Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Debt limit: The nihilism is the point | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, the book America needs right now: The definitive Martin Luther King Jr. biography.

This is how things have been going in 2023: Even the news about orcas, those majestic sea creatures, is rough. Live Science reports that an aggrieved orca attacked a large sailboat in the waters off Gibraltar, then taught others in the pod how he did it. Three sailboats have been attacked, and Twitter users are following with a rooting interest (hint: not for the humans). I, for one, welcome our new aquatic overlords.

Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at, and get a boatload of opinions to chew on every Tuesday.

📮 It’s nearly impossible to get Philadelphia sports fans to agree on anything, so I was surprised by the relative consensus on what the 76ers should do in the wake of another playoff meltdown that triggered the firing of coach Doc Rivers. All of you want to ditch James Harden (Harden seems happy to comply) and build around rising star Tyrese Maxey, with conflicted feelings around NBA MVP Joel Embiid, who might be impossible to trade. I like how reader Daniel Hoffman thinks: “Force Josh Harris out of the position of managing partner … Short of that, nothing the Sixers do will change them into a championship [caliber] team.” He’s probably right. Sigh.

This week’s question: New Philadelphia mayors tend to do One Big Thing (Jim Kenney and the pre-K soda tax, John Street and abandoned cars), so what should that Big Thing be for likely new boss Cherelle Parker in 2024, and how should she do it? For a chance to be featured in my newsletter, email me your answer.

Burning down the House: Why GOP doesn’t want a debt deal, and what Biden should do

The classic vocal group The Ink Spots had a Top Five hit in 1941 with a song titled, “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire.” I’m guessing that The Ink Spots wouldn’t have lasted more than a day in the 2020s’ discordant ensemble of political arsonists known as the Republican Party.

Indeed, there’s already been a potential forest fire of kindling created by all the dead-tree newspaper articles speculating what the GOP really wants in its aggrieved negotiations with President Joe Biden and his team over the once-routine and dull political act of raising the nation’s debt limit, necessitated by the non-stop borrowing that keeps the lights on for the federal government. But in reality, you can explain it with just seven words.

They want to burn it all down.

I do mean this in the quite literal sense, as one of the central demands of the narrow-majority House Republicans led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy is gutting the climate-change provisions in 2022′s Biden-backed Inflation Reduction Act, trashing hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives for things like electric vehicles and solar panels, and increasing the odds that heat-fueled wildfires will surround places like McCarthy’s dusty hometown of Bakersfield.

But I mainly mean it in the allegoric sense that too many members of McCarthy’s 222-member GOP caucus would rather watch the American Experiment go up in flames — and smile with a devilish grin like “Disaster Girl” in the infamous meme — than follow the example of their alleged hero Ronald Reagan, who raised the debt limit 18 times (because Reagan created a boatload of debt!) and pass this pro forma yet essential legislation and move on.

McCarthy — an epically weak leader who knows enough to know he doesn’t want history to remember him as the last House speaker of a democratic United States — understands his problem; he reportedly warned a closed-door session of his caucus, “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” There hasn’t been a lot of public braying, but most ultra-conservative members picked a side in that analogy by sticking to an all-or-nothing demand that Biden and Senate Democrats accept a bill that would both undo the president’s core achievements and include steep program cuts that most people would never support.

John Harwood, the acclaimed veteran journalist who recently lost his CNN post while truth-telling, wrote that the real Republican position in the foundering negotiations seems to be what he calls “a primal scream.” Some of that, Harwood said, is GOP House members seeing the must-pass debt-ceiling measure as their only real chance to do something, with Democrats running the White House and the Senate. But he also noted that this leverage gives the right wing a shot at enacting measures, like reversing climate action, that are wildly unpopular with voters, and to roll back some of the cultural changes that alienate conservatives.

I think it could be even worse than that. Biden administration officials insist the government would run out of money to pay its bills and prevent defaulting on its current debts sometime in early June. Defaulting would trash America’s credit rating and possibly tank the stock market, and with it, the wider economy. Government payments — including Medicare reimbursements, Social Security checks, and military pay — would be at risk.

A large swath of House Republicans don’t act like they care about this. A handful of them who openly loathe Biden and who — thanks to the Big Lie of 2020 election fraud — don’t see his presidency as legitimate would probably love to see the White House fail. It’s the defining trait of the 21st century GOP: nihilism.

“Our country is going to hell,” Donald Trump, Republicans’ once and would-be future president, declared in a Mar-a-Lago speech in April, right after he was arrested on felony charges in Manhattan. “The world is already laughing at us.” And yet Trump has taken a commanding lead in the polls from voters who surely agree with that mission statement.

What difference would it make nuking the U.S. credit rating, and the nation’s reputation, if America is already in h-e-double-toothpicks? No wonder so few Republicans cared that their inflexible stance on the debt ceiling forced Biden to cancel two legs of his trip to Asia, offending governments and sensibilities in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The slight, which undercut efforts to strengthen a coalition to stop Chinese expansionism, is the kind of disunity around U.S. foreign policy that never used to happen, in the olden times when Republicans cared about projecting American strength and unity.

But today conservatives are scared, and bitter. They’re scared that white privilege will disappear as people of color become a majority of the U.S. population by mid-century. And their bitterness is expanding. The right used to despise college faculties and the news media as dominated by “pointy-headed” liberal elites, but today they suspect all college grads as “woke,” in a world where major institutions are run by these degree-holders. So they hate “woke” corporations, even Disney and Anheuser-Busch. They even loathe the “woke” Pentagon, and the FBI, key parts of a so-called “deep state” that conservatives want to implode.

The great writer Adam Serwer produced the definitive headline of the Trump presidency when he wrote, “The cruelty is the point.” And the GOP program for raising the debt ceiling is stunningly cruel, including needless work requirements that would limit government benefits to the poor. But cruelty has a more dangerous cousin in nihilism. For Republicans launching this kamikaze flight against the U.S. economy, the nihilism is the point.

Biden’s faith that a bipartisan deal could be reached is very much in line with his political worldview, and to his credit he actually made it work on two popular, less controversial issues: infrastructure and semiconductors. Maybe he’s right about this, but I think too many Republicans are committed to a destructive path. The president should have adopted a no-negotiation stance, declared that the 14th Amendment renders the debt ceiling debate moot, and allowed the courts to work it out long before the government runs out of money.

The White House is preparing for a hostage crisis when they’re actually dealing with political suicide bombers. I believe Joe Biden when he insists that he’s fighting for “the soul of America,” but to win that battle, you need to know your enemy.

Yo, do this

  1. Does the world really need another biography of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? Absolutely! The reality is that in an internet age where conservatives cherry-pick MLK quotes to distort his legacy and where liberal activists need some fresh inspiration, no book could be more timely than Jonathan Eig’s sweeping and majestic new King: A Life. A former Wall Street Journal reporter who’s received wide acclaim from previous bios of Lou Gehrig and Muhammad Ali, Eig drew on thousands of pages of never-before-seen documents, from FBI files to King’s father’s unpublished memoirs, as well as scores of interviews with folks who knew the civil rights icon. The result is not mythology but a portrait of a man who was all too human — making his remarkable moral choices and struggles relatable to his fellow mortals. In repositioning King as one of America’s true Founding Fathers, Eig has created 2023′s most vital tome.

  2. The concept of “must-see TV” mostly died along with the 1990s, but in a perfect world, the nation would retire to its couches at 9 p.m. on Sunday to share the most-anticipated television event in some time: the series finale of Succession on HBO Max. Season Four of the show that chronicles the saga of a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul and the jockeying for power among his deeply scarred children has been utterly sensational — showing how this bonfire of vanities among the rich, entitled, and powerful makes hapless casualties out of innocent people, from a Scottish bartender to, finally, American democracy itself. On Sunday, one Roy family offspring might “succeed,” but in an epic landscape of moral failure.

Ask me anything

Question: 1960-1970 was arguably the most prolific single decade for culture and style, music, the arts, originality, etc. Why? What made the 1960′s so special relative to other decades: Demographics? Politics? I have my fingers crossed we’re on the cusp of another such era. — Via Jack Rodeghier (@glarustrading) on Twitter

Answer: Jack, your question is right up my alley — so much so it sounds like it was planted (it wasn’t, I swear). I’ve pondered this many times as I drive around listening to “1969 Hits” on Pandora or salvaged tapes from WABC and KHJ. Sadly, I have to say my thinking is that the cultural scene of the 1960s can never be replicated. First, the decade thrived on the commonality of mass culture — the cross-pollination of those Top 40 radio stations, the shared experience of three TV networks, or the one movie screen in your suburban town — that has been shattered in a million fractured pieces in the iPhone age. But the bigger reason is that the 1960s had a naïve optimism — born from the one-of-a-kind baby boom, in a brief moment of middle-class affluence and post-World-War-II bravado — that will never be repeated. The notion that peace-seeking boomers would create an Age of Aquarius saturated songs like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (with its lyric “people are changing” … except they weren’t) or “People Got To Be Free” — tunes that would be laughed off Spotify today for their hopeful innocence. Events like Kent State and Watergate brought cynicism and an “Age of Irony” (think SNL, launched in 1975) that lasts to this day. But prove me wrong, Gen Z!

Backstory on that new twist in the Trump documents probe

When we first learned 15 months ago that Donald Trump was under investigation for taking top-secret, highly classified documents with him to Mar-a-Lago after he was voted out of the White House, my mind immediately wandered east, toward the oil-rich deserts of Saudi Arabia. In February 2022, I published a column headlined: “Trump, the Saudis, and Mar-a-Lago’s boxes of U.S. secrets: A recipe for disaster?” The question was inspired by then-fresh reports of Trump’s lucrative deal with the Saudi-backed pro golf tour, and the regime’s $2 billion investment in a fund run by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Would Trump be tempted to share something as valuable as America’s nuclear secrets with a rich nation craving its own nukes?

You know who else is wondering essentially the same things? Jack Smith, the Justice Department’s special prosecutor who’s taken over the classified documents probe as well as an investigation into the president’s inner circle’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. The New York Times dropped a bombshell report Monday night that Smith has now subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records of its business dealings since 2017 — the year Trump became the 45th president — in seven foreign countries. On the list: China, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. This comes after an earlier Times report that federal prosecutors had specifically sought records on Trump’s deal with that Saudi-funded LIV Golf tour. The Times’ sources didn’t spell out why Smith is seeking these records, although it’s hard to imagine any scenario except a possible connection to the specific files discovered at Trump’s Florida estate.

The most benign explanation is that Smith is trying to establish a motive for why Trump would cling to these specific papers, because they pertained in some way to nations in which the businessman-turned-politician also has a pecuniary interest. The more toxic implication is that Trump may have already shared government secrets as part of his efforts to win lucrative business deals, or that he has promised valuable information to his billionaire partners. That worst-case scenario would arguably be a presidential scandal of unprecedented magnitude. I happen to think that the U.S. government keeps too many secrets, that the number of classified documents is ridiculous, and that investigations into document-handling by figures like Mike Pence or President Joe Biden are also a bit silly. Smith’s moves suggest the Trump matter is very different. Stay tuned.

What I wrote on this date in 2013

There goes Will Bunch again, attacking the moral failings of the American president, complaining about an administration obsessed with secrecy and hiding key information from citizens, and praising a handful of journalists for holding the White House to account. Except that on May 23, 2013, the commander-in-chief was Barack Obama, and the scandal was his too-often reckless expansion of an overseas drone assassination program that intended to target anti-American terrorists but too often murdered other folks, often innocent civilians, from Afghanistan to Africa. The grim news on this date 10 years ago was an admission that Obama’s drones had also killed four U.S. citizens — only one of them intentionally. Hence the headline: “Obama, drones and U.S. citizens: Don’t feel bad … cuz 1 out of 4 ain’t bad.”

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. Last week offered us a real-time reality check on the mental state of the American voter, with critical primaries here in Pennsylvania and competitive general elections from Florida to Colorado. The results were remarkable both for a series of rejections of MAGA-fried political extremism — highlighted by a stunning Democratic mayoral upset in Jacksonville — and for the middle-of-the-road outcome here in Philadelphia, where “center lane” candidate Cherelle Parker cruised past candidates on both her left and right to win an open Democratic mayoral primary. I wrote the electorate’s quest for “normalcy” could benefit Joe Biden in 2024. Over the weekend, I looked at stunning new charges that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was selling presidential pardons for $2 million, and wondered why a scandal hid in plain sight for 28 long months.

  2. Did I mention that Cherelle Parker — former City Councilmember and state lawmaker, heir to a vaunted political operation in her home neighborhood of Northwest Philly — is teed up to become the 100th mayor of Philadelphia, and its first woman chief executive? Parker’s solid Democratic primary victory in a one-party town — fueled by middle-class and less advantaged Black and Latino voters — sparked a flurry of in-depth Inquirer pieces looking at both how she did it and what her expected mayoralty (she’s all but guaranteed to defeat the GOP’s David Oh in November) will mean on a range of key issues, from the city’s crisis around gun violence to the 76ers’ controversial plan for a new arena in Center City. Parker’s great leap forward promises something that America’s founding city has never seen before — a Black woman at the helm — yet also something numbingly familiar, with her close ties to the creaky Democratic Party “machine.” The only certainty is that The Inquirer’s journalism is the best hope for holding the Parker administration to account. You’re going to want to read these articles, and support this work with a subscription. Why not start today?