Sunday, May 27, 2018

Weekend Roundup

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 effort.[*]

      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 does this.

      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 Arpaio).

    • 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 America.

    • Bank profits hit a new all-time record as Congress is poised to roll back post-crisis regulations

    • 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 general.

      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 majority.

      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 Karlin: The United States Is a Force for Chaos Across the Planet, an interview with Tom Engelhardt, author of A Nation Unmade by War. Engelhardt edits 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 Trump-Kim summit. More links viz. Korea:

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