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Be Very Afraid

· The Lede

Every weekend, Charles Pierce, the veteran New Journalist (and only living heir to Hunter S. Thompson) sends out his weekly roundup "Last Call" to subscribers. This weekend, he wrote something so important that we wanted to make sure it got wide circulation, about the attempt to rewrite the U.S. constitution.

Pierce writes under the aegis of Esquire, which has a special going now for a $30 annual membership but you can subscribe to Pierce for slightly less here. We do.

Charles Pierce

We have had almost a month now to get used to the fact that Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana is as weird a duck as ever has sat in the chair of the Speaker of the House. There is that whole business about how he doesn’t have a bank account. There is the strange tale about the “adopted” Black son who doesn’t seem to have appeared in any family photographs. There is the fact that he and his actual son monitor each other’s near occasions of sin on the Internet. From The Root:

This erasure has led some to question Michael’s existence, drawing clarification from his office. “When Speaker Johnson first ran for Congress in 2016, he and his wife, Kelly, spoke to their son Michael—who they took in as newlyweds when Michael was 14 years old,” Corinne Day, his communications director, told Newsweek. “At the time of the Speaker’s election to Congress, Michael was an adult with a family of his own. He asked not to be involved in their new public life. The Speaker has respected that sentiment throughout his career and maintains a close relationship with Michael to this day.”

Day also told Newsweek the Johnsons did not formally adopt Michael because of the “lengthy … process.” Instead, according to the Daily Mail, the couple met Michael Tirrell James while they were doing charitable work and took the teen into their home after he became homeless.

His rap sheet dates back to 2003 and includes drug possession, retail theft, violating a restraining order and other petty crimes, some of which landed him in jail. The father of four was in a Los Angeles court earlier this week on charges of running an illegal cannabis business and possessing brass knuckles, which may be why he surfaced after nearly a decade of silence. Now that James’ dad—er, play parent—has a new, more high-profile job, James knew his invisibility cloak is no longer a match for journalists and motivated social media warriors.

Despite his legal troubles, James, now 40, praised his “adoptive” family. “I always felt loved like I was a part of their family,” he told the Daily Mail. “If the Johnsons hadn’t taken me in as a teenager, my life would look very different today. I would probably be in prison or I might not have made it at all.”

Not that the Speakership hasn’t historically had enough oddballs to satisfy anyone’s taste for the strange. For example, there was James Lawrence Orr, a South Carolinian who moved from the Speakership smoothly into a stint as a senator in the Confederate Congress and then smoothly into the administration of President Ulysses S Grant, who’d smashed the division that Orr had raised for the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant named Orr to be ambassador to Russia, where Orr ended up dying.

Given all that we’ve found out about Speaker Johnson, it should surprise nobody that he has attached himself to one of the most virulent conservative threats to the existence of the American republic, one that has been operating off the radar ever since Ronald Reagan first broached the idea in a speech during his first term of office. The threat is very real and close enough to being legal to be, well, lethal.

For the last 10 years, the 'Convention of States' movement has sought to remake the Constitution and force a tea party vision of the framers’ intent upon America.

On Friday, Politico ran a piece detailing Johnson’s involvement with the movement for a “Convention of the States” (COS), a longtime conservative fantasy that would lay the entire Constitution open to revision or demolition. (After all, the current Constitution had exactly the same relationship to the Articles of Confederation.) And the people who would be running the COS likely would be the dregs of the 50 state legislatures.

For the last 10 years, the “Convention of States” movement has sought to remake the Constitution and force a tea party vision of the framers’ intent upon America. This group wants to wholesale rewrite wide swaths of the U.S. Constitution in one fell swoop. In the process, they hope to do away with regulatory agencies like the FDA and the CDC, virtually eliminate the federal government’s ability to borrow money, and empower state legislatures to override federal law. As far-fetched as this idea might sound, the movement is gaining traction — and now, it believes, it has a friend in the speaker of the House.

“Speaker Mike Johnson has long been a supporter of Convention of States,” Mark Meckler, co-founder of Convention of States Action (COSA), told me when I asked about Johnson’s ascension. “It shows that the conservative movement in America is united around COS and recognizes the need to rein in an out-of-control federal government which will never restrain itself.”

In 1987, frustrated that Congress could not muster up the two-thirds vote necessary to pass the Balanced Budget Amendment, aka The Worst Idea In American Politics, Ronald Reagan reminded the nation that two-thirds of the state legislatures could call a constitutional convention. In 1987, proponents of the convention were only two states away from that number, so we’ve been dancing on the edge of this abyss for a while now. Now, though, the extreme evangelical Right has attached itself to the cause, which was Johnson’s entry point into it.

Supporters of the COS will tell you that the convention could be limited to only several specific amendments. These, of course, would be bad enough, given the folks pushing the idea. But hardly any independent constitutional authority believes that. After all, they remind us, that James Madison and his running buddies called a convention to “improve” the Articles of Confederation, and they improved them out of existence.

Because Article V provides no restrictions on what a constitutional convention can consider or change, many legal scholars believe that adding such restrictions would be unconstitutional. “A convention likely cannot be limited at all by Congress or the states,” Russ Feingold — legal professor, former Wisconsin senator and current president of the American Constitution Society — wrote with Peter Prindiville in The Constitution in Jeopardy. “This clear, textual reading of Article V is supported by over a century of legal opinion from across the political spectrum.”

COSA insists that the language of their petition would prevent this “runaway convention” scenario. According to the mainstream legal opinion, however, an Article V convention could rewrite any part of the Constitution — including the part that requires the approval of three-fourths of the states to change it. A second Constitutional convention could therefore become a repeat of the first: One that completely restructures the U.S. government, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights according to rules they could make up as they go along.

And they will do that because this movement is now run by theocratic fanatics who can justify just about anything they do. Which brings us to our current Speaker of the House.

Johnson has never directly endorsed COSA as a member of Congress, and he does not directly endorse it now. “Subcommittee hearings about a given subject should not be considered endorsements from the Chairman,” Corinne Day, Johnson’s spokesperson, told me this week.

But the newly minted speaker had plenty to say about the movement when he was a Louisiana state representative. In 2016, while the state legislature debated whether to become the eighth state to petition Congress for an Article V convention, Johnson was a vocal proponent of the cause. “This is the measure of last resort,” Johnson told his fellow representatives. “Let’s agree that government is doing too much. I will tell you it’s doing way more than the founders intended or designed it to do.” “I came to this conclusion myself reluctantly, but I’m there,” he said. “I think we have to do it.” The measure passed, 62 to 36.

Back in the early 1980s, I wrote a piece about the possibility of a second constitutional convention, and one prominent constitutional lawyer told me that, among his peers, the possibility was considered the equivalent of “nuclear war.” It’s the thing nobody wants to contemplate, he said, and nobody wants to talk about. The involvement of the theocratic Right in the movement now ups the megatonnage considerably.

This unusual interpretation of American history, which the movement embraces completely, comes from David Barton. Barton has spent the past three and a half decades publishing books that claim to prove that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious; that the bible directly inspired both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence; and that the separation of church and state is a pernicious and ahistorical myth. His book The Jefferson Lies, which portrayed Deist and slave owner Thomas Jefferson as a religious civil rights pioneer, caused such outcry from historians that the publisher pulled the book from shelves.

Johnson’s affiliation with this movement is no secret. He appeared on Barton’s “Wallbuilders” podcast last May to decry the “weaponization” of the FBI to go after pro-life protesters who block access to abortion clinics. In 2021, Johnson spoke at Barton’s ProFamily Legislator’s Conference, where he talked about the impact of Barton’s teachings on his life. “I was introduced to David and his ministry a quarter century ago, and it has had such a profound influence on me, and my work and my life, and everything I do,” Johnson told the crowd. “Thanks to all of you for being willing to serve in this critical time for the country.”

That pretty well tears it. Barton is a fool and a charlatan. Actual historians, and the archivists in charge of the papers of the Founders, have spent years debunking his arrant bullshit. That he is as influential as he is among evangelicals is a measure of how shallow the intellectual reservoir of that movement really is. But the most effective argument against him, and against the Speaker of the House who seems to buy into his noxious drivel, and the drive for a constitutional convention that has grown out of that drivel like an invasive weed, comes from the guy who hijacked the first one. In 1788, James Madison wrote to his friend, George Turberville:


If a General Convention were to take place for the avowed and sole purpose of revising the Constitution, it would naturally consider itself as having a greater latitude than the Congress appointed to administer and support as well as to amend the system; it would consequently give greater agitation to the public mind; an election into it would be courted by the most violent partizans on both sides; it wd. probably consist of the most heterogeneous characters; would be the very focus of that flame which has already too much heated men of all parties; would no doubt contain individuals of insidious views, who under the mask of seeking alterations popular in some parts but inadmissible in other parts of the Union might have a dangerous opportunity of sapping the very foundations of the fabric. Under all these circumstances it seems scarcely to be presumeable that the deliberations of the body could be conducted in harmony, or terminate in the general good.


All things considered, I’d stand with that.

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We published a deep dive into the decades-long campaign of historical revisionism and political maneuvering to install a neo-Christian version of the Taliban in 2021. Read Onward Christian Soldiers.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised ::: Gill Scott Heron