Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sometime last week I got the feeling that the Trump administration
has entered a new phase or level. From the start, they said and often
did bad things, but they came off as confused, stupid, and/or evil,
and they weren't very good at following through, so most people didn't
feel any real change. The administration seemed to be collapsing into
chaos, while a highly motivated resistance was scoring political points
even when they fell short of disrupting Trump's agenda. It's still
possible to look at last week that way, especially as public outrage
forced Trump to make a tactical retreat from his policy of breaking up
and jailing refugee families at the border.
Nonetheless, as I've watched clips of Trump and read stories of his
cronies this week, I've started to see a potentially compelling story
coming together. And as I've watched the late-night anti-Trump comics
fumble and flail in their attempts to skewer the news, I'm reminded of
that line about how the Democrats managed to misunderestimate Bush on
his way to a second term. For me, the clearest example was how the big
three (Colbert, Kimmel, Meyers) all jumped on a Trump line where he
bragged about eliminating more regulations within 500 days than any
previous president -- regardless of how many years they served ("4,
or 8, or in one case 16 years"). All three pounced on "16 years" as
the big lie, pointing out that while Franklin Roosevelt was elected
to four four-year terms, he died a couple months into his fourth, so
actually only served 12 years. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect
Trump tossed that in just to throw them off the scent.
The real problem -- the things that critics need to focus on -- is
the claim of eliminating a record number of regulations in whatever
time frame you want to use: Trump's "500 days," a whole term, full
tenure, etc. I have no way of checking -- it's not like anyone's been
keeping records on this -- but Trump's claim is at least plausible.
I suppose you might nominate Harry Truman, who ended rationing, wage
and price controls, and many other regulations after WWII ended, but
none of those were ever intended to last beyond wartime. But much of
"deregulation" during Truman's first term was done by Congress, most
extensively after Republicans won Congress in 1946, in some cases
passing laws (like Taft-Hartley) over Truman's veto. Carter and Reagan
did some deregulating, but mostly through Congress. Congress has helped
Trump out a little, but nearly all of his "deregulation" has been done
by executive order and/or through the discretionary acts of his political
Trump's boast assumes that cutting regulations is always a good thing,
but that isn't necessarily the case. Each regulation needs to be reviewed
on its own merits. Often they need to be revised, curtailed, or expanded,
based on how effective (including cost-effective) they are at achieving
stated goals. But it must be understood that some degree of regulation is
necessary to protect the public from unscrupulous and/or simply sloppy
operators -- especially businesses, which always feel pressure to cut
corners. Trump's own motivations are twofold: first, he seems hell bent
on obliterating everything Obama signed his name to; second, he's eager
to shower favors on any business/lobbyist he or his cronies deem to be
in their corner. In short, Trump's deregulation boast is a perfect storm
of vanity, ego, ideological extremism, and graft. There's no shortage
of things to criticize there. Nitpicking over when FDR died misses it
The thing is, unless you start tearing apart the vanity and corruption
of Trump's "deregulation" record -- I'm tempted to put it into quotes
because it's not just eliminating regulations, it also involves changing
them to favor private over public interests, or to signal what will and
will not be enforced -- will congeal into a positive story that lots of
people will find attractive. (After all, few things are less favorably
viewed than government red tape -- salmonella, for instance, or airplane
crashes and oil spills.) Trump's trade moves and tariffs are another case.
Democrats haven't figured out a workable counter to Trump's emerging story
here, and if no one really seems to understand the issues, Trump's likely
to score a political coup hurling a simple "fuck you" at China and Canada.
Lots of Americans will eat that up.
Meanwhile, the economy is not significantly worse for most people,
and is downright peachy for the very rich. It looks like Trump has
scored some sort of win against ISIS, and maybe a diplomatic break
with North Korea, and none of the other wars he's left on autopilot
have blown up in his face yet (although the Saudis seem to be making
a real mess of Yemen). And Congress has passed a few truly odious
bills recently, including serious damage to Dodd-Frank and a farm
bill with major cuts to SNAP. Six months ago one could point out how
little Trump has actually accomplished, but it's beginning to look
like quite a lot -- nearly all bad, but who exactly notices?
I'm not even sure Trump's losing on immigration. Sure, he's had a
bad week with the family separation/incarceration fiasco, but even
after his retreat, he's still got the incarceration part working: so
the net result is that refugee-immigrants will be detained in places
that look less like jails and more like concentration camps? He had
a similar bad week when he ended DACA, and while he seemed to wobble
for a while, he's emerged more hardcore than ever. If Democrats get
stuck with the impression that they're more concerned with immigrants
than with native-born American citizens, that's bound to hurt.
Nor do I have any hope that Mueller's going to come up with anything
that changes the game. Sure, he's got Russian hackers, but he hasn't
come up with any interaction between Trump's hackers and Russians,
which is where collusion might amount to something. The higher-level
meetings are mostly between idiot-functionaries -- lying for them is
habitual, so catching them hardly matters. Then there is the corruption
around the fringes -- Flynn, Manafort, Cohen -- which will give Mueller
some scalps, but change nothing. As long as Mueller stays within the
parameters of Russia and the 2016 election, there's not enough there,
and Trump can keep his followers in tow with his "witch hunt" whines.
The Democrats have to move beyond those parameters, which for starters
means they have to realize that Russia's favoring Trump reflects the
same interests and analysis as other corrupt and authoritarian regimes
(notably Saudi Arabia and Israel), and that Trump's courting of crooks
abroad is just a subset of his service to America's own moguls (not
One effect of this unique confluence of paranoia, fanaticism, and
buckraking is that the hopes some had that sensible Republicans would
turn on Trump have been shattered. The first clue, I suppose, was when
Senators Flake and Cocker decided not to risk facing Trump candidates
in their primaries. Then there was Ryan's decision to quit the House.
Since then the tide in Trump's direction, at least within increasingly
embattled Republican ranks, has only strengthened. As long as Trump
seems to be getting away with his act, there's little they can do but
protect and cling to him.
The highlight of Trump's week was his rally in Duluth, where he
said a bunch of stupid things but seemed to be glowing, basking in
the adulation of his crowd. A big part of his speech was a pitch to
get more Republicans elected in 2018, so unlike Obama in 2010, he's
going to try to turn the election into a referendum on himself --
instead of passively letting the other party run roughshod. I'm not
sure it will work -- an awful lot of Americans still can't stand
anything about the guy -- but he's showing a lot more confidence
than just a few months ago.
Some scattered links this week:
Matthew Yglesias: The 4 most important stories of the week, explained:
Outrage boiled over at family separations; Trump got ready for a legal
battle (again, over family separations under Trump's "zero tolerance"
anti-immigrant policy); House Republicans spun their wheels on immigration
(losing the vote on a "hard-line" bill, and offering a "compromise" bill
that has zero Democratic support); There were more Cabinet scandals
(Wilbur Ross, yet another Scott Pruitt).
Other Yglesias pieces:
The pernicious myth of "open borders".
The border crisis is a reminder that Trump has no idea what he's
Trump's response to the crisis at the US-Mexico border -- where toddlers
are in internment camps and older kids are in tent cities at frightening
expense while children sob, health deteriorates, and the long-term damage
of toxic stress accumulates -- reminds us that he does not know anything
about public policy, diplomacy, constitutional law, or legislative
So you get instead what he's delivered over the past two weeks --
aggressive hostage-taking, lying, trolling, chaos, dissembling, and
cruelty -- none of which is going to advance Trump's legislative goals
or address the underlying issue of the northward flow of asylum seekers.
Even the executive order he signed on Wednesday raises more questions
than it will probably solve.
Yglesias stresses that the immediate causes of the recent flood of
asylum seekers are the regimes in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador,
but he (much less Trump) doesn't have any proposals to deal with the
problem (if that's what it is) at its root. Trump might, for instance,
offer some carrots and/or sticks to those countries to cut down on the
violence there. Also, to provide some incentives for Mexico and other
Latin American countries to absorb more of the refugees. Of course, if
we actually had an administration capable of self-reflection, one might
examine the long history of American policies that have led to violence
in Latin America, and work on changing that.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is tied up in major financial conflicts
Trump changed the electoral map; new polling shows it's changing
back: In particular, the map based on Trump's current disapproval
numbers has tilted back against him from Pennsylvania all the way to
Iowa. However, Trump's lost little (if any) support in the south, most
notably in Florida.
Donald Trump's cruel immigration politics is a scam:
Trump knows how to deliver concrete wins to interest groups he cares about,
letting insurance companies discriminating against people with preexisting
letting financial advisers deliberately give clients bad advice,
letting chemical companies poison children's brains, or
delivering tax cuts that push bank profits to record levels.
By contrast, nothing he's doing on immigration is actually going to help
anyone with anything. He has no answer to the surge of asylum seekers, is
implementing policies that will worsen crime, and is seeking broad policy
changes that will lower wages and incomes for native-born Americans. And
of course, there's absolutely nothing in Trump's career to suggest that he
has any aptitude for or interest in genuine problem-solving. He's a brand
marketer and a flimflam man who
had to make a $21 million civil fraud payout about his fake university
shortly before taking office and is now
facing a new fraud lawsuit over his fake charity.
The cruelty, too, is essentially a fraudulent branding exercise meant
to make people who resent immigrants think that he cares about them.
Immigrant kids will pay the highest price of all for the deception, but
the reality is that nobody is going to gain except for Trump himself.
Trump just tweeted that "crime in Germany is way up." It's actually at
its lowest level since 1992.
Donald Trump's extremely shady charitable foundation, explained.
There's actually lots of evidence of Trump-Russia collusion.
Umair Irfan: Deepwater Horizon led to new protections for US waters.
Trump just repealed them.
The Interior Department is also presiding over the largest rollback of
federal land protections in US history, opening up public lands to fossil
fuel extraction and mineral mining. Plus, Secretary Zinke opened up nearly
all coastal waters to drilling last year and started the process for the
largest offshore lease sale ever.
Rebecca Jennings: Melania Trump wears "I really don't care, do u?" jacket
on trip to migrant children: Some truly trivial trivia, in lieu of a
story that probably doesn't make any sense anyway.
German Lopez: Canada just legalized marijuana. That has big implications
for US drug policy.
Libby Nelson: Donald Trump's plan to (sort of) eliminate the Department of
Education, briefly explained:
The Trump administration wants to combine the standalone Education and
Labor Departments into a new Cabinet-level agency: the Department of
Education and the Workforce.
The proposal is part of the administration's broader plan to reorganize
the federal government, released Thursday. Overall, the plan would eliminate
and combine government programs and give private industry a bigger role,
including in the US Postal Service. It would also rename the Department of
Health and Human Services to the Department of Public Welfare (and give it
jurisdiction over food stamps), among nearly 30 other changes to how the
federal government operates.
"This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions,
are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp," said Office
of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in a statement touting the
My first reaction to the name changes is that they're designed to make
the departments more vulnerable to right-wing attacks, specifically as a
step in the Grover Norquist process of "shrinking the federal government
to where you can drown it in a bathtub." I'm not opposed to Public Welfare.
In fact, I think the government should be doing much more to increase it
and to distribute its blessings more equitably, but you can pretty much
predict what the right-wing propaganda mills will be spewing out. Even
more pernicious is the semantic shift from Labor to Workforce. The former
are people -- specifically, the people who do all the actual work producing
goods and services in the economy -- but the latter is little more than a
view of a cost factor from business management.
Mulvaney's "drain the swamp" comment also took me aback. My guess is
that when the American people heard Trump vow to "drain the swamp in
Washington," 99% of them figured that he was talking about the pervasive
and pernicious effect of money in Washington, especially as routed through
lobbyists, into campaign coffers, and for greasing the revolving door
between government agencies and private interests. I know that's what
I thought, and I'm usually pretty good at deciphering Trumpian bullshit.
That 99% has, of course, been frustrated since Trump took office, and
turned his administration into a vast bazaar of corporate favoritism.
But now Mulvaney is saying that the den of corruption that has flourished
in Washington for decades (and to a lesser extent ever since Washington
was founded in the late 1790s) isn't "the swamp" at all. It turns out
that his definition of "the swamp" is simply that part of the federal
government that does things to help people who aren't already
filthy rich. Who could have known that?
Ella Nilsen: Michael Bloomberg is going all in on Democratic House
2018: The billionaire former and former Republican mayor of New York
City is pledging to spend $80 million on the 2018 elections, mostly for
Democrats (although I doubt you'll find many Bernie Sanders supporters
on his shopping list). I've often wondered in the past whether there
aren't wealthy swing voters who actually favored divided government --
one party controlling Congress and the other the Presidency -- because
that keeps either party from upsetting the cart while still allowing
compromises in favor of the one group both parties esteem: the rich
(well, also the military). Bloomberg's a concrete example of this
hypothetical niche. Indeed, it seems likely that Democrats will raise
a lot of money this cycle (although note that Sheldon Adelson has
already given $30 million to the Republicans, and the Kochs talk
about much more).
David Roberts: Energy lobbyists have a new PAC to push for a carbon tax.
Wait, what? Excellent piece, covering both the proposal and the
political calculations behind it. For 20-30 years now, there have been
two basic markets-oriented approaches to reducing carbon dioxide and
therefore global warming: "cap and trade" (which by creating a market
for pollution credits incentivizes companies -- mostly power plants --
to transition to non-carbon sources), and a "carbon tax" (which adds
to the cost of coal, oil, and gas, making renewables and non-carbon
sources like nuclear relatively more affordable). The Democrats tried
pushing "cap and trade" through Congress in 2009-10, hoping that as a
sop to "free market" ideology -- the idea originated in right-wing
"thank tanks" -- they'd pick up some Republican support, but they
didn't. At the time, companies like Exxon-Mobil decided that they'd
rather have a carbon tax than cap-and-trade, but they could just as
well have gone the other way had that helped defeat the proposal in
play. Indeed, while Trent Lott and John Breaux are petro-lobbyists,
there's little reason to think Exxon et al. are any more serious
about this flier than they were a decade ago. (As I recall, Clinton
proposed a carbon tax back in the 1990s, but Exxon sure didn't
support it then.)
This policy is not bipartisan in any meaningful sense, it is not likely
to be political popular, it's not all that great as policy to being with,
and it is naive to see it as a gambit that arises primarily, or even
tangentially, from environmental concerns. It is first and foremost a
bid by oil and gas and nuclear to secure the gentlest and most predictable
possible energy transition.
More broadly, it is the US Climate Action Partnership all over again.
That was the effort, starting around 2006, to develop a climate bill that
big, polluting industries would support. The idea was that support from
such companies, combined with support from establishment green groups,
would lend the effort credibility and political momentum. Instead, it
yielded a compromised bill that no one loved, which died a lonely death
in the Senate in 2010.
Roberts' subheds give you an idea of the piece's points:
- This is oil, gas, and nuclear making their opening bid on climate
- The oil and gas industry is trying to get ahead of the climate
- This proposal is aimed at Democrats, not Republicans
- This proposal is "bipartisan" in that it lacks support from
- There's no reason to think tax-and-dividend is the most popular
- It's time to quit pre-capitulating to garbage policy
One interesting twist here is that the carbon tax receipts never
hit the federal budget. They go straight back to the people in the
form of "per-capita carbon dividends." This is presumably meant as
a concession to Republicans with their "no tax increase" pledges --
but, as Roberts notes, every Republican in Congress has also signed
a "no carbon tax" pledge. Still, this does offer the prospect of a
small but non-trivial universal basic income ("the group estimates
will start around $2,000 a year for a family of four'), which makes
it one form of income redistribution (one relatively palatable to
Republicans, not that they would support it). On the other hand,
after 30-40 years of increasing austerity, the things Democrats
desire most demand increasing tax revenues, not neutral.
Sam Rosenfeld: The Democratic Party is moving steadily leftward. So why
does the left still distrust it? Not really a hard one to answer:
the party bureaus are still dominated by people installed by the Clintons
and Obama, their main focus is to raise money, and the people who bankroll
them are rich, probably liberal on social issues, mostly moderate on the
maintaining a viable safety net, but still concerned to protect and advance
their business interests. What distinguished Clinton and Obama above other
Democrats was their ability to raise money. And while both ran campaigns
that promised to benefit their voters, as soon as they got elected, they
started to back pedal and prioritize the interests of their donors. Even
worse, on winning they put their personal interests way above those of the
party. Both lost Democratic control of Congress after two years, further
undermining their credibility with their voters. Moreover, Deamocratic
leaders and pundits repeatedly made concessions to seek common ground
with Republicans, undermining their own voter interests and legitimizing
an increasingly extreme reactionary agenda. Their collusion, both with
their donors and with their sworn enemies, has resulted in (among many
other maladies): a vast series of perpetual wars that only serve to make
the world more violent and resentful; an extreme increase in inequality
to levels never before seen in US history; a drastic loss of rights and
power for workers; an austerity program which has made education and
health care almost prohibitively expensive while public infrastructure
has decayed to a dangerous extent; general degradation of environmental
protections, along with widespread denial of increasingly obvious climate
change; and a systemic effort to undermine democracy at all levels. Sure,
much of this can fairly be blamed on Republicans and their propaganda
organs, but when, say, Hillary Clinton spends much more time schmoozing
with donors than trying to rally voters, how surprised should we be when
marginal voters decide that she's more problem than solution?
Of course, this isn't something Rosenfeld wants to dwell on. He wants
to commit "left-liberal activism" to working within the Democratic Party,
stressing that activists can move the party to the left, even offering
a few historical examples (actually, pretty uninspiring ones, even without
trotting out the biggies, when establishment Democrats actively sabotaged
the nominations of William Jennings Bryan and George McGovern). Still, I
agree with his conclusion: the Democratic Party is the only viable forum
within which to organize reversal of forty years of loss to conservatives
and to get back on a progressive track, one that is sorely needed given
the numerous ailments we currently face. But I would stress that that's
not because recent Democratic leaders are trustworthy but because most
of the people we want and need to convince have already aligned with the
Democrats -- many, of course, in reaction to being maligned and hounded
by the increasingly racist, reactionary, and aristocratic Republicans.
Given this alternative, I think there should be some sort of compact
between Democratic factions to support whoever gets nominated. In this,
I'm reminded that even as dogmatic a conservative as Ronald Reagan used to
talk about an "11th commandment: never speak ill of a fellow Republican."
Of course, that was at a time when Republicans were a minority, when the
option of running liberals like Jacob Javits and Mark Hatfield gave them
a chance to pick up seats real Reaganites didn't have a chance at. Of
course, those days are long gone now, with hardcore conservatives chasing
even devout Reaganites like Jeff Flake out of primaries.
Reagan's "11th commandment" didn't stop conservatives from advancing
their ideas and initiatives, but it gave Reagan an air of moderation and
sanity (unmerited, I should add), which made him acceptable to many people
who recoiled against Barry Goldwater. Actually, hardcore conservatism has
never won nationally: it snuck in shrouded in Reagan's sunny optimism;
the Bushes ran moderate campaigns only to turn the reins over to Dick
Cheney; and while Trump traded in rage vs. optimism, the far-right has
only seized power on his coattails.
While I believe as a matter of principle that the left should have
more popular appeal than the right, I doubt that the left will ever
dominate and control the Democratic Party, and while I wouldn't say
that's for the best, I will say that doesn't bother me. The Party, as
Rosenfeld is aware, always has had to balance competing interests,
dividing between idealists and pragmatists (often just opportunists).
It matters that they take care of business -- just not at the expense
of everyone else and democracy itself. But the party sorely needs its
left nowadays, mostly because it needs to regain its bearings as "the
party of the people" (as Thomas Frank put it, using the past tense).
The problem is that many establishment Democrats seem to hate the left
more than they hate the right. The roots of this date back to the start
of the Cold War, when liberals led the purge of the left ("communists
and fellow travelers") from labor unions and the party. They made such
a big show of their anti-communism that they blundered into wars in
Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, with many remaining cheerleaders for
the Bush oil wars in the Middle East. Indeed, while most Democrats
opposed the 1990 and 2003 wars against Iraq, the party's leaders have
almost exclusively come from Bush supporters. (The popular exception,
Barack Obama, went on to make his own contributions to the Bush war
legacy.) Similarly, Democratic "leaders" have a long history of support
for privatization schemes, deregulation, and globalization, which along
with slack taxes on the rich have greatly exacerbated inequality and
the many problems it entails. Even the Democrats one signature social
welfare program of the last twenty years, the ACA with its partial and
inadequate nod towards universal health care, was designed as a giant
subsidy to the insurance industry. For decades now "new Democrats"
have been lecturing us on how we can't afford to do anything better,
and their failure to deliver anything better, while looking schetchy
and corrupt in the bargain, has destroyed their credibility. The left
in America consists of people who care, are sincere and honest, and
most of whom are directly affected by real problems and have real
stakes in their solution. So, yeah, the left needs the Democrats to
get things done, but the Democrats need the left even more to get
back into the fight.
Charles Silver/David A Hyman: Here's a plan to fight high drug prices
that could unite libertarians and socialists: "First, attack monopolies.
Second, replace patents with prizes." I don't mind the prize idea, but
would put more stress on public funding of "open source" pharmaceutical
research, and would pursue international treaties to ensure that other
countries made comparable research grants, with the understanding that
all research would be funded. I'd also consider public funding of
development efforts in exchange for price guarantees, again attempting
to leverage production worldwide (with reasonable regulatory standards
to ensure quality). Same thing can be done with medical devices and
Tara Golshan/Dylan Scott: Why House Republicans' immigration debate is
a shitshow, explained by a Republican lawmaker: But not explained
very well. I doubt, for instance, that the real problem is that Trump
doesn't know what he wants. I think he pretty clearly wants a lot of
shit he can't even get his Republican House majority to give him, let
alone clear the filibuster bar in the Senate. Moreover, any effort to
compromise in the hope of gaining "moderate" votes automatically lops
off "extremist" votes, as well as weakening Trump's own support. Nor
is Trump willing to cut a deal with the Democrats that would undercut
his own extreme anti-immigrant stance, even on very limited issues
like DACA where public opinion is against him. But also, there's very
little incentive for Trump to ever give in on any of this. He runs on
rage and anger, and the more Washington frustrates him, the more rage
he can cultivate from his base. That's what brought him to the White
House in the first place.