The Monday Morning Teaser

Most weeks I face the same quandary: Do I go for the bright, shiny object and focus entirely on Trump’s latest outrage, or do I put aside that immediate emotional rush and call attention to the broader issues facing the country and the world?

This week, though, I give in. I spent most of the week reading the Mueller Report, and just about the entire Sift this week is either about the report itself, how the report was handled, or reactions to the report. Climate change, income inequality, and health care will have to claim my attention some other week.

The first featured post, which is pretty much done and should be out before 9 EDT, concerns the most disturbing thing we learn in the report, a conclusion Mueller refuses to draw himself, but that we can draw from the information he provides: Trump obstructed justice. In “Yes, Obstruction”, I’ll explain Mueller’s reasons for not drawing the conclusion himself, and then go through the ten incidents he examines — six of which have all components of obstruction.

The question that follows is: What should be done about that? Is it time for impeachment? I foresaw this moment (or something like it) last June, and made sure to write down my ideas about impeachment then, precisely to avoid crafting my opinions around the case we happen to have. In today’s second featured post, I’ll do my best to apply those standards to the present situation. That may take a while, so I’ll guess the post will be out around noon. The weekly summary, which is mostly about other people’s reactions to the report, with a little extra about the Notre Dame fire, the Sri Lanka bombings, and a few other things (culminating with Sesame Street characters trying to teach HBO characters about respect) should be out around 1 or so.


At long last, it is Spring. All around us, the ancient miracle is happening once again. The season of Death is behind us, and new life is springing up. You have an invitation to join that renewal, but the Earth will not wait for you. So don’t delay until the yeast has raised the dough; make your bread without it. Have your walking stick ready; it’s time to go. The stone has been rolled away and the path to the light is open.

Are you coming? It’s too late to wish you could be replanted somewhere else, because it’s time to sprout. Here. Now. It’s Easter.

– from my 2013 sermon “Struggling With Easter

This week’s featured post is “Buttigieg vs. Pence“. You also might want to look at the church service the quote above is from. I’ve never liked Easter services, but that year I volunteered to lead a service in my hometown without realizing that date was Easter. With some trepidation, I accepted the challenge and did an all-spring-holidays-at-once service. I’m happy with how it came out. If you don’t care for Easter services either, check it out.

This week everybody was wondering whether the administration will obey the law

This was a question that united a number of news stories: the purge at DHS, Mnuchin’s refusal to let the House Ways and Means chair see Trump’s tax returns, the plan to dump detained immigrants in sanctuary cities, and whether Trump offered a pardon to the Custom and Borders Protection Commissioner to induce him to ignore laws about applicants for asylum.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned last Monday, just in time for me to mention it in last week’s summary. Tuesday, Acting Deputy Secretary Clare Grady was also forced out, leaving the Department in the hands of the next-in-line, Kevin McAleenan.

Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles was ousted, and at least two officials have been named as possibly heading out the door: US Citizenship and Immigration Services director Francis Cissna and Office of the General Counsel’s John Mitnick.

On April 5, Trump withdrew his nomination of Ron Vitiello to lead ICE, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher direction”. Vitiello was already the acting head of ICE.

Thursday, a Washington Post scoop began to flesh out what a “tougher” head of ICE might do.

The White House believed it could punish Democrats — including Pelosi — by busing ICE detainees into their districts before their release, according to two DHS whistleblowers who independently reported the busing plan to Congress. … Homeland Security officials said the sanctuary city request was unnerving, and it underscores the political pressure Trump and Miller have put on ICE and other DHS agencies at a time when the president is furious about the biggest border surge in more than a decade.

“It was basically an idea that Miller wanted that nobody else wanted to carry out,” said one congressional investigator who has spoken to one of the whistleblowers. “What happened here is that Stephen Miller called people at ICE, said if they’re going to cut funding, you’ve got to make sure you’re releasing people in Pelosi’s district and other congressional districts.”

… “It was retaliation, to show [Democrats in Congress], ‘Your lack of cooperation has impacts,’ ” said one of the DHS officials, summarizing the rationale. “I think they thought it would put pressure on those communities to understand, I guess, a different perspective on why you need more immigration money for detention beds.”

Administration sources initially described this as a “nonstory”, but then Trump himself verified it.

Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities

CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin:

These are human beings, and treat treat them like a form of plague that you want to impose on your enemies is really grotesque.

This fits into the larger context of the Trump administration breaking down barriers between politics and law enforcement. Little by little, we are losing the democratic ideal that political appointees set priorities and make policy, while the government’s career professionals are mission-driven and carry out their jobs apolitically. Instead, Trump is moving us toward the authoritarian model where everything is political.

Masha Gessen makes a good point: This is one of those stories that is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know how to respond. Merely pointing out the illegality of using government resources to punish uncooperative congresspeople yields a point that shouldn’t be yielded: These immigrants are not a plague. They don’t bring crime and drugs and disease as Trump keeps claiming.

The response Gessen favors is similar to the one given by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan:

Here’s a message to President Trump: Seattle is not afraid of immigrants and refugees. … This president believes that immigrants and refugees burden our country and burden cities like ours. But he could not be more wrong. In Seattle, we know that our immigrant and refugee communities make our city a stronger, more vibrant place. … So if this president wants to send immigrants and refugees to Seattle and other welcoming cities, let me be clear: We will do what we have always done, and we will be stronger for it. And it will only strengthen our commitment to fighting for the dignity of every person. We will not allow any administration to use the power of America to destroy the promise of America.

I think it’s important to keep telling immigrants’ stories, because they’re so antithetical to the image Trump is trying to sell us. Mother Jones tells about Ansly Damus, a Haitian who legally sought asylum in the US, and has been held like a prisoner for two years.

Friday, the New York Times added:

President Trump last week privately urged Kevin McAleenan, the border enforcement official he was about to name as acting secretary of homeland security, to close the southwestern border to migrants despite having just said publicly that he was delaying a decision on the step for a year, according to three people briefed about the conversation.

It was not clear what Mr. Trump meant by his request or his additional comment to Mr. McAleenan that he would pardon him if he encountered any legal problems as a result of taking the action.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal requested six years of Trump’s tax returns last week. The law authorizing him to make this request is clear: It instructs the IRS to deliver the documents.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is delaying, while not admitting that he intends to disobey the law. Instead, he pretends that there is some kind of legitimate legal issue here.

Mnuchin, who has consulted with the White House and Department of Justice about Trump’s tax returns, said earlier this week that Neal’s request raised concerns about the scope of the committee’s authority, privacy protections for U.S. taxpayers and the legislative purpose of lawmakers in seeking the documents.

Think about what Mnuchin is putting forward here: that the executive branch has the right to judge the “legislative purpose” of the legislative branch. In other words, Congress is not really an equal branch of government.

Sarah Sanders to Fox News’ Chris Wallace:

Frankly, Chris, I don’t think Congress — particularly not this group of congressmen and women — are smart enough to look through the thousands of pages that I would assume that President Trump’s taxes will be,” Sanders said. “My guess is most of them don’t do their own taxes, and I certainly don’t trust them to look through the decades of success that the president has and determine anything.

It’s laughable that Trump can question the intelligence of Chairman Neal.

and a black hole

or at least a picture of where one ought to be.

and the Israeli elections

Netanyahu will be prime minister for another term. Israel will impose its will on Palestine, and keep pushing until there’s another intifada. I continue to believe that ultimately this situation is headed towards an ethnic cleansing.

and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had been inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London for the last seven years, until Thursday, when British police arrested him after Ecuador stopped granting asylum.

His arrest raises a bunch of issues about freedom of the press that I haven’t unraveled yet — like “What’s the difference between journalism and espionage?” — so for now I’ll just link to a CNN article that points to the complexity.

and Brexit

There’s a new deadline: Halloween. It’s still not clear what will be different then.

Channel 4 commentator Jon Snow (not the Game of Thrones guy) touched off an uproar while he was covering a rally outside the Prime Minister’s residence by angry pro-Brexit protesters. “I’ve never seen so many white people in one place,” he said.

Why, wondered Myriam François in The Guardian, would white people be upset to be identified as white people?

First, white people are not used to being marked out by race. Despite habitually racialising others, we generally don’t take well to being racialised ourselves. Acknowledging our “whiteness” means accepting that our worldview isn’t universal nor objective. It is a white perspective, forged by a particular experience. The “facts of whiteness”, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, make many white people uncomfortable.

It’s telling that Snow’s remark has sparked more outrage than the fact that a rally held in a city with 40% black and minority-ethnic population was almost entirely white. Far-right extremist Tommy Robinson addressed crowds in Parliament Square and somehow this doesn’t raise questions about race? If we weren’t so intent on ringfencing white people from any introspection, white people themselves might legitimately ask why the leave campaign has attracted so many racists and so few people of colour.

and you also might be interested in …

If Attorney General Barr has been telling the truth, his redacted version of the Mueller report should come out this week. (Thursday, possibly.) Trump has gotten nearly a month to shape a “no collusion, no obstruction” narrative, which his base will probably continue to believe even if the report says something different.

The Trump tweet linking Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and 9-11 is not worth discussing in itself. The speech Omar’s one line was lifted from was making the point that Muslims are not collectively guilty for 9-11, so attacking their civil liberties was unjustified. Trump’s tweet essentially makes the point that Muslims are collectively guilty for 9-11. I think we all (in one way or another) resemble people who have done bad things, so any support for the idea of collective guilt should threaten all of us.

What is worth discussing is the role Trump is playing in what has come to be called “stochastic terrorism“. Omar reports that her death threats have skyrocketed since Trump’s tweet, and Nancy Pelosi has asked the House Sergeant-at-Arms to pay special attention to Omar’s security, noting that Trump’s “hateful and inflammatory rhetoric creates real danger”.

Trump himself is not threatening to kill Omar, and he is not conspiring with any particular assassin. But he knows full well the kind of people who are out there, and how they might react to what he says.

It took about a month for New Zealand to change its gun laws after the horrific March 15 mosque shootings. The Prime Minister got behind a bill to ban military-style assault weapons, and Parliament passed it 119-1 on Wednesday.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been raising the question of whether Republicans would allow Trump to fill the Federal Reserve Board of Governors with stooges like Stephen Moore and Herman Cain. I mean, it’s one thing to let know-nothings take charge of education or public housing or the environment, but this is money we’re talking about. Billionaires and multinational corporations are counting on money to continue having meaning, so you’d think Republicans in Congress would want to keep the likes of Moore and Cain from screwing around with it.

It turns out they do. Four Republican senators — Cramer, Romeny, Murkowski, and Gardner — have come out against Cain’s nomination, which pretty much dooms it. Stephen Moore still might get the job.

Politico’s account of Trump’s visit to Mount Vernon sounds like something from The Onion.

“If [George Washington] was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The tour was for visiting French President Emmanuel Macron, who was more into it than Trump.

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

I suspect if you picked a subject at random, Macron would be more knowledgeable about it than Trump.

I’m looking forward to a book that comes out this week: A Lot of People Are Saying by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum. It talks about conspiracy theories, and about a subtly different concept: conspiracism.

In an interview with Vox, Rosenblum explains the distinction: Conspiracy theories are attempts to explain something, and often to re-explain randomness by imposing a cause-and-effect structure on it, however unlikely. In my view, Kennedy assassination theories are the archetypes: It seemed inconceivable that a lone loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could bring down a popular president, so bigger explanations were invented.

Conspiracism, though, is “conspiracy without the theory”. There are no dots to connect, just a bald assertion that somebody you don’t like is up to something.

For example, Trump’s claim that elections are rigged to favor Democrats (and hence that he’d have won the popular vote without the millions of illegal Hillary votes) is not an actual conspiracy theory, because he offers no explanation of how this could have happened. It’s not at all like a Kennedy-assassination theory, where the theorists can drown you in detail.

It would be great if white people would listen to black people’s explanations of privilege, but for a lot of whites that’s just never going to happen. So there’s a need for articles like this one by white NBA player Kyle Korver, where a white guy suddenly gets it.

By the way, there have been several books lately that belie the stereotype of the dumb jock. For example, look at Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett or The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and what matters in the end.

I’ve got to plug an explanation of the current Supreme Court gerrymandering cases co-authored by my nephew Mike Stephens, a recently-minted lawyer.

and let’s close with some low-tech high-tech

One of the problems with renewable energy sources like wind and solar power is how to regulate the flow: the times when you need the most power may not be the times when the most power is being generated. A lot of work has gone into designing batteries, but a conceptually simpler idea may work better: stacking concrete blocks. When you have more power than you need, you build the tower higher. When you need more power than you have, you let a block fall, generating power as it goes.

Another company is working on a similar notion, but instead of building a tower, it raises and lowers weights inside a deep mine shaft.

Buttigieg vs. Pence

Liberals have been yielding the high ground on religion for far too long. Maybe that’s going to stop.

There are two ways to seek people’s political support: You can lay out policy proposals to address the problems that concern them — like Medicare for All or a plan to cancel student debt — or you can show them that you’re on their side by taking on the people that threaten or intimidate them.

It’s not an either/or, of course. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has no trouble taking on the bankers who illegally foreclosed on your house while at the same time laying out policies that would stop them from foreclosing on someone else. Ultimately, a politician’s willingness to fight for you in the public square will come to nothing if he or she doesn’t also enact substantive changes after taking office.

But if you doubt the power of a pure I’ll-stand-up-to-your-enemies message, you need look no farther back than 2016. Candidate Trump’s policy proposals were often an incoherent mess. He said he’d replace ObamaCare something “fantastic” and “wonderful” that would take care of everybody. The government would pay for it, but it would neither raise your taxes or impinge on your freedom. (That’s not a synopsis of his program; that’s the whole program.) His foreign policy was both bellicose and promised an end to the endless wars. He was in favor of both LGBT rights and the religious right. He would simultaneously cut taxes, increase defense spending, and repay the national debt. He promised to build a wall, while his supporters argued among themselves about whether the wall would be literal or metaphorical.

But whatever he might propose, and however he might contradict that proposal the next time he opened his mouth, one part of Trump’s message was clear, and remains clear today: If you feel threatened by immigrants of color, by people who don’t speak English, by scientists who think they’re smarter than you, or by advocates of “political correctness” who tell you that you can’t say this or do that any more, then Trump has your back. If you’re sick of liberals calling you “racist” or “sexist”, well, Trump glories in being called those names, and strikes back at the accusers twice as hard.

A week ago yesterday, in his own soft-spoken way, Pete Buttigieg did something similar: At the annual champagne brunch of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, he took on Vice President Mike Pence by name, and challenged the religious right not just politically, but morally and religiously. When his words got national attention and Pence answered (dishonestly), Buttigieg did not back down.

The message was clear: He’s not intimidated by Mike Pence, so you don’t need to be either. And if the “Mike Pences of this world” think that they own religion or Christianity or words like morality and freedom, then Pete Buttigieg has news for them.

The speech. His 19-minute speech is worth listening to in its entirety, if you have the time. He is talking to a friendly audience of those who fight for LGBTQ rights, so it may not be as immediately courageous as, say, Catholic JFK’s speech to the protestant ministers of Houston. But in an era when everything is recorded, everything gets out, and your words live on forever in hard drives all over the world, it is quite striking.

We often hear the term “gay pride”. Buttigieg’s speech is a clear and simple assertion of gay pride. He’s not claiming to be better than straight people, but he’s also not apologizing for his sexuality or hoping that critics will ignore it. He is proud of his life, proud of his marriage, and proud of the spouse he married. He will not keep Chasten hidden and hope that his opponents will be gracious enough not to bring him up. Instead, Buttigieg talks about meeting Chasten, and adds:

One of the best things about these last couple months has been watching America meet him too, and start to fall for Chasten just like I did.

But he then goes on to talk about his struggle to accept his sexual orientation.

When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallways in school or the dining halls in college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war would have been settled on the terms that I would have wished for when I was 15, or 20, or frankly even 25, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water.

It is a hard thing to think about. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.

The room is completely silent at this point. What he is presenting is the religious right’s fantasy: that homosexuality is curable, and that 15-year-olds like Buttigieg could be offered the chance to sign up for some kind of conversion therapy (which is now illegal in 16 states, partly because it doesn’t work, and partly because forcing a child into such therapy is believed to increase the risk of suicide). The fantasy says that these men will be grateful later, when they look back on a life that includes wives and naturally-conceived children. But Buttigieg represents the polar opposite of that fantasy: Looking back on his life, he is grateful that he didn’t get that choice.

The real reason it’s so hard to think about is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten. The best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. … How dark the thought, that the man that I admire and care about, and love sharing with the rest of the country, and even more importantly, can’t wait to share one day with raising children, might not have been part of my life at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.

And “thank God” is not just figure of speech. It segues Buttigieg into religion, and into the moral issue of marriage equality.

It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being, because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.

He explains exactly what “closer to God” means to him.

You may be religious and you may not. But if you are, and you are also queer, and you have come through the other side of a period of wishing that you weren’t, then you know that that message, this idea that there’s something wrong with you, is a message that puts you at war not only with yourself, but with your Maker.

And speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand: that if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.

The response. This is a story and an argument that many straight Americans have never heard: Accepting your sexual orientation or gender identity or some other aspect of yourself (that you didn’t choose and can’t un-choose) can be part of a journey of coming to terms with God.

The religious right will tell you that accepting homosexuality means rejecting God. (In a Fox News piece responding to Buttigieg, Log Cabin Republican Rob Smith says precisely that: “those on the left … have been very successful at convincing a generation of young gays and lesbians to reject God in favor of their cult of intersectionality and identity politics.”) It will tell you that gays want to tear down Christianity, and that the point of same-sex marriage is to undermine marriage in general. But Buttigieg is saying the exact opposite: Accepting how you were made is part of accepting God’s creation.

Buttigieg is challenging not the politics of the religious right, but its morality and its theology. This isn’t just about the Constitution or the law, it’s about what it means to be in right relation with God.

You can tell how threatening Buttigieg’s message is to the Mike Pences of the world by how hard they try not to hear it, and to pretend that Buttigieg said something else. Pence himself responded with this non sequitur:

I hope that Pete will offer more to the American people than attacks on my Christian faith or attacks on the President as he seeks the highest office in the land. He’d do well to reflect on the importance of respecting the freedom of religion of every American.

But Buttigieg didn’t “attack” anybody’s Christian faith. He challenged Pence’s interpretation of it. In particular, there was no attack on Pence’s “religious freedom”. No one, least of all Buttigieg, is preventing Pence from believing whatever he wants, from trying to convince others to agree with him, or from living his faith. [1]

But you know what prominent conservatives did next? They attacked Buttigieg’s Christian faith. Erick Erickson, for example, described progressive Christianity as “hypocritical farce”  and “corrupt and flawed”. The Episcopal Church that Buttigieg belongs to “is no longer a Christian institution“.

Buttigieg did not back down to Pence, saying:

I don’t have a problem with religion. I’m religious too. I have a problem with religion being used as a justification to harm people. … I’m not interested in feuding with the Vice President. But if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say that he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are.

Some very old arguments. Buttigieg’s challenge brings up several longstanding theological issues that conservative Christians would prefer to sweep under the rug. Though different, they all revolve around the notion that (in spite of the purported changelessness of Christian doctrine) the image of God that was taught centuries ago is something most people just can’t believe in today. [2]

One of those issues is predestination, the idea that God’s omniscience included knowledge of the destiny of the souls He was creating. [3] From the beginning of time, a few souls were predestined for Heaven and the vast majority for Hell. This belief turns God into a monster, because He created most of humanity for no other purpose than to torture them for all eternity.

Current religious-right teachings about gender and sexuality contain echoes of this monstrosity. If LGBTQ people in their many varieties are not choosing a lifestyle, but in fact are discovering an inner nature that has been theirs from birth, and if that nature either damns them to eternal torment or permanently cuts them off from sex, children, and the kind of deep relationship that Buttigieg describes making with Chasten, then something very similar to predestination is happening. [4]

An even larger and older issue goes back to the reformulations of the Axial Age, which never quite completed its mission: Is religion fundamentally about a list of rules and the rewards and punishments that enforce those rules? Or is it about becoming (in Buttigieg’s words) “more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent”. If it is about rules, do those rules have to make sense, or is their very arbitrariness a measure of God’s majesty? [5] In the Christian tradition, this issue is the heart of the New Testament arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees. But the modern religious right has forgotten Jesus and taken the Pharisee side: The rules are the rules, and if we have to be cruel to enforce them, that’s just how it is.

And finally, there is the issue that religion itself can become a kind of idol: Rather than worshiping God, you can find yourself worshiping a scripture or a church or a set or rituals.

It’s not surprising that the religious right doesn’t want to talk about any of this.

We’re not supposed to challenge them. Conservative Christians have gotten used to being able to define the playing field. When they involve themselves in political discussions, we are all supposed to accept as given that they are good, decent people who are just trying to live according to their faith. We are supposed to accept the moral and theological premises they offer, and yield to them all the powerful vocabulary and imagery of Christianity.

But they don’t deserve that kind of consideration. They are offering us a God who is monstrous, and a religion that justifies discrimination and bigotry. They need to be called on that, not just because it’s bad law and bad politics, but because it’s bad religion.

I’m still waiting for a detailed set of policies from Buttigieg, and who knows whether I’ll like it when I see it. But this part of the message he’s gotten right.

[1] I won’t go into this in detail today, because I already have here and here. What masquerades as “religious freedom” for conservative Christians is actually a demand for special rights. They want a special exemption from discrimination laws, because they’re Christians. As the cartoon below demonstrates, it’s laughable to imagine the rights that conservative Christians claim being applied generally, to issues other than their hobby horses of homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.

[2] I mean can’t in a literal sense. If you can picture such a being at all, you will feel revulsion, not awe or wonder. If this is God, then maybe Lucifer was right to rebel.

[3] I’m describing God as “He” here, because in the theologies I’m describing, God is male. That’s not something I do when I describe my own beliefs.

[4] In contrast to Buttigieg’s coming closer to God, Chris Steadman describes (in the book Faitheist) going through a period of rage at a God who created him gay and then condemned gays to Hell.

In Evolving in Monkey Town Rachel Held Evans, whose path of spiritual growth has taken her out of Evangelicalism and into the Episcopal religion that Erickson finds so objectionable, recounts one of the first cracks in her childhood faith: Going on a mission trip to China, looking out a bus window, and realizing that a billion people out there were going to Hell. What kind of God would set the world up like that?

[5] Occasionally you’ll hear the conundrum expressed like this: Do we worship God because He is good, or because He is God? In an earlier era, this question made sense, but today we are more inclined to ask: Why would we worship a God who is not good?

The Monday Morning Teaser

If AG Barr has been telling the truth, his redacted version of the Mueller Report should be out this week. There’s little point in speculating about what it will say or how much of it we’ll get to see, but all the same it was odd how little of the week the news shows spent discussing it. What we saw instead was Trump’s ability to control the narrative by doing and saying outrageous things.

One piece of news he didn’t control was the back-and-forth between Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Pence, which I’m going to focus on in the featured post. It started eight days ago with Buttigieg’s speech to the LGBTQ Victory fund, in which he pointed out the main theological weakness in the religious right’s anti-gay position: God’s creation includes people born to be gay. If you are one of those people, accepting yourself as gay can be a big piece of making your peace with God.

It has been fascinating to watch Pence (who was mentioned by name in Buttigieg’s speech) and the rest of the religious right wriggle and distort to avoid meeting Buttigieg’s challenge. This is really not a conversation they want to have. My post on this, which includes video of the full 19-minute speech, should be out between 9 and 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will say very little about the Mueller Report, because we still don’t know anything about it. But there’s a lot else to discuss: whether the administration will obey the law on a number of fronts (including the border and Trump’s taxes), Netanyahu’s re-election, Julian Assange, the new Brexit deadline, and a few other things. It should be out between noon and 1.

Alarm Bells

It is deeply alarming that the Trump administration official who put children in cages is reportedly resigning because she is not extreme enough for the White House’s liking.

Nancy Pelosi

There is no featured post this week. This summary is all I’m posting.

This week everybody was talking about the cover up

I’m ready to start describing the slow-walking of the Mueller Report as a cover-up. The Mueller Report has been done for more than two weeks, and all the public or Congress has seen is a four-page summary that we now have reason to believe is inaccurate.

During the investigation the Mueller team was famous for not leaking. They published indictments and made motions in court that became part of the public record. Beyond that, our information came second-hand, from the witnesses they interviewed, from lawyers for potential targets of the investigation, and from watching who came or left the courtroom.

This week they began to leak. It started with a New York Times article on Wednesday:

Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

The Washington Post confirmed via their own sources that the investigators were unhappy with Barr’s conclusion that the President had not obstructed justice.

[M]embers of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant. “It was much more acute than Barr suggested,” said one person, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

Barr originally said that his redacted version would be available by mid-April “if not sooner”. That’s in the next week or so. Assuming he follows through, we’ll see then whether the redactions are insubstantial enough to be worth a what-were-you-worried about response, or so extensive as to be one big fuck-you to Congress and the public.

In either case, Congress needs to know what Mueller found out, and not just what Trump’s hand-picked protector deigns to tell them.

In a similar story about Congress’ oversight duty, Democrats are also trying to get Trump’s tax returns.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) Wednesday evening sent IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig a request for six-years worth of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Neal made the request under a part of section 6103 of the federal tax code that states that the Treasury Secretary “shall furnish” tax returns to the chairmen of Congress’s tax committees upon written request, so long as the documents are viewed in a closed session.

According to Maddowblog’s Steve Benen, section 6103 was put in the tax code in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, which centered on President Harding’s Treasury secretary. Up until then, only the President had the power to examine tax returns, but Teapot Dome brought up the possibility that the President might be politically motivated not to investigate his own administration. So the appropriate committee chairs in the House and Senate were also given the power.

Since this is the Trump administration, the fact that the law is clear doesn’t mean it will be followed, at least not without a fight. (Chief of Staff Mulvaney pledges that Democrats will “never” see Trump’s taxes.) Republicans in Congress seem likely, once again, to back Trump in his attempt to subvert Congress’ legal power.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Thursday that courts have ruled that congressional requests for information need to have legitimate legislative purposes, and Democrats have fallen short on that front.

The administration routinely rejects courts looking into whether its own actions have legitimate purposes, arguing instead that the judicial branch owes deference to the executive branch’s judgments. (This came up, for example, in the Muslim ban case, where Trump’s claims about national security were clearly specious. It will likely come up again in the lawsuits of his border-wall national emergency, which is similarly based on nonsense.)

Section 6103 hasn’t been invoked since Watergate, because Trump is the first post-Watergate presidential candidate to keep his tax returns secret. It’s illuminating to watch both sides spin this dearth of examples. Fox News describes this as “the first such demand for a sitting president’s tax information in 45 years” while Benen notes that “no administration has ever denied a lawmaker access to tax returns under this law”.

A subsequent Fox News article links to the first one to back up its clearly false claim that the Democrats have made an “unprecedented demand“. Again, the only unprecedented thing here (at least in the post-Watergate era) is that the President’s tax returns are not already public. The last time a president’s returns weren’t public (i.e., Nixon), Congress received them under Section 6103.

My guess: Not even this Supreme Court can ignore such a clear statement of law. The main question is how long Trump’s legal challenges can delay the matter.

and Joe Biden’s touching problem

Biden still hasn’t announced his candidacy, but it’s looking more and more like a foregone conclusion that he will. This week he put out an I-get-it video to respond to the accusations of inappropriate touching. It wasn’t exactly an apology, but he acknowledged that standards of propriety have changed and promised “I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.” That started an is-that-good-enough debate that got more intense after he joked about having permission to hug a child.

One problem Democrats are having dealing with situations like this is that abuse-of-women is often framed as a where-to-draw-the-line problem. But like many problems, abuse is a continuum that ranges from the annoying to the criminal.

What Biden has been accused of doing is down in the second-lowest row. (Accusations against Trump and Brett Kavanaugh are much higher up.) Biden denies having bad intentions, and so far no one has claimed otherwise. But it’s still not OK. Doing what Biden did creates opportunities for people who want to do worse.

We’re also struggling over how to forgive inappropriate behavior, and how one should seek forgiveness. I think a lot of people in privileged groups — not just men, but also whites, straights, cis-gender, and so forth — share a partly-but-not-entirely-irrational fear of being exiled to Siberia for violating (through obliviousness rather than malice) some norm we’d never heard of before. (That fear hit close to home recently. I’m a contributing editor for UU World magazine. In the current issue, one of the other contributing editors published an article that a number of transgender and gender-nonbinary people found offensive, and for which the magazine has apologized. It was disturbingly easy for me to imagine winding up in a similar situation myself.)

I found this how-to-respond graphic helpful.

I wasn’t planning to support Biden in the primaries anyway, though I’ll happily vote for him over Trump if he is the nominee, and I’m not inclined to trash him unnecessarily. To me, this flap is not so damaging in itself, but putting a weight on Biden’s negative pan raises the question: What are the positives that we’re counting on to outweigh this?

Biden arrived at the Senate in 1973 as a 30-year-old whiz kid. He came of age politically in an era shaped by Reagan’s annihilation of Carter in 1980 and Mondale in 1984, Dukakis’ landslide loss in 1988, the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and Bill Clinton’s successful rightward shift in 1996. During that time liberals became timid, and felt that they needed some signature conservative issues and sound bites to prove that they weren’t crazy McGovernites.

All that stuff will return to haunt him in the coming months, making him look inauthentic. He’s not really inauthentic, or at least no more than anybody else. He’s just a politician of his time and place. But this is a different time, and once the campaign gets rolling I think candidates who don’t have to answer for the 1980s and 1990s will have an advantage over him.

and Brexit

Brexit is one of those strange situations where every conceivable outcome is accompanied by a rational and coherent explanation of why it can’t happen. But something will have to happen, at least eventually.

Friday is the latest deadline for that Something, but no one knows what it is yet, so Prime Minister May is seeking an extension to June 30. (What will change by then is unclear.) This would mean that the UK participates in European Parliament elections in May. All 27 of the other EU nations would have to agree to the extension. If not, the disaster of a no-deal Brexit could happen as early as Friday.

The biggest obstacle to implementing any form of Brexit is the Good Friday Agreement that ended the so-called “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The GFA requires a soft border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which remains in the EU). But control of the border (to keep out immigrants not just from Syria, but also from <gasp> Poland) is what Brexit was all about in the first place. If job-stealing Poles or terrorist Muslims can walk in from Ireland, Brexiteers ask, what was the point? On the other hand, no one wants the Troubles back.

The New Yorker has a clear explanation of all the possible resolutions of Brexit’s Irish-border problem, and why each of them is opposed by some veto-wielding party.

I have a tangential personal connection to the Troubles. In 1985, I attended an IEEE information-theory conference at the Metropole Hotel in the English seaside resort of Brighton. (Claude Shannon spoke, and, though clearly aging, was still dexterous enough to juggle oranges.) The original announcement had sited the conference at the Grand Hotel, but that was before the IRA blew it up. (During a break in the conference, I walked past the rubble.) It was like I had a reservation on the Titanic’s second voyage.

I am told that brexit has become a verb: to announce that you’re leaving and then not go. So you might call your sitter and say: “I thought we’d be home from this party by now, but Bob has been brexiting for nearly an hour.”

and the border

Kirstjen Nielsen resigned as Homeland Security secretary yesterday, just days after Trump withdrew his nominee for head of ICE because he wants someone “tougher”. The NYT news article on her resignation says that Nielsen repeatedly made Trump angry by telling him what the law said. Reportedly, he felt “lectured to”. The partner NYT editorial says:

The president grew impatient with Ms. Nielsen’s insistence that federal law and international obligations limited her actions.

Nielsen’s career should be a lesson for anyone thinking of working in the Trump administration. Her reputation is ruined: For the rest of her life, she will be the woman who put children in cages. And she leaves not with the President’s gratitude and the support of his base, but taking the blame for the failure of his harsh policies to stop migrants from coming to our border.

This is what Trump does: He uses up whatever credibility people can bring to his organization, until the only value they have left is to be sacrificed as scapegoats.

On the subject of mistreatment of migrant children, the government Friday estimated it would take two years to identify all the children it took from their parents. Think about how long two years is for a child.

Trump had been making a lot of noise about closing the border with Mexico, and then suddenly backed down. I assume somebody finally explained to him what “closing the border” actually means. (Maybe that was one of the “lectures” that got Nielsen ousted.) It would disrupt trade and tourism in both directions, interrupt supply chains for factories on both sides of the border, and do nothing to stop either those who are trying to cross the border illegally, or those who are planning to turn themselves in and claim asylum.

Before his retreat, Trump had been expected to announce the border closing when he went to the Calexico Friday. He was there to dedicate what an official plaque calls “the first section of President Trump’s border wall.” It actually isn’t.

A fence had existed at the spot for decades. … [T]he Border Patrol had identified this section as a priority for replacement in 2009, during President Barack Obama’s administration.

In fact, no new sections of border fencing have been built during Trump’s administration.

While at Calexico, Trump repeated a popular bit of white nationalist rhetoric, saying “Our country is full.” SNL’s Michael Che had already answered that last week: “How can America run out of space? We’ve still got two Dakotas.”

The Mexican Wall play/counterplay so far: Congress denied Trump’s budget request for money to build more of the wall, so Trump declared a national emergency that he claims allows him to seize the money from other programs, so Congress passed a bipartisan resolution rescinding the emergency, so Trump vetoed that resolution, so Congress tried to override his veto and failed.

Next move: House Democrats are going to court., joining the states that have already filed suit.

but I read a book

I continue my quest to understand Trump’s base voters, but I’m starting to lose hope. A few weeks ago I told you about Timothy Carney’s Alienated America. The key insight there is that the original Trump supporters, the ones who were with him in the primaries and helped him take the Republican Party away from the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios, were people who were doing relatively well in communities that were doing badly. Yes, they were angry, but not so much on their own behalf. They were angry because they saw their towns and their families crumbling around them.

That explained why they might take a flier on an untried candidate who promised to shake things up, but not why they would stick by him while he did nothing to help their communities, choosing instead to enrich himself, increase government corruption, and give big tax breaks to his fellow billionaires. (There’s a reason why he doesn’t want you to see his taxes, people.)

This week I read Robert Wurthnow’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. Wurthnow is a Princeton sociologist, and believes that when you don’t understand people, you should go out and talk to them.

That makes sense up to the point where you realize that what they’re telling you is bullshit. So, for example, rural Americans claim they were incensed by the deficits that Obama ran up, but they are strangely unmoved by Trump’s large deficits. They claim they have to be anti-abortion and anti-gay because of their religion and how much they value their religious communities. But many of them left the Christian denominations they were born into when those churches got soft on abortion and gays. (It’s like what Bush did in the Iraq War: He always followed the advice of his generals, but he’d fire generals until he got one that gave him the advice he wanted.)

In short, listening to the nonsense they say isn’t helping me understand them.

and you also might be interested in …

If you’re a regular Sift reader, you’ve heard most of these ideas before, but this video from Represent.US puts them together effectively.

Israel has elections tomorrow. Benjamin Netanyahu is going for his fifth term as prime minister, and is promising to unilaterally annex chunks of the occupied territories if he wins. The peace process has been going nowhere for many years now, but such a move pretty announces Israel’s intention to impose its will on the Palestinians.

Israel’s attorney general has announced its intention to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, but the charges have not been filed yet. The polls are close.

Josh Marshall raises a good point: Trump often talks to American Jews as if they were expatriate Israelis. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday, Trump referred to Netanyahu as “your prime minister”. In October, when Trump visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (site of the mass shooting), he met the Israeli ambassador at the front gate — as if the synagogue were a piece of Israel inside the US.

This kind of othering is a classic anti-Semitic tactic, and is consistent with the way that many white ethno-nationalists support Israel: as the true home of all Jews, even the ones who think they’ve made a home here.

I know what you’ve all been thinking: “I wish the government would stop doing all those invasive inspections and leave the pork industry alone.” Well, our populist government has heard you and is responding to the public demand for privatized meat inspection.

The Trump administration plans to shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry as early as May, cutting the number of federal inspectors by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees. Under the proposed new inspection system, the responsibility for identifying diseased and contaminated pork would be shared with plant employees, whose training would be at the discretion of plant owners. There would be no limits on slaughter-line speeds.

Back when Trump started saying “Make America Great Again”, many of us wondered what time period the “again” referred to. Now we know: the era of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Jill Filipovic wrote in the NYT about age and the female politician:

They are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious.

I don’t entirely follow her point about Kirsten Gillibrand, who at 52 and in her second Senate term is youngish and newish for a presidential candidate, but not strikingly so. Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, at 69

finds herself put in the same “old” category as Mr. Sanders and Joe Biden, even though both men are nearly a decade older than she is. Men who are more or less the same age as Ms. Warren — Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), Jay Inslee (68) — are not lumped in with the white-hairs.

In 2016 I wrote about the stereotypes that portray a man’s deficiencies as virtues: the charming rogue, the wheeler-dealer, and so on. Filipovic points to another one that Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke are taking advantage of: the fresh face, the new kid on the block. JFK, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama — there’s a well-established pattern of a man coming from nowhere and jumping the line to the top job. Young Paul Ryan hit Congress as a young gun or a whiz kid; I haven’t heard those phrases used to describe AOC.

My can-you-believe-this story last week was Stephen Moore being nominated to the Federal Reserve Board. This week’s is that Trump is getting ready to nominate Herman Cain. The point isn’t to change the economic philosophy of the Fed, it’s to fill the Board with Trump loyalists who will pump the economy full of cheap money to get him re-elected in 2020. (Cain would also join the fairly large contingent of people in the administration who have been accused of harassing women.)

That’s the pattern with several of the recent Trump appointees: Bill Barr in the Justice Department and Charles Rettig and Michael Desmond at IRS. They’ve been appointed to serve Trump, not to serve the country.

The next time somebody tries to tell you that both parties are the same, remember Thursday’s vote in the House to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. It passed 263-158. The No votes were 157 Republicans and 1 Democrat. The bill faces challenges in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Here’s the main point of contention:

Under current federal law, only people convicted of domestic violence offenses against spouses or family members can lose their gun rights. The [new version of the] VAWA would add people convicted of abusing their dating partners, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” It would also prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses from owning or buying firearms, as well as abusers subject to temporary protective orders.

That provision is too much for the NRA, and so for the Republicans the NRA controls. The gun rights of stalkers and abusers should be protected, even if that means more women will die.

A study comparing abused women who survived with those killed by their abuser found that 51 percent of women who were killed had a gun in the house. By contrast, only 16 percent of women who survived lived in homes with guns.

Even if you don’t care about women, there’s still good reason to support adding this provision to the VAWA: When you look at mass shooters and ask “How could we have known what he would do?”, one strong clue is a history of domestic violence. Keeping guns out of the hands of abusers would probably save a lot of men’s lives too.

After some legislative shenanigans on Mitch McConnell’s part, Congress passed a resolution invoking the War Powers Act to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Trump is expected to veto it.

Trump’s constant lying got renewed attention Wednesday after he uncorked a slew of them in 24 hours, including a ridiculous one (that the noise from wind turbines causes cancer) and a transparent and pointless one (that his father was born in Germany when he was actually born in New York). Anderson Cooper debunked a bunch of Trump lies in one segment. Social media just had fun with it all.

Sportswriter Rick Reilly claims to have played golf with Trump. This is from his article “Whatever Trump is Playing, it isn’t Golf“, which looks like an abstract of his new book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

If Trump will cheat to win $20 from his friends, is it that much further to believe he’d cheat to lower his taxes, win an election, sway an investigation?

Yet another lie: Puerto Rico has not received $91 billion in hurricane relief aid.

and let’s close with something to envy

Helsinki’s new Oodi library.

Upon entering Oodi, an enforced hush does not descend. Nor are there any bookshelves in sight, but on the first floor – a large, fluid space – there is a cinema, a multi-purpose hall and a restaurant. The second floor, called the “attic”, is entirely dedicated to skills development. Here the public can use 3D printers and sewing machines, or borrow musical equipment and rock out in specially modified studios. There is even a kitchen and socialising area, which can be hired for a small fee, where the librarians hope birthday parties will take place, perhaps followed by a spot of karaoke. Staff roam the site ready to help the public use the resources available. …

“We believe,” [Helsinki’s executive director of culture Tommi] Laitio expounds, “that everyone deserves to have free access to not only knowledge, but also our shared culture, spaces that are beautiful, and to dignity.” Central to Oodi’s concept, he explains, is bringing a wide range of people together under one roof. “A lot of emphasis has been put on how we make sure that this building is safe and welcoming to homeless people [or] to CEOs with a couple of hours to spare … We need to make sure that people believe that we can live together, and I don’t think €100m for that feeling is a lot of money.”

The Monday Morning Teaser

This Sift doesn’t have a featured post this week. In part that’s because the weekly summary has a lot to cover: the continued delay in either publishing the Mueller Report or delivering it to Congress, the reports that Mueller’s people feel that their work is being misrepresented, Joe Biden’s response to charges that he touches people inappropriately, the ongoing Brexit follies, Kristjen Nielsen’s resignation and a series of other stories about the border (pointing to Trump’s increasing frustration at being bound by US law), Democrats’ attempts to get Trump’s tax returns, and so on. Buried under all that: Congress invoked the War Powers Act for the first time in history, in an attempt to end our role in Yemen’s civil war.

But there’s another reason: I’m not sure exactly what made this week different from all the others, but it got under my skin in a way that most weeks don’t. Whenever I started to write any longer piece, it turned into a rant. Ranting is not what I’m trying to do here. I’m sure you get plenty of that elsewhere, and I’m not convinced that my rants are that much better than the general run of rants. Again and again, I would write some line that felt emotionally satisfying, and then not have a good answer to the question “How does this serve my readers?”

So this week I plan to ramp up my mental hygiene practices and try to get back to my usual relationship with the news.

The weekly summary should be out maybe around 11 EDT.

Be Best

Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal.

George Conway

This week’s featured post is “Mueller By Gaslight“.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

which none of us have been allowed to read. So the advantage at this point goes to people who are comfortable making bold claims about things they know nothing about. Has there ever been a situation so tailor-made for Donald Trump?

In the featured post, I realize that I can’t wait until I know what I’m talking about, because then Trump and his people own the field, a position that they have been abusing mightily this last week. So I say what I can.

In general, I find myself agreeing with Matt Yglesias:

I continue to be confused as to why republicans are working so hard to suppress the contents of a report that exonerates Trump and utterly discredits Dems + the media.

and ObamaCare

After spending a bunch of the mid-term campaign denying that they wanted to take health insurance away from people with pre-existing conditions, the Trump administration is back to trying to take health insurance away from people with pre-existing conditions.

This week, his Justice Department filed a legal brief arguing that a judge should find Obamacare unconstitutional — a decision that would turn the insurance markets back into the Wild West and eliminate Medicaid coverage for millions of Americans. By at least one estimate, a full repeal could cost 20 million Americans their health care coverage.

But rather than deal with that reality, the Trump administration retreated into fantasy.

President Donald Trump has insisted his party “will become ‘The Party of Healthcare!’” and said things like, “if the Supreme Court rules that Obamacare is out, we will have a plan that’s far better than Obamacare.”

He’s been talking about this mysterious plan since his campaign, and during that time no single detail of it has ever leaked out. I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s because there are no details to leak. Trump has never in his entire life had two consecutive thoughts about healthcare.

The basic outline of the plan Republicans want goes like this:

  • It covers everybody.
  • It doesn’t force healthy people to pay for sick people’s coverage.
  • It costs less money.
  • It provides better care.
  • It doesn’t raise taxes.
  • It doesn’t lower the profits of drug companies, insurance companies, or hospitals

There is no such plan, but as long as you don’t nail down any details, you don’t have to admit that.

and the border

In the latest manufactured crisis, Trump is threatening to close the border with Mexico this week (cutting off trade worth $612 billion last year) because of “the mother of all caravans“, which the Mexican interior secretary says is forming in Honduras. (Honduras knows nothing about it, and immigration activists call the story a hoax.)

I recommend reading this morning’s Washington Post article on this, which captures the atmosphere of surrealism. Both Trump and Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney say closing the border is a real threat. “I’m not playing games,” Trump said Friday. On a Sunday interview show, Mulvaney said that only “something dramatic” could persuade Trump not to close the border. However,

Administration officials have offered no details about the president’s intentions, and border control officials have received no instructions to prepare for a shutdown, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue. Implementing such an order would require time to notify Congress and labor unions representing Border Patrol agents and customs officers, the official said.

A Pentagon spokesman said the military, which has about 5,300 troops in the border region, has not received such orders either.

It’s not clear that Trump has any idea what “closing the border” even means. Factories on both sides of the border will close for lack of parts, just to name one consequence. You also might want to stock up on avocados.

Even if the mother of all caravans were forming, it would constitute a conspiracy to do something legal: ask for asylum in the United States. Trump actually admits this is legal, but does it in his usual backhanded way:

“We have the most laughed-at immigration laws of anywhere in the world,” Mr. Trump said to reporters as he and [resigning SBA Director Linda] McMahon sat in the ornate front room of the club. “They’re the Democrats’ laws, and I got stuck with them.”

The implication here is that the laws of the United States can be separated into Democratic and Republican laws, and that Trump’s oath to “faithfully execute the laws” doesn’t apply to Democratic laws. I can only imagine the heads that would have exploded if President Obama had ever made such a claim.

Another part of Trump’s threat is to cancel assistance to the countries the refugees come from: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. (A Fox News chyron proclaimed “Trump cuts aid to three Mexican countries“.) As anyone should be able to imagine, cutting aid to these countries will make conditions worse there, and motivate more people to try to leave for the United States.

I can’t decide whether that plan is stupid or diabolical. Maybe Trump understands that cutting aid will produce more refugees for him to demonize.

The House failed to override Trump’s veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to revoke the state of emergency Trump proclaimed in order to build his wall. Only 14 Republicans were willing to defend Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.

USA Today reports that there is indeed a surge of immigrants coming across the southern border: about 100,000 in March, “the highest monthly total in over a decade”.

Think about that: “over a decade” probably puts us in the Bush administration, when some people were concerned about immigration, but hardly anybody thought it constituted an emergency. We have seen these kinds of numbers before, and dealt with them without attacking the constitutional separation of powers.

Around 90 percent of those – or 90,000 – crossed the border between legal ports of entry. The vast majority of those crossing between ports of entry turn themselves into Border Patrol agents, seeking asylum.

Turning yourself in and requesting asylum is the appropriate legal process. So this is not an “invasion” or a wave of criminal activity. The article makes one more observation: Trump’s Wall would be useless to stop asylum-seekers, because in many places it will sit back from the actual border.

A wall would go up on levees about a mile from the winding Rio Grande, which is the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants will just have to cross the river to be in U.S. territory and seek asylum, [McAllen Mayor Jim Darling] said.

and the administration’s proposed budget

If you were looking for something to watch on TV and came across a movie that IMDB told you was about billionaire politicians conspiring to kill the Special Olympics, you’d know right away that this was not high drama. No serious director would allow his or her villains to be so cartoonish.

But that’s the movie we were living in for a few days this week. The proposed Trump budget cut the Department of Education budget by $7 billion, and achieved $18 million of that total by zeroing out the federal contribution to the Special Olympics. That’s just the highlight of broad cuts in special education generally.

To defend those cuts to Congress, Trump sent out yet another billionaire, Education Secretary Betsy Devos. For reasons I can’t put my finger on, DeVos always makes me think of Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter movies. Apparently I’m not the only one to see the resemblance; this photo-pairing is going around on social media.

But Rep. Mark Pocan wasn’t having it. His largely futile effort to get any kind of straight answer out of DeVos is worth watching.

After considerable public outcry, Trump announced that Special Olympics wouldn’t be cut. (But the broader cuts to special education and education in general stand.) DeVos (whose budget request has defunded Special Olympics three years in a row) then issued this statement:

I am pleased and grateful the President and I see eye-to-eye on this issue and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant. This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.

Which raises the question: Who did she fight behind the scenes with? If it’s not her, then who is the mysterious Special-Olympics-hating villain within the Trump administration?

Similarly, Trump promised a crowd of his supporters in Michigan that he will get full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration program, which his budget proposes to cut by 90%.

Trump also called for decimating funds for the program in 2017 and 2018, but funding was saved both years by Congress, which would likely do so in the next budget as well. President Barack Obama supported funding for the program each year since it was established in 2010. Yet Trump tried to portray himself at the Midwestern rally as the savior of the program.

It’s not new that politicians promise to back some program and then end up cutting it later. But I can’t recall a situation — let alone so many situations simultaneously — where a politician promised to defend something at the exact same time that he was in the process of slashing it. We’ve never seen this kind of disinformation campaign in America before.

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When I first heard the idea that Joe Biden might run for president in this cycle, I prepared myself for a Me-Too moment. Not because I think Biden is unusually suspect in this area, but just because he’s a man from an era with different standards of behavior. I doubted that he had grabbed anybody by the pussy, as certain other politicians of his generation have bragged about doing, but I found it hard to believe he hadn’t patted somebody’s butt in the wrong way at some time or another.

So Friday, Lucy Flores published her account of a rally in 2014 when Biden was supporting her run for lieutenant governor of Nevada. As the speakers are lining up to go on stage, Biden is standing behind her. He puts his hands on her shoulders and kisses the back of her head.

To me that sounds more grandfatherly than predatory — a sort of “Go get ’em, girl” encouragement — but I wasn’t there, and either way it’s not appropriate either for 2014 or for today. Flores says she found the experience “demeaning and disrespectful”, which is entirely her judgment to make.

I doubt this is the last we’ll hear of this kind of thing. Whether he intends disrespect or not, Biden tends to be touchy-feely in a way that used to be accepted, but isn’t any more. That problem interacts badly with at least one of his other problems: the resentment some women still feel about his treatment of Anita Hill when he was chairing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I continue to think that this presidential cycle will take many twists and turns before it gets wherever it’s going. Being on top of the polls right now counts for very little.

According to the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who identify their religious tradition as “no religion” is now 23.1%, or slightly larger than either Evangelical Christians or Catholics. And yet, do you ever hear pundits speculate about how people of no religion might react to some public issue?

I think it’s important to understand that the so-called Nones are not necessarily agnostics or atheists. They may have spiritual intuitions or practices. They may pray to someone or something. And they might admire religious leaders like Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama. They just don’t identify with any of the publicly recognized faiths. I suspect many would agree with what Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man.

My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.

The relative stability of Catholicism masks a lot of churn, I think. If we just looked at native-born Americans, the Catholic line in the graph might fall off the way that the mainline Christian line does. But a constant inflow of Catholic immigrants hides that decline.

While we’re looking at graphs, here’s one that has me shaking my head. Americans are having less sex. Partly that’s caused by the population getting older. But another major factor is the unusual number of celibate 20-somethings.

In particular, since 2009 celibacy has been disproportionately rising among young men.

The article cites three possible factors:

  • The percentage of young men in the workforce has declined, and unemployed men have a hard time attracting partners.
  • A lot of 20-something men are living with their parents, which is just not an attractive situation.
  • “There are a lot more things to do at 10 o’clock at night now than there were 20 years ago. Streaming video, social media, console games, everything else.”

I’m not buying the first explanation, because the graph doesn’t seem to follow the economy. The third factor strikes me as weak. I mean, TV has improved in recent decades, but it’s not that good. (A social media post I can’t find now reproduces the graph above, draws an arrow at the turning point and captions it “Fallout 3 released”.) Living with parents … maybe. (I mean, there are still cars.) I don’t feel like the article has really gotten to the bottom of this mystery.

Conservatives have started to notice that their beliefs don’t track with the Bible. Solution? Re-translate the Bible to make it fit.

OK, we’ve gotten used to the idea that Trump appoints ignorant and incompetent people to high office. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the Betsy DeVos clip I referenced above.) For the most part, Republicans have been OK with that, because large chunks of the government don’t matter to them. So if Ben Carson knows zip about public housing, well, who cares about public housing anyway? Scott Pruitt and his successor Andrew Wheeler aren’t interested in protecting the environment, but from a Republican point of view that’s just fine.

In two years, Trump nominated more judges rated “unqualified” by the ABA than the last four presidents put together; but conservative judges don’t need to know the law, they just need who they’re for and against: for the rich, corporations, and fundamentalist Christians, against workers, the poor, non-whites who want to vote, and LGBTQ people. You don’t need to go to Harvard Law to learn that.

But now we’re seeing that obliviousness challenged. Trump has nominated Stephen Moore to a position that even Republicans have to think matters: the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.

Moore is not an economist; he is a booster. His career includes neither major academic posts nor practical experience in banking. Instead, he has lived entirely inside the world of right-wing policy think tanks: the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Club for Growth, and so on. He promotes the snake-oil notion that taxes should always be lower, and that cutting tax rates will produce more revenue because of the growth that the lower rates will stimulate. That claim flies in the face of all evidence, but boosters don’t face either peer review or angry stockholders, so they can be wrong again and again without consequences.

The Fed, on the other hand, is one of the most consequential institutions our system has: It defines what money means. What money is and why it has value is one of the High Mysteries of Economics, and the Fed Board of Governors is the priesthood whose rituals manage that mystery. Is the Republican Senate really willing to let somebody like Stephen Moore screw around with that?

The session in which the Pennsylvania legislature would swear in its first Muslim woman began with prayer: State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz mentioned Jesus 13 times, including “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, Jesus, that you are Lord”. She also thanked God that President Trump “stands by Israel”.

A reporter spoke to her afterward and tweeted:

“That’s how I pray everyday.” When asked to respond to Dems calling for an apology she says “Oh no, I don’t apologize ever for praying”

In case you’re ever in a position to open some public meeting, I want to point out the difference between an invocation and a prayer. An invocation calls people together, reminds them of the values they share, and challenges them to put aside ego as they take up their public responsibilities. For example:

We gather together here today intent on doing good work.

We seek to represent fairly and well, those who have given us this task. May our efforts be blessed with insight, guided by understanding and wisdom.

We seek to serve with respect for all. May our personal faiths give us strength to act honestly and well in all matters before us.

On the other hand, a public prayer is a moment when believers in a particular god collectively address that god. The more sectarian your prayer is, the greater its expression of your group’s supremacy. “We own this room,” it announces.

And so, ironically, even as Borowicz was supporting Israel, she was telling Pennsylvania’s Jewish legislators that they don’t really belong. What was objectionable in her prayer wasn’t the Christianity, it was the expression of Christian supremacy in the legislature.

The original Brexit deadline passed on Friday, but Parliament still doesn’t have a plan. The deadline has been pushed off to April 12.

A new Banksy was unveiled in time to mark the occasion:

and let’s close with an unusual sporting event

This year’s ACC Tournament Baby Race featured an amazing comeback.

Mueller by Gaslight

Last Monday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report had only been finished for a few days, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s first letter to Congress had only come out the day before. All through this process, I’ve been urging patience over speculation, so my initial impulse was to give Barr the benefit of the doubt, at least for a little while. After all, he was promising to do the right thing:

[M]y goal and intent is to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies.

His second letter, written Friday, fleshed that out a little.

I anticipate we will be in a position to release the report by mid-April, if not sooner.

In between, though, Trump and his supporters have gone on a scorched-earth victory lap. First he claimed a vindication that so far is not supported by the available facts,

No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!

He went on to demand revenge against the enemies who supported investigating the President’s dubious relationship with Russia in the first place.

Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!

Trumpists in Congress — who said nothing when Schiff’s predecessor Devin Nunes ran the House Intelligence Committee in a thoroughly partisan manner — joined in:

Republicans in Congress and the White House are calling for Rep. Adam Schiff to resign his position as the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The president and his supporters say Schiff perpetuated a false narrative about Trump and his potential illegal activities.

At a rally in Grand Rapids Trump listed his enemies — Schiff, Jerry Nadler, the media — and led a chant of “Lock them up!“. Lindsay Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee wants to investigate the people who investigated Trump:

We need a special counsel to look at the potential crimes by the Department of Justice — the FBI — regarding the Clinton e-mail investigation and the Russian investigation against Trump early on.

Trump also wants revenge against the media.

So funny that The New York Times & The Washington Post got a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage (100% NEGATIVE and FAKE!) of Collusion with Russia – And there was No Collusion! So, they were either duped or corrupt? In any event, their prizes should be taken away by the Committee!

(MSNBC’s David Guru examined how the NYT and WaPo reporting holds up: pretty well, it turns out.)

The Trump campaign sent out a memo asking networks to blacklist critics of the administration:

“Moving forward, we ask that you employ basic journalistic standards when booking such guests to appear anywhere in your universe of productions,” the memo read. “You should begin by asking the basic question: ‘Does this guest warrant further appearances in our programming, given the outrageous and unsupported claims made in the past?‘”

The memo, written by communications director Tim Murtaugh, lists Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and former CIA Director John Brennan.

And all this is based on what exactly? A four-page letter written by an attorney general that Trump hand-picked for this purpose. And that letter itself may not say as much as it seems to.

Barr’s summary. In general, as facts trickled out of the Special Counsel’s office during the last two years, I have tried to avoid tea-leaf reading. I figured that there would eventually be an actual report that said things clearly. I stuck to that policy last week, and did not do a word-by-word analysis of Barr’s letter. But if Trump and his supporters are going to get this far ahead of the facts, and to try to bully various players in our political system into actions based on their extreme interpretation of Barr’s letter, then I think it would be irresponsible to let those interpretations own the field until Barr sees fit to release some version of Mueller’s actual report.

So what exactly did Barr say?

The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. As the report states: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

I think it’s rational to assume that Barr is being a good servant to his master here: Assuming that what this passage says is true at all (always a major concession when dealing with the most dishonest administration in my lifetime), it reads Mueller’s report in the way most favorable to Trump’s interests. And it does not say “no collusion”. It says that Mueller could not prove that the Trump campaign and the Russian government were directly conspiring. But was Roger Stone part of the Trump campaign? Was Russian oligarch (and Paul Manafort’s former employer) Oleg Deripaska part of the Russian government? What if WikiLeaks was a middleman, conspiring on the one hand with Russia and on the other with the Trump campaign?

In other words, the quote could mean what Trump wants it to mean: that Mueller found the accusations of collusion entirely baseless. Or it could mean that Mueller found a lot of suggestive and suspicious evidence, perhaps better than 50/50 evidence, but no smoking gun — at least not one that would stand up in a criminal trial — that could be tied all the way back to Trump in one direction and Putin in the other. We won’t know which is closer to the truth until we can read the full report.

The second part of Trump’s claim — “no obstruction” — has nothing to do with Mueller. Barr writes:

The Special Counsel did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct [of the President] constituted obstruction. … The Special Counsel states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Again, not a clean bill of health, just a statement that the evidence is insufficient to prove a crime in court, at least in Barr’s mind, though not necessarily in Mueller’s. (If Rod Rosenstein really does agree with Barr’s conclusion, I’d like to hear him say so himself, rather than let Barr put words in his mouth.) And if that’s the most favorable-to-Trump interpretation possible, then I have to agree with George Conway (Kellyanne’s husband):

Americans should expect far more from a president than merely that he not be provably a criminal.

To conclude this section: Nothing in the information currently available would justify making Schiff resign, rescinding the Pulitzers of the Times and Post, investigating the investigators, letting the Trump campaign write a media blacklist, or locking up any Trump critic. If Trump thinks the full Mueller report contains such information, well, release it and then we’ll all see.

Why the delay? Which brings up the question of why no one can see the report yet. (Alex Cole pointed out how typical this is: “Donald Trump is: 1) ‘a billionaire’ but you can’t see his taxes 2) ‘a genius’ but you can’t see his grades 3) ‘exonerated’ but you can’t see the report.)

In his first letter, Barr listed two things he needed to redact before making the report public. His second letter expanded it to four things:

  • proceedings of a grand jury
  • whatever might compromise intelligence sources and methods
  • material that could affect “other ongoing matters”, which I take to mean open investigations
  • “information that would unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties”.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler has pointed out that these may be considerations that limit what can be released to the public, but they shouldn’t (and usually don’t) apply to Congress.

[R]ather than expend valuable time and resources trying to keep certain portions of this report from Congress, [Attorney General Barr] should work with us to request a court order to release any and all grand jury information to the House Judiciary Committee — as has occurred in every similar investigation in the past.

Similarly, the House Intelligence Committee routinely deals with intelligence sources and methods; there’s no reason to keep any part of the report secret from them on that account. Having seen how Mueller writes his indictments, I would be greatly surprised if information that could affect “other ongoing matters” hasn’t already been identified and segregated.

And then we come to the “reputational interests of peripheral third parties”. This looks like a black hole that could suck down anything Barr doesn’t want the public to know. Because who exactly are peripheral third parties? Trump family members? Anybody not specifically indicted? And I’m not aware of any widely accepted definition of “reputational interests”.

Since there really is no good reason that the report has been held so closely, I have to assume that the motive is political: to intimidate Trump’s critics, and so create a period during which Trump’s defenders would own the field. If during this period they succeed in bullying Democrats into silence, then perhaps they won’t have to release the report at all.

Don’t think nobody has thought of that. A recent poll showed that 40% of Republicans think that Barr’s letter is enough; nobody needs to see the rest of Mueller’s report. If Democrats got sufficiently intimidated, not releasing the report could be spun as a magnanimous gesture: There’s no need to embarrass Democrats further; let’s just move on.

And what about Barr’s promises? Well, these things have a way of evaporating if nobody insists on them. Remember when Trump was going to have a news conference to present the evidence that Melania came to America legally? Never happened. And who can count the number of times Trump said he was going to release his taxes?

The gaslighting hasn’t worked. For a few days, Barr’s first letter and Trump’s response to it threw Democrats for a loop: What if Mueller’s report really does totally vindicate Trump? What if it all does turn out to be a big nothingburger and we have to eat all the words we’ve said in the last two years? Do we really want to say more words, knowing that they might come back to us along with all the others?

But by mid-week I think a lot of people independently came to the same conclusion: If this report really did exonerate Trump, it would already be public. And the rush to judgment among Trump supporters has been a little too extreme. You don’t do that when you know that the slowly grinding mills are going to get you what you want.

Thursday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee read a letter asking Chairman Adam Schiff to resign, and Schiff was ready for them. He listed all shady stuff we know about Trump and Russia in a litany of “You may think it’s OK if …”. It went viral.

Since then, I think a lot of us have been in a mood to call Trump’s bluff: You think you’ve got the goods? Let’s see them.

It will all come out eventually. I suspect we will at some point see nearly all of the Mueller Report. It will come out, because the benefit of keeping it secret is fading: If it exonerates you, let’s see it. If we can’t see it, it probably doesn’t exonerate you.

Some parts of the public report may be redacted, and a few names of more-or-less innocent people may be replaced by the kind of placeholders that labelled Trump as “Individual 1” in the Michael Cohen indictment. But we will see it, and Congress will see it in its original form.

This is a testing period, where Trump’s people have been gaslighting us with their interpretation of the report we can’t see, and are floating the idea of keeping the report secret just to see if they can get away with it. In the end, I suspect, the public and the Democrats in Congress will stand firm, and Barr will magnanimously fulfill his promise. “See,” we’ll be told, “you’ve been getting all upset about nothing again. We said we’d release it, and here it is.”

However, the test is real. If they could get away with burying the report, they would. The first version Barr releases will probably be inadequate in one way or another, and the deadline for releasing it might slip further, just to see if anyone cares. But people care.

And when it does come out, the Adam Schiff approach is exactly right. “Does this evidence establish a crime beyond a reasonable doubt?” shouldn’t be the only question. We also need to ask: “Is this kind of behavior OK? Are we willing to accept that American democracy will look like this from now on?”

Inside the Trump bubble it will make no difference. Fox News has trumpeted that the Mueller Report clears Trump, and that conclusion will be allowed to stand after the report comes out, whether it is accurate or not. Anyone who dares to raise the issue will be treated as a traitor and drummed out of the community.

But for the rest of the country, I think the answer will be No. We don’t want our presidents getting elected this way. And once they’re in office, we don’t want them to behave in a way that makes us wonder if they’re loyal to a foreign adversary. That may or may not be a crime. But it’s not OK.

The Monday Morning Teaser

We’re in this bizarre period where the Mueller Report exists, but we can’t see it. So the advantage goes to whoever can most shamelessly make claims about something they haven’t seen. In other words, this situation is perfectly tailored for the talents of our president.

I, on the other hand, do not feel well suited to this moment. My inclination is to wait until I know something before I comment, and Attorney General Barr’s just-a-little-bit-longer tactic sets exactly the kind of trap I’m prone to walk into. All through the investigation, I’ve tried to resist speculating about what Mueller was up to, or reading between the lines of his indictments. Eventually there will be real knowledge, I’ve kept saying, and then all this speculation will evaporate.

But now here we are, still waiting for knowledge, while Trump and his minions claim to be vindicated and are already starting to demand revenge on the people who dared to challenge them. (The crowd at Trump’s Grand Rapids rally chanted “Lock them up!” about Democratic politicians like Adam Schiff.) So we have to go out and meet this moment, no matter how much we wish we could wait a couple weeks (or maybe longer, if Barr or Trump decide to change the rules) until we could really know what we’re talking about.

That’s what I’ll try to do in this week’s featured post “Mueller By Gaslight”, which should be out around 10:30 or so, EDT.

The weekly summary covers a collection of oddities that is unusual even by Trump Era standards. Betsy DeVos explained to Congress why she was defunding the “awesome” Special Olympics, and then purported to be happy when Trump overruled her. Trump promised his Michigan crowd full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration project, whose only real enemy these last two years has been him. (Still no word on whether the 90% cut is still in his budget proposal.) Trump is threatening to shut down the Mexican border this week, even though nobody who would have to carry that order out seems to know anything about it. The original Brexit deadline passed on Friday, with the British Parliament still having no plan. (The new deadline is April 12.) Oh, and the Trump administration wants the courts to throw out ObamaCare, despite having no healthcare plan of its own.

That post should be out around noon or so.

Very Fine Terrorists

In Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating there are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.

Charlottesville, VA Police Chief RaShall Brackney
announcing the arrest of a teen who threatened an “ethnic cleansing”
at Charlottesville High School

This week’s featured posts are “A Very Early Response to the Mueller Report” and “Confronting Season-Change Denial“.

This week everybody was talking about the Mueller Report

It’s done, but you don’t get to read any of it yet, beyond Attorney General Barr’s four-page summary. It’s easy to get caught up in speculation, which I tried to keep to a minimum in the featured post.

and the 2020 Democrats

Remember: At this point four years ago, the Republican front-runners were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and people argued over whether dark horses like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz might overtake them. Trump wouldn’t come down the escalator talking about Mexican rapists until June, and most self-appointed prognosticators weren’t taking his candidacy seriously until he won New Hampshire the next February. (I’ve got nothing to brag about in that regard.) There was even a Ben Carson boom in November, 2015 (a point still 8 months in the future for this cycle) when he briefly passed Trump in the polling averages.

So take all this with a grain of salt, but right now polls say Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the front-runners, with Biden maybe a nose ahead. There’s also buzz about Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke. Maybe that’s meaningful, but maybe it isn’t. Most of the candidates are people that the public has barely heard of. And even if you do know about Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar, you may not have put much serious thought yet into imagining any of them as president.

My personal guess, for what it’s worth, is that both Biden and Sanders are vulnerable. I don’t have any idea who comes out of this scrum, but if you offered me the Field against Biden and Sanders, I’d take the Field.

Biden’s support is largely nostalgia for Obama, and Biden isn’t Obama. That will quickly become clear when his official campaign starts. And Bernie’s popularity has long been exaggerated, first by his underdog status against Clinton, and then by regret after Clinton lost. Campaigning as a co-frontrunner will be a completely different experience for him. That fact is already showing up in his favorable/unfavorable numbers, which are starting to look like any other candidate’s.

One theme I see developing in the early stump speeches is the contrast between values and policies. Elizabeth Warren has been very policy-heavy, with proposals like breaking up the big tech companies and changing the way capitalism works in this country. Bernie Sanders also has a very specific list of policies — Medicare for All and free college being the foremost — and his followers are using them to test whether other candidates are progressive or not. (Since the policies come from Bernie’s list, ultimately he’s going to be the only candidate who qualifies as a progressive.)

But it’s an interesting question how many voters care about such specific proposals, and how many write them off as undeliverable promises. At the other extreme, Beto O’Rourke talks mainly about progressive values — like taking care of sick people and helping young people get the education they need — while dodging questions on specific proposals. Talking about values can be more inspiring than explaining the details of your legislation, but I think voters also need some assurance that the values aren’t empty: Maybe you don’t go deeply into the details, but we need some assurance that you have done your wonkish homework and could get into that if anybody wanted to hear it.

538 pours cold water over those what-voters-want-in-a-candidate surveys.

The reality is that what voters say they value doesn’t appear to match which candidates they support. … Indeed, what voters say they value can change depending on which way the political winds are blowing. To see this, we need only go back to the last presidential primary. In March 2015 — the same point in the 2016 cycle as we are in now for the 2020 cycle — 57 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters told the Pew Research Center that it was more important for a candidate to have experience and a proven record than new ideas and a different approach. Only 36 percent preferred a candidate with a fresh approach. But when Pew asked the same question just six months later, the results were reversed: 65 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners preferred new ideas and a different approach, while 29 percent said experience and a proven record were more important.

I have to admit: When first I heard that a 37-year-old gay mayor of a medium-sized city (South Bend, Indiana) wanted to run for president, I decided this news was not worth my further attention.

But maybe it is. There seems to be a minor (so far) Pete Buttigieg boomlet underway. He’s made some well-received appearances on TV, and this interview in Esquire hits all the right notes. Suddenly he’s polling in double digits in Iowa.

By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Jim and Deb Fallows’ book Our Towns, where they visit a bunch of small and medium-sized American cities that are doing something right. One of their underlying themes is that while national politics is polarized and log-jammed, local politics actually works in a lot of places. They suggest that mayor may be the best job in politics right now, because you have a chance to carry out your vision and do things that produce positive change in your constituents’ lives. So it makes sense that a mayor would project a nice balance of principles and practicality.

One of the impressive things in this clip from The View is how easily and naturally he talks about his Christian religion. Unlike Trump, he clearly knows something about that religion. He lays claim to the Bible’s progressive views on helping the poor, while neither pandering to fellow Christians nor casting non-Christians as the enemy.

and the electoral college

One of Elizabeth Warren’s many policy proposals is to get rid of the Electoral College, as she suggested at her recent CNN townhall meeting in Jackson, Mississippi.

My view is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means: Get rid of the Electoral College.

When you consider that two of the last five presidential elections have been won by the popular-vote loser, and that those presidents (George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016) have been pretty horrible, the Electoral College is hard to defend.

But it’s been interesting to watch Republicans try. The EC gives small states disproportionate weight, which in general shifts power in the direction of rural areas, which tend to be more white and more Republican than the country as a whole. (All of those statements are generalities that have specific exceptions. Texas is a big conservative state, while Vermont is a small liberal state. Rhode Island is a small state whose electorate is overwhelmingly urban.)

Mark Thiessen writes:

The purpose of the electoral college is to protect us from what James Madison called the “tyranny of the majority.” Each state gets to cast electoral votes equal to the combined number of its U.S. representatives (determined by population) and its senators (two regardless of population). The goal was to make sure even the smallest states have a say in electing the president and prevent those with large, big-city populations from dictating to the less populous rural ones.

This is totally fake history. Madison and the Founders did worry about the tyranny of the majority, but their solution was to put limits on what government could do, by precisely enumerating the government’s powers and by adding a Bill of Rights that protects individuals. Also, the largest state at the time was Virginia, which was dominated by its rural plantations rather than its big cities.

The Electoral College was about something else entirely, and doesn’t work anything like the way the Founders envisioned. They intended electors to run on their own reputations as men (yes, men) of wisdom, not on their prior support of specific candidates. The EC would then make a judgment entirely separate from the voters. And since the Founders didn’t believe in political parties, probably the electors wouldn’t be organized enough to give anyone a majority vote (except in cases where the choice was obvious, like George Washington). So in most cycles they’d end up being a nominating body for the House of Representatives, which would make the final choice. In short, the Founder’s fear wasn’t about the tyranny of the majority, it was about the ignorance of the rabble — a point present-day Trumpists should probably stay away from.

So the present effect of the EC has little to do with the Founders’ vision, and has instead evolved into a simple boost for rural white voters, whose votes have more weight than those of urban people of color. Defending that system involves arguing that rural whites deserve a weightier vote. Thiessen does that like this:

Thanks to the electoral college, Democrats have no choice but to try to win at least some of those voters back if they want to win the presidency. But if we got rid of the electoral college, Democrats could write off voters in “fly-over” country and focus on turning out large numbers of their supporters in big cities and populous liberal states such as New York and California. Unburdened by the need to moderate their platform to appeal to centrist voters, they would be free to pursue full socialism without constraint.

In other words, rural white voters deserve a weightier vote because they are more sensible than urban people of color, who might get hoodwinked into electing socialists. That’s what this argument boils down to.

and you also might be interested in …

In the wake of the Christchurch mosque shooting, it took New Zealand less than a week to ban military-style weapons.

“In short, every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned in this country,” said [Prime Minister Jacinda] Ardern.

Wednesday an anonymous post on 4chan (a favorite discussion site for white supremacists) “threatened an ethnic cleansing in the form of a shooting at the poster’s school, telling white students at CHS to stay home”. By Friday, Charlottesville, VA police had arrested a 17-year-old who isn’t a Charlottesville High student. Charlottesville schools had been shut down for two days.

An arrest was also made Friday in response to a threat against nearby Albemarle High School. That threat appeared on Thursday. The two arrested teens don’t seem to have conspired, but whether or not the Albemarle threat was inspired by the Charlottesville threat is still being investigated.

From Associated Press:

The Alabama Senate has approved a bill to abolish judge-signed marriage licenses as some conservative probate judges continue to object to giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples. … A few Alabama probate judges for years have refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone so they do not have to give them to gay couples.

To me, this issue underlines the fact that “conscience” is a special right reserved for Christians. Any government officials who imposed their sincerely held non-Christian beliefs on the public would soon find themselves unemployed.

Picture it: Your county’s chief health inspector believes that his Jain religion forbids his participation in the killing of animals. So he refuses to approve any meat-serving restaurants. How long does he keep his job?

We’re #19! We’re #19!

The new World Happiness Report is out. The happiest country in the world is still Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. (I detect a correlation between socialism and happiness. MAHA!) The US is 19th, between Belgium and the Czech Republic. According to the FAQ:

The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the [Gallup World Poll]. This is called the Cantril ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale.

The report then interprets the extent to which a country’s happiness depends on six factors (which the report calls “sub-bars”): “GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption”. Some news sources (the Washington Post, for example) erroneously report that the rankings are “based” on these factors, but the FAQ explicitly says that’s not true.

The sub-bars have no impact on the total score reported for each country, but instead are just a way of explaining for each country the implications of the model estimated in Table 2.1. People often ask why some countries rank higher than others – the sub-bars (including the residuals, which show what is not explained) are an attempt to provide an answer to that question.

As I’ve said many times, when you rant at length about whatever dumb or crazy or offensive thing President Class Clown just said, you’re playing his game. So I’ll just briefly note something that got a lot of attention this week: He can’t seem to stop dissing John McCain, whose death prevents him from responding.

People are talking about this as a bad-taste or low-character thing, but it strikes me as a sign of mental instability. I think lots of us occasionally find ourselves arguing  with the dead people who live on in our heads. But when you start defending your side of that argument out loud, in front of living people who don’t hear those voices, it’s a sign you need help.

I’m not just making a cute jibe; I’m serious. Stuff like this is why I think even Republicans should be worried about Trump continuing in office. He’s been lucky so far, in that he hasn’t faced a challenge on the scale of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But if something like that comes up, are you really confident he won’t snap completely?

and let’s close with something illuminating

A fascinating presentation of population data — historical and projected — about the world’s largest cities. from 1950-2035. A similar video goes from 1500 to the present.