Political Asymmetry

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear December 10.

To speak of “polarization” is to assume symmetry. No fact emerges more clearly from our analysis of how four million political stories were linked, tweeted, and shared over a three-year period than that there is no symmetry in the architecture and dynamics of communications within the right-wing media ecosystem and outside of it.

– Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, Network Propaganda

This week’s featured post is “The Media isn’t ‘Polarized’. It has a Right-Wing Cancer.” In it, I review the recent book Network Propaganda, which you can read for free online.

If you happen to be near Billerica, Massachusetts on Sunday, you can hear me speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church on “Men and #MeToo”.

This week everybody was talking about Trump vs. the law

A federal judge blocked the administration’s new asylum rules, which would have automatically denied asylum to anyone who crossed the border somewhere other than a recognized border crossing. In the ruling, he wrote:

Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.” Notwithstanding this clear command, the President has issued a proclamation, and the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security have promulgated a rule, that allow asylum to be granted only to those who cross at a designated port of entry and deny asylum to those who enter at any other location along the southern border of the United States.

The rule barring asylum for immigrants who enter the country outside a port of entry irreconcilably conflicts with the INA and the expressed intent of Congress. Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.

So: There’s a law, the judge quotes it, and Trump’s policy obviously violates it.

Try to keep that in mind, because from there Trump did everything possible to try to make the controversy into yet another clash of personalities. Without responding to the question of whether he was violating the law, he denounced the “Obama judge” and the Ninth Circuit that he serves in. That prompted Chief Justice John Roberts to issue a statement directly contradicting the President:

We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. … The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.

Trump argued back, and tweeted, and returned to the subject in a Thanksgiving call to the troops, claiming that “It’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border.” But it is the law that tells the President what to do. The judge is just reading the law.

Trump’s trolling has produced a bunch of drama and drawn a lot of media attention. But he still has not addressed the plain fact that his policy violates the law. The key conflict here is not Trump vs. an Obama judge or the Ninth Circuit or John Roberts or any other collection of Deep State enemies. It’s Trump vs. the law.


On Slate, Angelo Guisado explains why asylum seekers cross the border illegally:

the U.S. Customs and Border Protection systematically and unlawfully rejects their asylum attempts at official ports of entry.

The unwillingness of the Trump administration to process asylum claims at ports of entry led 450 would-be asylum seekers to camp out on the Mexican side of bridges leading to El Paso. Rather than deal with them according to the law, U.S. custom officials arranged with Mexican officials to have the migrants removed.

The administration says there is a deal with Mexico to keep asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border until their asylum petition is granted. (Though the incoming Mexican government says there is no deal yet , and incoming House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings says “that’s not the law“.) I worry that the next step is to slow down the process even further, in hopes that people will give up.

In a tweet concerning an incident at the border on Sunday, Lindsey Graham tweeted about “the broken laws governing asylum”. But it’s not that the laws are broken, it’s that the administration keeps breaking them.


I know I don’t do breaking news well, and things often turn out to be different than they first appear, so I’m not going to say much about the tear gas attack against the would-be border-crossers Sunday. The Guardian has a lot of pictures.


In other legal news concerning Trump, the New York attorney general’s suit against the Trump Foundation will go forward. A state judge in New York denied a motion by the Trump family to dismiss the suit, which claims the Foundation “functioned as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” The AG seeks to dissolve the Foundation and claim monetary damages from the Trump family.

One argument Trump’s lawyers made for dismissing the suit was of a piece with his continuing attack on our judicial system. Basically, the claim was that Trump can’t get a fair hearing in a state like New York, where he is unpopular. This is similar to the claim he made against Judge Curiel in the Trump University case, that Curiel couldn’t hear Trump fairly because he was “Mexican”. Judges, in Trump’s view, are not experts who rule on the law, they are just people expressing their opinions. They rule for or against him because they like or dislike him, and not because of facts and the law.


Earlier this month, another judge put a serious delay on the administration’s approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline into Canada. The judge claims that government agencies “simply discarded” factual findings made under the Obama administration, without providing “reasoned explanations”.

“This has been typical of the Trump administration,” said Mark Squillace, an expert on environmental law at the University of Colorado Law School. “They haven’t done a good job dealing with the factual findings of the previous administration. The courts have been clear that you can change your position, even if it’s for a political reason. But you have to show your work, how you got from Point A to Point B.”

and Trump’s shrug at MBS murdering a Washington Post contributor

Again, ignore Trump’s blather and keep the basic facts in mind: It is increasingly clear that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the killing of Wsahington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, which took place October 2 at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi had gone to get documentation about his divorce so that he could remarry. (His Turkish fiance was waiting in the car.) Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who had gotten on the wrong side of the Saudi government and had gone into voluntary exile. After some time in London he had moved to Virginia in June, 2017 and had been living as a legal permanent resident of the United States.

So an American president should have three issues with MBS: killing journalists whose only threat to you is what they might write, killing people who have left your country and are on the soil of our NATO ally, and killing people who live under our protection.

This week the White House put out a statement. It is poorly written, poorly thought out, full of falsehoods, and morally bankrupt. The gist of it is that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and with MBS as the heir apparent will go forward without a hitch. It makes two arguments:

  • Saudi Arabia is a necessary ally in the regional power struggle with Iran.
  • The Saudis are good customers of the U.S., particularly of the U.S. defense industry.

Apparently, this means they can do whatever they want and we just have to accept it. It’s hard to reconcile this passivity with Trump’s frequent invocation of how “strong” America has become under his rule. In response, Hawaiian Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tweeted:

being Saudi Arabia’s bitch is not “America First.”

Trump’s defense of MBS is similar to his defense of Vladimir Putin: We live in a nihilistic world where nothing can actually be known, so we might as well believe the people we want to believe. (As they say in Assassin’s Creed: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.“)

King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

In a subsequent interview Trump hammered harder on this point: US intelligence agencies don’t really know anything, their leaders just “have feelings, certain ways“. Well, the Saudis have feelings too. (In the same interview, he said “if we went by this standard, we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally”. Try to imagine how that statement goes down in Canada or the UK.)

Julian Sanchez parodied the White House statement’s style and logic:

Crucifixion is a terrible, terrible thing. Should never happen. And we may never know whether Jesus was guilty of crimes against Rome. Who can say? But thirty pieces IS a lot of silver, and it would be very foolish to turn it down.


Republicans as well as Democrats have spoken out against Trump’s position. I would characterize the bipartisan criticism like this: The question isn’t whether you believe in “America first”, but rather what you think America is, and where you think American strength comes from. If America is defined by blood and soil, and if its strength comes purely from money and arms, then Trump is right. But if you believe that America is primarily about ideals and values, that anyone who shares those ideals and values is our natural ally, and that our greatest strength comes from the power of those ideals and values, then he is surrendering America, not putting it first.

The next question is what Congress can do. Rep. Brad Stevens (D-CA) wants Congress to intervene in a deal to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis, making sure that the nuclear material can’t be used for weaponry. If the erratic and unpredictable MBS is going to be king, letting the Saudis go nuclear is not measurably better than letting the Iranians go nuclear.


BTW, you can’t overlook Trump’s personal financial interest in keeping the Saudis happy. The true operating principle here might be “Trump first!”


Matt Yglesias writes:

Since Trump is very clearly betraying American values, it’s tempting to accept the notion that he is implementing a trade-off that advances American interests. But “don’t murder our people” and “don’t use embassies located in allied countries as killing zones” are not airy values. They are interests too.

and the Mississippi Senate run-off

The run-off between Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is tomorrow. Given that it’s Mississippi, you’d think Hyde-Smith would have an easy time of it. But she’s doing her best to screw it up. The Senate will be Republican either way: 53-47 if she wins and 52-48 if she loses.

and what we learn from the midterm results

The Democrats’ lead in the House national popular vote keeps growing: It’s up to 8.1%, or just over 9 million votes. That’s bigger than any other recent “wave” election: 2010 (Republicans win by 6.8% or 6 million votes), 2006 (Democrats 8%, 6.5 million), 1994 (Republicans 7.1%, 5 million). But it still can’t touch the Mother of All Midterm Waves, the post-Watergate 1974 election, which Democrats won by 16.8%.

If the remaining undecided election (CA-21) goes to the Republican (who is currently slightly ahead), Democrats will have a 234-201 majority.


Here’s a way to judge the impact of gerrymandering nationwide: In 2016, Republicans won the House national popular vote, but only by 0.9%. That yielded a larger majority than the Democrats will have: 241-194. So a margin nine times bigger gives Democrats a smaller majority.


Nancy Pelosi seems to be doing what she does best: counting votes until she comes up with a majority.

I think Monica Hesse is onto something:

The Nancyness of Nancy Pelosi is like the Hillaryness of Hillary Clinton: It’s not a definition so much as a collection of amorphous descriptors — cackling, scheming, elitist, ex-wife-like — that nobody can ever quite articulate, other than to say they don’t like it.

With that in mind, I’ve been watching a different set of impossible standards attach to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she gets ready to enter Congress. She doesn’t have enough money in her bank account, her clothes are too nice, and so on. How long before her Alexandrianity becomes similarly disqualifying? Before long, we’ll probably start hearing: “I don’t know what it is, I just don’t like her. She’s got too much baggage.”

The phenomenon here is something I would call bank-shot misogyny. Direct misogyny says “I don’t like her because she’s a woman.” Bank-shot misogyny relies on the fact that (due to the structural misogyny in our national conversation) mud tends to slide off men and stick to women. Then it asks, “Can’t we find someone with less mud on her?”


A number of articles have reminded us that presidents whose parties lose in midterm elections still often get re-elected: Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2012.

But it’s hard to see how those examples will help Trump. In each case, the midterm loss caused the president to change course, to be more cautious, and to work harder to find common ground with the other party. It’s hard to picture Trump learning that lesson, because Trump never makes mistakes and all conflicts are somebody else’s fault, so there’s never anything for him to learn.


Not so long ago, Illinois and Missouri were both swing states, but they have gone in opposite directions: Illinois is now reliably blue, Missouri reliably red. Bill Clinton won Missouri twice, but Hillary lost it in 2016 by 18%. Republican presidential candidates won Illinois six straight times in 1968-1988, but have lost it seven straight times since. Trump lost it by 17%.

Now it looks like several other central states may be separating in a similar fashion. According to Nate Silver, Democratic House candidates won the popular vote in Pennsylvania by 10%, in Wisconsin by 8%, and in Michigan by 7%. Meanwhile, they lost in Ohio by 5.5%.

For decades, Ohio has been the ultimate swing state. (The last time its electoral votes went to the loser was to Nixon in 1960.) But that seems to be changing, so now it’s red even in a blue year. Virginia, conversely, has made a quick trip from reliably red (Bush by 8% in 2004) to solidly blue (Democratic House candidates by 10% in 2018). Ditto Colorado (Bush by 8% in 2000, Dem House by 10% in 2018).


A Washington Post article about Wisconsin politics shows a promising national model: Trump outrage motivated people to become active in politics, but once they got there they didn’t just try to spread Trump outrage. Instead they branched out into voting rights and progressive local issues.


There’s a weird idea going around that House Democrats either won’t or shouldn’t launch a bunch of Trump investigations “because voters have little tolerance for partisan witch hunts”.

I agree that Democrats shouldn’t try to drum up scandal out of nothing, as Republicans did during the Obama administration. (Benghazi deserved one investigation, not eight.) But there is plenty of legitimate wrongdoing and bad policy to investigate. There’s no need for witch-hunting when there’s a crime wave going on.

So Democrats shouldn’t chase wild rumors or grill Ivanka about her emails. But somebody needs to ask exactly how we started putting kids in cages at the border, and look into how Trump is profiting from his presidency. The wastes of money by various cabinet officials deserve public scrutiny. Once the Mueller Report comes in, the House should hold hearings to publicize its findings and to debate whether they merit further action. That’s not witch hunting, that’s Congress doing its job.

In short, Democrats should have high standards for what they investigate. But I think there’s plenty of material that meets high standards.

but we should all be watching the Justice Department

Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump had told White House Counsel Don McGahn that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and Jim Comey. McGahn reportedly told the president that this would be an abuse of power and could be grounds for impeachment.

Like all stories with anonymous sourcing, you have to maintain some degree of skepticism. I don’t believe the Times makes up sources (as Trump often claims), but anonymous leaks usually come from people trying to make themselves look good. McGahn looks good here, so he (or someone loyal to him) is probably the source.

Two things about this story are worrisome: First, it paints a picture of a president with authoritarian impulses, who is only being restrained by underlings who still believe in the rule of law. Second, McGahn has left the White House, and the Justice Department is in the hands of a Trumpist hack, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. If Trump pushes on the system again, it might yield to him.

And Whitaker has his own issues. A number of legal cases will force judges to rule soon on whether his appointment was legal. And somebody in Congress needs to ask him about this:

Before becoming Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker received more than $1.2 million in salary from a conservative nonprofit that does not reveal its donors, according to financial disclosure forms.

That would be one of those justified investigations I talked about. No need to nail him to the wall, but get an answer: What was he paid for?

and the climate

A joint report issued by 13 federal agencies directly contradicts the administration’s rhetoric on global warming. Current policy is to loosen climate-change-fighting restrictions in order to spur economic growth. But the report emphasizes the cost of climate change: The report predicts

that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

… in direct language, the 1,656-page assessment lays out the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South. Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury and fire season could spread to the Southeast, the report finds.

Meanwhile, Republican senators are holding the line on current GOP rhetoric: Doing anything about global warming will break the economy, which just sort of ignores the whole report. Doing nothing about global warming is going to break the economy.

And then there’s this:The NYT has a good article about the persistence of coal as a fuel for electrical plants, in spite of the environmental costs and economic competition from cleaner fuels.

and you also might be interested in

There are lots of rumors about what Robert Mueller might do next, but we’ll all know soon enough.


The stock market has been plunging lately (though it’s up so far this morning), but Trump econ advisor Larry Kudlow isn’t worried about a recession. Of course, he also wasn’t worried about a recession in 2008.


Paul Krugman points to a way forward on health care: Congress may be gridlocked, but a lot can be done in states that Democrats control:

The most dramatic example of how this can be done is New Jersey, where Democrats gained full control at the end of 2017 and promptly created state-level versions of both the mandate and reinsurance [two provisions of the ACA that Republicans have managed to undo at the national level]. The results were impressive: New Jersey’s premiums for 2019 are 9.3 percent lower than for 2018, and are now well below the national average. Undoing Trumpian sabotage seems to have saved the average buyer around $1,500 a year.

Now that Democrats have won control of multiple states, they can and should emulate New Jersey’s example, and move beyond it if they can. Why not, for example, introduce state-level public options — actuarially sound government plans — as alternatives to private insurance?

Insurance works better with a bigger population. So how about it, California?


Are you ready for your annual dose of humility? The NYT’s 100 Notable Books list is out. This year I have read exactly two of the novels: The Witch Elm by Tana French and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Of the nonfiction books: zero.


“Money laundering” isn’t supposed to be this literal: Dutch police found $400K hidden in a washing machine.


Retired General Stan McCrystal writes about his decision to get rid of his portrait of Robert E. Lee.

We want to be proud of our past, so it’s tempting to look at only the best aspects of it. … There is, in the end, little point in studying a version of history that contains cartoons and monuments rather than real people with nuanced actions and decisions — people whose complexities can teach us about our own. As we come to learn more about our world and ourselves, it is crucial to reexamine our role models and our enemies. There is tremendous value in wrestling with the errors over which history commonly glosses.


This week included the strange tale of the 26-year-old American, John Chau, who went to the remote North Sentinel Island to attempt to convert the natives to Christianity. The natives killed him, as they have killed or tried to kill any outsiders who come to their island. North Sentinel sits in the Bay of Bengal as part of the Andaman chain, and is technically part of India. The Indian government has put it off limits and the Indian navy patrols to keep outsiders away. Chau had hired a fishing boat to stay offshore, and paddled in on a kayak.

This is one of those stories that people going to project their own values onto. To me it points out the hazards of living in a myth rather than in reality. With no common language and little common experience, Chau would have needed years to communicate even the most basic notions of his religion, and he seems not to have made preparations for that kind of stay. He apparently paid no attention to the possibility that he might bring diseases that could wipe the natives out. I picture him expecting some kind of Pentecost miracle, with himself as St. Peter. That lack of realism got him killed.


The Washington Post reported last Monday that Ivanka Trump (like Hillary Clinton) used a personal email account for public business. This is an apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act, because Ivanka isn’t just the president’s daughter, she has an official position in the White House. Like Clinton, Ivanka says that she did not understand the rules and had no ill intent. Like Clinton, she addressed the issue by having a lawyer review her records to separate the public emails from the private ones.

The point here shouldn’t be to make problems for Ivanka, but to point out how bogus a lot of the Hillary-email hoo-ha was (as I explained at the time). If the Presidential Records Act is anything like the Federal Records Act that Clinton ran afoul of, violations are not a go-to-jail offense.


George Lakoff’s advice on how to cover Trump:

Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie. If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Actually, it would still be incredibly easy for Trump to lie — he’s a natural — but he wouldn’t get as much benefit out of it.

and here’s something odd

While re-reading the Astro City comic book series this week — I know, I should be reading all that nonfiction on the NYT’s Notable Books list instead —  I ran across the strangely prescient issue #7, published in 2014: Winged Victory, the Astro City universe’s most Wonder-Woman-like character, is being framed as a fraud. Her biggest victories, it is claimed, were staged; the women she has been sheltering and teaching to defend themselves are actually being abused all over again; and so on. When WV goes to a microphone to defend herself, she is shouted down by protesters chanting — wait for it — “Lock her up!” Trump’s crowds didn’t start chanting that about Hillary until 2016.

I’m reminded of an episode of Zorro from 1959, where a Spanish captain gives a patriotic speech and comes darn close to JFK’s “ask not” quote from 1961.

and let’s close with some gross but bizarrely fascinating animal facts

Scientists at Georgia Tech now have an explanation for how wombats manage to poop out cubes. They’re the only known animals with stackable cubic poop.

But even wombat poop is not as amazing as whale earwax. Whales don’t have fingers they can stick into their ears, so their earwax just accumulates through their lives. (Never thought about that, did you?) And they’re huge, so ultimately they wind up with waxy plugs in their ear canals that can be as long as ten inches, plugs that The Atlantic compares to “a cross between a goat’s horn and the world’s nastiest candle”.

It turns out that an earwax plug contains a record of the whale’s life, if you know how to read it.

As whales go through their annual cycles of summer binge-eating and winter migrations, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark. These changes manifest as alternating bands, which you can see if you slice through the plugs. Much as with tree rings, you can count the bands to estimate a whale’s age. And you can also analyze them to measure the substances that were coursing through the whale’s body when each band was formed. A whale’s earwax, then, is a chronological chemical biography.

Researchers at Baylor University have begun studying whale earwax plugs, which coincidentally had been accumulating in museums for more than a century.

“Museums are notorious for collecting everything, and waiting for the science to catch up,” [biology professor Stephen] Trumble says. “We called Charles Potter at the Smithsonian Institution, and he said, ‘It’s interesting you called because we have pallets and pallets of these ear plugs sitting around, and we’re thinking of throwing them away.’ Instead of being thrown away, those ear plugs are now objects of wonder.”

Makes you curious about what else is occupying space in Smithsonian warehouses, doesn’t it?

Trumble and research partner Sascha Usenko measured stress hormones in the plugs, combined findings across numerous whales, and produced “a 146-year chronicle of whale stress”, which turns out to have an obvious-in-retrospect correlation with the output of the whaling industry. The exception is a peak during World War II, when whaling was down, but whales were probably being stressed by underwater explosions. Whale stress is back up lately, possibly in response to climate change.

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Comments

  • reverendsax  On November 26, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    You cover lots of news, about twice as much as I ingest. I stopped for a while this week because of the whale earwax revelations, which caused me to research why I produce lots of it along with itching. (To show that doctors don’t know everything, my head doctor looked at it and said “You have a kind of eczema there” which is the equivalent of “I don’t know what it is.”) At least in humans it turns out that the little cells that produce ear wax are creepy looking things and actually creep or migrate continuously from the middle ear to the outside, bringing the wax out. So I am not to touch my ear wax but let it work its way out. Since I was disgusted by all that, I thought I would share.

  • reverendsax  On November 26, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    BTW, Lindsay Graham @LindseyGrahamSC needs to grow up, become an adult, and along the way become an American.

  • Dave Roscoe  On November 26, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    There once was a wombat named Marcel
    Who wrapped up his turds in a parcel
    He sent them to Spain
    With a note to explain
    That this was the shape of his arsehole.

  • bfplteen  On November 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    Don’t feel too bad about the book list, Doug. I’ve only read one of them, and I’m a blinking librarian!

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On November 26, 2018 at 10:04 pm

    In regard to Kashoggi, I am amazed that no one has brought up a similar case from a few years ago in which a blogger who was a US citizen and had written damning political criticism was murdered on the orders of a head of state who had been on the receiving end of the criticism, and a few days later the blogger’s son was killed for good measure. A few years later, the head of state’s successor hunted down and killed the blogger’s daughter as one of his first official acts once he was in power. I have never understood why the US Government has not arrested and tired the murderers (particularly the politicians who gave the orders carried out by soldiers) which is well within its power. But surely the failure to do so is something that led directly to the indifference with which the government’s similar failure to do anything in the case of Koshoggi is sure to be met. The blogger was Anwar al-Alwaki

  • Kenneth  On November 27, 2018 at 11:03 am

    Pft. Book lists. Haven’t read a one, although I have bought Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. One book I’m familiar with enough for a quibble that highlights how out of touch these lists are for me: Naomi Novik retelling fairy tales is not original (to her or to the genre).

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