Harrisburg, Capitol Hill must crush The Big Lie | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, how the 1969 assassination of a Black Panther icon became 2021′s best motion picture
Did the Trump Era finally end on Saturday afternoon, with the Senate’s hugely unsatisfying vote to acquit the 45th president despite the slam-dunk evidence he’d incited an insurrection against the U.S. government? It felt that way when the legal beagles were gone from CNN and suddenly Stanley Tucci is on a pizza tour of Italy, as if the last four years never happened. But the monster in a horror flick always pops back up at the end ... at least once. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, as we try to bury the old demons and keep a wary watch for new ones.
After impeachment, Democrats must combat Trumpism by saving our voting rights
Not long ago, the phrase “the Big Lie” was reserved for history junkies obsessed with the rise of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, many believe that Hitler both invented the phrase — with a historically inaccurate slam against Jews in his 1925 book Mein Kampf — and that then his Nazi Party perfected the practice by blaming Jews for Germany’s loss in World War I, setting the stage for the Holocaust. In other words, “the Big Lie” had that “it can’t happen here” vibe, until it happened here.
In Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial which ended Saturday when 43 Republicans voted to acquit the 45th president of inciting an insurrection, Democratic House managers put Trumpism’s Big Lie — that a landslide election victory for Trump had been stolen by some ill-defined fraud — at the center of their case. The fact that the Feckless 43 voted, essentially, for perpetuating that lie is deeply troubling, and here’s why. The failure to drive a wooden stake through the heart of this monstrous falsehood means that Republicans not just on Capitol Hill but in statehouses from coast-to-coast will only keep repeating the Big Lie but use it to pass horrible, anti-democratic laws.
The unexpected crisis of holding a presidential election at the height of a pandemic forced most states to agree to do something that many had resisted amid the modern GOP voting-rights backlash — make it easier to cast a ballot, especially using the mail or convenient drop boxes. Pew Research found 2020′s national turnout of 158.4 million was also 7% greater than 2016, and the highest rate in decades. With its first-ever use of no-excuses vote-by-mail procedures, Pennsylvania’s 71% turnout was an all-time record. With no serious reports of fraud, the 2020 experiment was a huge win for democracy, and so the GOP is desperate to take that away.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, six weeks into 2021 lawmakers in the vast majority of U.S. states have introduced about four times as many bills to restrict or curtail voting rights as were in the works at this time last year. And if you’ve been paying attention, you won’t be shocked to learn that more of these bills are under consideration in Pennsylvania than in any other state. Neither the success epitomized by the high voter turnout, nor that fact that Pa.’s Republican lawmakers had previously voted for the vote-by-mail expansion, has stopped the flurry which includes proposals to place a greater burden on voters to request mail ballots, or to establish matching signatures.
Myrna Pérez, the director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center, told me Monday that that the outrage behind these measures isn’t just lawmakers seeking to undo what caused a high turnout election, but that it undermines the resolve of so many Americans who voted despite the coronavirus. “The thanks they get for braving a pandemic is to be accused of cheating and stealing an election,” she said. “It sends a large message that some people in this country do not to want to hear from everybody. They want some folks on the sideline.”
In Pennsylvania, these restrictive laws would be passed with the votes of more than 60 GOP state lawmakers — including leaders like House Speaker Bryan Cutler and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff — who pleaded with Congress to dispute and toss out Pennsylvania’s results showing President Biden as winner of the state’s 20 electoral votes, despite no evidence of irregularities. These legislators actively promulgated the Big Lie of the 2020 election (again, and I can’t stress this enough, a tactic born in Nazi Germany) yet face zero consequences — not even a state senator who attended the January 6 shenanigans (although not, apparently, entering the Capitol).
Instead, we must count on the veto pen of Governor Wolf to block the worst of these ideas — with the frightful knowledge that a Republican hostile to voting rights could be in the governor’s chair as early as January 2023. But even if some GOP schemes are likely to fail in the short run, all of us should be horrified by the underlying philosophy — that more eligible voters casting legitimate ballots isn’t a grand victory for democracy but rather a blow to Republicans who don’t want fair elections, just elections they can win.
These battles aren’t sideshows, but arguably the defining struggle of the post-Trump era. As Pérez told me, Democrats and other allies of voting rights need to be fighting not just at election season but 365 days a year, “to be making the case for democracy, and explain why we’re better off with a robust system.”
In Georgia, where an aggressive effort to register new voters for 2020 resulted in a shock win for Biden and for the Democrats who flipped two U.S. Senate seats, a state senator recently told a citizen concerned about a plan to require photo ID for absentee ballots, “[let’s] see how well you liberals fare after we reform and close your loopholes.”
Those “loopholes” are the voting rights that civil-rights activists like John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson or Viola Liuzzo fought and in some cases died for. The ultimate battle rests in Washington where hopes are pinned on passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would essentially restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — gutted by the John Roberts Supreme Court — that required Justice Department approval for new voting laws in states like Georgia with a history of racism. A companion bill, the For the People Act, is aimed at expanding voter participation.
Few believe that Congress can enact these laws without a radical step — abolishing the filibuster so that voting rights can pass the Senate with 51 votes instead of 60. Democrats must resolve this dilemma at a moment when American democracy is hanging by a narrow thread. Yes, nuking the filibuster means busting a precedent — but it’s a morally bad precedent, as for more than a century the filibuster existed largely as a tool to block progress for Blacks. And now, keeping the filibuster and allowing our voting rights to further erode will be a win for the Big Lie, and thus for fascism. Yes, Democrats need to pass COVID-19 relief first, or Americans won’t have food on the table. But if they don’t protect voting rights soon, and by any means necessary, Americans won’t have a country.
Yo, do this
In the era of George Floyd and vociferous protests both against and for Donald Trump, it’s not shocking that Hollywood would revisit the 1960s, seeking to make sense of today. On the heels of the excellent The Trial of the Chicago 7 and One Night in Miami comes arguably the best of the batch, the must-watch Judas and the Black Messiah, now streaming on HBO Max. The story of the straight-up government assassination of Chicago’s young, charismatic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (played with bravado by Daniel Kaluuya) in 1969 pits the banal evil of a betrayal against an electrifying faith in the power of radical change. Hampton famously said, “You can kill the revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution” — and the ability of this film to move us, 52 years later in an era of Black Lives Matter, proves him right.
What should journalism look like in 2021? Certainly like the life story of James Ridgeway, whose essential Washington-based reporting of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s for the New Republic and the Village Voice exposed unsafe automobiles, the military-industrial complex on college campuses, and other rackets in a way that was relentlessly aggressive, yet serious-minded and fair. In the last decade of his life, when many folks would have retired, Ridgeway reported relentlessly on the perils of prison solitary confinement. He died Saturday at age 84, and his New York Times obituary is a must-read for any future journalists in need of a role model.
Ask me anything
Question: What’s something people don’t remember enough about Richard Nixon? — Via Larry Yudelson (@yudel) on Twitter
Answer: Probably how he nearly pulled what we might call, in 2021, an Andrew Yang. Nixon’s initial political instincts — conservative on “law and order,” but New Deal liberalism on domestic policy — were arguably brilliant. In 1969, his first year in office, he was hours away from announcing a radical plan to end poverty in America, with a minimum guaranteed income that would have amounted to $10,000 annually in today’s dollars. At the last minute, an aide handed him a (since disputed) study about a failed guaranteed income experiment in 1795 in a British town called Speenhamland (you can’t make this stuff up) and he panicked and called it off. Instead, Nixon — and even more so Ronald Reagan and later Republicans — moved away from a welfare state. And poverty persists.
A common theme in the American political conversation — since the election was called for President Biden in November, growing louder since the January 6 insurrection — is that Democrats with the narrowest possible majority in Congress and a re-captured presidency need to seize this window of opportunity with political boldness and leadership. Their biggest problem? Democrats are trying to sell the American people on what their country can do for them — but the recent record of party leaders governing competently in the big places they control politically has been pretty lousy, to be honest.
In New York State, no one is any longer comparing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s crisis management skills to Winston Churchill — not after the state’s botched handling of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes seems to have caused needless deaths, or after a push to cover up the true numbers. In California, hospitals swamped with the coronavirus ought to also be treating whiplash — what with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s flip-flops on opening and closing the state. Here in Philadelphia...where to start? From the city’s appalling handover of vaccine distribution to unprepared and unprofessional college grads to the backsliding under police commissioner and tear-gas aficionado Danielle Outlaw, Mayor Kenney and his team seem to have checked out with 35 long months left in his term. Is there a common theme here? In the Trump era, it’s been too damn easy for Democrats to sell voters on what they’re not. It’s time to show the public what progressive leadership can do — and quickly! I think I hear the window starting to close.
Inquirer reading list
It was easy to forget during Impeachment Week, but Joseph R. Biden is now the 46th president of the United States. I wrote my Sunday column on how Biden is making all the right moves on immigration, yet many of his good intentions have been derailed so far by a kind of “Deep State” of hostile bureaucrats and agents at ICE and Border Patrol, not to mention Trump-appointed judges. These roadblocks can be overcome — but it won’t be easy.
In the wake of Saturday’s landmark impeachment acquittal vote, I wrote about the moral death of the 166-year-old Republican Party, epitomized by the cowardly self-preservation gobbledygook uttered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his acolytes. That a feckless 43 Republicans would OK Trump’s incitement to insurrection proves that bipartisanship, at least on Capitol Hill, is hopeless, and the Democrats need to govern alone and govern well.
This is the space where I usually praise the great work of other Inquirer journalists. But this week’s best and most timely product to run in the newspaper was arguably a report — conducted through an outside audit by journalism experts from Temple University — that The Inquirer can and must do better when it comes to race. The paper was absolutely right to share the audit’s main finding — that in one of America’s more diverse cities, The Inquirer still has too many white journalists writing too many stories that center on white subjects. The audit is part of an aggressive and very public campaign to right past wrongs, launched amid last summer’s George Floyd reckoning. I strongly support these efforts; I hope you will too — and join us on our journey to create better journalism for a better Philadelphia.