Discover more from The Bulwark
No, There Are No Red Lines
Plus: Why the Right needs Hunter Biden
Today marks the official end of the mid-term election season, with the final votes cast in the Georgia run-off. So at least one national nightmare will come to an end.
Please celebrate responsibly.
This will not come as breaking news to most of you, but Donald Trump is lying again. Or as Mehdi Hasan put it yesterday, “He lies about lying. He lies more than any man alive. He lies with total contempt for his cultish base who eat up his lies, enjoy his lies, see his lying as power.” But this was known.
Behold the latest iteration of his gaslighting:
Former President Donald Trump on Monday denied he wanted to “‘terminate’ the Constitution,” two days after suggesting “the termination of all rules … even those found in the Constitution.”
“The Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution. This is simply more DISINFORMATION & LIES,” Trump said on Monday on his own social media platform, Truth Social.
Why, yes, we were. Seven years ago. And every fuqqing day since. You?
Meanwhile, the GOP reminds us (again) that there are no red lines. Even among Republicans who profess to be appalled by the former president’s open declaration of anti-constitutional authoritarianism, the habit of deflection/avoidance is too deeply ingrained. So we get stuff like this, which manages to avoid Saying His Name, or suggesting that a “call to terminate the Constitution” disqualifies him from any position of public trust, including the presidency.
And the RightMedia? Oliver Darcy reports:
What's Fox News really good at doing? Ignoring important news stories. The right-wing channel has largely turned a blind eye to former President Donald Trump's disturbing call to terminate the US Constitution and install him as president or hold a new election. MMFA's Matt Gertz reported that up until noon Monday, the channel had "spent just over one minute on the story." You can be certain, however, that if a Democrat — any Democrat — had made the same statement, the network's stable of propagandists would be covering the story in overdrive.
Which, of course, brings us to Hunter Biden.
As Mona Charen writes in today’s Bulwark the deeply problematic Hunter is more than merely a distraction: “The right has a deep psychological need for the Hunter Biden story.”
They desperately want Joe Biden to be corrupt and for the whole family to be, in Stefanik’s words, “a crime family” because they have provided succor and support to someone who has encouraged political violence since his early rallies in 2015, has stoked hatred of minorities through lies, has used his office for personal gain in the most flagrant fashion, has surrounded himself with criminals and con men, has committed human rights violations against would-be immigrants by separating children from their parents, has pardoned war criminals, has cost the lives of tens of thousands of COVID patients by discounting the virus and peddling quack cures, has revived racism in public discourse, and attempted a violent coup d’etat.
They know it. It gnaws at them. That’s why the Hunter Biden story is their heart’s desire. But here’s something else they need to meditate on: Even if everything they’re alleging about Joe Biden were true; even if he did pull strings to help his son and even profited unjustly thereby, it still wouldn’t amount to a fraction of what Trump did. And it still won’t wash out the “damn’d spot.”
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The Book of Virtues?
I have a confession to make: This story still haunts me.
Back in the before times, I was a huge fan of Bill Bennett, and regarded him as a friend and mentor of sorts. I won’t go into all the sordid details, but I admired his critiques of the humanities, higher education, and (God help me) his emphasis on character and “virtue.”
So his embrace of Trump felt especially soul-crushing. This is what I wrote in “How the Right Lost Its Mind”:
Pre-Trump, former education secretary William Bennett had argued eloquently that: “It is our character that supports the promise of our future—far more than particular government programs or policies.” Bennett, the author of the Book of Virtues and one of the most prominent virtucrats of the Right, emphasized the importance of the president as a role model.
“The President is the symbol of who the people of the United States are. He is the person who stands for us in the eyes of the world and the eyes of our children.”
But during the  presidential campaign, Bennett reversed himself, saying that conservatives who objected to Trump “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.”
In August 2016, Bennett wrote an essay making the case for overlooking questions of character in choosing a president. “Our country can survive the occasional infelicities and improprieties of Donald Trump,” Bennett wrote. “But it cannot survive losing the Supreme Court to liberals and allowing them to wreck our sacred republic. It would reshape the country for decades.”
Like Bennett, most conservatives have been willing to make the trade-off: they were willing to inject toxic sludge into the culture in order to win a political victory.”
Jill Lawrence’s piece in today’s Bulwark brought that all flooding back. She notes that last week, Simon & Schuster released a thirtieth-anniversary updated edition of Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, an 831 page “collection of moral stories… intended to help teach children (and their parents) about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith.”
Two years later, Bennett published a sort of sequel anthology, The Moral Compass, and three years after that he came out with a book about Bill Clinton’s scandals, The Death of Outrage. A true updated Book of Virtues would be called The Death of Virtue. That is Donald Trump’s most egregious legacy to the Republican party.
Herschel Walker, the GOP candidate in today’s Georgia Senate runoff, is Trump’s latest “protégé,” and Bennett himself is a bewildering embodiment of the conservative journey from preachy self-righteousness to mind-boggling hypocrisy and opportunism.
And what a bizarre and convoluted ride it was.
Bennett became a Trump adviser and enabler. By December 2020, he was casually spewing election denier claptrap—the kind that seems to worry his publisher—about a “fixed” election controlled by “Democratic operatives,” rife with “systematic corruption” and “statistical anomalies.”
Bennett was close enough to Trump that they spoke on the morning of January 6th—before Trump’s speech inciting the mob that marched on the Capitol—but Bennett told CBS’s Robert Costa he couldn’t “recall” what was said. He now says Trump should not run in 2024—not because of Trump’s desperate attempts to keep power after the 2020 election, and not because Trump is the last person children should emulate, but because Trump can’t win.
As we wait for the results from Georgia, this seems a good time to revisit what I wrote back in October: Herschel Walker — and his buffonic campaign (H/T James Carville) — is not just an embodiment of this new nothing-matters anti-ethos; it is also a foreshadowing of 2024.
The GOP’s reaction to the news that Herschel Walker paid for a girlfriend’s abortion is less a revelation than a reminder of what the party has become.
It’s also a preview of what will happen in 2024.
If you have any doubt how the rules of politics have changed, or that the GOP will rally around Donald Trump again — no matter what he does or says, or whether he has been indicted — watch how this is playing out.
“Hypocrisy,” François de La Rochefoucauld once quipped, “is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
But that’s not really true anymore, is it? Because the whole idea of character, ethics, and virtue isn’t the point anymore, is it? And hypocrisy? Who cares, really?
That the allegedly pro-life Walker — who opposes even allowing abortions in cases of incest, rape, or the life of the mother — would pay for an abortion as recently as 2009 is an extraordinary case of hypocrisy even in an era that has grown largely inured to post-character politics.
But the story should also pose a real moral challenge to the pro-life movement: It turns out that Walker was not merely pro-choice, but actively pro-abortion in his raggedy private life. A little more than decade ago, he paid for what pro-lifers consider the murder of an unborn baby.
Walker’s own son, Christian, called out the rank hypocrisy here: “Family values people: He has four kids, four different women. Wasn’t in the house raising one of them. He was out having sex with other women,” he said on social media. “Do you care about family values?”
As it turns out, nope. As in: not at all.
Six years into the Trump Era, you should stop being surprised. Really. Concerns about “character” and “family values” have been overwhelmed by a political culture of whataboutism and rationalizations about binary choices. And power.
Henry Olsen, a fellow at the inaptly named “Ethics and Public Policy Center,” and erstwhile pundit for the Washington Post, assures us this morning that Walker’s “alleged hypocrisy on abortion likely won’t matter,” because elections “are about choices, and those choices are often decidedly imperfect,” and politics “is too important these days for questions of character to matter.”
Olsen explains why backing Walker isn’t even a difficult choice.
The choice between Warnock and Walker isn’t a hard one for Republicans or pro-lifers. Warnock is a solidly progressive Democrat who has largely backed his party’s agenda. That’s disqualifying for any partisan Republican.
This sort of post-ethicism has now been thoroughly internalized by the GOP, which is formally and aggressively rallying around Walker.
You can read the rest here (and add it to our bulging We-Told-You-So File.)
1. The Problem With Making Rape Survivors Prove It
This is a helluva story: Hostility. Charges of obstruction. Even, in some cases, jail time—not for the perpetrators, but the victims. Is it any mystery why most sexual assaults go unreported?
Make sure you read Bill Lueders account of a botched rape investigation in his hometown.
National studies have consistently shown that the incidence of false reporting of sexual assault is extremely low, ranging from 2 percent to 10 percent, similar to that for other crimes. But the incidence of rape survivors not being believed or otherwise mistreated is a lot higher than that. While some aspects of Patty’s story make it extraordinary—notably, her courage in standing up to police—there is nothing at all unusual about people who report being survivors of rape being disbelieved, humiliated, and even charged with crimes.
2. Will the Supreme Court Go Narrow or Broad in Ruling on Free Speech vs. Equal Protection?
The trick here might be to find a way to distinguish Smith’s case from others where individuals have refused to offer services otherwise available to the general public on the purported ground of religious freedom. It is one thing, the argument goes, to decline to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple, but something different to force an “artist”—say somebody who produces highly customized messages celebrating a marriage—to craft a message that conflicts with her religious beliefs. One involves discriminating against people because of who they are. The other involves the precise activity—speech—that lies at the core of the First Amendment. Stated simply, the Court might rule in Smith’s favor on the narrow ground that the very nature of the service she provides—the expressive use of speech and design to create highly individualized messages—entitles her to First Amendment protection. At the same time, the Court could make it clear that its ruling applies only in cases where individuals decline to engage in speech that is inconsistent with their religious beliefs, not to cases where individuals refuse to provide otherwise publicly available service to people because of who they are.