We’re less than a month into the Biden Era, and I’m starting to wonder how long it will be before an increasingly bored CNN starts looking for that Malaysian jetliner again (or resumes airing “The History of Comedy” in primetime.) At least we still have Team Trump to kick around for another 50 days, not to mention a 2022 election to start worrying about. Did somebody forward you this newsletter? Why not sign up to get this email every week? It’s free and easy at inquirer.com/bunch, and it’s (almost) never boring.
State senator wages war on democracy, carries COVID to the White House, and becomes a ‘22 frontrunner
This last week was a Thanksgiving like no other, but I can guarantee that your probably low-key and socially distant holiday was nothing like the week just experienced by a previously obscure Pennsylvania state senator from rural Franklin County named Doug Mastriano.
In less than seven days, Mastriano — a retired colonel and controversial military historian who recently launched a meteoric rise in state GOP circles — has found himself on national TV with Rudy Giuliani airing outlandish and utterly unsubstantiated claims of 2020 election fraud and seen his Twitter account promptly (and accidentally, the company claims) suspended, drawing outrage from the president of the United States.
In fact, Mastriano was even invited to Washington to meet Donald Trump in person right after conducting his hearing without a mask — only to be removed from the White House when he tested positive for COVID-19. His illness didn’t stop the Republican lawmaker from backing a resolution aimed at sending 20 Trump votes to the Electoral College from Pennsylvania, even after Joe Biden won here by 80,000 votes.
Yes, I know what you must be thinking at this point — that this guy sounds like real gubernatorial material for 2022, right? What? No? Well, despite the week that was, this central Pa. conspiracy theorist who walked the coronavirus right into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the subject of louder and louder chatter that he’s a leading GOP candidate for the top job in Harrisburg. That suggests that life after President Trump won’t be as un-Trumpy as so many people making their 2021 outdoor brunch reservations had hoped it would be.
“I’ve arrived,” a grinning, laughing Mastriano told right-wing interviewer Rose Tennent on Friday, as he talked about getting praise from the president both on Twitter and Facebook, the ultimate 1-2 punch for any Republican with higher political ambitions in the Trump Era. “We’re both fighting the same fight.”
But what exactly is that fight? Not long after the interview, Mastriano echoed two dozen other Republican colleagues in Harrisburg in voicing support for a move that would undo Pennsylvania’s certification of Biden as the election winner and allow the Legislature to instead chose the Trump slate. It’s a gross violation of the most fundamental rule of democracy, that the person with the most votes in a free and fair election is the victor — and so I tortured myself to watch the entire 18-minute interview that Mastriano posted to his social media to understand why.
I still don’t understand why.
“The kind of stuff I heard them talk about,” the senator said, referring to last week’s hearing in Gettysburg, which is in his district, “was the kind of stuff that went on in the Soviet Union, or in Putin’s Russia, or in Belarus or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — I can’t believe it’s happening here.” But if something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear — not from the interview or the public hearing. Instead of substantive proof, I heard blather like, “All we’re asking for is elections that are as safe and secure as the ones we hold in Afghanistan and Iraq” — with any Trump retweets or appearances on Fox News’ Hannity taken as validation.
I would have liked to have asked Mastriano what evidence has been found to justify the extraordinary step of overturning an election, but an email to his Senate spokesman and phone messages at his unattended offices weren’t returned on Monday. Thus, I also was unable to ask the senator — who won his seat in a 2019 special election — about his obsessive use of social media and the accusations that he’s repeatedly used Facebook to slur Muslims, or why he called this summer for a COVID mask-burning party and told a rally that store-goers should tell clerks who demand mask-wearing to mind their own business.
What’s clear is that Mastriano and his supporters swim 24 hours a day in an information bubble, where Facebook posts and hits on the major Fox News shows are self-fulfilling prophecies in a feedback loop that never gets challenged by their own kind. The strong showing last month by Republicans down-ballot from Trump means that the GOP will have the ability to draw up districts like Mastriano’s where a Republican can stay in that bubble and float to re-election, when there are no consequences even for an attempted coup against our democracy.
There’s another name for this hopeless, impenetrable bubble, and that’s the 2022 GOP primary. It’s why even a right-winger of the Tea Party era — Sen. Pat Toomey — knew he wasn’t Trump-y enough for this Pennsylvania Republican Party, and why the common sense moderation of a Tom Ridge (mocked in the interview by Mastriano) or late senators like Arlen Specter or Hugh Scott, who told Richard Nixon when it was time to go, has gone the way of the manual typewriter. Trump will surely be leaving the White House, but his dark cloud of disinformation lingers over Harrisburg, and the forecast for the next couple of years is very unsettled.
Mastriano told a July interview that what will determine a run for governor would be “God’s calling, the people … compel us to go forth, and we have the resources.” That interview was with two supporters of the conspiracy theory QAnon. Buckle up, Pennsylvania.
Yo, do this
Technology is one of the few things that’s made 2020 survivable, but November was a terrible month, personally, in that regard. Not only was one laptop fried, but my iPhone, which only predates the pandemic by a couple weeks, is fading fast, losing its headphone function altogether. It’s weird to walk the dogs listening to a podcast like a 1960s’ transistor radio. But for music, I excavated my sky-blue iPod (from 1/21/09, my 50th birthday!) and charger; it’s too weird to explain but the songs are completely different from my phone, and reconnecting with deep tracks from Fountains of Wayne or Los Lobos has offered more joy than I could have imagined. So if you still have one of those now ancient Steve Jobs creations, fire it up. I can’t promise you’ll hear “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” back to back (as I did) but something good will happen.
The old knock on rock criticism is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and arguably the same can be said about a podcast on books. But the prosaically named Book Review podcast from the New York Times regularly does a good job reminding us how the latest tomes help us make sense of our crazy, mixed up world, and now it covers the Times’ critics’ 10-best list of what was a terrible 2020 for everything else but a great year for books. Hear what they said about James McBride, Barack Obama, and what William Shakespeare unknowingly penned about modern America.
Ask me anything
Question: What federal crimes could Trump most likely be indicted for? — Via @mamaria33 on Twitter
Answer: In the spirit of Al Capone, whom the president tries awkwardly to speak like, I truly think the only federal crime where Trump faces an enormous risk is income tax evasion. Why? Because incoming president Joe Biden is very much of the “don’t criminalize politics” school, which means that massive abuses of White House power — from obstructing the Mueller probe to the Emoluments Clause to tampering with the 2020 election — will go unchecked, regrettably. But finance crimes are committed in cold black ink, with many occurring before Trump’s presidency and with likely exposure from parallel state and city probes in New York. Ironically, Trump’s determination to run again in 2024 puts him at greater risk than if he retired.
You knew this day was coming. In the 2010s, confirmation fights on Capitol Hill — most famously the battle royale over putting Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court — lit up social media such as Twitter. In the 2020s, Twitter may well be the thing that scuttles nominations — starting with President-elect Biden’s pick to run the powerful Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. Tanden, longtime head of the D.C. think tank, Center for American Progress, is a fairly typical Democrat of our time — liberal enough to be seen as “a socialist” by the right, yet tied closely enough to elites like Hillary Clinton to annoy the far left. Like many pols these days, Tanden fought back against her legion of critics, and Trump-era hypocrisy, with a fiery Twitter feed.
In the days just ahead of her nomination, Tanden frantically (and too late, of course) tried to delete hundreds of those old tweets. Why? With the Senate headed for either a small GOP majority or a 50-50 split (depending on two Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5), the Biden pick will likely need votes from moderate Republicans like Maine’s Susan Collins — after Tanden vowed on Twitter to “work hard” to defeat her in the 2020 race (that Collins just won). Texas Sen. John Cornyn, also a Tanden target, said “her combative and insulting comments about many members of the Senate, mainly on our side of the aisle” means her confirmation is up in the air. If Tanden is voted down, expect Twitter — like the rest of Washington — to get a little more boring in the coming years.
Inquirer reading list
In my Sunday column, I took a deep dive into what one wag called the “wonderfully boring” Cabinet of obscure policy wonks that President-elect Biden is assembling. Is Biden giving the American people what it really voted for — a dream of not thinking about politics for four years — and what are Republicans already finding to hate about the Big Dull?
Next, I looked at what Lynyrd Skynyrd might have called “the smell of death” that’s surrounding the final days of the Trump presidency. What’s up with the rush to execute so many prisoners, green-light foreign assassinations, and ignore the mounting body count from COVID-19? Is it as simple as ... the cruelty is the point?
Lost causes are the ones worth fighting for, as Jimmy Stewart is constantly reminding us in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It sure feels that way with police reform, in which unbridled, authoritarian power is codified in both tradition and actual law. That hasn’t stopped my colleagues on the Inquirer Editorial Board from demanding changes to Pennsylvania’s Act 111 that allows unelected arbitrators to thwart the will of the people on ridding Philadelphia of crooked cops. There’ll be many such battles as we move into post-Trump America, so subscribe today to the Inquirer and support local accountability.