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.

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  • Michael Wells  On March 5, 2018 at 11:31 am

    This morning I went from admiration for your succinct and clear summary of the 2nd Amendment and guns in this country to astonishment at your suggestion that we should gladly welcome a return to the Bush 43 Administration based on the soft ball interview of Condi Rice by Fareed Zakaria (these interviews are one of his specialties). Let us now return to those golden years of secret “rendition” and torture of those brown-skinned people never accused of or tried for crimes. Let us recall with pride the selling of a war because we “don’t want the smoking gun to be in form of a mushroom cloud.” We must be happy with the legacy of GITMO, the extrajudicial prison established by Bush and still in operation. Let us remember fondly, the agreement to and promotion of these actions by Condi Rice, one of the “principals” in the Bush Administration, actions that constitute war crimes. You don’t want to remember these fondly? Should we then forget them? The existence of the Trump administration doesn’t excuse any of Bush’s actions.

    • weeklysift  On March 5, 2018 at 12:32 pm

      I’m not claiming that Trump excuses the wrongs of the Bush administration. But I’d prefer the Bushies to what we have now.

    • Larry Benjamin  On March 5, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      The point is that despite its truly awful policies, the competence and maturity of the Bush administration makes it look better in retrospect compared to the current one.

    • Guest  On March 5, 2018 at 2:38 pm

      I read the passage on preferring Bush to Trump as more tongue-in-cheek than you did, Michael, but now that you’ve opened this can of worms I do think there is something revealing in the defense against your comments. Simply put it’s the tendency of democrats to value decorum over policy. Notice how both Doug and Larry (don’t mean to pick on them as it’s a way of thinking you can easily find among right/center democrats anywhere) are quick to admit the awful wrongdoings of Bush and are just as quick to immediately ignore them in the final analysis. Appearing competent and mature is more important than what policies are actually implemented from this perspective.

      I think Bush II was much worse than Trump (to be fair, Bush had more time to pad his gruesome resume), and it may be Trump’s incompetence and immaturity that is keeping him from doing more damage than he could otherwise. Would you rather your political opponents be competent or incompetent? There’s also a problem when you switch the focus to political allies. As Hillary Clinton taught us the hard way, you can be very competent and mature, but still be lacking in other critical areas.

      This is not to say that there isn’t a good argument to make in favor of decorum, competence and maturity, I think there is, I just personally think policy is more important here. Elevating “mere” competence and maturity while ignoring policy concerns seems to be a part of what gave us the failures of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. But as you can see on this very page, that line of thinking is alive and well among democrats to this day.

      • Larry Benjamin  On March 5, 2018 at 2:53 pm

        You raise a valid point. On one hand, Trump hasn’t gotten us into a war as costly, destructive, and pointless as Bush did in Iraq. However, as has been clearly detailed on this site, we’ve seen a degeneration of the unwritten norms of behavior under Trump that until now were taken for granted on both sides of the aisle. Whether this will have a more profound effect on the future of the U.S. than the Iraq War did won’t be apparent for many years.

      • ADeweyan  On March 5, 2018 at 6:33 pm

        I think you are not crediting the Trump administration with much of what it has accomplished. Sure, it’s legislative victories are slim, but it is gutting the USEPA, it is radically altering the departments of Energy, Education, and more. And give it time, Trump still has opportunities to start a disastrous war for no good reason.

        What I prefer in the Bush Administration over what we’ve got now, is that they actually understood the importance of compromise and at least gesturing to their opponents. W. may have believed we should do away with the EPA too, but he didn’t do it because of the outrage that would arise. Trump doesn’t know and doesn’t care what the consequences of his actions are, as long as it sticks it to the Democrats. All he wants is approval from the Fox News crowd.

      • weeklysift  On March 6, 2018 at 8:26 am

        Adding to Larry’s point: Think about all the democratic norms that are dead now. Presidents don’t have to reveal their tax returns. They can openly do business with foreigners and even foreign governments, appoint their relatives to high office, appoint other officials with zero qualifications, pressure the Justice Department to favor their friends and investigate their enemies, spread doubt about the integrity of our elections without providing any evidence, spread hatred against legal immigrants and minority religions, and provide political cover to violent hate groups.

        Spin, which uses truth in misleading ways, has been replaced by constant shameless lying; we no longer expect statements from the White House to have any relationship to reality. Even the appearance of respect for other points of view is gone; the press is an enemy of the People, and opposing politicians are belittled with playground insults.

        The United States no longer even pays lip service to democracy as a value in our foreign policy. We are not even trying to lead the community of nations. We are doing our best to antagonize Canada and Mexico. The commitments our presidents make flicker, not just from one administration to the next, but from day to day, depending on the president’s mood. Even if Trump is succeeded by a series of very good presidents — and he may not be, given how he has destabilized our political process — it will take a long time to undo all this.

        As for war, give him time. At this point in the Bush administration, the Afghan intervention looked like a surprisingly easy success against a detestable government that had sheltered people who attacked us. The Iraq invasion was still a year away.

  • Michael Wells  On March 5, 2018 at 1:43 pm

    I take these responses to mean that “competence and maturity” in the pursuit of a fraudulent war leading directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, thousands of deaths and injuries to service members, sectarian violence and destabilization of the Middle East (among many other problems) is better than incompetence and immaturity of the current administration. I could make the exact opposite argument: That the incompetence and immaturity of Trump and his crime family will more likely lead to impeachment or Republican collapse (hopefully both). Please remember that Bush managed two full terms and now seems to (along with Rice and Powell) be on a rehabilitation tour. In addition, you are ignoring the eight years of the Obama administration that I would argue make the Bushies look worse in retrospect.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On March 5, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    What exactly did Russian interference consist of? The Russians recently indicted by Mueller did exactly nothing that could have had any noticeable effect on the election (if I am mistaken, someone please say what they did that was so decisive). Many other groups (including, for instance, British ones) devoted to sending out click-bait did the same thing on a larger scale. Surely the striking of 200,000 NY votes illegally by the Democratic party had a more decisive effect.

    I was disturbed by the favorable treatment of Billy Graham. Surely the most important things to mention about Graham is his vile anti-Semitism (evidenced in Nixon’s White House tapes) and his urging of Nixon to bomb the dike system around Hanoi–presumably an offer to use his influence to soothe any outrage voters might have felt over having caused (though elected officials) around a million civilian deaths through flooding and famine that would have followed such an action.

    • weeklysift  On March 6, 2018 at 7:40 am

      There’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect that the Russians made the difference in the election, and that Trump wouldn’t be president without them. Consider how the leaking of the hacked DNC emails added to the disruption of the Democratic Convention, and how the dripping out of them kept Clinton on the defensive. Then the hacked Podesta emails broke the grab-them-by-the-pussy news cycle. The fake social media accounts were used strategically to spread fake news among Democratic constituencies that were having trouble accepting Clinton as the nominee. It added up.

      In addition to that, I suspect Steele is right, and the Russians have something to hold over Trump’s head. Gratitude is not a big part of Trump’s character, so I don’t think Putin’s help in the election fully explains Trump’s behavior since becoming president.

  • Michael Wells  On March 6, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Apparently, George W. Bush agrees with Doug’s assessment: https://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/george-bush-trump-makes-me-look-good

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