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Deities and Demigods
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Deities and Demigods

The Manhattan district attorney tries to play Nemesis to the lawless Trump gang.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg leaves his office as the grand jury continues to hear evidence against former President Donald Trump on March 22, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Fates may love a good ironic comeuppance, but the deity we are dealing with here is their troublesome kid sister, Nemesis. And it would be more than tragically ironic if Donald Trump, who is so lawless himself, should be the cause of continuing lawlessness in others—not only in his underlings and sycophants (that ship long ago disappeared under the horizon) but in his enemies, who apparently are so possessed by the spirit of wrath that they are willing to throw the law overboard, or at least drag it behind the boat until it is half-drowned. 

The usual caveats apply here: We have not yet seen an indictment, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg may very well surprise. The skeleton of the case that has worked its way into the public discourse may turn out to be something quite different from what Bragg produces, but, even so, a great many people have pronounced themselves not only satisfied with those rickety bones but positively giddy about what they might in the end support. Sober-minded legal analysts including our own Sarah Isgur and David French (if you have not listened to their invaluable discussion of the case, do yourself the favor) and many others who are far from sympathetic to Trump—and far from eager to see him return to any position of power—are, in their circumspect and lawyerly way, ringing the alarm bells. 

Reemphasizing the caveats above, the case against Trump (now, there’s a great title for a book!) in Manhattan apparently is this: Trump probably broke the law against falsifying business records in New York, a misdemeanor offense with a statute of limitations that expired long ago. It is a relatively humble charge that, according to many knowledgeable people, would have been relatively easy to prosecute if prosecutors had pursued it, which they didn’t. However, there exists another statute regarding the falsification of business records, one that allows for a felony charge if the falsification was undertaken in the furtherance of another crime. That, apparently, is the charge Bragg intends to pursue. 

There are some immediately apparent formal legal problems with that strategy: For one thing, the five-year statute of limitations on the felony charge also has passed, and the prosecutor would be relying on a procedure that allows for halting the countdown when the defendant is continuously out of state. For another thing, charging Trump with falsifying business records to cover up another crime is going to be tricky in this situation because, as far as the law is concerned, there is no other crime. The posited crime is a campaign-finance violation, and I would be the least surprised man on Earth if the Trump gang was guilty of 55,781 of these, but he was never charged with the crime in question, much less convicted of it. And that crime is a federal crime, whereas Bragg is a local prosecutor in New York. That means that he cannot charge Trump with the federal offense, which has been considered by the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute it not only during the Trump administration but also during the Biden administration. Which is to say, he would be charging Trump not only with the falsification of records but also, in effect, charging him with a second federal offense that federal prosecutors declined to pursue, arguing that Trump should be treated as nonetheless guilty of this hypothetical offense that Bragg cannot try himself. 

No one ever has been charged, much less convicted, in the way Bragg apparently means to go after Trump. 

Do you know what this looks like to my non-lawyer’s eyes? It looks like the kind of thing that the Trump administration might have tried if it had had the energy and creativity to conceive of it. There is a time for vengeful spirits—but you had better dot every i and cross every t. And if you mean to play Nemesis to the lawless Trump gang, then you had better be occupying a legal position that is at least defensible and respectable if not impregnable. 

Adolf Hitler, who must in this instance be regarded as a subject-area expert, once observed that the great strength of totalitarian states is that they force those who fear them and oppose them to imitate them. (That proved tragically prescient in the case of Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration made war against the builders of concentration camps while building concentration camps, defending these as a wartime exigency.) To undermine the rule of law in the quest to punish Trump et al. for undermining the rule of law would be a grotesque misapplication of the legal machinery and the moral spirit animating it. It would also be a blunder, tending to buttress Trump’s inevitable claims that what he is facing is not prosecution but persecution and undermining the other legal efforts to bring Trump and his enablers to justice, such as the Georgia case—which is, in the eyes of our legal experts here at The Dispatch and elsewhere, probably much stronger.

This could have been headed off in any number of ways: If Republicans had had the patriotism to put nation over party—or even sufficient healthy partisanship to put the long-term interests of the Republican Party over their own short-term interests—then Trump would have been convicted in his post-January 6 impeachment and barred from public office. A self-respecting country would see to it that neither Trump nor any of his enablers ever came close to public office again, starting with Mike Pence (who suddenly sprouted a conscience at the precise moment that furthering Trump’s ghastly abuses ceased to be profitable to him) and going deep into the list of political appointees, advisers, and sundry lackeys. But we do not live in a self-respecting country—we live in the United States of America. 

Trump should be prosecuted where the law allows for it and where the law calls for it. One might make a kind of domestic Realpolitik argument for prosecuting him as a matter of civic hygiene—if one believed that a successful (or even a failed) prosecution of Trump would provide a prophylactic against his future political success. But it would be a mistake to believe that. Even a strong, slam-dunk prosecution of Trump might serve only to deepen his followers’ sense of persecution, idiotic and unjustified as it is, and a weak prosecution would be much worse: Their bond with Trump is a quasi-religious (specifically, idolatrous) one, and he will be perfectly happy to play the suffering messiah who absorbs the abuse of the wicked on their behalf, provided he gets to go on sleeping in his own bed. Legal action against Trump should be undertaken on legal bases, not on moral or political bases. 

Yes, prosecute Trump for crimes where there are crimes for which to prosecute him. Nobody would be better pleased than I to see him in accommodations measuring roughly 6-by-8. But the work of protecting this country and its institutions against Donald Trump and what he stands for is not mainly a job for prosecutors: It is a job for educators and evangelists, for citizens, for patriots, and, God help us, for politicians, including those politicians who remain attached to that debased thing that still has the shockingly bad taste to call itself the Republican Party even though it is by no means republican and, arguably, no longer even really a party but a cross between a cult and massive group-therapy session for angry elderly white people. 

So, a message to the lawyers from all of us non-lawyers: You had better get this right. 

Economics for English Majors

A few people got all sorts of hot and bothered about my Dispatch column arguing that New York state’s housing problem is not mainly a zoning matter. There was anger left and right, which is always reassuring. 

I’ll revisit a few points:

The first thing to know about New York’s housing shortage is that, as an empirical matter, New York does not have a housing shortage. The state has about 1 million vacant properties as of the most recent survey, and it is losing nearly 200,000 residents a year. New York City has enough abandoned properties that it could give four of them to every homeless person or family in the city. There are estimates—not from crusty old libertarians but from progressive groups—that there are tens of thousands of rent-stabilized properties that have been taken off the market by owners who do not wish to rent them for the rates the law would require and prefer, instead, to keep them empty for some time. Somebody wrote to denounce me as a “vacancy truther” for accepting that claim, which makes me smile. There are, of course, costs involved in being a landlord, for example spending money on necessary repairs to apartments and other expenses that can be delayed by keeping the property off the market. That doesn’t sound like much of a conspiracy to me—that sounds like an example of how price controls create scarcity, an utterly uncontroversial economic truism.

New York state’s vacancy rate is about the same as Florida’s, right around 11 percent, which is not far off the national average. New York City in particular has a reputation for being very expensive, but it would be much more accurate to say that the New York neighborhoods everybody wants to live in are very expensive—high demand will do that to prices!—while you can still buy a modest apartment in the city for less than $100,000, if you don’t mind living in the Bronx. (Which you shouldn’t mind—the Bronx is great.) You can buy a three-bedroom rowhouse in New York City for less than $600,000—but not in Tribeca. 

Bad governance has ruined a lot of New York neighborhoods and, rather than address the real problems—crime, schools, transportation, economic development—what Gov. Kathy Hochul proposes is to centralize zoning decisions at the state level in order to try to bully suburbs into permitting more apartment buildings, particularly near transit hubs. I myself think dense development is good for cities and inner suburbs, and I much prefer the loosey-goosey zoning habits of Houston (even with their occasionally comic or wince-inducing results) to the market-suffocating practices of, say, Greenwich. But, being a conservative, I also believe in subsidiarity: As a former small-town newspaper editor who has been to more planning-and-zoning meetings than I care to remember, I know that we typically make zoning policy at the local level for a good reason—because it is an inherently local issue. This really seems to confuse some people: I want local authorities in charge of local things such as zoning and schools, even when that means that the local authorities will, from time to time, adopt policies other than those I would prefer. I have policy preferences, but I also have procedural preferences. I believe that an intelligent and responsible approach to government requires both. 

I don’t want to go off into a whole civics tangent here—this is Economics for English Majors, not Politics for English Majors—but one of the big differences between conservatives and progressives (and between conservatives and ideologues) is that conservatives put a lot more stock in procedure and process, whereas progressive often are willing to run roughshod over these in pursuit of outcomes that they believe to be self-evidently desirable and reasonable. E.g.: I am very, very skeptical of so-called red-flag laws that empower governments to suspend the civil rights of people who have not been convicted of any crime, or even charged with any crime. My progressive friends (and some conservatives, too) argue that the outcome (that the police are able to take away guns from people who lawfully own them but who are seen as presenting a threat) is so desirable that we don’t need to worry very much about due process. (And because they don’t think that the Second Amendment protects a real civil right, they take a pretty flinty view of what process is due to begin with.) Progressives don’t really care what the Constitution says about abortion (which, inconveniently for their case, is: nothing), they have a preferred outcome in mind and will take any constitutional justification they can get, however implausible, to achieve the outcome. I myself am anti-abortion (you may have heard this about me), but I do not believe that the Constitution mandates an anti-abortion position. Process matters. How we achieve our preferred policy outcomes matters a great deal. 

That being the case, I do not see any contradiction between preferring a more liberal (meaning more Houstonian) zoning policy and opposing Gov. Hochul’s proposals to override local zoning laws. 

And if you’ll forgive my ending with a Kirkian observation: Different communities are different. The people who are always lecturing us about the glories of diversity never seem to quite get that. There isn’t any reason for every community in New York—or any other state—to be subject to the same rules concerning local zoning and development. 

Words About Words

I will here repeat my praise for Sarah Isgur and David French’s commentary on the (possible) Trump indictment, offered above. All praises, etc. But a quibble about language: David and Sarah described the prosecution as a “bank-shot” and then as a “double bank-shot,” with Sarah adding that a double bank-shot was in keeping with other big news of the day, that being “March Madness,” the NCAA basketball tournament. 

There are bank-shots in basketball. But there are no double bank-shots in basketball. Double bank-shots are for billiards. Hey, it was a podcast—everybody gets a little fuzzy from time to time when speaking extemporaneously, and I’m not one to cast aspersions here. Just making a language point or two. 

A bank-shot in basketball is a shot in which the ball is bounced off the backboard into the hoop. You can see how a double bank-shot would be unlikely—bouncing off the backboard twice or, I suppose, bouncing off both backboards. 

A bank-shot in billiards is when either the cue ball or the object ball (the ball the cue ball is aimed at) bounces off the side of the table (the rail, with its cushion) and into the pocket. A double bank-shot entails two bounces—a lot easier in billiards than in basketball. 

(You can, apparently, execute a double bank-shot in hockey.)

Also:

Why write billiards, a fancy-sounding word, rather than the more common pool

For one thing, the professionals call the game billiards, and the pros usually deserve some deference. For another, billiards encompasses a number of games: pool, what we call English billiards, snooker, etc. 

Billiards has some pretty interesting vocabulary. There are the strings: head string, center string, and foot string, which divide the table into four equal sections; and the long string, which bisects the table lengthwise. Where the long string intersects the head string is the head spot. The field of play between the head rail and the head string is the kitchen, whence (not from whence!) the opening break is made. The lines are different on tables set up for snooker, with the baulk line cordoning off one-fifth rather than one-quarter of the table, the baulk being snooker’s answer to the kitchen.

Pool comes from a form of gambling in which all of the bettors put their money into a single pot (or pool), a format of wagering used for all kinds of games, from cards to—according to our friends at the Online Dictionary of Etymology—throwing things at a chicken:

Perhaps the original notion is from jeu de la poule, supposedly a game in which people threw things at a chicken and the player who hit it, won it, which speaks volumes about life in the Middle Ages. The notion behind the word, then, is ‘playing for money.” The connection of “hen” and “stakes” is also present in Spanish polla and Walloon paie.

The derivation is a little murky, but it seems to be the case that racetracks set up gaming rooms, with both card games and billiards, to amuse gamblers between races, and that these became known as pool rooms, and so—presto-change-o!—pool room became the name for a place where billiards is played and then pool became the name for a particular billiards game. 

The Indo-European root of pool is pau, meaning few or small, and it also is the basis of words ranging from pauper and poverty to pupil to paucity to poultry to puerile, from the Latin puer, meaning boy.

In Other Wordiness … 

You may have stumbled on one or two things above: First, yes, bases is the plural of basis. It looks a little weird because it also is the plural of the closely related word base

Second: Yes, I meant to write concentration camps. American concentration camps, in which people of Japanese background (and, in a smaller number of cases, German and Italian backgrounds) were interred, were not the same as German concentration camps, in which Jews and others were systematically put to death. But they were concentration camps nonetheless—Merriam-Webster: “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.” One should always be careful when using words with Holocaust associations, of course, but the shock of the words concentration camp are, in this instance, both intended and entirely warranted. 

And Furthermore … 

If I wanted to write a parody of how an exquisitely miseducated person writes and thinks, I couldn’t do better than the real thing from Karen Attiah in the Washington Post

Elsewhere

Why are so many New Yorkers moving to Florida? Florida has had sunshine and lower taxes for a long time—since, well, forever—but the New York-to-Florida exodus really picked up with COVID—not because of the virus itself, but because of the heavy-handed reaction to it. More in the New York Post, the nation’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper—whatever the Providence Journal claims. 

Also also … I have a longstanding view that the environmental movement is mainly religious rather than political in character. In fact, I wrote a series of pieces about that over the course of a year with the support of my friends and colleagues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who got me into the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow. CEI has now put those together in a little monograph, with a very kind foreword by our friend Dan Hannan, formerly of the European Parliament and currently of the U.K. House of Lords (who doesn’t actually go by “Baron Hannan of Kingsclere,” which is pretty cool-sounding as titles go) and an afterword by CEI’s Kent Lassman, along with some amendments and expansions and amplifications from me. You can check it out here. I talked about it this morning on Julie Mason’s SiriuxXM “POTUS Politics” program, if you were up early–if not, I believe you can listen to excerpts online

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

You can buy my other books here

You can see my New York Post columns here

In Closing

Do you have something that makes you want to dismiss a piece of writing or argument out-of-hand? I have a lot of those things, I suppose, and one of them is the promiscuous use of the word “scary,” as in this recent Slate headline: “Republicans Have Revived a Scary 1980s Tactic for Breaking Democracy.” That “scary tactic” is “breaking democracy” in the strangest way: by means of a law democratically passed by the democratically elected state legislature of Kentucky. In this case, the law would change how Kentucky handles Senate vacancies—rather than giving the governor free hand to name whomever he pleases, the Kentucky governor would instead be obliged to choose from a list of three candidates drawn up by the leaders of whichever party the retiring senator belongs to. It is a dumb policy, to be sure, but an entirely democratic one. If democracy means anything, it means that democratically elected lawmakers make the laws, including dumb laws. If you think that is “scary,” you need to get out more.

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.