November 17, 2019

Today was a relatively quiet day in Washington. Aside from lots of speculation about what drove Trump to go to the hospital yesterday and the fact that Fox News reporter Chris Wallace corrected Steve Scalise (R-LA) when he tried to dismiss the many witnesses against Trump as “Schiff’s witnesses”—Wallace said "No, sir. They're career foreign service officers and these are people who worked in the Trump administration" —nothing huge happened. You can safely ignore tonight’s letter if you have more pressing things to do.

For my part, I spent my day finalizing the page proofs of my new book (which actually has nothing to do with these letters—it was finished more than a year ago). A tiny part of the book looks at the mechanics of how the Republican Party took control of the country, with a focus on how Florida’s 1998 voter ID law purged up to 100,000 Democratic voters in the state before the 2000 election. I explained that when the election came down to Florida’s Electoral Votes, and control of the state came down to a few hundred votes contested between Democratic candidate Al Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush, the Supreme Court stepped in to decide the election. A friend read the proofs for me, and asked why I had not mentioned the Brooks Brothers Riot. I had no good answer, so today I went back to the sources.

For those of you who don’t remember everything that happened in those crazy days when we were all trying to figure out what the heck had happened in the 2000 election, the Brooks Brothers Riot was made up of a bunch of Republican operatives, many of whom had flown in from other states, who gathered on November 22, 2000 at the Miami-Dade polling station where Florida officials were attempting to recount the confusing ballots, to insist that the Democrats were trying to steal the election. Their noise and outrage helped to get the recount called off. As I was reading through the articles about the riot, the name Roger Stone jumped out at me. That name meant nothing to me in 2000, but it sure does today.

This is the same Roger Stone who advised the Trump campaign and who has just been convicted for lying to Congress about his connections to Wikileaks before the 2016 election. Wikileaks worked to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump by dumping emails that Russia had hacked from the Democratic National Committee. Stone is a no-holds-barred political operative who got his start on the 1972 reelection campaign of Richard Nixon, whose face is tattooed on Stone’s back (no, I’m not kidding) and who, after Nixon's fall, went on to start a political consulting firm with Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman from June to August 2016 (who is also now a convicted felon), and Lee Atwater, the man behind the viciously racist Willie Horton ad that sank Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988 (Atwater apologized for his actions as he was dying).

At the time of the Brooks Brother’s Riot, Stone claimed he was there “as a volunteer,” and “knew nothing about the protesters other than the fact I approve of Republicans expressing their First Amendment rights.”

This was a lie. In reality, Stone was a key operative, eavesdropping on the Democratic recount team with a walkie-talkie and determined to undermine the recount to get Bush in office, regardless of the popular vote or the real outcome in Florida. “What I admire about Nixon was his resilience,” he later told a reporter, “It’s attack, attack, attack. Al Gore thought the recount was a high-minded policy debate. He didn’t understand that it was an extension of a war, of a political campaign.”

That comment jumped out to me, just as Stone’s name had. That’s it, isn’t it? While the rest of us believe in the rules of democracy, people like Stone and Manafort see political engagement as a war in which winning is everything. It is worth lying, cheating, and stealing, because the goal is not better government, the goal is to win, and then to use that victory to reward your friends and hurt your enemies. After working for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, Stone and Manafort advised dictators. Then they turned their hands to the Trump campaign. Their approach to politics appears by now to be embedded in today's Republican Party. Jennifer Rubin, a conservative writer at the Washington Post, had a story today entitled “The Party of Lying Liars,” in which she laid out a litany of Republican whoppers, designed solely to appeal their base and thus stay in office.

Weirdly, as tired as I am, it strikes me that today’s politics is like baseball, in a way. So long as the two teams operate within the rules, with umpires doing their best to keep everyone honest, the game pushes everyone to work hard, and the teams put on a good show for their fans. But if one team can start to cheat, and to win by cheating without getting called on it, it could field weaker and weaker players. Then those players would have to cheat more, and start to spike their opponents in order to keep winning. No one would get better at the game: the cheaters would get better at cheating while the other side simply tried to defend itself and make a few runs. The fans could no longer appreciate the game, but rather would simply want their team to win and to hurt the other guys. Pretty soon, as their players got weaker, the only way for the cheaters to win would be to call in reinforcements who would pummel their opponents into submission. And the fans of the winning team might cheer… but then, firm in a victory that could not be challenged, realize that the same violent actors that ruined the other team were now entirely in control of the field, and that the game wasn’t baseball any more.

The answer to preserving the “game” of democracy, it seems to me, is not to fight dirty like Stone has done, but rather to back the umpires, insisting on the rules. Only a few of us benefit from a rigged “game” in which the winners prevail by cheating. We are all better off if the game is played fairly.

After more than 40 years of “attack, attack, attack,” Roger Stone has been found guilty of lying to Congress and is awaiting sentencing. Perhaps, after taking a very long break, the umpires are back on the job.

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