The Outrage Machine officially shifted into overload this week. If such a thing actually existed, it would look just like the candy assembly line in that famous "I Love Lucy" episode, and we -- the befuddled journalists, pundits, etc. -- would be like Lucy and Ethel, unable to keep up as unwrapped mini-scandals and presidential lies flew past us on the conveyor belt, stuffing morsels of misinformation under our hats or down our shirts until we figured out what to do with all of them.
In the last 30 hours or so, we've all watched as a) President Trump threatened to "destroy" an unnamed Texas state senator for proposing (more than reasonable) legislation to curb the government's abusive power to seize property from folks not convicted of a crime b) that same president also used his governmental Twitter account in his crusade to harm the business of a major department store chain that stopped selling his daughter's clothing line and c) presidential spokesman Sean Spicer said it was un-American for anyone -- even former POW John McCain -- to even raise questions about a seemingly botched raid in Yemen, because a U.S. serviceman was killed.
Today, none of those disgraceful incidents -- which in "normal" times, whenever that was, would have fueled a week's worth of columns -- even made the cut. Instead, let's dissect a shocking moment that dramatizes how quickly the basic norms of a civil society in America are disintegrating before our eyes. Let's talk about the night that a powerful woman stood up to speak her mind on an issue of incredible national importance -- and was ordered to sit down and shut up. And we were powerless to stop it.
I was heading home Tuesday night on the cracks-and-all Market-Frankford El when my smartphone nearly caught fire from the crackle of all the white-hot tweets about the showdown that had just taken place on the Senate floor involving Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the Senate GOP and its Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. So I watched the video on my phone, to see what all the fuss was about. Then I watched it again. Then I watched it a third time, because I literally could not believe what I was seeing.
The backstory is that the Senate was launching into an all-night debate over the nomination of the GOP Alabama senator Jeff Sessions to become Trump's attorney general. Thirty years ago, the Senate failed to confirm Sessions as a federal judge because of his troubling views and actions on racial matters, and his more recent history in the Senate has offered little evidence of redemption. So it's not surprising that the notion of Sessions as enforcer of America's civil rights laws, as well as our voting protections, had stirred passionate resistance. Sessions' tortured past was why Democratic senators were nearly united in their opposition to his nomination.
From the start, Republicans had lodged objections over Warren's speech, as she quoted a previous occupant of her Massachusetts Senate seat, Ted Kennedy, who in 1986 had called Sessions -- at the time a U.S. Attorney in Alabama -- a disgrace to the Justice Department that in 2017 he stood in nomination to lead. The GOP lawmakers' objections were framed on the slightly Orwellian-sounding Rule XIX (a.k.a. 19), which aims to blocks senators from ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” That's meant to inspire a high standard of decorum when senators debate each other; now, suddenly, it was being used an authoritarian bludgeon to beat down any free and fair debate over who will administer federal justice in America over the next four years.
When Warren tried to read into the record the 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King -- MLK's widow --which also objected to Sessions' record on race, that was the last straw. Mrs. King wrote at that time that making Sessions a federal judge "would have a devastating effect on...the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband's dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago." It was thus that today's Senate Republicans managed to both muzzle a civil rights icon from beyond the grave while commanding that one of America's most powerful living women sit down and shut up.
McConnell rose to his feet. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair,” and moved that the Senate invoke Rule XIX to prevent her from speaking any further about the nomination. As Warren pleaded to continue, McConnell objected, and then the presiding senator, Republican Steve Daines of Montana, said: “The senator will take her seat.”
Later, McConnell uttered the words that will be remembered for a long time by a lot of people: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
It was a jaw-dropping moment, and it was hard not to think that Warren, a moral leader of the Democrats in the wake of their 2016 election debacle, and a possible 2020 presidential candidate, was the target of a planned hit. It didn't escape notice that when Warren's angry Democratic colleagues, most of them male, followed through today on vows to read Mrs. King's letter on the Senate floor, none of them were sanctioned under Rule 19. Warren was being made an example -- but an example of what?
In the immediate aftermath, the unusual pundits on CNN and MSNBC were flummoxed. Sessions, despite the uproar, was all but certain to be confirmed by the GOP majority. Why did Mitch McConnell just wave a giant red flag to energize the anti-Trump forces out there, and once again portray that GOP as waging "a war on women"?
The short answer is: Because he could.
And the slightly longer explanation is that the silencing of Elizabeth Warren is just one more example -- arguably, one of the most powerful ones yet -- that the basic norms that have loosely governed the way we do things in America are slowly and painfully getting crushed, one brittle bone at a time, right before our stunned eyes. I'm talking about the ways that we value and uphold democracy, our freedom to debate and express opposing views, and the fast-fading notion that we even pretend anymore to cherish diversity -- not just of human beings but diversity of thought.
Ironically, it was also back in 1980s -- just a few years before a bipartisan Senate vote torpedoed Sessions' bid for a judgeship -- when conservative-leaning Congress and a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, enacted a national holiday honoring Coretta Scott King's husband. Not that the 1980s were nirvana on earth, but in hindsight we can now look back on a time when America still attemped to look for a shared vision on equality and human rights.
That vision officially ended on November 8, 2016. Since Trump's election, we've been shell-shocked and arguably numbed by all the ways that basic norms can be violated. The way a diverse nation can put forth a cabinet without a single Hispanic and with only one African-American -- a brilliant neurosurgeon with zero qualifications to oversee federal housing, picked to run the agency with the word "urban" in the title. Or the way the president can sign an executive order stripping women of their reproductive rights -- flanked by a group of white men. Or how the notion that a vigorous 1st Amendment is what makes America exceptional has given way to a president's Goebbels-style prattle about "the very dishonest press." If I had time or space, I'd offer up dozens of other examples.
In fact, all the news coverage and anger over telling the senior senator from Massachusetts to take her seat helps the Republicans cover up their original sin in violating the fundamental norms of American decency -- which was putting up Jeff Sessions for attorney general in the first place. What more proof do you need that the once unthinkable is now thinkable in Trump's America than the fact that a man who launched his career by trying to put black people in jail for registering voters was confirmed tonight on a party-line vote to become the guardian of civil rights across all 50 states?
What was so important to Mitch McConnell and the new "in crowd" in Washington was not so much the silencing of Elizabeth Warren as proving to America that no one can stop them from doing it. And if you've been paying attention, this is exactly how authoritarian government happens here. Because there won't be a thunderbolt reading "fascism" coming down from the sky, so don't even look for it. It will come in a thousand middling beatdowns -- like the silencing of Elizabeth Warren. Until the public and press and opposition politicians are too weary to resist anymore.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Just because Trump's America is marching down a well-worn path that some European nations took in the 1930s doesn't guarantee that the old road-map still works, not in 2017 and not in our country. Instead, there seems to be an unexpected balance in the universe right now. I don't think the pro-Trump forces had any idea that electing a misogynistic, admitted grabber of female private parts would energize millions of American women in the way that it did. They were stunned by the Women's March protests of January 21, and they've been stunned that the protests haven't stopped. And while the move on Elizabeth Warren may have stirred orgasmic levels of testosterone on the Senate floor in the short run, in the long run it only gave additional lifeforce to The Resistance.
The authoritarian gall of Trump and his friends on Capitol Hill has unleashed forces in American society that they don't really understand -- nor do many of the pundits who grace our TV screens. It didn't occur to them that nominating the supremely unqualified Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education would alienate tens of thousands of moms and teachers, with its blunt message that learning no longer matters. Now, these same people believe they knew exactly what they were doing on the night they told Sen. Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up.
The truth is they had no idea what they were doing. We've been warned. We've been given an explanation. Nevertheless, we persist.