Political Animal

Defending Franken is Neither Moral Nor Pragmatic

Of the many negative consequences of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, one of the most depressing has been its effect on the psyche of many liberals. While most of the left has come to terms with what went wrong and taken at least a few positive steps to address it, a great many trusted voices in the liberal firmament have descended into either defeatism, partisan moral nihilism or both.

Today we’re subjected to dozens of curious hot takes insisting that holding Senator Al Franken to account for his abusive behavior toward women is a mistake. They argue that forcing Franken to resign for groping and grabbing at least a half dozen women inapropriately constitutes a form of unilateral disarmament that will only hurt Democrats because the Right will protect its own where the Left will not. This remarkable argument has been promulgated in one form or another by normally excellent luminaries from Dahlia Lithwick to Charles Pierce. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is facing an intense social media backlash from partisan Franken defenders in response to her call for his resignation.

Bring up the issue on social media within Democratic activist circles, and at least half the responses will be in his defense largely because his defenders feel Democrats cannot afford to give any ground whatsoever to Republicans for purely pragmatic reasons. If one counters that this is precisely the same argument Alabama Republicans use to justify voting for Roy Moore, one is accused of pushing false equivalency between Franken and Moore.

But defending Franken is neither moral nor pragmatic.

First, the obvious: Franken is now credibly accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior over the years. Past experience strongly suggests that with this many accusers coming forward, it was likely a pattern of behavior and that many more victims remain unknown. We also know that Franken only admitted to the abuses after one of the victims came forward. When Franken was asked whether he expected any more victims to come out of the woodwork, he said “I certainly hope not.” His apologies were too few and too late, and the violations too numerous. Under the circumstances, resigning was the right thing to do, morally speaking.

But what of the pragmatic question? Franken’s defenders accuse his critics of hypocrisy because they suggest the critics’ calculus might have changed if a Republican governor were to replace him. But what of it? Not only is this argument rank hypocrisy given attacks on Alabama Republicans for making a similar judgment, it’s beside the point. A Republican governor isn’t replacing Franken with a conservative, so this should be an easy call. It’s also possible to put the shoe on the other foot: what level of behavior would Franken need to stoop to, in order for his defenders to concede he needed to go no matter who his replacement would be?

But there’s an even more important point beyond these hypotheticals. The mentality of Franken’s defenders betrays a defensive cowardice about Democratic prospects in future elections, and an unwarranted pessimism about the electorate itself.

Claiming that Democrats should man the barricades and defend even their morally compromised electeds implies that Democrats are in such danger of losing the entire country that they cannot afford to given even an inch of partisan ground. Better to keep Franken in office, they say, than to risk losing the Senate seat to Michele Bachmann with a lesser-known Democrat. The fight against Trump’s fascist movement is so crucial, they suggest, that almost any means justifies the end. Republicans won’t hold their own accountable, they argue, so Democrats must circle their own wagons just as strongly.

These arguments, too, are wrong, based as they are in a misunderstanding of why Democrats fared poorly against Trump in 2016. Most people are tired of liberal and leftist partisans relitigating the 2016 election, but this sort of thing is why it still matters. That so many of Franken’s defenders are the same people who eagerly leveled accusations of sexism against progressive activists in the 2016 Democratic primary is particularly galling in context.

First, Moore and Trump notwithstanding, Republican politicians are not immune to being taken down for sexual misconduct, as the resignations of Texas GOP representatives Joe Barton and Trent Franks make clear.

Second, the belief that (to quote Charles Pierce) “there is no moral high ground” is based on the notion that no reasonable persuadable voters still exist in the electorate. It’s similar to the misguided Serwer/Coates argument that almost every Trump voter is an irredeemable racist, and that no economic arguments could possibly have swayed any of them. This is not true. The pool of persuadable voters has certainly shrunk, but there is still a large pool of  reasonable people who will gravitate left when it becomes clear that Republicans tolerate rapists and child molesters while Democrats expel their own abusers.

There is also the question of motivating the left’s own base. The sort of voter who is so blindly partisan to be so enamored of Franken’s aggressive defense of liberal values that they are willing to excuse his predatory behavior, is not the sort of voter to stay home from the polls. But the voter disgusted by hypocrisy and the perception that both parties are the same does stay home. The progressive young woman who feels that older women won’t have her back in solidarity if she comes out against one of their heroes will stay home or vote third party.

Finally, there’s the question of the party’s national brand. Reasonable Republicans have frequently made the case about Roy Moore that whatever short-term gains the GOP may make by retaining the Alabama senate seat will be more than offset nationally by the damage he will do to their brand. So, too, is the national Democratic brand threatened by coddling its own predators–and in the case of Franken, the Minnesota senate seat isn’t even a serious threat to fall into GOP hands.

Liberals need to abandon their fear and regain their sense of confidence and optimism. Trumpism can and will be defeated. The left can and will win future elections even if some of its biggest stars are forced to step aside. Communicating progressive values with credibility and honesty isn’t just the right thing to do by the victims. It’s also the smart thing to do to regain the trust of voters across the spectrum–from the Obama voters lost to Trump, to wavering Romney voters disgusted with their own party’s takeover by Roy Moore voters, to disaffected third party and non-voters unimpressed with the party’s commitment to its own stated ideals.

Just do the right thing.

The Trent Franks Story Doesn’t Add Up

Trent Franks (R-AZ) is the latest in a wave of abusive men to resign from office in the wave of sex abuse allegations rocking the nation. Similar resignations are cascading so thunderously that Franks’ will likely be drowned out and forgotten by the middle of the next week.

But it shouldn’t be. There is something deeply bizarre and untoward in the allegations against Franks that goes far beyond the banal serial exploitation we’ve seen from so many of these men. It’s not just that it seems ripped straight from the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s also that it doesn’t even make sense. The public deserves to know the full extent of Franks’ abuse, and it’s not yet clear that we have even an inkling of it.

Let’s start with what we supposedly know. Franks signaled his resignation after issuing the following statement:

I have recently learned that the Ethics Committee is reviewing an inquiry regarding
my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each
feel uncomfortable. I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in
the workplace caused distress.

Elsewhere in his statement Franks revealed that he and his wife had had issues with infertility including miscarriage, and had used a surrogate to bear their previous children. In Franks’ telling, he simply made the mistake of asking staff if they would be willing to be surrogates for a third child. Now, this is still wildly inappropriate on its face: a person in a position of such enormous political power should never be making this sort of ask of subordinates. At the very least it would be abuse of power and a colossal error in judgment.

But, of course, the story got far worse as the day’s reporting progressed. It was soon made public that Franks had offered upwards of $5 million to one of his staff to serve as a surrogate. There is no reason to doubt the aide’s story, but it’s incredibly bizarre: the average cost for a surrogate mother is around $100,000. Why would Franks offer $5 million to an unwilling staffer for a service that a professional could offer for a tiny fraction of the cost?

Only moments later Politico reported what any rational person suspected from the beginning: that Franks never clarified whether the supposed surrogacy would occur through in-vitro fertilization or through sexual intercourse, and that the women were deeply concerned Franks was pushing them to have sex with him, with the goal of getting them pregnant.

That allegation on its own is a shocking self-parody of patriarchal abuse: a anti-choice Republican politician demanding sex from a much younger female employee to make her a breeding mare for his own family seems ripped from a bad political parable.

But even then there has to be more going on here. It still doesn’t make sense.

It’s been an open secret for years in the halls of Congress that Franks is a lout and a lecher, and that a drunken fratboy culture permeates throughout the men in his employ. It’s also no secret that an army of sex workers exists in the nation’s capital catering to men like him.

If Franks just wanted sex with younger women, that could be had discreetly in Washington for far less than $5 million, and without the risk of being exposed by his own staffers. But then again, Franks could have hired a dozen pregnancy surrogates for far less than $5 million, too, with no shame, risk or embarrassment at all.

Why offer a staffer $5 million for sex, surrogacy or both? It doesn’t add up. Was Franks offering to keep these staffers as permanent mistresses? Did he become sexually obsessed with them such that he was willing to pay any cost? Or was there something even darker involved?

This story shouldn’t die until we find out the real truth.

Quick Takes: Rep. Trent Franks Did What?

* Ed Kilgore has the headline that nailed my reaction to the news today: “Arizona Congressman Resigns for – Wait, What Was That Again?” He wrote that before the whole story emerged. Here’s what we now know:

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) resigned Friday amid reports he suggested aides have intercourse with him and serve as a surrogate for his child…

Politico reported Friday that, prior to Franks announcing that he would resign immediately, it had asked the congressman about allegations of unwanted advances toward female staffers. The outlet reported that Franks had approached staffers about serving as surrogates for his child, as he acknowledged Thursday, but also that “[i]t was not clear to the women whether he was asking about impregnating the women through sexual intercourse or in vitro fertilization.”

…an unnamed former aide of Franks told the Associated Press that he had “repeatedly pressed her” to act as a surrogate for his child, including by offering $5 million at one point. The former staffer told the AP Franks had asked her to serve as a surrogate in exchange for money “at least four times,” the outlet reported Friday.

* This weekend Trump will hold a rally in support of a racist Senate candidate and attend the opening of a civil rights memorial in Mississippi. Wrap your mind around that if you can. In the midst of all that, Marc Fisher tells the story of how this presidency has affected African Americans in Mississippi.

“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that has been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House, and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ ”…

Two miles away from the museum, as Priscilla Sterling recalled, a tense white man cornered her daughter on a street in Jackson. “Would you ever date a skinhead?” he asked, and it’s 2017 and she doesn’t know what she can say.

“White men following me, intimidating my daughter — this is the craziest time I’ve ever seen,” said Sterling, 49, a Jackson resident and a cousin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman accused him of flirting with her at her family’s grocery store.

“I used to say I could never have lived in the 1950s or ’60s, that I couldn’t have taken the pressure,” Sterling said. “Now it’s 2017 and I’ve had people follow me and threaten me with vitriol. It’s vitriol like I never heard before Trump.”

* Some people have suggested that the label “white supremacist” should be reserved for those who join neo-nazi groups patterned after the KKK. But I don’t see how these sentiments expressed by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) vary even the tiniest little bit from the philosophies of those groups.

* Remember when Bill O’Reilly pointed out to Donald Trump that Vladimir Putin is a killer? The president’s response was, “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” Obviously he and Roy Moore are cut from exactly the same cloth.

* Jonathan Chait thinks the Mueller investigation is in mortal danger.

Yes, “some conspiratorial quid pro quo between somebody in the Trump campaign and somebody representing Vladimir Putin” is “possible,” allowed Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins, but “we would be stupid not to understand that other countries have a stake in the outcome of our elections and, by omission or commission, try to advance their interests. This is reality.” The notion of a criminal conspiracy by a hostile nation to intervene in the election in return for pliant foreign policy has gone from unthinkable to blasé, an offense only to naïve bourgeois morality.

It is almost a maxim of the Trump era that the bounds of the unthinkable continuously shrink.

* On the other hand, it is always a good idea to pay attention to what Walter Shapiro writes.

The combination of GOP congressional majorities, a supine Republican Party and a truculent right-wing media culture have conspired to convince many liberals that Trump and all that he represents are indeed unbeatable.

This continuing sense of political impotence by liberals has placed undue weight on the Mueller investigation. Every indictment, guilty plea and rumor has been measured against Watergate and the need to discover impeachable offenses. Simply proving a pattern of corruption around Trump and a cavalier attitude to Russian meddling in the 2016 election won’t seem sufficient. Somehow the whole enterprise will be judged a failure if the investigation fails to prevent Trump from serving out his term in the White House.

But such a Mueller-centric worldview is shortsighted…

Trump may seem like a magician with his frenzied attempts at political distraction. But voters in the cheap seats remain unconvinced by the card tricks, especially since the marked decks keep spilling onto the floor. That’s why political remedies may ultimately prove more effective in taming Trump than Robert Mueller.

* Today is jobs Friday and we learned that the economy added 288,000 jobs in November. Steve Benen provides some perspective on how we’re doing so far in 2017.

…the U.S. added 1.97 million jobs over the first 11 months of 2012, 2.24 million over the first 11 months of 2013, 2.78 million over the first 11 months of 2014, 2.47 million over the first 11 months of 2015, 2.08 million over the first 11 months of 2016, and 1.91 million over the first 11 months of 2017.

Or put another way, while this year has been pretty good for job creation, we’re nevertheless on pace to see the slowest job growth since 2011.

* Democrats who insisted that Sen. Al Franken needed to resign are going to have to follow that up by doing a better job than this when asked whether Donald Trump should resign.

* Finally, find me a dog owner that didn’t already know this:

Trump Is a Jungian Psychologist Now?

As if I didn’t already want to dunk my own head in a deep fryer, I have to read stuff like this from Alex Shephard’s review of the new book Let Trump Be Trump by Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie?

Lewandowski and Bossie even suggest that Trump is a student of Jungian psychology:

“Although the mainstream media and other haters give him little credit for his intellect, Donald Trump has more than a fundamental grasp on a surprising number of fields, including Jungian psychology. One of his favorite books is Memory, Dreams, Reflections, Jung’s autobiography. Steve Bannon insists that Trump came up with the idea of the names Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, Low-Energy Jeb, and, later, Crooked Hillary, from his knowledge of Jungian archetypes.”

I felt pretty confident that this made no sense, but it’s been thirty years since I studied Jungian archetypes, so I figured I’d do a quick refresher on Wikipedia to see if I’d forgotten something crucial. I can assure you that I didn’t.

I’m also having grave difficulties believing that Donald Trump has ever read Carl Jung’s autobiography. The latest paperback edition is 430 pages long, which is approximately 429 pages too long for Donald Trump. It was also published originally in 1961, while Trump was fifteen and enrolled in New York Military Academy because his parents could do nothing with him. The man studied real estate in college.

In any case, you’d probably want to read Carl Jung’s writings on Archetypes rather than his autobiography if you wanted to know to apply the concepts to winning a presidential campaign.

I don’t dispute that Trump tapped into some kind of rot in the collective unconscious. If I had to guess at a psychological book that Trump might have actually read and applied to his campaign it would be Wilhelm Reich’s Listen, Little Man!. It actually describes how people are attracted to demagogues, and it’s only 144 pages.