John Kennedy Went Full Joe McCarthy

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Photo credit: SHAWN THEW - Getty Images
Photo credit: SHAWN THEW - Getty Images

John Kennedy of Louisiana is one of the Senate’s great phonies, an Oxford-educated tower of ambulatory artificial cornpone who’s as bone-deep a reactionary as Tom Cotton or Ted Cruz, but who is occasionally mistaken for being charming by people who never got over their pre-adolescent crush on Jethro Bodine. On Thursday, he was questioning Dr. Saule Omarova, the administration’s choice to be the comptroller of the currency.

Omarova is one of those immigrant stories that used to be an American standard, before our politics drifted into a boundless sea of poison. She was born and raised in Kazakhstan when it was still part of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union was still part of the world. She was a star pupil within the educational system of that defunct nation. This sent her to Moscow State University on a scholarship named after Vladimir Lenin. In 1991, while at Moscow State, she came to the University of Wisconsin as an exchange student, and I can’t imagine the culture shock of exchanging Soviet Moscow for Madison. While she was there, the USSR collapsed and she was stranded here.

She stayed and became a citizen. She became an expert in the area of banking regulation and financial law. She’s currently a professor of corporate law and regulation at Cornell Law School. She has written extensively—and innovatively—about banking regulation. From NPR:

In one paper, Omarova suggests the federal government could offer a bank account to every American through the Federal Reserve. Supporters of that proposal say it would reduce the number of "unbanked" persons significantly. Critics argue it would undermine commercial banks. In another article, she calls for the creation of an agency not unlike the Food and Drug Administration, that would be charged with approving or rejecting new financial products.

This kind of thing has set off explosions in the highly volatile brains of Republican senators. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania had the first public cranial detonation.

During an interview last month on the Fox Business channel, Toomey said Omarova's interest in these topics and others could have been shaped by her upbringing. "You could ask yourself, 'Where would a person even come up with these ideas?'" he said. "Well, maybe a contributing factor could be in if a person grew up in the former Soviet Union, and went to Moscow State University, and attended there on a Vladimir Lenin Academic Scholarship.”

Actual experts in the field laughed off Toomey’s cheap red-baiting for the performance piece it was. On Thursday, however, as Omarova met the Senate Banking Committee, Senator Jubilation T. Cornpone zapped new life into it in the clumsiest way possible. First, Kennedy demanded to know if Omarova had written a formal letter of resignation from her membership in the Komsomol, a Soviet youth organization to which Omarova had belonged when she was a kid in Kazakhstan. Then he went full HUAC. You never go full HUAC.

Let me tell you, I've spent a lot of time on your record and here's what I found. This is America, you can believe what you want. But we can't just let anybody be comptroller of the currency. You wrote your thesis in college at Moscow State University on -- the title was "Karl Marx's Economic Analysis and the Theory of Revolution in the Capital." But you won't send Senator Toomey a copy.

You studied at university, at Moscow State University, scientific Communism, which is the science regarding the working class struggle and the socialist agenda. In 2019, not 30 years ago, in a Canadian documentary, you called the financial services industry, quote, a quintessential asshole industry. You wrote a paper called systemically significant prices, calling for the federal government to set wages, food, gas prices.

Photo credit: Anna Moneymaker - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anna Moneymaker - Getty Images

In 2020, you wrote a paper called "People's Ledger" where you said we need to abolish bank accounts and have everybody set up an account at the Fed where the federal government will have access to your data. In 2020 you wrote another paper called "The Climate Case for a National Investment Authority," where you said what we need to do to the oil and gas industry is have the federal government bankrupt them so we can tackle climate change. In 2019, you joined the Facebook group, a Marxist Facebook group, to discuss socialist and anticapitalist views.

Now, that's what I see from your record. And you have the right to believe every one of these things. You do. This is America. But I don't mean any disrespect. I don't know whether to call you professor or comrade.

Omarova more than held her own.

Senator, I'm not a Communist. I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born. I did not -- I do not remember joining any Facebook group that subscribes to that ideology. I would never knowingly join any such group. There is no record of me ever actually participating in any Marxist or Communist discussions of any kind. My family suffered under the Communist regime. I grew up, half of my family, my grandmother herself escaped death twice under the Stalin regime. This is what is seared in my mind. That's who I am. I remember that history. I came to this country. I'm proud to be an American. And this is why I'm here today, Senator. I'm here today because I'm ready for public service.

And then, after Kennedy had wrangled with committee chairman Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Senator Professor Warren parked Foghorn Leghorn deep into the bleachers.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Professor Omarova, I know that the giant banks object to your willingness to enforce the law and that you may cut into big bank profits, so they and their Republican buddies have declared war on you. The attacks on your nomination have been vicious and personal. We've just seen them. Sexism, racism, pages straight out of Joe McCarthy's 1950s red scare tactics, it's all there on full display. Welcome to Washington in 2021…

…These banks want to avoid accountability, and they certainly want to avoid personal liability for their executives, and they're willing to do whatever it takes to block you. Opposition to Professor Omarova has nothing to do with her qualifications or her ability to do this job. Professor Omarova will be an honest cop on the beat. She will not grovel to banks and big tech companies. This is a vicious smear campaign, coordinated by Republicans who are doing the bidding of giant banks that want to keep gobbling up smaller competitors, want to keep ripping off their customers, and want to keep getting away with it. Wall Street feels threatened, so they have launched an ugly, personal assault on a respected person who never sought the spotlight. It is disgusting. And anyone who participates in this malicious character assassination should be ashamed of themselves.

Senator Kennedy, who still may be Bless-Your-Heart’ing Sherrod Brown, is not some avuncular shitkicker. He’s a smart, vicious Republican of the new school, and no amount of sweet tea can obscure the taste of bile.

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