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“There are three ways in which we may rule,” said Charles Aycock, then the soon-to-be governor of North Carolina, to his supporters in 1900. “By force, by fraud or by law. We have ruled by force; we can rule by fraud; but we want to rule by law.”

Aycock was rallying his fellow white supremacists not only for his own election, but also to pass a state constitutional amendment that would, in effect, disenfranchise most black voters. By modern standards, this was a startlingly revelatory admission: Whites were willing to govern under the rule of law, Aycock was saying, but only if they could dictate its terms. But they were also willing to use force or fraud to dictate those terms.

Indeed, white supremacists had used recently used force to accomplish that goal, during the November 1898 Wilmington coup, overthrowing a municipal government deemed too friendly to African Americans and murdering at least 60 black men. They used fraud, too: Aycock and the so-called Suffrage Amendment both prevailed that November by a roughly 60–40 spread—according to the unlikely tallies of Democratic clerks.

For the next 70 years, having cheated and bullied their way to absolutely power, white supremacists got to write the laws.

I thought of Aycock’s quote—captured in David Zucchino’s forthcoming book, Wilmington’s Lie—and the sense of entitlement behind it, when I read the letter the White House dispatched to the House of Representatives last week, calling the impeachment proceedings illegitimate and saying the administration wouldn’t participate.

“You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and Constitutionally mandated due process,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone told House leaders on Oct. 8. Since the White House judged the case against Trump “baseless,” the president “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.”

From a legal perspective, Cipollone’s letter is patently absurd. Impeachment is spelled out in the Constitution; it, by definition, cannot be unconstitutional. The administration can’t simply declare the president innocent and therefore ignore congressional subpoenas. As Gregg Nunziata, the former chief counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, put it, the letter was a “barely lawyered temper tantrum” and a “middle finger to Congress.”

It was the latest in a string of them.

That same day, Trump’s Department of Justice was in federal court arguing that the courts had erred four decades ago by allowing Congress to review transcripts of Watergate grand-jury proceedings. The House Judiciary Committee now wants to review Robert Mueller’s grand jury materials, and—for some unfathomable reason—the DOJ is desperate to stop that from happening.

Also that day, the State Department ordered Gordon Sondland—the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and now a key player in the Ukraine scandal, who also owns Provenance Hotels, which includes Palm Springs’ Villa Royale—not to appear for a scheduled congressional deposition. Text messages between Sondland and former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker released by Congress appear to show that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine unless the country indulged Trump’s conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and reopened an investigation into Joe Biden’s son—except for one, in September, in which Sondland assured the head of the embassy in Kiev that he was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions” and that there was “no quid pro quo.”

Sondland was awarded the ambassadorship after giving Trump’s inauguration committee $1 million; his appointment was championed by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to whom he gave $17,900, and his wife gave $57,900, according to Open Secrets.

In addition, Rudy Giuliani announced that he would disregard a House subpoena for documents and dared Congress told hold him in contempt.

It didn’t take long for dominoes to begin falling. Two of Giuliani’s henchmen were arrested boarding one-way flights out of the country, accused of routing hundreds of thousands of Russian dollars into Republican political campaigns in an effort to, among other things, oust the American ambassador to Ukraine—which Trump did. Giuliani himself is said to be under investigation.

Meanwhile, Sondland is testifying over the State Department’s objections, and The Washington Post reported that he plans to say that Trump dictated his “no quid pro quo” message to the Ukrainian embassy. And according to The Wall Street Journal, in August, Sondland had told U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that Ukrainian aid was directly tied to these investigations.

The White House knows the direction in which this is going. The only recourse is to paint the exercise as illegitimate—to assert, as Richard Nixon did, that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal”—and to hope the president’s supporters, cheered on by the president’s propaganda machine, choose not to care.

Charles Aycock was a white supremacist, but that’s not the thing that most tightly binds him to Donald Trump. Instead, it’s the authoritarian sense that that the rule of law exists to further their interests and can be ignored when it restrains them.

By force, by fraud or by law.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

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As world leaders—without President Donald Trump—gathered Monday for a United Nations summit on global warming, former Gov. Jerry Brown and China’s top climate official formally launched a California-China Climate Institute to research ways to combat climate change.

Brown, who was to speak by phone from California, announced the initiative with China’s Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs Xie Zhenhua in New York, where officials from some 60 countries were convened for a United Nations Climate Action Summit in advance of the U.N. General Assembly.

Brown, who made the fight against climate change a signature issue of his second stint as governor, will partner with Xie in overseeing the institute, which will be housed at UC Berkeley, his alma mater. The goal, he said, will be to encourage climate action through research, training and collaboration—a contrast to Trump, whose administration is engaged in a trade war with China and who last week referred to its government as “a threat to the world.”

In an interview with CalMatters, Brown said the research initiative was less about politics than about addressing a crisis he has repeatedly referred to as “existential.” However, he did note the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama, and the increasingly fraught relations between the Trump administration and China.

“As storm clouds continue to darken relations between China and the United States, climate change is a way to keep the doors open,” Brown said. “We are going to do something important during this rather dismal state in our mutual relationship.”

Trump’s stand on climate change, Brown said, is “bordering not only malfeasance but is almost criminal behavior.” His decision to pull out of the Paris Accord is “worthy of condemnation by decent people everywhere.”

“I say that by way of emphasis on the seriousness of the issue,” Brown said.

Brown committed to establishing this institute after meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing and hosting a dialogue with Xie at Tsinghua University in 2017. 

The arrangement with China expands on Brown’s work as governor in signing up 188 subnational governments to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and in hosting a climate summit in San Francisco last year that drew thousands of participants from around the world.

As China rises as an economic power, the former governor noted, there will be increased competition with the U.S. But without cooperation in confronting the shared danger of climate change, both nations and the whole world will suffer.

“I am not here to fan the flames of political controversy, but to tackle jointly a problem that confronts everyone in the world,” Brown said.

UC Berkeley’s School of Law will house the institute. The College of Natural Resources will help advance the research.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement: “Our faculty and researchers each day take on the peril of our changing climate and seek to develop new technologies and policies that will reduce greenhouse gasses across continents. This institute will play a key role in spreading that work around the world.”

Research topics will include:

  • Low-carbon transportation and zero emission vehicles.
  • Carbon pricing.
  • Climate adaptation and resilience.
  • Sustainable land use and climate-smart agriculture.
  • Carbon capture and storage.
  • Long-term climate goal-setting and policy enforcement.

In a statement, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, said: “I am excited about this collaboration to tackle the world’s most urgent problem, climate change. … My hope is that this unique endeavor will make a real difference.” 

Brown envisions assistance from other UC campuses and various state entities, including the California Air Resources Board, the Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, among others. Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols will serve on the board of directors.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, writing in The Washington Post on Sunday, raised the central issue: Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord, and his view that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China to hinder U.S. economic gains. 

“In the temporary absence of U.S. leadership,” Kerry wrote, “we need other major emitters to step up—not only to deliver the climate action we need, but also to build trust that international institutions are prepared to take on this global challenge until the United States is ready to rejoin the fight.”

He pointed to China and India, and argued that there is great economic opportunity in confronting climate change.

“The United States will be back at the table after 2020, but in this aberrational period of shortsightedness, now is the time for China, India and other countries to prove just what we are missing,” Kerry wrote.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

On this week's whistle-blown weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorensen examines what finally led to the impeachment inquiry; (Th)ink has the final word on Sharpiegate; This Modern World ponders the reputation rehabilitation of former Trump administration officials; Red Meat discovers the scam behind all-you-can-eat buffets; and Apoca Clips allows Li'l Trumpy to speak out about that now-infamous call to Ukraine.

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I suppose I can’t not write about Sharpie-gate, as much as I’d rather not. After all, of the myriad episodes that have defined the Trump administration’s idiocracy, few have reached this peak of stupidity.

On Saturday, Aug. 31, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the U.S., President Trump warned that it posed a serious risk to Alabama, though forecasters had days earlier said Alabama was out of danger. The next day, after receiving calls from worried residents, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

For reasons best left to a psychologist, Trump refused to let it go. He spent the next week obsessing over it, insisting that he was right and the NWS experts (and the media that covered them) were wrong and fake. By Wednesday, he was in the Oval Office with a hurricane forecast from Aug. 29, altered by a hand-drawn Sharpie to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path. By Friday night—after the storm had left the North Carolina coast, and we were still talking about this—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement “correcting” the NWS tweet from a week earlier and backing the president. (The justification: One model showed a tiny chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a sliver of Alabama.)

By Saturday, Sept. 7, The Washington Post had reported that, the day after Trump’s Alabama flub, the NOAA sent a directive to NWS meteorologists ordering them not to contradict the president, even though he was wrong, and they were right, and part of their job is to correct misinformation. NOAA sent a similar directive after the Sharpie display.

“I have never been so embarrassed,” the head of the NWS union tweeted Friday.

So say we all, pal.

Under different circumstances—say, if he were hosting a reality TV show—the president’s pathetically pathological need to be right and his lackeys’ compulsion to assuage his fragile ego might be amusing. But this is real life, where undermining the credibility of the government’s information during a disaster puts lives at risk.

This is part of a larger problem, of course. On Friday, Sept. 6, Business Insider reported that “aides and confidants are concerned about his mental state after days of erratic behavior and wild outbursts.” According to one former White House official: “His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know, his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he’s losing his shit.”

In the UK, when Trump-lite Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to go around Parliament to facilitate a disastrous no-deal Brexit, defections within his own party blocked him and then prevented him from calling snap elections. Country was more important than party. Here, administration officials have shown no such spine, even on matters as banal as Sharpie-gate. The higher the stakes—and the more unhinged Trump becomes—the more dangerous that gets.

Plenty of ink has been spilled explaining how we got here—how, since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party’s embrace of white racial grievance and the cultivation of authoritarianism in its pursuit of power have destroyed liberal democracy’s guardrails, allowing a pernicious oaf like Trump into the Oval Office. But we shouldn’t overlook the behind-the-scenes roles played by men like Thomas Hofeller, who made the radicalization of the GOP possible.

Hofeller, who died last year, was a Republican redistricting consultant, a number-cruncher who helped gerrymander congressional and legislative districts all over the country, most famously in North Carolina, where his work has been subject to numerous lawsuits. The districts he helped draw in 2011 were struck down as racial gerrymanders. The congressional districts he helped draw to replace them were then struck down as partisan gerrymanders, though earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional.

But last week, a state court struck down the redrawn legislative districts, ruling that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the state Constitution. This followed a lawsuit Common Cause filed in 2018, after North Carolina Democrats won more votes for state House and Senate, but Republicans emerged with strong majorities. Facing a Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers declined an appeal, meaning North Carolina could see its first fair election in a decade next year.

This is where it gets fun: Much to Republicans’ chagrin, Hofeller’s daughter had turned over thousands of his files to Common Cause. On Friday, Sept. 6, The New Yorker reported their contents. As you’d expect, they showed that Hofeller compiled “intensely detailed” data on race, as well as things like whether college students were likely to have the state-required ID to vote. 

He got particularly deep in the weeds at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, the nation’s largest historically black college. Hofeller used dorm-level data to draw congressional districts that literally bisected the campus, ensuring that Greensboro would have two Republican representatives. This, Republicans argued, was about partisan advantage, not race.

The files show that Hofeller was involved in Republican gerrymandering efforts in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas and Florida, and that “he was part of a Republican effort to add a citizenship question to the Census … which Hofeller believed would make it easier to pack Democrats and minorities into fewer districts, giving an advantage to Republicans.” Trump, you’ll recall, championed this cause—even after the Supreme Court turned rejected the question because the administration couldn’t be bothered to hide its political motives.

Hofeller and the Republicans who employed him contorted democracy to their own ends. But by creating ruby-red districts in which Republicans could only lose in primaries, they fostered an incentive structured that pulled the GOP further and further right, the kind of asymmetric polarization that, in short order, gave us a president who draws hurricane projections with a Sharpie and a party that whistles in democracy’s graveyard.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

On this week's sold-out, standing-room-only weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World features thoughts from a bedbug; Jen Sorensen looks at generational entitlement; (Th)ink pays tribute to Toni Morrison; Apoca Clips listens to Li'l Trumpy's hurricane musings; and Red Meat talks to Earl about his new gig at the pharmacy.

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