Sunday, April 16, 2017


Weekend Roundup

After a long post on Saturday, I need to keep this one short, almost schematic.

Saddened to hear of the death of Amy Durfee, 88, a neighbor of my wife's when she was growing up in Oak Park, Michigan. Amy and Art Durfee remained close friends of the family, people we saw every trip we made to Detroit. I feel fortunate to have known them.

The big story this past week has been the Trump Administration's attempt to show North Korea that when they get into a pissing contest the US will not only stand up the challenges but will take the extra step in showing itself to be more insanely belligerent. As best I recall, even Nixon regarded his infamous "madman" ploy as something of a joke -- a nuance Trump clearly is incapable of fathoming. So far, it's been hard to argue that any of Trump's belligerence has transgressed lines that Hillary Clinton was comfortable with, but in Korea he could easily step out too far. This is probably something to write a long post about. Indeed, I've written about Korea several times, including a passage at the start of my memoir, given that I was born the same week China entered the Korean War and turned an American rout into a bloody stalemate. That was the beginning of the end of America both as a global empire and as a nation that could lay some claim to decent and honorable values. Korea was where Americans learned to become the sore losers who invest so much effort in bullying the world and are so unforgiving of any offense. And here we are, sixty-six years later, still picking at the scab of our past embarrassment.


Some scattered links this week in the Trumpiverse:

  • Robert Bateman: Why So Many Americans Support Deadly Aerial Warfare: "It took decades of propaganda to get here." Last week's use of the 21,000 pound "Mother of All Bombs" signifies more as a propaganda coup than for the 90 "ISIS fighters" it killed. The notion of "Victory Through Airpower" goes way back, but what it mostly means today is that we can punish our "enemies" at virtually no risk to ourselves. Removing that risk helps strip away our inhibitions against bombardment, as does the distance. Of course, it matters that one only attacks "enemies" that don't have the capability to respond in kind. ISIS and the Taliban have no airpower to speak of, and lately the US has been able to bomb Iraq and Syria at will with no obvious repercussions (other than the stream of bad press due to civilian casualties, but that rarely registers in "the homeland"). One danger of listening to your own propaganda is a false sense of confidence, which can lead to reckless provocations, like Trump's macho bluff against North Korea.

  • Medea Benjamin: The "Mother of All Bombs" Is Big, Deadly -- and Won't Lead to Peace: Actually, this feels like a publicity stunt, a way to follow up on the gushing press Trump's cruise missile attack on Syria generated. Benjamin doubts that MOAB is "a game changer," then asks: "Will Trump drag us deeper into this endless war by granting the US Afghan commander, Gen. John Nicholson, his request for several thousand more troops?" What worries me more isn't that the US will throw good troops after bad, but that Trump will conclude that what he really needed was a bigger bang -- that MOAB is just a precursor to deploying tactical nuclear weapons.

  • Frank Bruni: Steve Bannon Was Doomed: Bannon always seemed shaky because he clearly had his own ideas and agenda, where Trump had little of either.

    He didn't grapple with who Trump really is. Trump's allegiances are fickle. His attention flits. His compass is popularity, not any fixed philosophy, certainly not the divisive brand of populism and nationalism that Bannon was trying to enforce. Bannon insisted on an ideology when Trump cares more about applause, and what generates it at a campaign rally isn't what sustains it when you're actually governing. . . .

    Bannon is still on the job, and Trump may keep him there, because while he has been disruptive inside the White House, he could be pure nitroglycerin outside. He commands acolytes on the alt-right. He has the mouthpiece of Breitbart News. He has means for revenge. He also has a history of it.

    As for how Bannon could hurt Trump, Bruni cites Sean Illing: If Trump fires Steve Bannon, he might regret it. One need only note that the audience that Bannon cultivated is used to getting screwed over by false heroes, and it will be easy to paint Trump that way. Illing also has an interview with Jane Mayer On the billionaire behind Bannon and Trump

  • Lee Fang: Paul Ryan Raised $657,000 While Avoiding His Constituents During Recess: I guess the buck doesn't stop with Trump.

  • Elizabeth Grossman: "It couldn't get much worse": Trump's policies are already making workplaces more toxic

  • Fred Kaplan: Return of the Madman Theory: Found this after I wrote the "madman" line in the intro, if you want deeper speculation on the subject. Kaplan's argument that Trump's "erratic and unpredictable" foreign policy "might just make the world more stable -- for a short time" is a reach -- it could just as easily backfire spectacularly. For instance, Trump doesn't understand that America's "leadership of the Free World" was something paid for generously, not something simply accorded because the US had the most bombs and the longest reach. So when he tries to shake down NATO members or to flip trade deficits with East Asia he doesn't realize how easy it would be for supposed allies to go their own way.

  • Paul Krugman: Can Trump Take Health Care Hostage?

  • Jon Marshall: Thinking About Spicer's Chemical Weapons Gaffe: I thought about writing more about the use of chemical weapons as the Syria incident/response unfolded, and both Spicer's spouting and Marshall's "thinking" suggests people are short on some of the basics. Marshall writes, "It's no accident that since World War I, the rare uses of chemical weapons have been as terror weapons, as Saddam Hussein did with the Kurds in the 1980s and Assad has during the Syrian Civil War." Actually, more typical examples were by the British in Iraq in the early 1920s and by Italy in Ethiopia in 1937: poison gas is a favored weapon against people with no protection and no ability to respond in kind. I think the only time since the Great War where it was used against a comparable army was by Iraq against Iran, where Iran ruled out reprisals on moral grounds. Saddam Hussein against the Kurds was an isolated incident tied to the Iran War. It's also not clear to me that Assad ever used it in Syria, regardless of what Marshall thinks. No doubt poison gas is terrifying, but so is every other method of killing in war. The international treaties and the general taboo about chemical weapons are just one part of a more general effort to prohibit war, and it's the general case we should focus on.

    For more on Spicer's "doofusery" (Marshall's apt term), see: Amy Davidson: Sean Spicer Is Very Sorry About His Holocaust Comments; also: Brant Rosen: All Pharaohs Must Fall: A Passover Reflection on Sean Spicer.

  • Charles P Pierce: Is Trump Actually in Charge? Or Is It Worse Than We Feared? I don't get the Fletcher Knebel references, but what I take away from the Trump quotes is that he simply lets the military brass do whatever they want, assuming that whatever they come up with will be just great: "We have the greatest military in the world . . . We have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing. Frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately." This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone: from the start of his campaign, Trump's only original idea was that Obama weakened the country by telling the military "no" too many times. (Personally, I thought Obama said "yes" way too often.) But the problem here isn't uncertainty of control. It's that the military -- indeed, all militaries in recent history -- have tended to be over-optimistic about their own powers, while under-estimating the risks of action, and having no fucking idea about where their aggression might lead.

    Pierce cites Eric Fehrnstrom: The generals come to Trump's rescue, which starts: "Thank God for the gneerals. No one thought they would turn out to be the moderates in the Trump White House. . . . If not for them, Trump's grade on his first 100 days would go from middling to poor." Fehrnstrom is a big fan of "Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly," yet the best he can say for them is that the "first 100 days" have been "middling"?

  • Gareth Porter: New Revelations Belie Trump Claims on Syria Chemical Attack; also Rick Sterling: How Media Bias Fuels Syrian Escalation.

  • Matt Taibbi: For White America, It's 'Happy Days' Again: Or, there ain't gonna be any federal civil rights enforcement while Jeff Sessions is Attorney General. Also the DOJ (formerly Department of Justice) won't be reviewing any alleged instances of local police abuses. Not sure why turning you back on decades of civil rights justice (lackluster as it's been) is supposed to make white people happy -- more like ashamed, I'd say.

  • Annie Waldman: DeVos Pick to Head Civil Rights Office Once Said She Faced Discrimination for Being White.

  • Jon Wiener: On the Road in Trump Country: Interview with Thomas Frank, whose 2016 book Listen, Liberal prefigured the Hillary Clinton debacle.

  • Matthew Yglesias: Trump's pivot is real -- he's more right-wing than ever; or as David Dayen put it, President Bannon Is Dead, Long Live President Cohn.


Also a few links less directly tied to Trump, though sometimes still to America's bout of political insanity: