November 27, 2022

During his presidency, Donald Trump was constantly at war with the civil service. It’s not hard to see why someone like him might find himself at odds with Washington’s army of dedicated public servants. Our federal workforce, however flawed, is an engine of fairness that strives to consistently minister to the needs of all Americans. It’s also proven to be a last line of defense against corruption and misrule. Naturally, Trump and other figures within the Republican Party want to destroy it. And should the GOP retake the White House, they might get their chance. Few have thought through the implications of what happens if Trump wins in 2024, but it begins with the revival of “Schedule F,” one of the Trump administration’s most devious plots against the U.S. government.
Among other efforts to target the civil service, Trump chiseled away at some of the employment protections that the federal workforce enjoys. Most federal government workers are nonpartisan bureaucrats who work under presidents of either party; there are currently only a few thousand genuine political employees. One important protection for this larger group of nonpolitical civil servants is the Merit Systems Protection Board, which can hear disputes and has the authority to reinstate federal employees who it determines were unjustly fired. This agency helps keep these employees free from fear of retaliation for whistleblowing or refusing to participate in corrupt entanglements.
Trump tried his best to break the agency by leaving all three board member positions vacant. It didn’t quite work—while hobbled, the agency was able to persist. But Trump and his enablers came up with a different scheme. The administration exploited a loophole in the law that allows the president or the Office of Personnel Management to redesignate some members of the federal workforce so they no longer fall under the Merit Systems Protection Board’s protection.
To that end, Trump issued an executive order in October 2020 to create an entirely new category of federal staff called “Schedule F,” which would effectively politicize these expressly nonpolitical roles and do away with some of their job protections as well. As Slate’s Donald Moynihan reported, this plan would have made select members of the civil service subject to a “political loyalty test,” which they needed to pass if they wanted to keep their jobs. Even if only a small number of employees were directly affected, the move would be sufficient to bring the entire federal workforce to heel. Given the latitude to simply fire agency attorneys and other bureaucrats who enforce the rules of the road, Trump could transform the bureaucracy from a workforce whose members all swear an oath to uphold the Constitution to one that would act as his personal wrecking crew. Civil servants would then either have to get in line with Trump’s aims or risk losing their livelihoods and careers.
Trump ultimately ran out of time to fully implement this plan, and Biden immediately rescinded the former president’s executive order upon taking office. But the GOP and its backers are still very interested in reviving the plan. Axios’s Jonathan Swan wrote a detailed report in July about the prospects of a reelected Trump bringing Schedule F back; numerous profiles of the Trumpian “new right” have made it clear that figures in this orbit understand that they can’t institute their illiberal plans in a government with a nonpartisan civil service.*
What would the United States be like if the civil service were to become a mere handmaiden to an unscrupulous chief executive? The past offers some clues: For much of the nineteenth century, the federal bureaucracy operated in what was known as the “spoils system,” in which every new presidential administration would purge the civil service of the old guard and stack it with loyalists. This was, of course, a hothouse for corruption, but it wasn’t until this arrangement resulted in the assassination of President James Garfield that reformers gained the upper hand and passed the Pendleton Act, which established a beachhead for a merit-based system to replace the entrenched patronage system. This work wasn’t completed until the 1970s, when the post-Nixon reforms brought us the Merit Systems Protection Board.
But if Republicans have their way, it wouldn’t simply be a return to the spoils system of old. It will likely be much worse. Today’s GOP, after all, doesn’t believe in peaceful transfers of power or that the president can or should be constrained by the law. Moreover, it now conceives of itself as an instrument of retribution rather than problem solving or policymaking. Consider what Schedule F world might look like: The next Republican administration could use the federal government to punish its opponents. Democrats might find their Social Security or veterans’ benefits delayed or denied. They might no longer be able to obtain passports. Emergency disaster aid might flow only to those deemed loyal to the administration. Corporations that refuse to pay tribute might be punished. Transform the civil service from an open hand to a closed fist, and things get very frightening very quickly.
To their credit, Democrats are fighting back: Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly and Senator Tim Kaine have introduced legislation that “block[s] positions from being classified outside the existing system unless Congress consents to it” in their respective houses of Congress. And via an amendment, Connolly got similar language into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that’s currently awaiting a Senate vote. But Democrats must also find a way to raise the salience of this frightening prospect with voters ahead of the next presidential election, because whether the federal bureaucracy becomes the corrupt arm of an authoritarian regime is on the ballot in 2024.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
* This piece originally misidentified the date of this story.
This week, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham looked out over the political landscape and decided it was high time for a bad idea—specifically, a bill that would impose a nationwide ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Graham’s decision had an immediate impact. His fellow Republicans, by and large, spent the week either pretending not to know him or criticizing him for serving up two scoops of hot midterm-elections discord. Meanwhile, everyone working on the next round of political advertising for Democrats got to go home early, their scripts written for them. It was, in other words, quite a step on the ol’ rake for Graham. It’s also something that Democrats should try to emulate.
Please bear with me. I’m obviously not saying that Democrats should propose an abortion ban, or should go out and commit some chaos-causing unforced error. It’s not the substance that Democrats should imitate but the style. As Discourse Blog’s Rafi Schwartz noted, Graham was at least making a “bold legislative move” and being honest about what he believes. It simply happens to be the case that he’s being bold and honest about something that’s vastly unpopular with the public, and with terrible timing—you know, a moment when GOP candidates for office are scrubbing their websites of their abortion positions in the wake of the repeal of Roe v. Wade. But if Graham can put so much swagger behind such a rancid policy, Democrats should feel similarly emboldened to walk with confidence behind their own set of much more popular ideas.
I mention this because Democrats have a long history of being skittish about their own positions and accomplishments. It took many election cycles before Democrats got comfortable enough with the Affordable Care Act—their biggest policy accomplishment until they passed the American Rescue Plan in 2021—to actually run on it. They only really embraced it in 2018, to great success. More recently, Democrats squandered the advance time afforded to them by the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. They were too scared to act on a controversial issue—in this case, abortion—until they truly had no other option. Since then, we’ve seen examples that boldly seizing the moment works. In a New York special election, Pat Ryan campaigned on an abortion rights message as anger about Dobbs was cresting, and scored an upset win.  
Democrats have been quicker to the jump on Graham’s proposal—and because they are currently playing a much stronger hand, they should be just as bold. But there’s another equally important reason why they need to match Graham’s intensity: They have to counter the media narrative that meeting Republicans in the middle is the most politically acceptable response. As Jezebel’s Laura Bassett noted, this both-sidesism led the political press to echo Graham’s claim that 15 weeks constitutes a “later-term” abortion. “This is a 15-week abortion ban, it’s not ‘later in pregnancy.’ It’s not even close to the halfway point in a pregnancy. Republicans want journalists to accept their framing,” Bassett wrote.
Democrats shouldn’t fold and compromise with Graham’s position. And they should be just as uncompromising in backing President Joe Biden’s condemnation of GOP extremism. Biden’s speech about Trump’s “semi-fascist” inclinations was greeted with similar equivocation from the media, which Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler characterized as a “multi-day fainting-couch routine.” Beutler noted that this response didn’t actually “reflect anything organic bubbling up from the public.” It was merely a product of the media’s own squeamishness, which shouldn’t push Democrats to “retreat to the safety of conventional ideas that weren’t working.” Beutler continued: 
[The media is] reacting the way they think they’re supposed to react to maintain [their] “neutral” bona fides—by policing norms and obsessing over how it’ll affect the horserace; by neither validating [nor] invalidating the critique. That’s not to say their reaction is unimportant, if it persists unanswered or successfully drives Democrats into retreat, the idea that Democrats overplayed some ill-defined “hand” will crystalize into public opinion. As we learned during the Trump presidency, the best way to normalize the critique, to get journalists to accept that it is just part of our discourse now, is to just plow ahead with it, over their sniffing, until it no longer seems extraordinary even to them.
As Beutler went on to point out, all Democrats “should want GOP extremism and criminality to remain the thematic center of politics at least between now and the election.” That Mitch McConnell desperately wants to change the subject is a clear indication that Democrats shouldn’t just allow fascism or “semi-fascism” to happen.
Chances are, the Democrats won’t retain majorities in both houses of Congress. But they can’t do much about the country’s historical tendency to reward the party out of power in the midterms, nor can they alter the reality of electoral math or partisan gerrymandering, or the rude mechanics of a system that’s tilted toward the Republican Party in multiple ways. 
The good news is that should Democrats come up short, it will be due to these realities and not because they ran on a bunch of bad policy ideas or bankrupt ideological beliefs. The party’s popular positions will survive a defeat in 2022, as will its case against the GOP’s authoritarian turn—which, let’s face it, will only get worse. There is an equally important election in 2024. Democrats have good ideas and better enemies. That’s why they should all possess the confidence of Lindsey Graham. 
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
Over Labor Day weekend, Trump-selected judge Aileen Cannon ordered the appointment of a special master to review the material seized by the Justice Department from Mar-a-Lago—a move that will allow the president to delay the ongoing investigation. It’s a result that everyone with half a brain could have spotted from a million miles out: Trump sought out the judge most willing to bend the rules in order to help him wriggle his way out of trouble. 
But this didn’t prevent many legal experts from reacting with slack-jawed shock to Cannon’s order. “This special master opinion is so bad it’s hard to know where to begin … her analysis of standing is terrible,” tweeted law professor Neal Katyal. “Judge Cannon’s order is riddled with fundamental legal errors and is the opposite of judicial restraint,” added lawyer Ted Boutrous. Former FBI agent and Just Security editor Asha Rangappa insisted that “Cannon clearly did not have a strong grasp of the salient issues.” The Atlantic’s Andrew Weissmann ran down the many ways in which Cannon’s decision was “untethered to the law.” Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean quote-tweeted Weissmann, writing “It’s a mess!” Everywhere you looked someone was reacting in similar fashionBut … how could she?
To answer that question, we need to get the experts caught up on current events. It should be apparent to everyone by now that the conservative legal movement and its foot soldiers in the judiciary have ideological goals in mind and a political agenda they want to pass via the superlegislature once known as the judicial system. But many members of the judicial commentariat seem to be stuck in the world they remember, not the world we live in now. To these experts, the right is still beholden to the law—it still needs to tick the appropriate jurisprudential boxes, consider long-standing legal precedent, and follow the established rules. 
With that in mind, the experts look at Cannon’s decision and see balderdash everywhere. What they don’t get is that Cannon looked at her balderdash and thought, “Well, who’s going to stop me?” There are no “judge cops,” you see, only other judges, and if all roads eventually lead to the Roberts court, there’s no reason for her to worry too much about whether she’s stuffed a bunch of legal half-assery into her rulings. As TNR’s Matt Ford has reported, Cannon’s hardly the first lower court judge to indulge herself in some right-wing hackery. She won’t be the last.
The Supreme Court has led the way with decisions that are increasingly untethered to judicial precedent, the Founders’ ideals, and in some instances, the very facts of the cases on their dockets. Because of this, conservatives have been generally emboldened to stake more aggressive claims in their suits and filings, in order to test the limits of preposterousness, like velociraptors pushing against the weaknesses in Jurassic Park’s fencing. That is why even though a lawsuit to take down President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan suffers from some fatal standing issues, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is said to be “brainstorming” a workaround. He knows that he’s as likely to prevail with nonsense as he is to succeed with some supergenius-level lawyering.
As TNR contributor Aaron Regunberg noted in these pages, the alternate reality unfolding in front of us has already made wide swaths of the bar exam look more like a historical document than a test of current legal knowledge. In a world where jurisprudence is unmoored, what will future generations even learn in law school?  At some point you wonder if conservatives will keep bothering to even offer up slopcore legal reasoning, when it’s just as easy to offer jabberwocky instead.
Legal experts can gawk at the goings on in disbelief, exclaiming, “This can’t be happening!” all they like. But it is happening and has happened. Those trying to confront this moment by repeatedly insisting that this weirding of the judicial system can be repaired if only someone explains the rules hard enough are, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern point out, displaying the impotent “tendency to just keep on lawyering the other side’s bad law in the hopes that the lawyering itself will make all the bad faith and crooked law go away.” 
Lithwick and Stern continue: 
[In] this new age of legal Calvinball, one side invents new “rules” and then the other scrambles to try to play by them. For every single legal thinker who read the Mar-a-Lago order to mean, quite correctly, that ex-presidents are above the law, furrowing your brow and pointing out its grievous errors only takes you halfway there. The better question is what, if anything, do you propose to do about it? The furrowing is cathartic, but it’s also not a plan.
So then, what is the plan? As TNR’s Simon Lazarus argued, liberals must forcefully discredit the legal arguments that the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc is offering while there’s still time to rebut them. But as Lithwick and Stern point out, the most immediate solution to this dire problem is one that Democrats have been heretofore skittish about contemplating—adding judges to the courts. 
The good news for now, though, is that we can begin by adding judges at the lower court level, where the much larger case backlog justifies such a move, and hopefully avoid the all-but-certain national mainstream media–driven trauma that would follow any attempt to pack the Supreme Court. Increasing the number of judges in these venues could help the jurisprudential traditions that are now being gutted gain a new foothold and lessen the opportunity for conservatives to forum-shop their way to victory. The bad news, of course, is that unless Democrats are planning on holding both houses of Congress, Biden only has a few weeks left to do the job.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

As the Republican Party descended headlong into Trumpism, one lingering question has doggedly remained a point of fascination for pundits and political analysts: Did they fall, or were they pushed? There is a long list of culprits blamed for sending the GOP past the point of no return, from Jeb Bush to Barack Obama; from the Citizens United decision to gerrymandering. Nixon, FDR—even Kim Kardashian has made this list. But on social media in recent days, we’ve seen a slight uptick in one popular version of the Trump origin story: Republicans were radicalized by the tawdry way liberals treated Mitt Romney during his 2012 election run.
I’m not normally interested in what a few people happen to be tweeting. But this is no mere passing fancy. The lore surrounding Republicans being forced into a psychotic break because Mitt Romney was treated indelicately has been around for a long while. As Vox’s Zach Beauchamp reported in 2020, “Many conservatives have embraced” the idea that “Democrats smeared the kind and decent Romney so brutally … that Republicans became inured to this kind of argument and convinced there was no advantage to playing nice anymore.… Call it the ‘look what you made me do’ theory of How We Got Trump,” Beauchamp writes.
It’s an alluring cop-out. It’s clear that many really want to believe it. But I have long memories of the 2012 election and its aftermath, and folks, these claims don’t add up.
Make no mistake: The people behind Obama’s reelection campaign did what they deemed necessary to win. Romney was mercilessly characterized as an out-of-touch plutocrat, a step back in the direction of the vulture capitalists who brought the economy down in 2008. Romney’s biggest problem was that this particular shoe fit a little too snugly.
But sure, the Obama team wasn’t pure as the driven snow during that campaign, and liberals didn’t exactly strive to be some model of decorum either. Obama fans dined out on lots of shallow, mean-minded stuff like Romney’s equestrian interests and the saga of his family’s roof-bound pooch. Obama and his allies had plenty of ignoble moments as well. Romney’s comment that he “liked to fire people” was ripped from its context and used to paint him as an unfeeling toff. Then–Vice President Joe Biden knew he was punching below the belt when he told the crowd at a Danville, Virginia, rally that Republicans were “going to put y’all back in chains.”
But politics, as they say, ain’t beanbag; most of this stuff was fairly normal, relative to presidential campaigns. Little of this particularly rose to the level of, say, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. One thing that came close was an egregiously mendacious ad by an Obama-affiliated super PAC that essentially blamed Romney for a steelworker’s wife’s cancer diagnosis and death, while Romney was running Bain Capital.
But when it came to doing Romney dirty, Democrats had some pretty strong Republican rivals. While Obama criticized Romney’s Bain Capital past, it was Newt Gingrich who released an entire documentary about Romney’s allegedly destructive tenure as the firm’s head. Over the course of four months in 2011, Bill Kristol wrote seven separate columns for The Weekly Standard about how much he disliked Romney and wanted a different candidate to wrest the nomination from him. The antipathy of conservatives dogged Romney throughout the campaign and prompted some of his worst moments: his weird insistence that he was “severely conservative”; his infamous call for immigrants to “self-deport” themselves; and his quest to earn the endorsement of Donald Trump, who was then at the height of his reign as King of the Birthers.
In the wake of the Bain Capital cancer ad, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul went on television to defend Romney and, along the way, said, “To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care.” This was a huge mistake. Saul was subsequently pilloried by conservatives for defending him by invoking such a (gasp) liberal achievement—by that point, Obamacare was the law of the land and it was verboten for Romney to mention his Massachusetts health care innovation. Romney was even forced to cut a line from his book about bringing that reform to the entire nation.
This was perhaps the greatest wrong done to Romney. The entire reason he had emerged as a presidential contender among Republicans was because he understood that there were problems that needed solving and that conservatives needed to compete with liberals in a war of ideas to solve them. Romney may be the only Republican in Washington who’s actually notched a recent major policy accomplishment that was celebrated across partisan lines: His Commonwealth Care was an example of this brand of politics; when there were enough Republicans interested in co-opting liberal issues and beating Democrats to market with solutions, Romney was top dog. He won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll four times between 2007 and 2012. But as I wrote in 2012, the party turned on him: “For all of the grief that Romney has taken for his multitude of flip-flops over the years, those are not, collectively, as damaging to Romney’s ambition as the way the Republican Party has flopped on him.”
Conservatives may want, even need, this ersatz martyrdom of Mitt Romney to exist to explain away their Trumpian turn, to spin the story that liberals’ treatment of Romney’s shortcomings gave them no choice. This all neatly forgets the fact that Republicans very much could have taken a second path but chose to abandon it. They sure have a funny way of treating their martyr, though. In 2020, CPAC chairman Matt Schapp told Greta Van Susteren that the four-time straw-poll winner would not be physically safe if he attended the conference. The fact is that Republicans have long been, and continue to be, Romney’s most dedicated persecutors. And through their persecution of him, they gave themselves permission to make their radical turn a long time ago.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

“Did the Inflation Reduction Act quietly save the administrative state?” That’s the big question that TNR’s Kate Aronoff took up this week after The New York Times and others reported on an eye-catching bit of fine print in the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA. Running through the legislative text is language that “define[s] the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels as an ‘air pollutant.’” The detail may seem minor, but its inclusion could be a “game changer,” designed “specifically to address the Supreme Court’s justification for reining in the EPA” in last term’s West Virginia v. EPA decision, at least according to the Times’ Lisa Friedman. 
As we’ve noted on these pages before, the high court’s conservative bloc has recently ramped up its war against the administrative state. To that end, it has demonstrated a propensity for disallowing executive branch agencies from having the broadest possible latitude in interpreting the legislative branch’s instructions. So the way the IRA defines carbon dioxide in this explicit fashion, in the Times’ telling, is a defense against these judicial dark arts. 
This language shift didn’t go unnoticed by conservatives, and it elicited a very curious response from Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who said, “It’s buried in there … the Democrats are trying to overturn the Supreme Court’s West Virginia v. EPA victory.”
But as Aronoff explained, the mere existence of this language in the bill’s text doesn’t actually repeal anything. The Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA still stands, and its larger implications should remain a cause for worry. But even if including this revised definition of carbon dioxide doesn’t overturn a Supreme Court decision, it might herald the overturning of a school of thought among liberals on how to confront the court, and signal that Democratic legislators intend to apply some more strategic thinking to the challenges posed by the court’s conservative majority.
Cruz’s statement was a moment when the mask slipped. It’s rather unusual to characterize a Supreme Court decision as a “victory.” It’s a weird thing to say about an allegedly august institution that bills itself as a neutral caller of ball and strikes as it interprets the Founders’ intentions and sorts through a body of legal precedent. It’s like saying that the umpires defeated the Houston Astros in the 2021 World Series. And as MSNBC’s Steve Benen notes, Cruz was being oddly salty about congressional lawmakers simply doing their job: using their majority to pass laws. “I understand that Cruz disagrees with the underlying policy,” writes Benen, “but why take issue with a democratic governing process?”
In this case, I think the Texas senator’s complaints fairly neatly expose what’s at work: Cruz sees the high court’s conservative majority as a “victory” in an ongoing ideological project. And he’s not wrong—that is precisely how the court’s conservative bloc see it as well. Their end goal has long been apparent: They want to kneecap Congress and install themselves as an unelected superlegislature with veto power over the executive and legislative branches. 
What makes the “administrative state” work is the interplay between these branches. Traditionally, the Supreme Court has granted the executive branch agencies broad discretion to interpret laws, which allows them to be nimble as the times change but the laws don’t. As I’ve previously noted, “An EPA that couldn’t rely on that leeway would need Congress to constantly pass new laws directing it how to proceed on every matter in its purview and then pass additional new laws covering the same ground as circumstances changed.” 
The IRA’s revised definition of carbon dioxide won’t thwart the Supreme Court’s conservatives, but it demonstrates that Democrats on Capitol Hill are taking their threats more seriously. As frequent TNR contributor Simon Lazarus tells me, “The most important takeaway from the IRA provisions is not exactly what they say, or how they will strengthen arguments against, for example, the court deploying the major questions doctrine to overturn important new EPA actions. Rather, what is important is the political fact that Democrats acted at all to take on [a Supreme Court] intent on micromanaging Congress and executive agencies and in the interest of Republican agendas and interests—in particular, the priorities of Republican megadonors who also happen to have funded the justices’ ascent to the power they now possess on the court.” 
This week’s news augurs something of a sea change, in which Democrats are alert and alive to the challenge and have started to think more strategically about countering the conservative judicial movement. This is long overdue. Back in 2021, President Biden asked a White House commission to weigh various ideas to reform the Supreme Court during a time of grave concerns about its legitimacy; the commission’s report offered scant solutions. As recently as July, there were concerns in liberal circles that Biden was failing to meet the problems that the Roberts court presented head-on.  
As Lazarus wrote in these pages back in June, liberals “must embrace a hybrid genre of political-legal combat,” discredit the legal arguments of the conservative bloc, and advance new and novel legal arguments of their own. The language in the IRA that’s being touted by environmental advocates may be the first stirrings of this larger battle. But at the very least, we can all finally acknowledge the facts as Ted Cruz understands them: The Supreme Court’s conservative justices are ideological actors, through and through. 

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

As I noted last week, the FBI’s raid of Donald Trump’s Florida redoubt spurred Trump’s defenders into a frenzy of hot anger, the onrush of which, as my colleague Matt Ford noted, may have been a wee bit premature, given the revelations that quickly emerged. But the reaction has been just as exuberant from the left. Merrick Garland, who’d up until then been a fixture of impatience and discontent among liberals hoping he’d apply a more Javert-like zeal to his pursuit of Trump, was suddenly an unlikely meme hero. After an interminable wait for the Justice Department to put Trump in a legal bind, Dark Merrick had finally did it on’ em.
But while the outpouring online is understandable, I’d urge Garland’s newfound fan base to follow his lead. As I previously noted, the straitlaced, even dull, persona he’s created for himself hasn’t lent itself to spectacle or emotional catharsis. But it’s been a great tone for the leader of an agency in bad need of a restoration to set. This is an excellent opportunity to embrace the Garlandian virtues of dull normalcy. Between now and the next presidential election, Democrats should do whatever they can to Make America Bored Again. What was the point of a Biden administration, anyway, if not the total assertion of a dull, normie, incremental political aesthetic as one of the better alternatives to four incompetent and cruel years under Trump?
Order is not something that Biden has always successfully established or maintained: His withdrawal from Afghanistan was more haphazard than it should have been; the road out of the pandemic has been and continues to be rocky. In recent weeks, however, Biden’s manifested a more serene vibe: His party, at long last, came together to pass a legislative agenda after a year of discord. The Inflation Reduction Act may be the balm for what’s ailed a fractious party that sparred over the Build Back Better Act.
Compared to Build Back Better’s top lines, the IRA looks like a picture of moderation. But as TNR’s Michael Tomasky notes, it’s also quietly revolutionary at its core. Newly signed into law, the IRA “begins to turn 40 years of bad economic conventional wisdom on its head by asserting that the government has a role in structuring markets, promoting growth, and guiding industrial policy,” Tomasky writes. The ship of state is being gently steered into better waters; those Democrats who fought for better and more generous policies now have a much firmer foundation from which to make new demands as a result. Coupled with Biden’s throwback views of the labor market, this means Democrats now look like a more cohesive and united party, and they’ll be able to campaign on an economic message with real possibilities.
Meanwhile, the GOP has embraced an all-havoc, all-the-time platform. Post-Roe America is turning out to be a nightmare in all the ways that liberals warned. Political violence is becoming more prevalent and more obviously a product of right-wing ideology. GOP candidates are growing stranger and more alien by the day. Conservatives are banning books and threatening children’s hospitals. And the party of Lincoln has torn down its monuments to the sixteenth president and erected busts of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán in their place. Stem to stern, the GOP is sailing with a full complement of unreconstructed chaos agents.
Naturally, one of the ideas that those chaos agents are raising right now, as the investigations into the former president’s dealings advance on multiple fronts, is that the very act of bringing Trump to justice could plunge the country into turmoil. It’s an argument that Trump, in particular, hopes will be convincing, if only to save his own skin. And as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent report, it’s also an argument that’s finding some purchase in the discourse, as media elites wonder if Garland shouldn’t try to tamp down the tense situation.
But as Sargent points out, those tensions exist only because of “GOP demagoguery,” and it’s not Garland’s “job to shape the legal response around GOP noisemaking.” Besides, the long-term chaos caused by creating a culture in which no one is held accountable outstrips the short-run chaos of a news cycle in which the dumbest pundits in the land demonstrate how susceptible they are to right-wing propaganda.
Democrats have the opportunity to draw an important contrast to the Republican vision of America, and the calm sobriety that Garland has recently projected is a model for Democrats to follow. Not long ago, I proposed that Democrats should promise voters that they’ll fight for the Good Life—a pledge to deliver more shared prosperity, more widely distributed political power, more political stability, all to allow all Americans to have more time to spend with the people they love. Chaos is the enemy of this agenda. This is a ripe time for Democrats to make a big bet that there are more people out there who want a calm and prosperous country instead of an unruly one.
One of the most compelling things about Merrick Garland is how fundamentally uncompelling he is. Back when then-president Barack Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court, he was tapped because he was an uncontroversial choice, all the better to win some votes from Republicans. (Things, obviously, didn’t go according to plan.) Now, he’s possibly the least charismatic member of the Biden Cabinet. The least photogenic as well: I can tell you firsthand what a struggle it is to find an interesting photograph of him. None of these traits seemed to be particularly advantageous—until, perhaps, this week, when the unassuming figure signed off on a warrant for federal agents to search Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s post-presidential way station.
It wasn’t immediately clear what exactly the Department of Justice was looking for at Trump’s resort. Most of the reporting on the matter suggested that the warrant pertained to the president’s alleged mishandling of classified materials, which The Washington Post later reported included “documents relating to nuclear weapons.” Garland confirmed this on Thursday afternoon and proceeded to ask for the warrant to be unsealed; The New York Times reported earlier in the day that the DOJ sought to recover those materials with a subpoena long before the warrant was executed. It’s also worth remembering that just because a warrant gets served, that doesn’t mean arrests or indictments are necessarily in the offing.
But what the subpoena news demonstrates is how unlikely it is that Garland or other high-ranking federal law enforcement officials would escalate in this manner without a good reason—and remember, a judge must also agree that there is just cause to serve a warrant. If those who sought and issued this warrant don’t have their ducks in a row, then the blowback will be intense. At the same time, even if everything was done by the book, the politicization of the whole fracas means that blowback is inevitable regardless.
But it’s here where Garland’s bland persona may serve him. There are many things you can say about him, but it’s a real challenge to characterize him as some sort of partisan firebrand. Indeed, for the bulk of his tenure, his seeming lack of passion for pursuing Trump with a Tommy Lee Jones-like zeal has left liberals vexed. Last October, California Democrat Adam Schiff, who played a leading role in Trump’s impeachments, said that he was in “vehement” disagreement with Garland’s seeming reluctance to hold Trump accountable.
As TNR’s Matt Ford has pointed out more than once, Garland never promised to be a Democratic avenger, nor has he at any time cultivated such a persona. What he has successfully communicated is that the Attorney General’s office would not be defined by some monomaniacal pursuit of Trump. The biggest task for Garland when he assumed office was the revival and restoration of the DOJ as a functional and independent institution after the wayward tenure of his predecessor, Bill Barr, during which time it really did seem like the DOJ could become a private tool of executive branch retribution.
It won’t be possible to escape the politicization of a DOJ investigation into Trump; some matters are beyond Garland’s control. But let’s note how Trump’s allies are responding: They’re foaming at the mouth about Garland being a corrupt autocrat whose actions are like unto dictatorships. As MSNBC’s Steve Benen pointed out, the seeds of this Garland smear campaign were planted long before federal agents descended on Trump’s resort. The GOP anticipated the possibility of further and more serious legal tribulations for Trump, probably because they have intimate knowledge of just how bad his misdeeds were.
But it’s going to be hard to make such a characterization stick to Garland. In dictatorships, government officials don’t serve search warrants or seek the permission of judges to carry out seizures; they don’t offer you a chance to amiably resolve the dispute in advance; they don’t give the people they’re trying to suppress a chance to make their case in public; they don’t assert the presumption of innocence or provide a forum for the accused to prove their case. More to the point, they don’t wait years to punish their political opponents. Indeed, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who Republicans might recall, undertook a violent purge of his government six days after taking power in what’s colloquially remembered as the “comrades massacre.” That’s a far cry from how Garland behaved, no matter what Republicans might allege.
What’s more, the only people talking about purges and political violence are Republicans. Trump is the one planning a mass dismissal of government bureaucrats if he’s reelected. And if you want to hear someone promising the dawn of autocracy, look no further than Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who in the wake of l’affaire Mar-a-Lago issued a not-so-vague threat: “What comes around goes around. And here’s what’s gonna happen now—one day they won’t be in power. And whoever is in power, there’s gonna be a lot of pressure on them to do it back to the other side. And now we do become a banana republic.” This is a pre-confession; in this scenario the “whoever is in power” is—according to Marco Rubio—Marco Rubio.
I almost feel bad for Trump’s allies, all of whom have spent the past half decade in a ruthless, backstabbing reality show about the sunk cost fallacy. But here’s the scoop: The guy is a corrupt dude who does crimes. By now, if you’re backing him, it’s because you’re itching to serve under the thumb of a caudillo; you are actively seeking political bloodshed and the disintegration of the Founders’ ideals. There are plenty of people on hand, right now, scratching and baying to become handmaidens to autocracy. Merrick Garland isn’t one of them.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.
With a few months remaining before voters go to the polls for the midterm elections, no one should be under the illusion that the economy is offering Democrats many political advantages. Elites are arguing about whether we’re in a recession. Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t, but the very existence of that debate is not a great sign. Meanwhile, after a long period in which they didn’t seem to want to talk about inflation, beyond halfheartedly pinning the blame for it on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Democrats have only belatedly realized they can’t run from the issue and have renamed the Build Back Better Act as the Inflation Reduction Act (the bill itself got quite a reduction, too).
While these factors are far from ideal for Democrats, there are economic conditions worth highlighting—especially where the labor market is concerned. Federal fiscal relief helped engineer a swift recovery relative to the 2008 recession. The unemployment rate is low and employers are competing for talent rather than batting away job applicants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 0.6 unemployed persons per available job, which means there are about two job openings available for every unemployed person. And the recent boffo jobs report suggests that this part of the economy is still cooking with gas.
This is the sort of labor market that President Biden wanted to create, and for good reason: During his vice presidency, the Great Recession sent that ratio as high as 6.5 workers per job opening. It was a time of real despair for American workers, who largely shouldered the losses of Wall Street’s irresponsible gamblers. That workers took it on the chin was hardly celebrated as an act of patriotism. In fact, in the first midterm election after the recession began, the long-term unemployed were being regularly maligned by Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul, who on the campaign trail characterized the unemployed as people who needed to accept “a wage that’s less than we had at our previous job” in order to get off the dole. “Nobody likes that,” he said, “but it may be one of the tough love things that has to happen.”
And yet, here we are twelve years later, with workers off the dole and in jobs, and they’re still being maligned for their insufficient fealty to the demands of capital. Where their biggest sin was once nursing from the government teat, they’re now under the gun for coasting along in a market that’s suddenly become favorable to worker interests. The fact that workers might now be able to move more freely from a bad job to a better one, and command a better wage than they did at their previous place of employment, is somehow also seen as a problem in some quarters.
Last week, The Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein and Jon Schwarz obtained a private memorandum from a Bank of America executive who rather bluntly stated that his hopes that conditions for American workers might get materially worse.* The memo—which its author, Ethan Harris, characterized as a “mid-year review”—expressed grave concerns over the leverage that workers have at the moment. “By the end of next year,” Harris wrote, “we hope the ratio of job openings to unemployed is down to the more normal highs of the last business cycle”—that is, a ratio more conducive to employers having the leverage again.
As Klippenstein and Schwarz note, the memo “tells us what we suspected all along: The most powerful economic actors in the U.S.—entities like Bank of America and its clients—do not like working people to have power.” But this should probably come as no surprise: Intermittent presidential advisor and capital-class amanuensis Larry Summers has, in similar terms, endorsed the idea that American workers must give up their labor market gains in order to end inflation.
But in a speech during a recent conference on “Inclusive Populism,” author and TNR contributor Zach Carter was singularly unsparing in his critique of this anti-worker position:
Anyone who calls double-digit unemployment a solution to anything does not belong in politics. But the reasoning in play here should simply horrify people who believe in democracy. The most important cost-of-living issue for families this year is housing—in many cities, rent has exploded. Ask yourself: if the goal is lower rent, should we a) build more houses, or b) indiscriminately fire a large number of people from their jobs? The latter is the serious contention of this newly revived austerity brigade.
To contemplate engineering a spike in unemployment, at a moment where our republic is in genuine peril, is truly deranged. We need more stability and social cohesion right now, not less. And for the Democratic Party, which happens to be the only major party that wants to preserve the American experiment in multiracial democracy, there is a desperate need to connect better with voters outside of the affluent college-educated Americans they’ve already won over. They won’t get there if they allow workers to once again be thrown to the wolves without fighting for them.
More often than not, Biden’s age and experience is treated as a liability from the same pundit class that doesn’t seem to understand why it’s beneficial for workers to have the leverage they do. But it seems likely that a battle royale between labor and capital is starting to hover into view. Here, Biden’s belief that employers should compete for workers and his affinity for labor organizers is an example where his old-school thinking truly is aligned with our present needs. Taking up this fight may not save the Democrats’ bacon in the midterms, but there is another election just around the corner where victory may be even more necessary. Biden should go to any length to win it; his vision of a labor market that works for ordinary people will put him on favorable terrain.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

*This article originally reported that The Intercept was the first to report on the memo.
In the last month, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has unleashed a tidal wave of political power to secure a plethora of long-standing ideological goals, including leveling the administrative state, tearing down the barrier between church and state, and gutting reproductive freedoms that Americans have enjoyed for generations. With the right mounting up for ever more destruction in the not-too-distant future, it’s only natural that the people who have gotten screwed by all of the Supreme Court’s wheeler-dealings might seek out some equal or opposite societal energy that might be harnessed to push back in the other direction. One such force that’s recently emerged as a ray of hope is corporate America.
Those who look to Big Business for succor in these trying times might have been uplifted by The New York Times, which reported this week that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision is “threatening to reshape the lines of economic competition between conservative and liberal states.” As Alexander Burns reports, the loss of reproductive freedom could cause a “disruption to the calculus” that has made some Republican-run states attractive to businesses—the idea being that as more onerous restrictions come online in various states, it will be harder for firms to attract talented potential hires to move to places where they’ll have fewer rights.
As the Times reports, some Democratic governors have acted upon this premise—North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, for instance, has vowed to veto any abortion ban on the grounds that it would hurt the state economically. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has, in similar fashion, maintained that “the states imposing rigid abortion bans were all but certain to suffer economically.”
It’s understandable why people might look to corporate America to be a corrective force. A brain drain is certainly possible as young and talented workers avoid states with abortion restrictions or choose not to attend big state universities where top firms recruit. And there’s some logic in the idea that stability is good for business and upheaval is bad. We’ve even seen corporate America step forward to play a role in tempering such upheaval, when business leaders joined the campaign to get President Donald Trump to hew to the peaceful transfer of power. Perhaps the end of Roe’s protections are, in a sense, bad for business.
Since the Dobbs decision, we’ve been hit with a tidy barrage of stories about certain major firms, from Amazon to Citigroup, offering to help affected employees cover travel costs in order to get abortions out of state if necessary. It’s easy to talk a good game about these commitments in these early days, when nothing is certain but that the nerves of employees need to be calmed.
But even now, not every firm is speaking with encouraging words about reproductive rights: Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Snapchat have been guarded in their responses about whether they’ll hand over private data to police investigating recriminalized abortions. Some firms have already initiated crackdowns on their employees talking about their rights in both public and private fora.
I’ve expressed skepticism about corporations being a reliable ally of reproductive rights because sooner or later, all roads lead to corporations’ monomaniacal goal: increasing profits to shareholders. What’s going to happen when the cost of transporting the employees affected by abortion bans, and the possible legal expenses that accompany recriminalization, start cutting into bottom lines? I have some personal experience with this situation: In 2014, the company I worked for—AOL—attempted to rook its employees by reducing the generosity of our benefits packages on the grounds that two employees covered by our health insurance plans had “distressed babies” that imposed onerous expenses on the firm. AOL was certainly no model of corporate excellence. But if two employees’ medical bills can rattle a firm to that extent, imagine what happens when it’s hundreds of employees incurring new expenses.
If you’re feeling sinister, I suppose you might note the dark irony of how, in this narrow instance, two abortions would have been more cost-effective to AOL than two “distressed babies.” But that’s not the world we should be seeking to build. And frankly, neither is a world where some companies celebrate themselves for making less-than-ironclad commitments to workers about providing reproductive health care. As Today in Tabs’ Rusty Foster noted, while “eliminating the right to abortion unless you work for a certain employer” certainly “brings abortion in line with the rest of our national health care policy, where only the submissive employee has a right to any health care at all,” this is not the future for which we should be fighting.
As it stands, we might be kidding ourselves about this imagined future. Even if every rosy assumption becomes reality—liberal states outcompete Republican-run states for talent, workers relocate to reclaim lost rights, red states suffer economically—we should remember that if the national abortion ban conservatives are pushing for now comes to pass, none of that will matter. And as corporate America continues to fund the campaigns of anti-abortion politicians, you shouldn’t presume that they haven’t already thought of this.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

There was a sense in the days running up to the Independence Day holiday that something bad was brewing—that people just felt less safe. As Gothamist’s Matt Katz reported on July 2, New Yorkers were feeling apprehensive about being out in public because the prevalence of mass shootings in America was causing a similar prevalence of panic-inducing false reports of violence. As psychiatrist and sociologist Jonathan Metzl told Katz, it’s a problem that extends well beyond New York City: “I do feel like our entire country right now is traumatized by the fact that it feels like a mass shooting can happen anywhere at any time.” 
Clearly, those fears were well founded: As CBS News reported, there were 11 mass shootings over the weekend, including the Highland Park shooting that claimed seven lives. In the wake of another fresh round of mayhem, the usual social media admonitions to get out and vote in the midterms circulated urgently—some more ham-fisted than others. These were of course followed by an equally robust fusillade of calls to do more than simply vote. 
Obviously voting is an essential ingredient to political change. But a lot of politics happens between election days—something conservatives often seem to understand better than liberals. Still, for those hoping for high turnout, it’s worth asking: Will it actually be safe to go out and vote?  
We live in an age when being out in the public square increasingly seems like a frightening prospect; it no longer feels like there’s safety in numbers. And standing in a line to vote at publicly demarcated polling places very much requires us to venture into a space that now feels vulnerable—where we might find ourselves under attack.
As Georgetown professor Heidi Li Feldman explained on Twitter, “Anti-democracy institutions and people” propagate fear and vulnerability by making “more guns available to more people”—the single condition that accounts for America’s unique problem with gun violence. “By making it dangerous for people of diverse backgrounds to gather in public, gun mongers promote fear and suspicion of one another,” Feldman notes. “By making public space so vulnerable to deadly violence, those who promote and push guns strike at the civil fabric.” What gets lost as that fabric frays is a sense of a “civil society” that we can all share.
And what we gain is more fear. As Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, points out: Sowing fear is “why mass shooters [and] extremists directly target public events—from neo-Nazis attacking Charlottesville community members who were protesting, to attacks on Pride events and abortion protests, to the targeting of public officials. The violence is key to undercutting democracy.”
As the right continues to plot its path toward permanent minority rule, it is making political violence more mainstream, alongside the GOP’s massive voter-suppression project. It’s hard to deny how violence has become an essential ingredient of the plot to deconstruct democracy. Since the 2020 election and the disputes that arose from President Donald Trump’s Big Lie, election workers have quit in droves because of the constant violent threats they receive. Two Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, recently provided harrowing details to the January 6 commission about the ways their lives were “upended” by a nonstop firehose of “harassment and racist threats.”
Meanwhile, right-wing militias that once vowed to “protect the polls” have only increased their presence in our politics and our civic life, where they’re massing in the public square and taking orders on who to intimidate. After the most recent evidence surfaced by the January 6 commission, it’s no longer hard to imagine such thugs receiving instructions from on high to shut down Democrat-heavy polling places by any means necessary. 
Wasn’t the 2020 election supposed to be a rebuke of the culture of political violence Trump and his ilk famously promulgated? Apparently not: “Far from reducing violence, the 2020 election and its aftermath heralded a step-change in the mainstream acceptance of violence as a political tool,” writes Rachel Kleinfeld at Just Security. “Why would a faction of Republicans still in power or running for office at the federal, state, and local level make common cause with violent criminals? Because violence and intimidation are already bolstering their power.” 
What is to be done? Unfortunately, we remain stuck in the “vote harder” endless loop; we aren’t likely to pass a law protecting voters at the polls, for the same reason we’ve not enacted any voter protections in spite of these threats to democracy—not enough Democrats believe these measures are more important than preserving the filibuster. Democrats who feel otherwise must elect additional senators who are willing to change these rules. To get there, Democratic voters must feel safe enough to go to their polling places, and cross their fingers that their votes get counted.
This might be one occasion when less skittish Democrats should try their luck at passing a bill to make our polling places safe, force Republicans to take a hard vote, and then get them to explain why the ostensible party of law and order opposes ensuring safety and security at the polls. If that’s the only thing that can be accomplished in the short term, Democrats can at least distinguish themselves as the guardians of stability in the public square, thus advancing the Good Life agenda in a small but meaningful way. And if something unthinkable happens on Election Day—well … we will at least be able to name and shame the lawmakers who enabled it. 
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

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