Sunday, April 15, 2018
John Bolton started work as Trump's new National Security Adviser on
Monday. On Friday, Trump ordered a massive missile attack on Syria. Those
who warned about Bolton, like
Fred Kaplan, have been vindicated very quickly. Presumably, what took
Trump and Bolton so long was lining up British and French contributions
to the fusillade, to make this look less like the act of a single madman
and more like the continuation of a millennium of Crusader and Imperialist
attacks on Syria. For a news report on the strike, long on rhetoric and
short on damage assessment, see
Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neft, Ben Hubbard: U.S., Britain and France
Strike Syria Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack. Two significant
points here: (1) the targets were narrowly selected to represent Syria's
alleged chemical weapons capability (which raises the question of why, if
the US knew of these facilities before, it didn't insist on inspections
under Syria's Russia-brokered agreement to give up its chemical weapons --
more rigorous inspections could have kept the alleged chemical attacks
from ever happening, as well as saving Syria from "retaliatory" strikes);
(2) the US and its cronies consider this round of strikes to be complete
(Trump even used the phrase
"Mission Accomplished" to describe them).
I suppose the good news here is that while Russia is unhappy about
the strikes, Trump and Bolton (and "Mad Dog") have limited themselves
to a level of aggression unlikely to trigger World War III. On the other
hand, what Trump did was embrace one of the hoariest clichés of American
politics: the notion that US presidents prove their mettle by unleashing
punitive bombing strikes on nations incapable of defense or response.
The first example I can recall was Reagan's bombing of Libya in 1986,
although there were previous examples of White House tantrums, like
Wilson sending Pershing's army into Mexico to chase down Pancho Villa
in 1916-17. After Reagan, GHW Bush launched grudge wars against Panama
and Iraq, but the art (and hubris) of bombing on a whim was more fully
developed and exploited by Bill Clinton, especially in Iraq. Clinton
got so much political mileage out of it that GW Bush bombed Iraq his
first week in office, just to show that he could.
Still, what makes it a cliché is not just that other presidents
have done it. People who play presidents on TV and in the movies do
it also, if anything even more often and reflexively. I first noticed
this in The West Wing -- I didn't watch much TV during its
1999-2006 run, but it seems like nearly every episode I did catch
saw its otherwise reasonable President Bartlett ordering the bombing
of someone or other. Just last week President Kirkman of Designated
Survivor unleashed a rashly emotional attack on a fictional
country based on even shoddier intelligence than Trump's. A couple
weeks ago in Homeland the US bombed Syria against President
Elizabeth Keane's orders, simply because her Chief of Staff thought
it would provide some useful PR spin. When all of pop culture calls
out for blood, not to mention advisers like Bolton, it's impossible
to imagine someone like Donald Trump might get in their way.
The usual problem with clichés is that they're lazy, requiring
little or no thought or ingenuity. Politicians are even more prone
to clichés than writers, because they rarely run any risk saying
whatever they're most expected to. Some people thought that Trump,
with his brusque disregard for "political correctness," might be
different, but they sadly overestimated his capacity for any form
of critical thought. On the other hand, Washington is chock full
of foreign policy mandarins trapped in the same web of clichés,
even as it's long been evident that their plots and prescriptions
don't come close to working. And nowhere have knee-jerk reactions
been more obvious than with Syria, where America's effort to fight
some and promote other anti-Assad forces is effectively nihilist.
Rational people recoil from situations where there is no solution.
Trump, on the other hand, takes charge.
Some more links on the fire this time in Syria:
Some scattered links this week:
Matthew Yglesias: 4 stories that drove politics this week: House
Speaker Paul Ryan is retiring from Congress; Mr. Zuckerberg went to
Washington; The FBI raised Michael Cohen's office (doesn't he mean
"raided"?); James Comey started promoting his book. The latter point
mentions what I would have picked as a key story: the pardon for
Scooter Libby -- one of the dozen or so most obnoxious things Trump
has personally done so far. Perhaps even bigger is the latest Trump
assault on Syria. While the missile launch occurred after Yglesias
was done for the week, the PR pitch lurked over the entire week.
Other Yglesias posts this week:
James Comey admits that his read of the polls may have influenced his
handling of the Clinton email probe: Yglesias adds: "A damning
admission." I'm inclined to take it more at face value, as (belated)
recognition that he was letting his decisions be dictated by what he
expected the perceived reactions might be. In particular, he was much
more concerned about what Republicans might say had he done the normal
thing and kept quiet about an ongoing investigation until the FBI had
actually reviewed the evidence; and that he was completely clueless
to how his rumor-mongering might affect the Democrats, the election,
and the fate of the nation. And he reaches for the facile excuse that
based on polls he expected Clinton to win anyway so he figured nothing
he could do would change things, although what he did was the single
most important factor in tilting the election toward Trump. Even today,
Comey's claim to have acted even-handedly is tone deaf to the actual
temper of the political divide. While he is forthright in condemning
Trump, he manages to make himself look to Trump supporters like a hack
spouting partisan rancor -- and therefore he's unlikely to convince
anyone of anything other than their presuppositions.
For more on the book, see:
Jen Kirby: 5 eye-popping revelations from James Comey's book excerpts:
- Trump was obsessed with the so-called "pee tape"
- Comey has some things to say about Jeff Sessions
- Comey is airing his Trump grievances. Like, really airing them.
- Comey says the Trump administration reminded him of his days prosecuting
- Comey defends his handling of the Clinton email investigation -- and
makes it seem as if everyone else has absolved him too
Also, not for me but maybe for you:
Alex Ward: Why James Comey isn't the hero you think he is.
Donald Trump sold out to Paul Ryan, not the other way around.
John Kelly's diminished standing in the Trump administration, in one
photo: Not actually the first time Kelly has been photographed with
his hand over his face. Probably not the last either. The suggestion is
that it's not true that Kelly has no sense of shame. More likely he just
has no principles.
The RNC's new Lyin' Comey website, explained: One of the era's
more cynical attempts at negative psychology.
Interestingly, though, the Lyin' Comey site does not really dedicate
much attention (if any) to rebutting anything in particular Comey
said about Trump.
Instead, its main focus is pointing out that between October 2016
and Comey's firing in May 2017, Democrats had a lot of mean things
to say about him.
Mark Zuckerberg has been apologizing for reckless privacy violations since
he was a freshman.
House Speaker Paul Ryan was the biggest fraud in American politics.
Ryan's decision to give up his Congressional seat in 2018 has led to a
lot of commentary, but this is the one key point -- reiterated in
Paul Krugman: The Paul Ryan Story: From Flimflam to Fascism:
Look, the single animating principle of everything Ryan did and proposed
was to comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted. Can anyone
name a single instance in which his supposed concern about the deficit
made him willing to impose any burden on the wealthy, in which his
supposed compassion made him willing to improve the lives of the poor?
voted against the Simpson-Bowles debt commission proposal not
because of its real flaws, but because it would raise taxes and fail
to repeal Obamacare.
And his "deficit reduction" proposals were
always frauds. The revenue loss from tax cuts always exceeded any
explicit spending cuts, so the pretense of fiscal responsibility came
entirely from "magic asterisks": extra revenue from closing unspecified
loopholes, reduced spending from cutting unspecified programs. I called
flimflam man back in 2010, and nothing he has done since has called
that judgment into question.
More on Ryan:
For what it's worth, I think Ryan's decision makes sense on three
counts: (1) Ryan is one of the most despised political figures in the
nation right now, and in 2018 every Democrat running for the House is
going to be running against Ryan (much as every Republican since 2010
has run against Nancy Pelosi); I'd bet that the Kochs have polling
showing this liability, so they helped nudge him into backing out and
trying to protect his brand for more opportune times; (2) after being
Speaker, becoming Minority Leader is one of the shittiest jobs in US
political life (sure, Pelosi did it, but QED); (3) I believe Ryan that
he won't run for president in 2020, but someone is going to primary
Trump, and if that results in a Trump exit or a contested convention
Ryan wants to position himself as the compromise/unity choice -- the
same strategy that got him the Speakership. Of course, he could just
cash in and become a lobbyist, but his sponsors probably still think
he still has a political future.
Scott Pruitt's ethics problems are conservative ideology in action.
I was thinking of articulating this somewhat differently: that conservatives
are exceptionally prone to corruption because they believe that private
gain is more important than public welfare, and doubly so to the extent
they're able to create a world where private wealth is the only source
of future security. Yglesias' main point is "conservatives don't believe
in the EPA's mission," which correlates with the idea that corruption is
fine as one way to hobble a bureaucracy they don't want to work. For the
case in point, any money Pruitt wastes on security and luxury travel and
fancy furniture is money unavailable for enforcing clean air and water
laws. Similarly, conservatives seek to direct funding away from welfare
to defense, not because they so value defense but because money spent
there almost never increases public welfare. And conservatives -- John
Bolton is a good example -- favor foreign policies that increase risk
and fear, because they promote greater defense spending.
The American Chopper Meme, explained. The Pruitt one near the end
makes an interesting point.
The Bell Curve is about policy. And it's wrong. About Charles
Murray, the reference to his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which
attempted to salvage racism by using statistics rather than utterly
discredited genetic claims. The most charitable interpretation one can
make about Murray's data is that it shows that racial discrimination
has been somewhat successful at disadvantaging blacks. Still, I'm
surprised to see anyone bringing this lame horse up, especially
after the book was thoroughly rebutted in
Russell Jacoby/Naomi Glauberman, eds.: The Bell Curve Debate.
Still, as Yglesias notes, Murray is still active, still spreading
politically motivated nonsense, as much about class as race. I guess
I shouldn't be so surprised. After all, if you're dumb enough to
believe Trump is on your side, you're probably dumb enough to think
Charles Murray is smart.
The case against Facebook. I can't say as I'm following either
Facebook or the angst over it, but if you are, also see:
Matt Taibbi: Can We Be Saved From Facebook? and
Watching Facebook and Senate Hypocrisy in Real-Time.
Tara Golshan: Trump is calling backsies on exiting the Trans-Pacific
Partnership trade deal: Significantly, he's being lobbied by
Republicans, especially from agricultural states.
Umair Irfan: Scott Pruitt's actions at the EPA have triggered a half-dozen
investigations. Also note that Pruitt's penchant for corruption preceded
his move to Washington. See:
Sharon Lerner: Why Did the EPA's Scott Pruitt Suppress a Report on
Corruption in Oklahoma?
Mark Kalin: List-Making as Resistance: Chronicling a Year of Damage Under
Trump: Interview with Amy Siskind, author of The List: A Week-by-Week
Reckoning of Trump's First Year. Where most journalists have tried to
make their living off Trump's Twitter feed, Siskind prefers to chronicle
what's actually been happening. Doubt she's got it all -- the book is a
mere 528 pages -- but it should be a good start. For an excerpt, see
Amy Siskind: Yes, We Are Like Frogs in Boiling Water With Trump as
Carolyn Kormann: Ryan Zinke's Great American Fire Sale.
Paul Krugman: What's the Matter With Trumpland? Mostly true as far
as he goes, but the key point isn't the liberal platitude that the most
successful areas are those with the most educational opportunities and
cultural attraction for educated workers (including immigrants). It's
that declining areas have been making political choices that make their
prospects even worse.
That new Austin et al. paper makes the case for a national policy of
aiding lagging regions. But we already have programs that would aid
these regions -- but which they won't accept. Many of the states that
have refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government
would foot the great bulk of the bill -- and would create jobs in the
process -- are also among America's poorest.
Or consider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma -- both of
which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far
behind -- have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging
their education systems. External forces have put them in a hole,
but they're digging it deeper.
And when it comes to national politics, let's face it: Trumpland
is in effect voting for its own impoverishment. New Deal programs and
public investment played a significant role in the great postwar
convergence; conservative efforts to downsize government will hurt
people all across America, but it will disproportionately hurt the
very regions that put the G.O.P. in power.
I doubt it's disproportionate. After all, wealthier "blue states"
have much more to lose, but it's certainly the case that nothing
Trump and the Republicans will actually do will help to even out
regional economic differences. Actually, we've been through this
debate before. In the 1930s southern Democrats saw the New Deal as
a way out of their impoverishment, but from about 1938 on most of
the leading southern Democrats broke with Roosevelt, fearing that
too much equality would upset their racial order, even if (perhaps
even because) it raised living standards. Of course, they didn't
reject all federal spending in their districts. They became the
most ardent of cold warriors. (On the New Deal, see Ira Katznelson:
Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. As
for the cold warriors and their money train, James Byrne, John
Stennis, and Carl Vinson were major figures.)
Krugman also wrote
Unicorns of the Intellectual Right, to remind us about the
"intellectual decadence" and "moral decline" of right-leaning
In macroeconomics, what began in the 60s and 70s as a usefully
challenging critique of Keynesian views went all wrong in the 80s,
because the anti-Keynesians refused to reconsider their views when
their own models failed the reality test while Keynesian models,
with some modification, performed pretty well. By the time the
Great Recession struck, the right-leaning side of the profession
had entered a Dark Age, having retrogressed to the point where
famous economists trotted out 30s-era fallacies as deep insights.
But even among conservative economists who didn't go down that
rabbit hole, there has been a moral collapse -- a willingness to
put political loyalty over professional standards. We saw that most
recently in the way leading conservative economists raced to endorse
ludicrous claims for the efficacy of the Trump tax cuts, then tried
to climb down without admitting what they had done. We saw it in the
false claims that Obama had presided over a massive expansion of
government programs and refusal to admit that he hadn't, the warnings
that Fed policy would cause huge inflation followed by refusal to
admit having been wrong, and on and on.
German Lopez: Trump is already trying to call off his attorney general's
war on marijuana.
Alex Ward: Mike Pompeo, your likely new -- and Trump-friendly -- secretary
of state: When Pompeo first ran for Congress, I had him pegged as a
straight Koch plant with a quasi-libertarian economic focus, which I
actually found preferable to his predecessor (Christian Fascist and
Boeing flack Todd Tiahrt). However, his resume included a West Point
education, and he soon emerged as a hardline neocon militarist. What
brought him to Trump's attention was his demagogic flogging of Hillary
Clinton and the Benghazi!!! pseudo-scandal. I can't imagine Trump
nominating anyone who isn't "Trump-friendly," so I wouldn't get too
agitated about that. Right now the problem with Pompeo isn't that he's
simpatico with Trump; it's that his nomination shows that Trump is
buying into Pompeo's neocon worldview -- although I'd also worry that
Pompeo's tenure at CIA has made him even more contemptuous of law and
diplomacy than he was before. Also see:
Ryan Grim: Mike Pompeo Could Go Down if Senate Democrats Decide to
Jennifer Williams: Trump just pardoned Scooter Libby: If you recall
the case (way back in 2007), you'll recall that Libby was the only one
convicted by a special prosecutor investigation into the politically
motivated unmasking of a CIA agent -- an act that Libby doesn't seem
to have been involved in, but Libby's perjury and obstruction prevented
those actually guilty from ever being charged. At the time, GW Bush
commuted Libby's three-year prison sentence, evidently afraid that if
he didn't, Libby would switch sides and rat out other Bush operatives.
Libby wound up paying a fine and spending two years on probation, but
that's well in the past right now, so the pardon at this point barely
affects Libby's life. So it's hard to read this as anything other
than a blanket promise to his underlings that even if they do get
caught up in his scandals and convicted, as long as they don't
implicate Trump the president will protect them. It is, in other
words, a very deliberate and public way of undermining the Mueller
investigation. I'm not sure if it violates US law on obstruction
of justice, but UK law has a term that surely applies: perverting
the course of justice. For more, see:
Dylan Scott: Democrats are kind of freaking out about Trump's Scooter
Libby pardon and what it means.
By the way, I'm not sure that the two are linked, but Libby was
Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, and Cheney never had
the same sort of influence over the Bush Administration after Libby
left. Of course, the other explanation is that Cheney's dominance
early on had backfired, especially after the 2006 election debacle.
Cheney also lost a key ally when Donald Rumsfeld got sacked, and
was further embarrassed as his approval ratings sank under 20%.
Gary Younge: Trump and Brexit Are Symptoms of the Same Failure to Reckon
With Racism: Having lived both in UK and US, Younge seems the failure
to deal with racism as leading not just to dysfunction but to dementia,
with Brexit and Trump just two flagrant examples.
The argument about which country is, at present, the most dysfunctional
is of course futile, since the answer would render neither any less
dysfunctional. Britain set itself an unnecessary question, only then to
deliver the wrong answer. Those who led us out of the European Union had
no more plans for what leaving would mean than a dog chasing a car has
to drive it. Not only do we not know what we want; we have no idea how
to get it, even if we did.