Sunday, May 20, 2018


Weekend Roundup

Once again, a week with too damn much to report, and too little time to collect it all. Nothing on elections in Iraq (last week) or Venezuela (coming soon; US media already bitching like crazy over Maduro stealing the election and driving the "once prosperous" country ever deeper into ruin). Nothing on primaries in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, nor on prospects for November. A little bit on Korea, written before the US backed down and called off the war games that threatened to derail the talks. Fred Kaplan notes: One Month Before His Summit With Trump, Kim Jong-un Is the One Calling the Shots. (Considering John Bolton and Donald Trump as alternatives, that's really not such bad news.) Just a wee bit on the Mueller "witch hunt." Didn't even get around to the book I'm reading.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: 4 stories that you shouldn't miss this week, explained: Gina Haspel is America's new director of the CIA (six Democrats supported Haspel, who ran Bush-era torture programs, while two Republicans opposed, with McCain absent); Net neutrality won a vote in the Senate (52-47 to overrule the FCC, although the House is unlikely to concur); The North Korea summit is suddenly in trouble (Yglesias doesn't mention continuing US war games that North Korea objects to, but does note that John Bolton keeps insisting on things that North Korea is unlikely to ever agree to); There's an Ebola outbreak in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo):

    But if things get bad, the United States, traditionally a world leader in epidemic response, has greatly diminished capacity in this regard. . . . Inconveniently, the head of the National Security Council's global health security efforts abruptly left earlier this month as part of a Bolton-inspired shake-up. His whole team has been dismantled, and budget cuts have already forced US public health agencies to scale back their international work.

    Other Yglesias links:

    • It might take a black candidate to beat Trump's toxic racial politics: "Cory Booker's path out of the identity vs. economic politics quagmire. . . . Booker's solution is essentially the one Obama offered -- reassure voters of color by putting one of their own in charge, and then let the politician spend his time making his case to the white voters." I've long regarded Booker as a crony of Wall Street, so even if he does make the case while campaigning I have little hope that he won't revert to form in office. As with Obama, that doesn't strike me as a long-term winning formula, which is what the Democrats really need. For what it's worth, I think the class vs. identity debate within the Democratic Party is muddled and confused.

    • 4 winners and 3 losers from the primaries in Pennsylvania and Nebraska: Winners: Pittsburgh-area socialism, Democratic women, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, tattoos. Losers: Rick Saccone, Oregon, DCCC (although I don't get the slam against Oregon).

    • Trump helps sanctioned Chinese phone maker after China delivers a big loan to a Trump project: I'm not a fan of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea -- they're meant to buttress a harsh and vindictive foreign policy, and they depend on imperious overreach by the US government into foreign commerce. Still, it's viciously amusing to see Trump all wound up about lost jobs in China, especially since the obvious explanation is old fashioned graft.

    • Cruelty is the defining characteristic of Donald Trump's politics and policy: "John Kelly says separating kids from their parents is fine because of 'foster care or whatever'." But that's just one example.

      From new Medicaid rules that hurt people with disabilities to rewriting bank regulations to favor predatory lenders to siding with Dow Chemical's lobbyists over pediatricians to keep allowing the manufacture of a pesticide that poisons children's brains, the circle of people who are subject to harm by a regime that practices the law of the jungle is ever widening.

      Very few of us are as rich or powerful as Trump, his Cabinet, his circle of friends and family, or his major campaign contributors. All of us will lose out from an ethic that licenses the strong to oppress the weak. Foreign-born children are uniquely disempowered in the political system, so they bear the brunt for now. But almost all of us will need help or protection at some point.

      Also see Masha Gessen: Taking Children From Their Parents Is a Form of State Terror.

    • Why are we taking Donald Trump's Korea diplomacy seriously? "All he does is lie and break promises. This will be no different." Sure, but why be so pessimistic about it? Yglesias sounds like he buys the whole argument that it's all North Korea's fault that we don't get along swimmingly with them -- even going so far as to buy the argument that acknowledging their existence by merely meeting is some kind of huge concession. The fact is that whatever deal emerges will almost completely be shaped by the two Koreas, and the planets seem better aligned than usual for such an agreement. In this context, Trump may have an advantage over past US presidents: ignorance, inattention to detail, a weak understanding of America's imperial posture, and an eagerness to claim credit for things he did nothing to make happen. He also has some advisers who realize that the US has no good options with North Korea -- not least because the US has painted itself into a corner by insisting on denuclearizing North Korea without having any way to force the issue. (Ever escalating cycles of sanctions are a nuisance for North Korea, but they don't threaten the survival of the regime; moreover, they underscore how hostile the US is, and how important it is that North Korea have a nuclear deterrent against US aggression.) Admittedly, Trump has some aides like John Bolton who are prefer the use of military force, but the people who actually run the DOD harbor no delusions that such an attack could be launched at a tolerable cost. So if the Koreas present him with a fait accompli, would he really screw it just to humor Bolton? I wouldn't put it past him: hiring Bolton and withdrawing from the Iran deal certainly seem to be a secret desire for failure. But even as the smart money bets on Trump doing something stupid, I don't see any reason to cheer him on.

  • Zeeshan Aleem: Trump missed Congress's deadline for getting a NAFTA deal done. Now what? Not much, unless Trump decides to blow the whole existing deal up, which would, well, nobody knows what that would do. One thing it wouldn't do is restore pre-NAFTA jobs and demographics. This is partly because businesses that have been taking advantage of the arrangement for 25 years now aren't likely to roll over (or lose influence in all three countries), but also the pact's many losers (in all three countries) have moved on (or been trampled under). Any new deal will generate new winners and losers, so everyone advising the process have their own angles. As for Ryan's "deadline," that assumes Trump will come up with a Republican-favored deal, but the GOP is likely to be as divided as Democrats on any such change.

  • Zack Beauchamp: Santa Fe High: Texas lieutenant governor blames shooting on "too many entrances": "too many exits" too: "There aren't enough people to put a guard at every entry and exit." It's not clear to me that shootings have anything to do with entries/exits, but one real threat that you'd like to have more exits for is fire. Maybe fires are rarer these days than shootings, but they do happen, and they are things that school administrators properly worry about.

    There are a number of practical problems with this idea. If you have a mass shooter in the building, you don't want to trap people in the building. It's not obvious that security guards would be able to spot someone concealing a weapon even if they were at every door; in fact, there were two armed guards at Santa Fe on Friday. And closing most of the entryways to a school would create a serious fire hazard.

    More fundamentally, this all feels like an absurd kind of deflection.

  • Caleb Crain: Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy? Basically, a review of Robert Kuttner's new book, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? -- although he starts off with a long disquisition on Karl Polanyi and his 1944 book The Great Transformation ("as the world was coming to terms with the destruction that fascism had wrought"). For another review, see Justin Fox: How Rampant Globalization Brought Us Trump. One thing I've noticed is how reviewers tend to drop the key word "Global" from the title. Kuttner doesn't have a problem with the well-regulated mixed economies of Western Europe and America from the 1940s through the 1960s: they combined strong growth rates with broad distribution of wealth. Rather, he blames the political rise of global finance since the 1970s, by the 1990s capturing center-left parties (e.g., Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK), ultimately discrediting the left such that populist resentment often wound up falling for the far right.

  • Sean Illing: How TV trivialized our culture and politics: Interview with Lance Strate, author of Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World, as a surrogate for late media critic Neil Postman, most famous for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985). Seems like I bought but never read that book -- or maybe I'm thinking of his 1992 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, by which time Postman was turning into something of a neo-luddite. The context for Amusing, of course, was Ronald Reagan, an actor who played the role of president, but unlike Trump today, Reagan at least tried to act presidential, since that's what the role expected. Trump lacks Reagan's craft and discipline as an actor, or even as a human being. Rather, taking Postman's title to its absurd conclusion, Trump channels Reagan less through "reality TV" than through the "zombie apocalypse" genre: with Trump we not only get the death of democracy, we get to watch it mindlessly devouring itself, as reality itself has become more horrific than the dystopias Postman could imagine in his lifetime (he died in 2003). Strate does note that "I think Postman held out great hope for education as a way of addressing these problems." Postman wrote several books about education, but the one I read and treasured as a high school dropout was Teaching as a Subversive Activity, written with Charles Weingartner in 1969. The authors there posited that the highest goal of teaching was to get students to develop acute "bullshit detectors." Needless to say, that was not on the curriculum of the high school I dropped out of, nor has it gained much currency since then. Indeed, the recent focus on nothing but test scores teaches "crap-detection" only by burying students in it. It's not like critical thinking has disappeared, but those in power have done their best to banish it to the isolated corners of society, and are reaping the fruits of their astonishing incompetence. In some sense it would be comforting to blame all this on the obliteration of words by images. Still, I'm somewhat more suspicious of the triumph of money over morals.

    For another take on Trump/Reagan see:

  • Susan B Glasser: Is Trump the Second Coming of Reagan? "[Brett Baier] knows that our current president is louder, cruder, and ruder than Ronald Reagan, 'a counterpuncher' from New York far different from the genial Republican predecessor."

  • Sarah Kliff: The new Trump plan to defund Planned Parenthood, explained: "Women's health clinics that provide abortions or refer patients for the procedure will be cut off from a key source of federal funding under new Trump administration rules expected to be released Friday."

  • Matthew Lee: Pompeo: 'Swagger' of State Department Is 'America's Essential Rightness': In his recent closed door pep talk, Pompeo reportedly said: "Swagger is not arrogance; it is not boastfulness, it is not ego. No, swagger is confidence, in one's self, in one's ideas. In our case, it is America's essential rightness. And it is aggressiveness born of the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special, and built upon America's core principles." Maybe the words he understands even less than "swagger" are: "arrogance," "boastfulness," and "ego." He went on to underscore his confusion by adding: "we should carry that diplomatic swagger to the ends of the earth; humbly, nobly and with the skill and courage I know you all possess." OK, add "humbly" to the list of words he doesn't begin to understand.

  • Dara Lind: Trump on deported immigrants: "They're not people. They're animals."

    If Trump understands his own administration's policy, he's never acknowledged it in public. He sticks to the same rhetorical move every time: refer to some specific criminals, call them horrible people and animals, say that their evil justifies his immigration policy, and allow the conflation of all immigrants and all Latinos with criminals and animals to remain subtext.

    This is who Donald Trump has been for his entire political career. The worst-case scenarios about his dehumanizing rhetoric -- that they would foment large-scale mob violence or vigilantism against Latinos in the United States -- have not been realized. But neither have any hopes that Trump, as president, might ever weigh his words with any care at all, especially when encouraging Americans to see human beings as less than human.

    Also see: Juan Escalante: It's not just rhetoric: Trump's policies treat immigrants like me as "animals".

  • Charles P Pierce: Can the Republic Recover from Donald Trump?: Good question, but the post is all question, no answer. I don't think this quite rises to the level of an assumption, but the default sentiment is that before Trump we had norms, and now clearly we don't. But wouldn't it be, uh, normal to revert to norms once the disruption is removed? I don't think that's how it works. To pick an obvious example, GW Bush did a lot of shit -- tax cuts, defense buildup, the War on Terror, "no child left behind," "tort reform," the pivot away from "Peace Process" to Sharon on Israel, packing the courts with right-wingers -- that Barack Obama never came close to reversing. In fact, he rarely tried, because even though there was voluminous evidence that nearly everything Bush touch made the world worse, he tacitly accepted that changed world order. To reverse what Bush did, Obama would have had to work much harder than Bush did to break it all. We can debate whether Trump is even worse than Bush, but one thing that is clear is that Trump's world is even more fragile than Bush's, because so much of what Bush (and Clinton and Bush and Reagan and, sad to say, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and LBJ) broke was never fixed. On the other hand, Trump's efforts to wipe out everything worthwhile Obama did have already been almost complete, achieved with remarkable ease. On the other hand, they haven't fixed anything. They've simply made everything worse. It's like we're struggling against the second law of thermodynamics, where it take enormous energy to order anything, but no effort at all to let it turn to shit.

    I don't normally read Pierce, but he seems to have been on quite a roll lately, at least title-deep:

  • Frank Rich: Trump's Jerusalem Horror Show: Structured as an interview, so it quickly wanders onto other topics, like Kelly Sadler's "joke" about John McCain dying and the Trump legacy of never apologizing for anything bigoted (or merely stupid), and praise for the late journalist Tom Wolfe. For what little it's worth, I don't think I ever read anything by Wolfe, but I was aware of him and always suspected that his "Radical Chic" was the opening salvo in the long term assault on liberal sympathies for the poor and downtrodden, dismissing them as elitist conceits, conveniently dismissing the problems themselves.

    For more on the Jerusalem embassy event, see: Michelle Goldberg: A Grotesque Spectacle in Jerusalem:

    The event was grotesque. It was a consummation of the cynical alliance between hawkish Jews and Zionist evangelicals who believe that the return of Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse and the return of Christ, after which Jews who don't convert will burn forever. . . .

    This spectacle, geared toward Donald Trump's Christian American base, coincided with a massacre about 40 miles away. Since March 30, there have been mass protests at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. Gazans, facing an escalating humanitarian crisis due in large part to an Israeli blockade, are demanding the right to return to homes in Israel that their families were forced from at Israel's founding. . . . The Israeli military has responded with live gunfire as well as rubber bullets and tear gas. In clashes on Monday, at least 58 Palestinians were killed and thousands wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

    The juxtaposition of images of dead and wounded Palestinians and Ivanka Trump smiling in Jerusalem like a Zionist Marie Antoinette tell us a lot about America's relationship to Israel right now.

    Somewhere in all of this people have forgotten why moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem matters in the first place. The British held a League of Nations mandate for Palestine since 1920, after the colony was carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. That was renewed by the UN on its founding in 1945, but the British tired of trying to rule Palestine, so threw the problem back to the UN to sort out by 1948. The UN convened a commission to "study" the issue, and they came up with a partition plan that would divide Palestine into three sections: a mostly Jewish segment across the Jezreel Valley, down the coast, and extended through the Negev to Eilat; an almost exclusively Muslim-Christian territory broken into three segments (Gaza, West Bank, West Galilee) plus the isolated city of Jaffa; and, finally, an "international" area centered on Jerusalem. Ben Gurion and the Zionists lobbied hard to secure UN approval of the partition plan, then took that mandate and launched offensives to capture Jerusalem, West Galilee, and Jaffa, and to reduce and concentrate Gaza. Meanwhile, Transjordan grabbed up the West Bank and East Jerusalem, dividing the city while leaving the Palestinians nothing. Subsequent UN resolutions, following international law, insisted that Palestinian refugees should be able to return in peace to their homes, and that the expansion of Israel following the 1967 war, especially the annexation of greater Jerusalem, was "inadmissible." The US has always supported (in word, anyway) the sanctity and applicability of international law, and in the 1980s the PLO reoriented itself to embrace a solution based on law.

    One might argue that the US has never been really serious about international law, especially as Americans have claimed the right to ignore any parts they find inconvenient (e.g., the refusal to join the International Criminal Court, and the decision to ignore POW status/rights in the Global War on Terror). But Eisenhower was willing and able to pressure Israel to return land seized in 1956 (although Johnson made no similar effort in 1967), and Carter got Israel to reverse its 1977 intervention in Lebanon (which Reagan fatefully allowed to resume in 1982). At least, GWH Bush and Clinton made something of an effort to get "two state" peace talks going, but since 2001 (when GW Bush and Sharon came to power) the US has steadily retreated, often just rubber-stamping Israeli decisions on war and foreign policy. (Obama did negotiate the Iran nuke deal over Israeli objections, but he did nothing effective to advance peace and justice in the area Israel controls.) With Trump, what we are seeing is a total surrender of American interests to Netanyahu's political agenda. The embassy move is hardly the worst submission, but given its long centrality has great symbolic portent. This is well understood in Israel and among Palestinians, but given how long and how thoroughly Americans have deceived themselves about Israel, it is scarcely commented on here. The fact that Israel can bomb Iranians in Syria and shoot marchers in Gaza with absolutely no concern for how bad such acts look is testimony to how completely Trump has surrendered to Israel (or maybe just to Sheldon Adelson, who speaks fluent Trump, sealing the deal with a $30 million check).

    More links on Israel-Palestine:

  • Zachary Roth: Is the System Rigged Against Democrats? Sure it is, right down to the New York Times substituting a Reagan campaign poster for the book cover or any other relevant graphic in this review of Davis Faris' slim book It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. Unfortunately, Faris focuses on re-rigging the system:

    To end gerrymandering, Faris says, they should scrap the winner-take-all method we use to elect members of the House and replace it with a system known as "ranked choice voting" that better reflects voter preferences. To fix the problem of Democratic underrepresentation in the Senate, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico should get statehood, and California should be split into seven separate states. Democrats should add seats to the Supreme Court and fill them with progressives. And they should reform voting laws to ban onerous voter ID requirements, re-enfranchise ex-felons and automatically register everyone to vote.

    I'm not unaware of structural factors which make the system less representative and less responsive to voter wishes, but the real problem Democrats face is getting voters to trust and support them, which is pretty much the same thing as getting Democrats to trust and support a clear majority of the voting public -- enough to overcome whatever structural deficits the party endures. Thanks to the Republicans' ideology, platform, and track record, that shouldn't be hard -- but, of course, given the pervasive influence of money, media, and mythology, it is. I wouldn't call this dirty, but one thing Democrats have to learn -- something that Republicans have definitely figured out -- is that it matters whether they win or not.

  • Dylan Scott: Who is the freeloader: the working poor on food stamps -- or corporations that don't pay them enough? Sen. Sherrod Brown starts with the insight that food stamps, medicare, etc., effectively subsize companies who underpay their workers by allowing people to work for less than they really need to live on, then tries to turn the tables on those companies. But he doesn't come up with a very good way of doing so, and his rhetoric about "corporate freeloaders" plays into the conceit that getting something for nothing is morally wrong. If you want to reduce welfare benefits, a more straightforward way to do that would be to legislate higher minimum wages. Even so, that leaves some problem cases, like earners trying to support larger families (more children or other dependents). In many cases, it would be preferable to provide more welfare benefits, and pay for them out of taxes on excessive profits and wages. Unfortunately, many liberals buy into the notion that welfare is a bad thing, and think they're scoring points with phrases like "corporate welfare." Doesn't the Constitution talk about "promoting the general welfare" as being one of the tasks of good government? Isn't the right's generic attack on government effectively an effort to reduce the general welfare?

    I think this confusion about welfare partly explains why the farm bill has become such a political football. See Tara Golshan: A House revolt over immigration just killed the farm bill -- for now. I don't really understand what immigration has to do with this, and indeed the reports are contradictory: evidently some Republicans want to force action on DACA, and others want to vote on a more restrictive anti-immigrant bill. For some time now, there has been a right-wing faction which opposed government efforts to stabilize agricultural markets -- rhetorically their complaints about "corporate welfare" have some resonance with liberals -- but this year they've managed to insert some poisonous "work requirements" into the food stamp program, moving Democrats into opposition. By taking advantage of mainstream Republicans' embrace of Trump cruelty, a few dozen Koch-funded fanatics are threatening American agribusiness. It's an interesting example of dysfunction within the GOP.

  • Emily Stewart: Donald Trump is raging over the Mueller investigation on Twitter; also by Stewart: Roger Stone acknowledges he might be indicted, and Donald Trump Jr. and Trump aides were reportedly open to foreign help in 2016 election beyond Russia (especially UAE and Saudi Arabia). I am of the camp that regards Mueller's investigation as largely a distraction, although it does tangentially touch on two more serious stories: the profound corruption of the US electoral process, and the deeply ingrained corruption of the Trump family and their cronies and enablers. Still, one thing remains amusing: how guilty Trump continues to look. As I recall, the thing that finally got to Nixon about Watergate wasn't the specific crime, but all the other things he was doing that could have been exposed in the investigation (of course, many "dirty tricks" did in fact come to light).

    There's been a big media push from Republican flacks complaining about how the Mueller investigation has now dragged on for an entire year, so that got me to wondering how long the Starr investigation into Clinton lasted? There's a chart of all past Special Counsel investigations in Amelia Thomson DeVeaux: Mueller Is Moving Quickly Compared to Past Special Counsel Investigations, and it shows that Starr's "Whitewater" investigation lasted a little more than six years. The upshot there was that Starr eventually caught Clinton in a lie that had nothing whatsoever to do with the original subject, but which provided House Republicans with an excuse to impeach Clinton (even knowing there was no chance the Senate would convict him). The Clinton/Starr experience convinced many of us that the Special Counsel law was an invitation to political abuse, and it has rarely been used since then. (The only time before Russia was the Valerie Plame leak, which was one of the shortest ever.) When Trump wails about the "greatest witch hunt ever," he's being very forgetful (as well as whiny).

  • Matt Taibbi: The Battle of Woodstock: "First in a series of diaries from the oddest House primary race in America" -- NY-19, where Taibbi is following Jeff Beals. Enter the DCCC. Hard to tell whether their ignorance or interest will turn out more self-defeating. Speaking of the DCCC and the Democratic Party old guard, see: Joe Biden Clarifies He's No Bernie Sanders: "I Don't Think 500 Billionaires Are Reason We're in Trouble, adding "The folks at the top aren't bad guys." Maybe not all of them, but ones like Sheldon Adelson, Charles Koch, Robert Mercer, Art Pope, and Betsy DeVos kind of skew the sample. Oh, also Donald Trump -- he may or may not be a billionaire, but he plays one on TV. Billionaires who donate to Democrats aren't exempt, either. Bill Gates was in the news last week making fun of Trump, but one shouldn't forget his effort to corner the Internet back in the 1990s, resulting in a conviction for antitrust violations.