Military Swagger

We don’t look down upon those of you who haven’t served.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

This week’s featured posts are “The Billie Jean Republicans” — picture a GOP senator backed by a chorus of corporate donors, denying their responsibility for Trump — and something a little more serious: “Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military“.

In case “Billie Jean” has you trying to remember the Sift’s previous poetic posts, they’re: “Donnie in the Room” (based on “Casey at the Bat”) and “Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr.” (based on “If”).

This week everybody was talking about the Niger operation, and the distracting controversy it launched

Mostly this is covered in one of the featured posts. But John Kelly has turned into his own issue. Vox’ Dara Lind compares his attitude to Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men.

But it’s not just that Kelly doesn’t respect the way that politics works within Washington — the time it takes to make a congressional deal, the way that embarrassing statements can get leaked to eager reporters. He actively thinks that they have America wrong, and that they will never understand it in the way those who serve it will.

Charles Pierce sees Kelly’s lying defense of Trump as

a terribly sad moment. Everything and everybody this president* touches goes bad from the inside out.

Matt Yglesias had another depressing thought.

Kelly’s performance today should be a wakeup call to anyone who still thinks there are “adults in the room” who’ll save us.

Occasionally the media speculates that Kelly will get tired of his thankless job and quit. I predict a different scenario: At some point Trump will have wrung all the credibility out of Kelly, and then he’ll toss the general away.


There’s one more part of Kelly’s remarks I can’t let go by:

You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.

Kelly and I grew up in the same era. (He’s six years older.) So I can testify that he is totally full of crap on this. Women of our mothers’ generation were shown superficial respect — holding doors for them, etc. — as long as they lived narrowly scripted lives of service to men. But a woman was not honored if she spoke out in public, or entered the workplace, or sought an advanced degree, or decided not to get married, or did anything else outside the script. Quite the opposite.

and rebukes to Trump without naming him

George W. Bush spoke Thursday in New York. He addressed threats to democracy and said that “when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.” (In case you don’t recognize it, that’s a reference to the presidential oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution.)

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

He also contradicted Trump’s claim that the Russia story is “fake news”.

America is experiencing the sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country’s divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms.

He also said “white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

In a speech accepting the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center last Monday, John McCain said:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.

As much as I approve of Republicans giving other Republicans permission to criticize Trump, though, the country needs a lot more from Republican leaders. How do they propose to limit the damage being done by this unfit president, or to remove him?

and healthcare

It looks like the Murray-Alexander bill on healthcare — the bipartisan one that tries to fix some of the damage Trump has been doing to the health insurance markets — will get a vote in the Senate. It still seems unlikely to get a vote in the House, and no one — including Mitch McConnell — knows what Trump would be willing to sign.


More proof that Trump has no ideas for improving American healthcare: In an appearance with the Greek prime minister Tuesday, Trump took questions. He was asked “What is your healthcare plan, sir?”

He responded with a long ramble justifying what he had just done (cancel CSR payments that reimburse insurance companies for losses on cheap policies to the working poor), criticized insurance companies, pronounced ObamaCare dead, said something about block grants to the states, predicted that he would have the votes to repeal ObamaCare after Congress got done with tax reform, called Democrats “obstructionists” who “have no good policies”, bragged about how many judges he has appointed (while criticizing Democrats for slowing down Senate approval of nominees), and denounced insurance-premium increases under ObamaCare.

The reporter followed up: “So is Graham-Cassidy still the plan, sir?” And Trump said: “Yeah, essentially that would be the plan. Yes, block grants.”

He has a two-word-answer grasp of the subject, which he hides under mountains of meaningless self-serving verbiage. How should Americans who aren’t rich get the care they need and pay for it? He has no idea.

but I eventually got around to looking at the Values Voters Summit

It was last week’s news, but I fall behind sometimes.

Trump: “As long as we have pride in our country, confidence in our future, and faith in our God, then America will prevail.” The phrase “our God” bothers me. That didn’t just pop out of his mouth. This was a scripted teleprompter speech, so the words were chosen. He could have said “faith in God”, which would already be controversial in a few ways. But instead he said “faith in our God”.

Does America have a national god who is different from the gods of other countries or of the Universe? What about citizens of the United States who don’t don’t worship the American God? Do they count as “us”, as Americans? Is Trump their president too?


I haven’t been the only one writing song lyrics. Roy Moore’s speech included new lyrics that almost fit the tune of “America the Beautiful”, outlining all the ways that today’s America seems ugly and evil to him, and calling down God’s judgment on us.

Moore and his audience are white instead of black, and the sins he charges against America (abortion, drug abuse, abandoning the death penalty) are different than the ones Rev. Jeremiah Wright focused on (slavery, herding Native Americans onto reservations, putting Japanese Americans into detention camps during World War II, funneling black youth into low-paying jobs or prison rather than educating them). But otherwise, how is this different from the “God damn America” sermon Wright got pilloried for?

and you also might be interested in …

The Senate moved Congress one step closer to tax reform. It passed a budget resolution that would make a Republican tax-cut bill eligible for reconciliation, letting it pass the Senate with 50 votes plus Vice President Pence. Now they just need to figure out what goes into that bill.


The Trump/Russia legal-fee issue just got weirder. For months, the RNC and the Trump campaign have been paying the legal bills of the President and of Donald Trump Jr., but no one else. Now, Trump says he will use up to $430,000 of his own money to pay legal bills for White House staff and campaign aides. So they’d better say what they’re told to say, right?


Fort Worth Weekly uses two local Christian seminaries to illustrate the diversity of American Christianity. If “Christian” means just one thing to you, you might find this enlightening.


After five years at the American Chemical Council, Nancy Beck became a primary EPA decision-maker on toxic chemicals. What could go wrong?

and let’s close with something terrestrial

No, it isn’t a starship, it’s a manta ray. The shot is from the Nature Conservancy’s 2017 photo contest. It’s not even the winner.

Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

The Billie Jean Republicans

As I’ve been listening to prominent Republicans like Bob Corker try to distance themselves from the man they helped elect president, I’ve been hearing a beat in the background. It took a while to figure out where it was from: that ultimate song about the denial no one believes, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean“. Once I realized that, I listened harder, and eventually I started hearing words.

I picture this as a production number, with a high-ranking congressional Republican backed by a dancing chorus of corporate donors. On the off-chance that somebody out there has the resources to make this happen, you have my permission in advance.

All I wanted was lower tax, regulation lax.
I didn’t mean to promote attacks on refugees.
If he does, it’s on him, not on me.
Putting down refugees — if he does, it’s on him, not on me.

I never minded some Chinese-made, if it’s from free trade.
 No sane man wants a foundation laid to build his wall.
If he does, that’s on him, not on me.

I was always rooting for Jeb or Lindsay Graham
Marco Rubio or even Cruz.
I never believed it would all come down to him.
But when it was time to choose
I couldn’t make myself refuse.

[with chorus]
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
He’s just a guy who came to power in our name.
But the Party’s not to blame.
He’s in power in our name, but our Party’s not to blame.

I didn’t flinch when he let it fly, the Birther lie.
I heard the tape about migrant rape. I let it go.
What he says, it’s on him, not on me.
So whatever it means, just remember to keep your hands clean.
(They’re not clean. They’re not clean.)

I know he bragged about sex assault, it’s not my fault.
Will I have to keep them in a vault, my wife and girls?
But what he did, it’s on him, not on me.

In Charlottesville by tiki light, it was quite a sight.
All those fine people from the alt-Right chanting “Sieg Heil!”
What they do, it’s on them, not on me.

People used to tell me, be careful what you say.
Don’t go around raising young men’s hate.
But his crowds just eat it up
When there’s violence in the air.
And unless it’s about race,
Maybe we’re in second place.

[with chorus until the end]
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
He’s just a guy who came to power in our name.
But the Party’s not to blame.
He’s in power in our name, but our Party’s not to blame.

Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)
Stevie Bannon’s not our fault. (No!)
David Duke is not our fault. (No!)
Judge Roy Moore is not our fault. (No!)
Richard Spencer’s not our fault. (No!)
Donald Trump is not our fault. (No!)

[repeat and fade]

The Monday Morning Teaser

Lately, Republican refugees like Bob Corker, John McCain, and even former President George W. Bush have begun arriving — a year late and few billion dollars short — in the camp of Trump critics. For the most part their warnings are oblique and their recommendations don’t include any actions that would make a material difference, but at least they’re positioned to unleash a strong I-told-you-so if we eventually wind up in World War III or the Fourth Reich. Good for them.

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are still making nice with Trump, even though they surely know what he is by now. Eventually they too will probably defect, after it’s too late to make any difference. I predict that their authorized biographies will be full of angst and trepidation and dire predictions made privately to nobody in particular. Like Flat Nose Curry after Butch Cassidy wins the knife fight, they’ll come up to whoever does finally manage to end the Trump regime and say, “I was really rooting for you.”

Thanks Paul. Thanks Mitch. That is what sustains us in our time of trouble.

This week I express the Republican dilemma — how to avoid blame for the looming disaster without taking a stand that will actually mean anything — in a musical parody. I start with a song about a denial no one believes: Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. (Don’t you think the kid really is his son?) Picture it sung by some unspecified congressional Republican, backed by a chorus of corporate donors. “All I wanted was lower tax, regulation lax …”

That should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The second featured post is less fun and more scholarly: “Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military”. Historically, militarism and democracy haven’t played well together. Professional soldiers can be sent places where a voting majority would not tolerate risking their sons and daughters. Leaders of a professional army can come to think of themselves as an elite class, and develop the arrogance of a John Kelly. This week we’ve seen lots of signs that would not have surprised the people who wrote our Constitution and Bill of Rights. I’ll predict that for 10 or 11.

That doesn’t leave much space for the weekly summary, which still has a number of things to cover: Congress’ budget outline, what Bush and McCain actually said, the bipartisan (but probably doomed) effort to keep the health insurance market from collapsing, some reflections on the Values Voters summit, and a few other things. I’m hoping to have that done by noon.

Self-awareness

Jeb Bush ran for president on the theory that tax cuts would generate 4 percent economic growth. Marco Rubio argued that Barack Obama was deliberately trying to damage the United States. Ed Gillespie claims that sanctuary cities that don’t even exist are responsible for the rise of a violent international criminal organization. The same congressional Republicans who swore for years that growing debt was the biggest threat to the country are lining up behind a budget that will authorize more than $1 trillion in new borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich. The difference between these guys and the new crop of kooks — between a respected colleague like Bob Corker and a feared soon-to-be-colleague like Marsha Blackburn — as I understand it, is that the establishment politicians are aware that they are lying.

 – Matt Yglesias “Establishment Republicans mystified by their base should look at Ed Gillespie’s campaign

This week’s featured post is “Taking Hostages“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s moves to wreck things

I cover his threats to DACA, the Iran deal, and ObamaCare in the featured post. Increasingly, Trump is realizing that even having Republican majorities in Congress doesn’t allow him to run over Democrats. So now he’s trying to get their cooperation by taking hostages.

and we also paid attention to that other abuser of women, Harvey Weinstein

Before this week, I’m pretty sure I could have sat next to Harvey Weinstein on an airplane without recognizing him. I remember seeing the Weinstein Company logo in film credits, but I couldn’t tell you which movies they were. So I’ve been amazed at how much coverage his sexual abuse scandal is getting. To me, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes were public figures, but Weinstein is just another rich dude.

Actually, Ailes is probably comparable: a guy who’s powerful within his industry, but most people wouldn’t recognize on the street. (I just happen follow political journalism much more closely than I follow movies, so Fox News seems like a bigger deal to me than the Weinstein Company.) Like Roger Ailes’ story, Weinstein’s is driven largely by the star-power of his accusers: Gywneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie for Weinstein, Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson for Ailes.

It appears Weinstein has been doing this for a long time, but once accusations reached a critical mass, the response was swift. His company has fired him, the Motion Picture Academy expelled him, and I hope no one takes seriously the idea that some sort of therapy will qualify him for a comeback. (Personally, I don’t believe predatory behavior is treatable. Predators have more motivation to pretend to reform than to actually reform.) If there’s enough evidence for a criminal conviction, I hope prosecutors go for it.

What makes Weinstein’s story different from Trump, O’Reilly, and Ailes is that his political connections are liberal rather than conservative. Conservative media has tried to make a hypocrisy story out of that: See, liberals abuse women too.

I will note the major difference: It has been the liberal media (the NYT and The New Yorker) that has been leading the charge to break this story. And (unlike Ailes) Weinstein isn’t being defended (except by Woody Allen; they should start a club). Kellyanne Conway has tried to make a thing out of the fact that five whole days passed before Hillary Clinton spoke out against Weinstein. But Trump actively defended both Ailes and O’Reilly, and to my knowledge still hasn’t condemned them. And Conway herself defended Trump after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual assault, and he confessed on tape.


The one upside of this story is the attention it has drawn to situations that are not rape in the clearest sense — not a guy forcing sex on a woman who is unmistakably refusing — but where differences in status and power make refusal problematic, situations where ambiguous behavior will be interpreted in the man’s favor, up until the point where it will be assumed by many that the woman consented by not objecting. Even if no physical force is involved, the man has to know that the woman is giving in rather than participating.

Kate Manne’s article at Huffington Post, for example, rambles but also covers a lot of ground — through novels, TV shows, journal articles, and her own memories of an abusive piano teacher during a time when she dreamed of a professional career. The experience “tainted playing the piano for me”. Likewise, some of the Weinstein accusations come from women who gave up their dream of being actresses. Who can guess how many women have abandoned ambitions as a vague not-quite-intended response to harassment that they didn’t feel in a position to report at the time?

and Puerto Rico

Tuesday, AP reported that 10 people have been diagnosed with leptospirosis, a disease you get by drinking water contaminated by animal urine. Four deaths have been attributed to this disease, which is both preventable and treatable.

When he was in Puerto Rico, Trump bragged about the low death totals, then only 16. The official count is now higher, and is probably still too low.

At Vox, we decided to compare what the government has been saying with other reports of deaths from the ground. We searched Google News for reports of deaths in English and Spanish media from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. We found reports of a total of 81 deaths linked directly or indirectly to the hurricane. Of those, 45 were the deaths certified by the government. The remaining 36 deaths were confirmed by local public officials or funeral directors, according to the reports. We also found another 450 reported deaths, most of causes still unknown, and reports of at least 69 people still missing.

The estimates of how many people are without power change daily, but have been running in the 70-90% range.


I’ve been saying since before the Inauguration that Trump (like the alt-Right in general) distinguishes between Americans and real Americans. Real Americans (also sometimes referred to as “the American People”; I talked here about what it means to be “a people”) are English-speaking white Christians.

If you’re really adamant about two out of three, that might be enough for you to count as “real”, but just being white or Christian or speaking English as your first language isn’t. (For the Dreamers, even two out of three isn’t enough.) So Puerto Ricans, who (though often Catholic) are mostly brown-skinned Spanish-speakers, don’t qualify as real Americans, no matter what their passports say. That’s why the America-First President can tweet so blithely about abandoning them in their hour of need. The thought of how much money the U.S. is spending to help them, which never came up in presidential rhetoric after the Texas and Florida hurricanes, is never far from his mind. He also worries about whether they are doing enough to help themselves, another idea that didn’t come up in Harvey or Irma relief. It is as if he considers Puerto Rico disaster relief to be foreign aid.


Rachel Maddow has been making the Navy hospital ship Comfort a symbol of the relief effort’s mismanagement. It’s in Puerto Rico, but as of Thursday, only 8 of its 1000 beds were occupied.

and the California fires

As of Friday, the Tubbs fire in the Santa Rosa area had destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, most of them homes. And that’s just one of the still-raging fires.

As with the hurricanes, climate change is sitting in the background of this story. The usual caveats apply: There’s always been a wildfire season in California, so you can’t look at any particular fire and say that climate change caused it. But …

As the climate changes, extremes in seasonal conditions are exacerbated, [University of California Professor LeRoy] Westerling says. Climate change affects wildfires from two directions at different times of the year: Winters become wetter and shorter, while summers become hotter and last longer.

“Climate change is kind of turning up the dial on everything,” Westerling said. “Dry periods become more extreme. Wet periods become more extreme.”

One thing I didn’t understand before: Both sides of that process promote wildfires. The wet winters cause more vegetation to grow, which dries out in the summer and becomes fuel for the fires.


If you missed it the first time around, now is a good time to watch this episode of Years of Living Dangerously. It tells two stories about deforestation: Harrison Ford is in Indonesia, and Arnold Schwarzenegger talks to the people who fight wildfires in the American West.


From a friend whose home in Santa Rosa is within blocks of the total-loss zone:

Ronald Reagan famously said: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’.”

Ronald Reagan was a fucking moron.

Rugged individualism just doesn’t cut it when you’re in the path of a hurricane or a major fire.

but we need to watch the Russia/Trump/social media story

Most of the talk about the Trump/Russia investigation centers on the hacks of Democratic emails and the process by which they got leaked to the press. But ultimately Russia’s social media strategy may turn out to be more important.

The Internet Research Agency employ hundreds of so-called “trolls” who post pro-Kremlin content, much of it fake or discredited, under the guise of phony social media accounts that posed as American or European residents, according to lawmakers and researchers.

Facebook announced last month it had unearthed $100,000 in spending by the Internet Research Agency and, under pressure from lawmakers, has pledged to be more transparent about how its ads are purchased and targeted.

Google has found tens of thousands spent by a different Russian group on its ads, and Microsoft is still looking into the issue. There have also been reports of Russian Twitter-bots who manipulated which stories were “trending”. A number of those Facebook ads targeted Wisconsin and Michigan.

Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said.

This is far from conclusive evidence of collusion with the Trump campaign, but it does suggest some American involvement: Somebody working with the Russians had a very deep, granular understanding of the American electorate.


Larry Kim reports on how easy it is to set yourself up as a fake-news mogul. He created a web site, spent $50 on Facebook ads, and reached 4,645 conservative-leaning people in Pennsylvania, generating 44 likes and 27 shares. Imagine what could be done with an army of trolls and hundreds of thousands to spend. If you build a bunch of sites all referencing each other’s fake-news stories, you could create your own bubble.

and you also might be interested in …

The NYT covers research into why wolves are different from dogs. The theory: wolf puppies learn the difference between “us” and “them” very early, before their eyes and ears are working yet, entirely by scent. Dog puppies stay open to socialization longer, and learn to recognize familiar humans by sight and sound. The reporter is only partly convinced, but really enjoys the chance to play with wolf puppies.


The WaPo predicts that someday 2017 will be seen as “the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine“. The big reasons: China, Tesla, and GM.


Minister Carl Gregg discusses the question of how to deal with honest people who live in a world of alternative facts. Based a book called The Cynic and the Fool by Tad DeLay, he recommends starting with “motivational interviewing” rather than direct contradiction. “Why do you believe that?” rather than “That’s not true!”


Last week, Senator Corker described the White House as “an adult daycare center”. This week, Politico and The Washington Post explained how the daycare workers do their jobs. Mainly, when the Toddler-in-Chief is about to do something bad or dangerous, they distract him until his attention wanders somewhere else. (I picture them jingling a set of car keys.) And when he’s behaving, they tell him again and again what a good boy he is.


The nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality doesn’t think carbon dioxide should count as a pollutant.


Since the election, I’ve been thinking that liberals need to explain things we used to take for granted, and explicitly argue against ideas that used to be off the table. (I’ve done that with articles against white pride and nationalism.) Economics blogger Noah Smith apparently feels the same way: He explained in September why an American white ethnostate would be a bad idea, not just for the non-whites who would be either driven out or subordinated, but for the whites themselves.

Two main arguments: An all-white USA would have a crappy economy, not just because talented non-whites wouldn’t want to come (or stay) here, but because a lot of talented whites would leave (in the same way that many non-Jewish scientists left Hitler’s Germany). And the harsh policies necessary to get rid of American non-whites would leave us with corrupt and tyrannical institutions, staffed by people who were willing to do nasty things. In spite of our ethnic homogeneity, we’d have a low level of public trust for generations.

The nation that currently most resembles a white ethnic Trumpistan, in Smith’s opinion, is Ukraine: nearly all-white, dominated by agriculture and heavy industry — and with a GDP per capita about 1/6th of the U.S.


This week’s most head-scratching story is that the Department of the Interior flies a special flag to mark when Secretary Zinke is in the building. Buckingham Palace has long flown a flag to mark when the monarch is in residence. In the U.S. the tradition goes back to the Navy in 1866; the ship carrying the fleet commander would fly a special flag. In the early 20th century, cabinet-level flags became a fad of sorts, but went out of style because they were considered “pretentious”.

Chris Lu, deputy Labor secretary under Obama, said: “If we had a secretarial flag at the Obama Labor Department, we never bothered to locate it or use it.”

There’s a theme building in a variety of Trump administration scandals and controversies: High government office is about self-glorification, not public service.

and let’s close with something humbling

This one chart shows all the known cognitive biases. Human minds, it turns out, are kind of kludgy.

Taking Hostages

In one setting after another — DACA, Iran, ObamaCare — Trump has set a clock ticking towards disaster in hopes of getting concessions from Congress.


During the Obama years, I frequently found it necessary to explain the difference between negotiating and hostage-taking. If we’re negotiating, I push for what I want, you push for what you want, and we hope to meet somewhere in the middle. But if I demand that you give me what I want, under the threat that otherwise I’ll send us into a scenario that NO ONE wants, that’s hostage-taking. The defining mark of a hostage-taker is that the demand for cooperation unaccompanied by any positive offer: My proposed “compromise” isn’t that you’ll get some of what you want, but that I’ll remove a threat of my own making. “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt.”

The clearest examples of hostage-taking in recent American politics have been the debt-ceiling confrontations of 2011 and 2013, as well as the occasional posturing over the debt ceiling we still see from time to time. If Congress ever actually does refuse to raise the ceiling on the national debt, the country will be thrown into both a constitutional and an economic crisis that will benefit no one (possibly not even our enemies, who might get caught in the global economic downturn likely to follow the market’s loss of faith in U.S. bonds). In 2011 and 2013, Republicans wanted President Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and the end of ObamaCare. What they offered in exchange was nothing, beyond dropping their threat to set off a global crisis.

Recently, the Trump administration has brought us something I don’t think the U.S. has ever seen before: presidential hostage taking. American presidents usually assume that they’ll be blamed for whatever goes wrong, so they have nothing to gain from taking hostages; any catastrophe that spins out of the confrontation will ultimately be charged against them. But Trump has an unfortunate combination of character flaws that we’ve never seen in a president before:

  • He seems not to feel empathy for the people his policies might hurt.
  • He is convinced that no bad outcome can ever be his fault. If he sets up a confrontation that results in disaster, that just demonstrates that his enemies should have given in to him.

The failure of brute force. In the first half-year or so of his administration, Trump believed he didn’t need Democratic cooperation. With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he thought he could ignore Democratic resistance and win by brute force. In his first confrontation, that strategy worked: Nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court gave Trump’s base what it wanted without offering Democrats any hint of compromise. A Democratic filibuster was defeated not by convincing any Democrats to support Gorsuch, but by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations. Take that, Democrats!

But from spring into summer, right up to the September 30 reconciliation deadline, repeated attempts to win a brute-force victory on healthcare failed. Offered nothing, Democrats stayed united. But Republicans didn’t, so the small Republican majorities in both houses weren’t enough to push a bill through.

Trump’s current policy push, a tax-reform package centered on a major cut in corporate taxes, seems headed for a similar outcome. A proposal that reduces government revenue mainly by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich contains no provisions that a Democrat can take to his or her voters and say, “We got what we could out of the deal.” So Democrats will stay united. Republicans — each of whom represents a somewhat different configuration of interests — probably won’t.

Each of those efforts assumed the once-a-year reconciliation process that circumvents the filibuster in the Senate. Trump has urged the Senate to do away with the filibuster altogether, but there are enough traditionalists in the Republican Senate caucus to defeat that effort. For every other piece of legislation, Trump needs 60 votes in the Senate and only has 52 Republicans.

In short, Trump has already reached the limits of brute force in Congress. This is unlikely to change as the 2018 elections get closer, and if Republican majorities shrink (as seems likely, at least in the House), brute force is even less like to succeed in 2019 and beyond. So if Trump wants to get anything through Congress, he needs at least a small amount of Democratic cooperation. How to get it?

Start the time-bombs ticking. In the last couple of months we’ve seen a new tactic from Trump: Rather than propose even a framework of a policy and seek congressional approval, Trump unilaterally sets a clock ticking towards some outcome that hardly anybody wants. Congress is expected to do something to avert the looming disaster, though precisely what Trump wants it to do is usually unclear. This sets up the following possibilities.

  • If Congress does something popular, Trump can claim credit.
  • If Congress does something unpopular, Trump can save the country from it with a veto and/or a clock reset.
  • If Congress does nothing, he can denounce Congress for obstructing the “agenda” that he never actually proposed.

We’ve seen this set-up three times already in a fairly short time-period: DACA, ObamaCare, and Iran.

DACA. It’s not true that no one wants to deport the so-called Dreamers (the name derives from the DREAM Act — Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, which Congress never passed; that’s what motivated Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — executive order), but they are the most popular of America’s undocumented immigrants. A poll in September found that 58% of Americans want Dreamers to have a path to citizenship. Another 18% would let them be permanent residents without citizenship. Only 15% want them deported.

In the face of that public opinion, even Republicans say nice things about the Dreamers. Orrin Hatch, for example:

I’ve long advocated for tougher enforcement of our existing immigration laws. But we also need a workable, permanent solution for individuals who entered our country unlawfully as children through no fault of their own and who have built their lives here.

But on September 5, Trump started a clock running.

Under the plan, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration will stop considering new applications for legal status dated after Tuesday, but will allow any DACA recipients with a permit set to expire before March 5, 2018, the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal if they apply by October 5.

So after March 5, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And they’ll be easy to find, because the DACA program required them to register with the government.

At first, Trump himself seemed to share the public’s sympathy for the Dreamers, tweeting “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” His problem seemed to be mainly that DACA was established by executive order rather than by an act of Congress. Democrats briefly thought they had reached a deal with him to fix that. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement after a meeting with Trump:

We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.

At the time, Trump seemed to endorse the Democrats’ version:

“DACA now, and the wall very soon,” Trump told reporters on the south lawn of the White House in mid-September. “But the wall will happen.”

But this week he disavowed any such deal, and issued his ransom note of 70 demands. Not only did it include funding for his border wall, but it also had one giant poison pill: It criminalizes millions of immigrants who (under current law) have only committed the civil infraction of overstaying their visas.

Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers [1] and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can’t be thrown in jail.

Many of them are eligible for a visa renewal or for refugee status, but haven’t been able to navigate our byzantine process. [2]

But Trump’s proposals (according to the Cato Institute)

would create a new misdemeanor offense for overstaying a visa. Immigration fraud is already a crime. This would criminalize the technical violation, regardless of the reason.

If, for example, your application gets lost in the mail, or vanishes into some bureaucrat’s files, you become a criminal. But there’s more:

It would also create new criminal penalties for filing “baseless” asylum applications and increase penalties for those who recross the border after a deportation.

So if you are in danger in your home country, be sure you thoroughly document your situation and bring the paperwork with you when you run for your life. Otherwise you may go to jail in the U.S. for filing a baseless asylum application.

In short, Trump’s price for giving the Dreamers legal status (he still hasn’t said what kind) isn’t just to build a wall, but to criminalize at least twice as many people as he legalizes. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asks. But he’ll start doing it on March 5 unless his demands are met.

ObamaCare. The Constitution says that a primary duty of the President is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. It doesn’t say “unless they were passed under your predecessor and you don’t like them”. But that’s the spin Trump has been putting on the Affordable Care Act since he took office.

The initial sabotage was low-level and seemed like the grousing of teen-agers who complain about going to school as they go to school. For example, HHS took some of the money appropriated to publicize the program and used it to create videos that criticized ObamaCare instead. Somewhat more seriously, the Trump administration has also made it harder to sign up by cutting the open enrollment period.

But this week he made two direct attempts at sabotage: He ordered HHS to expand the role of interstate association healthcare plans, which provides a way to siphon off healthier, younger people into cheaper plans, leaving older, sicker people behind in a more expensive risk pool that is in greater danger of collapsing. And he announced that he will cut off the cost-sharing-reduction payments that help people just above the poverty line cover their deductibles and make co-payments.

It’s important to realize that this is not the main ObamaCare subsidy, the one that helps people pay their premiums. (If people get the impression that all ObamaCare subsidies have been eliminated, that will sabotage sign-ups beyond what the actual situation implies.) Eliminating it will actually not help anybody.

If the payments are stopped, insurers would still be required to give low-income consumers plans with small deductibles and co-payments. But insurers would no longer be able to get financial help for the costs they are bearing.

Some insurance companies would likely decide that it was no longer worth selling health plans on the marketplaces. Others might conclude that they have to raise premiums across-the-board to cover the additional losses.

Insurance regulators predict that premiums nationwide will go up an average of 12% to 15% because of Trump’s decision. But the increase in some areas could be much larger.

Many of the people hurt worst will be Trump voters.

An estimated 4 million people were benefiting from the cost-sharing payments in the 30 states Trump carried, according to an analysis of 2017 enrollment data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of consumers benefiting from cost-sharing, all but one — Massachusetts — went for Trump.

It won’t even save the government money. Increasing premiums increases the primary ObamaCare subsidies, which will cost the government money.The point of all this, then, isn’t to improve anything for anybody. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump still hasn’t put forward any healthcare plan at all. The Republican plans Congress has rejected were all constructed in Congress. So far, there is no reason to believe that Trump has any ideas for improving healthcare.) It’s to fulfill his promise to “let ObamaCare implode” so that Democrats will have to give in to a repeal-and-replace plan that throws millions of people out of the health-insurance system.

In other words: Agree to hurt a bunch of people, or I’ll hurt even more people.

Iran. The people in the Trump administration who are supposed to understand such things tell us that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the 2015 deal that keeps them from pursuing nuclear weapons. But Friday, Trump “decertified” the agreement.

When you first hear that, it sounds like the deal is kaput. But actually decertification just starts another clock running. Presidential certification actually isn’t part of the international agreement, it’s just part of an American law, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

The immediate consequence of this is not that sanctions snap back into effect. Rather, it’s that the issue gets kicked back to Congress — giving them a 60-day window to reimpose Iran sanctions suspended by the deal using a special, extremely fast process.

The sanctions are part of the agreement, so if they go back into effect, we are in violation, even though Iran is not. So Congress has a special opportunity (again avoiding the Senate filibuster) to kill the deal.

Trump’s stated reasons for decertifying are that Iran continues to do bad things the deal doesn’t cover, like aiding Hezbollah and propping up the Assad regime in Syria. (Russia is also propping up the Assad regime, but Trump can’t criticize Russia.) Also, they are developing ballistic missiles (which the deal doesn’t cover). So they are violating “the spirit” of the agreement.

Trump wants Congress to do something (it’s not clear exactly what) that will re-open negotiations on the deal, not just with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany, who are also part of the agreement.  None of the other countries have expressed an interest in renegotiating, or in reimposing the sanctions that pushed Iran to make concessions. But

in the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continuous review, and our participation can be cancelled by me, as President, at any time.

Several administration officials say we want to remain in the deal. Just blowing it up sets Iran back on the path to nuclear weapons and the United States on the path to war. No one benefits. But Trump says he’ll blow it up if his demands aren’t met.

So far, no one is giving in. There’s no indication that Democrats will pay ransom for DACA or ObamaCare, or that Iran and the other signers of the Iran nuclear deal will pay ransom to preserve the agreement. Like any terrorist, Trump will have to shoot some hostages before his enemies start taking his threats seriously. What remains to be seen is what Trump supporters, both in Congress and in the general public, will do once they understand that the hostages include people they care about.


[1] You’ll see a fairly wide range of estimates of the number of Dreamers, with this one on the high end. The number of people who have registered for DACA is usually estimated between 700K and 800K. I’m assuming that two million represents a guess at the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify in the vaguest sense: They came to this country as children and so could apply for DACA. An undocumented family might have any number of reasons not to call attention to itself by registering its DACA-eligible child.

[2] The goal of the sanctuary movement in liberal American churches isn’t to shelter forever people who can’t legally stay in this country, but to prevent the government from deporting people who would be eligible to stay if some neutral court could examine their cases. Such people are given temporary sanctuary so that the bureaucratic process has time to work.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week … oh, let’s see … Trump decertified the Iran nuclear deal and made his most significant attempt yet to sabotage ObamaCare. Most of Puerto Rico is still without power and Americans — never forget that Puerto Ricans are Americans — are starting to die from diseases related to drinking bad water. But Trump is getting impatient with this whole process of rescuing brown Spanish-speaking people (who aren’t even grateful to him when help eventually arrives), so he warned that federal rescuers “can’t stay forever”.

That’s this week’s news about one American. I’m sure I’ll find some space to talk about the other 300 million or so of us.

Oh yeah, there was another guy: Harvey Weinstein. He got more attention this week than all the Californians whose homes burned combined. (Did I mention that Californians are watching their homes burn? Must have slipped my mind.)

Fortunately, there was also some less horrifying stuff to pay attention to: research into the difference between wolf puppies and dog puppies, a prediction that 2017 is “the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine”, and an demonstration of how easy it is to start a fake news site.

Anyway, here’s my plan: I’ll pull together stuff about DACA, Iran, and ObamaCare in a post called “Hostage Taking”. In each of those cases, Trump has started a clock ticking towards disaster and laid out a set of demands to stop it. That should be out by 10 EDT. Everything else is in the weekly summary, which should appear by noon.

Bipartisan Concerns

He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation. … Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), discussing President Trump yesterday

This week’s featured post is “Misunderstood Things: 10-9-2017“, where I discuss gun deaths and tax simplification.

This week everybody was talking about guns

The more we find out about Stephen Paddock, the more he looks like a white guy with a lot of guns. No one has uncovered a political or religious agenda behind the Las Vegas massacre. He just wanted to kill a lot of people and had the means to do it.


In The Atlantic, David Frum lays out “The Rules of the Gun Debate“. He’s pointing to the formulaic nature of the debate, in which anything likely to change either the frequency of mass killings or the number of gun deaths each year is eliminated before the discussion starts. Fundamentally, he says, the United States has too many guns that move around too freely.

a society is in a much better position to stop shooting deaths when it can tightly regulate the buying and carrying of weapons long before they are ever used to murder anybody. In all but a half dozen American states, it would be perfectly legal for people like the Charlie Hebdo killers to walk to the very front door of their targets with their rifles slung over their shoulders, lawful responsible gun owners to the very second before they opened fire on massed innocents.

… in an America where guns were viewed as they are in Australia or Canada, the project of moving two dozen of them into a hotel suite would likely be detected somewhere along the way. The person moving those guns would find himself in trouble—not for murder—but for some petty gun infraction. His weapons might be confiscated, or he himself sent to prison for some months. His plan would be interrupted very likely without anyone ever imagining what had been contemplated. Mass shootings so seldom happen in other countries not because they have developed carefully crafted policies against shootings, but because they have instituted broad policies to restrict guns.

He also points to a cultural change we need to prevent the much-more-frequent suicides, accidents, and fatal escalations of ordinary disputes:

Gun safety begins, then, not with technical fixes, but with spreading the truthful information: people who bring guns into their homes are endangering themselves and their loved ones.

I’m wondering if we need some anti-gun commercials similar to the ones that have been made to de-glamorize smoking. Nothing about statistics or laws, just a guy proudly showing his friends his vast gun collection, but rather than impressing them, he has creeped them out.


The gun control debate seems muted this time, with advocates having a hopeless tone in their voices. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “If Sandy Hook didn’t change anything …”

Still, things that can’t go on forever don’t. The potential destructiveness of individuals keeps going up, and with it the size of mass killings. It stunned the nation in 1966 when a sniper killed 14 strangers in Texas. This time 58 died and more than 500 were injured. If nothing changes, someday it will be 100 dead, then a thousand. Is there really no point at which something changes?


Las Vegas isn’t the biggest mass killing in U.S. history, but you probably didn’t hear about the others in school, because the victims were black or Native American and the killers were white.

and Iran

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump is planning to decertify the deal the Obama administration negotiated to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran appears to be fulfilling its obligations under the agreement, but Trump is expected to say in a speech Thursday that the agreement is “not in the national interest”. Congress would then have 60 days to reimpose the sanctions the agreement relaxed, which would probably scuttle the whole thing, ticking off a bunch of our allies. Iran would then be free to construct a nuclear weapon as fast as it could.

Try as I might, I can’t see an achievable goal here. The reason the Obama sanctions were so crippling for Iran was that all the major players backed them. (The agreement in question isn’t just between us and the Iranians. The UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany are also involved, and none of them are expressing regrets.) If we unilaterally screw up the agreement and go back to sanctions, we’re unlikely to get a similar level of cooperation. So with less pressure on the Iranians this time, why will they give us more concessions?

I suppose Trump might be imagining that the Iranians will capitulate in the face of his resolve and negotiating skills, but seriously, where is the evidence for that view? And why would they offer any new concessions, when they know Trump reneges on deals and could just come back for more concessions later? (As I pointed out when the deal was first announced, there’s a Munich analogy to be made here, but we’re in the Germany role.)

Or maybe he thinks the Iranian public will rise up and overthrow their government if we put enough pressure on their economy, but I don’t think that’s how it works. People tend to rally around their government when foreign powers try to dominate it. Hardliners will argue that they tried to settle peaceably with the Americans, but Trump has no interest in anything but Iran’s surrender. Iranian democracy activists will look like traitorous American agents.

Neither of those upbeat possibilities is anywhere near as likely as this one: Iran will go full speed towards a nuclear weapon and dare us to either accept it or start a war. (Remember: Iran is three times the size of Iraq.)


Another example of Trump’s if-you-demand-it-they-will-fold approach is the renegotiation of NAFTA, which doesn’t appear to be going very well. So far the Trump administration’s demands are short on specifics, and it’s not clear he has the backing in Congress to approve whatever changes he might get.

As the son of an Illinois farmer (now deceased), I keep wondering when heartland farmers will notice how consistently Trump is selling them out on trade. Mexico may run a trade surplus with us in general, but it imports a lot of corn and soybeans. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump pulled out of had debatable effects in general, but it would have been great for farm exports.


Speaking of reneging on deals and making big demands, Trump has released his conditions for giving legal status to the Dreamers currently protected by the Obama DACA program that Trump is ending. It includes stuff that the outline-of-a-deal he agreed to with Democratic leaders explicitly ruled out, like building his wall. As president, he continues to deal with everybody the way he dealt with subcontractors in his real estate business or students at Trump U: No deal is ever complete; there’s always another opportunity to cheat people.

and Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico

Univision radio host Jay Fonseca and Puerto Rican lawyer Leo Aldridge had this reaction:

We were waiting for a Marshall Plan, something announcing the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. What we got was more congratulations for his own administration. Instead of showing compassion for the most vulnerable, he went to visit the richest areas of the island.

They warn that many Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland — which they can do freely, since they’re U.S. citizens. This could change the politics of the states they move to, since they can vote as soon as they establish residency, just like any other Americans who move to a new state.

The NYT suggests Florida could see a shift: Puerto Ricans were already passing Cubans as the largest Hispanic ethnic group in the state, and the current crisis might bring 100,000 more. Like Latinos in general, Puerto Ricans in the 50 states haven’t been voting in their full numbers. But Trump’s disrespect might motivate them.


BTW: Does anyone doubt that Puerto Rico would have been a state long ago if its people were white and spoke English as their first language?


Plenty of people noted how weird and self-centered Trump was in Puerto Rico. But by now, that’s not really news. Maybe instead we should be reminding ourselves how our leaders used to act, so that Trump doesn’t become a new model for our lowered expectations. (If you want a list of all the ways Trump has changed presidential behavior for the worse, the NYT has one.)

For example, this was candidate Obama visiting the town where I grew up during the 2008 Mississippi River floods. It’s hard to imagine Trump, either before or after the election, just pitching in and talking to other volunteers about the disaster, rather than about himself, his popularity, or how great he is.

The point, of course, isn’t that Obama’s sandbags made some huge difference. (Who knows how many he actually filled before the cameras were turned off and he went to his next campaign event?) The point is that American leaders should model good citizenship, and demonstrate that no one is too important to pitch in.

Similarly, after the softball-practice shooting that wounded Congressman Steve Scalise, Vice President Pence donated blood. Who knows where Pence’s pint actually went? But whether his blood type matched any of the victims or not, he responded to a tragedy by modeling public-spirited behavior.

and his other feuds

During the Obama administration, there was a certain amount of comparatively dignified back-and-forth between the President and Republican leaders like John Boehner. You expect that kind of thing in any democracy, as the leaders of different parties disagree with each other and jockey for public support.

What’s different this time is the vitriol between Trump and his own party, and sometimes his own people. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the doghouse for calling Trump “a moron” in front of witnesses in July, maybe with an extra expletive attached. Tillerson pointedly refused to deny making the comment, and there was considerable discussion this week of how long Tillerson and Trump will be able to stand working together.

(My own opinion is that Tillerson’s security clearance should be revoked, which would make it impossible for him to continue as Secretary of State. If he blurts out that Trump is a moron, how can we trust him not to reveal other sensitive information?)


And then there was this weekend’s exchange between Trump and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, which resulted Saturday in Corker referring to the White House as an “adult daycare center” and charging that Trump’s tweets indicated that “Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

This isn’t like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity railing against Obama. They had no responsibilities, but were just trying to appeal to an audience of partisans who hated Obama from the moment they saw him. Quite the opposite, these are officials publicly allied with Trump, who have tried to work with him and can’t.

BTW, if Tillerson has to be replaced, the nominee will have to be cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Corker.

James Fallows has advice for Corker:

He could urge his colleagues toward the next step through their stages-of-tragedy relationship with Trump. Stage one was carping and dismissal during the first half of 2016, when he was an entertaining long-shot . Stage two was Vichy-regime acquiescence to him during the campaign. Stage three was “support” early this year, toward the goal of the Gorsuch confirmation and the hope of a tax-cut bill. Now we see the inklings of stage four, with the dawning awareness of what Corker spelled out: that they have empowered something genuinely dangerous. It’s time for Corker to act on that knowledge, and his colleagues too.


Trump sent Mike Pence to Indianapolis to keep his NFL feud bubbling. Pence made a big show of leaving the Colts/49ers game when some players kneeled for the national anthem.

The whole idea that kneeling “disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem” (as Pence tweeted) is absurd. I can’t think of any other situation where kneeling is a form of disrespect: Are Catholics disrespecting the altars in their churches? Are guys who kneel to propose disrespecting their girlfriends?

No, the protest isn’t about respect for the flag, it’s about racism. That’s why it upsets people.

Remember: there was no reason for the president to get involved in this controversy to begin with, and he only drew more attention to it. Trump came into the controversy to once again reassure racists that he’s on their side. Apparently he thinks that position is working for him, so he wants to keep the feud going.

and church and state

The administration loosened the guidelines for when businesses can refuse to offer their female employees contraception coverage on religious grounds. Also this week, Attorney General Sessions issued a memo changing government policy on “religious liberty”, which in many cases will trump anti-discrimination laws.

This all fits in with my prior conviction: None of it is about actual religious liberty. It’s about special rights for certain popular varieties of Christianity. You can see that in the immediate focus on contraception, which started out as a Catholic issue and was picked up by some Protestants. Why is this — and sexuality in general — the government’s central “religious liberty” focus, rather than situations where government policy impacts vegetarians or pacifists or environmentalists? Those can be religious positions too, but who in the administration cares about them?

I felt the same way about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

Given that this principle will produce complete anarchy if generally applied, it won’t be generally applied. Contrary to Alito’s assertion, judges will have to decide whether the chains of moral logic people assert are reasonable or not. … In practice, a belief will seem reasonable if a judge agrees with it. That’s what happened in this case: Five male Catholic judges ruled that Catholic moral principles trump women’s rights. Three Jews and a female Catholic disagreed.

and you also might be interested in …

Jacob Levy calls for reconstructing American libertarianism as if black liberty mattered.

Not to put too fine a point on it, those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing  African-Americans don’t count — as if black liberty does not matter.

And so, America is the freest nation on Earth — if you ignore the mass incarceration of black men, or the large number of them who get killed by police.

Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about “welfare” from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There’s no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor. Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare, but they don’t do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole. The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind. … [O]nce the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.

… And the conviction that freedom of speech is mostly threatened by “political correctness” in American life, that saying racist things is a brave stand against censorship, that calling what someone else says “racist” is pretty much like censoring them—these are important facts about American political discourse today.


I love this comic strip at Splinter News. A guy in the present is anti-Black-Lives-Matter, but claims he’s not a racist, and that he would totally have supported Martin Luther King in the 1950s. A fairy gives him his back-to-the-future wish, where an anti-MLK guy repeats the same arguments he’d been making against BLM. Convinced, he now is against MLK too, but believes he’d totally be an abolitionist if he were back in the 1800s. Here’s one panel:


Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) got caught in a major episode of hypocrisy this week. Tuesday, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette released text messages in which Murphy’s mistress took him to task for his public anti-abortion stance, when he had suggested she get an abortion during a pregnancy scare. Wednesday, he announced he would not be running for re-election in 2018. Thursday, he resigned from Congress.

If you’re pro-choice, you probably read this with a sense of vindication: Not even anti-abortion congressmen really believe the rhetoric they spout. But I wonder if voters on the other side interpret the story differently: The fact that even a pro-life congressman would want to kill his unborn child just shows the importance of making abortion illegal; personal conviction is not enough to keep us on the straight and narrow when temptation pressures us to sin. A parallel might be the alcoholic who favors prohibition: “I want a law getting rid of alcohol, because if the stuff is available, I know I’ll drink it.”


For a year or so I’ve been telling people to read Misbehaving, Richard Thaler’s entertaining biography of himself and his field (behavioral economics). Well, he just won the Nobel Prize.


The administration is continuing to sabotage ObamaCare.

and let’s close by getting medieval

Maybe you already know how to walk like an Egyptian without falling down like a domino, but can you walk like it’s 999?

 

Misunderstood Things: 10-9-2017

This week: gun deaths and tax simplification.


I. Gun deaths.

What’s misunderstood about them: Victims of mass shootings are not the typical gun deaths.

What more people should know: If you’re quoting gun-death totals, you’re mostly talking about suicides, domestic violence, turf battles between gangs, and arguments that spin out of control — not Las Vegas type massacres.

*

The United States has more guns (1.12 guns per resident, nearly twice as many as the next highest countries — which are Serbia and Yemen, not nations we usually compare ourselves to) and more gun deaths (averaging 33,367 per year from 1999-2015) than any other country in the world. We also have more spectacular mass shootings (like the recent Las Vegas massacre) than any other country.

Mass shootings make headlines and start us wondering why our country is this way. They also make us afraid in ways that other gun deaths don’t. I know I have been in crowds that gathered in urban areas near tall buildings, like the country music festival in Las Vegas. What if someone had started shooting from above? What could I have done?

But as so often happens, the spectacular event that focuses our fears is very far from the typical event captured by our statistics. The majority of gun deaths, for example, are actually suicides (21,175  in 2013). Gun homicides average a little over 12,000 per year.

Of the homicides, a large number are domestic violence or some other family dispute. (That’s why detectives on TV always check the spouse’s alibi first.) Some escalate from arguments between acquaintances, some are gang-related, and others are incidental to armed robbery or some other crime.

Mass-shooting victims are simultaneously a horrifyingly large number of people and a comparatively small percentage of fatal shootings. The Washington Post went back half a century and used a tighter-than-usual definition to collect mass shootings since: They counted “four or more people were killed by a lone shooter (or two shooters in three cases)” and not “gang killings, shootings that began as other crimes such as robberies, and killings that involved only the shooter’s family.” That gave them 131 events and 948 deaths since the University of Texas sniper in 1966.

Using a looser definition (four-or-more injured or killed, including the types of shootings the WaPo filtered out) The New York Times reported 585 people killed in 521 incidents in about a year and a third — still less than 1.5% of the gun deaths during that period.

So: 58 people killed in an hour or so by a single shooter in Las Vegas, and 33,000 gun deaths year after year. They’re both evidence that the United States has a sick relationship with guns, but they’re very different facts that point to very different problems. Short of drastically lowering the number of guns, solutions to one of those problems isn’t likely to do much about the other.


II. Tax simplification

What’s misunderstood about it: What makes figuring your income tax so complicated.

What more people should know: Reducing the number of tax brackets doesn’t simplify the process in the slightest. Whether the IRS defines one bracket or a hundred, filling out your 1040 will require the same amount of time and effort.

*

No one knows exactly how much time taxpayers spend on IRS forms, but estimates run into the billions of hours each year. In addition, we spend billions of dollars paying professionals to compute our taxes for us. So it’s not surprising that every tax reform is sold to the voters as a simplification, sometimes promising that you’ll be able to send the IRS just a postcard rather than a heavy envelope full of filled-out forms.

Invariably, someone claims that taxes would be simpler if they were flatter, i.e., if there weren’t different tax brackets taxed at different rates. While the current Trump administration proposal doesn’t go all the way to a flat tax (one bracket), it does reduce the number of brackets from seven to three. But if you’re hoping that change will make April 15 less stressful, you’re out of luck.

The easiest way to see the problem is to get out last year’s 1040 (or a blank 1040 form) and ask yourself: Where did the number of brackets make any difference? Well, not on the first page, which is all about your sources of income, not how it’s taxed. In fact, the form is all about income until you eventually arrive at Line 43: Taxable income.

Right under that is Line 44: Tax. What magic happened between 43 and 44? If you’re like most people, you took the number on Line 43 and used it to look up how much tax you owe on the Tax Tables in the Instructions. That’s the only place where the number of brackets mattered. Changing the number of brackets, or even the rates that each bracket pays, changes the numbers in the Tax Tables. That’s it.

Taxes are complicated for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with whether the tax rates are flat or progressive (i.e., applying higher tax rates as you make more and more money).

  • Different kinds of income are taxed differently, so you have to separately keep track of wages, dividends (qualified and unqualified), capital gains (long-term and short), interest (taxable and non-taxable), and do different things with each of them. One of the trickier parts of my tax return isn’t sent to the IRS at all; it’s the Qualified Dividends and Capital Gains Worksheet.*
  • The government chooses to subsidize certain pro-social activities (buying a house, giving to charity, saving for retirement, etc.) through the tax code (as deductions), rather than by direct subsidies. This method favors rich people, who — since they’re paying a higher rate — get more money back from their deduction than you do. Every deduction you claim has its own form, where you establish that you really did the thing that you’re claiming a deduction for.

So eliminating deductions and taxing all forms of income the same way (not all levels of income at the same rate) really would cut the amount of time you spend filling out your taxes (even if it’s just the time spent understanding what tax-exempt interest is and realizing you didn’t receive any). The Trump proposal claims to be eliminating deductions, but hasn’t specified any yet, so we don’t know yet if it will be simpler in any material way.

Flattening the tax rates doesn’t simplify anything; it just redistributes the tax burden away from the rich and onto the middle class. (That’s the point of it, but they can’t exactly say so in public.)

So why don’t tax-reform proposals focus on these actual time-savers? That’s easy: (1) eliminating deductions doesn’t sound as good because it’s taking something away from you, and (2) rich people want to continue paying lower rates on their non-wage income.

You know what would make things much, much simpler for the vast majority of taxpayers? An awful lot of the 1040 and its lettered schedules are devoted to telling the IRS things it already knows: Your employer has already reported your wages, your bank has reported the interest your savings earned, and so on. You waste a lot of time copying numbers off of W-2 and 1099 forms that the IRS already has.

The IRS could send you a form with all that information already included, and with the tax you owe already figured (assuming the standard deduction). If you think they got something wrong, you have other income to report (like your poker winnings — very important if you don’t want to end up like Al Capone, who was convicted of having a lifestyle his reported income couldn’t support), or you want to itemize your deductions, you could file just that part of a tax return. Otherwise, you send or cash a check and you’re done.

Other countries do this, and it really is simpler. The reason we don’t is that (in spite of their rhetoric) conservatives don’t want your taxes to be simple. They want to keep the public in a perpetual state of agitation against the IRS, which they can turn into support for “simplifications” like a flat tax that favors the rich.


* That worksheet is what makes me skeptical of those file-on-a-postcard proposals. (I examined Ted Cruz’ postcard back in 2015, in a note about the Republican debate. It wasn’t actually simpler.) We could all file on postcards now, if the details were pushed off to worksheets that we don’t send in to the IRS, but have to be able to produce if we’re audited. But the calculations would be the same.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I attended the wedding of my college roommate’s son, and frequently shook my head in amazement that my memories of him go back further than his memories of himself. It was a reminder that most Americans are getting on with their lives, independent of the circus — or maybe adult day-care center — that our government has become.

As always these days, there is more to write about than I (or you) have time to cover. The featured post is another installment in my Misunderstandings series. This time I’ll discuss popular misunderstandings of gun-death statistics and tax simplification. That post should appear by 9 EDT.

The weekly summary will talk about guns, undoing the Iran nuclear deal (and Trump’s dysfunctional negotiating style in general), Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico (which has me reminiscing about how U.S. presidents used to act), new rules giving special rights to Christians, recent Trump/Russia developments, and a few other things, before closing with a video that challenges us to walk like Charlemagne. That should appear 11ish.