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The GOP Hostage Crisis: Year 8
Plus: The liberal case for free speech.
“Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair — I just, I can’t speak to that.” — Ron DeSantis
Today is not the day you will see a mugshot of Donald J. Trump, so we’ll have to talk about other things — like recognizing that none of this is remotely normal.
In his Dispatch newsletter, Kevin Williamson reviews the stream of ALL-CAPS diatribes from the bowels of Mar-a-Lago: “That,” writes Williamson, “is not the sort of thing one expects from a man who was, until about five minutes ago, the president of these United States of America.”
It is precisely the sort of thing one would expect from a delusional bedlamite who invented an imaginary friend to lie to the New York Post about his sex life and then named his youngest son after said imaginary friend. A federal prison is not the only kind of facility one can imagine Donald Trump locked up in.
I don’t know whether he is mentally ill in a medical sense any more than I know whether Joe Biden is cognitively impaired in a medical sense, but I do know that, in the colloquial sense of the word crazy, he is as crazy as a sack of ferrets.
They are also a reminder of just how silly last week’s debate was: Of course Trump is worse than [fill in the blank] because he is in a bizarro ferret-crazy class of his own.
Meanwhile, the GOP hostage crisis is well into its eighth year, as the party is consumed by how vigorously it has to rally to Trump’s defense.
My fellow Cheesehead, James Wigderson, notes: “Instead of using this opportunity to distance themselves from Trump, Republicans are likely to use several tactics to try to defend the former president.”
He lays out the likely playbook:
They will accuse the prosecutor of abusing his office for partisan purposes without seeing the irony behind the charge. Even former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received the memo.
They will claim that it's just about sex, even though there is strong evidence that the case is about evading campaign finance laws.
They will try to say that Trump should not be criminally charged while he runs for president because it's political. This is especially ironic coming from the same people who chanted "lock her up" about Hillary Clinton.
They will point at former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) who was prosecuted for using campaign funds from his 2008 presidential campaign to cover up an extramarital affair. Edwards was acquitted on one count, but the jury was deadlocked on the other charges. Edwards was also ordered by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to repay $2.1 million in matching federal funds. The federal prosecutor declined to pursue the case further after the hung jury result. Given that Edwards was prosecuted and the FEC decision, this is not the precedent Trump supporters claim.
Republicans will also try to claim former President Bill Clinton's settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit with Paula Jones was "hush money." If so, it was the loudest "hush" since 'Til Tuesday sang "Voices Carry." It was widely publicized and was a settlement in a civil suit, not an attempt to evade campaign finance laws or corporate spending disclosures.
Trump himself is opting for tactic #6 (number one in his playbook) of summoning mobs to put pressure on federal government prosecutors to prevent an eventual arrest.
I’d add one more: The DeSantis Straddle.
After days of pressure from the MAGAverse to leap to the defense of the Orange Caligula, DeSantis addressed the issue Monday. He dutifully intoned the word “weaponization,” and may have set a new record for the number of times he said “Soros” in a single statement.
“Look, I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair — I just, I can’t speak to that,” DeSantis said, prompting laughter and applause from the audience.
Later, DeSantis once again mentioned “porn star hush money payments.”…
The response Monday was also one of many subtler shots DeSantis has taken at Trump while refraining from direct criticism of the politician who helped him become governor.
But it wasn’t subtle at all, and the pointed snark did not go unnoticed in the bunker at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump smashed the Truth Social nuclear button. Via NBC:
Trump's post didn't leave much to the imagination: It included a picture of a man, allegedly a younger DeSantis, standing with a group of young women, one of whom is holding a bottle.
"Ron DeSanctimonious will probably find out about FALSE ACCUSATIONS & FAKE STORIES sometime in the future, as he gets older, wiser and better known, when he's unfairly and illegally attacked by a woman, even classmates that are 'underage' (or possibly a man!)," Trump wrote. "I'm sure he will want to fight these misfits just like I do!"
The picture is from a 2021 blog post on a site called The Hill Reporter, which purportedly showed a picture of DeSantis with several young women during his brief time as a high school teacher more than 20 years ago.
Exit take: Contra the cool-kid-pundit mantra that the indictment will boost Trump, Politico’s Alex Burns writes:
It is not irrational speculation. Americans have a history of sticking with flamboyant politicians with more than a passing relationship with the criminal justice system, from Marion Barry in Washington, D.C., to Edwin Edwards in Louisiana. Trump is a character from a similar mold, with an even tighter grip on his followers that verges at times on the quasi-mystical. At another point in his political life, perhaps Trump might have turned this case into rich fodder for a comeback.
Not now. For all his unusual strengths, Trump is defined these days more by his weaknesses — personal and political deficiencies that have grown with time and now figure to undermine any attempt to exploit the criminal case against him.
His base of support is too small, his political imagination too depleted and his instinct for self-absorption too overwhelming for him to marshal a broad, lasting backlash. His determination to look inward and backward has been a problem for his campaign even without the indictment. It will be a bigger one if and when he’s indicted.
Trump 2024 is more dangerous than Trump 2020
Stop pretending that shout-downs are legitimate protest
In today’s Bulwark Bill Lueders makes the progressive case for free speech, and cites recent incidents at the University of Illinois-Chicago and Stanford. He also takes issue with my use of a word.
What happened at the University of Illinois Chicago and Stanford University is troubling and, unfortunately, far from aberrant, as Charlie Sykes noted in his recent podcast with Mona Charen.
“This comes at a time when I’m sort of increasingly becoming concerned that the support for academic freedom is much thinner and smaller than we would have thought it was—that we have a two-front war of illiberalism,” Sykes said, then citing recent attempts by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and anti-CRT agitator Christopher Rufo to silence academic expression they don’t happen to like at Florida’s public schools and universities.
Sykes continued: “But also, there is a reality that you have this progressive worldview that speech is harm and that it makes people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, therefore they are justified in shutting down, shouting down, heckling speakers.”
Sykes is exactly right—except for one word. And that word is “progressive.”
Lueders then provides this welcome clarification.
Intolerance of speech with which one disagrees is not a feature of progressivism, just as adherence to lunatic conspiracy theories is not an intrinsic part of conservatism.
Yet people on both sides of the political spectrum are drawn like moths to these deadly flames.
Supporters of shutting down speech they consider hateful (in many cases without having actually heard it) are as far from being true progressives as QAnon believers are from being sane conservatives.
Excellent. But this is a point that needs to be made repeatedly, especially as we confront ongoing illiberal attacks on free speech.
And because the Bulwark contains multitudes, we also have somewhat different perspectives on the issue.
For example, Saturday’s Triad featured Kenneth (Popehat) White’s analysis of the student shout-down of Federal Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford: “Stop Pretending that "Free Speech" Martyrs (or Protestors) Are Heroes.”
But the focus on martyrs and heroes misses the point (while also setting up more than a few straw men). The real question is liberalism vs. illiberalism. Academic freedom vs. the hecklers veto. Vigorous debate vs. ideological bullying and enforced conformity.
To be sure, White lays a righteous smackdown on the thuggish behavior of the students, and the DEI dean who sided with them.
Students think that they should be able to dictate which speakers their peers invite, who can speak, what they can say, and who can listen. They’re not satisfied with the most free-speech-exceptionalist system in the world that lets them respond to speech by assembling, protesting, and reviling people of authority like Judge Duncan. They demand the right not just to speak, but to control the speech of others. That’s straight-up thuggish, an aspiration born of a fascist soul.
But White also goes to great lengths to spell out all the ways that Judge Duncan was a deplorable jurist. And he questions the motives of the Stanford Federalist Society members who invited him.
This is also quite interesting, but also quite beside the point. The jerkitude of some of the participants is secondary. (Lueders’s piece also discusses attempts to shut down the truly deplorable Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens.)
Maybe the students at Illinois-Chicago invited Kirk and Owens because they wanted to trigger the libs. Maybe the FedSoc kids at Stanford did invite Judge Duncan to test the limits of campus tolerance and free speech.
They succeeded. And so the juice was, in fact, worth the squeeze.
If anything, the attack on Kirk and Owens was even worse, but it’s not necessary to see them either as martyrs or heroes. Writes Lueders:
The goal of provocateurs like Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens is to diminish and delegitimize the other side, to make their opponents come across as unsympathetic, unworthy of inclusion or accommodation in society. And they know that, in pursuit of this end, there is virtually nothing they can say that would be as effective as being met with efforts to prevent them from saying it.
But even though demagogues like Kirk and Owens invoke “free speech” in bad faith, that is not a reason for defenders of democratic liberalism to hedge their support, or toy with anti-anti-shout-downism.
Liberalism is a set of norms meant to protect the unpopular, the obnoxious, and the personally offensive as well as the popular, the trendy, the au courant.
Lueders also rejects “the logic that some speech is too dangerous to be permitted.”
That is especially true in the present political environment, in which the desire to present oneself as having been persecuted or oppressed is so prevalent, on both sides of the political aisle.
Those who abide by the motto of “free speech for me and those with whom I agree, but not for thee” are people who “have no faith in the ability of our people to govern themselves,” as Knoll wrote in 1977. They are being set up for a fall.