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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, R.I.P.

I have nothing to say personally about this remarkable woman and her remarkable life, apart from what I briefly wrote in my February 2019 post on the biopic of her, ‘On the Basis of Sex’ (go here and scroll down). For remembrances that I’ve come across since her death yesterday, see in particular the ones by historian Heather Cox Richardson (in her indispensable daily newsletter ‘Letters from an American’), The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, and (via Twitter) Elizabeth Warren.

This is the eventuality that liberals and progressives have been dreading since November 9, 2016, of Trump filling a liberal vacancy on the Supreme Court and thereby locking in an ultra-conservative majority for a generation—and with consequences too horrible to contemplate (repealing Roe v. Wade, returning to the Lochner era in regard to business regulation, gutting environmental legislation, further reinforcing the anti-majoritarianism of the electoral system, undermining civil liberties, and you name it). Mitch McConnell may well get away with it,`12 though this is not etched in stone. There is an outside chance that four or more Republican senators (we know their names) may not agree to hold a vote before the election, or during the lame duck session, to replace RBG. The situation is fluid, as The Nation’s Jeet Heer concluded in a trenchant Twitter commentary; we can’t know today how this is going to play out—except that it has, as Politico headlines, “[blown] up the 2020 campaign,” and with, as Ryan Lizza submits, the prospect of “turbocharg[ing] the politics of procedural radicalism.”

The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last, in a typically sharp analysis, says that RBG’s death 45 days before the election “may be—forgive the mixed metaphor—the black swan that breaks America’s back.” In this vein, Last’s Bulwark associate, Charlie Sykes, writing in his ‘Morning Shots’ newsletter on “RBG and the coming crisis: We could avoid the bloodbath but we probably won’t,” offers these thoughts:

Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t possibly get worse, we are about to see one of the ugliest political fights of our lifetime. It will leave scars not just on our politics, but also on the culture, and the legitimacy of the Court itself.

If you’ve been working on your ‘Worst Case Scenarios,” you’re going to have tear up and start over. If you’ve been playing at home, it’s possible that your 2020 Apocalypse Bingo card is nearly filled up.

The court vacancy obviously has long term consequences for abortion, voting rights, the environment, immigration, and the next generation of jurisprudence. But TrumpWorld is already gaming out the implications of 4-4 or 5-3 split in a contested election this year. All the planets and meteors of death are coming into alignment.

Of course, the coming bloodbath could be avoided if calmer, reasonable heads prevailed. But who are we kidding? This is 2020 and these fights always seem to bring out of very worst. (…).

Never Trumper Sykes does take care to avoid both-sidesism, as the very worst will, as we know, come exclusively from one side. There is no dirty pool on the D side of the aisle, not on this matter at least. But if Trump and McConnell succeed in ramming through RBG’s replacement before January 21st, the Democrats, should they win back both the White House and Senate—a prospect that may well be further enhanced by D voter rage and mobilization—will have no choice but to enlarge the SCOTUS, plus expand the lower federal courts by 70 to 100 new judgeships, as John Dean (of Watergate fame) has tweeted. Dean and others are talking about 2 extra SCOTUS justices, bringing the total to 11, though Norm Ornstein correctly calls for 13 justices, i.e. adding 4, to “right the wrongs from Garland and RBG.”

Will Biden, Schumer & Co have it in them to play hardball with the Republicans? To enact any of the Dems’ program, they will most certainly have no choice. And they’ll have to strike early in a Biden administration and start adding the justices, while offering the Republicans a deal: to stop at 2 if they agree to end life terms of all SCOTUS and federal judges, including those currently serving (I read a savant article some time ago by a jurist—I’ll have to find the reference—positing that such a reform would not require a constitutional amendment). I’ve been arguing the principle for years, posting on it a couple of times 8-9 years ago. Most of those who share my view call for a single 18-year term. I go for 12-year renewable terms (and a mandatory retirement age of 75), with nominations staggered every year or two—and beginning immediately, with current justices up for renewal (or retirement) in order of seniority. I can’t imagine that anyone could object to such a reform on principle.

À suivre.

 

55 days to go

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Fifty-four days, in fact. Political scientist and well-known specialist of populist movements Takis S. Pappas, who is presently at the University of Helsinki, has published an essay on his blog, “Why Trump is likely to get re-elected: A populism expert’s view,” and which he posted on his Facebook page. I had to respond to it (before reading me, please read him). I’ve said much of this before but here goes:

Your last sentence is key: “since no two cases in history are exactly the same, no history’s rule is binding.” The USA differs from the other 8 cases you cite, in that, among others, it has had regularly scheduled, quadrennial elections for the past 230 years and the results of which have been accepted as legitimate. To include the USA in a study of “lands of populism” is debatable (if the USA, why not the UK too, what with Brexit and the Trump admirer Boris Johnson?) In regard to the populist candidate’s victory in 2016, it cannot be stressed enough that this was a *freak accident*. Though a small number of clairvoyant persons predicted a Trump victory, absolutely no one foresaw him winning the electoral college, and by the margin he did, while losing the national popular vote by over 2%. This was unprecedented in US history. To repeat, no pollster, politico, pundit, or political scientist saw this one coming.

Since 2016, Trump’s populist party (the Republicans) has lost almost every intermediate and other by-election. If it weren’t for the anti-majoritarian features of the American electoral system—notably the electoral college, which now structurally favors the Republicans—Trump’s defeat this November would be a foregone conclusion. Since taking office in January 2017, Trump has never, not once, exceeded 47% approval in the polls (the average of them at a given moment). His approval rating has flat-lined at 40-43% for most of the past 3½ years, with the percentage disapproving of him (and strongly so) 10 to 15 points higher. An incumbent in a presidential system simply cannot win reelection with numbers like these—unless the opponent is an extremist and even more unpopular (e.g. France in 2002, and even that was an accident) or the system is rigged.

In this respect, if every registered voter who wishes to cast a vote in the November election is able to do so, and whose ballot is then properly tabulated, Biden will win and Trump will lose. This is a near certainty. The only way Trump can win is through voter suppression (with methods perfected by the Republican Party in a number of states, including key swing ones, not to mention manipulation of the US Postal Service; a phenomenon that makes the USA a true outlier among liberal democracies). For Trump to win 270+ electoral votes without voter suppression, he would have to lose the national popular vote by 3% or less, which is conceivable, though would have to be preceded by a dramatic shift in public opinion in his favor in the closing stretch of the campaign, which is, objectively speaking, most unlikely (particularly in the absence of a scandal or major negative revelation concerning Biden). Unless the polling on Trump over the past four years has been way off (which it was not in 2016, so why would it be now?), Biden is on track to win the national popular vote—provided the election is fair across the board—by at least 4 to 5 points, which will all but guarantee victory in the electoral college. If Biden maintains his present margin—7.8% today at FiveThirtyEight.com (which, FYI, is 0.1% greater than George Bush’s margin over Michael Dukakis in 1988)—he will win an electoral college landslide.

N.B. Since Biden declared his candidacy a year-and-a-half ago, he has never not led Trump in the polls, and by several points. And since early June, he has been at 50% or higher (something Hillary Clinton never achieved in 2016).

On your enumeration of Biden’s weaknesses, I don’t think any of them withstand scrutiny. The Democratic Party has its usual divisions—as a big tent party of the center and left, since when has it not?—but they are not so pronounced this year. The unity of the party behind Biden has, in fact, been quite remarkable (see, e.g., Bernie Sanders’ full-throttled support of Biden at the DNC). On Biden not being “charismatic,” so what? Since when has it taken charisma to beat charisma? As for Trump’s “law and order” demagoguery, there is, at least so far, no sign that this is working for him. In fact, it may well be working against him. And on the “vision thing” (borrowing from G.H.W. Bush), Biden and the Democrats have a detailed program for change (which Trump & Co are trying to tar as “radical left”). However one wants to see Biden on this, what vision is Trump offering except for four more years of himself? As he is the incumbent, the election will be about that and him.

On the chance of a Biden electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points, Nate Silver, in a Sep. 2nd tweet, has this:

0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%

To be continued.

UPDATE: Takis Pappas responded to me on Facebook:

The trouble, as I see it, is that Trump’s “vision thing” resonates among that “society thing” that America has become in recent years. The country is quite different from what it used to be during most of the past 230 years of political liberalism (which BJ still respects, hence the difference with Trump). I don’t know if Trump’s 2016 win was a “freak accident,” as you say. What I do know, though, if that the four years of his rule have been freakish and have cultivated a freakish mentality that that will get expressed in this freakish election. Pollsters cannot capture most of that! On the other hand, one can easily predict that, in typical populist fashion, Trump has planned his campaign around winning swing states for attaining 270+ electoral votes. To this purpose, he will employ the state mechanism and his powers for discouraging voters from voting, suppressing, and any other type of electoral trickery. Polarization is only to his advantage. Anyways, if Trump’s America is comparable to other known cases of populism, as I believe and have written some about, then I also think that there there are lessons to be learned.

And my rejoinder (Sep. 10th):

You’re right about one thing, which is that the Trump campaign is entirely focused on crossing the 270 EV threshold—Trump’s henchmen know that he has no chance of winning the popular vote—and will pull out all the stops to get there, including voter suppression, trickery, breaking norms and even laws, abject demagoguery, and you name it. As more than one pundit has observed, Trump is not so much trying to win reelection as he is to stay in power, as the personal consequences to him of losing—in view of the almost countless lawsuits that will await him—are potentially calamitous. It is likewise for the Republican Party and its plutocratic donor class, for whom a loss of the Senate, in addition to the White House, is almost unthinkable. So it looks like we don’t differ on Trump’s sole path to victory.

You’re also right in suggesting that pollsters can’t capture everything. There’s a fair amount of guesswork in the likely voter screens and we’ve learned that certain major polling institutes were underestimating the number of less educated white voters. The latter has been rectified, presumably at least. But like I said, it is really very unlikely that the polls (the mean as calculated by 538) are seriously misfiring, e.g. having Biden at, say, +7 when he may, in fact, only be at +2.

American society is certainly different from what it was 60 years ago but when it comes to the party system, the big change has taken place within the Republican Party, which has gone from a big tent party spanning the center to the hard right, to one entirely dominated by the hard right, with its erstwhile liberal and moderate conservative wings having vanished and mainstream conservatives capitulated to the reactionaries and populists. How this came about I discussed in my September 2017 post “How the Republican Party went crazy.”

What has in effect happened to the Republican Party is that it has become “Southernized,” assuming the ethos and world-view of the Old South. One cannot make sense of American politics without understanding the specificity of the South—i.e. the states of the Confederacy—which has been hostile terrain for liberal values and where one-party rule has always been the norm. The American South has not only been an outlier among democracies but was the most quasi-feudal region in the western world into the 20th century. All one needs to do is look at voter participation rates before the 1965 Voting Rights Act; e.g. in presidential elections in South Carolina to the 1940s, the percentage of the adult population that voted was in the single digits (and with the Democratic candidate receiving in the mid to high 90%), signifying that not only were black voters disenfranchised but many (poor) whites as well. Until the civil rights era, the Solid South was, of course, dominated by the Democratic Party. In the national party, though, the Southern Democrats were only one bloc among others. But when southern whites defected to the Republicans—and with a dominant GOP replacing the Democrats at the state level—their world-view eventually became hegemonic in the party, far more so than it was in the pre-1960s D party. This is the reality of American politics today and will remain so for a long while to come.

If one hasn’t seen it, do read the op-ed (Sep. 8th) by NYT editorial board member Jesse Wegman, “The Electoral College will destroy America.”

2nd UPDATE: With 50 days to go (Sep. 13th), Biden is maintaining his lead at +7.2. Unless there’s a big game-changer between now and November 3rd—an October Surprise is always possible, of course (e.g. the Comey letter in 2016)—Biden is likely to win the popular vote by more or less this margin. One thing that has not been much mentioned in election analyses is third-party or other candidates, who were a factor in 2016. Here is the cumulative total vote as a percentage for minor party candidates in the past five elections:
2016: 5.7%
2012: 1.7%
2008: 1.4%
2004: 1.0%
2000: 3.7%

The figure this year will no doubt be much closer to that of 2012 than 2016—and with potential third-party votes going to the candidate challenging the unpopular incumbent, as tends to happen. In 2016, 136M people voted. If we assume that 150M vote this year—a big “if” given the pandemic, though an otherwise realistic prediction in view of the 2018 midterm turnout—we’re looking at a Biden-Trump result on the order of 52.5%/45.5% (and ≈ 78M/68M votes; N.B. Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote in 2008 and 51.1% in 2012). With this margin Biden will obviously win the Electoral College in a walk, netting 350 EVs if he takes every state that Hillary Clinton came within 5 percentage points of winning. Realistic? On verra.

3rd UPDATE: Writing in The Guardian (Sep. 13th), John S. Gardner, who was special assistant to George H.W. Bush and deputy assistant to George W. Bush, reviews (favorably) historian Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (Oxford University Press, 2020). See also historian Randall J. Stephens’ review of Richardson’s book in The Washington Post. And if one has some time, listen to discussions with Richardson on C-Span and Bill Moyers on Democracy.

65 days to go

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

Sixty-three days, actually. The Republican national convention has come and gone, with Democrats—including many friends and family—wringing their hands, wetting their beds, and otherwise flipping out over a modest Trump “bounce” in two post-convention polls, plus dreadly fearing that masses of white people across the heartland will flee into his arms following the unrest in Kenosha, a smallish city that the vast majority of Americans outside the state of Wisconsin and maybe northern Illinois had never heard of ten days ago.

First, the RNC, which I watched some of the speeches of, mainly the first two nights (though not Trump; that’s asking too much). Richard North Patterson, writing in The Bulwark on the RNC’s “[f]our days of staggering cynicism and deceit,” thus began his take:

Though Donald Trump preens like an ersatz Mussolini, to compare his convention to fascist theater from the 1930s would be to stretch responsible historical analogy. But they share a depressingly familiar fusion of lies, anger, paranoia, erasures of reality, toxic insularity, and blind fervor for a nihilistic leader who brooks no dissent.

Over four evenings, we witnessed a cult of personality rooted in mythologizing a mendacious pseudo-populist so irretrievably self-obsessed that he is redefining our democracy by inflaming the basest instincts of his followers.

To get an idea of the “basest instincts.” just watch Kimberly Guilfoyle’s screamfest, followed shortly after by that of her boyfriend, Donald Trump Jr, who IMHO should work on his delivery if he’s going to succeed his father as GOP caudillo (ex-GOPer Rick Wilson, remarking that “cocaine” was trending on Twitter during Don Jr’s speech, observed that he does indeed give the impression of having had “too much blow”). Then there was the gun-toting McCloskey couple from St. Louis, whose address to the convention is a must-see in order to fully grasp the Zeitgeist of today’s Republican Party. The Le Pens—père, fille, and petite-fille—would certainly find the McCloskey’s prestation a little on the extreme side.  And to get an idea of the R party’s future, check out the speech by Angry Young Male Charlie Kirk (who, oy vey, is almost exactly the same age as my daughter), whom many liberals and progressives have likely never heard of but is a mega-star in the MAGA world.

In a commentary in The Bulwark, “Who was Trump talking to? Hint: Probably not you,” #NeverTrump Lincoln Project co-founder Reed Galen submitted:

The Republican convention featured mostly Donald Trump, his family members, and his most obsequious aiders and abettors—Mike Pompeo, Kellyanne Conway, Matt Gaetz. The RNC had no interest in reaching Democrats, independents, or anyone who might be persuadable. The rhetoric was so over the top that they weren’t even trying to reach Trump-skeptical Republicans.

So whom were they speaking to? Exactly the same 28 percent to 32 percent of the country who live in the Trump-Fox-Bannon-Limbaugh flywheel of doom. That’s it. Trump has literally no interest beyond those who follow him unconditionally. Anyone else, to his gangster’s mind, is not worthy of his attention. Just ask blue state residents.

It was, in fact, not precisely the case that the Republican convention was addressing the sole MAGA world, witness the numerous speakers of color the first two nights, beginning with the high-profile South Carolinians Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, who talked like mainstream Republicans from twenty years ago. And then there were Afro-Americans Vernon Jones, a Trump-supporting D state rep from Georgia (who’s somewhat controversial down his way, as one learns here); Kim Klacik, the sacrificial R candidate in Maryland’s 7th CD (but whose critique of the way the Democrats have governed cities was not without merit, so argued TNR’s progressive staff writer Osita Nwanevu); 1980s-90s football star Herschel Walker, who spoke of his 37-year friendship with Trump, who, he reliably informed us, does not only not have a racist bone in his body but downright likes black people (who knew?); and convicted bank robber Jon Ponder, who found God and Jesus and became a Good Man—and whom Trump pardoned live during the convention (one wonders if Ponder would have been invited to speak to the RNC—and received his presidential pardon—had he taken his righteous path but in finding Allah and Muhammad instead). As far as publicity stunts go, the Ponder pardon was pretty shameless, as was the immigrant naturalization ceremony at the White House (the immigrants not knowing they were going to be RNC props). But while the Republicans’ diversity mise en scène may have been “all tip and no iceberg,” as a TDB piece by commentator-author Sophia A. Nelson headlined, it was likely effective with at least some of its target audience, which was suburban Republican women who had drifted away from Trump, particularly over his management of the pandemic and then George Floyd and BLM, and are looking to “come home,” but with assurances that he is not a racist. So if there’s a post-convention Trump bounce, this is where it’s coming from. To this one may add the small, but not negligible, number of black men who have been giving Trump favorable ratings, more so than they normally would a Republican.

There was much comment on the Republicans, for the first time ever for any party, not publishing a platform at their convention. But it is, in fact, not the case that they do not have a platform or program, as David Frum explained in The Atlantic. They very much do; they’re just afraid to make it public and to have to defend it, as they know full well that even many of their own voters don’t agree with it, not to mention potential swing voters.

One of the best analyses I’ve read of the RNC, published after its second day, is by the excellent Eric Levitz in New York magazine, “The RNC has made a compelling case for America’s imminent collapse.”

On Dems shitting bricks (direct quote from a friend, who says she’s doing just that) over a perceived tightening of the race and Kenosha rebounding to Trump’s favor, there have been urgent entreaties from all sorts of people that Biden must speak out forcefully against violence by rioters, that he needs to have a “Sister Souljah moment,” if not a “Sister Souljah month,” even while Trump continues to pour gasoline on the fire and cheer on armed vigilante militias, otherwise Slow Joe will lose. The mythical white backlash (which we haven’t actually seen in 50+ years). The fact is, Biden has been speaking out against violence—on all sides—and will continue to do so, but if he were to look like he’s focusing particular attention on rioters—who naturally need to be deplored—and not on where it belongs—on the police and MAGA militias—then he will risk alienating part of his own base, which he can hardly afford to do—but without impressing hypothetical panicky white folks fleeing to Trump. As Jean-Marie Le Pen used to usefully remind us, voters will always prefer the original to the copy.

A reminder: protestors and looters/arsonists are not the same people. And there is, so far as I’ve read, nothing to suggest that Kenosha is an exception. But there is a big problem in Kenosha—and countless other municipalities across America—with law enforcement, witness the police chief there, not to mention the county sheriff (see this video by John Oliver from 9:50, though the whole thing is worth watching), who is—and I weigh my words carefully—an outright Nazi. This cannot last.

À propos, see the column just posted in NY magazine by the liberal, not-left-wing Jonathan Chait, “How Trump brought Nazis into Republican politics.”

In conclusion—for the moment—here’s a tweet by The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent:

Any Dem who hand-wrings to the media about how violence will help Trump is him/herself helping Trump. You’re feeding the storyline that violence is good for him, ie that voters will see him as “strong,” and not as part of the problem, w/o doing a damn thing that’s constructive.

Here’s a better idea, hand-wringers. Draw more attention to the fact that a top strategist for Trump openly and explicitly declared that violence is “better” for him politically, and to the fact that Trump is a *total failure* on safety and law and order.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Joe Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh yesterday (Aug. 31st) was excellent (watch here). He said exactly what needed to be said.

See the spot-on opinion piece in The Washington Post (Sep. 1st) by the Lincoln Project’s Stuart Stevens, “No, Wisconsin won’t make Democrats lose.”

Ex-GOPers Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin, in their WaPo columns (here and here), also tell it like it is.

2nd UPDATE: Joshua Shanes, who is associate professor of Jewish studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at the College of Charleston, has an essay in Slate (Aug. 28th) that is well worth the read, “This was the week American fascism reached a tipping point.”

3rd UPDATE: The Brennan Center for Justice has report (Aug. 27th) by its Liberty & National Security fellow Michael German, “Hidden in plain sight: Racism, white supremacy, and far-right militancy in law enforcement.”

4th UPDATE: A friend has asked what I think of Andrew Sullivan’s August 28th blog post “The trap the Democrats walked right into: If law and order are what this election is about, they will lose it.” Sullivan, pour mémoire, is famous for his “Henny-Penny, the sky is falling!” reactions to fast-moving political events (e.g. one recalls his despairing that Barack Obama had thrown away his re-election prospects in 2012 after his counter-performance in the first debate with Mitt Romney). In this latest piece, he positively flips out. E.g. he offers this:

All this reassurance played out against a backdrop of Kenosha, which was burning, and Minneapolis, where a suicide led to a bout of opportunistic looting, and Washington DC, where mobs of wokesters went through the city chanting obscenities, invading others’ spaces, demanding bystanders raise fists in solidarity, with occasional spasms of violence. These despicable fanatics, like it or not, are now in part the face of the Democrats [emphasis added]: a snarling bunch of self-righteous, entitled bigots, chanting slogans rooted in pseudo-Marxist claptrap, erecting guillotines — guillotines! — in the streets as emblems of their agenda. They are not arguing; they are attempting to coerce. And liberals, from the Biden campaign to the New York Times, are too cowardly and intimidated to call out these bullies and expel them from the ranks [emphasis added].

To call Sullivan’s words here wildly over-the-top would be an understatement. What he says is simply bonkers. If Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity & Co. want to present looters, arsonists, and smashers—who, FYI, do not have known political views, let alone any that can be characterized as “left-wing”—as a face of the Democratic Party, then that is what they will do. There’s not much one can do about it. And the last thing the Biden campaign needs to do is to run a fool’s errand and try to refute the right’s charge. Talk about an exercise in futility.

A fundamental rule of politics, and particularly of electoral campaigns: Do not play your opponents’ game or wade onto their terrain; do not let them dictate your agenda or seize the initiative; do not respond to their demagogic questions; do not let them lead you around by the nose.

This also applies, by the way, to unsolicited advice from media and other pundits.

As for rowdy 20-year-old “wokesters” who importune restaurant patrons in Adams-Morgan, they have, until proof to the contrary, nothing whatever to do with the Democratic Party, so there are no ranks to expel them from.

The guillotine street theater stunt: I found that amusing.

Further down in Sullivan’s jeremiad is this morsel:

And let’s be frank about this and call this by its name: this is very Weimar. The center has collapsed. Armed street gangs of far right and far left are at war on the streets.

That there are armed street gangs of the far right—militias—is an empirical fact. But on the left? Did the protestors and partiers in Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland—or Kenosha—parade around with AR-15s and other such long guns? (As for the 48-year-old wanker in Portland who shot the Patriot Prayer militiaman, he looks to be an outlier with some personal issues). Sullivan’s both-sidesism not only makes no sense but is unacceptable.

The bed-wetting pundit concludes:

But Biden, let’s face it, is weak and a party man to his core, and has surrendered to the far left at almost every single turn — from abortion to immigration to race. You’d be a fool I think, to believe he could resist their fanaticism in office, or that if he does, he won’t be toast in a struggle to succeed him. He remains the only choice in this election. But on the central question of civil order, he blew it last week and so did the Dems. Biden needs a gesture of real Sister Souljah clarity to put daylight between him and the violent left. He has indeed condemned the riots, with caveats. But at some point, the caveats have to go. And the sooner the better.

Sullivan’s characterization of Biden is, to put it charitably, wide of the mark. As I’ve written on the Democratic nominee more than once on AWAV, I don’t need to do so again here. And to speak of a fanaticized left inside the Democratic Party—and to whom Biden will be unable to resist—is so unhinged and disconnected from actual reality that I will not dignify the assertion with a refutation.

On “a gesture of real Sister Souljah clarity,” please read the post on the Wonkette website by Stephen Robinson, “No, white people, Joe Biden doesn’t need a ‘Sister Souljah moment’.” And do take the time to watch the video at the very end.

An impressive woman she was Sister Souljah. Unfortunate that she was cancelled three decades back.

At the present moment (Sep. 2nd), there is no indication that Kenosha is rebounding in Trump’s favor. Au contraire. See, e.g., David A. Graham in The Atlantic, “Kenosha could cost Trump the election: The president thinks that inflaming racial tension and provoking violence will aid his campaign. The numbers suggest otherwise.”

Also see the “Letter from Wisconsin” in Politico by JR Ross, “Trump claims he saved Kenosha. Wisconsin voters aren’t buying it: Wisconsinites might be souring on protests, but so far, they aren’t embracing Trump.”

5th UPDATE: Washington resident Lauren Victor has an op-ed in WaPo (Sep. 4th) that is worth the read: “I was the woman surrounded by BLM protesters at a D.C. restaurant. Here’s why I didn’t raise my fist.” Somehow I doubt that her experience with the wokesters will cause her to vote for Trump.

As to the cris d’orfraie of certain conservatives who have been shocked—shocked I tell you!—at the wokester guillotine stunts, right-leaning libertarian Cathy Young has gone so far as to commit a lengthy blog post, “Guillotine Chic: The new fad on the far left is not cool or funny. Here’s the real story of what it celebrates,” in which she offers up a history of the French Revolution during its momentous 1793-94 period (Young, who grew up in the Soviet Union, says she’s been a “French Revolution nerd since the age of 14,” which I can see, as while I teach the subject as part of survey courses—devoting some 6 to 8 hours to it—she is clearly more intimate with the nitty-gritty details than am I).

While nerd Young must have enjoyed writing her history—it’s always fun to go to town on things we’re passionate about—if her target audience was wokesters or other guillotine apologists, I think she was wasting her time, as (a) it is unlikely that any will have seen and read it (or, if they did, would at all be impressed or rethink their attitude), and (b) the history of France in the 1790s is quite simply irrelevant to anything happening today (and particularly in the USA). As for “la veuve,” given that capital punishment was universal across the world back in those days (though Robespierre was personally opposed, as I imagine just about everyone reading this is), the guillotine was, so I tell my students (American undergrads), invented as a humane way to execute people. It’s swift and does the job 100% of the time. There have, to my knowledge, never been any screw-ups (e.g. of the blade only partially sectioning the neck). Seriously, I ask my students, if you had to be judicially killed, what method would you prefer: the hangman, firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber, chemical injection, or the guillotine? If I had to bite the bullet, as it were, and choose, I think I’d go with “la veuve.” And you, dear reader?

Another thing about the guillotine stunt. Young and other conservatives are taking it literally but for the wokesters, I do think it was, to use a French expression, second degré.

70 days to go

This is a couple of days late, as usual. Last week was the Democratic National Convention, as one is likely aware. Had it not been for the goddamned pandemic, I would have been there, in Milwaukee in mid-July, staying with my childhood best friend in Shorewood. And I surely would have been able to obtain a pass to access the convention floor (as a journalist/blogger or in some other capacity). I was planning on and looking forward to it, particularly as it’s been 19 years since I was last there. It was alas not to be. I grew up in Milwaukee, living there from K through 6th grade, though visiting many times after moving away. I have tender feelings for that city, which I loved as a boy. It is also where I came of age politically, in 1964. I was with my parents when they voted that November 3rd (long paper ballots), at the Hartford Avenue School polling station, which is also where I went to school that year (3rd grade). I recall my indignation overhearing two boys in my class, named Ted and James, saying they (i.e. their parents) were for Goldwater, and being disappointed (following my parents, obviously) at the loss of John Reynolds (D) to Warren Knowles (R) in the Wisconsin gubernatorial election.

And then there was 1968. We were naturally for Eugene McCarthy, for whom I passed out leaflets on at least one occasion (at the UWM campus, where my parents taught; I was in the 6th grade at Campus Elementary School). Lots of vivid political memories of that year: the Tet offensive, LBJ’s address to the nation withdrawing his candidacy for reelection, the King and RFK assassinations, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the DNC in Chicago, which we had on TV while my father was packing us up to move (to Ankara, Turkey).

Voilà a trip down memory lane. In the here and now, I managed to watch some of last week’s convention en différé, which I thought the Democrats pulled off very well in view of the circumstances. Taking the speeches in order (the ones I watched), I thought Bernie Sanders was absolutely excellent, underscoring the authoritarian danger posed by Trump and reiterating his full-throttled support of Joe Biden. He said exactly what needed to be said (if one didn’t see it, watch here). I find the genuine bond between these two elderly men—their manifest appreciation for one another—almost moving. Following Bernie on Monday was Michelle Obama, whose speech (here) was, as everyone knows, rightly praised to the high heavens. If she’s game for it, she’ll be Biden’s logical pick to succeed RBG on the SCOTUS. It will be tough for the Senate Repubs to try to block that one.

On Tuesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got her one minute (96 seconds, in fact), to second Bernie Sanders’ pro forma nomination (required by DNC rules), which she was asked to do (and she was typically tops). Lots of lefties were indignant and upset that the D party establishment looked to be giving her the short shrift—dissing her, in effect—but, while I love AOC, I think the role she played was the right one. There were clearly political considerations, with AOC being a lightning rod for Fox News and the US social media réacosphère; as one pundit put it, the Democrats’ convention spectacle was targeted at the median voter, not the median Democratic Party voter. Given AOC’s star power, a longer speech by her would have drowned out the others and distracted from them. And she is, after all, only finishing her second year in the House. She’ll play a bigger role in 2024 and beyond.

John Kerry, focusing on America and the world (here), was fine, and Bill Clinton was finer (here). There was some objection to the latter even speaking at all, with #MeToo, Jeffrey Epstein, and whatever. Come on, he was a two-term Democratic President of the United States, for crying out loud. And he’s frigging Bill Clinton! GMAB. It was nice to hear from Jimmy and Roselynn Carter (he America’s best former president), now in their mid 90s. But the real star on Tuesday, for me at least, was Jill Biden (here). First time I’ve seen her. She was so impressive. I loved her. What a wonderful teacher she must be. She’ll be a terrific First Lady. As for comparisons with the present one, no comment.

Wednesday’s power lineup included Elizabeth Warren (here), who never disappoints; Nancy Pelosi (here), who was fine; and Hillary Clinton (here), whom various pundits and others dumped on but who I thought was good, as she invariably is. Hillary-bashing continues unabated on the right, center, and left, but which I will never partake in. As for Kamala Harris’s speech (here), I thought she aced it, though there was evidently not unanimity on this. E.g. John Judis, writing on his Facebook page, panned Harris, calling her speech “abysmal” and “cliched,” which even made him “wince.” His thumbs down review of Harris attracted over a hundred comments, with many—including well-known journalists and other names—agreeing with him (though The Nation’s Katha Pollitt, echoing a thought I had, observed that almost all of those who were dumping on Ms. Harris happened to be men). None of the criticisms caused me to rethink my assessment one iota. I like Kamala Harris and was happy that Biden picked her as his running mate—and his putative successor—as she had been my n°1 choice for V-P since it became clear that Biden would be the nominee. Pour mémoire, I wrote about Harris on July 4, 2019, in my post on the Democrats’ first debate. Money quote:

There is a near-total consensus that she was the breakout star of the debate, via her now-famous exchange with Joe Biden but also supremely self-confident, in-charge demeanor. She showed herself to be the prosecutor that she once was. In a debate with Trump, she’ll cut him into little pieces. Some think that her attack on Biden was too calculated—as if politicians on the campaign trail don’t calculate—or overly aggressive (a charge that would likely not be leveled if she were male). (…) As for her positioning within the D party, she’s somewhere between the progressive and establishment/centrist wings. She’s waffled on issues or quickly adapted her position (e.g. on health care). The left is wary of her on account of her record as San Francisco DA and California Attorney General, with a NYT op-ed from January by law professor Lara Bazelon slamming that record—as not progressive—being widely circulated by lefties on social media (also here and here). Harris will need to respond to the critiques. I assume, or at least hope, that she acquits herself well and quels the left. It will not be good if her candidacy hits a wall, because if Warren doesn’t make it, we must have Harris.

After posting the above, I came across a couple of pieces that further increased my esteem for Harris, one by Jocelyn Sears on her personal history, “13 trailblazing facts about Kamala Harris,” the other by Courtney Swanson defending her record as prosecutor, “‘The research on her record: Why Kamala’s time as a prosecutor and Attorney General are a damn good thing’.” There was also the enquête by Ben Terris, “Who is Kamala Harris, really? Ask her sister Maya.”

There have obviously been a slew of articles on Harris since Biden announced his pick two weeks ago. The one in The Washington Post by Dan Morain, a well-known journalist in California, is worth the read: “America is about to see what smart Republicans saw in Kamala Harris years ago.” And the post, which has gone viral, “Kamala Harris’ impression of her Jewish mother-in-law is worthy of an Oscar,” is a must.

I like what TNR’s Walter Shapiro had to say in his “The unlikely bond between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: She’s a natural talent at American politicking, just like he is.” He begins:

What many forget about Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign was that, for the most part, she was a happy warrior. Sure, her slash-and-burn attack on Joe Biden over busing in their first debate last June has become seared in our brains through constant repetition on cable TV.

But that was the exception.

What I remember is a different and more upbeat candidate on the campaign trail, a senator who gleefully laughed at her own jokes. In a speech to a largely Black audience in Florence, South Carolina, in early July of last year, Harris talked about how everyone was “going through individual and group therapy,” trying to grasp what Donald Trump was doing to America.

Instead of rage, Harris offered her own version of hope: “We’re going to be fine.” She harked back to the Founding Fathers and their concept of checks and balances as she stressed, “This is a nation that was founded anticipating a moment just like this.” And her dramatic example was the late John McCain casting a crucial Senate vote to break with Trump and Republican orthodoxy to save the Affordable Care Act.

This is a view of politics that Biden shares. They believe that not all Republicans are beyond salvation—and that our democracy and our values can be saved through individual acts of courage like McCain’s.

Many volumes will be written about why Biden chose Harris. But the truest bond between them may be the simplest: They are both politicians in the best sense of the word. They understand elections, Capitol Hill, and how to be tough without losing your sense of humor.

Could one possibly say such a thing about any Republican today?

Historians Thomas Meaney and Samuel Moyn have a piece in The Guardian, “Kamala Harris is Obama’s natural heir: another moderate child of radical parents.”

And Barack Obama. What to say about his speech on Wednesday? Any number of speeches he’s given over the past sixteen years have been said to be his best ever, and which more than a few are saying about this one. It is indeed possible, as he said what he felt he needed to say, in his trademark understated tone, about the stakes in this election and the grave threat to American democracy in the unthinkable event of a Trump reelection. I am not nostalgic for Obama’s presidency—there were too many frustrations and we needed to move on—but when it comes to gravitas, no American politician in my lifetime rises above him.

On the last day, Thursday, I went straight to the main event, which was, of course, Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. The reviews were unanimous, which is that he hit it out of the park. He couldn’t have been better. I was, as AWAV readers know, opposed to his candidacy until Warren dropped out, on account of his age, having been around too long, and lacking a rationale. But Mr. Biden proved me wrong. He is indeed, at this present moment, l’homme qu’il faut. He has achieved the singular feat of uniting his party behind him. There are no unhappy Democrats right now. Joe Biden is, as I’ve been saying to everyone, a good person (emphasis added). In this, among many other things, he is the utter antithesis of the current resident of the White House. And politically speaking, he is exactly where the Democratic Party needs to be as the general election campaign kicks off.

A note on Tuesday’s roll call vote (here), which I thought came off very well (funner to watch than at a real convention): of the 70-odd persons who spoke from the 57 state and other delegations, around 25 by my count were “white,” which is to say, close to two-thirds were what in America are called “persons of color.” As for the gender ratio, it was 50-50. Just an observation.

As for a platform, the Democrats do indeed have one. They do have policy policy positions. I’ll address that later. in the meantime, see the piece from last May by Vox’s Matthew Yglesias on Joe Biden’s “transformative” policy agenda.

95 days to go

The fire devil. A president sets fire to his country.

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

Ninety-four days actually, until we vote the orange-haired idiot out of office and send him to the proverbial trash heap of history. Everyone knows the polls, which all have Biden winning haut la main, though cautious people naturally caution that things could change over the coming three months, the Electoral College remains skewed in the idiot’s favor, and it ain’t over till it’s over. Sure. But as I’ve been insisting for over two years now—and repeat when asked, which is more than once a week—if every registered voter in the USA—including those who seek to register in good faith before their state’s registration deadline—who wishes to vote on November 3rd—in person or by mail—and is able to do so, and whose ballot is properly tabulated, Biden will win and Trump will lose. Period. It won’t even be close. I say this not based on wishful thinking but on polling data that has been consistent over Trump’s entire term, which has had the idiot’s pre-pandemic job approval rating at 41-43% (according to FiveThirtyEight.com) and has since fallen to 40-41% (and with his disapproval now at 55-56%). There is simply no way an incumbent presidential candidate can win reelection with these poll numbers—and, moreover, with his opponent at a steady 8-9% lead at this stage in the race and hovering at 50-51% (and please don’t bring up Michael Dukakis’s ephemeral post-DNC bounce in July ’88). C’est du jamais vu.

This presupposes, of course, that the election is fair, i.e. that the Republicans do not succeed in their manifold efforts at voter suppression in swing states. This is a risk, though I have been doubtful that they’ll get away with it, as, among other things, the Democrats, whose activist army will be mobilized to the hilt and which is flush with financial resources, will not let that happen. But now there are alarming reports of a real danger to the integrity of the election, involving manipulating the US Postal Service—presently headed by a Trump crony (America really is in Banana Republic territory now)—with the aim of invalidating mail-in ballots (see here and here). Again, I have a hard time imagining that the Republicans will be able to pull this off if it comes to that—la ficelle est une peu grosse and the Democrats will be ready for it—but the danger is there. Trump and the Republican plutocracy will pull out all the stops to stave off defeat, one may be sure of that. What a country the USA has turned out to be.

In lieu of going on with my own thoughts, which would mainly involve repeating what I’ve already said about the orange-haired idiot over the past four years, I will link to two articles in The Atlantic. One is by James Fallows—who has long been one of America’s best longform journalists—”The 3 weeks that changed everything: Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.” I had missed it when it was posted on June 29th but then my friend Claire Berlinski tweeted it earlier this week, with this comment:

[I]n my view this is the best article that’s so far been published about the Trump era…If I were an American history teacher in the year 2120, and if I had to choose one and only one article from the Trump era to introduce the period to my students, I’d pick this one.

The piece is long but well worth the read.

The other, by Anne Applebaum, is dated July 23rd, “Trump is putting on a show in Portland: The president is deploying the kind of performative authoritarianism that Vladimir Putin pioneered.” It may seem passé now that Trump has beat a retreat—the “big loser of the ‘battle’ of Portland,” as Le Monde put it—but is useful in understanding what he was up to in sending federal paramilitaries in their ridiculous jungle fatigues to confront his Blue America enemies.

If one is not familiar with it, I want to highly recommend the Never Trumper webzine The Bulwark, which was founded in 2018 after the demise of The Weekly Standard and whose singular mission is destroying Trump and the Trumpized Republican Party—a party with which almost all of its writers long identified. These folks are not my ideological comrades-in-arms but we are presently objective allies. I receive The Bulwark’s email newsletter two or three times a day and, unlike so many other newsletters that clutter my inbox, I always open this one and read it. I have to hand it to these conservative polemicists—notably Jonathan V. Last, Charlie Sykes, and Tim Miller—they’re terrific writers, have a sense of humor, and, like the Lincoln Project, they have Trump’s number. They know the Republican beast in the way that ex-Communists in the 1950s and ’60s knew theirs. I just hope they’re moving to the center in their views on welfare state issues (e.g. as laid out here by Geoffrey Kabaservice). We’ll see after next January 20th, inshallah.

UPDATE: Watch this 4½-minute ABC News interview (August 4th) with John Thompson, former US Census Bureau chief, on the possible consequences of the Trump regime’s moving up by one month the deadline for completing the 2020 census.

2nd UPDATE: Yale University law and history professor Samuel Moyn has a review essay in The New Republic (August 4th) on how “The Never Trumpers have already won.” The lede: “They’re not trying to save the GOP from a demagogue. They’re infiltrating the Democratic Party.” The book he reviews is Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, by Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles (Oxford University Press, 2020).

3rd UPDATE: The NYT has an enquête (August 6th) by David Leonhardt and Lauren Leatherby on “The unique U.S. failure to control the virus.” The lede: “Slowing the coronavirus has been especially difficult for the United States because of its tradition of prioritizing individualism and missteps by the Trump administration.”

4th UPDATE: If one has the stomach for it, read the bone-chilling explanation in The Bulwark (August 6th) by Dmitri Mehlhorn—an attorney, investor, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Investing in US—on “How to steal an election: Four ways Trump can still win, 89 days out.”

See likewise the report in TNR (August 3rd) by journalists Matthew Phelan and Jesse Hicks, “Inside the Project Veritas plan to steal the election.” The lede: “James O’Keefe’s group is part of a sprawling campaign to delegitimize mail-in balloting in the fall—a campaign being led by the White House.”

5th UPDATE: Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles—who teach political science at the University of Montana and Johns Hopkins, respectively—respond in TNR (August 7th) to Samuel Moyn’s above-mentioned review essay: “Don’t blame Never Trumpers for the left’s defeat.” The lede: “Anti-Trump conservatives didn’t bring down Bernie Sanders. There are other forces pulling the Democratic Party to the center.”

6th UPDATE: William Saletan’s story in Slate (August 9th), “The Trump pandemic: A blow-by-blow account of how the president killed thousands of Americans,” is being praised across the board on social media.

And this by science writer Ed Yong, in the September issue of The Atlantic: “How the pandemic defeated America: A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.”

7th UPDATE: With 85 days to go (August 10th), Richard North Patterson, writing in The Bulwark, cogently evaluates “The ravings of Mad King Trump: On the pandemic, the economy, health care, and his 2020 opponent, he is utterly detached from reality.”

Christopher Dickey, R.I.P.

I was going to post this on Friday. When I learned of his death in the early hours that morning, via this TDB article posted on Twitter, I let out a loud “What?! Oh my god!” I was genuinely shocked and deeply saddened by the news, as were numerous people I know—friends and persons with whom I am friendly, all Anglophone journalists who live or have lived in Paris. It was so sudden, apparently a heart attack; he was 68, which is too young to go, and in full form. I had seen him, as it were, only a few hours earlier on social media. Chris Dickey was the dean of the American press corps in Paris, the longtime grand reporter of Newsweek, then world editor of The Daily Beast, and with frequent appearances on MSNBC and the English service of France 24. He was an excellent reporter, a sharp political analyst—and with an impeccable political outlook—and so well-spoken. I only met him once, in 1994, at the Ritz Bar on the Place Vendôme, where he invited me for drinks, no doubt to talk about Algeria, though we communicated off and on over the years, via telephone, email, and Facebook—and in more recent years, on Twitter, where we followed one another and periodically commented on one another’s tweets. He was present almost daily on Twitter, commenting on the news of the day, regularly posting articles of interest with a simple “Read this,” with me dutifully clicking on the link, and offering his professional-quality photos of Paris.

To get an idea of how devastated people who knew him are, here are a few of the reactions from some of those whom I know, posted on social media:

Leela Jacinto (France 24):

RIP Christopher Dickey. The loss, for me and a whole generation of journalists, is immeasurable. I still can’t believe it even though, over the past few months, I had a heightened awareness of just how much of a treasure, a beloved living icon he was to me, and that this gift I had of his time – of being able to call him & always get a prompt response, superb feedback & so much support – was finite. But his legacy lives on and I’m richer, like so many others, for having known him. Sympathies to his beloved wife, Carol, son, James & the grand-kids.

Vivienne Walt (Time magazine):

Utterly gutted at the loss of Christopher Dickey and I know so many feel the same right now. My thoughts are with all of them. He was my friend, colleague, fellow TV panelist, fellow Overseas Press Club board member, my travel mate in the Iraq War, Egypt revolution, and so many other major stories, my fellow Parisian, and the greatest drink companion after our TV nights. And above that he was the most fantastic, brilliant, insightful journalist one ever could find. All that came from being a great human being. Deep condolences to Carol, his family, the grandkids he adored, and friends and colleagues across the world.

RIP dear Chris. You are irreplaceable. The world is a less sparkly, fun, intelligent place without you.

Craig Pyes:

I’ve just heard the stunning news that my friend and colleague, Christopher Dickey, died suddenly of a heart attack in Paris, where he lived. Chris was a brilliant foreign correspondent, a facile writer, and a superb editor. His father was the poet James Dickey (Deliverance). We initially met in El Salvador in 1982 covering the war, and we remained in touch ever since. In Salvador we bonded over what we called “Garch” (as in Oligarch) jokes, dark humor about the death squads. When I moved to Paris, we saw each other often. And we remained in touch over FB. Life is short, folks. Live it!

Claire Berlinski:

I’m so shocked. I fully expected more lunches with him, more wine, more gossip, more stories. When I last saw him he was as healthy and vibrant as could be. I’m weeping.

Mira Kamdar (formerly of The New York Times):

Shocking. A real loss for journalism and for we Paris anglophone writers. Thanks @csdickey for your curiosity, passion, integrity. Also, I’ll miss your random photos of Paris, a city you so loved.

The NYT obituary is here and from The Washington Post here. And here’s a 4-minute tribute by Brian Williams on MSNBC.

John Lewis, R.I.P.

Everyone is extolling his memory today. Even the Idiot-in-Chief, after a 14-hour silence, felt compelled to have a staffer tweet condolences in his name. That John Lewis was a true American hero goes without saying. To get a sense of his heroism, do set aside two hours of your time and watch the powerful 2010 PBS American Experience documentary Freedom Riders, directed by Stanley Nelson, which may be seen in full on YouTube—and which I just watched myself, having only learned about the film today, via a recommendation on social media.

As one may surmise, its subject is the 1961 Freedom Rides through the South—based on the book by historian Raymond Arsenault—in which John Lewis played a leading role. What incredible courage of the young freedom riders, who knew they were literally taking their lives into their hands once they crossed into Alabama and Mississippi, but refused to cower to the white terror mobs and the local apparatus of state terror that had the mobs’ back. The attitude of the Kennedys—JFK and RFK—toward the Freedom Riders was initially ambiguous, as one knows, but they finally came through in bringing the power of the federal government to bear on Bull Connor, Ross Barnett & Co. One shudders to imagine how matters would have unfolded if Trump and William Barr had been at the helm back then.

There is obviously a slew of articles on Lewis today. The one by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer is good: “John Lewis was an American founder: Without activists like Lewis and C. T. Vivian, America would remain a white republic, not a nation for all its citizens.” C.T. Vivian, with whom I am not so familiar, was a Freedom Rider with Lewis—he figures in the PBS documentary—and, as fate would have it, also died yesterday.

The Élysée is making sure to recirculate a video tweet by Emmanuel Macron, dated April 25, 2018, showing him warmly hugging John Lewis during a visit to Washington. Sympa.

Mrs. America

[update below]

On this Fourth of July, I want to strongly recommend this absolutely excellent nine-episode miniseries that aired this spring on FX on Hulu (in France, on Canal+). The subject is the 1970s campaign against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, a campaign that was entirely conceived and led by the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly—the protagonist of the series—whose success in scuttling the ERA—which would not have happened without her—consecrated her as one of the most consequential personalities on the right wing of the Republican Party of the past fifty years. Schlafly’s single-minded campaign crystallized the right-wing backlash of the time against the challenges (legal, political, and cultural) to gender hierarchies and the emergence of second-wave feminism (“women’s lib”). The anti-ERA movement was, along with the founding in the mid-1970s of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, an important factor in the polarization of societal/cultural issues in American politics along partisan lines—and of moving the Republican Party sharply to the right on these—and to a heretofore unseen extent. Schlafly’s campaign was, in effect, the opening salvo in the culture war that the American right has been waging against liberals and the left ever since.

Similar left-right divisions existed elsewhere at the time, e.g. in France over the Loi Veil, but attenuated. In the United States, it was the opposite, with the culture wars becoming a salient partisan cleavage.

The series begins in 1971 and ends in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. Any American of age in that decade and who had a minimal political consciousness will remember well Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett, who’s terrific in the role), her anti-ERA campaign, and the feminist supporters of the ERA—for Schlafly, the enemy—depicted in the series, notably Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). The series is indeed as much about them—the “libbers”—as it is of Schlafly and her forces. The casting is impeccable. Absolutely excellent. Likewise with the screenplay and writing. There’s obviously fictionalization of some of the characters and situations, not to mention the dialogue—and a few small anachronisms—but the series hues closely to historical events (and one recalls many of them).

A few comments. First, Schlafly was a well-known personality on the hard right flank of the Republican Party—she wrote a best-selling book in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964—but the GOP of the era was a big tent party that included a sizable moderate wing (plus a liberal one), incarnated in the series by Jill Ruckelshaus—one recalls her husband William, a casualty of Nixon’s October 1973 “Saturday night massacre” at the DOJ—who was a supporter of the ERA—along with most of the GOP when the ERA was initially adopted—and adversary of Schlafly. Ronald Reagan himself hedged on the issue; Schlafly, who strongly supported Reagan’s candidacy in the 1980 Republican primary campaign (after initially backing Phil Crane), was angling to be appointed ambassador to the United Nations, but was passed over by Reagan in favor of the Democrat—and ERA supporter—Jeane Kirkpatrick. A Jill Ruckelshaus or wishy-washy Reagan are obviously inconceivable in today’s Republican Party.

Second, the series shows the importance of Republicans in the South to the anti-ERA campaign, which meant confederate flags, the KKK, and references to white supremacy. Schlafly (who was from downstate Illinois) and others around her were uncomfortable with this and tried to hush it up—as they did with members of the John Birch Society in their ranks—but did not repudiate or try to quash it.

Third, Schlafly, who died in September 2016, was a strong supporter of Trump’s candidacy. The title of her final book: The Conservative Case for Trump. Among other things, she saw Trump as defending and incarnating family values. Of course.

The series trailer is here and here.

UPDATE: To get an idea of what America was like in the mid-1970s—on the matter of race, not gender, and in New York City (not Alabama)—watch the video in this NYT article I came across after posting the above.

Municipal elections 2020. Second round. (source: Le Monde)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

The second round of the French municipal elections happened on Sunday, if one didn’t know—which was the case with the near-totality of persons outside France (and no doubt a few inside France as well). E.g. I spoke on Sunday with a friend in the US, who is geopolitically well-informed and knows France well; he had no idea about the elections. Some background. The elections in the country’s 36,000-odd communes—85% of which have a population of less than 2,000—were scheduled for March 15th (first ballot) and March 22nd (runoff). Municipal elections, which happen every six years, are considered France’s most important after the presidential and legislative, generating a high level of interest and with a normally high participation rate (as mayors are the elected officials in closest proximity to citizens and, according to the polls, are the most appreciated). The elections are always a big deal. This one was going to be, entre autres, a particular test for the party Emmanuel Macron created ex nihilo in 2016, La République en Marche (REM), to show that it could sink roots at the local level, which it has entirely lacked. But then the pandemic hit and which dominated the news and public attention during the two week official campaign that preceded the first round, with the government exhorting citizens to wear masks and practice social distancing. The wisdom of even holding the election was called into question and with the government seriously considering postponement, but, receiving the green light from its science and health advisers, decided to go ahead with the first round, mandating mask-wearing and hand-washing in polling stations.

I worked a local polling station that whole day as an assesseur (titulaire), which I’ve done some twenty-five times since becoming a French citizen fifteen years ago. But this time I really had to do it, pandemic or not, as I was a candidate on the united list of the left in my (very right-wing) commune, led by the Parti Socialiste (PS) and with six other left formations (ballot below)—though I had no chance, let alone desire, of being elected to the city council (I also did this in 2008, in my capacity as a member of la société civile, to get an idea from the inside of the dynamics of local elections in France and compare them to my US experiences, and also as I’m friendly with the local Socialists).

Ballot, first round, 15 March 2020.

As it happens, we didn’t break the 10% threshold to qualify outright for the second round (for the first time ever, I believe) and, as negotiations to merge with the ecologists’ list, which qualified by a wide margin, for the second round didn’t work out (not their fault; see below for an explanation of the peculiar electoral system), I was not an assesseur on Sunday. I went to vote, mask and all, c’est tout.

Back to the March 15th first round, the abstention rate hit a historic high at 55% (the previous record, in 2014, was 38%). Not surprisingly, a lot of voters, particularly elderly ones, prudently stayed home on account of the pandemic. How much the low turnout skewed the results can only be speculated on, though it stands to reason that there was some effect. As always happens, the election outcome was settled outright in the first round in the vast majority of communes—86% of them, to be precise—with the winning list surpassing 50%, leaving the remaining 5,000 or so—accounting for some 35% of the electorate, most in the larger municipalities (and almost all the major cities)—to be settled in the second round.

(source: Le Monde)

As the nation was preoccupied with the pandemic, the first round results were an afterthought the next day, mentioned in passing on the news and relegated to the back pages of the papers; when President Macron announced that evening that the confinement, or lockdown, would begin at noon the following day, that obviously meant that the second round could not take place the next Sunday, so it was postponed sine die—though which posed a tricky legal issue, as, according to election law, if the second round is postponed, this annuls the results of the first, meaning the whole thing would have to be done over. The Conseil d’État ultimately ruled that if the second round were held before the end of June, then the results of the first could stand, so it was thus scheduled for June 28th—which looked to be the right thing to do in view of the success (so far) of the deconfinement and flattening of the curve of SARS-CoV-2 infections. The sanitary conditions for the polling stations were even stricter than for the first round, with mandatory masks, only three voters at a time, screens separating the assesseurs, etc. Things went smoothly, so it was okay.

There are three big takeaways from Sunday’s result. The first is the abstention rate, which set another new record. Of the 16.5 million voters eligible for the second round, 59% didn’t turn out—and particularly in cities. The pandemic was clearly a factor but not the only one. The interest was not there for many voters—and despite the uncertain outcomes and high stakes in many races—on account of the disruption to peoples’ lives by the pandemic and the long fifteen weeks separating the first round—which relatively few paid attention to to begin with—but also an increasing alienation from electoral politics. Rising abstention has been a secular trend over the past three decades. As this disproportionately concerns the couches populaires—the lower classes—and young people, it necessarily shaped the outcome on Sunday.

The second was the stunning success of the lists led by Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), and in some of France’s largest cities: Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Grenoble (won in 2014), Tours, Annecy, Besançon, Poitiers, Colombes, plus others; the écolos likewise participated in left victories in other cities, including Paris and Montpellier (the outcome in Marseille is presently uncertain), and came within a hair of winning Lille. The victories in Lyon and Bordeaux were particularly amazing. In Lyon, where the EELV annihilated the REM, the result was a humiliating repudiation of mayor Gérard Collomb, an erstwhile PS centrist-turned-macroniste, who ran the city hegemonically since 2001, and had, moreover, entered into a post first round pact with the hard-right regional council president, Laurent Wauquiez, of the hard-right lurching Republican party (LR), to block an ecologist victory. Major fail. The result in Bordeaux was closer, with the EELV-led left-wing list edging out the LR-REM alliance, giving the city its first mayor of the left since 1947.

A few remarks about the écolo “green wave.” 1. The newly-elected EELV mayors—some of them newcomers to politics—were unknowns outside their cities before Sunday. The EELV has almost completely renewed its leading personnel, with the high media profile écolo politicians of 15-20 years ago now out of politics. This is not common with French political parties. 2. Yannick Jadot, who led the EELV’s successful campaign in last year’s European election—and has presidential dreams for 2022—has been avoiding the “left” label—seeking to transcend the left-right cleavage—but the winning EELV lists on Sunday all situated themselves decidedly on the left, and most in alliance with the PS and other left formations. There is no ambiguity about where the EELV situates itself on the political spectrum. But it is also clear that the party is decidedly closer to the PS (moderate left) than to the gauche radicale (La France Insoumise et al). The fact that the EELV is now responsible for governing some of France’s largest (and most prosperous) cities will necessarily impose a certain pragmatism. Looking ahead to 2021 (regional and departmental elections) and 2022 (presidential and legislative), there will almost certainly be an EELV-PS alliance, but with the former no longer playing junior partner to the latter. 3. The EELV’s “green wave” will indeed reshape the left in the coming period but its importance should not be exaggerated. Prior to Sunday, the écolos governed four of France’s 270 cities with a population of 30,000 and over. Now they will govern fifteen. The fact is, the EELV is still pretty small and, when it comes to local power, nowhere near the still convalescing PS. And the écolos have a history of performing well in intermediate elections but biting the dust in the presidential and legislative. Polls for 2022 presently have Yannick Jadot in the single digits and there is no a priori reason to believe he will go higher. Moreover, the high abstention rate on Sunday did facilitate the “green wave,” as the ecologists’ millennial and Gen Y CSP+ voters (educated, professional, urban) turned out in higher numbers than did the couches populaires.

The third big takeaway of the election was the abject failure of the REM, which won practically nothing. The only mayor of a commune with a population of 30K+ elected under the sole REM label was LR-defector Gérald Darmanin in Tourcoing. All the other centrist victories were by Emmanuel Macron’s MoDem and UDI allies, e.g. François Bayrou in Pau. PM Édouard Philippe may have won a landslide reelection in Le Havre but while having quit LR, he has not joined the REM. The REM is an empty vessel, existing solely to anchor Macron’s personal ambitions (now his reelection in 2022) and with the Great Helmsman making his party’s every last decision. The party has no autonomy whatever from the Élysée. It would be one thing if Macron were a brilliant political strategist, but he demonstrated yet again in this electoral episode his pathetic political skills, the showcase being his imposing the arrogant, imperious Benjamin Griveaux—who manifestly has more enemies than friends—as the REM candidate for mayor of Paris—which Macron really believed he could win—and when Griveaux got caught up in the miserable sextape affair, replacing him with non-politician Agnès Buzyn, who quit her post as minister of health as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was making its way to France—and who later admitted that she knew as early as January that the pandemic would indeed hit France and with a fury, was worried sick about it, informed Macron, but publicly revealed nothing. The Buzyn fiasco was epitomized by the fact that she failed to even win a seat for herself in the Paris city council. Also contributing to the REM’s rout was its/Macron’s decision to ally the party with LR, i.e. the right, in a number of cities in the second round, with the express purpose of trying to block the ecologists. Not only did the strategy fail but it definitively confirmed that the REM, a centrist formation at its foundation—and with a significant center-left flank—is now solidly anchored on the center-right. And it’s not going back; e.g. one learns that now ex-REM left-leaning deputies, led by Aurélien Taché (who’s taken good positions on issues, notably immigration), will be forming a new center-left party, #NousDemain. Whatever the REM’s future as a center-right party—the center-right political space already being crowded and with plenty of political pros not in the REM—it definitely has none without Emmanuel Macron.

A quick rundown of the results of the other parties.

The Socialists: The 2014 elections being a historic catastrophe for the PS—which I detailed at the time here, here, and here, if anyone’s interested—it was hard to see it losing even more ground. Sunday’s bilan was not bad at all, with the party easily holding on to its major cities, including Paris, Nantes, Rennes, Dijon, Clermont-Ferrand, Avignon, and Rouen, though Martine Aubry in Lille won the narrowest of victories (vs. EELV). The PS also picked up Montpellier, Nancy (a longtime center-right bastion), and Saint-Denis, and may yet Marseille—which would be huge—but given the specific electoral system for the three largest cities (Paris-Lyon-Marseille), that won’t be known until the newly-elected city council meets on Friday (as no list there has a majority of seats). Paris was the big one, of course, with Anne Hidalgo—allied with EELV in the second round—easily defeating her main rival, LR’s Rachida Dati. Hidalgo has not been overly popular—though several of my Parisian friends love her—but she’s redoutable. I’m not enamoured with her myself—as a banlieuesard, I have issues with her anti-automobile measures—and find her to be a dull, plodding speaker—I’ve seen her more than once—but she’s solid. And she is, at this given moment, the PS’s preeminent political figure. And as the PS has no obvious candidate for 2022—First Secretary Olivier Faure is a good man but it can’t be him, and Bernard Cazeneuve is nowhere to be seen—eyes will inevitably start to turn toward Hidalgo. She says she’s not interested and I can’t see it myself, but who knows? As Ségolène Royal is intimating that she may jump in the 2022 race—which will dismay, if not alarm, many on the left—the pressure on Hidalgo may consequently become intense. On verra.

The Communists: The PCF took a big hit in 2014, losing many of its longtime bastions in Paris’s famous “red belt” (working class banlieues—now heavily immigrant—ringing the city to the north, east, and south), to both the PS and the right. The party won back a few—notably Bobigny, Noisy-le-Sec, and Villejuif, and picked up Corbeil-Essonnes—but lost even more, including Saint-Denis—its last city of over 100K inhabitants, and which had been Communist since 1944—Aubervilliers, Champigny-sur-Marne (where Georges Marchais lived), Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, Valenton, and Choisy-le-Roi; and down south, Arles and Gardanne. The PCF continues its slow descent to oblivion.

As for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, it won practically nothing, mainly because it contested practically nothing (though even if it had, it still would have won practically nothing). LFI is little more than a vehicle for JLM’s megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur. JLM must have had a tough time swallowing the specter of Philippe Poutou, chef de file of the historically Trotskyist Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, winning an impressive 9.3% in Bordeaux (of all places). LFI didn’t attain that score anywhere outside a few left-leaning communes in the Île-de-France. It is even being said that the mere fact that LFI was part of the left-wing coalition in Toulouse caused defections of some voters there to the incumbent LR-led right-wing list, which won a narrow victory.

Les Républicains: LR were the big winners in 2014, controlling the mairies in over half the communes with populations of 30K+. There was no significant change this year. The heir of neo-Gaullism won a few (Metz, Orléans, Auxerre, Biarritz, Lorient) but also saw some big ones slip through its hands. And losing Bordeaux—where Jacques Chaban-Delmas and Alain Juppé reigned for almost all of the past 75 years—was tough; if Marseille—ruled by Jean-Claude Gaudin since 1995—is lost in the “third round” on Friday, that will be tougher still.

Rassemblement National: Last but not least. The ex-Front National’s breakthrough on the municipal level was in 2014, when it won eleven mairies, which was a big deal for the FN but, in the larger scheme of things, not that much of one. In view of Marine Le Pen’s trajectory since then, one could expect her renamed RN make further gains this time, but such did not happen at all. The party of the extreme right continues to experience great difficulty in recruiting competent activists and sympathizers to fill its lists at the local level, and then to retain those it does who are eventually elected to municipal councils. The drop-out rate—of counselors who stop showing up—is significant. In 2014, the FN managed to run lists in 369 communes with populations of 10,000 and over. This year the RN managed to do so in only 262. And whereas the FN broke 10% of the vote in 317 of those 362 lists in 2014—thus qualifying for the second round—on this March 15th, such only happened in 136 communes (source here). That said, the RN won outright first round victories in six of its 2014 communes, including Hénin-Beaumont (Steeve Briois), Fréjus (David Rachline), and Béziers (mayor Robert Ménard is informally allied with the RN, though is distancing himself from the party and Marine LP). On Sunday the RN lost three mairies, including Mantes-la-Ville (in the Île-de-France) and the 7th sector of Marseille, but picked up three new ones: Moissac, Bruay-la-Buissière, and, above all, Perpignan, the first city of over 100,000 won by the FN/RN since Toulon in 1995. Perpignan’s new mayor, Louis Aliot (Marine LP’s ex), is a first-tier RN personality and has been working that city for many years. He also downplayed the RN label during the campaign, to the point where it didn’t even appear on the candidate’s posters. Perpignan, with its large population of rapatriés from Algeria—there’s even a pro-OAS stele in a cemetery there—is ready-made terrain for the RN, so Aliot’s victory was hardly a surprise.

Conclusion: in local politics in France, the long-established parties—LR, successor constituents of the ex-UDF, PS, PCF—continue to dominate.

I mentioned above that I would have a description of the electoral system (mode de scrutin) for municipal elections. I’ll add that later as an update, so if anyone is interested, please revisit this post tomorrow.

UPDATE: Here’s the electoral system for municipal elections (adapted from an official website, translated, and edited):

The lists must be composed of as many women as men, with compulsory alternation between women and men or vice versa.

In the first round, the list which obtains the absolute majority of the votes cast receives a number of seats equal to half of the seats to be filled. The other seats are distributed by proportional representation (highest average) among all the lists having obtained more than 5% of the votes cast, according to the number of votes obtained.

In an eventual second round, only the lists having obtained in the first round at least 10% of the votes cast are allowed to remain. They may be subject to modifications, in particular by merging with other lists, which may be maintained or merged. Indeed, the lists having obtained at least 5% of the votes cast may merge with a list having obtained more than 10%. The distribution of seats is then as in the first round.

In Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, lists are constituted at the level of the arrondissement (in Marseille, in sectors grouping two arrondissements), each with their own mayor and council, with designated counselors in the latter being seated in the city-wide council. A ‘third round’ vote of the newly elected city council selects the city’s mayor.

The number of seats in the municipal councils—and thus the size of the lists—depends on their population, ranging from 15 for communes of 1,,000 to 1,499 inhabitants to 69 for those over 300K.

Commentary: no one in France sees anything problematic with this mixed majoritarian-proportional electoral system. I have never come across a single critique of it. But it is a terrible system IMHO. First, it gives a super majority to the winning list, including those that win with a narrow plurality in a triangulaire or even quadrangulaire (three or four-way race) in a second round run-off. Lists that finish behind the winner get a symbolic handful of seats but are reduced to impotent opposition. A fundamental principle of proportional representation—the necessity of forming coalitions, as a single party almost never wins an outright majority—is rendered inoperative. Second, the municipal councils are way too big. They’re bloated. E.g. there are 49 members of the one in my commune, which has a population of some 75,000. Except for the counselors (in my commune, a third of the 49) who have a délégation (i.e. are in charge of a particular file, e.g. sanitation, street maintenance, pre-school education, culture) assigned by the mayor—and who thus become deputy mayors (adjoints au maire)—they are mostly useless (and don’t get paid, so it’s not even a part-time job). Third, the mayor—the n° 1 on the list—has too much power and almost no political checks on it (unless the elected counselors on his/her list split into dissident factions, which does happen). Fourth, the lists being voted at-large means that, excepting highly politicized citizens and local actors (business and other) who closely follow local politics, most people do not know their local elected representatives apart from the mayor.

The six-year term is also way too long. For local elections, the term should be four years maximum.

2nd UPDATE: The well-known, very smart political scientist Jean-François Bayart has a must-read post on his Mediapart blog that is sharply critical of Anne Hidalgo’s action as mayor of Paris. Among other things, he slams the pedestrian malling of the city’s central arrondissements, of turning Paris into a playground for tourists and the youthful CSP+ crowd. He also rightly deplores Paris’s organizing the 2024 Olympics, which Hidalgo led the campaign for. It is well worth the read for anyone who lives in Paris or spends time in the city.

3rd UPDATE: The newly-elected Marseille city council selected Michèle Rubirola, who led the broad left-wing coalition, as mayor (July 4th), in circumstances that may only be described as rocambolesque. Big win for the left, big loss for LR.

And police racism. The George Floyd murder and subsequent protest movement have reverberated across the globe, as one is likely aware, and particularly in France, beginning with the big June 2nd anti-police violence rally on the esplanade of the Paris Tribunal—organized via social media by a committee led by the family of Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in 2016 (details here)—and followed up by the comparably large June 13th demo at the Place de la République. The June 2nd event took everyone by surprise; and few Parisians would have come across it, the Paris Tribunal being on the periphery of the city (at Porte de Clichy). As Le Canard Enchaîné reported in its June 10th issue, the intelligence service of the Paris Police Prefecture was blindsided by the unauthorized demo, getting wind of it only that morning and projecting an eventual crowd size of 500 to 1,000, when some 23,000 ultimately showed up. Sociologist Abdellali Hajjat, in a Mediapart post reflecting on France’s racism problem, remarked that the June 2nd and 13th events were the largest anti-racism rallies in France since the final day of the famous 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism. Now that’s noteworthy.

So France’s answer to #BlackLivesMatter is now a durable reality, as is the debate over statues and other historical symbols regarding France’s history of colonialism and slavery. As Abdellali Hajjat observes in his Mediapart post, the American protest movement has spawned an internationalization of the antiracist cause. What is striking here in France is the somewhat panicky reaction of politicians and mainstream media commentators, from the right to center-left, with their hoary invocations of the universal values of the hallowed French republican model, which does not recognize the existence of race or ethnicity—unlike the “modèle communautariste anglo-saxon” of the French imagination—so whatever racism that exists in France can only be epiphenomenal, not at all structural. French politicos and pundits—and French people in general—have a hard time dealing with race and ethnicity when it relates to France’s colonial past—epitomized most recently by the disgraceful manner in which Emmanuel Macron spoke on the matter in his televised address this past Sunday (and which 14 prominent scholars with specialized knowledge of the subject properly shredded in a collective tribune in the June 23rd Le Monde).

When it comes to police violence, French commentators are right to say that France is not the USA; as I wrote in my June 3rd post on the George Floyd protests, there is no comparison between the two countries on this score. French police behave in many nasty ways but do not draw their guns and pull the trigger as do their US counterparts. Swarthy and dark-skinned persons in France may experience humiliations or indignities when encountering flics—the contrôle au faciès, which I wrote about eight years ago and is the subject of a Human Rights Watch report released just last week, is an old and never-ending story, and police violence is a reality (and concerns not only members of visible minorities)—but, notwithstanding bavures that end in a fatality, French POCs do not fear for their lives as do their counterparts outre-Atlantique (for the latest account on this, see the powerful NYT op-ed by Ishmael Reed).

While the French police are less violent than the American—at least when it comes to killing people—they are no less racist in their attitudes; e.g. the well-known pollster and political analyst Roland Cayrol, who is hardly a woke gauchiste, insisted on this himself on France 5 a couple of weeks back. With 54% of French cops reportedly having voted for Marine Le Pen in the 1st round of the 2017 presidential election (she received 21% nationally), why would it be otherwise? In a tribune in the June 10th Le Monde, social scientist Rachid Benzine and Catholic priest Christian Delorme—who was an initiator of the above-mentioned 1983 march–weighed in on the causes of the hostile relationship between the police and the younger generation of France’s visible minorities. Comparing France and the USA, they observe [N.B. for the benefit of non-Francophone readers, the passages below have been fed through Google Translate and edited]:

And even if, in effect, Emmanuel Macron’s France is not Donald Trump’s America, and if the police of the two countries cannot be equated, what is happening in America works like a magnifying mirror of our own reality.

On the quasi impunity of the police, which in France appears almost to be greater than in the USA:

No government in any country in the world can afford to have its police against it, and that is why, almost every time when violence or racist behavior is reported by members of the security forces, the tendency of political authorities is to almost systematically let them off the hook. The judiciary itself, which cannot too strongly oppose the police as an institution, which is its “armed wing,” also cannot allow itself to too harshly sentence police officers or gendarmes [prosecuted for violent behavior].

Overly flagrant behavior is sanctioned on rare occasions and “bad apples” punished, but for forty years there has been, on the part of government officials and the national police [which is under the authority of the Ministry of Interior], a refusal to question the depth of the dysfunctions in the relationship between the police and “youths of the suburbs” (jeunes des banlieues), a euphemism for young blacks and North Africans.

Benzine and Delorme do observe that the police in France, quite unlike their US counterparts, are often afraid to go into the banlieues, less because they fear for own physical integrity than they might wound or kill someone themselves.

They conclude:

It is therefore urgent to call into question the root causes of this divide between the jeunes des banlieues and the police. These are obviously multiple, notably linked to economic disparities and urban segregation. But they have, above all, a historical foundation: that of a French police force which, after the Second World War, was constructed in the fight against Algerians in France who agitated for Algerian independence.

Since 1954 [when the Algerian war of independence began], the relationship between the police and “visible minorities” has not changed. And whether we like it or not, there is a link between the Algerians who were thrown to the Seine on October 17, 1961, by the police, then headed by the sinister Prefect Maurice Papon, and the black or North African victims of recurrent police “blunders.”

It is a legacy issue. It is a problem of colonial and post-colonial culture. It goes beyond individuals and is thus not a matter of indiscriminately condemning people. But if you close your eyes too much about it, the Republic is, as it were, hitting a wall. As we know: fear leads to violence.

The legacy of Algeria. À propos, I am looking at a (448 page) book on a shelf in my study by political scientist Emmanuel Blanchard, La police parisienne et les Algériens (1944-1962) (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2011). Vast subject.

It’s possible that I’ve missed it but I have heard or seen no mention in the media debate over the past three weeks of last fall’s hit film, Les Misérables, the subject of which is precisely the relationship between the police and youthful members of visible minorities (mainly black) in the banlieues. The film is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the best in the North/Sub-Saharan African immigrant-populated banlieue ghetto genre in years, if not ever. It was a box office success, with over 2 million tix sold (a lot for France); received stellar reviews; won the Jury Prize ex æquo at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the 2020 César award for Best Film; was nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film; and was just one of those movies people saw and talked about. If one wants to know about the interface between the police and the “jeunes des banlieues,” the scene in the trailer (at the 0:16 mark) sums it up. Such happens every day somewhere in France and has been experienced by countless youthful members of visible minorities.

The film depicts the day in the life of three cops of the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité), whose beat is the Cité des Bosquets in Montfermeil, a Paris banlieue in the Seine-Saint-Denis (the famous “neuf-trois”: the poorest and most heavily-immigrant populated department in France): the rookie good cop (actor Damien Bonnard, always first-rate), the bad cop (Alexis Manenti, who won the César award for Most Promising Actor), and the POC cop (Djebril Zonga), who grew up in a cité (public housing project) himself (and POC cops being a recent phenomenon in France). The BAC, which specializes in muscular interventions in “quartiers sensibles,” i.e. cités in the banlieues, has a terrible reputation with the youths who encounter it; anthropologist Didier Fassin, who gained authorization to embed himself with a BAC unit in the Paris region for 15 months (in 2006-07)—and wrote a book based on his field work—witnessed up close the unit’s “racist discourse,” “discriminatory practices,” “scenes of humiliation,” “abusive contrôles au faciès,” and the like. As for Montfermeil’s Cité des Bosquets, which has been labelled the “worst ghetto in the Seine-Saint-Denis,” director Ladj Ly grew up there, so knows it rather well. Montfermeil is also particular, as it is, minus the Bosquets, one of the most well-to-do (and “white”) communes in the “neuf-trois.” It has also been (along with neighboring Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots started), poorly served by public transportation (until the long-awaited extension of the T4 tram line six months ago), thus isolating it from Paris (and employment prospects for Bosquets residents).

I was interested in the Bosquets/Montfermeil side of the film, as I visited that cité once, in 1998, during the campaign for the regional elections that March. I accompanied a candidate, Jamel Sandjak—a well-known personality in the soccer world of the Île-de-France and an activist in the center-left PRG (an eternal junior ally of the Socialist party)—on a campaign foray into the Bosquets. Three things struck me about the place. First, its spatial isolation. We parked the car in a quartier pavillonnaire—a neighborhood of nice, single-family homes—and walked a half kilometer or so, through open terrain, to reach the cité. It was another world from the main part of the town. Second, as it was a Saturday morning and market day, the commercial center of the Bosquets was bustling, with lots of people out and about. No one looked to be ethnically French. I saw one or two “white” persons—who were probably Portuguese or something, not Français de souche—but everyone else was of North or Sub-Saharan African origin (with maybe some Turks and Sri Lankans). The ambiance was North African-Middle Eastern, not at all French. I indeed had the strange sentiment that I was not in France. Thirdly, the physical state of the cité was terrible. It was run down; in short, a slum—and in contrast to the buildings of the bordering cité (Chêne Pointu) in Clichy-sous-Bois, which were freshly painted and looked not bad. In France, the physical upkeep of public housing projects is the responsibility of local government. So whereas Clichy-sous-Bois had a Socialist mayor, who put money into the maintenance of public housing in his commune, Montfermeil’s ultra right-wing mayor, named Pierre Bernard, did the opposite. A royalist and for whom Jean-Marie Le Pen was too moderate (I’m not kidding), Mayor Bernard—who ran on the partisan label divers droite, which signifies way out there on the right—did absolutely nothing for the Bosquets, needless to say. I was reliably informed that young people who ventured in to the center of Montfermeil were made not to feel welcome—the attitude being ‘get back to your ghetto!’

Bernard’s successor in the Montfermeil mairie—who has seven children and hails from the Vendée (you can’t make these things up)—doesn’t look more moderate. And if what one sees in ‘Les Misérables’ reflects reality, the physical state of the Bosquets has, if anything, gotten even worse. One of the salutary aspects of the film is that it doesn’t focus exclusively on les jeunes but also gives attention to their elders. So one sees the BAC cops interacting correctly with the older men—mid 30s and 40s—who run the local kebab joint or have other above ground jobs—or maybe not—many of whom have done time in prison and almost all of whom have found religion (i.e. Islam). The men are the cops’ informal informants as to what’s going down in the cité. The relationship is uneasy but what choice is there. And then there are the bearded, djellaba-wearing salafists—the heavies—who clearly exercise authority in the cité, moral and maybe otherwise, with the cheeky teenage boys behaving deferentially in their presence, and respectfully listening to their entreaties to come to the mosque and learn about religion. As they are key social actors, the cops also have to deal with them. Again, no choice.

What is so exasperating about the maddening French polemicizing over communautarisme—a bogus neologism devoid of social scientific value—is that while politicians and pundits go on about the supposed existence of this phantasm chez les Anglo-saxons and how un-republican French it is, the very thing they execrate has been happening right under their noses in France for decades, and for which those who head the French state have no response apart from empty ideological exhortations and even emptier promises to fight discrimination. Emmanuel Macron and other politicians can denounce “communautarisme“—and now “separatisme,” whatever that’s supposed to mean—but they have no idea what to do about it. They have not a clue as how to change the reality of the Bosquets or all the other such ghetto cités.

If the French political class were serious about tackling the problems in the banlieues, and particularly the execrable relationship between the police and les jeunes, one positive step would be to legalize the consumption and sale of cannabis and other soft drugs, as the French state’s futile, unwinnable war on drugs is responsible for much of the police-jeunes tension (abusive identity checks, muscular interventions of the BAC, etc; again, see the beginning of the film’s trailer linked to above), not to mention the drug-trafficking gangs that rule the roost in so many cités, and with the consequent criminalization of so many youths, who end up with police records, do prison time, and you name it. But for incomprehensible reasons, the very debate over legalizing, or even decriminalizing, the recreational consumption of cannabis—as has happened in many countries and American states—has remained a near taboo subject in France. Emmanuel Macron endorsed decriminalization during the 2017 campaign but dropped the idea once elected. Even the PS has been skittish on the question.

The portrait of France depicted in the film is not all somber. It begins with footage of the wild celebrations that followed France’s victory in the World Cup final on July 15, 2018—and is the image chosen for the film’s poster—which united Frenchmen and women of all origins. As I posted at the time, the jeunes of immigrant origin waved the French tricolore, not the flags of their parents’ countries. It was a gratifying multiracial/multiethnic moment of communion and celebration.

‘Les Misérables’ has naturally been compared to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 landmark film La Haine, which it does take after (and particularly the final scene). ‘La Haine’, which I’ve seen three or four times, was one of the first in the genre and generated a lot of buzz when it came out: PM Alain Juppé deemed it so important that he held a screening at the Matignon and invited his ministers to attend, and Jodie Foster was so impressed with it that she supervised the English subtitling (she’s a perfect Francophone) and fast-tracked its US distribution. The pic has much to recommend it IMO (e.g. the scene of the three buddies venturing into Paris and their behavior at the vérnissage is brilliant), but I am not an unconditional fan. First, the wellsprings of “the hate” that is the film’s theme are not made clear. Second, the fact that the three buddies were multiracial—black-blanc-beur (black-white-North African)—privileged a social class reading of the cleavage over an ethno-racial one, when the reality in the banlieues is the precise opposite. Third, the Vincent Cassel character—the “white”—overwhelmed the two others. Moreover, he was Jewish; I’m sorry but the image of the angry banlieue Jew just won’t fly. It’s not credible. There are plenty of Jews (Sephardi, from North Africa) in banlieue cités (notably in Sarcelles and Créteil)—though their numbers are declining as they move/flee to other parts of the Paris region (and some to Israel)—but their teenage sons tend not to hang out with groups of beurs et blacks. ‘La Haine’ was already surpassed in the genre by Abdelllatif Kechiche’s excellent 2003 ‘L’Esquive’ (English title: Games of Love and Chance) and has definitely been by ‘Les Misérables’.

The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, mentioned above, also received cinematic treatment, with the 2013 film La Marche, by Belgian director-actor-screenwriter Nabil Ben Yadir and with an ensemble cast of well-known actors and actresses, including Olivier Gourmet, Jamel Debbouze, Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, and Vincent Rottiers. The film’s release was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the final week of the march, which arrived in Paris on December 3rd and with tens of thousands having joined in, seven weeks after the original 17 marchers set out from Marseille. It received buzz in view of the anniversary and I naturally saw it right away, but it was a box office failure and received middling reviews (here’s a positive US one), with many criticizing distortions or fictionalizations of the event, plus the fact that the film ended with the December 3rd Paris rally and famous audience/photo op with President Mitterrand at the Élysée (this scene from newsreel footage), when this was only the opening act in a new social movement of French-born children of immigrants from the Maghreb. The film did specify at the outset that it was “inspired” by the veritable history of the march, so there was inevitably going to be some fictionalization (notably with the characters’ names), but I thought it hued fairly closely to the historical record, so far as I’ve read about it at least. Lots has been written on the event but, from a social scientific standpoint, the reference is Abdellali Hajjat’s La Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2013). Excellent book. As for the film, I didn’t think it bad. If one has any interest in the subject, it may certainly be seen.

I will resist the temptation to go on further on the 1983 march, which was a seminal event. Just a few points. First, the catalyst of the march was the abusive or violent behavior of the police toward les jeunes des banlieues (the epicenter at the time being the big cités in the satellite towns east of Lyon). Thirty-seven years later, nothing has changed on that score. Second, the march may have brought the Maghrebi second-generation (les beurs) to the attention of public opinion, and in dramatic fashion, but the political activism of young Franco-Maghrebis was already intense at the time (and a significant part involving the offspring of Harkis, whose situation had its specificities). Associational life in the banlieues—a good part of which was linked to the radical left—was teeming, though associational activists, notably in the Lyon area, were cool to the march. There was, initially at least, not a groundswell of militant support for it. Third, once the march gained media coverage, the political class, both left and right—save the Front National (1983 was its breakout year)—expressed sympathy for the marchers. That the left was in power was important (the Socialists’ efforts to co-opt and tame the elan of the movement came later). Fourth, the historiques of the 1983 march saw their action as following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. One may also note that the 17 original marchers included two Catholic priests—one the engagé Father Delorme—and a Protestant pastor, and that the Lyon chapter of the historically Protestant humanitarian NGO Cimade played a key role. There was little mention of Islam during the march. Matters are somewhat different today.

À suivre.

De Gaulle

He’s a leading story in the news today, in France at least. If one needs reminding, today is the 80th anniversary of the Appel du 18 juin, the brief address of the great general—though who was not too well known at that moment—to the French people, from London over the airwaves of the BBC, calling on France to continue resisting the German invaders and not capitulate in suing for an armistice—which is what the newly-appointed prime minister, Philippe Pétain, did four days later (de Gaulle returned to BBC HQ on that day to rerecord the address; listen to it here). As we know, hardly anyone in France heard the address and no recording of the original remains, but, as British historian Julian Jackson states in the opening paragraph of his 928-page biography of the general—called “monumental” and “magisterial” on both sides of the Channel and Atlantic—it was with this that De Gaulle “entered history,” ultimately becoming the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century—though as Jackson reminded the audience on France Inter this morning, it could not have happened without Winston Churchill.

There’s so much to say about Charles de Gaulle—I spend several classes on him in courses I teach on France and 20th century Europe: WWII, Algeria, the Fifth Republic and the 1960s—but will just mention the movie here. Churchill got his with director Joe Wright’s  riveting 2017 Darkest Hour—for which Gary Oldman justly won the Academy Award for Best Actor—entirely set in May 1940, when Churchill, almost seul contre tous, refused to capitulate to Hitler. De Gaulle receives like treatment in Gabriel Le Bomin’s biopic, simply entitled De Gaulle, which opened here on March 4th—two weeks before the beginning of the confinement, when all theaters shut down. The film covers the catastrophic seven weeks of the Fall of France, in May-June 1940, and of de Gaulle, literally seul contre tous, refusing capitulation to Hitler. It’s a movie for the masses and a tad hagiographic—de Gaulle is portrayed as both defender of the honor of France and a devoted husband and father (which he was)—but I liked it all the same. On the Allociné scale, I rated it 4.0 (very good). The historical details are accurate and the acting first-rate, notably Lambert Wilson as de Gaulle, Isabelle Carré as wife Yvonne, and Olivier Gourmet as the hapless PM Paul Reynaud. It’s a well-done film, which did not merit the mixed reviews of US film critics I otherwise hold in high esteem. With cinemas reopening next Monday, its run in France will resume. Trailer with English s/t is here.

[update below]

That’s the title of a typically excellent essay by my dear friend Adam Shatz, posted on the LRB website on June 5th (it will be in the June 18th issue), in which he weighs in on the events in the US over the past two weeks—and, more generally, on the subject of race in America, on which his knowledge is deep. I would normally say that I could have signed the piece myself, though Adam, as is his wont, includes numerous literary and historical references that are beyond my culture intellectuelle.

One literary personality Adam cites at several points is James Baldwin, which prompted me to rewatch Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary I Am Not Your Negro (available on Netflix in France; in the US, on Amazon Prime and maybe other platforms), which I first saw en salle when it opened here in May 2017. If one doesn’t know the pic, it was inspired by James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir, Remember This House, of his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, plus letters and notes of his from the 1970s. It’s a reflection on the Black experience in America through the words of Baldwin (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson; in the French version, by Joey Starr), and with impressive archival footage—much of it devastating images of the violence, verbal and physical, visited upon Afro-Americans throughout history by the police and white mobs. I know this history pretty well but still, seeing the latter—the hatred of white mobs, particularly aimed at Black children integrating schools—is quite shocking. I can think of no other comparable experience in any other country.

On this score, Baldwin recounts a story from his youth, in the 1940s or ’50s, of a friendship he had with a blond white girl in New York City, of them going to the movies—in Manhattan mind you, not some town in Tennessee—but how they had to go to the theater separately, as they could not walk on the street or take the subway together; to be seen together in public would have put both at great risk, at the hands of the police or just passers-by.

In no other country would this have obtained (South Africa and maybe a couple of others excepted), and certainly not in France. France has been no stranger to racism, bien évidemment, but there has never been a taboo on interracial love. The documentary has a segment of Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show, in 1968, where he is contradicted in his views on race in America by Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. Baldwin tells him:

The years I lived in Paris [from 1948] did one thing for me: they freed me from that particular social terror which is not the paranoia of my own mind but is visible on the face of every cop, every boss, everybody…

Further along, there are these words by Baldwin (accompanied by the video of Rodney King being pummelled by L.A.’s finest):

I sometimes feel it to be an absolute miracle that the entire Black population of the United States of America has not long ago succumbed to raging paranoia. People finally say to you, in an attempt to dismiss the social reality, “But you’re so bitter!” Well, I may or may not be bitter but if I were, I would have good reasons for it, chief among them that American blindness or cowardice, which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.

If you haven’t seen ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, this is as good a time as any to do so.

UPDATE: Conservative Never Trumper David French has a post on his blog recounting how he discovered the reality of systemic racism in America.

The founder of the New York real estate company Harlem Lofts, Robb Pair, who hails from rural Virginia—and is the husband of a cousin of mine—has posted a heartfelt video statement on Facebook, “My apology to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, et al.”

Mauerpark, Berlin

I’ve been riveted to the fast-moving events in the US over the past several days, as has the rest of the world. Here in France, they have (thankfully) knocked the coronavirus and déconfinement from the lead story on the evening news. America looks to be in free fall, as Michelle Goldberg has submitted, an observation reinforced by the gesticulations and rantings of the unspeakable resident of the White House, though one is filled with hope (some at least) when watching the live televised reports from the large, peaceful, multiracial marches of young people in cities across the country. There are so many aspects of this to discuss, though the bull in the china shop—Trump—I will save for another time, except to repeat what I’ve been saying to people over the past two/three years, which is that we’ve run out of adjectives to describe his and his regime’s abjectness (as for his deplorable supporters, we’ll stick with that attribute).

Just before starting this post, I watched the video in the New York Times article, “8 minutes and 46 seconds: How George Floyd was killed in police custody.” If you haven’t yourself, please do so. There is, if one somehow didn’t know, a problem with the police in America—and with racism in the police. Linking to the NYT video in an essay in the Never Trump webzine The Bulwark, “How many bad apples are we really talking about?,” executive editor Jonathan V. Last observed that

The Minneapolis police department has 800 officers. If you can randomly select four cops out of that group and have all of them be bad, then the overall percentage of bad cops as part of the whole isn’t trivial. For a sense of scale, imagine the odds of picking four red marbles out of a bag of 800 marbles when 5 percent of the marbles are red. It’s 1-in-160,000.

This all fits within our varying definitions of “bad” police, because every one of the four cops involved in the Floyd death is acting, at best, in what should be regarded as a criminally unprofessional manner.

I know that Minnesota is not much different from the rest of the Upper Midwest and that Trump came close to winning the state in 2016 (as did Bush in 2000 and 2004), but have always had a positive image of it as a liberal bastion (Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Party, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone, social democratic mayors in the Twin Cities, welcoming Somali refugees in the 1990s, etc). That image is necessarily undermined, however, when reading accounts such as this one on the Minneapolis police, posted on Twitter last Saturday by a citizen there named Lynnell Mickelsen, which greatly helps in understanding what happened last week:

My dental office in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis is boarding up their windows this afternoon. We are a long way from the protests, so let’s be clear about what’s going on here. We don’t have a protest problem. We have a policing problem. 1/

Minneapolis police do NOT appear to be under the command or control, of our mayor or our excellent police chief. So it seems like a lot of cops have apparently decided to stop doing their jobs until their notorious union chief, Bob Kroll, tells them to go back to work. 2/

Ever since George Floyd was murdered, the police response to peaceful protests has been to:
1) wildly escalate the situation with tear gas and rubber bullets;
2) watch as looters – a very different group than the protesters – move in;
3) Vanish and let the chaos reign. 3/

Their strategy seems to be: “Either we get to kill Black men when we feel like it with no criticism from you people……..or you don’t get any law enforcement it all. Nice little city you got there, pity if something happens to it? Do you miss us yet?” 4/

For context, the Minneapolis police force is overwhelmingly white and male. Ninety-two percent of them live in the suburbs–often the far suburbs. Their union chief, Bob Kroll, is a huge Trump supporter and open white supremacist. 5/

In short, a big subset of our police department looks (and acts) like they were recruited directly from a Trump rally. They literally seem to hate this progressive city and most of our residents. And they especially hate Black people. 6/

We all live in our own little bubble. The police have been killing unarmed Black men in Minneapolis for years and getting away with it Their first account of George Floyd’s death was to announce that he had a “medical” issue while being arrested and alas, died. 7/

The police didn’t mention the whole knee-on-neck thingy. So they seemed caught off-guard by the cell-phone video and then the public response to it. They were furious that the four officers involved with killing George Floyd were immediately fired because this rarely happens. 8/

The police were furious that they were being directly criticized by the mayor and governor (both Democrats), which rarely happens. They’ve been furious at the protests. So the cops have sort of gone on strike here. 9/

With the police openly refusing to do their jobs, they have basically invited the criminals to break into anything they want. It’s a very cynical move to change the discussion away from police misconduct to the need for cops to come in and break heads and have law and order. 10/

Hence, lots of businesses are putting up plywood. What else are they supposed to do? The Minneapolis police have basically invited criminals to “have at us.”

It’s really bad and a little scary. We’re being policed by a force with cold contempt for the city and its people. 11/

The arrest of the Derek Chauvin, the cop who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, is a good first step. But it’s only a baby step. We need to fire a lot of police officers in order to create a policing model that actually works to protect the city residents. 12/

Creating a truly effective and very different police force will be a long, hard slog of a task. Our local politicians are going to need a lot of support and wind at their sails if they attempt it. Let’s begin. End/

Ms. Mickelsen said something important and that I have insisted on in past AWAV posts on riots—or protests that get labeled as riots—but that has been largely ignored by the media and others, which is that protesters and rioters—the arsonists, looters, pillagers, and smashers—are not the same people. The “riot” in Minneapolis resembled the one in Baltimore in 2015 (the murder of Freddie Gray by the police, which I wrote about here), as it did a typical riot or disturbance in France, the latter happening with regularity over the past four decades. In France, as in the US and elsewhere, these invariably begin as a spontaneous protest by youthful members of visible minorities enraged at the behavior of the police, with the two clashing—hurling projectiles, tear gas, etc—and the looting and arson committed by apolitical opportunists and profiteers joining the melee to steal or just raise hell (I’ve written about French riots herehere, and here; and the 2011 London rioting here). But the ultimate responsible party—the culprit—in setting off the events is almost always the police.

There are, it should be said, some differences between the US, on the one hand, and France and other advanced democracies, on the other. On France 5’s (very good) public affairs talk show ‘C dans l’air’ on Monday, which was consecrated to the events in the US, the former Washington correspondent of the conservative daily Le Figaro, Laure Mandeville—whose political outlook clearly aligns with that of the paper she writes for—spoke of her personal observations of the “extremely violent” culture of American policing, of the hair-trigger reflex of police officers to draw their pistols—and when they pull the trigger, to pump the person with bullets, aiming at the upper part of the body, not the legs—which almost never happens in France. French flics behave in all sorts of odious ways but they do not draw their weapons, even in tense confrontations. French police officials who visit the US are “shocked” by the “brutality” of the procedures of their American counterparts, Mandeville recounted—though she did specify that America is a heavily-armed society and that the police fear, not unreasonably, being shot themselves (watch here from 00:16:50).

One question that has been preoccupying hand-wringing Democrats is if the televised images of disorder will benefit Trump in November. A number of people I follow on social media posted last week an interview in The New Yorker with Princeton political science professor Omar Wasow, who has researched the 1960s black protests/riots and the impact these had on white voting behavior, notably in the 1968 presidential election, with Wasow arguing that the violent protests of 1967-68 caused a significant defection of white voters to the law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon, thus facilitating his victory. Among those favorably posting the Wasow interview was the well-known journalist and author John Judis, prompting me to comment on his Facebook thread that comparing 1968 to 2020 was a stretch, as in the intervening seven months between the April ’68 riots (following the Martin Luther King assassination) and the election, there was the Robert Kennedy assassination, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and what happened there (demos, police riot, a nominee—Hubert Humphrey—who hadn’t run in a single primary anointed by party bosses in a smoke-filled room), the Vietnam war going badly, a snowballing antiwar movement (and rowdy demos on university campuses), an unpopular Democratic president, and George Wallace’s candidacy, among others.

Judis’s response to me was largely expressed in his post on the Talking Points Memo website, fretting, with reference to 1968, that the “Violent protests could be a gift to Trump.” Also fretting was political sociologist Ruy Teixeira (whose electoral and polling analyses I closely follow), who admonished Democrats on his blog for not sufficiently condemning the looters and pillagers. fearing that this failure could prompt potential Trump-to-Biden voters to stay with the orange-haired idiot.

On the 1968 analogy and the Wasow interview, I came across on Monday a Facebook comment by UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff, which precisely echoed my view:

The work of Princeton’s Omar Wasow has rightfully been getting a lot of attention in recent days. Wasow found that in the 1960’s, violent protests sparked a white backlash that helped the election of Richard Nixon. It serves as a very stark warning about the events of the last few days.

But there are many reasons to believe that the current protests will not have the same effect:

1) Richard Nixon could capitalize on the 1967-68 violent protests because he was not in power: Democrats were. As much as Caligula wants to disclaim responsibility for the daily disaster of his term in office, he cannot escape the brute fact that he is sitting in the Oval Office and Joe Biden is not. (An additional tweak is Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey, a genuinely committed fighter for civil rights, was hemmed in by an increasingly-unhinged LBJ in terms of what he could advocate: Biden is not). The last time there was an outpouring of urban race riots was in 1992: it didn’t help the Republican administration then in power.

2) The 1967-68 protests happened over months. They dominated several news cycles, and in an era where the news cycle developed much more more slowly. Today, news cycles change much more rapidly. One week at this time we were talking about hydroxychloroquine. So it stands to reason to any one event will not have as much of an effect.

3) Video is powerful, but unlike in 1968, where all one saw was the burning and the looting, now, we have actually seen the video where Derek Chauvin lynched George Floyd. (And also Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland, etc.). That creates a different narrative. It is underlined by the images of police shooting and arresting journalists, police cars driving into peaceful protesters, etc. And I think importantly there are many journalists of color who get it in a visceral way that white journalists in the 60’s could not. (I was struck, while watching KCBS tape of their coverage of the 1965 Watts riot, that Black journalists were not even allowed to be on screen).

4) Nixon could capitalize on the violence not only because he was out of power, but because he could argue that he would be a peacemaker. It was nonsense, but he could play one on television. Caligula can’t even play peacemaker in his own addled brain. He is psychologically incapable of even feigning maturity and empathy. This also goes to the news cycle point: Caligula cannot help but say stupid, racist, and inflammatory things that undercuts his message. (Biden, on the other hand, can stand as the representative of a popular former administration – as Nixon could, actually).

5) Nixon could also play peacemaker because he could stand between the Humphrey and George Wallace, who was then running on a 3rd Party American Independent line. Caligula actually *is* Wallace, even quoting him (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”).

6) There is one issue in the news cycle that cannot be pushed out of it: COVID-19, which will kill people day in, day out, inexorably, like a giant glacier tearing through mountains. The death toll will continue to rise, particularly in red states. The best analogy to that from 1968 is of course Vietnam. But back to point #1: Vietnam was the administration’s – and thus the Democrats’ – responsibility. COVID-19 is Caligula’s and the Republicans.

7) America is a very different country today than it was in 1968, thank God, in no small part due to the Hart-Celler Immigration Act pushed through by Democrats. It is younger and far more diverse. It could very well react differently, or at least in a much more muted way, than the far whiter, older, and more rural electorate of 1968. And just about every survey of white attitudes on race has shown a significant and positive difference in the last five decades.

Absolutely none of this means that Democrats (not to mention democrats) should be sanguine about the political impact of violence. And of course, violence is bad for its own sake on many, many levels. But while it is crucial to make appropriate historical comparisons, it is vital to highlight the differences as well.

Some other differences. America was a much more racially polarized society in 1968 than it is today. What white Americans saw back then were “race riots,” and it scared them. What one sees today are peaceful, multiracial marches—there look to be as many whites as persons of color—with disorder ensuing when the police intervene or “bad elements” (as the CNN reporters have taken to calling them) arrive to loot and smash. If Fox News wants to portray chaos and mayhem, there’s not much Democrats or anyone else can do about that.

It’s been hard so far to get a grasp on the actual degree of damage and destruction caused by the arsonists and smashers since the protest movement began, but it has been nothing on the scale of the 1960s, when hundreds of buildings in single cities were burned to charred hulks and long stretches of city blocks devastated. The 14th Street corridor in NW Washington, which was badly hit in 1968, did not begin to recover until the 1980s. East 63rd Street in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, which had been a bustling commercial artery, was likewise devastated in 1968, and continued to look bombed-out, along with the surrounding blocks, through the 1980s (I lived nearby for several years, so knew it personally). And then there were the deaths, again on a scale that we cannot imagine today: in the 1965 Watts riot, 34 were killed; in 1967, it was 43 in Detroit and 26 in Newark (and then there were the 63 killed in L.A. in 1992).

There is also no “silent majority” nowadays. The majority is us. There are more of us than there are of them. But even with “them,” there is not unanimity. À propos, I spoke last weekend with a graduate school-era friend, who is a full-time labor organizer in Ohio and whose work brings him into contact with Trump supporters. He told me that a not insignificant number with whom he has spoken were shocked by the George Floyd murder and expressed sympathy with the demonstrations. And he added that he’s heard likewise on the right-wing call-in talk radio shows. An account of Trump supporters sympathizing with the marches—even joining one—was also relayed to me the other day by a family member in North Carolina. Whether this will last, who knows, but there was nothing comparable in the late 1960s.

The POTUS in 1968 was also not a Caligula (dixit Jonathan Zasloff) who threw gasoline on the fire and then fanned the flames. I’ll have to see ironclad polling data before I believe that there are any voters outside the MAGA-Fox News-Rush Limbaugh netherworld who believe that four more years of Trump will bring law, order, and stability, rather than chaos and discord.

Thomas B. Edsall’s NYT column today, “The George Floyd election,” is worth the read, if one hasn’t seen it.

À suivre.

Mory Kante, R.I.P.

I know that AWAV is coming to look like an obituary page these days but when someone noteworthy passes away–worthy of note for me at least—I have to make mention of it. The latest is this great Guinean singer, who died today in Conakry at age 70 (not of Covid-19, though the pandemic’s travel restrictions did prevent him from traveling to France to seek treatment for a chronic condition). I was turned on to Mory Kante in the early ’90s by a friend, who made a play list cassette of his songs for me—for which I am eternally grateful to her—which I’ve listened to countless times—particularly in the car on trips (my wife is also a fan) plus at my wedding party. His best known hit was, of course, ‘Yé ké yé ké’. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song!

I spent a week in Conakry in 2000. Great music scene there, with more music on the streets—from stores and cars—than other African cities I’ve visited.

Idir, R.I.P.

Idir in Algiers, 2018 (credit here)

He died yesterday, at age 70 (not of Covid-19). Lots of people in my social media network are posting on him today, invariably linking to his beloved 1973 ballad A vava inouva. He was one of Algeria’s greatest singers—a Kabyle Brassens or Aznavour, as the slam poet-chanteur GCM put it in Le Monde. Al Jazeera English has a report on Idir’s life here. France 24 has videos of his career and music here, and a YouTube ‘best of’ playlist is here. Beautiful songs.

Pandemic lockdown: week 6

Paris, Bd Montmartre (Grands Boulevards),
Tuesday April 21st, 2:30 PM

[update below]

Or is it week 7? Each week resembles the previous one, as it does the next, and will until the May 11th D-Day, when the confinement will end, so Emmanuel Macron solemnly announced to the nation on April 13th. Not that life will revert to the status quo ante, of course; with restaurants, cafés, and cinemas closed until further notice, and with the continued necessity of social distancing (so no dinner parties anytime soon), I personally will not be venturing into the city too often.

As it happens, I went into Paris this past Tuesday, for the first time since the confinement began on March 17th, to take my wife in the car to her place of work, in the heart of the city (2nd arrondissement), where she had to pick up some IT equipment for her telework at home. I normally never, ever drive into the center of Paris during the week, let alone in the mid-afternoon, what with traffic, the near impossibility of parking, and simply the convenience of public transportation. As the traffic was light, to say the least, the voyage door-to-door took half an hour (normally it would be two to three times that). Driving through the empty city on a weekday afternoon, with everything closed and hardly anyone walking about—and despite the beautiful weather: sunny in the 70s F/mid-20s C, which is what it’s been for much of the month—was eerie, borderline apocalyptic. It’s as if the city had been hit by a neutron bomb. I know that it is likewise most everywhere else in the world but Paris is my city and where I live. Here are some images, taken by my wife from the car.

Hôtel de Ville

Rue de Rivoli (at the Louvre)

Boulevard Montmarte

Bd des Italiens & Bd Haussmann

Place de la Bourse

Rue Saint-Antoine

Place de la Bastille

My overriding sentiment at the apocalyptic spectacle of the empty city was sadness mixed with dread fear—for the future and of everything: the world economy and the consequences of the pandemic for humanity, France, Europe, America, my family (in the US and here: e.g. my 26-year-old daughter recently started her first career-type job and which is a good one, with a small company whose business is heavily dependent on international mobility and a strong globalized economy), for my own self and personal finances…

My anxieties and fears are that of several billion other people, that’s for certain.

Like everyone, I read numerous articles daily on the pandemic and watch/listen to the usual news programs and talk shows (for me, French public radio and TV). I can barely stand to read savant and other pundit speculation about what will happen down the road, as it only adds to the anxiety, but do nonetheless. E.g. one bleak piece read this weekend, which is surely on target in its prognostications, is by Jonathan V. Last, executive editor of The Bulwark (a new mouthpiece for anti-Trump conservatives, mainly orphans of the defunct Weekly Standard), “We cannot ‘reopen’ America.” The lede: “No matter when government stay-at-home orders are revoked, the American economy will not reopen. Because the source of the economic shock is not government orders. It’s the pandemic.” Last focuses on just two probable consequences of the pandemic: on the city of Las Vegas and on movie theaters, the former entirely dependent on tourism—and of the kind for which social distancing is not possible—the latter with the narrowest of profit margins even in the best of times. In short, Las Vegas risks being wiped out, with all the social consequences for the people there. Vegas will be an extreme case but towns and cities—whole countries—the world over whose economies are so dependent on tourism—Paris and France among them—will find themselves in much the same boat. As for movie theaters, most of them in America will likely not survive the pandemic. Such will hopefully not be the case in France, as the state may be counted on to save them. Hopefully.

Another bleak piece read this weekend is Andrew Sullivan’s weekly column in New York magazine, “We can’t go on like this much longer.” Sullivan, who has already had experience with pandemics (HIV), is despairing for the future. He begins:

I began to lose it this week.

And concludes:

[Trump] is an incoherent, malevolent mess of a human being. I used to be disgusted by him. I am now incandescent with rage at him and the cult that enables his abuse of all of us.

And so we wait. Absent a pharmaceutical miracle, we are headed, if we keep this up [i.e. Trump’s leadership], toward both a collapse in the economy and an inevitable second wave that will further cull the population. Yes, I’m a catastrophist by nature. I hope and pray something intervenes to save us from this uniquely grim future. But I learned something from the AIDS years: Sometimes it is a catastrophe. And sometimes the only way past something is through it.

France is fortunate not to be led by a madman like Trump, though the failings of Macron and the French state have been considerable. More on that another time,

In the same vein as Jonathan Last and Andrew Sullivan, Politico’s John F. Harris has a not-too-optimistic commentary, “Stop looking on the bright side: We’ll be screwed by the pandemic for years to come.” The lede: “Unfortunately, the history of the past generation justifies pessimism about the next one.”

In an academic vein, the very smart Columbia University historian Adam Tooze has a lengthy essay in the April 16th issue of the LRB, “Shockwave,” in which he weighs in “on the pandemic’s consequences for the world economy.” His closing words:

The worst is just beginning.

Also in the April 16th LRB is the latest very smart essay by dear friend Adam Shatz, “Shipwrecked,” in which he discusses Covid-19 in America through the prism of Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf’s latest book, Le Naufrage des civilisations.

And in the vein of relevant contributions by dear friends, Human Rights Watch MENA division Deputy Director Eric Goldstein was interviewed on the HRW website (April 16th), “When health care is decimated by war: COVID-19 in the Middle East and North Africa.”

There is so much more to say.

La prochaine fois.

UPDATE: The morning after posting, I learned of the death to Covid-19 of Henri Weber (age 75), who was a major figure on the French left of the past five decades: in May ’68, then the Trotskyist LCR, before joining the PS in the 1980s and converting to social-democracy. I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone in 2017—a mutual friend put me in touch—to seek his help in organizing a visit for one of my classes (American students) to PS HQ on Rue de Solférino. He was warm and friendly and made the visit happen. A good man (and with good politics). When the bookstores reopen for business, I’ll pick up a copy of his autobiography, Rebelle jeunesse. R.I.P.

Follow-up: Laurent Joffrin has a remembrance in Libération, “Henri Weber, cheville ouvrière de la social-démocratie.” And Thomas Legrand in his Édito politique on France Inter.

Jean-Noël Roy, R.I.P.

He’s the first person I know personally—the first friend, in effect—to die during the pandemic. He was 92-years-old, already unwell, and may or may not have come down with Covid-19. I’d known Jean-Noël since 1992, his wife, Marie, being one of my wife’s oldest friends, having thus met him soon after my then future wife and I started going out. We spent numerous weekends over the subsequent years/decades at Jean-Noël & Marie’s lovely home in a bucolic hamlet on the edge of the Rambouillet forest—in which we took many long walks, with Jean-Noël walking briskly ahead of everyone even into his 80s. And at the house he always enjoyed discussing politics and history with me, and talking about the latest books he had read (he was cultivated and continued his work as a documentary filmmaker almost to the end).

Jean-Noël’s son, François, has posted this faire-part on Facebook:

Jean-Noël Roy, né le 26 décembre 1927,

Mari, père, beau-père, grand-père et arrière grand-père d’une grande famille, composée, recomposée, adoptée, cooptée…

Il aimait formidablement les gens, la vie, la créativité, la fête, il était d’une grande générosité, c’était un esprit libre en perpétuelle rébellion contre toutes les formes d’injustices…

Auteur et réalisateur de télévision depuis 1954
Il a commencé sa vie dans le spectacle
au théâtre comme comédien.
Il est aussi scénariste, producteur de cinéma
et écrivain.

Il fait partie des premiers réalisateurs de la télévision française,
et choisit de travailler dans tous les genres
et selon toutes les techniques,
avec une préférence pour le direct,
pour transmettre instantanément au public,
toutes les transformations de la société et de la vie…

[Sa famille a] la tristesse de vous faire part de sa disparition, le 12 avril 2020.

Jean-Noël recounted a number of personal stories to me, which I have in turn regularly told to my American students in courses I’ve taught on France or European history over the years, most recently this semester. One of them was about his grandfather, Marcel Grateau, who invented and patented the Marcel hair curling iron. When Jean-Noël was a boy, his grandfather—shortly before his death in 1936—told him of having been an apprentice coiffeur in Paris during the Commune in 1871. During the Bloody Week, the infamous General Galliffet lined up dozens of men in Montmartre, Marcel among them, and ordered all to open the palms of their hands. Those whose hands were calloused, indicating that they were laboring men, were executed on the spot, so Marcel told his grandson, but his hands being soft, as he worked in a hair salon, he was spared.

Another story was in Paris during the German occupation, in 1941, when Jean-Noël was 13-years-old and in lycée (a bourgeois institution in those days). There was a Jewish boy in his class, whom several of his classmates started to taunt one day. Other boys in the class, including Jean-Noël, came to their Jewish camarade’s defense, with a brawl ensuing. I took his story to be a metaphor—and with Jean-Noël entirely agreeing with me—of the profound division—roughly down the middle—in French society at the time, between conservative, Catholic, anti-Semitic France—and pétainiste—and republican laïque France, which adhered to the universal values of the French revolution.

Another World War II story concerned the United States. In the two years preceding the D-Day landings, the Americans and British engaged in heavy aerial bombardment of France, striking industry, infrastructure, and other targets of possible military value to the Germans. But the Americans and Brits proceeded differently. When the British bombers raided, they flew low for greater accuracy, though at greater risk of being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire. As for the Americans, whose military doctrine has always privileged force protection, their bombers flew high, to stay out of range of German fire but sacrificing accuracy in the process. So to compensate, the payloads of US bombers were greater, i.e. they dropped a lot more bombs, with the inevitable “collateral damage.” The consequence of this was 67,000 French civilians killed by Allied aerial bombardment, largely American—with many more wounded, hundreds of thousands of housing units destroyed, large parts of cities reduced to rubble… Jean-Noël said that when people heard the Allied bombers, they could tell if they were American or British by how high they were flying, and when they were American, people were terrified. As it happens, Jean-Noël’s story was confirmed by an elderly woman from the Angers-Nantes area I met in 2002, who said precisely the same thing (and with these stories confirmed by historians).

One Jean-Noël story I liked was of his trip to Chicago in 1961, to do a report for French television of the delivery to United Airlines of the first of some twenty Caravelles, the short/medium range jet airliner it had ordered from Sud Aviation. The Caravelle was my favorite jet aircraft as a boy and into my teens. I flew it on Air France, Alitalia, Iberia, SAS, and Sterling Airways—and on United, in July 1967, from Cleveland to Milwaukee, my first plane ride all by myself (I was 11; there were only maybe two or three other passengers, so we were put in first class, where I was given a complementary pack of cigarettes…). United was the only American carrier to fly the Caravelle, though the bulk of its short/medium range jets were Boeing 727s (the workhorse jet of US and other carriers, along with the DC-9).

Given the rules of the pandemic confinement, only immediate family members will be allowed to attend Jean-Noël’s funeral. What a terrible time we’re living through.

Pandemic lockdown: week 1

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We’re still in the first week of confinement here in the Hexagon, which went into effect on Tuesday at noon. One can still go out but only with this form issued by the Ministry of Interior (printed out or copied by hand), checking the box of one of five authorized reasons: to go to work (if you can’t telework from home, and with a certificate from your employer), go food shopping or to the pharmacy (and close to home), for health reasons (to see a doctor or veterinarian; we’ve already had to do the latter), for “imperative” family reasons (to aid elderly or infirm family members or take children to a sitter), or to engage in solitary physical activity close to home (or walk a dog). My wife and I are teleworking (me teaching my classes via the Moodle platform, to students who are now mainly back in the US), as is my daughter (now 26) and her bf in their small one-bedroom apartment in Paris. As I already had my own personal lockdown seven years back—not stepping outside for five weeks—this is not a new experience for me.

I’m not going to linger on my own situation or thoughts, as everyone is in the same boat and thinking largely the same things. As for my worries and fears—for the economy (local and global), family and friends, and my own situation and future (not rosy)—they are shared by several billion people across the planet (the news today says that one billion are presently on lockdown). This is the biggest black swan event of the lifetime of everyone reading this. However the pandemic plays out, it is a certainty that the world will not be the same afterward.

Speculating on what the post-pandemic world may look like, the very smart and always interesting intellectual and writer Pankaj Mishra had a must-read two-part column in Bloomberg Opinion earlier this week: “Get ready, a bigger disruption is coming: The Covid-19 pandemic reflects a systemic crisis akin to the seminal crashes of the 20th century” & “Coronavirus will revive an all-powerful state: Much maligned in recent years, big government will come back—and with it, the potential for both greater good and evil.” If one can’t open the links to Mishra’s important piece, please let me know and I’ll copy-and-paste the text in the comments thread below.

Historian Adam Tooze, who is equally very smart and always interesting, has an equally must-read op-ed in The Guardian, “Coronavirus has shattered the myth that the economy must come first.” The lede: “Since the 1990s, faith in ‘the market’ has gone unchallenged. Now even public shopping has become a crime against society.”

Journalist and Politico founding editor John F. Harris—who is also smart—had a good column the other day, which spoke in particular to the current generation of university students, “The pandemic is the end of Trumpism: For a rising generation, a crisis fueled by frightening science foreshadows the coming conflicts.”

In Politico also see the forum, “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how.” The lede: “A crisis on this scale can reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse. Here are 34 big thinkers’ predictions for what’s to come.”

Shifting gears to the here and now, one has perhaps read about the 180° flip this past week of Trump State Television, a.k.a. Fox News, in its coverage of the coronavirus (watch here). As to the chutzpah of Fox’s propagandists, of them doing this 180° with straight faces, David Frum, in his latest column in The Atlantic, drew an apt historical parallel with the American Communist party (and other Comintern affiliates) during the Stalin era changing the party line 180° from one day to the next on WWII following the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union (and, prior to that, in 1935 with the call to form anti-fascist ‘popular fronts’ with social democratic parties—heretofore tarred as “social fascists”—and in August 1939 with the proclamation of neutrality toward Nazi Germany following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Moscow-line CPs never felt it necessary to explain, or even acknowledge, their revirements, let alone apologize for their past positions. The party line had changed and that was that. Likewise in Trump World.

Haaretz’s excellent US editor Chemi Shalev, in an analysis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brazen power grab presently underway, speculated on the possible action of Bibi’s American alter ego, “Americans beware: Trump could emulate Netanyahu’s coronavirus coup.” The lede: “The United States is facing greater coronavirus upheavals than Israel, led by a president who has less respect for democracy and the rule of law.” Money quote:

But even if someone other than Trump was president, and he or she had not wasted precious weeks preparing for the coronavirus onslaught, the United States would still be facing an uphill battle, compared to Israel, in containing the plague. It is an immeasurably larger country with a far more dispersed and diverse population. Its public health system is a sham and a shame.

And unlike Israeli society, which can be described as permanently mobilized and has experienced national mobilization and country-wide lockdowns in its recent past – weathering Iraqi missiles with no response in the 1991 Gulf War comes to mind – Americans have never experienced such a direct threat to their homeland, not even in World War II. And while Israelis may grumble about their government, they see no alternative. Millions of Americans, on the other hand, truly view the federal authorities as their enemy.

It was enough to hear a Washington Times columnist on Fox News last week praising a coronavirus-inspired rush on guns and ammunition in Midwestern states as a “healthy sign” to realize that while it is Israelis who are seen as unruly and undisciplined, parts of the United States may simply be unmanageable. Corona is bound to come knocking at their door.

Given these two factors – a leader who rejects any check on his presidential authority and a coronavirus crisis that could soon grow out of control – Americans should beware a Trump who decides to emulate Netanyahu. The U.S. president, who now fancies himself a “Wartime President” with all the emergency powers that accompany the title, will go farther and more radical than Netanyahu would ever dare. But if the Israeli prime minister’s flirtation with tyranny inspires Trump, the battle to maintain American democracy and rule of law will be far fiercer than anything Israel is set to experience.

Scary.

Everyone is aware of the labeling of the coronavirus by the Trump regime and its propaganda organs as the “Chinese virus.” Not to diminish or relativize this blatant racism and xenophobia, but one must not ignore the responsibility of the Chinese regime in the coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid writes in The Atlantic, “China is avoiding blame by trolling the world: Beijing is successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus.”

I’ll write next time about the French state and the pandemic. In the meantime, I recommend the blog of Parisian Claire Berlinski, who lives in the heart of the city and is in lockdown comme tout le monde.

UPDATE: Yuval Noah Harari—whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind everyone has read—has a ‘long read’ essay in the FT on “the world after coronavirus” that everyone needs to read. The lede: “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come.” Money quote:

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.

 

2nd UPDATE: Sofia-based political scientist Ivan Krastev—who is always worth reading—has a worthwhile essay in the New Statesman, “The seven early lessons of the global coronavirus crisis: Governments will eventually be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy, or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy.”

3rd UPDATE: The Foreign Affairs website has several articles that should be read, one by the well-known economist Branko Milanovic, “The real pandemic danger is social collapse: As the global economy comes apart, societies may, too.”

Another is MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s “The coronavirus exposed America’s authoritarian turn: Independent expertise always dies first when democracy recedes.”

4th UPDATE: Naomi Klein—whom I have not been a fan of—has a very good 27-minute video in which she “[m]akes the case for transformative change amid [the] coronavirus pandemic.”

USA: failed state

Seoul (credit here)

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It’s not yet but is on the way—and will definitely become one in the unthinkable event that the orange-haired idiot manages to steal the November election and/or his political party keeps control of the Senate and tightens its grip on the federal judiciary. I fortunately live in a robust state, which, one may be sure, will never fail. Last night Emmanuel Macron addressed the French nation—watched by 25 million (over half the adult population)—his first since the pandemic began. He spoke for 26 minutes, which was twice as long as he needed to (a common affliction of French people, particularly highly educated male ones), but was good and reassuring. Frenchmen and women know that their government is 100% mobilized over the crisis and is acting calmly and professionally.

As for the United States, it is, of course, another matter altogether. On this, please read Julia Ioffe in GQ “on how hollowing out the government has endangered America”: “Trump voters wanted to blow up the system. Well, here we go.”

When you finish that, go to the brilliant essay in New York magazine by David Wallace-Wells, “Coronavirus shows us America is broken.” This one is a must.

If Wallace-Wells somehow doesn’t convince, please meditate on the post in Digby’s Hullabaloo blog, “The CDC Director is a hard core wingnut Trumpie.”

The USA may not yet be a failed state but it is definitely becoming a banana republic.

And à propos of banana republics, when you have 37 minutes to spare, watch the documentary released by Brave New Films last September, “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote,” on how the fascistic Republican Brian Kemp successfully suppressed hundreds of thousands of votes in the 2018 election in his bid to become governor of Georgia. Voter suppression is, it should be said, an old story in the United States, practiced in the present era—and the US here is alone among advanced democracies—exclusively by the Republican Party and in many states it controls—and without which it would lose many of those states.

On Trump stealing the election (see above), this is how it will happen.

Banana republic, like I said.

UPDATE: Continuing in the above vein, see the piece by The New Republic’s excellent staff writer Alex Pareene, “The dismantled state takes on a pandemic.” The lede: “Conservatives won their war on Big Government. Their prize is a pandemic.”

Also check out the analysis by Aleem Maqbool on the BBC website, “Coronavirus: Why systemic problems leave the US at risk.” The lede: “As the coronavirus spreads across the US, tens of millions of Americans may not seek medical help either because they are uninsured or undocumented. That puts everyone in society at greater risk.”

2nd UPDATE: On the tightening Republican grip on the federal judiciary, The New York Times has an important investigative report (March 14th) by reporters Rebecca R. Ruiz, Robert Gebeloff, Steve Eder, and Ben Protess, “A conservative agenda unleashed on the federal courts.” The lede: “President Trump’s imprint on the nation’s appeals courts has been swift and historic. He has named judges with records on a range of issues important to Republicans — and to his re-election.”

Also see Dahlia Lithwick’s column (March 13th) in Slate, “Former judge resigns from the Supreme Court Bar: In a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts, he detailed why he’s lost faith in the court.”

3rd UPDATE: Slate editor and writer Dan Kois has a gratifying slash-and-burn piece (March 14th) asserting that “America is a sham,” in which he details how “[a]ll over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit”…

4th UPDATE: Anne Applebaum—who leans to the center-right—has a powerful essay in The Atlantic (March 15th) on how “The coronavirus called America’s bluff: Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself.”

5th UPDATE: Following in Anne Applebaum’s vein, see Never Trumper ex-Republican Max Boot’s column (March 18th) in The Washington Post, “The coronavirus shows how backward the United States has become.”

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This is my first post on the US presidential race in four months, which in no way signifies that I have not been following it. Au contraire, I have been riveted to the campaign—borderline obsessed—exchanging views on it regularly with friends and others via email and social media. I watched the first eight debates in full (en différé; catching the highlights of the last two) and have intended to offer my 2¢ on the race at a number of points, but it’s perhaps just as well that I didn’t, as whatever I would have had to say would have been obsolete within a week and with me possibly changing my mind as well.

One thing I did not change my mind on, even momentarily, was Elizabeth Warren, whom I supported 100% from the outset. I am deeply saddened by the failure of her candidacy and early exit, which just seems so unfair, as she has been without question the most impressive candidate of the lot (a case well made by Michelle Goldberg and Ezra Klein)—and ever more so after other impressive ones (notably Kamala Harris and Cory Booker) quit the race—with the best, most thoroughly thought-out policy positions and an impeccable discourse on combating corruption in the deeply corrupt American system and tackling inequality. She was also clearly the candidate who could best bridge the gap between the moderate and progressive lanes of the Democratic Party. She’s a great communicator in addition and is, quite simply, a good person—and in this, the utter, total antithesis of the unspeakable current president of the United States.

As to why Warren’s candidacy failed, she did commit errors, e.g. getting tangled up in questions over the financing of Medicare-for-All and not specifying from the outset that this was a long-term objective—to be realized by the end of her second term—not a policy goal that could be imposed by executive fiat the day she took office. She also probably talked too much about transgender issues. And calling for a ban on fracking was not wise, as this would win her no swing votes in November but could create complications in key swing states. The media’s erasure of her after the Iowa caucuses was real (I noted it almost right away). And despite her compelling personal story, of growing up in a lower middle class family in Oklahoma, her image as the candidate of the “wine track”—of educated liberals, i.e. people like myself and the great majority of Americans with whom I interact (a mere slice of the electorate)—got locked in.

And then there was sexism/gender, which was incontestably a factor, discussed in numerous articles, notably Caroline Fraser’s in the NYRB, ‘Warren in the trap,’ though the issue needs to be nuanced. The notion that Americans are somehow not ready to elect a woman as POTUS, which I have come across countless times on social media, but also in my US entourage, exasperated to no end, as not only is it so utterly wrong but is, moreover, complete bullshit. Insofar as this matter needed to be laid to rest, it was in the 2016 election, when the otherwise unpopular Hillary Clinton—the lightening rod of so much antipathy on both the right and left—nonetheless won 48.2% of the national popular vote—2.1% more than her opponent—only losing the Electoral College in a freak accident foreseen by almost no one and following an October Surprise (the Comey letter) that, according to polls, cost her 2% of the overall national vote. Case closed. Had Mme Clinton’s campaign not ignored Michigan and Wisconsin and/or had the Comey letter never been sent, she would have won the election and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. As for Warren, many Democratic voters who were otherwise fine with her assumed nonetheless, for some incomprehensible reason, that other people—whom they did not know and based on no evidence—would not vote for her precisely because she was a women, so that Warren was ergo not “electable.” This crazy reasoning clearly undermined her candidacy.

Quoting Michelle Cottle in the NYT:

Last summer, a poll on perceived electability by Avalanche Strategies found that gender appeared to be a bigger issue than “age, race, ideology, or sexual orientation.” When voters were asked whom they’d pick if the primaries were held today, Mr. Biden came out ahead. When asked whom they would make president with the wave of a magic wand, without the candidate needing to win an election, voters went with Ms. Warren. Women were more likely than men to cite gender as a concern.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight lamented that such anxiety can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “So there are a lot of women who might not vote for a woman because they’re worried that other voters won’t vote for her. But if everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!”

On Elizabeth Warren making a great president—which she certainly would—the ultra-rightist polemical bomb-thrower Ann Coulter paid her this back-handed compliment:

We’ll never know, alas.

BTW, the entire Democratic Party owes Elizabeth Warren a big thank you for her demolition of the billionaire ersatz Democrat and troll Michael Bloomberg in the Las Vegas and Charleston debates, which effectively put paid to his attempt to buy the party’s nomination. Had Warren not done to Bloomberg what she did—had his candidacy thereby gained traction and eclipsed Joe Biden’s—the Democrats would have faced near certain disaster in Milwaukee in July, not to mention nationwide in November. Democratic officials who endorsed Bloomberg should hang their heads in shame.

Here’s an article just up in The New Yorker by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Elizabeth Warren’s American leadership.”

On the two candidates left standing—who would have ever thought this even a week ago?—The Nation’s Joan Walsh has this to say:

This has been my sentiment from the very beginning, of being dismayed by and opposed to the late septuagenarians Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden running for the presidency at their age—and crowding out the rest of what was a very good field. As I have said countless times, it is simply not reasonable for a man in his late 70s to be doing this. But alas, that’s where we are.

On Bernie, who barely a week ago looked to be the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, vanquishing the fragmented moderate lane and leaving Warren in the dust, I have been deeply conflicted. On domestic policy and most foreign, I have practically no differences with Bernie. He can give a speech and I will agree with every last word of it. His values and objectives are mine. As to qualms about “electability,” I have been more-or-less persuaded—or tried to persuade myself—by data-backed analyses positing that negative partisanship has become so determinant in US elections, and there are now so few swing voters left, that Democratic Party voters will turn out for their candidate against Trump regardless of his or her identity, including for Bernie. “Vote blue no matter who.” Much has been written on this, the latest in TNR by the very smart number-crunching political scientist Rachel Bitecofer (profiled in Politico), “Hate is on the ballot: The hidden dynamic that’s transformed our politics—and will loom large in the 2020 election.” And Matthew Yglesias made a strong argument on how “Bernie Sanders [could] unify Democrats and beat Trump.” Supporting this have been Bernie’s consistently robust head-to-head poll numbers against Trump (more so than any other candidate save Biden). So not to worry about Bernie Sanders in November.

But still. Strong polling in the winter does not necessarily carry into the fall. And while 90+% of Democratic voters—spearheaded by the army of enthusiastic millennials and Gen Zers—will certainly turn out for Bernie to beat Trump, it is legitimate to fear that at least some of the moderate Republicans (notably suburban women) who defected to Hilllary Clinton in 2016—and voted Democrat in the 2018 midterms, enabling the party to take back the House—would not bring themselves to vote for the “socialist” Sanders, that they would abstain or even go for Trump. To the retort that such a fall-off would be compensated by increased turnout of young voters—and the fervent support for Bernie by millennials and Gen Zers is impressive indeed—political scientists David Broockman (UC-Berkeley) and Joshua Kalla (Yale) threw cold water on this contention in a widely-read piece in Vox dated Feb. 25th, “Bernie Sanders looks electable in surveys—but it could be a mirage: New research suggests Sanders would drive swing voters to Trump—and need a youth turnout miracle to compensate.” The upshot: Bernie’s strong poll numbers have been predicated on a level of youth turnout that has, in fact, never materialized. Not that it couldn’t but a campaign is taking a big risk in banking its election prospects on this happening. And we are in fact witnessing a lower youth turnout compared to older cohorts in the primaries and caucuses so far; the young people have not been showing up at the polls for Bernie in the numbers announced (Seth Ackerman, the executive editor of the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin webzine, has posted a frantic, 4,000-word response to the Brookman-Kalla paper, which he calls “bunk” and “nonsense,” but that I had a hard time following, abandoning it around the 2,000-word mark).

On Bernie’s political baggage from the 1970s and ’80s—e.g. support for the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (whose candidate—disclosure—I voted for in the 1976 presidential election), honeymooning in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era, drunkenly singing Woody Guthrie songs while cruising down the Volga, etc—this is no big deal IMO. Only a few ageing boomers care about who said or did what during the Cold War—and it’s pretty unlikely that anyone’s vote would be swung on this. As for Bernie’s extolling Cuba’s 1960s literacy program, pundits and others decreed that he had, in one fell swoop, ceded Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Perhaps, though, in point of fact, Florida is going to be a hard state for the Democrats in any case, with all the well-to-do Republican-voting retirees moving there and massive voter suppression targeting Democratic-leaning minorities. While Bernie did take care to call the Cuban regime “authoritarian”—no, it’s more than that: totalitarian is more like it—his finding positive aspects in it was still highly problematic, pointing to a blindness on the American left—and particularly the boomers among them—on the subject of left-wing Latin American regimes. While not too many still support the Cuban Communists outright, there’s still a lot of apologizing for that indefensible regime—of blaming the state of Cuba’s economy on the US embargo, which is utter BS—or simply withdrawing into silence when the matter is raised. For US lefties—and Bernie for much of his adult life—US imperialism was/is the enemy, so any regime in its cross hairs couldn’t be entirely bad. But in fact, there is nothing in the Cuban Revolution to defend (and please don’t tell me about the health care system or literacy, which (a) we don’t have the full story on and (b) do not require dictatorships to achieve positive results). It has been a disaster from A to Z (if one would like an elaboration on this, go to the ‘Americas’ category on the sidebar, click, and scroll). It is likewise with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (a cause célèbre of the US left in the 1980s, and which included myself). And don’t even talk about Venezuela.

As Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker, “Here’s what Bernie Sanders should have said about socialism and totalitarianism in Cuba.”

So Bernie’s words on Cuba were an unforced error on his part. As with Elizabeth Warren on fracking, they will win him not a single vote but create needless problems for his eventual general election prospects.

This points to a big qualm I and others have about Bernie, which is his ideological rigidity and overall persona. Situating him on the French political spectrum, he would be a frondeur Socialist of the 2014-17 era, a rough equivalent of Benoît Hamon (my candidate in the 1st round of the 2017 election). But he has just a little bit of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in his personal style, which is a problem, as JLM is—and this is an objective fact—one of the most detestable, insufferable personalities in the French political class. Now I don’t want to push the comparison too far—I would never say that Bernie is detestable or insufferable—but quite a few Democratic voters—if my Twitter feed is anything to go by—do seem to feel this way. As Paul Krugman tweeted the other day:

Bernie’s big problem isn’t that he’s a progressive; it’s that he’s a progressive with an attitude: calling himself a socialist when he isn’t, denouncing anyone who raises questions as a corporate tool. This thrills his followers, but scares off key constituencies.

While Bernie has gotten along fine over the years with his colleagues in Congress and is capable of some political flexibility, he strikes one as a “my way or the highway” politician (as is JLM), not a big tent compromiser (thus his attacks on the despised Democratic “establishment”). And as Krugman observed, this has indeed put off many Democratic Party primary voters—including more than a few Warren supporters—witnessed by the surge to Biden on Tuesday.

And the problem here goes well beyond Bernie. It’s also his hardcore fanaticized base: the famous Bernie Bros; his massive Twitter army of young white male punks. Unlike the candidate, these white male punks are indeed detestable and insufferable, and are causing important prejudice to their champion. Many, many Democratic voters, including older progressives, cannot stand them.

The bottom line is that in order to win in November, the Democratic Party—indeed any party—must be united behind its candidate. If the Dems come out of Milwaukee divided or with a lot of bad feelings, they will definitely lose in November to a Trump whose party is 100% devoted to him. If Bernie were to somehow win the nomination and unite the party—which, pour mémoire, he still declines to call himself a member of—for the general election campaign, he would stand a good chance of winning. But that simply does not look likely in view of the resistance to him by a large portion of the party’s base—the majority of which remains in the moderate lane—not to mention by the party’s elected officials—and with many congresspersons up for reelection likely distancing themselves from his ticket, which would not help anyone win. In this respect, there is no comparison with Trump and the Republican Party in 2016, whose base quickly became Trump’s and with elected Rs falling into line (and whom Trump has cultivated and flattered behind the scenes, and giving them everything they wanted policy-wise while he’s been at it). This is not in the offing with Bernie and the Democratic Party.

Another bottom line: the American left is simply not ready to come to power. If Bernie were to win the White House, he would, as Ann Coulter said above, not get anything done. Even in the event (unlikely) that the Dems were to take back the Senate with him heading the ticket, a President Sanders would not be able to get much of his legislation through Congress. With Mitch McConnell at the helm, he would get nothing through. Disillusionment would set in, the Dems would likely be routed in the 2022 midterms, and with Bernie, in view of his age, a probable lame duck from the get-go. A Sanders administration would almost certainly not work out. If the left is to come to power, it needs to build up from the bottom, to take state legislatures and dramatically increase its representation in Congress. In other words, the left has to do what the movement conservatives did in the Republican Party over the past five decades—taking over one GOP state organization after another and finally conquering the national party, as they did with the Tea Party in 2010, and crowned with the ‘divine surprise’ of 2016.

Bernie Sanders is a historical figure, as Michael Tomasky justly put it, who has almost single-handedly pulled the Democratic Party to the left over the past four years. But if the left is to win the White House, it will be with one of his protégés, not him. #AOCin2032.

On Sleepy Joe Biden: I won’t say much about him here, as, barring unforeseen rebondissements or some stunning coup de théâtre, he is going to be the Democratic Party nominee (FWIW, Nate Silver today rates this an 88% probability)—and can all but seal the deal with a win in Michigan next week—so there will be ample occasion to do so down the line. Just a few points.

First, Biden is, as we all know, carrying a lot of baggage from his five decades in Washington, e.g. opposing busing in the 1970s and palling around with segregationist senators, Anita Hill, the Iraq war, calling for cuts to Social Security, to name just a few. Having recently seen the movie Dark Waters, I shuddered imagining the heavy-lifting Biden must have done in the Senate—and perhaps even as V-P—in favor of DuPont. But none of this matters today. It’s water under the bridge. Nothing that Biden did in past decades as Senator from Delaware will inform what he does as president of the United States in the third decade of the 21st century. In short, Biden’s record as a politician in the political distant past will be irrelevant in the 2020 election against Donald Trump.

Second, it is now commonplace to observe that Biden’s positions today are well to the left of Obama’s in 2008 or 2012. He’s a professional politician—i.e. malleable and opportunistic—generically liberal, and will go with the flow of his party. If the gravity of the Democratic Party is on the center-left—which is further to the left than what it was ten years ago, not to mention twenty or thirty—then that’s where Biden will be. On this, please read the commentary by the right-leaning Peter Suderman in the libertarian, not progressive website Reason, “Joe Biden is no moderate: [He] is a classic big-government liberal.” Sounds good to me.

Third, Biden, given his age, will be a transitional figure, a placeholder for whomever the Gen Yers and millennials put forth after him. One may assume that, in the White House, his staff, along with the Democrats in Congress, will play a central role in formulating policy. On this, journalist and IR policy intellectual David Rothkopf had an interesting tweet storm the other day, which begins:

As you who follow me know, I was not a @JoeBiden supporter at the outset. I have been energized and inspired by @kamalaharris and @ewarren since the beginning of the campaign. But with the inevitability of @joebiden as the candidate now clear, I’d like to share a brief anecdote.

Biden is surrounded by excellent advisors, some of the very best and the brightest in Washington. I’ve spoken to several of them over the past few months and their commitment to him and their reasons for supporting him have been quite thought provoking and persuasive.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with @RonKlain, a close Biden aide, formerly his chief of staff, and one of those folks in DC whose views I value above most others. He described that he too, like me, shares some deeply held progressive beliefs.

He underscored that Biden shared many of them too. But then he explained that in his very sensible view, advancing those beliefs began with defeating Donald Trump. You have to protect our system and defeat the enemies of serving the people as job one.

To read the rest, go here.

Fourth, I have been insisting from the very beginning that the Dem ticket will need to have a woman and Afro-American. No need to explain why car ça va de soi, i.e it goes without saying. With Biden the nigh inevitable nominee, his running mate will thus need to be an Afro-American woman. The name that automatically rolls off everyone’s lips is Stacey Abrams. Sure. Why not? She does, however, seem to be situated in the moderate lane of the party, so it would be more politic of Biden to choose a high-profile progressive, and who could energize Bernie’s disappointed supporters. My candidate, whose name I have been touting to no one in particular over the past couple of weeks: Ayanna Pressley, a Bernie-compatible Warren supporter and bona fide member of ‘the Squad’. Any objections?

Fifth, the Democratic Party will be united behind Biden. Sanders supporters will faire la gueule, i.e. sulk, but they’ll turn out and vote for him in sufficient numbers to eject Trump. Of course they will.

Sixth, Biden is not an antipathetic person. No one despises him. As The Washington Post’s humor columnist Alexandra Petri reminded everyone, “Joe Biden is fine!”

Seventh, the big concern with Biden is cognitive decline. As everyone has observed, he shows signs of not being all there. But then, that’s an even bigger concern with his opponent. God save America (and the world).

A couple of comments on the other candidates who dropped out this week, both of whom have brilliant political futures.

Pete Buttigieg: I am relieved that it was Biden and not him, as he was reminding me a little too much of Emmanuel Macron, which is not a compliment. In the future he will be well-advised to move away from neoliberalism, of advocating reducing budget deficits and the public debt.

Amy Klobuchar: After her brilliant performance in the New Hampshire debate, I declared to friends in an email loop that she would have my vote if Warren left the race, to which a friend replied with a reminder of her numerous non-progressive positions. Better that she stay in the Senate.

À suivre.

UPDATE: For the record, the best analyses I’ve seen of Super Tuesday and Bernie Sanders’ counter-performance are the excellent Eric Levitz’s in New York magazine, “Bernie’s revolution failed. But his movement can still win,” and Ron Brownstein’s in The Atlantic, “Bernie Sanders gets a rude awakening.” The lede: “Super Tuesday’s clearest message: While the senator has inspired a passionate depth of support, the breadth of his coalition remains too limited to win the nomination.” This latter observation is central: Bernie’s left-wing base is simply too narrow to underpin a governing Democratic majority. Numerically-speaking, it comes nowhere close to the third of the American electorate that fanatically supports Trump.

Well worth the read is Esquire’s invariably spot-on Charles P. Pierce, “Elizabeth Warren was more of a threat to the money power than Bernie Sanders.” The lede: “This is not a country that is ready for what she called, endlessly, ‘big, structural change.’ This is a country fearful of any kind of change at all.”

2nd UPDATE: A smart political science friend with whom I exchange views on US politics (and we invariably agree) had this social media comment on my post (which he otherwise thought a “great analysis!”):

One small disagreement: While I like your possible VP picks, and I agree that a woman of color would be best for a number of reasons, I think that Kamala Harris would be a great pick, and one Biden is apt to feel more comfortable with. I think he will want to address concerns about his age and mental and physical health by picking someone with the experience to allow her to “do the job right away.” And if party unity becomes a problem (God, I hope you’re right about that) I think Biden would feel pressure to pick Warren.

Yes, I entirely agree on Harris, who would be a great pick. Some lefties would whine and kvetch—bringing up her record as San Francisco DA (which is completely irrelevant)—but it wouldn’t sink the ticket.

As for Warren, I think she’d be better and more effective staying in the Senate, particularly if the Dems take it back. Attorney General with carte blanche would also be a good place for her.

3rd UPDATE: Another point on the Elizabeth Warren/sexism thing that I neglected to mention above. We all know that women in politics—and particularly the ambitious ones—are raked over the coals and subjected to double standards and negative stereotypes in a way that men are not. This is the case *everywhere*. But it has not prevented women from being elected to the highest executive office (president or prime minister) in all sorts of countries and on all continents. There is no reason why it should not be likewise in the United States, whose society is, until proof to the contrary, no more sexist than, e.g., Argentina, Chile, Great Britain, Germany, Slovakia, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Burma, New Zealand, etc. etc.

4th UPDATE: Here’s a corrective by Nancy LeTourneau in the Washington Monthly (Mar. 6th) on “The disinformation campaign being launched against Biden,” for which “[t]here is no data to support the allegation that he is in cognitive decline.”

5th UPDATE: The NYT’s Sabrina Tavernise has a must-read piece (Mar. 7th): “A Sanders voter, weary of debt at 29: ‘I have nothing to lose’.” The lede: “Brian Michelz has never worn a political T-shirt or been to a campaign rally. But when he voted for the first time in his life, it was for Bernie Sanders. What will he do if Mr. Sanders loses?”

6th UPDATE: Robert Reich explains in The Guardian (Mar. 8th) that “Older people who feel unsafe seek the familiar. That’s why they’re flocking to Biden.”

7th UPDATE: Economists Erica Groshen and Harry J. Holzer have a useful op-ed (Mar. 4th) on the Brookings Institution website on “Bernie’s populism – and what it says about the job market.”

David Corn of Mother Jones had an excellent next-day Super Tuesday post-mortem that I had missed, “Sanders said it takes a revolution to beat Trump. On Super Tuesday, most Democrats disagreed.”

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