Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, Socialism On the March Edition

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, speaking to the press after announcing his candidacy for president. Here's something I wrote about him earlier today.

Indulging the Lunatics on the Right

Ask a Republican about the elaborate conspiracy theories that are so popular with many on the far right, and she's likely to respond that, sure, those people are there, but liberals have their wackos, too. But there is a difference, in not just how far to the center of Republican power the wackos get (consider how many Republican members of Congress still aren't sure that Barack Obama was born in the United States), but in the way the wackos are treated by the rest of the party. Which brings us to Texas:

Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Guard to monitor federal military exercises in Texas after some citizens have lit up the Internet saying the maneuvers are actually the prelude to martial law.

The operation causing rampant suspicions is a new kind of exercise involving elite teams such as the SEALs and Green Berets from four military branches training over several states from July 15 to Sept. 15

Called Jade Helm 15, the exercise is one of the largest training operations done by the military in response to what it calls the evolving nature of warfare. About 1,200 special operations personnel will be involved and move covertly among the public. They will use military equipment to travel between seven Southwestern states from Texas to California.

On Monday, command spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria attended a Bastrop County Commissioners Court meeting to answer community questions and was met with hostile fire. Lastoria, in response to some of the questions from the 150 who attended, sought to dispel fears that foreign fighters from the Islamic State were being brought in or that Texans’ guns would be confiscated, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman.

So in response to the fact that some of Texas's dumbest citizens emerged from their doomsday prepper shelters long enough to harangue a colonel about their belief that martial law is coming to their state, Governor Abbott issued an order to the National Guard to monitor the movements of the U.S. military just to make sure they aren't herding citizens into re-education camps or dropping Islamic State infiltrators into Galveston. I guess we're safe from that, for the moment anyway.

Every politician encounters nutballs from time to time, and it isn't always easy to figure out how to respond to them. But what's remarkable about this is that we aren't talking about an offhand remark Abbott made, or an occasion in which a constituent went on a rant to him and he nodded along to be friendly instead of saying, "You, sir, are out of your mind." This is an official action the governor is taking. He's mobilizing state resources, at taxpayer expense, because of a bizarre conspiracy theory that has some of Texas's more colorful citizens in its grip.

It's really hard to keep people from believing outlandish things. But you don't have to indulge them. And that's what so many Republicans do with the crazies on their side: They indulge them. Doing so doesn't reassure them or calm them down, it only convinces them that they were right all along and encourages them to believe the next crazy thing they hear.

So please, Republicans, next time you're tempted to say that extremism and fantastical thinking are just as prevalent and meaningful on the left as on the right, remember this.

The Baltimore Police Department's Extraordinary Explanation for Why Freddie Gray Is Dead

I can only imagine the kind of siege mentality that prevails within the Baltimore Police Department right now. Not only are the city's residents protesting daily (and on one night those protests turned violent), but reporters from around the country are now examining the force's less-than-stellar record when it comes to cases of abuse and brutality, and who knows what they'll find. There's little doubt that some time soon the city's leadership will demand investigations, commissions, or some kind of effort that could lead to serious reform of the department. At a time like this, it may be understandable if the police brass isn't quite thinking straight. Which would be one explanation for the story that they presented to The Washington Post:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray "banging against the walls" of the vehicle and believed that he "was intentionally trying to injure himself," according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

The prisoner, who is currently in jail, was separated from Gray by a metal partition and could not see him. His statement is contained in an application for a search warrant, which is sealed by the court. The Post was given the document under the condition that the prisoner not be named because the person who provided it feared for the inmate's safety.

The document, written by a Baltimore police investigator, offers the first glimpse of what might have happened inside the van. It is not clear whether any additional evidence backs up the prisoner's version, which is just one piece of a much larger probe.

I'm going to choose my words carefully here, because I have no direct evidence in this case to contradict this story. But ... do the Baltimore police actually expect anyone to believe this?

I suppose it's possible that Gray, overcome with anger at being arrested, could have slammed himself into the side of the van so hard as to sever his own spine. But when I say "possible," I mean that in the same sense that it's possible that I could jump off my roof, do a quintuple somersault in the air, then land, uninjured, in perfect balance perched on the radio antenna of my car, standing on my nose. You could probably come up with an explanation in which that event did not actually violate the laws of physics. So it's possible.

But it's also possible—and just a smidge more likely—that the cops used some of the means of persuasion at their disposal to convince this unnamed person to say he heard a bunch of banging in the back of the van. And it isn't as though we have to search too far to find a more likely explanation for what happened to Freddie Gray. As The Baltimore Sun reported, there have been multiple cases in recent years of the city's police inflicting "rough rides" on people in custody, tossing them in the back of a van without a seatbelt, then careening around the streets and stopping short so the prisoner is hurled through the compartment of the van. In at least two cases before Gray's, suspects subjected to a rough ride by Baltimore police sustained spinal injuries that left them paralyzed.  

If that's what happened to Gray, it wouldn't be surprising if Baltimore police thought they could get away with claiming that he did it to himself, no matter how implausible such an explanation is for the injuries that killed him. After all, it wouldn't be the first or even the thousandth time that cops claimed that injuries a prisoner sustained were actually self-inflicted. He fell down. He banged his head on the car door. He jumped into my fist. They might also look to the 2014 case in Louisiana of Victor White, who died after being shot while in police custody after being arrested for possessing marijuana.

Despite the fact that White was in the back of a squad car, with his hands cuffed behind his back, and had already been searched by police, they claimed that he had hidden a gun that police failed to find, took it out, and shot himself in the chest. While his hands were cuffed behind his back. What's so stunning about Victor White's case isn't just that the police would offer such a fantastical explanation for why he ended up dead, but that it worked: White's death was ruled a suicide.

If a police force elsewhere can tell that story in the case of a suspect who died in their custody and get away with it, why can't the Baltimore police say that Freddie Gray severed his own spine by slamming himself into the side of a van? After all, it's possible.

Photo of the Day, Ridiculous Overreaction Edition

That's Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles, hitting a home run in today's game against the Chicago White Sox before an empty Camden Yards. The game was held as scheduled, but fans were barred from watching it because of fears that rioters would storm the stadium and massacre everyone inside, or something like that. 

Sheldon Adelson Will Not Be Ignored

Sheldon Adelson has never struck me as a brilliant guy, but I admit I don't have much to go on in making that judgment. Maybe it's the spectacularly ridiculous dyed-red combover that makes him seem like such a comical figure, but who knows. What we do know is that all—or almost all—Republican presidential candidates desperately want his money.

But it seems that Sheldon is seriously ticked off at Jeb Bush. Eliana Johnson of the National Review reports:

The bad blood between Bush and Adelson is relatively recent, and it deepened with the news that former secretary of state James Baker, a member of Bush's foreign-policy advisory team, was set to address J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel organization founded to serve as the antithesis to the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

J Street has routinely staked out liberal views anathema to those held by Adelson and his allies. Adelson sent word to Bush's camp in Miami: Bush, he said, should tell Baker to cancel the speech. When Bush refused, a source describes Adelson as "rips***"; another says Adelson sent word that the move cost the Florida governor "a lot of money."

Let's keep in mind that there's no question that any of the the Republican candidates will be anything less than fully supportive of the Likud vision for Israel's future, which is Adelson's top priority. You'd think that Adelson would be able to live with the fact that former secretary of state and longtime Republican macher James Baker spoke to a liberal group and also is one of what I presume are a dozen or more informal foreign policy advisers to Jeb Bush. But apparently not.

Jeb can live without Adelson's money; he's not having any trouble raising funds, and if he becomes the GOP nominee, Adelson will come around. But what's unusual about this story is the fact that Adelson thinks he can tell presidential candidates whom their advisors can and can't give a speech to.

That brings things down to an unusually specific level that we don't ordinarily see. In this relationship, both the billionaire and the politician tell themselves a story in which everyone has the noblest of motives. The donor tells himself that his contributions are motivated solely by his concern for the country, and he only wants to help those who share his philosophy (and defeat those who don't.) He doesn't tell the politician what to think and do; he's just there to offer his wise counsel as a successful businessman and concerned American. The politician might listen to him, or he might not, and when he usually does, that's just evidence of how wise the billionaire is. The politician tells himself that his integrity is unsullied by money, since he makes his own decisions and is not swayed by the billionaire, even if he just happens to support all the things the billionaire wants.

Had Jeb actually told Baker not to go to J Street solely to make Adelson happy, it would have been hard for him to stay convinced that he was still pure. It's because the question is so trivial that it necessitated standing up to Adelson.

Adelson may have built a lot of casinos, but I don't think he understands much about politics, not only what works but which fights are worth having (this is, after all, a man who thought putting $20 million behind Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign was a wise investment). Say what you will about Charles and David Koch, but I couldn't see them making the same mistake. 

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