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.

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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?