Ascribed Meanings

There is always a temptation to ascribe a deep, unspoken strategy to Trump’s improvised approach to politics—to find order in the chaos, a signal in the noise. But all of the available evidence suggests that there is no plan at all, that Trump is a deeply incompetent liar who has no idea what he is doing and no respect for the few people around him who do. If there is war with Iran, it will be because of Trump’s incompetence and lies; if there is not, it will be in spite of these things. Coverage that attempts to find the hidden meaning behind his actions only obscures what’s really happening.

– Alex Shephard “What the Media is Getting Wrong about Soleimani’s Killing
The New Republic 1-7-2020

This week’s featured post is a review of how every president since FDR has talked about war: “Remember Normal Presidents?

This week everybody was talking about Iran

This week’s news has been dominated by the multiple incoherent stories the Trump administration has been telling about the killing of Soleimani.

One thing just about everybody in this country agrees on is that Soleimani was a bad guy. (Though Trump lies about this: “The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy“. If anybody has heard a single major voice in either the media or the Democratic leadership imply such a thing, mention it in the comments. I don’t know of any.) However, he was an Iranian official carrying out Iranian policy. Blaming him personally for every attack Iran has supported seems misguided. He was a replaceable individual who has been replaced; the Quds Force has a new commander, who presumably is following the same policy directives.


There has been much back-and-forth about whether Soleimani was killed to prevent an “imminent” attack, or just because he was evil. It’s important to understand why this point keeps coming up, because Trump keeps trying to have it both ways: He claims that an attack was imminent, but if challenged too hard backs off tobut it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”

If Soleimani’s assassination wasn’t intended to break up an attack that was in progress and about to happen — and it’s hard to see how that could be; I mean, Soleimani wasn’t going to drive a truck bomb himself — then it’s arguable that Trump had no legal authority to order it. If, instead, he just decided that Soleimani was a bad guy and Iran had been getting away with too much, he should have sought authorization from Congress. “his horrible past” is an argument that Trump could have offered to Congress, but it’s not a justification now.

At the very least, Trump had an obligation to inform the Gang of Eight that the attack was happening.

This disrespect for Congress is why Republican Senator Mike Lee blew his stack after the classified briefing of the Senate by the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the heads of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs.

He also fumed that officials refused to acknowledge any “hypothetical” situations in which they would come to Congress for authorization for future military hostilities against Iran.

It’s fairly apparent that the administration is just making up the “imminent attack” argument, and dodging the legal authority issue. The briefing showed profound arrogance; the briefers walked away after 75 minutes with questions unanswered.

Trump himself has been lying outrageously, for example claiming that Soleimani was planning attacks on four US embassies. Apparently, though, the Secretary of Defense knew nothing about this, and the embassies in question were never notified that they faced an imminent threat.


When no one was killed in Iran’s reprisal strike against the Iraqi base where the Soleimani attack originated, many Trumpists declared the exchange a “win” for the US: We killed a major person on their side and they killed nobody on our side.

Ben Rhodes demonstrates how an adult looks at this: according to the results, not the body count.

Iran abandoned nuclear deal limits. Iraq wants us out. Counter ISIS mission is suspended. We don’t know what asymmetric attacks could come from Iran. Yet I see Trump supporters celebrating a “win”. What are we winning?

Is there any way in which Americans or our allies are safer now than before the assassination? Was some strategic purpose achieved?


Nobody really knows whether Iran intended to kill Americans or not in its missile strike. Of course Iran would say that the result was intended.


Iraq’s parliament voted unanimously that the prime minister should ask our 5200 troops to leave the country, and apparently the PM has asked Secretary of State Pompeo to send a delegation to Baghdad to negotiate the withdrawal. But we’re not going to do that. Here’s how a State Department spokesperson put it:

Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners. At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership — not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East.

That makes us sound more like an occupying power than an ally. Any Iraqi militia that kills American troops can now claim that it is repelling invaders.

The Trump administration is also making economic threats against our “ally” Iraq if it insists on our troops leaving:

The Trump administration this week warned Iraq that it could lose access to its central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if Baghdad expels American troops from the region, Iraqi officials told The Wall Street Journal.


One of the week’s weirder stories was about a letter that somehow got shared with the Iraqi military.

The document in question was an unsigned draft of a memo from the US Command in Baghdad notifying the Iraqi government that some US forces in the country would be repositioned. It also seemed to suggest a removal of American forces from the country, prompting an immediate wave of questions, particularly after US officials in Baghdad said the letter was authentic but could not confirm whether it indicated a troop withdrawal.

You need to be a comedian, like Trevor Noah, to respond to this appropriately.

These people control nuclear weapons and they can’t even handle Microsoft Outlook.


If you want to put it all in perspective, again, it helps to be a comedian. Like Seth Meyers.


One of the points in the featured post is that Trump is not even trying to talk to the people who didn’t vote for him. That point was also made by Anderson Cooper in a Ridiculist segment about the 301 days that have passed since the last White House press briefing.

If you’re wondering “Who’s Stephanie Grisham?” you’re probably not a regular Fox News viewer, because that channel is seemingly the one place she feels safe enough to regularly appear.

… If a president were to escalate the potential danger to U.S. interests overseas by killing a high-ranking Iranian general, you might think the White House press secretary would head to the podium to keep the country and the world abreast of what’s going on, to try to fill in some gaps between the President’s Twitter threats. But that doesn’t happen any more.

Remember CJ on The West Wing? Imagine her going most of a year without filling the podium in the briefing room.

and impeachment

Nancy Pelosi says the articles of impeachment will go to the Senate soon, probably this week. The debate has begun about what, if anything, was accomplished by the delay. In my mind, it was important to put at least a little distance between the House and Senate processes, so that even low-information voters realize that the Senate isn’t going to hear any witnesses of its own, even though it could. If the case could still be pending when Trump gives his State of the Union address on February 4, that would be a bonus.

and Iowa

The Iowa caucuses are February 3, or three weeks from today. (Yes, they happen on a Monday. Every time.) The last Democratic debate before the caucuses happens tomorrow. Only six candidates qualified: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Steyer, and Warren.

The RCP polling average shows the top four bunched up. Sanders 21.3%, Buttigieg 21.0, Biden 17.7, Warren 17.0. Because the caucus process yields a much lower turnout than a primary would, and because there are complex rules about minor candidates’ supporters switching their votes, polls often do a bad job of predicting the outcome. So it would not really be an upset if any of those four won.

I would say that the front-runner is whoever the other candidates decide to attack in the debate. And if either Steyer or Klobuchar decides to go kamikaze and relentlessly attack one of the top four, that candidate probably won’t win. I’m not predicting that, but the possibility demonstrates how unpredictable the process is at this point.

and you also might be interested in …

The planet continues to heat up:

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) announces today that 2019 was the fifth in a series of exceptionally warm years and the second warmest year globally ever recorded.


Maybe the secret to getting infrequent voters to the polls is to have their friends ask them.


5G will arrive in 2020, but it won’t live up to the hype.


Australia is still on fire.


The cancer death rate is down 29% between 1991 and 2017, with a 2.2% drop in 2017, the most recent year where statistics are available. Lung cancer accounts for much of the decline; researchers credit decreased smoking, as well as improvements in treatment.

I hate tie every story to Trump, but he has a way of inserting himself, sort of like Rhupert the Ostrich photobombing classic paintings. In this case, Trump took credit for the long-term trend whose most recent data is from the same year he took office: “A lot of good news coming out of this Administration.”


The justification for holding asylum seekers in concentration camps is that they won’t show up for their hearings, and instead will just vanish into the general immigrant population. At a rally last January, Trump claimed that only 2% show up “And those people, you almost don’t want, because they cannot be very smart.”

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University presents the actual numbers:

With rare exception, asylum seekers whose cases were decided in FY 2019 also showed up for every court hearing. This was true even though four out of five immigrants were not detained or had been previously released from ICE custody. In fact, among non-detained asylum seekers, 99 out of 100 (98.7%) attended all their court hearings.


Conservative rhetoric lauds local control and disparages rule by distant politicians and bureaucrats — except when localities want to protect the environment or gay rights or something. In Florida, Coral Gables outlawed plastic bags at stores and styrofoam containers at restaurants — and lost a lawsuit from a trade organization representing the big retail chains. State law doesn’t allow “regulation of the use of sale of polystyrene products by local governments.” Take that, small government.

Republicans are the party of big corporations, not local control. When WalMart can get what it wants from the state legislature, why let city councils screw that up?


Remember the whole pseudo-scandal about the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One?

A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results, and current and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.

That’s a similar result to the State Department’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. So if you decided not to vote for Hillary because you figured there had to be fire somewhere under all that smoke — no, there wasn’t. You were conned.

Media Matters’ Matt Gertz traces the Uranium One story back to its source: Clinton Cash, a hit job written by Peter Schweitzer and pushed by Steve Bannon. A subsequent Schweitzer book, Secret Empires, is a source of much of the bogus reporting about Hunter Biden. Gertz comments on Schweitzer’s new book, Profiles in Corruption, which reportedly will target not just Biden but also “Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.”

Journalists should consider this final and inevitable collapse of Schweizer’s bogus claims as they decide whether and how to cover his forthcoming book, which will reportedly target the purported corruption of several Democratic presidential candidates.

and let’s close with something wild and woolly

I never thought of wool as a medium for animation, but I guess it is.

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.


It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Like a lot of the media, I struggle with how to avoid normalizing Trump’s behavior. He’s been behaving this way consistently for three years, so on that time scale whatever he’s doing today is normal; it’s what we’ve come to expect from him. And yet, I think it’s important never to lose sight of just how abnormal Trump’s behavior is: Presidents do not act this way, and we hope they will never act this way again after he leaves office.

His recent behavior regarding Iran — not just the Soleimani assassination itself, but the way he and his administration have presented it — has been extremely unpresidential: self-aggrandizing, partisan, and disrespectful to Congress, to our allies, to the previous administration, and to any American who was not part of the 46% who voted for him. But after three years of similar behavior, how can I express the abnormality of it all?

This week I decided to take a history tour to remind us all what “presidential” has meant until now. I went back to FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor, and looked at the subsequent history of presidents talking to the nation about major military moves: JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech, Eisenhower announcing the Korean armistice, George W. Bush telling us that our Air Force had started bombing Afghanistan, Barack Obama announcing that Osama bin Laden was dead, and several others. (I found examples from every modern president but Ford.) Those speeches all demonstrate a particular tone that defines “presidential” and exemplify an attitude that we have come to expect from our leaders.

Until now. Trump is such an abrupt departure from the established pattern that the differences stand out immediately. (LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin speech, for example, was just a few months before the 1964 election, but Johnson is this non-partisan: “Just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.” Imagine Trump reaching out for support to some Democratic leader, and mentioning that fact to the public.) When we call him “unpresidential”, it’s not just an insult; it’s an objective observation.

Anyway, that post — currently titled “Remember Normal Presidents?” — should be out around 11 EST. The weekly summary, which will cover the more immediate Iran news, impeachment, tomorrow’s Democratic debate, and a number of other things before closing with some amazing wool-based animation, should be out between noon and 1.

Realizations

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.

Executive Order 12333 (1981)

Of course you realize, this means war.

Bugs Bunny

This week’s featured post is “Is It War Yet?

This week everybody was talking about conflict with Iran

Many aspects of the situation are covered in the featured post.

Here are a couple of things I didn’t get around to mentioning: A key feature of both Iraq wars is that we had allies, like Bush’s famous “coalition of the willing”. But we’re pretty much without allies here. There are three main reasons for this:

On the war crimes issue, Chris Hayes points out that it shouldn’t surprise anybody.

The President of the United States ran on a pro-war-crimes platform, explicitly. He likes war crimes and thinks they are good. He’s been very clear about this.

and 2020

Ever since the Electoral College put Trump in office, the number 2020 has taken on mythic significance. It’s the time of hope, of dread, of comeuppance, of the opportunity to escape from this national nightmare, and so on.

Now, suddenly, it’s a year. It’s a number we write on our checks. Seeing “2020” staring back at us from our calendars is like hearing the conductor announce that the train has stopped in Narnia or Mordor.

Who thought we’d actually get here?

So now that we’ve arrived in this portentous year, it’s time to take stock of the presidential race. The Iowa caucuses are less than a month away now, and things happen quickly after that. By the time California votes on March 3, some candidate might have the Democratic nomination in the bag.

At the moment that candidate looks like Joe Biden, though there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Individual polls have been volatile, but the most striking thing about the long-term trends has been how steady they are. On January 1, 2019, the RealClearPolitics polling average for Democratic candidates nationwide had Biden at 27.0%, Sanders at 17.0, and Beto O’Rourke at around 9%.

As of yesterday, the RCP averages were Biden 29.4%, Sanders 19.4%, Warren 14.8%, Buttigieg 7.9%, Bloomberg 5.8% and nobody else over 5%.

The main development of 2019 was that a lot of minor candidates got eliminated: Beto is long gone, and so are Kamala Harris and Julian Castro. In fact, the only candidate of color left in the race is Cory Booker, who the RCP has at 2.3%. A bunch of interchangeable white male moderates entered the race hoping to emerge as Biden faltered, but none of them got anywhere. Some have dropped out and some are still in the race, but I have trouble remembering which is which. (I watched Senator Bennet get interviewed by Chris Hayes a week or so ago, and my wife asked “Who is that guy?” Currently, Bloomberg and Klobuchar are the moderate-establishment hopes if something happens to Biden.) Warren and Buttigieg have gained, though Warren’s boom may be over; she briefly led the pack in October before falling back to third.

The most notable developments in the Democratic race during 2019 were the ones that could have happened, but didn’t: Some candidate of color could have broken out, challenging Biden’s hold over the black vote the way that Obama challenged Clinton in 2008. Or Biden might have taken off and become the inevitable nominee by now.

As was true a year ago, the Democratic electorate is divided between moderates and progressives. They represent not just two governing philosophies, but two approaches to beating Trump: Moderates hope to win the way that Democrats took the House in 2018, by flipping educated suburbanites who used to vote Republican. Progressives hope to win by exciting young voters and poor voters whose non-appearance at the polls was the main difference between Obama 2012 and Clinton 2016.

That argument is ongoing, and no candidate has managed to bridge the gap the way Obama did in 2008. So the most serious question in the race right now is whether (since there appears to be no compromise candidate) Democrats can stay united after one side wins and the other loses. My opinion: Either a moderate or a progressive can beat Trump if the party unites behind him or her. But neither can if the losing side demonizes the nominee to the point that a significant number of their voters stay home in November. Whether you see yourself as moderate or progressive, I urge you to keep that in mind whenever you’re tempted to pass on dubious information about candidates in the other faction.

On the other side of the electorate, not much has happened to Trump’s approval rating. On January 1, 2019, 52.2% of the country disapproved of Trump’s job performance. The most recent number is 52.3%. (It’s too soon to tell whether the growing conflict with Iran will affect it one way or the other.)

and Australia’s wildfires

It’s hard to grasp the extent of the fires Australia has been having since September, but Interesting Engineering provides some comparisons. The area affected by smoke, if moved to the US, would stretch from San Diego to Minneapolis. The burnt area is roughly the size of Belgium, or just a little smaller than Ireland.

Canberra’s 340 rating on the air quality index is double that of famously polluted Beijing. The Parliament House looks like this:

Australia is in many ways a microcosm of the rest of the world. It is suffering from climate change, but refusing to do anything about it. Volunteer firefighter Jennifer Mills writes:

Sadly, the fires are also an illustration of the principle that while a nation might share the same facts, its people can still refuse to share a reality. [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison likes to note that Australia produces just 1.3 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, and we have regularly sided with other big, fossil fuel-dependent nations to stymie global climate negotiations. At December’s climate talks in Madrid, we came under fire for attempting to fiddle with the books to hide increased emissions. Australia is not just dragging its feet on climate change; it is actively making things worse. Internationally, there is a sense that we are getting what we deserve.

and you also might be interested in …

Three were killed and two more injured in an attack on an American military base in Kenya. The attack was attributed to al Shabab, a Islamist group associated with al Qaeda. It’s a Sunni group and Iran is Shia, so there’s probably no connection to the Soleimani assassination.


Trump may have blocked congressional subpoenas, but a number of impeachment-related emails have been revealed through the Freedom of Information Act. Just Security obtained a number of emails that show Pentagon officials worrying about the legality of withholding military aid that Congress had authorized for Ukraine. OMB’s Mike Duffy cited “Clear direction from POTUS” as the reason to hold up the aid.

Duffy is one of the witnesses Democrats would like to call in Trump’s impeachment trial, but Mitch McConnell doesn’t want any witnesses to testify.


The Washington Post collects reactions from people who watched the movie Cats while on drugs. (The reactions of people not on drugs are almost universally negative.)

It was unclear, on balance, whether getting high made “Cats” better, or much, much worse. Certainly, it seemed to raise the emotional stakes.


When Vladimir Putin faced the two-term limit on Russia’s presidency, he backed a stooge who would name him prime minister. Trumpists seem to be picturing something similar.

In a poll of 2024 possibilities, 40% of Republicans picked Mike Pence, but Donald Jr. and Ivanka were second and fourth, between them garnering 45%. Nikki Haley was third at 26%.

and let’s close with a drink that is out of this world

The Yoda-rita.

Is It War Yet?

As conflict with Iran escalates, what a luxury a trustworthy president would be.


In the early morning hours Friday (local time), a US drone attack killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Soleimani was in a convoy leaving the Baghdad Airport in Iraq. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the body that oversees Iraq’s myriad militia factions, was also killed in the strike.

Escalating US/Iran conflict. Soleimani’s assassination takes place in the middle of a tangled mess: Iran/US relations have been in a state of increasing conflict since May, 2018, when President Trump pulled the US out of the agreement the Obama administration had negotiated to limit Iran’s nuclear program, replacing it with a campaign of “maximum pressure” to force more concessions from the Iranians. So far, those concessions have not materialized. Sunday, Iran announced that it would no longer be bound by the agreement’s restrictions on its nuclear programs. In the NYT’s words, the decision “re-creates conditions that led Israel and the United States to consider destroying Iran’s facilities a decade ago”.

More immediately, a rocket attack near Kirkuk by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia killed an American contractor a week ago; the US retaliated with an airstrike on a militia base that killed 25; and pro-Iranian protesters then mobbed the US embassy in Baghdad. So now we’ve killed a major figure in the Iranian military, together with an Iraqi militia leader.

Iraq. Iraq also has been in political turmoil: Massive protests that began in October have resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who nonetheless remains in office because Iraq’s political leaders haven’t been able to settle on a replacement. So while he retains the formal powers of his office, his ability to lead the country is questionable.

The protests against the Iraqi government (which are not related to the protests at the US embassy) had been seeking an end to corruption and foreign influence, including both Iranian and US influence. In response to Friday’s drone attack (which Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called “an outrageous breach to Iraqi sovereignty“), the Iraqi parliament passed a bill instructing the government to ask the United States to withdraw all military forces from Iraq. Time described this vote as “symbolic” because “it sets no timetable for withdrawal and is subject to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s approval.”

The Washington Post points out that the legal basis for an American presence in Iraq is not that solid. Most deployments are defined by a formal Status of Forces agreement, but this one isn’t.

“The current U.S. military presence is based of an exchange of letters at the executive level,” said Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the US Institute of Peace who previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

So the Prime Minister could revoke that agreement “with the stroke of a pen”.

President Trump sounded more like an occupier than an ally when he responded Sunday night.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters. … Mr Trump said that if Iraq asked US forces to depart on an unfriendly basis, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

It’s like he thinks he holds the mortgage on Iraq and is threatening to repossess.

Dubious justifications. The administration claims that Soleimani was planning attacks on US forces (almost certainly true) and that his death short-circuited those plans (highly unlikely). Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Soleimani’s death “saved American lives”.

The problem I have with that statement is that Trump and Pompeo have spent the last three years lying to us about more-or-less everything. This is a moment when Americans need to be able to trust their leaders, and we just can’t; these leaders have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

For example, Vice President Pence’s attempt to link Soleimani to 9/11 is just a lie. Some of the 9/11 perpetrators traveled through Iran on their way to Afghanistan, but there is no evidence Iran knew what they were up to, and nothing that connects their passage to Soleimani personally.

The Washington Post gives reasons to doubt Pompeo as well:

“There may well have been an ongoing plot as Pompeo claims, but Soleimani was a decision-maker, not an operational asset himself,” said Jon Bateman, who served as a senior intelligence analyst on Iran at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Killing him would be neither necessary nor sufficient to disrupt the operational progression of an imminent plot. What it might do instead is shock Iran’s decision calculus” and deter future attack plans, Bateman said.

Narges Bajoghli, author of Iran Reframed, discounts claims that Soleimani’s death cripples Iran’s ability to strike US targets.

The idea that General Suleimani was all powerful and that the Quds Force will now retreat, or that Iran’s ties with Shiite armed groups in Iraq and Lebanon like Hezbollah will suffer, indicates a superficial, and frankly ideological, understanding of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard. …

In my 10 years in Iran researching the Revolutionary Guards and their depiction in Iranian media, one of my key observations was that wherever they operate, in Iran or on foreign battlefields, they function with that same ad hoc leadership [developed during the Iran/Iraq War]: Decisions and actions don’t just come from one man or even a small group of men; many within the organization have experience building relationships, creating strategies and making decisions.

Slighting Congress, insulting Democrats. And then there’s the US side of the mess: Unlike major military actions by previous administrations, this one happened without official notice to the Gang of Eight in Congress. (That’s the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate, minority leaders of both houses, and the chair and ranking opposition member of the intelligence committees in both houses.) Apparently, some Republicans members of Congress knew about the attack in advance, but no Democrats.

Trump added insult to injury by retweeting Dinesh D’Souza: “Neither were the Iranians [given advance notice], and for pretty much the same reason.” Democrats in the Gang of Eight have done nothing to deserve such an accusation of disloyalty; there is no example of them leaking or otherwise misusing prior knowledge of an American strike.

The administration complied with the letter of the War Powers Act by officially notifying Congress on Saturday. Whatever justification the classified memo gave, Nancy Pelosi was not impressed:

This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran. The highly unusual decision to classify this document in its entirety compounds our many concerns, and suggests that the Congress and the American people are being left in the dark about our national security.

Iranian reaction. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for “harsh retaliation“, and The Atlantic lists a number of options:

all-out conflict by Shiite militias in Iraq against American forces, diplomats, and personnel in Iraq; Hezbollah attacks against Americans in Lebanon and targets in Israel; rocket attacks on international oil assets or U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and potentially even terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world.

Others have suggested cyber attacks.

Whatever retaliation Iran chooses is likely to be very popular with the Iranians people. Huge and angry crowds showed up when Soleimani’s body was returned to Tehran.

Strategy? Members of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have supported the assassination by pointing out that Soleimani was undeniably a bad guy from the US point of view: He masterminded numerous operations that killed Americans.

So far I’ve mostly been summarizing facts, but now I’ll state an opinion: One thing we should have learned from the Bush administration’s War on Terror is that simply killing bad guys is not a viable strategy. Are we going to kill all the bad guys in the world? As Seth Moulton (coincidentally, my congressman) put it: “The question we’ve grappled with for years in Iraq was how to kill more terrorists than we create.”

I don’t want to claim more expertise than I have, so I’m not making any predictions. (Some pundits even see this assassination as a possible prelude to negotiations. But the Brookings’ Institution’s Suzanne Maloney says “Anyone who tells you they know where it’s going is probably overconfident about their own powers of prediction.”) What I want to emphasize, though, is the uncertainty: Trump has sharply escalated the simmering conflict with Iran. If Iran escalates further, what happens? How far is he prepared to go? [1]

I wish I believed that people who understand Iran far better than I do had thought all this through, and had a larger strategy. That strategy might eventually go to hell, as our plan for the Iraq invasion did, but at least it would have a chance. [2]

I don’t see how I can have even that amount of confidence, though. Trump himself is anything but a strategic thinker, and he seems to have stopped listening to anyone else. Chances are excellent that killing Soleimani just sounded good in the moment, and that he didn’t think more than a few hours ahead.

That’s certainly what the NYT’s account of the administration’s decision process implies:

In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. …

After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shia militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

It’s entirely possible that no one but Trump thought this was a good idea.

American law. Then there are the legal issues. At what point does action against Iran bring the War Powers Act into play? Whatever you might think of the Gulf War in 1991 or the Iraq invasion of 2003, each was preceded by a thoughtful debate in Congress. So far there was been nothing of the sort regarding Iran. We seem headed towards a scenario where Congressional debate (if we have one at all) will take place while the war is ongoing.

Also: Assassinations of foreign leaders were banned by an executive order signed by President Ford in 1975 and revised by President Reagan in 1981. The 1981 order is unequivocal:

No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination

When the Obama administration was going after Osama bin Laden, it tried to make a distinction between assassinations and “targeted killings”. That distinction looked suspect at the time, and looks even worse now that it’s being applied to top officials of foreign governments. If killing Soleimani wasn’t an assassination, it’s hard to imagine what the assassination ban would cover.

Partisan politics. Finally, there’s the wag-the-dog interpretation: Maybe the attack was never intended to be an effective response to Iran; perhaps it’s entirely about distracting the public from Trump’s pending impeachment trial, and kicking off his 2020 campaign. The “othering” of congressional Democrats (treating them as equivalent to or sympathetic with the Iranians) fits that interpretation.

“This your first reelection campaign, kid?”

It would be nice to believe that the wag-the-dog hypothesis just stems from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Liberals like me imagine the worst and then assign those motives to Trump, when in fact no American president would risk a major war just for domestic political advantage. But again, how can I have that confidence, given the behavior we’ve seen so far? Isn’t Trump’s willingness to sacrifice the public good for personal benefit exactly what he’s been impeached for? Can anyone give a countervailing example of Trump foregoing personal advantage to do the right thing for the nation?

Projection. One argument in favor of wag-the-dog is that Trump accused President Obama of planning to do it.

In order to get elected, will start a war with Iran.

As CNN’s John Avlon observed in September:

Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.

In other words, Trump regularly accuses his opponents of things that he does himself, or that he would do in their place. His most-repeated insults are ones that apply more accurately to himself than to his opponents:

The rest of the top five insults [after “fake”]? “Failed” (or “failing”), which he has applied on 205 occasions, mostly to the Times. “Dishonest” (or “dishonesty”), used 149 times. (Some observers will no doubt consider it ironic that Trump has referred to 35 other entities as dishonest.) Then “weak,” used 94 times, followed by “lying” or “liar,” which he has used 68 times.

So it’s not much of a stretch to reach this conclusion: If he thought wagging the dog in Iran made sense for Obama’s re-election in 2012, quite likely he has considered it for his own reelection in 2020. Maybe he sees it as a bonus for something he’d do anyway, or maybe it’s his prime motive.


[1] Saturday, Trump tweeted about a list of 52 Iranian targets “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” that the US could strike if Iran retaliates for Friday’s assassination. Those sites have not be identified (and, given Trump’s history, I have to wonder if the list even exists), but intentionally attacking cultural sites is a violation of international law.

Sunday night he doubled down on that threat, saying

They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.

Contradicting the President, Secretary of State Pompeo said Sunday that “We’ll behave lawfully.” Who should we believe?

[2] The importance of strategy is illustrated by this quote from George Kennan’s 1951 classic American Diplomacy.

Both [world] wars were fought, really, with a view to changing Germany. … Yet, today, if one were offered the chance of having back again the Germany of 1913 — a Germany run by conservative but relatively moderate people, no Nazis and no Communists, a vigorous Germany, united and unoccupied, full of energy and confidence, able to play a part again in the balancing-off of Russian power in Europe … in many ways it wouldn’t sound so bad, in comparison with our problems of today. Now, think what this means. When you tally up the total score of the two wars, in terms of their ostensible objective, you find that if there has been any gain at all, it’s pretty hard to discern.

A similar point could be made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the overthrow of the Shah, America saw a powerful Sunni Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran’s Shia theocracy. We have since fought two wars to remake Iraq, and ostensibly won them both. And now here we are, with no regional counterweight to Iran.

If we now fight a war with Iran, what objective will we be hoping to achieve? If we win, how will Americans of 2030 be better off?

The Monday Morning Teaser

Never a dull moment. I had thought the turn of the New Year would provide a good opportunity to reset the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, which I’ve been trying not to obsess over. (Whoever the Democrats nominate, I will vote for him or her against Trump, whom I regard as a threat to the survival of American democracy. I also expect that a Democratic administration, whoever heads it, will run into the limits of Congress. So, unlike many of this blog’s commenters, I don’t expect life under a Biden administration to be all that different from life under a Sanders administration or an any-other-Democrat administration. But any of them would be a huge relief after Trump.)

Or maybe there’d be new developments in the impeachment story, which I’ve also been trying (less successfully) to avoid obsessing over. (And new revelations have added a few bricks to the case against Trump.)

But no. Suddenly the prospect of war with Iran is front and center, and it’s hard to think about anything else. The story tends to fragment; as soon as you pick up one piece, you realize there’s another piece you need to consider: What’s going on between the US and Iran? Or between the US and Iraq? Or the administration and Congress? Or the administration and the law? Or within the administration itself? Maybe we should be worrying about what Iranian cultural sites might be on Trump’s list of 52 targets, or maybe we should question whether such a list even exists anywhere but in Trump’s imagination. Maybe the life-and-death reality of the situation is just a sideshow, and the real motive is to boost Trump’s 2020 campaign. Or not.

Anyway, this week’s featured post “Is it War Yet?” (which should be out soon) will try to sort all that out, to the extent that such a project is possible given the overall confusion and possible dishonesty.

The weekly summary will say a little about the state of the 2020 presidential race and impeachment, as well as the Australian wildfires and a few other things, before closing with the cutest mixed drink I’ve seen in a long time. That should be out before noon.

Trends

Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

– George Orwell

This week’s featured posts are “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline” and “Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today“.

This week there was nothing much to say about impeachment

The House has passed articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without sending them to the Senate. So officially, nothing happened this week.

Nancy Pelosi wants to get a commitment from Mitch McConnell that the Senate will hold a real trial, with witnesses, including the big ones the House wasn’t able to get to testify: Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton. McConnell knows that more (and more impressive) testimony will only make it harder for Republican senators (especially the ones facing tough re-election fights in 2020) to ignore the facts and vote to acquit their party’s president. So he’d like to make this process go away with as few headlines as possible.

Pelosi only has two pieces of leverage: She can delay by not delivering the articles, and the public agrees with her about witnesses. She needs four Republican senators to surrender to some combination of public opinion and their consciences. I’m not predicting that, but it’s within the realm of possibility.


Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she was “disturbed” by McConnell’s willingness to work hand-in-glove with the White House on impeachment. But whether her disturbance translates into any actual votes — either on process or substance — remains to be seen. Other Republican senators have either been full-throated Trump partisans or have stayed quiet.


The one substantive development in the impeachment case tightened the timeline of Trump’s Ukraine shakedown:

About 90 minutes after President Trump held a controversial telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in July, the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon to suspend all military aid that Congress had allocated to Ukraine, according to emails released by the Pentagon late Friday.

but there were two acts of religious violence

Five were wounded in a knife attack during a Hanukkah celebration in the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York. Presumably the motive has something to do with anti-Semitism, but there’s been no official statement.

Three people, including the attacker, were killed in a shooting at a church in White Settlement, Texas. Two members of the church’s security team shot the gunman. It’s easy to guess both the pro-gun and anti-gun versions of this story: “Thank God somebody at the church had a gun to stop the attack.” and “That’s how gun-crazy our culture has gotten: Our churches are like the OK Corral.”

and I’m still trying to figure out “religious liberty”

I’ve often been critical of the way the Christian Right has co-opted the concept of “religious liberty”. (Going back to my 2013 article “Religious Freedom means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“).

Decades ago, the principle of religious liberty prevented the abuse of religious minorities by the more powerful religions. (You can’t, for example, require employees to work on Saturday as a way to avoid hiring Jews. You can’t ban new steeples in order to keep a Mormon temple out of your town.) Now “religious liberty” means that the majority religion is free to throw its weight around, which is more-or-less the opposite of what it used to mean.

But that’s my jaundiced outsider’s view. So it’s worthwhile to consider the insider’s view that conservative WaPo columnist Hugh Hewitt presents in “Evangelicals should thank Trump for protecting their religious liberty“. Hewitt uses six Supreme Court cases since 2014 to “illustrate the stakes” of what he sees as the liberal assault on religious liberty.

Looking at Hewitt’s list, though, I don’t see embattled Christians just trying to practice their faith. I see the religious right’s aggression against the rest of us:

  • Hobby Lobby, where the Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s Christian beliefs trump the right of employees to make their own healthcare choices.
  • Greece v Galloway, which established a town council’s right to begin its meetings with sectarian prayers. (My take in that week’s summary: “If you’re in the majority and you want to lord it over the minority, the Court thinks you should dot your i‘s and cross your t‘s first, but otherwise, go ahead.”)
  • Trinity Lutheran v Comer, which allows public money to be spent on religious institutions.
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop, where the issue is whether Christian businesses can violate discrimination laws.
  • Becerra. Crisis pregnancy centers run by religious groups don’t have to tell women about the state services available to them, and unlicensed crisis pregnancy centers don’t have tell anyone that they’re unlicensed.
  • American Legion. Public money can be spent to maintain Christian religious symbols.

One thing I have never seen in these religious-right cases is a clear explanation of how the Supreme Court’s current interpretation of “religious liberty” protects anyone other than conservative Christians. In general, phrasing rights in terms of religion implies that religious people have special rights that don’t apply to people with secular motivations.

and you also might be interested in …

Trump retweeted an apparent outing of the whistleblower Friday night. This appears to be a violation of the law protecting whistleblowers, but it’s Trump. What’s new about him breaking the law?


The Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is making a push into what was formerly rebel-held territory in the northwestern Idlib region. The Washington Post says 250,000 people have fled in just the last two weeks.


Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs Democracy (which I reviewed in UU World) draws a lesson from the growing extremism of the Hindu nationalist Modi government in India: authoritarian populist regimes get worse in their second terms.

As we’ve seen in countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, populist leaders are at first hamstrung in their ability to concentrate power in their own hands. Many key institutions, including courts and electoral commissions, are still dominated by independent-minded professionals who do not owe their appointment to the new regime. Media outlets are still able and willing to report on scandals, forcing the government to tread somewhat carefully.

Once these governments win reelection, these constraints begin to fall away. As the independent-minded judges and civil servants depart, populist leaders feel emboldened to pursue their illiberal dreams.


Saudi Arabia has finished accounting for the murder of Virginia resident and WaPo contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Five people were sentenced to death, but justice stayed far away from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered the murder.

The claim by the Saudi prosecutors, who report directly to the royal court, that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in a “spur of the moment” decision defies all the evidence that points to a premeditated extrajudicial assassination — the bone saw the assailants brought along, the gruesome chitchat taped by Turkish intelligence, the Khashoggi look-alike who was filmed walking out of the consulate after the killing.

When Trump claims that he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and get away with it, you have to remember that some of his biggest allies on the world stage literally do such things.


Trump’s pardon of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher looks worse and worse the more we find out. The NYT got hold of videos of the testimony from Gallagher’s fellow SEALs.

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators.


Local newspapers are getting thinner across the country, and many areas have essentially no local news coverage. In many towns, something calling itself a local paper survives, but it is owned by a distant conglomerate with little local presence.

I have to wonder if we’ll soon see an uptick in small-government corruption, or if maybe it’s already happening but going unreported. It’s easy to get away something if nobody’s covering town councils and other public bodies. And in cities with just one major news source (i.e., most of them) the publisher may just be one more party who needs to be cut in on the deal.


Climate change in a nutshell: 2019 is going to be Alaska’s warmest year on record, but it’s ending with a dangerous cold snap. Temperatures of -60 F and colder have been recorded.

and let’s close with something cute

It’s a week (and a decade) that calls for puppy pictures. I have a particular weakness for huskies, but the link includes many breeds.

The Decade of Democracy’s Decline

When a decade ends, it’s always tempting to look back and come up with a single defining theme. Often that exercise winds up being artificial and its conclusion a bit forced. But as we approach the end of 2019 the theme seems clear: The story of the Teens was the decline of democracy.

2010 in the United States. On New Year’s Day in 2010, we were living in a very different world. Barack Obama had been elected in a landslide in 2008, bringing huge Democratic majorities to both houses. The first major sign of a rightward pendulum swing — Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the race for the Senate vacancy caused by Ted Kennedy’s death — would happen soon (January 19), but the extent of November’s Democratic wipe-out was not at all apparent yet.

Brown’s victory ruined the filibuster-proof Senate majority that the Democrats had maintained for a few months (since Al Franken had finally been seated in July), but Nancy Pelosi maneuvered her House majority and the reconciliation rules to get ObamaCare passed anyway by the end of March.

The economic disaster of 2008 was finally starting to resolve. When Obama took office, the economy had been hemorrhaging jobs, bankruptcies were starting to cascade, and the possibility of a Great-Depression-style collapse had seemed possible for the first time in almost 80 years. (One sign of the looming apocalypse: In September of 2008, a major money-market fund “broke the buck” and stopped redeeming its shares at $1.) The balanced-budget rules most states lived under had been forcing them to make the problem worse: As revenues fell, they had to stop construction projects, cut safety-net programs, and lay off teachers.

But by 2010, a variety of government interventions had begun to stabilize the situation: TARP and a loose Federal Reserve policy had stopped the banking collapse; a federal bailout saved the US auto industry; Obama’s $800-billion stimulus program had cut taxes, shored up state government finances, and started restoring the country’s infrastructure. Unemployment was still high and many people were still suffering, but the feeling that the bottom was about to fall out of everything had passed. A slow-but-steady economic expansion began, and has continued for the rest of the decade.

As the Republican revival took the form of the Tea Party, it was possible to believe in that movement’s grass-roots sincerity, despite the billionaire Koch money behind it. Perhaps large numbers of people really were alarmed by the rapidly growing federal debt, and by the government’s role in the economy, which the bailouts had at least temporarily increased. (By now, of course, we know that concern about the debt was entirely bogus. Trump’s looming trillion-dollar deficits disturb none of the people who angsted about Obama’s.)

Despite the Tea Party, though, the Republican establishment seemed firmly in control of the GOP’s direction. The Reagan policy configuration was unchanged: strong defense, a forceful American presence in the world, free trade, low taxes, low regulation, traditional sexual mores, and an immigration policy that accommodated business’ need for cheap labor.

But more than that, Republicans still participated in a national consensus on democracy so widespread it could mostly go unstated: The two major parties competed to persuade a majority of the American electorate, and whichever party succeeded in getting the majority of votes would, of course, control the government. Despite Republicans’ knowledge that they did better in low-turnout elections, and their occasional efforts to make voting harder for poor and non-white citizens, at least in public they had to acknowledge that voting was a good thing, something the public should be encouraged to do.

As the party of the rich, Republicans had always found it easier to raise large sums of money than Democrats. But controlling money in politics was still at least partly a bipartisan issue, exemplified by the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. As a practical matter, Republicans were more likely to oppose campaign-finance rules than Democrats; but open defenses of plutocracy were rare.

For the most part, Republicans were still part of a nationwide consensus on fair play. This was best exemplified by a moment in John McCain’s 2008 campaign, in which a woman questioning McCain said Barack Obama was “an Arab”, and seemed ready to go further if McCain hadn’t taken the microphone away from her.

I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Violations could be found on both sides, of course, but the general consensus (at least in public) was that candidates should not smear each other in ways that would make it hard for the winner to govern.

A number of rules of fair play held in Congress as well. The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments, but both parties exercised this power with some restraint. For the most part, the president was allowed to get his way unless there was something egregiously wrong about a particular nominee.

There had been a few rumblings in the other direction. On democracy, Tom DeLay’s 2003 Texas redistricting plan intended to net more Republican seats in Congress just by shifting boundary lines, without the need to persuade any voters. As for fair play, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, had no qualms about blowing racist dog whistles in Obama’s direction, or accusing him of “pallin’ around with terrorists“. But these seemed to be excesses rather than signs of the future.

2010 around the world. Internationally, Europe was having a harder time recovering from the Great Recession than the US, and the biggest threat to the unity of the EU was that struggling economies like Greece might need to escape EU austerity rules and the discipline of the euro. The Syrian Civil War, with its consequent Syrian refugee problem, hadn’t started yet. (The entire Arab Spring, with it’s brief promise of democracy, had not yet bloomed and died.) Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment existed in Europe, but was nothing like the continent-wide issue it later became. Far-right parties in France and Germany had yet to take off, and Brexit was a notion from the lunatic fringe of British politics.

But the biggest difference was in eastern Europe. It was already clear by 2010 (to those who were paying attention) that Vladimir Putin was an autocrat running a government-shaped crime syndicate. But no one yet appreciated the threat he posed outside Russia, or foresaw that his democracy-to-autocracy model would be imitated in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Brazil, and even the United States. (My best description of that strategy is probably the one in the review of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, or possibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)

I would argue that Putin has been the single most influential figure of the 2010s. Russia in 2010 was (and still is) a relatively minor economy dependent on an industry with little long-term future (oil). And yet, look at all he accomplished: His ruthless intervention in Syria pushed millions of immigrants towards Europe, where his simultaneous information-warfare campaign inflamed anti-immigrant feelings and boosted nationalist populist movements across the EU. His thumb-on-the-scale was arguably the difference in both the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. At the end of the decade, a foreign-policy goal of every Russia leader since Stalin might finally be in sight: the dissolution of NATO.

In 2010, it was even possible to believe that China would eventually find its way to democracy. The theory went like this: Sooner or later, the rising Chinese middle class would seek a voice in government. But while Chinese prosperity grew through the Teens, if anything China moved the other way politically. Power has increasingly become centered in President-for-Life Xi.

The Republican embrace of minority rule. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (reviewed here), Daniel Ziblatt examined different European nations’ paths toward democracy and found a key difference: It mattered how the old ruling class felt about yielding its power to democratic institutions. Britain developed a viable conservative party that (through its alliance with the Church of England and its traditional morals), saw a way to continue to compete for power in a democratic system. But Germany’s upper classes never stopped seeing democracy as a threat, and were constantly tempted to seize power in non-democratic ways, eventually producing Hitler rather than Churchill.

The big story of the Teens in the US was the loss of a conservative party committed to democracy. The Republican Party has increasingly found itself at odds with democracy, and instead has openly embraced minority rule. In the Trump Era, Republicans no longer even attempt to attract majority support: 46% was enough to produce an electoral college win in 2016, and Trump has spent the last three years talking almost exclusively to that 46%.

In fact, it’s worth looking at all three elected branches of government. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump got 62,984,828 votes (46.1%) while Hillary Clinton got 65,853,514 (48.2%). In the 2018 elections for the House, Republican candidates got 50,861,970 votes (44.8%) and Democrats 60,572,245 (53.4%).

Computing the Senate popular vote is a little more complicated, because it takes six years for all the seats to come up, so you have to total across three elections. In 2014, Republican candidates got 24,631,488 votes (51.7%) and Democrats 20,875,493 votes (43.8%). In 2016 it was Republicans 40,402,790 (42.4%), Democrats 51,496,682 (53.8%). In 2018, Republicans got 34,723,013 (38.8%) and Democrats 52,260,651 (58.4%).

That works out to a total of 99,575,291 Republican votes and 124,632,826 Democratic votes. (The totals are roughly double the House totals because each state elects two senators.) That 25 million vote margin for the Democrats (roughly 55%-45%) has produced a 53-47 Republican majority.

Think about what that means: The American people voted for Democrats to control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but in fact they only succeeded in giving Democrats control of the House.

The retreat from fair play. So far we’ve just talked about anti-democratic elements inherent in our government’s constitutional structure. But during the Teens, Republicans used that minority power to entrench minority rule further.

The 2010 census was the beginning of a redistricting wave that has gerrymandered both federal and state districts to lock in Republican majorities. On the federal level, the Democratic wave of 2018 (53.4%) was considerably larger than the Republican wave of 2010 (51.7%), but produced a smaller majority (235 seats in 2018 vs 242 in 2010).

But it is on the state level where democracy has truly vanished. I could pick several states as examples, but probably the clearest is Wisconsin, where gerrymandering has locked in a large Republican majority in the legislature that the Democratic majority in the electorate is unable to oust.

Despite Democrats winning every statewide office on the ballot and receiving 200,000 more total votes, Republicans lost just one seat in Wisconsin’s lower house this cycle. And that victory was by a razor-thin 153 votes. Democrats netted 1.3 million votes for Assembly, 54 percent statewide. Even so, [Assembly Speaker] Vos will return to the Capitol in 2019 with Republicans holding 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly, a nearly two-thirds majority.

Republicans in Wisconsin: Losing the vote, but holding the legislature.

Far from being embarrassed by their minority support in the electorate or cowed by the mandate voters gave the new Democratic governor, the Wisconsin Republican majority in the legislature responded to the voters’ rebuke by passing laws to cut the new governor’s powers.

And those totals are after considerable efforts to suppress the vote of blocs likely to support Democrats. The one-two punch of minority rule is

  • Make it hard for Democratic blocs to vote.
  • Herd them into a small number of districts so that even a majority of Democratic votes can’t oust Republican majorities in the legislature.

This works because of minority rule on the federal level: A minority president and a minority Senate get to stack the judiciary with judges who are fine with tactics that entrench minority rule even deeper. That’s how we wound up with a conservative Supreme Court that has refused to block voter suppression and gerrymandering, and has opened the door to unlimited money in political campaigns — including unlimited money to influence Senate approval of judges. So the initial anti-democratic tilt built into the Constitution has been amplified.

You might think this reliance on a minority would be an embarrassing secret for Republicans, but in fact it is not. More and more openly, they defend the notion that the majority should not control the government.

For example, the Electoral College used to be seen as a historical relic that wasn’t worth the trouble it would take to get rid of it. But now it is actively defended by conservative publications like National Review and politicians like Senator Mike Lee. The fundamental unfairness of the Senate is cast as the great wisdom of the Founders, who apparently foresaw that Californians wouldn’t deserve to have their votes count for as much as Alaskans.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression aren’t shameful any more, they’re just how the game is played. And unlimited money is “free speech”. Even violence is no longer beyond the pale: Trump has repeatedly warned of violence if his followers don’t get what they want, and Trump supporters like Robert Jeffress even talk about “civil war“.

The drift towards autocracy. Most worrisome of all, in my opinion, is Republicans’ increasing tolerance of and support for autocratic words and actions from their leader. I can find no parallel in American history for how Trump has handled Congress’ refusal to fund his wall: He declared a phony emergency and seized money appropriated for other purposes. Even a congressional resolution to cancel the emergency was unavailing: Trump vetoed it, and held enough support in Congress to block a veto override.

So the precedent is established: As long as a president’s allies control 1/3 of one house, he can ignore the power of the purse that the Constitution gives Congress.

Republicans in Congress have also refused to protect Congress’ oversight power. Since Democrats gained control of the House, the administration has blocked all attempts to investigate his administration.

Nazi comparisons should always be handled with care, but this one seems appropriate to me: It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do, as Germans brushed off the more outrageous sections of Mein Kampf. What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

Already, everyone responsible for launching the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia has been hounded out of the Justice Department. Amazon has been denied a large Pentagon contract because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post is critical of Trump.

It’s a mistake to write this off as “Trump being Trump”. If he acquires the power to inflict more punishment, as he well might if Congress fails to impeach him and the Electoral College re-elects him (once again against the will of the voters), more punishments will happen.

Trends are not fate. George Orwell once wrote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” So it is a mistake to despair. Trends often reverse right at the moment when they seem most unstoppable, and often the reversal is only apparent in hindsight. But it is also foolish not to notice the trend, which for the last ten years has run counter to democracy, particularly in the United States.

Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today

Nearly 200 Evangelical leaders responded to the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, which I discussed at some length last week in “The Evangelical Deal With the Devil“. How they chose to respond says a lot about how Trump appeals to their flocks.

CT’s case had three main points:

  • Trump is guilty as charged: “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
  • Beyond the articles of impeachment, Trump has conducted himself in a grossly un-Christian way: “[T]his president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
  • Religious leaders who defend Trump are distorting the Christian message and damaging the credibility the Evangelical movement: “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

Protestant Christianity has a long history of “remonstrances“, where some religious leader attempts to tell his colleagues that they’ve taken a wrong turn. (Arguably, Protestantism began with a remonstrance: Luther’s 95 theses.) So we know exactly how honest and sincere Protestant leaders respond to such challenges: They answer the points in the context of their faith.

In this case, a thoughtful counter-remonstrance would argue that Trump is not guilty, or that his overall behavior is not immoral, or that defending him is an appropriate example of Christian witness, not a distortion of it. You might expect a response full of Biblical texts and comparisons to proud moments from the history of the Evangelical movement.

The letter from the 200 does none of that. Not a single point from the editorial is confronted directly. Neither Trump’s impeachable actions nor his general morality is mentioned. The loss of credibility that comes from identifying Christianity with Trumpism is not addressed. Instead, the 200 responders make two points:

  • They feel insulted. The particular statements that they believe insult them are not actually in the CT editorial, but were made by the author in interviews. As so often is the case when conservative Christians claim offense, they are the ones who decided that the shoe fit them. The CT editor talked about “evangelicals on the far right”, but did not name any.
  • The author of the CT editorial is an elitist who looks down on less educated believers, so the majority of Evangelicals shouldn’t identify with him or pay attention to what he says.

Like so much of Trump’s defense in the larger culture, this argument is entirely tribal, and not at all based on facts or principles: Trump is one of us, and if you oppose him, you’re not one of us.

The one time the letter alludes to the Bible is an up-is-down distortion.

We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — our public service.

But Trump does not at all fit the model of a tax collector (like Matthew) or a “sinner” (like Mary Magdalene). He is a head of government, like Herod, who does not repent his immoral actions or seek to change. The Bible contains no example of Jesus (or any prophet) pandering to power in the way these Evangelical leaders have.

Quite the opposite, the prophets repeatedly confronted immoral rulers, as I have observed at length before. The Christianity Today editorial fits well into this prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. The letter responding to it does not.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week between Christmas and New Years has been comparatively quiet for the Trump era. Sure, the President tweeted out the name of the suspected whistleblower in apparent violation of the law, but “President Breaks Law” has become a dog-bites-man story and barely draws attention any more. The impeachment story largely went dormant, as the House delayed delivering the articles of impeachment in hopes of negotiating an agreement in which Mitch McConnell’s Senate would do its duty and hold a trial.

I wrote two featured posts for this week. The first is a short note that outgrew the weekly summary: “Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today”, which should be out shortly. Last week I wrote a post about the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office. This week 200 evangelical leaders responded, sort of. They skipped over the substance of the editorial and told their followers why they should pay no attention to it. It was kind of a microcosm of Trumpist non-defense defenses, which say nothing about the evidence against him, but rally tribal loyalties.

The other post is my end-of-the-Teens article. I usually proclaim a theme of the year around this time, but given that we’re about to enter the Twenties, I thought I’d proclaim a theme of the decade: the decline of democracy in the US and around the world. I’ll try to get that out around 10 EST.