Political Animal

What Will Happen to QAnon After Biden’s Inauguration?

On January 20th, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States. At that very moment, millions of Americans devoted to the QAnon cult will face a moment that tests their faith and shakes their world to its core. The cognitive dissonance that arises from it will be unparalleled in American history, and the fallout unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

The QAnon conspiracy theory contains many elements that have long pervaded far-right belief systems: Satanic panic, anti-Semitic blood-libel, Illuminati control, a new Great Awakening, and similar notions. But what makes QAnon unique–beyond its distribution via modernsocial media technologies–is its focus on a single man: President Donald Trump. In Q world, Trump is the Messiah, the God-Emperor, the infallible 5-D chessmaster who knows all and can do no wrong. For them, he is the only thing standing in the way of a fallen world dominated by child-sacrificing Satanist communist cannibals addicted to adrenochrome, the one person who will bring about a new world order in which all debts are wiped clean, free energy is released, and ancient evils destroyed. He is the savior who will see the Cabal that has been holding humanity back exposed and executed in secret military tribunals.

But all of this depends on Trump remaining president. In some sects of QAnon, it is believed that enough Americans must be “red-pilled” to create society anew once the shock of “the Storm”–in which their enemies are destroyed–has arrived, fulfilling the function of Q. In others, Trump is so totally in control that they are all simply “watching a movie” depicting a historic transition unseen (in their worldview) since the time of Jesus.

QAnon is thus not just a conspiracy-theory cult like many in the history of the American right, but a cult of personality and a cult of power. Cults of power are closely associated with the worst authoritarian regimes and require significant cognitive gymnastics. The Great Leader is indomitable and infallible but also beset by insidious enemies both within and without. As Umberto Eco famously wrote of fascist ideologies, “The enemy is both strong and weak. By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” So it is with Trump: simultaneously, the smartest and strongest saint ever to give up his billionaire lifestyle to save the world but also opposed by the greatest forces in evil in human history.

Traditionally, prophetic cults tend to survive even when the underlying prophecies are proved wrong. “Q” has been wrong countless times, but it doesn’t seem to faze them because the date of “the Storm” can be pushed back. The classic text “When Prophecy Fails” shows that believers often double down on their beliefs after predictions do not come to pass. They do so for the same reason that gamblers find it hard to walk away from a loss. Sunk cost fallacies can be powerfully destructive, and prophecy can be endlessly reinterpreted.

But it’s somewhat harder to do with cults of power. When Hitler and the Third Reich fell, it was much harder to maintain Nazi ideologies of inherent superiority. Cults rarely survive the leader’s fall without a literal apotheosis of the founder, and those centered around a politician rarely successfully cross the secular-religious threshold.

Because QAnon is driven ultimately by the desire to see white conservative Christians in dictatorial control and their enemies dropped from the gallows at Guantanamo Bay, and depends on the supreme infallibility of their Chosen One, it becomes much harder to maintain the belief system if the Leader no longer controls the armed forces and an enemy sits in the Oval Office as Commander-in-Chief. This is why most adherents continue to believe that a miracle will prevent Biden’s inauguration.

But the dam is starting to break. Some are begging for a sign as “Q” has gone dark. Others are questioning if they have been conned. Far-right leaders are turning on one another and major Q-aligned figures. After continually being baited by the likes of Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, devotees are getting restless.

Yes, some will concoct elaborate theories to continue. There is already speculation that Trump will only truly be able to arrest Biden once he takes a presidential paycheck. There will be two simultaneous inaugurations–one fake and one real—or other even more fanciful notions. Most likely, there will be those who believe (as some are already suggesting) that Trump was right all along but lacked the strength to “cross the Rubicon” and seize dictatorial power, or even that he was himself all part of the system of control.

But for most of the millions of “Q” disciples, it will be a gruesome time. Even if their faith in “Q” and Trump is shaken, their underlying belief in a world of darkness and demons remains. As QAnon expert @PokerPolitics notes:

I’ve seen so many QAnon promoters say “If we’re wrong about Trump then we’re screwed.” because they view the “Trump saves the world” layer of the story as only the top layer, and if it has to be removed, so be it.

The layer under that. The layer about the Global Satanic Pedovore ring. That will always be true to these people. That’s true even if the Trump stuff isn’t. To know the truth about the world is to know Satan’s forces have been winning for centuries or even longer.

Combined with generalized conservative dominionist white supremacist upset over America becoming less Christian, less white, and less patriarchal over time, angry desperation will likely increase. Trump empowered them psychologically to feel powerful, but he also provided many reasons to believe their desires would be fulfilled. The cognitive dissonance of QAnon created a conundrum for them, one that presented itself even at the insurrection at the Capitol. If Trump was in control, why the need for the private insurrectionist army? If Trump wanted the insurrectionist army there, why didn’t he help them? Why did he abandon them? Was Trump grifting on them all along?

With Trump gone, the mania of empowerment will flip to the rage of disempowerment and the sense of a fleeting dominance nearly undone. Prophecies of the destruction of their enemies will slip away. The question that hovers over America is whether the cult will accept that they were conned, or whether there will be even more upheaval ahead.

Impeach Trump But Not for What He Said on January 6th

Donald Trump was impeached on Wednesday for the second time, and rightfully so. As the House of Representatives charged, Trump “threatened the integrity of the democratic system,” “interfered with the peaceful transition of power,” and “betrayed his trust as President.” He should be convicted by the Senate and barred from ever holding office again.

But is Trump also guilty of “incitement of insurrection,” to quote the title of the House’s lone article of impeachment? I don’t think so. Terms like that have been weaponized across our history to suppress dissent, especially when it comes from the Left. My fellow liberals should be wary of invoking these words now, even for a cause as just as the removal of President Trump.

Consider the fate of Charles Schenck, the secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia during World War One. Schenck was arrested and convicted for circulating flyers urging draft resistance. His sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1919 when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously argued that Schenck’s advocacy was tantamount to falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. It represented a “clear and present danger” to the nation’s wartime effort, Holmes said, so the government had it shut it down.

Holmes would come to regret his ruling in that case, which could be used to censor almost anything. Just a few months later, the court upheld the conviction of protesters who had distributed flyers condemning the American invasion of Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Holmes believed that these leaflets—unlike Schenck’s—didn’t pose a clear danger to the war effort. But he was in the minority this time. The government had a new hunting license, and it was declaring open season on free speech.

During the 1950s, hundreds of Americans were jailed, harassed, or hounded out of their jobs for prior or current affiliation with the Communist Party. In Texas, joining the Party was punishable by 20 years in jail; in Michigan, the penalty was life in prison. The justification was the same one that censors always use: Communist speech could cause harm, especially during war. We were fighting a Cold War rather than a hot one, pitting the United States against the Soviet Union in a global battle for hearts and minds. But that was all the more reason to suppress speech, lest anyone on our side consider joining the other.

Only in the 1960s and 1970s would America finally start to protect the right to dissent. As protest against the Vietnam War swelled, the Supreme Court overturned the arrest of 19-year-old Paul Cohen for wearing a jacket that bore the words “F___ the Draft.” Charles Schenck couldn’t have gotten away with that. But now Paul Cohen—and the rest of us—could.

At the same time, the Court also upheld the free-speech rights of racists and other bigots. When Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg was arrested for telling a KKK rally in 1964 that “there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken” against the federal government for suppressing “the white, Caucasian race,” the Court said his speech should be allowed. To censor him, the state would have to show evidence of “imminent lawless action.”

That’s the rule now, as well it should be. You can’t suppress speech simply because you fear it might create some kind of disturbance. You need to prove that it poses an obvious and immediate threat of violence, which is a much stricter standard that Holmes’ clear and present danger test.

So it was chilling to hear Speaker Nancy Pelosi use exactly those words during Wednesday’s impeachment debate when she called President Trump a “clear and present danger” to the country. I realize that she was referring to the threat that Trump poses to the nation, in the broadest sense, and of course, she’s right. But her choice of phrase was jarring, nevertheless, because it’s what every censor says when they want to silence somebody else.

To be clear, I’m not in the least bit worried about Donald Trump’s freedom of speech. As we have all learned, and all too well, he can say whatever the hell he wants. My concern is that last week’s riot—and this week’s impeachment—will be used to muzzle future dissent. Then we all lose.

Let’s be honest: we don’t know if Donald Trump’s speech at the Washington Monument directly caused protesters to invade the Capitol. But we do know that he refused to recognize the results of the November election, he pressured state officials to overturn them, and he told his vice-president to invalidate electoral votes. And after the riot started, he did nothing to protect lawmakers and others who were in mortal peril. He should be impeached for what he did before and after the insurrection, not for “inciting” it.

Did Trump’s lies and vicious rhetoric play a role in inspiring the invasion of the Capitol? Of course, they did. But in the United States, that’s not enough to suppress speech. And if you think otherwise, watch out! The next time around, the censors might claim that your own speech created a clear and present danger.

How the 14th Amendment Can Bar Ex-Presidents from Office

Donald Trump has for years been obsessed with disqualifying other presidential candidates from running. He began his political career by claiming that Barack Obama was ineligible because the Democrat was supposedly born in Kenya. That flowed seamlessly into challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (born to a U.S. citizen mother in Canada), then to Sen. Marco Rubio (born in Florida to lawful permanent residents). Along the way, he randomly tweeted that Hillary Clinton “shouldn’t be allowed to run” against him in 2016 (because, I guess, emails) and in 2020 moved on to the same claim about former Vice President Joe Biden (because…because…because, well, oh, who the hell knows?).

Disqualification is now the major goal of the last-minute impeachment effort; if two-thirds convict the president in the Senate, a simple majority of the Senate may then render him also “disqualif[ied] to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” (State office, say in his new refuge in Florida, is not covered.)

It would be too simple to put this drive down to vindictiveness. After the “find me some votes” phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and the January 6 assault on the Capitol, there are good reasons to believe that Trump should be excised, to the extent possible, from the body politic. If his name never appears on another ballot, the world will be a better and safer place.

But if that doesn’t happen, is there another way to skin the polecat? Some recent work by prominent scholars suggests that Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, the “insurrection or rebellion” clause, may offer one path.

To begin with, impeachment has pitfalls: The Senate trial, it’s now clear, will stretch well beyond Trump’s exit from office. Despite what some commentators have argued, that fact is constitutionally irrelevant. As University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck points out, impeachment has historically been used in Britain and the U.S. against officials who are out of office but who have committed official wrongs. Between 1788 and 1795, the British Parliament impeached and tried Warren Hastings for alleged maladministration as de facto governor-general of Bengal—even though Hastings had left office three years before the impeachment began. (Hastings was acquitted, seven years later, in part because members of the House of Lords believed the ordeal had gone on too long.) In the U.S., Secretary of War William Belknap resigned in March 1876, hoping to avoid impeachment for corruption; the House impeached him, nonetheless. The Senate then debated whether it could still try him and voted yes. (Belknap, too, was acquitted even though a majority voted against him–slightly less than the required two-thirds.) No president has been tried after leaving office—but the reasons for impeaching a chief executive are even stronger than for impeaching a Cabinet officer.

The option of post-impeachment disqualification also suggests strongly that post-office impeachment is available–in part, to ensure that those who have violated their oaths and left office should not be given a second chance. Trump certainly fits that bill.

But the chances of conviction and disqualification are hard to assess. For one thing, the passage of time may make Republicans even more eager to put the Trump era behind them. For another, a Senate trial will of necessity be limited to considering the single Article of Impeachment passed by the House. That Article concerns only Trump’s “efforts to subvert and obstruct the certification of the results of the 2020 Presidential election” (e.g., the Raffensperger call) and his speech to the “Stop the Steal” rally.

But after Trump is gone, investigators will have access to government records and testimony of past and future federal employees and Trump associates. It’s pretty likely that, weeks or months after any Senate trial, they may uncover evidence that the president tacitly or explicitly encouraged the violence between the election and the rally. Beyond that, I suspect, are crimes we can’t entirely imagine—some of them flagrant financial crimes and others, like family separation, actual crimes against humanity. This material won’t be part of a Senate trial. And the limited evidence offered will offer an escape to any Republican senator who, as tempers cool, wants to avoid being marked as anti-Trump.

Beyond that, evidence will likely emerge that others in the administration, in the federal law enforcement and national security bureaucracies, in state governments, and even in Congress itself connived at or even aided the attack on the Capitol. Impeachment of Trump alone, even if successful, does nothing to hold them to account.

So here’s a possible second bite at the Never Again Apple, proposed by Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman and Indiana University professor Gerard Magliocca in a January 11 Washington Post op-ed: Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provides that “[n]o person shall . . . hold any office, civil or military, under the United States who, having previously taken an oath… to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

Does that cover Trump? I think the existing evidence suggests it does; and more is on the way.

God knows insurrection was in evidence on January 6, among the weapons, signs, dangling nooses, chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” and Confederate flags. And those flags bring us to the nub of the Section 3 debate. The Fourteenth Amendment, written in 1866 and finally approved in 1868, was a comprehensive attempt by the victorious North to ensure that the Southern “slave power” was not restored in the reunified nation. Until 1861, the slave power and its allies had called most of the shots in all three branches of the federal government. After Appomattox, white Southerners freely confided in Northern journalists their intention to return with their regional dominance intact. One means of blocking this, Northern thinkers agreed, was to disqualify the Confederate leadership—men who had served federal office and sworn to support the Union, then tried to overthrow it by force. This covered Confederate “president” Jefferson Davis (a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of War), “vice-president” Alexander Stephens (former House member), and hundreds of other former legislators, judges, military officers, or federal executive officials who had betrayed their oaths. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson had sought to rehabilitate this leadership (and perhaps use it as a power base for a White House run in 1868) using his pardon power. Congress interposed Section 3 to block this move.

The old-time Southern liberal in me would be tickled to death if this penalty were now to be applied to Trump, whom Rep. Cori Bush, the Missouri Democrat, called America’s “White Supremacist in Chief”—and to his helpers and enablers, whoever they are. As I wrote last week, the riot was clear evidence that the heirs to those who created antebellum slave power seek to rule the country again—by politics if possible, by cheating if not, and by force, if need be.

How would disqualification work? In an interview, Magliocca (also the author of an eerily timely new article on Section 3) suggested that Congress could, either by passing a statute or adopting a resolution, impel the Attorney General to go to court and seek a “declaratory judgment” that Trump (or Trump and helpers) are disqualified under Section 3. The issue would then go to court. He analogized this mechanism to the now-forgotten Section 10 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which concerned state poll, or voting, taxes. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment outlawing poll taxes was passed in 1962—but only in federal elections (a compromise with Southern segregationists). Three years later, after the carnage at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, Congress in the text of the new Voting Rights Act “found” that state poll taxes also violated the federal right to vote—and “directed” the Attorney General to bring a declaratory judgment suit to persuade a federal court to agree. (That case never came to fruition because the Supreme Court, a year later in 1966, struck down the poll tax in a case brought by two voters.) A statute could “find” Trump (and any co-conspirators) disqualified and throw the ball to the Biden Justice Department. However, a statute would require Biden to sign it, which he may be loath to do. Magliocca pointed out that almost the same result could be achieved with a “concurrent resolution” of both Houses. That needs no presidential signature and would simply declare Congress’s opinion and encourage the AG to enforce it. Such a resolution could also cover others found to have been part of a conspiracy against the government, disqualifying them from any political office—and unlike disqualification after impeachment, the disqualification would also bar the conspirators from state office.

Would that work? The politics of this are beyond my remit. But, of course, no constitutional mechanism can defend a self-governing republic that loses its nerve. That’s what happened during and after Reconstruction. Slowly, in the 1870s, Northern opinion began to be clouded by Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory,” until the white public allowed the re-creation of a “reunified” (meaning white) America–at the price of restoring traitors to power and betraying the freed slaves. The disqualification remained in place for most of these leaders only until 1872. Many resumed their careers in politics; amnesty was made available for all the rest in 1898. (For Davis and General Robert E. Lee, restoration did not come until the 1970s.)

Generations of Black Southerners paid the price for this feckless White act of “healing.” So, count me among the non-healers.

Section 3 has an appeal, but let’s note that the power of legal proscription is a fearsome weapon to place in political hands. It’s revealing that, after the Confederate generation died out, Section 3 has been invoked only once—not against a powerful rebel leader but the leader of a feared political minority. The target was Victor Berger, the first Socialist elected to Congress. He was excluded from the House of Representatives under § 3 because he had been convicted of opposing the war effort.

Consider the sobering conclusion of Magliocca’s article. “On the question of how to mend divided societies, Section Three is a cautionary tale,” he writes. . . . “[S]weeping Section Three relief did not fulfill the goal of Reconstruction by inducing reciprocal magnanimity to the freed slaves. In the end, neither the clenched fist nor the open hand brought justice for all.”


Joe the Centrist? Biden’s Family Assistance Plan is Really Bold.

As jobless claims surge and the economy continues to buckle under the spike in COVID-19 cases, President-elect Joe Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion stimulus package this week that includes $1 trillion of direct relief for families.

Among the most significant and interesting parts of Biden’s family assistance agenda is a temporary – but dramatic – expansion to the child tax credit. For the 2021 tax year, Biden proposes to increase the per-child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,000 ($3,600 for children under 6) for families earning up to $400,000. The credit would also be made fully “refundable” so millions of households that now earn too little to qualify can benefit. Under current law, families can only claim the credit against their tax liabilities; families whose earnings are too low to pay taxes lose out. However, making the child tax credit fully refundable would benefit as many as 27 million low-income children, according to one analysis.

More significantly, as reported by the Washington Post, families could get their credit in advance payments throughout the year instead of waiting for a lump sum refund after filing their taxes in 2022. A family of three school-age children, for instance, could receive a monthly infusion of cash amounting to $750, while the parents of two toddlers could receive $600.

Aside from being generous, Biden’s proposed monthly benefit is revolutionary. First, the shift to monthly payments would be a breakthrough in how tax benefits are delivered. Lump-sum refunds are hard to budget and provide families with only an annual boost to their income. As the New York Times has reported about the downsides of a lump-sum benefit, many families “fall back into poverty over the course of the year, caught in the same cycle of low-wage work and reliance on credit that put them there in the first place.”

Biden’s proposed monthly child tax credit, however, would eliminate that volatility and have an “income smoothing” effect on a household’s finances, leading to greater financial stability. “Many of the expenses families face are month-to-month, so having a reliable month-to-month source of income will help families stay afloat,” says Ashley Burnside, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

A monthly child benefit could also pave the way for a more permanent “child allowance,” a regular entitlement for all families with children that many advocates favor. Many countries already offer it as a proven strategy against child poverty. Germany’s “Kindergeld,” for instance, is a universal monthly allowance for families with children under 18, regardless of income. Families in the United Kingdom also receive a monthly benefit for children below 16, with amounts based on income.

Universal child benefits, according to an analysis by UNICEF, have reduced child poverty rates by five percentage points on average in the industrialized nations offering such a benefit within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to UNICEF, 23 countries – primarily in Europe – offer universal child benefits, while another 40 nations offer means-tested child benefits to lower-income households.
In the United States, an expanded child tax credit could have a similarly monumental impact. A new analysis by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy estimates that the child credit, along with the additional stimulus payments, unemployment, and nutrition benefits included in Biden’s plan, could cut child poverty rates by half.

While passage of the Biden plan faces formidable hurdles in a closely divided Congress, there is a bipartisan appetite for this kind of expansion of benefits long favored by Democrats. In July 2020, a coalition of conservative scholars led by Brad Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies, a conservative think tank based at the University of Virginia, sent a letter to Congress endorsing an expansion of the Child Tax Credit which, the authors argued, “reduces poverty while fostering some of our nation’s most critical investments: those that parents make for their children.” The letter’s 16 signatories included such well-known reform conservative heavyweights as National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, Michael Strain, and Ramesh Ponnuru of the American Enterprise Institute and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance. When I asked Wilcox if his endorsement extends to Biden’s plan, he indicated general support (though he could not commit without specifics).

American children could use the help. The Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse survey, taken the week after Thanksgiving, found that 14 million households with children – or about 1 In 7 families – reported “sometimes” or “often” not having enough to eat. According to researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the share of children suffering from “food insecurity,” which the federal government defines as “limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” has doubled since the start of the pandemic, from 14% to 28%. In addition, they calculate, at least 2.5 million children have fallen into poverty since May, a number that’s sure to grow, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, Columbia University researchers estimate that the child poverty rate, which reached a record low of 14% in 2019, climbed back up to more than 20% in September 2020.

Congress will have its say, and the final legislation, if it even makes it to Biden’s desk, could be quite different. The credit could be significantly smaller or means-tested. It may not include the innovative monthly benefit or be made fully refundable. Administrative hiccups could abound: Who gets the benefit if divorced parents share custody? Can the IRS track monthly payments to roughly 33.4 million families with children under 18?

Nevertheless, Biden’s proposal for a monthly child tax benefit is audacious and creative, potentially marking a sharp departure from the cautious incrementalism of the Clinton and Obama Administrations in their approach to poverty and social policy. While some liberals have feared that Biden’s centrism will make for weak gruel, his attention to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens in this inaugural stimulus package should hearten even the fiercest advocates for social change.