It’s officially the Joe Biden era — are you not entertained?! Wait, you’re not? Well, America is waking up to a president who spends his Sundays at Mass and the bagel shop, hasn’t once tweeted at 3 a.m., and loves dogs. That’s what we wanted, right? Yet America still has plenty of challenging problems to ponder here at The Will Bunch Newsletter. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch. Hey, we also love bagels and dogs.
Today’s Republican Party: Governing is out. Yelling about ‘cancel culture’ is in
You had one job, Sarah Huckabee Sanders! As White House press secretary for the middle years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the daughter of Arkansas governor and ex-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee oversaw a small gaggle of aides who allegedly shared a common mission of keeping journalists — and, thus, the American people — informed.
Her crew often did exactly the opposite, however. Sanders — when forced to actually tell the truth to the Mueller investigation — admitted that she lied to reporters about a claim that rank-and-file FBI agents were offering support to Trump, and near the end of her tenure she went some 93 days without performing her supposed main task of holding a daily press briefing.
On Monday, just five days after her former boss slinked out of the White House under the cloud of his second impeachment, Sanders declared that she’s running in 2022 for her dad’s former job as governor of Arkansas. Luckily for Sanders, she’s flying the banner of a party where success no longer has anything to do with government competence, but is instead all about “owning the libs.”
“I took on the media, the radical left and their ‘cancel culture,’ and I won,” Sanders said Monday in the eight-minute video announcing her statehouse bid. “As governor, I will be your voice, and never let them silence you.”
No doubt the 244,000 Arkansas residents who lack health insurance — a number that’s again rising — are grateful for the historic defeat of “cancel culture,” just as the 17.2% of the state’s residents living below the poverty line — 5th worst among the 50 states — are probably flooding the streets to celebrate V-L Day, or victory over the woke liberals. Why would Arkansas want someone with boring government achievements, when it can elect a true Culture Warrior™ As Seen on TV?
Monday felt like a defining day for the 167-year-old Party of Lincoln — when the GOP’s first album with its new sound dropped after Trump officially left the band. At the same moment Sanders was declaring her gubernatorial jihad against “cancel culture” in Arkansas, longtime Ohio GOP stalwart Sen. Rob Portman — a former federal budget director, back when his party still believed in math — announced that he’s sick of elective politics and getting out next year, when he’ll be just 66.
The future of the post-Trump Republican Party is now the 38-year-old Sanders, the 41-year-old insurrectionist Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri — who’s responded to calls for his resignation over his raised-fist support for murderous rioters by appealing to millions of Fox News viewers and readers of the New York Post that’s he’s being “MUZZLED! — or maybe author and TV talking head J.D. Vance, 36, who’s thinking of running to replace Portman after his own Book of Grievance, Hillbilly Elegy, became a Hollywood movie.
The things that used to be the hallmark (not to be confused with Hallmark, which wants its campaign money back from the sedition-adjacent Hawley) of upwardly mobile Republicans — like experience in running agencies and getting things done, which almost invariably means compromising with Democrats instead of non-stop cultural bazooka fire — are now the kiss of death. No wonder that mid-career pols like Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey are jumping ship along with Portman, who claimed on Monday that it’s “gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy.” What Portman left out was that the main driver of that partisan gridlock is increasingly becoming the all-out culture war waged by his own party.
As America lurches deeper into the 2020s, there are two forces driving the Republican Party into a new and frankly scary kind of political organization. The first is increasingly seeing politics not as a path to governing but as the nightly crossfire of a Fox News (or now even more pro-Trump and reality-challenged outlets like Newsmax or OANN). Thus, someone like Sanders who “took on the media and the radical left” and claimed a mythical victory is seen as a leader, despite the lack of any accomplishments in the reality-based world. This inability to distinguish between constructive civic discourse and ratings-driven entertainment is exactly the dystopian America that the media critic Neil Postman predicted way back in 1985, in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
The second problem is a Republican Party that has largely abandoned any pretext of proposing policies that would even attempt to — dare I say it — make America great, either “again” or “still.” Instead, the new GOP is a comic-book band of defenders, an Anti-Wokeness Party here to save Middle America (but not the coasts, heaven forbid) from the wrong pronouns, restroom gender wars, and something called “critical race theory.” In Week One of the Biden administration, Republican lawmakers were amped up and united in their outrage over transgender protections but were lackadaisical about working with the new president on programs to help struggling workers or bail out broke cities and states.
Missouri’s Hawley is arguably the worst example, a Stanford-educated faux populist who — while smart enough for the occasional head-fake like joining with Sen. Bernie Sanders on stimulus checks — is more about inflicting pain on Silicon Valley and college administrators than about helping the workers or students who actually suffer in our grossly unequal “knowledge economy.”
The pressure is on Democrats, with a new president and their razor-thin majorities in Congress, to show during this two-year window that government means enacting programs to help everyday people, and not just “owning” their opposition party on MSNBC. If they succeed and bring prosperity to more people — even, or especially, folks in poverty-stricken states like Sanders’ Arkansas — then the politics of fighting against so-called “cancel culture” will be nothing more than a loud shriek into the endless void of late-night cable-TV news.
Ask me anything
Question: Do the Dems nuke the filibuster? — Via Mike Rubinstein (@mediadiscounter) on Twitter
Answer: Several asked this, so it’s on people’s minds. The Democrats really should get this done, somehow. If gridlock on Capitol Hill continues to prevent meaningful economic help, a higher minimum wage, college debt relief and the other things that the middle class needs, I’m not sure that America can hold it together. But will the Democrats pass filibuster reform? It’s doubtful, because a couple of senators from reddish-purple states (Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin) have staked their home-state careers as Democrats on their ability to stymie more-liberal Democrats in Washington. It’s shameful. The filibuster was the tool of segregationists. Don’t use it to hold down the working class. For more on this, The Inquirer just did a pro/con on whether the filibuster should be abolished, which you can read right here.
To Americans conditioned to watching a generation of overly cautious, focus-group-driven leaders, it must have looked like Russian dissident politician Alexei Navalny was on something of a fool’s errand. After a decade living on the edge as the best-known, high-profile critic of Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin, Navalny came within an inch of losing his life last year in a bizarre poisoning that was clearly the work of Putin’s security goons. He could have stayed comfortable and alive in Germany, where doctors brought him back, but instead Navalny boarded a flight to Moscow, knowing that Putin — whose critics have this odd habit of dying in strange ways — would imprison him, or worse. But then something remarkable happened: A captive Navalny found a way to urge his supporters to take to the streets, and thousands responded — even in the face of violent robo-cops and bitter cold. Putin’s icy grip on Russia has never looked so shaky.
On the first weekend of Joe Biden’s presidency, I instead found myself riveted by tweets and short video clips from halfway around the world. In the last decade, I’ve watched more Americans protest than any time since the 1960s, yet the corrupt inertia of mass-incarceration-fried social injustice and income inequality still feels entrenched. And as much as we righteously complain, few of us are bold enough to take the kind of life-or-death risk that Navalny (who’s not a saint, but that’s not the point) just took. And it raises a question that’s been on my mind a lot as an admirer of 1960s’ icons like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Tom Hayden who has also covered the rise and fall of “leaderless” movements like Occupy Wall Street. Is human nature such that movements simply need leaders? Does America need a Navalny?
Inquirer reading list
What a time to be alive, huh? For Inauguration Day, we mixed things up a bit and I wrote live, off the breaking news of Biden’s swearing-in. I focused on my sense that the ever-adaptable Biden had learned something from the horrors of January 6 — that unity is desirable but it won’t come without justice, and that can’t happen without truth.
This weekend, I pondered why such a disproportionate number of the Capitol Hill insurrectionists were U.S. veterans who’d served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the corrosive impact that fighting a “forever war” for nearly two decades has had on America’s body politic. President Biden has a lot on his plate, but he shouldn’t lose sight of what would be gained by curbing our expensive and morally dubious militarism.
Speaking of the insurrection, have you noticed a disproportionate share of the rioters seem to come from eastern Pennsylvania or South Jersey — and that The Inquirer has been all over this? Among this collection of oddballs, one alleged seditionist stands out: The Haddonfield sex and “relationship strategist” Patrick A. Stedman who — when he’s not storming the U.S. Capitol — lives with his parents (and his wife and infant), gives advice as a pickup artist, and appears on shows like the “Masculine By Design Mancast.” You won’t get stories like this without journalists like Anna Orso or Jeremy Roebuck, or a hometown paper like The Inquirer. Subscribe today.