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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Jeffrey C. Billman

“There are three ways in which we may rule,” said Charles Aycock, then the soon-to-be governor of North Carolina, to his supporters in 1900. “By force, by fraud or by law. We have ruled by force; we can rule by fraud; but we want to rule by law.”

Aycock was rallying his fellow white supremacists not only for his own election, but also to pass a state constitutional amendment that would, in effect, disenfranchise most black voters. By modern standards, this was a startlingly revelatory admission: Whites were willing to govern under the rule of law, Aycock was saying, but only if they could dictate its terms. But they were also willing to use force or fraud to dictate those terms.

Indeed, white supremacists had used recently used force to accomplish that goal, during the November 1898 Wilmington coup, overthrowing a municipal government deemed too friendly to African Americans and murdering at least 60 black men. They used fraud, too: Aycock and the so-called Suffrage Amendment both prevailed that November by a roughly 60–40 spread—according to the unlikely tallies of Democratic clerks.

For the next 70 years, having cheated and bullied their way to absolutely power, white supremacists got to write the laws.

I thought of Aycock’s quote—captured in David Zucchino’s forthcoming book, Wilmington’s Lie—and the sense of entitlement behind it, when I read the letter the White House dispatched to the House of Representatives last week, calling the impeachment proceedings illegitimate and saying the administration wouldn’t participate.

“You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and Constitutionally mandated due process,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone told House leaders on Oct. 8. Since the White House judged the case against Trump “baseless,” the president “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.”

From a legal perspective, Cipollone’s letter is patently absurd. Impeachment is spelled out in the Constitution; it, by definition, cannot be unconstitutional. The administration can’t simply declare the president innocent and therefore ignore congressional subpoenas. As Gregg Nunziata, the former chief counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, put it, the letter was a “barely lawyered temper tantrum” and a “middle finger to Congress.”

It was the latest in a string of them.

That same day, Trump’s Department of Justice was in federal court arguing that the courts had erred four decades ago by allowing Congress to review transcripts of Watergate grand-jury proceedings. The House Judiciary Committee now wants to review Robert Mueller’s grand jury materials, and—for some unfathomable reason—the DOJ is desperate to stop that from happening.

Also that day, the State Department ordered Gordon Sondland—the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and now a key player in the Ukraine scandal, who also owns Provenance Hotels, which includes Palm Springs’ Villa Royale—not to appear for a scheduled congressional deposition. Text messages between Sondland and former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker released by Congress appear to show that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine unless the country indulged Trump’s conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and reopened an investigation into Joe Biden’s son—except for one, in September, in which Sondland assured the head of the embassy in Kiev that he was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions” and that there was “no quid pro quo.”

Sondland was awarded the ambassadorship after giving Trump’s inauguration committee $1 million; his appointment was championed by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to whom he gave $17,900, and his wife gave $57,900, according to Open Secrets.

In addition, Rudy Giuliani announced that he would disregard a House subpoena for documents and dared Congress told hold him in contempt.

It didn’t take long for dominoes to begin falling. Two of Giuliani’s henchmen were arrested boarding one-way flights out of the country, accused of routing hundreds of thousands of Russian dollars into Republican political campaigns in an effort to, among other things, oust the American ambassador to Ukraine—which Trump did. Giuliani himself is said to be under investigation.

Meanwhile, Sondland is testifying over the State Department’s objections, and The Washington Post reported that he plans to say that Trump dictated his “no quid pro quo” message to the Ukrainian embassy. And according to The Wall Street Journal, in August, Sondland had told U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that Ukrainian aid was directly tied to these investigations.

The White House knows the direction in which this is going. The only recourse is to paint the exercise as illegitimate—to assert, as Richard Nixon did, that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”—and to hope the president’s supporters, cheered on by the president’s propaganda machine, choose not to care.

Charles Aycock was a white supremacist, but that’s not the thing that most tightly binds him to Donald Trump. Instead, it’s the authoritarian sense that that the rule of law exists to further their interests and can be ignored when it restrains them.

By force, by fraud or by law.

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I suppose I can’t not write about Sharpie-gate, as much as I’d rather not. After all, of the myriad episodes that have defined the Trump administration’s idiocracy, few have reached this peak of stupidity.

On Saturday, Aug. 31, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the U.S., President Trump warned that it posed a serious risk to Alabama, though forecasters had days earlier said Alabama was out of danger. The next day, after receiving calls from worried residents, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

For reasons best left to a psychologist, Trump refused to let it go. He spent the next week obsessing over it, insisting that he was right and the NWS experts (and the media that covered them) were wrong and fake. By Wednesday, he was in the Oval Office with a hurricane forecast from Aug. 29, altered by a hand-drawn Sharpie to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path. By Friday night—after the storm had left the North Carolina coast, and we were still talking about this—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement “correcting” the NWS tweet from a week earlier and backing the president. (The justification: One model showed a tiny chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a sliver of Alabama.)

By Saturday, Sept. 7, The Washington Post had reported that, the day after Trump’s Alabama flub, the NOAA sent a directive to NWS meteorologists ordering them not to contradict the president, even though he was wrong, and they were right, and part of their job is to correct misinformation. NOAA sent a similar directive after the Sharpie display.

“I have never been so embarrassed,” the head of the NWS union tweeted Friday.

So say we all, pal.

Under different circumstances—say, if he were hosting a reality TV show—the president’s pathetically pathological need to be right and his lackeys’ compulsion to assuage his fragile ego might be amusing. But this is real life, where undermining the credibility of the government’s information during a disaster puts lives at risk.

This is part of a larger problem, of course. On Friday, Sept. 6, Business Insider reported that “aides and confidants are concerned about his mental state after days of erratic behavior and wild outbursts.” According to one former White House official: “His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know, his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he’s losing his shit.”

In the UK, when Trump-lite Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to go around Parliament to facilitate a disastrous no-deal Brexit, defections within his own party blocked him and then prevented him from calling snap elections. Country was more important than party. Here, administration officials have shown no such spine, even on matters as banal as Sharpie-gate. The higher the stakes—and the more unhinged Trump becomes—the more dangerous that gets.

Plenty of ink has been spilled explaining how we got here—how, since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party’s embrace of white racial grievance and the cultivation of authoritarianism in its pursuit of power have destroyed liberal democracy’s guardrails, allowing a pernicious oaf like Trump into the Oval Office. But we shouldn’t overlook the behind-the-scenes roles played by men like Thomas Hofeller, who made the radicalization of the GOP possible.

Hofeller, who died last year, was a Republican redistricting consultant, a number-cruncher who helped gerrymander congressional and legislative districts all over the country, most famously in North Carolina, where his work has been subject to numerous lawsuits. The districts he helped draw in 2011 were struck down as racial gerrymanders. The congressional districts he helped draw to replace them were then struck down as partisan gerrymanders, though earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional.

But last week, a state court struck down the redrawn legislative districts, ruling that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the state Constitution. This followed a lawsuit Common Cause filed in 2018, after North Carolina Democrats won more votes for state House and Senate, but Republicans emerged with strong majorities. Facing a Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers declined an appeal, meaning North Carolina could see its first fair election in a decade next year.

This is where it gets fun: Much to Republicans’ chagrin, Hofeller’s daughter had turned over thousands of his files to Common Cause. On Friday, Sept. 6, The New Yorker reported their contents. As you’d expect, they showed that Hofeller compiled “intensely detailed” data on race, as well as things like whether college students were likely to have the state-required ID to vote. 

He got particularly deep in the weeds at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, the nation’s largest historically black college. Hofeller used dorm-level data to draw congressional districts that literally bisected the campus, ensuring that Greensboro would have two Republican representatives. This, Republicans argued, was about partisan advantage, not race.

The files show that Hofeller was involved in Republican gerrymandering efforts in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas and Florida, and that “he was part of a Republican effort to add a citizenship question to the Census … which Hofeller believed would make it easier to pack Democrats and minorities into fewer districts, giving an advantage to Republicans.” Trump, you’ll recall, championed this cause—even after the Supreme Court turned rejected the question because the administration couldn’t be bothered to hide its political motives.

Hofeller and the Republicans who employed him contorted democracy to their own ends. But by creating ruby-red districts in which Republicans could only lose in primaries, they fostered an incentive structured that pulled the GOP further and further right, the kind of asymmetric polarization that, in short order, gave us a president who draws hurricane projections with a Sharpie and a party that whistles in democracy’s graveyard.

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The maxim that we’re not to speak ill of the dead is generally good advice, though it’s complicated by the death of men like David Koch, the oilman and right-wing financier who died on Aug. 23 at the age of 79.

There’s a ghoulish quality to gloating about the demise of one’s ideological adversaries before the bodies are in the ground—as HBO’s Bill Maher did on his show Friday night—especially at a time when politics has become a factionalized blood sport. And any polemic about David Koch’s decades of funding the far right is likely to draw a two-dimensional caricature of the man, eliding his truly remarkable philanthropy, as well as his forward thinking on immigration and criminal-justice reform—which, truth be told, was well ahead of many modern progressives. (In 1980, for instance, as a vice presidential candidate on the libertarian ticket, Koch supported open borders.)

But any fair analysis of the world David Koch leaves behind can’t help but speak ill of his legacy: Few Americans in the postwar era have been more destructive than David and his older brother, Charles Koch, who survives him. Through the untold millions they lavished on conservative political networks and organizations—founding the Cato Institute; bankrolling the Heritage Foundation; establishing the anti-regulation Mercatus Center at George Mason University and similar centers at Florida State University and Utah State University; creating the Americans for Prosperity Foundation; and funding all manner of anti-union efforts—the Kochs fundamentally reformed American conservatism and, in the process, American democracy.

The end result is the party we see now—beholden to the wealthy, with a theology that believes tax cuts are the panacea to whatever ails us, that is stalwart in its opposition to any and all environmental and labor regulations, and embarrassingly resistant to the climate science that the rest of the world long accepted.

In particular, Americans for Prosperity—David Koch’s baby—mobilized the tea party, an astroturf movement aroused in reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency.

As Sarah Jones wrote in New York this weekend: “The id they unleashed—the naked white nationalism, the anti–big government hysteria, all those conspiracy theories—helped seed the ground for Donald Trump.”

There’s some irony in that, considering that the Koch brothers were never enthusiastic about Trump, especially his trade wars and harsh immigration tactics. They never donated to him, and earlier this year, AFP indicated that it was open to supporting Democrats, so long as those Democrats were the kind that would keep the party from going in the direction of Elizabeth Warren and the Green New Deal. But in the pursuit of their own interests—in serving their own greed—they’d created a Frankenstein’s monster they couldn’t control.

They’d grown Koch Industries, a company they’d inherited from their father—an original member of the John Birch Society who admired Benito Mussolini and thought the civil rights movement was a communist plot—into the second-largest privately owned business in the country, with oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota, more than 4,000 miles of pipeline, and ownership of products ranging from Brawny paper towels to Stainmaster carpet, as The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer reported in her definitive 2010 profile. And they wanted the government out of their way. They’ve fought health-care reform, labor regulations, and anything else that got between them and a buck.

“The Kochs,” Meyer wrote, “are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”

The Kochs were one of the top air polluters in the country, according to a 2010 University of Massachusetts at Amherst study. More important, perhaps, they were the biggest funder of climate-change denial, surpassing even ExxonMobil.

For decades, Koch-funded groups like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have tried to pour cold water on the consensus that the world is dangerously warming, and humans are to blame. With the Kochs’ millions behind them, these organizations fostered skepticism about scientists involved in climate research, claimed that the science is inconclusive, and—as David Koch told Meyer in 2010—argued that even if the planet is getting hotter, it will ultimately be beneficial.

This was simple avarice dressed up as ideology, of course—regardless of whether David Koch ever admitted that to himself. Accepting the reality of anthropomorphic climate change and its destructive consequences would mean weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which would make the Kochs’ oil empire less profitable.  

The last full month David Koch lived to see, July 2019, was the hottest ever recorded on Earth. The day he died, the Amazon rainforest was burning at an unprecedented rate, as the right-wing Brazilian government allowed loggers, farmers and cattle interests to slash and burn a region that produces 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen and is vital to combating climate change. Three days after he died, the president he inadvertently helped install skipped a meeting of world leaders on climate change at the G7 summit in Paris. Three decades after he died, experts have warned, 55 percent of the global population could live in areas that experience more than 20 days of lethal heat a year; 1 billion people will have been displaced from their homes; 2 billion people will lack access to water; and droughts and severe flooding will have become the norm.

David Koch was worth $42.4 billion.

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The week after Donald Trump launched his racist attack on U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, which came on the heels of his racist attacks on four nonwhite Democratic members of Congress, my hometown paper gave its resident MAGA apologist, J. Peder Zane, ink to argue that the president and his Republican Party are not, in fact, racist, but rather the victims of a “false narrative” painted by Democrats, who are the real racists.

While Trump may have been “insensitive” in calling a mostly black congressional district with a median income above the national average “a disgusting rat- and rodent-infested mess,” Zane tells us, a “fair-minded person, while hoping that the president would be more precise, should see that he is not a racist.”

Four days later, a Trump-loving white-nationalist murdered 22 people in an El Paso Walmart after posting a manifesto explaining—in language that uncannily mirrored Trump’s immigration rhetoric—he was fighting an ”invasion.”

Funny how the racists think Trump is one of them.

Lots of papers have hacks like Zane, men (always men) who crib their sophomoric understanding of U.S. history from low-rent hucksters like Dinesh D’Souza and regurgitate the outrage du jour from the Fox News/talk-radio set. These columns tend to land somewhere between intellectually vapid and irresponsibly dishonest; papers publish them as a fig leaf to the MAGA crowd, an effort to assure them that they’re not part of the Liberal Media.

Like most, Zane is rarely worth rebutting. Here, however, he’s recycling an argument common among Trump acolytes, which in light of El Paso warrants scrutiny. His point is this: Republicans should ignore Democrats/liberals/the media when they say Trump is racist, because Democrats/liberals/the media always say Republicans are racist.

As Zane puts it: “Before Trump, Democrats leveled the same despicable smear against Mitt Romney—Vice President Joe Biden warned African-Americans that Romney ‘would put y’all back in chains!’” (Not to be pedantic, but Biden said Romney’s policies would allow big banks to do so.) Before that, Zane continues, they called John McCain racist, and George W. Bush racist, “and so it goes with most every Republican back to Richard Nixon.”

Quick history: Whatever Nixon’s personal feelings were (he really didn’t like Jews, FYI), beginning with his 1968 campaign, racial appeals became central to GOP politics. See, for instance, Republican operative Lee Atwater’s infamous quote: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.’”

Ronald Reagan denounced mythical welfare queens. George H.W. Bush ran the Willie Horton ad. George W. Bush’s campaign smeared John McCain with rumors about his adopted black child. McCain elevated Sarah Palin to the national stage, where she accused the first black major-party presidential nominee of “pallin’ around with terrorists.” Romney kissed Donald Trump’s ring while Trump was pushing the racist birther effort. Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and pledging to ban Muslims.

What Zane doesn’t consider is that GOP leaders have been accused of racism because they’ve employed racism to win votes. Trump has been accused of racism more frequently because he says and does overtly racist things more frequently.

Indeed, Trump’s entire political career has been built on racial demagoguery—and studies suggest that he owes his victory in 2016 in part to his voters’ racial attitudes. But for his supporters to admit that would mean admitting an uncomfortable truth about themselves. So instead, they define the R-word so narrowly as to render it meaningless.

Truth be told, however, I’m less interested in what the J. Peder Zanes of the world tell themselves about Donald Trump’s racism than in the effects their denial has on the rest of us. It’s no surprise, for instance, that Republicans don’t want to talk about guns after El Paso. More unnerving has been their widespread reluctance to acknowledge the crisis of the increasingly violent white-supremacist movement in the Trump era.

As a former FBI supervisor who oversaw terrorism cases told The Washington Post: “I think in many ways, the FBI is hamstrung in trying to investigate the white-supremacist movement like the old FBI would. There’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base.”

If we can’t even address white terrorism with offending Trump’s supporters, how can we possibly begin to address complex, systemic issues of racial and social justice: wealth gaps, education gaps, opportunity gaps, affordability crises, etc.?

The thing about Trump is that he says the quiet parts loud—often through a megaphone. He’s fundamentally incapable of hiding who he is. And that makes the choice ahead of us crystal clear: Between now and Election Day, we as a country will have to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about who we are—and who we’re going to be.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Editor’s Note: Informed Dissent is a column, by alternative newsmedia veteran Jeffrey C. Billman, that explores the age of Trump, mixing political and historical insights with biting, unapologetic commentary. It will appear a couple of times per month at CVIndependent.com.

By my count, Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees last Wednesday, July 24, produced six significant headlines.

He confirmed that he had not exonerated President Trump. He said that Trump asked his staff to falsify records. He suggested there were “currently” FBI investigations into whether people in Trump’s orbit were compromised. He agreed that Trump’s written answers to his questions were not “always truthful.” He admitted (more or less) that Trump had met the three elements of obstruction of justice. And, though he tried to walk it back, he let it slip that, had Department of Justice policy not prohibited him from doing so, he would have indicted Donald Trump.

But this being Washington, D.C., those six headlines were muddled in the kind of second-rate political theater only Congress can deliver: backbenchers desperate for a moment in the spotlight; Democrats eager for the kill; Republicans slobbering for the president’s affection; and, most significantly, a halting, underwhelming and reluctant star witness.

The Beltway media mainly judged it on those terms—the spectacle. For a prime example of the genre, see NBC’s Chuck Todd, who offered this trenchant analysis on Twitter: “On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the (DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel) guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster.”

It says a lot about this moment—about the failures of the media, about the perils of polarization, about the frailty of our democratic norms—that a special counsel could tell Congress under oath that the president had committed crimes, but, because of the 74-year-old’s lack of verve, this is considered a win for the president. But it also speaks to how thoroughly Democrats have botched this whole affair.

This spectacle, after all, was unnecessary. Mueller had already said what he needed to say. He’d laid out a report—448 pages—that all but begged Congress to do what he could not: Hold Donald Trump accountable.

After the Mueller report became public, House Democrats should have started impeachment hearings, even though there was no chance the Senate would convict Trump, and even though such a course could prove politically treacherous. It was their constitutional obligation.

They’ve obviously not done so. Speaker Nancy Pelosi—though she talks of “crimes that were committed against our Constitution” and Trump’s “existential threat to our democracy”—wants to go slow, waiting until they have the “strongest possible hand.” She’s deemed impeachment too risky, especially for her caucus’ freshmen, many of whom come from moderate suburban districts. She’s also worried that voters don’t understand how impeachment works, and that the base will ultimately be disappointed when the Senate shrugs aside the House’s indictment, and Trump declares vindication.

These aren’t unreasonable arguments. But they miss the point.

It’s the same point missed by those who caution against focusing on Trump’s racism. Talking about his attacks on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, or his border concentration camps, or his embrace of white nationalists, they say, could detract from “kitchen table” issues that matter to voters—health care, the environment, education, jobs.

To the degree it matters, Democrats should, of course, offer an agenda. But the dirty secret of American elections is that big policy proposals don’t matter all that much. In our polarized electorate, people are more motivated to vote against the other side than for their own. The 2018 blue wave, for instance, didn’t happen because suburbanites fell in love with Democrats’ plans; rather, they were fed up with Trump’s antics, pissed off that the GOP tried to gut the Affordable Care Act, and desiring some adult supervision in Washington.

Another thing: If you’re closely attuned to policy decisions, you probably see an administration that stumbles between dangerously inept and actively malevolent on most issues. If you’re not, however—and most people aren’t—you see an economy doing pretty well. And for any other president, absent a recession in the next year, that would probably be enough to win re-election.

But Donald Trump isn’t any other president. He’s not a normal president. And treating him like one could prove self-defeating.

Consider this: On the one hand, Democrats are telling Americans that Trump is, in Pelosi’s words, an “existential threat to our democracy”—a corrupt, racist liar who has obstructed justice, violated campaign finance laws and welcomed foreign interference into elections. He’s defying congressional subpoenas. And he might be a sexual predator.

On the other hand, they’re not going to do anything about it—at least not yet. Eventually, perhaps.

How does that not signal that this is all a game? This is the worst kind of mixed messaging, the kind that muddies any sense of moral clarity. And it’s the kind that could give Trump a second term.

Of course, Donald Trump shouldn’t be impeached because it’s good politics. Donald Trump should be impeached because he is uniquely unfit to be president; because he’s a criminal; because impeaching him is the right thing to do.

If Trump truly poses a threat to our democracy, should we be talking about anything else?

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..