Monday, February 20, 2017

The Chaos President

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on February 27

Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he’s a chaos candidate, and he’d be a chaos president.

- Jeb Bush, 12-15-2015

This week's featured post is "The Peril of Potemkin Democracy". It's my attempt to put the Trump threat in perspective. If you happen to be near the Lakewood Ranch development outside of Sarasota, Florida next Sunday, I'll be speaking to the Unitarian Universalist fellowship there.

This week everybody was talking about the Flynn firing

National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned under pressure last Monday night "following reports that he misled senior Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the nature of talks he held with the Russian ambassador in December before he took office." It was later revealed that Trump had known about Flynn's situation for weeks. What appears to have caused Flynn's resignation/firing was that The Washington Post revealed to the public what Trump already knew.
The role of leaks from the intelligence community in Flynn's ouster led to several cautionary articles about the unseemliness of this misuse of America's spying apparatus. Eli Lake wrote:
In normal times, the idea that U.S. officials entrusted with our most sensitive secrets would selectively disclose them to undermine the White House would alarm those worried about creeping authoritarianism. Imagine if intercepts of a call between Obama's incoming national security adviser and Iran's foreign minister leaked to the press before the nuclear negotiations began? The howls of indignation would be deafening.
I judge the Flynn leaks on the same scale I use for any whistle-blowing leak: (1) Does the public-interest value of the information outweigh the inappropriateness of the source? (2) Did the leakers try to go through appropriate channels first? Here, the answers seem to be yes. Josh Marshall:
you can't really have any serious discussion of this question without recognizing that while these are extraordinary and in most cases unacceptable remedies, we are in an extraordinary situation. A hostile foreign power used its intelligence services to commit statutory crimes in the United States with the aim and quite possibly the effect of changing the outcome of a national election. The beneficiary's aides and advisors were in what appears to have been active and ongoing communication with agents of that foreign power when this campaign to manipulate our elections was going on. The President has numerous financial dealings with people in and around Russia: but most of the most basic information about his finances, financials dealings and more, he refuses to disclose. The beneficiary, the President, has routinely and consistently made floridly glowing comments about the leader of the hostile foreign power and in a few specific cases taken specific actions which shift US policy to assist his country. This is not a normal situation. Even what we know is all but incomprehensible and the issue is what we don't know. ... The things that are being leaked are specific facts that are highly newsworthy and highly disturbing. They're not stories of sexual peccadillos or things that are politically damaging but not fundamentally relevant to the work of government.
David Frum asks:
If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers. What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public?

The Trump administration has two leak problems: One set of leaks comes from what is sometimes called the "Deep State": career professionals who staff the government and have an independent sense of what their mission is. These include, for example, the leaks that seem to come from inside the intelligence agencies, like the ones that brought down Flynn. I don't doubt that as the Trump anti-environmental policies start to take effect, we'll see a similar wave of leaks from inside the EPA or NOAA. If you signed up with OSHA because you felt committed to keeping American workers safe, you're likely not to be a happy camper when, say, you get instructed to ignore evidence of real danger. But a completely different source of leaks is the Trump White House itself, which seems to have divided into factions faster than any White House since John Adams had to contend with both Thomas Jefferson as his vice president and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. A lot of the news articles we've seen about Trump's behavior in the White House or his phone calls to foreign leaders most likely came from Trump's own people. The leader of one faction within the White House is Steve Bannon, whose previous job was running the right-wing Breitbart News. So it's a reasonable speculation that Breitbart is now the voice of the Bannon White House faction. Vox analyzes one particular Breitbart article based on "sources close to the president": It improbably blames Chief of Staff (and rival faction leader) Reince Preibus for the problems of the Bannon-written anti-Muslim executive order (which is currently not in effect, pending a court challenge), and says that Preibus' job is in danger. Preibus doesn't have a similar Pravda to do his bidding, so we don't have a comparable response from his faction.

and Trump's escalating war on the media

Back in January, Steve Bannon told The New York Times that the media was "the opposition party", an opinion that Trump later echoed. This week Trump escalated with a tweet that called the NYT, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC "the FAKE NEWS media" and "the enemy of the American people". This flashed me back to an interview Rachel Maddow did with NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel shortly after the election. She asked for his observations of how authoritarian governments take over democracies.
If you start to hear the word “traitor” being used a lot about the opposition, that’s a red flag. If those criticisms escalate to “cancer”, that’s an even worse sign. So I think we should be listening for things like that.
It seems to me that "enemy of the American people" is a similarly bad sign.
Interesting response by CNN's Don Lemon when a Trump supporter claimed his segment on the cost of protecting the Trump family was "fake news". Lemon first defined fake news ("a story to intentionally deceive someone") and explained why this story did not fit that definition. Then he admonished his panelist to stop calling stories "fake" just because he didn't like them. (His actual point seemed to be that the story wasn't newsworthy, which is a different thing entirely.) When the panelist went back to the "fake news" talking point, Lemon cut off the segment. "Thanks everyone. Thanks for watching. Have a great weekend." I'm not sure whether this is the right answer, but the media can't go on debating obviously bogus points as if they were legitimate. That just plays into the hands of the Trumpists.
MSNBC's Morning Joe has stopped booking Kellyanne Conway. Co-host Mika Brzezinski explained: "Every time I've ever seen her on television, something’s askew, off or incorrect." And Joe Scarborough claimed she doesn't know what she's talking about: "She's just saying things, just to get in front of the TV set and prove her relevance because behind the scenes — behind the scenes, she's not in these meetings." The point of interviewing administration officials is to get information for your audience. But if the level of disinformation gets too high, it's not worth it. After listening to Conway, you often have a worse idea of what's going on than you did before.

and ObamaCare replacement is still going nowhere

For years, Republicans have kept announcing that they'll reveal a "plan" to replace ObamaCare soon. When the promised meeting happens, though, what they present is a collection of ideas -- health savings accounts, tax credits, high-risk pools -- that presumably will someday make up a plan. But there is never anything detailed enough that either the CBO could determine what it will cost or that you could look at and figure out whether or not you'll be covered. The latest event in this series happened Thursday. Vox's Andrew Prokop explains what the hold-up is: five big issues that Republicans still disagree on.
Any plan to replace ObamaCare is probably also going to drastically restructure Medicaid.

but we should start paying more attention to John McCain

Like the rest of congressional Republicans, McCain has so far done little to stand up to Trump. For example, he has voted to approve all Trump's cabinet nominees. However, he seems to be establishing the rhetorical base to justify taking Trump on in some way. Friday, he gave a biting speech at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, arguing that the very idea of "the West" is in danger. He did not name Trump as the threat, but the implication was clear.
The next panel asks us to consider whether the West will survive. In recent years, this question would invite accusations of hyperbole and alarmism. Not this year. If ever there were a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now.
The threat he identifies is not conquest from the outside; he does not paint a picture of losing a global war against Islam, for example. It is corruption from within, as the principles that define the West are allowed to erode.
From the ashes of the most awful calamity in human history [i.e., World War II] was born what we call the West — a new, and different, and better kind of world order … one based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence. Indeed, the entire idea of the West is that it open to any person or any nation that honors and upholds these values.

... What would [the post-war] generation say if they saw our world today? I fear that much about it would be all-too-familiar to them, and they would be alarmed by it.

They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism.

They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims.

They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.

They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.

That's a reference to Trump's widely condemned defense of Vladimir Putin in an interview with Bill O'Reilly. When O'Reilly challenged Trump's statement that he respected Putin by pointing out that "he's a killer", Trump responded: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West, that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without.

That's a reference both to Brexit (which Trump applauded) and to Trump's criticisms of NATO and the EU. When McCain says "this is what our adversaries want", he seems to be talking more about Putin than about ISIS (neither of which is named).

By itself, such a speech means nothing. McCain could still be planning to maintain a rhetorical independence from Trump without doing anything substantive to get in his way. But I'm beginning to think he has something else in mind. If he doesn't, he's starting to paint himself into a corner.

and you might also be interested in

The winner of this year's World Press Photo Contest is "The Face of Hatred". Put yourself in the shoes of Burhan Ozbilici, the Associated Press photographer who snapped this photo. Mevlut Mert Altintas has just assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey, and is still standing there with the gun in his right hand. Your immediate reaction is not to run in terror or drop to the ground or stand there paralyzed, but to take his picture. Sometimes I look at award-winning photos and think that they're just luck. Somebody happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that's the difference between them and me. Not this time.
If you live in states that have a Democratic senator up for re-election in 2018, you've probably seen this ad for confirming Judge Gorsuch. As far as I know, this kind of politicization of a Court nomination is unprecedented (except for the same organization's ads against Merrick Garland last year; I haven't found any totals for that campaign, but they spent at least $200K in West Virginia alone). Someone should check the graves of Founding Fathers for signs of rolling; the system set up by the Constitution was intended to insulate the judiciary from politics as much as is possible in a system where power ultimately comes from the People. The ad is part of a $10 million campaign by Judicial Crisis Network. If you're wondering where that money comes from, good luck finding out. SourceWatch says:
JCN is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. JCN does not disclose its funders, but all of its reported revenue in 2012 and 2013 (its most recently available tax filings) came from large contributions of more than $10,000, and contributions of more than $1 million providing more than 80 percent of JCN's total revenue in both years.
So whoever is funding this, they're very, very rich and think that writing a check for $1 million or more to maintain the Supreme Court's conservative majority is a good investment. You can bet they're not doing this because they expect Trump's nominee to stick up for the little guy.
Quincy Larson at Free Code Camp explains why you should avoid leaving the country with your smartphone or laptop: Border control officials can refuse to let you into a country unless you give up the password to your devices, at which point they're free to vacuum up all your personal data. The U.S. might do it to a U.S. citizen before letting them come back. That's already started happening.

On January 30th, Sidd Bikkannavar, a US-born scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flew back to Houston, Texas from Santiago, Chile.

On his way through through the airport, Customs and Border Patrol agents pulled him aside. They searched him, then detained him in a room with a bunch of other people sleeping in cots. They eventually returned and said they’d release him if he told them the password to unlock his phone.

Bikkannavar explained that the phone belonged to NASA and had sensitive information on it, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He eventually yielded and unlocked his phone. The agents left with his phone. Half an hour later, they returned, handed him his phone, and released him.

Larson has recommendations:

When you travel internationally, you should leave your mobile phone and laptop at home. You can rent phones at most international airports that include data plans.

If you have family overseas, you can buy a second phone and laptop and leave them there at their home.

If you’re an employer, you can create a policy that your employees are not to bring devices with them during international travel. You can then issue them “loaner” laptops and phones once they enter the country.

Of course, you might say to yourself: "I don't need to take those kinds of precautions, because nothing about me should make border agents suspicious. I'm white, Christian, native-born, and look just like a normal American." Bookmark that thought, and retrieve it the next time you feel offended because somebody has called you "privileged".

and let's close with an invitation to creativity

You can generate your own photos of Trump executive orders. screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-10-52-17-am

Monday, February 13, 2017

Protest that Endures

Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone's individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.

-- Wendell Berry

This week's featured posts are "Your Sift-Archive Review for the Trump Era" and "White House, Inc.".

This week everybody was talking about the appeals court ruling

which went against the Trump administration and its prototype Muslim ban, which I discussed in detail last week. This was a 3-0 ruling that included agreement from Bush appointee Richard Clifton. The judges wrote a unified per curiam opinion rather than the usual practice of one judge writing a majority opinion with dissents and concurrences from the other judges. This seemed intended to emphasize that they were of one mind.

This was the state of play going in: Trump had signed an executive order; the states of Washington and Minnesota had sued; a federal judge in Seattle had issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing the most odious parts of the order from taking effect until the his court could have a full hearing and make a definitive ruling. The administration then asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the TRO. That request is what got turned down Thursday, so the executive order continues to be blocked for the time being.

Despite the occasional flamboyant writer like the late Justice Scalia, judges tend to be circumspect in their language. They usually write in a stone-faced style, so if you catch an occasional frown sneaking into the prose, you can surmise that they're probably royally pissed off. The appellate court's 29-page ruling is full of frowns.

Charlie Savage's summary in the NYT is pretty concise and seems accurate. The biggest frown in the text is the judges' response to the Trump argument that his order is "unreviewable" by the courts.

There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.

The most serious problem in the order was its treatment of legal permanent residents. The administration argued that the White House counsel had interpreted the order so that it no longer applied in these cases. The judges weren't inclined towards trust:

[I]n light of the government’s shifting interpretations of the executive order, we cannot say that the current interpretation by White House counsel, even if authoritative and binding, will persist past the immediate stage of these proceedings.

And finally, the judges seemed put off by the administration's arrogant assumption that its unreviewability argument would fly, so further support for its position was unnecessary.

Despite the district court’s and our own repeated invitations to explain the urgent need for the executive order to be placed immediately into effect, the government submitted no evidence to rebut the states’ argument

During questioning, Clifton sometimes seemed skeptical that the order was motivated by hostility against Muslims, or that it should be viewed as a watered-down version of the "Muslim ban" Trump campaigned on. The ruling made no judgment on that point, presumably to maintain unanimity.

The next stop is the Supreme Court, which still has only 8 justices. A 4-4 tie would leave the appellate court ruling in place.

Trump could easily improve his legal position by rescinding the order and re-issuing a more carefully constructed one. He's talking about doing that, but he is also never going to admit that the original order was a mistake. So it will be interesting to see how he squares that.


The ban gets all the headlines, but Trump is cracking down in a lot of other ways. The CBC reports this story about a Canadian citizen from a Montreal suburb, who was attempting to drive to Burlington, Vermont with two of her children and an adult cousin. They all had Canadian passports, but were turned back after a four-hour delay at the border. Her crime? She is a hijab-wearing Muslim born in Morocco (which is not one of the seven countries covered by the ban). The border patrol asked questions about her religion and attitudes towards President Trump and his policies. The two adults were required to  surrender the passwords to their phones, and then denied entry when the phones contained videos of Arabic prayer services.

"I felt humiliated, treated as if I was less than nothing. It's as if I wasn't Canadian," Alaoui told CBC News in an interview Wednesday.

She now has to decide whether she wants to risk a similar experience over spring break, when she had planned to visit her parents in Chicago.

The L.A. Times reports that Trump's January 25 executive order "Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States" (which is really about deportation of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom pose little or no threat to public safety) goes way beyond targeting the "bad hombres" he liked to talk about in his rallies.

Up to 8 million people in the country illegally could be considered priorities for deportation, according to calculations by the Los Angeles Times. They were based on interviews with experts who studied the order and two internal documents that signal immigration officials are taking an expansive view of Trump’s directive.

Far from targeting only “bad hombres,” as Trump has said repeatedly, his new order allows immigration agents to detain nearly anyone they come in contact with who has crossed the border illegally. People could be booked into custody for using food stamps or if their child receives free school lunches.

Anyone charged with a crime can be deported, without that charge ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. So local police can deport undocumented people just by arresting them on a bogus charge and notifying ICE. It's hard to believe that this kind of arbitrary power won't be abused.

and White House, Inc.

This note got so long that I broke it out into a separate post.


A nostalgic add-on for people my age and older: Remember how scandalous it was when Jimmy Carter's ne'er-do-well brother used his sudden notoriety as an unreconstructed good-ole-boy to launch Billy Beer?

Simpler times.

and the silencing/spotlighting of Elizabeth Warren

In the Senate debate over Jeff Sessions' nomination to be Attorney General -- he was approved -- Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the little-used Rule 19 against Elizabeth Warren. On a party-line vote, the Senate determined that Warren was improperly impugning the character of a fellow senator (which Sessions still was), and so she was banned from speaking for the rest of the Sessions debate.

The immediate result was the reverse of everything McConnell appeared to be trying to accomplish: Warren got a wave of positive publicity, the anti-Sessions Coretta Scott King letter she was reading to the Senate got far more attention than it otherwise would have, and McConnell's justification has become an iconic example of patriarchal arrogance: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

But there's something strange about this whole incident. It's odd that McConnell, ordinarily a cautious and canny politician, would make a move that backfired so badly, so quickly. And as many people have noted, McConnell then stayed silent when male Democrats continued reading the King letter. What did he think he was trying to accomplish?

We got a hint from a comment Trump made in a private meeting with Democratic senators: "Pocahontas is now the face of your party." That presents a weird possibility: Maybe McConnell was intentionally building Warren up:

"It's to Republicans’ benefit to elevate her as the voice for the Democratic Party, particularly heading into 2018," said GOP Strategist Brian Walsh, referring to the upcoming midterm elections in which Democrats will be defending seats in 10 states that Trump won. "Her views being taken as the mainstream of current Democratic thought would put her red state colleagues in a difficult situation."

Trump's invocation of his Pocahontas smear suggests that he foresees a 2020 repeat of the 2016 strategy, with Warren in the Clinton role: Over a period of years, gin up a bunch of bogus issues about a Democratic woman, then hope for an I-can't-vote-for-her reaction from otherwise wavering Republicans. So targeting Warren early and often would have a dual purpose: It would build up her negatives among Republican voters, while making Democrats more determined to nominate her.


Amanda Marcotte gives an alternative interpretation of what made the Coretta Scott King letter so threatening:

That letter angers Republicans, because in the years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, there’s been a conservative effort to remake King in their own image. Warren’s attempt to read the letter by King’s widow into the record served as an embarrassing reminder that King’s politics had nothing in common with modern conservatism.

Call it the “dead progressive” problem. Conservatives love a dead progressive hero, because they can claim that person as one of their own without any bother about the person fighting back. In some cases, the right has tried to weaponize these dead progressives, claiming that they would simply be appalled at how far the still-breathing have supposedly gone off the rails and become too radical. The Kings are just two prominent victims of this rhetorical gambit.

but we should be paying more attention to the Flynn scandal

Thursday night, The Washington Post opened a new chapter in the Putin/Trump story: After the election, but while Obama was still president, Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn appears to have interfered in foreign policy. Apparently he reassured the Russians that the moves Obama was taking to punish Russia for interfering in the U.S. elections would be reconsidered after Trump took office.

Previously, Flynn had denied that his conversations with the Russian ambassador had mentioned any sanctions, and Vice President Pence had backed him up on national TV. Now the WaPo claims to have "nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls" who say otherwise.

All of those officials said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.

Flynn himself is now backing off of his blanket denial, and Trump and Pence are not commenting. If the scandal doesn't die down, the likely outcome is that Flynn will take the fall: He just went rogue, reassured the Russians on his own authority, and then lied to Pence about it.

But a far more disturbing possibility ought to be investigated: What if Flynn wasn't going rogue? What if the Trump campaign had an ongoing, long-standing relationship with Russia, and there was always some explicit quid-pro-quo promised in exchange for Russia's hacking of the Democrats? If true, that starts to sound like an impeachable offense.

and you might also be interested in

Some idiot in the College Republicans club of Central Michigan University thought it would be clever to distribute a Hitler-themed Valentine card, I guess because the Holocaust is so hilarious.

I'm not going to claim that this represents some universal-but-hidden anti-Semitism at the heart of the GOP, or even among CMU Republicans. Probably most Republicans find this card as repulsive as I do. But I think Romney-and-McCain Republicans need to connect this dot with the Heil-Trump Nazi video, the KKK endorsement, Milo Yiannopoulos, and a bunch of similar dots: There's a certain kind of racist asshole who feels very comfortable in your party these days. Whether they represent the majority or not, shouldn't that worry you?

BTW, this is the proper context in which to consider Trump's Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation, which somehow managed not to mention Jews. It was a wink to Holocaust deniers, Nazis, and other anti-Semites, who have become an important Trump constituency.


Now that Megyn Kelly has left Fox News, it's good to see that her replacement, Tucker Carlson, is holding the Trump administration to the highest possible standards. Say what you will about Steve Bannon, he's better than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!

I'm bemused by how qualified these categories are: used chemical weapons on Kurds, mass executions of Christians. It's as if Carlson wants to be covered in case Bannon unleashes chemical weapons on the Dutch or orders mass executions of Rastafarians.


The second SNL appearance of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer is just as funny as the first. And Alec Baldwin's imitation of Trump got a rare compliment: A newspaper in the Dominican Republic published Baldwin's picture, apparently thinking it was Trump.


Thursday, in a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump reaffirmed the United States' "One China policy" which formally recognizes Taiwan as a province of China while simultaneously supporting the island's practical independence. Prior to his inauguration, Trump had spoken on the phone to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen -- something no president or president-elect had done in decades -- and later said that the U.S. should insist on concessions from China in exchange for continuing to recognize One China.

In the world of U.S./China diplomacy, every little nod and adjective is interpreted as portentous, so China-watchers have been buzzing about whether Thursday's "reversal" is a defeat for Trump, or convinces China that he is a "paper tiger".

My interpretation is that Trump says a lot of crap, and very little of it actually means anything. So if either Xi or Tsai attach any importance to those calls, they're fooling themselves. This lack of seriousness will come back to bite Trump eventually. Someday he'll have to blow something up in order to get China's attention, because by then everyone will be ignoring his words and symbolic actions.

From the beginning of his campaign until this moment, Trump has done his best to surround himself with a fog. (For example, the normal budget process would have him submitting an FY 2018 budget this month, and still no one has the faintest idea what to expect. He has raised expectations about tax cuts, an ObamaCare replacement, a big infrastructure project, increased military spending, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and balancing the budget. What in all that is real, and what is just smoke?) When you're a slippery businessman hoping to cheat everyone you deal with, a fog like that is useful. But you don't hold together coalitions and alliances that way, or get the long-term cooperation you sometimes need from rival powers like China.


Speaking of the soon-to-be-unveiled budget, this is a worthwhile graphic to keep in mind. (It seems to come from the CBO by way of Senator Ron Johnson, but I pulled it off Rand Paul's Facebook page.)

It's a good snapshot to keep bookmarked, because it points out what people really are proposing when they say they want substantial cuts in government spending. (In other words, you can't balance the budget by cutting foreign aid and the National Endowment for the Arts.) Most of the things people talk about cutting are down in the All Other category, and probably would be invisible if they were called out separately. The red bars are non-discretionary, i.e., entitlements and other payments mandated by law.


The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has always considered liberal political correctness a bigger problem than I do: Most of the examples of "political correctness run wild" that I hear about either didn't happen exactly the way the complaint claims, or is nothing more than the dominant culture being forced to give respect to people and points of view it used to happily ignore.

But OK, let's grant for the sake of argument the conservative criticism that political correctness has this chilling effect on the national conversation that makes it much harder to discuss important issues. Is Trump actually undoing such political correctness, or just turning it around to serve conservative purposes?

Friedersdorf makes a good argument for the latter. Trump's conservative political correctness, for example, makes it impossible to talk about white supremacist terrorism, or right-wing terrorism of any kind. He can't criticize Vladimir Putin.

Trump displays all the flaws attributed to “Social Justice Warriors”—thin skinned, quick to take offense, a bullying presence on Twitter, aggressively disdainful of comedy that pokes fun at him, delighting in firing people—just without any attachment to social justice. On matters as grave as counterterrorism and as inconsequential as the size of crowds, Trump is more contemptuous of the truth, and as driven by what is politically correct, than any president of recent years. That shouldn’t bother those who only complained about political correctness as a cover for bigotry. But everyone who complained on principle, knowing a country cannot thrive when disconnected from reality, should demand better.

and let's close with an attempt to learn from failure

Cards Against Humanity analyzes "Why Our Super Bowl Ad Failed". Strangely, 30 seconds of the camera silently staring at a potato failed to build the brand.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Covering Trump Like Iran

Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.

- Reuters memo, "Covering Trump the Reuters Way"

This week's featured posts are "The Ban: Ten Days of Drama" and "What to do with Neil Gorsuch?".

During my week off from the Sift, I spoke in Billerica, Mass. on "The Hope of a Humanist" and my column "Let's Get Started, Together" posted at UU World.

This week everybody was talking about immigration and the Supreme Court

The featured posts cover those topics: "The Ban: Ten Days of Drama" and "What to do with Neil Gorsuch?".

and an alternative-fact massacre

The undisputed master of "alternative facts" is the woman who coined the term on Meet the Press two weeks ago: White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. She produced this week's gem in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews:

I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. It didn't get covered.

That's because there was no Bowling Green massacre. Funny how things that don't happen don't get covered.

Conway later claimed that the words just came out wrong, that she meant to say "Bowling Green terrorists", a reference to two guys arrested in Bowling Green for trying to aid Al Qaeda, but not for doing anything violent themselves. But that was another lie. She had used the same formulation days before in a different interview. "Bowling Green massacre" was a honed sound bite, not a slip of the tongue.

Like her alternative-facts gaffe, Conway's fake massacre is generating lots of ridicule. Like, why shouldn't the massacre get its own ballad. This is not exactly going high when they go low, but it's going somewhere. I'm reminded of the saying, "Don't get mad, get odd."

New Yorkers held a fake vigil at the Bowling Green subway station. You can find a large collection of ridicule on Twitter under #NeverRemember.

Build your vocabulary: reverse cargo cult

Build Your Vocabulary was briefly a regular feature of the Sift, but it's been dormant for a while.

One constant topic on liberal social media is the question: "When will Trump's voters realize they're being lied to?" A scary answer I ran across this week is that many of them already know and have known from the beginning. These core Trump supporters are what is known as a reverse cargo cult.

A cargo cult is when people ritualistically build things they associate with success, believing that success will be drawn to them in some magical way. The metaphor is based on an only partly true story about primitive Pacific islanders after World War II, who supposedly built imitation airstrips out of primitive materials in hopes of luring back the cargo planes of the war era. Richard Feynman extended the idea metaphorically to "cargo cult science", referring to groups that establish institutes and publish journals in order to magically turn their unscientific beliefs into science. It now applies to all sorts of magical thinking.

In a reverse cargo cult, you build the trappings of some kind of success like a cargo cult would, but you don't believe it will work and aren't trying to fool anybody into thinking it will. The deception goes in the other direction.

[The builders] don't lie to the rubes and tell them that an airstrip made of straw will bring them cargo. That's an easy lie to dismantle. Instead, what they do is make it clear that the airstrip is made of straw, and doesn't work, but then tell you that the other guy's airstrip doesn't work either. They tell you that no airstrips yield cargo. The whole idea of cargo is a lie, and those fools, with their fancy airstrip made out of wood, concrete, and metal is just as wasteful and silly as one made of straw.

The reverse cargo cult idea was invented as a way to explain the propaganda of the late Soviet Union, which didn't fool anyone any more; everyone knew the government was lying. But now the purpose was to make the people disbelieve everything, including the reports they heard of prosperity and freedom in the West. Russian cynicism became a point of cultural pride: Russians knew they were being lied to, while those foolish Westerners believed what they saw on their TVs.

Something similar is happening among Trump supporters: So what if there was no Bowling Green massacre, no millions of illegal votes, no record-breaking crowd at Trump's inauguration? Liberals tell their own lies about things like global warming and white male privilege. The difference this batch of Trump supporters sees is that they are in on the joke, while their liberal friends actually believe what they're told. The in-the-know Trump folks are entertained by Breitbart and InfoWars, while naive liberals take seriously the things they read in The New York Times or The Washington Post.

The point of official lies and alternative facts and fake news isn't that people should believe in them. It's that they should come to disbelieve everything politicians say and regard all news as fake. There is no cargo.

and you might also be interested in

The Senate is one vote away from rejecting Betsy DeVos' nomination. All Democrats oppose her, plus Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. If your state is represented by some other Republican, get on the phone. If you don't know the number, the Senate web site says: "you may phone the United States Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. A switchboard operator will connect you directly with the Senate office you request."


So much has happened these last two weeks that I almost forgot those incredible Trump phone calls where he insulted the prime minister of Australia and threatened to invade Mexico. And then there's his defense of Putin to Bill O'Reilly. After Trump says he respect Putin, O'Reilly says, "But he's a killer." And Trump replies: "You think our country’s so innocent?"

That was too much even for Marco Rubio:

When has a Democratic political activist been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as .


I don't feel right reproducing the whole poem here, but if you haven't already seen it circulating on social media, you should read Danny Bryck's "If You Could Go Back". It's about how the moral crises of the past -- the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow, etc. -- all look so clear in retrospect, but at the time they probably looked just about the way things look now, and there were probably just as many reasons to look the other way and get on with your life. Here's the moral I take from it: If you're waiting for the kind of perfect clarity you imagine those historical times had, you'll probably sit out the moral crisis of your era.


The Trump administration is the best thing that ever happened to Saturday Night Live.


A century ago, Peoria, Illinois was the archetypal Middle-American city. Vaudeville performers asked "Will it play in Peoria?", meaning "Can you tour this act across the country?" Groucho Marx asked it in A Night at the Opera, and during the Nixon administration, top aide John Ehrlichman once reassured a reporter that a proposal hated by policy elites would "play in Peoria", meaning that Middle America would like it.

Peoria is a factory town, and the factory is Caterpillar. CAT has 12,000 employees in Peoria, and used to have more. Tuesday, CAT announced that it was moving its headquarters to Chicago, which is about 2 1/2 hours away by car. Immediately, the move affects just 300 jobs. But that includes all the top executives, who are probably among Peoria's best-paid people. So the city's overall quality of life is bound to take a big hit. Those 300 will also be deciding what happens to the remaining 12,000 jobs in the coming years, so as they lose their identification with Peoria, I'm not optimistic about the city's future.

CAT justified the move by claiming that it will be easier to recruit top executive talent to Chicago rather than Peoria. You have to wonder whether CAT's main American rival (John Deere), which is headquartered in another middle-sized Illinois city (Moline), is thinking the same thing.

Trump won largely by exploiting the plight of America's hollowing-out countryside. He focused on the manufacturing jobs going to Mexico and China. But executive jobs moving to the big cities is another piece of that problem, and I haven't heard even a suggestion of what to do about it.


One of the things conservatives often got upset about during the Obama years was the cost of protecting his family when they left the White House. Well, keeping Michelle and the girls safe on vacation cost peanuts compared to what it will cost to protect Trump's adult children as they criss-cross the world being international businessmen.

The Washington Post reports that just hotel expenses for the Secret Service and embassy staff on a recent Eric Trump trip to Uruguay cost nearly $100K.

Now, I'm not complaining about this expense, because I see the point of not letting a president's family become hostages, and I don't want them confined to easily protected areas for the duration of a president's term. But a lot of people did complain about the expense during Obama's term, and I wonder where they are now.


At the beginning of the Trump administration, I said I'd be watching for them to take credit for Obama's accomplishments. Here's an example: The January jobs report came out, showing that the economy added 227K jobs. Trump didn't take office until January 20, but press secretary Sean Spicer attributed the jobs to the "confidence" the prospect of a Trump administration had given employers.

All told, about six million jobs were created during the Obama years, or 14 million since the bottom of the recession in January, 2010.

and let's close with some escapism

Remember those halcyon days of the Bartlett administration?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Presidential Enemies

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on February 6.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

- President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address (1861)

Should I keep tweeting or not? I think so. You know, the enemies keep saying "Oh, that's terrible." But it's a way of bypassing dishonest media.

- President Donald Trump (1-21-2017)

If juxtaposing the two quotes isn't clear enough, let me spell it out: Presidents aren't supposed to cast other Americans as their enemies. They may think of people that way in their own minds, as President Nixon did when he compiled his enemies list. In public, a president may portray loyal American citizens as critics, political opponents, and even (as re-election approaches) rivals. But not enemies. This is one of the many things Trump seems not to grasp about being presidential.

This week's featured post is "The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump". Next Sunday I'll be speaking at First Parish Church of Billerica, MA on "The Hope of a Humanist".

This week everybody was talking about the Inauguration

Donald Trump became President Friday at around noon. His first act as president was to give a short, dark, and very strange inaugural address that at times seemed to be channeling the speech the supervillain Bane gives in The Dark Knight Rises.

I found it weird and ironic that Trump framed his election as "the People" taking government back, when the actual people voted for his opponent by a 2.1% margin. (As I explained two weeks ago, inside Trump's movement "the People" is not everybody. I'm sure that among "real Americans", i.e., white straight native-born Christians, Trump won a landslide.)

Typical inaugural addresses feature a new president retiring his divisive campaign rhetoric and reaching out to those who didn't vote for him. Trump did nothing of the kind, delivering what was essentially a shorter version of his speech from the Republican Convention, where he painted a picture of a dangerous dystopian America that he would fix by decree. He raised the specter of "crime and gangs and drugs" and pledged "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now." (I was reminded of George Lakoff's theory that conservatism is based on a strict-father metaphor of government: "This stops right now, kids.")

The big policy theme of the speech was nationalism: America First. But he added this bizarre, ahistorical twist, aimed at those who accuse him of bigotry:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

But of course, nationalistic movements are famously bigoted against racial and religious minorities, and bigoted movements often cloak themselves in nationalism: The targeted group is a cancer on the nation, and must be eradicated if the rest of us are to survive and thrive. "Total allegiance" can become a rigged test: Once the government begins systematically oppressing a group, any profession of "total allegiance" rings false.

Ominously, Trump used the word eradicate:

We will ... unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.

If I were a loyal American who is a devout Muslim, knowing how sloppy Trump is with words and facts, and understanding just how vague and flexible terms like radical and terrorist can be, I would be wondering how safe I will be these next four years. Under authoritarian regimes, there can be a very short gap between "You're paranoid. How can anyone misinterpret us so badly?" and "We've been warning you for a long time."

Trump also invoked the image of war as a nationalizing influence.

A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.

He also referred to Americans as "God's people" and announced that "we are protected by God", a theological claim I don't remember hearing from a president before. Presidents typically hope or pray that God will favor our nation, or call on us to be worthy of God's favor. But I don't recall any previous president expressing such religious entitlement. In JFK's inaugural, he told us that "God's work must truly be our own", not that our work must necessarily be God's. Lincoln's second inaugural warned us that "The Almighty has his own purposes." But Trump apparently knows God's mind better than Kennedy or Lincoln did.


Trump's inauguration drew a much smaller crowd than Obama's eight years ago, as you can clearly see in these side-by-side photos.

Trump seems sensitive about his relative unpopularity, as he is whenever reality punctures his over-aggrandized self-image. He claimed -- apparently based on nothing more than his own view from the podium -- that his crowd broke all records. He went on a rant about the "dishonest" media correctly reporting his crowd size (while talking at the CIA, of all places), and sent Press Secretary Sean Spicer out to harangue the press about it without allowing them any questions, as if they were disobedient children.

What I find more interesting than Trump's claims or anger is the way the Washington Post covered it. Throughout the campaign, newspapers fretted over how to cover Trump saying something clearly false, which he did so often and so shamelessly that the old methods of coverage became obsolete. (You couldn't call the falsehoods out in fact-check articles, because there were just too many of them, and Trump couldn't be shamed out of repeating them.) But The Post seems to have come to terms with that issue: It reports what Trump says, and simultaneously reports the contradictory facts as contradictory facts. Like this:

Trump claimed falsely that the crowd for his swearing-in stretched down the National Mall to the Washington Monument and totaled more than 1 million people. It did not. Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.

“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said, falsely claiming that his crowd “went all the way back to the Washington Monument.”

CNN did something similar in its article "White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds". So did The New York Times in "With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift". Chris Cillizza's The Fix column, which is commentary rather than straight news, annotated Press Secretary Sean Spicer's rant at the press.

These all demonstrate a similar philosophy on covering Trump, and I hope it catches on.


Sunday on Meet the Press Kellyanne Conway gave us the meme to ridicule the administration's lying, characterizing Sean Spicer's false rant as "alternative facts". Chuck Todd wasn't buying it:

Wait a minute. Alternative facts? ... Look, alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods.

In response, Conway launched into a filibuster of facts she'd like the press to cover, never addressing Todd's point. But #alternativefacts is going viral. Here's one typical tweet:

Me: Hi, SAT Board, I need you to change my test scores. I didn't get the questions wrong. I provided

And another one:

Don't worry Wisconsin. I just spoke with Sean Spicer and he said the Packers are actually up by 3 touchdowns.


On paper, Trump's visit to the CIA looked like a good bridge-building move, after he had compared our intelligence services to Nazis. But Trump never bothers to learn the culture of the people he's talking to -- they're supposed to adjust to him, not him to them -- so he committed a major sacrilege: He gave a rambling, self-aggrandizing, partisan speech in front of the wall devoted to agents killed in the line of duty.


At Slate, Nora Caplan-Bricker points out something I hadn't noticed: Only Democratic presidents have inaugural poets. JFK started the tradition when Robert Frost recited a poem at his inauguration, and every Democrat but LBJ has continued it. No Republican has.


And they plagiarized Obama's cake.

and the Marches

I'm pretty good at estimating crowds in the hundreds, but when they get into the tens of thousands their sizes are impossible to know with any accuracy unless there is a gate with turnstiles. (JFK used to joke about it. When asked how his campaign got their crowd estimates, he quipped: "Salinger counts the nuns and multiplies by a thousand.") Saturday, I was at the Women's March on the Boston Common, variously estimated at 100-175K. I have no idea. It was a whole bunch of people.

Estimates are also all over the map for the other large sister marches: I've heard numbers as high as a quarter million in Chicago, three-quarters in Los Angeles, and another quarter million or so in New York. Nobody really knows. They were big, and there were hundreds of them all over the country. Here was a view of Austin, which as far as I know got no national coverage at all.

The total number of marchers nationwide has been estimated at between 3.3 and 4.6 million, or about 1% of the population. The NYT had "crowd scientists" analyze crowds for both Trump's inauguration and the D.C. Women's March. In both cases they came up with numbers somewhat smaller than most, for what that's worth: 160K for Trump and 470K for the Women's March.

So let's just stick with "a whole bunch of people" and reflect on what that means. Nobody really thinks this will make Trump himself change his ways, or that lots of Trump supporters will look at the crowds and say, "If so many people disagree with me, I must be wrong." So what's the significance?

There's both an inner and an outer significance. The people who attended got energized and confirmed in their identities as resistors. Some percentage of them will progress to activism as a serious commitment, and the rest will be more likely to challenge Trump propaganda as they run into it. If we're talking about millions of people, that makes for a definite change in the national conversation.

The outer significance has to do with what I've been thinking of as the Nightmare Scenario, where Trump's election takes us down a path towards an authoritarian government. I don't believe that Republicans in general want such a thing, but authoritarian leaders gain power by intimidating people into going along, and then into going much farther than they ever thought they would. If Trump were surrounded by a winning aura and seen to be wildly popular, other powerful politicians (like Paul Ryan) might think that they had no choice but to support him in whatever he does. Democrats might be intimidated into providing only token opposition. Even judges get swayed by what they imagine public opinion to be.

In the Nightmare Scenario, a Trump-is-the-voice-of-the-People frame becomes the subliminal basis of his press coverage. Rather than the blunt this-is-false coverage I described above, the press would shade into calling his falsehoods "controversial" or simply quoting them side-by-side with other people saying something different, as if there were no way to know the underlying facts. Little-by-little, the authoritarian government would capture the supposedly free press.

Raising big crowds against Trump the day after his inauguration interrupts that dynamic. It makes visible what the polls tell us, and what Trump's defeat in the popular vote should tell us: He is not popular. Politically, there is no reason to be intimidated by him, and tying your future to his is a risky strategy for any politician. For now, Ryan and McConnell and the rest of the Republicans in Congress will continue to explore what they can get out of a Republican president, but Saturday reminded them that they need to keep their eyes on the exits.

Democrats, meanwhile, heard the opposite message: If you become known as the voice of resistance to Trump, that could work out well for you in the future. (Someday we may look back on Elizabeth Warren's speech on the Boston Common as the beginning of her 2020 campaign. And one of the most impressive speakers in Boston Saturday was state attorney general Maura Healey, who I had not previously noticed. Her message for the Trump administration: "We'll see you in court.")

and other protests

Two weeks ago, I pointed you at Indivisible, a guide for influencing your congressperson, written by former congressional staff people. It's largely based on the effective protests the newly organized Tea Party launched against ObamaCare in the summer of 2010. The underlying point is that congresspeople, whatever their party or ideology, live in fear of organized groups of their constituents, even fairly small groups. They especially fear groups that know how to get media attention, who can make them look out-of-touch with the voters of their districts. You can use that.

Indivisible-like protest actions are starting to happen. In this Aurora, Colorado event, covered by Channel 9 in Denver, people afraid of losing their health insurance overwhelmed Republican Congressman Mike Coffman. He intended to have short one-on-one meetings with voters in a room at the Aurora Library. But hundred of constituents showed up to ask about his plan for helping them after he succeeds in repealing ObamaCare. He didn't adjust his format and left early, with many people still in line to see him. The Channel 9 piece looks pretty bad for him.

Josh Marshall collects similar recent examples:

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) was drowned out with chants of “save our healthcare” as she spoke at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally in Spokane. More than 250 people turned out to the Gerald R. Ford Library in Grand Rapids on Tuesday to question Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) about Medicaid cuts and the details of an ACA replacement plan, prompting security to turn dozens away. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) was surprised to find himself facing angry questions from a group of 50 at a Houston Chamber of Commerce session billed as an opportunity for locals “affected by Obamacare” to share stories about “rising costs and loss of coverage.”

If it becomes widely known that Republican congressmen don't dare meet their voters for fear of similar incidents, the idea that ObamaCare repeal is popular will go down the drain.

and the cabinet nominees

Mattis at Defense and Kelly at Homeland Security have been approved. The Republican opposition to Tillerson at State seems to be evaporating. But the hearings have revealed a lot of problems, which Paul Waldman summarizes. Under the standards that applied to all previous administrations, I think Mnuchin at Treasury and Price at HHS would have been withdrawn already.

and you might also be interested in

President Obama under-used his pardon power for eight years, but he did commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who will be released in May.


The first change of a new administration is to take over the White House web site. Many have focused on what vanished: pages about climate change and LGBT rights, for example. More ominous to me, though, is what has appeared. The page "Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community" says:

The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.

I interpret this to mean that the Justice Department will no longer pay much attention to police killings. In the long run, this will be really unfortunate, not just for the public, but for many police as well.

During the controversy over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, it was hard to know who was telling the real story. The behavior of local police made it clear that their priority was to get their guy off, not to find the truth. The only thing that convinced me that Darren Wilson should not have been charged with murder was when the Justice Department's investigation came out. Otherwise, there would never have been any trustworthy report.

That's what will happen going forward. Police will continue to kill young black men, including some who are unarmed or unthreatening. Local investigations will declare those killings justified, whether they are or not. And that will be the end of the story. Citizens who dislike or distrust the police will assume they got away with murder, whether they did or not.


Online records of the Obama administration have not gone away completely. An archive of the Obama White House site is here, though it is not being maintained or updated any more.

and let's close with something to change the mood

This week had a lot of wintry seriousness in it. So let's imagine that it's June in New York City. You're cruising through the theater district on a sunny afternoon. Who might you give a ride to?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Believing in Change

Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I'm asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.

- President Barack Obama

This week's featured posts are "Farewell, Mr. President" and "Trump's Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest". In honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, I want to point to an older Sift post "MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection", where I attempt to recapture the often-suppressed radical side of King.

This week everybody was talking about the Trump dossier

Part of Trump's briefing from the intelligence services included a two-page summary of a longer document (neither of which was endorsed as true by the intel people) listing alleged dirt that the Russians have on Trump. Buzzfeed somehow got hold of that longer document and published it, filling the airwaves with vague allusions to sexual practices you can't talk about on TV.

Nobody who has commented (other than Trump himself, of course) actually knows whether any of this is true, and the major media outlets, in my judgment, are doing a good job of saying that at regular intervals.

I would feel sorry for any person this happened to, if he or she had maintained any standards of decorum in talking about others. But these are exactly the kinds of unsupported rumors Trump has been trafficking in for years. So this is more a case of what-goes-around-comes-around or they-that-touch-pitch-will-be-defiled.

That said, the claims aren't well-supported enough to figure in my thinking, and probably shouldn't figure in yours either. The proper use of them, at this point, is in jokes that needle Trump and his supporters. If they complain, you might remind them what it was like to listen to years of jokes about Obama and Kenya, or to see "humorous" images of the Obamas as monkeys.

The point of including the summary in the briefing, I suspect, is that Trump publicly resists the conclusion that the Russians were trying to help him win. But it's hard to avoid that conclusion if the Russians had dirt on both candidates and only released what they had on Hillary. (He continues to deny that. Wednesday he said: "I think, frankly, had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it just like they did about Hillary.") If Trump recognized anything in the document as true, the point was made.

and his plan to deal with conflicts of interest

I broke that out into its own article.

and Obama's farewell speech

Also its own article, part of my retrospective on the Obama years.

and Senate hearings on the cabinet nominees

Like everybody else, I'm not paying the kind of attention to the nominees that they deserve.  I didn't eight years ago, either, but that was different. My whole response to Steven Chu was something like: "A Nobel winner as secretary of energy. Cool." But Jeff Sessions' history on race, or Exxon-Mobil's takeover of the State Department -- these seem to deserve more thought.

The Christian Science Monitor bends over backwards not to condemn Sessions, but there's still plenty there to set your teeth on edge. It quotes an SMU professor saying, "But he’s not evidently a mean-spirited guy. He has a narrow view, but not necessarily a mean view." That's a pretty low bar for an attorney general: He may not protect minority rights, but at least he won't be screwing them out of spite.

And Tillerson will be making decisions about sanctions against Russia that have cost his former company more than $1 billion, by some reports.

And Ben Carson, well, we already know he's a loon. I stand by my judgment in 2015 that he would be an even scarier president than Trump. In his confirmation hearings, he used the phrase "extra rights" when asked about LGBT rights in public housing. In 2014, he used that same phrase about same-sex marriage: Gay people don't get the "extra right" to redefine marriage.

I'm sure I'll have the occasion to say this many times, but I might as well start now: It's invariably conservatives who are claiming "extra rights" or "special rights". Same-sex marriage is a great example of that: Until recently, marrying the person you love was something only straight people could do. That's a special right. Carson is complaining because gay people got the same rights he has. He exemplifies the right-wing-Christian sense of entitlement; they view their own rights as natural, and everybody else's as "special".

and ObamaCare

The Senate approved a budget blueprint that would be the first step towards repealing ObamaCare through a filibuster-proof process called "reconciliation". Several Republican senators have expressed reservations about repealing ObamaCare without even having a replacement proposal written, but only Rand Paul abstained from the final vote. If the rest are going to buck the leadership on this, they'll have to do it at a later stage. For now, they're staying in line.

If any of you live in places like Maine (Susan Collins) or Tennessee (Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker) or Ohio (Rob Portman), you might want to give your wavering senator a call. They're in a difficult political situation, and pressure either way might make a difference. On the one hand, they don't want a primary opponent to say, "Senator X kept us from repealing ObamaCare." On the other, they don't want a general election opponent to say, "Senator X took your health care away." But it's shaping up to be one or the other.


In a 60 Minutes interview shortly after the election, Trump said this about ObamaCare.

Stahl: And there’s going to be a period if you repeal it and before you replace it, when millions of people could lose -– no?

Trump: No, we’re going to do it simultaneously. It’ll be just fine. We’re not going to have, like, a two-day period and we’re not going to have a two-year period where there’s nothing. It will be repealed and replaced. And we’ll know. And it’ll be great healthcare for much less money. So it’ll be better healthcare, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination.

It's worth noting that as Congress moves towards repealing (and not replacing) ObamaCare, he still hasn't said anything more substantive or constructive: Provide better healthcare, great healthcare, for less money. Do it immediately. At his press conference Wednesday, Trump did what he so often does: promised something in the future that there's no reason he couldn't deliver now, if he had it.

As soon as [HHS Secretary Tom Price] is approved and gets into the office, we’ll be filing a plan.

I don't know what is going to happen, but I guarantee you it won't be better healthcare for less money, immediately. And Trump will blame Congress, rather than take any responsibility for not offering a plan of his own. I continue to wonder whether Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell understand what they've gotten themselves into.

and you might also be interested in

Part of the ongoing project to understand Trump voters: Read "We have always been at war with Eastasia" by Michael Arnovitz. He's addressing the way that conservative voters' opinions can turn on a dime when the partisan winds shift: Putin and WikiLeaks are popular now. Protectionism is suddenly a good thing. There's no need to drain the swamp, and we'll see if anybody still cares about deficits when Trump runs one.

Arnovitz postulates that liberals and conservatives frame the partisan battle differently. Liberals believe that we're contesting with conservatives over policy: The winner gets to decide whether we get national health care or free college, which are the really important things.

But conservatives view policy arguments as battles in the larger war against liberals. This is essentially a religious battle for the soul of America, and Russia or taxes or deficits are secondary.

BTW: In case it's been a long time since you read 1984, the title refers to the moment when Oceania suddenly shifts its alliance from Eastasia to Eurasia. Eastasia, the former ally, is now the enemy -- but no one is allowed to point that out. Instead of explaining the change, Oceania just alters history to claim that it was always at war with Eastasia.


On the Moyers & Company site, Neal Gabler writes about progressives going through the stages of grief about Trump's election. I kind of get his point: You start out saying "This isn't happening", then get angry, and so on from there. But then he makes it clear that he doesn't really understand the stages of grief:

The last stage of grief is acceptance, and one thing I do know: It is imperative that anyone who thinks of Trump’s election as perhaps the single greatest catastrophe in American political history must never reach that stage.

No, actually it's imperative that we do get to acceptance. Acceptance isn't an aw-fukkit attitude. It's not resignation. It just means that you stop arguing that the world isn't the way it is, or that the world owes you something for being the way it is. If you don't get there, your actions have a brittleness or desperation that undermines your effectiveness.

Resignation means not just that you accept the present, but that you're not going to try to change to future either. That's where you should never let yourself get. (I talked about this at length recently.)

Trump will become president Friday. That's bad, but the badness of it doesn't change the fact. We've got work to do if we want to the future to be better.

and let's close with a modern sorcerer's apprentice moment

So Amazon's Alexa personal assistant is default-set to allow you to voice-order products from Amazon. But what if it misinterprets something you say as an order, or recognizes somebody else's voice -- maybe a voice on the TV -- as yours?

Channel 6 in San Diego admits that happened. Its news anchors were talking about an incident where a little girl ordered a dollhouse and four pounds of cookies, when one of them said:

I love the little girl, saying "Alexa ordered me a dollhouse."

All over San Diego, Amazon devices heard somebody say "Alexa, order me a dollhouse".

Monday, January 9, 2017

Dark Woods

This is the deepest part of the deep dark woods. Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.

- Charles Pierce

This week's featured post is "How Populism Goes Bad".

This week everybody was talking about Trump's feud with the intelligence services over Russia

Friday, Trump got briefed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Also on Friday, an unclassified report on the findings of the CIA, FBI, and NSA was released to the public. (Actual content begins on page 6. The report says it was based on a "highly classified" document. The conclusions are the same but some "supporting information" was left out.)

We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election

This effort seems to have unfolded on three levels: first, a "longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order", then a specific animus against Hillary Clinton, and finally a desire to help elect Donald Trump.

When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency. ... Starting in March 2016, Russian Government–linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences.

The report describes a wide-ranging effort, including hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign emails that were released by WikiLeaks, direct propaganda on Russian-government supported outlets like the RT news network, internet trolls, and fake news sources.

Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections.

Until Friday, Trump had minimized any implication that Russia helped him get elected, saying that there was no way to know who had done the hacking, and describing the Russian-influence controversy as a "witch hunt". His statement Friday didn't double down on that, but changed the subject. He continued to acknowledge no special role for Russia, and shifted attention to hacking voting machines, which has been sometimes rumored but seems not to have happened.

While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations, including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines

In short: Russia played a key role in getting Trump elected, and he's still carrying water for them. How far the pro-Russian tilt of his administration will go is still anybody's guess.


BTW, if you believe the NYT's interviews in Lousiana, Trump supporters don't care. That's disturbing, but I think it's important not to confuse the enthusiastic Trumpers with the 46% who elected him. The 46% included a lot of Republicans with doubts about him.


In possibly related news, former CIA director James Woolsey resigned from the Trump transition team. According to the WaPo:

People close to Woolsey said ... that Woolsey had grown increasingly uncomfortable lending his name and credibility to the transition team without being consulted.

and ObamaCare

President Obama, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine about the proposed repeal of ObamaCare.

If a repeal with a delay is enacted, the health care system will be standing on the edge of a cliff, resulting in uncertainty and, in some cases, harm beginning immediately. Insurance companies may not want to participate in the Health Insurance Marketplace in 2018 or may significantly increase prices to prepare for changes in the next year or two, partly to try to avoid the blame for any change that is unpopular. Physician practices may stop investing in new approaches to care coordination if Medicare’s Innovation Center is eliminated. Hospitals may have to cut back services and jobs in the short run in anticipation of the surge in uncompensated care that will result from rolling back the Medicaid expansion. Employers may have to reduce raises or delay hiring to plan for faster growth in health care costs without the current law’s cost-saving incentives. And people with preexisting conditions may fear losing lifesaving health care that may no longer be affordable or accessible.

Does anybody remember the deal that came out of the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011? We were assured that the sequester, which would cut spending across the board without regard to its importance, would never come to pass. It was just an enforcement mechanism to make sure that the bipartisan "Supercommittee" really did come up with $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next ten years. And they would, because nobody wanted the sequester.

Well, threatening the committee with something awful didn't magically make the partisan deadlock go away: Republicans still wouldn't consider any tax increases, and Democrats still weren't willing to offer $1.5 trillion of spending cuts without any tax increases. So the sequester happened, even though everybody swore it wouldn't.

Same thing here: We're told that if ObamaCare is repealed, effective two or three years in the future, then Congress will be forced to come up with a replacement, because nobody wants to be responsible for 20 million people losing their health insurance and everybody losing protection against being locked out of the insurance system by a pre-existing condition.

And that's exactly right: Nobody wants to be responsible. So when it happens they'll all do their best to duck the responsibility.


Repeal-and-delay or repeal-now-and-replace-someday may have trouble in the Senate, where it only takes three Republican dissenters to derail the plan. So far

Rand Paul (R-KY), Bob Corker (R-TN), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Susan Collins (R-ME) are all signaling a potential break from the rest of their party. Though it’s not yet clear whether these senators will cast a vote against Obamacare repeal, the growing unease in the Senate puts the GOP on shaky ground.

They're not coming out as ObamaCare defenders by any means, but each is reluctant to vote for repeal without knowing what the replacement proposal will be.

There's a distinction to make here between sharp, hard-nosed tactics and irresponsibility. Much of the repeal of ObamaCare can be done through a reconciliation process that can't be filibustered, but a replacement proposal would need 60 votes to get through the Senate, which it is unlikely to get at the moment.

So it makes tactical sense for the Republicans to separate the two votes, figuring that after ObamaCare is repealed, some Democrats will come around to a Republican replacement plan rather than revert to the broken healthcare system we had in 2009. What's irresponsible, though, is that the replacement plan doesn't even exist yet, and it's not at all clear that Republicans can agree on one, even among themselves. They've had seven years to concoct a plan; it's a mystery why the 8th or 9th year would be the charm.


Various Republicans are insisting that no one will be worse off under their plan, whatever it turns out to be. They almost certainly can't make good on that, "since they are backing themselves into having no money to insure 20 or 25 million people" (as Josh Marshall observes), "But they're on the record."

For what it's worth, Trump said during the campaign: "Everybody's going to be taken care of much better than they're taken care of now." This week, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said: "We don't want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance."

Paul Ryan: "Clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off." But later, his people walked that back, claiming that the Speaker was talking only about the transition period before the replacement took effect.

but I'm thinking about resistance

There are a number of events you could go to, either this weekend or next. You can search for something near you at the Our Revolution event page. (There are probably other event pages; if you know of any, mention them in the comments.)

The big ones, of course, are the Women's Marches January 21, a week from Saturday and the day after the Inauguration. The central one in D.C. is expected to draw hundreds of thousands, and there are sister marches in cities all over the country.

If you're the kind of person who doesn't usually do this kind of thing, one question you might be asking yourself is: If I go, what difference will it make?

I won't try to convince you that you'll have some major impact on Trump himself, or on most of his supporters either. But a big news-making crowd might make congresspeople of both parties think twice before they sign on to Trump's agenda, and also affect the way the media covers the administration going forward. We want to short-circuit the narrative that says the public is coming around on Trump, that nobody really cares about his conflicts of interest, his racist chief strategist and attorney general, his targeting of Muslim Americans and Hispanic immigrants, his anti-woman proposals and personal history, his pro-billionaire agenda, and all the rest of it.

But beyond all those good effects (which I admit that one more person would advance only marginally), you should think about the effect that going to a march will have on yourself. By getting out and marching on the first full day of the new administration, you start to change your self-image and your political identity. Rather than being someone who just pays attention to the news and votes, you start becoming someone who is more involved and does things on a regular basis. You may meet other people who get involved and do things, or discover that people you already know are out there with you. You may start feeling less helpless and hopeless. You may do less yelling at the TV and more planning how to respond. Seeds will get planted, and who can predict what will sprout from them?

So sure, do it for the country. But also do it for yourself.


As for affecting Congress, some ex-staffers for Democratic congresspeople have used their inside knowledge to put together Indivisible: a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. It's about tactics for forming constituent groups and influencing your members of Congress.

It includes a number of tips that are obvious once you've read them, but that not everybody would think of. Like this one for attending town-hall meetings:

SHOULD I BRING A SIGN?
Signs can be useful for reinforcing the sense of broad agreement with your message. However, if you’re holding an oppositional sign, staffers will almost certainly not give you or the people with you the chance to get the mic or ask a question. If you have enough people to both ask questions and hold signs, though, then go for it!


The House Republicans' attempt to do away with the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics failed. After an immediate public outcry, they backed down. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this issue, but it points out that the public's voice still matters, if we choose to use it.


Sleeping Giants "is an organization dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites by stopping their ad dollars." The main tactic seems to be pointing out to companies that their online ads are appearing next to horrible content, implying that the company endorses such views. Current target: Addidas.

We've reached a point in our country where sitting it out isn't an option. If you're a part of ad dollars flowing to racist sites like Breitbart, then you're part of the ugliness undermining a strong, diverse America.

and here's the most important story nobody's paying attention to

From ProPublica, an organization that has a history of doing good, accurate reporting:

The rate of pregnancy-related deaths in Texas seemed to have doubled since 2010, making the Lone Star State one of the most dangerous places in the developed world to have a baby.

The increase is largest among African-American women, and the timing corresponds to a funding cut for family-planning centers that serve low-income women. Coincidence?

and you might also be interested in

Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes: "Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose." Read the whole thing. Or watch it.

Trump, of course, doesn't the grace to let something like that stand -- imagine if President Obama had felt obligated to respond to every bad thing said about him -- so he tweeted:

Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood, doesn't know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big

"Overrated" is also how he described Hamilton, so it's starting to look like a badge of honor. Being called "overrated" by Trump is something to aspire to.


If you want to know how bad things could get, look to Brazil. After President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party was impeached in August, the current un-elected president, Michel Temer, took over, despite being just as corrupt as Rousseff. Temer has pushed through a constitutional amendment to freeze public spending on all social programs at current levels (plus inflation) for the next 20 years. A whopping 24% of the public supports that limit -- 43% of Brazilians were unaware of the plan a short time before the Senate approved it -- but the business community loves it, so it passed.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, says the freeze "clearly violates Brazil’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights" and "will place Brazil in a socially retrogressive category all of its own".

A separate pension-reform proposal forbids retirement before age 65, in a country where the life expectancy in many poorer communities is lower than that. Labor laws are also under attack. In many, many ways, the government is taking an attitude of: Yeah, it's unfair and unpopular, but so what?


I frequently link to Pressthink by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at Columbia who is one of the sharpest people thinking about American news coverage. Recently he had a very good two-part series about the challenge Trump poses to journalism and some (admittedly incomplete) suggestions about how to respond.

One of the problems he cites:

A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: “Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.” ... [E]xisting methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.

The usual model of trying to gain access to high-ranking officials can backfire in such a regime: What if your inside source has no more idea what the President thinks than you do?


Hearings are starting on Trump's appointees, even though background checks on conflicts of interest are unfinished. How are senators supposed to know what to ask about?


It looks like Trump is going to ask Congress to pay for the wall. Supposedly, Mexico will reimburse us later. I think this is a pattern we'll see a lot of: Magical things are going to happen someday to fulfill Trump's promises, but in the meantime something else will happen.


Yonatan Zunger has a different metaphor for talking about tolerance, and it gets around the tolerating-intolerance issue: He thinks of tolerance not as a virtue, but as a peace treaty. You tolerate those who sign onto the treaty, but not those who reject it.

There may be bad consequences to this view that I haven't identified yet, but I'm going to think about it.


At the Pink Panthers blog, dissident liberal Christians are asking for secular help getting their message out.

Obviously, a religious establishment which would pressure their followers elevate a man like Donald Trump to office and claim that this pleases God is, at the least, dangerous to our survival as a nation. Most of what passes for Christianity in this country is nothing more than complicated explanations for how a person can reject everything Jesus ever said while remaining Christian. Which is a travesty. Real Christianity is something which most human beings would look at and say, “even if I can’t believe in the religious stuff, I can see that this is good and right. It makes sense.” But right now, that kind of Christianity has been rendered all but voiceless both inside and outside the church.

Which is why I am asking secular, liberal America to start sharing the voices of Christian dissent on social media.


The Wall Street Journal (link behind paywall; summary at ThinkProgress) reports that Trump businesses owe far more than the $315 million he has admitted to.

Last May, Mr. Trump filed a financial-disclosure form with the Federal Election Commission that listed 16 loans worth $315 million that his businesses had received from 10 companies, including Deutsche Bank AG. But that form reported debts only for companies he controls, excluding more than $1.5 billion lent to partnerships that are 30%-owned by him.

ThinkProgress adds:

[The] financial institutions [that hold this debt] include many firms that are under the scrutiny of the federal agencies that Trump will soon control. Wells Fargo, for example, which services over $900 million in loans connected to Trump, “is currently facing scrutiny from federal regulators surrounding its fraudulent sales practices and other issues.”

and let's close with something adorable

One of my friends has been working on this project for some while now, but has had to be circumspect about discussing it until the company was ready to announce, which it did this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Kuri, a gender-nonspecific name pronounced like the spicy Indian dish, is a different take on the idea of a home robot: It's more of a pet than an appliance, and isn't trying to look like a human or replace your maid service. So it won't vacuum your rug, but it will roll around your house looking cute and evoking interactions -- kind of like a puppy on wheels, but without the mess.

Its appearance owes more to R2D2 than C3PO. Techcrunch describes Kuri as "an Amazon Echo designed by Pixar", and in fact a Pixar animator did have a hand in the design. After decades of sci-fi about emotionless androids who are preternaturally competent and useful (i.e., Star Trek's Data), the idea that emotional connection needs to happen first is a fascinating reversal.

NBC News covered it like this.