Sunday, November 18, 2018


Weekend Roundup

No intro this week. A few updates but really not much on the elections, let alone political futures for 2020. I barely managed to work in notice of Israel's latest round of punitive bombings in Gaza. I'm sure there's much more to it, but most of the links I did notice have to do with cease fire negotiations (not going well, I gather) as opposed to why it happened when. (I will note that this isn't the first time Israel launched a wave of terror right after an American election.) I think there was also a story about how last week was the first time the US defended Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Another thing I wanted to write about was the NY Times piece claiming that North Korea has "snookered" Trump and is still developing missiles. I gather this has been debunked in various places -- my wife is on top of this and other stories I haven't had time for -- but I didn't land on a link that made sense of it all. Also, I have no real opinions on possible leadership contests for the Democrats in the new Congress. I've been pretty critical of both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in the past, and no doubt will again in the future. (Whenever I think of Schumer I'm reminded of a story about how he greeted our friend Liz Fink on the street with his customary "how am I doing?" -- to which she answered, "you're evil, man.") Still, politics is a dirty business, and no one can afford to get too bent out of shape over it. Whoever wins, we'll support them when we can, and oppose them when we must. That much never changes.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias pieces this week:

    • HQ2 is a perfect opportunity to massively upgrade the DC area's commuter rail.

    • What the Amazon tax breaks really mean.

    • New Pew poll: the public prefers congressional Democrats to Trump on most issues: Oddly enough, the two questions Trump leads are "Jobs and econ growth" (44-33) and "Trade policy" (40-38), with "Taxes" near even (38-39). Strongest Democratic advantages: "The environment" (55-19), "Ethics in government" (48-22), "Medicare" (51-26), "Health care" (51-28), and "Social Security" (48-26).

    • Trump's latest interview shows a president who's in way over his head: "but what else is new?"

      In some ways, the friendliest Donald Trump interviews are the most revealing. Given the opportunity to ramble and free-associate without any pushback whatsoever, you can see what channels his mind naturally follows.

      His latest interview with the Daily Caller shows a president who's fundamentally out to sea. The sycophantic interviewers can't get Trump to answer a policy question of any kind, no matter how much of a softball they lob at him. The only subjects he is actually interested in talking about are his deranged belief in his incredible popularity and how that popularity is not reflected in actual vote totals because he's the victim of a vast voter fraud conspiracy.

      Actually a fairly long piece with a lot of excerpts backing up the summary.

    • Trump's incompetence and authoritarianism are both scary: Takes exception to a David Brooks tweet about Trump ("It's the incompetence, not the authoritarianism we should be worried about"), nothing that "autocrats are often incompetent." Indeed, you could argue that authoritarianism is Trump's crutch against his own incompetence, much like how people who cannot speak in the listener's language think that more volume will do the trick. Brooks' tweet refers to Jonathan V Last: The Vaporware Presidency, which sums Trump's approach as: "Step 1: Propose something ridiculous. Step 2: Cause chaos but don't deliver it. Lather, rinse, repeat." Yglesias offers the example of promoting Thomas Homan to replace Kirstjen Nielsen (Secretary of Homeland Security):

      This is both stupid and authoritarian at the same time and for the same reason.

      Trump's primary interest is in putting people in place who will aggressively support Trump rather than people who know what they are doing. Consequently, he'd rather have a DHS head who suggests arresting local politicians for disagreeing with Trump than a DHS head who advises Trump to avoid doing illegal stuff.

      This is simultaneously a recipe for vaporware and for autocracy. Homan, at the end of the day, probably won't actually go around arresting liberal mayors -- it's just something that sounded good to say. But when you fill your Cabinet with people who make these kinds of suggestions and make it clear that's what you want to hear from your top lieutenants, sooner or later, someone goes and does it.

      Even more inevitable is that those who don't follow through with their stupid/authoritarian sound bites will be taunted for failure, giving rise to ever more shameless opportunists.

    • What the 2018 results tell us about 2020: "Realistically, not much." Actually, the main difference between presidential elections and "mid-terms" (a term I've always hated) is turnout: about 60% vs. 40%. The big change in 2018 was that turnout jumped to almost 50%. While Republicans have been very effective at getting their base out to vote, that bump (relative to past "mid-terms") skewed Democratic. In fact, at this point both parties have come to believe that their fates will mostly be decided by voter turnout (hence the R's efforts at voter suppression). The election also revealed two regional trends. The Southwest from Texas to California has shifted toward the Democrats, flipping Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada. You can chalk that up to demography, further polarized by Trump's anti-immigrant policies. Also, Trump's gains in the belt from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and Iowa have mostly evaporated. There's no reason to think that either of those shifts will reverse in 2020. I can think of a half-dozen more points to add in moving from 2018 to 2020, but should hold them back for a longer essay. My point is that a lot happened in 2018 that bodes well for Democrats looking forward, and there's very little on the other side of the ledger. Of course, Democrats could blow it by nominating another candidate with massive credibility issues.

      For another piece on shifting political grounds, see: Stanley B Greenberg: Trump Is Beginning to Lose His Grip.

    • Jim Acosta vs. the Trump White House, explained:

      This particular weird incident with Acosta and the staffer might be no more remembered than a dozen other bizarre moments from that press conference. (Trump openly mocked losing House Republican candidates, misstated the tipping point states in the Electoral College, threatened politically motivated investigations of House Democrats, blamed "Obama's regime" for Russian annexation of Crimea, claimed to be unable to understand foreign journalists' accents, wildly mischaracterized both DACA and the Affordable Care Act, and said some stuff about China that was so incoherent, it's hard to even call it lying.)

      Also note this:

      But more broadly, to cast the press as the real "opposition party" in America -- as Trump has -- offers some meaningful tactical advantages. Trump, in an unusual way, won the 2016 presidential election without being popular. Not only did he win fewer votes than Hillary Clinton on Election Day, but his favorability rating was lower than that of the losing candidates from the 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000 presidential elections.

      The nonpartisan press can (and does) report facts that are unflattering to Trump. But a lack of unflattering facts or a failure by the public to appreciate their existence has never been the foundation of Trump's political success. And the press isn't going to do the work of an actual opposition party, which is to formulate a political alternative that an adequate number of people find to be sufficiently inspiring to go out and vote for.

      That's the job of the Democratic Party, an institution that's had considerable trouble attracting press attention to its own message and ideas ever since Trump exploded on the scene. And keeping the media focused on a self-referential feud between Trump and the media is a way to maintain his preferred approach of trying to suck up all the oxygen in the room.

      Meanwhile, what matters to Trump isn't any actual crushing of the media but simply driving the narrative in his core followers' heads that the media is at war with him. With that pretense in place, critical coverage and unflattering facts can be dismissed even as Trump selectively courts the press to inject his own preferred ideas into the mainstream.

      PS: Aaron Rupar: Trump-appointed judge orders White House to temporarily restore Acosta's credentials. "Even Fox News released a statement siding with CNN."

    • Republicans just lost a Senate seat in Arizona because Trump is an egomaniac.

    • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slams Amazon's imminent arrival in Queens. For a further critique, see: Alexia Fernández Campbell: The US economy doesn't need more Amazon jobs. It needs higher wages.

    • One chart that shows racism has everything and nothing to do with Republican election wins: The chart shows a fairly strong correlation between denial of racism and voting Republican. It's long been hard to get an accurate survey of racism in America because much of what amounts to racial prejudice is subconscious (or rarely conscious), and very few people admit to being racists, even those who often act and/or talk the part.

  • Michelle Alexander: The Newest Jim Crow: "Recent criminal justice reforms contain the seeds of a frightening system of 'e-carceration.'"

  • Zack Beauchamp: What's going on with Brexit, explained in under 500 words: Or, in under 30 words: Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated a "soft Brexit" deal that would retain UK access to Europe's common market and an "open border" in Ireland. Nobody likes it. Also see: John Cassidy: The Brexit Fantasy Goes Down in Tears; and Jane Mayer: New Evidence Emerges of Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica's Role in Brexit.

  • Tom Engelhardt: The Donald and the Fake News Media.

  • Kathy Gannon: After 17 years, many Afghans blame US for unending war.

  • Jeff Goodell: The President's Coal Warrior: All about EPA head (and former coal industry lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler, and his "highly effective campaign to sacrifice public health in favor of the fossil-fuel industry."

  • Glenn Greenwald: As the Obama DOJ Concluded, Prosecution of Julian Assange for Publishing Documents Poses Grave Threats to Press Freedom.

  • Michael Grunwald: How Everything Became the Culture War: I guess this is an important subject, but this could be treated better. One problem is the meticulously balanced centrism:

    At a time when Blue and Red America have split into two warring tribes inhabiting two separate realities, and "debate" has been redefined to evoke split-screen cable-news screamfests, this ferocious politicization of everything might seem obvious and unavoidable. . . . Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-segregated and mutually disdainful, each camp deploying the furious language of victimhood to justify its fear and loathing of the gullible deplorables in the other.

    This is followed by a list of caricatures, evenly sorted between two camps, except that a strange asymmetry sets in: the terminology, not to mention the ominous overtones, comes almost exclusively from the right. For instance, there is nothing remotely like a Church of Global Warming Leftists. It's not that leftists cannot play culture war games, but the right uses them as proxies for policies never get aired out (like the promise to "repeal and replace" ACA with something "better and cheaper"). The reason culture war has increasingly swamped political discourse is that conservatives have little chance of convincing most Americans of the merits of their program, so they try to manipulate what they hope is a viable target base with appeals to their identity, and big lies and massive shots of fear and loathing. It's gotten much worse in the last couple years, but isn't that just Trump? I don't know whether he tries to turn everything into culture war because he has some shrewd insight into mass psychology or because he has no grasp of policy whatsoever -- he certainly never manages to say anything intelligible on whatever he's up to.

    I think it's safe to say Obama was never like that, even as he was subjected to repeated attempts to impugn his patriotism, his religion, his honesty, his dignity. It's true that not every Republican took that tack, but many did (not least Trump himself). I just ran across a meme in my Facebook feed today that is possibly the most offensive one I've seen: "The Obamas continue to linger, like the stench of human waste that fouls the air and assaults the nostrils." The comments just build on this.

  • Umair Irfan: Why the wildfire in Northern California was so severe: "Heat, wind, and drought -- and long-term climate trends -- conspired to create the deadly Camp Fire." Also: Brian Resnick: Northern California now has the worst air quality in the world, thanks to wildfire smoke; and Gabriel Thompson: As Toxic Smoke Blankets California, Who Has the Ability to Escape? Subhed ("while the wealthy can flee toward cleaner air, the poorest have no choice but to stay put") isn't exactly true on any count, not that the wealthy don't have more options. But the wealthy also need to note that they're the ones who own most of the property threatened by climate-driven disaster. Beachfront houses aren't owned by poor people, nor are most of the houses destroyed in California towns like Paradise and Malibu. Moreover, that "bad air" map covers a lot of wealthy towns, and air is about the only thing rich and poor still share alike. Maybe some ultra-rich folk hopped in their jets and went elsewhere, but most middling property owners are as stuck as everyone else.

  • Paul Krugman: Why Was Trump's Tax Cut a Fizzle? No surprises here. Just a review of the things Republicans say to get special favors for their donors, and how quickly they are forgotten.

    Last week's blue wave means that Donald Trump will go into the 2020 election with only one major legislative achievement: a big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. Still, that tax cut was supposed to accomplish big things. Republicans thought it would give them a big electoral boost, and they predicted dramatic economic gains. What they got instead, however, was a big fizzle.

    The political payoff, of course, never arrived. And the economic results have been disappointing. True, we've had two quarters of fairly fast economic growth, but such growth spurts are fairly common -- there was a substantially bigger spurt in 2014, and hardly anyone noticed. And this growth was driven largely by consumer spending and, surprise, government spending, which wasn't what the tax cutters promised.

    Meanwhile, there's no sign of the vast investment boom the law's backers promised. Corporations have used the tax cut's proceeds largely to buy back their own stock rather than to add jobs and expand capacity.

    Also by Krugman: The Tax Cut and the Balance of Payments (Wonkish). Also: Jim Tankersley/Matt Phillips: Trump's Tax Cut Was Supposed to Change Corporate Behavior. Here's What Happened.

  • Caroline Orr: US joins Russia, North Korea in refusing to sign cybersecurity pact: This may not be the right deal -- one major plank is to protect "intellectual property" which often is meant to force an arbitrary division of the world into owners and renters -- but some sort of effort like this should be negotiated, and it needs to include Russia and the US, simply because those (along with China and Israel) are the nations with the worst track record of waging cyberwar. Take away the idea of cyberwar, and you could even start to crack down on everyday nuisance hacking, which would make all of our lives easier.

  • Sarah Smarsh: A Blue Wave in Kansas? Don't Be So Surprised: The only state which has elected three female governors, all Democrats (also a female three-term Senator, Republican Nancy Kassebaum).

  • Michael Robbins: Looking Busy: The Rise of Pointless Work: A review of David Graeber's latest book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

  • Matt Taibbi: Trump's Defense Spending Is Out of Control, and Poised to Get Worse:

  • Sabrina Tavernise: These Americans Are Done With Politics: "The Exhausted Majority needs a break."

    A deep new study of the American electorate, "Hidden Tribes," concludes that two out of three Americans are far more practical than that narrative suggests. Most do not see their lives through a political lens, and when they have political views the views are far less rigid than those of the highly politically engaged, ideologically orthodox tribes.

    The study, an effort to understand the forces that drive political polarization, surveyed a representative group of 8,000 Americans. The nonpartisan organization that did it, More in Common, paints a picture of a society that is far more disengaged -- and despairing over divisions -- than it is divided. At its heart is a vast and often overlooked political middle that feels forgotten in the vitriol, as if the country has gone on without it. It calls that group the Exhausted Majority, a group that represented two-thirds of the survey.

    "It feels very lonely out here," said Jamie McDaniel, a 36-year-old home health care worker in Topeka, Kan., one of several people in the study who was interviewed for this article. "Everybody is so right or left, and you're just kind of standing there in the middle saying, "What happened?'"

  • Rachel Withers: CIA reportedly concludes that Jamal Khashoggi was killed on the Saudi crown prince's orders. Also: Alex Ward: Trump doesn't want to punish Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi. His new sanctions prove it. I don't doubt Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's culpability here, even with the CIA attesting to it, but I also don't think the US should be unilaterally sanctioning Saudi Arabia or its citizens, except perhaps through an international process, perhaps based on the World Court or the International Criminal Court. On the other hand, the US does need to rethink its relationship to Saudi Arabia. The US should cut off all arms sales and support as long as Saudi Arabia is engaged in its war of aggression against Yemen. The US should also stop catering to Saudi hostility against Iran and seek to negotiate deals that would allow Iran to enjoy normal, mutually beneficial relationships with the US and its various neighbors. But the idea that the US should act as judge and jury in deciding to punish other states and people is arrogant and unfair, a force of injustice and destabilization which ultimately does more harm than good.

    Speaking of Saudi Arabia and the mischief MBS is up to: David Hearst: Bin Salman 'tried to persuade Netanyahu to go to war in Gaza' say sources. Note that Israel in fact launched a series of attacks on Gaza starting on November 11; also see Alex Ward: Israel and Gaza just saw their worst violence in years. It could get worse.

  • Rachel Withers: Weekend midterms update: Democrats concede Florida and Georgia but complete their Orange County sweep: "Plus, where the rest of the outstanding races stand." For an earlier rundown, see: All the House seats Democrats have flipped in the 2018 elections. Withers also wrote: Trump skipped Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day because he was "extremely busy"; and Trump attacks retired Navy SEAL Admiral Bill McRaven, suggests he should have gotten bin Laden sooner.