Sunday, April 23, 2017

Weekend Roundup

We're approximately 100 days into the Trump administration, which only leaves 1360 more days to go until he's gone -- assuming American voters don't get even stupider along the way. If you've been hiding in a cave somewhere, you might check out David Remnick: A Hundred Days of Trump as a quick way of getting up to speed, although Remnick's piece is long on style and short on substance. If you're really masochistic you can dig up my Weekend Roundups (and occasional Midweek Roundups) since January. Indeed, one could write a whole book on Trump's first 100 days -- probably for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt made that timespan historic (see Adam Cohen's Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America), although in this case the "accomplishments" are all negative, and the real damage Trump has sown in this fertile period has (mostly) yet to play itself out. As Bill McKibben notes, below, things that we do to the environment now will continue to drive changes well into the future. That's also true for society, culture, politics, and the economy.

How much damage Trump ultimately does will depend on how effectively the resistance (not just the Democrats, although they have much to prove here) organizes and how coherently we can explain and make people aware of what's so wrong with the Republican agenda. One thing that has probably helped in this regard is that the false dichotomy between "populist" Trump and "conservative" Republicans has faded away -- Trump is still harshly anti-immigrant in all forms (not just "illegals" but he's also turned against perfectly legal H-1B visa holders), but everywhere else he's fallen into line with orthodox (and often extremist) conservatives. This not only means that Trump and the rest of the Republicans will share blame for everything that breaks bad on their watch, it will force Democrats to refashion their platform into one that counters those disasters. We no longer have to argue what bad things might happen if hawks run wild, if corporate moguls are freed of regulation, if the courts are packed with right-wing ideologues, if any number of previous hypotheticals happen, because we're going to see exactly what happens. In fact, we're seeing it, faster than most of us can really process it.

Some scattered links this week in the Trump World:

  • Robert L Borosage: The Stunning Disappearance of Candidate Trump: It's arguable whether Trump's "economic populism" ever amounted to anything that might actually help his white working class fans, but he's so completely abandoned that part of his platform that we'll never know. He's setting records for how quickly and how completely he's breaking campaign promises. Wonder whether the Democrats will call him on it?

  • Christina Cautenucci: What It Takes: "O'Reilly, Ailes, Cosby, Trump: Three alleged sexual preditors found disgrace. A fourth became president. What made the difference?"

  • David S Cohen: How Neil Gorsuch Will Make His Mark This Supreme Court Term: Also, for instance, Sophia Tesfaye: Neil Gorsuch's first Supreme Court vote clears the way for Arkansas to begin its lethal injection spree.

  • Justin Elliott: Trump Is Hiring Lobbyists and Top Ethics Official Says 'There's No Transparency'

  • Tom Engelhardt: The Chameleon Presidency: Quotes Trump: "If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what's happened over the past eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference, tremendous difference." Actually, Trump doesn't seem to be capable of actually seeing either recent history or today's news. His bombing missions in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia don't even hint at a break with Obama -- they were all in the Pentagon playbook he inherited. Of course, if he starts a nuclear conflagration in Korea, that would be his own peculiar mark on history. But thus far his shift from Obama in foreign policy (aka warmaking) is little different than the shift from Kennedy to Johnson: as McGeorge Bundy put it, whereas Kennedy wanted to be seen as making smart moves, Johnson preferred to be seen as tough. Still, neither were as explicit or dramatic about their needs as Obama ("don't do stupid shit") and Trump, who seems eager to green light anything the Pentagon brass offers. And Trump is so forthright about this it's almost as if he's hard at work on his Nuremberg defense:

    Above all, President Trump did one thing decisively. He empowered a set of generals or retired generals -- James "Mad Dog" Mattis as secretary of defense, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security -- men already deeply implicated in America's failing wars across the Greater Middle East. Not being a details guy himself, he's then left them to do their damnedest. "What I do is I authorize my military," he told reporters recently. "We have given them total authorization and that's what they're doing and, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately."

    Successful? The explosions are bigger and the casualty reports are up, but I haven't seen anything that suggests that he's moved any of his wars one iota. Granted, his recklessness has gotten the neocons to turn around and start singing his praises -- they had been worried that he might actually have meant some of the things he said on the campaign trail, like regrets over Bush's Iraq War or his reluctance to get involved in Syria. Still, neither the generals nor the neocons have a clue how to extricate themselves from the wars they wade ever deeper into. Engelhardt speculates:

    Here's the problem, though: there's a predictable element to all of this and it doesn't work in Donald Trump's favor. America's forever wars have now been pursued by these generals and others like them for more than 15 years across a vast swath of the planet -- from Pakistan to Libya (and ever deeper into Africa) -- and the chaos of failing states, growing conflicts, and spreading terror movements has been the result. There's no reason to believe that further military action will, a decade and a half later, produce more positive results.

    Engelhardt seems to think Trump will eventually turn on his generals. I think it's more likely that, like Johnson (or for that matter Truman), he will find himself stuck, buried under his own hubris, unable to back out or find any other solution.

  • Maggie Haberman/Glenn Thrush: Trump Reaches Beyond West Wing for Counsel: His rogues gallery.

  • Dahlia Lithwick: Jeff Sessions Thinks Hawaii's Not a Real State. We Shouldn't Be Surprised. Reminds me that the reason Hawaii became the 50th state, waiting well past Alaska, was that southern Senators filibustered to delay the likelihood of a non-white joining them in the US Senate. Sessions is evidently still of that mindset.

  • Jonathan Marshall: Neocons Point Housebroken Trump at Iran: Trump's latest bombing exploits in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have only served to gin up the "real men go to Tehran" brigade. Also: William Rivers Pitt: The Looming Neocon Invasion of Trumpland.

  • Josh Marshall: To Scare Dems, Trump Threatens to Light Himself on Fire: Looks like we're in the midst of another round of government shutdown extortion, where Republicans are holding Obamacare subsidies hostage, hoping to trade them for Democratic support on funding the "big, beautiful wall" that Trump originally expected Mexico to pay for. Evidently the catch is that even though the Republicans control Congress funding for the wall would have to break a Democratic filibuster (so 60 votes in the Senate). This all seems pretty stupid: Obamacare is suddenly pretty popular, polling on building that wall is currently 58-28% against, and the most immediate effect of shutting down the government will be to hold up Social Security checks.

  • Bill McKibben: The Planet Can't Stand This Presidency:

    What Mr. Trump is trying to do to the planet's climate will play out over geologic time as well. In fact, it's time itself that he's stealing from us.

    What I mean is, we have only a short window to deal with the climate crisis or else we forever lose the chance to thwart truly catastrophic heating. . . .

    The effects will be felt not immediately but over decades and centuries and millenniums. More ice will melt, and that will cut the planet's reflectivity, amplifying the warming; more permafrost will thaw, and that will push more methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The species that go extinct as a result of the warming won't mostly die in the next four years, but they will die. The nations that will be submerged won't sink beneath the waves on his watch, but they will sink. No president will be able to claw back this time -- crucial time, since we're right now breaking the back of the climate system.

    We can hope other world leaders will pick up some of the slack. And we can protest. But even when we vote him out of office, Trumpism will persist, a dark stratum in the planet's geological history. In some awful sense, his term could last forever.

    This link picks up a number of other interesting pieces on the environment.

    Related: Dave Levitan: The March for Science has a humble aim: restoring sanity; David Suzuki: Rivers vanishing into thin air: this is what the climate crisis looks like; Michael T Klare: Climate change as genocide.

  • Leon Neyfakh: How Trump Will Dismantle Civil Rights Protections in America: "The same way Bush did: by politicizing the DOJ."

  • Heather Digby Parton: Trump's First 100 Days: More Frightening, or More Pathetic? Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days were the benchmark, but he came into office with a huge margin of support in Congress, and a shocked and battered population that was willing to try anything. Plus his bank holiday/fireside chat was probably the most brilliantly executed act of any president ever. Trump had none of that going his way. In fact, about all he actually did was to make some spectacularly bad appointments, sign a bunch of executive orders (mostly countering Obama's executive orders), meet with a few foreign leaders (often to embarrassing effect), and blow up shit. So, yeah, both pathetic and terrifying.

  • Sarah Rawlins: Costs and Benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments: Could use some more political context, but clearly the positive payback for the relatively small costs imposed by these regulations has been huge -- they estimate $30.77 for every dollar spent. Of course, you don't need that sort of ROI to justify doing something right, but this is a pretty resounding answer for flacks who tell you we can't afford to have cleaner air or water.

  • Nelson D Schwartz: Trump Saved Carrier Jobs. These Workers Weren't as Lucky

  • Matthew Yglesias: Today's executive orders are the nail in the coffin of Trump's economic populism: Well, it was starting to stink anyway. For more (especially on "shadow banking"), see Mike Konczal: Now Republicans want to undo the regulations that helped consumers and stabilized banking.

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

  • Matt Apuzzo et al.: Comey Tried to Shield the FBI From Politics. Then He Shaped an Election: Fairly in-depth reporting on Comey's political ploy which did much to throw the election to Donald Trump.

    But with polls showing Mrs. Clinton holding a comfortable lead, Mr. Comey ended up plunging the F.B.I. into the molten center of a bitter election. Fearing the backlash that would come if it were revealed after the election that the F.B.I. had been investigating the next president and had kept it a secret, Mr. Comey sent a letter informing Congress that the case was reopened.

    What he did not say was that the F.B.I. was also investigating the campaign of Donald J. Trump. Just weeks before, Mr. Comey had declined to answer a question from Congress about whether there was such an investigation. Only in March, long after the election, did Mr. Comey confirm that there was one.

  • John Cassidy: The Real Trump Agenda: Helping Big Business

  • Ira Chernus: It's Time to Resurrect the Counterculture Movement: "The largest mobilization for progressive politics since the Vietnam era offers a unique opportunity to go beyond simply treating symptoms to start offering cures for the underlying illness." I'm not sure I'd call that "counterculture" -- what I think of by that term has perhaps been the deepest, broadest, and most persistent outgrowth from the political and cultural upheaval of the late 1960s. Rather, what we need to bring back is the New Left -- the political critique of war, empire, the security state, sexism, racism, consumption, the despoilment of the environment, and various related cultural mores -- only we need to bring back the Old Left focus on inequality and we need to come up with a better solution for securing political gains. I've long felt that the New Left was a huge success in changing minds, but the intrinsic distrust of political organizations has left those gains vulnerable to a right-wing counterattack focused on securing narrow political power. The latter has in fact become so pervasive we need a refresher course in basic principles, which is I think where Chernus is heading.

  • Patrick Cockburn: America Should Start Exploring How to End All the Wars It's Started

  • Paul Cohen: Could Leftist-Jean-Luc Mélenchon Win the French Presidency? First round of France's presidential election is Tuesday, with centrist Emmanuel Macron and "Thatcherite" François Fillon the fading establishment candidates, Marine Le Pen on the far right, and Mélenchon "surging" from the left. This gives you some background on the latter. As for the horse race, see Harry Enten: The French Election Is Way Too Close to Call: the chart there shows Macron barely ahead of Le Pen, a couple points ahead of Fillon, in turn barely ahead of Mélenchon -- who has the sole upward trajectory, but it's mostly been at the expense of Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon. Meanwhile, Robert Mackey: Trump Hopes Paris Attack Boosts Le Pen, One Day After Obama Calls Macron. Clearly, Americans have few if any qualms about interfering in someone else's election. (As for Russian interests, well, Le Pen-Putin friendship goes back a long way.)

    [PS: Projected votes as of 4:13PM CDT: Macron 23.8%, Le Pen 21.7%, Fillon 19.8%, Mélanchon 19.2%, Hamon 6.5%. So there will be a runoff between Macron and Le Pen, with Macron heavily favored.]

  • Michael Hudson: Running Government Like a Business Is Bad for Citizens: The latest idiot to express the cliché is Jared Kushner, although the Trump administration is so weighted toward business résumés that it was pretty much in the air (or should I say Kool Aid?). The idea is, of course, ridiculous, even before we signed off on the notion that the only reason behind business is to extract and return profits to investors (something less obvious back in the days when companies could afford loftier goals, like offering useful goods/services), and before we forgot the idea of there being a public interest, which includes providing services to people who have difficulty getting by on their own. When asked for historical examples of governments run like businesses, Hudson mentioned Russia under Boris Yeltsin -- a kleptocracy run through the Kremlin. If Trump admires Putin, that's probably why.

  • Mark Karlin: Israeli Government Is Petrified of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement: Interview with Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace and editor of On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice. I spent a couple days last week with Palestinian civil rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab: he gave several presentations here in Kansas in Mennonite churches in support of a BDS resolution they will be voting on later this year, which is itself an indication of how much progress BDS is making. (Another indication is that the Kansas legislature is likely to pass a law prohibiting the state from contracting with any companies which support BDS.) Last year's resolution was tabled for fear it might seem anti-semitic, so Kuttab reached out to JVP for support on that count, and they arranged for Laura Tillem to join Kuttab (she started by reading her poem).

    Meanwhile, you might note Richard Silverstein's recent posts: Former Israeli Defense Minister Confirms Israeli Collaboration with ISIS in Syria; Israel Criminalizes Palestinian Muslim Activism; and Justice Department to Prosecute Israeli-American Teen Who Masterminded Wave of Threats Against Jewish Institutions. The latter may have been a prank, but it reminded me of the Lavon Affair (the most notorious of Israeli "false flag" operations). With the alt-right providing cover, Michael Kaydar's phone threats helped raise the profile of anti-semitism in America, which played into the hands of anti-BDS hysterics. For a reminder of what's actually happening in Israel/Palestine, it's worth your while to check up every now and then on Kate's regular compendiums of news reports. The latest is called Settlers from Kushner family-funded community attack 3 Israeli grandmothers, but that's only the lead story, with much more outrage following.

  • Paul Krugman: Why Don't All Jobs Matter? He asks the question, why only focus on lost mining and manufacturing jobs (so dear to Trump voters, if not necessarily to the boss-man himself), when we're also seeing major job losses in sectors like department stores:

    Over the weekend The Times Magazine published a photographic essay on the decline of traditional retailers in the face of internet competition. The pictures, contrasting "zombie malls" largely emptied of tenants with giant warehouses holding inventory for online sellers, were striking. The economic reality is pretty striking too.

    Consider what has happened to department stores. Even as Mr. Trump was boasting about saving a few hundred jobs in manufacturing here and there, Macy's announced plans to close 68 stores and lay off 10,000 workers. Sears, another iconic institution, has expressed "substantial doubt" about its ability to stay in business.

    Overall, department stores employ a third fewer people now than they did in 2001. That's half a million traditional jobs gone -- about eighteen times as many jobs as were lost in coal mining over the same period.

    Dean Baker's response: Paul Krugman Gets Retail Wrong: They Are Not Very Good Jobs. Still, Krugman's end-point is right on:

    While we can't stop job losses from happening, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong -- which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.

    I recall Dani Rodrik, I think, arguing that the problem with free trade wasn't trade -- it was the failure of some countries (e.g., the United States) to recognize that trade deals inevitably have losers as well as winners, and to help minimize the hurt imposed those who lose out. Another bigger picture point is that these losses of retail jobs aren't caused by lower demand; they're being driven by the more efficient service that online retailers offer. As a society we could just as well convert those efficiencies into fewer work hours, and all be better off for that. But we don't, largely because politically we insist that even the least productive workers toil at minimum wage jobs while allowing companies to extract ever more hours from their more productive employees.

  • Eric Margolis: What Would Korean War II Look Like? The illustration is a nuclear mushroom cloud, and that's certainly within the realm of possibility -- both sides possessing such weapons. The US, of course, fears that North Korea might some day use their growing stock of atomic warheads and long-range missiles, but the immediate danger is that the US will precipitate such at attack with some arrogant ultimatum or more overt act. The result would be awful messy: beyond the kill zone any nuclear exchange would "cause clouds of lethal radiation and radioactive dust to blanket Japan, South Korea and heavily industrialized northeast China, including the capital, Beijing." (Actually, given that prevailing winds blow east, the radioactive cloud wouldn't take long to blow over America.) Even if both sides restrain themselves, North Korean artillery aimed at Seoul threaten to turn the city (pop. 10 million) "into a sea of fire." Presumably the US military could invade and conquer North Korea, but the latter has a large conventional army and has long been obsessed with preparing to repel an invasion. No one thinks it would be easy, or painless. Margolis counters that "All this craziness would be ended if the US signed a peace treat with North Korea ending the first Korean War and opened up diplomatic and commercial relations." That hasn't happened because Americans are petty and vindictive, still harboring a grudge over their inability to rid Korea of Communism in the extraordinarily brutal 1950-53 war. And because neocons are so wrapped up in their own sense of omnipotence they refuse to acknowledge that any other country might be able to present a credible deterrence against American aggression. The fact is that North Korea, like China and Russia (and probably Iran, even without nukes) has one, and the only way to counter that is to decide that the old war is over and that we're never going to restart it. You don't have to like Kim Jong Un or his very strange, isolated and paranoid country, to decide to stop hurting yourself and endangering the world -- which is really all Trump's Korea policy amounts to. You might even find they become a bit more tolerable once you stop giving them so much reason to be terrified.

    Alao see: Robert Dreyfuss: Trump's Terrifying North Korea Standoff; Mike Whitney: The US Pushed North Korea to Build Nukes: Yes or No?; Richard Wolffe: Donald Trump's 'armada' gaffe was dangerous buffoonery.

  • Sophia A McClennan: Bill O'Reilly Ruined the News: 10 Ways He and Fox News Harassed Us All; also Justin Peters: The All-Spin Zone.

  • Robert Parry: Why Not a Probe of 'Israel-gate'? After all, far more than Russia, no other nation has so often or so profoundly tried to influence American elections and political processes for its own interests. This piece reviews a fair selection of the history, not least Israel's 1980 efforts to defeat Jimmy Carter. Indeed, Israel's influence has become so exalted that both Trump and Clinton prostrated themselves publicly before AIPAC -- and who knows what they did behind the closed doors of Israel-focused donors like Abelson and Sabin.

  • Margot Sanger-Katz: Bare Market: What Happens if Places Have No Obamacare Insurers? Even though the ACA is basically a "safety net" for insurance industry profits, the marketplace is failing -- mostly, I think, due to concentration in the industry, but also because the ACA not only subsidizes profits, it limits them. In Kansas, when I applied for Obamacare when it opened for business, there were many plans, but only two providers, and one of them was, frankly, worthless, so the much vaunted "choice" devolved to a maze of deductible variations -- as usual, insurance company profits depended mostly on their ability to dodge paying for anything. Now we're finding some states (or counties within states) with even fewer choices -- potentially none. One way to fix this would be to throw even more money at the insurance companies. Another would be to provide a "public option" -- a government guarantee which could compete with private plans. Or we could bow to the inevitable and extend medicare and/or medicaid to undercut the private insurance industry altogether. The problem is, any such solution depends on a political will that Trump and the Republicans don't have and can't muster, so the failure of Obamacare they've been predicting will most likely be hastened by their own hands. Also by the author: No, Obamacare Isn't in a 'Death Spiral', and Trump's Choice on Obamacare: Sabotage or Co-opt? And from Charles Pierce: House Republicans Have a New Plan to Make Your Healthcare Worse.

  • Matt Taibbi: Yikes! New Behind-the-Scenes Book Brutalizes the Clinton Campaign: Review of Jonathan Allen/Arnie Parnes: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign (Crown), a first draft on what's already turned out to be a fateful slice of history. The insider dirt ("sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign") focuses on the mechanics of running the campaign, with Taibbi singling out the vexing question of why she was running in the first place:

    The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.

    In fact, it shines through in the book that the voters' need to understand why this or that person is running for office is viewed in Washington as little more than an annoying problem.

    In the Clinton run, that problem became such a millstone around the neck of the campaign that staffers began to flirt with the idea of sharing the uninspiring truth with voters. Stumped for months by how to explain why their candidate wanted to be president, Clinton staffers began toying with the idea of seeing how "Because it's her turn" might fly as a public rallying cry.

    The authors quote a campaign staffer explaining, "We were talking to Democrats, who largely didn't think she was evil." But the number of people who did think she was evil mushroomed beyond the cloistered party ranks, and her campaign to continue a status quo that seemed to work only for the donors she preferred to spend time with (especially when wrapped up in vacuous clichés like "America's always been great") offered nothing but negatives even to voters who Republicans would only prey on. As I recall, back in 1992 when Bill Clinton first ran, he made all sorts of populist promises. Hillary was doubly damned: not only did she fail to deliver Bill's "man from Hope" shtick, she started out handicapped by the legacy of his broken promises. (But since he won, she probably counted that as an asset -- it certainly did help introduce her to the powers he sold out to.)

    One story in the book is about how Hillary scoured her 2008 campaign email server for evidence of staffers who betrayed her, so this story seems inevitable: Emily Smith: Hillary camp scrambling to find out who leaked embarrassing info.

  • Glenn Thrush, et al.: Trump Signs Order That Could Lead to Curbs on Foreign Workers: Specifically, legal, documented workers under the H-1B Visa program, which is widely used by American companies to hire skilled technical workers (admittedly, at below open market wages). Also see: EA Crunden: Trump's crackdown on H-1B visas goes far beyond tech workers; also Max Bearak: Trump and Sessions plan to restrict highly skilled foreign workers. Hyderabad says to bring it on -- the implication here is that if companies can't hire foreign labor to work here, they'll send the work to offshore firms.