Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Three-Horse Open Sleigh

Troika caravan, via Mir Corporation.

Happy New Year! Even David Brooks ("2019: Year of the Wolves") knows what day it is and has written a column for it, and his hidden overlords seem to have given him the green light to do something unexpected with Emperor Trump, which is to go beyond criticizing his manners and misstatements and other spiritual inadequacies to suggest he is, in fact, probably a criminal, although he clearly doesn't want to get too specific about it:
It will be a year of divided government and unprecedented partisan conflict. It will be a year in which Donald Trump is isolated and unrestrained as never before. And it will be in this atmosphere that indictments will fall, provoking not just a political crisis but a constitutional one.
There are now over a dozen investigations into Trump’s various scandals. If we lived in a healthy society, the ensuing indictments would be handled in a serious way — somber congressional hearings, dispassionate court proceedings. Everybody would step back and be sobered by the fact that our very system of law is at stake.
But we don’t live in a healthy society and we don’t have a healthy president.
The quality of indictment is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven; when Brooks first saved the file, as the URL tells you, it was called "Trump Indictment" but he has decided to depersonalize indictments into something that's just in the atmosphere and "ensues". Giving the impression that he may not be aware of the 36 indictments that have already dropped on

five former Trump advisers, 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man, and one London-based lawyer. Seven of these people (including now all five former Trump aides) have pleaded guilty. (Vox)
But I guess he must mean to be hinting at the indictments that haven't been made yet; capturing the Trump campaign's direct links with its Russian state actor friends and WikiLeaks, Trump's own exchanges of favors with Russians in regard to the Trump Tower Moscow project, his status as unindicted conspirator in the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal cases, the probably criminal misuse by himself and his children of the Trump Foundation, and his blatant attempts to profit off the presidency, currently the subject of civil suits but plainly involving high crimes and misdemeanors, as laid out in the Business Insider article Brooks links to, and trying to stop short of assertions as to how far Trump himself is indictable or impeachable as the case may be.

I think a lot of old-style conservatives got there a while ago, especially old David French, but OK, seems like a big move on his part all the same, and it's garnered him praise from some of our favorite people—

And if it captures the attention of any of those nonpartisan journalist types who think it's all politics and posing like the Whitewater investigation of 25 years ago, good. Are those his audience now?

There is something I'd like to say about the wolves, who are the big trope for this piece, taken from Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918), one of the books my mom was always urging me to read when was a kid that I steadfastly refused to give a chance to; something about the look of the prose on that page seemed vast, flat, and unvaried, like the Plains themselves. Actually she was never wrong about a book—other stories I wrongly rejected for years included The Wind in the Willows and Lord Jim—but I never did get around to that one.

The wolves are in a horrifying little piece of backstory in chapter 8 about two hardluck Russian immigrants in Nebraska, one dying, and the disaster that led to their leaving the old country, on a friend's wedding night, in a party traveling in troikas through the snow from the bride's village to the groom's; there are some 50 people in seven sleighs, most of them more than a little drunk, and an enormous horde of wolves starts chasing them, and one sleigh tips over and then another, and the wolves are killing whoever falls. Peter and Pavel in the lightest sleigh with the bride and groom are out in front and see the groom's parents killed in this way, and it occurs to Pavel that if he could lighten the load he'd have a chance of making it home—he gives Peter the reins and goes in back to suggest tossing the bride out, apparently (Cather doesn't say this) because she's a woman and therefore of less value. The groom refuses, they fight, he pushes both of them out of the troika, and Peter and Pavel reach the village alone just in time to hear the local monastery ringing matins, the only survivors. From then on the two of them are cursed, driven out of their village, and end up in America, where nothing goes right for them.

(Cather took this episode with considerable artistic license from a real event, in what is now Uzbekistan, reported in the New York Times in 1911, in which 120 people were killed, numerous women were thrown out of troikas, and the two survivors ended up "in a semi-demented state from their experience." It's not behind a paywall and really worth reading.)

Brooks comments,
The story reminds us how thin the crust of civilization really is. It reminds us of what otherwise good people are capable at moments of severe stress and crisis, when fear is up and when conflict — red in tooth and claw — takes control.
It’s an especially good story to tell as we enter 2019, because this looks to be the year of the wolves — the year when savage and previously unimaginable things might happen.
Well, no, it isn't. For one thing it's nature that's red in tooth and claw (in Tennyson's In Memoriam), not conflict. "Conflict red in tooth and claw" doesn't make any sense. Pavel's wickedness, his desire to choose who will be thrown to the wolves, seems to me inside civilization, not in the magma underneath. And what previously imaginable things are now to be imagined?

His scenario is that when the indictments begin to fall—perhaps that's the snow—Trump will try to deny their legitimacy, challenging the issuing authorities with
the anti-establishment, anti-institutional language that has been coursing through the left and right for the past few decades: The establishment is corrupt, the game is rigged, the elites are out to get you.
So maybe Trump is the wolves, or maybe the anti-establishment language is. Cather wrote, "The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it." The anti-establishment language is going to be exceptionally rough this winter, coursing through the left and right.
At that point congressional leaders will face the defining choice of their careers: Where does their ultimate loyalty lie, to the Constitution or to their party?
And the congressional leaders are Peter and Pavel, in the front sleigh, with the horses weakening, and their party attachments and our Constitution under their protection! How will they defend themselves from the onrushing mob of anti-establishment words?
If their loyalty is to the Constitution, they will step back and figure out, in a bipartisan way, how to hold the sort of hearings that Congress held during the Watergate scandal — hearings that inspired trust in the system.
Will they ditch their party attachments, the way Senator Baker did in Watergate? (Actually, Baker was as partisan as he could be for as long as he could maintain it, saw himself as Nixon's defender against the majority Democrats, meeting secretly with the president in the Oval Office to get his strategic advice, though he did not obstruct justice, and his famous question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" was intended to exculpate Nixon, only Nixon was too guilty for it to work). What if the Constitution just seems like the heaviest thing and they throw that out instead?
On the other hand, if they put party above nation, they will see this crisis as just another episode in our long-running political circus. They’ll fall back in partisan lines. They’ll hurl abuse. Their primary concern will be: How can this help me in 2020?
If that happens, then the roughly 40 percent of Americans who support Trump will see serious evidence that he committed felonies, but they won’t care! They’ll conclude that this is not about law or integrity. It’s just a political show trial.
No, this is going to happen no matter what. And you know what else will happen no matter what? The roughly 52% of Americans who don't support Trump will also see serious evidence that Trump committed felonies, and they will care a lot. Not that it will make any necessary difference to the way the Senate votes in a trial of the president, because thanks to the way the Senate is designed, with two senators apiece for each state no matter how tiny (mostly Republican) or how large (mostly Democratic), the 40% have more influence than the 52%.

And this is the thing Brooks is missing: that Democratic Peter and Republican Pavel have conflicting interests in this sleigh, as they always do. It's in the partisan interest of Democratic legislators to go with the evidence, and the Constitution too, not because they're better people (of course I think they're that too) but because that's what their voters want them to do; it's in the partisan interest of Republican legislators to throw the whole concept of evidence, and the Constitution too, over the side, because that's what their voters want. The real problem here isn't partisanship, it's the undemocratic apportionment of legislative power, complicated by the fact that one of the parties is bad. As in evil, noxious, corrupt, and authoritarian to the point of believing the Leader is always right even if he shoots somebody dead in public outside his Fifth Avenue apartment building. Not to put too fine a point on it. The wolves are in the sleigh.

I was avoiding Driftglass all day while I finished this thing, but he notes how Brooks never once uses the word "Republican", the only way he can get through it with even half a straight face.

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