Charlie Baker’s missed opportunity

Walt Whitman in 1863. Photo via the Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images.

I thought Gov. Charlie Baker missed an important opportunity at the end of his State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday night. Instead of calling out those among his fellow Republicans who’ve decided to support Donald Trump’s deadly insurrection, or announcing that he’s leaving the Republican Party to become an independent or to start something new, he — what?

Besides putting COVID in the rear-view mirror once and for all, my biggest wish for 2021 is for all of us to take Walt Whitman’s charge to heart. Be curious — not judgmental.

This was preceded by “Before I close, I want to offer some thought on the mood of the nation and the events of the past year.” And then he went into a long spiel about “Saturday Night Live,” social media and Walt Whitman. To put it mildly, he failed to deliver on the expectations he had raised. And it’s OK to be judgmental about a failed coup attempt.

Is President Biden senile? Peter Baker of The New York Times wants to know.

I suspect we’re going to see a lot of this as mainstream journalists, terrified of being accused of bias, seek to even up the score after four years of covering the worst president in our history. In his lead story on President Biden’s inauguration, Peter Baker of The New York Times writes:

At 78, Mr. Biden is the oldest president in American history — older on his first day in office than Ronald Reagan was on his last — and even allies quietly acknowledge that he is no longer at his prime, meaning he will be constantly watched by friends and foes alike for signs of decline.

What on earth is that supposed to mean? Not only is it unsourced, but we have no idea about the nature of those sources. Close aides? Members of Congress? Some guy who shook his hand at a fundraiser pre-COVID? More to the point, what does it mean that Biden is “no longer at his prime”? It could be anything from not having as much energy as he once did (almost certainly true) to, uh, wandering off at night.

Biden showed no signs of fading during the campaign, and in fact he only grew stronger once he realized he was going to have to fight for the nomination.

If there’s a reason to write a fully reported story on Biden’s mental acuity, then by all means do it. Otherwise, Baker and the Times shouldn’t let themselves be used as a conduit for fishing right-wing talking points out of the sewer and flinging them into the mainstream.

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NPR to GOP official: What peaceful transfer of power?

I’ve been pretty critical of the #bothsides manner in which NPR covers politics. So it’s only fair to point out that Ari Shapiro wasn’t having any of it earlier this afternoon when U.S. Rep. Young Kim, R-Calif., started lauding the peaceful transfer of power.

Shapiro interrupted and reminded her that that’s exactly what we didn’t have this time. Yes, today was peaceful. The post-election period was not — especially two weeks ago.

At last: President Biden and Vice President Harris

That was a deeply moving, even emotional, event. Like many of us, I had waited for this day for four years. We still have a long way to go. But with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office, and with the worst president in history now gone, we have a chance at a new beginning.

Cruel and unusual: Trump’s death penalty rampage demeans us all

Lisa Montgomery

Previously published at GBH News.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been defined by shocking cruelty. Sometimes it’s been deliberate, as with his practice of taking children from the families of undocumented immigrants. Sometimes it’s the result of wanton neglect and cynical blame-shifting, as with his deadly handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s been such a never-ending torrent or horrors for the past four years that some of his misdeeds are in danger of being overlooked. One that we should be focused on, though, is the spree of federal executions he’s ordered during his final months in office.

Starting last July, 13 people were executed — six of them since the election, when Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, who has said he will not use the death penalty once he becomes president. By contrast, there had been only three federal executions since the presidency of John F. Kennedy, all presided over by George W. Bush.

Trump was in such a rush to kill that the final execution, of Dustin John Higgs, was carried out just a few days before Biden’s inauguration. And in a textbook illustration of how inequitably the ultimate punishment is used, Higgs was put to death for killing three women even though it was an associate, Willis Haynes, who shot them to death. Haynes received a 45-year sentence.

Capital punishment is a relic of the past — a barbaric measure not worthy of a decent society. Western Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa and all of South America have either abolished it or no longer use it. Our peers are repressive regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and a handful of others (including, oddly enough, Japan).

And despite our ignominious status as a country that still executes people, capital punishment has been waning even in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“At the end of the year,” the center said in a recent report, “more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.”

Trump, lest you forget, called for New York to reinstate the death penalty following the conviction of five young men in a violent assault against a female jogger in Central Park a generation ago; they were later exonerated. Not much has changed. Trump’s current spate of executions, according to ProPublica, has been marked by stunning breaches of protocol and procedure.

“Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases,” ProPublica reported. “They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as ‘moot’ because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.”

Those who are sentenced to die for their crimes have generally done terrible things. They tend not to inspire much sympathy even from those who oppose capital punishment in the abstract. Yet, occasionally, innocent people are put to death. And even those who are guilty often have complicated backstories.

The New York Times opinion section recently wrote about two especially harrowing cases. One was that of Lisa Montgomery, who was executed on Jan. 13, becoming the first woman to die at the hands of the federal government in 70 years. In 2004, Montgomery cut a baby out of the belly of a pregnant woman who was left to die. It was a horrific murder, the sort of act for which the death penalty would seem to be designed. (Incredibly, the baby lived.)

Yet Rachel Louise Snyder of American University, writing in The Times, painted a picture of Montgomery that was itself so horrendous that it’s hard to accept that justice required her execution. Repeatedly abused sexually by her father and his friends, brain-damaged by repeated blows to the head, Montgomery was a profoundly damaged woman who should have been allowed to live out her life in the custody of federal authorities.

The other case was more typical. Alfred Bourgeois was a Black man, as are a disproportionate share of those who are put to death. He was the subject of a long profile by The Times’ Elizabeth Bruenig, who witnessed his execution on Dec. 11. Bourgeois, too, had done something unimaginably awful — he slammed his 2-year-old daughter’s head repeatedly into the cab of his truck in 2002, killing her.

Yet, according to Bruenig, the reason Bourgeois was sentenced to death rather than life in prison was that he was also accused of having sexually abused his daughter. “Mr. Bourgeois’s lawyers — and there were many over time — were ultimately unable to overcome the lurid accusation,” Bruenig wrote. “Media reports inevitably focused on the appalling notion of a father raping his own toddler.” But according to Bruenig, there was good reason to believe that it never happened.

The Trump nightmare is nearly over. But it didn’t end soon enough for Lisa Montgomery, Dustin John Higgs, Alfred Bourgeois and the 10 other victims of Trump’s bloodlust. Few will mourn them. Yet their deaths in our name are an indelible stain on all of us. Let’s hope the Biden presidency represents real progress toward decency and justice — and not merely a four-year interregnum before we embrace our darker natures once again.

Was Rep. Pressley targeted before the insurrection?

Rep. Ayanna Pressley. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s still much we don’t know about the insurrection on Capitol Hill, but this unexplained development involving U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston, is especially chilling. The Boston Globe reports:

As people rushed out of other buildings on the Capitol grounds, staffers in Pressley’s office barricaded the entrance with furniture and water jugs that had piled up during the pandemic. [Chief of staff Sarah] Groh pulled out gas masks and looked for the special panic buttons in the office.

“Every panic button in my office had been torn out — the whole unit,” she said, though they could come up with no rationale as to why. She had used them before and hadn’t switched offices since then. As they were escorted to several different secure locations, Groh and Pressley and her husband tried to remain calm and vigilant — not only of rioters but of officers they did not know or trust, she said.

This sounds like an inside job — a step taken before the riots to make it easier to harm Pressley in some way. We need to know the details.

A sobering look at the toxic factions in the Trump-era Republican Party

Timothy Snyder. Photo (cc) 2015 by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

A lot of smart people are trying to make sense of last week’s insurrection. Was it an attempted coup? I resisted the label at first on the grounds that there was literally no mechanism by which Congress could be forced to keep Donald Trump in office. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump considered it a coup attempt, and that many of his thugs did as well.

With that in mind, I recommend this piece by Timothy Snyder that’s coming out in next week’s New York Times Magazine. Snyder, a history professor at Yale and the author of 2017’s “On Tyranny,” has written a brilliant analysis of the Republican Party in the Trump era. Reading the whole thing will be well worth your time, but I found two points that he made to be especially clarifying.

The first is whether what we’re looking at is fascism or not. Many of us have been struggling with that ever since Trump rode down the escalator some five and a half years ago. He clearly had authoritarian impulses. But fascism on the order of Franco or Mussolini?

The way Snyder puts it is that Trump’s presidency was defined by post-truth, which amounts to pre-fascism. He writes:

Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves.

If the coup attempt had somehow succeeded, I suppose we would be looking at actual fascism. But it didn’t, partly because enough of our elected officials held firm and prevented it from happening, partly because the mob was so incompetent. As Snyder writes, “It is hard to think of a comparable insurrectionary moment, when a building of great significance was seized, that involved so much milling around.” And yet we now know that some elements of the mob were prepared to take hostages and perhaps worse.

The other useful observation Snyder makes is that the Republicans are dominated by two toxic factions — the “breakers” and the “gamers.” The breakers are led by Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who were (and presumably remain) prepared to tear it all down in order to empower themselves. The gamers are exemplified by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was perfectly happy to exploit the chaos created by the likes of Hawley and Cruz — and, of course, Trump himself — in order to carry out their agenda of tax cuts for the rich and right-wing court appointments as far as the eye can see.

It will be fascinating to see whether the gamers are able to move on and or if instead they have damaged themselves beyond repair. I would love nothing better than for prinicipled Republicans who are neither breakers nor gamers split away and form a new conservative party.

But do they have enough of a critical mass to make a difference? I count senators like Mitt Romney Ben Sasse, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as well as governors like Charlie Baker, Larry Hogan and Phil Scott. You may have their differences with all of them (I certainly do), but, to their credit, they have refused to align themselves with the breakers or, except on occasion, the gamers.

Snyder offers a chilling look at what we may be in for during the next four years:

For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.

The Trump presidency has been awful in ways that we couldn’t have imagined four years ago — and I’m saying that as someone who expected it would be pretty awful. More than anything, we need to take advantage of the pending Biden presidency and Democratic control of Congress to make sure we don’t continue spinning out of control. As currently constituted, the Republicans should never control the levers of power again. We will see whether they have the capability or the willingness to reform themselves.

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Trump’s five years of incitement finally reach their logical end point

I half-expected to wake up this morning hearing martial music on the radio and an announcement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that President Pence would be speaking soon.

Instead, Donald Trump is still president. In the early-morning hours, he finally conceded the race and promised an orderly transition of power to Joe Biden, though he refused to abandon his false assertion that he actually won the election — a toxic lie that led directly to Wednesday’s insurrection.

What led Trump to back down? We can be pretty sure what it wasn’t. Even the rioting and the fatal shooting of a Trump supporter in the Capitol weren’t enough to stop him from releasing an incendiary video in which his call for calm was completely overshadowed by his words of support for the insurrectionists. It was so horrifying that Twitter and Facebook both took it down.

It seems more likely that Trump’s change in tactics came as the result of what The Washington Post described as serious talk among “some senior administration officials” to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him from office before his term expires on Jan. 20. Something like that may have begun Wednesday evening, when Vice President Pence but not Trump was consulted on whether the National Guard should be called out — a clear violation of the chain of command, but understandable under the circumstances.

Trump should be removed anyway. As we saw Wednesday, he is far too dangerous to leave in power even for another day. “The president needs to be held accountable — through impeachment proceedings or criminal prosecution — and the same goes for his supporters who carried out the violence,” The New York Times editorialized. The Post called for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment, arguing: “The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days. Every second he retains the vast powers of the presidency is a threat to public order and national security.”

Naturally, the radical Republicans who continue to support Trump are pointing their fingers at anyone but themselves. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Brit Hume and others have tried to blame the violence on left-wing infiltrators from antifa groups, an absurd and offensive proposition for which there is zero evidence. As Molly Ball of Time magazine put it, “The amazing thing about ‘it might have been antifa’ is that Trump literally summoned these people to DC, spoke at their event, offered to walk them over to the Capitol and then praised them afterward.”

One of the more interesting questions today is whether Trump might face criminal charges for inciting violence, as the Times editorial suggests. Of course, Trump has been inciting his followers for months — for years, even. But the key to criminal charges would be the speech he delivered to the mob shortly before it began its rampage through the Capitol.

According to the Times’ account of his speech, he did not explicitly call for violence, although he indulged in incendiary rhetoric such as “you will never take back our country with weakness.” On the other hand, Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump Jr. — speaking of Republican members of Congress who were not supporting the effort to overturn the election — said, “We’re coming for you.”

An investigation might well conclude that they had crossed the line, and of course it was the president himself who was aiding and abetting such calls. “There’s no question the president formed the mob,” the Times quoted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as telling Fox News. “The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”

There’s so much more that we need to know. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the police essentially enabled the violent Trumpers just months after a massive show of force put down Black Lives Matter rallies. From what I’ve seen, the problem Wednesday is that the police were vastly outnumbered. An overly aggressive response in such a situation could have led to an even greater disaster. But why were they outnumbered? Why was the planning for Wednesday so poor given that we all knew a Trumper mob was descending upon the city?

Needless to say, we also need to know more about Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and Trump supporter who was fatally shot inside the Capitol, reportedly by a Capitol Police officer. Three others also died after experiencing “medical emergencies, according to reports.

Wednesday was a day that will live in infamy as five years of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric reached its logical end point. “What happened at the U.S. Capitol today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

What we need, I suspect, is a new conservative party untainted by Trumpism and led by people of conscience like Romney. The notion seemed absurd even a few days ago. But just as the Republicans supplanted the Whigs in the 1840s and ’50s, it may be time for the Republicans to be supplanted by a party committed to principle and democracy.

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Georgia signals some hope, but Trump madness remains vigorous

The Proud Boys in Washington last month. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Previously published at GBH News.

And so today, at least for a few hours, we descend once again into the madness.

The past four days have been as dizzying as anything we’ve experienced as a nation, and would be seen as such if we hadn’t been dealing for the past four years with the terrible consequences of electing Donald Trump as president in 2016.

On Sunday, we learned that Trump had tried to muscle Georgia’s top election officials into awarding him the state in his ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the November election — surely an impeachable offense, and most likely a federal and state crime as well.

But life as we have come to know it during the Trump era rolled on. Republicans on Capitol Hill continued with their seditious plot to supersede the Electoral College, a tragicomedy upon which the curtain will rise later today. Thousands of MAGA protesters are arriving in Washington to urge them on. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic is out of control, the economy remains in shambles and we learned once again that police officers can shoot a Black man in the back without much in the way of consequences.

And yet.

On Tuesday evening, not long after the polls had closed in Georgia, it started becoming clear that we may be in for a period of — what? Not normality. The radical right, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has properly suggested we label the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, won’t allow for that. But relative calm at least.

It may be no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the George Senate runoff elections was as crucial to our survival as a constitutional republic as the outcome of the presidential election two months ago. As of early this morning, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has defeated the Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, for one of the seats, and the other Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, appears likely to be declared the winner in his race against Sen. David Perdue.

With Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories comes control (barely) of the Senate. Though each party will hold 50 seats, the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, will be able to break tie votes. That would be a big deal in any case, but it looms even larger given the dangerous abyss into which the Republican Party has fallen.

At the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes that “it allows Joe Biden to assemble a government. I think people have been underestimating the likelihood that a Republican senate would simply refuse to confirm major Biden appointees, forcing the President to try to wing stuff together with recess and vacancies act appointments that would themselves become tied up in the courts.”

We can’t underestimate what Biden will be up against once he’s sworn in. On Tuesday night I spent about an hour and a half watching Newsmax, which, along with OANN, has stolen a large chunk of the MAGA audience from Fox News because the journalists at Fox have remained at least somewhat tethered to reality.

Not long after the polls closed, Newsmax analyst Mark Halperin (remember him?) said that if the exit polls were “close to accurate,” then the Republicans would win. But an hour or so later, as it started to become clear that Republican turnout in Georgia wasn’t going to be enough to keep Perdue and Loeffler in office, the talking heads started to lay out the case that the results would be illegitimate.

For instance, Dick Morris (remember him?) took solace in figures that showed about 2 million early voters in Georgia had done so in person whereas just 1 million had voted by mail. “It’s a lot easier to fake mail-in voting than in-person voting,” he said, dumping a few buckets of poison into the well.

Another guest, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a leader of today’s rebellion against reality, actually called on the Senate not to seat Warnock and Ossoff even if they won. “It’s one thing for those ballots to be accurately counted; it’s another thing as to whether those ballots are legal,” he said, claiming without any evidence that there were “a massive number of illegal ballots in the system.”

Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka (remember him?) tied the Senate race and the presidential election together by claiming “election fraud and quote unquote irregularities” and citing disproven allegations of votes being “pulled out from under tables.” Gorka also demonstrated a Trumpian facility for childish insults, calling Ossoff a “milquetoast Beto” and a “Justin Trudreau knockoff” and Warnock an “utter, utter radical.”

We can’t underestimate the effect of all this on the 40% of the public that remains in thrall to Trump and Trumpism. Whereas elite conservatives like Rich Lowry (“Republicans have likely lost control of the Senate, but will have the consolation prize of being able to marinate for hours tomorrow in delusional schemes”) and Tom Nichols (“the majority of the Republican Party and its apologists are advocating for the overthrow of an American election and the continued rule of a sociopathic autocrat”) rage against the president, Trump’s supporters have directed their own rage at the legitimately elected government of the United States.

Or as the pro-Trump conspiracy site Gateway Pundit puts it: “Pray for Vice President Pence to make the correct decision and save our nation from corrupt banana-republic elections that will undoubtedly be our future if this election is allowed to stand.”

Today’s attempted coup will end in failure. According to most reports, there will be more than enough Republican senators who’ll join with their Democratic colleagues to stop the madness. And if that doesn’t work, the Democratic House will put an end to it. But even with Republicans out of power in the House, the Senate and the presidency, we remain in a dangerous moment.

“America is in a precarious spot,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson. “But Americans have finally woken up. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and people are now speaking up, demanding that our leaders listen to us, and insisting that officials as well as ordinary Americans answer to the law.”

Crucial to navigating that future will be the role of the media. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that much of the press would like nothing better than a return to the good old days — Democrats versus Republicans, balance and a retreat from the activism it embraced during the worst of the Trump presidency.

“Powerful forces favor a restoration,” Rosen writes. “It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.” He adds: “Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back.”

In theory, I agree with Rosen that the media can’t go back to the way things were. In practice, I’m not sure what that looks like. Already, I’ve seen pushback against normal journalistic vetting such as Politico’s recent story about the millions of dollars in corporate speaking fees earned by Biden’s choice for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen. I’m sorry, but that’s a perfectly fine story as long as we don’t make too much of it.

What I’d like to see is a refusal to take the Republicans’ bait on phony Democratic scandals (Hunter Biden, anyone?); a willingness to cover the Republicans in good faith when they act in good faith, but an equal willingness to denounce radical measures not based in reality; and an unwavering defense of democracy.

Fourteen more days.

Georgia election official sends a message to Trump

Fairly dramatic exchange a few minutes ago between CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Gabriel Sterling, a leading election official in Georgia and a Republican who publicly debunked President Trump’s false claims of election fraud on Monday.

Blitzer: “It has not been easy for you, it’s not been easy for him [Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger], when you are so repeatedly and needlessly, ridiculously attacked by the president of the United States. If he’s watching us right now, what’s your message to him?”

Sterling: “Mr. President, you already lost here in Georgia. And the thing now is, no matter what you say, you can’t undermine the people of Georgia’s integrity to know their voting system works and their vote is going to count at the end of the day one way or another how this election comes out.”