Sunday, May 27, 2018
I started assembling and writing some of this as early as Thursday
this week, shortly after Trump cancelled his much hyped Singapore
summit with Kim Jong-un, and I haven't been able to catch up with
such later news as
Kim Jong-un Meets With South Korean Leader in Surprise Visit and
US Officials Meet With North Koreans to Discuss Summit. It was a
pretty good initial guess that John Bolton was at the root of the
cancellation, first by poisoning the well with his insistence that
North Korea surrender its nuclear weapons like Libya did in 2004,
and finally by whispering into the gullible president's ear that if
he didn't cancel, Kim would beat him to the punch. As I note below,
if the two Koreas can proceed to their own deal, it really won't
matter much what Trump and Bolton think. And by the way, I think
it's safe to say that Trump's 3rd National Security Adviser won't
be his last. While Bolton hasn't flamed out as fast as Anthony
Scaramucci -- indeed, he may even outlast Michael Flynn (who
resigned after a little more than three weeks) -- he's embarrassed
Trump is a way that won't soon be forgotten.
Also on death watch is Rudy Giuliani, who's managed to make Trump
look even guiltier while trying to polarize political reaction to
the Mueller investigation, figuring that as long as he can keep his
base from believing their lying eyes he'll survive impeachment, and
as long as that happens he can pardon the rest.
Some scattered links this week:
Matthew Yglesias: No "4 most important stories this week,"
or maybe just no clue
how to explain them? My nominations for the top four stories:
President Trump cancelled his planned summit with Kim Jong-un;
Neither North Korea nor Iran are taking Trump's rejection and
threats as provocations to belligerence; Trump hatched "spygate"
to further politicize the Mueller investigation; Ireland voted
to legalize abortion.
Still, a busy week's worth of posts for Matthew Yglesias:
NFL owners are stifling speech, but it's not called "no-platforming"
when you're rich and own the platform: "Real power over the flow
of ideas rests with the wealthy." Argues that the rich -- and when
we're talking NFL franchise owners, we're talking very rich -- don't
always use their wealth to promote their political interests (clearly
he hasn't worked for the Kochs) they can and do when it makes sense
to their bottom line.
The good news for free speech is that rich people generally like money,
and this operates as a practical constraint on the extent to which they
use their control of platforms for political purposes. NFL owners are a
conservative-leaning bunch, for example, but they aren't going to subject
fans to pregame lectures about the merits of tax cuts because they don't
want to annoy the audience.
But one luxury of being rich is you can sacrifice some financial upside
for political purposes if you want to. A recent paper by Emory University
political scientists Gregory Martin and Josh McCrain found that when
Sinclair Broadcast Group, a legendarily right-wing network of local TV
stations, buys a station, its local news programs begin to cover more
national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative,
and viewership actually falls -- suggesting that the rightward tilt isn't
enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion
Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, meanwhile, found in a separate study that
without Fox News's slanted coverage, the Republican presidential candidate's
share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and
6.34 points lower in 2008. The Koch brothers have started using their
financial clout to buy influence on college campuses, making generous
contributions in exchange for a role in hiring faculty members. Google
spends millions of dollars a year sponsoring academic research that it
hopes will influence both mass and elite opinion in favor of Google-friendly
policy conclusions, and it's obviously not the only wealthy business that
Most cases are, of course, going to be less extreme but still
significant. An old quip by Anatole France notes that "the law, in its
majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under
bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." By the same token,
the rich and the poor alike have the right to buy a chain of local
television news stations or NFL franchises, but in practice, only the
rich actually can control the flow of information.
One should note [*] that Sinclair's substitution of national for
local news is also a cost-cutting (profit-enhancing) feature, as local
news is generally of interest only to its local market, whereas national
stories can be sourced anywhere and reused everywhere. The Kochs, by
the way, have been buying academic favors at least since the 1980s,
when they founded Cato Institute and bankrolled James McGill Buchanan
(see Nancy McLean's Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the
Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America; by the way, I saw a line
just this week insisting that the Nobel Prize for Economics isn't given
out to marginal cranks, but Buchanan disproves that).
For more on the NFL, see:
Benjamin Sachs: The NFL's "take a knee" ban is flatly illegal.
Donald Trump's posthumous pardon of boxing champion Jack Johnson,
explained: "A case where breaking norms helps get the right thing
done." By all means, read if you don't know who Johnson was (or think
he's a white folksinger). I learned about the first black boxing champ
back in the 1960s -- not just his boxing career and taste for white
women but that he was also into fast cars -- especially through Howard
Sackler's 1967 play The Greate White Hope (a stage and screen
breakthrough for James Early Jones), soon followed by one of Miles
Davis' greatest albums (A Tribute to Jack Johnson). Johnson's
Mann Act conviction was unjust, but not unique (the same law was used
to jail Chuck Berry in the 1950s), and indeed the period was so full
of racial injustice that it would be mind-boggling even to try to
recognize it all. On the other hand, if Trump's pardon of Johnson
is anything more than a cheap publicity stunt, all it signals is
Trump's identity with famous people, and his sense that pardoning
a black man who died 70 years ago won't ruffle his base (especially
after his much more consequential pardon of racist sheriff Joe
Why did anyone ever take Trump's North Korea diplomacy seriously?
Sure, there's never been any reason to take Trump's understanding of
either war or diplomacy with North Korea seriously. However, most US
military experts really want to avoid war with North Korea, and that
group clearly includes Secretary of Defense Mattis. On the other hand,
Trump has glibly promised "to take care of" the pseudo-problem of
North Korea's nuclear arsenal. I say "pseudo-problem" because it's
pretty clearly only meant as a deterrent and/or bargaining chip,
not as the offensive threat that Trump seems to think. As long as
the US and its allies don't attack North Korea, there's no reason
to think that North Korea will attack us -- it would, after all, be
a purely psychotic thing to do. So the simplest solution would be
to just ignore the supposed provocation, but Trump and the neocon
hawks won't tolerate anything that might make the US look weak, or
sensible. However, it has always seemed possible that North and
South Korea could work out their own deal, which Trump would be
hard-pressed not to go along with. One always hopes that sanity
will prevail over war, so it was tempting to humor Trump as long
as he raised that possibility. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called
experts in America have been taking pot-shots at the prospect,
some (like John Bolton and Mike Pence) because they want to keep
any agreement from happening), and some (like Yglesias) because
they regard Trump as a dangerous and/or delirious buffoon.
DOJ is giving a special partisan briefing on the Trump-Russia investigation
to GOP Congress members.
Most Americans don't realize Robert Mueller's investigation has uncovered
crimes: "17 indictments and five guilty pleas so far." Yet the chart
shows that 59% of Americans don't think the investigation has uncovered
any crimes. For more details, see
Andrew Prokop: All of Robert Mueller's indictments and plea deals in the
Russia investigation so far.
3 winners and 3 losers from primaries in Georgia, Texas, Kentucky, and
Arkansas: Winners: the DCCC (defeated Laura Moser in TX-7); Medicaid
expansion; black Democrats. Losers: the GOP mobilization strategy; Our
Revolution; Georgia Republicans.
Stacey Abrams just won a shot to be the first black woman governor in
Bank profits hit a new all-time record as Congress is poised to roll back
The media ignored the policy stakes in 2016 -- don't make the same mistake
again in the midterms: This starts out sounding like a critique of
the media problem, as even the less partisan media, through a combination
of sloth and greed, favors cheap clickbait over wonkish policy matters:
The policy stakes in the 2016 elections were high -- because the stakes
are high in all elections -- and yet television news coverage of the
election utterly failed to convey the stakes, with more attention paid
to the Clinton email issue than to all policy issues combined.
Trump as an actual president has received more critical scrutiny
than he did as a long-shot candidate, but even so, the coverage thus
far of the 2018 midterms has focused very heavily on Trump drama rather
than the concrete stakes. But if the GOP holds its majorities -- not
currently considered the most likely scenario, but one for which the
odds are decent -- there are a range of policies very likely to move
forward that will have enormous consequences for the everyday life
of millions of people.
Yglesias also notes that a Democratic Congress would present Trump
with a very different set of opportunities: instead of relying on Ryan
and McConnell to force straight party-line votes, he'd have to make
some reasonable concessions to gain at least a few Democratic votes,
which would make his administration less extremist and polarizing. The
problem here is that the so-called moderation or unorthodoxy of Trump's
campaign really seems to have been nothing but an act, and he may have
revealed his true colors in tossing it aside. (Or it may just be that
his understanding of real issues is so shallow that his instinct for
pomposity and cruelty is all he really has to fall back on.)
Trump backs away from China trade war, while a Trump development gets a
$500 million Chinese loan:
Many Republicans in Congress are clearly aware that something fishy is
happening with ZTE. And journalists are clearly noting that Trump is
contradicting some very clear campaign promises on Chinese trade in
But while the GOP-led Congress has extensive oversight powers that
could be used to check Trump's conflicts of interest, they uniformly
decline to use any of them, leaving America to depend on nothing more
than Trump's say-so and goodwill for as long as the GOP retains the
And journalists who cover the Trump administration's infighting and
intrigue seem inordinately reluctant to so much as mention the conflict
of interest when covering these issues.
Noah Berlatsky: The Trump effect: New study connects white American
intolerance and support for authoritarianism
Chas Danner: Ireland Votes Overwhelmingly to Legalize Abortion; also
Barbara Wesel: A triumph for women and for Ireland.
Tara Golshan: John McCain's shocking concession on the Iraq War: it was
a "mistake": Not that he ever harbored doubts, let alone opposed,
the war at any time when his opposition could have made a difference.
But on his death bed, he explains his change of heart: "I sacrificed
everything, including my presidential ambitions, that it would succeed."
Makes you wonder whether he has any other second thoughts about the many
wars he championed. For instance, is he still upset that the US didn't
go to war against Russia to support Georgia's claim to South Osetia?
McCain's concession is reportedly in a new book he's had ghost-written
for him. There's also a hagiographic documentary film, For Whom the
Bell Tolls, which Matt Taibbi reviews in
John McCain's Revisionist History Is a Team Effort. Taibbi writes
a lot about McCain and Iraq, but doesn't seem to have gotten the memo
on what a mistake McCain thinks it was. He does, however, note other
mistakes McCain has admitted, like picking Sarah Palin as his running
mate, but only to show how the movie glosses them over.
Eric Levitz: America's Version of Capitalism Is Incompatible With
Democracy: This follows up on
Jedediah Purdy: Normcore, which I cited previously.
Josh Marshall: Stop Talking about 'Norms':
But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn't
capture what is happening or the situation we're in. In every kind of
communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much
about "norms" and the violation of "norms" we're confusing the situation
and even confusing ourselves. . . .
I've noted something similar about the language of "conflicts of
interest." I have heard many people claim that that $500 million
Chinese state loan to a Trump Organization partnership development
in Indonesia is a "conflict of interest." Whether or not you think
that is the best example there are many others to choose from: Jared
Kushner hitting up the Qataris for loans for his family business
empire while supporting a blockade of their country or pressuring
foreign governments and political groups to use the President's DC
hotel or a million other examples.
These are not "conflicts of interest." A "conflict of interest"
is a case in which the nature of a situation makes it impossible
for a person to separate their personal interests from their public
responsibilities (or to appear to do so). All recent Presidents put
their private wealth into blind trusts. We assume they weren't going
to try to make money off the presidency in any case. But they wanted
to remove any question of it and avoid situations where their own
financial interests would bump up against their public responsibilities.
What we're seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They're straight-up
corruption. It's like "norms." Defining "conflicts of interest" is meant
to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create
tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing
the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly
open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency.
Tom McCarthy: Rudy Giuliani admits 'Spygate' is Trump PR tactic against
Robert Mueller. The first I heard of "spygate" (not yet so-named)
was when Trump demanded that the DOJ investigate the FBI for infiltrating
his 2016 campaign "for political purposes." My first reaction was, well,
yeah, everyone who suspected the FBI of infiltrating their political
organizations should also demand an investigation. Like most of Trump's
charges against the FBI, this resonates because this is the sort of
thing the FBI is famous for doing (although usually not targeting the
likes of Donald Trump -- although there is little doubt but that J.
Edgar Hoover kept files on politicians, including three who routinely
renominated Hoover to head the FBI: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). After
all, when Tim Weiner wrote his history of the FBI, his chosen title
was Enemies. Then I was reminded of the definition of a gaffe:
when a politician inadvertently admits a truth that he isn't supposed
to say. Since he joined Trump's lawyer team Giuliani has been an
extraordinary fount of gaffes -- this being just one more example.
Jonah Shepp: Trump's Credibility Problem Is Now America's: At
the end of WWII, the United States commanded fully half of the world's
wealth. In a moment of extreme arrogance, George Kennan said that
preserving that degree of dominance should be the goal of American
foreign policy. It was inevitable that the ratio would fall, but
Kennan's "containment policy" defined the Cold War and helped lead
to the strangulation and collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies.
By the time that happened, the US was scrambling to form NAFTA to
achieve economic parity with the European Union, but the cloistered
Cold War ideologues let their triumph go to their heads, proclaiming
the US the World's Sole Superpower -- some dubbed it the Hyperpower --
and went on advocate strangling any would-be rivals in the crib (not
that it wasn't already too late to head off China or Russia, or as we
now see, North Korea). But the fact is, American power has been in
decline ever since 1945 (or at least 1950, as the Korean War ground
to a stalemate). Sure, the US was able to keep up a semblance of an
alliance even to the present day, but that's mostly because the US
pays most of the "defense" costs and runs trade deficits which help
allied economies (and global corporations). Meanwhile, America's
credibility suffered, first with its pro- and post-colonial wars,
with its embrace of brutal and corrupt dictatorships, with trade
arrangements to collect monopoly rents, and with its control of
debt and imposition of austerity measures. Even America's vaunted
military has turned out to be somewhere between useless and down
right embarrassing. Remember when "shock and awe" was supposed to
cower Iraq into submission? Those who survived discovered they
could fight on, as they did, and in Afghanistan and elsewhere
continue to do. Had Trump merely followed his "America First"
campaign promises -- shaking "allies" down for more "defense"
spending while reversing their trading fortunes -- the long-term
decline already in place would have increased, but Trump's foreign
policy has been astonishingly erratic and incoherent. Indeed, the
only reason the world hasn't yet rejected and isolated the US as
the rogue state it's become is that most "allies" are unable to
grasp just what living in a post-American world might mean.
For decades, the free world has operated under the assumption that
the United States will act as its leader, using its might to advance
not only its own interests but also those of its kindred nations and
the international community writ large. Under Trump, the world is
finding that we can no longer be trusted to engage in consultation,
deliberation, or dialogue of any kind. Instead, we do whatever we
want (or whatever he wants) with no real concern for the impact our
decisions have on other countries, be they allies or adversaries.
When other countries behave this way, we have a word for it: We call
them rogue states. How long will our allies put up with this behavior
before they simply stop believing a word we say? And how long will
it take to repair that damage after the Trump era is over?
Actually, the "free world" has been a myth almost from the start,
and America's "leadership" has never been more than consensual ego
stroking. Neither of those things are recoverable, nor really are
they desirable. The problem with Trump isn't that he's shrinking
America's role in the world, but that he's trying to present his
retreat as arrogant self-indignation. It's sort of like the story
in Atlas Shrugged, where the entrepreneurs go on strike
expecting the world to collapse without them. But the rest of the
world hasn't needed America for some time now. As Bush's Iraq War
alliance crumbled, he coined the term "Coalition of the Willing"
to describe its remaining token members. All Trump has done has
been to remove America from the "Willing." Hopefully, the rest of
the world will step up -- as, in fact, we see happening after US
withdrawals from Paris, Iran, and Korea. Maybe, post-Trump, a
chastened US will join them.
Related to this, see
Mark Karlin: "Making America Great Again" Assumes That It Once Was,
an interview with David Swanson, author of Curing Exceptionalism:
What's Wrong With How We Think About the United States; also by
The United States Is a Force for Chaos Across the Planet, an interview
with Tom Engelhardt, author of A Nation Unmade by War. Engelhardt
TomDispatch, where he's
published more relevant articles:
Alfred McCoy: The Hidden Meaning of American Decline: McCoy
recently published In the Shadows of the American Century: The
Rise and Decline of American Global Power:
As Trump has abrogated one international accord after another, observers
worldwide have struggled to find some rationale for decisions that seem
questionable on their merits and have frayed relations with long-standing
allies. Given his inordinate obsession with the "legacy" of Barack Obama,
epitomized in a report, whether true or not, of his ritual "defiling" of
his predecessor's Moscow hotel bed via the "golden showers" of Russian
prostitutes, there's a curious yet coherent logic to his foreign policy.
You might even think of it as Golden Shower diplomacy. Whatever Obama
did, Trump seems determined to undo with a visceral vehemence: the
Trans-Pacific trade pact (torn up), the Paris climate accord (withdrawn),
the Iran nuclear freeze (voided), close relations with NATO allies
(damaged), diplomatic relations with Cuba (frozen), Middle Eastern
military withdrawal (reversed), ending the Afghan war (cancelled),
the diplomatic pivot to Asia (forgotten), and so on into what already
seems like an eternity.
John Feffer: Korea's Two "Impossibles".
Karen Greenberg: Dismantling Democracy, One Word at a Time.
Richard Silverstein: Dead in the Water: Trump Middle East Peace Plan and
Pompeo's Iran Plan B: I can't say that I was ever aware that Trump's
minions even had plans for Israel-Palestine peace or post-JCPOA Iran.
Wishes, maybe, but since Bolton (in particular) clearly involves any
negotiations involving any degree of give-and-take as unacceptable signs
of weakness, the question is whether they can force the solutions they
prefer over the resistance of the forces they want to vanquish. In the
case of Israel-Palestine, that's a moot point, because Israel doesn't
want any kind of "peace process" -- in the past they've had to give lip
service to American aspirations, but they've got Trump so wrapped up
I doubt any pretense is necessary. As for Iran, all they have is vague
hopes for sanctions and prayers for some kind of popular revolt -- as
if they've forgotten that the last time that happened didn't bode well
for American hopes. More links on Israel-Palestine and/or Iran:
Emily Stewart: Congress finally found something it can agree on: helping
banks: A significant rollback of Dodd-Frank, considered "bipartisan"
because 33 Democrats in the House and 16 in the Senate (plus Angus King)
voted for it. Stewart also wrote:
Matthew Stewart: The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy:
Long piece (plus some video), something I've barely skimmed and need
to look at in more depth, but argues that there is an aristocracy in
America ("toxic, and is fast becoming unbridgeable"), but that it's
bigger than the 1% made famous by Occupy Wall Street, let alone the
0.1% Paul Krugman likes to cite. The 9.9% slice simply comes from the
top decile not in the 0.1%. Also from The Atlantic, not yet
read but possibly interesting:
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I'm Not Black, I'm Kanye.
Alex Ward: The Trump-Kim summit is canceled: Includes Trump's
letter. Ward also wrote
South Korea is scrambling to figure out WTF just happened with the
More links viz. Korea:
Zeeshan Aleem: The White House is hinting it could ramp up sanctions
against North Korea.
Perry Bacon Jr: Trump's handling of North Korea has been one of the few
things Americans liked about his presidency: At least until he
canceled the much-hyped summit. Note that he's currently -9 on Iran,
and -15 on immigration, but his lowest marks are on his cabinet: -25.
Zack Beauchamp: The real reason Trump's North Korea summit failed:
"Trump's goal -- getting rid of North Korea's nukes -- was always
impossible." More importantly, argues that "Trump's goal" is itself
unreasonable, and argues that instead we accept North Korea's nuclear
deterrent as credible and sufficient to deter any US aggression. The
question then is what would be a reasonable goal? The answer is to
take diplomatic steps to reduce the conflict: to limit the posture of
US troops in the region, and to unwind the sanctions which threaten
the regime and impose hardships on the Korean people.
Anna Fifield/Emily Rauhala: After summit pullout, South Korea and China
have little appetite for Trump's 'maximum pressure'.
Uri Friedman: How South Korea Pulled Trump and Kim Back From the
Michael H Fuchs: Who knew diplomacy with North Korea was so hard?
Susan B Glasser: President Trump is a better dealbreaker than dealmaker:
On Tuesday, at a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the
Oval Office, Trump seemed to signal where it was all headed. Speaking
to reporters, the President delivered a mini-lecture about the perils
of dealmaking. "Whether the deal gets made or not, who knows? It's a
deal. Who knows? You never know about deals. You go into deals that are
one hundred per cent certain, it doesn't happen. You go into deals that
have no chance, and it happens, and sometimes happens easily," Trump
told the reporters. "I made a lot of deals. I know deals, I think,
better than anybody knows deals. You never really know."
Sixteen months into the Trump Presidency, it is finally time to say:
we really do know. There are no deals with Trump, and there are increasingly
unlikely to be. Not on NAFTA. Not on Middle East peace. Or Obamacare or
infrastructure. On tax cuts, the one big deal that did get passed,
Republicans in Congress agreed to give their grandchildren's money to
American corporations and wealthy families and put it all on the nation's
credit card; Trump championed it but, by all accounts, played little role
in shaping the legislation, and did nothing to build consensus with
skeptical Democrats. On North Korea, Trump spontaneously (and over the
fears of his advisers) agreed to meet a dictator whose family, for three
generations, has made the acquisition of nuclear weapons the centerpiece
of its national security; Trump's negotiating strategy was to demand that
the Kim dynasty completely give them up. How surprised are we that it
didn't work out?
No, Trump is a much better dealbreaker than dealmaker. He's pulled
out of the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and
just a couple weeks ago followed through on his threats to blow up the
Iran nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, which he long ago
labelled "the worst deal ever." So isn't it about time to stop buying
into Trump as the great dealmaker he ceaselessly proclaims himself to be?
One more point here: one thing that is different about Trump from
any and every other person who has become president is that he feels
no need whatsoever to maintain continuity with previous administrations
(and not just Obama's). I always felt that Obama went way too far in
refraining from criticizing the legacy that GW Bush left him, and of
course I hope that Trump's successor not only erases Trump's legacy
but makes it clear just what a travesty Trump wrought. But still,
Trump's cavalier contempt for continuity is unprecedented -- and
damn close to nihilist.
Fred Kaplan: Trump Just Handed Kim Jong-un a Major Win (May 24),
and before that:
Trump to Iran and North Korea: Submit or Be Destroyed (May 22), and
Trump's Last Foray Into Arms-Control Talks Doesn't Bode Well for His
Jeffrey Lewis: Kim Jong Un is the real artist of the deal, not Donald
Josh Marshall: What to Make of President Trump's Letter to Kim
Ankit Panda: Kim Jong Un-Trump summit: How did it all fall apart?
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