Ritual Sacrifice

Every school shooter learned from the history of school shootings, mimicked the strategies, was in a sense acting out a ritual which has become deeply rooted in our culture.

Josh Marshall

This week’s featured posts are “Outlines of a Reading Project on Class” and “It’s time to let Israel be a country.

These last three weeks, we learned a lot about Trump’s corruption and abuse of power

It’s hard to know which revelation to focus on:

  • Trump has begun actively intervening in the Department of Justice to undermine the Mueller investigation and harass his political enemies. He “demanded” a DoJ investigation into his made-up Spygate theory, and forced a meeting between DoJ officials and his allies in Congress in which classified details about the investigation into the Trump campaign were revealed. So far DoJ has been fending off Trump’s demands with minimal (but still inappropriate) concessions, but this is banana-republic stuff. It’s orders of magnitude beyond the improper suggestions Trump’s been making since Day 1.
  • Trump’s public fulminations against Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post, have gone beyond just hostile tweets. On several occasions, he has pressured the Postmaster General to raise Amazon’s shipping rates. (So far the PG has been resisting him.) This appears to be an attempt to punish Bezos for The Post publishing stories Trump doesn’t like. Again, this is banana-republic stuff. There is no parallel in any post-Nixon administration of either party.
  • Trump dropped sanctions against a Chinese corporation and backed off of proposed tariffs aimed at China shortly after a Chinese-government-owned corporation invested half a billion dollars in a Trump-related project in Indonesia. There’s no direct proof that this is a bribe, but we’ll never know for sure. That’s why we have the conflict-of-interest rules and norms that Trump has flouted.
  • Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen began selling access to the White House as soon as Trump was elected, collecting millions of dollars from companies seeking favors from the new administration. We don’t know yet whether Cohen was just being opportunistic, or if some of the money passed through him to Trump or other members of the Trump family.
  • Trump fund raiser (and fellow Michael Cohen hush-money client) Elliott Broidy engaged in his own “campaign to alter U.S. policy in the Middle East and reap a fortune for himself”.
  • Jared Kushner’s family company is negotiating a deal in which Brookfield Properties, a company largely funded by Qatari interests, will buy a skyscraper the Kushners paid too much for and were having trouble refinancing. The Kushners had tried to get Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund to invest in the property a year ago; shortly after that deal fell through, Jared played an important role in the Trump administration deciding to support Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries in boycotting Qatar.
  • In addition to the meeting with Russians that we knew about, Donald Jr. held another Trump Tower meeting to discuss his father’s campaign getting help from powerful foreigners: princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The scoops have been coming so fast and furious that I may have left some out. Looking at several of them also puts a different slant on Trump’s rhetoric about “the Deep State”: Officials like the Postmaster General and the Assistant Attorney General resist Trump’s actions not because they belong to some sinister conspiracy, but because they believe in principles of American governance that he is trying to subvert.

and primaries

There are two theories of how Democrats can win more elections: Move to the center and appeal to the reasonable Republican voters Trump is alienating, or move to the left and raise turnout among people who don’t vote because they have lost faith in both parties. Move-to-the-center has been the conventional political wisdom for a long time, and is still the approach the Democratic Party establishment supports.

I’m neutral in this debate. I can imagine that move-to-the-left could work, but I wish I could point to an example where a progressive Democrat had unseated a Republican in some high-profile race in a red or purple district. Sure, Bernie Sanders can win in a blue state like Vermont, but could a Bernie-ish candidate win in states like Missouri or West Virginia (where centrists like Claire McCaskill and Joe Manchin have won)?

Up until now, the party establishment has gotten its way in nearly all cases, so the only candidates who have made it to the general election in such races have been centrists. Sometimes they win (Doug Jones in Alabama) and sometimes they lose (Jon Ossoff in Georgia), but neither result answers the question of whether a more progressive candidate would have done better or worse.

The May primaries have guaranteed that the move-to-the-left theory will finally be tested in at least two cases: Kara Eastman won the Democratic primary for Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district, and Stacey Abrams will be the Democratic candidate to be governor of Georgia. There are also plenty of centrist Democrats running in races of all sorts, so we should finally be able to make some comparisons.

and immigration

Two immigration stories have gotten attention recently:

  • When parents and their children are caught trying to enter the US without papers, the Trump administration has begun routinely separating them. Trump claims that this action is forced by laws that Democrats refuse to change, but that’s simply not true.
  • HHS admitted that it has lost track of 1475 immigrant children that it put in foster homes.

A number of people have been connecting the two stories, implying that the government has lost children it separated from their parents. But so far that seems not to be the case. The 1475 are children who arrived at the border unaccompanied.

Still, there is a point to be made: If the government is going to take kids away from their parents, it had better keep better track of them than it has been keeping of the kids who show up at the border unaccompanied.

and deals about nuclear weapons

From Trump opining about his Nobel Peace Prize to canceling his summit with Kim Jong Un and announcing that there is no deal with North Korea was just 15 days. It turns out that getting a country to give up its nuclear program is really hard. Who knew?

The amazing thing to me is how many people were taken in by this whole charade. Trump’s combination of threats, sanctions, and flattery was praised as masterful on the Right, and even publications that should know better, like The Atlantic, asked “What if Trump’s North Korea bluster actually worked?” The NYT’s David Brooks gave Trump credit for “lizard wisdom” through which he “understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies”.

Matt Yglesias‘ cynical view of Trump — which I will sum up as “Bullshitters gonna bullshit” — has once again proven prescient.

The factors that led to the collapse of the summit were there from the beginning. The only thing that ever seemed remotely promising about it was Trump’s say-so, but Trump’s say-so is meaningless. Not only is he a person who makes factual misstatements and lies, but he’s a person who has gotten ahead in life through extensive use of bullshit, leaving in his wake a trail of broken promises.

There was never any reason to believe that Kim was offering anything close to the complete denuclearization Trump said he was going to get out of this negotiation. That claim was always a castle-in-the-air for Trump’s base to take pride in and give him credit for. Now that it has evaporated, expect a new castle-in-the-air somewhere else.

His supporters never learn, and have been saying “At least he tried.” To which I respond: “He tried to bullshit us, you mean.”

Now he’s at it again, but whether ultimately there is a meeting or not, there’s still no reason to believe anything will come of it. Trump and Kim remain miles apart.

Meanwhile, Trump has undone the hard work the Obama administration did to get Iran’s nuclear program under control. Our European allies have been left in the lurch, trying to balance incompatible demands from Secretary of State Pompeo and Iran’s Supreme Leader. Ordinarily, that choice would be a no-brainer, but Iran has been upholding its commitments to Europe while Trump has been breaking America’s commitments.

“There’s little to no appetite in European capitals for the type of economic sanctions the U.S. is bringing back,” Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a telephone interview. “Following Pompeo’s demands there are a lot of eyes rolling and heads fuming.”

The kind of sanctions Trump is talking about are not just against Iran, but against companies in any country that do business with Iran. This is going to put us in direct conflict with Europe. The only country that wins from this is Russia; Putin has long wanted to separate the US from its NATO allies, a mission Trump is carrying out admirably.

With regard to both North Korea and Iran, Trump is betting on his ability to get the rest of the world to go along with economic sanctions so crippling that the regimes will have to either give in or be overthrown by a discontented populace. I think he overestimates his persuasiveness and power while underestimating the willingness of both countries’ citizens to accept suffering.

Probably there are a lot of Iranians and Koreans who dislike their own country’s government and yearn for more American-style rights and openness. But they still have national pride, and will endure a lot of hardship rather than knuckle under to a foreign bully. I suspect the pressure Trump applies will strengthen those governments’ hold on power, not weaken it.

and trade

Something else that collapsed without a trace was Trump’s trade war with China, which I already mentioned above in connection with the possibility that he took a bribe, or maybe that the whole point from the beginning was to extort a bribe.

When Trump announced tariffs in March, he tweeted:

When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win.

Then there was a back-and-forth of the US and China threatening tariffs against each other’s goods, and China stopped buying US soybeans. Then a week ago Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced that the trade war was “on hold” pending some nebulous future negotiations.

The joint statement that came out of Mnuchin’s meeting with the Chinese is short and contains vague statements about China buying more American goods to lower the US/China trade deficit. It also mentions protecting intellectual property. (Stealing American technology without working out license agreements is a major complaint that US companies have against China.)

But it includes no specific commitments, (“The United States will send a team to China to work out the details.”) so it’s essentially meaningless. China’s economy continues to grow rapidly, so of course it will “increase purchases of United States goods and services”. And since the Chinese don’t admit that they’re stealing our intellectual property, it’s easy for them to state that they “attach paramount importance to intellectual property protections”.

A generous interpretation is that Trump surrendered on trade in order to get Chinese help dealing with North Korea. But there’s also no progress with North Korea. So it sure looks like Trump backed down on his trade war without getting anything — at least not for the United States.

One of Trump’s chief boasts as a candidate was that he was the consummate deal-maker. He’d make “great deals” with other countries that would benefit both the economy and security of the United States.

So far, that hasn’t happened. He has torn up a number of deals: TPP, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Iran nuclear deal. He is threatening to pull out of NAFTA. In every case, he has promised to negotiate a better deal than the one we already had. But he hasn’t gotten those deals done. Again and again, he makes aggressive demands and other countries say no.

Jackson Diehl concludes:

[T]he past month has taught all sides a lesson about Trump, if they didn’t know it already: He’s not up to serious negotiation. He can’t be expected to seriously weigh costs and benefits, or make complex trade-offs. He’s good at bluster, hype and showy gestures, but little else. In short, he may be the worst presidential deal maker in modern history.

Fred Hiatt explains how to predict the “unpredictable” Trump:

Still, for a man who ran for office saying, “We have to be unpredictable,” Trump is proving not so hard to read. Look at whatever he has believed since the 1980s; ignore any evidence that has emerged since; and you can make a fairly educated guess where he will end up.

He operates according to his “gut feelings”, but we know what those are:

What are these predispositions? Allied nations, and especially Japan, play the United States for a chump. Dictators are strong and decisive and therefore to be admired. Immigrants and people of color are suspect. Wealthy people usually know best, while intellectuals are not to be trusted. Trade deficits are the ultimate sign of national weakness, and manufacturing is the linchpin of any economy. Anything Barack Obama did should be undone.

yet another school shooting

This one at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Ten people were killed and 13 wounded.

Josh Marshall reacted to MSNBC’s Pete Williams describing the shooting as “a huge mystery” because there had so far been no signs of an extremist ideology that motivated the shooter. Marshall, very astutely in my opinion, says that school shootings have become their own cult; jihadism or white supremacy or rebellion against the Deep State or whatever else the claimed motive might be isn’t a cause so much as a detail about how things play out.

Again, this happens all the time. The motive is pretty clear: angry and alienated young man, a late adolescent consumed with rage and alienation who lives in the United States and thus has become a devotee of the cult, the ideology of the redemptive school shooting atrocity. The ideology is really the cult of the mass shooting, in which the gun, with all its cultural and political omnipotence, plays a central role. Every school shooter learned from the history of school shootings, mimicked the strategies, was in a sense acting out a ritual which has become deeply rooted in our culture. We know the motive. We know the ideology: rage and alienation transmuted through mass gun violence.

Marshall’s point of view was expressed more elaborately and in more detail by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker in 2015. Gladwell interprets school shootings as an unfolding social process: Each one lowers the threshold for the next. He compares it to window-breaking during a riot. The first window is broken by somebody who has been itching to break windows, but eventually ordinary people start doing it.

If that’s true (and the argument seems convincing), stopping the process is going to be more complicated than just gun control or spotting at-risk students.

The biggest obstacle to arming teachers seems to be insurance companies. I’ve written before about the dysfunctional thinking that I see at the root of most NRA arguments: They respond to fantastic scenarios of what could happen rather than to realistic threats. (Sci-fi author William Gibson: “People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don’t yet have a fully adult concept of scary.”) So it makes sense that the NRA’s natural enemy would be an industry whose profits depend accurately evaluating risks.

Kansas passed its law arming teachers in 2013, after the mass shooting the previous year in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That immediately led EMC Insurance to announce it would rather exit the school insurance market than cover armed teachers and staff. Republican lawmakers were upset but couldn’t find another insurer willing to take on the policies.

and you also might be interested in …

Memorial Day is a good time to re-read this James Fallows article. “We love the troops,” he writes, “but we’d rather not think about them.” Back in March, USA Today reminded us of all the dangerous places the US has troops. When four US soldiers died in Niger, I suspect the first reaction of most of us was “We have soldiers in Niger?”

The original purpose of Memorial Day was that we not forget the sacrifices made by soldiers in past wars. These days, though, we’re having trouble staying aware of the sacrifices our soldiers are making right now.

Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church. The vote will allow the government to establish the boundaries of legal abortion, which it has pledged to do by the end of the year. A referendum in 2015 had legalized same-sex marriage, which the Church also opposed.

It’s something of a mystery (at least to me) why Ireland is moving left at the same time that much of the rest of Europe is moving right. Italy, for example, voted for a coalition of populist parties that is anti-immigrant and anti-Europe. Whether they will be able to form a government is still up in the air.

Excessive rains have flooded Ellicott City, Maryland, which is about 15 miles from Baltimore.

Vox takes apart Trump’s baseless “spygate” conspiracy theory. Separately, Republican Senator Marco Rubio explains:

What I have seen so far is an FBI effort to learn more about individuals with a history of bragging about links to Russia that pre-exist the campaign. If those people were operating near my office or my campaign, I’d want them investigated.

The NFL established a new policy about protests during the national anthem: Players can stay in the locker room during the anthem, but if they come out on the field they have to stand respectfully. If they don’t the league will fine the team, which can then decide whether to fine the player.

There are all kinds of problems here: The owners did this on their own, with no player input. Forced reverence for the flag (or any other symbol) is the exact opposite of the freedom the flag is supposed to represent. It’s hard to come up with a protest more respectful than kneeling silently. The original purpose of the protest (against police shootings of unarmed blacks and other examples of racism by public officials) has been entirely lost. Players identified with the protest (Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid) seem to have been blackballed by the NFL; they are unemployed when players of lesser ability have jobs.

As someone who occasionally repurposes poetry himself, I can appreciate “The Incel Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“.

and let’s close with something

If you’re looking for something meditative and beautiful, check out National Geographic’s “5 Breathtaking Time-Lapses that are Perfect for Spring“. Like this one:

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  • PJ  On May 28, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    I think that Democrats are going to do well in Georgia this year, whether or not Stacy Abrams wins the race for Governor. She hasn’t just talked about motivating people who don’t usually vote – her campaign has been registering new voters since day one. Although her campaign might be what gets the new voters to the polls, candidates in other races will also benefit.

    I also don’t think that appeal-to-the-center or motivate-the-base is an either-or thing. It depends on the race, on the candidate, and people who live in the district. The population of Georgia has been changing in recent years in ways that make Abrams’ strategy more viable than it might have been several years ago.

  • PJ  On May 28, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    On the topic of gun violence: Steve Israel’s piece in the New York Times is good. His basic point is that there are several competitive Congressional districts with candidates that have contrasting pro-NRA and pro-gun-control positions. If the pro-gun-control candidate wins in few of them, that makes a BIG difference in the gun debate. So pick a race and do what you can to help the pro-gun-control candidate. Solving the problem of gun violence will be difficult, but it will easier with people in congress who at least want to address it.

    After the March, Follow This Gun Reform Battle Plan

  • philipfinn  On May 28, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Re: “Ritual Sacrifice”
    Josh Marshall is on to it, now he need only take the next step – realizing how much of our society relies upon rituals, especially violent rituals. The Eastern societies had self-immolation in the 1960s and 70s. These, I think, bled over into the Middle East as suicide bombings. Match these to the political assassinations of individuals in the US during the same period, morphing into mass shootings; the “celebrity” victim of a lone anonymous shooter becomes the anonymous victims of a shooter-made-celebrity.
    Welcome to the new Performance Art, just keep hoping you remain in the captive audience and avoid becoming a captive extra…

  • Nancy Rubinstein  On May 28, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you for the floral art at the end. Breathtaking.

  • cgordon  On May 28, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    “Move to the center and appeal to the reasonable Republican voters Trump is alienating.” If that means continuing to favor capital over labor, forget it.

    • Marty  On May 29, 2018 at 2:57 pm

      If you want to end the favoring of capital over labor, replacing those who worship Capitol with those who only prefer it is a huge step in the right direction. With the latter, there is at least room for negotiation, something which the fanatical are rarely interested in.

    • PJ  On June 1, 2018 at 8:46 pm

      See, for example:
      Alaska as a Red-to-Blue(ish) Model

  • codecrow1975  On May 29, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    What I think is important commentary on the “lost” 1,475 children.

  • codecrow1975  On May 29, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    Ack forgot the link: https://twitter.com/jduffyrice/status/1000927903759110144

  • Jacquie Mardell (@jacquiemardell)  On May 29, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    There is no scenario in which it is ok for the government to separate children not convicted of anything from parents not convicted of anything, tracking or no tracking. This is simply not acceptable.

  • Marty  On May 29, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    Is not that those countries citizens will accept suffering, it’s that they will blame America for that suffering. The message will be: the dear leader is merely looking out for your well-being, while the great American Satan is causing us all this harm. That message is true enough that even most of the regime’s enemies will find it difficult to disagree.

    • Gilbert Pilz  On June 2, 2018 at 10:49 am

      Nothing is more useful to a beleaguered dictator than an external enemy which is why dictators are always looking for plausible external threats. Trump is giving Kim and the hard-liners in Iran exactly what they need.

      • jh  On June 5, 2018 at 5:17 pm

        This also explains the routine enemies that conservatives in the US manufacture. It’s commies. No, it’s feminism. No, it’s ivy league folks. No, it’s Saul Alinsky. No, it’s secularists. No, it’s Bill Clinton. No, it’s Obama. No, it’s godless atheists. No, it’s Hilary Clinton. No, it’s the Deep State.

        The conservative voters are tilting at windmills as they proudly go into the voting booth or enter the comment threads or listen to right wing talk shows and opine about what’s wrong with the US.

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