Going low and crying wolf: How Harry Reid helped give us Donald Trump

Dear Rebecca:

You write: “Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power.”

I’ve got a story to tell, one that’s out there on the public record, but one that hasn’t been much remarked upon.

He lied. Did American democracy die?

It takes place during the Obama-Romney campaign of 2012. During the campaign, Mitt Romney was proving reluctant — as Donald Trump was, after him — to release some pertinent personal financial information. So Sen. Harry Reid, then the leader of Democrats in the Senate, decided to make a big deal about it.

Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.

“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying.

“He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?

I wrote at the time that “Reid’s allegations look and smell a lot like bullcrap.”

Why? Because there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Reid is telling the truth. He’s offered no witnesses and no proof of his claims, only a “somebody told me” statement that wouldn’t get within a million miles of passing muster in a court of law. And when challenged to present his evidence, his response is that Romney can prove Reid’s allegations wrong—by releasing his tax forms.

Politically clever? Yes. Distasteful? It absolutely should be.

It turned out I was right. Reid later admitted lying, but said he had no regrets: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. Trump versus Clinton. Her emails have been hacked; Trump has asked the Russians to release them to the media. It’s all very suspicious. And Harry Reid, serving out his final days in the Senate, makes his move. He writes an angry letter to James Comey.

In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity. The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information.

Here’s the thing: Reid was right! He was telling the truth! We found out later that Republicans had warned President Obama they’d accuse him of politicizing intelligence if he went public with this — and Obama, probably figuring Clinton would win anyway, decided to keep his mouth shut. Reid’s letter to Comey, when made public, represented one of the best possible chances to get this issue fixed firmly in the minds of the American voters.

Only … Reid’s accusation was treated like so much bullshit. Here’s the Washington Post:

Reid is saying that he has been told the FBI has evidence of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And he’s not just saying this information came from mysterious and unnamed national security officials; he’s saying Comey himself has left him with this impression.

But there is no public evidence to support Reid’s claim of actual “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. And were that to be the case, it would be a scandal of epic proportions.

Asked what evidence exists of such a connection, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson cited classified briefings.

“There have been classified briefings on this topic,” Jentleson said. “That is all I can say.”

Asked whether the letter means Comey has shared such information directly with Reid, Jentleson said, “Refer you to the language in the letter.”

This is the political equivalent of Reid lighting a match, dropping it on a dry ground and walking away.

The Post then mentioned Reid’s false allegation against Romney. And it included this old quote from Reid:

Is there a line he wouldn’t cross when it comes to political warfare?

“I don’t know what that line would be,” [Reid] said.

It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity.

In 2012, when Reid made his first, pretty clearly bogus charges, there were no end of defenders. Why? Because, I was told, Romney hadn’t released his tax returns so who was to say Reid was wrong? And in any case, the other guys fight dirty so why shouldn’t we? We’re tired of always being the weak ones, right?

The problem being: When Reid’s credibility mattered most, when he could’ve used some “trust me” to help steer the nation on a different course, he’d spent it all on a crappy lie he probably didn’t even need to make in order for Obama to win.

Going low, politically, has its short-term rewards. It can be justified on that basis. But who wishes Americans had paid more attention to Harry Reid last fall? A lot of the same people who lauded his earlier lie.

Hey: Politics ain’t beanbag. It’s never going to be as clean as I like it. But there are costs to wallowing in the dirt, and they’re not just moral prissyness. They matter. We’re all living with how they matter now.

Yours, Joel

Douglas Koziol and the virtues of reading all the way to the damn end

Dear Rebecca:


A conservative friend — I think we’re friends — linked angrily today to this piece at The Millions. It wasn’t hard to see why. Check it out.

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

This was offered as proof of the censorious nature of “progressivism.” And the piece’s commenters agreed:

It’s called freedom. It may be dangerous to you, or you may dislike it, or disagree with it, but none of those three personal views gives you the right to stop anyone else from reading it.

The moment you decide your role is to act as a gatekeeper shutting out the unworthy books, rather than a guide opening the door to new ones, you’re part of the problem. You’re no better than any other small-minded librarian/bookseller impeding access to books of which they do not approve.

What a load of elitist arrogant BS. And the author probably thinks they are being open minded. Keep doing you liberals.

One small problem: While the quoted paragraph above does indeed express the problem the writer, Douglas Koziol, was wrestling with, it doesn’t at all reflect his conclusions, or the fullness of his throught process and actions in getting there.


All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.


I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.

What a powerful conclusion! Overcoming a censorious instinct to embrace humility, embrace listening and embrace understanding! We should want much more of this in our society than we’re getting right now. We should be praising Koziol for his honesty and his conclusion.

But instead, most of Koziol’s readers are acting like folks who, having heard the setup of a “knock knock” joke without hearing the punchline, have decided to condemn the evils of doorbells. Too bad. Reading to the end could’ve saved a lot of heartache.

Still reading?

How to Go High?

Dear Joel,

Years ago, I was visiting the home of a politically conservative couple in rural Kansas. They were a generation older than me and very gracious hosts. We were on the patio, eating dinner, when the wife suddenly picked up a fly swatter and used it to smash a box elder that had landed on her chair. “Damn Democrat,” she muttered as she shook its guts into a nearby planter.

I’d never heard the term before (maybe you, a native Kansan, have), but apparently the term is used in the central states for these bugs, which appear around the time of the national political conventions.  (This may be the only time I get to use my limited knowledge of etymology and entomology in the same sentence!) But the glee with which my host smashed that bug, then swore at it, let me know that she very much enjoyed thinking about members of the opposing political party as detestable, destructive objects that she could kill.

Image result for boxelder bugs

Above, a box elder bug. What happens when we use metaphors that show contempt for people with differing political views? When are such metaphors funny or useful? When do they shape our feelings about actual people?

I tried not to give that moment too much credibility, but I replayed it many times in my mind since, especially since the 2016 primary season. Around that time, I began a side project following “Deplorable” Facebook pages, pro-Trump social media spaces that, in the words of one, are for anyone who has been accused of having an “-ism” (racism, sexism, nativism, etc.). The total disrespect that members of these boards have for others (including other members who sometimes ask them to stop with the most violently racist and sexist memes) seemed another version of smashing of the box elder bug.

And your comments earlier this week, about our race to the bottom, our movement from tribalization to demonization to the Russia scandal, reminded me of it again. You argued that both Democrats and Republicans get tribal and demonize each other. Consequently, we justify whatever means we can use because, after all, the “other guy” is going to do it too. Eventually, we’ll be left only with politicians willing to always do the worst. This isn’t leadership; it’s a fear-based strategy to get and keep power, which really only becomes about keeping others out of power. It’s a game of controlling the ball but never moving it forward, just as GOP leadership has done in these first 100+ days of the Trump administration.

I don’t think it’s too Capraesque to say that we can have leaders who do good well. We just have to want that more than we want the other things we are voting for, including racism. We have to say that playing fairly matters to us, that we won’t defend politicians who cheat, fearmonger, scapegoat, obfuscate, undermine democratic participation in our institutions, and obstruct justice. Why would we want leaders who do those things? (And, trust me on this one, there are plenty of people on Deplorable social media sites who see Trump’s lies, bigotry, and cheating as absolute positives. Their support for Trump as “God Emperor” is evidence, I think, of the need for civics education.)

Did voters get what they deserved in the 2016 election? Until the shadow of Russian interference in the election is gone, we won’t know. At minimum, though, it was clear in the primary line-up that we didn’t care enough about character to support candidates who were competent and had the character both to serve and to lead a divided nation forward toward a more perfect democracy.

Can we get there? Yes. You asked, though, how. How do we go high when they go low, whatever our party affiliation and whoever we see as the “they”?

I think we have to punish politicians who lack character by voting them out of office and calling them out when, during their tenure, they fail to live up to basic standards of civility and decency. That also means, though, that we need better options–which means more people of character stepping up to serve in elected roles, which means lowering the financial barriers to running. We can also improve civics education, making public service integral to civil life, so that the question “How do I serve?” is one everyone asks.


The straight line connecting tribalization, demonization, and Trump’s Russia scandal

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been thinking about this awful tweet from the awful Dennis Prager.

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 7.43.20 AM

Which led me to this tweet this morning quoting a Fox News personality:

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 7.46.56 AM

And I’m a bit discouraged.

Let me preface: I’m not quite a “pox on both your houses guy.” All things being equal, I find liberalism superior to conservatism, and I don’t make apologies for it. But I do think political tribalism blinds us to the ways that we’re very similar to our rivals, and that awareness of those similarities is a hedge against hubris.

Among Democrats and liberals, I often hear a refrain that goes something like this: “Republicans don’t play by the rules. They’ll do anything to win, and when it comes down to it, they’ll stick with each other. Not like our side, which is weak and too willing to play by the rules. We have to be as tough as they are.”

Having spent time in the out Internet provinces of both conservatism and Trumpism, I can tell you this: Rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives say precisely the same thing about the other side. A lot. (I know what some of my liberal friends are going to say: “They’re wrong!” But they’re not, entirely.)

Best I can tell, both sides believe it. Best I can tell, neither side really examines why the other side thinks that. Everybody has their reasons, I assure you, and it’ll probably be worth examining that in another post.

But one result of our ongoing demonization is this: It removes any moral or ethical barriers we might otherwise observe. The only object is to win — or avoid losing — by any means necessary. The other guys are going to do it. We should too! All of which makes the race to the bottom a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meeting with the Russians? In a way, that’s not a transgression of the norms, but a fulfillment of what the norms have become.

How to disrupt that race? No idea. Ugh.

Respectfully, Joel

Boys Scouts: A Lesson in Plurality?

Dear Joel,

Our family went out on a limb this year.

We let our oldest, who will be 13 soon, join a Boy Scout troop.

[Gasps among our progressive friends.]

It’s a Mormon Boy Scout troop.

[Even gaspier gasps!]

We’ve long been cautious about Boy Scouts, even choosing not to donate to the United Way because that organization dispersed funds to the Boy Scouts during years when Boy Scouts across the board wouldn’t permit gay boys or leaders from joining.

All the reasons we were cautious about Boy Scouts–the organization’s foundation as a response to white anxiety about white masculinity in a globalized world, the nationalism, the militarism, the redface rituals (And, yes, we went to the peer-reviewed literature for help here.)–were major reasons for our resistance. But, after a lot of thought and finding, through our research, that local leadership was really influential in the running of a troop, we found a troop that was a good fit for our son. The troop leader, a neighbor of ours, focused on outdoor survival skills, not selling popcorn. A scary experience he had as a young man of getting lost one winter night in the mountains of Utah convinced him of the need for young people to respect nature, and he was a gentle leader who pushed kids to exceed their own expectations about themselves while being smart about Utah’s wilderness.

We also found that the local troop was enthusiastic about allowing our son to participate in ways that he could adapt to our faith. He could participate without having to perform flag ceremonies, and we’d be skipping any rituals that troubled us. We got ample warning about whether any guest speaker might violate our religious values–even the police officer who came to the group to talk about online safety. Our son was encouraged to talk to about his faith freely and to be able to articulate ways in which our commitment to peacemaking shapes his experience in Scouts. While other faiths have badges for Boy Scouts–so a Mormon kid can earn his Duty to God badge for studying his faith, as can a Jewish child or a Muslim child or a child from all kinds of other faiths– Mennonites have been suspicious about the program and have no affiliation, which was a good opportunity for our son to forge his own path.

Though our son wasn’t the only non-LDS member of his troop (He was one of two), because the local stake sponsored the group and because stakes are neighborhood-based, he got to know boys in the neighborhood (and thus the LDS church) quickly and well. We’ve been so grateful for the opportunities scouting has provided: friendship, a religiously pluralistic setting where he can practice his faith among other people who respect religion, and some pretty serious camping and outdoor experience.


Above, a vintage photo of a Boy Scout looking off into the distance, his right hand over his eye brows as if to shield him from the sun’s glare.  

And now the LDS church has decided to end its relationship to Boy Scouts at the higher levels. While the LDS church has previously expressed concern about Boy Scouts’ acceptance of queer participants, the official reason is that the Scouting program for older boys isn’t meeting the needs of older boys. Instead, the LDS church will organize some kind of outdoor camping program on its own.

Given my initial reluctance and skepticism (and my continued ambivalence about some aspects of Scouting), I feel a surprising sadness about this. While our son could likely still participate, the new program is clearly going to be more LDS-oriented than even an LDS-sponsored Boy Scout troop is. It’s one more way that the new kid in town–one already not going to the LDS church–is cut out of relationships. I know that’s not the purpose of the decision, but it’s the result. And what is perhaps sadder for our family is that this particular way of getting to know our LDS neighbors has been so rewarding.

Part of me is saying, “Well, what did you think was going to happen? You got into the boat with religious conservatives! Of course it was going to sail this direction!” And part of me is feels like a hypocrite for being sad at the loss since these troops were never going to affirm queer kids–a deadly problem in Mormon communities–and we weren’t, even with our patient approach, going to persuade them otherwise, and so maybe I just shouldn’t have gotten involved at all. But I’m also grateful for the sadness, because it reminds me of how difficult these decisions should be.

Thanks for listening,



If you love someone, leave them alone–at least sometimes.

Dear Joel,

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have trusted directions given by my six-year-old neighbor.

The little guy was over yesterday to play ping pong and Minecraft with my youngest, but he had to go home, he said, to help his father, a local contractor, prepare for a fireworks show.  I thought he said the show was that night, but maybe he didn’t and I just assumed it. In any case, I kept the little ones out past bedtime, loaded the van up with lawn chairs and water bottles, and showed up the the park at dusk to find just one other person in the parking lot.


Above, fireworks, which we will see maybe next week?

She was alone in her own minivan, doing something with her phone. My husband, irritated once again with my failure to double check details, insisted on asking her where the fireworks were if they weren’t here, like we thought they would be. Recognizing the situation for what it was, I begged him not to interrupt her, but my dear husband has that Midwestern sensibility that assumes everyone loves to be helpful just as much as you do, so he (to my horror) signaled for her to roll down her window. Unless I were fleeing from an attacker and wasn’t sure I could outrun him, I would never, ever interrupt a woman on her own.

She rolled down her window sheepishly. “Do you know where the fireworks are supposed to be?” he asked.

“No,” she admitted. “I’m just sitting here, playing a game on my phone.”

They both rolled up their windows; she returned to her game, and we left the park with a vanful of crying children. My husband noted that it was weird that this women was at the park, in her van, playing a game on her phone by herself.

I didn’t tell him, but of course I’ve been there, and I’m fairly sure that most mothers have been, too. Maybe it’s not Candy Crush or Clash Royale or That Dragon, Cancer. Maybe it’s Celebitchy or TMZ, or maybe it’s my two favorite Twitter feeds: Los Feliz Daycare (“Incident report: Helper Pat ‘stole Nola’s nose’ which led to an explosive, stevia-fueled “My Imaginary Body Is Still My Body” think piece.”) and KimKierkegaardashian (“Try on a high-waisted swimsuit. See if it conceals your despair.”) Maybe it’s FB stalking your high school crush, reassuring yourself that it could be so much worse: you could still be living in your hometown, raising children who look like that guy, who turned out so much less handsome than you thought he would, working a MLM scheme to subsidize your salary as a part-time receptionist at your in-laws’ drywall business. (If a review of that crush’s life outcomes doesn’t perk you up, just keep going down the list. You will eventually find someone who would have ruined your life more than the spouse you chose and the children he gave you.)

Hiding at the park is just one way to do it, but we do it all the time. We pick the long line at checkout. [Checker: “Ma’am, aisle 3 is open.” Me (not looking up from the People I’m not going to buy): “I’m fine. Just fine!”] We put the gas cap back on and walk the long way around the car before we get back in, just to avoid the chaos within for a few more seconds. We push the grocery cart back to cart corral slowly, and we pick up a few extra carts, floating in the parking lot, “to be a good citizen,” but let’s get real: those children won’t roast in the van if I take an extra 45 seconds in returning, and I can see them, safely buckled in, from where I am. We lock the bathroom door and turn on an app that sounds like a shower, then try on all our old lipsticks, remembering the occasions for which we bought each, none of which involved children.

Not in every family, but in many, fathers can hide in plain sight because, if Mother is around, children ask her first anyway. (Which reminds me of that joke: “All I want for Mother’s Day is for the children to remember that their father can get them a drink of milk, too.”) We are special and needed and very loved. And we are sometimes tired.

To the woman in the green van at Friendship Park last night at 9:15, who put her children in bed, then pretended to run out to pick up the forgotten gallon of milk so that any requests for another story or another glass of water or another bedtime song could be fulfilled by someone else: Your secret is safe with me. Play on.


***UPDATED to address the concern/condemnation (rising to the level that I “don’t deserve to have children”) that some folks have expressed about this post: I clearly love my family, as a review of my writing here and elsewhere indicates.

I also recognize that, broadly speaking, women do more of the work in a family than men do and that being married increases the amount of work a woman does and decreases the amount a man does. Women parent on average 2 hours, 10 minutes per day, while men average just one hour, 35 minutes per day. And though they work in paid employment for the same number of hours per week, working fathers have about three more hours per week of relaxation time (for fun, hobbies, or being left alone) than working mothers. While some families never fit this trend and most families probably deviate it from it in some ways at some times, it’s still the typical experience for women.

But to be clear: no, my having children didn’t actually ruin my life, though it did ruin my waistline, my shoe size, and, just this week, a spot on the carpet in the van where some contraband bubble gum found a home it doesn’t want to leave. All of that said, I miss them when they or I are away, I cherish even their grubby fingerprints on the glass in the  front door, and I like hanging out with them a lot, just as they like hanging out with me.

It’s just that sometimes even Betty Crocker wanted to pretend to be Marilyn Monroe. And there is no harm in pretending that for just a bit.

Attacks on Minority Rights in the Name of “the People” and God

Hi Joel,

Three unrelated apparently unrelated events have been swirling in my mind lately. Help me think through them?

First: The Texas State Supreme Court recently said that same-sex couples might be legally married in the state, but they don’t have a legal entitlement to the same benefits as same-sex couples. The all-Republican court was pressured by the state’s GOP to pick up the case, which centered on whether the city of Houston was right to grant spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees if the couple was married out of state before same-sex marriage was legal there. Obergefell, the 2015 Supreme Court case that recognized the validity of same-sex marriages in all 50 states, should have easily answered this question, but here come folks from Texas Values, a Religious Right group, to weasily argue that

“The Supreme Court held … that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.

The Equal Protection Clause should take care of this, but Texas conservatives never like to miss an opportunity to whine about federal overreach, so here we are, with the poor conservatives of the Supreme Court going to have to decide if they can handle the pressure of siding with 14th Amendment.


Above, Jason Rapert, one of the worst state politicians in the US, stands in front of a Ten Commandments monument just installed at the capitol in Little Rock. TheIt’s

Second: Arkansas’ second-worst state politician, Jason Rapert (I leave the national award to Senator Tom Cotton.) made news this week when his beloved 10 Commandments, newly installed on the state capitol’s grounds, was smashed by a… well, I guess we’d call him a separation of church and state activist. Anyway, Rapert’s obnoxious desire to waste taxpayer money on the inevitable legal challenge to the display reminded me of a comment he made two years ago at about this time in response to the just-delivered Obergefell decision. On Facebook, he said,

“I urge every God fearing American to pray for our nation on their knees, but to rise to their feet in opposition of those who have gone too far by imposing unjust laws against our will.”

Not a theologian, a law scholar, or a historian by training or talent, he compared his cause to the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement. When a more informed citizen reminded him that, uh, actually, that’s not how it works with rights, he struck back by saying that “We the majority, grant you rights by choice.”Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 12.25.46 AM

Third: Among anti-Muslim Christians there circulates the argument that Muslims do not have a First Amendment right to practice Islam in the US. One angle in this argument, exhibited by this awful speech that Rebecca Bynum gave to the Memphis chapter of ACT for America, says that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology, and therefore it is not protected by the First Amendment. This is also sometimes used to justify a ban on entrance by Muslim immigrants and refugees to the US. A second angle says that it doesn’t matter if Islam is a religion because Muslims aren’t free to practice it in the US anyway since the right to the free exercise of religion, as articulated in the First Amendment, is derived from “our Creator”–that is, the Judeo-Christian (but NOT Judeo-Christian-Islamic) deity. Explains Jason Rapert’s spiritual mentor former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore:

“Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures.”

(Moore, by the way, was kicked off the bench for being a preening fool. He’s led efforts to install the 10 Commandments in Alabama courthouses, fought hard against recognizing the legality of same-sex marriage, and is generally an embarrassment to the intelligent people of Alabama. Oh, and he’s running for Senate now, and Christian media is reporting that he is in the lead.) The argument here is that–follow me closely through this slop–the right to practice (or not to practice) religion is only for Christians and Jews because they are the only people who recognize the authority of the God who gave them that right. Atheists have no right not be atheists because the right to be an atheist comes from a God atheists don’t believe in. Likewise for anyone who is not a Christian or Jew but who wants to practice religion.



On top, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, standing with a Ten Commandment monument. Below, one of his supporters, part of a traveling anti-LGBT protest group, stands outside the Alabama Supreme Court courthouse last year. Inside, the court was hearing arguments about whether Moore should be booted off the court–a second time–for ethical violations. (Answer: Yes.)

These not-entirely-unrelated instances (all in the South, all efforts led by white Republican men) have been ringing in my head for a few days now, and what I see bringing them together is that the rights of minorities–same-sex couples and religious minorities–are consistently seen as in conflict with democracy rather than central to it. (But I also suspect that they don’t much care about the “will of the people.” Rapert, for example, is fighting Arkansas’ Amendment 6, legalizing medical marijuana, despite popular support for it.)

Am I imagining it?