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Corruption and Scandal, Texas-Size
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Corruption and Scandal, Texas-Size

Can anything embarrass Republicans in 2023?

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in Washington, April 26. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

I am glad that The Dispatch has so many excellent politics-and-policy reporters on the job—goodness knows they provide an invaluable service. But the man we most need for our political moment has, inconveniently, been off the job for 160 years, having died in 1863. I mean, of course, Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine) author William Makepeace Thackeray, who remains unequaled in his skill for describing a world in which “everybody is striving for what is not worth the having.” 

Journalism is all we have to rely on in a world that is beyond satire.

Late last week, the political world was filled with great pith and moment as Democrats enjoyed a festive mood over the 37-count federal indictment of former President Donald Trump, while Republicans produced a whole Yoko Ono greatest-hits album’s worth of shrieking and wailing. 

At the same time in Texas, the feds were arresting a guy you non-Texans had probably never heard of: Nate Paul, a 36-year-old real-estate developer and political sycophant who figures prominently in the troubles of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican culture-war goof who has been impeached by the Republican state house in response to a long and complicated tale of political corruption, bribery, and retaliation.

Paul enters into the Paxton story at a number of different points in ways that suggest Paxton is not only corrupt but also not very good at being corrupt. For example: Paxton’s staff snitched their boss to the FBI on several allegations including that Paxton had illegally permitted a donor to pay his six-figure house-remodeling bill. The staff informed the human-resources department of what they had done, and Paxton later produced a bank statement showing the wire transfer that proved he had paid the bill. The wire transfer was dated the same day Paxton learned his staff had ratted him out to the feds, and the transfer was to Cupertino Builders, a firm run by a friend of Nate Paul’s—a firm that apparently didn’t do the work in question and that wasn’t even incorporated in Texas until three weeks after the wire transfer. Cupertino Builders already has been established as a front used for fraudulent wire transfers by Paul’s business in a separate matter. Paul’s business also had Paxton’s mistress, Laura Olson, on its payroll. Olson is a figure in the Paxton scandal and also a figure in a whole different Texas political scandal involving a different paramour of hers, Clayton Perry, a former San Antonio city councilman accused in a DUI/hit-and-run case

And that aspect of the Paxton impeachment will be entertaining if only for the fact that Paxton’s fate will be decided by the Texas Senate, whose members include his humiliated wife, Sen. Angela Paxton. 

The uxorial politics gets complicated: The last statewide official to be impeached and removed from office in Texas, Gov. James E. “Pa” Ferguson, was eventually succeeded by his wife, who served as his stand-in for two non-consecutive terms as governor in the 1920s and 1930s. 

If I may be forgiven an aside about the Councilman Perry case, courtesy of the local news:

Staff at the bar told police they believed Perry did not sound drunk or have slurred speech, but also said Perry has a history of walking out on tabs.

According to interviews with staff, Perry reportedly told a 17-year-old cashier “I love you, I’m just here to see you” when he went through the Bill Miller drive-thru without ordering anything later the same evening. Instead he offered to pay for the order of the vehicle behind him, and tried to give the manager his keys and wallet.

Perry left the restaurant and allegedly hit a Honda Civic at the intersection of Jones-Maltsberger and Redland Road. SAPD body camera video shows officers found Perry in his backyard with his Jeep still running in the driveway. 

He never explicitly told officers he was drinking that night, only saying that he “had a good time.”

When the police found him, he was passed out in his backyard, bleeding from his head, smelling of alcohol, had urinated in his pants, which were unzipped, and—pay attention, now!—“the officer departed because of lack of probable cause and did not test Perry’s sobriety.” It really is good to be the king, or even a lowly San Antonio city councilman. 

But perhaps, finally, we have found an answer to the persistent question: What does it take, in Anno Domini 2023, to embarrass a Republican? 

I had thought it was impossible to embarrass a contemporary Republican. Donald Trump called Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife ugly and suggested that his father was a particularly vicious criminal, but Sen. Cruz kept right on polishing Trump’s size-12 John Lobb oxfords with his tongue and continues doing so to this day. Mike Pence was a knee-walking Trump sycophant right up until January 6, at which point he grew a conscience at the most convenient moment—and then was right back on his knees only a few weeks later. It is safe to predict that his most recent bout of conscience will, like his earlier ones, last just as long as it benefits him. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is basically walking around in a dog collar these days, with Marjorie Taylor Greene holding his leash. 

But Republicans—Texas Republicans—impeached Ken Paxton. 

It probably won’t go anywhere. One smart Texas observer of Republican shenanigans predicts: “They’ll fold in the senate, or the base will punish them next year.” In fact, several of those who voted to impeach Paxton already have primary challengers awaiting them. “The lesson might be that there is no bottom for GOP primary voters if you can paint yourself as a ‘fighter’—a fighter against other Republicans first and foremost.”

On the other hand, there are more than a few Texas Republicans, including some longtime party activists and significant donors, who would not be sorry to see Paxton go. He is, in their judgment, bad for the party and for the conservative movement—and, more important, they already have replacement candidates in mind

The problem for national Republicans is that Donald Trump, unlike Ken Paxton, is irreplaceable. 

I don’t mean that as praise. For anybody. 

Of course, there are candidates who are more likely to defeat Joe Biden in a 2024 matchup. Ron DeSantis has good reason to think he is more likely to beat Biden based on polls in battleground states. But if the Republican Party should come to its senses and nominate a Tim Scott or a Nikki Haley, such a candidate would have a fighting chance against Biden, too—in the unlikely event that Donald Trump did not do his utmost to sabotage any other Republican nominee. Trump is in trouble for many reasons, including the fact that he apparently is dumb enough to have allowed himself to be taped providing the mens rea part of the case against him, which otherwise might have been difficult to pin down. So much winning.

But the Trump movement is not about winning the White House in 2024—it never has been. If the nationalist-populists (nappies?) in the Republican Party were serious about winning the presidency, then they would not be rallying behind a proven loser who already has fumbled away the office to Biden once. The whole stolen-election narrative isn’t really a sincerely held belief in election fraud—it is only a therapeutic narrative that gives Republicans permission to continue backing the loser and to continue indulging what DeSantis calls the “culture of losing.” 

Trump isn’t irreplaceable because he is the populist Right’s surest means of returning to power—he is irreplaceable because he serves the populist Right’s genuine needs, which are psychological rather than political. The Trump movement is first and foremost a cult, and, as with any cult, the narrative and the specific transcendent claims are secondary to the emotional needs the association serves—all the rest can be revised as necessary. The Trumpists would prefer to win, of course, but winning is not what they care about most: What they care about is the sanctification of their misery. Trumpism represents a low and degraded instance of the ancient mystical tradition of holy suffering, but there is a reason his appeal is so intense among unchurched cultural Evangelicals

These losers know they are losers, and they want to be sanctified losers. 

Anyone can be president—only Trump can be the golden idol they have made of him. Will they be embarrassed out of their daft metaphysics? 

Don’t count on it.

Consider the case of Sen. Josh Hawley. Following the most recent Trump indictment, Hawley wrote: “If the people in power can jail their political opponents at will, we don’t have a republic.” It is, of course, impossible to beat Sen. Hawley—and damned hard to equal him—when it comes to moral cowardice. It is precisely the most republican of our processes that are troubling Trump: He was not indicted by Joe Biden, but by a grand jury, a panel of American citizens selected for public duty in the ancient republican tradition. Trump will have the opportunity to put his case to a trial jury, another fine republican institution. It is neither democratic passion nor political whimsy that will be most important in how this matter plays out, but legal procedure. 

Trump’s apologists on cable news and talk radio may whine that no former president ever has been indicted and complain that Trump is being singled out, but what he is being subjected to is a process based on the very republican idea that no one is above the law, that there is no special legal category for former presidents and others who have occupied high places. If Trump is indeed carted off to the federal lockup in chains, it will be because we live in a republic. The only vote that matters here is the one that happens inside the jury room. 

And if Trump is found not guilty—innocent would be too strong a word—then that, too, may be understood as a vindication of our republican system. The legitimacy of our system is founded in procedure, not in outcomes. 

Our criminal-justice system is far from perfect, but what is truly dysfunctional and depraved is our political culture. In a self-respecting society—or even a truly self-interested one—Donald Trump would be as far from the levers of power as are his real peers: Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Caitlyn Jenner, etc. 

And so we return to Vanity Fair: “That is the misfortune of beginning with this kind of forgery. When one fib becomes due as it were, you must forge another to take up the old acceptance; and so the stock of your lies in circulation inevitably multiplies, and the danger of detection increases every day.”

Detection—ha! 

As though that mattered. 

Economics for English Majors

Seriously—don’t do that. Don’t be a retired schoolteacher and invest your whole nest-egg in exotic derivatives. (Or in, you know, derivatives.) Don’t be making $77,000 a year and have $3 million in adjustable-rate mortgage debt on five houses in California because you’re sure that housing prices will only go up and that interest rates never will. Don’t do it. 

The New York Times tells the story of two failed crypto bros as though the indictment were self-evident: “Their Crypto Company Collapsed. They Went to Bali.” I’ve been to Bali, and if I were very rich and very unemployed, I think it would make an excellent sanctuary. There isn’t anything positively wrong, as far as I can tell, in the reporting from Times’ crypto-beat reporter David Yaffe-Bellany, but something missing: He writes the story as though it should be obvious that his subjects—Three Arrows founders Su Zhu and Kyle Davies—are engaged in some kind of moral abomination. As far as I can tell, what they did was run a hedge fund based on a very risky, highly speculative class of assets while parking enough of their own incomes in safer investments that when the thing went bust they could afford to go surf and consume psychedelic mushrooms and live that kind of beach-bum life in which “you eat very fatty pork dishes, and you drink a lot of alcohol, and you go to the beach and you just meditate.” Yaffe-Bellany doesn’t write anything about sandals, but I’m inferring a lot of sandals in this story—probably very expensive sandals. 

How did you think the crypto story was going to end? Happily ever after?

Yaffe-Bellany quotes a rube who wrote that losing $30,000 he had in Voyager, a crypto business wiped out by the failure of Three Arrows, “has been unbearable for my family.” Voyager was something like a bank, but one that stored money in crypto, and hence was outside the regular banking system. Thirty grand is a pretty good pile of money, but it isn’t normally a world-changing sum: $30,000 flat won’t even get you a new Honda Accord. If losing $30,000 is the kind of thing that is going to ruin your family and leave you in such a condition that you report that you “wake up most nights and just walk up and down the stairs contemplating on my own mistakes,” then don’t put your savings in crypto, dummy. What you want is something FDIC-insured. 

As Yaffe-Bellany reports, the duo “pointed out that no government agency had sued them or sought their arrests,” and it isn’t clear what they would be arrested or sued for. Unlike, say, Sam Bankman-Fried, all that they have obviously done wrong is make some pretty bad investments. I’m open to any arguments that they have done something wrong, but Yaffe-Bellany doesn’t make any or report any. The most that the Three Arrows guys have faced is a mild reprimand from a financial regulator in Singapore who says the firm made misleading statements to the government—that and the loss of a yacht to have been christened the Much Wow (you may get the reference) when they couldn’t afford to make the final payment. 

(Very insolvency, much sad.)

Making a bad investment, having a failed fund, or presiding over a failed business is not in and of itself evidence of malfeasance. Businesses fail all the time, and many investments (though by no means all of them) are complementary: Every $1 in profit for one party is $1 in loss for a counterparty. One of the great things we have in the United States is bankruptcy laws that make business failure painful but something short of permanently ruinous—that is part of why we have so much innovation and entrepreneurship in our economy. Smart bankruptcy laws, plentiful venture capital, a (generally) investment-friendly tax system—all that stuff matters. There is a lot to like about the Western European model of business and the model of social welfare that goes along with it, but there also is a reason that basically none of the significant internet-age businesses that have driven the world economy for the past several decades is based in Germany or France. Many of our most important and profitable businesses were founded by people who had failed three or four times before striking gold with the one that succeeded, just as many of our most important older tech firms—Microsoft and Apple, notably—suffered for years from the consequences of investment mistakes and misreading the direction of the marketplace. Everybody likes to make fun of Paul Krugman for writing, once upon a time, that the internet wasn’t going to be any more consequential than the fax machine, but Bill Gates and his team at Microsoft misread the early importance of the internet, too, and it took years for Apple to figure out where its real strengths really were to be found. Look at the state Meta is in today. 

And that is why people who can’t afford to lose $30,000 shouldn’t put all $30,000 into Apple shares or Microsoft shares or Meta shares, either. 

The simile can be overdone, but markets work a lot like evolution: Failure is part of the process. 

Personally, I wouldn’t give those crypto dorks 50 bucks, but I suppose I’m missing out on some great opportunities, too. 

Words about Words

Four related words: hotel, hospital, hospice, host. All are derived from the group of words anchored by the Latin hospitalis, meaning “related to the duties of a host or a guest.” A hospital or hospice originally meant a place of lodging for travelers or pilgrims, or for people in need, as travelers and pilgrims often tended to be. The commercial provision of such services eventually gave us hotel in modern American English, though in much of the world hostel refers both to purely commercial establishments and to those with a more philanthropic character. The medieval Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, originally were associated with an institution dedicated to caring for sick or poor pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land; the hospital in that case was founded by Amalfi merchants and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. 

Another such facility, still in operation, is the Great St. Bernard Hospice, the Swiss alpine home of the Canons Regular of the Hospitaller Congregation of Great Saint Bernard and birthplace of the St. Bernard dog breed. (The story of St. Bernards running around with little casks of brandy strapped to their necks is mostly—but not entirely!—fictitious.) The St. Bernard Pass is one of the 10 or 15 most beautiful places in the world, I suppose. Not far away is an institution based on a different sense of hospitality, the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, generally considered the finest hospitality school in the world, the Harvard of hotel-management and other similar service-oriented fields. 

Hospitality is such an ancient human tradition that it is, like the family, pre-religious, though it figured prominently in the religions of the Greco-Roman world, figures prominently in Christianity and Islam, in Confucian philosophy, and in much else. The violation of hospitality is a big part of the morality of Macbeth. Taboos related to guests and hosts are among our most ancient extant beliefs. 

But what does hospitality really mean? Room and board and, maybe, a generous spirit? Father Henri Nouwen put it:

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” 

Elsewhere

President Biden has shown that he is committed to doing the right thing in Ukraine . . . after he has exhausted every other option. His approach to Ukraine has been characterized by slow-walking practically every request for aid and matériel, saying “No” to F-16s, “No” to the Patriot missile-defense system and other advanced equipment, only to reverse course, months later, and agree to provide those weapons. So, now, the administration says Ukraine will receive those F-16 fighter jets—someday.

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto, here.

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In Closing

Charles Spurgeon (not Mark Twain) wrote that “a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”—more economical than Cardinal Newman’s account of the phenomenon:

The story runs, that Don Felix Malatesta de Guadalope, a Benedictine monk of Andalusia, and father confessor to the Prince of the Asturias, who died in 1821, left behind him his confessions in manuscript, which were carried off by the French, with other valuable documents, from his convent, which they pillaged in their retreat from the field of Salamanca; and that, in these confessions, he frankly avows that he had killed three of his monastic brothers of whom he was jealous, had poisoned half-a-dozen women, and sent off in boxes and hampers to Cadiz and Barcelona thirty-five infants; moreover, that he felt no misgivings about these abominable deeds, because, as he observes with great naiveté, he had every day, for many years, burnt a candle to the Blessed Virgin; had cursed periodically all heretics, especially the royal family of England; had burnt a student of Coimbra for asserting the earth went round the sun; had worn about him, day and night, a relic of St. Diego; and had provided that five hundred masses should be said for the repose of his soul within eight days after his decease.

Tales such as this, the like of which it is very easy to point out in print, are suitably contrived to answer the purpose which brings them into being. A Catholic who, in default of testimony offered in their behalf, volunteers to refute them on their internal evidence, and sets about (so to say) cross-examining them, finds himself at once in an untold labyrinth of embarrassments. First he inquires, is there a village in Calabria of the name of Buonavalle? is there a convent of S. Spirito in the Sicilian town specified? did it exist in the time of Charlemagne? who were the successive confessors of the Prince of the Asturias during the first twenty years of this century? what has Andalusia to do with Salamanca? when was the last Auto da fé in Spain? did the French pillage any convent whatever in the neighbourhood of Salamanca about the year 1812?—questions sufficient for a school examination. He goes to his maps, gazetteers, guidebooks, travels, histories;—soon a perplexity arises about the dates: are his editions recent enough for his purpose? do their historical notices go far enough back? Well, after a great deal of trouble, after writing about to friends, consulting libraries, and comparing statements, let us suppose him to prove most conclusively the utter absurdity of the slanderous story, and to bring out a lucid, powerful, and unanswerable reply; who cares for it by that time? who cares for the story itself? it has done its work; time stops for no man; it has created or deepened the impression in the minds of its hearers that a monk commits murder or adultery as readily as he eats his dinner. 

Men forget the process by which they receive it, but there it is, clear and indelible. Or supposing they recollect the particular slander ever so well, still they have no taste or stomach for entering into a long controversy about it; their mind is already made up; they have formed their views; the author they have trusted may, indeed, have been inaccurate in some of his details; it can be nothing more. Who can fairly impose on them the perplexity and whirl of going through a bout of controversy, where “one says,” and “the other says,” and “he says that he says that he does not say or ought not to say what he does say or ought to say?” It demands an effort and strain of attention which they have no sort of purpose of bestowing.

I myself have observed that it can take hundreds of words to correct a nine-word lie, or even an honest nine-word error. We are about to be on the receiving end of about 7 billion overwrought and generally dishonest words claiming that Donald Trump has not done that which he has been pretty well-documented doing. These words could be refuted, of course, but not for the true believer, whose commitment is beyond fact and beyond evidence. But remember who says what in the next few months, and keep remembering it.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.