I'm an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Tennessee. I am retired, but assisting Fr Rob Courtney at Saint James the Less in Madison. My wife, Kathy, and I live on the Cumberland River, just north of Nashville. We have three children and eight grandchildren. I like to fish, make things out of wood, sing and play music (mandolin, uke, learning harmonica), play chess (learning), read, play golf. I like to find out who people are and what they think.
What does it mean to choose life in a world that often chooses death?
Below you will find the final address of Moses to the people of God. These words are worth considering again today in the midst of this country in which so many people are choosing to follow the way of death. Some things to be aware of as we read:
This is not an address to people in general. It is an address first to the chosen people of God, the people who followed Abraham and became known as the Israelites and are now known as Jews.
As such, it is also addressed to followers of Jesus, who we believe is the Christ, the anointed One spoken of in the Hebrew Testament who overcame death and the grave and who summarized all of the Biblical law in the command to love the Lord and love our neighbor.
This is not an address to a particular nation. Not the nation of Israel nor the nation of the United States nor any other nation state, which are all governmental entities where the people of God may live but which do not declare the kingship authority of God nor do they speak for God at any time or in any place.
It is wrong to equate any human rule with the Lord God Almighty or with Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For Christians who follow Biblical teachings, the instrument that God has chosen to spread the good news of the gospel is the Church, in itself a fallible and broken witness.
Our hope does not reside in any human power. Our only hope is in the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth. For we who are Christians, Jesus Christ is this Lord.
Deuteronomy 30:15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
What does it mean for us to choose life? To live as a follower of Jesus Christ is to live as people who areIN the world but also to live as people who do not BELONG TO the world. We proclaim that Jesus Christ is King, but we acknowledge that the broader world does not recognize Jesus as King. As followers of Jesus our task is follow the WAY of JESUS while living among a people who are following a different way.
What is the Way of Jesus? As I wrote above, the briefest description of the Way is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27) The immediate question becomes Who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is immediately given by Jesus in the passage from Luke.
Let me emphasize again that this commandment of Jesus is directed only to the people of God. It is a commandment that makes no sense to the broader world. While there are many wonderful people in the broader world, the inclination of the broader world’s systems is to divide the world into friends and enemies. However, the people of God, when we are in our right mind, remember that we all used to be enemies of God and that God loved us, and God came looking for us, and God brought us into his family any way. While we deserved death, we were given life.
God saved us. God saves us. God gives us LIFE to the full. This is our great joy. We are rooted in God. It is this awareness that enables us to answer the call of Moses. It is this awareness that enables us to answer the call of Jesus. It is this awareness that enables us to choose life.
In the early days of the people of God we find our forebearers wanting a king. Rather than being content to be led by God, they desired to be led by a human ruler. The prophet Samuel warned them about the ways of a king (this is simplified, look at it for yourself), “he will take your children and make them his servants, he will organize armies and raise money for implements of war, he will apportion to himself a part of all you create, and when that happens you will cry out to the Lord for help.”
We, the people who look to the Lord for help, are much like Samuel’s flock. We are often not content to be led by God. We want a human leader whom we can follow. Sometimes the leader is a religious person. Sometimes the leader is a political person. A current trend is the leader who clothes their political worldview with religious garments. The results we see are the same as those predicted by Samuel. People are diminished so that the leader may be powerful. The only leader who desires us to be free human beings is Jesus, the Christ.
How can we know that we are following Jesus in the way that He intended? Jesus said that we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). He said that if we do this we will live in His peace. We can test our discipleship by asking, Is what I say reflecting love for the Lord and love for my neighbor? Am I living in the peace of Jesus? The great thing about living in these troublesome times is that they provide us the opportunity for such self-reflection.
I’ve been doing much of that in the past few days, and I have found myself lacking in many areas. I’m recommitting myself to Jesus. It is not wrong to be troubled by what we see around us. Throughout the Bible we find a desire for justice, freedom from oppression, and a concern for the poor and downtrodden. We are called to live into these virtues. However, we can only do this insofar as we live in relationship to our sovereign Lord, Jeus Christ. Jesus is the solid rock, all other ground is sinking sand.
This is an opinion piece appearing in Christanity Today.
We Worship with the Magi, Not MAGA
Epiphany reminds us that faith is not a prop for political power.
Tish Harrison WarrenJanuary 7, 2021
Yesterday, January 6, was the Feast of Epiphany, when Christians celebrate how the light of Christ spreads to all nations. The season of Epiphany—also called Theophany in the East—focuses on Jesus’ revelation of his true identity to all the world. In the West, it centers on the stories of the Magi (who represent the nations or the Gentiles) finding Jesus through their mysterious stargazing. In the weeks ahead, the Epiphany season recalls the baptism of Christ and the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle.
But what a strange Epiphany we had in the United States. Instead of Magi worshiping a newborn king, MAGA hats descended on our nation’s capital. Instead of the baptism of Christ announcing his true identity, men and women held signs proclaiming “JESUS SAVES” as they demanded to overturn an election. Instead of a miraculous display of love at a wedding feast, we saw a display of political violence.
Epiphany calls us to light and truth. It reminds us that the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in Christ: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3). Light is beautiful, and it is also revelatory. The word epiphanycomes from the word reveal and gestures toward a realization of the truth. To have an epiphany is to grasp reality, to receive insight. In these gospel stories, followers of Jesus begin to slowly understand who he is. They glimpse the truth: The light of the world has come to all people and all ethnic groups.
The season of Epiphany reminds us that we do not just receive the light of Christ. We are charged with sharing it with all the world. But if the nations were watching yesterday—as people destabilized democracy while carrying flags that read “Make America Godly Again”—would any onlooker want anything to do with this Christ?
The violence wrought by Trump supporters storming the Capitol yesterday is anti-epiphany. It is dark and based in untruth. The symbols of faith—Jesus’ name, cross, and message—have been co-opted to serve the cultish end of Trumpism.
In the story of the Magi, King Herod tries to use the wise men as pawns in his own quest to protect his power. He promises that he too is devout, that they can trust him, and then he asks his astronomer visitors where to find Jesus, so that he also “could worship him” (Matt. 2:8). Epiphany therefore reminds us that the very language of worship can be wielded as a weapon of earthly political power.
While what happened at the Capitol yesterday is tragic, it is not surprising. For more than four years, Trump has shown that he is more than willing to say any lie, ignore any standard of decency, and bring any amount of violence and division to shore up his own power. Through manipulative disinformation, he incited an insurrection and has yet to condemn it unequivocally. Like Herod, he is happy to use religious leaders as pawns.
But sadly, in this anti-epiphany, the wise men are not so wise. They willingly comply. So for me, the worst part of yesterday’s insurrection is how it represents an utter failure in the American church. This anti-epiphany reveals the horrid outgrowths of Christian nationalism, faulty spiritual formation, false teaching, political idolatry, and overriding ignorance.
Though it saddens me deeply, it must be clearly admitted: Yesterday’s atrocity was in large part brought to us by the white, evangelical church in America.
An emaciated and malformed evangelical political theology got us where we are now. Jeffrey Goldberg describes the insurrection at the capitol as “chaos … rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety.” He tells how one protestor told him, “It’s all in the Bible … Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible.” Goldberg continues, “The conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally. ‘Give it up if you believe in Jesus!’ a man yelled near me. People cheered. ‘Give it up if you believe in Donald Trump!’”
The light of Christ coming to the nations is good news, but it isn’t always comforting. Light reveals what is hidden. It exposes darkness. And the church must reckon with the “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11, ESV) that this anti-epiphany—and all that has led to it—makes visible. The storming of the Capitol cannot be understood outside the heresy of Christian nationalism peddled by the likes of Josh Hawley, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress; the unhinged apocalyptic Trump-worship of Eric Metaxas; the blasphemies of the Jericho March; and the millions of evangelicals who see Jesus as a means to ill-conceived ideas of American greatness.
I have at times tried to dismiss these leaders and events as fringe, as the crazy cranks and bizarre displays we ought to ignore. I have instead focused on how, day in and day out, pastors and Christian laypeople are seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, to love their neighbor, and to serve the poor, to embody the truth we proclaim this season. But I cannot overlook the reality that millions of evangelicals are swayed by those who proclaim untruth and ugliness in the name of Jesus.
The responsibility of yesterday’s violence must be in part laid at the feet of those evangelical leaders who ushered in and applauded Trump’s presidency. It can also sadly be laid at the feet of the white American church more broadly.
The conflation of the Christian faith and Trumpism did not suddenly spring up in a vacuum four years ago. It arose through decades of poor catechesis and spiritual formation. Through false teaching that the American flag and the cross of Christ do not conflict. Through evangelical leaders who counted losing their souls a small price to pay for grasping political power. Through white supremacist assumptions that snaked their way into church pulpits and pews. And through the belief that the church exists not to show forth the light of Christ to all people but to Make America Great Again.
By contrast, Epiphany tells us of Jesus’ kingship over all the nations, and yesterday’s events show us what happens when we invert that message: Christian faith is used as a tool to prop up political power.
So what are we to do? How can we move forward as Christians when it seems our very churches have become the epicenters of post-truth? How can we walk in the way of Jesus when his illumination has been traded for conspiracy theories and apocalyptic scare tactics? How do we embody beautiful orthodoxy—truth and light—under the long shadow cast by a cross draped in a MAGA flag on the Capitol lawn?
We have to take up the slow work of repair, of re-forming our churches around the deep, unchanging truths of the light of Christ. We must reconstruct communities where we can know and speak truth, serve the needy and the poor, love our neighbors, learn to be poor in spirit, rejoice in suffering, and witness to the light of Christ amid darkness.
This work will be frustratingly small and local, under the radar, and away from the headlines. It will feel paltry and unimportant in the face of the raging nations and widespread ecclesial and national decay. It will be long, risky, and uncertain. But in that meek and humble place, perhaps, with the Magi, we can again find the small star that leads us to the true Light of the World.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night (IVP, 2021).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
President Trump’s effort to overturn the election he lost has gone beyond mere venting of grievances at the risk of damaging the very American democracy he is charged with defending.
Published Jan. 4, 2021Updated Jan. 5, 2021, 6:48 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s relentless effort to overturn the result of the election that he lost has become the most serious stress test of American democracy in generations, one led not by outside revolutionaries intent on bringing down the system but by the very leader charged with defending it.
In the 220 years since a defeated John Adams turned over the White House to his rival, firmly establishing the peaceful transfer of authority as a bedrock principle, no sitting president who lost an election has tried to hang onto power by rejecting the Electoral College and subverting the will of the voters — until now. It is a scenario at once utterly unthinkable and yet feared since the beginning of Mr. Trump’s tenure.
The president has gone well beyond simply venting his grievances or creating a face-saving narrative to explain away a loss, as advisers privately suggested he was doing in the days after the Nov. 3 vote. Instead, he has stretched or crossed the boundaries of tradition, propriety and perhaps the law to find any way he can to cling to office beyond his term that expires in two weeks. That he is almost certain to fail and that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 does not mitigate the damage he is doing to democracy by undermining public faith in the electoral system.
Mr. Trump and his staff have floated the idea of delaying Mr. Biden’s inauguration, even though it is set in stone by the Constitution, and the president met with a former adviser who has publicly urged him to declare martial law to “rerun” the election in states he lost. Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior has so alarmed military commanders who fear he might try to use troops to stay in the White House that every living former defense secretary — including two he appointed himself — issued a warning against the armed forces becoming involved.
Undaunted, the president has encouraged Vice President Mike Pence and congressional allies to do anything they can to block the final formal declaration of Mr. Biden’s victory when Congress meets on Wednesday, seeking to turn what has historically been a ceremonial moment into a last-ditch showdown over the election. The idea has disturbed even many senior Republicans and it is guaranteed to fall short, much to the president’s frustration.
“The ‘Surrender Caucus’ within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective ‘guardians’ of our Nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday, quickly drawing a fact-checking warning label from the social media firm.
He denied subverting democracy, posting a quote he attributed to Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, one of his Republican allies: “We are not acting to thwart the Democratic process, we are acting to protect it.”
But Mr. Trump’s efforts ring familiar to many who have studied authoritarian regimes in countries around the world, like those run by President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.
“Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, and his pressure tactics to that end with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, are an example of how authoritarianism works in the 21st century,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.” “Today’s leaders come in through elections and then manipulate elections to stay in office — until they get enough power to force the hand of legislative bodies to keep them there indefinitely, as Putin and Orban have done.”
The Interpreter: Original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week.
“So what are we going to do here, folks?” Mr. Trump said at one point. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.”
The call was unseemly enough that even some of the president’s allies distanced themselves. “One of the things, I think, that everyone has said is that this call was not a helpful call,” Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, one of the Republicans pushing to reject Biden electors from swing states, conceded on Fox News.
Mr. Trump’s claim that the election was somehow stolen from him has gained no traction in any of the dozens of courts that he and his allies have petitioned, including the Supreme Court, with three justices he appointed. Republican election officials in swing states like Mr. Raffensperger have rejected his assertions as false. Even Mr. Trump’s own attorney general, William P. Barr, said he saw no widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election.
A group of 22 historians released a statement on Monday pointing out that the 2020 election was not even particularly close in historical terms. Mr. Biden won as many or more Electoral College votes as the winning candidates in five elections since 1960 and larger popular vote majorities than in more than half of the presidential elections held in the past six decades.
“Yet in none of these elections did any losing candidate attempt to claim victory by brazenly sabotaging the electoral process as Donald Trump has done and continues to do,” said the letter, organized by Douglas Brinkley of Rice University and Sean Wilentz of Princeton University. Among the signatories was Michael W. McConnell of Stanford University, a former appeals court judge who was effectively repudiating the effort led by one of his former clerks, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri.
Mr. Trump’s fidelity to the concept of American democracy has long been debated. From the earliest days of his campaign for the White House, critics suggested that he harbored autocratic tendencies that raised questions about whether he would eventually subvert democracy or seek to stay in power even if he lost, questions that grew loud enough that he felt compelled to respond. “There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump,” he insisted in 2016.
When Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published their best-selling book, “How Democracies Die,” in 2018, warning that even the United States could slide into autocracy, they faced blowback from some who thought they were overstating the case. “We were criticized by some as alarmist,” Mr. Ziblatt, a government professor at Harvard University, said on Monday. “It turns out we weren’t alarmist enough.”
Mr. Ziblatt said a healthy democracy requires at least two political parties that know how to compete and lose. “I hope and think we will get through the next few weeks,” he said, “but our democracy can’t survive in any recognizable way for long if we don’t have two parties committed to the rules and norms of democracy.”
In the end, this period of conflict and confrontation should not have come as a surprise to anyone who watched Mr. Trump over the past four years. He foreshadowed his plans to challenge the election as invalid unless he won, suggesting as far back as summer that the November vote be postponed and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Even now, just two weeks before the end of his term, Mr. Trump has left doubt about how he will leave the White House when Mr. Biden is inaugurated.
What else Mr. Trump could try to do to stop it remains unclear because he seems out of options. But he is not yet willing to acknowledge the reality of his situation, much less follow John Adams’s example.
The letter — signed by Dick Cheney, James Mattis, Mark Esper, Leon Panetta, Donald Rumsfeld, William Cohen, Chuck Hagel, Robert Gates, William Perry and Ashton Carter — amounts to a remarkable show of force against Trump’s subversion efforts just days before Congress is set to count Electoral College votes.
“Our elections have occurred. Recounts and audits have been conducted. Appropriate challenges have been addressed by the courts. Governors have certified the results. And the electoral college has voted. The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived,” the group wrote. Since Election Day, Trump has falsely claimed that a second term is being stolen, even as there have been no credible allegations of widespread voting issues as affirmed by dozens of judges, governors, and election officials, the Electoral College, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the US Supreme Court.
Still, a wide swath of congressional Republicans are siding with the President and plan to object to Biden’s win during Electoral College counting on Wednesday — even though their efforts will only delay the inevitable affirmation of Biden’s win.
The former Defense secretaries, who collectively represent decades of tenure in the position, wrote that presidential transitions “are a crucial part of the successful transfer of power.”
“They often occur at times of international uncertainty about U.S. national security policy and posture. They can be a moment when the nation is vulnerable to actions by adversaries seeking to take advantage of the situation.”The letter follows Trump’s removal of Esper in November as part of a set of sweeping changes atop the Defense Department’s civilian leadership structure that included the installation of perceived loyalists to the President.
The shakeup put officials inside the Pentagon on edge and fueled a growing sense of alarm among military and civilian officials.And while America’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, told Congress in August that the military won’t help settle any election disputes, the group of former Defense secretaries reiterated in their letter that such an effort “would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”
“Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic,” the letter states.
Cohen, a Republican who served as Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera on “Newsroom” shortly after the letter was published that the “highly unusual” step was warranted given the “unconstitutional path” Trump has taken the country.
“It was really our attempt to call out to the American people. We believe all of them are patriotic. They’ve been led down a path by President Trump, which is an unconstitutional path. And so we felt it was incumbent on us as having served in the Defense Department to say: Please all of you in the Defense Department, you’ve taken an oath to serve this country, this Constitution, not any given individual,” he said. Perry, a Democrat who also served as secretary of defense under Clinton, said in a tweet Sunday evening that the idea for the statement came from Cheney, a Republican who was secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush before becoming vice president to President George W. Bush.
“Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution; that oath does not change according to party designation,” Perry said.
The former Defense secretaries ended their letter urging the Defense Department to “refrain from any political actions” that could undermine the election results or harm the transition to a new administration.
“We call upon them, in the strongest terms, to do as so many generations of Americans have done before them,” the letter states.
“This final action is in keeping with the highest traditions and professionalism of the U.S. armed forces, and the history of democratic transition in our great country.”
This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.
WASHINGTON — President Trump demanded that Georgia’s Republican secretary of state “find” him enough votes to overturn the presidential election, and vaguely threatened him with “a criminal offense,” during an hourlong telephone conversation with him on Saturday, according to audio excerpts from the conversation.
Mr. Trump, who has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his loss to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., told Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, that Mr. Raffensperger should recalculate the vote count so Mr. Trump would win the state’s 16 electoral votes.
“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Mr. Trump said on the call, a recording of which was obtained by The Washington Post, which published excerpts from the audio on its website Sunday. “Because we won the state.”
Mr. Raffensperger rejected the president’s efforts to get him to reverse the election results, which are set to be certified by Congress during a session on Wednesday. Some of Mr. Trump’s allies in the House and the Senate have said they will object to the results of the elections in several states, including Georgia.
But Mr. Raffensperger told Mr. Trump that he stood by the results.
“Well, Mr. President, the challenge is that you have is the data you have is wrong,” he said, according to the audio recording.
During the call, the president offered several false conspiracy theories, including debunked charges that ballots in Fulton County were shredded and that voting machines operated by Dominion Voting Systems were tampered with and replaced. Ryan Germany, the legal counsel in Mr. Raffensperger’s office, can be heard telling the president that such charges are untrue.
“You should want to have an accurate election. And you’re a Republican,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Raffensperger, who replied that “we believe we that we do have an accurate election.”
Mr. Trump responded: “No, no, no, you don’t, you don’t have, you don’t have, not even close. You guys, you’re off by hundreds of thousands of votes.”
Then the president suggested that Mr. Raffensperger could be prosecuted criminally.
“You know what they did and you’re not reporting it,” the president said. “You know, that’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense. And you know, you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. That’s a big risk.”
The president confirmed the call in a tweet Sunday morning, claiming that Mr. Raffensperger “was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the ‘ballots under table’ scam, ballot destruction, out of state ‘voters’, dead voters, and more. He has no clue!”
In a response on Twitter, Mr. Raffensperger wrote: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true. The truth will come out.”
Michael D. Shear is a White House correspondent. He previously worked at The Washington Post and was a member of their Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. @shearm
And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.
It’s been quite a year.
But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.
In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980.
In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure.
But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color.
That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.”
To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate.
With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money.
From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.
After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.
The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters.
And so, 2000 came.
In that year, the presidential election came down to the electoral votes in Florida. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 540,000 votes over Republican candidate George W. Bush, but Florida would decide the election. During the required recount, Republican political operatives led by Roger Stone descended on the election canvassers in Miami-Dade County to stop the process. It worked, and the Supreme Court upheld the end of the recount. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and, thanks to its electoral votes, became president. Voter suppression was a success, and Republicans would use it, and after 2010, gerrymandering, to keep control of the government even as they lost popular support.
Bush had promised to unite the country, but his installation in the White House gave new power to the ideology of the Movement Conservative leaders of the Reagan Revolution. He inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor Democrat Bill Clinton, but immediately set out to get rid of it by cutting taxes. A balanced budget meant money for regulation and social programs, so it had to go. From his term onward, Republicans would continue to cut taxes even as budgets operated in the red, the debt climbed, and money moved upward.
The themes of Republican dominance and tax cuts were the backdrop of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. That attack gave the country’s leaders a sense of mission after the end of the Cold War and, after launching a war in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda, they set out to export democracy to Iraq. This had been a goal for Republican leaders since the Clinton administration, in the belief that the United States needed to spread capitalism and democracy in its role as a world leader. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened the president and the federal government, creating the powerful Department of Homeland Security, for example, and leading Bush to assert the power of the presidency to interpret laws through signing statements.
The association of the Republican Party with patriotism enabled Republicans in this era to call for increased spending for the military and continued tax cuts, while attacking Democratic calls for domestic programs as wasteful. Increasingly, Republican media personalities derided those who called for such programs as dangerous, or anti-American.
But while Republicans increasingly looked inward to their party as the only real Americans and asserted power internationally, changes in technology were making the world larger. The Internet put the world at our fingertips and enabled researchers to decode the human genome, revolutionizing medical science. Smartphones both made communication easy. Online gaming created communities and empathy. And as many Americans were increasingly embracing rap music and tattoos and LGBTQ rights, as well as recognizing increasing inequality, books were pointing to the dangers of the power concentrating at the top of societies. In 1997, J.K. Rowling began her exploration of the rise of authoritarianism in her wildly popular Harry Potter books, but her series was only the most famous of a number of books in which young people conquered a dystopia created by adults.
In Bush’s second term, his ideology created a perfect storm. His administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and caused $125 billion in damage in and around New Orleans in 2005, revealed how badly the new economy had treated Black and Brown people, and how badly the destruction of domestic programs had affected our ability to respond to disasters. Computers permitted the overuse of credit default swaps that precipitated the 2008 crash, which then precipitated the housing crisis, as people who had bet on the individualist American dream lost their homes. Meanwhile, the ongoing wars, plagued with financial and moral scandals, made it clear that the Republicans optimistic vision of spreading democracy through military conflict was unrealistic.
In 2008, voters put Black American Barack Obama, a Democrat, into the White House. To Republicans, primed by now to believe that Democrats and Black people were socialists, this was an undermining of the nation itself, and they set out to hamper him. While many Americans saw Obama as the symbol of a new, fairer government with America embracing a multilateral world, reactionaries built a backlash based in racism and sexism. They vocally opposed a federal government they insisted was pushing socialism on hardworking white men, and insisted that America must show its strength by exerting its power unilaterally in the world. Increasingly, the Internet and cell phones enabled people to have their news cater to their worldview, moving Republicans into a world characterized by what a Republican spokesperson would later call “alternative facts.”
And so, in 2016, we faced a clash between a relentlessly changing nation and the individualist ideology of the Movement Conservatives who had taken over the Republican Party. By then, that ideology had become openly radical extremism in the hands of Donald Trump, who referred to immigrants as criminals, boasted of sexually assaulting women, and promised to destroy the New Deal government once and for all.
In the 2016 election, the themes of the past 36 years came together. Embracing Movement Conservative individualist ideology taken to an extreme, Trump was eager enough to make sure a Democrat didn’t win that, according to American intelligence services, he was willing to accept the help of Russian operatives. They, in turn, influenced the election through the manipulation of new social media, amplified by what had become by then a Republican echo chamber in which Democrats were dangerous socialists and the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a criminal. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision which permitted corporate money to flow into election campaigns, Trump also had the help of a wave of money from big business; financial institutions spent $2 billion to influence the election. He also had the support of evangelicals, who believed he would finally give them the anti-abortion laws they wanted.
Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but, as George W. Bush before him, won in the Electoral College. Once in office, this president set out to destroy the New Deal state, as Movement Conservatives had called for, returning the country to the control of a small group of elite businessmen who, theoretically, would know how to move the country forward best by leveraging private sector networks and innovation. He also set out to put minorities and women back into subordinate positions, recreating a leadership structure that was almost entirely white and male.
As Trump tried to destroy an activist government once and for all, Americans woke up to how close we have come to turning our democracy over to a small group of oligarchs.
In the past four years, the Women’s March on Washington and the MeToo Movement has enabled women to articulate their demand for equality. The travel ban, child separation policy for Latin American refugees, and Trump’s attacks on Muslims, Latin American immigrants, and Chinese immigrants, has sparked a defense of America’s history of immigration. The Black Lives Matter Movement, begun in July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin, has gained power as Black Americans have been murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers and white vigilantes, and as Black Americans have borne witness to those murders with cellphone videos.
The increasing voice of democracy clashed most dramatically with Trump’s ideology in summer 2020 when, with the support of his Attorney General William Barr, Trump used the law enforcement officers of the Executive Branch to attack peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C. and in Portland, Oregon. In June, on the heels of the assault on the protesters at Lafayette Square, military officers from all branches made it clear that they would not support any effort to use them against civilians. They reiterated that they would support the Constitution. The refusal of the military to support a further extension of Trump’s power was no small thing.
And now, here we are. Trump lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes and by an Electoral College split of 306 to 232. Although the result was not close, Trump refuses to acknowledge the loss and is doing all he can to hamper Biden’s assumption of office. Many members of the Republican Party are joining him in his attempt to overturn the election, taking the final, logical step of Movement Conservatism: denying the legitimacy of anyone who does not share their ideology. This is unprecedented. It is a profound attack on our democracy. But it will not succeed.
And in this moment, we have, disastrously, discovered the final answer to whether or not it is a good idea to destroy the activist government that has protected us since 1933. In their zeal for reducing government, the Trump team undercut our ability to respond to a pandemic, and tried to deal with the deadly coronavirus through private enterprise or by ignoring it and calling for people to go back to work in service to the economy, willing to accept huge numbers of dead. They have carried individualism to an extreme, insisting that simple public health measures designed to save lives infringe on their liberty.
The result has been what is on track to be the greatest catastrophe in American history, with more than 338,000 of us dead and the disease continuing to spread like wildfire. It is for this that the Trump administration will be remembered, but it is more than that. It is a fitting end to the attempt to destroy our government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
FBI team leader: How I know the Blackwater defendants didn’t deserve a pardon from Trump
Thomas O’Connor served for 23 years as an FBI special agent before retiring in 2019. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
(CNN) — The President of the United States has the power to grant a pardon to anyone he believes deserves one. This is an incredible power when used for good. There are cases where the US justice system gets it wrong and cases where the defendants had served their time and were now doing good things. However, none of those fact patterns are present in President Donald Trump’s pardon of four Blackwater security guards serving time for their involvement in the killing of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad on September 16, 2007.
I know that these men were undeserving of pardons because I was a member of The FBI Evidence Response Team that traveled to Iraq and investigated the site of these killings.
I am not a writer, an academic or one who has frequently spoken out publicly on political issues. I am a 35-year law enforcement professional. I retired on September 11, 2019, after 23 years as FBI special agent. I was a team leader on the FBI’s Washington Field Office, Evidence Response Team for more than 20 years. I have investigated many violent crimes and acts of terrorism around the world, including the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attack at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
The most important rule for me during these deployments to major crime scenes: Don’t look at the crime and fit the forensic evidence to match a perceived narrative; instead, look at the forensic evidence that will show the story of the event. By letting the evidence lead the direction of the investigation, the FBI Evidence Response Teams and the FBI Laboratory have an important role of speaking for the victims who cannot tell their story.
On September 16, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq, was a dangerous place. No one will dispute that fact. On that day, a bombing took place a few miles from a busy traffic circle called Al Nisour Square, which is used by Iraqis to access major roadways across Baghdad.
The team leader then chose to violate the orders and left the US Green Zone anyway. The four Blackwater armored trucks were captured on video leaving the green zone. They drove out to Nisour Square, turned left and entered the traffic circle, blocking the northbound traffic, the southbound traffic and the traffic entering the circle from the west.Two Iraqi traffic officers stopped the traffic going toward the four armored vehicles. One of the first cars in that stopped traffic was a white KIA occupied by a woman and her son. The woman was a local doctor and the son, who was driving the car, was going to medical school to follow in his mother’s footsteps.
What happened next began the Nisour Square shootings.
In examining the white KIA, I was able to count 38 bullet entry points, and that does not account for the numerous rounds that entered through the windshield that no longer existed. We recovered a black steel tip rifle round from the steering wheel of the white KIA. This type of ammunition is against the rules of engagement in a US sanctioned war zone and in violation of US Military and Blackwater regulations.
A few cars back in the traffic was a blue Suzuki Trooper and inside were two families. The driver was Mohammed and his 9-year-old son Ali sat in the rear seat behind his father. In the front passenger seat was Mohammed’s sister. Ali’s two young female cousins sat next to him in the back seat.
Gunfire erupted and everyone in the car laid down in his or her seats as bullets hit the front of the trooper. At a break in the gunfire, likely during reloading, one of the little girls in the back seat yelled that “Ali has no hair.” When the shooting stopped and the Blackwater team began to move, Mohammed exited the driver door and opened a rear passenger door. Ali, who had been slumped against the door, fell into his father’s arms. Ali had been struck with a Blackwater round, which entered the rear driver side door and hit the boy in the head. As his father reached for his 9-year-old son, Ali’s brains fell out onto the street and onto his father’s feet.
The Blackwater Raven 23 defendants claimed that they responded to gunfire aimed at them while stopping traffic in Nisour Square that day. I believed this to be the case before we deployed to Iraq for this crime scene investigation. I had worked with Blackwater operators on previous deployments to Iraq and they were good people doing a difficult job in a dangerous environment. That said, I would let the evidence lead the investigation and assist the agents in finding the truth.
The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free thanks to a pardon by the President of the United States. This simply makes me sad and angry. I spoke to Mohammed this morning. He told me he could no longer tell his family and the people of Baghdad that the system worked and justice was found for Ali. Mohammed asked me one more question. Could this pardon be changed? I told him “no.” I could not say Inshallah. The purpose of my writing this piece is to introduce you to these victims.
There is no forensic evidence of anyone shooting at the Blackwater team. How do I know? The evidence told me that.
First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly inclusive figure he was, and what was true then is still true today.
Dec. 24, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
Paul Wehner, New York Times
“Get used to different.”
That line comes from a marvelous new TV series on Jesus’ life, “The Chosen,” in which Jesus, played by Jonathan Roumie, invites Matthew to become one of his disciples. Simon Peter, already a disciple, registers his fierce objection. Matthew is a tax collector, who were viewed as tools of Roman authorities, often dishonest and abusive. They were therefore treated as traitors and outcasts by other Jews.
“I don’t get it,” Simon Peter says to Jesus about his decision to invite Matthew, to which Jesus responds, “You didn’t get it when I chose you, either.”
“But this is different,” Simon Peter answers. “I’m not a tax collector.” At which point Jesus let’s Simon Peter know things aren’t going to be quite what his followers expected.
First-century Christians weren’t prepared for what a truly radical and radically inclusive figure Jesus was, and neither are today’s Christians. We want to tame and domesticate who he was, but Jesus’ life and ministry don’t really allow for it. He shattered barrier after barrier.
One example is Jesus’ encounter, in the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus and the woman talked about Jesus being the Messiah, why he was even deigning to talk with her, and the unnamed woman’s past and present, which she initially sought to hide from Jesus. (It included her five previous husbands, according to the account in John, and the fact that “the one whom you now have is not your husband.”) Yet not a word of condemnation passed the lips of Jesus; the woman felt heard, understood, cared for. Jesus treated her, in the words of one commentator, “with a magnetic dignity and respect.”
The encounter with Jesus transformed her life; after it the woman at the well became “the first woman preacher in Christian history,” proclaiming Jesus to be the savior of the world to her community, according to the New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey.
This story is a striking example of Jesus’ rejection of conventional religious and cultural thinking — in this case because Jesus, a man, was talking earnestly to a woman in a world in which women were often demeaned and treated as second-class citizens; and because Jesus, a Jew, was talking to a Samaritan, who were despised by the Jews for reasons going back centuries. According to Professor Bailey, “A Samaritan woman and her community are sought out and welcomed by Jesus. In the process, ancient racial, theological and historical barriers are breached. His message and his community are for all.”
This happened time and again with Jesus. He touched lepers and healed a woman who had a constant flow of menstrual blood, both of whom were considered impure; forgave a woman “who lived a sinful life” and told her to “go in peace,” healed a paralytic and a blind man, people thought to be worthless and useless. And as Jesus was being crucified, he told the penitent thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus was repeatedly attacked for hanging out with the wrong crowd and recruited his disciples from the lower rungs of society.
And Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, a story about a man who helps a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, made the hero of the story not an influential priest, not a person of social rank or privilege but a hated foreigner.
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For Christians, the incarnation is a story of God, in the person of Jesus, participating in the human drama. And in that drama Jesus was most drawn to the forsaken and despised, the marginalized, those who had stumbled and fallen. He was beloved by them, even as he was targeted and eventually killed by the politically and religiously powerful, who viewed Jesus as a grave threat to their dominance.
Over the course of my faith journey, I have wondered: Why was a hallmark of Jesus’s ministry intimacy with and the inclusion of the unwanted and the outcast, men and women living in the shadow of society, more likely to be dismissed than noticed, more likely to be mocked than revered?
Part of the explanation surely has to do with the belief in the imago Dei, that Jesus sees indelible dignity and inestimable worth in every person, even “the least of these.” If no one else would esteem them, Jesus would.
Among the people who best articulated this ethic was Abraham Lincoln, who in a 1858 speech in Lewiston, Ill., in which he explained the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, said, “Nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”
Yet another reason for Jesus’ connection with outcasts undoubtedly had to do with his compassion and empathy, his desire to relieve their pain and lift the soul-crushing shame that accompanies being a social pariah and an untouchable.
But that is hardly the only reason. Jesus modeled inclusion and solidarity with the “unclean” and marginalized not only for their sake but for the sake of the powerful and the privileged and for the good of the whole.
Jesus must have understood that we human beings battle with exclusion, self-righteousness and arrogance, and have a quick trigger finger when it comes to judging others. Jesus knew how easily we could fall into the trap of turning “the other” — those of other races, ethnicities, classes, genders and nations — into enemies. We place loyalty to the tribe over compassion and human connection. We view differences as threatening; the result is we become isolated, rigid in our thinking, harsh and unforgiving.
Jesus clearly believed that outcasts had a lot to teach the privileged and the powerful, including the virtues of humility and the vice of supreme certitude. Rather than seeing God exclusively as a moral taskmaster, Jesus understood that the weak and dispossessed often experience God in a different way — as a dispenser of grace, a source of comfort, a redeemer. They see the world, and God, through a different prism than do the powerful and the proud. The lowly in the world offer a corrective to the spiritual astigmatisms that develop among the rest of us.
It’s easy for us to look back 20 centuries and see how religious authorities were too severe and unforgiving in how they treated the outcasts of their time. The wisest question those of us who are Christians could ask ourselves isn’t why we are so much more humane and enlightened than they were; rather, it is to ask ourselves who the modern outcasts are and whether we’re mistreating them. Who are the tax collectors of our era, the people we despise but whom Jesus would welcome, those around whom are we determined to build a “dividing wall of hostility,” to use the imagery of the Apostle Paul?
“How Christians, including me, responded to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s haunts me,” my longtime friend Scott Dudley, senior pastor of Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., recently told me. “Had we, like the first Christians, cared first and cared most for modern day ‘plague’ victims, I think we’d be in a whole different conversation with the L.G.B.T.Q. community. We may still have significant differences of opinion. However, I believe the dialogue would be one of more mutual respect, and I believe the L.G.B.T.Q. community would feel less afraid of the wounds Christians can inflict.” But even if the conversation were not different, as Scott knows, caring first and caring most for those victims of a plague would have been the right thing to do.
No society and no religious faith can live without moral rules. Jesus wasn’t an antinomian, one who believes that Christians, because they are saved by grace, are not bound to religious laws. But he understood that what ultimately changes people’s lives are relationships rather than rule books, mercy rather than moral demands.
Jesus’ teachings are so challenging, so distinct from normal human reactions and behaviors, that we constantly have to renew our commitment to them. Every generation of Christians need to think through how his example applies to the times in which they live. We need our sensibilities to align more with his. Otherwise, we drift into self-righteousness and legalism, even to the point that we corrupt the very institution, the church, which was created to worship him and to love others.
The lesson from Jesus’ life and ministry is that understanding people’s stories and struggles requires much more time and effort than condemning them, but it is vastly more rewarding. And the lesson of Christmas and the incarnation, at least for those of us of the Christian faith, is that all of us were once outcasts, broken yet loved, and worth reaching out to and redeeming.
If God did that for us, why do we find it so hard to do it for each other
Buried in Pandemic Aid Bill: Billions to Soothe the Richest
The voluminous coronavirus relief and spending bill that blasted through Congress on Monday includes provisions — good, bad and just plain strange — that few lawmakers got to read.
Published Dec. 22, 2020Updated Dec. 23, 2020, 8:28 a.m. ET
WASHINGTON — Tucked away in the 5,593-page spending bill that Congress rushed through on Monday night is a provision that some tax experts call a $200 billion giveaway to the rich.
It involves the tens of thousands of businesses that received loans from the federal government this spring with the promise that the loans would be forgiven, tax free, if they agreed to keep employees on the payroll through the coronavirus pandemic.
But for some businesses and their high-paid accountants, that was not enough. They went to Congress with another request: Not only should the forgiven loans not be taxed as income, but the expenditures used with those loans should be tax deductible.
“High-income business owners have had tax benefits and unprecedented government grants showered down upon then. And the scale is massive,” said Adam Looney, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Treasury Department tax official in the Obama administration, who estimated that $120 billion of the $200 billion would flow to the top 1 percent of Americans.
The new provision allows for a classic double dip into the Payroll Protection Program, as businesses get free money from the government, then get to deduct that largess from their taxes.
And it is one of hundreds included in a huge spending package and a coronavirus stimulus bill that is supposed to help businesses and families struggling during the pandemic but, critics say, swerved far afield. President Trump on Tuesday night blasted it as a disgrace and demanded revisions.
But there is also much grumbling over other provisions that lawmakers had not fully reviewed, and a process that left most of them and the public in the dark until after the bill was passed. The anger was bipartisan.
“Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, tweeted on Monday. “This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking.”
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, agreed — the two do not agree on much.
“It’s ABSURD to have a $2.5 trillion spending bill negotiated in secret and then—hours later—demand an up-or-down vote on a bill nobody has had time to read,” he tweeted on Monday.
The items jammed into the bill are varied and at times bewildering. The bill would make it a felony to offer illegal streaming services. One provision requires the C.I.A. to report back to Congress on the activities of Eastern European oligarchs tied to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The federal government would be required to set up a program aimed at eradicating the murder hornet and to crack down on online sales of e-cigarettes to minors.
It authorizes 93 acres of federal lands to be used for the construction of the Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota and creates an independent commission to oversee horse racing, a priority of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.
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Mr. McConnell inserted that item to get around the objections of a Democratic senator who wanted it amended, but he received agreement from other congressional leaders.
Alexander M. Waldrop, the chief executive of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said on Tuesday that Mr. McConnell had “said many times he feared for the future of horse racing and the impact on the industry, which of course is critical to Kentucky.”
That the racing legislation — versions of which the industry had debated for years — passed as part of the Covid-19 relief bill was of no particular mind, Mr. Waldrop said.
“It just developed this way over the last several weeks,” he said. “The only approach left to us was a federally sanctioned, independent, self-regulatory organization. It was our only viable option left, and this legislation accomplishes that.”
But the tax provisions — including extending a $2.5 billion break for racecar tracks and allowing a $6.3 billion write-off for business meals, derided as the “three-martini lunch” expense — have prompted the most hand-wringing.
The bill also lowers some taxes on alcoholic beverages.
No break is bigger, however, than the deductions that will soon be permitted under the Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses had been lobbying the Treasury Department and the I.R.S. since the spring to deduct spending from the program’s loans, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was firmly opposed, saying deducting expenditures from funds not considered taxable income violated “Tax 101.”
The Paycheck Protection Program was the most visible part of the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts in the spring to keep small businesses afloat. So far, the government has distributed more than $500 billion in loans, which could be forgiven and turned into permanent grants as long as the businesses use most of the money to pay workers andkeep people employed.
In passing the law in the spring, Congress explicitly said that the Paycheck Protection Program funds should not be included as taxable income — unlike, say, unemployment benefits.
Despite that largess, businesses wanted more. In May, the heads of the tax-writing committees — Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts — wrote Mr. Mnuchin urging him to reconsider his opposition.
“Small businesses need help maintaining their cash flow, not more strains on it,” they wrote.
But a Brookings Institution analysis said the change would help far more wealthy than mom-and-pop business owners.
“So there’s no cost on the way in and no cost on the way out — those two don’t add up,” said Richard L. Reinhold, the former chairman of the tax department at Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a professor at Cornell Law School. Congress could have simply expanded the program, but instead it did it almost by stealth, through a tax deduction.
“That’s the part that is troublesome,” he said.
Although there had been discussion of limiting the deduction to Paycheck Protection Program recipients below a certain income threshold, the final provision was made available to anyone, regardless of income.
That 1 percent included high-priced law firms like Boies Schiller Flexner and the operator of New York’s biggest horse tracks, which received the maximum loan amount of $10 million.
“The year 2020 is going to be one of the most unequal years in modern history,” Mr. Looney said. “Part of the inequity is the effect of Covid, which hammered service sectors the most and allowed rich, educated people to work on Zoom. But the government totally compounded these inequities with their response.”
Yet in the end, only six senators, all Republicans, voted against the coronavirus relief package and spending bill, mostly citing fiscal concerns about runaway spending, while 85 House members — a mix of Democrats and Republicans — voted against its military provisions. The bill increased military spending by about $5 billion.
Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, opposed the military spending but voted for other aspects of the bill. He and his liberal colleagues had lobbied for direct payments for most Americans as part of a relief package, and he said he shared colleagues’ concerns about a lack of time to review the final piece of legislation.
“We need a better system to have members review online text as it is being drafted and have input,” Mr. Khanna said. “That said, leadership did keep us informed on almost daily calls about the essential aspects of the bills and the issues at stake.”
Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and one of the leaders of the bipartisan group that pushed for a $900 billion stimulus, said leadership intentionally waited until the last minute to unveil final proposals.
“Leadership likes the process the way it is,” he said. “Wait until the deadline, and then there’s no input at all. They say, take this or not. I’m sick and tired of how this game has been played.”
“What you see at the end of every Congress is a clearing of the decks,” said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “It’s all the stuff we wanted to pass but couldn’t. Everybody would love for legislation to be passed individually, but that is really a function of a bygone era that is not coming back.”
“There’s a lot of good stuff,” he said, “but something definitely gets snuck in.”
Luke Broadwater covers Congress. He was the lead reporter on a series of investigative articles at the Baltimore Sun that won a Pulitzer Prize and a George Polk Award in 2020. @lukebroadwater
Jesse Drucker is an investigative reporter for the Business desk. He previously worked for The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News where he won a pair of awards in 2011 for investigative and explanatory reporting from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for a series on how U.S. multinationals shift profits into tax havens. @JesseDrucker
Rebecca Ruiz is an investigative reporter based in New York. She previously worked for the Washington Bureau, the sports section and the business section. @rebeccaruizA version of this article appears in print on Dec. 23, 2020, Section A, Page 7 of the New York edition with the headline: Among Items Buried In 5,593-Page Package: Billions for the Richest. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | SubscribeThe historic moments, head-spinning developments and inside-the-White House intrigue.