Are You Long or Short on America?
What this impeachment means for our future.
Nota bene: We’re going pretty dark today. You’ve been warned.
1. The Over-Under on Impeachment
Last week I taped an episode of Star-Spangled Gamblers, which is a podcast run by a couple of guys who make their livings betting on politics. You can listen to it here, if you’re into that sort of thing.
They started the show by asking me where I would be on an over-under of two Republican senators voting to convict. I took the over without really thinking about it. But now that I have thought about it, my thoughts are a little more complicated. Because I think there are some dynamics at play in the Republican caucus that people don’t fully appreciate.
Let’s start by looking at the odds on some of the individual Republican senators’ votes:
Mitt Romney: 92-8 Yes
Lisa Murkowski: 84-16 Yes
Ben Sasse: 80-20 Yes
Susan Collins: 79-21 Yes
Pat Toomey: 67-33 Yes
Rob Portman: 26-74 Yes
Mitch McConnell: 16-84 Yes
Of these odds, the only ones that seem right to me are Romney and Murkowski. I think they’re close to locks.
After that, Susan Collins is probably the next-most likely vote to convict. She’s only 68 years old, so it’s possible she’ll run again in 2026. But what’s more determinative for me is that her blue-state voters aren’t going to kill her for being on the wrong side of impeachment.
If Susan Collins votes to convict, she isn’t going to get yelled at by red-hat constituents every time she goes to the Hannaford to pick up milk.
So that’s the three you need to hit the over.
But after that, the votes are much harder to come by for one simple reason: Romney, Murkowski, and Collins are each, for different reasons, independent votes. They have the luxury of making their decisions independent of anyone else in the caucus.
I don’t think that’s true for any other Senate Republican.
It’s not impossible to see, say, Mitch McConnell voting to convict Trump. But in order for McConnell to convict, he probably has to be the tipping-point vote. McConnell’s vote is largely conditional on the votes of other Republicans.
The same is almost certainly true for Portman, Toomey, and Thune. (And, I suspect, Sasse.)
What this means is that our distribution of likely outcomes probably looks something like this:
Another way of saying this is: We are more likely to get 17 votes than 7 votes. But the chances of getting anywhere between 8 and 16 votes is close to zero.
I realize that I’ve couched this all in terms of gambling and having fun. You can still make some money—right now!—betting against the proposition that Donald Trump will be president of the United States on March 31, 2021.
And you thought going long GameStonk was crazy.
But I want to emphasize a key point: This is all very bad. Republicans are breaking the Constitution. Again.
It isn’t Left vs. Right anymore. It’s Liberal Democracy vs. Overthrowing Elections.
The end result of this impeachment acquittal will be to destroy impeachment as a constitutional mechanism. From here on out, impeachment will be nothing more than a censure. And the censure will be erased completely from our legislative toolbox.
Again: This is very bad.
Our separation of powers is a delicate balance, which relies in part on the credible threat that when push comes to shove, the legislature can remove the chief executive. And this credible threat then creates a second, failsafe threat: That a political party might pressure its president to resign in order to avoid being removed.
Failing to convict Donald Trump makes impeachment a dead letter. And since future presidents will know that they can’t be removed from office, it will be impossible for members of their own party to force them to resign.
The already over-powered executive branch will be, going forward, basically unaccountable to Congress.
And at that point the stability of our political order will rest entirely on a gerrymandered Electoral College not allowing a minority of voters to install a wicked individual as president.
All of which is why I’m fundamentally short on America.
2. Cancel Culture
Confession: I don’t really care about “cancel culture.”
Let’s stipulate to a few things, before we get into this.
It is bad when people lose their jobs for stupid reasons.
There are people with infantile views about what is and is not socially permissible.
Sometimes these people gang up on an individual who basically did nothing wrong—or who committed what should be the equivalent of a social misdemeanor.
And sometimes these gang-ups cost a person their job.
Again: When it happens, this is bad.
There is an online space—Twitter—in which these gang-ups sometimes occur. And there are pockets of society—some college campuses, some progressive school systems, Hollywood—where these gang-ups happen more often than others.
One of those pockets of society is the offices of the New York Times—which seems like a super not-fun place to work:
In 2019, New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr., working as a tour guide for high-school students traveling to Peru (a service apparently offered by the paper), got into an argument with several of them. The debate centered around whether one of the students’ classmates deserved to have been suspended over a video that surfaced of her, as a 12-year-old, saying the N-word. McNeil, according to a statement released by the Times, asked about the context of the word — was she rapping, or quoting a book title, or using the word as a slur?
McNeil’s distinction apparently made little headway with his interlocutors, who accused him of using the term himself. Two weeks ago, the Daily Beast reported on their allegations. At first, Times editor Dean Baquet argued that McNeil’s action was regrettable but that he deserved “another chance” to learn from the mistake. But after 150 Times staffers wrote to express their outrage, McNeil resigned.
That thumbnail account is from Jonathan Chait, who makes a completely sensible argument:
In his first statement explaining his decision to retain McNeil, Baquet explained, “It did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” In his second statement explaining McNeil’s departure, Baquet wrote, “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
First, a staffer’s intent in saying offensive words mattered. Now, intent does not matter. Describing the use of a slur is now, per Times policy, no better than using it. . . .
It would be one thing to decide that not only is it unacceptable to use a slur but it is also unacceptable to utter or mention in it any form. It is another thing to treat those two different actions as completely indistinguishable, as the Daily Beast appears to have done.
What’s even more troublesome is when authorities decide to apply the new norm retroactively. I know of a teacher who lost her job when a video surfaced on social media showing her reading the word to her class. She was reading from a well-regarded book written by a Black author about Jim Crow–era racism. The video was a decade old. And yet, when it came out last summer, when student activists in the wake of the George Floyd murder were looking to bring change to their immediate surroundings, she became the proximate target. . . .
In both cases, the standard has been formulated in the face of pressure and applied retroactively against staffers who could not have known they existed.
That all sounds about right to me.
Why don’t I get too worked up about “cancel culture”? Because I’m not sure it is a culture in any meaningfully broad way.
It’s a big country. We have 330 million people banging around in here.
There are 52 people murdered in America every day. Do we have a “murder culture”? I don’t think so. Murder is a bad thing. We try to prevent it. When it occurs, we prosecute the murders. But it’s not a “culture.”
The idea of a “cancel culture” strikes me as a kind of inverted moral panic. We have this bad thing that happens once in a while in mostly high-profile settings. When this bad thing happens, we should push back against it.
But elevating “cancel culture” to a DEFCON 2 level threat is kind of crazy. It’s like Fred Wertham freaking out about the culture of “juvenile delinquency” caused by comic books.
Moral panics are rocket fuel for demagogues. And so in the same way that we should push back against stupid persecutions of individuals, we should push back against the exaggeration that “cancel culture” is a widespread threat to society.
3. COVID Reading
Stop what you’re doing and go read this Atul Gawande piece about the worst-hit county, in the worst-hit state, in the worst-hit country in the world. He’s talking about Ward County, North Dakota.
And I dare you to read this and not feel—just a smidge of—sympathy for #TeamVirus:
In Minot, a city of forty-eight thousand people in Ward County, North Dakota, the twice-monthly city-council meeting was into its fourth hour when an alderwoman named Carrie Evans put forward an unexpected motion: she wanted Minot to adopt a mandatory-mask policy. . . .
North Dakota had more new cases and deaths per capita than any other state. Half of its hospitals were facing critical staff shortages. Ward County had the highest rate of new cases of any county there, with a record five hundred and twenty active positive cases, and almost forty per cent of them had been diagnosed in the past two weeks. The volume of positive coronavirus tests had overwhelmed her contact-tracing team. Surging numbers of pandemic victims forced Minot’s Trinity Hospital to expand its covid-19 wing. . . .
“I don’t know what the silver bullet is on this one,” Mayor Sipma said.
“There is no silver bullet,” Evans declared, making a visible effort to remain composed as she looked around the dais. “If there was, we would have been over this pandemic in this country, in this world, a long time ago. This is leadership. This is moral leadership.” . . .
Alderman Tom Ross disagreed. “Obviously, since I’m the only one up on the dais without a face mask, I’m going to speak to the other side,” he said. . . .
He had recently spoken to a friend from high school, now a pathologist, who operates a laboratory that handles coronavirus tests in Amarillo,Texas. “I said, ‘Give me your best medical advice when it comes to masks,’ ” Ross recounted. “He said, ‘Tom, the only place you need to wear a mask is more than likely in an airplane, or if a place is extremely crowded.’ ” . . .
He returned to his friend in Amarillo: “This man, who’s a physician, a doctor, told me, ‘Tom, if you get covid, God forbid, take two hundred and twenty milligrams of zinc and drink a gallon of diet tonic water for two days. That’ll clear it up.’ . . . I’ve got to believe my classmate. He wouldn’t steer me wrong.”
He turned to Lisa Clute. “Lisa, to have you tell me that I have to believe in your science because it works? Why don’t you believe in the science of all the other studies that say masks don’t work? I’m a believer. I’m a firm believer in personal responsibility. If you’re sick, stay home. If you don’t feel safe, stay home. It’s all on yourselves.” . . .
But an incendiary dialogue was taking place in the anonymous chat that accompanied the live feed of the meeting on YouTube:
“This bish can put her muzzle back on.”
“Only 277 total have died since the beginning in a state of 667K people.”
“Sorry but grandma’s die and babies are born so goes the cycle of life.”
“277 is not a pandemic.”
Four days later, Trinity Hospital held a press conference, urging people to wear masks and engage in social distancing. On the Minot Whiners and Complainers Facebook page—which has fourteen thousand members, one for every three residents—the commentary mixed ridicule (“Gotta keep pushing that fear”) and nihilism (“It’ll never get stopped”) with public-health concerns (“What has to happen to change your mind? Refrigerated trucks? Your child passing?”).
Beth Renae was among the concerned. “My perfectly healthy active-duty husband with no underlying conditions is in one of those hospital beds unable to breathe on his own while I’m at home in quarantine with our small kids for at least another couple of weeks,” she wrote on the page. “This is absolutely real.” Although she and her husband wore masks outside the home, she still got infected and transmitted the virus to him. “I can’t give my two year old a bath without feeling so breathless I’m going to pass out.” One user replied, “Thanks for confirming [masks] don’t work.”
Roscoe Streyle, a forty-one-year-old local banker who had spent two terms in the state legislature and lost a run for city council, was an outspoken skeptic. In his Twitter feed, masks were “BS,” “Fauci is an idiot,” experts were “clowns” and “frauds.” Clute, he told me, was a “not so smart lady” who led a team of “unelected bureaucrats.” In an October Facebook post, he wrote, “The worse run health district in the State of North Dakota is First District Health in Minot, an embarrassment and a laughing stock.”
Read the whole thing. I’m not saying that the people who refused to wear masks in Ward County should be denied access to all COVID vaccines. I am absolutely not saying that. Because that would be wrong.
But people who believe in personal responsibility probably shouldn’t want to take a vaccine that somebody else made. They should invent and manufacture one on their own. That’s freedom, baby.
Exit take: Check out this bit of awesomeness from Axios.
Somehow I’m still #TeamHumanity. Despite everything.