Sunday, January 13, 2019
For many years now, I've identified two major political problems
in America. The most obvious one is the nation's habit and obsession
with projection of military power as its leverage in dealing with
other nations. As US economic power has waned, and as America shed
its liberal ideals, it's become easier for others to challenge its
supremacy. In turn, American power has hardened around its military
and covert networks, placing the nation on a permanent war footing.
This near-constant state of war, since 1945 but even more blatantly
since 2001, has led to numerous social maladies, like domestic gun
violence and the xenophobia leading to the current "border crisis."
The other big problem is increasing inequality. The statistics,
which started in the 1970s but really took off in the "greed is good"
1980s, are clear and boring, but the consequences are numerous, both
subtle and pernicious. It would take a long book to map out most of
the ways the selfish pursuit and accumulation of riches has warped
business, politics, and society. One small example is that when GW
Bush arbitrarily commanded the world to follow his War on Terror lead
("you're either with us or against us"), he was assuming that as US
President he was entitled to the same arbitrary powers (and lack of
accountability) corporate CEOs enjoyed.
I used to wonder how Reagan was able to affect such a huge change
in America despite relatively sparse legislative accomplishments --
mostly his big tax cut. The answer is that as president he could send
signals to corporate and financial leaders that government would not
interfere with their more aggressive pursuit of power and profit.
Reagan's signals have been reiterated by every Republican president
since, with ever less concern for scruples or ethics or even the
slightest concern for consequences. All Trump has done has been to
carry this logic to its absurdist extreme: his greed is shameless,
even when it crosses into criminality.
Still, what the government lockout, now entering its fourth week,
shows, is that we may need to formulate a third mega-ailment: we seem
to have lost our commitment to basic competency. We should have seen
this coming when politicians (mostly Republicans) decided that politics
trumps all other considerations, so they could dispute (or ignore) any
science or expertise or so-called facts they found inconvenient. (Is
it ironical that the same people who decry "political correctness"
when it impinges on their use of offensive rhetoric are so committed
to imposing their political regimen on all discussions of what we
once thought of as reality?)
A couple things about competency. One is that it's rarely noticed,
except in the breech. You expect competency, even when you're engaging
with someone whose qualifications you can properly judge -- a doctor,
say, or a computer technician, or a mechanic. You also expect a degree
of professional ethical standards. Trust depends on those things, and
no matter how many time you're reminded caveat emptor, virtually
everything you do in everyday life is built on trust. We can all point
to examples of people who violated your trust, but until recently such
people were in the minority. Now we have Donald Trump. And sure, lots
of us distrusted him from the start of his campaign. He was, after all,
vainglorious, corrupt, a habitual liar, totally lacking in empathy, his
head full of mean-spirited rubbish.
On the other hand, even I am shocked at how incapable Trump has been
at understanding the most basic rudiments of his job. There's nothing
particularly wrong with him having policy views, or even an agenda, but
the most basic requirement of his job is that he keep the government
working, according to the constitution and the laws as established per
that constitution -- you know, the one he had to swear to protect and
follow when he took his oath of office. There have been shutdowns in
the past -- basically ever since Newt Gingrich decided the threat would
be a clever way to extort some policy concessions from Bill Clinton --
but this is the first one that was imposed by a president.
His reason? Well, obviously he's made a political calculation, where
he thinks he can either bully the Democrats into giving him something
they really hate ($5.7 billion so he can brag about how he's delivering
that "big, beautiful wall" he campaigned on) and thereby restore his
"art of the deal" mojo from the tarnish of losing the 2018 "midterms"
so badly, or rouse the American people (his base, anyway) into blaming
the Democrats for all the damage the shutdown causes. Either way, he
feels that his second-term election in 2020 depends on this defense of
political principle. Besides, he hates the federal government anyway --
possibly excepting the military and a few other groups currently exempt
from the shutdown -- mostly because he's bought into the credo that
"politics is everything, and everything is politics" (which makes most
of the Democrat-leaning government enemy territory).
On the other hand, all he's really shown is that he's unfit to hold
office, because he's forgotten that his main job is to keep the United
States government working: implementing and enforcing the laws of the
land, per the constitution. One might argue that using his office for
such a political ploy is as significant a violation of his trust as
anything else he's done. Indeed, one might argue that it is something
he should be impeached for (although that would require a political
consensus that has yet to form -- not that he isn't losing popularity
during this charade).
Some scattered links this week:
Trump's Hannity interview reveals a president out of touch with
But this is the crux of the matter. He doesn't consider this issue very
important. It's not important enough for him to offer Democrats anything
of substance in a legislative swap, and it's not important enough for him
to have bothered to learn anything about the issue or even develop a
specific proposal. He is imposing huge costs on a huge number of people,
but he personally is suffering nothing more than the indignity of hanging
out in the White House.
And he's so unselfconscious that he actually threw himself a pity party
in the midst of all the problems he's causing. There's no apology here for
the inconvenience, followed by an explanation of why he's doing it. Because
he's not sorry. He wants us to feel sorry for him. And that, in some ways,
is the most disturbing thing of all.
Yglesias focuses on the workers who aren't getting paid, but there
are much larger potential costs to many more people if you can factor
in the work that doesn't get done, and the signals not doing this work.
Much of what the government does is meant to keep companies honest and
trustworthy. Losing that doesn't seem to bother Trump, and indeed most
people may not notice the loss -- until it's too late.
FBI agents' union slams Trump, says the shutdown is harming national
The more Trump talks, the less likely it is he'll get his precious steel
slats: "To get things done, the president needs to shut up." That
Trump keeps trying to make political hay out of the lockout suggests
he's only concerned with the political optics. (On the other hand, if
it isn't talked about on Fox & Friends, is it even real to
Joe Biden is the Hillary Clinton of 2020: "Americans want outsiders,
reformers, and fresh faces, not politicians with decades of baggage."
In particular, "Why nominate another Iraq hawk?" With Clinton on the
shelf, it's hard to think of any Democrat with more easily attacked
baggage than Biden. (John Kerry has similar problems -- some exactly
the same. And sure, Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel were on track to
catch up, but they're already pretty thoroughly discredited.) Biden
is a guy that some in the media enjoy touting and that most Democrats
would settle for, but no one really likes him. (You do know that
Leslie Knope's "hots" for him was a joke, don't you?)
It's not just that Biden, despite his currently strong polling, would
make for a weak candidate if he runs. The entire spectacle of once again
re-fighting every intraparty battle from the past two generations of
Democratic Party politics would be bad for almost everyone at a time
when Democrats should be talking about their ideas for the future rather
than raking over the past.
The real crisis is that Trump has no idea what he's doing.
The shutdown is intractable because Trump's wall is ridiculous and
Republicans know it: "Conservatives won't trade the wall for anything
good because they know it's a bad idea.".
Taxing the rich is very popular; it's Republicans who have the radical
position: "But TV news anchors are rich."
Networks giving Trump free airtime on Tuesday refused to air Obama's 2014
The "skills gap" was a lie: "New research shows it was the consequence
of high unemployment rather than its cause." Nothing on who knew better at
the time, although I suspect that when I start looking around, Dean Baker
and Paul Krugman will have something to say on that.
Trump confronts the prospect of a 'nonstop political war' for
The impact of the government shutdown is about to snowball.
Shutdown means EPA pollution inspectors aren't on the job.
Living on a quagmire planet: "Honestly, this could get a lot
Before Trump, Steve King set the agenda for the wall and anti-immigration
Searching for a substantive response to Trump's hateful speech:
"Shutting down the government over the border wall is to policy what
writing a pouty letter to Kim Jong Un is to diplomacy, and the leader
of the Senate opposition should have no part in elevating it." Then
Gessen finds the response she's looking for, from Alexandria
The one thing that the President has not talked about is the fact that
he has systematically engaged in the violation of international human
rights on our border. He has separated children from their families.
He talked about what happened the day after Christmas -- on the day of
Christmas, a child died in [Customs and Border Protection] custody.
The President should not be asking for more money to an agency that
has systematically violated human rights; the President should be
really defending why we are funding such an agency at all. Because
right now what we are seeing is death, right now what we are seeing
is the violation of human rights, these children and these families
are being held in what are called hieleras, which are basically
freezing boxes that no person should be maintained in for any amount
of time. . . . He is trying to restrict every form of legal immigration
there is in the United States. He is fighting against family reunification,
he's fighting against the diversity visa lottery. . . . This is systematic,
it is wrong, and it is anti-American.
Unthinkable: 50 moments that define an improbable presidency: I'll
just list them, and you can go to the page for links and details:
- Donald Trump touches the magic orb
- A cabinet officer likes private planes too much
- The president praises the congressman who body-slammed a reporter
- An overcompensating press secretary lies about crowd size
- Trump tells the Boy Scouts about a hot New York party
- A name-calling feud ends with the secretary of state's ouster by tweet
- The WikiLeaks president goes silent
- The nation loses its consoler in chief
- The first president to complain about an election he won
- Trump waits 19 months to pick his science adviser
- The president's most trusted adviser is his own gut
- A White House economist creates facts for the president
- Trump holds a top secret confab on the Mar-a-Lago dining terrace
- The president just wants to go home
- Trump threatens to strip security clearances from his critics
- Mueller's "witch hunt" is good at finding witches
- Trump leads the country to the longest government shutdown in American history
- The chief justice of the United States corrects the president
- Trump disseminates Soviet propaganda
- The White House punishes a CNN reporter for asking questions
- The buck stops over there
- The president tries to kick transgender service members out of the military
- Trump tweets the wisdom of Mussolini
- Turkish agents assault protesters near the White House
- Trump helps the Saudis cover up a murder
- "We're gonna have the cleanest air"
- The president can't stop talking about carnage
- America gets a first daughter
- The UN General Assembly laughs at the president
- Rain stops Trump from honoring the dead
- The president learns about separation of powers
- The president learns about the Justice Department
- The president lies constantly
- Trump threatens to press his "nuclear button"
- Public humiliation comes for everyone in the White House
- The CIA dead become a TV prop
- You know you're in a constitutional crisis when . . .
- Trump mocks Christine Blasey Ford to a cheering crowd
- A new term enters the presidential lexicon: "shithole countries"
- Trump throws paper towels at Puerto Ricans
- "I have the absolute right to pardon myself"
- The president calls his porn-star ex-paramour "horseface"
- Trump picks the wrong countries for his travel ban
- Trump declares war on black athletes
- James Comey is fired
- Putin and Trump talk without chaperones
- The president still hasn't released his tax returns
- "Very fine people on both sides"
- Children are taken from their parents and incarcerated
Saddest thing about this list? I didn't have to look any of them up.
Second saddest thing? The umbrella didn't even make the cut.
Confronting "Alternative Facts": "A Twenty-First-Century Incredibility
Chasm: Life in the United States of Trump."
Bricks in the Wall: A history of US efforts to fortify the border
with Mexico, starting in 1945 with a 10-foot high chain link fence that
stretched 5 miles near Calexico, CA, built with materials that had been
used in Japanese-American internment camps. Grandin has a new book on
the subject: The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border
Wall in the Mind of America.
As Democratic elites reunite with neocons, the party's voters are becoming
far more militaristic and pro-war than Republicans: I can't help but
think Greenwald has cherry-picked a few facts here and turned them into a
gross slander of the Democratic Party base.
Jack Healy/Tyler Pager:
Farm country stood by Trump. But the shutdown is pushing it to the breaking
Why so many people who need the government hate it: "Everyone benefits
from welfare. Here's why most people don't know that." Interview with
Suzanne Mettler, author of The Government-Citizen Disconnect.
"If individual citizens withdraw from public life, the only people in society
who have power are those with lots of economic power."
"We have to find a way to recapture that sense of the government as an
instrument of good in our lives, and we have to stop thinking of it as the
"If we become more and more anti-government, we're against ourselves.
We're against our own collective capacity to do anything."
Trump's ties to the Russian mafia go back 3 decades: Interview with
Craig Unger, author of House of Trump, House of Putin.
Trump's big libertarian experiment: "Does contaminated food smell
"Government," declared Ronald Reagan in his first Inaugural Address, "is
not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." Republicans
have echoed his rhetoric ever since. Somehow, though, they've never
followed through on the radical downsizing of government their ideology
But now Donald Trump is, in effect, implementing at least part of the
drastic reduction in government's role his party has long claimed to favor.
If the shutdown drags on for months -- which seems quite possible -- we'll
get a chance to see what America looks like without a number of public
programs the right has long insisted we don't need. Never mind the wall;
think of what's going on as a big, beautiful libertarian experiment.
Seriously, it's striking how many of the payments the federal government
is or soon will be failing to make are for things libertarians insist we
shouldn't have been spending taxpayer dollars on anyway.
Melting snowballs and the winter of debt.
Elizabeth Warren and her party of ideas: The tide has turned:
Today's G.O.P. is a party of closed minds, hostile to expertise,
aggressively uninterested in evidence, whose idea of a policy argument
involves loudly repeating the same old debunked doctrines. Paul Ryan's
"innovative" proposals of 2011 (cut taxes and privatize Medicare) were
almost indistinguishable from those of Newt Gingrich in 1995.
Meanwhile, Democrats have experienced an intellectual renaissance.
They have emerged from their 1990s cringe; they're no longer afraid to
challenge conservative pieties; and there's a lot of serious, well-informed
intraparty debate about issues from health care to climate change.
The corrupting falsehoods of Trump's Oval Office speech.
Trump's advisers push for emergency declaration -- while assuming it'll be
stopped in court.
Democrats need to think way bigger on guns: Doubts about focusing
on background checks.
All 20 previous government shutdowns, explained. In my introduction,
I blamed the phenomenon on Newt Gingrich, but most of these were prior
to 1985 (mostly when Reagan was president). This doesn't go into further
threats made by Gingrich and later Republican threats aimed at Obama,
although it does include the 2013 shutdown. Related:
Javier Zarrancina/Li Zhou: The astonishing effects of the shutdown, in
Trump's typos reveal his lack of fitness for the presidency.
Trump has concealed details of his face-to-face encounters with Putin
from senior officials in administration.
Ocean warming is accelerating faster than thought, new research
As the planet has warmed, the oceans have provided a critical buffer.
They have slowed the effects of climate change by absorbing 93 percent
of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases humans pump into the
"If the ocean wasn't absorbing as much heat, the surface of the land
would heat up much faster than it is right now," said Malin L. Pinsky,
an associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and natural
resources at Rutgers University. "In fact, the ocean is saving us from
massive warming right now."
But the surging water temperatures are already killing off marine
ecosystems, raising sea levels and making hurricanes more destructive.
US carbon emissions surged in 2018 even as coal plants closed.
Eric Schmidt/Mark Landler:
Pentagon officials fear Bolton's actions increase risk of clash with
Trump the toddler: "The president is pursuing a child's strategy for
getting what he wants."
National parks are getting trashed amid the government shutdown.
This strikes me as one of the most telling stories of the lockout.
I've spent a lot of time working late in offices, and as such I've
noticed people coming in to clean them up every night. It turns out
that it takes a lot of work to keep any place inhabited by humans
from turning into a dump, but most office workers, clocking in and
out on expected schedules, never see that.
The US isn't really leaving Syria and Afghanistan: Author sees
mostly technical problems, largely because the US military is much
better at building bases than dismantling them -- especially when
it wants to do one and not the other. There's also the problem of
not having a coherent plan let alone viable allies. And up and down
the command chain there are people who can't be trusted not to fake
a crisis or provocation if it serves their agenda. Whenever you give
someone like John Bolton the opportunity to explain what Trump means,
it's likely to spin around 180 degrees.
The government shutdown is hurting America's diplomats -- and
Pompeo and his Bible define US policy in the Middle East:
Pompeo's speech had three dimensions: it was anti-Obama, anti-Iran, and
in favor of so-called traditional allies, as Robert Malley, the president
of the International Crisis Group and a senior National Security Council
staffer in the Obama Administration, told me. "The first reflects a
politicization of foreign policy for which it is hard to conjure up a
precedent. The second an ideological obsession that does not comport with
reality. And the third an implicit celebration of an autocratic status quo
that masquerades as a tribute to stability. Pompeo's self-proclaimed message
was that America is a force for good. Whether that ever was the case, his
speech was proof that, today at least, it plainly is not."
For more on Pompeo's speech/mission: