Reporter's Notebook

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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Where Are America’s ‘Rebel Tories’?

Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them?
Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them? Jessica Taylor via U.K. Parliament via Reuters

After the riveting debate in Parliament yesterday about the terms and timing for Brexit, 21 Tory “rebel” MPs defected from the Conservative party on a major vote. They joined members of other parties in dealing a crushing defeat to Boris Johnson’s plans and probably his governing prospects.

After the vote, I opined on Twitter that the 21 Tories, who included several revered party elders, set an example in political courage for U.S. politicians. The 21 knew very well that they would pay a price. Johnson’s party-leadership team made clear before the vote that it would “remove the whip” from MPs who defied them, which meant that dissidents would be kicked out of the party, and in the next election they would be “delisted” as candidates to retain their seats. For most, this would seriously dampen their political prospects.

By contrast, American politicians can seem paralyzed by the mere threat of being “primaried,” or of losing a funding source, or of becoming the object of Donald Trump’s angry tweets. Therefore I wondered, in my short item, why can’t we be more like the Brits? More specifically, why can’t members of our governing party, the 53 Republicans who control the Senate, stand up to their party’s leader the way these Tories stood up to Boris Johnson?

A reader in the U.S. writes in to say, Wait a minute. Here is his case:

While I admire the courage of the 21 Tory Members of Parliament who
voted against Boris Johnson’s government, and I wish that Republican
Members of Congress, would stand up to President Trump, I don’t think the comparison is necessarily a good one.

The actions of Boris Johnson’s government have forced a clear and
immediate choice on the Tory Members in a way that we haven’t seen in the US under the Trump administration.

Since the referendum in the UK, Parliament has been unable to move one way or the other on Brexit. This isn’t so different from what is
happening in our Congress.

Boris Johnson’s latest move forces a decision with immediate
consequences: (1) a no-deal Brexit could have a severe impact on the
lives of the majority of the people in Britain, including supporters
of the Tory party and (2) prorogation of Parliament at this critical
time is a direct threat to the power of the legislature in British
politics. We can’t read the minds of the rebel Torys, but avoiding
being tied to a no-deal Brexit and being a member of a Parliament with
diminished powers could be seen as self interest.


As much as I am horrified by almost everything the Trump
administration is doing, nothing yet has come close to this in
bringing an immediate and visible threat to a significant majority of
Americans (or Republicans) and directly challenging the power of
congress.

Many things Trump has done will have severe consequences, but it seems that much of this is still invisible to most Americans. If
Trump’s administration has been talented at anything, perhaps it’s
been in avoiding anything with the immediate and widespread impact of a no-deal Brexit.

Republican legislators have not faced anything like prorogation or a
no-deal Brexit. I have no confidence that they would show similar
courage, but we can’t say for sure.

Perhaps the closest thing to prorogation of Parliament that happened
is the refusal to vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination. That wasn’t
Trump, and unfortunately, John Bercow wasn’t there to help us.

John Bercow is, of course, the gloriously histrionic speaker of the House of Commons, a role that—especially as played by him—has vastly more minute-by-minute influence over the conduct of parliamentary debates than its U.S. legislative counterparts. If you haven’t seen Bercow in action, you will quickly get an idea with this YouTube sample from yesterday’s proceedings, when Boris Johnson’s allies challenged Bercow’s judgment on an important ruling.

As for the reader’s comment that changes of the Trump era remain “invisible,” clearly he is not minimizing what they have meant. Detention camps along the border; farmers and manufacturers coping with tariffs; wilderness land opened for drilling; a president touting his own resort as a site for the next G7 conference—a lot of what has happened is all too grossly visible.

Instead, I think the reader’s point worth noting is that, for a variety of reasons, many people in the U.S. have managed to overlook or excuse away the daily toll. (To give just one example, the former “deficit hawk” Republicans, such as White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who have gone mute as the tax-cut-driven deficit soars.) By contrast, politicians in Britain believed they faced a right-now, up-or-down, do-or-die choice about the nation’s future, which called for people to line up and be counted that day.

The U.S., too, will face such a choice, no later than November 3, 2020.

Sailors cheer Captain Brett Crozier aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt Reuters

Two days ago I wrote about Captain Brett Crozier, who as commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt urged his Navy superiors to let him take his ship into port, because the coronavirus was spreading rapidly among his 4000-plus crew members.

Two updates since that report: First, there is now additional video footage from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, of how crew members cheered Captain Crozier when he left the ship after being “relieved of command.”

Second, I should have pointed out that Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy who dismissed Crozier, was in that role because his predecessor, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, was forced out of that job when he resisted Donald Trump’s efforts on behalf of Edward Gallagher, the former Navy SEAL who was prosecuted for war crimes in a court martial. (The Trump administration is replete with “acting” officials, who can exercise some of the powers of their offices without going through Senate hearings or confirmation.)

Now, relevant reader response. First, from a reader with a family member aboard the Theodore Roosevelt:

My husband is currently serving on the Roosevelt. Many family members have been reaching out to their respective ombudsmans to ask for a way to get in contact or relay our support for Captain Crozier and we have been all been told the same thing—they “don't know”  how to get in touch with him.

We are not to speak to the media regarding anything going on with COVID-19. In fact, we have been getting “updates” (I use that term very loosely because ‘update' implies difference or a change in information, which is very much not the case) for weeks about the illness spreading throughout the ship and how we are NOT to discuss anything with the media. Which, given Operational Security requirements, is fair but also indicates leadership knew about the spread of the Coronavirus far earlier than what is being portrayed in the news.

Anyway, I have a simple ask: On behalf of the families of all on board the USS Roosevelt can SOMEONE just tell the man that we appreciate what he did to make sure our sailors and marines come back to us in one piece? Captain Crozier risked his career and did what he thought was best to get the resources they needed. The acting SEC NAV, who amounts to a little more than a modern day mercenary (you know, on account of forgoing his national service for profit in the private sector), railroaded CAPT Crozier and it’s an absolute disgrace.

We just want to say thanks and let him know we support him. It shouldn’t be this hard to get that simple message across.

Thanks for reading and please don’t publish my name or email address. We’ve seen how the Navy “doesn’t like to punish” people about stuff like this.


Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty

On Saturday (yesterday, as I write) I mentioned Donald Trump’s tweets implicitly cheering the protestors trying to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia by resisting stay-at-home orders from those states’ governors.

Mike Lofgren, a former longtime aide to Republican legislators and now the author of The Party is Over and The Deep State, writes in to say that the situation is more serious, and more disturbing, than I indicated. I have learned enough from Lofgren over the years to think it worth sharing his views. In his note, he alludes to the background of protests by the Tea Party movement soon after Barack Obama took office—and the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000. He has details on all these developments in his books. For those not around at the time, more context on the Brooks Brothers riot—designed to affect the recount of votes in Florida, during the Bush-versus-Gore presidential race—is available here.

And for the record, today Mike Pence offered an explanation for Trump’s “LIBERATE” tweets that differs from the one Lofgren presents, below. Pence said that, far from inciting resistance, the tweets were intended to encourage governors to “safely and responsibly” reopen their states. Read the two interpretations, and judge which sounds more plausible to you.

Lofgren writes:

Unfortunately, you didn’t emphasize the crucial point of this whole street theater.

In the standard prestige media presentation, the “spontaneous” protestors against COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan and elsewhere are presented thus: those salt-of-the-earth working folk, battered by economic hardship, who want their jobs back. However misguided, their motives generally aren’t questioned.

Wrong.

  1. Who could have imagined that they [included] neo-Confederates, NRA extremists, anti-vaxxer lunatics, and other fringe types [and that their organizers included groups that have been] funded in part by the Koch brothers and a Trump cabinet member, Betsy DeVos? Why does it take a British newspaper to make that clear?
  1. The all-too-convenient disturbances overwhelmingly resemble the totally-not-connected-to-the-GOP Tea Party demonstrations that “spontaneously” irrupted in 2009 to stymie Obamacare, with the death panels and so forth. That particular street theater was ignited by CNBC ranter Rick Santelli and largely financed by the Koch brothers. [JF note: more background on Rick Santelli’s role in the Tea Party era available here.]
  1. Street theater was pioneered by of the New Left in the 1960s, but since the Brooks Brothers riot of November 2000 it has become a mainstay of Astroturfed movements inspired by the GOP and funded by corporate moguls.
  1. Trump’s encouragement of the demonstrators is even more bizarre than commonly depicted. Past examples (Lincoln, Ike in Little Rock, Kennedy in Mississippi, etc.) represented the national head of government reining in states seeking to illegally secede or deny U.S. constitutional rights to citizens. This is a unique case: the head of the national government egging on residents of the states to illegally impede their state governors from carrying out their lawful, necessary, and proper functions to maintain public safety in a health emergency. So much for “federalism” under the GOP.
...
  1. Republican street theater, maybe even (or perhaps especially) when it threatens public safety or human decency, seems always to act like catnip to the mainstream media, who invariably trot out the well-worn tropes of “economic anxiety.” The U.S. media have done an execrable job on this one.