Sunday, January 28, 2018


Weekend Roundup

I figured the big political story of the week was Trump going to Davos, announcing "America is open for business," and hat-in-hand begging foreign capitalists to invest in America. He'd probably tell you that the reason he's courting foreign investment is to create jobs for Americans, but that's merely a second-order side-effect. The reason capitalists invest money is for profits -- to take more money back out of America than they put in. By "open for business" Trump means "come rip us off -- we'll make it easy for you."

Trump's Davos mission effectively ends any prospect that Trump might have actually tried to implement some sort of "economic nationalist" agenda. The odds that he would do so were never very good. The balance of corporate power has swung from manufacturing to finance, and that has driven the globalization that has undermined America's manufacturing base while greatly increasing the relative wealth of the top percent. Trump himself has benefited from this scheme, not really by working the finance and trade angles as by offering rich investors diversifying investments in high-end real estate.

None of this was really a secret when Trump was campaigning. To the extent he had concrete proposals, they were always aimed at making it easier for businesses, including banks, to screw over customers (and employees), policy consistent throughout his own long career. Given that's all he ever wanted to do, it's not just laziness for him to kick back and let the Republican Party policy wonks go crazy. It's not even clear that Trump cares about his signature anti-immigration stance. Sure, the hard-liners he's surrounded himself with have been able to keep him in line (although his occasional thrashing adds confusion to the issue, and thus far camouflage -- much ado last week about his seemingly generous offer on the "dreamers" wrapped up in numerous unpalatable demands).


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: The 4 most important politics stories of the week: The government reopened (until February 8, anyhow); Trump released his hostage demands; Mueller is working on obstruction of justice; Pennsylvania Republicans got some bad news: embattled Rep. Pat Meehan is retiring, and the Supreme Court ruled against a gerrymander map which gave Republicans a 13-5 House margin. Other Yglesias pieces this week:

  • Dean Baker: The Corporate Tax Cut Bonanza.

  • Jane Coaston: In 2008, Hillary Clinton's faith adviser was accused of sexual harassment -- and was kept on: More telling, his victim was reassigned. Still, for me the more shocking (at least more dispiriting) aspect of the story is that she had a "faith adviser." Didn't that sort of role go out of fashion with Rasputin?

  • Masha Gessen: At Davos -- and Always -- Donald Trump Can Only Think in the Present Tense: Notes that Trump managed to get through Davos without making any outrageous faux pas, while media ignored anything of longer-term import:

    Reading the U.S. media, you would think that all the attendees of Davos 2018 cared about was whether Donald Trump obeyed the teleprompter and sounded reasonably civilized while inviting the moneybags of the world to invest in the United States. [George] Soros's remarks got a bit of coverage, while the more visionary conversation seemed not to register at all. This shows how provincial we have become. Our chronic embarrassment -- or fear of embarrassment -- when it comes to our President may be a new phenomenon, but our lack of imagination is not. The American political conversation has long been based on outdated economic and social ideas, and now it's really showing.

    By the way, I haven't seen this in any piece on the web, but Seth Myers, in a subordinate clause, mentioned that no American president had attended Davos before Trump since 2000. That means the last US president to take advantage of the opportunity to pander before the global elites was . . . Bill Clinton. Even there, it's possible that the lame duck was more interested in lining up contributors to his future foundation than anything else. I think I actually recall a story about Clinton in Davos: if memory serves, he skipped out on the ill-fated Camp David negotiations between Barak and Arafat -- his inattention contributing to both failure and the breakout of the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada following that failure. Should be some sort of cautionary tale, but it's probably true that Trump had nothing better that he was capable of doing.

    For more on what Soros had to say, see: John Cassidy: How George Soros Upstaged Donald Trump at Davos.

  • Ryan Grim/Lee Fang: The Dead Enders: "Candidates who signed up to battle Donald Trump must get past the Democratic Party first."

  • German Lopez: Marshall County, Kentucky, high school shooting: what we know: For starters, two dead, eighteen others injured. Among the factoids:

    • The shooting comes a day after another shooting at a high school in Italy, Texas, where a 16-year-old student shot a 15-year-old girl, who is now recovering from her injuries.
    • This part of Kentucky has seen school shootings in the past, the AP reported: "Marshall County High School is about 30 minutes from Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, where a 1997 mass shooting killed three and injured five."
    • So far in 2018, there have been at least 11 school shootings . . .
  • Kali Holloway: Trump isn't crazy, he's just a terrible person: Interview with Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who wrote the DSM entry on narcissistic personality disorder. Frances also has a more general book: Twilight of American Sanity: A Psychiatrist Analyzes the Age of Trump. Such a book could be interesting, but his answers in the interview don't guarantee that it will be.

  • Patrick Lawrence: Now the US is playing spoiler role in Korea, Syria and elsewhere. But why? News items include new, arbitrary and unilateral sanctions against North Korea and Russia, and an avowal to leave US troops in Syria after ISIS has been defeated (meaning, driven from its previous territory). One can think of other cases where the US is acting aggressive arbitrarily with no evident hope or interest in advancing a diplomatic solution. Trump's mandarins seem to regard diplomacy with such phobia they can't even imagine how to accept surrender, much less consider any form of compromise. On Syria, also see Patrick Cockburn: By Remaining in Syria the US Is Fuelling More Wars in the Middle East.

  • Charlie May: The Koch brothers are "all in" for 2018 with plans to spend up to $400 million: As Charles Koch said, "We've made more progress in the last five years than I had in the previous 50."

  • Sarah Okeson: Making the world safe for loan sharks: "Trump's consumer protection office helps payday loan companies exploit borrowers." Moreover, they don't even have to try changing the law. They can just stop enforcing it: Paul Kiel: Newly defanged, top consumer protection agency drops investigation of high-cost lender.

  • Andrew Prokop: Trump's attempt to fire Robert Mueller, explained: The event in question actually happened last June, when the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. Trump was subsequently talked down by White House staff. Strikes me as one of many cases where Trump's default position is to think he can do anything he wants -- even something which is not a very good idea. Very likely Trump ran into problems like that even before becoming president: businessmen routinely check with lawyers before carrying out their arbitrary whims, and probably get shot down a lot. So I wouldn't make a big deal out of this particular incident, but it does illustrate that Trump thinks he's above the law, and that could well turn into a problem. For more, see: Emily Stewart: Lindsey Graham: firing Mueller "would be the end" of the Trump presidency; Esme Cribb: Gowdy to GOP Colleagues: Mueller Is 'Fair' So 'Leave Him the Hell Alone'; Jeffrey Toobin: The Answer to Whether Trump Obstructed Justice Now Seems Clear.

  • Daniel Rodgers: The Uses and Abuses of "Neoliberalism", plus comments Julia Ott: Words Can't Do the Work for Us, Mike Konczal: How Ideology Works, NDB Connolly: A White Story, and Timothy Shenk: Jargon or Clickbait?, plus a reply by Rodgers. I haven't sorted through all of this, but Konczal is certainly right that there is a coherent and dangerous ideology there, even if the word "neoliberalism" isn't an especially good summation of it. My own experience with the word is largely conditioned by the following:

    • I first encountered the word as used by British leftists like David Harvey -- author of A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005); also see his interview, Neoliberalism Is a Political Project, Thinking Through David Harvey's Theorisation of Neoliberalism, and (more graphically) RSA Animate: Crises of Capitalism -- so it always struck me as an Anglicism, preconditioned by the fact that in British politics the Liberal party is distinct from Labour and rooted in 19th century laissez-faire. Similar liberals once existed in the US, but they generally made their peace with labor in the New Deal Democrats, while conservatives have turned "liberal" into a broad curse word meant to cover any and all leftist deviancies.
    • Granted, since the 1970s a faction of Democrats have wanted to stress both their traditional liberal beliefs and their opposition to social democracy/welfare state, usually combined with support for an aggressive anti-communist foreign policy. Some actually called themselves neoliberals. Later the term became useful to opponents for describing so-called New Democrats, with their eager support for business interests, globalization and ("humanitarian") interventionist foreign policy -- the Clintons, most obviously.
    • Meanwhile, a group which single-mindedly promoted an aggressive, hegemony-seeking foreign policy came to call themselves neoconservatives. While they tended to support conventional conservative causes in domestic policy, they frequently styled their prescriptions for other countries as neoliberalism -- presumably to give it a softer edge, although the agenda meant to impose austerity in government while liberating capital everywhere. For a while I was tempted to treat this as a unified ideology and call it "neoism."

  • Danny Sjursen: Wrong on Nam, Wrong on Terror: Reviews a long list of books about America's Vietnam War seeking to reverse in theory the actual results of the war: failure, withdrawal, and defeat. (One book he doesn't get around to is Max Boot: The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.) Sjursen points out that many of today's prominent War on Terror architects became officers shortly after Vietnam, so their education was formed in understanding (or more often misunderstanding) that war's lessons. That should give them a head start in rewriting imaginary Wars on Terror -- you know, the kind where we get to win.

  • Matt Taibbi: How Donald Trump's Schizoid Administration Upended the GOP: Taibbi continues to worry about the health of our two-party system.

    Pre-trump, the gop was a brilliant if unlikely coalition -- a healthy heaping of silent-majority racial paranoia, wedded to redundant patriotism and Christian family values, in service of one-percenter policies that benefited exactly the demographic the average Republican voter hated most of all: Richie Rich city dwellers who embraced globalist economics, read The Economist and may even have been literally Jewish. In other words, Jared Kushner.

    Just 12 months later, all of those groups are now openly recoiling from one another with the disgusted vehemence of a bunch of strangers waking up in a pile after a particularly drunken and embarrassing keg party. Polls show that conservative Christians, saddled with a president who pays off porn stars and brags about grabbing women by the pussy, are finally, if slowly, slinking away from the Trump brand.

    Yacht-accident victim Rupert Murdoch and other GOP kingmakers are in a worse spot. They've watched in horror as once-obedient viewers shook off decades of Frankensteinian programming and went rogue. Since 2016, the audience has turned to the likes of Breitbart and Alex Jones' InfoWars for more purely distilled versions of the anti-government, anti-minority hysteria stations like Fox once pumped over the airwaves to keep old white people awake and agitated enough to watch the commercials. An October Harvard-Harris poll showed 61 percent of Republicans support Bannon's movement to unseat the Republican establishment. . . .

    A year into this presidency, in other words, the Republicans have become a ghost ship of irreconcilable voter blocs, piloted by a madman executive who's now proved he's too unstable to really represent any of them, and moreover drives party divisions wider every time he opens his mouth.

    Taibbi misunderestimates Republicans at all levels. For the base, it would be nice to think that they flocked to Trump over fifteen generic conservative clones because they wanted a candidate who would protect safety nets like Social Security, who would "drain the swamp" of moneyed special interests, who would avoid war, and who might even have the bold imagination to replace crappy Obamacare with single payer. You can find support for all those hopes in Trump's campaign blather, but if you paid more than casual attention you'd realize he was simply the biggest fraud of all. Rather, it's more likely that the base flocked to Trump because they recognized he was as confused and filled with kneejerk spite as they were. Where they misjudged him wasn't on policy; it was in thinking that as a billionaire he must be a functional, competent sociopath -- someone who could act coherently even with an agenda that made no sense.

    On the other hand, all the Republican donor establishment really wanted was a front man who could sell their self-interest to enough schmoes to seize power and cram their agenda through. While Trump wasn't ideal, they realized he had substantial appeal beyond what more reliable tools like Paul Ryan and Mike Pence could ever dream of. Perhaps some recognized the downside of running a flamboyant moron, but even so they've managed to overcome incredible embarrassments before and bounce right back: witness the Tea Party outburst and their triumphant 2010 election just two years after GW Bush oversaw the meltdown of the entire economy. So Trump proves to be a complete disaster? They'll steal what they can while they can, maybe lose an election, and bounce right back as if nothing that happened was ever their fault.

    For more on how they do this, see: Ari Berman: How the GOP Rigs Elections.

  • Rachel Wolfe: The awards for 2018's quintessentially American restaurants all went to immigrants.