Our democracy is much more frail than Biden | Will Bunch Newsletter (2024)

Monday was a horrible, awful, not good day for the United States of America. Of course, I am talking about the disastrous early exit — on U.S. soil no less — from the Copa America tournament by the beleaguered U.S. men’s soccer team, after its 1-0 loss to Uruguay. (What did you think I was referring to?) Anyway, it’s clear that a chronically inept organization has chosen the wrong leader — in coach Gregg Berhalter. (Who did you think I was referring to?)

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Do newspaper columnists know that democracy’s closer to death than Biden?

One of the first things they teach doctors in medical school is the imperfect but necessary art of triage, the technique used on a battlefield or during some other mass-casualty event to determine who is most gravely wounded and who needs immediate attention during a crisis when the system is overwhelmed, and clear-headed thinking will save lives.

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Clearly, this is not something that is taught in journalism school.

Over the course of a remarkable weekend, I saw the best minds of my boomer generation destroyed by madness — newspaper columnists and other big shots convinced they were cosplayers in a real-world episode of The West Wing, saving America by giving chief of staff Leo McGarry the best words to convince an ailing President Bartlet that it’s time to step down.

The soft clacking of these keyboard commandos turned into a stampede as the nation’s pundits, its editorial-page poobahs, mega-rich but anonymous donors, and Democratic horse whisperers competed to outdo each other on The Daily Rip or in “the paper of record,” or wherever they thought the actual frail president, Joe Biden, might be paying attention.

Dropping names — Whitmer! Shapiro! Warnock! — like a groupie backstage at a heavy-metal concert, floating wildly implausible scenarios, stretching so hard for historical analogies that several probably blew out a hamstring, America’s pundit class managed to achieve a level of groupthink that surpassed the brainwashers of The Manchurian Candidate. All argued that for the good of the country he loves, Biden — hoarse, barely audible, and visibly confused a few times during Thursday’s Atlanta presidential debate — must immediately end his candidacy.

Meanwhile, in the actual America that less resembles The West Wing than the disaster flick Don’t Look Up, two comets simultaneously bore down on America in the hours leading up to its 248th — and possibly last — birthday as a democratic republic.

First, there is Donald Trumpdesperate to avoid his sentencing for his 34 felony convictions, firing off racist insults about “Black jobs” and “bad Palestinians,” and carrying around a 900-page blueprint for American dictatorship called Project 2025 — streaking into the cosmic void of our troubled republic.

Meanwhile, don’t look up but a thoroughly corrupt and compromised Supreme Court is blazing a second trail toward American autocracy. In a flurry of body punches over the last several days, the nation’s highest court gutted the federal government’s ability to regulate fat-cat corporate polluters or stock swindlers, but said poor folks who sleep outside because there’s nowhere else to go can be arrested. Then, with a fierce right hook, it issued a 6-3 partisan ruling that will help Trump — who appointed three of them — evade justice while placing all future presidents above the law.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the three liberal naysayers, read her blistering minority opinion from the bench Monday morning, arguing that the court’s finding that a president performing official acts can be immune from criminal prosecution “effectively creates a law-free zone around the president, upsetting the status quo that has existed since the founding.” She ended with the words, “with fear for our democracy, I dissent.”

I wish Justice Sotomayor had the bandwidth and the energy to work a second shift as editorial page editor at one of our major newspapers.

At Time magazine (yes, it still exists), the cover of its new issue contained just one word, “Panic” — not at the prospect of an American dictator with the seeming power to have the military assassinate his enemies, but at Biden’s health. At the New York Times (yes, it still exists), an editorial board that considered it pointless, or whatever, to call for Trump to leave the race after those 34 felony convictions — as well as the civil rape and financial fraud verdicts and the two impeachments and three other pending indictments — made its grand pronouncement that it’s Biden who must go. Other papers jumped on the bandwagon, including the swing state Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in the 1950s and ‘60s won Pulitzers for its courage in taking on Southern racists before deciding instead to appeal to their grandchildren.

And look, I’m not going to argue that Biden’s health is not an issue. His debate performance was troubling, but I also think those of us determined not to see Donald Trump become president again should take a deep breath — even if that’s not the clickbait headline that many are eager to write. Biden needs to do more to assure the public about his energy level, and we also need to see the polls. Any decision should be based on the paramount thing — the thing that should be getting 72-point headlines: stopping dictatorship. As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote Monday in her dissent, this is a “five-alarm fire that threatens to consume democratic self-governance.”

The power of Monday’s dissents by Jackson and Sotomayor form quite the contrast with the speculative flights of fancy about a brokered convention in Chicago, which, it’s worth noting, have largely come from white male boomer types. Many Black and brown and female voices, on the other hand, are urging Biden to stay as the only realistic hope — warts and all — of beating Trump in November. Maybe people who in one way or another know the horror of being treated as a second-class citizen understand the risk of dictatorship in a way that white dudes who’ve always been OK do not.

Most journalists want to be seen as savvy (or not naïve, essentially the same thing) and influential. Many editorial writers and columnists are still hurting from the fact that Trump was elected in 2016 with zero major print endorsem*nts. They think calling for Trump to drop out would make them look foolish now that the Republican Party has devolved into a dangerous cult. But a demand for Biden to drop out might actually happen — so that’s savvy, right?

Except maybe the dangerous cult is the more important crisis, especially when it carries a printed guide to dictatorship and holds six justices in its back pocket. To focus on the actual threat we are facing, I wish America’s top pundits would spend less time watching reruns of The West Wing and maybe pick up a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

The reality of what’s happening in July 2024 — that an authoritarian-minded president, with help from a politicized and unethical Supreme Court, is on track to lead a nation where all power is being vested in him, his MAGA movement, and the corporate polluters — is THE story, and Biden’s health is a subplot in that drama. The current president is walking slowly, but it’s the American Experiment that’s on a ventilator. Journalists aren’t doing their job: performing basic triage and focusing on the sickest patient in the room. With fear for our democracy, I dissent.

Yo, do this!

  1. In a cataclysmic week with the Supreme Court undermining democracy at every turn and with revenge-minded Donald Trump cruising toward another presidency, you may ask yourself: Well, how did we get here? When did things start to go off the rails? Author John Ganz has pinpointed the exact year: 1992. That’s when a dyspeptic middle-class electorate — rattled by the rising inequality and hardships of the Reagan-Bush 41-era — played footsie with the weird rebel candidacy of Ross Perot and entertained racists and xenophobes like David Duke and Pat Buchanan. I heard a great discussion with Ganz about his new book, When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s, on my favorite podcast Know Your Enemy, and now I can’t wait to read it.

  2. I never imagined that one of my recommendations would be a “tweetstorm” on X/Twitter, but then I’ve never seen a problem as serious as Project 2025, the far right’s 900-page blueprint for a dictatorship if Donald Trump returns to the presidency. Neither has Emily Galvin-Almanza, executive director of the justice-reform group Partners for Justice, which is why she took to the social-media site with a long thread explaining how Project 2025 will make it easier for a Trump government to prosecute everyday Americans for their political views, and radically criminalize abortion, among other sins. A must read.

Ask me anything

Question: Is it time to start pricing property in Costa Rica? — via Mike McGann (@mikemcgannpa) on X/Twitter

Answer: Almost all the questions submitted this week were some variation of pushing the panic button after a grim week from Atlanta to D.C. It’s hard to not feel demoralized and, frankly, powerless to change things. The primaries are over and we are locked in with our two presidential candidates, with an appointed-for-life Supreme Court accountable to no one except its billionaire patrons. I kind of prefer Paris or Vancouver to the more rugged Costa Rica, but a) I can’t afford to move to any of these places and b) ever since I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a teenager, I’ve always believed a lost cause is the only cause worth fighting for. I will not stop fighting with my words and I hope regular folks won’t quit or run away, either. Throughout history, tyranny looks unbeatable — until it isn’t, in 1776 or 1989 or the not too distant future. I know the good guys will win. I just hope I live to see it.

What you’re saying about...

Another failed experiment on my part, as almost no one by Thursday remembered my request for your debate reviews. The praiseworthy exception was regular respondent Daniel Hoffman of Glenmoore, Pa., who didn’t think there was a winner. He wrote: “Biden couldn’t put two sentences together, he looked and sounded frail, and reinforced all the apprehensions voters have about him. Trump was Trump, meaning he lied incessantly, showed himself to be an ignoramus and a boor, and exacerbated fears that he will turn the U.S. into 1933 Germany.” Yup.

📮This week’s question: I usually don’t repeat past questions, but since it’s the only thing anyone is talking about: Should President Biden drop out of the race? If no, explain why. If yes, who would you replace him with? For a chance to be featured in my newsletter, email me your answer. Please put “President Biden” in the subject line.

Backstory on Clarence Thomas’ pro-billionaire flip-flop

Sandwiched between Thursday’s pivotal Trump-Biden debate and Monday’s stunning Supreme Court ruling on presidential immunity, the justices’ Friday ruling that overturned a 40-year-old precedent that experts considered the basis of federal regulation of everything from clean water to stock fraud should have gotten more attention. Critics said the court’s 6-3 ruling in Loper Bright Enterprises vs. Raimondo is a power grab by the high court that’s giving our conservative-leaning judiciary more authority than accountable federal experts to regulate business activity. Wrote NYU law professor Rachel Barkow: “The six-justice conservative majority on the Court now stands at the ready to reverse any agency decision it does not like, unfettered by any sense of deference of the agency view.”

But there was something else troubling about the court’s reversal of the principle known as the Chevron deference, first established in the 1984 case Chevron USA v. Natural Resources Defense Council. Friday’s ruling also marked the end of an appalling journey for the Supreme Court’s most corrupted and controversial justice, Clarence Thomas. In 2005, Thomas wrote a majority opinion that upheld the Chevron preference, writing: “If a statute is ambiguous, and if the implementing agency’s construction is reasonable, Chevron requires a federal court to accept the agency’s construction of the statute, even if the agency’s reading differs from what the court believes is the best statutory interpretation.”

Then two things happened.

During the 2000s, Thomas began his practice of accepting lavish gifts — luxury vacations, private-school tuition for a close relative, even an RV — from conservative billionaire patrons, which would, according to ProPublica, eventually total more than $4 million. Two of the justice’s closest benefactors were Dallas real-estate magnate Harlan Crow, who provided private jet travel, yacht vacations, and other perks, and judicial influencer Leonard Leo, whose well-funded network of activist groups paid for work by Thomas’ wife Ginni. At the very same time, Crow and Leo were also significant backers of groups working on behalf of Big Business to get the Chevron deference overturned.

In a remarkable coincidence, Thomas’ view of the Chevron precedent began to evolve during the years he was wined, dined, and wooed by the likes of Crow and Leo. In 2015, legal experts took note when Thomas questioned the power of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate power plants, and by 2020 he made clear in an opinion that he’d changed his mind, writing “it is never too late to surrender former views to a better considered position.” Thus, his 2024 support for finally overturning Chevron was not a surprise, but at the same time it was the exclamation on a shocking saga of political corruption in an American kleptocracy. The selling of a Supreme Court vote to the highest bidder has changed America, for the worse.

What I wrote on this date in 2009

By the end of the 2000s, it was clear the conservative movement was running off the rails. On July 2, 2009, as a right-wing backlash against first-year President Barack Obama was brewing, I wrote about how America’s police chiefs were increasingly looking like pointy-headed Marxists in the eyes of the modern conservative movement. Several big-city cop leaders — including the late John Timoney, former Philadelphia police commissioner who’d moved on to Miami — even testified before Congress in favor of immigration reform that would bring the undocumented in their communities out of the shadows. “We have some of the best and the brightest law enforcement minds in the country trying to use common sense to bring down crime,” I wrote.Common sense, as in the complete opposite of the modern conservative agenda.” Read the rest from 15 years ago today: “Why won’t conservatives support their local police chiefs?

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. Like the rest of the political world, I spent much of last week focused on the presidential debate in Atlanta. After sharing my instant ratings of Donald Trump and President Joe Biden with my colleagues from the Inquirer Opinion department, I wrote a column that questioned why Trump with his non-stop lies, coming from the lips of a convicted felon and adjudicated con artist — wasn’t seen as the greater threat to democracy than Biden’s earnest, if disconcerting, verbal stumbles. Ultimately, the debate revealed the mass failure of America’s institutions, from our compromised news media to our useless political parties, and sent the message that people who love democracy are going to have to save it ourselves.

  2. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve read that some newspaper bigwigs have questioned the usefulness of having an opinion section in the Age of TikTok. This weekend, I watched my amazing colleagues in The Inquirer’s Opinion department smash that idea to smithereens. First, our two-time Pulitzer finalist Worldview columnist Trudy Rubin pulled off a remarkable reporting coup, publishing her one-on-one interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky from his heavily fortified office in Kyiv. “It is impossible to help Ukraine with one hand and shake Putin’s hand with the other,” Zelensky told my colleague. “It will not work.” At the same time, The Inquirer also published an editorial that rocked the American political scene, arguing that Thursday’s debate revealed that if any candidate needs to drop out of the presidential race, it is Donald Trump and not President Joe Biden. Wrote the Editorial Board: “Trump, 78, has been on the political stage for eight years marked by chaos, corruption, and incivility. Why go back to that?” Since the editorial was published Saturday afternoon, hundreds of readers tired of being gaslit by America’s other news sources have subscribed to The Inquirer. Why not join them?

By submitting your written, visual, and/or audio contributions, you agree to The Inquirer’s Terms of Use, including the grant of rights in Section 10.

Our democracy is much more frail than Biden | Will Bunch Newsletter (2024)

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