Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Adam Schiff On The Peril Of Our Time


When Trump emerged, we awaited eagerly the demise of the uncouth fool. We're still waiting. For every month that goes by, the question of “who's the fool” is batting itself around like a beach ball in the stands of a ball game.

It's one thing for the largely ignorant but massively resentful “base” to keep the ignorant, uncouth fool alive, but who would have believed the constant resuscitation by a thoroughly transformed and disfigured Republican party? Former believers in Republican cant have felt the scales fall from their eyes as Republican politicians desert their professed principles and kowtow to Trump. Despite my viewing Republicans in congress better described as paid agents of large corporations rather than as true representatives of the people, I have to admit, it's a shock.

Stuart Steven's book title captures it succinctly: It Was All A Lie. But the surprise is not only Republican. In his terrific new book, Midnight in Washington, Adam Schiff recounts his shock, as Republicans he liked and even admired so readily shed their professed beliefs like the snakes they apparently are. Rather than believing Lord Acton's saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Schiff prefers Robert Caro's formulation that power doesn't corrupt so much as it reveals. He could also have quoted Lincoln, who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

As he told Kara Swisher last Thursday:

Most of my Republican colleagues do not believe the big lie. They know it’s a big lie. And yet they push it because they’re afraid of Trump, because they’re afraid of a primary, because they want to advance to the Senate or maybe they want a cabinet appointment in another Trump administration. And it turns out nothing is quite as important as that. Not their oath, not their ideology, not what the party used to stand for. And that was a terrible realization for me.”

In any case, his blinders removed, Adam Schiff has found himself in the ring contending with the largest revolt against our constitution in 170 years, and he is well aware of it. As one of the most thoughtful and articulate of the resisters, he is well worth paying heed to as he recounts his trials and tribulations and thoughts and fears.

My thought is, what a hero Schiff has been, especially leading the first Trump impeachment, especially standing so strong against the Republican lies and all their mishigas! So when I was invited to a breakfast fundraiser last Friday for Adam (I'm going to call him Adam, because he did call me “Budd” at the fundraiser, so why not?) at my friend Doug Goldman's house, I was thrilled to go. I wanted to see if he had anything new to say to the small breakfast group, or at least to see him in the flesh and get him to inscribe my copy of his book, which I was lucky enough to get on the first day before they ran out at East Bay Booksellers. Going to see a hero in a small group is not a small thing!

So, as I got ready to go to the breakfast, I had to think through the subject at hand. Of course, it's no news that a slow coup attempt is under way, even the late adopters see it now. The major popular theoretical texts are Levitsky and Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, and Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, I guess. Then, filling out the theory with events, the autocratic-leaning steps that Trumpists and Republicans are taking are being documented by a spate of books by participants, including Strzok's book I reviewed, Leonnig and Rucker's book, Woodward and Costa's Peril, and now Adam's book as well. (Mary Trump's book, tracing what it takes to be world class sociopath, which I reviewed, is also first class in many ways.)

It's one thing to understand and describe what's going on, but it's another thing to act. What is the country, led by the Democrats, going to do about it? At this point, it isn't clear, at least to me. Of course they will try to win the midterm elections next year and, contrary to historical pattern, increase their slim margins in House and Senate. Adam says that they actually will have a chance at that, because the Democratic majority is not a bloated one, since Biden had no coattails. But, the question is, how exactly are they going to do that? By passing excellent and transformational legislation, thus earning the votes of right-thinking and grateful Americans? By having excellent candidates to run on kitchen table issues, similar to the “preexisting conditions” campaigns of the recent past? Or will they break that pattern and nationalize the elections, trying not to run on what a good guy Biden is and how well he has done and what more he can do with a good majority, but instead run against Trump and Trumpism? Or maybe do both?

And underlying that question of strategy, what are they going to do with the blatant and defiant attempts of Republicans to corrupt the process of elections, the state gerrymandering and voter suppression legislation, the substitution of legislators for impartial officials to supervise the elections, and the attempted installation of fifth columnists ready and eager to declare slate of electors invalid and to install their own? Add to that the physical intimidation of honest officials trying to do their jobs, and traditional election strategizing seems passé.

So, these are questions I've had in my mind, and I wondered if I could get any insight into them at this hour long breakfast. I kind of doubted it – I expected the “here's what we are going to say to our supporters” talk from Adam. But anyway, because I'm not particularly fast on my feet orally and I'm not a great questioner who can follow up well, I figured I might give it a try by writing down a question or two. As Tom Lehrer advised, Be Prepared!

I started by writing down a bunch of questions, and then I culled it down to one long question that I would hope to ask. Here are the questions I started with, and then the one I decided on.

The Danger of Subversion Within The Ranks Of Law Enforcement

Make all the laws you want, if they are not obeyed, they then need to be enforced. Can we be sure of enforcement? Police departments are full of right wingers, prejudice, and rebellion under the leadership of openly defiant police unions. Even if formal leaders are in line, will the troops follow their orders, or follow Trumps on their own volition? ICE and CBP have shown authoritarian, prejudicial tendencies. Where did the un-badged enforcement troops come from in Portland and Lafayette Square? The military does seem to be OK. Not sure about the courts with all the Trump appointees, many openly advocating rebellion against Roe vs. Wade, for instance.

What will happen if insurgents in states and localities take control fraudulently? Courts order, maybe – there are bad judges – and then what? Who's really minding the people with actual physical force? Consent of the governed is fine, but behind that consent is the state monopoly on violence. What will happen if that monopoly breaks down?

In short, it would appear we have every reason to be worried about enforcement. Is anything being done?

DOJ Avidity To Prosecute

Many people (including me) wonder where Merrick Garland is on the question of conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election after the vote, and on high-level leadership that led to January 6. Publicly available evidence seems clearly to indicate that Trump and others worked together to subvert democracy. Shouldn't the DOJ be working very hard to investigate this case? Are they waiting for the House committee? Is there reason to wait? Could a lot be happening there that we don't know about? Are you concerned that they will place a higher priority on making DOJ look “impartial” than on saving democracy from subversion by Trump and Republicans?

Why are recommended sentences for capitol assaulters so light? Because all they have is “trespassing?” Is it true that DOJ has 3 levels: those who were there, those who attacked police, and those who planned? Are those who flipped indicating higher ups, of whom some could be prominent? What about inciters speaking to group before they moved down Pennsylvania Avenue?

I posted this on Twitter and got interest:

What is behind these "take it easy on them" recommended sentences for assaulting the capitol? I guess the law doesn't cover intended insurrection well? Just get them on "trespassing?" A puzzle to me.”

Do you think DOJ is actually prioritizing the capitol assault and the plot against America, and we just don't see it yet? I'm going to fundraiser with Adam Schiff on Friday, hoping to get chance to ask him. Looking for nod and wink.What is your level of confidence that the DOJ will be acting decisively? Is it above level 5 out of 10?

The Problem Of Widespread Treason

It's pretty clear that many high officials are guilty of treason. Indeed, you could say the whole Republican party falls into that description. Ziblatt and Levitsky currently comment:

“We did not expect that the entire Republican Party would evolve into an anti-democratic force, and that’s where they are today,” he said. “The entire Republican leadership, with a small handful of exceptions, is now no longer willing to accept electoral defeat.”

What is the preferred course of action? What do you do when it stopped short of armed insurrection, in the main, but there is widespread unarmed insurrection? Cheating and stealing elections is insurrection, isn't it? Truthfully, every senator and representative who voted against certification were treasonous. Some did much more than that. You could say that a public official's failing now to support the validity of the presidential election certainly violates their oaths to support the constitution. At the very least they should be barred from holding public office for ten years.

These are the kinds of things one contemplates after an armed insurrection has been put down. But what we are facing is unarmed insurrection, with some exceptions. What is to be done?

Public Understanding Of The Stakes, Of What Fascism Is

Adam Schiff's TV appearances have emphasized his confidence that the good sense of the American people will assert itself eventually in rejecting Trumpism. Of course, we have thought this for six years now. What is Rep. Schiff's strategy of reassurance here? Is he secure in what is being done? We need the “time will come” to come pretty damn fast.

Do you think the people of America don't understand our current constitutional danger, or officials? Or the Democratic party? So many are saying, don't you realize how dangerous this is? And yet those same talkers, what are they doing? Lawyers lawyer, talkers talk.

When faced with possible insurrection by a highly motivated minority, the alertness and alarm of the majority, and the majority leaders, is crucial. How does one alert and inform the public? The media are important, but unreliable, and are not sufficient. Greg Sargent in the Washington Post says:

'The White House, too, must lean into the threats to democracy to keep the media from losing interest. Failing to educate the public about the concerted effort to overthrow our democracy and ignoring the connection between election subversion laws and the threat of future coup attempts would be a gross dereliction of duty. Let’s hope the media understand that “fairness”and “objectivity” do not mean helping make Republicans look less crazed and dangerous than they truly are.'

The “good sense” of Americans needs some help. The decline if civics teaching has helped people to know nothing at all about our government as well as foreign governments. The details of fascism escape us. How will people find out, so that they can assert their good judgement based on facts? They need to be told and shown – who will do this work?

My suggestion is this: We need TV specials, perhaps Ken Burns style, or inspired by How Democracies Die by Harvard's Levitsky and Ziblatt, or On Tyranny by Yale's Tim Snyder. This is what fascism looks like, the thugism and the repression, and here are the steps other countries took in getting there.

(Personally, I would also encourage a special bipartisan commission addressing itself exclusively to the issue of democracy, and not considering the substantive political issues (immigration, wealth distribution, etc.), whose mission would be exclusively to educate the public to this vital issue.)

The Possible Progression of Events – What Could Happen

What do you think will happen if there is actually a steal, or if Trump actually wins and starts to institute fascism? Who won't recognize Trump Part II? Will taxpayers refuse the IRS? There will be organized resistance – what then? The “unthinkable” should be made thinkable now. It could happen.

The Responsibility of Democrats

Finally, to the Dems this issue of Trumpism is the kind of thing companies commonly face: Trumpism isn't your fault, but it is your problem. And maybe it is somewhat your fault – haven't stood up sufficiently against wars, deindustrialization, and other social maladies that have helped to fuel resentments. But the underlying problem of undoing racism and the change of power from an ethnic group that is resentful (“I might be poor, but at least I'm white”), that's what makes Trumpism so powerful and dangerous, and that's the Democrats' burden, but not their fault.

Then – what was a practical question I could ask Adam if I got the chance? Here's what I came up with:

I'm halfway through the book and I'm really enjoying it. I especially like the humor and warmth – sitting with Dick Gephardt and realizing that Adam and Eve are sitting with Dick and Jane, and your irrepressible son, and the love of your family and friends. I can see you don't take this gift for granted.

You are unbelievably eloquent when you need to come up with spontaneous reflection. In the House when challenged by Republicans who think you should quit, you perorate with a listing of the transgressions and say, “I don't think that's OK.” And the brilliant summary of the First Impeachment when you say, yes, he's guilty, but is it sufficient reason to remove him? So moving and brilliant.

My question is this, however – when does a strength become a weakness. Lawyers lawyer, and brilliant talkers talk brilliantly, but sometimes using words is not enough, sometimes using words is bringing a knife to a gun fight. There are people out there who are thugs, and thuggery is the essence of fascism, and that's our threat. And we know from Ziblatt and Levitsky that the highest conditions of threat to democracy is when the dominance of an ethnic group is threatened. So even though I don't think that we have essentially revolutionary conditions in the country, it might be closer than we think.

So my question is, while you are confident that the American people will wake up and assert their essential goodness and belief in democracy, how sure are you? Are you sure that the people really understand the gift of democracy? Are you sure that when you and Marc Elias win in court, that the police, riven with right wingers, will enforce the courts' orders? That there won't be a mobilization of the same troops who appeared unbadged in Portland and Lafayette Square won't reappear all over? Are you sure that right will conquer might?

Since I was coming from the East Bay going to Pacific Heights in San Francisco and didn't know what traffic would be like, I got there early. The breakfast was being held on the generous-sized patio just below Doug's front door with about 10 small high tables, and since Adam was right on time, I got a chance to talk to him, have him engrave my copy of his book, and to give him my typed out question. What luck! 


He took some time reading it closely, and I apologized for it's being long, but he said, no, you have really thought about it. And then his main answer was this: He trusts that the American people will come to their senses, that they won't throw democracy away. Interestingly, this is pretty much what Leon Panetta said at the Goldman School of Public Policy conference on my paper about Post Trump Reforms – at the end of the day, he doesn't see Americans trading in 230 years of democracy for this schmuck Trump.

I was animated in responding to his confidence (that's a problem when I question or comment with high ranking people, I get animated.) I protested that the American people don't know enough about fascism, they don't know civics, or history, and what we need is something like a Ken Burn's documentary about fascism in Argentina, Turkey, etc. - not just the Nazi's – and something on How Democracies Die and On Tyranny. Adam looked at me and my animation, and didn't really reply. Maybe he was thinking about what I said. I don't know. I mean, if you trust the American people and then reflect on what they know, there might be a disconnect. I do know what he thinks about this, though, because here is what he said the day before our breakfast in an interview with Kara Swisher:

Well, I think part of what resonated for people is — in the last 30 to 40 years, the middle class has become increasingly at risk of falling apart. And people are most willing to rebel, to bring about a revolution, not when they are most impoverished, but when they feel they are most exposed to losing what they have. And he saw around the country millions and millions of people who had had a Bush as president, and their life didn’t change. And they had a Clinton as president and their life hadn’t changed. And he said, I’m going to break everything. And they were ready for somebody to break everything. And they didn’t necessarily believe he was going to improve their lives. But at least he was sticking it to those that they thought were responsible for their circumstances. So I think that was part of the appeal. And an enormous part of what my party needs to do. We need to show that the democracy can work and can deliver for everyone. We could create an economy that works for everyone. Which is why the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill are not somehow separate and distinct from promotion of democracy.

He did that they knew who the unbadged law enforcers were in Portland and Lafayette Square, but I didn't follow up to get the specific answer. It's kind of amazing that that whole subject has dropped from new coverage, don't you think?

Then he tri-folded my question and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket. I was kind of surprised and quite pleased; I guess I had expected he would just hand it back to me.

Then he gave his graceful talk to this very small and highly Jewish crowd, reflecting that Doug and he shared a background in the schmata trade (“schmata” means “rag,” as in, “I like your dress.” “This schmata?”) – Doug's family was Levi-Strauss, Adam's was Farah (at the management level), and one of the great embarrassments of his teenage life was having to wear Farah jeans while all the other kids wore Levi-Strauss. Then he made his pitch that we are under great strain, and that don't worry, the Bipartisan infrastruture bill and the Reconciliation Build Back Better bills would both get passed, and it's important to realize that three really big bills are being passed in Biden's first year and that's totally amazing, and who would have thought that Biden would be so progressive. And as for the midterms and beyond, we just have to get out there and organize and vote, and it's important to realize that this problem will pass, that it's just a phase, and we need to be optimistic because optimism is warranted.

I did get to ask one more question in the open question period – Adam really wanted to get someone else to question, I think, but at first mine was the only hand up – and I asked him, when he had obviously spent so much effort, even under the horrible Trump years, in trying to be accommodating and respectful to the Republicans even as they lied and allowed themselves to be seduced by corruption and moral malignancy, how is he changing his behavior now that he must realize that they cannot be regarded as opponents, but that they are enemies?

He didn't like it when I used the word “enemy.” I was actually using it in a rather technical way – see my post on The Four Freedom's Plus Two that explains why they are so out of the mainstream that they can't be compromised with – but you could see that the word almost made him wince. His answer, though, was interesting. He said that when led the prosecution of the first impeachment before the Senate, he didn't know many of the senators, but that he thought that when he finished there (he didn't gloat about how brilliant his performance had been, really one for the ages), he thought that there were a fair number of Republican senators, maybe most, who didn't think of him anymore as an enemy. But then he went on and in a low key way did say that the Republicans can't be compromised with on the basic issues in question, but would have to be beaten. Which he also said to Kara Swisher:

And right now as long as the Republican Party is a cult around the former president. They just need to be beaten. The most corrosive thing that Donald Trump did over four years was this relentless attack on the truth.”

And if you can persuade someone, however falsely, that the other side looks down on you, you will never win over their support. And so I think Donald Trump gave a daily dose of poison into the body politic.”

And Donald Trump couldn’t do this on his own. He had a lot of enablers. The enablers that I frankly hold most responsible are the men and women I served with in Congress who surrendered everything they cared about, everything they professed to believe in, to uphold this deeply unethical man who was tearing at the fabric of our democracy. So before members of Congress point fingers, we need to do our own introspection. Had leaders in the G.O.P. stood up to Trump instead of so readily capitulated, we would have avoided this.”

So he agrees with the basic point, he just doesn't like the word “enemy.” I think that's a fair point, it really is a toxic word, however accurate, and it has a sense to permanence to it, perhaps, when we know that many of those who are currently enemies are just weak (or bought), and can switch back to being opponents, just as the recent New York Times profile of some of the worst rioters on January 6 indicates that they were reflecting crowd behavior, a weakness of character, rather than just the evil that it seemed to be, and was.

I really wonder if there are plans I'm not aware of to beat back this Trumpist coup – there must be, of course there are. And if there are such plans, it would make sense for the Democratic officials to tell their constituencies, be confident, and concentrate on turnout.

So, I came away little the wiser on Democratic policies, but I did get a sense of Adam the person, and I'm quite sure he is a really good and very smart person. It was great to meet him in person.

But the larger set of questions I had prepared still stand. They are worth thinking and worrying about.

So this guy Adam Schiff is really impressive. Who knows what his future will bring? Speaker, AG, SCOTUS? Whatever, we're lucky to have him there in leadership now. I do worry that he is too much the lawyer and not enough the man directing action, but I have no doubt that, when the need arises, he will meet it.

I'd like to be as optimistic as he says that he is, and it really is hard to think how an entire nation can be so deluded and disillusioned and devoid of true hopes for the future as these awful Trumpists are. How can the worst come to rule? But, the unthinkable has happened before, and what we think we know always has to be approached with humility. How often do we not know what we think we know? In the end we do our best and try our hardest and hope. What else can one do?

But I have to say, I hope the plans of our leaders extend must further than we are given to see. The nice lady I was sitting with at the breakfast, Beth, said she was afraid that the knife the Democrats are bringing to a knife fight is a butter knife. I'd say that's a pretty widely held sentiment.

Budd Shenkin

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