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Saturday Q&A

After two weeks of all Trump indictment, all the time, normal order resumes for the Saturday Q&A.

Current Events

G.D. in Bellingham, WA, asks: If Donald Trump is found guilty in the documents case, who does the sentencing? Would that be the judge, in this case Aileen Cannon?

I have a terrible feeling she is trying to play this case with a straight face, until if/when sentencing happens, where she would play her Trump card (literally) and deliver a ridiculously lax sentence, like fines only.

(V) & (Z) answer: Aileen Cannon is in a no-win situation, at least partly of her own making. Whatever the outcome of the Mar-a-Lago case is, roughly half the country is going to view her as a corrupt pawn of the opposing political faction. Either she'll be an in-the-bag-for-Trump appointee of the former president or she'll be a tool of the deep state.

Time will tell how she navigates this whole mess. However, what you propose would be unwise, even if her agenda is to save the fellow who put her on the federal bench. It would, first of all, be the most high-profile way imaginable that she could tank her reputation. On top of that, the federal judiciary has guidelines as to the appropriate range of punishments for various types of convictions. A judge is allowed to go outside the guidelines, but if they do, they have to explain their reasoning in writing.

Virtually any other decision Cannon makes does not have to be explained in writing. And so, if she wants to tank the case, she's better off with undermining the prosecution in 100 slight ways where it would be hard/impossible to prove corrupt intent, and would not have to be explained in writing, than it would be to just throw one massive wrench into the works.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: When Donald Trump went to both Manhattan and Miami to be arraigned, we were told he was also "arrested." I've always thought being arrested is when the cops slaps the handcuffs on you and read your Miranda rights. But does being "under arrest" mean something differently?

(V) & (Z) answer: "Under arrest" just means "in custody." If the police: (1) don't think you're a risk to run for it, (2) don't think you're a risk to pull a weapon and/or (3) are trying to afford you some dignity, they won't necessarily cuff you. At some point, however, the police did read him his Miranda rights. In fact, he has heard that twice at this point. We know because it's required for anyone who is detained for a criminal offense, and if the authorities had overlooked it, Trump and his attorneys would be screaming for a dismissal on the basis that his constitutional rights were violated.

D.B. in San Diego, CA, asks: Recognizing that you're not lawyers, can you provide any insight on why Trump's comments in the Bret Baier interview are viewed as "public admissions," while the hundreds of other explanations he has provided about the Mar-a-Lago documents are viewed as nonsense and/or lies? Is it simply that these particular comments sound like admissions of guilt to the things he's accused of, while the others do not? How is a member of the jury supposed to process it if Trump's lawyers take the approach of "Well, yes, he said that, but he also said this, and that, and those other things, so maybe don't take any one thing he says to seriously."

(V) & (Z) answer: The issue isn't that the Baier interview is "the truth" and everything else he said is "blather." No, the issue is that at some point, Trump and his attorneys will appear in court and will put forward a theory of what he did and why it wasn't a crime.

If that theory is, for example, "Trump had nothing to do with the documents, which were packed by his staff, and didn't even know they were at Mar-a-Lago," then the prosecution will play half a dozen recordings of him saying things like "I kept the documents because they were mine to keep" and "I would have given the documents back if NARA had asked nicely." And then the jury will be asked to decide which version is the truth: The one Trump put out there, multiple times, when he was feeling resentful? Or the one that he put forward in court, when he was trying to do anything possible to keep himself out of prison?

The defense might very well try to argue that some of Trump's statements were just "politics" and should not be taken at face value. But the fact that he offered up so many different explanations for why he was allowed to do what he did (most of them boiling down to "I was the president and entitled to do what I want"), and that his actual behavior was consistent with those explanations is going to make it very hard for the defense to argue any of the possibilities that would make Trump blameless.

On top of this, even if the former president had not conducted a bunch of interviews, the fact is that he was told to turn over the documents, and instead of doing so or going to court to litigate the issue, he lied and tried to hide them. That will be nigh on impossible to explain away as a legitimate and legal response, even if all the public statements are discounted.

M.N.H. in Chicago, IL, asks: Could the Donald Trump's lawyers use an insanity defense? Arguing that the former POTUS delusionally believed he won the last presidential election, and continues to believe this? Might Judge Cannon find Trump not guilty by reason of insanity? Thus could most of the recent public ramblings support and do not undermine the defense.

(V) & (Z) answer: An insanity defense has two parts. The first is that the defendant has to be judged mentally defective by a qualified professional. That's doable, Trump probably is mentally defective in certain clinical ways (e.g., paranoia), and even if he isn't, he and his lawyers can surely find a Harold Bornstein-like psychiatrist willing to testify to anything for the low-low price of $10,000 a day plus expenses.

However, even assuming Trump is willing to go into court and announce to the world that he's mentally defective, which is a very big assumption for someone with an ego like his, the second part of an insanity defense is the problem. Trump's lawyers would have to demonstrate that his mental issues were so severe that he literally did not understand right from wrong. This is a very high bar to clear, and Trump's actions (for example, hiding the documents and lying about them) are not consistent with someone who simply had no understanding of right and wrong. No, his actions are consistent with someone who understood full well what the rules are, and who was trying to get around them.

The additional problem is that even if Trump was mentally defective to the point of not understanding what he was doing, it was an ongoing behavior. If a person snaps and kills someone, they can potentially argue temporary insanity, be exonerated, and be free to go, since there's no underlying defect that presents a danger to society. But for ongoing insanity, the court will just send a person to a psychiatric facility rather than prison, and may even force them to face trial once they are deemed mentally healthy enough for it. We presume that Trump and his attorneys would not regard it as a "win" to trade prison for a mental hospital AND the potential for prison in the future.

L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: You said "talking about situations where the defendant thinks someone should have been punished but wasn't is irrelevant and won't be allowed." But isn't this a basis for a claim of selective prosecution? They didn't go after Hillary, so why are they going after me? Trump would then make the case that what Hillary (or Obama, Biden, Pence, Carter, Millard Fillmore, etc.) did was as bad or worse as what he is accused of, and nothing happened to them. Is this allowed, or is selective prosecution not a defense?

(V) & (Z) answer: Selective prosecution is a very difficult defense to pull off, and basically amounts to: "I am being prosecuted because I am a member of [RACE, GENDER, RELIGION]. People of a different [RACE, GENDER, RELIGION] who did the same thing are habitually not prosecuted, ergo I am arguing that I am not being prosecuted for a crime, per se, but instead the crime is being used as a cover to go after me for illegal, discriminatory reasons."

Trump is not within a country mile of being able to make this defense. He says he is being prosecuted for political reasons, but even if that is true, political affiliation is not a protected class.

A.L. in Highland Park, NJ, asks: How easy would it be for one of Donald Trump's lawyers to intentionally tank his or her security clearance interview to buy some time? If a defense lawyer fails to obtain a security clearance, I expect the judge would grant some time (weeks? months?) for them to find a new lawyer and get them a security clearance. And only then could they get up to speed on all the classified material. A good way to chew up considerable time, perhaps even past Nov. 2024.

(V) & (Z) answer: Not so easy.

The vetting process starts with the person themselves and then spreads out to their friends, family and associates. (Z), for example, has been a part of several security clearance investigations for former students; the feds asked things like "Does [X] have a drug problem?" or "Did [X] ever express affinity for a foreign government?"

If the attorney was going to screw up their in-person interview, say by "admitting" that they have a gambling problem, that would end the process very quickly. So, for a slow-roll approach, they would have to find a friend or associate willing to misrepresent things (that's perjury), so that the disqualification didn't happen until the process was well underway. And then, the judge would want to know why the clearance was not granted. Many of the answers that could be given might also put the attorney's law license in jeopardy, especially if there was evidence of a conspiracy to defraud the government.

On top of that, Trump's attorneys signed up because they want to be on the case. Either they want the money or they want the exposure or both. Getting themselves booted after a few weeks or a month is not consistent with that.

M.B. in Shenzhen, China, asks: Since it's obvious the government has Donald Trump dead to rights, and no one wants him to go to jail, what are the odds that his legal team and the DoJ come to a plea bargain agreement at the last moment where he gets to escape any admission of guilt, and serves no jail time? And if so, what might an appropriate penalty be?

(V) & (Z) answer: We can only speculate based on what is publicly known, of course. That said, plea deals are about risk management from both sides. In particular, both sides are thinking about: (1) How good is our case? and (2) How much time and effort will it take to put forward the best case possible?

Jack Smith doesn't worry all that much about #2, since he's effectively got unlimited resources. That said, Trump's position is about as strong right now as it's going to be until the trial starts. First, Smith isn't going to lose any evidence, but he might find some more, especially if Trump keeps doing unwise TV interviews. So, the case against Trump might get stronger. Second, Smith does place some value on the thousands of man hours that it will take to prepare the case and deal with pre-trial motions. So, if the former president wants a pre-trial plea bargain, he should really start talking now. The deal certainly isn't going to be better 2 months from now.

Alternatively, Team Trump could wait for the trial and see how things are going. Depending on decisions made by the judge, and possibly by indications from the jury, Trump's position could get stronger (though it could also get weaker, of course). If the case appears to be in jeopardy, Smith might well be willing to talk. On the other hand, if things are going great for the prosecution, Smith might say "Sorry, you had your chance at a plea. Now we're going to verdict."

In short, the lowest-risk option would be to cop a plea right now. The highest-risk option, but potentially with the highest reward, would be to wait until trial and hope things break strongly in the direction of the defense. The least productive option, from a sentencing perspective, would be to try to plead out on the eve of trial. And if Trump does pursue the latter option, well, there's zero chance he gets away with no admission of guilt and no jail time. The government does not spend tens of thousands of man hours, not to mention all the other attendant costs of going after a former president, just to administer a small tap on the wrist.

J.D. in Rohnert Park, CA, asks: I don't think there is any way Trump will be found not guilty on the federal charges. But what happens if there is one Trump supporter who refuses to convict? Wouldn't that lead to a hung jury? Couldn't Trump be tried again?

(V) & (Z) answer: A hung jury would indeed result in a mistrial. That means no conviction, but also no double jeopardy, which would entitle the government to try again.

At that point, Jack Smith, et al., would have to decide if they like their odds of succeeding in a second go-round. The odds are pretty good the answer would be "yes," since the feds invested so much into this investigation and since the stakes are so high. The DoJ's motivation would be even higher if they knew it was only one juror away from a conviction.

Assuming that Smith was ready to re-file, then Team Trump would also have to do some very hard thinking about their odds. Do they want to count on finding another rogue juror? And for a trial where a bunch of the time-wasting stuff is now off the table (e.g., his attorneys would already have clearances, and wouldn't need to get new ones)?

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: We're now learning there have been many cases in front of the Supreme Court when at least one Justice had a conflict of interest, but did not recuse themselves. Is there a path to appeal for those who lost in those cases?

What about people who've lost cases in other courts. Would there be a path to appeal for those who lost if they later find out the judge had a conflict of interest and didn't recuse themselves? (I remember one situation when a judge was sending hundreds of kids to a for-profit Juvenile Law Center that, it was later found out, he was profiting off of. I believe those convictions were eventually thrown out.)

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two problems here, and they are both big ones. The first is that while there may have been unethical behavior, it's very hard to prove that but for [unethical behavior], the result of the trial would have been [totally different outcome]. In Alito's case, this could only plausibly come up in decisions that were 5-4 with him in the majority; otherwise the case would have turned out the same regardless of how he voted. In the case that was in the news this week, involving hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, the vote was 7-1. So while Singer may well have bought and paid for Alito's vote (since, of course, there was no way to be sure what the final disposition of the case would be), Alito's vote did not change the outcome of the case.

The second problem is that the Supreme Court deals with civil matters (it does examine death penalty cases, but application of the death penalty is actually a civil question that arises in a criminal case). With criminal matters that were decided corruptly, it is generally plausible to reverse the outcome, namely by releasing the convicted person and/or clearing their record, and perhaps paying something to them for their damages. That is what happened with the case we assume you are referring to; it was actually two judges who were finding juveniles guilty of crimes they did not commit in exchange for kickbacks from a for-profit prison. Over 4,000 convictions were tossed and the judges were ordered to pay $200 million in restitution (a judgment that, of course, they will never satisfy).

It is considerably harder, to the point of being nearly impossible, to reverse the outcome of a civil decision. If a person was, say, wrongly denied the right to vote in 2020, or wrongly denied an abortion in 2021, or wrongly granted admission to Harvard in 2022, how do you go back and reverse that harm retroactively? This is why courts often grant injunctions in civil matters while legal questions are adjudicated—if a new law does [X] and has been challenged, the courts don't want someone to be subjected to [X] and have to suffer the consequences should the law be overturned.

That said, if a civil decision is wrong, and is demonstrably so due to judicial corruption, there are a handful of options. The first is to appeal the decision on that basis, although this does not work with SCOTUS cases, of course, since there is no court above them to appeal to. The second is to bring a new case that, de facto, vacates the corrupt decision. The third is to persuade Congress (or the state legislature) to pass a law that somehow renders the corrupt decision moot.

The fourth option, though it is the longest of long shots, would be to file a petition for a writ of coram nobis. That's a request for a court to vacate a decision on the basis of a fundamental error being made. At the moment, in federal cases (and in most states), coram nobis is available only as a remedy to defective criminal convictions. However, it is at least plausible that the Supreme Court could find that limit to be unconstitutional and then could choose to vacate a corrupt civil decision. Only one Supreme Court decision has ever been vacated in this way (Korematsu v. United States, about Japanese internment, in 1988), though, and SCOTUS has only considered one coram nobis petition since then. So again, longest of long shots.

T.W. in Norfolk, England, UK, asks: You have written that Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) is gumming up the works when it comes to military promotions. Given that you say the "power" of a senator to do such a thing doesn't derive from the Constitution, couldn't President Biden simply bypass the Senate entirely and, by virtue of his status as Commander-in-Chief, simply bestow the new rank by fiat or by field promotion and by doing so stare down the Senate obstructionists? Nobody would ever be able to say he wasn't pro-military, and that could very much tread on the GOP's historical turf—indeed, given the GOP's current shenanigans, it would trample all over it with hobnail boots.

(V) & (Z) answer: The power of a senator to singlehandedly muck up the works is not in the Constitution. The power of the Senate to approve military promotions, by contrast, most certainly is. Biden was unwilling to push the limits of his authority in the debt-ceiling situation, when he had considerably more basis for doing so, and so he's certainly not going to do it now. Not only is it not his style, but he'd be inviting the next Republican president to promote anyone he or she wants to any job that he or she wants to be filled with a corrupt lackey. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Flynn, anyone?

If it comes to it, Biden will work around Tuberville by making "acting" appointments as necessary. It's not possible to make field promotions to flag rank, at least not anymore, but eventually these folks will get their promotions and they'll be backdated.


G.L. in Oviedo, FL, asks: Is the line of attack that Joe Biden is too old just what happened to stick, or is it a subtle form of racism and/or sexism, because it implies that if Biden becomes incapacitated then VP Harris takes over?

(V) & (Z) answer: Our sense is that when people focus on Biden's age, they are largely trying to scare people that the person in the big chair could be a doddering old fool without the capacity to make important decisions. If they want to introduce the additional angle, they generally seem to make it explicit (i.e., "and then consider what happens if he can't make it through his term."). Although undoubtedly some folks on the right have been conditioned to the point that all they need to hear is "Biden" and "dementia" and it immediately calls to mind all of the various "horrors" that entails.

F.C. in DeLand, FL, asks: The RNC has created an interesting series of criteria in order to keep the upcoming crazy train debate a bit more focused by limiting the number of people on the stage. As a person who's strongly anti-MAGA, I'm interested in getting as many "normal" candidates on the stage.

I can't do much about poll results, but I can throw some money at candidates in order to meet the contribution threshold. However, I'd prefer to toss my dollar only where it's needed.

Is there a place to see how many people have donated to campaigns by state? Personally, would sending a dollar to Hutchinson, Christie, Suarez, and Hurd make it more likely that they'd end up on the stage? Or did they already meet the donation requirement from Florida? It wouldn't surprise me if Suarez already got the requisite number of Florida donors. (Since not all of your readers are in Florida, it might be useful to share the same data for the other states, too.)

(V) & (Z) answer: That information is not obtainable in an easy manner. The FEC does keep records that can be used to identify contributions by state, but campaigns only have to report individual information for donations of $200 or more, and besides, the data isn't due until the end of Q3 (October 1), which is well after the debates.

We would suggest that $1 is little enough money that you just make your best guess as to who needs the donation and who doesn't. Alternatively, create a burner e-mail account and sign up for campaign solicitations from those four candidates. If they need more donations from your state, they will make it very, very clear to you as the cutoff for making the debate stage draws near.

J.H. in El Segundo, CA, asks: If non-Republican residents of Iowa wanted to engage in some ratf**king in the upcoming caucuses, who would be the weakest candidate they could "support" who could win the Republican nomination and would be the easiest candidate for Biden to face in 2024?

(V) & (Z) answer: The candidate who figures to take over the Republican nomination, should Trump die or otherwise become unavailable, is Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). He's clearly more beatable than Trump is, according to every poll that's come out in the last 3 months, so he's probably the right answer.

An alternative is Mike Pence. We really, really don't think he can get the Republican nomination. But he could win Iowa, since Iowa likes white evangelicals and since Indiana is not too far away. And once a person wins Iowa, well, you never know. Should Pence get the GOP nod, he's unelectable nationally.

The third possibility is Chris Christie. He's not likely to be the nominee, but if he can stay viable for a while. he's more likely to harm Trump's campaign than any of the other Republicans.

S.C. in Lincolnton, NC, asks: In your reply to E.R. in Colorado Springs, you wrote: "However, in 2016, when Trump was still something of a cipher, 48.2% of the vote went to Hillary Clinton. In 2020, once Trump had a long record of not-so-great behavior, 51.3% of the vote went to Joe Biden. That certainly suggests that misdeeds by Trump move the needle a little. And a little is more than Trump can afford to surrender."

I think the 800-pound gorilla in the room is getting short shift. Namely, that Trump and the GOP intend to win next year by any means available, including No Labels, voter suppression on a scale hitherto unseen, laws allowing local and state election officials to overturn voter results on thin-to-zero pretext, and outright cheating. I'm genuinely afraid things are going to get really, really ugly beginning with Trump's first major federal conviction, if not sooner, and am afraid large scale violence and social upheaval are becoming all but inevitable.

Am I overreacting, or do you share these concerns?

(V) & (Z) answer: These are different categories of concerns, so we will address them individually.

First, should Trump be convicted of a criminal offense, there's certainly some possibility of unrest. However, it's tough for such things to come together unless the unrestful people are in a relatively small geographic area. What happened on 1/6, for example, came about because Trump's supporters made a point of being in Washington at the same time. Thus far in 2023, Trump's supporters seem to be somewhat uninterested in sticking their necks out again, seeing what's happened to the 1/6 insurrectionists. Certainly, they haven't been showing up en masse for his various court appearances. So, that critical mass may not be reached.

Further, even if there is a massive, angry crowd in Fort Pierce, FL, on the day the verdict is announced, it will be handled in a way to give law enforcement maximal capacity to maintain order. We can't remember if we've mentioned this or not, but (Z) was in the downtown L.A. criminal courthouse (properly known as the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center) the day the jury reached its verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. He and his colleagues, working as researchers for the Los Angeles Times, were ordered to exit the building and head home for the day (the jury reached agreement around 10:30 a.m.). Then the premises were secured. Then the verdict was announced.

In short, there may be some unrest, but maybe not. And it's supremely unlikely to spill over to Election Day.

Second, things like No Labels are ratfu**ing, but are also legitimate politics. It is the Democrats' job to play the chess game better, up to and including doing a better job of ratfu**ing right back.

Third, and finally, there are abuses of the system, like voter suppression, dubious laws about how ballots are counted, etc. This is far and away the biggest threat, it will be orders of magnitude easier to steal an election through actions understaken before ballots are cast rather than actions undertaken after ballots are cast.

This said, as every reader of this site knows, there are only a handful of states that actually matter. Texas can do all sorts of undemocratic things, and can make it so it's harder to vote there than it is to find a truck without a gun rack, but it's not going to affect the presidential result. Those electors belong to the GOP, either way. The states that are actually in play are Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan and Nevada. The middle five have a Democratic governor, and many of them also have Democrats in other key positions, like state Secretary of State. Hard to engage in wholesale Republican shenanigans when that is the case. Nevada has a legislature controlled by the Democrats and a Republican governor who appears to be a man of integrity. Georgia has a Republican trifecta, but a governor who doesn't like Trump, and a secretary of state who is literally nationally famous because he would not put up with Trump-favoring shenanigans.

In other words, there aren't a lot of great targets for state-level chicanery, at least not of the sort that can help elect a president. If they are willing, Republicans could try local-level chicanery, like sending goons to stand outside polling places in Black neighborhoods, but that's hard to pull off, because elections are so decentralized and because it's illegal and the police will get involved.

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: Imagine for a moment that Donald Trump has a moment of clarity. Upon seeing all of the evidence against him and hearing his lawyers tell him there is no way he is not going to jail, he looks to strike a deal with the DoJ. Now imagine part of that deal is that he doesn't get to run for office.

How do you think that would change the Republican primaries? Would other people jump into the race? Would the base fracture and who do you think would become the leading candidate?

(V) & (Z) answer: For those who do not already know her, let us introduce you to Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson. Ferguson was married to James E. "Pa" Ferguson, who was governor of Texas until he got busted for corruption and was impeached, convicted, and barred from holding state office. Ma ran in the election to replace Pa, and she won, becoming the first female governor of the Lone Star State and the second female governor of any state (after Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming). It was not a secret that Ma would technically hold the office, but Pa would be running the show. Indeed, her slogan was "Two governors for the price of one."

If the scenario you describe comes to pass, it could play out in all sorts of different ways. But the one we think is most likely is that someone runs as the "I'll hold the office on behalf of Trump" candidate, so that his supporters can effectively still vote for him. The former president is unlikely to reach this sort of arrangement with any of the current crop of candidates because many of them have been meanies to him and all have dared to challenge him. Our guess is that his avatar would be Kari "Ma" Lake, though Donald Trump Jr. is also a possibility.

B.C. in Farmingville, NY, asks: It would seem to me with the likelihood of a 2024 rematch between an unpopular Donald Trump and an unpopular Joe Biden, it sets the political scene for a third-party candidate to come in and try to steal some thunder. I am thinking something like Ross Perot (I) in 1992 or Ralph Nader (G) in 2000 could happen in 2024. Not that a strong third-party candidate is necessarily a bad thing, but are there any third party candidates to worry about?

(V) & (Z) answer: Doubtful. When Perot ran, the country was still in the midst of a major political realignment, as Southern Democrats slowly admitted they were now Republicans and Rockefeller Republicans admitted they were now Democrats. In that context, with party loyalty somewhat fungible, there was a "mushy middle" available to be captured by Perot, mostly made up of people who didn't like Bill Clinton's shadiness or George H.W. Bush's economic record.

That sort of mushy middle does not appear to exist right now. Yes, some meaningful percentage of the electorate (15% or so) clearly doesn't want to vote for Trump or for Biden. But that 15% is a melange of different interest groups—Libertarians and far left progressives and far-right militia types and people who hate both political parties regardless of the candidate. Nobody is going to unify that 15%, much less attract enough votes to actually be a viable candidate for the presidency.

There is a dead giveaway that we are correct about this. All we have to go on is our knowledge of past elections and our general sense of how the system works. However, actual politicians have access to actual, up-to-date polling data. And if there was actually a lane for an independent presidential candidate, you can bet that some of these ultra-long-shot folks who have jumped in—a Robert J. Kennedy Jr., a Will Hurd, etc.—would have run as independents instead.

G.F. in Manchester, VT, asks: Regarding your analysis of the Harvard-CAPS poll that you basically trashed (seemingly rightly so), I'm wondering if you attempted to contact them to get their response to your comments.

(V) & (Z) answer: No.

First of all, that would not be practical. Sometimes we plan things out a few days in advance, but we rarely write things more than 12 hours in advance. That does not leave time for getting comments, particularly since we are often writing after the close of business.

Second, and more importantly, that is not the mode that we (or the pollsters) operate in. When it comes to politicians and the things they do, it is expected that they will answer for themselves and that they will also be given an opportunity to explain themselves. So, reporters are therefore expected to ask questions, and politicians are expected to answer them. That is why any politician of any real import will have some sort of press operation.

We, on the other hand, are not reporters and pollsters are not politicians. When you are a researcher (and a pollster is a form of researcher), the presumption is that your work will stand on its own, and that any issues or questions that need to be addressed will be incorporated into your research product. If we review a scholarly book for a journal, or we evaluate someone's teaching, we would not incorporate the subject's comments into the assessment. It's not expected, and it's not really appropriate, since that would be perceived as allowing the subject to exert undue influence over the assessment. At the same time, the researcher (and again, a pollster is a form of researcher) is not expecting to field that sort of questions and is not particularly set up for it. It would not be terribly easy to get in touch with the people running the Harvard-CAPS poll, and even if we did, there's every chance they would ignore our questions.

L.D. in Las Vegas, NV, asks: Your item about polls that ask leading questions reminded me of a couple of polling calls I received before last year's election. They contained questions that were so incredibly leading that I assumed the calls were not, in fact, polls at all, but just propaganda disguised as polls. For example: "Are you concerned about Steve Sisolak's plan to store nuclear waste in the basement of your home?" I'm kidding; that's an exaggeration, but not much of one.

My question to you is: Are these just propaganda, and not polls? I would have to assume that the results of the poll would be essentially useless. Or is publishing the results of such a poorly conducted poll also propaganda?

(V) & (Z) answer: You've pretty much just given the definition of a push poll. The purpose is not to collect data in any meaningful way, it's to program people with information in a way that makes that information appear to be legitimate and nonpartisan.

In the United States, push polls are usually utilized by Republican campaigns, sometimes against Democratic opponents, but quite often against other Republicans. That said, the Hillary Clinton campaign did unleash a couple of anti-Sanders push polls in 2016. When it's done, it's a pretty effective way of making an opposing candidate look too extreme (or, alternatively, not extreme enough).

A.L. in Highland Park, NJ, asks: I cannot believe I am feeling even the tiniest bit of sympathy for these clowns. But when you referred to the actions of the Freedom Caucus as a "tantrum" I wondered if there was some justification to their actions. How likely is it that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) offered the FC something unambiguous and tangible that he has since reneged on? And yes, maybe they were naive to not get it in writing but still if someone looks you in the eye while giving you a firm handshake and says "you will get [X], just make me speaker" and then when the time comes pretends the conversation never happened, what are you supposed to do? A work stoppage over broken promises is not without precedent.

P.S.: Having written that, I wonder if what McCarthy promised the FC was equivalent to promising a toddler a trip to Disney-Moon on a unicorn-pulled spaceship. So some sympathy there as well? Okay, my miniscule well of sympathy for these imbeciles is now dry.

(V) & (Z) answer: With the caveat that all politicians are somewhat weaselly (it's in the job description), McCarthy is one of the most weaselly politicians we've ever seen. If he told us the sun was going to rise in the east tomorrow, we'd verify it. And so, we are absolutely confident that when negotiating for the Speakership, he plied both the FCers and the non-FCers with plenty of very carefully chosen words, such that if either side knew what the other was hearing, they would have been furious.

We further have no doubt that McCarthy made promises that were either outright fabrications, or, more likely, were highly misleading. To take a hypothetical example, if he said: "We will certainly consider the possibility of impeaching Joe Biden," that would seem to suggest that an impeachment resolution will be brought to the floor. But such a promise, if that is how it was worded, could be satisfied by saying, at a closed-doors meeting of the House Republican Conference, "Hold up your hand if you think Joe Biden should be impeached." That would technically be considering impeachment, but it isn't what the FC had in mind.

That said, the FCers backed themselves into a corner. They had enough power to interfere with McCarthy's election, at least temporarily, but not enough power to achieve a result better than electing McCarthy. That meant that, as they aggravated and alienated their colleagues (and perhaps some of their constituents), the FCers had very little leverage. No surprise they jumped on the promises McCarthy made, even if they should have been more skeptical.

D.C. in Brentwood, CA, asks: If the Democrats control either the House or the Senate, and the Republicans control the presidency, should the Democrats 100% refuse to increase the debt ceiling, forcing the Republicans to be the ones to claim the debt ceiling is not constitutional?

That could help the Democrats resolve the issue permanently, assuming they actually believe that it's not constitutional, and the argument wasn't just a partisan game.

(V) & (Z) answer: The Democrats don't generally have the stomach in instigate this sort of game of chicken, and besides, Congress tends to get the blame when there's a shutdown or a near-default, and Democratic leadership knows that.

If this is really what the blue team wants to do, the correct thing would be to pass a bill through whatever chamber they control that abolishes the debt ceiling forever. Then, the Democrats could say: "Look, we're happy to solve this problem once and for all. If the Republicans are only willing to solve it for a few months, you should ask them why."

P.F. in Fairbanks, AK, asks: Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are among a group that have authored another bill to create a Twelfth Circuit Court of Appeals out of the Ninth Circuit.

Should Democrats support the bill so that Joe Biden can nominate their inaugural judges?

(V) & (Z) answer: Yes, although you're not quite correct on how it will work.

Since 1869, when new judicial circuits have been created, the existing judgeships have been reshuffled, and then any new judgeships have been distributed across multiple circuits. The Murkowski-Sullivan bill would create a very large number of new judgeships (79), though they would be spread across Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Texas, which means that seven different circuits would be getting new judges. While the brand-new Twelfth Circuit would get a bunch of those, it would also absorb several dozen already-sitting judges. In other words, you wouldn't end up with a judicial circuit made up of 100% Joe Biden appointments.

Biden and the Democrats would be delighted to have nearly 80 more seats to fill, so much so that it's hard to believe that the Murkowski-Sullivan bill could possibly get through the current House. Presumably the two Alaskans, and their three Republican co-sponsors (Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, ID and Steve Daines, MT), are counting on blue slips to keep Biden from seating an army of lefty judges. But the risk to them is that Senate Democrats finally give the heave-ho to the blue slips.

J.F. in Ft. Worth, TX, asks: I admit that I'm treating the Supreme Court decision striking down Alabama's congressional districts map with a great deal of skepticism. If I'm remembering correctly, last June the Court handed down a number of "sane" rulings early in the month that we all cheered about, only to be devastated by the string of horrific rulings late in the month. Obviously the most prominent of these was the Dobbs decision, but there were several other terrible rulings that went with it. It's almost as if they released the ones which would appease us on the Left to soften the blow of the horrible decisions to follow. Could something like that be happening again this year? I would like to think that the Alabama case signals a change in the Court, but I'm very suspicious and am not getting my hopes up one bit.

(V) & (Z) answer: Since the Alabama decision, the Court has handed down several other decisions that will gladden the hearts of lefties, including the one yesterday that tells states to lay off immigration policy, and that might also curtail the power of circuit judges to issue injunctions. So, the "other shoe" you fear hasn't dropped yet, though obviously it still could. The crystal ball is murky right now, unfortunately. Perhaps that is because the staff astrologer dropped it yesterday.

All of this said, when the Alabama decision came down, our immediate thought was that it might well be a PR decision rather than a balls-and-strikes decision. We saw lots of other commenters wondering the same thing. It's not a good look for the Supreme Court if people look askance at every decision it makes, wondering if that decision is actually rooted in the law.

M.D. in San Nicolas, Aruba, asks: I have been entertaining a "What if" idea for quite a while now and I would like to share it with my favorite political website for your feedback. With the public meltdown happening over at CNN, imagine if to help right the ship CNN's new CEO was named to be Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz better known as the legendary Jon Stewart. We all remember how he helped course-correct CNN all those years ago with his brutal takedown of Tucker Carlson to his face. Maybe he can do it again.

(V) & (Z) answer: Jon Stewart is a brilliant fellow, and would make for a very interesting CNN anchor, particularly on a show geared more toward analysis and commentary rather than straight news. For example, a reborn Crossfire with Stewart and, say, George Will or Michael Steele or Charlie Sykes.

But that does not mean Stewart is suited to be management, which is a very different kettle of fish. To start, managers have to be worried about many things beyond the on-screen product, and there's no indication Stewart knows or cares about things like ad sales, budgeting, carriage deals, etc. Also, he would need to be able to identify new talent, and while he was pretty good at finding correspondents for The Daily Show (presumably aided by his producers), finding compelling TV journalists is much different. And finally, a big problem for fired CEO Chris Licht was that the news staff didn't respect him and rebelled against his leadership because he wasn't a journalist and hadn't earned his stripes. It's not at all clear that Stewart would be viewed differently, since he's not a journalist either. There is a reason his former colleague Stephen Colbert went on to host Late Night and NOT the CBS Evening News.

M.W. in Frederick, MD, asks: Can you give some insight into the reasons for the shift in Elon Musk's politics now that he has firmly inserted himself into the 2024 presidential election? If I remember correctly, he used to be fairly progressive, especially when it came to the environment. Nowadays, he seems to be a fan of DeSantis, has said some nasty stuff about the nation's top Democrats, and is spouting off with crazy things like that the Earth is in danger of human population collapse. Did becoming uber-wealthy cause the shift by itself or are there other factors involved?

(V) & (Z) answer: First, keep in mind that he is South African, and that on the day he graduated high school, apartheid was still in place. That means that he could well hold a combination of progressive economic views and regressive social views that doesn't line up well with the American political spectrum.

On top of that, wealthy businesspeople often hold views that are convenient to their personal needs and goals. Musk makes electric cars, so no wonder he favors government investment in green technology. To take another example, Samuel Alito's benefactor David Singer became a supporter of LGBTQ equality shortly after his son came out as gay.

Finally, Musk certainly appears to delight in being an iconoclast. Less important to him, it would seem, is not what he's "for" but instead what he's "against." And what is he against, exactly? Well, to borrow a line from Marlon Brando, "Whaddya got?" There was a similar dynamic on display in 2016, when some meaningful number of Bernie Sanders supporters migrated to Donald Trump after the Senator suspended his campaign. Sandersnista-to-Trumper makes very little sense on policy, but it makes all the sense in the world if your primary motivation is "we need to rebel against the system."


M.C. in Newton, MA, asks: In the item about Joe Biden starting to campaign, you wrote that "Top of the line tickets [to fundraisers] are going for $100,000," which is way more than the limit on contributions to a candidate for federal office. Since the candidate himself, his wife, and the VP (who remains the presumptive running mate) are involved in these events, it seems to me that a super PAC can't be the explanation. So how is it legal for these fundraisers to collect such huge amounts of money?

(V) & (Z) answer: There are two possibilities. Sometimes, the donor's $100,000 check is divvied up among various entities. The candidate gets the maximum contribution ($3,300 x2), and the politician who is acting as "host" gets the maximum contribution ($3,300 x2) and the state party gets the maximum contribution ($10,000), and the national party gets the maximum contribution ($41,300) and so forth. So, for example, $6,600 ($3,300 for the primary, $3,300 for the general) could go to the Biden campaign, another $6,600 to the night's host, maybe Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), $10,000 to the California Democratic Party, $41,300 to the DNC, etc.

The other option is that a person "bundles" $100,000 worth of contributions. Usually, this means people who have wealthy friends, and who can hit those friends up for $6,600 checks. So, the person sitting across the table from Biden, for example, might have provided their own check for $6,600 plus 15 others from various people in their personal network.

D.E. in Ashburn, VA, asks: Could you please explain how big donors are able to keep campaigns "afloat" with "money to pay staff, run ads, fly hither and yon, and operate offices." I understand the ads—PACs do their own ads—but how can big money get used for those other campaign basics if it's going to a PAC?

(V) & (Z) answer: Unless the donor is themselves the candidate, or the candidate is running for state office in one of the many states that do not impose contribution limits, then the PAC is the only way. Even if the PAC observes the law and does not coordinate with the candidate, it's easy enough for the PAC to air ads, register voters, run a get-out-the-vote operation, run a phone bank, etc.

S.B. in Natick, MA, asks: Over the last year, you've covered several times the fact that some red states are leaving the ERIC network, but I noticed in your latest piece that New York and California have (presumably) never been a part of ERIC. Given their liberal/Democrat bona fides, do you know the reason why these states are not members?

(V) & (Z) answer: Well, ERIC is only a little over a decade old, and because California and New York are large and wealthy, they already had their own systems in place to achieve the same end result (removing non-resident voters from the voter rolls). So, there wasn't quite so much pressure on them.

That said, A 7052 and AB 1206, in New York and California, respectively, are currently under consideration and would cause the two states to join ERIC.

D.K. in Stony Brook NY, asks: You wrote: "Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) could give him [Joe Manchin] permission to oppose every bill Schumer brings up. This could give Manchin lots of street cred back home. The only problem with this approach is that Sen. Krysten Sinema (I-AZ) is also likely to oppose a lot of bills and Schumer has no control over her and he can't afford to lose two votes on bills. Since Sinema is a loose cannon, Schumer may need Manchin on some bills."

Does voting proceed in the Senate in such a way that on each bill, Manchin could wait until Sinema has voted, and then adjust his own vote accordingly, depending on whether or not his vote is needed for passage? Can senators change their votes during the voting period, until there's the equivalent of a "pencils down" call? I'm envisioning a scenario where Sinema votes "aye," so Manchin feels he can vote "nay," but then at the last minute Sinema changes to "nay" and the measure fails.

(V) & (Z) answer: When there is a proper roll-call vote, the members vote in alphabetical order. When there is a general floor vote, they vote in whatever order they wish, using electronic devices. In both cases, anyone can change their vote at anytime during the voting period.

This most commonly happens with the Majority Leader; only someone on the "winning" side can ask that a bill be brought up for consideration again. So, if a Democratic initiative is about to die at the hands of the 49 Republicans plus Manchin and Sinema, Schumer will switch sides at the last moment to preserve his right to reintroduce the bill. Sinema and/or Manchin could try to game the system in a similar way, so as to deal a "surprise" defeat, but it would be hard to pull off, and it would really aggravate Schumer and the other Democrats.

J.H. in Flint, MI, asks: Suppose that Kevin McCarthy resigns or is ousted as Speaker. What happens next? Do we revert back to the vote-a-rama?

(V) & (Z) answer: Not really. Committees are now organized and the rules for the session have been adopted, so much business could continue as normal. That said, choosing a new Speaker is a privileged matter, so part of each day would have to be spent voting on candidates until one was elected. But at least the members could get things done outside of that time. Back in January, they couldn't do anything except vote for Speaker because none of the other organizing structure was formally in place.


G.A. in Berkeley, CA, asks: When and how did slavery begin in the American colonies? Who initiated it? Why were slaves imported only from Africa? Or were some African slaves initially imported from the Caribbean by British colonists and merchants? Why not also from impoverished non-white regions such as Latin America or Asia?

Leaving aside indentured servants and prisoners, were there any non-black slaves in the colonies, the U.S., or the Confederacy? And in the South, there were apparently a few free black slave owners. How did that happen?

(V) & (Z) answer: Broadly speaking, slave owners were economically rational, if morally dubious. Using Native Americans as slaves was the cheapest option, and was tried by Spain, France, and England (a little), but the Natives largely could not tolerate the work, and also had no resistance to Old World diseases. So, they died in huge numbers. Dead laborers are not a great foundation for a successful plantation.

The next best option, at least for a while, was to bring poor (mostly) white people over from Europe on indentured servitude contracts. The notion was that they would work for room and board for some amount of time (usually 7 years), and at the end would be given freedom and some land. Persuading a person to come willingly, and paying the cost of transit, was much cheaper than forcibly capturing someone and making them come against their will.

Eventually, of course, the North American powers started experimenting with Black slaves. It's generally understood that the first Black slaves arrived in the English colonies in 1619 (hence the 1619 project), though the general lack of records from that era makes that timeline less-than-certain, and also leaves questions about whether those folks in 1619 were actually enslaved or if they were indentured. In any event, Black slaves, Black indentured servants and white indentured servants (white slaves were basically unheard of) all had very low life expectancies before 1650 or so. That made the indentured servants, regardless of race, cheaper, since the main cost (the piece of land at the end of 7 years) often didn't have to be paid.

Eventually, both the enslaved and indentured populations became more resistant to disease and life expectancies became much higher. Once things reached a point where an enslaved person could be expected to live at least 9 years as an adult, roughly speaking, they became a better investment than indentured servants. So, things swung in the direction of slavery as the predominant economic system of the South.

Thereafter, various incidents, most obviously Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, caused Southern elites to get nervous about the possibility of poor white people and poor Black people developing an affinity based on their social class. So, the elites took steps to get rid of any status for white people that had even the faintest whiff of slavery about it. In other words, indentured servitude went the way of the dodo in the South in the 1670s and 1680s (though it survived in the North for well over a century beyond that). That meant that the South's social structure, by 1700 or so, had wealthy whites on top, poor-but-free whites below them, a big gap, and then Black slaves.

The French and the Spanish had also committed to slavery in the New World by the mid-17th century, though in those cases the plantations were often run by members of the military. Also, France and Spain did not embrace slavery because it became more profitable than other options, but because it was literally the only option available, as no other workforce could be recruited or compelled to work the horrific plantations of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, etc. Englishmen, and later Americans, did import some people from the Caribbean, and some from Africa, but by the early-to-mid 1700s, far and away the largest source of new slave labor was the domestic slave population. That is to say, eventually the American slave system became self-sustaining with little or no need for new arrivals from elsewhere. It was the South that insisted that the slave trade be banned in 1808, because that meant domestic slavers would have a monopoly.

There were indeed some Black slaveowners in the south. These folks were almost invariably mixed-race (so, part white, which eased Southern minds some) and were almost entirely confined to the area in and around New Orleans, which was governed by French law for many years, and by French custom for many years thereafter. There were also Native American slaveowners, mostly members of the Cherokee Tribe. The only Native American to serve as a general during the Civil War was Stand Watie, who was a Cherokee, a slave owner, and the very last Confederate general to surrender at the end of the conflict. In short, where people were governed by the laws of white Southerners of English descent, only white people owned slaves. In areas where that wasn't the case, things were a little more fungible.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Why was universal white male suffrage not introduced in 1789? Was the Constitution written by rich white men for rich white men? And when and why was universal white male suffrage implemented in the U.S.?

(V) & (Z) answer: As to the Constitution, the Founders were not a monolith. Some of them were very distrustful of "the masses" and of democracy. Some of them were not. Among the latter group was Benjamin Franklin, who argued that giving all white men the vote was the only logical thing to do, and that suffrage shouldn't be tied to property ownership. He used Socratic-style questioning to make his case; most famously an observation that became known as "Franklin's Jackass":

Today a man owns a jackass worth fifty dollars and he is entitled to vote; but before the next election the jackass dies. The man in the meantime has become more experienced, his knowledge of the principles of government, and his acquaintance with mankind, are more extensive, and he is therefore better qualified to make a proper selection of rulers—but the jackass is dead and the man cannot vote. Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?

Today, of course, many American voters are jackasses.

In any case, while the Founding Parents did not agree on exactly how democratic the democracy should be, one thing they did agree on is that the Constitution needed to be approved by at least nine states. And the more assertive the new document was, the less chance it had of clearing the bar. So, they ultimately decided to leave the decision in the hands of the states. In the early years of the republic, some states granted universal white male suffrage, others went so far as to let women and/or Black people vote (at least for a while), still others retained property and/or tax qualifications for voting.

By the mid-1850s, and often well before that, all U.S. states that had property requirements had eliminated them. Sometimes this was done out of a sense of fairness, sometimes it was done to gain political advantage for one party or the other, and sometimes it was done because poor white people rebelled and demanded change (as in the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-41). Paying taxes remained a requirement for white men in two states (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) into the 20th century, and that requirement was also used as a back-door way of disenfranchising Black men up through the 1960s, when tax qualifications of any sort were outlawed by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment. Since women had been granted the vote nationwide in 1921, and Native Americans were granted the same in the 1950s, it means that the day the Twenty-Fourth Amendment became law (January 23, 1964) was the day that the U.S. formally had both universal adult male suffrage and universal adult suffrage. Of course, the meaning of "adult" was changed for this purpose in 1971, with the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the age from 21 to 18.

K.P. in Brooklyn NY, asks: We hear a lot about the Civil War generals but can you please give your take on General Douglas MacArthur?

(V) & (Z) answer: He's a tough one. He had a profound understanding of tactics—the history, how they had changed by the time he was a military commander, and how they would continue to change in the future. That said, he did not often command troops in battle, and so did not put that knowledge to use all that frequently. And on occasions where he did, he often screwed up big-time. His mishandling of the Philippines in 1942 has been described by more than one historian as the worst military defeat in U.S. history. So, we'll give him a 5/10 here.

As to strategy, he certainly understood well the big picture in both World War I and II, as well as the Korean War. However, he often struggled to turn that insight into influence. Sometimes that was beyond his control; in WWII he was in the Pacific and the focus was on Europe. Sometimes, because of his ego, he made big strategic mistakes, like allowing his troops to be pinned down in the southern portion of South Korea. We'll give him a 6/10 here.

As to the other aspects of generalship, which we've called the "administrative" dimension of the job, MacArthur was a talented logistician and a visionary when it came to understanding the role of the military in modern society—in particular that rank-and-file soldiers were no longer just fighters, but also, as circumstances called for it, diplomats, relief workers, spokespeople for the American way of life, etc. He also understood well the value of having inspirational figures to rally around, and managed to make himself a larger-than-life hero to millions and millions of soldiers and civilians. On the other hand, MacArthur didn't get along well with allies, subordinates or superiors, and his presumption that he was a law unto himself eventually saw him removed from command. We'll give him a 7/10 here.

So, on our scale, he's T:5, S:6, A:7. Those are middling marks, perhaps, but middling marks in the sense of a Richard Nixon (lots of good but lots of bad) and not in the sense of a Calvin Coolidge (just kind of mediocre overall).

J.T. in Philadelphia, PA, asks: I have a vivid memory of the 1992 presidential campaign and in particular of what I think was some sort of town hall where Senior Bush took a question about AIDS. But he couldn't content himself with simply answering the question, he had to make a gratuitous remark that AIDS was a disease brought on by behavior. There's a lot of video of old debates and town halls on YouTube, but I haven't been able to locate this one. Do you happen to know on which occasion he made that remark? I'm assuming that I didn't imagine it, of course. Even better, do you know if there is video available of it?

(V) & (Z) answer: He said it during the first candidates' debate on Oct. 11, 1992. Here is the exchange:

John Mashek, U.S. News & World Report: Mr. President, yesterday tens of thousands of people paraded past the White House to demonstrate their concern about the disease AIDS. A celebrated member of your commission, Magic Johnson, quit saying that there was too much inaction.

Where is this widespread feeling coming from that your administration is not doing enough about AIDS?

Bush: It's coming from the political process. We have increased funding for AIDS. We've doubled it on research and on every other aspect of it. My request for this year was $4.9 billion for AIDS—ten times as much per AIDS victim as per cancer victim.

I think that we're showing the proper compassion and concern. So I can't tell you where it's coming from, but I am very much concerned about AIDS and I believe that we've got the best researchers in the world out there at NIH working the problem. We're funding them—I wish there was more money—but we're funding them far more than any time in the past, and we're going to keep on doing that.

I don't know. I was a little disappointed in Magic because he came to me and I said, "Now if you see something we're not doing, get ahold of me. Call me, let me know." He went to one meeting, and then we heard that he was stepping down. So he's replaced by Mary Fisher, who electrified the Republican Convention by talking about the compassion and the concern that we feel. It was a beautiful moment and I think she'll do a first-class job on that commission.

So I think the appeal is yes, we care. And the other thing is part of AIDS—it's one of the few diseases where behavior matters. And I once called on somebody, "Well, change your behavior. Is the behavior you're using prone to cause AIDS? Change the behavior." Next thing I know, one of these ACT UP groups is out saying, "Bush ought to change HIS behavior."

You can't talk about it rationally. The extremists are hurting the AIDS cause. To go into a Catholic mass in a beautiful cathedral in New York under the cause of helping in AIDS and start throwing condoms around in the mass, I'm sorry, I think it sets back the cause.

Here is the video.


R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: You didn't mention the U.S. men's soccer team's drubbing of Canada on Sunday, extending the winning streak on home soil vs. the Menace To The North to 22 games dating to 1957. Have you gone soft on Canada?

(V) & (Z) answer: One of us doesn't follow sports and the other was too busy celebrating with the staff mathematician.

M.K. in Essex Junction, VT, asks: Have you tracked how many words you've written since 2004? And if so, how many books would that fill? (assuming there is a standard for that metric).

Maybe it is a silly question, but I do wonder how much shelf space I would need if I made all your posts into books! In the future, I can even imagine a college course titled "(V) & (Z) History 101"! Hmmm, I'm not the most creative; maybe your readers could come up with a better name! Either way, that's a college course I would enjoy!!!

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't have a formal count, but we can give you a ballpark figure. Over the last 19 years, we've produced on the order of 30 million words. A standard novel has about 85,000 words, so that's the equivalent of about 350 novels (or about a novel and a half every month). If you prefer a different conversion, the (fairly wordy) Harry Potter books have around 1.1 million words between them. So, we've produced the equivalent of the Harry Potter series about 27 times. Think how many tickets we'll sell when our work is finally adapted into a movie!

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Why do so many conservatives—who typically support law and order, tough-on-crime policies—have such a blind spot when it comes to Donald Trump and white-collar crime?

And here some of the many, many answers we got in response:

S.B. in Mason City, IA: The answer is one word, right there in the question: "white."

K.P. in Cumming, GA: In my social circle I find that I am friends with a number of Republicans. Often, but not always, the men are more outspoken. Many of these friends say that they will never vote for TFG ever again. But in spite of that, they seem to spout the false Trumpublican narratives they receive from right-wing media in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Surprisingly, these people are well-educated, successful retirees. These are not blue-collar rednecks.

I believe that their anti-Trump, but pro-Trump-policy, stance gives these individuals cover for their inherently racist, antisemitic, and homophobic opinions that are deeply rooted over an entire lifetime. Apparently in today's world it is not socially acceptable to give voice to these prejudices in our upper middle class circle. But hiding behind a pro-law-and-order stance; or "I like what Trump did for the country"; or even a pro-Christianity position is okay.

To me, their political pronouncements are just a way to provide cover for their prejudice. These people seem to want to return to the days when white men were in charge.

C.D. in Guernsey, Channel Islands: Supporters of the current iteration of the Republican Party do not support "law and order" for its own sake, but as an instrument to "protect" themselves from certain racial and religious minorities, young people and those of lower socioeconomic status. They are not predisposed to be afraid of wealthy, elderly white men and so shrug their shoulders when those types of people commit serious crimes.

J.C. in Minneapolis, MN: The easy answer is because Trump is the absolute best at sticking it to their perceived common enemies, and that excuses everything else he does.

To me, the more difficult question is: Why do some conservatives have this deep-seated, psychological craving to "own the libs" in the first place? Especially when (as often seems to be the case) whatever "the libs" represents at any given moment isn't even based in reality? Is it ignorance? Cruelty? Fear of change? I see these people in my own family and they are totally brainwashed—but of course, they would say the same about me, one of the foolish "libs." I despair of it ever changing.

R.B. in Seattle, WA: Because the part conservatives don't say out loud is "tough on crime by WHOM?" What they mean is, "tough on (especially violent) crimes committed by the kinds of people we think of as criminals (hint, poorer and darker than ourselves)." They don't think of rich white men in suits as "criminals," therefore they can't imagine that whatever such people do is a "crime."

This situation is an excellent case in point of the well-known Wilhoit's Law: "Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect."

J.S. in Albany, NY: Because their definition of "law and order" is "Rules for Thee, Not for Me."

M.F. in Des Moines, IA: The question starts from a faulty premise, that Republicans are tough on crime. They aren't, at least not in the broadly principled way the question suggests.

The "tough on crime" part of the GOP ethos is really just an extension of the culture war. They raise the specter of blue-collar crime infecting urban communities, but then actively work to help white collar tax cheats get away with it by decreasing IRS funding. They want to criminalize elements of the LGBTQ+ community to "protect children" but turn a blind eye to the damage fundamentalist religious abuse inflicts. They oppose pot legalization but want to make sure prescription drug addiction ravaging rural communities is seen as a public health crisis (it is, but so is other substance abuse which they want to criminalize in other contexts).

I could go on. The GOP ethos on crime has nothing to do with law and order. It's not about punishing socially destructive behaviors, it's about which people they want to be prosecuted and which they want to let go. And Donald Trump falls into the category of people they want to let go.

A.S.W. in Melrose, MA: This one is easy! For conservatives, the law is not primarily an instrument of justice or even treatment; it is a means of preserving the social order (narrowly defined) from any sort of disruption or change. Things like immigration and LGBTQ+ acceptance are seen as much more disruptive of that social order than common transgressions like theft, so they are reacted to with fury. Furthermore, one near-universal assumption of conservative ideologies is that there is a fundamental divide between the rich and powerful on the one hand, and the masses on the other. Thus. the law is about keeping order within the common people; what the rich do in their world is irrelevant, as long as it doesn't directly and immediately threaten the social lives of regular folks. In these conditions, white-collar crime is largely irrelevant; rich people can police themselves if they want to, but it's really nobody's business if they don't. (Indeed, the idea of one member of the Coastal Elite sticking it to the others is positively delightful, if they do it with enough flair!)

A.A. in Kingwood, TX: There are two questions here, and I'll try to give simple explanations for both.

Let's first talk about Trump. Jordan Klepper nails it in 60 seconds. The title summarizes it: "When your politics becomes who you are, we can't debate that." MAGA is Trump, Trump is MAGA, and the cult has become MAGA, it's who they are. Trump merely formalized the concept, gave it a label, and made it acceptable; for that, they are forever grateful.

Now to white-collar crime. Part of it is because of the more abstract nature of the crime, making it harder to understand and grasp what the consequences are. Part of it is that people see a wealthy individual and believe that if they are wealthy, then it's because God must look favorably upon them—a very American concept, and probably more prevalent among conservatives.

T.J. in Richmond, VA: Many people who vote "law and order" have real concerns about crime as it represents a fear for their public safety. Some fear "others" (mostly darker skinned people) they perceive as scary. Some are just racist. Trump does not represent a threat in any of these ways and they don't see the long term threat to civil society that he or his ability to escape justice would represent.

B.J. in Arlington, MA: That's easy. The "conservatives" aren't really tough-on-crime, law-and-order types. They are bullies who want to use the justice system to beat up their enemies. Trump isn't their enemy, nor are most white collar criminals, so they aren't concerned about them.

I put "conservatives" in quotes because while that is how they are referred to in American political terminology, it really is unfair to imply that everyone who is politically conservative feels this way. There are actual conservatives who are also decent people. I do know a few. By definition, though, they do not support Trump.

D.G. in Los Angeles, CA: Because the Democrats are little whiny weasels that don't know how to bring the fight to the other side. They keep being on the defensive, playing nice, ignoring that the best defense may be an offense.

They defend the "Owning the Libs"? How about "Owning the Cons" as a battle cry? They pussyfoot around Trump? Where are the big billboards with "Traitor Trump" all over Repugnican territory? Where is their answer to Frank Luntz? Leaving it to The Bulwark? Bringing a knife to a gun fight?

Bah humbug.

J.L. in Hampton, VA: Hillary Clinton. They believe since she wasn't prosecuted, TFG shouldn't be prosecuted. Two wrongs make a right.

J.K. in Portland, OR: As a social psychologist, the answer to this one is pretty easy: Leon Festinger's formulation of cognitive dissonance. Being in the bag for Trump, it is very dissonant to believe that their object of allegiance is a criminal. Therefore, they face conflicting pressures to either change their opinion of Trump or their acceptance of the evidence that he is a criminal. For many of these folks, the allegiance to Trump is so strong that the acceptance of the evidence will fall. My prediction is that you will never see people saying that yes, Trump deliberately violated the laws to keep those documents, but instead that the laws were wrong and their Führer was right to keep the documents so that once he's back in office, he can better rule the universe.

A.L. in Highland Park, NJ: You will likely get a few analyses of the MAGA conservative thought process. However, my own tribe—physicists—have shown similar behavior.

Example 1: When the discovery of the particle (quark) structure of protons and neutrons started to become clear in the late 1960's it blew apart a beloved theory called the "bootstrap." I was too young to have witnessed this but senior faculty in my grad school research group got the 1990 Nobel Prize for the Deep Inelastic Scattering experiments, which had shown the first evidence of quarks. There was a lot of reminiscing about how deep and personal the animosity ran among the adherents of the old theory. Once the evidence became irrefutable, they stopped working in physics and took their case to talk shows and wrote awful books like The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Michael Riordan's book The Hunting of the Quark recounts this history well (and has a cameo by Richard Feynman!).

Example 2: Like most physics people my age (including I assume, V), I saw the discovery of Dark Energy completely upend the elegant cosmology that said the expansion from the Big Bang was exactly equal to the contraction from gravity. Physicists love symmetry and this was a most pleasing one. Then measurements of Type 1a supernovae destroyed this beautiful picture. Instead of the expansion of the universe gradually slowing down, it is accelerating. Eventually galaxies, star systems and even molecules and atoms will be ripped apart. I saw quite a few eminent astrophysicists and cosmologists who simply could not accept this. Many retired rather than continue working in this new paradigm.

Ok, these are all scientists and other than a few awkward questions at conferences there weren't too many difficult moments. Nobody stormed barricades or marched with tiki torches. But the connection is that people who feel they are at the top of a hierarchy do not take well to being undercut. You thought the world worked one way, you understood it and were an acknowledged master of it. Suddenly something happened: SLAC experiments smashed the proton, telescopes measured distant supernovae, Barack Obama easily won two terms as president. And now everything is all different and you just want things to go back the way they were!

This is trauma, made worse by your inability to articulate it. Trump understood and ministered to this discomfort. His flock will not leave him the way patients don't leave a beloved healer.

Here is the question for next week:

S.D.R. in Raleigh, NC, asks: Is there a site roughly equivalent to, but for other countries?

Submit your answers here!

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