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A weekly review of the rogues and scoundrels of American politics

Guess What, It’s Abolish-the-Debt-Ceiling O’Clock (Again)

If the Democrats don’t use the lame-duck session to take this economic doomsday device out of the incoming GOP’s hands, God help us all.

Paul J. Richards/Getty Images
Statues depicting Grief and History stand watch over the Capitol, ruing its denizens’ error-plagued reign.

It’s said that the conventional definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. But what do you call someone who spends their time writing about insane people bent on repeating their insane mistakes, even though that person knows full well that they’ve failed in each and every one of their previous attempts to persuade the aforementioned twonks to stop the madness? Well, for now, you can call that person “me,” because here I am once again, red flags aloft and klaxons screaming, to warn about the potential disaster if Congress fails to raise, or preferably abolish, the debt ceiling. Abolishing the debt ceiling is a thing that lawmakers should have done a long time ago. They will have another chance to fix this in the upcoming lame-duck session. And they almost certainly won’t.

The midterm elections may have broken for Democrats in surprising ways, but they’re ending on very bad terms for those of us who’d prefer to avoid the apocalyptic results of a debt ceiling breach. The GOP will soon be in control of the House and will have to furnish the requisite number of votes to form a majority (presumably with all available Democrats) to stave off debt ceiling doomsday. The tight margins may yield enough votes, but this isn’t a particularly great era for “reasonable Republicans,” and so the worst-case scenario remains on the table. Unless, of course, Congress acts fast and does the deed during the upcoming lame-duck session.

But as The New Republic’s Grace Segers explained this week, the lame duck is already going to be action-packed. There are already a ton of legislative tasks that lawmakers want to try to speed through before the next Congress is sworn in, and different lawmakers attach different levels of priority to each item on their to-do list. I hate to get in the way of everyone’s particular hopes and dreams, but I must: The big thing Democrats need to do in the next few weeks is solve this looming crisis—again, preferably by abolishing the debt ceiling.

TNR readers are probably already familiar with the vagaries of the debt ceiling, but journalistic convention demands that I now furnish an “explainer,” so feel free to skip this if you are not one of the clowns currently sitting in Congress. Congress’s job is to spend taxpayer money. It does this by passing laws and allocating funds. And then, because we’re ridiculous, the legislative branch must, from time to time, affirm that it’ll honor those commitments that get laid on the nation’s balance sheet. This activity is called “raising the debt ceiling.”

Despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t add to or create any new debt. It’s just a promise to pay the bills. And it’s an important promise because if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, it could cause a default of our sovereign credit, and because a lot of the world’s economy is tethered to our own, a default could send a destructive shock wave throughout the global financial system.

It seems nuts that someone gave our ridiculous Congress an “ECONOMY GO BOOM” button, but for years everything went off without a hitch. Whenever the debt ceiling came up, lawmakers would give grandstanding speeches about the other party’s spending priorities, and a few would cast symbolic votes against raising it, knowing all the while that the votes to raise it were secure. What went wrong? Well, when President Barack Obama entered his Grand Bargain era, he raised the notion of using the debt ceiling to negotiate over bigger things. But he forgot that the Republicans were lycanthropic weirdos obsessed with lying about his birthplace and bent on making him a one-term president. So rather than enter into reasonable talks with the White House, the GOP instead enshrined debt ceiling brinkmanship as part of its party’s platform. The Republican Party has increasingly become a home to absolute nitwits with extremely kooky ideas about what might happen if the debt ceiling is breached.

Frankly, it’s nigh on deranged that Democrats didn’t abolish the debt ceiling during these past two years when they had full control of Congress and a mandate to govern. But much like how there aren’t enough Democrats willing to get rid of the filibuster, there haven’t been enough who agree that bringing a loaded gun into the chamber and debating whether it should be fired straight into the face of the global economy is a bad idea.

President Joe Biden, however, had a front-row seat to the debt ceiling chaos of the Obama administration, and he has wisely called for—wait, hold on, what the absolute fuck: It says here that Biden apparently “opposes eliminating the debt limit altogether as a means of averting future confrontations,” on the grounds that doing so would be “irresponsible.” Terrific, Biden has it precisely backward.

Action must be taken now, in the lame-duck session, to put an end to this, because the witching hour is nigh and the GOP will have strong incentives to try to tank the economy. Taking their ability to hold the debt ceiling hostage away from them is a no-brainer. And solutions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, abound: Reinstitute the Gephardt rule; take the advice of The New Republic’s Matt Ford and raise the debt ceiling to one googolplex dollars; mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin and stash it at the Treasury. We could also abolish it outright; we’re just about the only nation with a “debt ceiling,” and no one else on earth has used theirs to create a recurring Saw sequel with the global economy. Or we can do none of those things and Republicans can blow up the economy. Either way, I won’t have to write this again, so at least I have that going for me.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

Biden’s Democracy Argument Worked

The pundits thought the Democratic Party’s closing argument for the midterms was going to end in certain disaster. Swing and a miss!

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the last two weeks of the election cycle, as the news seemed to be getting worse and worse for Democrats hoping to avoid a historic midterm election shellacking, party leaders opted to go all in on one particular theme—that democracy itself was on the ballot. Here, voters had a historic choice to make: Vote to save the republic, or squander it. Across the aisle, the GOP had marshaled an army of candidates behind election denialism and a vision of an illiberal United States. In his final campaign speech, President Joe Biden told the crowd assembled at Bowie State University in Maryland that the country was at “an inflection point.”

“We know in our bones that our democracy is at risk, and we know that this is your moment to defend it, preserve or protect it, choose it,” he said.

It was a tall order. And let’s face it, it was a little bit belated. As we’ve chronicled on these pages, Democrats haven’t always spent the past two years as democracy’s most ardent defenders. Too many senators preferred to keep the filibuster rather than get rid of it to pass the laws necessary to confront a well-organized and well-funded effort among Republicans to curb voting rights across the country. Even the Biden administration seemed dismissive at one point, referring to voting rights as just one more niche issue among many.

But when Democrats finally put the defense of democracy front and center in their midterm messaging, the wave of skepticism from the media wasn’t rooted in any past failures or prior fecklessness. Rather, it was spawned by the pundit class’s disbelief that demonstrating fealty to the ideals of our Founders was the correct thing to do to win an election.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza called Biden’s defense of democracy oration a “head-scratchingspeech and “a strategic blunder given what we know about the electorate and its priorities.” Meanwhile, Politico’s Playbook called it “important” but “puzzling” and gave a wide array of voices the freedom to criticize the decision on various grounds, from the fact that the president had already given a widely reported speech on the same subject some weeks before to the concerns of Democratic strategists like David Axelrod, who thought that “as a matter of practical politics, I doubt many Ds in marginal races are eager for [Biden] to be on TV tonight”—the idea being that his poor approval ratings made him a dubious messenger in any event.

In truth, you wouldn’t be thought entirely daft if you fretted that Democrats were, at the very least, talking over the heads of the electorate. Polls ahead of the midterms consistently showed that matters such as the January 6 attacks weren’t foremost on people’s minds; democracy defense seemed like a bad bet. But the exit polls told a different story. Per Axios: “National polling showed abortion and democracy turned out to be big issues with voters. Coverage in the run-up to midterms had focused heavily on pocketbook issues.” In other words, the Democrats’ plan worked, and the media whiffed badly in their read of the electorate’s mood.

For all the anxiety over Biden’s approval ratings, no one seemed to have considered whether the vision of the future of democracy that the GOP spent the year articulating wasn’t even more toxic. This is a party that’s embraced book bans and LGBTQ discrimination, bomb threats at children’s hospitals, and Proud Boys terrorizing drag performers. They’ve discarded the legal roots of the right to an abortion and are eyeing doing the same thing to contraception and marriage equality. Republicans have embraced violent QAnon adherents and become Viktor Orbán fanboys. Does any of this sound like the stuff normie America wants?

And if you want to talk about polarization, let’s talk about how polarizing young voters found the GOP’s message. According to exit polls, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 broke for Democrats by a margin of 63 to 35. This makes sense: Every conservative denunciation of “wokeness” is, at bottom, a proclamation that Republicans shall not allow the youngest Americans to live the lives they want; their massive effort to suppress the vote is, in the end, just a plan to deny the youngest Americans their right to shape the nation they’re inheriting just as they’re becoming regular voters.

Still, I think a lot could have gone wrong with the way Democrats messaged around a defense of democracy. When Biden trotted out “ultra MAGA” some months ago, I worried he was more likely to energize the opposition than rally his own troops. But more recently, I heard one of Pennsylvania Governor-elect Josh Shapiro’s final campaign speeches, and I realized just how much power this closing argument could marshal.

I’m not letting Doug Mastriano take away your vote.… That is not how things work in this commonwealth or in this country. That’s not how our democracy works, and that’s not what freedom is all about.

This guy loves to talk a good game about “freedom” all the time. Right? We’ve heard that. Let me tell you something: It’s not freedom to tell women what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. Right? That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell our schoolchildren what books they’re allowed to read. That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell workers they can work a 40-hour workweek but they can’t be a member of a union. That’s not freedom. And it sure as hell isn’t freedom to say, you can go vote, but he’s gonna pick the winner. That’s not freedom. That’s not how we do things here in Pennsylvania.

This is the way to talk about democracy: not as something that only started mattering because Donald Trump came along to piss on it but as the great provider of the gifts of the good life—prosperity, stability, and dignity. Democracy is also something that has enemies, who should be cheerfully and confidently named and shamed.

Obviously the fight is far from over; lots of illiberal Republicans won this week. And now that democracy is “off the ballot,” Democrats need to help everyone who cast a vote to preserve democracy find new and creative ways to tend to it in all the days that come between elections. But we can put any skepticism about the “message” to bed. The fight for democracy is a good fight, and it’s good that the right people found a way, while facing long odds, to draw a line in the sand and punch the bullies in the mouth. More of this, please!

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

Will Elon Musk Ruin Twitter? That’s the Wrong Question.

The Tesla mogul has taken up ownership of a company that may not have much of a future with or without him.

Twitter account of Elon Musk/Getty Images
Elon Musk visits Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters.

Tesla founder and professional online griefer Elon Musk paid a visit Wednesday to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, carrying a sink to execute a visual pun I won’t condescend to explain here. This was the beginning of a significant week in the life of Musk and the company. The headline-making deal that has left the venerable social media firm in his hands has, after fits and starts, come to fruition. Employees were invited to say hello to Musk as he swanned about the building—a dicey proposition given that Musk had announced that he’ll be shedding three-quarters of the firm’s workers as one of his opening moves.

As Musk neared the completion of a transaction that he may end up regretting, there was a lot of “last week of Twitter” talk circulating. The fears are not entirely unfounded: If Musk carries out his planned purge, people more deeply invested in knowing how Twitter works predict that the move will likely have a “major impact” on the company’s “ability to control harmful content and prevent data security crises.” Of course, for all anyone knows, Musk won’t gut the workforce in this fashion—in fact, while he immediately made a series of splashy firings, he already appears to be walking back this threat. This is typical Musk: His favorite commodity to manufacture, after all, is bravado, which is probably why he wants to be the “chief twit” at the internet’s biggest hot-take mill. It’s very possible to overstate Musk’s malevolence. But as I listen to the doomsaying, I’m reminded that it’s equally possible to overstate Twitter’s importance.

What does it actually mean for Twitter to “end”? Is it going to be like when Friendster ended? Is it going to be like when we all stopped using manual typewriters? If and when Twitter meets its final demise, it stands to reason that we’ll not easily replace it. As Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick notes, there aren’t “any platforms well-established enough to collect Twitter refugees all at once,” and there’s no guarantee that one will. Twitter has, over time, accreted a bunch of different functions that make sense in its skin but aren’t necessarily worth another company replicating. “Historically,” Broderick argues, “the exact features of a dead platform never really come back.”

But it’s one thing to feel wistful about the platform that allowed us all to gasp together when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock in the face; another thing entirely to feel anxious about the possibility that this one may fall into crapulence. I think that most of these fears are based on a misapprehension that Twitter is some kind of manifestation of “the public square”—something that Musk himself still seems to believe as well (though his vision for this public square is less content moderation and more advertising, two ideas he does not understand are in tension with each other).

Here’s the good news, however: Twitter isn’t a “public square.” I don’t mean to downplay the way this platform can and sometimes does have uplifting effects on people’s lives and careers. But you can’t have a public square without the public, and the public has proven itself to be very resistant to Twitter’s charms. A study by Pew Research found that fewer than one-quarter of U.S. adults use Twitter at all. Of this sliver of the population, an even tinier cohort is responsible for the vast majority of tweets: “The top 25% of users by tweet volume produce 97% of all tweets, while the bottom 75% of users produce just 3%.”  

As it turns out, Twitter really is just a weird bubble of self-selecting outlier freaks; we’re disproportionately elite but largely unfollowed by the masses. We’re loud and we’re persistent and we’re representative of nothing in particular. And if what we were doing on Twitter was some kind of threat to the powers that be, well, there would probably already be a well-funded campaign to stop us from tweeting, the way there is a well-funded campaign to strip Democrats of their voting rights.

Besides, there’s another way of thinking about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. It may be that the very reason it’s happening is precisely because Twitter is already well on its way to becoming a distressed asset without Musk’s influence and thus ripe for the plucking. According to the firm’s own research, Twitter is struggling to maintain the engagement of its most active users, and an overall shift in user interest—from news, sports, and entertainment to cryptocurrency and “not safe for work” content—stands to “make the platform less attractive to advertisers.” 

The picture being painted is of a site struggling to stay relevant and influential, to which Musk is going to tether himself like a subprime mortgage in a doomed effort to refurbish a property that can’t be saved. Even in this regard, we should consider whether more tidal forces are at work. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is also having epochal problems as its “metaverse” play founders and the company (and its founder) shed market value. Maybe what’s happening right now is simple evolution: Social media’s neolithic age is simply giving way to the next era, and the old dinosaurs are sinking in tar.

At any rate, if you’re in need of an actual public square, there’s always the real thing: public and civic life, political organizing, and citizenship. And more and more, we need more reasonable and sane people in that space. We need more people out in the world to outnumber antisemitic thugs who preach hate on highway overpasses and to show up in greater numbers in rooms where monstrous idiots are bullying children to tears because of their insane belief that the mural they painted is “satanic.” Liberals need to be working, in numbers, at polling places on this Election Day and the next. We can all live with Twitter rotting out from the inside, but we can’t allow the same thing to happen to democracy. If these are the last days of Twitter, let’s embrace the fact that we’ll all have more time to do the things that really matter.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The January 6 Committee Can’t Win an Election

The congressional investigation into the Capitol Riot accomplished much, but it was never a good vehicle to deliver the midterms to the Democrats.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With the January 6 committee’s work having concluded on the cliff-hanger of former President Trump getting subpoenaed, the postmortems have been rolling in—and some of them are primarily concerned with the impact of the group’s work on the upcoming midterm elections. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz fretted that while the committee provided “a valuable reminder of what is at stake in November,” it wasn’t immediately clear how that would translate into voters acting on the January 6 revelations, if they acted at all.

As if to reply, his Post colleague Aaron Blake laid out some hard truths: Democrats had not made January 6 “an overarching focus of their campaign messaging,” and while the committee’s work was well publicized, recent polling suggested that “Democrats haven’t really driven the argument home.” Perhaps most dispiriting, there’s evidence that the largely Democratic committee didn’t even sway its own supporters: “If you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that isn’t the full story: It’s also the case that many Democratic voters haven’t been convinced that the problem goes beyond Trump.”

That the January 6 committee hasn’t had much of an effect on the way midterm voters think about Republican threats to democracy isn’t a new insight. At the beginning of August, a Monmouth University survey found that the hearings’ impact on public opinion was negligible at best. Flash forward to today, and you’ll find that January 6 remains a low priority for voters: The most recent Harvard/Harris poll found that only 7 percent of voters thought of January 6 as their most pressing issue.

But rather than indict the committee for these failings, it’s worth considering whether the point of its work was to confer some sort of partisan electoral advantage to Democrats. Throughout its proceedings, it has focused on institutional, not electoral, interests. If anything, it really seems that the committee mightily endeavored to avoid cheapening its work by mixing it up with histrionic election-year politics. Perhaps the responsibility for articulating that “the problem goes beyond Trump”—that it, in fact, connected to everything the GOP is currently about—was never in its purview. Rather, that responsibility belonged to the Democratic Party itself.

President Biden has recently shown that it’s eminently possible to use campaign rhetoric to connect the events of January 6 to the midterm elections. He rather clearly and provocatively articulated this message in a fiery oration last month in Philadelphia, in which he cited the right’s turn toward authoritarianism and the GOP’s well-funded open war against the right to vote as threats to democracy.

The speech had one flaw, however: Biden’s sudden urgency about these threats is a stark contrast with his previously casual assessment of the idea that democracy was under attack. Many of his specific warnings of late, from the GOP’s turn toward “semi-fascism” to the fact that the party was “working right now … in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself,” were matters that he and his fellow Democrats largely failed to either address legislatively or warn about earlier. In fact, the Biden White House had previously dismissed worries about voting rights as a boutique concern, telling The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas, “Every constituency has their issue.… If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.”

Democrats largely followed Biden’s lead, treating voting rights as an issue that Republicans could be convinced to support. And so multiple voting rights bills met a predictable demise in the Senate, where too many Democrats believed that preserving the upper chamber’s filibuster tradition was more important than ensuring their own constituents would continue to be able to cast a vote freely.

Even with polls indicating that inflation and jobs are top of voters’ minds, there’s a good argument for foregrounding the threat of Republican illiberalism in the political conversation: The GOP’s anti-democratic tilt ties right back to matters of the economy. For the avowed economic platform of the GOP is every bit as extreme as an insurrection. The Republicans plan to use debt-limit brinkmanship to impose painful austerity upon the American people. They not only lack a plan of their own to alleviate inflationary pressures, but intend to lay further siege to ordinary Americans by forcing Biden to choose between gutting earned-benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare and destroying the economy by defaulting on the government’s debt.

In a perfect world, perhaps the January 6 committee might have penetrated the consciousness of voters to the extent that it shifted voter opinion. Alas, it didn’t, because it was never within its purview to paint this broader picture. But the fact that so many observers bemoan this failure suggests that the vacuum the January 6 hearing failed to fill should have been filled by others. The committee’s work exceeded expectations, but it turns out that it was never a great substitute for just doing politics.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The Industry Devouring the American Dream

Private equity’s tentacles reach nearly every aspect of our lives, and it’s making everything worse.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Do newspaper endorsements matter? It’s a question that’s been kicked around a lot in recent years. Some editors laud the tradition; others think it’s time for them to end. I’ve always felt that these sledgehammerings from on high, purporting to help voters pick and choose, are no substitute for the woven tapestry of journalism that creates a well-informed public. But that doesn’t mean that I’m cheering the news that one major publisher has announced that it is dispensing with them altogether. And that’s because this particular decision is being handed down by a firm called Alden Global Capital, best known for being at the vanguard of a recent trend: private equity devouring the world.

The New York Timesreport on the matter offers only Alden’s point of view, which sounds innocuous enough at first blush. In a forthcoming editorial set to run in Alden’s publications, the firm says its decision to spike endorsements was done in the spirit of “advanc[ing] a healthy and productive discourse” and reducing “acrimony.” The “common ground,” it writes, “has become a no-man’s land between the clashing forces of the culture wars.”

But as The Nation’s Washington correspondent (and TNR’s former editor) Chris Lehmann notes at length, red flags abound. “The ‘no man’s land’ rhetoric here is especially risible,” he writes, “given that Alden has laid siege to local news markets on its relentless binge of media acquisition.” Indeed, Alden isn’t so much known for advancing the discourse as it is for gutting it; the “no-man’s land” it speaks of has become more of a “no-newspapers land” under its watch, as it lays off employees and closes newsrooms across the country, leaving the aforementioned tapestry of journalism in tatters. But this is just the damage that one private equity firm is doing to one industry.

The tale the private equity industry tells about itself is a virtuous one: They’re savvy investors rescuing ailing firms and making them profitable. Naturally, popular culture has provided an alternative story: that of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers. But as Mother Jones’s Hannah Levintova explained, yesteryear’s mythmaking doesn’t really capture how much the industry has evolved. It’s no longer the case that private equity firms mainly hunt down dying businesses to pluck profit like carrion from their bones. Now, she writes, “the bulk of the work done by modern-day private equity firms is not to finish off sick companies, but rather to stalk and gut the healthy ones.”

Consequently, there is almost no aspect of American life that hasn’t been financialized; there is always fresh meat at the private equity smorgasbord. As The Financial Times reported in June 2021, the private equity industry’s assets amounted to more than $3 trillion. And its acquisitions run the gamut: As Levintova notes, the industry acquired numerous for-profit colleges, “enveloped the health care sector,” and gobbled up nursing homes, with the end result being lower graduation rates, increased student debt, higher medical costs, and a rise in the mortality of nursing home patients. Elsewhere, we learn that these firms have devoured trailer parks, neighborhood grocers, and big retail chains. (One thing private equity consistently fails to do is make things better. As TNR contributor Jon Skolnik recently noted, “In the retail sector alone, the industry is estimated to have killed at least 1.3 million jobs since 2009.”)

Beyond the staggering array of assets that private equity firms are absorbing, there is also the broad impact of their rapaciousness to consider. The industry bears some responsibility for climate change and surprise medical bills. It even somehow got its mitts on billions of dollars’ worth of forgivable bailout loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, even though the industry was excluded from those proceeds. Private equity was such a bedevilment to Taylor Swift that it’s surprising she’s not yet penned an “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”–style ballad about her experiences.

So private equity is hoovering up every piece of the American dream it can. And in recent years, it’s been targeting one of the most essential parts of the lives we all hope to build for ourselves: where we live. As ProPublica reported in February, private equity–backed companies have “stormed into the multifamily apartment market, snapping up rentals by the thousands and becoming major landlords in American cities,” raising rents and chewing up tenants in their profit-squeezing schemes. And Marketwatch reported in July that the industry has upped its stake in the available stock of single-family homes, competing against ordinary home buyers in a mad dash to snatch up available housing stock and shift it onto the rental market.

That ordinary American families now have to outbid Jeff Bezos for their dream home is a grim and dystopian fact of life. Fortunately, there is some pushback: U.S. Representative Adam Smith, who represents Washington state’s 9th district, has introduced the Saving Homes From Acquisition by Private Equity Act, which, if enacted, would “create a significant federal real estate transfer tax on institutional investors and private equity firms who purchase single-family homes on the open market,” raising revenue that states can then use to build or maintain affordable housing and “slow the consolidation of single-family home ownership among the investor class.”

Democrats should climb aboard this bandwagon; defending ordinary Americans from clear and obvious plutocratic predators is what the Good Life agenda is all about. But the party needs to get to it quickly: Before long, there might not be enough newspapers left to endorse the defenders of the American dream.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The United States of Plutocracy

As if dodgy oligarchs and shifty tax cheats didn’t have enough help hiding their ill-gotten gains, your state government may have stepped up to join the con.

Graphica Artis/Getty Images

What do you think of when you think of tax havens? For many, the idea evokes Swiss banks or Caribbean islands—far-flung locales where shell companies stack high and shady enablers in fine suits ooze around every street corner. The truth, however, is that havens for illicit and ill-gotten boodle aren’t nearly as exotic as the Robert Ludlum novel in your mind. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from recent disclosures—such as the Pandora Papers—on the lengths that the rich and powerful will go to stash their wealth, it’s that the most innovative and disruptive tax havens in the world are the ones right next door.

The U.S. is growing in stature as one of the premier locations for oligarchs of all stripes to safely stash their cash. As TNR contributor Casey Michel has noted, the top grifters in the kleptocracy extended universe aren’t just parking their loot in popular Western capitals, they’re buying up real estate in Cleveland—where Ukrainian kleptocrat Ihor Kolomoisky was, at one point, “the largest commercial real estate holder” in the city. There’s a sizable amount of corrupt money flowing through America’s think tanks as well. And the Pandora Papers revealed that there is a small army of stateside lawyers ready to come to the aid of those who need to keep their filthy lucre hidden.

But it’s underappreciated how one of the biggest enablers of this whole corrupt regime might be your state government. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, or IPS, a growing number of states have become havens for illicit wealth due to the systematic degradation of regulations governing trusts. These instruments, which are probably best known for their utility in allowing affluent parents to sock away money for their children, are being used more and more by bad actors who want to obscure their fortunes or simply avoid paying taxes on them.

As Tim Noah wrote a year ago, the release of the Pandora Papers shone a light on the state that also gets top billing for the IPS: South Dakota, which pioneered the undoing of trusts by repealing what’s known as the “rule against perpetuities,” the backbone regulation that limits the amount of time money can be held in trust. The IPS’s new study reveals the extent to which South Dakota has touched off a race to the bottom among states who want to deregulate the industry further: More than half of U.S. states have repealed the rule against perpetuities.

But that’s just a start—13 states have gone further to enable these stateside tax havens. The upshot is that tax dodgers and kleptocrats suddenly have a lot of options: They can now effectively stash their wealth in perpetuity if they want. Many states even permit the person who establishes the trust to be the beneficiary of that trust as well—an arrangement that practically legalizes tax dodging.

And as the IPS’s Kalena Thomhave and Chuck Collins note at length, the deterioration of the laws governing trusts have many ill effects on ordinary people, from the way “investments by anonymous trusts in real estate” help to “push up the cost of housing for locals” to the democracy-debasing effect of permitting foreign oligarchs and like-minded thieves to stash their plunder here in the U.S.

This corrupted regulatory state impacts our lives in numerous ways. As Thomhave and Collins report, ordinary people don’t derive any material benefit from their states transforming themselves into safe-deposit boxes for oligarchs. They also note that there “is a significant correlation between regressive state taxation systems, which hurt the poorest residents, and trust-subservient state laws.” But the worst effect by far is the way this misrule further entrenches inequality of all stripes:

The wealthy deploy their power to further shape the rules, news, and culture of society, including trust law. They block popular reforms by capturing the political system and ensuring dysfunctional gridlock. This leads to further consolidation of wealth dynasties, impervious to taxation and accountability. It also leads to more social breakdown and polarization as our collective capacity to solve big problems—like responding to a pandemic or ecological disruption—is rendered inoperative.

At The New Republic, we’ve found ourselves asking more and more: Are states OK? A recent book by Jacob M. Grumbach, Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics, argues that the states have become “the wrecking ball” of democracy, subverting the desires of their citizens and throwing roadblocks in the way of their right to seek redress with their vote. Now this IPS report shows just how many states are signing up to be the haven of illicit money and harbor the ultrawealthy from paying their taxes. Should state governments serve plutocratic elites or their own citizens? A growing number are making the wrong choice.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The Loneliness of Donald Trump

The former president says he made several secret new friends during his time in the White House. Not that they did him any good.

Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Who will be the last author to write about the great mistake that was the Trump presidency? Maybe no one, and certainly not anytime soon. This week, a hungry media is gorging on a steady diet of scooplets from The New York Times’ Trump-whisperer Maggie Haberman’s new book, Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, which comes out October 4. The arrival of this new deep dive has, predictably, resurfaced all the metamedia debates that arise anytime a tidbit-laden tome on the Trump presidency emerges, the most pressing of which is: Is it right for a reporter to hold back newsy scoops for a book deal?

As Alex Shephard explained on these pages, there are a lot of nuances to consider. But if you’re really hung up on the ethics of these arrangements, you can at least take solace in the fact that anytime one of these books gets published, all of the good parts end up getting excerpted in the media for free, so you never have to actually buy them. More pointedly, you might also cast a pitying glance on the whole Trump sector of the publishing industry because there is so little left to learn about the man. Yes, there are new incidents and accidents, hints and allegations, but the Trump story’s been the same ever since David Roth wrote the definitive piece on the man’s psyche back in 2017.

So, aside from the outcomes of a few legal imbroglios, what questions remain unanswered? Here’s where I’ll confess to having one long and lingering inquiry: Does Trump still think running for president was a good idea? And here, Haberman has hooked me in with a cryptic answer to that very question. Trump told her that it was worth it to become president because he made a bunch of secret famous friends.

“The question I get asked more than any other question: ‘If you had to do it again, would you have done it?’” Trump says, in part of the book recently excerpted in The Atlantic. “The answer is, yeah, I think so. Because here’s the way I look at it. I have so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are.” Nobody knows who they are? So, like, Spiderman?

The thing is, though, Trump having friends of any sort would be quite a development. This is not to say that his squad doesn’t roll deep. Trump has cronies and hangers on and a slew of enablers and fixers. He basks in the captive audience of whoever happens to be at Mar-A-Lago on any given day. He has a bunch of people we’d refer to as “known associates” (because they did crimes). He is on intimate enough terms with some conservative media types that they occasionally give him a ring to—you know—call off the coup he started. He has business partners who help him do more scams. He’s constantly in the company of an ever-worsening battery of attorneys. Heck, he’s even recently done a round of golf with his fraud bro Brett Favre.

But among this coterie of yes-men, bagmen, con men, and attorneys-at-flaw, does he actually like, have any real friends? By all accounts, Trump doesn’t elaborate in Haberman’s book. We just have to trust him that those secret friends are definitely with him, laughing just out of frame.

Believe it or not, this is a matter the media has already thought about a disturbing amount. Does Donald Trump have any real, honest-to-God friends? Like the type who listen to you and support you—and, maybe, tell you honestly when you’ve done something appalling? A 2016 New York Times piece identified two possible friends, only one of whom returned their calls. Other accounts suggest that billionaire financier Tom Barrack was his best friend. The two have since had a rather public falling out—though now that Barrack has been indicted for numerous crimes, perhaps the two will soon reconnect over their common struggles.

You know why I think Trump has never had any proper friends, the kind who aren’t afraid of telling him the truth? He became president of the United States. A real friend might have interceded: “Wait. You want to be president—like, THE president?” And from there, that person would maybe offer, “Aren’t you up to your solar plexus in real estate tax fraud? Which you’re currently getting away with? Do you really think that becoming the most scrutinized living human is a good idea?” There’s a reason most white-collar criminals lobby politicians rather than become them: They have someone in their lives to deter them from a wrongheaded ambition that would capsize their schemes.

The closest thing Trump had to a friend when he was deciding to run, it seems, was Howard Stern, who urged Trump to consider the fact that he “only had about 10 good years left before he ‘starts to drool’ on himself,” which were better spent at “leisure” instead of being responsible for every single thing imaginable. Unfortunately for all of us, Trump did not heed this advice! Sure enough, when Reuters caught up with Trump in April 2017, they found a regretful wretch, pining for the ease of his “previous life.” There can be no doubt that the Trump in the parallel universe where he didn’t run for president is infinitely happier, even if he didn’t make any secret friends (or lead our rapid descent into fascism).

In the end, Trump only has pallid and paltry answers to the question of why he decided to make the world-historical error in judgment to run for president instead of just being an idle rich celebrity. The good news is his future chroniclers won’t have to pursue these answers. Should Trump run for president again, we’ll know exactly why: He needs to hold that office to shelter himself from all the legal trouble he’s in. No one will ever again have to attempt to plumb the depths of this depthless man.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The Republican Plot to Weaponize the Government Against Political Enemies

Trump’s “Schedule F” plan to eliminate workplace protections for the civil service was averted in 2020. But the GOP still dreams of the purge.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

During his presidency, Donald Trump was constantly at war with the civil service. It’s not hard to see why someone like him might find himself at odds with Washington’s army of dedicated public servants. Our federal workforce, however flawed, is an engine of fairness that strives to consistently minister to the needs of all Americans. It’s also proven to be a last line of defense against corruption and misrule. Naturally, Trump and other figures within the Republican Party want to destroy it. And should the GOP retake the White House, they might get their chance. Few have thought through the implications of what happens if Trump wins in 2024, but it begins with the revival of “Schedule F,” one of the Trump administration’s most devious plots against the U.S. government.

Among other efforts to target the civil service, Trump chiseled away at some of the employment protections that the federal workforce enjoys. Most federal government workers are nonpartisan bureaucrats who work under presidents of either party; there are currently only a few thousand genuine political employees. One important protection for this larger group of nonpolitical civil servants is the Merit Systems Protection Board, which can hear disputes and has the authority to reinstate federal employees who it determines were unjustly fired. This agency helps keep these employees free from fear of retaliation for whistleblowing or refusing to participate in corrupt entanglements.

Trump tried his best to break the agency by leaving all three board member positions vacant. It didn’t quite work—while hobbled, the agency was able to persist. But Trump and his enablers came up with a different scheme. The administration exploited a loophole in the law that allows the president or the Office of Personnel Management to redesignate some members of the federal workforce so they no longer fall under the Merit Systems Protection Board’s protection.

To that end, Trump issued an executive order in October 2020 to create an entirely new category of federal staff called “Schedule F,” which would effectively politicize these expressly nonpolitical roles and do away with some of their job protections as well. As Slate’s Donald Moynihan reported, this plan would have made select members of the civil service subject to a “political loyalty test,” which they needed to pass if they wanted to keep their jobs. Even if only a small number of employees were directly affected, the move would be sufficient to bring the entire federal workforce to heel. Given the latitude to simply fire agency attorneys and other bureaucrats who enforce the rules of the road, Trump could transform the bureaucracy from a workforce whose members all swear an oath to uphold the Constitution to one that would act as his personal wrecking crew. Civil servants would then either have to get in line with Trump’s aims or risk losing their livelihoods and careers.

Trump ultimately ran out of time to fully implement this plan, and Biden immediately rescinded the former president’s executive order upon taking office. But the GOP and its backers are still very interested in reviving the plan. Axios’s Jonathan Swan wrote a detailed report in July about the prospects of a reelected Trump bringing Schedule F back; numerous profiles of the Trumpian “new right” have made it clear that figures in this orbit understand that they can’t institute their illiberal plans in a government with a nonpartisan civil service.*

What would the United States be like if the civil service were to become a mere handmaiden to an unscrupulous chief executive? The past offers some clues: For much of the nineteenth century, the federal bureaucracy operated in what was known as the “spoils system,” in which every new presidential administration would purge the civil service of the old guard and stack it with loyalists. This was, of course, a hothouse for corruption, but it wasn’t until this arrangement resulted in the assassination of President James Garfield that reformers gained the upper hand and passed the Pendleton Act, which established a beachhead for a merit-based system to replace the entrenched patronage system. This work wasn’t completed until the 1970s, when the post-Nixon reforms brought us the Merit Systems Protection Board.

But if Republicans have their way, it wouldn’t simply be a return to the spoils system of old. It will likely be much worse. Today’s GOP, after all, doesn’t believe in peaceful transfers of power or that the president can or should be constrained by the law. Moreover, it now conceives of itself as an instrument of retribution rather than problem solving or policymaking. Consider what Schedule F world might look like: The next Republican administration could use the federal government to punish its opponents. Democrats might find their Social Security or veterans’ benefits delayed or denied. They might no longer be able to obtain passports. Emergency disaster aid might flow only to those deemed loyal to the administration. Corporations that refuse to pay tribute might be punished. Transform the civil service from an open hand to a closed fist, and things get very frightening very quickly.

To their credit, Democrats are fighting back: Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly and Senator Tim Kaine have introduced legislation that “block[s] positions from being classified outside the existing system unless Congress consents to it” in their respective houses of Congress. And via an amendment, Connolly got similar language into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that’s currently awaiting a Senate vote. But Democrats must also find a way to raise the salience of this frightening prospect with voters ahead of the next presidential election, because whether the federal bureaucracy becomes the corrupt arm of an authoritarian regime is on the ballot in 2024.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

* This piece originally misidentified the date of this story.

Democrats: Steal This Move From Lindsey Graham

The South Carolina senator’s ideas may be bad—but wow, he’s so confident in them!

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South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham

This week, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham looked out over the political landscape and decided it was high time for a bad idea—specifically, a bill that would impose a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Graham’s decision had an immediate impact. His fellow Republicans, by and large, spent the week either pretending not to know him or criticizing him for serving up two scoops of hot midterm-elections discord. Meanwhile, everyone working on the next round of political advertising for Democrats got to go home early, their scripts written for them. It was, in other words, quite a step on the ol’ rake for Graham. It’s also something that Democrats should try to emulate.

Please bear with me. I’m obviously not saying that Democrats should propose an abortion ban, or should go out and commit some chaos-causing unforced error. It’s not the substance that Democrats should imitate but the style. As Discourse Blog’s Rafi Schwartz noted, Graham was at least making a “bold legislative move” and being honest about what he believes. It simply happens to be the case that he’s being bold and honest about something that’s vastly unpopular with the public, and with terrible timing—you know, a moment when GOP candidates for office are scrubbing their websites of their abortion positions in the wake of the repeal of Roe v. Wade. But if Graham can put so much swagger behind such a rancid policy, Democrats should feel similarly emboldened to walk with confidence behind their own set of much more popular ideas.

I mention this because Democrats have a long history of being skittish about their own positions and accomplishments. It took many election cycles before Democrats got comfortable enough with the Affordable Care Act—their biggest policy accomplishment until they passed the American Rescue Plan in 2021—to actually run on it. They only really embraced it in 2018, to great success. More recently, Democrats squandered the advance time afforded to them by the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They were too scared to act on a controversial issue—in this case, abortion—until they truly had no other option. Since then, we’ve seen examples that boldly seizing the moment works. In a New York special election, Pat Ryan campaigned on an abortion rights message as anger about Dobbs was cresting, and scored an upset win.  

Democrats have been quicker to the jump on Graham’s proposal—and because they are currently playing a much stronger hand, they should be just as bold. But there’s another equally important reason why they need to match Graham’s intensity: They have to counter the media narrative that meeting Republicans in the middle is the most politically acceptable response. As Jezebel’s Laura Bassett noted, this both-sidesism led the political press to echo Graham’s claim that 15 weeks constitutes a “later-term” abortion. “This is a 15-week abortion ban, it’s not ‘later in pregnancy.’ It’s not even close to the halfway point in a pregnancy. Republicans want journalists to accept their framing,” Bassett wrote.

Democrats shouldn’t fold and compromise with Graham’s position. And they should be just as uncompromising in backing President Joe Biden’s condemnation of GOP extremism. Biden’s speech about Trump’s “semi-fascist” inclinations was greeted with similar equivocation from the media, which Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler characterized as a “multi-day fainting-couch routine.” Beutler noted that this response didn’t actually “reflect anything organic bubbling up from the public.” It was merely a product of the media’s own squeamishness, which shouldn’t push Democrats to “retreat to the safety of conventional ideas that weren’t working.” Beutler continued: 

[The media is] reacting the way they think they’re supposed to react to maintain [their] “neutral” bona fides—by policing norms and obsessing over how it’ll affect the horserace; by neither validating [nor] invalidating the critique. That’s not to say their reaction is unimportant, if it persists unanswered or successfully drives Democrats into retreat, the idea that Democrats overplayed some ill-defined “hand” will crystalize into public opinion. As we learned during the Trump presidency, the best way to normalize the critique, to get journalists to accept that it is just part of our discourse now, is to just plow ahead with it, over their sniffing, until it no longer seems extraordinary even to them.

As Beutler went on to point out, all Democrats “should want GOP extremism and criminality to remain the thematic center of politics at least between now and the election.” That Mitch McConnell desperately wants to change the subject is a clear indication that Democrats shouldn’t just allow fascism or “semi-fascism” to happen.

Chances are, the Democrats won’t retain majorities in both houses of Congress. But they can’t do much about the country’s historical tendency to reward the party out of power in the midterms, nor can they alter the reality of electoral math or partisan gerrymandering, or the rude mechanics of a system that’s tilted toward the Republican Party in multiple ways. 

The good news is that should Democrats come up short, it will be due to these realities and not because they ran on a bunch of bad policy ideas or bankrupt ideological beliefs. The party’s popular positions will survive a defeat in 2022, as will its case against the GOP’s authoritarian turn—which, let’s face it, will only get worse. There is an equally important election in 2024. Democrats have good ideas and better enemies. That’s why they should all possess the confidence of Lindsey Graham. 

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The Rise of Right-Wing Hacks in Federal Courts

Judge Aileen Cannon, of the now-infamous special master ruling, is the latest star of a conservative legal movement that gleefully engages in sloppy jurisprudence—with profound consequences for us all.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Over Labor Day weekend, Trump-selected judge Aileen Cannon ordered the appointment of a special master to review the material seized by the Justice Department from Mar-a-Lago—a move that will allow the president to delay the ongoing investigation. It’s a result that everyone with half a brain could have spotted from a million miles out: Trump sought out the judge most willing to bend the rules in order to help him wriggle his way out of trouble. 

But this didn’t prevent many legal experts from reacting with slack-jawed shock to Cannon’s order. “This special master opinion is so bad it’s hard to know where to begin … her analysis of standing is terrible,” tweeted law professor Neal Katyal. “Judge Cannon’s order is riddled with fundamental legal errors and is the opposite of judicial restraint,” added lawyer Ted Boutrous. Former FBI agent and Just Security editor Asha Rangappa insisted that “Cannon clearly did not have a strong grasp of the salient issues.” The Atlantic’s Andrew Weissmann ran down the many ways in which Cannon’s decision was “untethered to the law.” Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean quote-tweeted Weissmann, writing “It’s a mess!” Everywhere you looked someone was reacting in similar fashionBut … how could she?

To answer that question, we need to get the experts caught up on current events. It should be apparent to everyone by now that the conservative legal movement and its foot soldiers in the judiciary have ideological goals in mind and a political agenda they want to pass via the superlegislature once known as the judicial system. But many members of the judicial commentariat seem to be stuck in the world they remember, not the world we live in now. To these experts, the right is still beholden to the law—it still needs to tick the appropriate jurisprudential boxes, consider long-standing legal precedent, and follow the established rules. 

With that in mind, the experts look at Cannon’s decision and see balderdash everywhere. What they don’t get is that Cannon looked at her balderdash and thought, “Well, who’s going to stop me?” There are no “judge cops,” you see, only other judges, and if all roads eventually lead to the Roberts court, there’s no reason for her to worry too much about whether she’s stuffed a bunch of legal half-assery into her rulings. As TNR’s Matt Ford has reported, Cannon’s hardly the first lower court judge to indulge herself in some right-wing hackery. She won’t be the last.

The Supreme Court has led the way with decisions that are increasingly untethered to judicial precedent, the Founders’ ideals, and in some instances, the very facts of the cases on their dockets. Because of this, conservatives have been generally emboldened to stake more aggressive claims in their suits and filings, in order to test the limits of preposterousness, like velociraptors pushing against the weaknesses in Jurassic Park’s fencing. That is why even though a lawsuit to take down President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan suffers from some fatal standing issues, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is said to be “brainstorming” a workaround. He knows that he’s as likely to prevail with nonsense as he is to succeed with some supergenius-level lawyering.

As TNR contributor Aaron Regunberg noted in these pages, the alternate reality unfolding in front of us has already made wide swaths of the bar exam look more like a historical document than a test of current legal knowledge. In a world where jurisprudence is unmoored, what will future generations even learn in law school?  At some point you wonder if conservatives will keep bothering to even offer up slopcore legal reasoning, when it’s just as easy to offer jabberwocky instead.

Legal experts can gawk at the goings on in disbelief, exclaiming, “This can’t be happening!” all they like. But it is happening and has happened. Those trying to confront this moment by repeatedly insisting that this weirding of the judicial system can be repaired if only someone explains the rules hard enough are, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern point out, displaying the impotent “tendency to just keep on lawyering the other side’s bad law in the hopes that the lawyering itself will make all the bad faith and crooked law go away.” 

Lithwick and Stern continue: 

[In] this new age of legal Calvinball, one side invents new “rules” and then the other scrambles to try to play by them. For every single legal thinker who read the Mar-a-Lago order to mean, quite correctly, that ex-presidents are above the law, furrowing your brow and pointing out its grievous errors only takes you halfway there. The better question is what, if anything, do you propose to do about it? The furrowing is cathartic, but it’s also not a plan.

So then, what is the plan? As TNR’s Simon Lazarus argued, liberals must forcefully discredit the legal arguments that the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc is offering while there’s still time to rebut them. But as Lithwick and Stern point out, the most immediate solution to this dire problem is one that Democrats have been heretofore skittish about contemplating—adding judges to the courts. 

The good news for now, though, is that we can begin by adding judges at the lower court level, where the much larger case backlog justifies such a move, and hopefully avoid the all-but-certain national mainstream media–driven trauma that would follow any attempt to pack the Supreme Court. Increasing the number of judges in these venues could help the jurisprudential traditions that are now being gutted gain a new foothold and lessen the opportunity for conservatives to forum-shop their way to victory. The bad news, of course, is that unless Democrats are planning on holding both houses of Congress, Biden only has a few weeks left to do the job.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.