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What Happened Today: August 15, 2023
Trump indicted on RICO charges; Belarus heats up; SBF goes back to jail
The Big Story
Former president Donald Trump was indicted by a Georgia grand jury Monday night alongside eighteen co-conspirators, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party David Shafer. The 41 charges all stemmed from what prosecutors described as a plot to “unlawfully change the outcome of the  election in favor of Trump.” All of the defendants are charged with racketeering under Georgia’s RICO statute, allowing the individual crimes of the entire group to be prosecuted on an individual basis but also as part of the larger racketeering charge. In the state of Georgia, a conviction on this count requires a five-year minimum prison sentence.
Described by Trump as a “Witch Hunt!” on his Truth Social account, his fourth indictment in recent months was also criticized by several GOP leaders, including House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who said the case was “blatant election interference by the far-left.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who brought the charges before the grand jury, says the defendants have until Aug. 25 to turn themselves in, and hopes to have the trial underway in the next six months. That may not be easy, as veteran Florida defense attorney Michelle Suskauer told Marketwatch: “If prosecutors want a fast trial, it ain’t happening with this.”
In The Back Pages: It’s Coups All the Way Down
→ The arrival of 6,500 Wagner Group mercenary troops in the Russian-allied nation of Belarus since June has raised some questions about the role its capital, Minsk, will play in the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv. Supposedly, the Wagner forces are there simply to train Belarusian troops, but Polish and Ukrainian officials say that at least some of the fighters have been sent to the borders and could be preparing to stage covert attacks against Poland, Latvia, or Lithuania, according to new reporting by Jay Solomon in Semafor. Iranian-Belarusian cooperation is a similar concern, particularly the possible construction of an Iranian drone factory, which would provide Russia with another base from which to launch drone strikes against Ukrainian targets.
→ In other Belarusian related news, Pavel Latushka, Belarus’ former minister of culture turned opposition figure, is accusing Russia of trafficking thousands of Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied territories to recreational camps in Belarus, though what is happening to the children after that is unknown. This follows reporting from Yale that Russia has also taken at least 6,000 children from Ukraine into Russia. According to Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health, “In some cases there is adoption, other cases summer camp programs where the kids were slated to return home and never did … and in some cases they are re-education camps.” Raymond says that these transfers may constitute a war crime.
→ On Friday, the offices of small Kansas newspaper Marion County Record, as well as the home of its owner, Joan Meyer, were raided by local police, who seized cell phones and computers that the paper says contained information about an investigation into Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody. The newspaper had been investigating Cody prior to his May 30 installment in the role of chief, and Cody says the fact that the paper never published its findings vindicates whatever allegations it might have made against him. But the ostensible reason for the raid was related to private information shared with the paper about local restaurateur Kari Newell, who’s apparently continued driving despite losing her license 15 years ago. The paper decided not to publish the information about Newell because it came from an anonymous source, but the paper did inform police it had received the information, without revealing Newell’s name. The police did not respond but showed up the following week for the multiple raids. Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, told The Wall Street Journal, “That is what has all of my publishers going, ‘Wait a minute, we’re sent stuff all the time.’” Clay Calvert, an emeritus professor at the University of Florida, with expertise in freedom of the press and freedom of speech issues, added, “This is definitely unique. I would call it an egregious and outrageous attack on small-town journalism.”
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→ On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan revoked Sam Bankman-Fried’s bail and ordered him to be imprisoned for attempting to tamper with witnesses ahead of his blockbuster fraud trial in October. Prosecutors say SBF made various attempts to influence witnesses, including by leaking the diary entries of Caroline Ellison, his former girlfriend who ran the investment wing of his failed empire, Alameda Research. Ellison has pled guilty and will be testifying against SBF in October. Adding injury to injury, the prosecutors updated their indictment against SBF late Monday to include the accusation that SBF embezzled $100 million of his clients money to give campaign contributions while using his co-workers to skirt campaign contribution limits. One in three members of Congress have reportedly received contributions from SBF.
→ Number of the Day: $709
That’s how much more American families spent this July on goods and services compared to just two years ago, according to Moody’s Analytics. While data released Thursday showed a 3.2% increase in consumer prices year to date, Julia Pollak, chief economist with ZipRecruiter, says that overall, “inflation is slowing and doing so across a broader range of goods and services.”
→ An unnamed Philadelphia 17-year-old was charged on terror-related offenses, authorities said on Monday, alleging that the teen had purchased bomb-making materials and scoped out potential target sites while exchanging messages with a Syrian group known as KTJ. With ties to ISIS, KTJ has been classified by the State Department as a terror organization. “He was not merely thinking but was doing things that are deeply disturbing and presented a grave danger to everyone,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
→ In a new letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Associations’ Network Open, Stanford researcher Robert Kaplan finds that 65% of the drugs approved by the FDA in 2022 were done so based on a single study. Kaplan also found that the majority of the 413 total studies related to the 37 new drugs were sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, with only 55% of the studies evaluating the drugs in a randomized controlled trial. Much of the decline of regulatory thoroughness can be traced to the 2016 passes of the 21st Century Cures Act, say researchers at the National Center for Health Research. The act, they write, “allows anecdotal/unreliable and easily manipulated sources of health data to be used to approve new drugs.”
→ Terror groups in the West Bank seem to be building up Gaza-style infrastructure, according to a new analysis by Middle East Media Research Institute. Both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad appear to be taking advantage of the relatively weak position of the Palestinian Authority in certain areas of the West Bank and are even cooperating more closely; they even formed a new “Jenin Brigade” in 2021 to carry out attacks on Israelis. Meanwhile, the groups are not shy about announcing Iranian support for their growing power in the West Bank.
TODAY IN TABLET:
The Beer Baron of the Lower East Side by Allan Levine
Dubbed ‘one of the Prohibition era’s most sinister underworld figures,’ Waxey Gordon spent decades as a thief, gangster, tax cheat, and bootlegger before dying in prison
August Beach Reads by Marco Roth, David Mikics, and Park MacDougald
Don’t let your iPhones overheat in the sun. Read a book instead.
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This piece was originally published in Tablet, January 2022
It’s Coups All the Way Down
Nonstop dramatics about the GOP threat to democracy is part of an attempt to cement Democratic Party hegemony, not ensure election integrity
By Zaid Jilani
The Democratic Party’s message ahead of the 2022 midterms appears to be simple: Vote for us or democracy gets it.
“I’m worried that if Republicans win in the midterm elections, that voting as we know it in this country will be gone,” warned California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell during a recent MSNBC appearance. “This is not only the most important election. If we don’t get it right, it could be the last election.”
Across the progressive Democratic messaging infrastructure, the party and movement have rebranded themselves as the protectors of the democratic ideal, which, in their telling, is on the verge of extinction.
President Biden has warned that GOP election laws that would, among other things, require voters to write down their state ID number on absentee ballots, are the equivalent of “Jim Crow on steroids,” while more or less comparing Virginia’s Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin to a Capitol rioter.
Heads of influential progressive political action committees worry aloud that we will see a swing of “power to Republican politicians, which ends American democracy.” Liberal opinion columnists lament that the GOP is plotting to “take control of more and more of the apparatus of voting to ensure that Republicans can never lose.”
But if you sincerely value liberal democracy—not just majority rule but open debate and the protection of individual and minority rights—it can be hard not to notice the irony: A political movement that has worked so hard to censor and marginalize its opponents in virtually all institutions is claiming that it now represents the vanguard of democracy.
I’m not pointing this out to prove to progressives that they are just a bunch of hypocrites who don’t really value liberal democracy.
I’m writing this because I am worried about democracy in the United States. I won’t validate Biden or Swalwell’s outlandish claims about democracy ending in the next election or Jim Crow reasserting itself in GOP-run states, but I do think it’s deeply unhealthy that so many people in our country distrust the news media, public institutions, and their elected representatives.
Take Swalwell, who ominously predicted that a GOP victory in the midterm elections—leaving the Democrats in control of the executive branch, of course—would mark the extinction of American democracy.
When Twitter decided to ban Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene because she espoused skepticism toward COVID vaccines, genuine advocates for free speech and open debate were outraged. How can a private company that runs the modern public square, the equivalent of a public utility, unilaterally decide to silence an official elected by the people?
Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has been skeptical of bipartisan congressional oversight of Silicon Valley, criticized Twitter for shutting down what he called “constitutionally protected speech.” But Swalwell was unsympathetic to Greene losing her right to speak on the platform. “Kevin McCarthy hates free markets. He wants government to have absolute control over private businesses,” he thundered. “Is there a word for this?”
Suddenly, the defender of democracy transformed into an advocate for corporate control of public debate, using an argument that wouldn’t be out of place in a Milton Friedman tract. As hypocritical as it was, it was hardly surprising.
Last year we saw Twitter work with Facebook to suppress the spread of a New York Post story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The announcement that the story would be throttled on Facebook came from Andy Stone, a Facebook communications staffer who previously worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
No prominent Democratic elected official protested the suppression of the story, which quickly became a bigger story than the content of the Post article itself. And why would they? It was clear that, in this case, the Democrats weren’t after democratic legitimacy but political hegemony. They stood to benefit more from having the world’s most powerful digital communications companies actively suppress speech that could assist their political opponents than from standing by the principle of freedom of expression.
It was hardly the only anti-democratic move that benefited the Democrats in 2020. Just ask the Green Party. The minor left-wing group fielded its own presidential candidate that year, a trade unionist and environmental activist named Howie Hawkins.
In state after state, Hawkins and the Green Party faced legal challenges from Democratic Party-linked operatives and attorneys trying keep him from even appearing on the ballot. With a 5-2 Democratic majority, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a Republican judge’s ruling that Hawkins could stay on the state’s ballot, due to Hawkins’ “failure to closely follow nomination procedures,” according to CBS. When I asked Chris Robinson, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Green Party whether they thought the Democrats were sincere in their embrace of democracy, I got a brief response: “The answer is, ‘No!’”
One piece of evidence the Democrats use to claim that democracy is on its death bed and the Republicans are to blame is the widespread conservative denial of the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory. It’s certainly true that former President Donald Trump unleashed and perpetuated a storm of falsehoods about the integrity of Biden’s victory. There were not mountains of fraudulent ballots cast in the 2020 election.
But denying the legitimacy of the elected president is a more common partisan feature of America’s messy democracy than Democrats would like to admit. A University of Massachusetts Amherst/YouGov poll from December 2021 found that just 21% of Republicans believed that Biden’s victory in last year’s election was “definitely” or “probably” legitimate. Overall, 68% of Americans shared that view (and 91% of Democrats).
But a July 2001 Gallup poll found that just 48% of Americans believed Bush won the 2000 race “fair and square”; among Democrats, that number dropped to 15%, and among African Americans, it fell to 8%. Democratic rejection of the legitimacy of the incoming Republican president skyrocketed again after the election of Trump. Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis said in January of 2017 that he didn’t consider Trump a “legitimate President.” The same month, millions of Democratic-leaning Americans launched a “resistance” movement designed to urge their elected officials to obstruct Trump. By November 2018, YouGov found that two-thirds of Democrats believed that it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President.”
Much has been made of the riots of Jan. 6. While these riots did in fact represent a deadly rejection of the results of the 2020 election, the way some Democrats responded exemplified the anti-democratic, pro-hegemonic tendencies of the party. Dozens of Democratic members of Congress backed a resolution to expel House Republicans who voted against certifying the election results—an anti-democratic move aimed at taking away the right to choose one’s federal representative from the citizens of those districts.
What was long understood as a symbolic protest vote suddenly became tantamount to treason, provided that it was Republicans doing it this time rather than Democrats—some of whom voted against certification of the Republican president-elect in 2000, 2004, and 2016.
Even the Democrats’ much-touted voting reform bills—which they say are essential to keep Republicans from suppressing votes and ending democracy—would do little to enhance participatory democracy in the United States. A bigger problem in the U.S. system than access to voting polls is that the major parties are both deeply unpopular; the 2016 election featured two of the most unpopular candidates in modern history.
One solution to this would be to move to a multiparty system. Some type of proportional representation system would allocate seats to parties based on the percentage of the vote they get in elections. Germany’s notably consensus-driven system, which is based on mixed-member proportional representation, allows voters to cast two votes: one for a political party and one for the legislator of their single-seat constituency. You could easily imagine a Congress made up of five or six parties under such a system. The Democrats could choose to support a shift to proportional representation, yet doing so would reduce the party’s own power. There is a bill in Congress that would at least make it a little easier to start new parties: the Fair Representation Act. As of this writing, it has just eight sponsors (all House Democrats).
Again, if the goal is hegemony rather than democracy, all this makes sense. The Democrats are more than happy to push for things like giving Washington, D.C. statehood in the name of democracy because it will give their party more seats in Congress. They are less likely to support democratic reforms that could benefit parties other than their own.
Following Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the Democrats and their allies in the media had an opportunity to celebrate the democratic process. Anger about schools policy had helped drive large voter turnout during an off-year election; the opposition party was able to win a clear majority and mandate for governing.
The Republicans broadened their electoral base and built a multi-ethnic ticket; Virginia’s new lieutenant governor will be a Jamaican American immigrant named Winsome Sears and its attorney general a Cuban American named Jason Miyares.
Yet the immediate response from progressives was to try to delegitimize the electorate that brought Youngkin, Sears, and Miyares to power. Progressive pundit Michael Eric Dyson appeared on MSNBC to lament that Sears just gives Republicans what they really want, which is “white supremacy by ventriloquist effect.” Sears, viewers were told, is an example of a “Black mouth moving” to communicate a “white idea.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who spearheaded the 1619 Project, was embittered by the parent-led movement that objected to critical race theory-infused curricula in Virginia schools.
“I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught. I’m not a professional educator. I don’t have a degree in social studies or science. We send our children to school because we want them to be taught by people who have expertise in the subject area,” she said during an NBC appearance.
The idea that schools are accountable to their communities is one of the oldest democratic concepts. Public education has always been governed by a social contract between parents and the government. Hannah-Jones, one of the leading progressive minds in the country, doesn’t see the value of participatory democracy in this arena. Education should be the purview of experts—and only as long as they agree with Hannah-Jones and other progressives.
This elitist and anti-populist ethos increasingly permeates virtually all institutions that progressives control in the United States.
From The New York Times—which doesn’t employ a single opinion columnist who openly supported Trump, who received 75 million votes in 2020—to America’s universities, where liberal faculty outnumber conservative faculty by as much as 12 to 1, progressive organizations often don’t practice what they preach when it comes to pluralism, liberalism, and democracy. They are set up as lopsided organizations that represent just a small sliver of American public opinion.
This ideological rigidity is enforced by a progressive turn against freedom of speech, the cornerstone of liberal democracy. In 2018, 40% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans believed the government should work to restrict false information online; by 2021, 65% of Democrats agreed that the government should do so, while just 28% of Republicans did. An even higher percentage of Democrats (76%) now agree that tech companies should restrict false information, whereas 37% of Republicans agree.
But the way to bridge our deficits of trust isn’t to censor and repress. That will just push people to seek out other avenues of expression and organization. Do we really think that conservatives who admire public figures like Greene or Trump will just change their worldview after they’re booted off social media? Won’t they just follow them into even more niche channels where they get even less exposure to other points of view?
The way to enhance our democracy is to make it more inclusive and more representative. That means that the leading newspapers in the country shouldn’t be virtually devoid of nonelite views. It means our social media platforms should embrace free expression and open debate. It means Congress should pursue electoral reforms that open the system to more voices and more choices rather than simply promoting whatever bill will help the party in control get the most seats. It means we must stop trying to delegitimize the victories of politicians with whom we disagree, whether it’s Biden, Trump, or Youngkin. It means listening to parents who are interested in what their children are taught in school.
Liberal democracy is a fragile system because it rests on the principle that we will respect the right of democratic representation even for those with whom we strongly disagree, and even for those who say things that are demonstrably false. In today’s America, progressives are failing that test as much as conservatives are.