‘Evil Geniuses’ traces the 50-year march of the American right

Kurt Andersen’s newest book, “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History,” tells the story of our political culture’s long march to the right, from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign to Donald Trump.

I finished the audio version of it earlier this week — read by Andersen, a welcome touch. You can’t properly review an audio book, of course. You’re not bookmarking pages or making notes. So my observations here are impressionistic, and I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out that struck me as important at the time but that I’ve since forgotten.

First, Andersen deals a blow to my Richard Nixon Unified Theory of Everything. Andersen rightly points out that Nixon governed as a liberal on domestic policy, even embracing the left-wing notion of wage-and-price controls. Nixon wasn’t as liberal as the Northern Democrats of his era, but as someone who didn’t really care about anything except Richard Nixon, he was willing to go with the flow as long as it helped him maintain power.

I’m not sure that Andersen assigns Nixon enough blame, though, for his vicious prosecution of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, a prelude of what was to come, or of beginning the transformation of the Republican Party into an amoral force for destruction, as it clearly is today. Ideologically, however, he is right that you can trace a direct line from Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Trump. Nixon was an outlier; George H.W. Bush was only a partial outlier given the role of Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, in fostering climate denialism, something I didn’t know about until I heard Andersen describe it.

Second, this move to the right has had important intellectual underpinnings, starting in 1970 with an essay by the economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times Magazine arguing — as Andersen puts it — that it was actually Mr. Potter, not George Bailey, who was the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Another important contribution to the movement was made by Lewis Powell in his pre-Supreme Court days. All of this has been extremely well funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, thus moving fringe right-wing ideas into the mainstream.

Third, and to my mind most controversially, this long move back to the past has been accompanied by a cultural embrace of nostalgia, starting in the 1970s with the ’50s revival and continuing to the present. The idea is that we’ve turned to the political and economic norms of pre-New Deal America as a wistful yearning for old values, just as we have with music and fashion, and are only now beginning to realize just how toxic those times really were. There’s something to this, but I think Andersen pushes it too hard.

I can’t say that Andersen offers much in the way of solutions except that we need to re-energize ourselves and start electing left-leaning politicians. (He tells us repeatedly that Bernie Sanders nearly defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but saying it over and over doesn’t make it so.) He also favors a universal basic income as a counterbalance to the decline of decent full-time work fueled by artificial intelligence.

“Evil Geniuses” provides an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — overview of what’s gone wrong in these United States over the past 50 years. If Andersen’s ideas on how to get out of this mess are inadequate, it may be because the challenges are so daunting.

As I write this, Joe Biden seems likely to be elected president and the Senate to flip to the Democrats. That may staunch the Trump-induced bleeding of the past four years. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to solve political polarization, economic inequality, climate change, racial injustice and all the rest.

We can’t begin that work until we understand how we got here, though. Andersen has provided a useful guide.

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No surprise: ‘Anonymous’ turns out to be one of Kelly’s former aides

Click here to watch video.

I had thought from the beginning that “Anonymous,” the Trump administration official who torched President Trump in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2018, was someone close to John Kelly. And so it is: Miles Taylor, the 33-year-old former chief of staff of the Department of Home Security, Kelly’s first stop before becoming Trump’s chief of staff.

Why a Kelly aide? “Anonymous” came across as enthusiastic about Trump’s vicious right-wing policies, calling to mind Josh Marshall’s description of Kelly as an example of “Total Quality Trumpism.” In other words, Kelly and his allies were mainly appalled by Trump’s behavior and indiscipline, not by his record. As “Anonymous” wrote at the time:

To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous….

Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.

As for whether Taylor qualifies as a “senior official in the Trump administration,” as the Times described him when it published his op-ed, well, I’d say more no than yes. Chief of staff of a Cabinet department is not nothing, but I don’t think it’s what people imagine when they hear the phrase “senior official.”

I’d chalk it up as yet another in a pile of misjudgments by former editorial-page editor James Bennet.

Also: Chris Cuomo doesn’t seem to like Taylor too much. Click here or in the caption above to watch.

Correction. Kelly’s first name now fixed.

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Why I’m optimistic about Election Day — but pessimistic about our nation’s fate

2012 NASA photo via Wikimedia Commons.

One week from today, it will be over. Maybe we’ll know who won. Maybe they’ll still be counting. Maybe angry demonstrators will be marching in the streets. No longer, though, will we be checking FiveThirtyEight 15 times a day, tracking every up, down and sideways movement.

For most of the past four years I’ve felt pessimistic about the short term but optimistic about the long term. Now I feel just the opposite — optimistic about what the next few years may bring but pessimistic about the fate of our country. Let me explain.

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Album #3: Miles Davis, ‘Big Fun’

At some point toward the end of my senior year of high school, I acquired a bootleg of the Beatles’ 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. I was not happy with my purchase — it was unlistenable, with screaming fans all but drowning out the music.

Fortunately my friend Jim was a Beatles collector, and he suggested a trade. He’d give me his new copy of Miles Davis’ “Big Fun” in return for the Shea Stadium album. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I agreed. I had heard of Miles, but I didn’t know anything about him except that he played trumpet. “Big Fun,” released in 1974, proved to be life-changing.

Before I get to the music, let me try to describe how cool the packaging was. The front cover featured a nude woman in front of a horn. The inside gateway was given over to a massive photo of Miles, looking down slightly, wearing a serious expression, wraparound sunglasses, a sparkly top of some sort and a polka-dot kerchief. He was holding his trumpet, to which was attached a pickup and a cord. All of this made a huge impression on 17-year-old me.

And the music lived up to the packaging. “Big Fun,” as I now know, was a hodgepodge, pieced together from several sessions over the previous few years. But what a hodgepodge. The original album comprised four tracks, one on each side (the Spotify version features extra tracks). Two are absolutely brilliant.

“Great Expectations” is a riff on “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” It is repetitive and trance-like, with a huge band anchored by Harvey Brooks on bass guitar and Billy Cobham on drums. There’s not a lot of improvising as Miles tries out different sonic approaches to the same theme. That segues to an entirely different passage as things slow down, Ron Carter takes over on bass (in fact, the track is a spliced-together pastiche) and Miles plays a melody that’s been altered so that it almost sounds like two trumpets, one slightly behind the other. The percussion in the background sounds like someone crying. Although the liner notes don’t say so, this is actually a different piece, Joe Zawinul’s “Orange Lady,” also recorded by Zawinul’s band Weather Report. Trust me: Miles’ version is much better, deeper and more keenly felt.

The other highlight is “Go Ahead John,” featuring guitarist John McLaughlin. In some ways this is a real period piece: Jack DeJohnette’s drums and McLaughlin’s broken-speaker solo are both processed through what you might call extreme stereo, with the audio switching back and forth between speakers. But the piece is so great that it transcends such touches. What’s more, the entire middle part consists of Miles playing a gorgeous two-track solo. This is astonishing music.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: “Big Fun” isn’t Miles’ best album — although I do think it’s better than “Bitches Brew,” his 1970 album that gave birth to the jazz-rock genre. I still love “Big Fun” and listen to it after all these years. And even though I later came to appreciate just about everything Miles ever recorded, “Big Fun” remains an underrated classic from a career that extended from the 1940s to his death in 1991.

Although it’s hard to choose, I think my other favorite Miles album is “’Round About Midnight,” released in 1957 with his classic quintet of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Two years later a slightly different lineup of musicians would release “Kind of Blue,” still the best-selling jazz album of all time. But “Midnight” has more variety to it — and the title track, by Thelonious Monk, is simply the best version of that song ever recorded.

I had the privilege of seeing Miles twice — at Paul’s Mall in 1974 with the aforementioned Jim (we got to shake his hand!) and then at Kix Disco with my wife, the first show of a 1983 comeback tour. Miles didn’t play much at Paul’s Mall, even leaving the stage when he wasn’t soloing. But he was Mr. Entertainment at Kix.

He was a great artist, one of the towering geniuses of 20th-century music. You can listen to Miles endlessly and never get to the bottom, always surprised and delighted by new discoveries. Lately I’ve found myself thinking there’s a decent chance that the trumpet solo on “It Never Entered My Mind” is actually the voice of God. I’ll let you know if I find out.

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Will the media normalize Trump because he acted almost normal?

The big question is how much credit the media will give President Trump for not acting like a crazed sociopath. I thought Joe Biden won on style and substance, with a lovely closing, although he was more inarticulate than usual tonight. (He seemed to realize it and picked through his words carefully.)

Kristen Welker did a great job as moderator. And we can all count ourselves lucky that we will never have to watch Trump debate again. I’ll join with the conventional wisdom and observe that Trump needed to win a lot of people over tonight. It’s hard to see how he did that. The fact-checkers are going to go nuts on him, too. So, advantage Biden.

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The start of a trend? Gannett sells Nantucket paper to local owners

Nantucket. Photo (cc) 2013 by Si B.

I don’t suppose this is the beginning of a trend, but it’s great news nevertheless: The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket has been sold to local owners.

According to an announcement on the weekly paper’s website, Gannett (the part that’s formerly GateHouse Media) has agreed to sell the paper to a group put together by editor and publisher Marianne Stanton and a local businessman named David Worth.

I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton. I think it’s pretty cool, too.

No sooner did I tweet about this than I learned that Gannett had also sold The Pine Bluff Commercial to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is itself independently owned. So maybe it is a trend. Or a mini-trend.

Meanwhile, the perpetually downsizing Gannett continues to struggle. Chief executive Mike Reed announced last week that the chain would embark on another round of voluntary buyouts.

So if you’d like to acquire the Gannett paper in your community, it sounds like it might be a good time to make an offer.

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Anatomy of a smear: How Rudy Giuliani’s latest Biden ‘drug deal’ (almost) went mainstream

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Palácio do Planalto.

It was last Friday at precisely 9:24 p.m. that the New York Post’s unverified and possibly false story linking Joe Biden to his son Hunter’s unseemly dealings in Ukraine crossed the line from conspiracy theory to fodder for mainstream discourse.

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The king of ‘pink slime’ journalism is back, this time boosting Republicans

The proliferation of Republican-backed, secretive local-news sites is not a new story. We’ve talked about it on “Beat the Press” several times. Just a few weeks ago, I had to do some research to determine whether a digital newspaper I was writing about might be one such site. (It wasn’t.)

But a front-page story in today’s New York Times takes an unusually deep dive into the phenomenon. Davey Alba and Jack Nicas report that about 1,300 of these sites are under the control of Brian Timpone, “a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades.”

Alba and Nicas carefully document what looks like something awfully close to “pay to play.” For instance, a Republican congressional candidate from Illinois named Jeanne Ives has paid Timpone’s operations $55,000 over the past three years. “During that time,” they write, “the Illinois sites have published overwhelmingly positive coverage of her, including running some of her news releases verbatim.” (Ives claims the money was for web services and Facebook ads rather than for favorable coverage.)

For me, the wildest angle was learning that Timpone is the guy who was behind Journatic, a much-loathed project that produced automated local news stories as well as content using grossly underpaid, out-of-town reporters — including cheap Filipino workers who wrote articles under fake bylines. As I wrote in 2012, Journatic’s work product was widely known as “pink slime” journalism, and it’s hard to see how Timpone’s news project is much better.

The new pink slime — which I should say is not limited to Republican sites, though they seem to comprise the overwhelming majority of them — takes advantage of the collapse of local news and the rise of news deserts throughout the country. Unsuspecting readers are no doubt grateful to run across some local news, and it’s only later (if at all) that they find out they’re reading propaganda. In that sense, Timpone’s operations are similar to Sinclair Broadcasting, which promotes a right-wing line but which, unlike Fox News, does so under the cover of a network of local television stations.

According to the map accompanying the Times story, there are 16 such pink-slime sites in Massachusetts. I’d love to see a list, and will add one if someone can point me to it.

Update: Here is the national list of sites associated with Timpone. Massachusetts is on page 6. Thanks to Aaron Read.

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Beyond ‘court packing’: Repairing the Supreme Court in an era of minority rule

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Previously published at GBH News.

Last spring I warned that the media might seek out dubious issues to even things up if former Vice President Joe Biden built a substantial lead over President Donald Trump. So far we haven’t seen much of that. But Biden’s reluctance to say whether he would try to expand the size of the Supreme Court has proved to be something of a speed bump for the Biden-Harris campaign.

“Harris Dodges Questions on Support for Supreme Court Packing at Debate,” said CBS News following Sen. Kamala Harris’ encounter with Vice President Mike Pence. “Biden and Harris Need an Answer on Court Packing,” proclaimed The Atlantic. And they were hardly alone. (Thanks to Eric Boehlert’s newsletter, Press Run, for rounding up the headlines.)

The problem with this focus on “court packing” isn’t that it’s not a legitimate issue. We would all like to know if a Biden administration would seek to add seats. What’s really at issue, though, are matters of language and context.

“Court packing” sounds like an abuse of power rather than something the president and Congress can do as a matter of law. The context, of course, is that the Republicans, under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, stole one court seat by refusing to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, even though the nomination came months before the 2016 election. And now McConnell is on the verge of stealing a second seat by ramming through the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg even as ballots in the presidential election are already being cast. Yet it is Biden who is facing questions.

“What makes this so especially bizarre,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson in her newsletter, Letters from an American, “is that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who have made the courts the centerpiece of their agenda and have packed them with judges who adhere to an extremist ideology.”

Once Barrett has been confirmed, and there is little doubt about that, Trump will have named three of the nine justices under the most undemocratic, unrepresentative circumstances imaginable.

As we all know, Trump lost the popular vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 48% to 46%, a margin of more than 2.8 million. What’s less well known is that Republican senators represent fewer people than Democratic senators even though they hold the majority.

During the 2017-’08 session, for instance, when Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were confirmed by slim margins, (54-45 and 50-48, respectively), the Senate’s 50 to 52 Republicans (the number changed several times) represented about 44% of the country’s population. Democrats and independents who caucus with them represented 56%. The 53 Republicans who will decide Barrett’s fate represent less than 47% of the country. (Click here for a chart breaking down the numbers. The 2017-’18 figures are based on 50 Republican senators.)

If you’re thinking this is not how we ought to conduct business in a democracy, well, you’re right. And yet there is reason to doubt that modern Republicans even support the idea that the majority ought to rule. Last week, for instance, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tweeted a message right out of the authoritarian playbook: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

And sure enough, new research by psychology professor Bob Altemeyer and Nixon administration alumnus John Dean shows that Trump supporters are increasingly eschewing elections in favor of the strongman system of government, according to The Washington Post. For instance, about half of Trump supporters agreed that “once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.”

Which brings me back to where I started. A president who lost the popular vote will have nominated three Supreme Court justices, confirmed by a Senate controlled by a party that represents millions fewer Americans than the opposition Democrats. Two of those three justices, Gorsuch and Barrett, will owe their presence to Republican norm-shattering. And Republican support for democracy in general appears to be waning.

Given all that, the possibility that Biden may seek to enlarge the size of the court sounds like a good move.

Several years ago I offered a few ideas on how to fix the court — to repair the damage done by McConnell and restore its image as a trusted institution. The court is still in drastic need of fixing. So let me offer a few more — none original with me, but proposals I’ve gleaned following the death of Justice Ginsburg. More than anything, the court has become too important. The following steps would make every vacancy less a matter of life and death than it is now.

First, if Barrett is confirmed, Biden is elected president and the Senate flips to blue, Democrats should expand the court by two members. Some progressives have argued for four new seats, but that would be an overreach. Two new seats would restore the ideological balance of the court that existed before Justice Scalia’s death. Perhaps the number could move back to nine over time.

Second, justices should be subjected to term limits. Eighteen years sounds about right.

Third, each president ought to get the same number of picks per term. Two? If a president is re-elected, then yes, they’d get four picks, which is a lot. But the problem now is that there isn’t enough turnover, and what little there is takes place mainly because of death.

I’ll leave it to better minds than mine to figure out how to square two picks per term with an odd-numbered court of either nine or 11 members.

Our system is profoundly broken. The challenges we face don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. Applying the one-person, one-vote rule that is at the heart of democratic governance, for example, would require major constitutional changes in the form of abolishing the Electoral College and changing the way we choose senators. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

So let’s move beyond the gotcha issue of whether Joe Biden wants to “pack” the Supreme Court. We can reform the court by turning down the temperature and moving it out of its current central role in our political culture. Expanding the size of the court, perhaps temporarily, as well as imposing term limits and guaranteeing a regular rotation of justices, might return us to the days when all but the most extreme nominees were confirmed with consensus support.

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Bret Stephens takes on the 1619 Project — and comes out on the losing end

Let me wade ever so gently into New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ latest, in which he joins legions on the right in trashing his own newspaper’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project. Since I’m a firm believer in the adage that if there’s something rotten floating around the top of the barrel you need not go fishing underneath to see if there’s something better, I’ll just point to this one passage. Stephens writes:

Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):

“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”

Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:

“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”

In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.

Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises.

Pardon the long excerpt, but I wanted you to get the full context. Now, was anyone who read the original text somehow fooled into thinking that the United States was actually founded in 1619? Did anyone go running to Wikipedia to double-check on that 1776 thing? Of course not. It is ludicrous to think that the idea of 1619 as our country’s founding year is anything other than “a metaphoric argument,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones, who conceived of and produced the project, argues.

Echoing President Trump, Stephens complains that this supposedly adulterated history is being taught to school children. Well, the obvious response to that is that maybe the editors decided to tweak the language a bit because they knew kids who haven’t been exposed to this history might, in fact, take the 1619 date literally. So what?

All of this is pretty rich coming from Stephens, who less than a year ago offered a cryptic quasi-endorsement of the idea that Ashkanazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than others, and then got off with an Editor’s Note that didn’t quite acknowledge what he had done, as Jack Shafer of Politico pointed out at the time.

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