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:

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?

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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.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Raising Doubt

Trump doesn't care if we think he's telling the truth - he just wants his supporters to doubt that anyone's telling the truth.

- Jon Favreau

This week's featured post is "All Democrats have some introspecting to do".

This week everybody was looking back at 2016

If good thing happened in your personal life last year, I'm happy for you. But in collective terms, 2016 was a nightmare.

CNN has a photo gallery of people who died in 2016: Muhammed Ali, David Bowie, John Glenn, and many others.

TPM presented the annual Golden Dukes awards, for outstanding achievement in "public corruption, outlandish behavior, The Crazy, nonsense and all relevant betrayals of the public trust".

The stylistic contrast between the old and new presidents in a nutshell:

Conclusion of the Obama New Year message:

It’s been the privilege of my life to serve as your President. And as I prepare to take on the even more important role of citizen, know that I will be there with you every step of the way to ensure that this country forever strives to live up to the incredible promise of our founding—that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve every chance to live out our dreams. And from the Obama family to yours—have a happy and blessed 2017.

The Trump New Year tweet:

Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don't know what to do. Love!

and talking about Israel

The relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu administration is ending with a lot of shouting. The U.S. refused to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the Obama administration of a "disgraceful anti-Israel maneuver". And John Kerry gave a speech highly critical of current Israeli policy.

I may comment at length after I've had time to sort through the details, but for now I'll rely on analysis from Vox.

For decades, every military crisis between Israel and the Palestinians has ended with the U.S. pressuring the Israeli government to stand down. And many of us have wondered how much real effect that pressure had. Maybe the Israeli leaders had completed whatever they wanted to do and used American pressure as cover against their political right flank at home. Or maybe they really were about to wreak massive vengeance, but America stopped them. Nobody really knew.

During the Trump administration, I think we're going to find out. Because I don't think Trump cares what happens Palestinian civilians. His people think we're in a global war between Christendom and Islam, and anybody fighting Muslims is on our side. So if you're an Israeli right-winger who has secretly been pining to do some ethnic cleansing, or to herd Palestinians into impoverished, unsustainable bantustans on the apartheid model (or the Gaza model, for that matter), the next four years are your chance. We'll see who tries to take advantage of it.

While I was researching this issue, I ran across this thought-provoking essay by Uriel Abulof at Jewish Daily Forward. It doesn't have a nice, pithy summary, but it's basically about the temptation of tribalism, and its political consequences: We want to be free individuals, but we also have a deep need to belong to something.

The liberal conclusion has since crystalized: Tame the tribe! Turn those perilous peoples into civic, multicultural, cosmopolitan societies, rationally administrated by the state. Globalization, with the European Union as its beloved offspring, should have fostered that vision.

But it is not turning out that way. Liberalism’s advantage — the primacy of the individual — is also its Achilles’ heel: It captures a yearning for independence, but fails to grasp the equally powerful drive to belong. Consequently, in recent years, neoliberalism’s inadvertent repression of that yearning has spurred Rousseau’s revenge: the return of the tribe. And now the tribe is intent on taking over the state that sought to tame it.

and Milo

Unless you've been paying attention to the alt-Right, you may never have heard of Milo Yiannopoulos. On the other hand, if you read Breitbart, you think he's a rock star -- he's just "Milo", like Madonna or Beyoncé. Or even "MILO".

Milo is a professional troll who came to public attention in the Gamergate controversy of 2014. He says and does outrageous things and profits from the attention they draw. That description could apply to any number of people, a few of whom I admire. But Milo takes it a step further, using his fame to focus his fans' persecution on individuals, like actress Leslie Jones and this transgender student in Wisconsin.

He's in the news now because he just got a $250K book deal from the respected publishing house of Simon & Schuster. This has incited a backlash against S&S, including such moves as The Chicago Review of Books announcing that it will not review any S&S books in 2017 or independent bookstores refusing to stock their titles.

It's important to understand exactly what kind of protest this is, and why it's really not a free-speech or freedom-of-the-press issue. No one is attacking either Milo's legal right to write a book or Simon's legal right to publish it. That's the law and no one disputes it. The point is that S&S can't promote this kind of garbage and remain a respected publisher. If Milo wants to self-publish, or if Breitbart wants to publish his book, fine. People who want to buy it should be able to. And if Simon & Schuster wants to become an alt-Right publishing house, that's up to them. But no law says I have to respect them.

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Inauguration Day is January 20, two weeks from Friday. The next day is the Women's March on Washington.

The Women’s March on Washington is quick to say it is not an anti-Trump protest. “We’re not targeting Trump specifically. It’s much more about being proactive about women’s rights,” said Cassady Fendlay, spokeswoman for the march.

I expect a certain amount of solidarity with other groups who feel threatened by Trump, like immigrants and Muslims. If you can't make it to Washington, there are sister marches in at least 30 other cities. I plan to go to the Boston one.

I think this kind of thing is important to do. Trump has shown absolutely no interest in reaching out to the majority that voted against him, or the plurality that voted for Clinton. We need to establish that we haven't gone away, and we need to start building the connections that we'll need for more issue-specific protests as the Trump administration starts doing things.

I also agree with the framing: Trump hasn't had a chance to do anything as president yet, so it's premature to protest against him. But people worried about the Trump administration need to know they have support.

North Carolina can no longer be considered a democracy, according to a report by the Electoral Integrity Project. I'm withholding further comment on this until I can read the report, which I haven't been able to find on the EIP web site.

Fascinating piece in Wired: Obesity might have more causes than just diet and exercise or genes. In particular, a virus might rewire your system to crave food and build fat.

Maybe comedians can succeed where more serious voices fail. Seth Meyers devotes 9 minutes to the Trump administration and climate change.

and let's close with something beautiful

A video from the Beauty of Science channel on YouTube.