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Presidential History

All articles with the "Presidential History" tag.

Published: Wed, 25 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2018 18:51:00 -0400


'Worse Than Watergate' Is Worse Than Watergate

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 11:30:00 -0500

"This is worse than Watergate," Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning claimed in a column yesterday. He was referring to the news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had failed to retain five months' worth of text messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok (who was bounced from Robert Mueller's Special Counsel investigative team last summer for sending anti-Trump text messages) and his FBI girlfriend Lisa Page. "It is clear," Manning said, "that the American people need to know what was done by the Obama FBI and Justice Department to attempt to interfere with the 2016 election and the peaceful transfer of power." If slipshod data retention of a high-ranking federal investigator's phone messages doesn't strike you as a weird comparison to a president of the United States likely ordering the destruction of key evidence in an investigation into his own crimes, that may be because you have long grown numb to the phrase "worse than Watergate." It was the title of a 2004 book (about George W. Bush) by former Richard Nixon attorney general White House counsel John Dean, and it has for decades been the designated damnation for everything from the Iran/Contra Affair to the Affordable Care Act. As I wrote on this website more than a dozen years ago, "The potency of the very word [Watergate] helps explain...why we're always searching for someone worse than Nixon, and affixing the suffix 'gate' to every half-assed Washington scandal or minor-league journalistic triumph." Projection, and minimization, are often involved—by many accounts the most enthusiastic and influential "gate"-abuser was Richard Nixon's own official counter-puncher in Washington's early-'70s propaganda wars, William Safire. Rick Manning is hardly alone in deploying the "worse than Watergate" phrase to describe Justice Department actions concerning President Trump: In recent days we've also heard from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Sean Hannity ("far worse"), Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr ("way worse"), Herman Cain, and so on. This being contemporary American politics, there's a large camp of people staring at the exact same investigation and using the exact same phrase to decorate the exact opposite conclusion. Venerated Atlantic journalist James Fallows last May authored a piece titled "Five Reasons the Comey Affair Is Worse Than Watergate." Disgraced (though not disgraced enough) former director of national intelligence James Clapper last June told reporters that "Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we're confronting now." Others in the anti-Trump WTW camp include former George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, veteran political journalist Elizabeth Drew, and (as ever) John Dean. Could either side be right? If their darkest scenarios turn out to be true, sure. Say that Donald Trump had knowledge or suspicion that Vladimir Putin had kompromat about some of Trump's sex-related activities, and that the Trump empire was leveraged to the eyeballs with dodgy Russian finance, and that these factors contributed to Trump bringing on C-level Kremlin bootlickers like Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, through which further ties were forged, including the sharing and dissemination of illegally obtained Hillary Clinton campaign emails, and perhaps some coordination involving Trump's state-targeting strategy and Russia-bot fake-news activities, and that everyone involved in these schemes (including Trump himself) serially lied about such collusion (including to federal investigators under oath), and then after all that engaged in a series of questionable actions design to thwart and even shut down investigation into all of it—then yes, such a compounding conspiracy and the attendant paranoia would look pretty damn Watergate-ish, with the possible worsening sprinkle of colluding with a hostile foreign adversary. Similarly, if what Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) says here is true, whoa: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen"[...]

How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 06:00:00 -0400

Having now endured a more than two-year orgy of adoration for the Broadway hip-hop musical, Hamilton, the public surely deserves a historical corrective. Historian Brion McClanahan's latest work on the Revolutionary period, How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, is being released Monday. Ron Paul, the Libertarian and Republican candidate for president and longtime U.S. Representative from Texas, has written the foreword, which he graciously shared in advance with Reason. The central government has always been the greatest threat to liberty in America, but most Americans don't understand how modern America became the warfare state. How did the president acquire so much unconstitutional power? How did the federal judiciary become, at times, the most powerful branch of government? How were the states reduced to mere corporations of the general government? Why is every issue, from abortion to bathrooms to crime to education, a "national" problem? The people have very little input into public policy. They vote, they rally, they attend "town hall" meetings, but it does very little to stop the avalanche of federal laws, regulations, and rules that affect every aspect of American life. We have a federal leviathan that can't be tamed, and Americans are angry about it. They want answers. Certainly, the Framers of the Constitution did not design our system this way. They intended the checks and balances between the three branches of government and also between the states and the central government to limit the potential for abuse, but somewhere along the way that changed. Who or what changed the system? It wasn't Barack Obama or George W. Bush. It wasn't even Franklin Roosevelt, his cousin Teddy, or Woodrow Wilson. They certainly helped, but as Brion McClanahan argues in the following pages, the architects of our nationalist nightmare were none other than Alexander Hamilton and a trio of Supreme Court justices: John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Hugo Black. Identifying the source of the problem is essential for correcting it. Hamilton has become one of the more popular figures in America for the Left and the Right, so accusing him of making a mess of the United States is certainly shocking. But it is also accurate. Hamilton's constitutional machinations created the outline for literally every unconstitutional federal act, from executive and judicial overreach to the nationalization of every political issue in the country. He lied to the American public about his true intentions before the Constitution was ratified and then used sly doublespeak to persuade others that so-called "implied powers" were part of the plan from the beginning. We would not have abusive unilateral executive authority in foreign and domestic policy, dangerous central banking, and impotent state governments without Hamilton's guidance. Hamilton is the architect of big government in America. Marshall, Story, and Black certainly acted as co-conspirators. Marshall's landmark decisions could have been written by Hamilton. His reading of the Constitution was at odds with how the document was explained to the state ratifying conventions in 1788. Marshall's interpretation would have led the people to reject the document. His belief in federal judicial supremacy and unchecked national authority has been the keystone to every subsequent outrageous federal ruling, from Roe v. Wade to NIFB v. Sebelius. Marshall is the reason the Supreme Court now takes center stage in every political debate in America, but he did not accomplish this alone. Marshall's protégé and right hand man Joseph Story codified Marshall's vision for federal judicial supremacy as a popular legal scholar and law professor. Even today, law students across the country are taught Story's version of federal power. Story's message is simple: the federal government is supreme (even if it isn't), the state governments are subservient to the central authority, and the federal court system is the final arbiter in all constitutional questions. When these law students become lawye[...]

Don't Rush to Impeachment

Mon, 22 May 2017 00:01:00 -0400

To everything there is a season, the Bible and Pete Seeger told us. The season to impeach Donald Trump may come, or it may not. Trying to do it now would be like harvesting sweet corn before it's ripe, yielding something stunted and indigestible. Plenty of critics don't want to wait. "We're fiddling while Rome is burning," insists Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, agrees. "The mantra should be ITN—impeach Trump now," he says. The liberal activist group insists that the president "must be impeached immediately." J.B. Pritzker, a Democratic candidate for governor of Illinois, said, "We simply do not have the luxury of time to wait for months or years." Anyone infuriated and exhausted by the chaos of the Trump administration can be forgiven for wishing it would end as soon as possible. But as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., noted the other day, a lot of Democrats "wanted the president gone on November the 10th of last year." They don't want to miss a chance to be rid of Trump. Forcing a president from office is among the gravest tasks members of Congress can undertake, and they should refrain unless he gives them no choice. To attempt it with so many questions yet unanswered would look like partisan revenge—not just against Trump but against the people who voted for him. Presidential impeachment is a club that has been taken out of the closet only three times—for Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Johnson and Clinton fought in the Senate and survived. Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment and removal. It's a last resort, and anyone who sees it as a first resort is not to be trusted. Given that we have a president who campaigned as though he didn't want to win and governs as though he doesn't want to serve, the eagerness to evict is hardly surprising. No president has done so much so soon or so often to indicate he won't carry out his duties in a responsible and honest way. Trump gives the impression he is hellbent on self-destruction and won't rest until he achieves it. But that's no reason for Congress to rush. Too much is still unknown about his campaign's connections with Russia and his conversations with James Comey concerning the FBI's investigation of those ties. The independent counsel named on Wednesday will need months to gather evidence, interview witnesses and draw conclusions. Only then will the House have enough information to decide whether to take such a momentous and weighty step. The framers of the Constitution were careful to limit the applicability of this drastic remedy. In considering what sort of conduct to cover, they rejected the terms "malpractice" and "maladministration" in favor of the narrower "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." That formula was the work of James Madison, who didn't want the president to serve at the "pleasure of the Senate." Impeachment is not a task for the impatient. More than two years passed after the Watergate break-in before the House Judiciary Committee voted against Nixon. The special prosecutor's investigation of Clinton began in January 1994, and the Monica Lewinsky affair came to light in January 1998. Not until December of that year did the House approve articles of impeachment. Madison and company didn't want to make impeachment easy. They wanted to make it hard, and they succeeded. Even if a majority could be assembled in the House to bring Trump to the bar of congressional justice, persuading 67 senators to convict would be a heavy lift, absent compelling proof of grave misconduct. After everything that came to light against Clinton, and with Republicans in control of the Senate, only 50 senators voted to find him guilty. It's crucial for impeachment to reflect more than a campaign against a president by the opposition party. Effectively overturning the result of a democratic election demands a national consensus that the president is guilty of serious offenses. Abusing his powers, behaving corruptly or violating his oath of office [...]

How To Impeach the President (Or Not)

Thu, 18 May 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Want to get rid of the president?

There are two ways, basically.

First, find an impeachable offense. According to the Constitution an impeachable offense: treason, bribery, or "Other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." What counts for that last part? Nobody knows. Some people say it means bad things only people in high office can do—like misusing public assets, dereliction of duty, or having sex and then lying about it. Others say it's any crime or misdemeanor at all, even if it has nothing to do with a president's position or power. Did you steal a pen from work? Petty theft is a misdemeanor. You should no longer be president.

Once you get an impeachable offense, get a majority of House members to vote in favor of the motion and then go to trial in the Senate, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding. After the highest-rated programming in C-SPAN history, the senators vote. If 67 senators find the president guilty, he's gone.

There is another way, however, without all that messy legal stuff.

The vice president and a majority of the cabinet can invoke the 25th amendment and present a written declaration to Congress that the president is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." So what does that mean? In the past it's been used for things like, "Hey, I'm getting a colonoscopy, can you cover for me for ,a few hours?" but now some people want it to mean "I just think this guy is an asshat." Regardless of the rationale, once those articles are invoked, the magic wand is waved and the president is immediately stripped of power. No trial, no witnesses, no evidence, no votes, just gone.

Of course, the president is going to say, "Hey, I'm totally fit for office, get out of my chair." But if the vice president won't budge, then it goes back to Congress, which will have three weeks to decide who gets to run things. This time though, you need two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House. Or maybe it's two-thirds of the total number of members of both the Senate and the House. Nobody really knows because it's never happened before and it'll probably end up going to the Supreme Court anyway.

Anyhoo, if enough of them agree that the president is an asshat or whatever, the vice president stays put and the president is never heard from again. Or, more likely, the former president goes on twitter and says this was an extra-judicial coup by Washington insiders and starts a new civil war. Only this time with bigger guns and planes and bombs and stuff.

So maybe we shouldn't decide to get rid of presidents just because we hate them and then afterwards figure out how to pretend it's the law.

About 2 minutes. Written and produced by Austin Bragg.

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All This Impeachment Talk Is Pure Trump Derangement Syndrome

Wed, 17 May 2017 17:00:00 -0400

Well this didn't take long, did it? Donald Trump, the most-unlikely and least-liked president in the history of the United States, had barely celebrated his first 100 days when calls for his impeachment started flying faster than Anthony Weiner dick pics at a Girl Scout cookout. For the good of democracy, don't you see, the Republicans must not only be kicked to the curb in the 2018 midterms, but the president himself must be thrown into the street, just like he once tried to evict that old lady from her house in Atlantic City! In the wake of the firing of FBI Director James Comey, whose recent testimony on Hillary Clinton's emails was so flawed and incompetent that his underlings immediately issued a clarification to the Senate Judiciary Committee, virtually every non-Republican #NeverTrumper (plus Sen. John McCain, who has some good reasons to hate Trump) has called for The Donald's head on a platter. And this was all before the tantalizing possibility of a "Comey memo" detailing various attempts by Trump to shut down an investigation of possible ties between former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Russian operatives. But let's get real: At this point in the game, all the explainers about how impeachment works (the 1990s called, they want their sex scandals back!) and adapting the 25th Amendment's ability to remove the president from decision-making during colonoscopies to the current crisis are evidence-free exercises in ideological masturbation. If we are going to survive not just the Trump years but eventually get around to kick-starting the 21st century, we're going to have become smarter media consumers and demand more from both our politicians and the press. "The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo," explains the Paper of Record, "but one of Mr. Comey's associates read parts of it to a Times reporter." As Reason's Scott Shackford has noted, that's what Joe Biden would call a "big fucking deal" if it turns out to exist and to be accurate. It's also a pretty big if at this point. But even before Comey's possible "paper trail" documenting President Trump's demands (which may or may not actually rise to the level of impeachable offense) came to light, his enemies were out in force. For god's sake, they wanted him impeached even before he was the Republican nominee. "An attempt to obstruct justice is an impeachable offense," huffed Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine last week. "And Trump has just openly admitted to such a thing" because "sources close to Comey" said the president-elect asked the FBI director for his "personal loyalty." What unemotional analysis. Remember that a year ago, Sullivan called the possibility of a Trump presidency an "extinction-level threat" to mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Elsewhere in New York, Jonathan Chait, who is as doggedly a Democratic partisan that exists in print, put out an article under the headline, "The Law Can't Stop Trump. Only Impeachment Can." Trump's high crime for Chait was the completely opaque charge that Trump shared classified intel with Russian officials visiting the White House, a charge flatly rebutted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who said the shared info was "wholly appropriate" and that "the president in no way compromised any sources or methods." For Chait though, and so many more either openly in "the Resistance" or just fellow-traveling, the real problem is that America never anticipated peckerwoods being in the Oval Office. "The system is set up with the unstated presumption that the president is a responsible person who will act in a broadly legitimate, competent fashion," writes Chait. "The system is designed so that the only remedy for a president who cannot faithfully act in the public interest is impeachment." Forget all that Madisonian mumbo-jumbo about "if men were angels, no government would be necessary." A real-estate developer from Queens with history's worst comb-over is about to bring the Statue of [...]

Will the Trump Fiasco Deprogram Presidential Cultists?

Tue, 16 May 2017 00:01:00 -0400

Has Donald Trump been sent among us to demonstrate the foolishness of placing cult-like faith in the presidency? I don't mean "sent" in the literal sense, of course. Maybe it's more like he slipped and fell among us, tumbling backwards down the escalator of history, to land on the presidency just in time to squish the hopes of a political also-ran who thought the office was hers. Let's review just last week's parade of horribles (because this week's tales of poor judgment are coming too fast to keep up). There was the clumsy firing of James Comey, which managed to convert an FBI director about whom almost everybody harbored doubts into a martyr. He also left us to wonder whether it's worse that he thinks he originated the phrase, "prime the pump," or that he believes the Keynesian nostrum is a good idea. Then the White House apparently got pwned by a photographer for Russian state media, predictably feeding into the ongoing questions about the president's relationship with that country. The overall impression was certainly not that of "a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise," as Gene Healy of the Cato Institute described Americans' vision for the nation's chief executive in an article published nine years ago in Reason and even more relevant today. Then again, Healy wasn't writing that Americans should view the presidency in that light—only that they've done so, to the detriment of the republic. Healy, who elaborated on his warnings in the 2008 book, The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, cautioned that Americans have piled impossible expectations on the office of the presidency, and increased its power to near-monarchical levels to match—but that authority is still unequal to the demands people place on the office. "What makes presidents—usually aging, and not always physically fit, men—good models for action toys?" Vanderbilt University's Dana D. Nelson asked in Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, published the same year as Healy's book. Pointing to the bizarre spectacle of presidents packaged as action figures and comic book characters like superheroes, she worried that Americans see the president "simultaneously as democracy's heart (he will unify the citizenry) and its avenging sword (he will protect us from all external threats." Continuously granting the presidency authority to match such unrealistic perceptions, too many people attribute abuses to specific officeholders without recognizing that the problem is now the office itself. The office itself is the problem, that is, because as each president inevitably fails to live up to empty promises to, say, micromanage the vast economy, eradicate international terrorism, reform failed states into functioning democracies, and design health systems that deliver top-notch care at low cost, he insists on more power to get the job done. But that accumulating power is never equal to the demands placed on the flawed humans who spend so much time and energy pursuing an opportunity to disappoint the country. And Donald Trump does seem to be disappointing much of the country, with a job approval rating hovering at just above 40 percent, including eroding support among his base. His missteps are the source material for many yuks at the president's expense—and rightfully so. Making powerful officials the butt of jokes is the healthiest treatment we can give them. How could we not laugh? The current occupant of the White House seems deliberately cast to provide comedians with endless material. Trump: Making Saturday Night Live funny again! But while Trump's flaws are readily apparent—he practically rubs them in our faces—his inability to live up to expectations isn't unique, it's just more obvious than that of his predecessors. Did he make a hash of health care refo[...]

What's the Deal With Presidential Foreign Policy Doctrines Anyway?

Tue, 02 May 2017 07:00:00 -0400

We have been hearing a lot about the Trump Doctrine, lately. A week ago, for example, Reince Priebus, the White House Chief of Staff, said that "President Trump's decision to launch cruise missiles at Syria in response to a deadly chemical attack was part of a new 'Trump doctrine' governing his foreign policy." The president, Priebus continued, "is really establishing… a Trump doctrine in setting some certain lines of where we're not going to allow people like [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to go, but at the same time making it clear that we're not interested in long-term ground wars in the Middle East." Whether Trump's foreign policy views amount to a coherent doctrine is doubtful. Let's not forget that candidate Trump railed against bombing of Syria when President Obama occupied the Oval Office. Similarly, Trump promised to declare China to be a currency manipulator on "day one" of his presidency, only to reverse himself later. Other flip-flops include Trump's attitude to Russia. The president, famously, wanted a good relationship with Putin, but soured on the Russian strongman following the U.S. bombing of Syria—Russia's ally. He also changed his view on the relevance and utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which he once saw as "obsolete," but now considers a "bulwark of international peace." Of broader relevance, I think, is the existence of presidential doctrines in the first place. Since the Truman Doctrine at the start of the Cold War, America's foreign policy establishment, not to mention the rest of the world, awaits with bated breath the permutations of U.S. foreign policy each time America swears in a new Commander in Chief. Will the United States "pay any price, bear any burden… to assure the survival and the success of liberty" (Kennedy Doctrine) or will it "look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense" (Nixon Doctrine)? Will America live with communism (détente) or roll it back (Reagan Doctrine)? Are we a country of regime-changers and nation-builders (Bush Doctrine) or do we avoid doing "stupid shit" (Obama Doctrine). One never really knows what the new guy will do, but we assume that it will be different from what the previous guy did. This is a weird way to conduct foreign policy. Nations, typically, don't have "doctrines." They have national interests. The British national interest, sticking close to America and preventing Europe from being dominated by a single power, does not change depending on the monarch or the prime minister. The French national interest (to annoy the Americans, even if it means cozying up to Russia) does not change whether Francois Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac walks the corridors of the Élysée Palace. And the Russians will stop at nothing to keep their access to the Black Sea (Crimea) and the Mediterranean (Syria). One possible way of explaining the changing priorities of U.S. foreign policy is that America is actually relatively secure. It dominates the Western Hemisphere, where it has no competitor, and is separated from most of the world's major hot spots by two vast oceans. Our foreign policy, in other words, is dominated less by our vital national interests and more by the whims our ruling class. Murder of "beautiful babies," which motivated Trump's bombing in Syria, was an act of inhumanity. But going after Assad, who is fighting a war against the Islamic State savages, did not further American national interests in any meaningful way. Our presidential doctrines, in other words, paper over the fact that America, unlike any other state in modern history, enjoys extraordinary latitude when choosing how to interact with the rest of the world. That is our blessing and our curse.[...]

What Washington's Farewell Address Tells Us About Trump's America (Reason Podcast)

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 10:00:00 -0400

When George Washington left the White House in 1796 and retired from public life, John Avlon explains, he wrote "this future generations in which he is consciously trying to marry the past, the present of 1796, the future, and the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past. The big three forces are hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars." Avlon is the editor in chief of The Daily Beast and the author of Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations, a bold reinterpretation of the most widely read political speech in 19th-century America. For generations, Washington's 6,000-word long final speech was "civic scripture" that presidents and citizens alike used to steer clear of the excesses that might undermine the country. In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie (a Beast columnist), Avlon argues that the country's only independent president created an "eerily prescient" roadmap that might allow 21st-century America to re-center itself when it comes to overseas wars and foreign alliances that serve other nations' interests above our own, ruinous debt created by entitlement spending, and moderate the excesses of vitriol that has led to a "deadlocked democracy." He also discusses his time as chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and why The Daily Beast continues to gain traffic even as many legacy media outlets see shrinking audiences. Produced by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: John, thanks for talking to us. John Avlon: Hey, Nick. Sure. Nick Gillespie: I want to get right to it. You talked in the book about Washington's Farewell Address which is more kind of known in the abstract in the present. I want to hear you talk about why it's important that we read the whole 6,000 word bit today, but you talk about how Washington used his farewell address to proclaim first principles that could offer enduring solutions. The pursuit of peace through strength, the wisdom of moderation, the importance of virtue and education to a self-governing people, as he established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power. I guess my first question is, how did Washington know what was going to happen in 2016? John Avlon: I'm not sure his crystal ball was that good, but John Adams famously said that there hasn't yet been a democracy that didn't die by suicide. Every attempt at a democratic republic had ended into failure and what I don't think we adequately appreciate today is that the Founding Fathers were very consciously drawing on history, an understanding of how democratic republics had failed in the past in an attempt to solve for some of those problems. They did not have perfect crystal balls. They couldn't have imagined necessarily America in 2017 of course, but they were trying to tap into deeper truths, eternal principles. That's why what's so fascinating about the farewell, it's this memo from the first Founding Father to future generations in which he is consciously trying to marry the past, the present of 1796, and the future, and the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past are eerily prescient. The big three forces are hyperpartisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars. We in America are a relatively young country still, but we do not exist on a plain larger than hi[...]

The Paranoid Presidency

Tue, 28 Feb 2017 09:50:00 -0500

(image) Donald Trump is famously prone to conspiracy theories, but that in itself isn't unusual in the executive branch. "Indeed, there's a long history of presidents and their inner circles obsessing about malevolent cabals. What's different about Trump isn't the fact that he talks about dubious conspiracies. It's the way he talks about them."

Who am I quoting there? Why, I'm quoting myself! Yep, this is one of those Hit & Run posts where we promote a piece we published elsewhere. In this case, The New Republic asked me to write something about presidential paranoia, and I obliged with a story that hops from John Quincy Adams' obsession with Masonic plots to Richard Nixon stewing about the Jews to Donald Trump's dark speculations about the death of Antonin Scalia. What makes Trump stand out, I argue, isn't the content of his theories so much as the fact that he spouts them without regard for elite mores:

Conspiracy theories tend to be disreputable. Indeed, in most circles of respectable opinion, the very phrase conspiracy theory is used as a pejorative. So when high-level officials embrace a position considered to be taboo, they often prefer not to talk about it. John Kerry has long rejected the official story about JFK's assassination, but when Meet the Press brought up the subject in 2013, the secretary of state clammed up. "I just have a point of view," Kerry demurred. "And I'm not going to get into that."

Our new president, to the delight of his supporters, presents himself as a man unshackled by such mores of polite society. Richard Nixon may have been prone to seeing plots everywhere, but it's hard to imagine him publicly promoting a transparently phony theory tying Rafael Cruz to Lee Harvey Oswald; it's harder still to picture him backing up his claims by citing the National Enquirer. For Trump, neither the story nor the source is something to be ashamed of.

There's a strong chance, of course, that Trump doesn't actually believe the Enquirer story, and that he only brought it up because Ted Cruz happened to be his chief political foe that day. That's where his cynicism comes in. Trump doesn't just spout unsubstantiated accusations; he often drops them as quickly as he brings them up, as though it never really mattered if they were true.

The full article is here. My book on conspiracy theories is here. And the last article I wrote for The New Republic is here. It's from March of 1998, so my appearances there, like the ancient Greek calendar, appear to be based on a 19-year cycle.

How Trump Affects the Presidential Rankings

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Any president can change the future. Donald Trump stands out for his ability to change the past, without even trying. He's already altered perceptions of what happened in America decades and centuries ago. We know that because of a new survey of presidential historians conducted by C-SPAN, asking them to rank presidents on various attributes and overall performance. The latest scorecard, which included responses from 91 historians, is similar in most respects to those compiled in C-SPAN's first two, in 2000 and 2009. But it holds some surprises that suggest that things look different with Trump in the picture. Some things are fixed. The greatest president is Abraham Lincoln, who has finished first in each poll. Coming in second, for the second straight time, is George Washington. Franklin Roosevelt is third, just ahead of cousin Theodore. The worst, three times running, is James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln and whose indulgence of pro-slavery forces is blamed for helping to bring on the Civil War. Second-to-last each time has been Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln and was the first president to be impeached (though he was not convicted). This is the first poll to include Barack Obama, who came out ahead of his most recent predecessors. Obama is ranked No. 12, three spots below Ronald Reagan but ahead of George W. Bush (33), Bill Clinton (15) and George H.W. Bush (20). Obama is one of the lowest-rated presidents in terms of relations with Congress—worse, somehow, than William Henry Harrison, who died a month after taking office—and got mediocre marks on foreign relations, but he scored high on pursuing equal justice for all. The biggest improvement was registered by Dwight Eisenhower, ranked ninth in 2000 and eighth in 2009. He landed at fifth, jumping over John Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman, who were ahead of him the last time around. The biggest decline was that of Andrew Jackson, who slid from 13th in 2000 and 2009 to 18th. Richard Norton Smith, a presidential biographer and member of C-SPAN's advisory team, suggests that the changing fortunes of Eisenhower and Jackson are both partly the product of a "Trump effect." Eisenhower, Smith told me, benefits from being "the anti-Trump—massively competent, self-effacing, moderate." He had been supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II, and despite his Army background—or because of it—he warned, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations." Eight years of comparative peace and prosperity made his administration a stark contrast to those of Obama and George W. Bush, which featured endless war and a deep recession. The disappearance of centrism in the Republican Party doubtless elicits a nostalgia for Ike, who triumphed over Joseph McCarthy and others on the far right. Jackson, Smith suspects, has declined in public estimation as his slave ownership and brutal policies toward Native Americans have acquired new significance. It probably doesn't help that Trump's approach to foreign relations has been described as "Jacksonian" for its pugnacity, unilateralism and contempt for human rights considerations. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, Jackson inspired a Broadway musical (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) that never found an audience. Nothing about Trump, however, affects the standing of the highest-ranked presidents. Why not? Because he only highlights their well-known virtues. Lincoln is revered for his humanity, his unflagging resolve and his capacity for profound thought and eloquent word. Washington was a master of dignity and statesmanship. Franklin Roosevelt had a capacity to inspire and unite Americans during the worst of times. They have as much in common with Trump as they do with[...]

Songs of the Presidents

Mon, 20 Feb 2017 09:40:00 -0500

Usually we mark Presidents' Day here with some sort of quiz or game, but this year I thought I'd play DJ instead. Below you'll find some songs about our nation's chief execs, from Washington to Trump. Needless to say, this just scratches the surface of all the presidentially themed music out there; you are encouraged to recommend more tracks in the comments. George Washington Cox and Combes, "Washington" Not safe for work. Possibly not historically accurate in every respect either. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Abraham Lincoln Camper Van Beethoven, "(I Don't Wanna Go to the) Lincoln Shrine" An ode to a boring field trip. src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Franklin Pierce The Two Man Gentlemen Band, "Franklin Pierce" The saddest song on the list, but only if you listen to the words. The same duo did a ditty about Taft too. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> James Garfield Johnny Cash, "Mr. Garfield" An assassination ballad. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> William McKinley Bill Monroe, "White House Blues" Another assassination ballad. Vassar Clements later revamped it for the presidents of the 1970s; to hear that version, go here and jump to the 5:00 mark. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> John F. Kennedy Steinski & the Mass Media, "The Motorcade Sped On" Yet another assassination. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Richard Nixon Margo Guryan, "The Hum" From Dallas to Watergate. This was the first of Guryan's trilogy of songs inspired by the Nixon scandals; you can hear her whole trio here. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Gerald Ford James Brown, "Funky President" The lyrics defy interpretation, but Brown insists that the song's about Ford. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Jimmy Carter Blue Mountain, "Jimmy Carter" Carter gets the heroic-ballad treatment. Strangely catchy. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Ronald Reagan MDC, "Bye Bye Ronnie" Reagan has gotten the heroic-ballad treatment too—check this out—but the guy inspired something like 60 percent of the punk records of the '80s; it seems wrong to go with any other genre here. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Barack Obama Mariachi Aguilas de Mexico, "Viva Obama!" A bid for the Latino vote. This musical ad from the 2008 Texas primary fascinated me so much that I interviewed an anthropologist about it. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Donald Trump Ice-T featuring Rhyme Syndicate, "My Word Is Bond" I'm wrapping up with this one because of the lyric at the 3:39 mark: "Yo Ice, I did a concert in the White House/And after that me and Donald Trump hung out." This record is from 1989, people. The signs were all there; we just weren't prepared to understand them. src="[...]

Is It Cool To Call the President a Bastard Again?

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 06:10:00 -0500

President Trump is a piece of crap. Former President Obama was a bastard. And Hillary Clinton, who everybody thought was going to be president, is utterly worthless too. Oh, that is so refreshing! For years, we were told that criticizing the occupant of the White House was "rank disrespect," as Jonathan Capehart wrote in the Washington Post. Opposition to the sitting president was very likely motivated by racism, Charles M. Blow mused in The New York Times. "Openly defying and brazenly disrespecting your president, while hoping that he fails, is not called patriotism… It is called treason," insisted one particularly moronic meme by Occupy Democrats. But a few years of experience can have a wonderfully transformative effect on political culture. One election later, and Americans who once insisted that saying mean things about an elected official was unseemly and unforgivable have rediscovered the liberating potential of dissent. Maybe. Even before Donald Trump took office as the 45th president of the United States, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) vowed to pursue his own foreign policy on environmental issues, bypassing the White House. His fellow state officials want to extend that independent spirit to all sorts of policies. "We must be defiant whenever justice, fairness, and righteousness require," State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) told his fellow legislators. Likewise digging in its heels, Boulder, Colorado, declared itself a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants in defiance of federal law and the new president's border-warrior stance. Political leaders in roughly two dozen other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Seattle, have taken the same position in opposition to the new administration. And, where once Hollywood celebrities issued a thoroughly creepy "pledge to serve Barack Obama" when he took office as president, eight additional years of seeing the duties of that office exercised led us to singer Madonna saying she's thought a lot about "blowing up the White House." Madonna made her comments at a massive Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration during which hundreds of thousands of regular Americans promised to resist the new chief executive before he's even had a chance to start rivaling the damage inflicted by his predecessor. It's all such a welcome change. "The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the 'commander in chief' as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes," Gene Healy wrote in the pages of Reason in 2008. Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of the Cult of the Presidency, published during the excesses of the George W. Bush years, warned that Americans place unrealistic expectations on the office of the presidency, and invest messianic faith in their preferred candidates, making it inevitable that White House residents will seize ever-greater power in response. "Relimiting the presidency depends on freeing ourselves from a mind-set one century in the making," he added. Embracing the value of dissent and the right to tell presidents and the government they administer to go to Hell is a necessary part of breaking that mind-set. It clearly states that the dissenters expect not great things of the latest winner of the national popularity contest, but terrible things instead. Dissenters clearly don't want the targets of their defiance to exercise power, let alone to accumulate more. To criticize government officials—and to embrace the right of others to do the same—is to step back from the cult. Well, it is if you do it right. That many of the new resisters who have rediscovered the joy in callin[...]

Could Trump Lose the Way Gore Lost?

Mon, 07 Nov 2016 00:01:00 -0500

New Hampshire is a tiny state with about 1.3 million people. California has eight counties with larger populations than that. But in presidential campaigns, size doesn't matter. Donald Trump and Barack Obama will be in New Hampshire on Monday. The 39 million residents of California can only watch from afar. In most political races, candidates spend the most time where they can reap the most votes. In presidential campaigns, however, they often seem to shun any place where large numbers of ballots are cast. California, Texas and New York are the most populous states. But from the number of candidates they've seen lately, they might as well be Siberia. The reason for this weird pattern is a weird institution—the Electoral College, which is what we actually use to choose presidents. Each state has as many votes as it has members of Congress, and 48 states are winner-take-all. Whoever can amass 270 electoral votes becomes president. This unusual formula has the effect of steering candidates away from large states that have a strong bent toward one party or the other. Lose by one vote or a million votes in most places and you get the same electoral harvest: nothing. No one campaigns in California, despite its 55 electoral votes, because it's a haven for Democrats. No one wastes time in Texas, with 38 electoral votes, because it's almost impossible for Republicans to lose. New Hampshire could go either way. So it's worth fighting over despite the meager reward at stake: four electoral votes. A few big states, such as Florida and Ohio, find themselves swarmed with candidates and carpet-bombed with TV ads every four years because neither party can take them for granted. But in other vote-rich places, it's almost possible to forget there's an election. Worst off of all are low-population states that are reliably red or blue. Democrats turned angrily against the Electoral College in 2000, when they discovered it's possible to win the popular vote and lose the election. They might have seen it coming. Back in the 1980s, Republicans were said to have a lock on the Electoral College because they had a clear advantage in 39 states that accounted for 441 electoral votes. Democrats wondered whether they would ever overcome that handicap. They have. These days, it's Republicans who face a nearly impregnable electoral fortress. The 17 states that have voted for the Democratic nominee in each of the past four presidential elections command 242 electoral votes. The 22 that have gone Republican every time have only 180. That's why you keep hearing about Trump's "narrow path to victory." He has to capture several states that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 to win, including Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and, yes, New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton just has to hold on to one of them to be practically assured of victory. The Electoral College tilt means she could plausibly lose the popular vote and still take the oath of office Jan. 20. Trump couldn't. NPR calculated that in 2012, it was possible to win the presidency with 23 percent of the popular vote. It's a strange mechanism that we accept only because it so rarely affects the outcome. The winner of the popular vote almost always wins the electoral vote. But as President Al Gore can attest, there are glaring exceptions to the rule. The only reason for the lengthy postelection court battle in 2000 over how to count the votes in Florida was the Electoral College. Without it, the hanging chads in Palm Beach County would have been a trivial curiosity—because Gore got nearly 544,000 more votes nationwide than George W. Bush. Traditionalists regard the Electoral College as a sacred creation of the Founding Fathers, whose genius must be respected. But the Framers really had only the d[...]

Meet Mike Pence, Possible Donald Trump Vice President

Tue, 12 Jul 2016 21:03:00 -0400

Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, says the Washington Times, has a "95 percent probability" of being named Donald Trump's vice presidential candidate. So what kind of pol is the 57-year-old Pence, who has a law degree in his back pocket? He served five terms as a congressman from the Hoosier State, where he distinguished himself as a budget-cutter and a hard-core social conservative before succeeding Mitch Daniels as governor of Indiana in a tight election (he won with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2012). He's locked in a tough re-election battle and has to file papers by the end of the week if he wants to be the GOP's vice presidential nominee. He describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." Some highlights—and lowlights—from his public career so far: He served as president of the free-market Indiana Policy Review Foundation and hosted a state-wide TV show in the early 1990s. The IPRF lists its mission as trying to "Exalt the truths of the Declaration of Independence, especially as they apply to the interrelated freedoms of religion, property and speech; Emphasize the primacy of the individual in addressing public concerns; and Recognize that equality of opportunity is sacrificed in pursuit of equality of results." He succeeded the awful Dan Burton as an Indiana congressman in 2001 and became the head of the budget-slashing Republican Study Committee and he supported numerous free-trade deals along with the Iraq War. In 2014, Pence was one of just four governors to earn a grade of A in the Cato Institute's Fiscal Policy Report Card, mostly because he proposed spending increases of less than 2 percent and revenue decreases (tax cuts) of just under 2 percent. In 2015, he expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, though unlike most governors, he held out for something other than a straight-up expansion, claiming he introduced a "market-based" plan that Peter Suderman said was "actually a deal between hospital lobbyists and the [Obama] Administration." He also tried to create a state-operated news organization called Just IN that would have produced "free" news and feature stories for news outlets. From Ballotpedia: "Matthew Tully of the [Indianapolis] Star...criticized the initiative by saying, 'The state's conservative governor is creating his own news agency, one that will seek to compete with the traditional media and be funded by taxpayers. You can't make this stuff up, unless you work at the Onion, I guess.'" Also in 2015, he helped cause a shitstorm over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by simultaneously insisting that the law didn't sanction discrimination but did preserve the rights of businesses to deny service to LGBT customers under various situations. Come on, gov, it's one or the other, noted Jacob Sullum. The law was subsequently revised in a way that struck "the worst possible balance" between individual rights and state action, according to Shikha Dalmia. More recently, in his 2016 State of the State address, he said, "I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the Constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work." That was widely understood to mean that he would not sanction the addition of sexual orientation or identity to antidiscrimination laws, a position in keeping with all his public statements on marriage and sexuality. A key line in that same speech was "Jobs, the economy, schools, roads and confronting drug abuse. These are my priorities." He laid out various spending proposals on such issues and bragged, "Our state has been leaning into the war on drugs and will continue to go hard a[...]

The Preacher and the President: Weekend TV Draws from History, Comic Books

Fri, 20 May 2016 15:00:00 -0400

All the Way. HBO. Saturday, May 21, 8 p.m. Preacher. AMC. Sunday, May 22, 10 p.m. For weeks I have been brooding about the imminent departure of my guiltiest television pleasure, Cinemax's purely bat-guano insane Banshee, a Parents Television Council anchovy-pizza nightmare of mangled organs and Amish nymphomania. (Not a typo.) It's a psycho crime drama that takes place in a tiny but diverse rural Pennsylvania town that is simultaneously home to the Russian Mob, the American Indian Mob, the Amish Mob, a Colombian cocaine cartel, an armed neo-Nazi bund, and a serial-killing Satanist coven. The town's female population is awesomely busty, relentlessly promiscuous and—if FBI agents—surprisingly receptive to the meditative potential of smoking crack. The interactions of these various demographics are lurid, sanguinary, and a serious challenge to theories of spontaneous order. Alas, Banshee's geometrically progressing body count is bringing it to an end this weekend. The good news is I may have found a replacement. AMC's Preacher, a preposterous goulash of drunken vampires, exploding clergymen, and small town psychosexual kink, seems to share the same cheerily bedlamite DNA that made Banshee such a hallucinatory good time. I knew I was in for something special when a laconic church-goer, discussing the suicide of another parishioner, observed: "Cuttin' your own heart out, that's one thing. But doin' it in front of your own mom, that's strange." Preacher is adapted from a book of the same name in the odd DC Comics line of action-theology titles that also produced FX's Lucifer, an aberrantly entertaining cop show in which Satan takes a break from Hell to join the LAPD. Less high-concept and a bit more complicated to sort out, Preacher is set in a sun-blasted little town called Annville, lost in a forgotten corner of the West Texas desert where the favorite whiskey is called Ratwater and the idea of civic participation is lynching Pedro the Prairie Dog, the PC replacement for the high school's Chief Red Savage mascot. Practically everything in Annville is dead or dying, including the tattered All Saints Congregational, recently taken over by a new minister, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper, My Week With Marilyn) with an ecclesiastically dubious past (the townfolk speak, vaguely but ominously, of how he once "did things") and a primitive set of pastoral skills. Approached by one troubled member of his dwindling flock who wants to talk, Jesse demands: "Don't tell me you're here to bitch about the air conditioning." To be fair, the parishioners have not exactly wandered over from Going My Way, either; a son in need of help with an abusive father says he's not interested in counseling: "I want you to hurt him." Custer's languid ministry is about to be disrupted by three forces converging on Annville: A slaughterous ex-girlfriend named Tulip (Ruth Negga, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), whose version of a Hallmark homily is that a woman must cultivate fortitude "so that on the day your love is selfish enough or weak enough or frickin' stupid enough to run away, you have the strength to track him down and eat him alive"; a substance-abusing Irish vampire known as Cassidy (BBC regular Joseph Gilgun), often amiable but given to outbursts inspired by his motto "wrath is love"; and a gang of burly men of uncertain intention but displaying an inauspicious affection for chainsaws. Television these days is littered with comic-book adaptations, from the superheroes dominating The CW's primetime schedule to AMC's own impressive stable of post-apocalyptic zombies. But no s[...]