Sunday, April 15, 2018


Weekend Roundup

John Bolton started work as Trump's new National Security Adviser on Monday. On Friday, Trump ordered a massive missile attack on Syria. Those who warned about Bolton, like Fred Kaplan, have been vindicated very quickly. Presumably, what took Trump and Bolton so long was lining up British and French contributions to the fusillade, to make this look less like the act of a single madman and more like the continuation of a millennium of Crusader and Imperialist attacks on Syria. For a news report on the strike, long on rhetoric and short on damage assessment, see Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neft, Ben Hubbard: U.S., Britain and France Strike Syria Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack. Two significant points here: (1) the targets were narrowly selected to represent Syria's alleged chemical weapons capability (which raises the question of why, if the US knew of these facilities before, it didn't insist on inspections under Syria's Russia-brokered agreement to give up its chemical weapons -- more rigorous inspections could have kept the alleged chemical attacks from ever happening, as well as saving Syria from "retaliatory" strikes); (2) the US and its cronies consider this round of strikes to be complete (Trump even used the phrase "Mission Accomplished" to describe them).

I suppose the good news here is that while Russia is unhappy about the strikes, Trump and Bolton (and "Mad Dog") have limited themselves to a level of aggression unlikely to trigger World War III. On the other hand, what Trump did was embrace one of the hoariest clichés of American politics: the notion that US presidents prove their mettle by unleashing punitive bombing strikes on nations incapable of defense or response. The first example I can recall was Reagan's bombing of Libya in 1986, although there were previous examples of White House tantrums, like Wilson sending Pershing's army into Mexico to chase down Pancho Villa in 1916-17. After Reagan, GHW Bush launched grudge wars against Panama and Iraq, but the art (and hubris) of bombing on a whim was more fully developed and exploited by Bill Clinton, especially in Iraq. Clinton got so much political mileage out of it that GW Bush bombed Iraq his first week in office, just to show that he could.

Still, what makes it a cliché is not just that other presidents have done it. People who play presidents on TV and in the movies do it also, if anything even more often and reflexively. I first noticed this in The West Wing -- I didn't watch much TV during its 1999-2006 run, but it seems like nearly every episode I did catch saw its otherwise reasonable President Bartlett ordering the bombing of someone or other. Just last week President Kirkman of Designated Survivor unleashed a rashly emotional attack on a fictional country based on even shoddier intelligence than Trump's. A couple weeks ago in Homeland the US bombed Syria against President Elizabeth Keane's orders, simply because her Chief of Staff thought it would provide some useful PR spin. When all of pop culture calls out for blood, not to mention advisers like Bolton, it's impossible to imagine someone like Donald Trump might get in their way.

The usual problem with clichés is that they're lazy, requiring little or no thought or ingenuity. Politicians are even more prone to clichés than writers, because they rarely run any risk saying whatever they're most expected to. Some people thought that Trump, with his brusque disregard for "political correctness," might be different, but they sadly overestimated his capacity for any form of critical thought. On the other hand, Washington is chock full of foreign policy mandarins trapped in the same web of clichés, even as it's long been evident that their plots and prescriptions don't come close to working. And nowhere have knee-jerk reactions been more obvious than with Syria, where America's effort to fight some and promote other anti-Assad forces is effectively nihilist. Rational people recoil from situations where there is no solution. Trump, on the other hand, takes charge.

Some more links on the fire this time in Syria:


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: 4 stories that drove politics this week: House Speaker Paul Ryan is retiring from Congress; Mr. Zuckerberg went to Washington; The FBI raised Michael Cohen's office (doesn't he mean "raided"?); James Comey started promoting his book. The latter point mentions what I would have picked as a key story: the pardon for Scooter Libby -- one of the dozen or so most obnoxious things Trump has personally done so far. Perhaps even bigger is the latest Trump assault on Syria. While the missile launch occurred after Yglesias was done for the week, the PR pitch lurked over the entire week. Other Yglesias posts this week:

  • Tara Golshan: Trump is calling backsies on exiting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: Significantly, he's being lobbied by Republicans, especially from agricultural states.

  • Umair Irfan: Scott Pruitt's actions at the EPA have triggered a half-dozen investigations. Also note that Pruitt's penchant for corruption preceded his move to Washington. See: Sharon Lerner: Why Did the EPA's Scott Pruitt Suppress a Report on Corruption in Oklahoma?

  • Mark Kalin: List-Making as Resistance: Chronicling a Year of Damage Under Trump: Interview with Amy Siskind, author of The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump's First Year. Where most journalists have tried to make their living off Trump's Twitter feed, Siskind prefers to chronicle what's actually been happening. Doubt she's got it all -- the book is a mere 528 pages -- but it should be a good start. For an excerpt, see Amy Siskind: Yes, We Are Like Frogs in Boiling Water With Trump as President.

  • Carolyn Kormann: Ryan Zinke's Great American Fire Sale.

  • Paul Krugman: What's the Matter With Trumpland? Mostly true as far as he goes, but the key point isn't the liberal platitude that the most successful areas are those with the most educational opportunities and cultural attraction for educated workers (including immigrants). It's that declining areas have been making political choices that make their prospects even worse.

    That new Austin et al. paper makes the case for a national policy of aiding lagging regions. But we already have programs that would aid these regions -- but which they won't accept. Many of the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the great bulk of the bill -- and would create jobs in the process -- are also among America's poorest.

    Or consider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma -- both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind -- have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems. External forces have put them in a hole, but they're digging it deeper.

    And when it comes to national politics, let's face it: Trumpland is in effect voting for its own impoverishment. New Deal programs and public investment played a significant role in the great postwar convergence; conservative efforts to downsize government will hurt people all across America, but it will disproportionately hurt the very regions that put the G.O.P. in power.

    I doubt it's disproportionate. After all, wealthier "blue states" have much more to lose, but it's certainly the case that nothing Trump and the Republicans will actually do will help to even out regional economic differences. Actually, we've been through this debate before. In the 1930s southern Democrats saw the New Deal as a way out of their impoverishment, but from about 1938 on most of the leading southern Democrats broke with Roosevelt, fearing that too much equality would upset their racial order, even if (perhaps even because) it raised living standards. Of course, they didn't reject all federal spending in their districts. They became the most ardent of cold warriors. (On the New Deal, see Ira Katznelson: Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. As for the cold warriors and their money train, James Byrne, John Stennis, and Carl Vinson were major figures.)

    Krugman also wrote Unicorns of the Intellectual Right, to remind us about the "intellectual decadence" and "moral decline" of right-leaning economists:

    In macroeconomics, what began in the 60s and 70s as a usefully challenging critique of Keynesian views went all wrong in the 80s, because the anti-Keynesians refused to reconsider their views when their own models failed the reality test while Keynesian models, with some modification, performed pretty well. By the time the Great Recession struck, the right-leaning side of the profession had entered a Dark Age, having retrogressed to the point where famous economists trotted out 30s-era fallacies as deep insights.

    But even among conservative economists who didn't go down that rabbit hole, there has been a moral collapse -- a willingness to put political loyalty over professional standards. We saw that most recently in the way leading conservative economists raced to endorse ludicrous claims for the efficacy of the Trump tax cuts, then tried to climb down without admitting what they had done. We saw it in the false claims that Obama had presided over a massive expansion of government programs and refusal to admit that he hadn't, the warnings that Fed policy would cause huge inflation followed by refusal to admit having been wrong, and on and on.

  • German Lopez: Trump is already trying to call off his attorney general's war on marijuana.

  • Alex Ward: Mike Pompeo, your likely new -- and Trump-friendly -- secretary of state: When Pompeo first ran for Congress, I had him pegged as a straight Koch plant with a quasi-libertarian economic focus, which I actually found preferable to his predecessor (Christian Fascist and Boeing flack Todd Tiahrt). However, his resume included a West Point education, and he soon emerged as a hardline neocon militarist. What brought him to Trump's attention was his demagogic flogging of Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi!!! pseudo-scandal. I can't imagine Trump nominating anyone who isn't "Trump-friendly," so I wouldn't get too agitated about that. Right now the problem with Pompeo isn't that he's simpatico with Trump; it's that his nomination shows that Trump is buying into Pompeo's neocon worldview -- although I'd also worry that Pompeo's tenure at CIA has made him even more contemptuous of law and diplomacy than he was before. Also see: Ryan Grim: Mike Pompeo Could Go Down if Senate Democrats Decide to Fight.

  • Jennifer Williams: Trump just pardoned Scooter Libby: If you recall the case (way back in 2007), you'll recall that Libby was the only one convicted by a special prosecutor investigation into the politically motivated unmasking of a CIA agent -- an act that Libby doesn't seem to have been involved in, but Libby's perjury and obstruction prevented those actually guilty from ever being charged. At the time, GW Bush commuted Libby's three-year prison sentence, evidently afraid that if he didn't, Libby would switch sides and rat out other Bush operatives. Libby wound up paying a fine and spending two years on probation, but that's well in the past right now, so the pardon at this point barely affects Libby's life. So it's hard to read this as anything other than a blanket promise to his underlings that even if they do get caught up in his scandals and convicted, as long as they don't implicate Trump the president will protect them. It is, in other words, a very deliberate and public way of undermining the Mueller investigation. I'm not sure if it violates US law on obstruction of justice, but UK law has a term that surely applies: perverting the course of justice. For more, see: Dylan Scott: Democrats are kind of freaking out about Trump's Scooter Libby pardon and what it means.

    By the way, I'm not sure that the two are linked, but Libby was Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, and Cheney never had the same sort of influence over the Bush Administration after Libby left. Of course, the other explanation is that Cheney's dominance early on had backfired, especially after the 2006 election debacle. Cheney also lost a key ally when Donald Rumsfeld got sacked, and was further embarrassed as his approval ratings sank under 20%.

  • Gary Younge: Trump and Brexit Are Symptoms of the Same Failure to Reckon With Racism: Having lived both in UK and US, Younge seems the failure to deal with racism as leading not just to dysfunction but to dementia, with Brexit and Trump just two flagrant examples.

    The argument about which country is, at present, the most dysfunctional is of course futile, since the answer would render neither any less dysfunctional. Britain set itself an unnecessary question, only then to deliver the wrong answer. Those who led us out of the European Union had no more plans for what leaving would mean than a dog chasing a car has to drive it. Not only do we not know what we want; we have no idea how to get it, even if we did.