There were a couple of dueling news stories over the past few days. While on the surface the stories were dissimilar, under the hood they had a lot in common.
I’m not talking about the Great Bud Light Boycott of 2023, although that story does have a lot in common with a plethora of other cancel culture stories from both sides of the political spectrum. Aside from noting that the brouhaha spawned some very funny memes (again from both sides), I’m just going to say if you don’t want to drink Bud Light don’t drink it, but also don’t feel like you have to virtue signal about it. If you want a beer that hasn’t “gone woke,” however, you’re going to have a hard time getting a buzz since most of the big beer companies have done some gay pride advertising. For my part, I’ve been unofficially boycotting Bud Light for years because it really isn’t a very good beer, but I don’t burden the rest of society with that decision.
But no, I’m really thinking of the unfolding Clarence Thomas scandal and the kerfuffle in the Tennessee state legislature. On the surface, the two stories don’t seem to have much in common, but when you think about it, both are cases of public officials behaving badly.
Let’s start with the Tennessee House controversy. The origin of the problem was the spree shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School on March 27. Three days later, three state representatives took part in a protest march and led supporters in anti-gun chants from the House floor with the use of a bullhorn and without having been recognized to speak. The actions of the “Tennessee Three,” as Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson, and Justin Pearson have come to be called, have been characterized as an “insurrection” by some Republicans.
Since many Republicans deny that the events of January 6 were an insurrection, let’s dust off the dictionary, as I have done in the past. Per the experts at Merriam-Webster, an insurrection is “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.” Does the Tennessee protest fit that definition? Not really. It was a breach of decorum rather than law.
But weren’t they revolting against the authority of the Speaker of the House, you might ask? Consulting Merriam-Webster again, we see that “revolt” means “to renounce allegiance or subjection (as to a government),” so no. This was a protest where the House rebels never tried to throw off the Speaker’s authority and labeling it an insurrection would be dumbing down the term “insurrection” so that it would apply to almost any protest.
In what couldn’t possibly have looked worse for the Republicans, the two black representatives were expelled (by votes of 72 and 69 to expel) while the white woman was retained when her expulsion vote fell short of the required two-thirds majority by one vote. I’m not going to automatically attribute this to racism, especially since three representatives voted differently on Jones and Pearson, but I would love to hear an explanation from the swing voters who saved Gloria Johnson’s job. (One of the swing voters said that he didn’t think that Johnson had been as involved in the protest.)
But I will stipulate that the Tennessee Three behaved poorly. Even though their protest probably felt good, it was mostly performative and probably counterproductive to their cause. The way to advance bills in the legislature is to find a compromise and build a coalition, not by acting like crazy people and poisoning the well with the other party. The three did, however, make their names known and that may have been the real goal.
As I’ve pointed out to Republicans in the past, you don’t win legislative battles by fighting and throwing insults at the other side. You win them by attracting flies with sugar rather than continually putting out plates of vinegar and hoping their taste buds change.
And most Americans do think that something needs to be done about mass shootings. Another spree killing on Monday, this one in Louisville, Kentucky left five dead. It should be obvious that the problem isn’t going to go away on its own and that more guns and constitutional carry are not the answer. Democrats have public opinion on their side in the push for more regulation, but they are going to have to work with Republican majorities in red states if they want to do anything past engaging in political theater.
I don’t think the Republicans handled this incident well either. A censure and stripping committee assignments would have been a better option than expulsion. This is especially true considering the behavior that Republicans have excused in recent years.
A report by the state attorney general found that expulsions have been used only three other times in the state’s history. In 1866, six members were expelled for “contempt of the authority of this House” in the midst of the struggle to ratify the 14th Amendment. There were no expulsions for more than 100 years after that until 1980 when a representative was found guilty of accepting a bribe. The last example was in 2016 when a representative was expelled for “disorderly conduct” after allegations of sexual harassment. The Tennessee Senate expelled one senator in 2022 after a conviction on federal fraud charges. This was the only expulsion in its history.
In short, the punishment does not seem to fit the crime (speaking figuratively since none of the Tennessee Three has been charged with a crime). Their actions, while worthy of condemnation, don’t meet the bar of previous expulsions with the possible exception of the 1866 Six, who were expelled for political reasons at the behest of President Andrew Johnson, himself the first president to be impeached. That’s not a good example to follow.
Speaking of bad examples brings us to Justice Thomas. As Steve Berman discussed yesterday, ProPublica recently broke the news on decades of lavish vacations that Thomas was treated to by a billionaire Republican donor, Harlan Crowe. While the secret gifts may not have been either illegal or against Court policy, they do reflect poorly on both the justice and the Supreme Court.
Like the Tennessee Three, Thomas apparently did not break the law, but he did show poor judgment and undermined public trust in the Supreme Court. If there isn’t a rule against receiving expensive gifts and not reporting them, there should be. As it turns out, there is but enforcement is largely at the discretion of the Chief Justice.
And this isn’t the first example of Thomas’s poor judgment. Just over a year ago, I said he should resign after revelations about post-election communications between his wife and then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as MAGA Republicans tried to steal the election. Under probably the best headline I’ve ever written, I said that Ginni Thomas’s activism had compromised public trust in the Court.
Much has been made online about Harlan Crow’s hobby of collecting Nazi paraphernalia and statues of dictators, but that’s a distraction. Many of Crow’s friends, such as Jonah Goldberg, who is Jewish, defend his character. I can accept that, but the real issue is Thomas accepting the gifts and not disclosing them.
Now that Clarence Thomas has given the Court’s credibility two very public black eyes in as many years, it really is time for him to step down before he does further damage. The Supreme Court is one of the most independent federal institutions, but it has maintained that independence by being one of the most trusted institutions. In an era where many politicians target the Court for personal political gain, Thomas has done more than any other justice to erode that public trust.
Where Thomas went wrong was in not choosing to avoid the appearance of impropriety, even if he didn’t break any rules or laws. He failed to consider what people would think if they found out about both Ginni’s Stop the Steal connections and his secret vacations.
In aviation, sometimes we have a choice to make on a course of action that might not be illegal or against policy but still isn’t the best idea. At times like that, I try to ask myself the question, “How will this sound if I have to explain it to the FAA or my boss after an incident or accident?” Often, this line of thinking leads me to a more conservative course of action.
Or to put it another way, as Dwight Schrute once opined in “The Office,” “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.”
Justice Thomas failed to make these kinds of considerations.
And I have to wonder, given Thomas’s penchant for being a rogue justice, if he might have something to do with the leaked draft of the Dobbs decision (which generated what is probably my second-best headline). I don’t know that Thomas had anything to do with the leak, but his poor judgment is moving him to the top of my list of suspects. A loss of trust is hard to fix.
The bottom line here is that both Thomas and the Tennessee Three had the choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing. In Thomas’s case, he chose to conceal. The Tennessee Three chose divisive performative politics. Both chose poorly.
I know this advice will fall on deaf ears, but both sides should take the advice of Spike Lee and do the right thing. Not because it’s a law or rule or because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. Be open about your finances so people know that you aren’t profiting off your position. Talk to people beyond your party’s base. Reach across the aisle. Tone down the rhetoric.
Do it because it’s best for the country and the American people, not your party or your career.
[NOTE: As this article was being readied for publication, the news broke that Justin Jones was being reinstated by the Nashville Metro Council. A vote is expected in Shelby County on Wednesday to restore Pearson. It now looks like the whole fight was for nothing with the GOP making rock stars out of three anonymous state representatives and handing the Democrats a huge fundraising issue.]
THE UKRAINE PAPERS: Secret US military documents showing that Ukraine is running out of surface-to-air missiles were somehow posted online. Ukraine’s allies are going to have to rush to resupply Ukraine with air defense weapons to prevent the loss of air superiority and the US is going to have to track down the source of the leak.
LOUSIVILLE MASS SHOOTING: A soon-to-be-terminated bank employee killed four and injured nine in yet another mass shooting. Police killed the gunman.
BIDEN 2024: The president said that he plans to run again in 2024 but did not make a formal announcement.