The Importance of the Senate Impeachment Vote

Alan Zendell, January 26, 2021

In two weeks, the U. S. Senate will conduct the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Americans are so weary of the political divide, of all the infighting and lying and misrepresentations, not to mention the pandemic, most people just want this to fade into the rear view mirror.

That’s both unfortunate and dangerous. We need to remain engaged and let our Senators know what we expect them to do. The Senate trial will not be a criminal proceeding; it has neither established rules of evidence nor an obligation to enforce the law. The sideshow in the Senate will be entirely political, a game in which appearances and illusions are likely to take the place of reality.

If the recent past is an accurate predictor of the future, most Republican Senators will posture about responsibility and how awful the attack on the Capitol was. They’ll engage in procedural maneuverings and look for alternative means of slapping Trump’s wrists, doing everything possible to avoid going on the record with a vote to convict or acquit. Such is their overriding concern with their next election, their lingering fear of an animated Trump base, that a disappointingly small number will cast their votes based on the merits of the case.

The merits are pretty clear. If you screen out the partisan noise, most constitutional law scholars agree on two things: it is constitutional to conduct a trial of a former president, and the evidence, as seen live on television by about a billion people, clearly showed Donald Trump inciting insurrection against the Congress and attempting to undermine a presidential election. If you care about America, that’s pretty serious stuff.

The idea of the Senate trial as political theater is extremely dangerous. The implications of Trump’s actions on the behavior of future presidents cannot be overstated. When the House of Representatives decided to impeach him the first time, many people, myself included, strongly disagreed. With Republicans in control of the Senate, the majority of whom were terrified of angering Trump’s base, the certainty of acquittal was assured before the impeachment vote in the House was taken. The only possible outcome was emboldening a president with autocratic tendencies who had already demonstrated his disdain for the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

Democrats hell-bent on political retribution went ahead anyway, a very bad decision. As predicted, when the Senate refused to even hear evidence, Trump came away claiming total exoneration. Why else would he believe he could get away with subverting the election? Why else would he imagine that he could commit treason and suffer no consequences? It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that those things might never have happened if the House had shown some restraint or the Senate had demonstrated a shred of integrity. We were warned the first time, and failing to heed that warning is what brought us to where we are today.

If we care about the kind of America our kids will live in, we have no choice but to pay attention this time. If Trump is allowed to walk away from his actions without consequences, not only will he be emboldened to continue to stoke his base to undermine the Constitution, but there will be no restraints on the actions of any future president. Senators like Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio have already thrown in the towel, publicly acknowledging that nothing is more important than their self interest. They have told us by their disingenuous inaction that Trump may have been right five years ago when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

In fact, Trump will be right only if we all sit on our hands and do nothing. Americans hungry for a return to moral leadership voted in record numbers to deny him a second term. Georgians, appalled by the former president’s attempts to strong arm their state’s leaders seconded that with their votes. If you’d been asked in November, what odds would you have given Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of winning their runoffs elections?

That’s proof that collectively, Americans have formidable weapons, when they are wielded in concert. Republican Senators care about getting re-elected, and they care very much about how much money is in party coffers. How do we convince them that integrity has value? By speaking up now and telling them that they will pay a price for being morally bankrupt.

We don’t need violent demonstrations or extremist threats. We have telephones and the Internet. Make some noise. Write to your Senators. Use your voices and social media to assure that Donald Trump can never hold federal office again, and that actions like his will not be tolerated in the future.

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To Prosecute or Look Away

Alan Zendell, January 24, 2021

George Conway is a conservative Republican lawyer who was on the short list for two positions in the Trump administration in 2017. He did not receive the appointment as Solicitor General, and subsequently withdrew his name from consideration as the Director of the Civil Division of the Justice Department. At the same time, his wife of more than twenty years, Kellyanne Conway, was appointed senior advisor to Trump, a position she served in until shortly before the 2020 election.

While Kellyanne was one of Trump’s chief defenders and enablers throughout his term, George quickly became disillusioned with what he viewed as the president’s constant attacks on the Rule of Law. A staunch member of the Federalist Society, George Conway founded The Lincoln Project, a PAC whose only purpose was to defeat Trump’s bid for re-election, in December 2019.

Throughout Trump’s term, the Conways’ opposing views of the president grew in intensity as Trump’s actions became more outrageous and the 2020 election approached. Many people compared them to the “political odd couple” of the 1990s, James Carville and Mary Matalin. Carville and Matalin, both prominent political advisors, had been on opposite sides of the 1992 Clinton-Bush campaign. They married in 1993 and parlayed their political differences and television appeal into a lucrative career – a diametrically opposed political couple, who managed to not only navigate a successful marriage, but profit from their publicly expressed disagreement. They were so popular, many people wondered how much of their differences were real and how much they were staged for their adoring audiences.

The same question was asked about the Conways. Though they never debated with each other in public, they were both quite vocal with their opinions. Their disagreements about the president became so intense, one had to wonder how a man who constantly claimed the president was guilty of criminal behavior and unfit to serve could live with one of his most loyal sycophants. Apparently, they couldn’t, because Kellyanne resigned her position after the Republican convention at the end of August, saying she needed to spend time repairing her marriage and has been silent ever since. George, however, has not.

I find his views compelling because he has always been a very vocal conservative who was a strong defender of the Constitution and the Rule of Law. He seems to have no motive for criticizing the former president except principles. Thus, on its Sunday opinion page for January 24, 2021, the Washington Post turned to him for a lengthy analysis of the pros and cons of whether Trump should be convicted by the Senate and investigated for a variety of alleged crimes he committed before and during his presidency. Conway’s opinion piece is both balanced and convincing – I urge everyone to click on the link and read it through.

Conway discusses opposing arguments by prominent law professors who argue that seeking to punish Trump is not worth the further disruption to society or the risk of re-awakening the anger that gave rise to the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Trump’s alleged crimes are compared to those of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. Conway notes that Clinton’s crime had no impact on his responsibilities as president and that he reached a plea agreement with Special Prosecutor Ken Starr, in which he admitted his wrongdoing, paid a $25,000 fine, and accepted a five-year suspension of his license to practice law. Nixon, whose crimes were more serious, eventually acknowledged his guilt and resigned the presidency.

Conway argues that the long list of crimes Trump is accused of are an entirely different thing. Prosecutors have been amassing evidence for years about actions they believe prove tax fraud and bank fraud, crimes for which he can be indicted at the state, local and federal levels. He further argues that he may be guilty of many criminal acts as president, from which he was protected from prosecution by Justice Department policy while he was in office. But now, as a private citizen, he has exposure both to the U. S. Attorney for D. C. and the Justice Department. Conway concludes the need to assure that no future president ever attempts to overthrow the Constitution far outweighs any negative fallout that might result from either a Senate conviction for inciting insurrection or a conviction by New York or the District of Columbia.

My favorite line from Conway’s opinion piece says it all. “[Trump’s] life amounts to a virtual issue-spotting exercise for any student studying criminal law.” Prosecution and conviction of the former president would set a precarious precedent, but failure to hold him accountable sets a more dangerous one.

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A Kinder, Gentler, Saner America

Alan Zendell, January 23, 2021

I’m not a historian, but I’ll bet there has never been a sharper contrast in presidential administrations in our history. Joe Biden has been president for only three days, and we already know exactly what he believes, what his priorities are, and what he’s likely to do.

When his predecessor took the microphone, we knew we could expect one of two things. The most likely was a combination of bombast, anger, lies, contradictions, insults and exaggeration. A steady diet of air-sucking, often incoherent whining, complaining, attacking and berating of a rotating litany of targets. One day it was immigrants, another, every Democrat who ever lived. One day blue state governors, another, judges with Hispanic surnames, yet another, the fake news media. The list of “enemies of the people” was endless, the only ones spared, those willing to abase and incriminate themselves to do the bidding of a madman.

The few occasions when he attempted to act like a president were carefully scripted by a White House staff desperate to rein in a boss who had overstepped the bounds of decency and rationality even more than usual. His words were delivered as if he had hot coals in his mouth, forced and pained, producing a robot-like awkwardness devoid of sincerity. How often did you recoil when he was about to speak, fighting to resist turning your TV off before he began, if not throwing whatever you were holding at it?

In only three days, despite the enormous problems the nation faces, all that has changed. The eagerness with which I look forward to hearing what President Biden has to say surprises me, but it’s been there every time, and he hasn’t disappointed. He has been as close to perfect as possible. He never raised his voice or uttered a negative word about anyone except the insurrectionist mob who attacked the Capitol. He is ever firm but gentle, calm yet impassioned, reaching out and inspiring. He is never defensive, never reactive, always respectful. And whether you agree or disagree with him, you never doubt either his veracity or candor.

Rather than shudder, wondering he might do next, we anticipate that he will be focused on fixing something that’s broken on behalf of all of us. He attacks problems rather than individuals, and he describes as fine people only those who are. He says what he means – there’s never a wink or a smirk signaling a nefarious subtext. The objects of Biden’s ire are the pandemic, the circumstances that have millions of Americans out of work and unable to support their families, the inequities in our society, and the divisions that tear us apart.

If presidents are supposed to lead by example, consider that in just three days, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Kevin McCarthy have all been civil to each other. No one likes governing by Executive Order, but the ones Biden issued either reversed actions by his predecessor that the vast majority of Americans opposed, or were first steps in helping control the pandemic and addressing the urgent needs of everyday citizens – temporary expansions of unemployment benefits, a safety net against evictions, and fighting for an infusion of cash to every American who is financially suffering, every penny of which will flow directly back into a recovering economy.

Biden, in his first three days, has quietly and calmly established boundaries around our national discourse. He will not support extremists of any stripe or color, and he’ll consistently fight to uplift every American in need. He lowered the temperature in every room he entered, including our living rooms. His Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, treats the press corps with respect and plays no favorites. She came to the microphone prepared, and quickly established that she is all in on the president’s promise of straight shooting and transparency. What a contrast with the sneering sycophants who preceded her.

There’s a ton of stuff to get done in the next three months, but it’s been an impressive beginning: bipartisan agreement on delaying the T***p impeachment trial and a relatively civilized discussion of the thorny issue of the Senate filibuster. And there was Dr. Anthony Fauci, alone at the podium, free of the oppressive presence of a president who demanded obedience over truth and science. After biting his tongue in frustration for a year, we saw the light shine in his expression, the perfect person to lead the fight against COVID. Unlike his predecessor, Biden arrived with fleshed-out plans for his major initiatives, with advisors and a Cabinet bursting with competence, rather than beholden either to him or special interests.

It’s been quite windy outside the past few days. It must be the collective sighs of relief we’ve allowed ourselves.

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Joy Deferred

Alan Zendell, January 20, 2021, Inauguration Day

Wednesday, November 4th was a beautiful day in Maryland, thirty miles north of the White House. The sun shone, the temperature reached 62, and every outside table at every restaurant in our town was filled. Everyone was masked (at least until their lunches arrived) but even so the smiles on everyone’s faces were apparent. I never realized before how much we smile with our eyes.

The joy radiated from everyone there, each person’s warmth combining into a thing greater than itself. The end of our national nightmare was at hand. Servers received huge tips that afternoon, and a record number of kudos were relayed inside to the chef. My fish and chips were superb, at least I think they were. Maybe it was just the moment. After all, fish and chips are just fish and chips.

Our joy was put on hold the next day as T***p (I refuse to say his name) began his seventy-five-day campaign of terror. Have you ever battled a fire, working and sweating beyond the point of exhaustion before you extinguished it, only to see it flare up even hotter the moment you walked away? That’s what it felt like between November 5th and January 19th. The forty-six-month hell that began on January 20, 2017 wasn’t ready to let us go. The reign of terror had one very predictable final act to play. We all watched it two weeks ago, on January 6th.

But not today. Today we learned that joy deferred is sweet indeed. Despite the unfortunate spectacle of a Baghdad-style green zone surrounding the Capitol grounds, America witnessed a brilliant transition from what was to something far better. Our new president, Joseph R. Biden, he of the huge heart and beautiful soul, set us back on the true path to greatness. His inaugural speech was uplifting, an attempt to unify the country that only the most hardened cynic could reject out of hand.

Biden asked, simply, for those that fought so hard to overturn his victory based on lies and conspiracy theories, those who had been manipulated and misled for months, to hear him out. Listen and watch what happens, and if they’re still not satisfied, he would listen in return and try to find common ground.

Common ground, after all, is what our form of government is all about. Without it, we devolve into warring factions, and partisanship rules. Things had gotten so bad, we wondered if they could ever be fixed. We still don’t know, but today was a wonderful beginning. Three former presidents were there, honoring the peaceful transfer of power that defines us. Outgoing Vice President Pence, free of the burden of sycophancy he was forced to bear for four years must have infuriated his former boss, just by behaving like a Mensch.

Most of us were so enthralled by President Biden’s inauguration we forgot the worry and anxiety his predecessor had created. Threats of armed insurrection, in Washington and in all fifty state capitals never materialized. The monster was beheaded when its leader departed in disgrace under threat of criminal prosecution for his attack on our Constitution.

The alternate universe the right-wing extremists have been inhabiting no longer exists. The nationwide search for all those that invaded the Capitol has brought back a sense of reality. The fantasy that the domestic terrorists were the real patriots, and that law enforcement would embrace them as liberators imploded. The FBI, the National Guard, and the overwhelming majority of police officers support the law and the Constitution. The real crazies, the ones who live for revolution and anarchy aren’t going anywhere, but all the air has been taken out of their movement.

Our joy is palpable today because President Biden has left the door wide open for anyone who wants to help heal the country. It’s open for all the centrists who have felt abandoned by their parties. It’s open for people who were bombarded by threats that Biden would allow socialists, communists, and left-wing extremists to run his administration. In the clear light of today, only the most hardened of the opposition, those that oppose just for the sake of opposing, still believe all that crap.

Today is a day to rejoice, to bask in the knowledge that we have a president who cares about all of us. It doesn’t mean our problems will evaporate overnight, but at least we’re moving in the right direction. A million people a day will be vaccinated, people in desperate straits will receive the help they need, and by Spring we will all feel life returning to normal. That will be Biden’s legacy, and the process begins today.

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The Biden Era Begins

Alan Zendell, January 19, 2021

When Barack Obama was inaugurated as President in 2009, Mitch McConnell, who was Senate Minority Leader at the time, said, “My job is to assure that Obama is a one-term president.”  He did not achieve that goal, but his constant obstruction made everything more difficult for Obama. Today, the most significant vestige of McConnell’s efforts is the struggling Affordable Care Act. McConnell was able to scuttle the public option, an essential aspect of the original bill which was intended to set a competitive price bar that would keep premiums affordable.

When Joe Biden is inaugurated as our forty-sixth president tomorrow, McConnell will begin a new tenure as Minority Leader. He addressed the Senate today, and his remarks were in stark contrast to twelve years ago. The previously obstructionist McConnell today spoke about seeking bipartisan agreement wherever possible and said even when they disagreed, Republicans and Democrats should treat each other with respect.

Perhaps signaling good faith, he for the first time unambiguously blamed Donald Trump for the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, agreeing with Democrats that Trump and his supporters had spent their time since the election spreading lies and inciting violence. Does that mean he intends to vote to convict Trump when the Senate holds its trial? He seemed to imply that, but of course, McConnell is skilled at choosing his words. The phrase “savvy politician” might have been coined for him. We’ll know in a few days.

One of the most significant things the Trump administration accomplished was hijacking control of the Republican Party. At first, that seemed to only exacerbate the hyper partisanship that has had Congress gridlocked for nearly thirty years. When Trump took control of the party, it was a frontal attack against McConnel’s power, and McConnell’s career has been far more about personal power than ideology. They were political allies only when their objectives overlapped. McConnell, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, had been trying to  pass the 2017 Tax Law for twenty years, and he was legislatively in sync with Trump in trying to kill Obamacare and in packing federal courts with conservative judges.

Make no mistake – there’s no love lost between McConnell and Trump. As allies, they were as uneasy as Churchill and Stalin when they united to fight the Nazis in World War II. McConnell kept mum when Trump railed against immigrants and refused to condemn White Supremacists in Charlottesville. He was likewise silent when refugee children were separated from their parents at the Mexican border and Trump scuttled efforts to address the status of DACA recipients, not exactly the moral high ground, but at least he wasn’t marching in lock step with the worst of Trump’s actions.

McConnell is far from my favorite politician, but as an institutionalist, he silently worked to protect the Constitution from Trump. That’s why McConnell began his remarks in the Senate today by condemning Trump’s role in attacking the Congress. He didn’t have the political courage to stand up to Trump when he should have – the pandemic is a prime example. He had a moral responsibility to attempt to save American lives rather than allow the Trump Republicans to lie to the country about the virus. He has blood on his hands for that failure, not as much as Trump does, but he’s far from innocent. But this is politics. Morality is not an absolute for politicians; rather it is something to be weaponized against rivals, or held up as an ideal when it’s convenient.

As McConnell attempts to rebuild the Republican Party along Constitutional lines, he may find himself more aligned with President Biden than some in his own caucus. Perhaps, at 75, he knows this might be his last term in the Senate, and he is thinking more about his legacy than tomorrow’s legislative battles. There is no doubt that while he surely despises Donald Trump, he has much in common with Joe Biden. McConnell can do a lot for his legacy by helping Biden heal the country in the aftermath of Trump. Despite their political differences, he shares a common heritage with Biden based on their years in the Senate. They disagreed on policies, but they both believed in the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution.

Perhaps it’s ironic that in helping Biden succeed as a strong president, he can also strengthen the Congress. Together they can reduce the gridlock, defeat the pandemic, and restore the stability of the economy, and Biden will be generous in sharing credit for their success. It’s likely that the Trumpers in the Republican caucus will be a thorn in both their sides. There have been stranger bedfellows.

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Trump’s Loose Ends

Alan Zendell, January 18, 2021

On the penultimate day of the Trump administration, this is the state of the Union:

The Pandemic – By far, the most stunning and disturbing loose end of the Trump administration is the number of Americans who died from the COVID virus. When Trump boards Air Force One for the last time, more than 400,000 American deaths will have been recorded, with the number still rising at more than 3,000 per day because of Trump’s refusal to mandate CDC and NIH recommended preventive measures.

The pandemic has been with us for eleven months, with an initial peak in cases in April. Despite warnings from virtually every epidemiologist and health care professional, Trump’s misinformation campaign and his demands to open the economy resulted in one shocking fact. Instead of slowing down, the COVID infection rate steadily increased. More than half of all infections in the United States have occurred since Election Day, seventy-five days in which the President has totally ignored the pandemic and spent all his energy trying to subvert the election.

Unemployment – Notwithstanding that the way the Bureau of Labor Statistics computes the unemployment rate is seriously flawed – for example, it ignores jobless people whose unemployment benefits have run out – the rate was 4.8% when Trump took office, 3.6% a year ago, and 6.7% as he departs. Reducing unemployment was touted as one of Trump’s two crowning achievements, the other being the change in the tax code that enriched the wealthiest Americans and added three trillion dollars to our deficit.

For perspective, consider that Barack Obama inherited an unemployment rate of 7.8% which ballooned to 10.0% in the aftermath of the banking crisis that occupied the final year of Bush-43’s term. From its peak in October 2009, the Obama administration reduced unemployment by an average of 0.385% per year. In its first three years, the Trump administration decreased it by 0.4% per year, which supports the idea that Trump’s policies simply continued the progress Obama made. Omitting the 2009 peak, Trump’s failure to contain the pandemic left the nation with the highest unemployment rate in twenty-nine years.

Elections – Every recount, audit, and review; every court that was asked to determine whether there was evidence of fraud; every state elections administrator from both parties all agreed that the 2020 was the most accurate and secure election we’ve ever had. That was because unfounded predictions of fraudulent or incorrect vote counts caused many states to completely overhaul their voting rules and systems during the pandemic. Yet, false claims of a stolen election have left millions of Americans wrongly believing that Joe Biden’s victory wasn’t legitimate. They have also widened and exacerbated the schisms in our country, leaving us with an explosive situation as anarchists and other extremists continue to threaten the violent overthrow of the government.

But even after the demonstrations and insurrections calm down, we will be left with an election process that was badly flawed before 2020. Billionaires have been trying to buy elections ever since the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision, and in most cases, it’s impossible to identify who the actual donors were. Gerrymandering still causes legislative election results to incorrectly represent popular vote totals, and this cements one-party control in many states. Finally, there is the Electoral College. Enough said.

Climate Change and the Environment – Using Executive Orders and the Executive Branch’s power to change regulations, Trump has done everything possible to subvert attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change. He withdrew from the Paris Accords, and the New York Times reported in November 2020, that over four years in office, the Trump administration has dismantled major climate policies and rolled back more than 100 rules governing clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals.” Fortunately, President Elect Biden will reverse most of those on his first day in office.

Trade, Diplomacy, Immigration, and International Relations – Trump has shaken our allies’ confidence in the United States to a degree that most experts fear has done permanent damage to NATO and our influence throughout the world. His administration and he personally have been an object of ridicule in almost every foreign capital, friends and adversaries alike.

The renegotiation of NAFTA and renaming it USMCA strengthened the agreement, but in every other respect, Trump’s trade wars have been a disaster. Promised incentives to force American corporations to bring jobs back from overseas labor markets never materialized.

There has been no progress in formulating a new immigration policy, and the status of 643,000 DACA recipients is as uncertain as the day Trump took office. The worst stain on Trump’s record is the separation of thousands of refugee children from their parents at our southern border. The children aren’t in cages anymore, but more than 500 of them have parents whose whereabouts are unknown because immigration authorities “can’t locate them.”

Our Military – Trump’s autocratic tendencies have caused an unprecedented number of current and former military leaders to condemn his policies and publicly describe him as unstable and unfit to lead the country.

Moral Leadership – The lack of moral leadership has been the single overriding constant of the Trump administration. Trump’s incitement of insurrection was only the final act in his disgraceful performance as president.

The Worst President – The debate over whether Trump was the worst president in American history may never be resolved, but since he’s competing with Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge for that dishonor, the bar is pretty low.

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Charismatic Leaders and Their Mobs

Alan Zendell, January 17, 2021

The summer I was seventeen, I worked for the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund at a summer camp. The Fund took hundreds of kids out of the New York City slums, and gave them a couple of weeks in the mountains, away from the poverty and crime, and in many cases, abuse they’d known all their lives. That summer taught me some valuable lessons that are as relevant today as they were in 1960.

The first lesson was about the power of charismatic leaders, and their ability to indoctrinate their followers. The victims of this brainwashing aren’t evil or stupid – they’re pretty much like the rest of us. In most cases, they’re not even aware of what’s been done to them.

Case in point: an eighteen-year-old young man named Tom from rural Alabama, a really nice kid, full of wide-eyed excitement over coming to New York. He’d lived his entire life in a community dominated by a fire-and-brimstone Baptist minister who railed about Communists, Satan worshippers, and Jews. I met Tom during orientation, at lunch with him and two others from the New York area. We listened as Tom confided that he was nervous about having left home for the land of Satan. I thought it was a pretty brave thing he had done.

He’d come to help improve the lives of poor Negro children (his words.) For him it was a dream – he’d never seen an urban ghetto. Then he confided his greatest fear. He’d been warned that he would meet Jews there. Did we know what they were like? He actually asked if Jews had horns, like his rabble-rousing minister said. By then we’d spent an hour with Tom, as sweet and innocent a young man as you’re likely to meet. The counselor who was there to orient us said, “Tom, everyone at this table except you is a Jew.” Tom’s pale complexion turned stark white. To his credit, he didn’t faint.

We all got to be good friends that summer. Tom was fortunate that all it took was working side by side with Jews, blacks, and Puerto Ricans to detoxify the hate he’d been raised with. Lesson number one: charismatic bigots are dangerous.

That was reinforced during day two, when we were taught how to deal with the kids coming from Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. They’d been raised around gangs, and our counselors knew that the first thing some of those kids would do was compete for dominance. It was amazing how quickly the gang mentality could take hold. Our first task was to identify the potential leaders and neutralize their ability to make trouble.

Unfortunately, we failed with the first group. Within three days, a very nasty twelve-year-old, unusually big and strong for his age, invisibly to us organized a gang. He had formed a lynch mob whose target was a mentally challenged six-year-old. They were going to roast him over a campfire when we intervened. It was terrifying to see how the other kids had been whipped into a frenzy so easily.

We’d stopped them in time, but now we had more than twenty kids who had been about to murder a helpless child on our hands. Jimmy, my mentor, said not to worry. They’d seen things like this before. Once the leader was neutralized, the newly formed gang always fell apart. He likened it to a snake with its head cut off.

That’s the way law enforcement is approaching the threats of violence aimed at Joe Biden’s inauguration. They’re going after the leaders of the groups that descended on Washington on January 6th. They know that members of these groups are basically drones who require strong direction from their charismatic leaders. Once the leaders are taken down, police and the FBI hope those groups will lose their motivation and stay home.

We face the same problem as a nation. The fact that Donald Trump received 74 million votes is a credit to his undeniable charismatic ability, combined with a shameless ability to lie constantly and an unscrupulous willingness to do anything required to remain in power. Trump has brought the United States to its worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War. The combination of the election and a second impeachment have beheaded the serpent that was willing to destroy the country he led, but the people who supported him are still out there.

We can hope that the headless beast has been throttled, at least until Biden is safely sworn in, but there are millions of angry people among us who have been lied to and misled. Many of them are like Tom. We must defang their leaders and find a way to reach them.

Biden says he’ll counter the lies with which they were indoctrinated with love and understanding, and I believe him. But he can’t do it alone. It’s up to all of us.

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Confronting White Supremacy

Alan Zendell, January 13, 2021

Like most Americans, I used to associate stories about White Supremacists preparing to overthrow our government with folk lore. On January 6th, America got a taste of what they are willing to do to achieve their ends. They are brash and aggressive, and possessed of a dangerously twisted view of reality; and they have been allowed to grow unchecked for decades.

If you discovered that the place you lived was infested with deadly snakes, would you (a) ignore them; (b) move somewhere else; or (c) take steps to eradicate them? We face the same choices with the insurrectionist movement in our country. Forget Option (b) – there’s  nowhere to go, even if we wanted to. That leaves two choices. We can do what we’ve done for fifty years – ignore them and hope they go away – or deal with the reality that they are an existential threat.

The assault on the U. S. Capitol on January 6th was the tip of the iceberg. The attackers were a collection of local hate groups from around the country tied together by the Internet. They are armed, believe fervently that America should be ruled exclusively by white males, and subscribe to crazy conspiracy theories concerning everything that opposes their agenda. As they demonstrated at the Capitol, they are capable of causing mayhem, death, and destruction, and they seem to have no fear of repercussions. But a greater threat comes from large encampments of right-wing armies who live under the radar.

Most people who read that will scoff. That’s just a fairy tale to scare children with on dark stormy nights – but it’s not. Ask anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest. The liberal progressivism for which Washington and Oregon are known is balanced by the existence of survivalist armies that have lived in an uneasy truce with law enforcement for decades. The authorities, from police to national guard to the military have used a strategy of containment with them, choosing to avoid direct conflict because it might result in a bloodbath. The government’s position is: if you stay within your own boundaries and don’t bother the rest of us, we’ll leave you alone. If you come out of your lairs and make trouble…presumably that would change.

These groups have their roots in the Vietnam War. Thousands of soldiers came home suffering from PTSD and other serious emotional and psychological disorders, including drug addiction. But our government chose to sweep them under the rug rather than provide support to veterans’ organizations to treat them. The neglect fed their isolation which grew into an intense hatred of the government fueled by paranoia. They raided armories and lived off the land, leaving no electronic footprint to be tracked.

David Brin’s 1985 novel, The Postman, shined a light on the survivalist army living in the Siskiyou Mountains on the California-Oregon border. He imagined an apocalyptic future after a limited nuclear war in which Oregon is completely overrun by fascist survivalists. The movie version pulled out their big guns recruiting Kevin Costner to vanquish them – if only it were that simple.

Neal Stephenson’s 2011 novel, Reamde, dealt with a similar community in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana. Though he characterized them tongue-in-cheek as heroes, he left no doubt about how dangerous they are.

I might not have believed him except for an experience my wife and I had in 1982. Staying at a remote lake in the Idaho panhandle, we were warned never to venture across it. Why? “Because if you pass the midpoint buoy the people on the other side will shoot at you.”

Driving there, I had encountered a sign on a state highway that read, “End of State Maintenance.” Curious and hungry, I stopped in the adjacent general store and asked what the sign meant. The storekeeper answered in a tone that said another naïve tourist who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble. He said if I traveled beyond that point I was on my own. If I encountered problems, I shouldn’t expect aid from anyone – police, firefighters – they never entered that part of the panhandle because of the neo-Nazis encamped up there.

After all that, part of me was still unbelieving until a 1984 news report. Denver attorney and radio host, Alan Berg, regularly talked about the Idaho group on a clear channel radio station. Four White Supremacists who listened to Berg’s broadcasts traveled to Denver and murdered him. That was serious enough for State Police reinforced by the National Guard to enter the camps and arrest them. All four went to federal prison.

I’ve been a believer ever since. When, responding to Trump’s exhortations to overthrow their Governors last April, armed extremists occupied the capital in Michigan and terrorized the Governor of Kentucky and his family, most Americans felt a brief chill before promptly forgetting about it. After January 6th, no one will forget again.

That is Trump’s legacy. We have no choice but to confront it by every available means.

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To Impeach Again…Or Not

Alan Zendell, January 12, 2021

If Vice President Pence and the Cabinet do not invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, a second impeachment by the House of Representatives is a virtual certainty. The political momentum to prematurely end his term is like a locomotive going downhill without brakes. Even so, it’s worth looking at the pros and cons.

Representative Jim Jordan (R, OH) put on his professional persona today to make a reasonable sounding argument that another impeachment would prevent healing and divide the country further. That might be convincing if it weren’t hypocritical in the extreme. Jordan has been one of Trump’s principal enablers, as responsible as anyone for creating the divisions he now pretends to lament. Jordan supported Trump’s lies and baseless conspiracy theories right to the end. After the Capital was cleared of terrorists on January 6th, and the House went back to certifying the Electoral Vote victory for Joe Biden, after all the mayhem and the death of five people including a U. S. Capitol Police Officer, with the nation reeling from the President’s incendiary rhetoric that sparked the insurrection, Jordan still voted to challenge the election.

A more compelling argument against impeachment comes from Democrats who are concerned about distracting the incoming Biden administration from hitting the ground running. The urgent need for a vaccine distribution plan, re-legislation of Obamacare to assure that Americans have access to health care, and reversal of the most damaging of Trump’s Executive Actions all require immediate action. The argument is also made that another impeachment will significantly reduce the chance of bipartisan action.

Both arguments pale before the risk to national security of Trump staying in power and the moral necessity to hold him accountable for the worst crime ever committed by an American president. Yet, Missouri Senator Roy Blunt warned that a second impeachment would only result in more violence. Really, Roy? With right wing groups threatening violence and vowing to die rather than allow Biden and the Democrats to govern, it’s hard to imagine how that situation could be worse. Blunt and others with his mind set have cynically brought the country to the brink of armed insurrection for no purpose other than to hold on to power. It was politics at its irresponsible worst, and now that it’s all hit the fan, they’re trying to convince Americans that it’s someone else’s fault.

There are two clear truths here. One is that the next ten days could explode into violence that leaves hundreds, possibly thousands dead. And the carnage will be seen all over the world, live as it’s happening. We’ll survive, because the terrorists who call themselves patriots have no chance of winning. The question is whether we can recover from defeating them. The respect for our country internationally will never be the same again, and the scars of such an outcome might take as long to heal as the aftermath of the Civil War.

There are three important reasons to move forward with impeachment. One is that Trump could put a stop to all this by simply telling his supporters to cease and desist. He doesn’t have to admit to his lies or his role in the assault on the Capitol. He simply has to tell them to stay home and respect the Constitution. He has had as many opportunities to do that as there are hours since the insurrection occurred. This morning, when he finally spoke to the media, it was to claim that he had no responsibility for what the terrorist mob did, and his inciting of the mob, abetted by Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and his son, Don Junior, were appropriate expressions of free speech.

The mobs subsist on a diet of Trump Kool-Aid. Only he can speak to them about drawing down, but he won’t. Instead, he continues to throw roadblocks in the path of the Biden administration. Today, he dumped the government’s complete inventory of COVID vaccines on the states, with no plan for getting people vaccinated, knowing that many do not have the capacity to safely store it. That was after he added Cuba to list of states that support terrorism, something he could have done at any time in that last four years.

The second reason we need to proceed with impeachment is that if convicted, Trump will never be able to run for federal office again. But the most compelling reason to impeach him now is it will force every Republican in Congress to cast a vote. Everyone will see who was culpable in this mess, and who is still unwilling to turn the page on Trumpism. As information emerges that at least three Republican members of Congress aided the terrorists and fed them critical information, we all need to know whom we can trust to lead us in the future.

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The Coming Reckoning

Alan Zendell, January 11, 2021

There will be a reckoning for the Capitol insurrection. It’s not a question of “if” but “when.” And the when is critical right now, as right-wing militant groups enabled and incited by the president and his supporters continue to threaten further violence in Washington and at statehouses around the country. That makes “immediately” the only possible answer to when.

If there was ever a time to act with urgency and dispatch, that time is now. Strong public examples must be made of those who were responsible, whether they took part in murdering a police officer, breaking windows, or standing safely on a raised platform with a microphone inciting the crowd. We need to hear from the FBI and the Justice Department, and if it turns out that Trump has sabotaged his own DOJ to the point where they are impotent, then Merrick Garland, President-Elect Biden’s nominee for Attorney General should speak out. In normal times that would breach protocol, but Trump has trashed every notion of protocol and decorum. We need to hear, right now, that federal prosecutors will be instructed to press for maximum sentences that will put those responsible away for a long time.

We also need to hear from Congress. Their message must be bipartisan and it must be one of zero tolerance with respect to its own members. No half measures like censure or finger pointing. A good start would be the expulsion of the worst offender from each Branch: Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. This can be done quickly and painlessly. Nothing less than a call for unanimous consent will do.

There also needs to be an accounting of how many members of Congress played an active role in inciting the insurrection. Many of the 147 Republicans in the Congress who objected to certifying the Electoral Vote count were simply cowards, allowing themselves to be bullied by fears that Trump’s base would punish them at the polls. But some went further. Some helped stoke the most radical and dangerous people in that base on Twitter, Facebook, and the more dangerous fringe sites. Some helped rile the crowd that invaded the Capitol, and a few even marched with them. They all need to face public humiliation and censure; the worst of them have no business remaining in Congress and should face prosecution as co-conspirators.

There are many legal precedents that hold anyone committing a crime responsible for all the consequences of their actions. A burglar who breaks into someone’s home, unarmed, with no intent to injure or kill, can be charged with homicide if the victim suffers a heart attack and dies as a result of the crime. Likewise, former prosecutors and justice officials are lining up to state that anyone involved in the conspiracy to commit insurrection should be charged in the deaths that resulted as well as attempting a coup and destroying public property. That means everyone from Donald Trump on down who can be shown to have played a role in what we saw on January 6th, including Donald Trump Jr. and Rudolph Giuliani. And we should take a hard look at the actions of Senator Ted Cruz and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Only fast, dramatic action has a chance of limiting further violence. The anarchists and criminals who want to bring down the government and destroy our republic may not be deterred, but the thousands of hangers on and joy riders who were there just to enjoy the thrill of lawlessness and the false sense of empowerment will realize their errors. If they know they will lose their livelihoods, and in many cases, their freedom; if they know they will face humiliation and ostracism in front of their friends and family; if we make that clear to them, so that even the dimmest among them can understand, it won’t seem like fun anymore, and they’ll stay home next time.

Finally, as the number of Americans dead from COVID streaks toward 400,000 and beyond, it’s also time to investigate the vaccine distribution debacle. It was largely a result of incompetence and criminal neglect, but Americans deserve full transparency on decisions that were made by Trump political operatives. Thousands of Americans die every day because of those decisions. From the moment the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved, anyone who died because he couldn’t get vaccinated in time will have died because of them. Actions have consequences, and it’s time those responsible were held accountable.

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