Each wave was broken, but, like the sea, wore away ever so little of the granite on which it failed. … One such wave (and not the least) I raised and rolled before the breath of an idea, till it reached its crest, and toppled over and fell at Damascus. The wash of that wave, thrown back by the resistance of vested things, will provide the matter of the following wave, when in the fullness of time the sea shall be raised once more.

T. E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

This week’s featured posts are “The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats” and “Who Are Those Guys?” which covers some of the new faces in major Trump administration positions: Larry Kudlow, Mike Pompeo, and Gina Haspel.

This week everybody was talking about a Democratic victory

Most of what I have to say is covered in the featured post. But there is one more thing:

Hoping to get some election insight that wasn’t showing up yet on the networks, Tuesday afternoon I perused #pa18 on Twitter. I didn’t find any secret exit polls or deep inside knowledge of what was happening, but I did notice something interesting. Republican tweets were full of warnings about a Democratic dirty trick: People at the polls would try to tell Republicans (specifically Republicans) that they couldn’t vote because of the reorganization of Pennsylvania’s congressional districts. The redistricting doesn’t apply until November, the tweets said, so you should insist on voting and call this number to report whoever had tried to stop you.

None of the tweets I saw noted a particular precinct where this had happened or named a person it had happened to. As best I could tell, it was a pure fantasy.

I saw no comparable Democratic tweets, even though a Republican-dominated district would seem to offer far more opportunities for Republican dirty tricks. Pro-Lamb tweets had more of a cheerleading aspect: We can do this, we’re going to make history, and so on. The closest thing I saw to the Republican tweets were the ones urging you to stay in line to vote, because they can’t close the polls while you’re still waiting.

You can draw your own conclusions, but here’s mine: Republicanism these days is all about resentment, so the way you get out the Republican vote is to tell them that somebody is trying to cheat them. Never mind that the actual dirty tricks are overwhelmingly on their side: They’re the ones demanding new forms of ID and organizing “ballot security” groups to harass legitimate voters. The present-day conservative movement has evolved away from all its old principled stances: small government, balanced budgets, free markets, and spreading democracy abroad. All that’s left is feeling cheated and wanting to strike back at somebody.

and Trump’s cabinet shake-up

I discuss this in “Who Are Those Guys?

and the student protests against gun violence

The Wall Street Journal says that a million students participated in about 3000 protests Wednesday morning.

In D.C., thousands observed 17 minutes of silence as they sat with their backs to the White House. I love this photo of that moment: The girl is central and in focus, the White House small and a little blurry.

If you haven’t already, you should listen to what the students have to say. Look at this video and this one. Or this clip from MSNBC’s Last Word.

Do I believe this set of protests will break the power of the NRA and bring sensible gun laws to the United States? No, probably not. But I offer these kids the Lawrence of Arabia quote at the top of the page, to read and remember at those moments when it seems like nothing (or only a pitiful portion of what they imagined) has been accomplished, and they are tempted to ask themselves “What was that all about?” They have already worn away a chunk of the rock, and this is not the last time this particular sea will rise.

Conservatives will tell you that liberals make everything about race or gender. It turns out there’s a reason for that: if you dig deeply enough, everything is about race or gender.

Scientific American reviews the research about the increasing number of guns in America: Since the start of the Obama administration, the number of guns manufactured in the U.S. has tripled and gun imports have doubled. But it’s not that more and more people are buying guns — around 42% of households own a gun, a number that’s held steady for decades. It’s that a small number of people are stockpiling more and more guns: 3% of the population now owns half of them.

So who are these people? White men, mostly. But not all white men.

According to a growing number of scientific studies, the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile.

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

What’s interesting about these results is that they flip one of the common NRA scripts about mass killings: The problem isn’t guns, it’s moral decay. It’s mental illness, it’s boys without fathers, it’s video games that dehumanize victims, it’s a punishment for taking God out of the classroom, and so on. None of that pans out in the research. But the research Scientific American is citing finds a moral link that doesn’t excuse guns as a cause, but goes through guns. Loss of meaning and purpose in life causes people to turn to guns. The Gun is the new God.

and the continuing effort to obstruct justice

The Republican effort to keep the public from knowing what happened in 2016 revved to a higher level this week. The House Intelligence Committee is ready to submit its Sgt.-Schultz-like report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Jeff Sessions sent a warning to all the FBI agents investigating the Trump administration by firing Andrew McCabe just 26 hours before his retirement, possibly screwing up his pension. Trump’s lawyer called for the end of the Mueller investigation. And Trump himself tweeted attacks on McCabe and Mueller, as well as James Comey.

Undoubtedly, the House report will be approved on an party-line vote, as it has been a very partisan investigation from the beginning. The Democrats on the committee not only played no role in writing the report, they didn’t even see it until Tuesday.

According to the one-page summary now available (the full report has to go through a declassification review before it can be released), the report will dispute the universal conclusion of the U.S. intelligence services of “Putin’s supposed preference for candidate Trump”. Also

We have found no evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

No doubt that statement is literally true, because the committee’s Republican majority didn’t look for such evidence and didn’t want to see it in the evidence they found.

For months it’s been clear that the committee was not running a serious investigation. Repeatedly, White House and Trump campaign officials would go to the committee, answer the questions they wanted to answer, and give no valid grounds for refusing to answer all other questions. Since a majority vote was necessary to subpoena those who wouldn’t testify voluntarily, or to cite for contempt witnesses who refused to answer valid questions, the committee mostly has assembled the information that Trump wanted it to have.

The committee used its power to harass and intimidate Trump critics, rather than to investigate their claims.  For example, it subpoenaed the bank records of the firm that funded the Steele dossier, but not records that would shed light on credible accusations that the Trump Organization engaged in money laundering for Russian oligarchs.

Again and again, it has staged elaborate sideshows to distract the public from the questions it should have been trying to answer. This report is yet another distraction. I agree with The Washington Post’s editorial conclusion:

History will not judge kindly these legislators who abased themselves and their institution.

The justification for McCabe’s firing is a report by the Justice Department Inspector General that still hasn’t been released, so there’s no way to know how solid it is. Maybe McCabe actually deserved to be fired, or maybe the Justice Department caved to political pressure to strike back at someone Trump blames for his legal troubles.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that McCabe inappropriately allowed two top officials to speak to reporters in 2016 about his decision to open a case into the Clinton Foundation. This incident was under investigation as part of a broader look into how the FBI and Justice Department handled themselves during the most recent presidential election.

According to reports about the watchdog’s conclusion, which is still under wraps, McCabe apparently misled investigators during an interview with the inspector general, a charge McCabe denies.

McCabe himself sees another rationale:

The big picture is a tale of what can happen when law enforcement is politicized, public servants are attacked, and people who are supposed to cherish and protect our institutions become instruments for damaging those institutions and people.

Here is the reality: I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President. … This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement, and intelligence professionals more generally. It is part of this Administration’s ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation, which continue to this day.

As if to corroborate McCabe, Trump began tweeting against McCabe’s firing, James Comey, and the Mueller investigation, supporting McCabe’s contention that these are all connected in his mind.

but keep your eye on Russia

The poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal, now a citizen of the United Kingdom is an important story to watch play out.

The key fact, to me, is that Russia is not even trying to get away with it. The chemical agent used in the attack was easily traceable back to Russia; they might as well have left a signed note. The point seems to be to make a statement, like certain mob killings, where it wasn’t enough to get some guy out of the picture, he had to die in a hail of bullets that would leave no doubt who was behind it.

The UK has thrown out some Russian diplomats in retaliation, and Russia has thrown out some UK diplomats. If it ends there, Putin has won. Vox’ Zeeshann Aleem notes that the UK has a much stronger weapon: It could freeze the London-based assets of Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin. But will it, given how much this Russian money means to London bankers and the UK economy in general? This follows the script of the old KGB kompromat: entangling a victim in schemes that make it hard for him to resist further schemes.

The US has signed onto a joint statement with France and Germany backing up the UK, but again, it’s not clear how far we’re willing to go. Putin may well come out of this feeling as if he won: The Western democracies made some noise, but in the end they did nothing  of consequence.

To no one’s surprise, Vladimir Putin won a landslide re-election.

and you also might be interested in …

Far from “draining the swamp”, Trump’s new tariff policies are a bonanza for lobbyists.

“The dinner bell is ringing for the trade bar and associated lobbyists and consultants,” said Chip Roh, a former partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Lawyers and lobbyists are employed on both sides, arguing for and against exemptions, he said, adding, “It creates a fertile field.”

The erosion of local news coverage continues: The Denver Post is laying off another 30 journalists.

The newsroom would be below 70 positions: a startling drop from a time not much more than a decade ago when the Post and its rival, the Rocky Mountain News, together had more than 600 journalists. (The papers were in a joint operating agreement until the Rocky went out of business in 2009.)

Top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo comments on the impact of that loss: “It’s been a long time since we sat through every City Council meeting.”

What we’re seeing here is the growing “efficiency” of capitalism. Local newspapers used to be privately owned enterprises that, in the course of their normal function, provided cities with a public good: oversight. Public institutions knew that if they became too brazenly corrupt, someone would notice and make an issue of it. But it is inefficient to provide benefits that you don’t get paid for. The more efficient a business becomes, the closer it comes to capturing all the benefits it generates. The public good? Who’s paying for that?

and let’s close with something with a public service announcement

What better way to teach responsible alcohol consumption than to watch someone go slightly over the line? Shannon Odell is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Cornell Medical College, and is also seriously cute and adorable — which shouldn’t matter, but does. She explains the physiological effects of alcohol on your brain and nervous system while drinking shots.

Who are those guys?

a guide to the new faces in the Trump administration

Watching the White House and the major executive departments of government may be making you feel like Dorothy in a perverse version of Oz: “People come and go so quickly here!”

To a certain extent, it’s been that way from the beginning. On the way to the White House, Trump went through three campaign chairmen (Cory Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon). Chris Christie was supposed to organize the transition, but Mike Pence replaced him only a week after the election. Mike Flynn was already out as National Security Adviser after 23 days.

From that unsettled opening, things never really calmed down. Who can forget, for example, the 10-day reign of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director last July? Rivalries that seemed likely to define the entire Trump administration (Steve Bannon vs. Reince Preibus) are already ancient history.

Recently, though, the churn seems to have speeded up, for a variety of reasons: Rob Porter and David Sorensen left in the middle of domestic abuse scandals. John McEntee was escorted out of the building due to “serious financial crimes” that seem to involve gambling. Nobody has a really good explanation of why Hope Hicks quit, though it’s an interesting coincidence that she refused to answer questions before the House Intelligence Committee the day before her resignation was announced.

We know why Gary Cohn left as Director of the National Economic Council: He had already gotten the tax cut he wanted, and he couldn’t defend Trump’s tariffs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter, for a variety of reasons that probably boiled down to being insufficiently deferential to the Moron in Chief. (Just before he was fired, Tillerson criticized Russia for the poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. It would be ironic if that were a cause, because Tillerson had been criticized for being too sympathetic to Russia, and is even rumored to have gotten his job because the Russians didn’t want Mitt Romney to have it.)

Beyond that, rumors abound: McMaster is about to go, or practically everybody in the cabinet. But one of the things you learn in Fire and Fury is that from Day 1 Trump has constantly talked about firing people, many of whom are still in their jobs (like Jeff Sessions). So a reporter might have numerous well-placed sources saying Trump is talking about firing McMaster, and it might or might not mean anything.

So anyway, who are the new people? And why do I believe they’ll be even worse than the people they replace?

Larry Kudlow, Chief Economic Adviser. This job usually goes to somebody with a Ph.D. in economics and a resume full of articles in econ journals. Kudlow has none of that: He’s predominantly a media personality. His selection follows a pattern of Trump hiring people he’s seen on TV, whether they have any qualifications or not. (It would barely surprise me to hear that Hugh Laurie was going to be Surgeon General.)

Kudow got a BA in history and studied economics and politics at Princeton without finishing his masters. He worked in politics in the 1970s (for Democrats, oddly enough), then found the supply-side economics religion and worked for the Fed and OMB during the Reagan administration. Bear Stearns hired him to be its chief economist in 1987 (so they must have thought he knew something).

He shifted to media in 2001, and by 2001 he was on CNBC (NBC’s business network), co-hosting with Jim Cramer. Cramer split off to start a stock-picking show Mad Money, and Kudlow and Cramer eventually morphed into The Kudlow Report, where he continued to pontificate until Trump tapped him. Ezra Klein comments:

Larry Kudlow, in other words, is a reasonable answer to the question, “How can Trump get more favorable coverage for his economic agenda on cable news?” And to Trump, that may indeed be the central question.

As for his economic philosophy, there are two thing to know about him: He’s for tax cuts in any and all situations, and (like Gary Cohn and unlike Trump) he’s a free-trader who opposed Trump’s tariffs, at least before he took a job at the White House.

The other thing to know is more epistemological: He doesn’t belong to reality-based community. Anything good that happens in the economy is due to tax cuts and free trade (even those actions happened years ago and have been reversed since), and anything bad that happens is due to tax increases and trade restrictions. Those conclusions are pre-ordained and impervious to evidence.

Like many TV pundits, he has made a career out of being very consistently wrong, something you can’t usually get away with on Wall Street. It’s almost impossible to assemble such a consisten record of bad predictions by chance. To be so reliably wrong, you need to base your predictions on a theory that is not just irrelevant to reality, but actively opposed to it, like supply-side economics.

Jonathan Chait’s sums up in “Trump’s New Economic Adviser Lawrence Kudlow Has Been Wrong About Everything for Decades“. The true highlight is from a column Kudlow wrote for National Review in December, 2007: “The Bush Boom Continues“.

There is no recession. Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S economy continues moving ahead, quarter after quarter, year after year, defying dire forecasts and delivering positive growth. … The Bush boom is alive and well. It’s finishing up its sixth consecutive year with more to come.

Mortgage refinancings were “soaring”, he reported, finding that to be “a very positive, very welcome development”. In fact, the housing bubble had already started to pop months before, and his old firm, Bear Stearns, was four months from bankruptcy. That September, the Lehmann Brothers bankruptcy cascaded through the banking system, triggering the biggest crisis since the Great Depression.

Kudlow is also implicated in the Brownback tax cuts in Kansas, which have devastated that state’s finances and resulted in major cutbacks in schools and roads.

Anyone who has watched Kudlow’s show knows that he talks down to people, and Trump can’t stand to be talked down to, no matter how ignorant he may be on a subject. So unless Kudlow has some one-on-one mode I haven’t seen on TV, I don’t expect him to last long.

Mike Pompeo, moving from CIA Director to Secretary of State. Pompeo isn’t really a new face, but he’s in a new role. He was a congressman from Kansas until Trump made him CIA Director. He served as an Army captain in the Gulf War before getting a law degree. He ran an aerospace company in Wichita, and was a business associate of the Koch brothers. He entered Congress as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave, again with major support from the Kochs.

His known positions relevant to foreign policy include being strongly anti-Muslim, opposing the Iran nuclear deal, supporting the prison at Guantanamo, and denying the scientific evidence on climate change. His position on Russia is a little harder to suss out, but it seems consistent with the House Intelligence Committee: Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, but he doesn’t connect that to Trump. The Russians have been trying to undermine our elections “for decades”, and don’t seem to stand out from other nations. He is concerned “about others’ efforts as well. We have many foes who want to undermine Western democracy.”

Given his ties to virulent Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, Pompeo will help Trump connect to parts of his base that are too extreme for even Trump to reach out to directly. But I wonder how the Saudis will react to him.

Gina Haspel, CIA Director. Haspel is a career CIA insider, which can be read as either good or bad news. She may be implicated in past CIA sins, and may even be a war criminal. On the other hand, as part of the so-called “Deep State”, she is unlikely to give in to White House pressure to use the CIA politically.

The big issue with Haspel is torture, though part of the initial concern about that seems to be overblown. Pro Publica withdrew some of the most damning claims made about her.

The story said that Haspel, a career CIA officer who President Trump has nominated to be the next director of central intelligence, oversaw the clandestine base where [suspected Al Qaeda leader Abu] Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation methods that are widely seen as torture. The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them. It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.

Still at issue is whether Haspel played a role in the decision to destroy the tapes of Zubaydah’s waterboarding, which was illegal. Pro Publica stands by that part of its story.

ProPublica reiterated that after she rose to a new position in the CIA, Haspel urged the agency to destroy 92 videotapes that had documented Zubaydah’s treatment, including dozens of waterboardings and other techniques widely viewed as torture. Those tapes were eventually shredded.

But NPR quotes James Mitchell, who worked with Haspel, saying:

“Gina did not pressure Jose Rodriguez to destroy those tapes.” Mitchell says Rodriguez made that decision on his own, as the CIA’s director of clandestine operations. By that time, Haspel had risen to become his chief of staff.

However, she may have been involved in another torture case. The New York Times reports:

Ms. Haspel arrived to run the prison in late October 2002, after the harsh interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah, a former senior C.I.A. official said. In mid-November, another Qaeda suspect, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri arrived. Mr. Nashiri, accused of bombing the U.S.S. Cole, was the man who was waterboarded three times.

The real problem in all these cases is that we just don’t know what she did. Pro Publica quotes CIA spokesman Dean Boyd:

“It is important to note that she has spent nearly her entire CIA career undercover,” Boyd said. “Much of what is in the public domain about her is inaccurate.”

Some of that uncertainty may be resolved in public hearings the Senate will hold before voting on her nomination, but some it undoubtedly will remain classified: Senators will vote on her nomination and claim that they have good reasons for the position they take, but the public won’t be able to judge.

The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats

A recount is probably still coming, but it sure looks like Democrat Conor Lamb won a narrow victory in a Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump carried by 19% in 2016, and where Democrats had not even fielded a candidate in 2014 and 2016.

The victory kept alive the expectation of a Democratic wave in this fall’s nationwide elections. Cook Political Report says:

there are 118 Republican-held districts less friendly to the GOP than PA’s 18th CD (R+11), including 17 where the GOP incumbent isn’t running in the fall and an additional vacancy in Ohio’s 12th CD that will be settled by an August 7 special election that could become problematic for Republicans.

Democrats need to flip only 24 seats to gain control of the House. Cook says “of course not” to the theory that Dems could gain 118 seats. (As with Doug Jones in Alabama, part of the victory is due to Democrats just running a better candidate. That won’t happen everywhere.) But their analysis of the entire run of special elections indicates that Democrats are running 9 points (not 11) better than previous results would lead you to expect. If that holds up, it still gives them a huge win in November.

The battle to interpret the race began almost immediately. Republicans, who previously had described Lamb as “far left“, claimed that Lamb had won by looking like a Republican: He criticized Nancy Pelosi, didn’t rail at Trump, didn’t back gun control, supported Trump’s tariffs, and said that his personal beliefs were pro-life. This was a fairly bogus argument, though: Lamb ran against Trump’s tax cut, which was the only major piece of legislation Republicans passed this year; on abortion he says “we defend the law as it is“; the NRA spent money to defeat him; he wants to fix ObamaCare rather than repeal it; and he was more aggressively pro-union than most Democratic candidates.

Progressive and centrist Democrats both began spinning the race as well. Centrists are arguing that Democrats should nominate moderate candidates who can appeal to Republicans fed up with Trump. Progressives are arguing that Lamb’s victory depended on getting a high turnout from the Democratic base, so Democrats need to stand for policies that will energize that base.

It would be nice to have exit polls to help us sort these claims out, but there weren’t any. So both the convince-swing-voters and the turn-out-the-base theories are plausible. We don’t know for sure whether Trump voters changed their minds and voted Democratic, or Clinton voters (or even some who thought Clinton wasn’t liberal enough to vote for) came out to vote while Trump voters stayed home.

In some sense it doesn’t matter, because Lamb’s policy choices play well under both theories: Maybe he got votes from moderate Republicans (like college educated women in Pittsburgh suburbs). Or maybe marginal Republican voters stayed home because Lamb wasn’t scary enough to motivate them to vote against him.

My take on all this shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read what I wrote about Alaska last month and Montana last week: Democrats should run candidates who match their districts. I’m against nationalizing the election around a progressive agenda, like Medicare-for-all or impeachment or banning assault rifles or a $15 minimum wage. But I’m for candidates running against the Democratic establishment in places where the Democratic establishment is unpopular, and I think we need to challenge Democrats who are more conservative than their voters. Just because I like a Conor Lamb in PA-18 doesn’t mean I oppose a progressive challenge to Diane Feinstein. California is a different electorate.

As for what the Democratic Party should stand for, I think it should stand for principles rather than specific pieces of legislation. (OurFuture.org derides this approach as “a list of desirable goals, rather than explicit pledges”. Yes, that’s exactly what I want from the national party. Let local candidates craft their own explicit pledges.) Here’s what I mean: We want more and more people to have health insurance, with universal coverage as the ultimate goal. We want to shift the tax burden back towards the rich and corporations. We want to protect the safety net, fight climate change, invest in education, welcome immigrants and refugees, make our guns laws less crazy, keep government out of Americans’ sexual and reproductive decisions, protect minority rights, and end mass incarceration.

That’s far from “not standing for anything”, and it makes a stark contrast with Republicans, but it also gives local candidates room to adapt to their voters. It makes room for Bernie-ish candidates in liberal districts, but also for candidates like Conor Lamb and Doug Jones. Candidates in Chicago or San Francisco can run on Medicare for All, while candidates in Alabama or rural Pennsylvania can defend Medicaid and ObamaCare.

Beyond that, I draw some more tactical lessons:

  • Democrats in districts that Trump carried don’t have to run against Trump, because Trump is already on everybody’s mind anyway. Anti-Trump resistance voters are going to come out and vote, whether you whip them up or not. Meanwhile, some Trump voters might stay home if you don’t insult or goad them. Best of all is when Trump himself makes the race about Trump, as he did in PA-18: The Democrat focuses on local lunch-pail issues, while Trump talks about himself.
  • The racist/populist vote is probably lost to Democrats (and good riddance), but there’s also a non-racist/populist vote they can get. Lamb’s optics helped him there: He’s a young fresh face who represents you, not an ideology or his party’s establishment.
  • Not everybody needs to have been a captain in the Marines, but new candidates need a non-political backstory. They shouldn’t be poli-sci majors whose resume is a series of congressional-staff jobs.
  • Unions may be a fading force in American politics, but there are places where they still matter. In the same way that Republicans can’t really run away from Trump, I don’t think Democrats can run away from unions. The anti-union vote is going to go against you anyway, so you might as well give pro-union voters some reason to support you.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The Sift is going to run a little late this week. There are two featured posts. The first one is fairly short and could almost be a segment of the weekly summary, but I thought I’d put it out on its own so commenters could have a more focused discussion. It will be called “The Conor Lamb Victory: lessons for Democrats”. That should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The second will be “Who Are Those Guys?” which is a guide to the new faces in the Trump administration. That should be out … maybe 11. The weekly summary has all the obstruction-of-justice stuff to cover: The House Intelligence Committee getting ready to put out a sham report on a sham investigation, Trump sending a message to investigators by firing the FBI’s Andy McCabe 26 hours before he was retiring with pension, the increasingly direct attacks against Mueller and his investigation, and so on. And then there’s the student anti-gun protests, Russia’s increasingly provocative behavior, and a few other things, before closing with a video dramatizing the physiological effects of alcohol. That will be really late, maybe after 1 p.m.

We Are all Nixonians Now

It’s like Nixon going to China, but if Nixon were a moron.

– Jeffrey Lewis “Nixon Goes to McDonaldland
Foreign Policy 3-9-2018

There is no featured post this week. Just covering what happened in the last seven days was already overwhelming enough, without trying to go deeply into any particular story.

For those who don’t get the reference in the title: Nixon is supposed to have justified his economic policy by saying: “We are all Keynesians now.” The phrase was actually written earlier by Milton Friedman, who appears to have been making a tongue-in-cheek reference to a turn-of-the-century British politician who said, “We are all socialists now.”

This week everybody was talking about Trump meeting Kim Jong Un

By now we should be getting used to this pattern: Trump makes some bold statement that his staff knows nothing about until they hear it, and then there’s a long back-and-forth about what it means, or if it means anything. Just in the last few months, this pattern has played out with varying results on immigration, on guns, and on tariffs. During the campaign, he did the same thing with universal health care. (“The government’s going to pay for it,” he said. That turned out to mean nothing.)

This week it happened on North Korea. Thursday, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong came to the White House to talk to lower-level officials and didn’t expect to see Trump until Friday, when he would deliver the message that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wanted a face-to-face meeting. But Trump had Chung shown in to the Oval Office, and cut him off before he was done making his pitch, saying “Tell them I’ll do it.” Chung then met the press on the White House driveway and announced

I told President Trump that, in our meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he is committed to denuclearization. Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue. And he expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization. [my emphasis]

Just that morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been pessimistic about North Korean talks:

I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations.

So just a few hours later, the whole foreign policy establishment — both outside and inside the administration — was trying to figure out what Trump had agreed to. It’s not clear Trump himself knows.

“The thing that’s striking here is that there is no letter from Kim. This was an oral message conveyed by North Koreans to the South Koreans,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration.

“What they actually said, what they heard him say, and then what they transmitted to Trump could be two or three different things, and it’s not like we haven’t had that in the past,” Edelman added. “There can be elements of wishful thinking here and so I think people really need to be approaching this with a great deal of caution.”

Friday, official sources gave a range of interpretations. In the afternoon, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the meeting sound much more iffy:

The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea.

If that’s the case, then nothing has changed: Obama also demanded concrete actions, and he didn’t get them, so there were no talks. If North Korea actually takes concrete action, or the U.S. stops demanding it as a precondition, then that would actually be news. Trump himself was all over the place at a rally in Pennsylvania Saturday night.

Who knows what’s going to happen? It could happen, it doesn’t happen. I may leave fast, or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world and for all of these countries, including, frankly, North Korea, and that’s what I hope happens.

My interpretation is that the recent series of North Korean missile tests is now complete: They’ve tested (and demonstrated to the world) all the new developments that seem likely to work any time soon. So there was going to be a pause anyway, while the R&D comes up with new things to test. If that’s true, North Korea has nothing lose by announcing a suspension of tests and pretending it’s a concession.

I’m skeptical that a Trump/Kim meeting would accomplish anything, but I’m also not reflexively against it.

A point of view President Obama ran into whenever his administration negotiated with Iran was that you can’t negotiate with evil regimes. Back in 2014, I responded to this by quoting an exchange from Game of Thrones:

NED STARK: Make peace with the Lannisters, you say? With the people who tried to murder my boy?
PETYR BAELISH: We only make peace with our enemies, my lord. That’s why it’s called “making peace”.

Littlefinger was a slimeball, but in this instance his principle applies: If there’s some agreement to be made that will lower the threat of nuclear war in the Far East, the Trump administration should definitely work on it, and shouldn’t demand that North Korea become Denmark first.

Another objection you often hear is that a meeting with a U.S. president in itself is something of value that we should hold back until we get something of value in return. (That seems to be what Sanders was saying. The Jeffrey Lewis article I quoted at the top agrees: “THE MEETING IS THE CONCESSION.”)

I suppose if other countries are willing to play that game, we’d be stupid not to. (If a president can get something just for showing up, there’s no sense in refusing those concessions.) But in general I don’t like the idea, because it styles the American president as Emperor of the World — other world leaders are really his subordinates, and should feel honored by his presence. I don’t think that’s a promising approach to negotiations.

So why am I skeptical? As we saw with the Obama administration and Iran, a de-nuclearization agreement is complicated. We need some way to verify that they’ve really disarmed. If we agree to end our economic sanctions in return, they’ll need some reason to believe that we won’t reimpose them as soon as they’ve gutted their nuclear program. They’ll also need some reason to believe that we won’t attack them as soon as their mutual-destruction threat is gone. Maybe the only way to establish trust is for an agreement to be divided into phases: We do this, they do that, and then later we both take the next steps. How do you arrange the phases so that each step is more-or-less equal, so that neither side is motivated to get to Step 3 and then bail?

In short, a real agreement with North Korea would have to be full of technical details. What kind of inspections need to be made? Do we do them ourselves, or does somebody else (like the UN) do them? Where is the line between acceptable civilian use of nuclear power or rockets, and unacceptable military use? What protocols are needed to assure the Koreans that our inspectors aren’t spying on a lot of other things while they’re there? And so on.

Now ask yourself: Is Donald Trump going to negotiate all that a few months from now? (I suspect he wouldn’t have the patience to hear a briefing about what all those issues are, much less understand them as well as a negotiator needs to.) Is there any agreement he and Kim could make that couldn’t be undone later in the details? (Example: Kim agrees to give up nuclear weapons in general, but his technical people insist on loopholes in the verification protocols.) That’s why negotiations happen the way they do: Lower-level people work out technical details, and when they think they’ve got something, they call in the big bosses to finalize the agreement.

I don’t believe Trump understands any of that. What he knows how to do is put on a show. That’s why the meeting he agreed to, if it happens at all, will just be a big show.

and tariffs

This week I’m wondering what Trump’s announcement about North Korea really means. Last week I was wondering the same thing about his announcement of tariffs, which equally shocked the people who thought they were working on this issue for him. (Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn resigned as a result.)

Thursday the steel and aluminum tariffs were officially announced in separate proclamations whose wording is almost identical. They claim that steel and aluminum imports are a national security issue, which I haven’t heard from anybody else. Apparently the point of this finding is to match the wording of Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which

authorizes the President to adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives that are being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security.

Starting March 23, steel imports face an increased tariff of 25%, and aluminum imports 10%. Imports from Canada and Mexico are exempted. If some steel consumer in the United States complains that an equivalent product isn’t produced in the U.S., an exemption can be granted for that product.

Trump’s usual rhetoric on trade is that specific other countries (especially China) are cheating in some way, and so tariffs might be necessary to even the playing field. But by targeting everybody but Canada and Mexico (and implying that he wants some concessions out of them too as part of a NAFTA renegotiation), he seems to be saying that the U.S. steel and aluminum industries aren’t competitive with anybody, so they need broad-based protection. (China supplies only 2% of our steel, due to a targeted tariff imposed by the Obama administration.)

The proclamations invite U.S. allies to

discuss with the United States alternative ways to address the threatened impairment of the national security caused by imports from that country. Should the United States and any such country arrive at a satisfactory alternative means to address the threat to the national security such that I determine that imports from that country no longer threaten to impair the national security, I may remove or modify the restriction on steel [or aluminum] articles imports from that country and, if necessary, make any corresponding adjustments to the tariff as it applies to other countries as our national security interests require.

No one seems to know what that means. Politico reports:

The result is that even some of the U.S.’s closest trading partners are bewildered about where the announcement leaves them. After a meeting with [U.S. Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer over the weekend Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s top trade official, said there was still “no immediate clarity on the exact U.S. procedure for exemption,” so the discussions will continue this week.

Any U.S. industry that exports may soon face retaliation. That includes agriculture, which is particularly vulnerable, given that “the world is awash in grain“, according to one Illinois farmer.

Three out of every five rows of soybeans planted in the United States find their way out of the country; half of those, valued at $14 billion in 2016, go to China alone. Mr. Gould estimates that 90 percent of his soybeans are exported, and 70 percent of his corn.

Farmers get hit on both sides: They also buy expensive equipment made of steel, and will probably have to pay more for it because of the tariffs.

It’s easy to play games with numbers on this issue and hard to know who to trust. ABC News quotes a study by a pro-trade group, the Trade Partnership:

The tariffs would increase U.S. iron and steel employment and non-ferrous metals (primarily aluminum) employment by 33,464 jobs, but cost 179,334 jobs throughout the rest of the economy, for a net loss of nearly 146,000 jobs.

Who knows how accurate this is, but I suspect the overall point is right: More jobs will be lost than gained. What makes the political calculation tricky, though, is that the jobs gained should be easier to identify than the jobs lost. If you’re a laid-off steel worker who gets his job back, you’ll be sure Trump’s tariffs worked for you. But if the good job you would have gotten in an exporting industry never gets created, you’ll never know.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress seem upset, since free trade has been a pillar of Republican orthodoxy for decades. Fareed Zakaria writes:

It is the Republican Party’s last stand against a total takeover by President Trump. Having ceded ground to Trump on personal character, immigration, entitlement reform and more, Republican leaders have chosen to draw the line at free trade. If they get rolled on this, Trump will have completed the transformation of the party.

I think the takeover is complete already; a few congresspeople will squawk about tariffs, but nothing will happen. In a tweetstorm yesterday, David Roberts laid it out: Despite the intellectual voices you will see touted as conservative in the mainstream media, the conservative movement today is not at all about principles or ideas.

It’s just a tangle of resentments & bigotries, driven by the erosion of white privilege. … Trump has swerved this way and that on immigration, taxes, healthcare, guns … and the base doesn’t care. They follow him this way, they follow him that way. It is the resentment, the aggrieved sense of persecution, that they respond to. That’s what US conservatism IS now.

and (still) guns

In Florida, the Parkland teens didn’t get what they asked for (an assault weapon ban), but they did something that seemed impossible a few weeks ago: Florida tightened some of its famously lax gun laws: The new law raised the age for buying firearms from 18 to 21 (it was already 21 for handguns), put a three-day waiting period on gun purchases, banned bump stocks (used in the Las Vegas massacre), established a process for courts to order the confiscation of guns from people who have threatened violence against others, and did a few other things.

On the more-guns side, it established a program for arming school employees, though not full-time teachers. The program requires the cooperation of local school boards, which could decide not to implement it.

The NRA is suing over the age restriction. It’s not clear to me that they have a case.

The big thing here, I believe, isn’t in the specifics of the law, it’s that it symbolizes a reduced status for the NRA. If the NRA can’t inflict revenge on the politicians who voted for something it opposed, the momentum on gun laws might be changing.

In The Atlantic, Garrett Epps gives an interpretation of the Second Amendment not far from what I stated last week.

Anyone who claims that the text of the amendment is “plain” has a heavy burden to carry. The burden is even heavier if an advocate argues that the Second Amendment was understood to upend laws against concealed carry or dangerous weapons—both of which were in force in many parts of the country long after it was adopted.

So it may be that the amendment’s text supports something like where we are now: Dick Heller, a law-abiding citizen, can own a handgun in his home for self-protection. The text and context, however, don’t point us to an unlimited individual right to bear any kind and number of weapons by anyone, whether a minor or a felon or domestic abuser.

In “More guns do not stop more crimes, evidence shows” Scientific American looked at public-health studies on the results of having a gun in your house: It’s a health hazard. A gun in the home makes you more likely to be killed in an argument with a family member or close acquaintance, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be shot by accident, and so on. The event people think about when they buy a gun — protection against a home invasion — is much rarer, so even if that works out, the risks don’t balance. (I talked about the NRA’s immature attitude toward risk in 2015 in “Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies“.)

The belief that more guns lead to fewer crimes is founded on the idea that guns are dangerous when bad guys have them, so we should get more guns into the hands of good guys. Yet Cook, the Duke economist, says this good guy/bad guy dichotomy is a false and dangerous one. Even upstanding American citizens are only human—they can “lose their temper, or exercise poor judgment, or misinterpret a situation, or have a few drinks,” he explains, and if they’re carrying guns when they do, bad things can ensue. In 2013 in Ionia, Mich., a road rage incident led two drivers—both concealed carry permit holders—to get out of their cars, take out their guns and kill each other.

As I drove from Scottsboro to Atlanta to catch my flight home, I kept turning over what I had seen and learned. Although we do not yet know exactly how guns affect us, the notion that more guns lead to less crime is almost certainly incorrect. The research on guns is not uniform, and we could certainly use more of it. But when all but a few studies point in the same direction, we can feel confident that the arrow is aiming at the truth—which is, in this case, that guns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse.

Deep down, the NRA knows this. That’s why it got Congress to ban CDC and NIH from studying the public health effect of guns. You don’t shut down research unless you know the truth is against you.

and sanctuary cities

The Justice Department is suing the State of California over its non-cooperation with the federal government’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. Resistance to ICE deportations reached a new level two weeks ago, when Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a public warning that deportation raids were coming. ICE claims that hundreds of deportable immigrants “with criminal records” may have escaped because of the mayor’s heads-up.

That sounds bad until you start hearing stories about the “criminals” ICE targets. As I mentioned a few weeks ago: Dr. Lukasz Niec, a 43-year-old Michigan physician with a green card, was picked up by ICE because of two offenses he committed as a teen-ager, one of which had been expunged from his record, but still counted against him.

Trump’s rhetoric is all about protecting the public from “bad hombres“. But ICE isn’t picking out people because they’re dangerous, it’s looking for excuses to deport as many people as it can.

and the Stormy Daniels scandal is not going away

A good summary of where we are is Michelle Goldberg’s column in Friday’s NYT. Unbelievable as it sounds, Trump having an affair with a porn star while his wife was home with a new baby ISN’T what makes this story a big deal. (Imagine reading that line about Obama while he was in office. But it’s true: We all already know that Trump is the kind of slimeball who would do something like that.) It’s the $130,000 pay-off, the unlikely story his lawyer tells about it, and that it supports the most controversial part of the Steele dossier: Trump can be blackmailed by people who know about his sexual exploits.

When I wrote “Trump’s Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand” back in January, mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress hadn’t yet weighed in on Trump’s Stormy extra-marital affair, or the legally suspicious payoff to keep her quiet before the election. (Maybe he was still tired from his defense of Trump’s “shithole countries” comment.) But Thursday, he appeared on Fox News to spend down more of Christianity’s capital shoring up the defenses of his morally bankrupt president.

Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him. … Evangelicals understand the concept of sin and forgiveness. Look, we are all sinners. We all need forgiveness. That forgiveness is available through Christ for anyone who asks. And whether the President needs that forgiveness for this particular allegation, whether he’s asked for it, is between him, his family, and his God.

[I have to pass on Steve Benen’s comment: “Let’s pause to note that anytime a prominent Christian evangelist begins an argument by saying, ‘Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However…’ the sentence probably won’t end well.”]

Jeffress was basically echoing the anything-goes interpretation of forgiveness that Jerry Falwell Jr. gave in January when the Daniels scandal broke:

Our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.

[Benen again: “Many Christian conservatives appear to have discovered the virtues of moral relativism.”] I would guess that neither of these preachers has ever offered this vision of forgiveness to their congregations: “Do whatever you want, show no indication of remorse, and none of us will ever condemn your sin, because we will all just assume that you’re forgiven and everyone else is just as bad. In fact, we will support you in continuing to hold positions that require high moral character.”

This interpretation of Christianity isn’t meant for you and me. It’s a special gospel for the Powerful, and in particular, for powerful men who are allies of Evangelical leaders. It’s a complete reversal of the Bible’s prophetic tradition.

In addition to its integrity, support for Trump is costing the Evangelical movement the tangible progress it had made in the last few decades towards racial integration. Evangelical congregations have never been a fully representative sample of American diversity. (No major American denomination is.) But to their credit, many of them had managed to become less racially segregated than liberal churches that have made a bigger deal out of fighting racism.

The NYT describes a “quiet exodus” of blacks from majority-white Evangelical churches since the election. The stories are all different, but there’s a clear theme: The black Evangelicals had tried to ignore their church’s lack of interest in racial issues (“her fellow congregants did not seem to even know the name Trayvon Martin”), but they were shocked that Trump’s open racism wasn’t a deal-breaker for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, they were told both from the pulpit and by their fellow parishioners that voting for Trump was the Christian thing to do.

Another NYT article describes another erosion: White Evangelical women are staying in their churches, but starting to have doubts about Trump.

but I’m still thinking about the Democrats’ possible strategies

Tomorrow there will be a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, which is just south of Pittsburgh, in the corner of the state that makes a right angle with Ohio and West Virginia. It had been represented by Republican Tim Murphy, an anti-abortion Republican who resigned in October after it came out that he (1) had an extra-marital affair, (2) got his mistress pregnant, and (3) urged her to get an abortion.

It’s a solidly Republican district. Murphy ran unopposed in 2016, and Trump beat Clinton there by 19%. A poll in January had Republican Rick Saccone ahead of Democrat Conor Lamb by 12%. But the race has tightened. Two polls have been done this month, and each has a different candidate up by 3%.

Lamb is 33 years old, a lawyer, and a former Captain in the Marines. He’s not making a big deal out of being a Democrat or opposing Trump. The big print on the home page of his web site says:

That biggest issues facing the 18th Congressional District aren’t partisan. Heroin kills both Republicans and Democrats. Health care is too expensive. The roads and bridges we all use are crumbling. But the people we send to Washington aren’t solving these problems.

He’s not big on gun control, supports Trump’s tariffs, and doesn’t support either a $15 minimum wage or Nancy Pelosi for Speaker.

Tomorrow, we’ll see if that works.

Trump held a rally in the 18th Saturday night. It was supposed to be for Saccone, but like all Trump speeches, it was really about himself, his accomplishments, and his endless struggles against his enemies. One of his claims was that he got 52% of women’s vote; actually he got 52% of white women’s votes. Apparently, women of color don’t count.

In yesterday’s NYT, four political science researchers compare two groups of 2012 Obama voters who didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016: those who voted for Trump and those who didn’t vote. Both groups are sizeable: 6 million Obama/Trump voters and 4.4 million Obama/Nobody voters. Pundits have done a lot of hand-wringing about how to appeal to the O/T voters; that’s what all those interview with middle-aged white working-class men are about.

But the researchers see the O/N people, who are younger and nearly evenly split between white and non-white, as a more promising target to win back: The O/T voters don’t identify as Democrats and are more conservative than Clinton voters on racial and social issues that the party would have a hard time compromising on.

In stark contrast, Obama-to-nonvoters share the progressive policy priorities of Democrats, and they strongly identify with the Democratic Party.

The O/T voters didn’t just turn against Clinton, they didn’t support down-ballot Democrats either. But surveys indicate that the O/N people would have supported down-ballot Democrats, if they could have been motivated to vote.

In the journal Democracy, Laura Putnam and Theda Skocpol point to a different group as the energy-center of the resistance to Trump: middle-aged, college-educated suburban women.

For those wondering who is going to rebuild the foundations of U.S. democracy— assuming the national guardrails survive—the answer across much of the U.S. heartland seems clear. The foundation rebuilders in many communities across most states are newly mobilized and interconnected grassroots groups, led for the most part by Middle America’s mothers and grandmothers. They see the work to be done and are well into accomplishing it.

If you do want to reach out to white working-class Trump voters, read “Can the Democratic Party be White Working Class Too?” in The American Prospect. It looks at the success of Democrats like Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.

Some of the themes here resonate with the ones I outlined a few weeks ago in the context of Alaska, especially “run everywhere”, “think locally”, and “don’t settle for the people who want to run, find the people who ought to run”.

Bullock tells young people interested in politics to make a life in something else first. It will make them authentic and connect them with voters, rather than with issues, political insiders, and the process of governing.

I would change your major out of political science or law. Get a practical trade, study science or math. Go out and try to change the world in the private sector. Start a business and lose it. Start a family. … Do not learn how to run this country by working for people who already do.

Montana Democratic Party executive Nancy Keenan says:

A lot of the people who run as Democrats think that if we could just get into the depths and detail of the policy and make people understand it, then we’ll get elected. Oh, hell no! The detail doesn’t matter, people! What’s the first rule of politics? Show up. Everywhere. The second rule is: Show up where they didn’t want or ask you to come. I used to show up at the stock growers’ convention or the Chamber of Commerce conventions, and they’d all ask, “What the hell is she doing here?” And I’d tell everyone how terrific it was to be with them.

The article concludes:

Integrating Montana’s template into Democratic success will entail integrating Montana’s constituents—white, working-class, often rural voters who, despite their cultural differences, face many of the same frustrations with debt, health care, and labor as other working-class people in the Democratic coalition.

And that sounds a lot like Lamb’s message.

and you also might be interested in …

I’m barely touching the week’s craziest story, because despite all the noise about it, it seemed to have no serious consequences: Monday, Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg was on literally ALL the TV news networks, claiming that he was going to defy a subpoena to appear before Robert Mueller’s grand jury. He seemed not to believe that Mueller would arrest him if he did that, though the lawyers on the talk shows eventually seemed to get through to him. Friday, he appeared on schedule and testified.

For years, Sam Brownback’s Kansas has been the prime example of how tax cuts can drive a state into a fiscal crisis. The NYT’s David Leonhardt says:

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana. … Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged.

Leonhardt suggests they simply roll back Jindal’s corporate tax cuts, but that’s not even on the table. Instead, a special session of the legislature debated raising the sales tax, couldn’t find the votes to do it, and adjourned, having done nothing to close the looming $994 million shortfall. The regular session can’t raise taxes, so they’ll be looking for cuts in things like education and health care.

Trump continues to use words that have special meaning in alt-Right circles. Thursday, he paid dubious tribute to his soon-to-exit economic adviser Gary Cohn.

He’s been terrific. He may be a globalist, but I still like him. He is seriously a globalist, there’s no question. But you know what, in his own way he’s a nationalist because he loves our country.

If you don’t pay attention to racist groups, you may read through that without seeing anything wrong. But globalist is a common right-wing euphemism for Jew, which Cohn is. A fellow “globalist”, Peter Beinart, explains:

The term “globalist” is a bit like the term “thug.” It’s an epithet that is disproportionately directed at a particular minority group. Just as “thug” is often used to invoke the stereotype that African Americans are violent, “globalist” can play on the stereotype that Jews are disloyal. Used that way, it becomes a modern-day vessel for an ancient slur: that Jews—whether loyal to international Judaism or international capitalism or international communism or international Zionism—aren’t loyal to the countries in which they live.

Trump seems to grasp this connotation, so he tempers it by reassuring everyone that Cohn “loves our country” — implying that most globalists don’t. But Trump is not anti-Semitic; some of his best friends are “globalists”.

and let’s close with something otherworldly

If you think our weather has been strange lately, take a look at the swirling cloud formations on Jupiter.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week the pace of the Trump Era defeated me. Keeping up with the day-to-day was about all I could manage, if that. Taking a step back to think more deeply about some particular development was all but impossible. (As Tony Kornheiser says at the end of every episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, “We’ll try to do better next time.”)

So there’s no featured article this week. Instead, the weekly summary has swallowed up the whole week’s word count with short-to-medium length notes on North Korea, tariffs, Florida’s small step toward gun control, sanctuary cities, Stormy Daniels (and Evangelical leaders’ continued betrayal of the truth-to-power tradition of the Biblical prophets), tomorrow’s special election in Pennsylvania (and differing theories on the voters Democrats should be aiming to convert), and a few other things. How did all that happen in a week that ran an hour short?

I’ll be trying to get the summary out by 10 EST.

Tyrant Envy

He’s now president for life. President for life. And he’s great. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.

Donald J. Trump,
responding to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power

This week’s featured post is “Three Misunderstandings About Guns and the Constitution“.

This week everybody was talking about chaos in the White House

It was a bad week for the Kushner household. Jared and possibly Ivanka  lost their interim top-secret clearances. Tuesday the Washington Post reported:

Officials in at least four countries [United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico] have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.

The NYT reported that the Kushner family’s cash-strapped real estate company received massive loans after Kushner had meetings to discuss Trump-administration policy with bank executives. Everyone involved denies any wrong-doing, but Kushner (like Trump himself) has done little to insulate himself from conflicts of interest.

Mr. Kushner resigned as chief executive of Kushner Companies when he joined the White House last January, and he sold a small portion of his stake in the company to a trust controlled by his mother.

But he retained the vast majority of his interest in Kushner Companies. His real estate holdings and other investments are worth as much as $761 million, according to government ethics filings. They are likely worth much more, because that estimate has his firm’s debt subtracted from the value of his holdings. The company has done at least $7 billion of deals in the past decade.

Ivanka is also getting attention from the counter-intelligence people at the FBI, though it’s not clear why.

Hope Hicks resigned as White House Communications Director Wednesday, just a day after testifying to the House Intelligence Committee. Well, she sort of testified: She refused to answer any questions related to events after Inauguration Day, though she offered no valid grounds for refusing. The Republican-controlled committee has been letting Trump’s people get away with this kind of obstruction. Also the previous day, her deputy Josh Raffel resigned.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is also rumored to be on his way out the door.

Trump once again bashed his own attorney general for refusing to use the Justice Department to investigate Trump’s political enemies. Jeff Sessions referred the Nunes-memo nonsense about abusing the FISA process to the Justice Department Inspector General’s office, which is exactly where such questions belong. Trump objected because “Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy?”. He assumes that everyone is as corrupt as he is; again and again he rejects the possibility of non-partisan government service.

and teachers with guns

The post-Parkland conversation about gun control is fading, but not nearly as fast as it usually does after a mass shooting. I’m not optimistic enough to call this a turning point, but I think it is breaking the usual false-equivalence frame for thinking about the two sides. In this case, one side wants to start limiting the availability of weapons designed to kill large numbers of people quickly, and the other side wants your kid’s teacher to bring a gun into the classroom.

I think the sheer insanity of the latter proposal is shocking large numbers of voters, even ones who aren’t sure exactly what limits they want on guns or how effective they’d be. More and more it becomes clear that this debate is no longer between anti-gun people and pro-gun people, it’s between sane people and crazy people.

The problems inherent in having multiple non-police shooters on the scene were demonstrated February 14 (the same day as the Parkland shooting) when Tony Garces disarmed a shooter at his church — and then was shot by police as he left the church carrying the shooter’s gun.

The problems inherent in expecting Ms. Frizzle to play Rambo were demonstrated Wednesday, when Dalton High School in Georgia was evacuated after a social studies teachers barricaded himself in his classroom and fired a gun.

If we arm hundreds of thousands of teachers, eventually one of them will snap and start shooting students. What’s the next step then — arm the students so that they can shoot back? I mean, otherwise they’re just sitting ducks. Isn’t that exactly the same logic that gets us to armed teachers?

Novelist Nick Harkaway’s four-year-old didn’t want to go to school for fear of a shooter. Fortunately for Harkaway, he’s British, so he could tell his son that things like that just happen in America. He feels sorry for American parents who have to come up with some other answer.

The vast majority of armed teachers will handle their responsibilities as well as can be expected, but they will face the same dilemma that gun-owning parents face in their homes: If you picture the gun being useful against an intruder, then it can’t be inside a gun safe, because you’ll need to get it out and fire it quickly. But if it’s that accessible, how do you keep it away from your children? (That’s how toddlers manage to shoot about one American each week.)

Concealed carry — the gun being on the teacher’s person at all times — is the most likely answer. But given how intimate teaching is, how concealed is that gun going to be? Do you not lean over a kid’s desk because he’ll see your shoulder holster? (Unconcealed carry is even worse. About a month ago, a third-grader fired a gun that was in the holster of a police officer working at the school. The police department statement said the officer was “unaware of the child touching his gun until the weapon was fired.” It turns out that the trigger-guard wasn’t designed for such small fingers.)

What’s more, as the NRA will tell you, concealed-carry comes with a mindset: You must constantly look out for threats (including threats to take your gun) and be prepared to deal with them, possibly with lethal force. Dan Baum described that awareness several years ago in Harper’s, contrasting Condition Yellow (constant low-level threat assessment) with Condition White (obliviousness).

Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens. It’s where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads. Hard-core gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti–Condition White movement as anything else—resentment toward the airy-fairy elites who can enjoy the luxury of musing, sipping tea, and nibbling biscuits while the good people of the world have to work for a living and keep their guard up.

Condition White is also where the best teaching happens. You sink into a rapport with your students and let the outside world vanish for a while as you appreciate together the wonder of science or the beauty of the English language. Even if their guns stay holstered and out of sight, forcing our teachers to live constantly in Condition Yellow will have a major effect on the education our children get.

In 1999, Joel Miller explained “Why I Sold My Guns“. He trained with a gun, imagining that he could protect his family’s jewelry store in case of a burglary. Then a burglary happened, and he saw things more clearly.

If we do indeed arm 20% of our teachers, as Trump has suggested, two consequences are predictable: Teacher suicides will skyrocket, and white teachers will shoot black teens who frighten them, just as cops do.

Picture a teacher at the end of a bad day: tired, alone, feeling like a failure … and armed. Most suicides are snap decisions, not well-considered plans. (More precisely, suicides happen when a lot of vague I-should-just-kill-myself thoughts that anybody might have culminate in a snap decision.) The availability of a gun facilitates that snap decision, which is why there are over 20,000 gun-suicides in the U.S. each year. Israel lowered the suicide rate among its soldiers by discouraging them from taking their weapons home during leaves.

Elie Mystal lays out the second scenario:

We’ll be telling teachers to shoot armed terrorists breaching the school. What’s really going to happen is an unarmed black truant loitering in a hallway he’s not supposed to be in who gets shot eight times by the jumpy choir director.

and trade

Thursday, Trump announced that he would announce something: Tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are supposed to be announced next week.

Markets reacted around the world (and were still reacting this morning) but who knows whether these tariffs will actually materialize? Trump says a lot of things, like that he’ll back gun control measures or support whatever immigration bill Congress passes. Sometimes his statements mean something and sometimes they don’t.

It’s worth picturing how any previous administration would roll out such a policy: Across the government, implementation memos would be ready to distribute to the people who need to assess and collect the tariffs. Simultaneously, either Treasury or Commerce would publish a white paper explaining the logic of the move, pointing to the legal authority behind it, and predicting what it will accomplish. The entire administration would have a messaging strategy: Economists would have an economic message ready to go, foreign-policy people would have a foreign-policy message, defense people would have a national-security message, and so on. Only then would the President step in front of a microphone and make the announcement.

Instead, we got this:

It was not immediately clear whether the tariffs would be phased out over time and whether Trump would follow the advice of his national security advisers and exempt some countries from the tariffs to avoid harming key steel-producing US allies.

Trump announced the move during a hastily arranged meeting with steel and aluminum executives, even though the policy he announced is not yet ready to be implemented, let alone fully crafted. He acknowledged the policy is “being written now.”

So something is going to happen. Maybe. Or maybe next week will come and go, and tariffs will have slipped Trump’s mind because he’s too busy tweeting about the Black Panther movie. Or maybe Steph Curry or Jamele Hill will tick him off again. Maybe the media will be mean to Nazis or the KKK again, and he’ll have to stand up for them.

Assuming that some kind of tariff happens, I don’t know what to think, because neither the protectionist nor the free-trade visions really make sense to me. (I believe free trade increases global GDP in general, but I don’t believe the rising tide lifts all boats.) Paul Krugman’s wonkish column about tariffs mainly convinces me that the subject is complicated. International trade is a multi-player game where each player influences many interlocking variables (like interest rates, currency-exchange rates, and tariffs on unrelated goods). So making a simple change somewhere rarely produces the direct result you might imagine.

but I went to a museum

On my way home from Florida, I stopped in at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

I had heard that it was impossible to get tickets, but in fact that’s not true. Timed passes are available for free on the NMAAHC web site every morning, so you just need to be flexible and get online early. (It may be more difficult for a bigger group that needs to plan ahead. In the cafe, I sat next to somebody who complained about how long it had taken her group to schedule a visit.)

The museum is well worth your time. I came in with ambitions of seeing everything, and I failed. (There might theoretically be enough time in a day, but you have to have way more museum stamina than I do. You also have to avoid drifting into reverie or tearing up.) If you have two days, I’d recommend doing the history floors (below ground) on one day and the culture floors (above ground) on another.

I can’t imagine what visiting the NMAAHC means for African-Americans. As a white, I was constantly amazed by how often I asked myself, “How did I not know this already? How could I never have heard of this person?” (For example, I had heard the phrase Harlem Renaissance, but I couldn’t have told you exactly when it happened or who participated in it.) I often felt uneducated and culturally deprived, feelings that I imagine blacks must experience in museums where everything “historic” or “cultural” is European.

I also often saw in a new light events I had thought I understood. (There would have been a lot more if I hadn’t done a Reconstruction reading project a few years ago.) So, for example, I had always thought of breaking the color line in baseball in terms of the opportunities it had opened up for black players. I had never seen it as a tactic for driving the black-owned Negro Leagues out of business. But it was both. Major league owners never negotiated with Negro League owners. No one ever considered letting the strongest Negro League teams, like the Kansas City Monarchs, join the major leagues, the way that the San Antonio Spurs and three other ABA teams were allowed to join the NBA in a 1976 merger without racial implications.

Instead, white teams signed top Negro League stars (like the Monarchs’ Jackie Robinson and Satchell Paige, both now in the Hall of Fame) without compensation, and then a few years later the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City.

and you also might be interested in …

When historians look back, it’s possible that the most noteworthy recent event will be the arctic heat wave at the end of February, when temperatures at the North Pole went above freezing at what ought to be the coldest part of winter. Vice reports:

temperatures at the Cape Morris Jesup weather station—one of the northernmost in the world—remained above freezing for 24 straight hours. Meanwhile, climate change is causing a secret military base in Greenland to melt out of the ice, and scientists have reported open water north of Greenland. This, all in the dead of winter, when the Arctic has constant darkness.

A DACA student has three months more months of medical school. Will she get to finish? Can she apply for jobs?

The recent corporate tax cut was supposed to spur investment, and several companies got some good press by giving workers one-time bonuses. But it looks like the serious money is going to go to stockholders through dividends and stock buybacks.

Russian President Putin announced plans for new “invincible” nuclear weapons that will make U.S. defenses “useless”. Our president responded by … no he didn’t respond at all. It’s Russia. They own him. They can do whatever they want.

Last Tuesday, NSA Director Michael Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had the capability to strike back at Russia for its attack against our election process, but that he has not been directed to do so. “I believe that President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay here … and that therefore I can continue this activity.”

Too many pundits talk about “collusion” as if it were some obscure thing for Mueller to dig out of subpoenaed documents or bully out of reluctant witnesses. But it’s happening in plain sight and has been all along. Trump expects Russian help in the 2018 midterm elections, so he’s leaving our country open to it.

As a devout young Lutheran, I found Billy Graham’s televised “crusades” quite moving, before growing away from that point of view in later life. By all means, people who share his religion should honor him and mourn his death in their churches. If presidents and other public officials want to attend his funeral, that’s up to them. But I object to giving him public honors, as was done when he became the fourth private citizen to get a memorial service in the Capitol rotunda.

Graham was an adviser and confidant of several presidents, and ministers can sometimes play an important public role that justifies public honor. (For example, Rev. Thomas Starr King, whose statue used to be displayed in the Capitol, was sometimes credited with keeping California in the Union during the Civil War.) But Graham’s career was entirely sectarian. If you are not an Evangelical Christian, it’s hard to point to anything he ever did for you. If you’re gay or lesbian, he did a number of things to harm you, including supporting a North Carolina measure to ban same-sex marriage as recently as 2012.

In short, I see public honors for Graham as yet another claim by the Religious Right that they own the country.

Trump has accomplished at least one thing I thought would never happen: He made me appreciate the Bush administration. Watch Fareed Zakaria’s interview with Condoleeza Rice (broadcast yesterday) and see if you wouldn’t happily trade our current administration to get the Bushies back.

and let’s close with something strange

like a walking octopus.

Three Misunderstandings About Guns and the Constitution

I. Armed civilians and tyranny

What’s misunderstood about it. One common argument in favor of private ownership of military-style weapons like the AR-15 is that a well-armed population is a necessary defense against tyranny, i.e., that the general population needs to retain the ability to overthrow the central government by military force. Ted Cruz has written that the Second Amendment serves as “the ultimate check against government tyranny — for the protection of freedom.”

A parallel argument is that historically, dictators like Hitler disarmed the public before imposing full tyranny. Once disarmed, the argument goes, the people were as helpless as sheep. This Facebook meme is typical, and features typically misleading quotes.

Both quotes are doctored.

What’s wrong with that view? Just about everything.

Let’s start with Hitler. Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald debunks “The Hitler Gun-Control Lie“, leaning on a more scholarly article by historian Bernard Harcourt. The 1938 gun law that NRA voices like Wayne LaPierre so often cite actually weakened the gun-control laws of the Weimar Republic.

The 1938 law signed by Hitler that LaPierre mentions in his book basically does the opposite of what he says it did. “The 1938 revisions completely deregulated the acquisition and transfer of rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition,” Harcourt wrote. Meanwhile, many more categories of people, including Nazi party members, were exempted from gun ownership regulations altogether, while the legal age of purchase was lowered from 20 to 18, and permit lengths were extended from one year to three years.

The Hitler quote in the illustration refers not to German civilians, but to non-Aryans in occupied Russian territory. Obviously, he would not have referred to himself as a “conqueror” of the German nation, or to the Nazi master race as a “subjected people”.

If the NRA’s point were valid, you would expect the most democratic nations in the world to be the ones with the most guns, but if anything, the correlation runs in the opposite direction. Here are the four most democratic nations, according to the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit.

Nation democracy index guns per 100 civilians
Norway 9.87 31.3
Iceland 9.58 30.3
Sweden 9.39 21
New Zealand 9.26 22.6

Even these gun-ownership numbers, I suspect, are exaggerated in comparison with the U.S., since they probably include very few weapons like the AR-15. (Norway’s parliament is reportedly ready to pass a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons, which would include a number of popular handguns as well as rifles.)

Here are the nations with the most guns in civilian hands.

Nation democracy index guns per 100 civilians
United States 7.98 101
Serbia 6.41 58.21
Yemen 2.07 54.8
Cyprus 7.59 36.4

Of particular note is Japan, where the average 100 civilians own a mere 0.6 guns, but whose democracy index on a par with the U.S.: 7.88. If a disarmed population is just asking for a totalitarian takeover, why isn’t one happening in Japan?

Switzerland and Israel are frequently cited as democratic countries with a large number of guns and little civilian gun violence, but in both countries possession of a gun is associated with military service, and is strongly regulated otherwise. The BBC quotes a Swiss gun-owner, who does not keep ammunition in his house and stores his gun’s barrel in a separate part of the house from its body:

The gun is not given to me to protect me or my family. I have been given this gun by my country to serve my country.

Finally, there are those quotes from the Founding Fathers like the one in the illustration above, nearly all of which have been either taken out of context, mis-attributed, or simply invented out of nothing. The Jefferson quote above is rejected on the official Monticello web site. Other frequently-cited fake quotes from the Founders are debunked at Guncite.com.

II. The original intent of the Second Amendment.

What’s misunderstood about it. It’s believed that the Founders passed the Second Amendment to protect an individual right to own militarily useful weapons (like, in our era, the AR-15), so that the People would have the ability to resist a tyrannical federal government.

What more people need to understand. That belief is historically baseless.

Legally, it doesn’t matter whether privately-owned weapons actually deter tyranny or not. (They don’t.) If the Founders believed they did, and wrote that belief into the Second Amendment, and if no generation since has seen fit to repeal it, then it’s the law. But that’s not what the Second Amendment is about at all.

At this point it’s worthwhile to look at the full text of the Amendment, which is short.

A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.


Today, we often tend to read right past the first clause and focus on the second. But it’s worth remembering what the Founders thought of when they saw the word militia: the Minutemen. In other words, a force of citizen-soldiers authorized by state or local governments, which could be called into action in a crisis. The current-day successor to the federal-era militias is the National Guard, not the self-appointed sovereign-citizen yahoos who drill up in the woods of Montana. The Constitution makes that quite clear in Article I, Section 8.

The Congress shall have Power … To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

The so-called militias we hear about today refuse to be organized, armed, or disciplined by Congress, or to be trained or have their officers appointed the states. So they’re not at all what the Constitution is talking about.

Not a militiaman.

Why, then, was a well-regulated militia “necessary to the security of a free State”? Not so that it could fight against the federal government. In fact, Article I, Section 8 also explicitly gives Congress the power “to provide for calling forth the Militia”, which will then (Article II, Section 2) be under the command of the President. In case of insurrection, the Constitution foresees the militia fighting for the federal government, not against it.

The vision that worried the founding generation (enough to create the Second Amendment) was that the federal government might disband the militias and replace them with a large professional standing army, which would then need to have forts and bases throughout the country. Rather than repel an Indian raid itself, for example, a frontier community would have to call for help from the Army. Slave-owning states particularly worried about the possibility of an anti-slavery president refusing to put down a slave uprising (or maybe just dragging his feet). They wanted to be sure they would retain enough local power to keep their slaves under control.

Even more, the Founders feared that professional soldiers would grow to be loyal to their Commander in Chief rather than to the nation. The existence of this force might tempt a president to launch a coup and establish a military dictatorship. The point of a militia was to make that large permanent professional force unnecessary, not to fight pitched battles against it.

You can argue that we’ve already gone a long way down the road the Founders didn’t want us to travel: We have a large standing army with nationwide bases, and towns do not drill their citizens on the town green, as Lexington and Concord did. (However, we also have state and local police departments  — which didn’t exist in the Founding era — so we’re not entirely dependent on the federal government for our security.) But self-appointed Rambos arming themselves to resist the federal government was no part of the Founders’ vision. The whole point of the Constitutional system was to allow for peaceful replacement of an unpopular government. As the Supreme Court wrote in 1951:

Whatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a “right” to rebellion against dictatorial governments is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change.

III. The weapons the Second Amendment protects.

What’s misunderstood about it. Some Americans see virtually any restriction on the weapons they can own, or even registration of those weapons, as a violation of their Second Amendment rights.

What’s wrong with that? In the entire history of the United States, no court has understood the Second Amendment that way.

Given that the Second Amendment was part of the Bill of Rights passed by the first Congress, you’d expect all its major provisions to have a long history of judicial interpretation. But in fact the individual right to own specific weapons wasn’t recognized until the 2008 Heller case, a hotly contested 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court. Prior to that, courts construed the Amendment’s “right to bear arms” as a collective right belonging to “the People” as a whole, not individual persons. Historian Michael Waldman wrote:

“A fraud on the American public.” That’s how former Chief Justice Warren Burger described the idea that the Second Amendment gives an unfettered individual right to a gun. When he spoke these words to PBS in 1990, the rock-ribbed conservative appointed by Richard Nixon was expressing the longtime consensus of historians and judges across the political spectrum.

Until Heller, the Supreme Court’s landmark gun-rights case was Miller, in which it rejected the argument that the National Firearms Act (regulating sawed-off shotguns, among other weapons) violated constitutional rights. Even the Heller decision (written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia) doesn’t endorse the NRA’s view of the Second Amendment. It struck down a District of Columbia law banning handguns, while allowing that

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.

Challenges to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in force from 1994 to 2004 never made it to the Supreme Court, though the law was upheld by lower courts.

What today’s Court would do with an assault-weapons ban, or even a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons, is very much up in the air. Scalia’s Heller opinion found an expectation that the militia would assemble carrying weapons “in common use at the time” for legal purposes. How extensive that use needs to be was not specified. Whether AR-15s and other assault weapons are “in common use” would no doubt be hotly debated. Certainly they are not as widely used as handguns were in 2008, and the main legal purpose for which handguns were used (self-defense) carries more constitutional weight than the nebulous legal uses of assault weapons.

No court decision anywhere invalidates the government’s legitimate power to register weapons.

No court has rejected the federal ban on automatic weapons or the regulation of high explosives, so there is clearly a line somewhere between weapons that can and can’t be banned. The question would be which side AR-15s fall on.

Just to give one obvious example, it would be incredibly stupid for the government to allow people who live on the flight paths of major airports to own surface-to-air missiles. And yet, the argument that individuals have to be prepared to fight a tyrannical government would seem to justify those weapons. (How are we going to resist the government if we can’t take down its air power?) Those who believe the resist-the-government interpretation of the Second Amendment should be pushed to say whether any weapons can be banned or regulated, and why exactly such limitations are consistent with their theory.

The Monday Morning Teaser

More than two weeks after the Parkland shooting, gun control is still a major topic of conversation. That says to me that something is different this time. It may not be different enough to get anything of substance done in the near future, but the tide seems to be turning.

Just to play my part, I thought I’d focus on guns this week. The featured post is another in my Misunderstandings series: “Three Misunderstandings about Guns and the Constitution”. That should be out sometime around 9 EST.

The weekly summary will cover the current chaos and infighting at the White House, the debate about arming teachers, and Trump’s announcement of a trade war. But I also have to tell you about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I managed to visit in D.C. as part of my drive back from Florida. (It’s amazing, even for the Smithsonian.) And then I’ll close with a video of an octopus.

Secret Agent Man

One year after Trump took office, it is still unclear whether the president of the United States is an agent of a foreign power. Just step back and think about that for a moment.

– James Risen “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?
The Intercept (2-16-2018)

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. The next new articles will appear on March 5. (In the meantime, I’ll be speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Lakewood Ranch, Florida on Sunday, February 25.)

This week’s featured post is “Alaska as a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model“.

This week everybody was talking about yet another school shooting

The basics: a timeline of how it happened, who the 17 victims were, a profile of the shooter, a story on the students becoming gun-control activists.

One conclusion that I hope people are drawing from this: If it can happen in Parkland, it can happen anywhere in America. The National Council for Home Safety and Security, a home security industry trade association, had picked Parkland as the safest city in Florida, because only seven violent crimes were reported there in 2017. The Atlantic describes Stoneman Douglas High School as “a mostly white school in a mostly upper-middle-class area.”

This isn’t some den of hopeless poverty and drugs that Middle America can just write off. (So of course Jeff Sessions responded to the shooting by talking about “gang-infested neighborhoods“. At least Trump hasn’t used this massacre to explain why we need a border wall … yet.) No matter where you live, the kids at Stoneman Douglas can’t be looked at as an “other” whose safety has nothing to do with the safety of your kids.

The NYT argues that the problem really is guns. The number of guns is the main variable that separates the United States from other developed nations where mass shootings are rare.

Numerous people have called for banning the AR-15 from civilian use. The tricky thing here is getting the definition right: The AR-15 is one of a class of military-style weapons, and if it were banned some other assault rifle would replace it. Banning all assault rifles has been done before, but there’s a legitimate complaint that “assault rifle” is not really a class of weapons — it’s more of a surface description that doesn’t really address the heart of the problem. Vox reported:

It’s quite easy to turn a military-style gun into something that Congress wouldn’t consider an “assault weapon” under its various definitions.

The key issue isn’t whether a weapon looks like something the military would use. It’s how many bullets it’s able to spray out in a short time, how long it can be fired without reloading, and how easy it is to reload over and over without providing a time-window for potential victims to rush the shooter. Those are the features to regulate.

I’m hoping that the energy of the Parkland students merges with the energy of the #MeToo movement and gets guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Domestic abuse is a predictor of public violence. Such a movement would also push the buttons of many right-wingers: “You mean my stupid girl friend can get my guns taken away?”

Thinking about the NRA, I’m reminded of a George Orwell quote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

When the tide finally turns on them, it will turn fast. If I were running against an NRA-backed candidate in 2018, I’d focus on the complete resignation implicit in their position: Mass shootings are going to keep happening, and we’re not even going to try to do anything about them.

Liberals can also fall prey to fake news. One pseudo-fact that zoomed around social media (and even got on reputable news shows; I heard Chris Hayes repeat it, and he’s usually pretty careful) is that Parkland was the 18th school shooting already this year.

The WaPo debunks this number. It isn’t totally made up, like Pizzagate and some of the other anti-Clinton or pro-Trump stories that circulated before the election, but it has been spun out of recognition. The figure originated with a gun-control group, Everytown for Gun Safety, which defines a school shooting as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.”

So the 18 figure mostly counts events that bear no resemblance to Parkland or to any other event that pops into your mind when you think “school shooting”: a gun that went off accidentally during a college  criminal-justice training, hurting no one; a guy who committed suicide while parked outside a school that had been closed for seven months.

Ultimately, spreading this kind of stuff does more harm than good. When it comes to mass shootings, the truth is shocking enough. In the long run, fake news makes the real news less believable.

Just five of Everytown’s 18 school shootings listed for 2018 happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury.

“Just five”. Think about that. After you’ve gotten outraged about 18, five shootings merits a “just”.

and the Mueller investigation

Two major developments this week: Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 election, and Rick Gates, who had previously been indicted for numerous crimes with Paul Manafort, has accepted a plea deal, presumably in exchange for testimony.

If you’re looking for a framework to fit these events into, look at James Risen’s “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?“, Part I of which was published by The Intercept on Friday. Risen breaks the investigation into four “tracks”:

  • Did Russia try to help Trump and hurt Clinton?
  • Was anyone from the Trump campaign knowingly working with the Russians?
  • Did Trump obstruct justice by interfering with the investigation?
  • Are Republicans in Congress conspiring to obstruct justice by undermining the investigation?

The indictment of the Russians all but settles the first question. (Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said “the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain”.) It also provides a fascinating window into how Russian influence operations work. For example, the Russians used a variety of techniques (including spending money on Facebook ads) to build up a few fake social-media identities like @March_For_Trump, which could then contact legitimate pro-Trump organizations seeking “help” in organizing rallies. Part of that “help” would be purchasing the necessary supplies, using money the Russian fake organization would wire to them. From the outside, the result would look like the legitimate organizations did everything themselves.

One Russian social-media identity, @Ten_GOP, claimed to represent the Tennessee Republican Party (which complained to Twitter about it, but couldn’t get Twitter to close the account for 11 months). It acquired 136,000 followers, and was frequently quoted by conservative media as a legitimate grass-roots conservative voice.

The indictment notes that Trump campaign officials sometimes cooperated with this Russian operation “unwittingly”, but does not make any conspiracy accusations against them. It also does not clear the Trump campaign, which may have conspired in other parts of the operation, like the hacking and release of Democratic emails.

That Gates plea is bad news for Paul Manafort, and might be bad news for other Trump campaign people. But the biggest threat to Trump is if Manafort himself now has to cop a plea. This is what an anonymous White House source was talking about when he called Mueller’s strategy “a classic Gambino-style roll-up“. If Manafort flips, then we might get a clearer picture of the second track.

As interesting as the Russian indictment is in itself, it has also had a significant effect on the national conversation, which was trending in that direction anyway. For a long time, The Intercept was a haven for left-wingers skeptical of the Russian investigation. Now it’s talking about treason.

More and more people are making that point: The Russian interference operation was a direct attack on America, and our president seems not to care. Worse, he provides public cover for Russia whenever new information comes out. He says there’s “no collusion”, but the collusion seems to be happening right in front of our eyes. Max Boot writes:

The most benign explanation is that he is putting his vanity — he can’t have anything taint his glorious victory — above his obligation to “protect and defend the Constitution.” The more sinister hypothesis is that he has something to hide and, having benefited from Russia’s assistance once, hopes for more aid in 2018 and 2020. Either way, we are at war without a commander in chief.

but I decided to write about Alaska

The politics of Alaska has been changing, turning a very conservative state government into a much more moderate one, with a Democrat as Speaker of the House and voters passing several liberal referenda. How that happened doesn’t follow either the establishment-Democrat or progressive-revolution model, and has something to teach Bernie and Hillary people alike.

and you also might be interested in …

Only during the Trump administration could I almost forget to mention a new sex scandal about the president. The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow tells the story of former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal, who had a nine-month affair with Trump while he was married to Melania. Just before the 2016 election, her story was suppressed by The National Enquirer’s publisher American Media Inc., which paid McDougal $150K for the exclusive rights to her story and then didn’t publish it. Farrow claims that

Purchasing a story in order to bury it is a practice that many in the tabloid industry call “catch and kill.” … Six former A.M.I. employees told me that [A.M.I.’s CEO David] Pecker routinely makes catch-and-kill arrangements like the one reached with McDougal. “We had stories and we bought them knowing full well they were never going to run,” Jerry George, a former A.M.I. senior editor who worked at the company for more than twenty-five years, told me. George said that Pecker protected Trump. “Pecker really considered him a friend,” George told me. “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.”

Also of note is a contemporaneous hand-written note that Farrow had obtained and McDougal identified as being in her own handwriting. (Presumably, that much corroboration didn’t violate her agreement with A.M.I.) It says that Trump offered her money after the first time they had sex, and that when McDougal turned it down Trump said, “You are special.”

These details make the most salacious part of the Steele dossier more credible. As Jonathan Chait points out:

So, we know Trump habitually pays for sex, and we also know he is willing to pay to keep embarrassing secrets from going public. That is to say, these secrets could be leveraged against him.

Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff makes the same point:

While some of the seedier allegations in Christopher Steele’s Trump-Russia dossier have not been verified, the central thesis of the dossier seems increasingly likely: that Trump’s long history of alleged affairs make him uniquely susceptible to blackmail.

A game I often play with some new Trump scandal is “What if this had happened to Obama?” Imagine if two playmate-type young women had told about their affairs with Obama, and how Obama allies had paid them six-figure sums to stay quiet. Far and away, that would have been the biggest scandal of his entire two terms. But with Trump, it almost gets lost.

A black reporter from Britain’s Channel 4 went out to interview Alt-right leader Richard Spencer. It’s an illuminating exchange, particularly the part where Spencer tells the reporter that he can never be British. “I’m living in the place of my birth,” the reporter says, “just like you.”

The NYT follows up on the four U.S. soldiers who were killed in Niger last October. What were they doing there and what went wrong?

You know who believes that climate change is a big deal? Trump’s Director of National Intelligence. But I suspect there’s a Director of National Stupidity somewhere on Trump’s org chart, and he has more influence.

The smart house of the future has two downsides: First it may not always work properly, with Sorcerer’s Apprentice-type results. And second, it may be smart enough to be disloyal to you. Gizmodo tries an experiment: Its reporter (Kashmir) fills her home with smart gadgets, and then has someone (Surya) monitor her router to see what the house is saying about her. (Basically, Surya says, he had the same information her ISP would have.)

Getting a smart home means that everyone who lives or comes inside it is part of your personal panopticon, something which may not be obvious to them because they don’t expect everyday objects to have spying abilities. One of the gadgets—the Eight Sleep Tracker—seemed aware of this, and as a privacy-protective gesture, required the email address of the person I sleep with to request his permission to show me sleep reports from his side of the bed. But it’s weird to tell a gadget who you are having sex with as a way to protect privacy, especially when that gadget is monitoring the noise levels in your bedroom.

Surya didn’t try to break the encryption on data the devices were reporting, but Hulu didn’t even bother, so he knew not just when Kashmir was watching TV, but what. He also could tell when she got up and went to bed, when her children woke up, and even when she brushed her teeth (with her smart toothbrush).

and let’s close with something I had never imagined

One idea that popped up in the smart-home article I discussed above is the internet-enabled sex toy. At first this sounded like a joke to me, but it turns out such things actually exist — and stay in contact with their manufacturers, who may be collecting all kinds of fascinating information about their customers.

Whether this idea fascinates or horrifies you, you can check it out here.