Sunday, January 20, 2019
The shutdown, or as
David Frum put it, "the President's hostage attempt," goes on,
revulsing and alienating government workers and the public on top
of the revulsion and alienation they first felt when he took office
and started to self-destruct the government. (The exception, or so
we're told, is the ICE border agent union, which relishes the idea
of moving from the backwaters of law enforcement to the closest
thing we've ever had to Hitler's SS.) As I've noted before, the
first and foremost job of every Chief Executive is to keep things
working. In many regards Trump had already broken the organizations
he was responsible for running before he shuttered offices and
halted paychecks (e.g., see the story below on EPA prosecutions).
His new cudgel is blunter, and dumber.
The first thing that popped into my mind when Trump insisted on
shutting down the government is that this is why we don't negotiate
with terrorists. Except I couldn't use that, because I believe that
we should negotiate with terrorists, with hostage-takers, with all
manner of brutes and bullies. I'd even be willing to quote Winston
Churchill, something about "jaw-jaw" being better than "war-war."
But Trump sees this as a test of power, to be resolved by bending
Congressional Democrats into submission. The reason terrorists have
such a poor reputation for negotiating is that, like Trump, they're
insatiable. Republicans have played this budget chokehold card many
times since 1995, always coming back for more, so what Trump is
doing is completely in character. The difference this time is that
Democrats didn't win a major election just to let Trump trod all
over them. They were voted in to resist Republican tyranny, and
this is their first serious test.
One thing I feel I need to decide this week (or, let's say, by the end
of January, at latest) is whether I'm going to try to write my unsolicited
advice book for Democrats in 2020. Say it takes three months to write, two
to get edited and published, that gets us to July, by which time we'll
probably have a dozen Democrats running for President. (I'm counting four
right now: Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, and Tulsi
Wikipedia lists more I wasn't aware of, plus an announcement pending
from Kamala Harris tomorrow.) But that's just a measure of how soon what
Matt Taibbi likes to call "the stupid season" will be upon us. I have no
interest in handicapping the race, or even mentioning candidates by name.
I'm more interested in historical context, positioning, and what I suppose
we could call campaign ethics: how candidates should treat each other, the
issues, the media, the voters, and Republicans. And note that the book is
only directed toward Democrats who are actually concerned enough to get
involved in actual campaigns. Even there, it won't be a "how to" book. I
don't really know anything about running a campaign. It's more why we need
candidates in the first place, and what those candidates should say.
Some rough ideas for the book:
I'm thinking about starting off with a compare/contrast between Donald
Trump and George Washington. They are, by far, the richest Americans ever
to have won office, and otherwise couldn't be more unalike (unless I have
to deal with GW's ownership of slaves, which suggests some similar views on
race). The clearest difference is how we relate to money, and how we expect
politicians with money to serve.
I'd probably follow this up with brief compare/contrasts between Trump
and selected other presidents. I might find various presidents that offer
useful contrasts on things like integrity, diligence, intelligence, care,
a sense of responsibility, a command of details, tolerance of corruption.
I doubt I'd find any president Trump might compare favorably to, but it
might be helpful to make the effort.
Then I want to talk about political eras. Aside from Washington/Adams,
there are four major ones, each dominated by a party, each with only two
exceptions as president:
- From 1800-1860, Jefferson through Buchanan, interrupted only by two Whig
generals (and their VPs, since both died in office, Harrison especially
- From 1860-1932, Lincoln through Hoover, interrupted only by two two-term
Democrats (Cleveland and Wilson).
- From 1932-1980, Roosevelt through Carter, interrupted only by two two-term
Republicans (Eisenhower and Nixon/Ford).
- From 1980-2020, Reagan through Trump, interrupted only by two two-term
Democrats (Clinton and Obama).
There's quite a bit of interesting material I can draw from those periods.
Each starts with a legendary figure, and ends with a one-term disaster. (I
suppose you could say that about Washington/Adams as well, but that's a
rather short descent for an era.) In each, the exceptions substantially
resemble the dominant party. But the Reagan-to-Trump era does reflect an
anomaly: each of the first three eras started with a shift to a broader
and more egalitarian democracy, whereas Reagan was opposite. Each era had
a mid-period nudge in the same direction (Jackson/Van Buren, Roosevelt,
Kennedy/Johnson, but also GW Bush). Of course, the anti-democratic tilt
of Reagan-to-Trump needs some extra analysis, both to show how it could
run against the long arc of American history and why after 1988 it was
never able to post commanding majorities (as occurred in previous
I then posit that in 2020 the goal is not just to defeat Trump
but to win big enough to launch a new (and overdue) era. This will be
the big jump, but I think if Democrats aim big, they can win big --
and it will take nothing less to make the necessary changes. This is
possible because Republicans, both with and without Trump, have boxed
themselves into a corner where all of their beliefs and commitments
only serve to further hurt the vast majority of Americans. It will be
tough because Republicans still have a stranglehold on a large segment
of the public. But this spell can be broken if Democrats look beyond
the conciliatory tactics and marginal goals that marked the campaigns
of Obama and the Clintons.
At some point this segues into a lesson on the need for unity
and tolerance of diversity within the Democratic Party. I'll probably
bring up Reagan's "11th commandment," which served Reagan well but
has since been lost on recent Tea Partiers and RINO-bashers (although
the post-election fawning over Trump suggests that Republicans will
come around to backing anything that wins for them).
I'll probably wind up with a brief survey of issues, which
will stress flexibility and feedback within a broad set of principles.
I can imagine later doing a whole book on this, but this would just
offer a taste.
Book doesn't need to be more than 300 pages, and could be as short
as half that. It is important to get it out quickly to have any real
impact. I would consider working with a co-author, especially someone
who could carry on to do much of the promotion -- something I'm very
unlikely to be much good at.
While I can imagine that this could be worth doing, I can also think
of various reasons not to bother. The obvious one is that I haven't been
feeling well, having a good deal of back pain, and having a trouble with
my eyes -- things that have taken a toll from my normal workload over
the last few months. I also seem to be having more difficulties coming
up with satisfactory writing. I spent a lot of time yesterday trying
to write up a response to a particularly annoying Facebook rant, and
never did come up with anything I felt like sharing. I am especially
bothered by self-destructive arguments I see both on the left and the
right of the Democratic Party spectrum, and this sometimes tempts me
to throw up my hands and leave you all to your fates. On the other
hand, sometimes this tempts me to think that all the help you need
is a little clarity that I fancy I can provide.
Just knocked this much off the top of my head, in two sets of a
couple hours each, so this is very rough. Next step will be to try
to flesh out a bit more outline, maybe 3-5 times the length, with a
lot of bullet points. That would be the goal for the next 7-10 days.
If I manage that, I'll circulate it to a few friends, then make a
decision whether to proceed. The alternative project at this point
is probably a memoir, which is something that can take however much
time it takes (or however much I have left).
Comments welcome, and much appreciated.
Meanwhile, some scattered links this week:
Time to break the silence on Palestine: "Martin Luther King Jr.
courageously spoke out about the Vietnam War. We must do the same when
it comes to this grave injustice of our time."
Impeach Donald Trump: "Starting the process will rein in a president
who is undermining American ideals -- and bring the debate about his
fitness for office into Congress, where it belongs." Even after the
2016 election made impeachment possible in the House, I didn't have
any enthusiasm for this particular agenda. But I noticed this line:
"The question that determines whether an act is impeachable, though,
is whether it endangers American democracy." I'm not sure that really
defines the principle, but it sure describes Trump. Long piece, pretty
BuzzFeed's controversial Cohen story raises question: Did Trump want to be
President? "His campaign was a marketing venture. That's why he didn't
want to put business on hold."
The huge problem with Mueller's Trump-Russia probe that no one talks
The disturbing, surprisingly complex relationship between white identity
politics and racism: interview with Ashley Jardina, author of White
To those who think we can reform our way out of the climate crisis:
"Our only hope is to stop exploiting the earth -- and its people."
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East.
David A Graham:
Trump's entire shutdown approach, encapsulated in one tweet.
"Tell Me How This Ends" "America's muddled involvement with Syria.
How Trump's EPA is letting environmental criminals off the hook, in one
chart: "Referrals for criminal prosecutions for environmental crimes
are at a 30-year low."
The controversy around Trump's fast-food football feast, explained.
Trump's companies boosted foreign worker visa use to 10-year high.
Trump's Star Wars fantasy: "The president is proposing the most ambitious
and costly missile defense system since the Reagan era. It won't make us any
safer." I lobbed my wisecrack under Jason Ditz's piece, above. If you look
at this sanely, there are maybe 8-10 countries around the world that this
system might theoretically defend us from, and they are (with good reason)
more afraid of us than we are of them. Why can't we just negotiate a stand
down where we each give up the offensive capability this prays to shoot
down? That would be much safer and much less expensive, especially for the
US (the only nation rich and deranged enough to try to deploy a complete
defensive system, as well as the only nation with a trillion dollar plan
to rebuild its entire nuclear arsenal; other nations wouldn't have to do
more than countermeasures, such as the "dumptruck full of gravel" that
Chalmers Johnson wrote about -- enough to destroy every satellite around
the earth). Of course, it's possible that space-based anti-missile systems
never were a serious technical idea. Back when Reagan first unveiled his
"Star Wars" fantasy, Doonesbury suggested that its SDI acronym really
meant SFI: Strategic Funding Initiative: i.e., a scam for contractors
to soak up billions of dollars.
Trump and Putin's cone of seclusion: On the lack of notes on meetings
between Trump and Putin. Title sounds like a flashback reference to Don
Adams' TV spy comedy, Get Smart's
cone of silence.
Supporters of Confederate monuments had a very bad week: "The battle
over Confederate monuments is still raging -- and states are losing.".
There are no "feel-good" government shutdown stories: "The government
shutdown is causing a lot of people to suffer. There's nothing good about
The malign incompetence of the British ruling class: "With Brexit, the
chumocrats who drew borders from India to Ireland are getting a taste of
their own medicine."
The weekend's Trump-Russia news, explained: Big story here is
Adam Goldman/Michael S Schmidt/Nicholas Fandos: FBI opened inquiry
whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia, but the
timing says more about the FBI's defense instincts in response to
the Comey firing than anything Trump had done.
Trump used to brag about the click-in online polls his former fixer
tried to rig.
Here's one fight the Green New Deal should avoid for now: "The smart
political move is leaving the question of what counts as clean energy as
open as possible."
Trump is looking for a new way to cut Medicaid -- without Congress.
Congress has 7 big ideas to cut drug prices. Here's how they work.
Any/all would help (and I can think of a few more), but my preferred
solution is: "7. Rip up our patent system and start from scratch."
Actually, I'd be willing to phase the patent system out, first by
incrementally reducing the 17-year term down to zero, in the meantime
replacing the monopoly grant with arbitrated licensing fees. As this
phases in, you shift research and development costs to "open source"
public development, which in the long run will be more effective. I'd
also try to internationalize this system, inviting other countries to
share in, and add to, the cost savings and development bounty. The
article talks about prizes as incentive for private development. I
think there is a place for that, but it shares with patents the
problem of being a high-risk, high-reward startegy, and tends to
reinforce secrecy. I'd rather see more development subsidized up
front, so there is very little risk, with prizes more as a way of
recognition and reputation-building.
House Democrats are frustrated the shutdown is drowning out the rest
of their agenda.
William Barr and the crucial role of the Justice Department.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to raise taxes on the rich -- and Americans
- Robert Wright:
How Trump could wind up making globalism great again: I found this
after I wrote the introduction above, but this confirms my basic insight
into Trump's "art of the deal":
A few days before the 2016 election, journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote
this about Donald Trump: "He has no concept of a nonzero-sum engagement,
in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is
intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he
is psychically at peace." . . .
Still, in Trump's hierarchy of bliss, dominance does seem to rank at
the top. "I love to crush the other side and take the benefits," he wrote
in a book called Think Big. "Why? Because there is nothing greater.
For me it is even better than sex, and I love sex." He went on to observe:
"You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win.
That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win -- not the other side.
You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself."
. . .
Now we've got a president who not only resists playing nonzero-sum
games but actively fans emotions that impede the wise playing of them.
And as if that weren't enough, the fanning of those emotions can
recalibrate the games, making lose-lose outcomes even worse than they
would be otherwise. . . . Trump's policy instincts make good governance
hard, and his political style makes the consequences of bad governance
Most of the piece goes into Trump's trade deal strategy, which is a
lot like his strategy everywhere else: to demolish his opponent no
matter how much it winds up hurting himself. Then there is this:
Alternative histories are speculative. But the general principle makes
sense: If your policies [Bush in Iraq, Obama in Syria and Libya] bring
instability that in turn breeds fear and hatred, then candidates who
thrive on those things are more likely to get elected. So if there's a
chunk of international law designed to prevent instability -- such as
the UN charter's constraints on transborder aggression -- maybe you
should pay some attention to it, especially if you're going to go around
singing the praises of the rules-based international order [he quoted
Iraq War supporter George Packer, chastising Trump for this]. Yet many
American politicians who sing those praises also championed the Iraq
and Libya adventures.
That those people include Hillary Clinton -- the only alternative to
Trump in the 2016 election -- tells you how far the American political
system is from taking global governance seriously. On the one hand, we
had a candidate who ostensibly supported the UN charter but casually
disregarded it. On the other, we had Trump, who denounced various US
military adventures but disdains the international law that stands in
opposition to military adventurism.