Investigative Reporters and Donald Trump: the 9 Best Articles

Introduction: Why we need reporters to investigate Trump

Typically, voters judge a candidate on three scales:

  • character or public image. Do we like this person, identify with him or her, and trust this candidate to understand our lives and our problems?
  • philosophy or policy. Do we agree with what the candidate proposes to do? Do we trust his or her overall approach to governing, so that we have confidence in the candidate to handle problems we can’t foresee?
  • record in public office. Does he or she have a voting record in Congress that matches that professed philosophy and those policy proposals? Or experience running a state, a cabinet department, or a major city that demonstrates basic competence, expertise in major policy areas, or an understanding of how government works?

Occasionally a candidate passes these tests in some non-standard way. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, had never been elected to anything before running for president in 1952. But his experience as commander of the allied forces in Europe during World War II gave him defense and foreign policy experience, as well as proving that he could manage a large, complicated enterprise.

Donald Trump, though, is unique in that his claim to the presidency is based almost entirely on his character. He has no record in public office, and much of his record in business is closed to public examination.

His political philosophy has changed many times over the years, if he can be said to have one at all. (He has been both a Democrat and a Republican, has been both for and against abortion rights, is both hawkish and isolationist on foreign policy, and now appeals to Evangelical Christians without ever repenting all the bragging he did about his sexual conquests.) His proposals are vague. (He will be “tough” with other countries and “put America first”.) They waver from week to week. (Will he deport all undocumented immigrants or just the bad ones?) And many of his supporters don’t believe he will do the things he talks about doing. (Maybe his wall will be virtual. Maybe Mexico won’t pay for it.)

But despite all that, he is Donald Trump. His name is on those big buildings. We’ve been seeing his picture on magazine covers and watching him on TV for decades. Unlike any previous presidential candidate, he is a brand. Attach Trump to something and our impression of it changes: Trump Tower, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump University.

So how does that translate to President Trump and the Trump administration?

Precisely because he is a brand, it can be hard to separate Donald Trump, the man and potential president, from the character Donald Trump we’ve seen on TV. Maybe they are the same, or maybe they are as different as Martin Sheen is from the President Bartlett character he played so convincingly on The West Wing. (Would Sheen react to a crisis as calmly and wisely as Bartlett did in scripts that Sheen had read and memorized before the cameras powered up? I have no idea, but I’d hate to bet my country on it.)

That’s why we need reporters to examine Trump, his life, and his record more than we’ve ever needed them to check out a candidate before. Most of the reporters who have written about Trump have not risen to that challenge. Some simply repeat his statements, or those of his campaign managers and surrogates, without bothering to find out what’s true or false. Others repeat scurrilous charges about him without gathering evidence to back them up. Neither of those kinds of articles is what we need.

I’m also not talking about analyzing the Trump phenomenon: who his voters are, how his movement either does or doesn’t fit into the recent history of the conservative movement, whether his authoritarian appeal represents some kind of danger to democracy, and so on.Those questions may be interesting in their own right, but answering them involves speculation rather than reporting.

What I’ve tried to assemble here is the best reporting about Trump, written by journalists who have taken the time and made the effort to investigate rather than simply call him names, or recite his legend, or psychoanalyze him, or navel-gaze to determine his historical significance. All in all, I think these investigations paint a devastating picture, but it is a portrait based in fact, rather than the fantasies of his political enemies.

Finally, a note because I’m sure someone will ask: I’m not including the NYT’s article Saturday about Trump’s taxes, because I don’t feel like we have the whole story yet. He could have avoided income taxes for 18 years, and he hasn’t denied the report, but we still can’t say that he definitely did. We also don’t know whether the $900 million loss in the story is real or the product of creative accounting. I have the feeling there’s another shoe that still needs to drop.

Also, there’s no Trump U story on the list, because there’s no singular article about it. Documents collected for the lawsuit against Trump were released to the public, and many news outlets covered what they said.

So here, in no particular order, are the best nine:

1. Newsweek’s “Donald Trump’s Many Business Failures, Explained

If Trump’s claim that he can be an effective president rests on his business record, that record deserves some scrutiny. Kurt Eichenwald explains:

Trump’s many misrepresentations of his successes and his failures matter—a lot. As a man who has never held so much as a city council seat, there is little voters can examine to determine if he is competent to hold office. He has no voting record and presents few details about specific policies. Instead, he sells himself as qualified to run the country because he is a businessman who knows how to get things done, and his financial dealings are the only part of his background available to assess his competence to lead the country. And while Trump has had a few successes in business, most of his ventures have been disasters.

The successes primarily come from the investments and contacts he inherited from his father, Fred Trump.

Trump boasted when he announced his candidacy last year that he had made his money “the old-fashioned way,” but he is no Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg, self-made billionaires who were mavericks, innovators in their fields. Instead, the Republican nominee’s wealth is Daddy-made. Almost all of his best-known successes are attributable to family ties or money given to him by his father. … So to sum it all up, Trump is rich because he was born rich—and without his father repeatedly bailing him out, he would have likely filed for personal bankruptcy before he was 35.

His casinos went bankrupt. He bought Eastern Airlines and renamed it the Trump Shuttle before giving it to his creditors when he couldn’t pay its bills. Then he moved towards being a brand rather than a businessman.

Beginning in 2006, Trump decided to take a new direction and basically cut back on building in favor of selling his name. This led to what might be called his nonsense deals, with Trump slapping his name on everything but the sidewalk, hoping people would buy products just because of his brand.

Trump Mortgage started just in time to lose money in the real estate bubble. failed as an online travel service. Trump Vodka. Trump Steaks. All failures.

But by licensing his brand to developers, and helping them use that magical name to convince middle-class people to make downpayments on condos that were never built, Trump managed to walk away with a profit on deals where everyone else lost: Trump Hollywood, Trump Ocean Resort Baha Mexico, Trump Tower Tampa. Finally, there is the outright fraud of Trump University.

But if he’s such a bad businessman, you might ask, why is he so rich? The answer is that no one knows how rich he actually is. He claims to be worth more than $10 billion, but refuses to release any information that might validate that. In reality, he may be worth little more than what his father left him.

2. The USA Today’s “Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills

One admirable thing about billionaires like Bill Gates or Sam Walton is that they made a lot of other people rich too. If you worked for Bill or Sam back in the day and kept your stock options, you’re probably a multi-millionaire now. But with Donald Trump the exact opposite is often true: Signing a contract with Trump has been a good way to go broke.

Steve Reilly goes through court records to document a pattern of lawsuits against Trump and his businesses.

The actions in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.

In the individual cases, Trump’s lawyers usually claimed that the work was substandard in some way. But in the aggregate that suggests a different problem:

[T]he consistent circumstances laid out in those lawsuits and other non-payment claims raise questions about Trump’s judgment as a businessman, and as a potential commander in chief. The number of companies and others alleging he hasn’t paid suggests that either his companies have a poor track record hiring workers and assessing contractors, or that Trump businesses renege on contracts, refuse to pay, or consistently attempt to change payment terms after work is complete as is alleged in dozens of court cases.

The cases that produce a public record may be just the tip of an iceberg. No one knows how many short-changed contractors decided that taking whatever Trump offered in payment was better than fighting his lawyers.

Edward Friel, of the Philadelphia cabinetry company allegedly shortchanged for the casino work, hired a lawyer to sue for the money, said his son, Paul Friel. But the attorney advised him that the Trumps would drag the case out in court and legal fees would exceed what they’d recover.

The unpaid bill took a huge chunk out of the bottom line of the company that Edward ran to take care of his wife and five kids. “The worst part wasn’t dealing with the Trumps,” Paul Friel said. After standing up to Trump, Friel said the family struggled to get other casino work in Atlantic City. “There’s tons of these stories out there,” he said.

The Edward J. Friel Co. filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 5, 1989.

Says the founder’s grandson: “Trump hits everybody.”

Paul Friel tells a more detailed version of his family’s story in this video.

3. David Fahrenthold’s investigation of the Trump Foundation and Trump’s (lack of) charitable contributions

This isn’t just one article, but a body of work that has been unfolding in The Washington Post over months.

Throughout his career, Donald Trump has recognized the brand-building power of charity. One stereotypic image of rich people — particularly those who were born rich, as Trump was — is that they only care about themselves; they suck money out of society and give nothing back. But a wealthy heir or businessman can banish that image by announcing that he’s going to give big contributions to help veterans, or a children’s hospital, or some other worthy cause. Rather than a parasite, he looks like a saint.

So if you’re rich and worry about your image, generosity can be a good investment in public relations. But there’s one way to make it an even better investment: What if you could get all the publicity associated with big gifts, but not actually have to pony up any of your own money, or any money at all?

That seems to be what Trump has consistently done over the years: make well-publicized announcements of gifts that never actually materialize, or are paid for by someone else. In that sense, his gifts to charity are like his business dealings with contractors (described in the previous article); after he gets what he wants from the deal, the rest is negotiable.

In the course of the current campaign, Trump or his surrogates have talked about tens of millions of dollars or even more than $100 million that Trump has given away. Ordinarily when a campaign makes claims like that, they’re happy to provide the details, because it’s one more chance to focus a reporter’s attention on a story that makes their candidate look good. But when Fahrenthold pressed the Trump campaign for details about the $6 million Trump had supposedly raised for veterans groups (instead of attending a Republican debate where Megyn Kelly could have questioned him again), they were oddly unhelpful.

The real start of it was the fundraiser that Trump had for veterans in Iowa in late January. He said he’d raised $6 million — and then he toured around Iowa and New Hampshire handing out big novelty checks to local vets groups. But then Trump stopped. And he hadn’t given away anywhere near $6 million. That started us looking. We found that Trump seemed to have stockpiled a lot of the vets money in this oddball Trump Foundation, which had no staff and very little money. In fact, for a long time, it seemed the Trump Foundation had actually *made* money on the vets fundraiser, because it had given out far less than it had taken in from other donors (who expected it to quickly pass on their donations to vets groups). 

The vets saga ended strangely: Trump’s people said he’d given the $1 million [which he personally pledged] secretly. We checked. That was false. Trump hadn’t given the $1M away at all. Then, he finally did, in the middle of the night. Then Trump held an angry press conference where he denounced the media for, in effect, forcing him to explain what he’d done with the money other people had entrusted to him, the money in the Trump Foundation. That made us more interested. 

For any other candidate, you could just check Schedule A of his or her tax return. But Trump won’t release his tax returns either. If Trump wouldn’t provide any details, though, maybe the charities would. So Fahrenthold started contacting charities that Trump had some connection to, then branching out from there. He found very little. Only in the last few months — after Fahrenthold started checking up on him — has Trump started giving money to charity again.

And then there’s the Trump Foundation. Since 2008, Trump has put virtually none of his own money into his foundation. (Over the previous 20 years, he donated a total of $5.4 million, not “tens of millions”.) Instead, he has collected contributions from other people and corporations, and has spent a lot of it on himself or his business interests. He used hundreds of thousands from the foundation to make charitable contributions that settled court cases against himself or his companies. (That’s illegal.) He used $30K to buy two portraits of himself in charity auctions. (Trump’s people won’t say where the paintings are, but one or maybe both are hanging in Trump businesses. If so, if the portraits weren’t themselves used for some charitable purpose, that also is illegal.)

Fahrenhold exposed another likely illegality this week:

Donald Trump’s charitable foundation — which has been sustained for years by donors outside the Trump family — has never obtained the certification that New York requires before charities can solicit money from the public, according to the state attorney general’s office.

… The most important consequence of not registering under the more rigorous “7A” level was that the Trump Foundation was not required by the state to submit to an annual audit by outside accountants. In such an audit, charity-law experts said, the accountants might have checked the Trump Foundation’s books — comparing its records with its outgoing checks, and asking whether the foundation had engaged in any transactions that benefited Trump or his busi­nesses.

In recent years, The Post has reported, Trump’s foundation does appear to have violated tax laws in several instances.

More disturbing yet is the appearance that he has used money from the Trump Foundation to squash fraud investigations into Trump University. He has paid a $2,500 fine for the Foundation making a $25,000 contribution to a PAC supporting Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who coincidentally decided not to investigate Trump U. This would fit a larger pattern. Trump gave $35K of his own money to Texas AG (now Governor) Greg Abbott, who also didn’t investigate Trump U. And the Trump Foundation contributed $100K to another foundation that is suing New York AG Eric Schneiderman, who is suing Trump U for fraud.

In short, for the last 8 years or so, up until the last few months, Trump not only wasn’t giving to charity, he was using other people’s charitable contributions to benefit himself. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway justified this by claiming — falsely — that the Foundations money “is his money”. The whole point of giving money to a foundation, or any charity, is that it’s not your money any more. And when the Foundation is under your control but is funded primarily by other people, then it’s really not your money.

4. Trump’s Politifact File

Fact-checking sites have some leeway about which statements they check, so small differences in the aggregate statistics don’t necessarily mean anything. But Donald Trump’s file is unique: 35% of his checked statements are rated False, and another 18% get the even lower Pants On Fire rating, which is reserved for statements that “make a ridiculous claim“. By a wide margin, no other major political figure so regularly says things that are provably not true. (So much for the claim that he “tells it like it is”.)

By contrast, 10% of Hillary Clinton’s checked statements are rated False and 2% Pants on Fire, a rate similar to Republicans like Paul Ryan (9%/3%) and John Kasich (13%/5%).

But the numbers don’t really capture it. It’s worthwhile to dig into some of his more ridiculous statements, like

and so on.

5. Newsweek’s “How Donald Trump’s Company Violated the United States Embargo Against Cuba

In 1998, it briefly looked like the U.S. embargo against Cuba might come down. If it did, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts wanted to be ready to move in fast. So it sent somebody to Havana to investigate the business possibilities. That in itself violated the embargo.

6. The Washington Post’s “Trump: A True Story

This is Fahrenthold again, this time teaming with Robert O’Harrow Jr. The question in this article is Trump’s honesty, and the unique opportunity to compare what he said while under oath in 2007 to what he had previously claimed when not under oath.

In Trump Nation: the art of being the Donald author Timothy O’Brien estimated Trump’s net worth at less than $250 million, rather than the $5 billion he then claimed, and made several other statements Trump was offended by. So he sued. Big mistake.

By filing suit, Trump hadn’t just opened himself up to questioning — he had opened a door into the opaque and secretive company he ran. … The reporter’s attorneys turned the tables and brought Trump in for a deposition. For two straight days, they asked Trump question after question that touched on the same theme: Trump’s honesty.

The upshot is that Trump isn’t very honest, and tells a different story under oath than he does otherwise. Thirty times, they forced an admission that what he had said previously was not true. When not under threat of perjury, Trump exaggerated his success, quoted numbers he knew to be wrong, blamed other people for his mistakes, and “made authoritative-sounding statements without any proof behind them.” Under oath, he had to back off.

The article makes me wish Trump were speaking under oath now. BTW, Trump’s suit against O’Brien was dismissed, and the author he hoped to ruin had his legal fees picked up by his publisher.

7. The Daily Beast’s: “DOJ: Trump’s Early Businesses Blocked Blacks

In 1973, Donald Trump was still learning the real estate business from his father Fred. They were both sued by the Department of Justice for violations of the Fair Housing Act.

According to the DOJ, a former super at Trump’s Highlander complex claimed that he would also attach a coded piece of paper to let the “central office” know that an applicant was black. He added that a number of supers in Queens used a “phony lease” to enable them to refuse apartments to people of color. The super’s assistant backed up his story about the code and said she was told, “Trump Management tries not to rent to black persons.”

… In its lawsuit, the DOJ listed more than half a dozen cases in which a black person would try to rent an apartment at a Trump-owned building and would be denied; but when a white person—often a “tester” from New York’s Urban League—would inquire about vacancies, they would allegedly get offered an apartment in the same building.

The Trumps settled with DOJ in 1975, but by 1978 DOJ had them back in court for non-compliance with the consent decree. Reporter Gideon Resnick concludes: “the ugly details of this early clash with the Department of Justice shed light on alleged systemic discrimination at the heart of the Trump real estate empire.”

8. The New York Times’ “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private

Trump’s public interactions with women have gotten a lot of attention, from decades ago to this week’s continuation of his feud with a former Miss Universe. But The Times Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey tried to find out what it was like for a woman to deal with Trump one-on-one, in private. So they interviewed dozens of women who had known him over the years.

The picture they paint is complex and fascinating. His father Fred comes off as a classic sexist, and Donald revolted against him by promoting women to prominent roles in his businesses. But Donald also carried forward other parts of the sexist paradigm:

He simultaneously nurtured women’s careers and mocked their physical appearance. “You like your candy,” he told an overweight female executive who oversaw the construction of his headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. He could be lewd one moment and gentlemanly the next. … [I]n many cases there was an unmistakable dynamic at play: Mr. Trump had the power, and the women did not. He had celebrity. He had wealth. He had connections. Even after he had behaved crudely toward them, some of the women sought his assistance with their careers or remained by his side.

9. Newsweek’s “How the Trump Organization’s Business Ties Could Upend U.S. National Security

Kurt Eichenwald describes the impossibility of disentangling the Trump Organization from its “deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals”.

If Trump moves into the White House and his family continues to receive any benefit from the company, during or even after his presidency, almost every foreign policy decision he makes will raise serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires.

In the earlier Eichenwald article, he explained how Trump’s business strategy changed in 2007, when he began his TV career and decided to profit from fame and branding rather than building.

Rather than constructing Trump’s own hotels, office towers and other buildings, much of his business involved striking deals with overseas developers who pay his company for the right to slap his name on their buildings.

The problem is that these local partners are often deeply (and sometimes corruptly) involved with local politicians and political parties, or have financial interests in the local defense industries. (Eichenwald cites examples from Russia, Ukraine, South Korea, India, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, and other countries.) Even if there is no corrupt intent on Trump’s part, his political decisions will affect his financial interests.

If he plays tough with India, will the government assume it has to clear the way for projects in that “aggressive pipeline” [of Trump Organization projects in that country] and kill the investigations involving Trump’s Pune partners? And if Trump takes a hard line with Pakistan, will it be for America’s strategic interests or to appease Indian government officials who might jeopardize his profits from Trump Towers Pune?

A conflict over a Trump property in Dubai led to a Twitter-feud between Trump a Saudi prince, whom he called “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal”. If he were president, it’s hard to see how this wouldn’t become problem between the two countries.

Sovereign wealth funds, which invest the money accumulated by oil-rich governments, sometimes make financial deals with the Trump Organization. In Azerbaijan, the Trump Organization partners with a company controlled by the son of the transportation minister, who might have laundered money for the Iranians.

Trump has said he will deal with these problems by turning the business over to his children while he is in office. This might work if the business were something simple and small, like a restaurant or a hardware store. But how can he avoid knowing whether a Trump Tower gets built in some foreign capital? Or not hear when a Saudi prince or Russian oligarch threatens to cancel a loan?

The Monday Morning Teaser

Most of what we hear about Donald Trump is meant to enrage or energize us rather than inform us. Every day, newspapers are full of articles about Trump, what he said, what somebody said about him, and so on. Almost every day, you can see part a Trump rally on a cable news channel, or listen to a panel of pundits discuss him. Despite all that coverage, though, we seldom learn anything new or significant about him.

But now and then, an article actually tells us something important. Some reporter took his job seriously, did some real investigating, and found something voters should know about. Not opinion or speculation or psychoanalysis, just facts put into a context. Usually such articles get attention for a day or two before getting swamped by coverage of Trump insulting somebody or saying a bad word.

I decided to collect them. So this week’s featured post is “Investigative Reporters and Donald Trump: the 10 Best Articles”. If you want to know how Trump runs his businesses, what the Trump Foundation controversy is about, what conflicts of interest a President Trump will face, and so on, this will be a good place to start. That should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The news this week was also dominated by the campaign: fallout from the debate, a list of ordinarily reliable Republican newspapers deciding not to endorse Trump, and so on. But some other things happened as well: Shimon Peres died. Congress avoided a government shutdown, then overrode an Obama veto before immediately regretting it (and blaming Obama). Gary Johnson had another “Aleppo moment”, but I decided it says more about what’s been happening to American journalism than about him. And the weekly summary will close with an act of everyday heroism. That should be out maybe around 11.

Tranquility or Justice?

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

– Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (March 14, 1968)

This week’s featured posts are “The Skittles Analogy” and “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights“.

Some quick thoughts about the quote above: King gave this speech three weeks before his assassination, so it is very close to his last word on the subject. Such radical King quotes have largely been white-washed out of history. Instead, each January MLK Day is largely a celebration of color-blindness, as if the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and sundown towns could just be waved off, and we could best move forward by pretending that none of it ever happened. King himself never held that view, as you will quickly see if you read entire speeches rather than a few carefully selected lines.

This week everybody was talking about Charlotte

Since the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday, Charlotte North Carolina has seen daily demonstrations. The demonstrations appear to have been mostly peaceful, but occasionally turned violent. One person was shot and eventually died, but police claim they didn’t do it and no one seems to know who did. I haven’t seen anything about whether the dead man was a protester.

To me, there seem to be two issues related to police killing blacks. First, the black community has no confidence in the investigative process, and I can understand why. Take the Freddie Gray case, for example. He was apparently healthy when Baltimore Police took him into custody, and then he died of a spinal cord injury. No one seems to be at fault; every charge has resulted in a not-guilty verdict. And in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, the police seemed more interested in doing public relations for Officer Wilson than a neutral investigation.

There’s at least a partial a solution to this part of the problem, and it’s already law in Wisconsin: any police shooting requires an outside investigation; a police department can’t be allowed to investigate its own officer.

Second, American police tactics are senselessly confrontational. Even in shootings that are judged to be justified, I’m often left wondering: “Did you really need to push it to that point?” Standard practice seems to be to start by barking orders, and then to keep escalating until either the orders are followed or the civilian is dead. That’s what I see in the Scott video. In many other cases, people wind up dead because police don’t understand they’re dealing with someone who is deaf or mentally handicapped or otherwise incapable of understanding their demands.

Police in other countries don’t behave that way, as this article about Scottish police tactics makes clear.

While we’re talking about black lives not mattering, conservative columnist Glenn Reynolds tweeted “Run them down” in response to protesters who blocked an interstate in Charlotte. He then defended the tweet on his Instapundit blog. Twitter suspended his account for promoting violence, and USA Today suspended him as a columnist for a month.

If you think this isn’t about race, imagine, say, white Catholics blocking a road leading to an abortion clinic. Would anybody suggest running over them?

and tonight’s presidential debate

Like Frank Bruni, my main worry about the debate is that the bar for Trump has been set so low. If he makes it through the evening without calling Hillary a bitch or talking about his penis again, lots of people will be impressed by his performance. I remember the first 2000 debate, when Gore ran rings around Bush on substance, but the headlines the next morning were that Gore sighed too loudly.

One measure of what Hillary is up against is just how contradictory or constricting all the “expert” advice is: She shouldn’t raise her voice or interrupt Trump. She should keep her answers short, but tell her own story and project a positive vision. Point out when he’s lying but don’t get mired in fact-checking. Show her intelligence and reveal his ignorance without sounding like a know-it-all. Either do or don’t talk about the specifics of her plans for governing. And brush off his attacks as silly.

And then there’s sexism. A woman can’t possibly look “presidential”, because the American people have no image of a woman being president. And I can guarantee that tomorrow morning Trump will not be criticized for shouting, frowning, interrupting, dressing wrong, blustering, not showing proper respect, or any of the things Clinton has to be on guard against. Anna Waters, a Northwestern student who debated in high school, outlines all the built-in disadvantages female debaters have to overcome. Another high school debater complains about the challenge of “trying to both confront stereotypes but at the same time being weirdly beholden to them”.

and you might also be interested in

The National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened this week on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Hottest summer ever.

John Oliver compares Hillary’s scandals to Trump’s in some detail, and then concludes:

This campaign has been dominated by scandals. But it is dangerous to think that there is an equal number on both sides. And you can be irritated by some of Hillary’s; that is understandable. But you should then be f**king outraged by Trump’s.

If you’ve been thinking that Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson represents the “good” side of conservatism, you might want to think again. When he was running for president as a Republican in the 2012 cycle, he brushed off any concern about global warming, arguing that “In billions of years, the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” He went on to call for building new coal-fired power plants.

In case the insanity of this remark isn’t already obvious to you, imagine applying the logic to other issues: There’s no point worrying about nuclear war, because the sun is eventually going to burn all our cities anyway. And after the solar catastrophe, who’s going to care what our national debt was?

warren2Elizabeth Warren crossed the border to Nashua Saturday morning to give a pep talk to the door-knockers and phone-bankers gathered at the local Democratic headquarters. I had a chance to snap this picture.

She said she was going to talk about three things that are in danger in this election, but then she added a fourth. A Republican sweep in this election would result in

  • ending the Affordable Care Act and defunding Planned Parenthood
  • rolling back Dodd-Frank and the other Wall Street reforms that were passed after the 2008 collapse.
  • Donald Trump immediately appointing a Supreme Court justice.
  • “Donald Trump and the Republicans are making hate OK.”

Her summary of Democratic values was

  • Every young person is entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt.
  • No one who works full-time should live in poverty.
  • After a lifetime of hard work, people are entitled to retire in dignity.
  • “Let me say something that is deeply controversial in Republican circles: We believe in science, that climate change is real, and we have a moral obligation to pass on a livable Earth.”
  • Equal pay for equal work and a woman’s right to choose.
  • When Wall Street CEOs break the rules, they should go to jail like anyone else.
  • Money should not own our government.

Two sports legends worth remembering today: Golfer Arnold Palmer died yesterday at 87. He was part of that first generation of athletes that TV made into icons.

And Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully called his last game. Scully is 88, and has been announcing Dodger games on radio and TV since 1950, when they played in Brooklyn. The Dodgers gave him a great send-off: The final play he broadcast was a walk-off homer that clinched the division title.

and … and …

no, I just don’t have a closing in me this week. Let’s hope my sense of humor recovers soon.

The Asterisk* in the Bill of Rights

*except when black

The big debate in the Keith Lamont Scott shooting — the one that started the protests that have been going on in Charlotte since Tuesday — is whether or not Scott had a gun, and if so, whether it was in his hand. The police said he did and it was, though for days they refused to release video of the incident. [1]

The Scott shooting came a few days after police in Tulsa shot and killed another black man, Terrence Crutcher. But the Tulsa case was manslaughter, and a police officer has been charged, largely because Crutcher was unarmed. Even there, though, weaponry is an issue. (The officer claims Crutcher was reaching into his vehicle, and she feared he was reaching for a gun. But the video doesn’t corroborate that story.) Apparently she believed that if he might have been armed, shooting him dead would be an appropriate outcome.

Back in July another black man, Philandro Castile, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop. Castile told the officer there was a gun in the car, which he had a permit to carry. His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were also in the car. The girlfriend claims Castile was reaching for his wallet when the officer shot him four times. So far, there have been no charges.

The NRA, an organization that exists to defend the rights of gun-owners, decided not to comment on the Castile shooting “while the investigation is ongoing”. My Google search for “NRA statement on Keith Lamont Scott” turned up nothing relevant, even though for days the only reason police gave for initiating the encounter was their belief that Scott was armed. (More recently, they elaborated that they also observed him rolling a cigarette which they believed to be marijuana.) North Carolina is an open-carry state, so having a firearm is not in itself a violation. [2]

So if you’re an organization working to make sure the government doesn’t hassle gun-owners exercising their Second Amendment rights, the initially available information in the Scott case would seem to be right up your alley.

Except that Scott is black. The NRA doesn’t do black. I mean, they will gladly let you join and accept your membership fees if you’re black, but don’t count on them to defend your Second Amendment rights. Because, well, what Second Amendment rights? There’s an asterisk on the Second Amendment. The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson reviews the facts of the Scott and Castile cases [3] and draws the obvious conclusion: “laws permitting people to carry handguns apparently do not apply to African Americans.”

If all they saw was a man with a gun who got out of a car and back in, what illegal activity did they observe? Why did they “approach the subject” instead of going about their business? Did they have any reason to suspect it was an illegal gun? Are all men carrying guns believed to be carrying guns illegally, or just black men? [4]

Cenk Uygar of The Young Turks noticed something similar, and brings up two other cases: Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the 12-year-old who was killed within seconds of police arriving despite the fact that his “gun” was a toy, and John Crawford III, who police killed in a Walmart near Dayton, because he also was carrying a toy gun which he apparently planned to buy. Like Rice, Crawford was shot within seconds after police arrived. Apparently, blacks with guns are so dangerous that police can’t be bothered to see whether they will drop them, or even to discover whether the guns are real at all.

That police behavior may be questionable, but it’s not obviously racist; maybe they’d be just as trigger-happy towards whites. But Uygar then shows three videos of cops patiently having conversations with uncooperative armed white men, none of whom wind up dead. In the last one, the man verbally abuses three policemen until they back away and leave him with his weapon. Uygar comments:

Yeah, that happens to black guys all the time in this country. Where they laugh at cops in their face and say, “See ya, tough guy. Walk away.” And the cops go, “OK, yes sir. You’re right, sir. You have constitutional rights, sir. Of course I’ll walk away.” … That happens all the time. No one, no one, I don’t care how right-wing you are, you don’t believe that. You know what they would have done if he was black.

Not that those uncooperative armed white men should be dead, but it shows that when white lives are at stake, police can be patient, carefully establish what is going on, and attempt to deescalate the confrontation. In one of Uygar’s examples, a clearly irrational white man goes to his car, gets his gun, and begins waving it in all directions, including pointing it at police. They attempt to talk to him, and when that doesn’t work, they fire one shot into his leg to drop him, rather than the 16 shots fired into Laquan McDonald in 15 seconds. He lives.

That’s why the movement is called Black Lives Matter. That guy’s life mattered to those cops. They didn’t want to end his life. They were careful with it. So we’re asking you to also be careful with black lives just as much.

The Second Amendment isn’t the only one with an asterisk: The Fourth Amendment has one too. [5] Without the asterisk, it reads like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

So when they talk about “probable cause” on NCIS, that’s not just some criminal-coddling nonsense made up by an activist liberal judge; it’s right there in the effing Constitution. The Constitution guarantees your right to be secure in your person, unless police have probable cause to believe you are involved in a crime.

Or unless you’re black.

Politico reports:

In a pre-taped interview on Fox News scheduled to air Wednesday night, Trump was asked by an audience member what he would do to address “violence in the black community” and “black-on-black crime.” Trump responded by proposing that “stop-and-frisk” policing, in which an officer is empowered to stop an individual and frisk them for weapons or any other illegal contraband, be adopted nationwide.

If a weapon is found, it is confiscated. The next day Trump clarified, saying that he only meant Chicago.

I think Chicago needs stop-and-frisk,” Trump said. “Now, people can criticize me for that or people can say whatever they want, but they asked me about Chicago, and I think stop-and-frisk, with good, strong, you know, good, strong law and order. But you have to do something. It can’t continue the way it’s going.”

Trump says nothing specific about race, but does anyone really believe that he wants police to stand outside of Water Tower Place and frisk upscale white shoppers for weapons? Will they cruise the Magnificent Mile during lunch hour, stopping white lawyers and bankers at random to see if they have any cocaine? (Sometimes they do.) Of course not. What will substitute for “probable cause” is that you are a young black man [6] wandering around in a poor, majority-black neighborhood.

You still might claim that the bias here is related to class, not race. But seriously, can you picture police cruising the trailer parks of Louisiana, frisking white good old boys and confiscating guns from Duck Dynasty types? Could that ever happen?

Of course not. The NRA would throw a fit.

[1] Saturday they finally did. The New York Times assessment: “It appeared from the two angles that he had nothing in his right hand. It was unclear what, if anything, Mr. Scott, who was right-handed, had in his left hand.” In the video, you can hear police repeatedly telling Scott to drop the gun. But in another video, you can hear Scott’s wife protesting that he didn’t have a weapon.

[2] It turns out that Scott didn’t have a right to carry a firearm, since he had a gun-related prior offense. But it’s almost certain police didn’t know that when they approached him.

[3] As they were known on Thursday, before the marijuana claim about Scott.

[4] Robinson’s conclusion is less compelling if the marijuana claim is true. But even then, we’re left with the question: What public danger required escalating the encounter to the point of death?

[5] If I wanted to expand the scope of this article, we could also talk about the “except when Muslim” asterisk on the First Amendment. Americans have a right to practice their religion, except when they want to build a mosque somewhere and Christians object. And the whole gay-marriage issue revolved around the “except when gay” asterisk on the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[6] In the New York City example Trump cited, Latinos were also disproportionately targeted.

The Skittles Analogy

If endangered people are nothing more than tiny candies, trying to save them just seems stupid.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about framing. In a nutshell, the idea is that people think in metaphors, so if you can influence the metaphor people use to think about some situation, you can shape their thinking about it, possibly without them even realizing it. For example, someone who thinks in terms of a war on drugs will come up with different proposals than someone who is thinking about addiction as an illness. So if you suggest one metaphor or the other with the phrasing of your question, you can change the odds on getting the answer you want.

Like any other communication tactic, framing can be used for good or ill. If you’re teaching, a good metaphor can stick in students’ heads better than a long explanation. And if a metaphor is apt, it can make obvious some connections that might otherwise be confusing. (One of my favorites when I was teaching math was to encourage students to think of mathematics as a language and equations as sentences in that language. Then it becomes obvious that first step in solving any word problem is to translate the paragraph from sentences-in-English to sentences-in-mathematics.)

One uncontroversial metaphor that just about everyone uses (usually without thinking about it) is to talk about life as a journey: We come to forks in the road, the path can be rocky or smooth, two people have a parting of the ways, and so on. We all do this because (1) we’re used to it, and (2) it’s convenient. It’s actually kind of difficult to talk about long-term life issues without using a journey metaphor somehow.

But metaphors also tilt our thinking. The life-is-a-journey metaphor, for example, tilts us towards belief in an afterlife, because journeys have destinations.

Using the wrong metaphor can make your thinking absurd, even if all the steps you take are logical within the frame. A lot of jokes are based on absurdities created by mis-framing some situation. (A comedian was in line at the supermarket behind somebody who was buying a single roll of toilet paper. “What?” he asked. “Are you trying to quit?” The question would make perfect sense if rolls of toilet paper were like packs of cigarettes.)

Metaphors become sinister when people create them in order to encourage and take advantage of these sorts of mistakes. A sinister metaphor can sneak in assumptions that would be either obviously false or too ugly to defend if they had to be explained explicitly.

And that brings us to Skittles.

Monday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted this image with the comment:

This image says it all. Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.

If you stay within the frame, the answer is obvious: Of course you wouldn’t eat a Skittle if there were any chance of getting a poisonous one.

But what assumptions has the Skittles metaphor tried to sneak past you? Implicitly, it says that the refugees themselves are of no consequence: Skittles are inanimate objects that have only momentary significance. The implication is that you might get a brief feeling of sweetness from the thought of rescuing some Syrian from ISIS, but nothing more.

If a few of the refugees become terrorists, though, that’s a huge deal. Because now we’re talking about our lives, not their lives. And because we are Americans, our lives are very, very much more important than theirs. Vox sums up:

The only agenda that will “put America first,” according to Trump, is one that assumes even a tiny risk to Americans outweighs every other consideration. It’s a policy that assumes Americans’ lives are infinitely precious and that Syrians might as well be Skittles, abstract pieces in a calculation of risk.

It’s worth considering how badly this frame clashes with Americans’ self-image as a heroic people. In all our wars (at least since we were “keeping the world safe for democracy” in World War I), we’ve recruited with the idea that our soldiers and sailors risk their lives to save others. The young men and women who have felt that heroic impulse — were they just stupid?

Also, consider the phrase “Syrian refugee problem”. Again, they’re not people, they’re a problem. And this is where you should start noticing that you’ve seen this frame before. Chris Hayes gives you a big hint.

swap in “Jews” for everything Trump and Co says about refugees, Muslims and immigrants it’s immediately clear what they’re doing.

That’s the model for this kind of propaganda: Germany didn’t have Jewish citizens or residents, it had a “Jewish problem“. So the Nazis weren’t abusing people, they were trying to solve a national problem. (No wonder they eventually they came up with a final solution.) They had a poisonous food metaphor too, but it wasn’t candies, it was mushrooms. Nazi writer Julius Streicher (who would be hanged at Nuremberg in 1946) published it in 1938 in a children’s book called The Toadstool.

Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk.

It’s not just liberals who see the connection, American neo-Nazis see it too, and have seen it all the other times when Trump Jr. has retweeted white supremacist and alt-right memes.

When you understand what has been left out of a metaphor or hidden by it, sometimes you can put it back in. That’s what Eli Bosnick did in a Facebook post that (last time I checked) had been shared 47,000 times. He brought back the point of taking in refugees: Quite likely, you are saving their lives. If every Skittle you eat saves a life, then the calculation changes for everybody with even the slightest amount of heroism in their souls.

I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would eat every single fucking skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles. And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also ate skittle after skittle until there were no skittles to be eaten. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by eating skittles.

That’s what heroic people do. I don’t know if I have that much heroism in me, to gorge with the knowledge that it would probably kill me, but be worth it in the larger scheme of things. Even so, though, I also don’t think I could just pass the bowl to the next person and say “No thanks.” I may not feel as heroic as Bosnick, but I also don’t think I have it in me to be that selfish.

Trump Jr. does, though. And when he looks at the rest of us, those who would eat at least two or three Skittles before passing the bowl along, he thinks we’re being stupid. What kind of idiot, after all, takes even a tiny risk to help others?

The Monday Morning Teaser

There are two featured posts this week. The first examines Donald Trump Jr.’s Skittles analogy in terms of some framing and propaganda notions I’ve discussed here before. Metaphors can make ideas clear, or they can hide assumptions you’d be revolted by if you had to think about them. This one hides revolting assumptions, and it’s related to a mushroom metaphor that comes from a revolting point in history. That article is basically done, so it should be out around 8 EDT.

The second featured post will be “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights”. Rights that white people take for granted often become controversial when blacks try to claim them. It’s as if there were a hidden asterisk in the Bill of Rights that says “except when black”. So whites have a Second Amendment right to bear arms, but if you’re black and a cop sees your gun, he can justify killing you. Whites have a Fourth Amendment right not to be searched without probable cause, but in black neighborhoods police can stop and frisk people at their discretion. One federal judge said this is unconstitutional, but there is no nationwide precedent that stops the practice, and Trump just came out in favor of it. That should be out maybe by 10.

The weekly summary discusses the demonstrations in Charlotte, tonight’s presidential debate, my opportunity to see Elizabeth Warren Saturday morning, and a few other things. Expect it by noon.

The Snow Jobs of Yesteryear

Now, the engineers and managers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forebears hired people to say about them. Yesterday’s snow job becomes today’s sermon.

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)

This week’s featured post is “ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

This week everybody was talking about where President Obama was born

Donald Trump’s first foray into national politics was in 2011, when he was the leading voice in the Birther movement, which charged that President Obama was an illegitimate president, because he wasn’t actually born in the United States. Trump often went even further, implying Obama’s whole history was phony.

Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: the people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.

As recently as Thursday, Trump still wouldn’t admit that President Obama was born in the United States, but his campaign issued a statement giving him credit for

bring[ing] this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised.

But Friday, Trump embraced that position himself:

President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. … Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it.

In other words, he withdrew his lie about Obama (without apology), and substituted a new lie about Clinton: She started it.

Both Politifact and looked at the Clinton-was-a-birther claim in 2015 and rated it false. This week ABC and Politico reviewed the evidence and agreed.

Neither Clinton herself or anyone connected with her campaign ever raised the issue in public (unlike Trump who talked about virtually nothing else for six weeks in 2011). Some 2008 Clinton supporters discussed it on the internet, but this was a far more tenuous connection than the current one between Trump and white supremacists like David Duke; you can’t control who supports you or what they say. (Though you don’t have to retweet their racist comments.)

The birther issue is — rightly, I believe — characterized as racist, because there was never any reason to raise it other than a desire to disqualify Obama. This tactic has a long history: As soon as blacks start applying for a position, qualifications that had never before been an issue require documentation that whites have never needed to produce, and whatever documentation blacks produce is always deemed suspicious or unacceptable for some invented reason.

It’s disingenuous of Trump to take credit for the “closure” of Obama producing his birth certificate, when Trump himself continued to raise doubts after that. AP reports:

Trump repeatedly continued to question Obama’s birth in the years after the president released his birth certificate. In August 2012, for example, Trump was pushing the issue on Twitter.

“An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” he wrote.

Even in January of this year, Trump sounded skeptical when asked whether he now believed the president was a natural-born citizen.

“Who knows? Who cares right now? We’re talking about something else, OK?” Trump said in a CNN interview. “I mean, I have my own theory on Obama. Someday I’ll write a book.”

This often-repeated lie has had its effect: An August poll showed that 72% of Republicans still either denied that Obama was born in America or refused to take a position. Previous polls had shown that Trump supporters were more likely to be birthers than other Republicans.

and the presidential race seems about even

Recent polls have Trump ahead in Ohio and Florida, and Nate Silver places Clinton’s odds of victory at 60%, as low as that number has been since the conventions.

I wonder how many of you are experiencing the same psychological symptom I’ve noticed in myself. Sometimes when people repress an emotion, they start experiencing themselves as the object of the emotion rather than the subject. So if you’re angry with somebody you don’t want to be angry with, like a boss or spouse, you instead believe that they’re angry with you. Jealous people imagine others are jealous of them, and so on. (The psychologists call this projection.)

The election is causing something similar in me: When I see evidence that large numbers of people are willing to make Trump our president, I feel deeply ashamed of my country and my fellow voters. But I try not to dwell on that, because what’s the point? Later on, though, I’ll notice that I’m feeling an excessive amount of shame for some comparatively trivial mistake of my own.

Anybody else noticing this? What kind of personal effect is the election having on you?

The first debate is just a week away. It will just be Clinton and Trump, since Jill Stein and Gary Johnson didn’t qualify. The moderator will be Lester Holt of NBC. Here’s the full calendar, with moderators.


This is not the time for a protest vote, in terms of a presidential campaign. I ran as a third-party candidate. I’m the longest-serving independent in the history of the United States Congress. I know more about third-party politics than anyone else in the Congress, okay? And if people want to run as third-party candidates, God bless them! Run for Congress. Run for governor. Run for state legislature. When we’re talking about president of the United States, in my own personal view, this is not time for a protest vote. This is time to elect Hillary Clinton and then work after the election to mobilize millions of people to make sure she can be the most progressive president she can be.

Vox‘ Dara Lind describes how sexism impacts the Clinton campaign in “Nobody ever tells Donald Trump to smile“.

For most of her career, Hillary Clinton’s been measured in comparison to men. She is less warm and authentic than her husband Bill Clinton or her 2016 opponent Bernie Sanders; she is less eloquent and transcendent than her 2008 opponent Barack Obama.

But in what way, precisely, is Hillary Clinton “less” than Donald Trump?

He frequently looks gruff and mean. He barely laughs at all, and never at himself. His speeches are frequently dark and angry. He shouts. He’s condescending and never uplifting or inspirational. He brags.

If you actually subject Donald Trump to the same scrutiny Clinton receives, you’ll see that he doesn’t show any of the qualities that other politicians — and especially female politicians — are criticized for lacking.

And yet, while the content of his remarks is sometimes criticized, he escapes the constant style-heckling directed at Clinton.

The NYT’s Timothy Egan comments on the vast public under-reaction to Trump’s statement that we should have kept Iraq’s oil, because “to the victor belong the spoils”.

As with everything in Trump’s world, his solution is simple: loot and pilfer. “Take the oil,” said Trump. He was referring to Iraq, post-invasion. And how would he do this? There would be an open-ended occupation, as a sovereign nation’s oil was stolen from it. Of course, “you’d leave a certain group behind,” he said, to protect the petro thieves.

A certain group. Let’s be clear what he’s talking about: Under Trump’s plan, American men and women would die for oil, victims of endless rounds of lethal sabotage and terror strikes. That’s your certain group.

Another detail left out of Trump’s idea: It’s useless to take the oil unless you also control a corridor to the sea, so that you can export it. How big and how vulnerable would that occupation force be?

The story that Melania Trump came to America illegally seems to be based on bad reporting. I’m going to stop repeating it unless somebody comes up with better evidence, and I recommend the rest of you do the same.

but I decided to check in on the Islamic State

The featured post “ISIS is losing but what happens next?” reviews the military situation of the Islamic State, which is looking bad for them. But it also points out the limited goals that a military victory can win for us: As long as a disgruntled population feels alienated from a political solution, some of them are going to try force.

and the upbeat census report on income

For years, the story has been the same: The economy was growing, but wages — and particularly wages for the poor and working class — weren’t budging. But Tuesday, the Census Bureau released its annual report on income and poverty, updating its numbers for 2015. NPR summarizes:

after a brutal economic recession and years of stagnation, real median household incomes rose from $53,718 in 2014 to $56,516 last year. That’s a 5.2 percent rise — the first statistically significant increase since 2007.

That income statistic is still lower than it was in 2007, before the Great Recession, and its peak came in 1999, just before the Internet Bubble popped. But it least it seems headed in the right direction now. Also, poverty is down and more people have health insurance, particularly in the states that have expanded Medicaid the way the Affordable Care Act intended (until the Supreme Court struck that part down and gave states the option not to participate).

Matt Yglesias describes why he thinks the Census Bureau is measuring the wrong things, but thinks the ultimate result is that its report might be too pessimistic.

The ways in which the census’s data sets are flawed suggests the underlying reality might be even better than Tuesday’s rosy report suggested. But the uncertainty here should be acknowledged when we discuss the report.

Two of the flaws: Households are shrinking as more people live alone and there are fewer big families. So even a smaller household income might mean that individuals are doing better. (OTOH, if people want more children but can’t afford them, per capita numbers might make them look more prosperous than they feel.) Also, the Census Bureau focuses on income as cash before taxes. So changes in your non-cash benefits or your taxes don’t show up.

One resulting anomaly has been with us for decades: As the cost of health care rises, employers that provide health insurance see their cost-per-employee rise, but the employees don’t see any comparable increase in income.

and you also might be interested in

Nearly three months after the Brexit vote, what it means is still unclear. The UK still hasn’t invoked Article 50 of the EU charter, which would formally start a divorce process that must be over within two years. Prime Minister Theresa May — remember, she took office after David Cameron staked his career on the Brexit vote and lost — says that won’t happen at least until after the new year.

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is using its subpoena power to harass scientists whose results the Committee’s Republican majority and Republican chairman don’t like.

[Chairman Lamar] Smith’s subpoena-happy chairmanship hasn’t come out of nowhere. It apparently depends upon a conviction that the scientific community has a liberal agenda and that, if scientific results conflict with right-wing ideas, the scientists must be lying.

The new rules about House committees issuing subpoenas — written by the Republican majority in 2015 — make this kind of harassment easier.

The NRA is celebrating “a great day for freedom in Missouri”: a new gun law, passed over Governor Nixon’s veto, removes even the most common-sense restrictions:

  • Gun owners can carry concealed weapons anywhere that isn’t specifically restricted, like court houses and jails. No permits or training programs will be necessary. Just buy your gun (federal background checks still apply), put it in your pocket, and go on with your day.
  • Local police lose much of their ability to deny gun permits to high-risk individuals, like, say, people with a long history of domestic violence or suicide attempts.
  • A new stand-your-ground provision applies in public places like parking lots. If you feel threatened, you don’t have to retreat or otherwise avoid a confrontation. Just shoot your way out.

Kevin Ahlbrand, legislative director for the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, raises a good question:

Our biggest fear is criminals who have not been convicted of a felony but are engaged in criminal activity will be legally carrying guns, and we’re now going to have to assume everyone is armed. When we show up to a scene and there are five guys with their guns out, what do we do?

An affordable medium-range electric car will be out later this year. It comes from one of those nimble, far-sighted little car companies — General Motors.

“Affordable” in this case is relative, of course. The Chevy Bolt EV (not to be confused with the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that been around since 2011), will sell for $30,000 or so after a federal rebate and go 238 miles on a charge. That’s still a significant chunk of change, but plug-in power is cheaper than gasoline, so the Bolt becomes a more reasonable investment after you factor in operating costs.

Electric-car pioneer Tesla also has a car coming out in the same cost range. It goes almost as far on a charge, but Tesla probably won’t be able to make enough of them to satisfy demand. GM will.

200 miles has long been considered a breakthrough point on electric cars, because that range wouldn’t crimp the style of the average American in day-to-day life. You’re still not going to take a Bolt on a cross-country road trip, but you should be able to commute to work, go out to lunch, and run errands after you get home without worrying about how much charge you have left.

In other car-tech news, Uber is testing driverless cars in Pittsburgh. A NYT reporter tells of his ride.

If driverless vehicles get perfected and accepted, we’ll see a new round of technological unemployment. I added up the employment numbers for the different types of drivers tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and got about 3.8 million. The total number of people employed in the U.S. is around 151 million. So we’re talking about 2.5% or so of all jobs. If you start thinking about people whose jobs depend on human drivers — say they work at truck stops or at motels in the middle of nowhere — the total goes higher.

That prospect got me reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, a 1952 dystopian vision of a low-employment society. That’s where I found this week’s opening quote.

and let’s close with a sharp contrast

Here’s Little Miss Flint’s reaction to meeting President Obama.

And here’s her reaction to meeting Donald Trump.

ISIS is losing, but what happens next?

When people do something that doesn’t fit their self-image, they often have a hard time remembering it. “Me? No, I couldn’t have done that. It just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Collectively, the American people are that way about fear. We see ourselves as a courageous country, so if you give us a good scare, and then the thing we were afraid of doesn’t happen, the whole episode has a way of slipping our minds. And if somebody deserves credit for avoiding what we were panicking about, well, too bad for them, because … us? afraid? What are you talking about?

President Obama has suffered from this kind of public amnesia before. The day before he was elected in 2008, USA Today ran a reassuring article telling people that a Second Great Depression was “unlikely”, even if things sort of looked that way.

Failed banks. Panicked markets. Rising unemployment. For students of history, or people of a certain age, it all has an all-too-familiar ring. Is this another Great Depression? Not yet.

By any measure, our current economic suffering pales in comparison with what the nation endured from 1929 through 1939. Still, most economists are predicting a long, difficult period ahead. Could it eventually become a depression? It’s possible — but not likely.

That’s what a calm, reasonable voice sounded like in November, 2008: Total catastrophe might happen, but it probably won’t, unless it does. At least it hasn’t happened yet.

But who remembers? If we discuss Obama’s economic record at all now, we probably talk about how anemic the recovery has been. Wages should be higher, poverty lower. “What’s wrong with this guy? Depression? I never worried about a Depression. That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

Something similar has happened with regard to the Islamic State. When ISIS first burst into the public consciousness in the spring of 2014, we weren’t afraid of handfuls of terrorists slipping across borders to carry out operations like the Paris attack last November. Nor did we worry about American individuals giving ISIS the credit for killing sprees like San Bernardino or Orlando (which without the credit to ISIS would be hard to distinguish from secular non-ideological killing sprees like Sandy Hook or Aurora).

In the spring and early summer of 2014, the question was on a different scale: whether Baghdad would fall, leading to the complete collapse of Iraq as a country. Maybe the restored Caliphate, the one Bin Laden had dreamed about but never expected to see, was happening right before our eyes.

In a widely discussed Atlantic article in the spring of 2015 (which I critiqued here), Graeme Wood told us what made ISIS different and far more dangerous that Al Qaeda had been: Large chunks of sharia describe a Muslim’s duties towards the Caliphate, and have been moot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” … In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

By controlling territory and declaring himself Caliph there, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filling a role that an underground leader like Osama bin Laden never could. His advancing forces stirred memories of Muhammad’s armies improbably exploding out of Medina to capture the entire Arabian peninsula, then his successors continuing that rapid expansion until their empire was the largest in the world. The Emperor in Constantinople hadn’t been able to stop the armies of Allah; maybe the President in Washington couldn’t either.

So that was the challenge Obama faced two years ago when he formulated his anti-ISIS strategy: Stop al-Baghdadi’s advance and throw his forces back. But a new American invasion of Iraq (plus Syria) wasn’t a good idea because it would simultaneously

  • play into al-Baghdadi’s end-times fantasies
  • support ISIS’ narrative that it represents all of Islam in a Muslim/Christian holy war
  • cost fabulous amounts of money
  • get lots of American troops killed
  • not be supported by the American people
  • involve us in a new occupation that in the long run would probably be as counter-productive as the last one.

So Obama opted for a slow-strangulation approach instead: Use air power to prevent ISIS from advancing with a massed force, and also to kill its leaders and degrade its territory’s economic resources; aid local anti-ISIS forces like the patched-back-together Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and whatever bands of Syrian rebels seem remotely trustworthy; together with our allies, prevent new recruits from emigrating to the Caliphate; and use our economic power to cut off ISIS’ sources of foreign funding.

He doesn’t get much credit for it, but it’s been working. By January, 2015, ISIS’ forward momentum had ground to a halt, robbing it of its greatest propaganda weapon. Since then, it has slowly but inexorably been losing territory: Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Manbij, and maybe soon Mosul and even the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa. Turkey has intervened in northern Syria, reducing the Islamic State’s ability to shift forces between Syria and Iraq.

One measure of how well the strangulation strategy has been working is that (no matter how often they proclaimed Obama’s ISIS policy a failure) none of the candidates in the Republican primaries offered a real alternative. Any detailed policy they offered was more-or-less what Obama is already doing, perhaps seasoned with some additional macho rhetoric like “carpet bombing” that they didn’t mean literally.

So now it is possible to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when ISIS no longer holds territory, and is only a caliphate in some vague metaphorical sense. Al-Baghdadi himself may go down with the ship, or he may survive as a Bin-Ladin-style underground leader, but his mythic status as a caliph will be gone. Then what happens?

An article by Mark Jurgensmeyer in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs tries to answer that question. In his view, ISIS is really three things:

  • a local Sunni empowerment movement
  • a global jihadist movement
  • an apocalyptic cult

The end of the al-Baghdadi caliphate, Jurgensmeyer thinks, will unbundle those three aspects, and each will have its own future.

Local Sunnis. No matter what happens to ISIS or al-Baghdadi, a lot of Sunnis will still live in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and they still will feel no loyalty to either the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus or the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Eventually, and probably before too long, some political and/or military force will represent their interests again.

The three possibilities are: (1) Baghdad and Damascus re-assert control, but manage to give Sunnis enough respect and local autonomy to keep them happy, (2) Baghdad and Damascus decide they’re glad to be rid of those troublesome provinces and allow the creation of a non-jihadist Sunni state that covers most of the territory ISIS controlled, or (3) the region becomes a failed-state territory, nominally under government control but in practice ruled by warlords of one sort or another. Jurgensmeyer sees some combination of (2) and (3) as the most likely scenario:

In the Sunni heartland of eastern Syria and western Iraq, the Sunni tribal leaders will continue to maintain order, however, the way they always have done. There will be a de facto Sunnistan though not one officially proclaimed.

Global jihadists. For young Muslims who feel alienated from the Western or Western-dominated society where they live (and from the local mosque that attempts to fit into that society), ISIS has been a symbol, a brand, an identity, and a virtual community accessed via the internet. (TPM recently had a more detailed article on ISIS’ use of the internet.) The actual territory of ISIS is a place of aspiration, but most never go there. Recently, the Islamic State has been encouraging sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe to carry out attacks at home.

When Raqqa falls, it will be a huge blow to ISIS’ propaganda, and some recruits may see the err of their ways. But like the Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, they will still be alienated. They will still be searching for an identity as Muslims, and the online jihadist community will be there to welcome them.

The pictures show the ISIS brotherhood together in physical space, but the sense of community appears to be almost as strong in the connections provided through the media of cyberspace.

For this reason, the cyber community of ISIS will likely persist long after the physical control of territory in Syria and Iraq has been abandoned. The digital apparatus of websites, cybermagazines, video uploads, Twitter communications, and dark web locations has been well established and though it may be interrupted by ISIS’s territorial defeat, it likely will be maintained in some form somewhere in the world other than in the ISIS-controlled cities of Raqqah and Mosul. There is no reason to think that they will be entirely dismantled.

… This branding of autonomous terrorist attacks may be part of the dark future of the ISIS global jihadist network. The encouragement of ISIS for individuals to take up bombs against secular and non-supportive Muslim societies leaves room for a plethora of acts of terrorism undertaken for mixed motives but given the legitimization of ISIS ideology through ISIS-branding. Individuals can be comforted by the fact that even though their horrible actions are condemned by most people, including most Muslims, around the globe, their comrades in the online communities forged through Internet connections will digitally applaud their crimes.

In other words: Capturing Raqqa or killing al-Baghdadi won’t stop the next Orlando attack.

This is one reason why American Islamophobia is so counter-productive. Anyone who proclaims that we are at war with Islam is telling our Muslim youth that they have no place in the West and never will. So why shouldn’t they try to burn it all down?

Cultists. One achievement of Wood’s Atlantic article was to introduce the American public to the apocalyptic vision of ISIS’ inner circle. Al-Baghdadi sees himself leading not just a liberation movement, but moving towards a long-prophesied battle of cosmic significance. Jurgensmeyer also emphasizes the importance of this belief:

The reason why some of the foreign fighters are so passionate about the ISIS enterprise is that they are convinced that it is at the leading edge of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will usher in the last days of the planet and signal the arrival of the Islamic savior, the Mahdi. Though only some of the fighters are propelled by this belief, and few Sunnis in ISIS-controlled territory share it, this is a dominant motive of the inner circle of the movement.

This Islamic Armageddon is supposed to happen at Dabiq, a town within ISIS’ control that also provides the name of its online magazine.

When Dabiq falls and the world keeps on spinning, the cultists will have suffered a major blow. Likewise, when al-Baghdadi’s forces splinter into underground bands of rebel fighters and can no longer be called an army in any meaningful sense, the final battle may start to seem very far away.

However, apocalyptic thinking pops up in almost all religions, and never completely goes away. Jurgensmeyer sees this aspect of ISIS surviving in small groups, many of which will be benign because they will lack the means to carry out their visions. However, the ability of small groups of extremists to occasionally do horrible things should not be forgotten.

Summing up. For a time, al-Baghdadi assembled religion, propaganda, territorial control, and military force into a threat to the Western-dominated world order that went far beyond anything Bin Laden wielded. President Obama’s strategy has addressed that threat without over-reacting. It has not given us the falling-Saddam-statue moments many would like, but it has been effective. Soon, probably during his successor’s term, that special threat will be broken.

But when it is, the Bin-Laden-style terror-attack threat will continue, and the political problems of Sunnis in Iraq/Syria will remain. The wellspring of violence is not charismatic leadership or clever propaganda, it is an alienated populace. That’s something you can’t solve with air power or the conquest of cities.

The Monday Morning Teaser

With all the partisan back-and-forth of the election, it’s easy for Americans to lose track of what’s going on in the world, or to see entire regions of the Earth as little more than footballs for the candidates to kick back and forth. Resisting that trend, this week I look at how the battle against ISIS is going. And the answer is: surprisingly well, but victory probably won’t solve all the problems we think it will. This week’s featured post “ISIS is losing, but what happens next?” should be out by 9 EDT.

In the weekly summary, I can’t stop myself from getting pulled into the journalistic black hole of the election. Trump has continued to gain in the polls, and Nate Silver’s best model still sees Clinton as the favorite, but gives her only a 60% chance of victory. The Birther issue returned this week. Clinton came back from her bout of pneumonia. Trump once again hinted at her assassination. You know, just another week on the campaign trail. We’ve got six more of them to look forward to.

But other stuff is happening too. Electric cars are about to take a significant step forward in terms of both range and affordability. The Census Bureau released the most upbeat report I’ve seen in years: In 2015, the economic recovery actually started to reach the people who need it. Britain is still trying to figure out what Brexit means. And if you want to carry concealed weapons without the hassle of getting any training or filling out a bunch of forms, Missouri just rolled out the red carpet for you. (For some odd reason, Missouri police aren’t thrilled about all the help they’re going to be getting from “good guys with guns”.)

Expect to see the weekly summary before noon.

So Clear

A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.

– David Hilbert

This week’s featured post is “Instead of Dumbing Down“. It’s basically my explanation of how to explain things.

This week everybody was talking about the Commander in Chief Forum

This was supposed to be a preview of the presidential debates, with Clinton and Trump appearing on the same stage, one right after the other, and fielding questions from the same audience (military veterans on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, anchored in New York harbor) and moderator (Matt Lauer). If you missed it, you can watch the full video or read the transcript.

It’s not obvious whether either candidate “won” the Forum, but the clear losers were Matt Lauer and the country. Each of the two interviews was terrible in its own way. Lauer opened Hillary’s interview with a softball: “What is the most important characteristic that a commander-in-chief can possess?” But when her answer (steadiness) didn’t give him the segue he wanted, Lauer badgered her into repeating the word judgment, which is the Trump-campaign codeword for a long list of stuff. That gave him his transition into a long discussion of her emails, leaving only a little time to talk about ISIS, and none at all for Russia, China, NATO, and a lot of other important matters.

Trump’s interview consisted almost entirely of softballs, like “What kind of things are you reading as you prepare for the day in two months where you might be elected the next president of the United States?” When Trump repeated his predictable and easily refutable lie about being “totally against the war in Iraq”, Lauer moved on without comment.

Josh Marshall believes that Lauer actually did Trump some damage by not challenging him:

he was a sort of Trump whisperer, nudging Trump on to expand on his ridiculous points. At various points he simply let Trump be Trump. And that turned out to be really bad for Trump.

He drew Trump into gobbledygook about his plan for fighting ISIS (which he either has had all along or is going to ask the generals for or is going to combine the two plans or something), into fawning over Vladimir Putin, into saying that rape in the military comes from putting “men and women together”, into expressing his distrust of our current generals, into saying that we should have taken Iraq’s oil, and so on.

Trump’s valentine to Putin — “he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader”, admiration for his high approval rating (in a country where criticizing him can get you killed), and his “very strong control over a country” — was subsequently echoed by Mike Pence and the Twitter followers of GOP public-opinion expert Frank Luntz.

Slate’s Joshua Keating brings in the disturbing context:

Today’s Russia is a place where government officials are corrupt, life expectancy remains stubbornly low, young soldiers are sent to die in wars their government won’t even acknowledge, opposition politicians and critical journalists are murdered or arrested in alarming numbers, LGBTQ people are subject to state-sanctioned violence, and entire regions are run as the personal fiefdoms of despotic warlords.

Trump’s evidence that he was against the Iraq War from the beginning (March, 2003) was an Esquire interview from August, 2004, as opposed to the interview before the war where he supported an invasion. But even to Esquire, he doesn’t say what he would have done or not done, he just criticizes how the invasion has turned out. As National Review pointed out back in February:

In keeping with his penchant for playing all sides of every game, Donald Trump was silent on Iraq right up to the moment at which it turned nasty. He must not be allowed to pretend otherwise.

It’s important to realize just how bizarre his re-remembering of history has been. In a Republican debate, he spun a wild fantasy about a delegation that came from the White House to “silence” him, because his criticism of the upcoming invasion was getting so much publicity in stories that no one can find now.

Combined with the continued tightening of the polls, the Forum “shocked and horrified” Jonathan Chait, who “had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency” until witnessing this failure of journalism.

John Amato, though, wonders if the ultimate effect will be positive: The moderators of the debates must have been watching, and one hopes they will be trying not to make the same mistakes. This could be part of another turning: The Washington Post finally admits that “The Hillary Clinton Email Story is Out of Control“.

In fact, Ms. Clinton’s emails have endured much more scrutiny than an ordinary person’s would have, and the criminal case against her was so thin that charging her would have been to treat her very differently. Ironically, even as the email issue consumed so much precious airtime, several pieces of news reported Wednesday should have taken some steam out of the story. …

Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.

For what it’s worth, the tightening in the polls may already have turned: Nate Silver’s polls-plus model had its tightest spread on September 7, and has eased slightly since then.

and Hillary’s health

Sunday, Clinton left a 9-11 anniversary event and had to be helped into an SUV; she looked like she was about to collapse. Later in the day, she was walking down a sidewalk, waving to people, and answering reporter’s questions, saying she felt “great”. Her doctor reports that she has been suffering from pneumonia, and got dehydrated.

The open question is how much mainstream cover this will give to all the wild conspiracy theories that have been spun about her health, including everything from seizures to brain damage.

and the “basket of deplorables”

At a fund-raiser Friday, Clinton separated Trump supporters into two baskets, which basically are the ones Democrats should be reaching out to and the ones we can’t reach out to.

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of these folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket–and I know this because I see friends from all over America here–I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas–as well as, you know, New York and California–but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Trump’s people are trying to turn this into a gaffe comparable to Mitt Romney’s 47% speech, but I’m not seeing it. The “deplorable” group — the racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes — is she wrong that they’re deplorable? Is she wrong that they’re united behind Trump, and that he is moving their rhetoric into the mainstream?

and the Kaepernick protest spreads

This weekend opened the NFL football regular season, and a number of players demonstrated in one way or another during the national anthem, by kneeling, raising fists, linking arms as a group, and so on. There’s no telling where this goes from here. In the meantime, I’ll yield the floor to the Liberal Redneck.

but there was good news from North Dakota

The Keystone XL Pipeline (rejected by the Obama administration last November) got all the headlines, but it’s far from the only pipeline project. More recently, Native American groups have united to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Friday, it looked like they had lost, when a court rejected the request for an injunction stopping the project. But within hours, the Obama administration stepped in with a temporary halt until the Army Corps of Engineers could reevaluate.

and let’s close with something adorable

Sometimes a lullaby just works.