Five: How did his private island off Saint Thomas get the nickname “Pedophile Island” and how does a rumor like that not get law enforcement to start snooping around?

Six: Bill Clinton’s public statement about his interactions with Epstein was laughably inaccurate, contracted by contemporaneous media accounts, never mind FAA flight logs. You would think Clinton and those around him would have a well-worn playbook for denying sexual impropriety and criminal behavior by now.

Seven: Doesn’t this paragraph in deep in a recent article of Vanity Fair seem to bury the lede, as they say in journalism?

Pecker, he later told me, used to send him articles and issues before they were published so that he and Trump could read them. After the meeting Trump called in Sam Nunberg, then a Trump Organization employee, who saw Pecker leaving Trump’s office. “Michael was sitting in there when I came in, and the issue of the National Enquirer with the pictures of Prince Andrew was on his desk,” Nunberg recalled. “He said not to tell anyone, but that Pecker had just been there and had brought the issue with him. Trump said that Pecker had told him that the pictures of Clinton that Epstein had from his island were worse.” (Cohen, speaking by phone from the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, corroborated Nunberg’s version of the events, though he declined to add any additional information about the meeting.)

So the National Inquirer has pictures of Bill Clinton with Epstein and the women he was using?

If Trump knew about these photographs, why didn’t he at least leak or hype them during the 2016 campaign?

And if Clinton really did nothing inappropriate in all of his interactions with Epstein, why didn’t Hillary Clinton’s campaign make a stink about Trump’s past friendship with Epstein, during a campaign where Trump’s unsavory treatment of women was a big issue?

One aspect of Epstein that no longer has many questions: Is there anyone left who wants to argue that Alexandre Acosta handled the case the way he should have all those years ago?

Amy McGrath, the Latest Great Southern Democratic Hope

Last night, John McCormack asked if Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath is the new Beto O’Rourke — a media-beloved and widely hyped Democrat who raises gobs of money running against a Republican senator that liberals absolutely detest, but who never had that much of a chance against an conservative incumbent in a red state.

At the very least, McGrath is the new Alison Lundergan Grimes — and just the latest in a long line of Great Southern Democratic Hopes. We go through a version of this somewhere in the South every cycle.

In 2013, Politico wrote of Grimes, “the fresh Democratic face could give the Senate minority leader the fight of his political life.” Mitch McConnell won reelection, 56 percent to 40 percent, in what was not the fight of his political life.

One of the really irritating facets of the media’s consistent infatuation with potential Great Southern Democratic Hopes is that the wish-casting hype makes it difficult to see whether a candidate really is any stronger on the stump or better-positioned than usual. Beto O’Rourke, for all of his flaws, was genuinely a better candidate than the average Texas Democrat in 2018. Of course, now that he’s in the Democratic presidential primary, he looks like a privileged, glib, underqualified, diner-counter-jumping goofball, but that’s what happens when the “Shazam!”-like powers of media hype recede. If you had the entire national media hanging around with you for a year and every week writing some new glowing profile calling you the inspiring voice of your generation, you might have delusions of grandeur, too.

The early evidence is that McGrath is not really that much better than the usual Democrat. The day she announced, she did an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal and was asked about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. McGrath answered, “There was nothing in his record that I think would disqualify him in any way.” Roughly one thermonuclear explosion of outrage from liberals later, McGrath tweeted, “upon further reflection and further understanding of his record, I would have voted no.”

Look, if you want to defuse the “She would oppose good judges” attack and try to win the general election as a Joe Manchin-style maverick, go ahead and do so. (That might be the only real shot of beating McConnell in a state when Trump is atop the ticket.) If you want to rake in the cash from angry progressive activists who believe that Kavanaugh is a demonic frat boy, go ahead and do that. But you can’t do both, and what really ought to terrify Democrats is that McGrath seems so unprepared for a routine question like that.

Keep in mind, knocking off Mitch McConnell in Kentucky is probably even tougher than knocking off Ted Cruz in Texas. Recall that Trump’s margin in Texas in was 9 points, but his margin in Kentucky was 30 points. And McConnell won comfortably in 2008 and 1996 — years when Democratic presidential candidates were winning nationally by big margins. (Everybody forgets that in 1996, Bill Clinton narrowly carried Kentucky in the presidential race.)

McConnell will have roughly a bazillion, kajillion dollars to spend. The moment there’s even a whiff of trouble, the National Republican Senate Committee will throw in any additional resources McConnell needs — television ads, staffers, volunteers. Almost every right-of-center 527 and PAC will be eager to help McConnell if he needs it, because everyone wants to stay on the right side of the Senate Majority Leader. Trump will probably visit Kentucky at least once in the fall of 2020 and it’s prime territory for one of his big, raucous rallies. Plus, McConnell has all six Infinity Stones — wait, I’m sorry, that last one is just a PhotoShop.

The irony is that Democrats have a shot of taking the Senate in 2020, and it involves flipping Senate races in states that are much friendlier than Kentucky. Democrats will need to reelect Doug Jones in Alabama, an admittedly challenging task if the GOP nominee isn’t Roy Moore. They need to beat the appointed senator Martha McSally in Arizona, which they did by a narrow margin in 2018. They need to beat two GOP freshman senators who won purple states in a good GOP year in Cory Gardner in Colorado and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. And they need to beat Susan Collins in Maine. That would give them 51 Senate seats, not even needing a Democratic vice-president to break ties.

AOC: ‘Sometimes I Wonder If They’re Trying to Keep Me Busy.’

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speaking to WNYC, about not being selected for a special climate change committee:

Ultimately I’m fine with the decision especially given the committee assignments that I was ultimately given, which were very intense and very rigorous. I was assigned to two of some of the busiest committees and four subcommittees so my hands are full, and sometimes I wonder if they’re trying to keep me busy. (laughing)

If you listen to the audio, her tone is not really that she’s complaining, more emphasizing that she’s not disgruntled about being left off the climate-change panel. But it does raise the question, is AOC’s workload really all that different from other members? She’s on Financial Services and Oversight and Reform committees.

The House Ways and Means Committee gets the most legislation to review, the Energy and Commerce Committee has the broadest jurisdiction, and the Rules Committee has to set the terms of floor debate for every bill. Life on the House Foreign Affairs Committee means you get to go on junkets but also more or less have to travel abroad semi-regularly, and the Select Committee on Intelligence involves visiting far-off places.

Just like with Trump’s “nobody could have predicted health care would be so complicated,” with candidates who emphasize their outsider status, there’s always the chance that they don’t actually know or understand what the job involves.

ADDENDA: Coming soon: another edition of the pop-culture podcast with Mickey, where we discuss Stranger Things (a lot), Spider-Man: Far From Home, the documentaries of Ken Burns, The Bachelor, and True Crime podcasts.

Between Two Scorpions is up to seventy reviews on Amazon!

Elections

Billionaire Tom Steyer Throws His Hat into the Overcrowded Ring

Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager and a prominent Democratic fundraiser who has mounted a high-profile advertising campaign advocating the impeachment of President Donald Trump, holds a news conference to announce plans for his political future, in Washington, D.C., January 8, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Tom Steyer, the billionaire and useful idiot who’s about to blow up the Democratic presidential primary; why the Jeffrey Epstein scandal ought to force a confrontation about the way the entertainment media sexualizes teen girls; and the stranger things about Stranger Things.

Tom Steyer, the Democratic Primary’s $100 Million Man

Tom Steyer, you beautiful madman. You’re about to turn the Democratic primary into an expensive demolition derby: “Billionaire Tom Steyer announced Tuesday that he will join the crowded field vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and promised to commit at least $100 million of his personal fortune to the campaign.

Steyer will not be the 2020 Democratic nominee. But with $100 million, he can do a lot of damage to anyone he deems an obstacle, and it’s worth remembering that Michael Bloomberg just overwhelmed every opponent with a tsunami of ad money when running for mayor in New York City three times. Steyer has limited name recognition now, but a nearly unlimited television advertising budget will change that fast. He can promise anything and accuse anyone else of being a “Washington insider.”

Steyer’s probably not quite a threat to overtake Biden or Harris or Sanders or Warren. But everybody below that might as well call it quits.

Life just stinks if you’re Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bennet these days, doesn’t it? You’ve worked hard to try to get things done in the U.S. Senate and it means bupkus to most Democratic primary voters. You could call for Trump’s impeachment, but you can’t do anything until the House of Representatives actually passes articles of impeachment. You’re sharing the stage with no-name House members and some spiritual guru from California who’s talking about the power of love. You’re going to spend your summer eating corn dogs in small towns in Iowa singing the praises of ethanol while reporters ask why you’re not raising as much money as the mayor of South Bend, who nobody had heard of a year ago. And now some billionaire who you’d prefer to have as a benefactor rather than an enemy has decided he wants the same job you want.

Go Figure, We Weren’t a Bunch of Prudes after All

Bravo, Kyle Smith. Our culture has had a wink-and-a-nod attitude towards the sexualization of those under age 18 for a long while, a phenomenon that ought to come to a screeching halt with the latest claims of abominable crimes by Jeffrey Epstein and his network of associates. Smith begins with Roman Polanski and just gets angrier from there:

Polanski is a man of his era. At 33, Ringo Starr had a No. 1 hit singing “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” Woody Allen made what felt like an autobiographical movie about a 42-year-old television writer having an affair with a 17-year-old high-school student, and nobody blinked. Time magazine put him on the cover under the legend “American Genius.” (It turned out Allen had had affairs with two teenagers around that time). Urged on by her horrible mother, Brooke Shields built a career around being jailbait, posing nude at age 10 for a Hefner publication called “Sugar and Spice,” then starring as a 12-year-old hooker in Pretty Baby (which began filming when she was 11), then at 14 starring in a film about two teens discovering their sexuality, The Blue Lagoon (though a double did her nude scenes). At 15, she starred in Endless Love, which as filmed initially received an X rating, before most of the nudity was cut to achieve an R. Whatever “controversy” attached to any of this was reported by the press solely to pump up the box office, as though conservative naysayers were aliens from a quaint, slightly daft foreign country. The media itself had no problem with it.

But this wasn’t just a sleazy 1970s phenomenon; I’m sure you can think of other examples like Britney Spears’s early career. (She was 16 when she did that schoolgirl-themed music video.) Back in 2017, Kira Davis of RedState detailed allegations of wildly inappropriate behavior in Hollywood’s studios generating entertainment for kids. There’s this unnerving assembly line of girls performing on the Disney Channel or other kid-focused television programming and then popping up in Maxim or other magazines, shedding their previous image and most of their clothes — but at least in those cases, the young women have at least passed 18 years of age.

Notice this sentence from NBC’s The Today Show about actress Millie Bobbie Brown: “The 13-year-old actress looked all grown up at the Stranger Things Season 2 premiere, thanks to a sleek shoulder-length bob and black leather dress.”

Thirteen-year-olds are not “all grown up.”

The Stranger Parts of Stranger Things

Speaking of Stranger Things, I’m five episodes into the third season and enjoying it a great deal. In an era of binge-able television, franchise movies and sequels, book series, comic books, and other forms of continuous storytelling, one of the great challenges is figuring out how to follow up an inspired and original debut with that elusive formula of “More of the same, but not so similar it feels repetitive.” You notice that most of our most acclaimed shows run into complaints somewhere around the second or third season. The characters and plots need to change, but this risks moving away from what the audience liked about the story originally.

Stranger Things has a strong third season, but it’s going to be tough to maintain this quality, and I don’t mean that so much of the once-adorable-kid cast is hitting puberty — perhaps one of the best aspects of this season is how directly it deals with the fact that the characters are young teens now, with changing interests and personalities. No, the problem is that in a story that involves the supernatural, the characters should only be surprised by the existence of the otherworldly once. (The creators have said they’ve expected the next season to be the last.)

By now, the residents of Hawkins, Ind. should be moving out in droves. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for season three but will discuss the first two seasons.) The town has had two supernatural-driven massacres in two years. Staff at the Hawkins National Laboratory have been killed left and right in both seasons. Numerous U.S. government soldiers have died. Benny Hammond, the nice guy who runs the diner, was seemingly shot in a robbery. Henry and Dale are killed by an unknown assailant during a hunting trip. The cover story for Barb is that she was accidentally poisoned. That’s a lot of deaths for the government to cover up or explain away — particularly in a town where, as we’re told in an early episode, the last missing persons case was in 1923 and the last suicide was 1961. It looks like a good chunk of the town attended the funeral of Will Byers and when he returned, seemed to accept it as no big deal.

Would reports of strange happenings around town really generate skeptical mockery and cries of “Nancy Drew”? By now, residents should not be responding to blackouts and reports of bizarre rodent plagues with a shrug. The moment the lights go out, residents — or at least any character involved with the previous seasons! – should be responding, “Well, this is probably an invasion of monsters from the Upside Down, everyone grab weapons and fan out and try to hold them off. If we don’t find that superpowered teen girl, we’re all going to be killed in terrible, gruesome ways.” A character can only say, “Eh, it’s probably nothing” to a creepy sound before they’ve run into some horrible monster. In Hawkins, even the maintenance shed for the public pool looks shadowy and ominous.

Minor spoiler: Early in season three, we learn Hopper doesn’t want Joyce to move away. Why shouldn’t she? Her younger son has disappeared, been declared dead, mysteriously returned, been traumatized and possessed, her boyfriend was killed by monsters, her older son’s nearly been killed several times, monsters have burst through the wall of her house . . . What, some suburb of Indianapolis can’t compete with all that?

ADDENDUM: Sixty-one reviews for Between Two Scorpions! Indulge me sharing this assessment from Joe Doaks:

The other top reviews are right, this isn’t your typical thriller – it’s original. A small group of talented misfits get assigned to a single group, presumably where it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and they manage to fight America’s enemies anyway, with brains, tech, legwork, luck, and humor. The author’s dry and subtle wit comes through in the characters and makes them all the more individually human. A fair amount of tech figures in the plot, but I never felt it was used as a cheap short cut – let’s face it, that’s how we live now. Whether you worry about the NSA’s abilities to monitor us, or not so much, the mostly-true capabilities outlined in the book should give you pause. Most books of this genre are either well written but short on plot, or have convoluted plots that turn out to be beyond the author’s ability to illuminate. This book balances the story and the telling expertly.

I talk about the book in an upcoming edition of John J. Miller’s excellent podcast, The Bookmonger.

Politics & Policy

Conservatism Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You Very Much

A man waves an American flag during the Independence Day parade in Barnstable, Mass., in 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Conservative ideas and policies are doing just fine beyond the nation’s capital, but many political observers are too Washington-focused and Trump obsessed to notice; Bill Clinton offers a statement about Jeffrey Epstein that doesn’t add up; the Washington Post theorizes that Kirsten Gillibrand is too boring to be president.

Once You Look Beyond the Beltway, Conservatism Is Thriving

Once again, much of the day’s news is about what was said about President Trump, and how he reacted. The U.K. ambassador Sir Kim Darroch declared in a secret cable, “For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity.” Trump reacted to it by publicly announcing he would no longer deal at all with the ambassador at all, and that the ambassador is “not liked or well-thought of in the U.S.”

Underneath the fold, the news is about what was said about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and how she reacted. Nancy Pelosi declared of representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan that “all these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world but they didn’t have any following.” Ocasio-Cortez fumed on Twitter that “having respect for ourselves doesn’t mean we lack respect for her. It means we won’t let everyday people be dismissed.”

These days, covering Washington is like covering the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry. “Did you hear what she said about you? You gonna take that? What are you donna do about that, dog?”

Meanwhile, over in the realm of actual governing, the Morning Consult polling company has been measuring the popularity of every governor in the country once a quarter for several years now. There hasn’t been much movement in the rankings during that time. Most cycles, the top-ten most popular governors in the country are all Republicans, and they’re mostly relatively obscure ones. The January rankings featured:

Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (72 percent approval), Larry Hogan of Maryland (68 percent), Kay Ivey of Alabama (63 percent) and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire (60 percent) — each of whom was comfortably re-elected in November — checking in at Nos. 1-4 for the third quarter in a row. Matt Mead of Wyoming and Phil Scott of Vermont came back into the top 10, placing fifth and sixth . . . Govs. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Greg Abbott of Texas rounded out the GOP representatives in the seventh, eighth and ninth slots.

Once you go past the top ten, you find Pete Ricketts of Nebraska at 12, Doug Burgham at 14, Henry McMaster of South Carolina at 15, Gary Herbert of Utah at 16, Phil Bryant of Mississippi at 17. Numbers 11 and 13 in the January poll were outgoing GOP governors. Sixteen of the 17 most popular governors in the country were Republicans!

By and large, people feel satisfied with their government, at least at the state level, in those places. Some of those states, such as Wyoming, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas, seem pretty red, but Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont certainly aren’t. Some political observers might argue that Baker and Hogan aren’t particularly conservative by the standards of the national Republican party. (I compared Hogan to a hockey or soccer goalie, who mostly blocks bad ideas from Democrats in the state legislature from becoming law.)

The relative obscurity of these governors might be a factor in how voters in their states perceive them. Hogan was occasionally mentioned as a primary challenger to Trump but that never caught much momentum, and he eventually announced he wasn’t interested. Abbott is periodically mentioned as a potential GOP presidential candidate down the road, but that wouldn’t be until 2024 at the earliest. With no national media to court and no grander ambitions to serve, these guys and gals mostly . . . just govern. Some of them support and try to enact policies that are explicitly conservative; guys like Baker and Hogan act as a conservative check on more liberal state legislators.

Meanwhile, this occurs as we’re told by The Economist that conservatism is “fighting for its life against reactionary nationalism,” we’re told by Fareed Zakaria that that “American conservatism failed,” and we’re told by Newsweek that “American conservatism can’t survive Donald Trump.” If nothing else, this reveals that those assessing the state of conservatism as a political movement have an obsessive mono-focus on Washington, D.C. and the federal government.

Sixteen states passed sizable tax cuts in 2018, cutting taxes by an estimated collective $1.7 billion. With the economy booming and tax revenues rising even with the cuts in place, states are being more cautious about borrowing moneyCivil-asset forfeiture laws are being repealed in more states, meaning the police can no longer seize your property without charging you with a crime. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor signed a bipartisan occupational-licensing reciprocity bill into law. State-level efforts to expand Medicaid to cover more people are moving more slowly than Democrats expected: “In almost every state where Medicaid expansion had a chance of passing, the effort faltered.” (Face it, to most of the national media, the only state laws that are interesting are the legalization of marijuana and abortion laws.)

The thing is, keeping track of what laws are passing at the state level takes effort and it’s much easier to write about who said what about Trump and Ocasio-Cortez and how they’re lashing out. And when that’s often what you pay attention to most weeks, of course it looks like conservatism is dying, failing, breathing its last breaths, and so on . . .

I Guess This Is Another One of those ‘The Definition of Is’ Situations

Bill Clinton issues a statement about accused underage sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein:

In 2002 and 2003, President Clinton took a total of four trips on Jeffrey Epstein’s airplane: one to Europe, one to Asia, and two to Africa, which included stops in connection with the work of the Clinton Foundation. Staff, supporters of the Foundation, and his Secret Service detail traveled on every leg of every trip.

That statement does not match previous reporting by Fox News that is based upon flight logs filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Clinton’s presence aboard Jeffrey Epstein’s Boeing 727 on 11 occasions has been reported, but flight logs show the number is more than double that, and trips between 2001 and 2003 included extended junkets around the world with Epstein and fellow passengers identified on manifests by their initials or first names, including “Tatiana.”

Clinton flying aboard Epstein’s plane to such destinations as Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, China, Brunei, London, New York, the Azores, Belgium, Norway, Russia, and Africa.

Official flight logs filed with the Federal Aviation Administration show Clinton traveled on some of the trips with as many as ten U.S. Secret Service agents. However, on a five-leg Asia trip between May 22 and May 25, 2002, not a single Secret Service agent is listed. The U.S. Secret Service has declined to answer multiple Freedom of Information Act requests filed by FoxNews.com seeking information on these trips. Clinton would have been required to file a form to dismiss the agent detail, a former Secret Service agent told FoxNews.com.

In response to a separate FOIA request from FoxNews.com, the U.S. Secret Service said it has no records showing agents were ever on the island with Clinton.

You can see the flight logs for yourself here.

Hey, it’s not like Bill Clinton would lie about allegations of scandalous sexual behavior, right?

Over in the Daily Beast:

For almost two decades, for some nebulous reason, whether to do with ties to foreign intelligence, his billions of dollars, or his social connections, Epstein, whose alleged sexual sickness and horrific assaults on women without means or ability to protect themselves is well-known in his circle, remained untouchable.

We learned about Harvey Weinstein not that long ago. Just how many sexual predators are flourishing in the ranks of the wealthy and powerful?

Is Boredom Really Kirsten Gillibrand’s Problem?

Over at the Washington Post, Anna Peele diagnoses what ails Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign: “it has become unforgivable to be boring.” Eh, maybe. Peele’s article mentions Hillary Clinton twice, but maybe Gillibrand’s candidacy offers Democrats a figure just a little too close to the previous Democratic nominee who lost to Trump: politically connected family, top schools, hard-charging lawyer, New York senator, political career built on relatively centrist positions and rapidly moving to the Left to catch up with the grassroots of her party. Gillibrand’s the type-A, ambitious, super-driven woman that makes the “Tracy Flick” comparisons inevitable, and she might have been better off embracing her true nature rather than hide them with a faux-modest “as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own” tone.

ADDENDUM: Fifty-six reader reviews! Each time I mention this in the Jolt, it seems to spur a few more to leave their thoughts — and believe me, this is a big help. Plus, it is enormously reassuring to see praise from non-relatives.

Politics & Policy

Jeffrey Epstein’s Powerful, Criminal Crew

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts )

Making the click-through worthwhile: Justice for the victims of politically connected multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein has been delayed, but it may not be denied much longer; President Trump gets his best numbers in the ABC News-Washington Post poll; a few good nonfiction books to look for this summer; and one of the Democratic presidential candidates may not be around for much longer.

Jeffrey Epstein’s Back in Jail. Will Any of His High-Powered Friends Join Him?

Back in November, the Miami Herald cracked open the case of Jeffrey Epstein after authorities seemed to have sealed it shut forever. Epstein was a Palm Beach multimillionaire and friend to many powerful and politically connected people, who had long been suspected of appalling criminal sexual behavior. If you’re well-read and on the right, the term “Lolita Express” has probably already popped up in your mind; back in May 2016, Fox News found records indicating that Bill Clinton flew on Epstein’s private jet at least 26 times. If you’re well-read and on the left, you probably recall Donald Trump calling Epstein a “terrific guy” and making an odd, unnerving comment that “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” The allegations against Epstein — underage prostitutes, a cult-like network of sex slavery, trafficking minors — would make anyone short of the Marquis de Sade recoil. In 2007, Epstein reached a deal to serve only 13 months in jail, and the U.S. attorney who signed off on the deal — Alexander Acosta — agreed to keep the terms of the deal secret.

Alexander Acosta is currently the Secretary of Labor. Acosta has not discussed the case in detail since the Herald’s report came out, but David Oscar Markus, a Miami criminal-defense lawyer who practiced against Acosta when he was U.S. Attorney, offered a defense of Acosta in the pages of the Herald:

 . . . the federal government only prosecutes federal crimes. At the time this case was being investigated, there were serious questions about whether Epstein’s crimes had the required federal nexus. These were traditional state court crimes with local victims, which the federal government decided should be prosecuted by the state system… To argue that Acosta was persuaded to sign off on passing the case to state authorities because of Epstein’s wealth or Epstein’s lawyers is to ignore Acosta’s record as a tough prosecutor who put away Jack Abramoff, Jose Padilla, Broward Sheriff Ken Jeanne, executives of Hamilton Bank, and many more.

Our Kyle Smith recalled that the Epstein prosecution barely came up at all during Acosta’s confirmation hearings. When he was questioned, Acosta answered, “A plea that guarantees someone goes to jail, that guarantees he register [as a sex offender] generally and guarantees other outcomes, is a good thing.”

This morning, Epstein is in jail, and according to the Heralda lot of people who enabled him are sweating.

His Saturday arrest capped months of investigating, led by federal agents and prosecutors with the Southern District of New York’s Public Corruption Unit, assisted by investigators with the sex-trafficking division. Although details of the case remain undisclosed, there are indications that others involved in his crimes could be charged or named as cooperating witnesses.

Among those potentially on the list: Ghislaine Maxwell, a 57-year-old British socialite and publishing heir who has been accused of working as Epstein’s madam; and Jean-Luc Brunel, who, according to court records, was partners with Epstein in an international modeling company.

Epstein, 66, was arrested at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey shortly before 4 p.m. Saturday, as he arrived on his private jet from Paris, where he had been vacationing since June 14, aviation records show. About an hour after they picked him up, federal agents arrived at his imposing Manhattan townhouse, breaking down the door to execute search warrants.

On social media, lots of people seem to think that any revelations from this prosecution will be devastating to the party they oppose and avert their eyes from the possibility that Epstein could start talking about sordid and criminal behavior by prominent figures in their preferred party.

Investigate them all, name them all, indict them all, prosecute them all. No figure is so important to a political party or the country that we need to avert our eyes from underage sex trafficking.

Trump’s Riding High! Okay, High-ish, Hitting 44 Percent Approval in the ABC News Survey

In the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, Trump’s approval rating hits the highest point of his presidency in that particular survey — but don’t get too excited, it’s only 44 percent. The survey finds 53 percent disapproving. But they also note, “roughly one-fifth of those who say he is not presidential say they approve of the job he is doing, and he runs even against four possible Democratic nominees in hypothetical ­general-election matchups. He trails decisively only to former vice president Joe Biden.”

The economy’s doing well right now, but it’s been doing well for quite a while now. Pulling back from a conflict with Iran? The visuals from stepping over into North Korea?

Is it too early for voters to be comparing and contrasting him with a Democratic alternative? At the end of June, the Democrats on the debate stage committed to ending deportation of those who enter the country illegally, promised government-funded health care and education to those who cross the border illegally, promised to ban private insurance, most want to ban and confiscate popular firearms, Bernie Sanders said he would raise taxes on the middle class, and Kamala Harris sounded like she wanted to bring back forced busing of schoolchildren to improve diversity in schools. (Harris being Harris, she later flip-flopped on the private insurance and busing issues.) Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick argued that the Betsy Ross flag was an offensive symbol of white supremacy, and the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro agreed with him. Displaying U.S. military vehicles on the mall was compared to Tiananmen Square and a chunk of the chattering class insisted that Andy Ngo had asked for that violent assault.

Americans who find Trump “unpresidential” or worse might look at their lives and conclude that despite the president’s myriad flaws, they personally are doing pretty well and the country is, too. The economy’s thriving, businesses are hiring, we haven’t suffered a terrorist attack lately and it’s easy to forget the country is at war.* Enacting the Democrats’ agenda would bring sweeping changes to their lives, and the Democrats seem to feel fonder about black-masked thugs in the streets of Portland than the flag of the thirteen colonies. What clear-thinking American would want to empower that crowd?

*The country is still very much at war; not seeing a lot of news coverage about the threats to our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Niger, Yemen and, until very recently, Libya doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Summer’s Hot Political Books, As If Your Bookshelves Aren’t Already Creaking

Between Two Scorpions is up to 50 reader reviews on Amazon! Thank you, dear readers. I realize some of you are probably sick of hearing about the book, but keep in mind when you see authors go into overdrive promoting their work: Selling books is hard.

The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime . . . Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales.

Few authors get much in terms of advertising and marketing budgets. Nor can most authors count on people spotting their book in the bookstore; big publishers negotiate with the big chain bookstores to get their books on those front tables, prominently displayed as you enter the store. (They may not need to do it with highly-anticipated books, like a new Harry Potter book, etc.) Only a handful of authors get ads in the book review sections of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, and most are lucky to get a book review in a big publication at all.

So when you see a National Review writer or newspaper columnist or pundit or someone else known for non-book work sudden turn into that malfunctioning sales cardboard cutout from The Critic, just accept that it’s a necessary part of the process of writing a book in the modern media landscape.

Publishing a book is never predictable. For example, our old colleague Tim Alberta’s got a new book coming out about the Trump’s relationship with the rest of the Republican party, full of original reporting, entitled American Carnage . . . and the U.K. Guardian got an advance copy of the book and reported some of the juiciest quotes. If you’re interested in the subject, you’ll probably want to pre-order — Tim’s as dogged, thorough, and resourceful a reporter as you will find in today’s Washington. (On Amazon Prime, you can get it for about two-thirds the cover price.)

Next month Kevin Williamson’s latest, The Smallest Minority, arrives, and it sounds scathing, insightful, and blisteringly funny, with “biting appraisals of social media (“an economy of Willy Lomans,”) political hustlers (“that certain kind of man or woman . . . who will kiss the collective ass of the mob”), journalists (“a contemptible union of neediness and arrogance”) and identity politics (“identity is more accessible than policy, which requires effort”). The cover image of the bird in the Twitter icon as an ominous, World War Two-style bomber is genius.

This week brings Justice on Trial, by old friends Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino, promising the “definitive deep dive into the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.” Ordinarily, you might wonder if a recently completed Supreme Court confirmation fight warranted a whole book, but a lot about the Kavanaugh fight never quite got explained: Just why did Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation sit on the desk of Senator Dianne Feinstein for weeks? Who leaked her allegations to the press? Who performed the remarkably thorough scrub of her existence on social media? Did Senate Democrats coordinate their efforts with Michael Avenatti, or was he a genuinely unexpected wild card? We might be studying this fight for a long time, as it probably ushered in a new era of confirmation battles where absolutely no holds are barred and truth is the first casualty.

ADDENDUM: Eric Swalwell — he’s the congressman who’s always trying too hard, and who ran around the Democratic presidential primary debate stage demanding, “Pass the torch! Pass the torch!” – might be calling it quits today. I’d say, “Gone but not forgotten,” but let’s face it, you’ve forgotten him already.

But just as we lose one . . . we might be getting another: Billionaire Tom Steyer is thinking about running again.

Politics & Policy

No, Trump’s Tanks Are Not a Scandal

President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 26, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Happy Independence Day Eve! There won’t be a Morning Jolt tomorrow or July 5.

Tanks for the Memories

I don’t think having tanks displayed in public is automatically a sign that we are sliding into a dictatorship, or, as former CIA analyst Nada Bakos contends “In a democracy, a military show of force is an indicator things aren’t going well.”

But it’s not a military show of force, and nothing in Washington tomorrow is meant to be threatening or intimidating to anyone — other than anybody who would seek to harm Americans. Despite what you’ve been hearing, the tanks will be “on display” but not in a parade, at least according to the most recent reports: “The vehicles will not be moving, thereby reducing the chance of damaging local infrastructure.”

Come on. This isn’t a Trump scandal. If the president’s tank and military-hardware fixation turns into a bigger public recognition and appreciation for our men and women uniform, this is the most positive Trump scandal ever. If you see a tank on the mall and people taking pictures of it as a “an indicator things aren’t going well,” what do you think of the cannons outside the Maryland State House building? (For a lot of years, my sons saw them as just another object to climb on.) Cannons and artillery have been displayed as part of memorials in Brookline, Pa.; North Haven, Conn.; Pulaski Square in Cleveland; and you can probably think of others. American tanks are still displayed as part of the war memorials on the battlefields of France and in Bastogne, Belgium. Are they still part of some “show of force” that indicate things aren’t going well? If you go to the War Memorial in Seoul, South Korea, you’ll see 17 different tanks on display. Is that an indicator that things aren’t going well in that country?

The reason we find military parades passing by the reviewing stand of a dictator menacing is because those parades are run by dictators, and many times those dictators have demonstrated a willingness to use brutal force against their own people, with no competing powers or  constitutional limits upon that use of force. France does a big military parade on Bastille Day. Nobody’s worried about Emmanuel Macron becoming an authoritarian dictator.

(And for everyone screaming Trump is a dictator, the Census Bureau just announced it was printing up the census forms without the citizenship question. If Trump was a dictator, he wouldn’t acquiesced to the Supreme Court ruling! Dictators don’t worry about losing in courts! Dictators don’t lose midterm elections! Dictators don’t worry about their own reelection!)

It’s supposed to be a scandal that nearly $2.5 million in entrance and recreation fees from the National Parks Service is going toward the costs of tomorrow’s parade. Those of us who go back and check will see that the victory parade for the Persian Gulf War cost $12 million back in 1991; adjusted for inflation that’s about $22 million. (Oddly, a later article in the same source, the Washington Post, said the cost for the whole parade was $10 million.)

People enjoyed it back then:

John and Barbara Haiduk, of Dallas, went to the parade Saturday and returned to the Mall yesterday.

“This is kind of like seeing celebrities,” Barbara Haiduk said. “You hear about Apaches, Patriots and the Bradley {fighting} vehicles, but you never get to see them. The troops were the heroes, but these were the tools.”

One other point: we’ve had many Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades, but we’ve never had a parade explicitly for our veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq. Some might argue we shouldn’t have one until our military commitments in those countries were over, but . . . we still had troops in Germany and Japan when the New York City Victory Parade was held in 1946. It may be that post-9/11 veterans don’t want a parade. (Somewhere out there, some vet is saying, “Instead of a parade, how about a Department of Veterans Affairs that gets back to me quickly instead?”)

A lot of people bring their own baggage to this issue:

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor and expert on fascism, said Trump’s need to display military hardware is a feature of authoritarians throughout history. “He needs to colonize our lives. He needs to colonize our public spaces,” she said, adding that it was “dismaying” that the Pentagon this year failed to thwart Trump’s impulses. “The military has been domesticated. I think the will to resist him has evaporated.”

The only time the job of the military is to “resist” the commander-in-chief is when he gives an unlawful order, and whatever you think of having a military parade, it’s not an unlawful order.

What is not acceptable is having the Republican National Committee distributing tickets to an event associated with the armed forces and Independence Day. The event is being paid for by taxpayers, thus it should be open to all or, if that would be too complicated, provide tickets to service members and their families, or some other noteworthy and deserving group — special-needs families, etc.

The New York Times: America Is Just Okay. The Washington Post: Fireworks Are Bad.

A day after the New York Times created a video declaring America is “just okay,” the Washington Post runs a column trashing fireworks, declaring, “fireworks are America’s favorite face exploding, dog torturing, bird murdering way to celebrate its birthday.”

We get it, America’s columnists. One easy way to generate a ton of traffic is to declare “America stinks” right around Independence Day. It fits in well with the “Everything is awful when Trump is president” philosophy that many of them have already embraced.

My time living in Turkey — 2005 to 2007 — recedes further and further into the rear-view mirror, but I really wish every American could live abroad for a little while, just for perspective. The Turks were by and large friendly and gracious hosts, but simultaneously they never let it be forgotten that I was a guest in their country. I wasn’t one of them, and never would be.

We have parts of the United States that are poor and opportunities are few. But you can go to Turkey — NATO ally, then-aspiring member of the European Union — and find rural parts where life hasn’t changed much since the internal-combustion engine appeared on the scene.

At the time, Turkey had a thriving public debate, but free expression has turned into a constant battleground in that country. In many countries, you probably wouldn’t be reading my words uncensored, and both of us would fear a knock on the door in the middle of the night, with the state deciding we had engaged in unacceptable discourse.

Of course America has problems. Many of us live in safety, but some Americans do not. Many of us enjoy economic opportunities to thrive and live a better life, but some Americans do not. Many of us enjoy some of the best schools, doctors, and hospitals in the world, but some Americans do not.

The things that are right about America do not erase what is wrong about America, and the things that are wrong about America do not erase what is right about America. That’s an oddly simple point, but one that a lot of people don’t want to hear.

ADDENDUM: Sales continue to be healthy, and we’re up to 40 reviews on Amazon, so once again, thank you, dear readers. Roughly 97.5 percent of the reviews are either five stars or four stars.

Happy Independence Day, everyone.

Politics & Policy

The Mueller Report Is Old News, Democrats

Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after delivering a statement on his investigation at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2019. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: House Democrats genuinely believe that Robert Mueller’s testimony will be a game-changer in their effort to impeach the president, some ominous news for John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shares an unbelievable tale from a visit to a Customs and Border Protection facility, and what you need to know about Marianne Williamson.

If Democrats Have to ‘Revive the Stymied Probe of Trump,’ They’ve Already Lost

Over at Bloomberg, Billy House writes, “Robert Mueller will appear grudgingly before House committees this month, but the former special prosecutor’s testimony is the best chance Democrats have to revive their stymied probes of President Donald Trump.”

Mueller has made clear that he said all he has to say in his report. I expect his testimony will consist of repeating what’s in the report, and a lot of answers that begin with,“Well, congressman, as I wrote on page 228 of the report, which I hope everyone has read . . . ”

House writes, “Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said Mueller’s testimony could have ‘a profound impact,’ simply if he gets the American public to focus on what he said in his 448-page report.” The theory appears to be nothing really happens in American life until someone says it happened on television. But we saw weeks of discussion, analysis, and debate around the Mueller report all over the airwaves, and then Mueller made his brief televised statement. If it was going to rouse a broad uprising of Americans demanding impeachment, it would have happened then.

After Mueller made his brief public remarks, the Marist poll found 22 percent wanted to impeach the president, 25 percent wanted to continue the investigation. The CNN poll found 54 percent oppose impeachment. The Quinnipiac poll found 61 percent saying Congress should not begin impeachment proceedings against Trump.

In four hours of Democratic presidential primary debates, only the moderators brought up the Mueller report. This strongly suggests that even among Democratic primary voters, the report has been digested and is effectively “old news.” Undoubtedly most Democratic primary voters support impeachment, but most of them probably supported impeachment before Mueller’s report was released. In fact, probably a chunk of them supported impeachment on January 20, 2017. Liberal activist groups set up an online petition calling for Trump’s impeachment on Inauguration Day, declaring, “From the moment he assumed the office, President Donald Trump has been in direct violation of the US Constitution.” In mid-March 2017, localities such as Berkeley passed resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment, and Maxine Waters was tweeting about it. The Democratic party’s appetite for impeachment is not driven by a belief in particular or specific illegal acts by Donald Trump. It is driven by an all-consuming belief that he does not deserve to be president and that the outcome of the 2016 election is an injustice of epic proportions.

Americans know what they have in Trump. They’re not surprised by ethical lapses, a viewpoint that sees the Department of Justice as his own personal legal team, an inability to separate his personal interest from the national interest, a contempt for those investigating him that goes right up to the line, or perhaps over it, into obstruction of justice. They also know that there’s no way that 67 U.S. senators will vote to impeach him. Most importantly, they know that the country is 16 months away from the voters getting the opportunity to offer their own verdict on him. They will offer their verdict on Trump on November 3, 2020.

Separately, House quotes Democratic representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia as saying sarcastically, “As we speak, I have three people in the basement training on how to work the rack. And I’ve got another team that is expert, I am told, at pulling off fingernails.”

(I guess torture and coerced confessions are no laughing matter, until they are. Remember that the next time he’s denouncing interrogation techniques of our intelligence agencies.)

An Ominous Sign for Hickenloopmania

Is the John Hickenlooper presidential campaign in trouble after just one debate? “Campaign manager Brad Komar and national finance director Dan Sorenson have left the campaign. Spokeswoman Lauren Hitt confirmed their departures and said she, too, will exit the campaign in the coming weeks.”

It would be sad, and revealing, if one of the few Democratic candidates to explicitly renounce socialism is the first one forced to end his campaign.

But there’s no way to get around the fact that Hickenlooper didn’t have much of a debate last week, never mind having much of a good debate. If you look at his history as mayor and governor, he’s got an oddball, quirky charm. He seemed more comfortable cutting deals with a Republican-controlled state legislature than with a Democratic-controlled one. He really wanted to keep that post-partisan image, claims to hate negative ads, and doesn’t really have good “attack dog” instincts. This is just not the natural political environment for him, and he certainly doesn’t come across as a “wartime consigliere.”

Rashomon at the El Paso Customs and Border Protection Facilities

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic House members visited Customs and Border Protection Facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas yesterday. Either Ocasio-Cortez or unnamed sources in the CBP are lying about what happened inside.

Ocasio-Cortez’s account:

Just left the 1st CBP facility. I see why CBP officers were being so physically & sexually threatening towards me. Officers were keeping women in cells w/ no water & had told them to drink out of the toilets. This was them on their GOOD behavior in front of members of Congress.

Separately, she described, “They were literally discussing making a GoFundMe for an officer who attacked my on my tour.” Verbally attacked or physically attacked?

Hopefully, in the near future, Ocasio-Cortez will describe the officer who attacked her.

Physically and sexually threatening a member of Congress or attacking her as she’s inspecting a federal facility is spectacularly reckless, not to mention illegal. If this did happen, it would not be the first time someone in a position of power did something spectacularly reckless. But a federal law-enforcement officer choosing to threaten one of the most ubiquitous and relentlessly covered figures in American politics would have to rank among the stupidest actions of all time.

Then there’s this account from the Washington Examiner:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., screamed at federal law enforcement agents “in a threatening manner” during a visit to a Border Patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, and refused to tour the facility, according to two people who witnessed the incident.

A group of 14 House Democrats, including Ocasio-Cortez, and their aides kicked off their visit to the region at about 11 a.m. MST Monday at the El Paso Station on Hondo Pass Drive.

According to the Examiner article, Ocasio-Cortez “told the group she would not go with the 13 other House Democrats on the tour of the facility and stayed with the family.” For what it’s worth, the accounts of Representatives Joe KennedyMadeline Dean, and Judy Chu consistently describe overcrowded and poor conditions at the child immigration detention facility, and a contentious attitude from the CBP staff there.

But apparently the reception wasn’t entirely hostile. Kennedy told Vice News “one guard tried to take a selfie with New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

ADDENDUM: The odds are good that before last Friday night, you had only the vaguest idea of who Marianne Williamson is. She isn’t likely to be the Democratic nominee or the next president, but she’s a bizarre, fascinating, wild, thoroughly unpredictable figure. Read 20 things about her and prepare to alternate between shock and laughter.

U.S.

Thuggery Comes to Portland

(Mark Graves/The Oregonian/via AP)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The Antifa thugs take over the streets of Portland again, a disturbing report that the Trump administration is considering accepting the North Korean nuclear program, and the lesser-known Democratic candidates start feeling the pressure.

Thuggery Comes to Portland in the Form of Antifa

How frightened are Portland institutions of Antifa, the most fascist bunch of self-proclaimed anti-fascists you’ll ever see? This morning, the Oregonian, the biggest and most important newspaper in the state, describes an assault on Andy Ngo at one of their rallies: “Oregonian/OregonLive reporter caught the attack on video, though the video doesn’t show what precipitated the attack.” The implication, of course, is that somehow Andy Ngo provoked the crowd of angry masked men into punching him, kicking him, throwing objects at him, and dousing him with some sort of liquid. This is a parody of journalistic objectivity: “We don’t want to take sides between the person who’s being punched and kicked and the group of people doing the punching and kicking.”

There’s a sad, fearful, defensive undercurrent to the the Oregonian’s coverage. In the second paragraph, Kale Williams emphasizes that the criticism of the Oregon police and Mayor Ted Wheeler is coming from “conservative circles.” In the fifth paragraph, we get to the key point:

Police were lined up along the perimeter of the park before the attack, but no one intervened to break up the fight. Late Saturday, police reported that three people had been arrested, including one for assault, but it was unclear if that person had anything to do with the attack on Ngo.

The Oregonian chose the headline, “Portland mayor, police come under fire after right-wing writer attacked at protest” — a classic of the “conservatives pounce” genre. But the story they’re reporting is “gang of masked assailants beat man in park as police watch.” Or perhaps that sort of thing is starting to happen so often in Portland that it no longer qualifies as news.

Deeper in the story, we’re treated to the “It could have been worse” paragraph:

While the demonstrations on Saturday did feature a few isolated flashes of intense violence — aside from Ngo’s attack, a number of protesters engaged in a bloody street brawl later in the day and police declared a civil disturbance before protesters dispersed — the event was still more peaceful than the riots that plagued downtown Portland last summer.

Ted Cruz and Richard Grenell are calling upon federal law enforcement to step in, contending that the mayor and Portland police refuse to enforce the law. The Oregonian report insists there’s no evidence of this, but there’s a repeated pattern of gangs at the Antifa rallies getting violent and no one getting arrested.

In December, our Kevin Williamson wrote a cover story about how the black-masked violent thugs of Antifa periodically take over the streets of Portland:

“All cops are bastards!”

And these absolutely are their streets, as the two neutered Portland cops following them dutifully around make clear. The goons and thugs occasionally take a moment to amuse themselves by messing with the cops, screaming obscenities at them or committing flagrant but relatively minor violations of the law in front of them, daring them to do anything about it. The cops trudge and trundle on, calm as monks, pretending not to notice as the hoodlums pound on passing cars, block intersections, and menace bystanders. At the most public of public spaces in Portland, Pioneer Courthouse Square — “Portland’s living room,” they call it — the goons encounter a little bit of counterprotest, not from sad incel Proud Boys or the Klan or simply from other pissant neo-fascists wearing slightly different-color shirts — but from a young black man who intuits, not inaccurately, that this is mainly a bunch of rich-white-kid play-acting by little runts who make pretty good thugs when confronted with people in wheelchairs or little old ladies — more on that in a second — but who are basically chickensh** poseurs who are Down for the Cause only to the extent that it doesn’t stand between them and a soy latte and an MFA. He says as much, at higher volume than probably is really necessary — and the weaselly little munchkin blackshirts who had just a second before insisted that all cops are bastards! and boasted of their control of the streets turn immediately to the police for help. And the police, damn their eyes, help: They evict an actual peaceable protester, if a loud one, from the public square — in order to make room for mask-wearing, law-breaking, little-old-lady-assaulting hooligans.

A police vehicle cruises down the street a respectful distance behind the mob. The purported lawmen inside announce over the loudspeakers that they are there to assure this rabble of miscreants that they are there to help the mob “exercise your First Amendment rights safely,” so please stay on the sidewalk and obey the traffic laws. Naturally, the mob responds to this by immediately stepping off the sidewalk and violating the traffic laws. Not that there’s any need to — they just want to remind themselves, and the police, that they can.

Whose streets? That’s pretty clear.

In Portlandia, the mayor of Portland is played by Kyle MacLachlan (of Twin Peaks) as a goofy and generally earnest middle-aged municipal careerist trying to be cool. In real life, Portland’s mayor is Ted Wheeler, a sniveling little runt of a bureaucrat who professes to be “appalled” at the political violence that is now commonplace on the streets of Portland but complains that he is effectively unable to do anything about it. When Antifa thugs attacked a march held by Patriot Prayer, a local right-wing group, police reported seeing people brandishing guns, clubs, knives, and pepper spray. They made no arrests.

Kevin observed after that article:

The thing about places like Portland and San Francisco is that they aren’t nice. They have a reputation for being wooly and hippieish and silly, but they are in fact very angry places, full of very angry people. They are also highly segregated places in ways that the South and Southwest really aren’t. Angry white people with money make the world go ’round, apparently.

Jay Nordlinger points out that the world has a good reason to be wary of any movement that embraces wearing masks.

Is the Administration Preparing to ‘Tacitly Accept North Korea as a Nuclear Power’?

I have no doubt that if this Trump administration proposal comes to fruition . . .

But for weeks before the meeting, which started as a Twitter offer by the president for Mr. Kim to drop by at the Demilitarized Zone and “say hello,” a real idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that officials hope might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations.

The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.

. . . that numerous Trump fans will insist this represents some strategic genius, the best possible option for the United States, and that anyone who disagrees or criticizes an agreement like this is a crazed warmonger.

This is exactly what the Obama administration did with Iran, and these are exactly the arguments that Barack Obama, John Kerry, Ben Rhodes and the rest used to defend the Iran deal — which amounted to a nuclear freeze, essentially enshrined the status quo, and tacitly accepted Iran as a nuclear power.

This morning, John Bolton tweets:

I read this NYT story with curiosity. Neither the [National Security Council] staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to “settle for a nuclear freeze by [North Korea].” This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences.

Save Your Favorite No-Hope Democratic Candidate Today!

With the first debate complete, the asterisks in the Democratic presidential-primary field are starting to feel real pressure:

Of the 20 candidates who qualified for the first round of debates in June and July, just six are sure to appear in the September-October round, when the Democratic National Committee requires participants to hit 2% in multiple polls and 130,000 individual donors.

Currently, the only locks for the fall debates are former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke is likely to qualify, but after an underwhelming debate performance last week, even he is not guaranteed to make the polling threshold. Only polls taken between June 28 and Aug. 28 will count.

Republicans are doing their part to help out Marianne Williamson.

Marianne Williamson’s closing statement in the debate:

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what this man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes. So, Mr. President, if you’re listening, I want you to hear me, please. You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field. And, sir, love will win.

“Fear and love open the doors.” – Major Garland Briggs, Twin Peaks, season two, episode 21.

ADDENDUM: The reviews on Amazon for Between Two Scorpions continue to come in; we’re up to 35 now! If you have read it and enjoyed it, share your thoughts! If you read it and didn’t enjoy it, keep those thoughts to yourself — no, wait, I actually do want to hear what worked and what didn’t work in this story.

Elections

Joe Biden’s Possibly Looming Threat

Former Vice President Joe Biden gestures during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Kamala Harris must be elated this morning, while Joe Biden looks considerably less inevitable; the radicalization of the 2020 Democrats and the not-that-political message of Marianne Williamson; and clearing up an important point about the portrayal of a particular faith in Between Two Scorpions.

The Democratic Primary Race Looks a Little Different This Morning

Maybe last night didn’t change everything about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, but Joe Biden definitely looks like less of a sure bet to be the nominee, and Kamala Harris reminded everyone she belongs in the top tier and can absolutely filet any rival who isn’t prepared. This is what probably has to have Biden fans most unnerved this morning. He and the debate strategists around him had to know that some version of the Harris’s attack on his views on busing in the 1970s would come eventually from someone. But when it came, he didn’t look ready.

And man, did Harris know how to position this obscure and long-forgotten issue in personal terms:

. . . it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.

Shortly after her comments, her campaign posted an image of grade-school aged Kamala Harris on social media. It’s removed by about ten years from Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With.

Biden began by denying that he had praised racists, then added, “I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.” On paper, this is a good countermove, except . .  does Biden think that Harris becoming a prosecutor is some sort of flaw or weakness on her part? Does being a defense attorney automatically mean you’re friendly to the African-American community? Isn’t that line of defense sort of condescending to African Americans?

Biden went on to say:

I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.” Er, except back during the debate in the Senate in 1975, Biden declared, “I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept that, in fact, does not bear any of the fruit for which it was designed.

So far in the 2020 campaign, Biden hasn’t done a lot of interviews and he certainly hasn’t done any contentious interviews. He hasn’t done a town hall on Fox News or CNN. His campaign’s fear of him going off-script and generating gaffes is obvious. He’s rusty, and or he’s just gotten older and now deals with questions like a 76-year-old man.

Harris looked relentless (almost too aggressive) and Biden looked shaky. Which quality do you think Democrats want on stage up against Trump in the general-election debates?

The Radical 2020 Democrats and the Not-That-Political Marianne Williamson

Ross Douthat offered two really sharp obserations last night. First:

The debates have certainly demonstrated Democrats are now basically committed, as a field, to decriminalizing illegal entry to the United States amid an unprecedented migrant surge and that several of their front-runners are committed to the swift elimination of private insurance. Those are clarifying pieces of information, to put it mildly.

I’d throw in the fact that they all also guaranteed taxpayer-funded health care to everyone who crosses the border. We on the right talk about the radicalization of the Democratic party, and a lot of people scoff, but . . . it’s right there up on that stage, people.

Secondly, “Seriously [Marianne] Williamson is, in fact, correct that America has deeper psycho-medical-social problems than the ones being discussed on the stage tonight.”

Right? If you really want to make the case for change in the United States of America, don’t go after the economy when unemployment is below 4 percent, a system of private health insurance that a lot of people are happy with or afraid to change, or promise the world to people who cannot legally vote in U.S. elections.

Argue that we’e become alienated from our neighbors, lost our sense of community and connection to others, and that a shallow materialism has displaced a key part of what made America great. Ask why the technology that was supposed to connect us made us feel so disconnected and alienated from everyone else. Ask why we’re so angry and envious and pessimistic during a time of prosperity and relative peace.

I have no idea if Marianne Williamson will rise above 1 percent. But part of me would not be surprised to see her have a breakout, because she’s offering a message that is only tangentially related to politics and governance.

A Point I Have to Explain about Between Two Scorpions

One of the Amazon reviews of Between Two Scorpions expressed disappointment that I made the terrorists “some kind of Zoroastrian death cult.”

I want to address this, but there’s no way to discuss it without getting deep into spoilers. So, self-serving as this may seem, everyone go out and buy the book, read it, and then I can discuss this without spoiling big twists and turns. Okay? I’ll wait.

[Insert Jeopardy theme here.]

SPOILERS AHEAD. Also, my guess is that if you haven’t read the book, what follows will make so little sense you may think I have had a stroke.

Okay, to be clear, the leaders of Atarsa are not Zoroastrian. They worship (and named themselves after) Zoroastrian demons. This is like having a bunch of characters named Satan, Mephistopheles, and Beelzebub and saying that they’re representing Christians. But I can understand the reader’s confusion, because at one point, the good guys intercept information from VEVAK, the Iranian foreign intelligence service:

VEVAK had indeed identified the woman calling herself Angra Druj in the video: Sarvar Rashin, an Iranian citizen who dropped off the grid several years ago. Not much was known about her, other than the fact that she wasn’t Muslim; she practiced the Zoroastrian faith.

Of course, VEVAK is run by a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists who don’t really understand other faiths and don’t care to, so they interpret what they know about her incorrectly. They’re like someone ignorant about Christianity who goes to a Satanic ritual and sees crosses, robes, and an altar and assumes it must be some version of Christian faith. The VEVAK guys never consider that she’s established (or reestablished?)  a demonic cult.

This is important, because it ties into the biggest twist in the book . . . (LAST SPOILER WARNING)

Merlin is right, or at least there is substantial evidence that his theory is correct: God and something evil – the devil, demons, etc. – are at work in the lives of humanity.

Atarsa’s cult worships something like the demon Legion described in the Gospel of Mark – depicted as the “cockroach God” statue in the village and manifesting itself as a swarm of insects or voices. Or as the two leaders call them, “the Voices.” My rationalist or atheist protagonists would argue each leader is just schizophrenic, but they’re hearing the same voices saying the same things. [Cue spooky music.]

Other clues about the closing twist:

  • The first time Jaguar sees Angra Druj, for “a split second, the woman looked otherworldly, as if her skin were green or scaled” like a mantis. Jaguar notices the Atarsa leaders “would pause midsentence when speaking, then exchange long looks to each other that seemed to replace spoken communication.” Jaguar “half-jokingly wondered if the trio  of Akoman, Angra Druj, and Azi Dhaka were some sort of aliens who had read extensively about how to host a human being but had never actually done it before.” Some readers may chalk this up to them being weird cultists, but I intended it to be to be a subtle evidence (apparently too subtle!) they’re possessed or influenced by demons who have forgotten how to act “normally” around human beings.
  • Katrina dreams of a giant insect in her nightmare, and she’s prophetic about a body being hung outside a McDonald’s.
  • When CIA director Peck freaks out, the drug that everyone thinks is a hallucinogen actually allows him to see what’s going on, which is why he describes bugs and people being puppets.
  • When Ward sees Norm Fein through his range-finder through the infrared, he’s sees the shape of a giant insect because he’s seeing Fein’s soul; Fein has lost his humanity and become an insect-like drone, devoted to serving the hive.
  • Finally, Ward sees Fabrice Vuscovi as a giant Termite, because he is, as Francis Neuse and Merlin described, seeing her soul.

On the flip side, Alec prays, and thinks he’s hearing answers from God, or at least he’s imagining/surmising/thinking how God would respond, and when Jaguar shoots at Alec, he misses in part because Alec is standing in front of a mural of the Virgin Mary.

This is a supernatural/theological thriller where none of the supernatural stuff is tangible and is only briefly glimpsed, and almost all of the people who see it figure it has to be a hallucination or have some other rational explanation.

ADDENDUM: Mark Hemingway, summarizing Bernie Sanders debate performance: “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to sell America on socialized medicine.”

Elections

The Democratic Presidential Candidates Love to Emote, But Can They Govern?

Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke reacts during a kickoff rally in El Paso, Texas, March 30, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: How last night’s Democratic presidential debate turned into a festival of emoting for the cameras, Beto O’Rourke hits a brick wall, and the first bad review of Between Two Scorpions.

Running for President, and Being President, Requires More Than Emoting

Imagine you’re a Democrat with presidential ambitions, and you’ve chosen to run this cycle. You probably look back to the past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for lessons. Both men were described as once-in-a-generation political talents, and what people usually mean by that phrase is that they were both really good at giving speeches and what’s called “retail politics” — shaking hands at the New Hampshire diner, responding to questions at the town-hall meeting, making audiences laugh at the county party fish fries and banquet dinners.

What is Bill Clinton’s most famous quote, beyond disputing the definition of is? Probably “I feel your pain.” Despite widespread belief that he said it in the second presidential debate of 1992, he actually said it to an AIDS activist who was heckling him on the campaign trail months earlier: “I have treated you and all the people who’ve interrupted my rally with a hell of a lot more respect than you’ve treated me, and it’s time you started thinking about that. I feel your pain, I feel your pain, but if you want to attack me personally, you’re no better than Jerry Brown and all the rest of these people who say whatever sounds good at the moment.” Nonetheless, Bill Clinton became widely considered a deeply empathetic leader — hugging anyone who told him a tale of trouble or woe. Obama eventually earned more criticism for allegedly being “aloof.”

Almost everyone in politics has embraced that Maya Angelou observation, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” George H. W. Bush famously summarized in off-the-cuff remarks, “Message: I care.”  Last night in the first Democratic presidential debate, every candidate was trying to assure the voters and viewers at home, “I care about you.”

All of the candidates on stage last night competed to demonstrate that they felt the most pain of the most Americans. They described an America of 2019 that was downright dystopic.

Elizabeth Warren said the economy was only “doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top” and that the government “is corrupt.” Cory Booker declared, “I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans” and lamented that “Dignity is being stripped from labor” and that “This is actually an economy that’s hurting small businesses and not allowing them to compete.” Bill de Blasio argued, “There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands. Democrats have to fix that.” Amy Klobuchar described “so many people that are having trouble affording college and having trouble affording their premiums.” (I thought Obamacare was supposed to fix that!)  Tim Ryan lamented, “We’re getting drones shot down for $130 million, because the president is distracted.”

Despite President Trump canceling a military retaliation against Iran at the last minute, Tulsi Gabbard warned, “Donald Trump and his cabinet, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and others — are creating a situation that just a spark would light off a war with Iran, which is incredibly dangerous.” (Notice she blames Trump and his cabinet for creating the situation, not the Iranians.)

This occurs as the national unemployment rate has been at or below four percent since March 2018, and hit the lowest rate since 1969. Even half of Democrats rate the economy as “good” or “excellent.” No doubt the people most likely to watch two hours of ten Democratic candidates debating are the most partisan, and probably the ones most likely to insist that because Donald Trump is president, the economy simply cannot be doing well. But one has to wonder how well the message “I will save you from this terrible economy” will work in a general election.

When given two minutes to answer, a candidate can never give more than a cursory description of his policy plans. Last night, most candidates skipped over that, when they bothered to address the asked question at all. Frequently they simply talked about the topics they wish they had been asked to address. Tulsi Gabbard was asked, “Your thoughts on equal pay?” and within a few sentences, she was declaring, “For too long, our leaders have failed us, taking us from one regime change war to the next, leading us into a new cold war and arms race, costing us trillions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars and countless lives.”

The problem is, emoting isn’t governing. Emoting isn’t even really thinking about a problem. It’s just another form of performance. Yesterday I noted that even with his golden resume, Pete Buttigieg is having a really tough time managing his city’s response to a racially charged fatal police shooting in South Bend. Good credentials and a high IQ are not enough to govern well. Neither is caring, or even convincing public displays of caring.

Over at the New York Post, the notorious theocrat (I kid, I kid) Sohrab Ahmari discusses the photo of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria Ramírez and asks what Democrats actually want to do in response to waves of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and claim asylum.  The Post headline declares that being outraged isn’t enough. But clearly for a lot of Democrats, it is.

When asked about the deaths in the Ramirez family, Julian Castro declared he is “very proud that in April I became the first candidate to put forward a comprehensive immigration plan” and then quickly focused on how outraged he was: “Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off. Castro eventually added that he would remove the metering policy, which limits the number of people who can claim asylum at any given time. Castro described it as “playing games with people who are coming and trying to seek asylum at our ports of entry.”

Mind you, Ramirez did not appear to have a legitimate claim for asylum, according to accounts from his family.

Ramírez said her son and his family left El Salvador on April 3 and spent about two months at a shelter in Tapachula, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home,” Ramírez said. “They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”

What’s more, Ramirez had the chance to make his case to the U.S. consulate.

The Tamaulipas government official said the family arrived in Matamoros early Sunday and went to the U.S. Consulate to try to get a date to request asylum. The mother is 21 years old and the father was 25, he added.

It’s not clear what happened to the family at the U.S. Consulate, but later in the day they made the decision to cross. The Tamaulipas official said the father and daughter set off from a small park that abuts the river. Civil defense officials arrived at the scene at 7 p.m. Sunday and later took the wife to the shelter.

The only policy that would have prevented Ramirez from attempting to swim across the Rio Grande is one that let him in and allowed him to work in the United States simply because he wanted to enter.

If we want better policies, we need to be able to discuss them openly and acknowledge difficult realities. Enforcing immigration law as it is written means some people will be denied legal entry. When that happens, some of the rejected applicants will inevitably attempt to enter the country illegally, and that process often involves a considerable amount of danger — if not from the currents of the Rio Grande, then from thirst in the desert, being abused by unscrupulous human traffickers and smugglers, hiding in locked and unventilated tractor-trailers, or other dangers. The only policy that would ensure this never happens is open borders — the idea that anyone who wants to enter the United States and work here can do so, just by showing up and presumably passing a background check.

Citizens of the United States of America are not responsible for the choices that citizens of other countries make. When 289 Central American migrants, including some with children suffering from measles and chickenpox, choose to get into the back of a tractor trailer, they are making a terribly dangerous and foolish choice. They should be warned of the fatal risks and discouraged in every possible way. If American policy is to let these people stay, we will inevitably encourage more people to take the same risks. In some cases, the truly compassionate policy, the one that saves more lives in the long run, is the one where you say “no.”

The End of Beto

I get stuff wrong sometimes. Back in 2016, I didn’t think there was a way that Trump would sweep the table and win Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I thought Mitt Romney would do better than he did in 2012.

But I get stuff right, too. Back in 2010, I said Bobby Schilling had a chance to beat incumbent Phil Hare long before anyone else noticed, and was talking about Marco Rubio as a rising star back in August 2009, when few thought he would derail Charlie Crist. I nailed the outcome of the Scott Brown’s election in 2010, down to the percentages.

And I want credit for seeing an empty suit when Beto O’Rourke burst upon the national scene in 2010, and contending he was yet another example of the national media seeing what it desperately wanted to see, a Democrat who could win in the South. O’Rourke had the worst night of anyone on the stage last night, and it’s time to acknowledge he was never as good as his press clippings from last year promised.

ADDENDUM: The first bad review for Between Two Scorpions! Apparently, I use too any adjectives.

Elections

What to Expect from the First Democratic Presidential Primary Tonight

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the California Democratic Convention in San Francisco, Calif., June 1, 2019. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

A big news day makes the click-through worthwhile: The Democrats are prepared for the first debate of the presidential primary tonight; Robert Mueller agrees to testify before Congress; and NRATV ceases production, with little sense of its long-term fate.

It’s the First Democratic Presidential Debate Night. Try to Control Your Enthusiasm.

For some of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, tonight is as good as it’s going to get. They’ll step out onto that stage, stand next to bigger names such as Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke, the audience will cheer, and for one brief shining moment, they will look and feel like serious candidates for the presidency of the United States.

And then, a short time later, reality will set in. They’ll have to wait forever for a question. When the question arrives, it will be on a different topic than what they were hoping to get. They will try to shoehorn in a prepared one-liner, and it will land with a thud instead of the laughter and applause they sought. They’ll realize, halfway through their answer denouncing the Trump administration, that they sound almost indistinguishable from the preceding two speakers. They’ll belatedly realize that two minutes is far too short to elaborate on the point they’re trying to make, and that they may not be speaking again for another 15 to 30 minutes. Someone will try to improvise a new line of argument on the fly and the odds are good that it will come out as a suboptimal word salad.

In the second hour, the lesser-known candidates – Greg and I prefer the term, “The Asterisks” — will start to feel some pressure to stand out. They may try to take a shot at Joe Biden, who won’t be on the stage tonight, or some may conclude Warren is the closest thing to a frontrunner available and take a shot at her.

The New York Times writes that Democratic voters are looking for a candidate that they can picture winning a debate with Trump, and so some candidates may attempt to emulate the president’s bombast and insults. We can fairly argue whether Trump actually “won” most of the debates in the 2016 presidential primary or general election in the traditional sense; what Trump did is show up and play a completely different game than almost all of the other candidates. Most of the rest of the GOP field showed up to reenact the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Trump arrived with a script for one of Comedy Central’s celebrity roasts featuring Jeff Ross. From where I sit, this was a terrible development for the way a constitutional republic selects its commander in chief, but it proved brutally effective method to stand out in a crowded field. And as Marco Rubio demonstrated later in the primary process, when a traditional officeholder attempts to emulate Trump’s style of insults, it doesn’t work. Either way, a significant chunk of this 25-candidate field would probably wilt in a one-on-one stage debate with Donald Trump.

The weird split of the candidates into two nights means that tomorrow night offers the real excitement, featuring the slugfest between the big names of former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, California senator Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Even Thursday night’s asterisk candidates are the more interesting ones. Colorado senator Michael Bennet and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper are the closest thing to genuine centrists in the field, author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang are more likely to say something completely unexpected, and always-trying-too-hard California representative Eric Swalwell is starting to become bizarrely entertaining, like a bad movie being mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Also, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand will be there.

Mueller Will Testify after All, But Don’t Expect New Revelations

Almost four months after special counsel Robert Mueller issued his report to the Department of Justice, and three months after his report was released to the public, Mueller will testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

wrote back in May,  if you’re hired by the Department of Justice to investigate matters of extraordinary importance, I think you’re obligated to answer some questions, either under oath before Congress or to reporters. If Mueller wants to answer every Congressional question with, “I discussed that matter extensively in the report, please read it completely,” then fine.

Based upon Mueller’s public statement at the end of May, we may get some variation of that. And no doubt, many Democrats on that committee will repeatedly try to get Mueller to formally or informally endorse an effort to impeach Trump. I suspect Mueller has no interest in revealing his opinion on that.

NRATV Comes to a Halt

The news that the National Rifle Association has halted production of all programs on NRATV is both expected and yet still surprising to hear now that it’s official. Once the NRA’s main public-relations firm, Ackerman McQueen, refused to offer more details about how they were spending the NRA’s money, an outcome like this became almost inevitable. The NRA wasn’t going to continue financing a communications effort on its behalf without accountability, and Ackerman McQueen wasn’t going to be able to continue producing that communications effort without the NRA’s financing.

Gun-control advocates are likely to misinterpret this development as revealing something about the persuasiveness of the arguments in favor of the Second Amendment. But as I keep trying to emphasize, this is a story about money and lawyers, not guns. The past months have seen accusations and counter-accusations of wasteful spending, self-dealing, and attempted coups.

I would be surprised if NRATV never returned in any form, but at this point, no one knows what form that return would take — perhaps produced in-house by the NRA itself, perhaps rebooted and restarted with another communications firm, or some other option.

As for my buddy Cam, his message for today is, “It’s been a privilege and pleasure to host Cam & Co since 2004, and I want to once again say ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped turn the “Company” into a genuine community.”

ADDENDUM: The Deseret Newsmaking the case for optimism about America’s future, cites a column from last year.

Do you mind if I share a pair of recent Amazon reviews for Between Two Scorpions? It’s better when someone else is recommending the book instead of me.

First, from James C.:

If you like fast-paced — and I mean *really, seriously* fast-paced — thrillers that have a global scope, then here’s your book, right here. I’ve read a fair number of novels with ex-CIA / Delta Force / Navy Seal protagonists lately; it seems to be a popular type for lead characters. Some are drawn well, some aren’t. But Geraghty’s protagonists in Scorpions are an unlikely pair of CIA agents who are a married couple. The wife is a bad-ass Jewish warrior-girl from central Asia; her nominally nerdly, American husband is the comic relief. It sounds a little odd, but it works pretty well. So I liked the characters, I especially liked the dialogue, and I liked the world-building — including the historical and geographical crumbs that Geraghty drops while leading us through his tale.

And from Fuman:

This is an ingeniously conceived, inventively plotted, thought-provoking work… Scorpions” compares well to the works of “serious” thriller writers, and the thinking and imagination that bring the story to life merit a top grade. Geraghty has created a compelling group of characters and puts them in motion in breathtaking scenarios. There are enough twists to keep readers on edge as they careen across the globe. One suspects (hopes?) that the technology put to work here is the imaginary sort that animated 24 during its storied run, but Geraghty doesn’t wallow too much in tech jargon or unnecessary detail and keeps the focus on basic human nature. It helps to be able to draw compelling characters and credible relationships among them. Geraghty displays a fine talent for that, and the introspection that he uses to reveal these people to the reader is almost without exception brilliant… Overall, this was much, much better than expected. I highly recommend this book.

I hate to tell you this, but all of the NSA surveillance tech I describe in the book is real and has already been discussed in non-classified publications. And the way the bad guys take over television broadcasts is straight from the real-life “Max Headroom Incident” in Chicago in 1987. (When I showed Mrs. CampaignSpot the video of the Max Headroom signal takeover, she had nightmares the next night.)

A few reviews say they wished they had seen a bit more background about the characters, and believe me, that was in the earlier drafts. But thrillers need to move. Also, I decided I wanted to tell a story about characters who are in the middle of their careers in a dangerous world of spies, not at the beginning — they’re seasoned and they’ve had a lot of adventures before this story begins. A few said this felt like the middle book in a long series — but that leaves more to explore in future stories

Elections

The 2020 Democratic Candidates and Their Redefinition of American Citizenship

New citizens stand during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library, July 3, 2018. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: How the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates want to make being an American citizen simply a matter of location and desire, instead of law; another allegation of hideous behavior from Donald Trump from the mid 1990s; the promised big roundup of thriller novels; and a heartfelt “thank you” to you, the readers.

The 2020 Democrats Want to Redefine Citizenship

Sometimes our political debates are furious and deeply divided because of demagogues, clickbait media, and hype. But sometimes our political debates are furious because they reflect a conflict of fundamentally opposed worldviews, where no compromise is feasible.

Many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates want to fundamentally redefine who is American — that is, if you show up from another country and want to be here, you ought to enjoy the full rights of citizenship and all of the benefits provided to American citizens.

Bernie Sanders put it clearly: “We’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and open that to the undocumented.” In other words, if are a citizen of another country and you want a free college education, all you have to do is show up in the United States and get accepted at any one of the 1,626 public colleges in the United States.

Needless to say, if enacted, this would bring a flood of people from all around the world, eager to enjoy the benefits of a college degree, paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. (In case you’re wondering, there are a handful of other countries in Europe that offer very low or nominal tuition rates to American students, but at most of those schools, competition for the limited slots is high.)

It is not only Sanders. Beto O’Rourke says that the United States should contemplate eliminating the citizenship exam because it is a structural barrier to immigrants. Indeed, it is meant to be a structural barrier to those who lack English proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing, and civics knowledge. There was once a broad consensus that English proficiency and civics knowledge were required to be a good American citizen. The 2020 Democrats no longer believe this to be true.

Ten candidates, including Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren believe that crossing the border or entering the country without permission should no longer be a crime. On May 7, 2018, the Department of Justice announced they would prosecute all adult aliens apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exception for asylum seekers or those with minor children. (If that policy was repealed, border crossers would still go through a civil legal process that could lead to their deportation.)

Booker, Steve Bullock, Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang believe the federal government should NOT require the use of E-Verify to check the legal status of all hires by private employers. Another nine candidates said they only support that idea as part of a “compromise” on immigration reform.

Sanders contends that adding the question “Are you a U.S. citizen?” to the 2020 census would constitute “absolutely bigoted language.” Amy Klobuchar contends that if the question is included, she would, as president, require a “recount” and O’Rourke threatens that if it is included, he will re-do the entire census a second time without the question. Even John Hickenlooper, allegedly one of the centrists in the swarm of candidates, contends that asking the question on the census for is “ corrupt and illegal.”

We all have our notions of what constitutes an injustice. To many Democrats, the longstanding practice of enforcement of immigration law — policies in place throughout the Obama administration — is an inherent injustice. In their minds, being an American citizen is simply a matter of wanting to be here.

Yet Another Ugly Accusation against Donald Trump

I have no idea whether or not to believe E. Jean Carroll’s claim that President Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in the 1990’s.

No doubt, Trump’s history with women is sordid and scandalous and full of crass, crude, and objectifying behavior. On the other hand, we just went through a Supreme Court nomination fight that illustrated the limited options for a man who is accused of sexual assault with no evidence. We also know how conditional the “believe all women” rallying cry is.

In Carroll’s account, sometime in “the fall of 1995 or the spring of 1996” she ran into Trump in the early evening at Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury department store based on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. After some small talk, she agreed to try on lingerie in front of Trump for fun. She said there were no other customers or sales attendants in the Bergdorf Goodman lingerie department, and no other potential witnesses. She writes that she has checked and that the department store did not keep security tapes from that time. She describes herself as laughing through much of the experience. “I don’t remember if any person or attendant is now in the lingerie department. I don’t remember if I run for the elevator or if I take the slow ride down on the escalator. As soon as I land on the main floor, I run through the store and out the door — I don’t recall which door — and find myself outside on Fifth Avenue.” Carroll says did not report it to the police but told it to two friends. The two friends, contacted by New York magazine and not identified, confirmed Carroll described an experience like this.

Carroll is not seeking a police investigation or criminal charges. She insists this is not just a ploy to sell books; if it were, the book would be all about the president instead of the variety of creeps she’s encountered in her life. She appears to believe that the country should know about her experience and act accordingly.

Her comments to Anderson Cooper last night were . . . odd:

“You don’t feel like a victim?” Cooper asked.

“I was not thrown on the ground and ravished which the word rape carries so many sexual connotations. This was not sexual. It hurt. It just — it just — you know,” Carroll responded.

“But I think most people think of rape as — it is a violent assault. It is not — ,” Cooper began.

“I think most people think of rape as being sexy,” Carroll said.

“Let’s take a short break,” Cooper said.

“Think of the fantasies,” Carroll interjected.

“We will take a quick break if you can stick around. We’ll talk more on the other side,” Cooper continued.

“You’re fascinating to talk to,” Carroll said.

Do most people think of rape as being sexy?

In her account, Carroll wrote, “the struggle might simply have read as ‘sexy.’”

The Big Thriller Roundup

Last week on vacation, I finished Mark Greaney’s Agent in Place, the 2018 addition to his wildly popular series about Court Gentry, the CIA-trained “Gray Man” who can blend in just about anywhere and who has the skills and instincts to survive just about any situation. I had heard good things about the Gray Man Series, but until recently I was a bit wary: the strong, silent, brooding loner assassin protagonist can be a little tough to warm up to and enjoy. But what Agent in Place does particularly well — besides terrific research about the horrific situation in Syria as its civil war winds down, the Syrian exile community in France, and the glamorous halls of the high life in Paris – is set up a situation where the hero goes against his better judgment and agrees to pursue a mission that is one step short of suicidal. Greaney puts Gentry into a circumstance where any rational person would say, “Nope, sorry, I can’t help you, I’d like to, but doing this will almost certainly get me killed.” It’s the most desperate situation imaginable, the risks are just a Dagwood sandwich of various dangers and menaces and precarious gambles, his few allies are unreliable, and it requires sneaking into probably the single most dangerous location on earth. But the life of an innocent child hangs in the balance . . .  and Gentry would have to look at himself in the mirror if he choose to not try to save the child.

Back in May, I reviewed Matthew Betley’s Overwatch, which established his recovering-alcoholic Marine officer Logan West and an ever-changing realm of national-security threats that he and his out-of-retirement comrades must chase. That’s the first in his series; the fourth book in the series, Rules of Warhits stores and ships in mid-July. With a ripped-from-the headlines relevancy, much of Rules of War is set in a rapidly-deteriorating Venezuela. Betley told me, “I wanted to set it in a crumbling third-world country, and there’s no better example of that today than Venezuela.” Last week on Dana Perino’s program on Fox News, he talked a bit about the book, and a class action lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs and his recent experiences with the VA, attempting to get coverage for lung problems stemming from the burn pits in Iraq.

Also last week, I finished John A. Daly’s Blood TradeSet shortly after 9/11, Sean Coleman is another protagonist who’s overcoming his battles with the bottle, looking for a second chance and redemption for past mistakes. Blood Trade has a lot of atmosphere, high in the Colorado mountains, with a mood of foreboding hanging over much of the action. (Those who know my favorite television series will know I’m inclined to like stories of rural small towns with secrets behind every door.) Daly takes what looks like a mundane missing-persons stories and gradually reveals a chillingly plausible plot with, a deeply relatable motive for the story’s villains, and a vivid illustration of just how far some people will go to safe a life. This book is accurately titled. Daly’s next is Safeguardcoming in October, featuring Coleman guarding a defunct nuclear silo . . . and apparently attracting the attention of a local cult.

Then there’s arguably the most anticipated thriller of the summer, Brad Thor’s Backlash featuring Scot Harvath, who’s ended up working for the U.S. Secret Service, Navy SEALs, and as a CIA contractor over the course of 18 novels. As mentioned yesterday, not only does it live up to the hype, it’s really striking for how different a story this is from the previous books in this series. The last few Harvath novels have featured him and usually a small team investigating or uncovering some sinister plot by jihadists, or China, or the Russians. Backlash blows up that familiar rhythm and is reminiscent of that Liam Nesson movie The Grey, and the classic The Fugitive, and some of Jack London’s classic survival-in-the-most-hostile-wilds stories. Almost the entire story takes place in a remote corner of the world that I suspect has never been featured in a thriller before, and the story focuses as much on Harvath’s challenge to survive psychologically intact as physically. Thor is to be saluted for willing to experiment and move away from familiar territory, both literally and figuratively.

And these are just the thriller novels I’ve gotten my hands on recently. Daniel Silva’s The New Girl comes out July 16, with Israeli spymaster Gabriel Allon crossing paths with a ruthless Saudi prince who is likely to be compared to the real-life Mohammed bin Salman.

ADDENDA: You guys really are the best readers in the world. Yesterday I mentioned that reviews on Amazon help a book find an audience, and this morning I find 27 reviews on the page, each one kind and offering some sort of insightful observation. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Someone said to me recently that I shouldn’t have said the book isn’t that political, because it covers some big topics adjacent to our modern politics — “questions of heroism, of identity, and of faith” as one reviewer put it, and “the fragile line between chaos and sanity in a society” as another described it. This is what happens when you start the creation of your villains with, “what frightens me?”

National Security & Defense

The Lesson from the Escalating Tension with Iran

An Iranian flag flies at the Sorough oil field in 2005. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The American government’s options for “shadow war” with the Iranians; a revealing and honest answer from Donald Trump in his Meet the Press interview; and various notes from a week in South Carolina, where it’s not too early for billboards for Democratic presidential candidates.

What the U.S. Needs to Do to Iran

The Iranian regime is an abominable one. It’s abusive to its citizens in a wide variety of ways, it’s the world’s biggest state sponsor of terror, and it’s aggressive and destabilizing to the region. The rulers of Iran deserve every bit of punishment, karma, and misfortune that can be arranged to come their way. The day the Iranian regime falls will be a great one for the United States of America, even if a more democratic Iranian government is still likely to desire a nuclear program and ballistic missiles.

But the collective United States public has barely given a moment’s thought to the consequences of a steadily escalating military conflict with Iran, and while the United States military is prepared for anything, it’s far from clear that the country as a whole is similarly prepared.

The Iranian regime likes to hit civilian targets, sometimes far from its shores. The largest terrorist attack in Latin American history, a bombing of a Jewish social-services center in Buenos Aires in 1994, was carried out by operatives working out of the Iranian embassy. In 2015, a prosecutor and chief investigator of the attack, still working the case, was found dead after “committing suicide” the day before he was supposed to testify to the Argentine congress. Three years later, Argentine prosecutors revised their assessment and declared the chief investigator had been murdered.

Iran’s fingerprints on are on terrorist attacks or planned terrorist attacks in Albania, Denmark, France, India, Iraq, Kenya, Thailand, and of course, Israel. Iran is also responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

U.S. courts ruled that Iran was legally liable for the 1998 bombings of American embassies: “Prior to their meetings with Iranian officials and agents Bin Laden and al Qaeda did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.” A separate U.S. court ruling found Iran responsible for the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000: “Iran was directly involved in establishing Al-Qaeda’s Yemen network and supported training and logistics for Al-Qaeda in the Gulf region.” Last year Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the secretary of the Iranian judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights, discussed the 9/11 hijackers on Iranian television and revealed “our government agreed not to stamp the passports of some of them” when al-Qaeda members passed through Iran on trips between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. This helped the hijackers stay off terror watch lists and avoid scrutiny when they entered the United States.

The lesson of all this is not, “Do not attack Iran because they could respond with terrorism.” The lesson is, “Do not attack Iran unless you are prepared for them to respond with terrorism.”

Jim Sciutto’s recent book The Shadow War focuses on Russia and China, but the philosophy that book describes is also being used by the Iranian regime: Figure out where the United States’ threshold for war is, and then attack America in all possible ways short of crossing that line. And then maybe probe to see how far you can cross it before a military retaliation. We’re not likely to go to war over rockets landing near U.S. oil company installations in Basra, Iraq or military bases hosting U.S. forces near Baghdad, nor Iranian mines attached to oil tankers, nor sabotage at oil installations.

The good news is that the United States can fight a shadow war of its own. Eli Lake lays out the options for our side, perhaps most notably, cyber-operations against just about any military target or Iranian infrastructure. Before the invasion of Iraq, the American military and its partners in the intelligence agencies did receive approval to crippled that country’s military and government communications systems, disrupted all phone service, and contemplated doing the same for the country’s entire financial computer systems.

Iran is insisting that they have not suffered any significant cyber-attacks since shooting down the U.S. surveillance drone. One wonders if the American government is tempted to enact a cyber attack that is impossible to ignore, like a widespread outage of phone service, the Internet, or electrical power.

The Honesty of Donald Trump

Whether you like hearing this or not, this president lies a lot. Sometimes he lies about big things. Sometimes he lies about bizarrely petty topics, like whether he accidentally called Tim Cook of Apple “Tim Apple.” One of Trump’s recurring habits is describing implausible scenarios where he is the smartest and wisest man in the room, thinking of key points that others overlooked:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had something ready to go, subject to my approval. And they came in. And they came in about a half an hour before, they said, “So we’re about ready to go.” I said, “I want a better definition –”

CHUCK TODD: Planes in the air? Were planes in the air?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, no. “We’re about ready to go.” No, but they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back. So they came and they said, “Sir, we’re ready to go. We’d like a decision.” I said, “I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed, in this case Iranians?” I said, “How many people are going to be killed?” “Sir, I’d like get back to you on that,” great people these generals. They said, came back, said, “Sir, approximately 150.” And I thought about it for a second and I said, “You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it. And here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead.”

Representatives of the leadership of the U.S. military would not give the president a military option and simply forget to include the casualty estimate, and there is no way the ‘generals’ had to go back and check information as important as that. This is not a “take him seriously, but not literally situation.” Perhaps Trump forgot or didn’t pay attention during the initial briefing about the attack.

But it is worth noting that for all of Trump’s dishonesty, sometimes he can be shockingly honest, in ways few presidents are, in the sense that he often answers the first thought that comes to his mind, whether that first thought is in his interest or not:

CHUCK TODD:

Are you prepared to lose?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

No. Probably not. Probably not.

CHUCK TODD:

Very hon — I mean, you joke —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

It would be much better, it would be much better if I said, “Yeah.”

CHUCK TODD:

You’re, you’re —

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

It would be much easier for me to say, “Oh yes.” No, I’m probably not too prepared to lose. I don’t like losing. I haven’t lost very much in my life.

When Trump fans declare the president to be an honest man, I suspect it’s because of comments like this. For a man with 24-7 Secret Service protection, he can still at times be remarkably unguarded.

South Carolina Notes

I spotted two big billboards in I-95 South and one on the road to Hilton Head promoting Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, declaring she has “a soldier’s heart.”

Thanks to everyone who attended the book event in Sun City — turnout was great, and it wasn’t just the free food.

I don’t want to turn into the “This recent news event shows why you should read my book,” but the first few chapters of Between Two Scorpions envision a terror attack in Europe with evidence pointing to Iranian responsibility, and various European governments and some portions of the American government not wanting to believe the evidence, because they’re so invested in rapprochement with the Iranian regime and preserving the nuclear deal.

Between Two Scorpions is already up to 16 reviews on Amazon, so if you’ve purchased it and read it and enjoyed it — or even just one of those three — please take the opportunity to share some thoughts on the Amazon page. I am told that’s one of the best ways to support books you love and bring it to the attention of potential readers. So far all of the reviews are positive, and some of the comments indicate I hit exactly the notes I wanted to hit: “What do you get when you take a little Dennis Miller, a little Piers Anthony, a little Robert Heinlein, throw them in a blender, the sprinkle on some Tolkien? You get Jim Geraghty, and this book.” “This book has a great plot, which is actually believable, as well as dynamic characters and just the right amount of grit. Loved it! Especially the short philosophical discussions that illustrate a great degree of insight into what makes people tick.” “I wasn’t sure I would like this book, but I was intrigued by Geraghty himself, so I gave a shot and was pleasantly surprised. Not your typical spook story, well written and fast paced.”

The lengthy and wide-ranging chat with Jonah Goldberg on The Remnant is now posted!

ADDENDUM: I aim to feature a big thriller roundup in tomorrow’s Morning Jolt, looking at Mark Greaney’s Agent in Place and the Gray Man Series, Matthew Betley’s almost-here Rules of War (which features a Chick-fil-A action scene), John A. Daly’s Blood Trade and forthcoming Safeguard, and Brad Thor’s almost-here Backlash. A quick preview of my assessment of Backlash — not only does it live up to the hype, it’s really striking for how different a story this is from the previous Brad Thor thrillers.

Politics & Policy

Joe Biden’s Pretension that Democrats Want Civility

Former Vice President Joe Biden in Manchester, N.H., May 13, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: The chain of command breaks down at the White House over potential Iranian retaliation, his competitors attack Joe Biden for his comments about civility with segregationists, and Senator Ben Sasse delivers a pro-life jeremiad on the Senate floor.

Trump Reportedly Rescinds Counterstrike Order

A Trump administration official leaked details of high-stakes internal drama at the White House on Thursday, divulging the president’s reported withdrawal from a proposed counterstrike measure against Iran that he had previously sanctioned, according to the New York Times. The controversy comes in the wake of what some see as overt Iranian malfeasance. Yesterday saw the downing of an unmanned U.S. drone that was targeted while flying over the Strait of Hormuz, details the Associated Press. Two of the president’s most hawkish officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national-security adviser John Bolton, were reportedly pressuring President Trump to pursue more aggressive retaliatory action. Democrats tried to talk Trump out of the measure, warning it might lead to a protracted war with Iran. From the AP:

The swift reversal was a stark reminder of the serious risk of military conflict between U.S. and Iranian forces as the Trump administration combines a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region. As tensions mounted in recent weeks, there have been growing fears that either side could make a dire miscalculation that led to war.

According to the official who spoke to The Associated Press, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.

It was unclear how far the preparations had gone, but no shots were fired or missiles launched, the official said.

The military operation was called off around 7:30 p.m. Washington time, after Trump had spent most of Thursday discussing Iran strategy with top national security advisers and congressional leaders.

This story is still developing; President Trump sent out a series of tweets this morning further detailing the process he used to make his decision.

Joe Biden Was Civil with Mean People

Joe Biden is crusty old man — that, of itself, is a rather unremarkable fact in the crusty, old pool of front-runner Democratic candidates — but he is unique in his transparent disregard for the woke norms governing Democratic politics. Biden is either unaware or unconcerned that progressive thought leaders are growing convicted that civility itself is an underhanded means of preserving established power and white male hegemony (did I do that right?). On Tuesday night, Biden longed for the days of civility in politics, detailing the cordiality of pro-segregation senator James O. Eastland.

From the Washington Post:

Biden’s remarks, which came at a fundraiser Tuesday night in which he said one segregationist senator “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’ ” seemed intended to highlight a central argument of his presidential candidacy: that he knows how to bring unity to a polarized nation.

Instead, they prompted another controversy for Biden’s campaign — and the sharpest attacks yet from his rivals on matters of race that are central to his bid and important to black voters who are seen as a crucial force in deciding the Democratic nomination battle.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), whose parents faced racial discrimination when trying to move into a white neighborhood in New Jersey, was explicit that Biden needed to apologize. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said she was “deeply” concerned by Biden’s remarks, telling reporters at the Capitol, “If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now.”

Biden, for his part, is refusing to apologize: “Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body; I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”

Ben Sasse Delivers Passionate Defense of Pro-Lifers

Senator Ben Sasse took to the Senate floor yesterday to express his concern about the Democratic party’s growing radicalism on abortion, and to deliver a rebuke to “eternal sophomore-class president Kirsten Gillibrand” (to borrow Kevin D. Williamson’s formula) for comparing pro-life justices to racists and anti-Semites.

From Alexandra DeSanctis at NR:

In particular, Sasse called out New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand — who is attempting to run for the Democratic presidential nomination but continues to linger at the bottom of the pack — for recent remarks in which she equated being pro-life to being racist. “According to a sitting United States senator, and a candidate for the Democratic nomination to be president of the United States,” Sasse said, quoting Gillibrand’s comments, “holding pro-life views is ‘no longer acceptable.’ It is not a ‘fair’ position, she tells us. It is the ‘moral equivalent’ of ‘racism’ or ‘anti-Semitism.’ Perhaps in the senator’s next interview, my colleague will suggest that pro-life Americans belong in a basket of deplorables.”

He went on to note the historic connection between the abortion industry and the eugenics movement in the U.S. “It’s in part because of this ugly history that black women in America are three-and-a-half times more likely to have an abortion than white women,” he said. “In some parts of Senator Gillibrand’s home state, black children are actually more likely to be aborted than to be carried to term.”

Kirsten Gillibrand is among the least impressive people in public office — a feat indeed — but it was nevertheless important for Senator Sasse to rebuke her publicly, because her assertion is becoming fashionable among leftist intellectuals.

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