E-Pluribus | January 31, 2024
Literally and seriously; jailed for journalism; and the far right's appeal to men.
A round-up of the latest and best musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Andrew Sullivan: The Tyrant Who Is Also A Joker
Back in 2016, Salena Zito famously (or infamously, depending on your viewpoint) wrote in The Atlantic, “When [Trump] makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally. Writing at his Substack, The Weekly Dish, Andrew Sullivan takes Trump (as he did in 2016) both literally and seriously, but with some caveats, and with almost eight years of hindsight.
Just how seriously are we supposed to take Donald Trump?
It’s been the central question of these past several years: whether Trump is tragedy or farce or some hideous combination of each. He talks like a dictator, acts like a mafia boss, and is straight out of central casting for the strongman who often emerges as democracies decline. But is he actually one? Or is this all cosplay? Since it is more likely than not that he is going to be president next January, it may be time to think this through one more time.
Here is, roughly, the case for taking him less seriously as a threat this time than in 2016. Looking back at my essay on the threat of tyranny eight years ago, I think the core analysis of democratic decline holds up, as does my diagnosis of Trump’s deranged psyche. But it behooves me to note that the specific Trump promises I found most alarmingly authoritarian were the following: his pledge to round up and deport all 11 million illegal immigrants; a ban on all Muslim immigrants; death threats to his political opponents; prosecution of Hillary Clinton; and a pledge to legalize torture in US warfare.
After four years in office, these fears — apart from the persistent rhetorical menacing of his opponents — were not borne out. He was bluffing, it turns out. On all the most substantive, authoritarian promises, he caved.
[. . .]
The two areas where Trump acted as badly as I feared were in defending himself from various legitimate investigations, where he revealed his contempt for the rule of law, even when it (partially) exonerated him; and his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, which he had telegraphed in advance. But notice what these two deeply anti-democratic actions had in common: they were not ways to impose his actual power on anyone; they were designed solely to protect his ego, to ensure he could never be seen as having lost. His narcissism is so extreme that he would sacrifice the entire republic just to sustain his own vision of being The Greatest of All Presidents.
January 6 brings all this together. Did he seriously think he was going to prevent certification, and remain as president? Seriously? Was it a genuine insurrection — an attempted coup, supported by a plurality in the country, secretly backed by rogue elements in the military and a majority in the Congress and the Court — that could have kept Trump in power? Or was it a coordinated but bizarre riot that got out of control, to support a coup based on a theory concocted by a bunch of fringe nutters, with no serious support from any other relevant actor?
[. . .]
One final thing. Trump’s inability to concede an iota to his opponents, his fusion of truth and lies so that truth disappears entirely, and his daily doses of ever-intensifying polarization deeply corrode our liberal democracy. He has empowered the far left, because the moderate Democrats fear that any resistance to the woke will be tarred as being in league with Trump, thereby accelerating our descent into democratic dysfunction.
His demagogic genius is very real. He may be the most talented thug in American political history, which makes him ineluctably the most dangerous. And tyrants rarely mellow with time; their gambles tend to grow in ambition. And a victory for him would not just mean a threat to the rule of law; it would mean a democratic mandate for a president outside the law, and beyond morality. It would make the deep stain of 2016 permanent. It’s unthinkable.
Read it all.
Billy Binion: She Was Arrested for Her Journalism. A Federal Court Says She Can't Sue.
Does the “freedom of the press” in the First Amendment only apply to journalists? That in itself seems a stretch, but even if it’s so, then who is a journalist? Billy Binion of Reason relates the story of Priscilla Villarreal, who was arrested for asking Texas law enforcement questions and publishing their answers.
A journalist asked the police a few questions and was arrested by that same agency for publishing the answers.
That this happened not in China or Russia but in the U.S. may raise some eyebrows. Yet that's the conduct a federal court greenlit last week when it ruled that law enforcement in Laredo, Texas, did not obviously violate the Constitution when officers allegedly misled a magistrate judge and arrested Priscilla Villarreal for doing basic reporting, adding another twist to a case that in some sense asks the following: Exactly who is a journalist?
In April 2017, Villarreal reported the identity of a Border Patrol agent who killed himself by jumping off of a local overpass. A few weeks later, she published the last name of a family involved in a fatal traffic accident. She confirmed both of those identities with an officer in the Laredo Police Department (LPD). In response, that department set in motion a criminal investigation—complete with subpoenas for various people's cellphone records—that saw Villarreal arrested months later for violating an obscure Texas law, § 39.06(c), that prohibits soliciting "nonpublic information" if done "with intent to obtain a benefit."
The supposed benefit, the government said, was followers on her Facebook page.
[. . .]
The way Villarreal communicates information, however, is anything but boilerplate. She is not employed by a publication, and her livestreams are raw and unfiltered. That general spirit is summed up well in what she named her page: Lagordiloca, or "the crazy, fat lady."
In that vein, the 5th Circuit's decision is dripping with contempt for Villarreal's enterprise; Jones makes little attempt to hide it. Lagordiloca's rough-around-the-edges, muckraker approach can certainly be jarring. But one wonders if the court would have ruled the same way if Villarreal had been employed by, say, the Laredo Morning Times, where her alleged "benefit" for seeking information would arguably be more significant: a salary. It is also unclear if the police would have had the gumption to arrest her had she fit a more conventional mold.
At least in terms of the latter, Villarreal's contention is "no." The officers leveraged the law illegally, she maintains, to retaliate against her. Buttressing that theory is the fact that no one had ever before been prosecuted under the law Villarreal was charged with breaking.
[. . .]
The alleged obviousness of the constitutional violation here—punishing someone for their speech—drives much of the dissents. In 2020, the Supreme Court reversed a ruling that awarded qualified immunity to a group of prison guards who locked an inmate, Trent Taylor, in two cells at the John T. Montford Psychiatric Facility Unit: one that was allegedly filled with "massive" amounts of human feces and the other with sewage from a clogged floor drain. The original ruling immunizing those officers had been too exacting, the high court said, when evaluating if it was clearly established that government employees should know such treatment violates a person's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
[. . .]
"If the First Amendment means anything, surely it means that citizens have the right to question or criticize public officials without fear of imprisonment," wrote Judge James Ho, who previously ruled in favor of Villarreal, in dissent. "It would make no sense for the First Amendment to protect the right to speak, but not to ask questions—or the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, but not for information."
Read it all here.
Rachel Kleinfeld: Why Men Are Drifting to the Far Right
Nature abhors a vacuum. Writing for Persuasion, Rachel Kleinfeld examines the vacuum in the lives of too many men in the modern world that she says is being filled by radical right politics. Without a sense of belonging and purpose, some men tend to gravitate to something, anything, larger than themselves. The populist, far-right movements are waiting right there for them.
Over the past fifteen years, men across the globe have voted for radical right-wing parties at much higher rates. Spain’s far-right, populist, and conspiracy-minded Vox party polls roughly twice as well among men compared with women. While men and women voted for Poland’s anti-democratic Law and Justice Party at similar rates last year, men voted for the even more extreme Konfederacja nearly three times as much as women. Data from a 2009 study of European parties that leaned authoritarian or populist found that men were generally around twice as likely as women to vote for them—and up to five times more likely in the case of the nationalist-populist Swedish Democrats.
It’s not just Europe: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro performed 10 points better among men than women in the 2018 election which brought him to power. Roughly the same gender difference pushed Argentina’s new populist libertarian leader, Javier Milei, over the top last November.
In some countries, gender aligns very closely with other social or demographic variables like class, education, and employment—but in a number of places, being male makes a big difference, independent of other factors.
The United States is no exception. As women moved strongly to the left, men have moved to the right, creating a gap between male and female voting that was greater for Trump in 2016 than in a half century of exit polling. While much has been written on the role of race in recent elections, gender is playing a crucial and different role. White men formed Trump’s core support in 2016, but by 2020, Trump polled 12 points better with black men than black women, winning 18% of the black male vote.
People who care about democracy could read these numbers and conclude that they should simply double down on getting women to vote. But giving up on half of one’s country is not good civics—nor is it smart electoral math.
The problem is not that men are natural crusaders for authoritarian populists. In fact, American men are much more likely to be politically apathetic, and most young men are better characterized as confused and drifting. The problem is that anti-democratic and violent forces are trying to weaponize that aimlessness. Politics is coming into most men’s lives subtly. They look for belonging, purpose, and advice, and find a mix of grifters, political hacks, and violent extremists who lead them down an ugly road. And few people are fighting back.
[. . .]
It’s not just about money, but about status and life satisfaction. Women are out-graduating men from high school and vastly out-competing them in college. These women aren’t so interested in men who are less educated and earn poorly, so men without college degrees are marrying less. Over 1.5 million men aged 20 to 24 aren’t in school, training, or work, and these men are having a lot less sex than past generations and their more productive peers.
[. . .]
Many men turn these feelings inward, with the result that nearly three in every four deaths of despair—largely from opioids and suicide—are male. These deaths became so common that they were causing a decline in life expectancy for American men even prior to COVID-19. That is a tragedy for these individuals, their families, and their communities.
But some men seek someone else to blame. That has become a tragedy for our democracy.
Read it the whole thing.
Around Twitter (X)
Here’s an update from the Foundation for Individual Rights & Expression on an item featured in Around Twitter last week:
Via the New Yorker, editor Jessica Winter ponders The Morality of Having Kids in a Burning, Drowning World. In case you are wondering, yes, she means this one.
And finally from Steve McGuire, a helpful visual of state-level pushback on DEI: