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2020 Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism

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2020 Shatters the Myth of American Exceptionalism

In a non-pandemic year, a combination of vacation and personal commitments would take me to the state perhaps four or five times in a year. People here are solid, sensible, a bit stoical, emphatically decent — the Minnesota of myth.

As it happens, this year I did don my mask for a daylong work trip to the Minnesota of reality. That’s the state with Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. I spent 12 hours on the ground for an interview with Gov. Tim Walz about how he was managing the twin traumas of racial unrest and the coronavirus. Walz, an earnest and amiable fellow who is the first governor in 40 years not to come from the Twin Cities metropolitan area, is trying to lead a once-placid state that now vividly highlights the raw, pus-seeping, I-can’t-stand-you-either sores of the Trump Era. After leaving the governor’s residence on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, a few hundred yards from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s former home, I drove over to Minneapolis to the intersection where Floyd died. “No justice, no peace,” reads a sign at the makeshift monument that has taken over the intersection.

Before we delve into that reality, let’s linger a bit longer on myth. A myth is not synonymous with fiction. Those loons on the lake, and those nice people I encounter, actually exist. A myth is more like a distillation of reality, with the uncomfortable and unattractive parts filtered out. This leaves the pleasing and affirming parts in pure form, to lodge deeply in imagination and memory.

Most people, in my experience, hold close some mythical destination that is similar to what Minnesota is to me. Perhaps it is Fenway Park, or some diner where the pancakes taste amazing at 3 a.m. in a booth with friends. People from Arkansas like to boast of the biggest watermelons you can possibly imagine. Do you remember what it smells like in your hometown after a sudden summer storm? This is about the crossroads of physical place with internal values, where it is possible to conceive and experience some better version of ourselves.

The great national story of 2020, wherever one lives, was the collision of myth and reality. The American mythology is of an exceptional leader among nations. This year’s reality was exceptionalism of the wrong kind, leading in absolute terms in coronavirus infections and deaths, and with a deplorable record even in relative terms as a percent of population. Our shared story, taught to children and commonly embraced by adults, is that we are on the surface a nation of ornery individualists but underneath are the kind of people who put differences aside and pull together when it really matters. Hmm … Do you think so?

This points to what one hopes will be the great story of 2021. That is to prove that our national myths, while plainly not fully real, are at least not fully fraudulent. How does a country recover from lost innocence? A good place to start is to recall that innocence was never really there to be lost.

It is on this point that Minnesota is a fine case study. This is true in part because — unlike many Southern states, which were stained from the start by slavery — it is not immediately obvious that this Northern state, with a reputation for Scandinavian-influenced progressivism and civic virtue, might have historic stains of its own.

A disclaimer: I’m not actually a Minnesotan. I grew up in western New York, and, though I don’t really think of myself as a Washingtonian, have spent well more than half my life living in the District or the city Alexandria, Va., just across the Potomac. Funny, then, that I often feel as at home in Minnesota as in any place. My father grew up on the Iron Range in Hibbing (just a few blocks away from a boy, eight years younger, who was then known as Robert Zimmerman and later Bob Dylan.) My summers from a young age often brought a trip to Pokegama, in Grand Rapids. Later came four years in Northfield (at Carleton, one of two colleges, along with St. Olaf, invoked in the cows, colleges and contentment slogan.)

In 1973, Time Magazine immortalized the state’s romantic conception of itself with a cover that proclaimed, “The Good Life in Minnesota.” It featured the ruddy-faced Democratic governor, Wendell Anderson, in a flannel shirt, holding a freshly caught northern pike. Time’s writer declared, “Some of the nation’s more agreeable qualities are evident there: courtesy and fairness, honesty, a capacity for innovation, hard work, intellectual adventure and responsibility.” Garrison Keillor gave this congenial interpretation a satirical spin with his stories about “Lake Wobegon,” the prairie town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

How does one go from this version of Minnesota to the version of 2020, when Floyd’s killing on May 25 produced spasms of protests and rioting that left large swaths of Minneapolis boarded up for months after? The answer is with far more continuity in the threads of history than one might suppose.

The state, like most places in the United States, was built in part on a foundation of violence and racial animus. My cousins grew up in the small southern Minnesota town of Mankato — where in 1862, the federal government carried out the largest single-day mass execution in American history. The hangings of 38 Native Americans were approved by none other than President Abraham Lincoln, as part of the conflict between the U.S. Army and the Dakota tribe in the state, then four years into statehood.

In Northfield, the town celebrates its brave 1876 defeat of the Jesse James Gang with a campy festival and reenactment. But as my college classmate, historian T.J. Stiles, illuminated in an acclaimed biography of James, the story of the James-Younger gang shouldn’t be understood through a prism of Old West romanticism. Though sometimes sentimentalized as a plucky American Robin Hood, James was motivated not just by greed but also by racial hatred and fury over the North’s victory in the Civil War. The Northfield townspeople, some of whom lost their lives in the raid, were able to defeat the invading gang because many of them carried guns and well knew how to use them. They surely would not have described themselves as innocents.

Nor would the Minnesotans who engaged in, or helped suppress, violent labor unrest in Minneapolis in the 1930s, or racial unrest in the 1960s. These people may not have recognized Donald Trump as a political type— his personality is a product of modern media — but they would not have been shocked by what now is called “polarization,” or the reality of pervasive malice, identity politics or contempt for the established order that now often defines public life.

A certain laconic style is one dimension of the classic Minnesota character. My father, now deceased, was a surgeon, but in summers while a student he worked in the iron mines. He once told me of riding to the mines with older men, people he knew in one context as family friends. But in this context he was emphatically their junior, and they barely spoke a word as they drove to work. Silence, in its own way, can convey authority as powerfully as words.

Stoicism, however, sometimes can muffle important truths. Perhaps no surprise, then, that another part of the Minnesota tradition is artists who respond to the stolid exterior of life by penetrating deeply to the contradictions, hypocrisy, and terror that can lie beneath ordinary exteriors. In different ways that is the achievement of such Minnesotans as Sinclair Lewis, who turned his bleak prairie upbringing into the novel “Main Street,” or Fitzgerald, or contemporary authors like Tim O’Brien, who grew up in Worthington, or musicians like Dylan or Prince, who died four years too early to see the streets of his native Minneapolis erupt this summer.

There are times, as in 2020, when events shine a glaring light on the gap between professed ideals and life as it is really lived. One response to this exposure is to conclude that the ideals were always a fraud and the mythologies that sustained them are a part of the problem. Another response is to accept paradox as part of our national character, and try anew to narrow the gap between aspiration and achievement. In Minnesota, as in America, myths can serve a useful purpose.

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A Reaganesque Scheme for a GOP Reboot

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A Reaganesque Scheme for a GOP Reboot

If the party is going to survive Trump, it needs to cut the extremists loose and craft a broader message. Here’s how that succeeded before.

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Trump blows up the Arizona GOP on his way out

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Trump blows up the Arizona GOP on his way out

“The craziness from the state Republican Party … it’s pretty embarrassing,” said Kirk Adams, a former Republican state House speaker and former chief of staff to Ducey. “We have been fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories and stolen election rhetoric and, really, QAnon theories from the state Republican Party since before the election, but certainly after.”

He said, “What’s … consequential is the effect the state Republican Party is having on the Republican brand in the state of Arizona.”

The fallout has been swift. Several thousand Arizona Republicans have abandoned the party since the U.S. Capitol riot that Trump helped to incite, with the majority of the defectors re-registering without a designated party, according to state elections officials. Business leaders are publicly recoiling from the GOP after party officials thrust Arizona into the center of Trump’s failed effort to overturn the election results, further dividing an already fractured party.

“Let us be clear: we find the weeks of disinformation and outright lies to reverse a fair and free election from the head of the Arizona Republican Party and some elected officials to be reprehensible,” read a full-page ad in The Arizona Republic this week from Greater Phoenix Leadership, a group of CEOs. “The political party organization and these elected officials, which some of us have supported in the past, have again embarrassed Arizona on a national stage.”

The hard-right pull of the Arizona GOP was evident long before the rise of Kelli Ward, the state party’s current chairwoman and fierce Trump ally. Arizona is the state of Joe Arpaio and Evan Mecham; in 2014, the party censured Sen. John McCain.

Ward is not the first chair to feud with moderate elected officials of her party. But for a party that lost so much ground during Trump’s tenure, the Arizona GOP is now operating as an almost wholly-owned subsidiary of the outgoing president. Rep. Andy Biggs, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, played a leading role in congressional Republicans’ effort to challenge the electoral vote count in Arizona – undermining the vote in his own state. Following the riot perpetrated by Trump supporters at the Capitol, the official Twitter account of the Arizona GOP has been referring to Trump as the #PresidentofPeace.

“Ignore the false claims against President Trump and against supporters of President Trump,” Ward said in a video address this week, at a time when at least some establishment Republicans were beginning to break with Trump. “President Trump has never, never called for violence. All he’s called for is peaceful protest to demand the integrity of the vote.”

In an email on Friday, Zachery Henry, a state party spokesman, decried what he called “a concerted effort being made by the Left and many in the media to brand all Republicans as domestic terrorists because of the destructive actions of a few bad apples — including Antifa enthusiast John Sullivan — which our Republican Party has already totally condemned.”

Bill Gates, a Republican Maricopa County supervisor, said “we’ve always had different members in different places on the spectrum and we’ve always had what you would call a hard right contingent. But here in the last few years we’ve seen that contingent come to the point now where they’re running the party apparatus.”

In that climate, Arizona Republicans who fail to toe the pro-Trump line are finding knives in their backs. Ward told Ducey on Twitter to “#STHU,” or shut up, when he defended the integrity of the vote in the state, and the party is considering censuring him for enacting restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, which is raging in Arizona.

Flake, according to the proposal to censure him, “has joined with those who condemn President Trump.” Cindy McCain’s sins, in addition to backing Joe Biden, include supporting “leftist causes such as gay marriage, growth of the administrative state, and others that run counter to Republican values, a Republican form of government, and the U.S. Constitution.”

Given the party’s losses, more traditionalist Republicans are appalled the state GOP had nothing better to do.

“So, the state party is picking fights with the standard-bearers of the party for no good reason other than to show an outgoing president that Kelli Ward has his back,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican political strategist in Arizona. “The Republican Party does need to have a bit of a reckoning with itself. Will it be the party that follows a demagogue, or will it be the party that follows conservative principles? And so far, some in the leadership apparatus have chosen demagoguery over conservative principles.”

In many states, Republican and Democratic parties alike are controlled by their more activist wings. Intraparty feuding is not uncommon. And in the past, when Arizona was more reliably conservative, state Republicans might not have paid a price for disunity in their ranks.

But that no longer appears to be true. The Arizona Republican Party has regressed amid the state’s changing demographics. On top of losing the presidential election in November, Republicans saw Democrat Mark Kelly take down Sen. Martha McSally, just two years after Kyrsten Sinema put Arizona’s other Senate seat in the Democratic column.

McCain, in a statement, said she was “not surprised by the continuous insults and personal attacks from Arizona GOP Chairman Kelli Ward. She’s shown how attacking Republicans like me can impact elections — her involvement in both Senate elections to replace Jeff Flake and my husband John McCain, two regular targets of her personal attacks, resulted in Democrat wins.”

As chairwoman of the party, McCain said, Ward “managed to turn Arizona blue in November for the first time since 1996. Maybe she should be reminded that my husband never lost an Arizona election since his first win in 1982; he and Governor Ducey are the last two Republicans to win statewide races in Arizona.”

Censuring her — or any other winning Republican — may not have its intended effect.

T.J. Shope, a Republican state senator, said the politicians targeted by the GOP “tend to have a lot more in common with the average person on the street than the folks doing the censuring.”

He said, “We need to go ahead and get to a point in time we’re going to realize we need to grow the party in a positive way once again.”

The election cycle was not all bad for the Arizona GOP. Registered Republicans in the state still outnumber Democrats by about 3 percentage points. Republicans held their majority in the statehouse despite some projections that Democrats were likely to retake it. And some Republican Party officials believe that the controversy surrounding ballot counting in the state will further energize the base.

More than before, said Shelley Kais, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Arizona’s Pima County, local Republicans are “applying to become precinct committeemen, they’re offering to sit on committees, they’re looking at running for office.”

Of the resolution to censure McCain, Kais said, “It’s always a good thing for people to have their day in court, let’s be sure about that, whether it’s the … die-hard activists of the party or whether it’s Cindy McCain.”

But after the losses inflicted on the party last year, other Republicans say it’d be better if the GOP just left the internal conflicts alone.

“My personal opinion is that we just ought to settle back and take our lumps and start fresh,” said Delos Bond, chairman of the Republican Party in Apache County. “I think we ought to try to heal ourselves … stop worrying about the McCain issues and the Flake issues and try some unity there.”

“We need to just buckle down and work on the issues that our platform stands for,” Bond said. “We’ve wandered away from those issues and worried too much about the issues between fellow Republicans … McCain’s gone. Let’s get over it. And Flake’s gone. Let’s get over it.”

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Ivanka’s political future comes into sharper focus

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Ivanka’s political future comes into sharper focus

The president’s eldest son, Don Jr., is eyeing a future in politics as well, though allies say it’s unclear when or what office he’d seek after he passed on running for the Senate in Wyoming this last cycle. He and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle have also been scoping out real estate in Florida.

The newest and most-buzzed about possibility, however, surrounds the president’s daughter Ivanka. The senior White House adviser is set to decamp to Florida after her father’s presidency comes to a close. And though talk of her launching a primary challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has given off the faint whiff of political fan-fick, in reality, Trump officials say, there have been machinations behind the scenes.

One person in contact with the president said that Jared Kushner is viewed as “working single-mindedly to protect and promote his wife’s ‘political career.’” And two sources, including one top GOP fundraiser, said that Trump ally and mega donor Tom Barrack had been pressing fellow Republican financiers to put together some type of operation that could lure Ivanka into entering the race.

“He’s calling people and trying to line them up saying Rubio is terrible, worthless, he’s probably going to lose, Ivanka is going to go there and we should all get together and pledge our support to her and get her to run,” the GOP fundraiser said.

Tommy Davis, a Barrack spokesman, said no chatter of challenging Rubio ever took place.

“It’s not true. He’s never made any comments like this about Marco and he’s not making these calls,” said Davis. “Maybe people are getting confused because we did as much work as we could for the Senate Leadership fund for the Georgia race. But that was before Christmas. But, no, nothing about Ivanka and nothing about Marco.”

And one person close to Trump said that Ivanka herself had denied having interest in running for office. But the president’s advisers are openly playing up her political potency.

“Ivanka only got into politics to help her father and help his agenda but what’s now clear is that Ivanka is a political powerhouse in her own right,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump.

Others in Trumpworld say the signs are evident that Ivanka is leaving the door open to elected office. In late October, Ivanka, who had been registered as a Democrat in the past, gave an interview in which she declared herself “unapologetically pro-life.” One top Florida Republican who is close to the Trumps and Rubio noted that she not only upped her appearances on the campaign trail during the 2020 cycle — both for her father and the two Republicans in the Georgia Senate runoff — but passed out food at a food distribution event in Miami before Christmas.

“We’re taking the possibility seriously,” the Republican official said. “And so is Marco. And that’s a good thing. But you never know. She’s a Trump and the Trumps move on their own timetables.”

And, perhaps most tellingly, in the last week, Steve Bannon, as he was renewing his contacts with Trump himself, began talking up Ivanka’s political resume.

“The second most fire breathing populist in the White House was Ivanka Trump,” the president’s one-time adviser said on a recent podcast of his. If, Bannon added, Rubio voted for the certification of Joe Biden’s election — and he did — then, “I strongly believe and would strongly recommend that Ivanka Trump immediately…. if she is not going to remain an assistant to the president, she should immediately file and run for the senate and primary Marco Rubio in Florida.”

American politics has seen its share of family dynasties before. And though Donald Trump’s standing may have taken a hit by his handling of his election loss — which included inciting a riot that led to violence on Capitol Hill, his ouster from major social media platforms, resignations from his Cabinet, public disgust from party leaders and his second impeachment — public polling still shows that his name remains the most dominant in Republican circles. Virtually everyone expects that to transfer to his children.

“Their brand was certainly stained and it’s a stain we’ll never be able to erase,” said one top Republican strategist. “At the same time, the name of the game is winning a primary and someone with the last name of Trump could win.”

But running in theory is different from running in practice. In Florida, Rubio’s standing has been considered largely stable up to this point. The senator was trashed by hardcore Trump supporters for his vote that certified the Electoral College results. But those close to him said he was expecting far worse. They also point to his solid support in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most-populous, where 74 percent of the GOP voters are Hispanic and overwhelmingly Cuban-American like Rubio.

“We have nothing bad to say about Ivanka,” said a Rubio adviser. “He’s going to run his race. I’m not sure she really wants to run? She just finished working in the White House and she has three small children — and now she’s going to move to Florida and run against Marco Rubio in a Republican primary?”

For that reason, the expectation among Trump allies and even establishment Republicans is that Ivanka will take her time considering a run while Lara jumps in. One Republican operative who worked with both Lara and Ivanka Trump in 2020 noted that Ivanka was less interested in the rallies and retail politics that come with running for office.

Ivanka Trump is expected to take some time off after leaving the White House, according to one former White House official, and she is currently working on closing out her work, including mitigating the fallout of the riots on Capitol Hill. After that, her family is expected to pack up their home in Washington.

A person close to Lara Trump, meanwhile, said that she has not made any decisions on entering the race in North Carolina, although consultants have been “poking around” for her in the state.

“For [Ivanka] to take on Marco or Florida she’s gotta be ready to rock and roll,” the operative said. “Whereas with Lara, I get the vibe she is ready to go.”

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