Category Archives: Weekly summaries

Each week, a short post that links to the other posts of the week.

Against the Wall

He’s changed his demand from time to time and he’s changed the amount of money he’s asking for dramatically from 2 billion to 5 billion to 11 billion to 25 billion even to 70 billion dollars. And when we asked for specifics, how are you going to spend this money? What are you going to do with it? He basically says we’ll shut down the government till you agree on it.

Senator Dick Durbin

This week’s featured post is “Are powerful women likable?

This week everybody was talking about the new Congress

The Congress that we elected in November took office on Thursday. This Congress isn’t just philosophically different from the previous one, it’s visually different. Here, the gavel passes from a blue suit to a red dress.

And Mike Pence swears in new Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

At her request, she is being sworn on a law book that contains the Constitution, rather than on a religious text. (President John Quincy Adams did the same thing in 1825.) She’s the first openly bisexual member of the Senate, and she’s exercising her right to bare arms. Meanwhile, Rashida Tlaib, who (along with Ilhan Omar) is the first Muslim women to enter Congress, was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, provoking sputtering rage from Christian bigots.

Who can forget this photo of the Republican interns of the last Congress.

There is a woman of color back there somewhere, but finding her is a where’s-Waldo exercise. Meanwhile, here’s just a part of the class photo for the House’s entering freshman members this year. Not interns, members.

The new Congress makes the country’s political situation clear at a glance: There is one party that wants to preserve the white Christian patriarchy, and another party for everybody else. The Everybody Else Party just came to power in the House.


In addition to voting to reopen the government, House Democrats introduced HR 1, an anti-corruption bill. Its three planks address campaign finance (including a 6-to-1 government matching for small donations to candidates who agree not to take large donations and a requirement that SuperPACS disclose their donors), government ethics (including requiring presidential candidates to disclose their last ten years of tax returns), and voting rights (opt-out voter registration, election day becomes a holiday, plus anti-gerrymandering, and anti-voter suppression measures).

For contrast, think about just how badly Trump has done with his promise to “drain the swamp”: The Secretary of Defense is from Boeing. The Treasury Secretary is from Goldman Sachs. The Attorney General ran a dark-money operation. The Interior Secretary is an oil lobbyist. The Commerce Secretary “could rank among the biggest grifters in American history“. The Labor Secretary arranged a sweetheart plea deal to keep a rich child predator out of jail. The HHS Secretary is from Eli Lilly. The HUD Secretary spent lavishly on his office furniture and hasn’t done much else. The Education Secretary is a champion of for-profit colleges and has invested in student-debt collection companies. The EPA Director is a coal lobbyist.


BTW, Rashida Tlaib also made headlines by telling a group of Move On supporters that “Bullies don’t win” because “we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

Conservatives were apoplectic about this violation of political decorum, to which I reply, “Oh, now you have standards.”

But my my policy on this blog is that until Robert Mueller provides clear evidence that Trump had carnal relations with his mother, calling him a motherfucker is premature. I will restrain myself.

and the shutdown and the Wall

On its first day, the House passed bills to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which got a continuing resolution through Feb. 8, with no funding for Trump’s Wall. The funding is on the same terms that the Senate passed by acclamation before Christmas, but now Mitch McConnell is refusing to bring it up for a vote.

What this makes clear is that, under McConnell and Trump, the Senate is no longer an independent institution. The Republican majority is under Trump’s thumb, so as long as he’s not happy, the Senate won’t pass anything. McConnell isn’t even involved in trying to negotiate a solution.

For his part, Trump continues to lie about the Wall and why Democrats might oppose it. No, it’s not because we want open borders and it’s not because we want to deny him a “win”. It’s because the Wall is a stupid idea, as congressmen who have represented border areas know. Democrat Beto O’Rourke tweeted this video. Republican Rep. Will Hurd said, “Building a 30 foot high concrete structure from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security.” He also described the $5 billion Trump wants for the Wall as “a random number”.

A 2000-mile border wall didn’t arise in border-security circles, it was just a line that made Trump’s crowds cheer. It’s still not much more than that, which is why Trump can change the height or material from one tweet to the next. Nobody would ever appropriate billions for “a dam” or “a highway” without any more detail than that, but taxpayers are supposed to pony up $5.6 billion as a downpayment on “a wall” whose future costs are unknowable.

In late December, Chief of Staff John Kelly said:

The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes, frankly, he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing.’ Now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.

In other words, they discovered that real border-security people had no use for the make-crowds-cheer idea. Lindsey Graham has described the Wall as “a metaphor for border security”. Does that sound like a plan to you? Would you vote to spend billions on a bridge, knowing that it might just be “a metaphor for crossing water”?


BTW, with so few details about how the wall money would be spent, what assurance do we have that a chunk of it won’t wind up in Trump’s pocket?


Many pundits are predicting that a Wall-for-DACA deal is what will end the shutdown. But Trump turned such a deal last year and isn’t offering it now.

Trump doesn’t appear to be offering Democrats much of anything, preferring to pile on threats. (Mainly, he’s offering to mitigate some of the suffering he has caused at the border, as if partially undoing a negative were a positive.) Recently he’s been claiming he can declare a national emergency and build the wall without congressional appropriations. If he tries, that actually would be a national emergency: a tyrannical abuse of power.

Last June, I wrote down my thinking about impeachment, precisely to avoid the temptation to reshape my interpretation of “impeachable offense” to match whatever Trump did or Mueller found. My fourth justification for impeachment was “Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment.” That would be the case here: If Trump tries to build his wall without Congress, in my mind that would be an impeachable offense.

I still don’t see how this shutdown ends, unless Republicans in the Senate start defecting. That could take months, during which people will get evicted from government-subsidized housing, unpaid TSA employees will stop showing up to work, and the IRS will stop issuing tax refunds.

and Mitt Romney

The commentariat got very excited by Mitt Romney’s op-ed in Wednesday’s Washington Post. Just before entering the Senate, Mitt actually criticized President Trump. He followed up with an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.

Well, good for him, but I’m not too excited yet. It’s good to know that all Republican criticism of Trump in the Senate didn’t end when Bob Corker and Jeff Flake left. But while they might occasionally speak out, Corker and Flake seldom did much to get in Trump’s way. Will Romney? It’s not clear.

If the Mueller Report ends up containing as much evidence of impeachable offenses as I suspect it will, most likely Trump will act out somehow and we’ll find ourselves in a constitutional crisis. The question then will be whether Republicans in Congress stand up the way that Barry Goldwater stood up to President Nixon in 1974. Does Romney have that in him? History will want to know.

but you should pay attention to …

In The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein examines the various emergency powers Congress has granted the President over the years, and how a president with authoritarian tendencies might take advantage of them. It’s a scary list of stuff, and the article ends with a fantasy of how Trump could use emergency powers to hang on to the presidency. Ultimately, the only defense against this kind of action is if key actors up and down the line refuse to cooperate.

and you also might be interested in …

Climate change can be mapped in a variety of ways. The tropical zone is advancing 30 miles a decade. The boundary between the humid Eastern U.S. and the dry Western U.S. has shifted 140 miles to the east since 1980. Plant hardiness zones in the U.S. are moving north at more than a mile a year.


The Guardian has a worthwhile article on exercise. The basic problem is that humans evolved to have active lives, but in modern society most of us have inactive lives. Sit-all-day-and-then-go-to-the-gym is better than just sitting all day, but it’s not a perfect fix either.

In my conversation with [longevity researcher Gianni] Pes, he repeatedly stressed that while diet and environment are important components of longevity, being sedentary is the enemy, and sustained, low-level activity is the key that research by him and others has uncovered: not the intense kinds of activity we tend to associate with exercise, but energy expended throughout the day. The supercentenarians [110-year-olds] he has worked with all walked several miles each day throughout their working lives. They never spent much time, if any, seated at desks.

And it’s not just the sitting:

He discovered one group of women who had spent their working lives seated, but nonetheless reached a great age. They had been working treadles (pedal-powered sewing machines), which meant they had regularly burned sufficient calories to derive the longevity benefits of remaining active.

What we really need is to make our daily lives active.

What is needed are the kinds of strategies that would make exercise unnecessary. Urban planning that better addresses the outdoor experience and encourages movement would be a key part of this change. But on an individual level, we can think about returning a little of the friction that technology has so subtly smoothed out for us, and make it easy to get things done. Exercise becomes physical activity when it is part of your daily life.

and let’s close with something incongruous

Sadly, video of Claire Foy’s performance of “Rapper’s Delight” on Jimmy Fallon’s show is no longer available. But Sandra Bullock’s version from 2013 is still up.

The Yearly Sift 2018

You can’t serve both Trump and America

Eliot Cohen

The tradition on this blog (lapsed last year when both Christmas and New Years were Mondays and I decided not to post) is to do an annual lookback near New Years. The Yearly Sift picks out themes that have played out through the year, collects links to some noteworthy posts, and looks at the blog’s popularity and readership.

And I also do an abbreviated weekly summary, because the news never stops.

The story that dwarfed all others this year

For the last two years we’ve had a president who fundamentally does not believe in democracy, and who has no loyalty to either the Constitution or the traditions of American governance that have built up around it. That hasn’t happened in a long, long time, or maybe ever. (You can argue about Nixon or maybe Jackson, but no one else comes close.)

So this has been a time of unique danger to the American Republic. And although we’ve been taking some damage, we’ve also been hanging on.

In my view, the main thing that has restrained Trump so far has been his need to maintain Republican support in Congress. And the main thing that has restrained Republicans in Congress has been fear of what might happen in the midterm elections. If, after everything we’ve seen these last two years, 2018 had gone in their favor, I think Trump would be off to the races. Mueller would be fired, laws on the books would be more openly violated, and courts that tried to get in the way could be defied.

We dodged that bullet. Democracy is far from out of the woods — it won’t be until Trump is safely out of office, and maybe not even then — but we’re still on a path that has a hope of emerging from the woods. I make that case in more detail in the featured post “The Story that Really Mattered This Year“.

Additional comments on 2018

Little by little, the media has been figuring out how to deal with Trump’s lying, which is a different thing entirely than the spinning of previous administrations of either party. Greg Sargent explains:

The key point here is that Trump is not engaged in conventional lying. He’s engaged in spreading disinformation.

Previous administrations would emphasize favorable facts and cast them in the best possible light, even if less favorable facts were more relevant and a less rosy frame made more sense. Trump, on the other hand, repeats blatantly false statements, in hopes of wearing down the fact-checkers. Eventually you get tired of debunking what he says about voter fraud or immigrant crime or the Wall, and he keeps saying it.

At the beginning of the Trump administration, the media arguably helped his disinformation campaigns. Trump would make an outrageous claim, and the headlines would repeat it: “Trump claims X” or “Trump accuses X of Y” or something similar. Even if the text of the article explained that the charge was baseless, the damage was done; it would stick in people’s minds that X had something to do with Y.

It’s interesting now, though, to google “Trump” and the phrase “without evidence”. Just recently you’d have gotten President Trump Claims Without Evidence That Most Federal Employees Impacted by Shutdown Are Democrats, Trump claims without evidence that new migrant caravan is forming, and Trump, without evidence, blasts social media companies over his followers. Similar phrases will get you similar results: Trump rages at Twitter with baseless claim that it is tampering with his followers because of political bias. More and more, news outlets are leading with the fact that Trump is just making stuff up.


We saw how last year’s tax cut played out. At the time, the Republican argument was that it would stimulate growth across the economy, create good-paying jobs, and eventually pay for itself. The Democratic argument (and mine) was that it would raise the deficit, the increase in growth would simply be the ordinary pop that comes with a big deficit, and most of the money would go to stockholders with very little for workers.

The data is not totally clear yet, but the Democratic predictions are looking much stronger.

The State of the Sift

I think about the influence of the Sift in two ways: Its breadth is the number of people who read a Sift post sometime during the year, whether the name of “The Weekly Sift” sticks in their heads or not. Its depth is the number of regular readers, especially the ones who read it faithfully every week.

Neither number is something I can directly measure, but some of the things I can measure provide some indications. For the last several years, those arrows have pointed in opposite directions: Measures of breadth are down and measures of depth are up.

Breadth measures include the number of hits the most popular posts get, and the total number of hits at weeklysift.com. Those measures peaked in 2014-2015. The two most popular Sift posts (together amounting to just under 1 million of the 2.5 million hits the blog has gotten since I moved it to weeklysift.com in 2011) are 2014’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” (545K) and 2012’s “The Distress of the Privileged” (432K). By contrast, the most popular new posts in 2018 were “Speaking in Code: Two phrases that no longer mean what they used to” and “The Media isn’t ‘Polarized’, it has a Right-Wing Cancer“, both of which got a little over 2.8K hits. In fact, “Not a Tea Party” continued to leave all new posts in the dust, getting 17.6K hits in 2018.

Total hits at weeklysift.com peaked at 782K in 2015 and have been down every year since: 352K in 2016, 248K in 2017, and 198K with a day to go in 2018. (If I have a good day, it could get over 200K.)

Those numbers make it look like the blog is in a death spiral, but the depth numbers point in the other direction. The number of people following the Sift through WordPress (most of whom read posts via email and don’t show up in the weeklysift.com figures) is up from 3820 at the end of 2015 to 5304 now. I assume there are other people who read the blog regularly via internet subscription services I don’t track. The Sift’s Facebook page has 978 followers.

The weekly summaries, I think, are read mainly by my regular readers, and their hit totals have been relatively stable, somewhere in the 300-400 range every week. Hits on the home page are a mixed measure of breadth and depth: They peaked at 100K in 2015 and 101K in 2016, then fell to 82K in 2017 and 71K in 2018. (All of those numbers are much higher than the 44K of 2014.)

From what I’ve read about other web sites (including nationally known ones like TPM), I’ve come to believe that this is a general phenomenon that doesn’t have much to do with me personally: The age of the non-commercial small blog that launches viral posts is over, killed off by algorithmic changes at the big social media platforms like Facebook. It is much harder for a post to go viral than it was in 2015. Facebook et al don’t want to popularize your blog for free; they want you to buy advertising. (I haven’t done that. Buying advertising would inevitably lead to selling advertising, and I don’t want to go there.)

In some ways, all of these numbers are ephemeral. When someone clicks on a viral post, there’s no way to know whether they actually read it. Similarly, I’m sure that some number of the people who “follow” the Sift are watching posts pile up in their Inbox and wishing they had the time to read them. The one measure whose meaning is clear is the number of comments, which is down, but not nearly as much as the hit numbers: They peaked at 1792 in 2016 and are down to 987 in 2018. (That stands to reason; fewer readers mean fewer comments, but regular readers are more likely to comment.)

As I’ve said in previous years, I’m not inclined to chase popularity by writing clickbait. Instead, my goal every week is to serve my regular readers by screening out the large quantity of meaningless hype in the news, and using the time gained by that to go a little deeper into the underlying themes and patterns. If they share my posts and their friends like them and so on, that’s great. But riling people up in ways that would produce a lot of clicks and comments runs exactly opposite to the mission of the blog. It was exciting to have posts that reached hundreds of thousands, but that’s not why I keep doing this.

The Sifted Books of 2018

This year I wrote about of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, Jim Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, Joan Williams’ White Working Class, Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, Ganesh Sitaraman’s The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, How Democracies Die by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, This is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, and Network Propaganda by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts.

Other people’s year-end reviews

CBS does a pretty thorough month-by-month account of the top stories. The Atlantic’s Adam Harris sees 2018 as “The Year the Gun Conversation Changed“, mainly because the articulate professional-class students from Parkland refused to shuffle off the stage.

The year in pictures: CNN, Washington Post, New York Times , and a five-minute video summary from Vox

But this week everybody was talking about …

The government has been shut down for more than a week, with no end in sight. (Rep. Louie Gohmert thinks it should stay shut down until either Congress funds a wall or “Hell freezes over”.) Trump continues to paint himself into a corner about the Wall, which Democrats don’t want to give him.

Mike Mulvaney has implied Trump will take less than the $5 billion that he demanded after the Senate had reached a bipartisan compromise (that Pence had told them Trump would sign). Republicans are selling this as a compromise, but it’s not. Suppose I walk up to you and say, “Give me $100” and you say no. If I respond with, “OK, give me $50”, that’s not a compromise. An actual compromise proposal would include Trump offering Democrats something they want in exchange for funding his Wall. (Opening the government is also not a concession; Trump would just be undoing damage he caused.) So far, Trump has offered nothing in exchange for what he wants.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard will stop paying people as of today. What could go wrong?

My sense is that Trump or Senate Republicans won’t budge until their base starts seeing that government does important things other than fight wars. Until then, the Gohmerts sound really strong talking about Hell freezing over.


Elizabeth Warren is in the race for 2020. Of all the candidates, she is the one that raises the most hope and fear in me. I think she’d be the best president, because she is the one who best understands what working-class life is really like. But I also worry that we’ll spend two years dealing with the Pocahontas smear rather than talking about what’s important.


Trump visited troops in Iraq for a few hours the day after Christmas, his first visit to troops stationed in a combat zone.

One complaint that Fox News commentators often make is that in liberal eyes, Trump literally cannot do anything right, so he gets criticized for things that other presidents would be cheered for. (Last week, for example, I criticized Trump for the way he implemented a policy — disengaging from Syria and Afghanistan — that I agree with in the abstract. How horribly biased of me.)

The Iraq trip illustrates the reason for that apparent “bias” against Trump: He literally cannot do anything right, even comparatively simple stuff from bringing to our troops abroad the message that people at home appreciate what they’re doing to talking to a 7-year-old about Christmas. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman sums up:

Each day is a chance for Trump to expose his incompetence at every element of his job. Each day, he seizes the opportunity.

In Iraq, Trump held what was essentially a partisan political rally, complaining about the Democrats, signing MAGA hats, and lying about how much he had done for the troops. Previous presidents of both parties have avoided this kind of politicking, because (1) the military is supposed to be apolitical, and (2) when the President addresses troops abroad, he is supposed to represent all of the American people, not just the ones who support him.

And to top things off, he tweeted out a photo of himself with Navy Seals, whose identities are supposed to be secret.

As I have explained before, Trump doesn’t grasp that President is a role he fills, one that includes responsibilities as well as powers. Instead, he imagines that he is the President, and that all the powers and prerogatives of the role have become his personal powers and prerogatives. Combined with that, he is the Dunning-Kruger Effect personified: He doesn’t know or understand much of anything, but thinks he’s a “very stable genius“. This makes him unique (and uniquely dangerous) among the presidents of my lifetime.


Federal court ruling: It’s unconstitutional to hold people for years without a bail hearing, even if they came into the country illegally.


On average, Republican sabotage of ObamaCare has raised premiums $580 per policy per year. The sabotage varies by state, with Massachusetts and New Jersey avoiding it entirely and correspondingly larger premiums falling on Trump-supporting states.


Foreign Policy gives the background of the Trump/Russia connection. After his Atlantic City casinos failed, no banks would lend Trump money, and he was all but finished as a real estate mogul, But then

Trump eventually made a comeback, and according to several sources with knowledge of Trump’s business, foreign money played a large role in reviving his fortunes, in particular investment by wealthy people from Russia and the former Soviet republics. … By the time he ran for president, Trump had been enmeshed in this mysterious overseas flow of capital—which various investigators believe could have included money launderers from Russia and former Soviet republics who bought up dozens of his condos—for a decade and a half.

and let’s close with something humorous

Among the looks back at 2018 was one by Dave Barry.

Baby Driver

When toddlers play, it’s good to have a grownup in the room to supervise. But if a toddler is driving a car, it does no good to have a grownup in the passenger seat. Pretending that it’s somehow okay is the least grownup reaction possible.

– Matt Yglesias “There Never Were Any Adults in the Room

This week’s featured posts are “Is this any way to run a superpower?” and “Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions“.

This week everybody was talking about pulling US troops out of Syria

One of the featured posts covers the Syria/Afghanistan situation in more detail. Here I want to talk about the American politics of it.

Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation-in-protest from the Trump cabinet was a nearly unique event in US history. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter as “compelling both for what it said, and for what it didn’t say”. Asked by CNN’s Don Lemon to elaborate on what wasn’t in the letter, Clapper explained:

Typically in a letter like this, there is an expression of what an honor it has been to serve in this administration and under your leadership, or words to that effect. That’s typically what you put in a resignation letter. That’s what I put in mine when I resigned in the last administration. That wasn’t there.

Instead, Mattis’ letter begins with:

I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.

ends with

I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.

and spares not a single word to praise Trump or his administration.

Trump, of course, had to shoot back.

We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!

So now Trump has booted Mattis sooner than his resignation would have become effective. The new acting SecDef is Patrick Shanahan, who has been Deputy SecDef for over a year. He’s a former Boeing executive whose only previous experience was in making and selling weapons, not fighting wars or managing alliances.


This is another area where our expectations of Trump continue to diminish. At first, he was supposed to have a unique ability to get “the best people” to enter government service. Then, we realized that Trump himself was impulsive and ignorant, and a lot of the other people his administration were too, but at least there would be a few “adults in the room” to keep him from doing anything too crazy. Now Mattis and Kelly, the last of the so-called adults, are leaving. But Trump remains in office.


Some are speculating that this will be a turning point in Republican support for Trump. But I’ve heard that prediction before. The capacity of elected officials like Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell to tut-tut about Trump one day and then protect him from any accountability the next seems limitless.

and the government shutdown and the Wall

About a quarter of the federal government shut down at midnight on Saturday morning. I’m guessing this is going to be a very long shutdown, for the following reason: The whole point of a shutdown is to shock the public, because each side is counting on the public to unleash its outrage on the other. As soon as it’s clear which way the public is trending, the disfavored side usually surrenders.

By now, though, a shutdown just isn’t shocking any more. We’ve all seen too many of them. So in order to get the same effect, this one is going to have to last long enough to seem unique. I predict it will last at least until Nancy Pelosi becomes Speaker, and maybe well past that.


Let’s be clear how we got to a shutdown: Congress had worked out a deal, which the Senate passed by voice vote because Trump had agreed to it.

Vice President Mike Pence told GOP senators earlier this week Trump would sign the Senate’s stopgap with the $1.3 billion for the fencing — that’s why many Republican senators headed home after the chamber finished its pre-holiday business.

Then various voices on Fox News and talk radio got upset, so Trump reneged and demanded funding for the Wall.  So here we are.

Whether you like the idea of a wall or not — I think it’s stupid, as I explain in one of the featured posts — if Trump was going to insist on funding for the wall, he should have made that part of his negotiations all along. Whatever compromise the two sides eventually agree to could have been worked out with days to spare.


If Trump is going to stand by his demand for funding the Wall, then there’s only one way this can resolve: After a deal was struck, he added a new demand. So he’s going to have to give up something in exchange. So far, I haven’t heard what that might be.


In The Art of the Deal, walking away at the last minute is a tactic for getting concessions. Trump’s advice in that book focuses on getting the biggest possible advantage in a single deal, and doesn’t have much to say about establishing trusting relationships that can benefit both parties over the long run. He’s like the car salesman who “wins” by overcharging you for a lemon that one time, but then you and your friends never deal with him again. He’s not at all like the guy who sells you a car every few years and then eventually sells cars to your kids.

That’s why Trump has been so bad at negotiating with Congress or with other countries. Those are ongoing relationships, not one-time deals where you walk away laughing as soon as the contracts are signed.


I know it should never be shocking to notice that Trump has lied, but his abuse of Ronald Reagan’s memory is particularly striking.

Even President Ronald Reagan tried for 8 years to build a Border Wall, or Fence, and was unable to do so. Others also have tried. We will get it done, one way or the other!

Here’s what Reagan actually said:

Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back.

and John Roberts’ rebuff to the administration’s asylum policy

When a court first blocked the new policy of insisting that asylum seekers had to apply at a designated border entry point, Trump denounced it as the work of an “Obama judge“, as if it were Obama’s presidency that should be considered illegitimate.

Now the Supreme Court has backed up that ruling. The 5-4 majority included Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Ruth Bader Ginsberg voting from her hospital bed.

As the “Obama judge” noted in his ruling, the law could not be more clear.

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.”

So it’s the four most conservative judges (including Brett Kavanaugh) who have some explaining to do. Why are they substituting their own political views for the law?


The emoluments lawsuit has hit a snag: The case was set to go into the discovery phase, which would allow Democratic state attorney generals to subpoena records from The Trump Organization. But an appeals court has halted proceedings while it reviews the judge’s rulings that allowed the case to proceed. It’s not dead, but we’ll see.

So far, I have not heard any serious argument that Trump is not violating the Constitution. He obviously is. The issue is more whether the courts have the authority to stop him and who has the legal standing to ask them to.

and you also might be interested in …

Trump’s obstruction of justice continues. CNN reports that Trump has been asking Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker “why more wasn’t being done to control prosecutors in New York” who brought charges against Michael Cohen and have implied that Trump also committed crimes.

It’s important not to lose sight of how unusual this is. Presidents are not supposed to talk to the attorney general at all about specific cases. The idea that Trump is pressuring Whitaker to intervene in a case where he is directly involved is way off the scale for any post-Watergate administration of either party.


If your Christmas or year-end process involves giving money to charity, Vox has some advice: Your money goes farther in poor countries. Public health programs can save a lot of lives. And nobody understands the needs of poor people in Uganda better than poor people in Uganda, so why not send money directly to them?


Congrats to Harvard for netting Parkland survivor and anti-NRA activist David Hogg for its freshman class. Hogg plans to major in political science.


Trump’s shamelessness about being caught in a lie has prompted the Washington Post’s fact-checkers to create a new category: the Bottomless Pinocchio, for false claims that keep getting repeated no matter how often they’re debunked.

The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong.

So far 15 Bottomless Pinocchios have been awarded, all to Trump. The man is in a class by himself.

and let’s close with some Christmasy things

Science fiction writer John Scalzi managed to score an interview with one seriously hard-working individual: Santa’s lawyer. Delivering packages across international borders, entering people’s homes in the dead of night, keeping files on who’s been naughty or nice, managing a workforce of magical creatures … there are a ton of legal issues here. Much thought has to go into keeping Santa solvent and free.

And if you’re looking for some good Christmas Eve listening, let me recommend something that never turns up on Muzak at the mall: Stan Freberg’s “Green Chri$tma$“.

Looking Behind the Lies

A lie isn’t always a crime, but it is always an indication that the person telling it has something they want to conceal.

– Paul Waldman, “This is not how innocent people act

This week’s featured post is “Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard“.

This week everybody was talking about the President’s legal problems

A list of the various investigations and where they stand is in the featured post. Also of note has been the shifting defenses  offered by Trump and his supporters, which in nearly every case evolve according to this general pattern:

  1. Nothing happened.
  2. Whatever happened, Trump didn’t know about it.
  3. It wasn’t a crime.
  4. He had no way to know it was a crime.
  5. It’s not a serious crime.

When one step turns out not to be true, they move on to the next. We’ve gone through the whole list with the pay-offs to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal to hide from voters the fact that Trump cheated on Melania with them. In particular, Orrin Hatch and Kevin McCarthy have made it to Step 5. (Though Hatch later tried to walk it back, retreating to the position that “I don’t believe the President broke the law.”)

Hatch:

I don’t think he was involved in crimes, but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to, you can blow it way out of proportion, you can do a lot of things.

McCarthy:

If [Democratic Congressman Adam] Schiff is taking this beyond to go forward and say that there’s an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem, there’s a lot of members in Congress who would have to leave.

We can only wonder what step 6 will be, because there’s no reason to think that the current explanations are any more true than the previous ones.

The progression hasn’t yet played out all the way with regard to Russian collusion, but think about the steps we have already seen:

  1. It’s all fake news.” Trump had “nothing to do with Russia“. The campaign didn’t talk to Russians and Trump wasn’t doing business deals with them.
  2. Trump’s people (at least 14 of them, according to the Washington Post) were talking to Russians, but not about influencing the election. And Trump was trying to do a major business deal in Russia, but it didn’t happen, it was “very legal & very cool“, and “everybody knew about” it (in spite of Trump’s public denials in Step 1).
  3. Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with Russians to talk about getting “dirt on Hilary Clinton” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”, and Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also attended, but nothing came of it. WikiLeaks started releasing hacked DNC emails shortly thereafter, but the Trump campaign knew nothing about that. (Ignore whatever happened between WikiLeaks and Roger Stone.)

Again, there’s no reason to believe it stops here, or that it will stop with Step 5. To me it’s pretty obvious where this could go: “Sure, he committed treason, but it wasn’t TREASON treason.”

Trump supporters need to ask themselves if they’re willing to stick with him that far down the slippery slope. (For that matter, did you ever imagine you’d be defending what you’re defending now?) And if not, at what point short of that are they planning to get off?

and ObamaCare

A judge in Texas ruled the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. This appears to me to be exactly the kind of activist-judge-legislating-from-the-bench that conservatives always accuse liberals of.

It’s worthwhile to look back at an 2012 article by Salon’s Andrew Koppelman “Origins of a healthcare lie“. The lie in this case is that the individual insurance mandate is somehow unconstitutional.

The constitutional limits that the [Affordable Care Act] supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written. They were invented only in the fall of 2009, quite late in the legislative process.

For now, the ruling will have no effect as the appeal works its way up the chain of courts. It should make it to the Supreme Court by next year, where it ought to be reversed. As the NYT’s Cristian Farias notes “all five justices who, in 2012, already determined that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional will still be there.” Please petition the deity of your choice that nothing happens to any of them.

Politically, I think this is a disaster for Republicans, one that they have made for themselves. It means that the 2020 campaign will begin (and possibly end) with millions of people facing either the loss of their health insurance or being shunted off into plans that won’t cover what they need. Meanwhile, neither Republicans in Congress nor the administration will have produced a health plan of their own, because “get rid of ObamaCare” is the only idea they’ve been able to agree on. (A large number of Republicans hold a position they can’t say out loud: People should only get the health care they can afford. If you’re not rich and you get something that requires an expensive treatment, too bad for you.) Any actual plan will expose the lie in the various contradictory promises Trump has made.

One anchor GOP candidates carried in 2018 was the need to claim that they supported the popular parts of ObamaCare (like coverage of pre-existing conditions) without being able to point to any viable plan that preserved those features of the law. That conservative judge has guaranteed that they’ll continue carrying that anchor for a while longer.

but I’ve been ignoring other countries lately

It’s hard for the US news media — myself included, in this case — to cover foreign affairs properly, for a number of reasons:

  • The US produces enough news of its own that it doesn’t need to import any. This has only gotten worse during the current administration. So a change of government in Brazil or Germany can get lost in a Trump tweet storm.
  • The American audience (and a number of American journalists, and a lot of times, myself) don’t have the background to appreciate foreign news events. So it’s a little like watching a sport when you don’t know the rules or the players. You can try to look them up and explain them on the fly, but it’s still hard to appreciate the action while it’s happening.

To catch up a little, let’s start in the UK. Brexit is scheduled to happen on March 29, but there is still no agreed-on plan for how it happens. Here’s the BBC’s chart of where things stand:

The problem is that at the time of the referendum Brexit was just a vague idea: Britain leaves the EU. That can mean a lot of different things, and no individual one of those things is popular. So the UK is in the curious situation where all the possible outcomes (PM May’s plan to leave the EU in name only, and remain subject to EU customs laws; leave for real and erect a national border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, possibly restarting the Troubles; Parliament deciding to oppose the Brexit referendum and stay in the EU; holding a new referendum on some particular Brexit plan) seem far-fetched.

I can’t help noticing the comparison to repealing ObamaCare, and why Republicans were never able to come through on the “replace” part of repeal-and-replace: ObamaCare is a specific program and “repeal” is a vague idea. As soon as Republicans tried to flesh out their specific replacement, it was less popular than ObamaCare.

The Brexit situation is at least producing some good humor, like Andy Serkis portraying some kind of Gollum/Theresa May synthesis.

Now let’s move to the yellow vest protests in France. Basically, it’s as if in 2016 the angry Trump and Sanders voters had gotten together and taken to the streets. Or maybe if Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party found a common cause. It’s a strange mixture of left-wing and right-wing populism. It’s anti-government, but none of the opposition parties have managed to stake a claim on it. Crimethinc comments:

Clearly, neoliberal capitalism offers no solutions to climate change except to place even more pressure on the poor; but when the anger of the poor is translated into reactionary consumer outrage, that opens ominous opportunities for the far right.

The issue that seems to have touched off the recent protests is a green tax, a move “to increase fuel taxes to raise money for eco-friendly projects“. The Macron government has since backed off, but the protests — mostly non-violent, but occasionally violent — continue.

As in the US, there is a widespread but inchoate feeling that the system is working against ordinary people. It remains to be seen whether someone will manage to turn that view into a program that makes things better, whether some demagogue will ride the yellow vests to power, or whether the energy will dissipate without doing anything to decrease the general dissatisfaction.

In Germany, Angela Merkel won’t seek re-election when her term ends in 2021. She has already stepped down as head of her party, the Christian Democrats. Her replacement is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

The party has faced a dilemma, to either keep itself on the course set by Merkel – who was determined to secure the centre ground and has turned the CDU into a champion of gay marriage, a minimum wage and a quota for women in politics – or to take it more to the right in an attempt to win back the voters lost to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). … Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory is a sign that the party wants to continue on the path set for it by Merkel. Nevertheless, Kramp-Karrenbauer has repeatedly said she would forge her own path, and is decidedly more socially conservative than her predecessor.

In Brazil, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro will take office on January 1. He plans to pull Brazil out of the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, and to develop the Amazon rain forest. In many ways a Brazilian version of Trump, we’ll see if he has a similar impact on Brazil’s rule of law.

Vox talks to North Korea watcher Van Jackson, who is not impressed with the “progress” Trump thinks he has made toward de-nuclearization. In his view, events are proceeding according to Kim Jong Un’s plan, not Trump’s.

He’s been pushing for simultaneously growing the economy and becoming a nuclear power. Now that he’s got the nuclear program where it needs to be, he’s decided to more aggressively pursue economic development, because that’s the other part of his strategy.

Pursuing economic development means getting sanctions relief. And how can you possibly get sanctions relief without pursuing a charm offensive?

So where we are today is because Kim reached what he sees as a position of strength.

… The structure of the confrontation has not changed. The nuclear situation has not changed. Sanctions have not changed. And frankly, they’re not likely to.

And finally, Yemen, where a war has combined with an ongoing famine to produce a truly horrifying situation. The UN has warned that 13 million people in Yemen are facing starvation in “the worst famine in the world in 100 years”

The famine is the direct result of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen and blockade. Yemen was already the most impoverished nation in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, and Al Hudaydah one of the poorest cities of Yemen, but the war and the naval blockade by the Saudi-led coalition and the United States Navy made the situation much worse. Fishing boats, the main livelihood of Al Hudaydah’s residents, were destroyed by Saudi airstrikes, leaving them without any means to provide for their families. As a result, one child dies every ten minutes on average. A UN panel of experts found that Saudi Arabia is purposefully obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen.

The particularly dismal thing about the US role in this tragedy is that so few Americans have any idea where Yemen is or why we’re involved in a war there. (Yemen’s civil war is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We’re on the Saudi side.)

The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi crown prince has at least got people taking another look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution against US involvement in Yemen.

This joint resolution directs the President to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen within 30 days unless Congress authorizes a later withdrawal date, issues a declaration of war, or specifically authorizes the use of the Armed Forces. Prohibited activites include providing in-flight fueling for non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions as part of the conflict in Yemen.

The resolution is not being debated in the House, though, and Trump could veto it even if it passed the House, so it has no legal effect. It does, however, mark the willingness of at least a few Republican senators to break with Trump on this issue. No doubt it will come up again when Democrats take control of the House in January.

and you also might be interested in …

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the latest corrupt official to leave the Trump administration. But in a virtual replay of Scott Pruitt’s exit, his replacement will be no improvement in policy terms: Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil-industry lobbyist.


I’m trying not to make too much of the showdown in the Oval Office between Trump and Nancy Pelosi. I think Pelosi handled him well, but even so: Personality conflict is what Trump does; if we’re talking about whether our leader beat their leader, we’re on his turf.

Democrats need to stay focused on the people who gain or lose from what the government does, like the 7-year-old girl who died of dehydration while in the custody of the Border Patrol, or the millions who stand to lose their health insurance if ObamaCare really is ruled unconstitutional. Whether or not Pelosi got in the best line is of little importance by comparison.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Double standards are Paul Ryan being elected at 28 and immediately being given the benefit of his ill-considered policies considered genius; and me winning a primary at 28 to immediately be treated with suspicion & scrutinized, down to my clothing, of being a fraud.

When I was discussing the ways that Hillary Clinton had to overcome sexism in 2016, one of the things I pointed to was the abundance of positive cultural stereotypes that are open to men with some weakness or character flaw: A duplicitous man can be a charming rogue, for example. An angry man can be a Jeremiah. No comparable framing is available to a woman.

In the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, both Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham expressed anger in ways that would have made Christine Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein appear to be raving. We’re used to seeing men as channels for righteous indignation. Women, not so much.

We’re seeing a similar thing here. An inexperienced man can be a whiz kid, a young gun, or a young Turk. None of those frames fits a woman. Some types open to young women are ingenue, mean girl, and damsel in distress — none of which are all that useful to a woman in a position of power.

It’s important to understand this as structural sexism. Even if nobody were consciously trying to mistreat Ocasio-Cortez, the same problem would be present: American men (and a lot of women as well) don’t know how to think about or talk about women in certain roles. So even when we think we are open to them playing those roles, our unconscious reactions will betray us if we don’t pay attention.


Another much-maligned female politician is Nancy Pelosi. She seems to have nailed down the support she needs to become Speaker when the new Congress takes office on January 3. To get the last few votes, she pledged to step down as Speaker after 2022.


Pro Publica looks at the IRS, whose budget and staff keeps shrinking. Meanwhile, audits are down and uncollected taxes are up, providing a “tax cut for tax cheats”.

Tax collection largely depends on the public’s voluntary cooperation, which could be endangered if people start to think that everyone else is cheating. That was largely the problem in the Greek economic crisis. It wasn’t that the Greek government spent too much money, it was that it couldn’t collect the taxes it was owed.


The Republican attempt to undo the 2018 election continues. Michigan has now passed a law that guts a referendum to raise the minimum wage and require paid sick leave. In states where the legislature is heavily gerrymandered, the only way voters can control the state government is through referenda and through state-wide offices like the governorship. But undemocratic Republican legislatures are doing their best to take power away from these voter-controlled institutions.

and let’s close with something memorable

In August, 2014, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into World War I, 888,246 red ceramic poppies (one for each of the British and colonial soldiers who died in that war) were arranged to flow out of a window in the Tower of London and fill the moat. The temporary exhibit (now gone) was called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”. It’s one of the most stunning views of the cost of war I’ve ever seen.

Making Truth Matter

This is the crisis of journalism, which I feel that journalists have not wrapped their heads around very well: It’s no longer particularly difficult to uncover the truth and write about it. All knowledge is public these days. Everything is out there. If you want to go find it, you can. The challenge is making truth matter.

– David Roberts
Why is this Happening?” 12-4-2018

This week’s featured post is “Why All the Bush Nostalgia?” In the end, I find that what I’m nostalgic for is a shared reality that is accepted by both major parties and forms the playing field for our political contests. Now 1/3 of the country lives in its own reality and is virtually unreachable.

The David Roberts interview quoted above plays a key role in that post. Near the end of that conversation, Chris Hayes sums up: The problem isn’t with conservatives as individuals — Roberts has just said that they’re not dumb — but with the social processes of the conservative community.

Remember: Everyone’s got confirmation bias. Everyone does motivated reasoning. We’re all doing that. But in the divorce, one side got the actual institutions that do a pretty good job of producing knowledge, and the other side didn’t get any of it. That’s the key here. … The institutional universe of developed rigorous processes of attempting to get at the truth, the entirety of that, more or less, ended on the left side in the epistemic divorce.

By “institutional universe” he means the scientific community, academia, and mainstream journalism.

This point is similar to the one I was making last week in my review of Network Propaganda.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller investigation

A number of interesting court documents came out these last two weeks:

Some of these documents (particularly the Flynn memo) were only released to the public with substantial redactions, so there has been a lot of tea-leaf-reading in the media. I’m trying to avoid getting ahead of the facts, so I’ll just link to it without commenting.

One part that doesn’t require much interpretation, though, comes from the “Cohen’s illegal campaign contributions” section of the SDNY document:

During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories – each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 – so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election. Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1. [my emphasis]

SDNY (not Mueller) is claiming that the president himself was part of that criminal conspiracy. The Trump Organization was also involved:

Executives of the Company agreed to reimburse Cohen … the Company then falsely accounted for these payments as ‘legal expenses.’


It’s fascinating to watch Fox News try to spin this. Here’s Byron York suggesting how Trump might claim that the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal weren’t illegal campaign contributions:

I think Trump’s biggest defense in the payoff case is: “I’ve been paying off women for years. … I didn’t start doing it when I ran for president.”

Basically, it’s an “I’m not a crook, I’m just a scumbag” defense. The Fox panel also invokes the same logical fallacy Trump himself often uses: that charges of non-Russia-related crimes indicate that prosecutors don’t have evidence of Russia-related crimes. But there’s no logical connection there.

Also, Cohen’s lying-to-Congress confession goes right to the heart of collusion: At the same time that Russia was hacking the DNC and putting together its social-media campaign to elect Trump, and Trump was calling for an end to sanctions against Russia, Trump’s people were negotiating with Putin to build Trump Tower Moscow. The outlines of a conspiracy case are starting to take shape.


Another campaign violation is coming out: There was illegal coordination between the Trump campaign and the NRA, which spent $30 million supporting him.

Reporting by The Trace shows that the NRA and the Trump campaign employed the same operation — at times, the exact same people — to craft and execute their advertising strategies for the 2016 presidential election. … “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” said Ann Ravel, a former chair of the FEC who reviewed the records. “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy. Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.”


A point that everyone needs to keep in mind: Again and again, when Trump’s people were asked about contacts with Russia, they lied. Some lied to Congress, some lied to investigators, and Trump himself repeatedly lied to the public. Trump and his supporters still have not put forward a credible story that explains what motivated all these lies.


I posted this video when it came out in 2017, but it’s worth watching again.

and election fraud in North Carolina

Invariably, when one side starts making up stories about the other cheating, the result is cheating “to get even” on their own side. It’s no big deal any more, they think, because everybody is doing it.

In North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, Republican Mark Harris appeared to win by 905 votes. But there were some obvious shenanigans with absentee ballots. Once that was noticed, it became clear that something similar had happened in Harris’ narrow primary win over the incumbent congressman.

The state election board has refused to certify Harris’ victory, and could order a new election. This is the only seat in Congress that is still undecided.

and other Republican attempts to undo the will of the voters

After Democrat Roy Cooper won the North Carolina governorship in 2016, the gerrymandered Republican super-majority in the legislature changed a bunch of rules to take power away from the governorship. At the time this seemed like an extreme overreach, causing the Electoral Integrity Project to score North Carolina’s democracy as on a par with countries like Cuba and Indonesia.

But that’s become the model for how Republicans respond to losing elections.

In November, Wisconsin’s electorate ended eight years of Republican dominance in state government by choosing Democrats Tony Evers as governor and Josh Kaul as attorney general. Democrats also won races for secretary of state and state treasurer. … Having lost the governorship, [Republicans are] using a lame-duck session of the legislature to strip Evers of many powers they were perfectly content to see Republican Gov. Scott Walker exercise. Why are they doing this now? Because Walker, who was defeated by Evers, is still in office to sign their bills.

Among other things, the legislation would stop Evers from taking control of a state economic development agency that the Democrat has pledged to abolish, and it would make it harder for him to overturn restrictions Walker imposed on social benefits. It would also limit early voting (which helped the Democrats win by expanding turnout). For good measure, the legislature wants to prevent Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — even though that’s exactly what Kaul told voters he would do.

In addition to the plain bad sportsmanship of this, there’s another issue: The Republican majority in the legislature is already illegitimate.

The Democrats won the popular vote in State Assembly contests by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent but emerged with only 36 seats to the GOP’s 63.

Something similar is happening in Michigan. In a variety of states, Republican legislatures are mucking around with laws passed by voter referendums. In Florida, for example, 65% of the electorate voted to restore voting rights to felons (other than murderers and rapists). But not so fast, voters. The Secretary of State has invented some problems with the language of the referendum, and so he is refusing to give instructions to local officials who need to implement the law.

Some counties say they will allow former felons to begin registering on January 8, but others may not. That could lead to lawsuits over the disparities in people’s voting rights based on the county where they live. Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and an expert in elections, predicted Tuesday that Detzner’s “resisting implementation of the restoration of felons voting rights…is going to lead to costly litigation for the state, with voters footing the bill.”

but you should still be paying attention to the climate

Carbon emissions are still rising: Up an estimated 2.7% in 2018, after a 1.6% rise last year. This breaks what had been a “three-year plateau”.

The United States is one of the culprits, with emissions up 2.5% after several years of declines. (The EU posts a decline.) That’s not as bad as India’s 6.3% rise, but there’s also much less excuse for it. (India is still trying to bring electricity to 300 million people.)

It’s important to keep the right baseline in mind: Leveling off is not nearly good enough to avoid climate disasters down the road. Carbon emissions need to be going down quickly. The NYT has some compelling graphics comparing the track emissions are on, where the Paris Agreement would put them, and what would be needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees centigrade.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to go in exactly the opposite direction. This week they unveiled a plan to open 9 million acres of the American West to oil and gas drilling.

and you also might be interested in …

The New York Times points out just how revealing the location data collected by your cell phone apps can be. The data sold to advertisers may not say who you are, but who else spends the night at your house and then goes to your workplace? A separate article gives you instructions for turning off this data flow.


A hidden gem from a couple of weeks ago is Ezra Klein’s conversation with Peter Beinart on Klein’s weekly podcast. It’s the kind of conversation that a non-Jew like me seldom gets to hear: two smart, articulate, liberal American Jews talking to each other as Jews.

The conversation is multi-faceted, but centers on (in Klein’s words) “the strange, vulnerable space that many Jews, myself included, find themselves in today.” It covers fear of rising anti-Semitism; the debate over whether Jews are better off turning to the right and allying with the Evangelical Christians or to the left and allying with other religious communities (like American Muslims) who understand the need for religious tolerance; disillusionment with Israel’s right-wing drift; and a view of Judaism that emphasizes “the importance of remembering what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, of knowing that bigotry takes whatever forms it requires to justify itself, of maintaining humanity amid struggle.”


Here’s an interesting view from the other side: an anti-transgender-rights activist analyzes his side’s stunning (68%-32%) loss on a referendum to repeal a transgender rights law in Massachusetts.

The author faults his side’s reliance on the fear-mongering predator-in-the-bathroom argument, which he admits was “largely contrived”, i.e., based on nothing. He argues instead that conservatives need to target trans people directly:

three important points were not being presented to the public: (1) the LGBT movement’s “civil rights” argument has no basis whatsoever; (2) that “transgenderism” is actually a mental disorder and a destructive ideology, and (3) this law forces people to accept an absurd lie – men can never become women.

He makes an analogy to the same-sex marriage debate, which his side also lost: Rather than talk about side issues like “every child deserves and mother and and father”, they should have denigrated gays more:

they refused to argue that homosexuality was immoral, had terrible health risks, was fraught with addiction and mental health problems, etc.

Personally, I think that strategy only works as long as the denigrated group stays in the closet. Once people understand that they already know such individuals, they stop buying the argument that they’re all sick and immoral. (It’s hard to convince yourself that the nice gay couple across the street is a threat to Western civilization.)

Through my church, I know a couple of transgender young adults. They don’t seem mentally ill to me. And to the extent that they have any problems — what young adult doesn’t? — I don’t see how forcing them back into their previously assigned gender roles will help.


Forbes looks at the President’s self-dealing. Of the money contributed to Trump’s 2020 campaign, $1.1 million has been spent at Trump businesses. The article raises questions about how much value the campaign is getting for its money.


Price-fixing schemes prevent generic drugs from lowering your healthcare expenses as much as they should.


The former presidents and their wives shared a pew during the Bush funeral. During the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, Trump and Melania were the only ones who didn’t join in. It’s often illuminating to think of Trump as a child, and that’s what I saw when the cameras panned past him: Church is boring, and he doesn’t endure boredom well. At least he didn’t fidget.


If Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit against the NFL needed any more ammunition, the Washington Redskins have just provided it. Kaepernick — who has been criticized by President Trump for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police killings of young blacks — was still unsigned on opening day. But as the season goes on, more and more quarterbacks get injured and jobs open up. Kaepernick has not been offered any of them, despite being a Super Bowl quarterback still in his prime.

Washington was leading its division when it’s starting quarterback, Alex Smith, broke his leg. But rather than turn to Kaepernick, they moved back-up Colt McCoy into the starting role and signed ex-Jet Mark Sanchez to to be the back-up. (Sanchez is best known for the famous butt-fumble play against the Patriots, which made #2 on this list of all-time worst plays.) Things went badly, and the team fell to 6-6.

Even so, there were still many playoff scenarios when McCoy also got injured for the rest of the season. Of all the quarterbacks available during this time, Kaepernick has clearly been the best option. But instead they signed Josh Johnson, who “last threw a pass in 2011”.

Sunday, the Redskins fell behind the New York Giants 40-0 before losing 40-16. Their playoff chances are now virtually gone. Their fans need to start asking why staying on Trump’s good side was more important than winning.


Rex Tillerson made his first public appearance since being fired from the Trump administration.

On Thursday night, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a rare public appearance that he had to repeatedly tell Donald Trump that some of the things the president wanted to do were impossible because they were against the law or violated a treaty.

“I’d say here’s what we can do,” the former Exxon CEO said in a Houston speech. “We can go back to Congress and get this law changed. And if that’s what you want to do, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Mr Tillerson called the president “a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.'”

Trump naturally couldn’t let that be the final word, so he struck back, tweeting that Tillerson was “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell”.

Trump never seems to get it: When you insult someone that YOU brought into the public eye, you’re just insulting your own judgment. As I commented after he called Stormy Daniels “Horseface”: Dude, you’re the one who had sex with her.


Trump continues to strip expertise out of the government: Nikki Haley may not have had foreign policy experience before she became UN Ambassador, but at least she had some kind of substance (having been governor of South Carolina). Her replacement, Heather Nauert, has none. She was a Fox News blonde until Trump made her a spokeswoman for the State Department. She looks good on TV, and that’s what counts in this administration.

“In terms of what we normally look for at the United Nations, her résumé is very thin,” David Gergen, the veteran presidential aide, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night. He said the role of U.N. representative was not a “communications job” but rather “a place where we conduct active diplomacy with nations around the world.”

Not any more, apparently.

and let’s close with something seasonal

This year once again, we’re debating “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: Is it really a date rape song or not?

Here’s an analysis that I find persuasive: In the context of its era (the 1940s), it wasn’t. But that context is so lost by now that playing the song should require an explanation longer than the song itself. Here’s the conclusion:

So it’s not actually a song about rape. In fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. But it’s also, at the same time, one of the best illustrations of rape culture that pop culture has ever produced. It’s a song about a society where women aren’t allowed to say yes … which also happens to mean that it’s also a society where women don’t have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.

So I wouldn’t include it on my holiday play list, but now that I know how to listen to it, I also won’t be disgusted by it.

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.

Lies and Traps

The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.

– Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom

This week’s featured post, “The Big Picture: from Russia to Ukraine to Brexit to Trump“, looks at Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom.

His analysis of the Putin/Trump style of propaganda has me rethinking how I cover Trump, so this week’s summary is an experiment: Putin and Trump say outrageous things in order to become the story themselves, shifting the focus away from the issues on the ground. Just this week, for example, Trump has blathered a lot of nonsense about the California wildfires. It would be easy to get focused on Trump’s nonsense, and lose sight of the fact that homes are burning, people are dying, and millions of Californians are dealing with a serious air-quality problem.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t all just ignore that our President is disinforming the public, which includes a segment that is inclined to believe him. So here’s what I’m trying this week: I will try to stay focused on the underlying issues. At places where Trump made headlines with a crap statement, I’ll mention that this happened, characterize it with a single adjective (like “Trump said something stupid about this”), and provide a link in case you feel that you must know what it was.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that Trump says ignorant and offensive things on an almost daily basis. But that’s not really news any more.

This week everybody was talking about undecided races

Almost all of them came to a conclusion this week (other than the run-off in the Mississippi Senate race, which will happen next Tuesday).

  • Republicans took both the governorship and the Senate seat in Florida.
  • Stacey Abrams admitted that Brian Kemp will be Georgia’s next governor. But after a long series of voter-suppression abuses by Kemp in his role as Secretary of State, Abrams refused to concede: “Let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession. Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith I cannot concede that. But my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”
  • Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate race.

A number of close House races weren’t decided until this week, and three are still out. The most interesting was in Maine-2, where the state’s ranked-choice-voting system made a difference:

In this election, the initial round had GOP incumbent Bruce Poliquin winning 46.1 percent and [Democrat Jared] Golden receiving 45.9 percent. Third party candidates garnered 8 percent. After re-allocating these third party votes, the final result was 50.53 percent to 49.47 percent in favor of Golden.

The Republican loser is going to court, claiming that ranked-choice-voting is unconstitutional. But I don’t think he has any kind of a case. Here’s the sum total of what the Constitution says about House elections:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

I don’t know how you read a ban on ranked-choice voting into that.

Think how much grief would be avoided if every state had RCV: If you want to vote Green or Libertarian or write in Bozo the Clown, fine. As long as you also express a preference between the Republican and Democratic candidates, you’ve got that base covered.

So here’s where we stand at the moment: Republicans control the Senate 52-47, with the Mississippi run-off pending. Democrats control the House 233-199 with three seats still undecided. The new Congress will be seated on January 3.

The current House popular vote count has the Democrats ahead by 7.7%, or more than 8.5 million votes. (Nate Silver expects it to get into 8-9% range when the final votes are tallied.) The Republican wave of 2010 had a margin of 6.8% or just under 6 million votes. The Republicans’ smaller 2010 victory gave them a larger 242-192 majority, because the system is rigged in their favor.


Don’t say it can’t happen: A Democratic challenger for a seat in the Kentucky legislature appears to have won by 1 vote.

and Nancy Pelosi

20 House Democrats have told the Washington Post that they won’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. If they all follow through, that would keep Pelosi from having the 218 votes necessary to win. Most of the 20 are from purple districts where Pelosi had been demonized as a far-left liberal, but some are also progressives who think Pelosi is too close to big donors and too willing to compromise with the business interests Republicans represent. But if she isn’t re-elected, it’s hard to guess what happens next: Other candidates may be able to block Pelosi, but who has enough support to win?

I’m for Pelosi. She is a brilliant behind-the-scenes tactician. When she was Speaker before, she skillfully steered Obama’s agenda through the House, including a bunch of progressive measures that then died in the Senate, like a cap-and-trade bill to fight climate change and a public option for ObamaCare. She was key in the legislative maneuver that finally passed ObamaCare (after Scott Brown’s upset win for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat ruined the original plan). Arguably, Democrats lost the House in 2010 because she had convinced members from conservative districts to risk too much.

While leading the minority these last few years, she has repeatedly run rings around Paul Ryan. By holding her caucus together against bills like ObamaCare repeal, the Trump tax cut, and the early versions of budget bills, she made it necessary for Ryan to hold his caucus together, something he was often unable to do.

It would be very strange for a party to get back into power and then reject its leader. Typically, a party leader is in trouble when his or her party loses seats. Tennis great Martina Navratalova (whose Twitter feed is highly political) summed up what I suspect a lot of women are thinking:

It is amazing,really. loses in the Senate and keeps his leadership role and makes the biggest democratic gain in the House since Watergate and they want her to quit. Go figure. A man loses and keeps his place, a woman wins and gets booted?!?

The point here isn’t that anti-Pelosi Democrats are against women having power. The dynamic is more complicated than that. Many Democrats are concerned about the baggage that comes from Pelosi being a decades-long target of Republican demonization — demonization that sticks to a woman more easily than a man. (We saw this with Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bill could abuse women and continue to be a charming scamp, but Hillary was tarred by her defense of Bill.) Others want someone who would cast a better public image, in an era when our subconscious image of a “leader” is still inescapably male. Alexandra Petri satirizes:

That’s not a woman thing, though. It’s just a her thing. I would have that issue with anyone who had her baggage, that same difficult-to-pin-down sense that something about her was fundamentally tainted. …

What I want is not impossible! I want someone who is not tainted by polarizing choices in the past, but who also has experience, who is knowledgeable but doesn’t sound like she is lecturing, someone vibrant but not green, someone dignified but not dowdy, passionate but not a yeller, precise but not mechanical, someone lacking in off-putting ambition but capable of asking for what she wants, not accompanied but not alone, in a day but not in a month or a year, when the moon is neither waxing nor waning, carrying a sieve full of water and a hen’s tooth. Easy!

That’s why I’m so worried about our current slate of choices. A woman, sure, but — Kamala Harris? Elizabeth Warren? Kirsten Gillibrand? There are specific problems with each of them, entirely personal to each of them, all insurmountable. We need someone fresh. Someone without baggage. Joe Biden, maybe. But female! If you see.

I can’t wait to vote for a woman in 2020. A nameless, shapeless, faceless woman I know nothing about who will surely be perfect.

If Pelosi isn’t progressive enough for you, who is the progressive candidate that the caucus can unite behind, and how does that Speaker not lose all the suburban Republican seats that Democrats just flipped? If she’s too far left for you, who is the more moderate candidate, and how does that candidate inspire young people to vote? How does this leadership struggle resolve without sparking a round of those Democrats-are-in-chaos stories that the media is always eager to write? Is that how we want the new Congress to introduce itself to the American people?

I think Nancy Pelosi represents an ideologically diverse party as well as anybody else can. And she also is good at her job. She should keep it.


In October, I was at a fund-raiser for Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, who currently is one of the 20 planning not to vote for Pelosi. Foster made what I think is an excellent procedural suggestion: discharge petitions should be anonymous.

OK, that’s some inside baseball that needs an explanation. One of the maddening things about the House is that the Speaker can keep a bill from coming to a vote, even if a majority of the membership supports it. One example of this was the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform that the Senate passed in 2013. It never got a vote in the House, despite the widespread belief that it would pass if it did. If the DREAM Act could have come to the floor any time in the last several years, it would have passed. But Republican speakers have repeatedly blocked it.

The way get around the speaker’s roadblock is a discharge petition: If a majority of the House signs a petition asking for a bill to come up for a vote, it does. But this almost never happens. The reason is that signing a discharge petition against a speaker of your own party is considered treason, and members who do this will be severely punished by losing their committee assignments, losing support from their party’s national campaign committee, and so on.

That’s why Foster thinks discharge petitions should be anonymous: Some neutral official could verify the petition and report the number of signatures without revealing who they are. It would make the House a little less dysfunctional.

and fires

Record-setting wildfires continue to burn in California. The death toll is up to about 80, but with more than a thousand people missing, that number is bound to go up. In San Francisco, masks and filters are necessary if you want to breathe normally.

Grist outlines the conditions that led to the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise:

According to local meteorologist Rob Elvington, the Camp Fire began under atmospheric conditions with “no analog/comparison” in history for the date. Northern California’s vegetation dryness was off the charts — exceeding the 99th percentile for any single day as far back as local records go. “Worse than no rain is negative rain,” wrote Elvington. The air was so dry, it was sucking water out of the land.

The problem is how global climate change is affecting the local climate: Summers are hotter and the winter rains come later.

Fire disasters on a scale recently considered inconceivable now appear to be the inevitable. Six of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history have ignited in the past three years. In little more than a year, two other California towns (Redding and Santa Rosa) have been similarly devastated by fires. As long as we continue on a business-as-usual path, it’s a matter of where, not when, another California town will be erased from the map.


So Trump went out to view the damage and said something stupid, in case you haven’t had your daily dose of outrage yet.

But I think a better use of your time would be to watch this episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously” from 2014.

It follows two story lines, one of which is Arnold Schwarzenegger interviewing people who fight brush fires and reflecting on how climate change has (in a very short period of time) turned California’s wildfire season into a nearly year-round event. (The other story line, Harrison Ford looking into deforestation in Indonesia, is pretty interesting too.)

and you also might be interested in …

The Brexit deadline hits in March, and it’s still not clear how it’s all going to resolve. Prime Minister May’s proposal has already led to resignations from her cabinet and might bring down her government. My opinion: The problem is that the British public was bamboozled by the Leave campaign. Now that it’s time to produce the unicorns and rainbows Brexit was supposed to bring, no one can find them.

As someone (I can’t remember who) observed, the structure of the Leave/Remain vote was screwed up. Leave was a “do something else” option rather than a plan. Any actual plan will result in a majority saying, “That’s not what I voted for.”


Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Brett Kavanaugh joining the Court: “The nine of us are now a family.” I am reminded of a line from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: “It was like being in a family. A really scary, twisted, abusive family.”


Nothing is what it used to be, not even the kilogram.


A Pacific Standard reporter goes home to Michigan and reports on the effects of gerrymandering.


Trump responded to criticism from retired Admiral Bill McRaven by saying something childish. Here are details, if you need them.


The CIA has concluded that the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was ordered by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. But Trump has a history of believing what he wants to believe rather than what the experts conclude. Just as he believes Putin’s denials of interfering in the 2016 election, and he believes MBS.


Jim Acosta has his White House pass back, following a court order. The judge didn’t rule on Acosta and CNN’s First Amendment claims, but found against the Trump administration on 5th Amendment grounds of no due process. So the White House is drafting a process for expelling reporters who ask hard questions and won’t take lies for answers.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded:

Today, [LIE] the court made it clear that there is no absolute First Amendment right to access the White House [/LIE]. In response to the Court, we will temporarily reinstate the reporter’s hard pass. We will also further develop rules and processes to ensure fair and orderly press conferences in the future. There must be decorum at the White House.

I will repeat something I’ve written many times: When Trump defines some standard of decorum that he is willing to live by, then he’ll be in a position to ask other people to uphold that standard. But if his rules say that other people have to behave while he can keep on doing anything he wants, the rest of us should just laugh at him.

For example, Sunday (in the middle of a tweet demonstrating that his complete ignorance of the legal issue he was discussing), Trump called incoming House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff by a derogatory name he probably hasn’t heard since junior high. That’s White House decorum, and there’s nothing Jim Acosta could do to lower it.

Meanwhile, Trump’s people are moving the goalposts on the First Amendment. Wayne Slater tweets:

Cory Lewandowski on : “There is no freedom of speech to ask any question you want or to ask it in a derogatory manner.” Actually, that’s what free speech is.


Remember the middle-class tax cut that Trump pulled out of nowhere just before the midterm elections? Surprise! It’s not happening. Chief Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow told Politico:

We’ve been noodling more on this middle-class tax cut, how to structure it, and even pay for it. I don’t think the chances of that are very high, because the Democrats are going to go after the corporate tax and all that stuff.

Kudlow is also skeptical of any infrastructure deal.

Anybody that thinks, you know, like this trillion-dollar [infrastructure spending] number, which is over 10 years — we don’t have that

The top Republican in the new Congress was blunter:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday flatly rejected the idea of doing a big infrastructure deal with Democrats. “Republicans are not interested in a $900 billion stimulus,” he told reporters.

As I suggested last week, Democrats in the House should pass an infrastructure bill. The American people should know that Democrats want to rebuild the country, but Republicans don’t.


Another story that has all but vanished (now that it can’t be used to bring Trump voters to the polls) is the migrant caravan. Migrants who hitchhiked rides rather than walking all the way have started to arrive in Tijuana, where they are waiting for caravan leaders. The bulk of the caravan is still hundreds of miles away.

A Methodist minister from San Antonio is traveling with the caravan and sharing his experiences on Facebook.

Refugees sharing their stories with the pastor tell of having their children kidnapped and other relatives killed in Central America. Their journey, Rogers says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” Their goals, he adds, are to seek an education for their children and “be free from violence and rape and murder.” Rogers admits that claim may sound “extreme,” but says he has firsthand knowledge, obtained by being “willing to talk and learn,” that it’s “exactly what is going on here.”

Teen Vogue (whose articles often are deeper and more serious than its name would lead you to expect) also has a correspondent in the caravan.


Drain the swamp:

The Trump administration’s top environmental official for the Southeast was arrested Thursday on criminal ethics charges in Alabama reported to be related to a scheme to help a coal company avoid paying for a costly toxic waste cleanup.


It’s not hard to see why our national political discussions are so bizarre when you consider the history that many of our students have been taught:

Texas’ Board of Education voted Friday to change the way its students learn about the Civil War. Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, students will be taught that slavery played a “central role” in the war.

The state’s previous social studies standards listed three causes for the Civil War: sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery, in that order. In September, the board’s Democrats proposed listing slavery as the only cause. … In the end, the Republican-led board landed on a compromise: Students will be taught about “the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing sectionalism, disagreements over states’ rights and the Civil War.”

But no doubt some Texas history teachers are reading this line and rolling their eyes about “political correctness”.


Stan Lee — the man who really told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility” — has died at age 95. Stan and artist Jack Kirby created the core of the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s. Unlike the previous generation of comic creators, Stan made heroes (Spider-Man, Hulk, Daredevil) with insecurities, self-doubts, and moral quandaries. His teams (Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men) had internal divisions. His villains (Dr. Doom, Magneto) had backstories that explained their choice of the dark side.

Another seminal figure in popular culture also died this week: writer William Goldman, who was responsible for The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

and let’s close with something unexpected

Finally, Roy Clark died this week at 85. People my age (and younger folks who watch re-runs on obscure cable stations) may remember him from the country comedy show “Hee-Haw”. Or maybe his hit “Yesterday, When I Was Young” rings a bell. But amidst the jokes and popular country songs, people sometimes overlooked that he could flat-out play the guitar. In a guest appearance on the sitcom “The Odd Couple”, he went outside his usual genre to show another side of his talent.

Battles in Progress

If the Georgia race had taken place in another country—say, the Republic of Georgia—U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy … Kemp’s asterisk win suggests that the battle for voting rights, which many imagined was over and done with in the last century, is still very much in progress.

Carol Anderson, Emory University

This week’s featured post is “A Legislative Agenda for House Democrats“.

This week everybody was talking about the midterm results

Early Tuesday evening, I was having 2016 flashbacks: The optimistic polls in Florida appeared to be wrong, and the first House toss-up race (Virginia-5) went to the Republican. The earliest returns came from Indiana, where Joe Donnelly was losing, dooming the admittedly unlikely Democrats-take-the-Senate scenario from the outset. The Blue Wave just wasn’t happening.

Then things got better. Votes are still being counted (especially mail-in votes in California), so no one has a precise estimate of the national popular vote in the House races yet. But Wikipedia’s running total currently has the Democratic margin at 6.5%. In 2010, an election everyone calls a Republican wave, the GOP won the House national popular vote by 6.8%. The Republican wave looked bigger, because it picked up 63 House seats that year compared to the Democrats’ 34-44 seats this year. (538 is estimating a final total gain of 38 seats.) In 2010, the GOP wound up with 242 seats. Democrats will probably wind up somewhere in the low 230s. The difference? Gerrymandering. Republican control on the state level has allowed them to construct a large number of secure districts.

As it stands now, Republicans have 51 Senate seats and Democrats 46, with three (Florida, Arizona, and Mississippi) still to be decided. Arizona will likely go Democratic and Mississippi Republican (after a run-off). So the final Senate composition will likely be either 53-47 or 52-48. (It was 52-48 before Doug Jones won the Alabama special election last year.)

In the House, Democrats have 225 seats (already more than the 218 needed for a majority) and Republicans 200, with 10 still undecided.

As we wait to see if Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum can prevail in the Florida recount, let’s take a few moments to bid a very joyous good-bye to Kris Kobach, Scott Walker, Dana Rohrabacher, Dave Bratt, Peter Roskam, and Pete Sessions. Too bad Steve King couldn’t join you.

and the subversion of democracy

This year, Georgia went all-out to keep non-whites from voting, with the result that Secretary of State Brian Kemp looks likely to move up to the governorship. Emory University Professor Carol Anderson writes in The Atlantic:

In the end, it looks like Kemp won. It’s impossible to know if his attempts to restrict the franchise are what pushed him over the line. But if the Georgia race had taken place in another country—say, the Republic of Georgia—U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy … Kemp’s asterisk win suggests that the battle for voting rights, which many imagined was over and done with in the last century, is still very much in progress.


In September, “Cost of Voting in the American States” in Election Law Journal tried to quantify how difficult it was to vote in the various states in 2016. This graph summarizes the results:

The pattern is pretty clear: If you find it hard to vote, most likely your state — Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas — is governed by Republicans. (Virginia has since elected a Democratic governor, but he doesn’t have a majority in the legislature. North Carolina might rank higher if the Supreme Court hadn’t invalidated its voter-suppression law. It has since made another try.) The easiest states are more mixed, with red North Dakota and Iowa getting into the top five with blue Oregon and California and purple Colorado. (I think Fair Play is still a Midwestern value, though the South has lost it.)


This graphic captures just how gerrymandered Wisconsin’s state legislature is:

In short, the people of Wisconsin have lost all control of their legislature. Republicans will hold power because that’s just how it is. What the voters want doesn’t matter any more.

Wisconsin’s Republican state legislators are currently discussing whether to use their ill-gotten power to clip the wings of the voters’ newly elected Democratic governor. Following the model of North Carolina after Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship in 2016, a special lame-duck session of the Wisconsin legislature could pass laws limiting the governor’s power, which current Republican Governor Scott Walker could sign before he leaves office.

Following that 2016 coup, the Electoral Integrity Project (which normally pays attention to third-world countries) stopped rating North Carolina as a democracy. Soon, Wisconsin may not count as a democracy either.

and the Justice Department

The morning after the election, Trump accepted Jeff Sessions’ resignation as Attorney General and replaced him not with either of the two Senate-confirmed subordinates (Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein or Solicitor General Noel Francisco), but with Sessions’ chief of staff Matthew Whitaker, who had previously been described as the White House’s “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department.

The big thing this does is put a Trump loyalist in the role of overseeing the Mueller investigation. Trump has repeatedly whined that Sessions should have “protected” him, rather than following Justice Department regulations and recusing himself from an investigation into activities he had been involved with. Now Trump has an AG who will put him first and the law second.

NYT conservative columnist Bret Stephens comments:

Of all the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency has made America worse, nothing epitomizes it quite so fully as the elevation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States. Intellectually honest conservatives — the six or seven who remain, at any rate — need to say this, loudly. His appointment represents an unprecedented assault on the integrity and reputation of the Justice Department, the advice and consent function of the Senate, and the rule of law in the United States.

He lists the ways: Whitaker is “unqualified”, “shady”, “a hack”, “a crackpot”, “barely legal”, and “dangerous”.

It says something about how atrocious this appointment is that even Trump is now distancing himself from Whitaker, falsely claiming not to know him despite the latter’s repeated Oval Office visits. It’s the Michael Cohen treatment. When a rat smells a rat, it’s a rat.

A number of questions immediately arise:

  • Is this legal? (Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal and George Conway say no: The appointment of an acting AG who has not been confirmed by the Senate “defies one of the explicit checks and balances set out in the Constitution, a provision designed to protect us all against the centralization of government power.” Stephens says he’s “not fully convinced” by this argument, which is why he called Whitaker “barely legal”.
  • Should Whitaker also be recused from overseeing the Mueller investigation, as Sessions was? Whitaker has a long history of public statements prejudging the Mueller investigation, and has connections to a major witness, Sam Clovis. Whether that legally adds up to recusal under Justice Department guidelines hasn’t been determined yet, though seven major Democrats in Congress have asked the DOJ’s ethics office to review the situation. It seems unlikely that Whitaker will recuse himself, whatever the rules say. Neal Katyal (who helped write the regulations defining a special counsel) also has an opinion on this: “But no one — and I mean no one — ever thought the regulations we wrote would permit the president to install some staff member of his choice from the Justice Department to serve as acting attorney general and thereby oversee the special counsel. Such a proposal would have been laughed off Capitol Hill within a nanosecond as fundamentally at odds with the most cardinal principle that no one is above the law.”
  • Assuming that the point of promoting Whitaker was to screw up the Mueller investigation, what can he do? Benjamin Wittes argues that he can’t do much. We’ll soon see whether he’s right.

and the latest attack on the free press

CNN’s Jim Acosta lost his White House press pass because he asked a question Trump didn’t like. (He challenged Trump’s false characterization of the migrant caravan as “an invasion”.) When Trump said “OK, that’s enough”, a female intern tried to take the microphone away from Acosta, who held up an arm to fend her off (while saying “Pardon me, ma’am.”).

Sarah Sanders later falsely accused Acosta of “laying hands on” the intern, and backed up her claim with a video that was later shown to have been doctored. (The speeded-up version makes Acosta’s arm move look like a blow.) Trump has explicitly threatened to expel other reporters as well.

This is really fascist stuff here, and I don’t think the White House press corps is reacting with the seriousness the incident deserves. Other reporters are certainly condemning the White House move, but they continue going in for briefings.

What the Acosta incident points out is that White House briefings have become Potemkin democracy. The administration spokespeople routinely lie, and if a reporter protests against being lied to, he or she will be ejected. By showing up, reporters become props in a propaganda exercise that falsely projects the appearance of a democratic government facing a free press.

and mass shootings

Less than two weeks after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, we had the Thousand Oaks country-music-bar shooting. I heard someone comment: “We should just leave the flags at half mast all the time.”

Scientific American pushes back against the notion that nothing can be done.

The right gun laws do prevent shootings, research strongly indicates. And these laws do not mean confiscating everybody’s guns. Here are [four] life-saving laws and the data that supports them.

The laws:

  • Require people to apply, in-person, at local law enforcement agencies for gun purchase permits.
  • Ban individuals convicted of any violent crime from gun purchase.
  • Make all serious domestic violence offenders surrender firearms.
  • Temporarily ban gun possession among individuals who have had, in the past five years, two or more convictions for DUI or another crime that indicates alcohol abuse.

None of that would prevent law-abiding people from defending their homes or teaching their children to hunt or doing any other benign gun-related activity.

but I’m trying to figure out the lesson of the mid-term elections

Going into the midterms, there were two theories of how Democrats should try to win:

  • Move to the center to appeal to moderate voters turned off by Trump.
  • Move to the left to inspire non-voters to turn out.

The 2018 election results didn’t settle that argument. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke ran a progressive campaign, got a huge voter turnout, and came closer to beating Ted Cruz than anyone would have thought possible a year ago. In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema ran a centrist race (pledging to be “an independent voice” who would work across party lines) and appears to have won.

Five incumbent Democratic senators in red states — Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, and Jon Tester — ran as moderates: three lost and two won. (Manchin probably feels good about his vote for Brett Kavanaugh, but Tester is probably also happy with his vote against.)

In governors’ races, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams tested the expand-the-progressive-electorate theory and got very close, though it still appears that they came up short. But in Kansas,

A Democrat, Laura Kelly, reached out to Kansas’ sizable contingent of moderate Republicans and touted the endorsement of two former Republican governors and two former Republican senators.

She won. So progressives and centrists alike can point to successes for their side and failures for the other.

Looking ahead, I believe the best Democratic presidential strategy is to somehow go both ways. (That’s my interpretation of Obama’s 2008 win.) We need a candidate who excites progressives without scaring moderates.


Lawrence Lessig claims the midterms teach a third lesson: Focus on good-government reforms. He attributes Beto’s attraction not to his progressive proposals, but to his commitment to refuse PAC money and rely on small donors. There’s nothing left, right, or centrist about wanting to represent the voters rather than the big donors.

and you also might be interested in …

Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. World leaders gathered in France to mark the occasion, but Trump blew off a ceremony honoring American war dead because it was raining. Chief of Staff John Kelly managed to get there by car.

The incident points out a longer-term issue that belies Trump’s claim to respect our military: He still hasn’t visited troops in a combat zone, claiming he has been “very busy” (though not too busy to play golf most weekends). President Obama had only been in office three months when he visited troops in Iraq, and George W. Bush went to Baghram Air Force Base in Afghanistan on several occasions.


Many observers (most amusingly John Oliver) have pointed out the injustices involved in the cash bail system. This is why California will eliminate cash bail next October. But Michelle Alexander (author of the central book on mass incarceration of black people, The New Jim Crow) points out that some of the obvious ways to replace the bail system have unintended consequences and open up new possibilities for abuse.


Firoozeh Dumas is coming home from Munich and dreads bringing her daughter back to an American public school. It turns out that when a rich country values education more than low taxes, as Germany does, its schools can do amazing things — without bake sales or students going door-to-door selling wrapping paper.


An update on European fascism: Warsaw has an annual fascist march. This year, Poland’s president and prime minister were in it.

In February 2018, National Radical Camp, one of the groups involved in organising tomorrow’s march protested in front of Warsaw’s Presidential Palace demanding the President sign the so-called Holocaust Law — a controversial bill which outlaws blaming Poland or Polish citizens for crimes committed during the Holocaust. They shouted slogans such as “Stop Jewish occupation of Poland” and “Go back to Israel”.

The Guardian reports on Sunday’s march:

Lining up in parallel columns, Polish soldiers stood side-by-side with members of the National-Radical Camp (ONR), the successor to a pre-war Polish fascist movement, and representatives of Forza Nuova, an Italian neo-fascist movement, as they were addressed by [President Andrzej] Duda at the march’s inauguration.

Poland is also considering a ban on “homosexual propaganda” similar to the one Russia imposed in 2013.

Better news: Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party lost big in local elections in major cities.

The results show that Law and Justice can count on only roughly a third of the vote in Poland. If next year’s parliamentary election were held today, the party would be pushed out of power.

In Hungary, though, the Orban government just gets more entrenched. Virtually all the major news outlets have passed into the hands of government allies.

[J]ournalists I met in Budapest were struck by how quickly the press had changed, and that all it took to break this pillar of democracy was a combination of money and fear. “It’s not Russia,” Csaba Lukacs told me. “No one thinks that someone will be shot. Everyone thinks that he will lose his job. It’s enough.”

and let’s close with a post-election meditation

I’ve used this closing before, but I think it’s timely this week. If you got too wrapped up in the election and need to pull back, try this guided meditation.

Where the Party Ends

This is where the party ends.
I can’t stand here listening to you
and your racist friend.

– “Your Racist Friend” by They Might Be Giants

This week’s featured posts are “Why I’m Voting Straight Democratic“, “How the Midterm Elections Look with One Day to Go“, and “An hour-by-hour Guide to Election Night 2018“.

This week everybody was talking about tomorrow’s elections

The featured posts probably already go on at too much length, so I’ll not add to them here.

and birthright citizenship

One way Trump interrupts a news cycle that is going badly for him — like his rhetoric inspiring assassination attempts and an anti-Semitic massacre — is to make an outrageous proposal. This time the proposal was to undo an important part of the 14th Amendment by executive order. The 14th Amendment says:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

The legal reasoning to circumvent this clear statement is pretty much of a sham. Garrett Epps explains:

The citizenship-denial lobby has focused on the words subject to the jurisdiction. Its members argue that citizens of foreign countries, even if they live in the U.S., are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and thus their children are not covered by the clause. To test this idea, ask yourself: If a foreign citizen rear-ends your car on your drive home today, will you, or the police, allow him to drive away on the grounds that a foreign citizen cannot be arrested, ticketed, or sued?
Foreign citizens are “subject to the jurisdiction” of our police and courts when they are in the U.S., whether as tourists, legal residents, or undocumented immigrants. Only one group is not “subject to the jurisdiction”—accredited foreign diplomats and their families, who can be expelled by the federal government but not arrested or tried.That’s who the framers of the clause were discussing in Section 1—along with one other group. In 1866, when the amendment was framed, Indians living under tribal rule were not U.S. citizens.

The idea that the authors of the 14th Amendment meant to exclude children of “illegal immigrants” from citizenship is anachronistic, because the term made no sense in 1866. The federal government wouldn’t have any immigration rules to speak of until the Page Act of 1875, which kept Chinese women out of the US.

Coverage of Trump’s claim fell into the “both sides” trap.

By reporting that an outlandish legal argument is, in fact, one on which “reasonable minds disagree,” journalists do not simply mislead their readers. They literally can change the outcome of a case raising that outlandish legal argument. They create space for judges who are sympathetic to Trump to reach the decision Trump wants. And they create an aura of legitimacy over such a decision even if it has no basis in law.

and Brazil

The global swing towards fascism continues. A combination of recession, corruption, and high crime led Brazilian voters to elect Jair Bolsonaro to be their president, starting January 1.

The opposition to Bolsonaro has been driven by his numerous discriminatory comments on race, gender and sexual orientation, as well as remarks in favour of torture and Brazil’s former military dictatorship, in power from 1964 to 1985, which have angered and alarmed millions of Brazilians.

Bolsonaro has described having a daughter as a “weakness”, told a congresswoman she was “too ugly” to be raped, claimed some black people were not “even good for procreation”, and said he would rather one of his four sons “die in an accident” than be gay.

and you also might be interested in …

Chris Hayes’ Why Is This Happening? podcast has the kind of depth that his weekend show used to. (Since moving to weeknights, he’s had to be more headline-oriented.) The Oct. 30 edition is an interview with Michael Tesler, co-author of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.


Iran sanctions are back.


The emoluments lawsuit reaches the discovery phase. This is important, because it means that the plaintiffs will get to look behind the curtain into some of the Trump Organization’s books. Judge’s decision.

and let’s close with something unusual

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, break dancers perform in medieval armor. I don’t know what it means, but it looks cool.

Souls in Darkness

If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

This week’s featured post is “12 Things to Remember Before You Vote“. That’s extra-long, so I’ll try to keep this shorter than usual.

This week everybody was talking about right-wing political violence

The window stickers on the mail-bomb suspect’s van window.

It’s hard to know which nightmare to discuss first: the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate 11 Democratic or liberal leaders, including two former presidents, with mail bombs, or the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that really did kill 11 people. One, if it had succeeded, would have been the worst single wave of political violence in America since the KKK attacks during Reconstruction. The other raises the specter of the world’s most persistent and virulent strain of hatred: anti-Semitism.

Focusing on either one ignores a crime that should ring similar alarm bells: A white man killed two black shoppers at a suburban Louisville grocery store, only minutes after trying to enter a black church and finding it locked. “Just to think that an hour and a half earlier we had 70 people in the church,” church administrator Billy Williams said.

In each case, you can look for causes in the psychology of the individuals involved, and undoubtedly you will find something. Individuals are responsible for their own actions. But at the same time, you have to ask “Why now?” In just about all times and places, I suspect, there have been angry misfits who fantasized about acts of violence against whichever people or groups they blamed for their misfortunes. But now, for some reason, the ineffable membrane between violent thought and violent action seems thinner than at any time since the riots and assassinations of 1968. Why?

To me, the answer seems obvious: The President of the United States devotes a great deal of his time and effort to spreading fear-raising conspiracy theories and labeling his critics as enemies of the nation. It’s not a coincidence that the mail-bombing suspect had turned the van he lived in into a Trump shrine. Or that the synagogue shooter saw the immigrants in the caravan crossing Mexico as “invaders“, and blamed Jews like George Soros for funding it. (The suspect in the synagogue shooting, to be fair, was not a Trump supporter. He believed many conspiracy theories Trump and the right-wing media helped spread, but blamed Trump for letting his daughter convert to Judaism and marry a Jew. “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist. There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” Trump, in other words, is not MAGA enough for him.)

Trump’s defenders (like Hugh Hewitt) want to do a both-sides argument, lumping together right-wing murder and assassination attempts with liberals who refuse to serve Trump officials, or assail them verbally when they appear in public, like when Sarah Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant in Virginia.

These things are not the same“, Jennifer Rubin points out.

Violence is sending bombs to President Trump’s political targets. Violence is body-slamming a reporter who dares to ask a question. Violence is driving a car into a crowd, killing a young woman. Violence is killing unarmed African American youths. Violence is wife beating, sexual assault and child molestation (not demanding that accused wife beaters and sexual predators be held accountable and at the very least disqualified from high office.) Violence is forcibly separating young children from their parents (not calling out such treatment as inhumane).

Violence is not refusing to serve a White House press secretary dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant. It is not yelling at people in restaurants. It is not making mean jokes at a charity event. It is not peacefully occupying a government building to protest.

Hewitt is basically calling for a Henry II standard, which would have held the King blameless for asking “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” shortly before someone killed Thomas Beckett.

But we don’t have a both-sides problem. We have an outbreak of right-wing violence that the president encourages.


Brian Klaas sums it up in a tweet-storm that starts like this:

There have always been violent extremists. But when attacks happened under Reagan or Clinton or Bush or Obama, you couldn’t point to insane anti-Semitic conspiracy theories they had recently spread. They didn’t praise neo-Nazis. They didn’t call reporters “enemy of the people”


I wish I had something insightful to say about the rising anti-Semitism, but I don’t get it. Most popular American bigotries make sense to me at some level: I can imagine the frame-of-mind of the people who hold those hatreds, point to personal experiences that I could have interpreted to fit those biases, and so on.

But the idea that the random Jews you can find by wandering into a synagogue are somehow to blame for America’s problems or my own … I just don’t get it. I don’t even know how to argue against it, because a mind that holds that thought seems foreign to me.

It doesn’t help that I have a tangential connection: The brother of one of the victims goes to my Unitarian church.

and caravans

When other networks were covering the bombs mailed to Democratic leaders, Fox and the rest of the conservative media was trying to flog the immigrant caravan story. The best discussion of this issue I found was from Beau of the Fifth Column:

but remember to vote

President Obama has no patience for your excuses.

and you also might be interested in …

The Washington Post published a gripping first-person account of an asylum-seeking woman who was separated from her 15-year-old daughter for nearly five months. The needless cruelty here is very striking.

Another WaPo article by former DHS adviser Scott Shuchart describes what was happening inside DHS when the family-separation policy was being implemented: He describes extreme levels of internal dysfunction and dishonesty, but mostly malfeasance by the political appointees, who were often warned ahead of time (by the career civil servants) of the problems they were about to cause.

But most culpable were the high-level appointees, unwilling to take ownership of what they’d decided to do; lying to their staffs in the expectation that nobody really cared what happened to poor Central American kids; cynical about the notion that most of us who swear an oath to uphold the Constitution actually mean it. I cast about for more to do, but within a month of that June meeting, I realized there was no way to keep my oath and my job.


A new study shows that a minimum-wage worker would need 2.5 jobs to afford a one-bedroom apartment.


Megyn Kelly is done at NBC’s Today show, after defending white people wearing blackface on Halloween.

I can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for either Kelly or NBC in this spat. NBC knew what it was getting with Kelly: someone who may not be aggressively racist, but has been consistently racially insensitive. In 2013, for example, Kelly jumped into a discussion about black Santa Clauses and said:

For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. … Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too. … He was a historical figure. That was a verifiable fact.

As I explained at the time, this was not just insensitive, it was ignorant. (Most likely, neither Saint Nicholas nor Jesus was white enough to get service at a Jim Crow lunch counter.) Kelly has a sharp mind, but she also has an oblivious white-people-are-the-center-of-the-universe worldview that she has never bothered to educate herself out of. When NBC hired her, that was already a verifiable fact.

You probably already understand why blackface is inappropriate Halloween makeup for whites, but I feel obligated to spell it out: It’s more the history of the thing than the thing itself. By wearing blackface, whites place themselves in the tradition of the minstrel show. You may think you’re honoring Martin Luther King or Barack Obama or whoever you’re supposed to be, but your intention is not the controlling factor. (Wearing an Obama mask, by contrast, does not evoke minstrelsy, and can be OK if done with respect.)

As I’ve tried to explain on several occasions, some words and symbols have such a strong historical resonance that your innocent intention can’t salvage them. You may believe a swastika just looks cool, and weren’t thinking about Nazism at all when you got that tattoo. It doesn’t matter; the symbol has a meaning independent of your intention.


In the Washington Post on Tuesday, Monica Hesse summed up what I’m now thinking about transgender policy and a lot of other sex-and-gender-related issues: Why exactly do we need to know what genitalia other people have, or what exactly they do with their biological equipment when they’re with consenting adults?

Hesse was responding to a leaked HHS proposal to define transgenderism out of existence:

The department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” The agency’s proposed definition would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by The Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.

Other than the fact that it wouldn’t work because life is not that simple, there’s the question of what the policy is trying to accomplish. Hesse writes:

The most charitable interpretation for the government’s proposal is that we humans, as a species, have a need to organize things, and put them in categories. That we are uncomfortable with the unknown, and uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. That our aversion to this is so strong that we would rather ask unspeakably rude questions to strangers — So, are you a boy or a girl? So, who’s the wife in your same-sex relationship? — than accept that there are things we don’t need or deserve to know.

What if we allowed ourselves to remain uncomfortable? What if, instead of looking at other humans as something to be categorized, we saw in them a chance to appreciate the vastness of humanity?

As I’ve mentioned before, I experienced my own need to categorize when I watched the TV series “Billions“. The character Taylor does not claim to be either male or female. Part of me just couldn’t let that go: “What is s/he really?” It took some time for me to ask the next obvious question: “Why do I need to know?” But once I had asked that question, it started coming to mind in a lot of other situations.



Any closing I can think of seems inappropriate this week. I’ll try to do better next week.