The Decade of Democracy’s Decline

When a decade ends, it’s always tempting to look back and come up with a single defining theme. Often that exercise winds up being artificial and its conclusion a bit forced. But as we approach the end of 2019 the theme seems clear: The story of the Teens was the decline of democracy.

2010 in the United States. On New Year’s Day in 2010, we were living in a very different world. Barack Obama had been elected in a landslide in 2008, bringing huge Democratic majorities to both houses. The first major sign of a rightward pendulum swing — Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the race for the Senate vacancy caused by Ted Kennedy’s death — would happen soon (January 19), but the extent of November’s Democratic wipe-out was not at all apparent yet.

Brown’s victory ruined the filibuster-proof Senate majority that the Democrats had maintained for a few months (since Al Franken had finally been seated in July), but Nancy Pelosi maneuvered her House majority and the reconciliation rules to get ObamaCare passed anyway by the end of March.

The economic disaster of 2008 was finally starting to resolve. When Obama took office, the economy had been hemorrhaging jobs, bankruptcies were starting to cascade, and the possibility of a Great-Depression-style collapse had seemed possible for the first time in almost 80 years. (One sign of the looming apocalypse: In September of 2008, a major money-market fund “broke the buck” and stopped redeeming its shares at $1.) The balanced-budget rules most states lived under had been forcing them to make the problem worse: As revenues fell, they had to stop construction projects, cut safety-net programs, and lay off teachers.

But by 2010, a variety of government interventions had begun to stabilize the situation: TARP and a loose Federal Reserve policy had stopped the banking collapse; a federal bailout saved the US auto industry; Obama’s $800-billion stimulus program had cut taxes, shored up state government finances, and started restoring the country’s infrastructure. Unemployment was still high and many people were still suffering, but the feeling that the bottom was about to fall out of everything had passed. A slow-but-steady economic expansion began, and has continued for the rest of the decade.

As the Republican revival took the form of the Tea Party, it was possible to believe in that movement’s grass-roots sincerity, despite the billionaire Koch money behind it. Perhaps large numbers of people really were alarmed by the rapidly growing federal debt, and by the government’s role in the economy, which the bailouts had at least temporarily increased. (By now, of course, we know that concern about the debt was entirely bogus. Trump’s looming trillion-dollar deficits disturb none of the people who angsted about Obama’s.)

Despite the Tea Party, though, the Republican establishment seemed firmly in control of the GOP’s direction. The Reagan policy configuration was unchanged: strong defense, a forceful American presence in the world, free trade, low taxes, low regulation, traditional sexual mores, and an immigration policy that accommodated business’ need for cheap labor.

But more than that, Republicans still participated in a national consensus on democracy so widespread it could mostly go unstated: The two major parties competed to persuade a majority of the American electorate, and whichever party succeeded in getting the majority of votes would, of course, control the government. Despite Republicans’ knowledge that they did better in low-turnout elections, and their occasional efforts to make voting harder for poor and non-white citizens, at least in public they had to acknowledge that voting was a good thing, something the public should be encouraged to do.

As the party of the rich, Republicans had always found it easier to raise large sums of money than Democrats. But controlling money in politics was still at least partly a bipartisan issue, exemplified by the McCain-Feingold law of 2002. As a practical matter, Republicans were more likely to oppose campaign-finance rules than Democrats; but open defenses of plutocracy were rare.

For the most part, Republicans were still part of a nationwide consensus on fair play. This was best exemplified by a moment in John McCain’s 2008 campaign, in which a woman questioning McCain said Barack Obama was “an Arab”, and seemed ready to go further if McCain hadn’t taken the microphone away from her.

I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.

Violations could be found on both sides, of course, but the general consensus (at least in public) was that candidates should not smear each other in ways that would make it hard for the winner to govern.

A number of rules of fair play held in Congress as well. The Constitution gave the Senate the power to “advise and consent” on presidential appointments, but both parties exercised this power with some restraint. For the most part, the president was allowed to get his way unless there was something egregiously wrong about a particular nominee.

There had been a few rumblings in the other direction. On democracy, Tom DeLay’s 2003 Texas redistricting plan intended to net more Republican seats in Congress just by shifting boundary lines, without the need to persuade any voters. As for fair play, McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin, had no qualms about blowing racist dog whistles in Obama’s direction, or accusing him of “pallin’ around with terrorists“. But these seemed to be excesses rather than signs of the future.

2010 around the world. Internationally, Europe was having a harder time recovering from the Great Recession than the US, and the biggest threat to the unity of the EU was that struggling economies like Greece might need to escape EU austerity rules and the discipline of the euro. The Syrian Civil War, with its consequent Syrian refugee problem, hadn’t started yet. (The entire Arab Spring, with it’s brief promise of democracy, had not yet bloomed and died.) Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment existed in Europe, but was nothing like the continent-wide issue it later became. Far-right parties in France and Germany had yet to take off, and Brexit was a notion from the lunatic fringe of British politics.

But the biggest difference was in eastern Europe. It was already clear by 2010 (to those who were paying attention) that Vladimir Putin was an autocrat running a government-shaped crime syndicate. But no one yet appreciated the threat he posed outside Russia, or foresaw that his democracy-to-autocracy model would be imitated in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Brazil, and even the United States. (My best description of that strategy is probably the one in the review of Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, or possibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)

I would argue that Putin has been the single most influential figure of the 2010s. Russia in 2010 was (and still is) a relatively minor economy dependent on an industry with little long-term future (oil). And yet, look at all he accomplished: His ruthless intervention in Syria pushed millions of immigrants towards Europe, where his simultaneous information-warfare campaign inflamed anti-immigrant feelings and boosted nationalist populist movements across the EU. His thumb-on-the-scale was arguably the difference in both the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. At the end of the decade, a foreign-policy goal of every Russia leader since Stalin might finally be in sight: the dissolution of NATO.

In 2010, it was even possible to believe that China would eventually find its way to democracy. The theory went like this: Sooner or later, the rising Chinese middle class would seek a voice in government. But while Chinese prosperity grew through the Teens, if anything China moved the other way politically. Power has increasingly become centered in President-for-Life Xi.

The Republican embrace of minority rule. In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (reviewed here), Daniel Ziblatt examined different European nations’ paths toward democracy and found a key difference: It mattered how the old ruling class felt about yielding its power to democratic institutions. Britain developed a viable conservative party that (through its alliance with the Church of England and its traditional morals), saw a way to continue to compete for power in a democratic system. But Germany’s upper classes never stopped seeing democracy as a threat, and were constantly tempted to seize power in non-democratic ways, eventually producing Hitler rather than Churchill.

The big story of the Teens in the US was the loss of a conservative party committed to democracy. The Republican Party has increasingly found itself at odds with democracy, and instead has openly embraced minority rule. In the Trump Era, Republicans no longer even attempt to attract majority support: 46% was enough to produce an electoral college win in 2016, and Trump has spent the last three years talking almost exclusively to that 46%.

In fact, it’s worth looking at all three elected branches of government. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump got 62,984,828 votes (46.1%) while Hillary Clinton got 65,853,514 (48.2%). In the 2018 elections for the House, Republican candidates got 50,861,970 votes (44.8%) and Democrats 60,572,245 (53.4%).

Computing the Senate popular vote is a little more complicated, because it takes six years for all the seats to come up, so you have to total across three elections. In 2014, Republican candidates got 24,631,488 votes (51.7%) and Democrats 20,875,493 votes (43.8%). In 2016 it was Republicans 40,402,790 (42.4%), Democrats 51,496,682 (53.8%). In 2018, Republicans got 34,723,013 (38.8%) and Democrats 52,260,651 (58.4%).

That works out to a total of 99,575,291 Republican votes and 124,632,826 Democratic votes. (The totals are roughly double the House totals because each state elects two senators.) That 25 million vote margin for the Democrats (roughly 55%-45%) has produced a 53-47 Republican majority.

Think about what that means: The American people voted for Democrats to control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but in fact they only succeeded in giving Democrats control of the House.

The retreat from fair play. So far we’ve just talked about anti-democratic elements inherent in our government’s constitutional structure. But during the Teens, Republicans used that minority power to entrench minority rule further.

The 2010 census was the beginning of a redistricting wave that has gerrymandered both federal and state districts to lock in Republican majorities. On the federal level, the Democratic wave of 2018 (53.4%) was considerably larger than the Republican wave of 2010 (51.7%), but produced a smaller majority (235 seats in 2018 vs 242 in 2010).

But it is on the state level where democracy has truly vanished. I could pick several states as examples, but probably the clearest is Wisconsin, where gerrymandering has locked in a large Republican majority in the legislature that the Democratic majority in the electorate is unable to oust.

Despite Democrats winning every statewide office on the ballot and receiving 200,000 more total votes, Republicans lost just one seat in Wisconsin’s lower house this cycle. And that victory was by a razor-thin 153 votes. Democrats netted 1.3 million votes for Assembly, 54 percent statewide. Even so, [Assembly Speaker] Vos will return to the Capitol in 2019 with Republicans holding 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly, a nearly two-thirds majority.

Republicans in Wisconsin: Losing the vote, but holding the legislature.

Far from being embarrassed by their minority support in the electorate or cowed by the mandate voters gave the new Democratic governor, the Wisconsin Republican majority in the legislature responded to the voters’ rebuke by passing laws to cut the new governor’s powers.

And those totals are after considerable efforts to suppress the vote of blocs likely to support Democrats. The one-two punch of minority rule is

  • Make it hard for Democratic blocs to vote.
  • Herd them into a small number of districts so that even a majority of Democratic votes can’t oust Republican majorities in the legislature.

This works because of minority rule on the federal level: A minority president and a minority Senate get to stack the judiciary with judges who are fine with tactics that entrench minority rule even deeper. That’s how we wound up with a conservative Supreme Court that has refused to block voter suppression and gerrymandering, and has opened the door to unlimited money in political campaigns — including unlimited money to influence Senate approval of judges. So the initial anti-democratic tilt built into the Constitution has been amplified.

You might think this reliance on a minority would be an embarrassing secret for Republicans, but in fact it is not. More and more openly, they defend the notion that the majority should not control the government.

For example, the Electoral College used to be seen as a historical relic that wasn’t worth the trouble it would take to get rid of it. But now it is actively defended by conservative publications like National Review and politicians like Senator Mike Lee. The fundamental unfairness of the Senate is cast as the great wisdom of the Founders, who apparently foresaw that Californians wouldn’t deserve to have their votes count for as much as Alaskans.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression aren’t shameful any more, they’re just how the game is played. And unlimited money is “free speech”. Even violence is no longer beyond the pale: Trump has repeatedly warned of violence if his followers don’t get what they want, and Trump supporters like Robert Jeffress even talk about “civil war“.

The drift towards autocracy. Most worrisome of all, in my opinion, is Republicans’ increasing tolerance of and support for autocratic words and actions from their leader. I can find no parallel in American history for how Trump has handled Congress’ refusal to fund his wall: He declared a phony emergency and seized money appropriated for other purposes. Even a congressional resolution to cancel the emergency was unavailing: Trump vetoed it, and held enough support in Congress to block a veto override.

So the precedent is established: As long as a president’s allies control 1/3 of one house, he can ignore the power of the purse that the Constitution gives Congress.

Republicans in Congress have also refused to protect Congress’ oversight power. Since Democrats gained control of the House, the administration has blocked all attempts to investigate his administration.

Nazi comparisons should always be handled with care, but this one seems appropriate to me: It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do, as Germans brushed off the more outrageous sections of Mein Kampf. What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

Already, everyone responsible for launching the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia has been hounded out of the Justice Department. Amazon has been denied a large Pentagon contract because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post is critical of Trump.

It’s a mistake to write this off as “Trump being Trump”. If he acquires the power to inflict more punishment, as he well might if Congress fails to impeach him and the Electoral College re-elects him (once again against the will of the voters), more punishments will happen.

Trends are not fate. George Orwell once wrote: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.” So it is a mistake to despair. Trends often reverse right at the moment when they seem most unstoppable, and often the reversal is only apparent in hindsight. But it is also foolish not to notice the trend, which for the last ten years has run counter to democracy, particularly in the United States.

Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today

Nearly 200 Evangelical leaders responded to the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, which I discussed at some length last week in “The Evangelical Deal With the Devil“. How they chose to respond says a lot about how Trump appeals to their flocks.

CT’s case had three main points:

  • Trump is guilty as charged: “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
  • Beyond the articles of impeachment, Trump has conducted himself in a grossly un-Christian way: “[T]his president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
  • Religious leaders who defend Trump are distorting the Christian message and damaging the credibility the Evangelical movement: “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

Protestant Christianity has a long history of “remonstrances“, where some religious leader attempts to tell his colleagues that they’ve taken a wrong turn. (Arguably, Protestantism began with a remonstrance: Luther’s 95 theses.) So we know exactly how honest and sincere Protestant leaders respond to such challenges: They answer the points in the context of their faith.

In this case, a thoughtful counter-remonstrance would argue that Trump is not guilty, or that his overall behavior is not immoral, or that defending him is an appropriate example of Christian witness, not a distortion of it. You might expect a response full of Biblical texts and comparisons to proud moments from the history of the Evangelical movement.

The letter from the 200 does none of that. Not a single point from the editorial is confronted directly. Neither Trump’s impeachable actions nor his general morality is mentioned. The loss of credibility that comes from identifying Christianity with Trumpism is not addressed. Instead, the 200 responders make two points:

  • They feel insulted. The particular statements that they believe insult them are not actually in the CT editorial, but were made by the author in interviews. As so often is the case when conservative Christians claim offense, they are the ones who decided that the shoe fit them. The CT editor talked about “evangelicals on the far right”, but did not name any.
  • The author of the CT editorial is an elitist who looks down on less educated believers, so the majority of Evangelicals shouldn’t identify with him or pay attention to what he says.

Like so much of Trump’s defense in the larger culture, this argument is entirely tribal, and not at all based on facts or principles: Trump is one of us, and if you oppose him, you’re not one of us.

The one time the letter alludes to the Bible is an up-is-down distortion.

We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — our public service.

But Trump does not at all fit the model of a tax collector (like Matthew) or a “sinner” (like Mary Magdalene). He is a head of government, like Herod, who does not repent his immoral actions or seek to change. The Bible contains no example of Jesus (or any prophet) pandering to power in the way these Evangelical leaders have.

Quite the opposite, the prophets repeatedly confronted immoral rulers, as I have observed at length before. The Christianity Today editorial fits well into this prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. The letter responding to it does not.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week between Christmas and New Years has been comparatively quiet for the Trump era. Sure, the President tweeted out the name of the suspected whistleblower in apparent violation of the law, but “President Breaks Law” has become a dog-bites-man story and barely draws attention any more. The impeachment story largely went dormant, as the House delayed delivering the articles of impeachment in hopes of negotiating an agreement in which Mitch McConnell’s Senate would do its duty and hold a trial.

I wrote two featured posts for this week. The first is a short note that outgrew the weekly summary: “Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today”, which should be out shortly. Last week I wrote a post about the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office. This week 200 evangelical leaders responded, sort of. They skipped over the substance of the editorial and told their followers why they should pay no attention to it. It was kind of a microcosm of Trumpist non-defense defenses, which say nothing about the evidence against him, but rally tribal loyalties.

The other post is my end-of-the-Teens article. I usually proclaim a theme of the year around this time, but given that we’re about to enter the Twenties, I thought I’d proclaim a theme of the decade: the decline of democracy in the US and around the world. I’ll try to get that out around 10 EST.

Clear Failures

We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful, and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.

James Dobbins, former special envoy to Afghanistan

This week’s featured post is “The Evangelical Deal with the Devil“.

If you were wondering what I was up to last week, I talked at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Billerica, MA about the humanistic holiday that has built up around Christian Christmas.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment strategy

The House approved two articles of impeachment, but adjourned for the holidays without delivering the articles to the Senate. This temporarily freezes the process in a state where the public agrees with Democrats on the next step.

Majority Leader McConnell has expressed his preference for a minimal trial in the Senate: no witnesses, just introduce the record from the House, have closing arguments, and go straight to debate on the vote. Presumably, the vote would happen quickly, and Trump would be acquitted.

Democrats (and most of the American people) understand that Trump has prevented key witnesses from testifying, but would have a harder time blocking them if the Senate subpoenaed them. For example, the best witness to Trump’s role in blocking military aid to Ukraine is clearly Mick Mulvaney, who was simultaneously White House chief of staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget. The best witness to the policy discussion within the White House is then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. If there are any doubts about how things happened, why not ask them?

I think it’s safe to assume that Trump (and McConnell) don’t want Mulvaney or Bolton to be asked, because they’ll have to either perjure himself or reinforce the evidence of Trump’s guilt. If (on the other hand) they were happily waiting to exonerate Trump, Republicans would have every reason to want them to testify.

Delaying the process at this point may have little effect in the long run, but it does make clear to the American people who wants to get to the bottom of things and who doesn’t.

It’s possible that four Republican senators can be persuaded to vote with the Democrats to have an actual trial. It’s still a long shot that four out of the 53 Republican senators would decide to take their responsibilities seriously rather than obey Trump, but it’s possible.


The abuse-of-power article passed 237-190-1, and obstruction-of-Congress 236-191-1. No Republicans voted to impeach. Two Democrats (Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — who has announced that he’s switching parties — and Collin Peterson of Minnesota) voted against the Abuse article and a third (Jared Golden of Maine) against Obstruction.


Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard voted Present on both counts, explaining it on her campaign website like this:

I come before you to make a stand for the center, to appeal to all of you to bridge our differences and stand up for the American people. My vote today is a vote for much needed reconciliation and hope that together we can heal our country.

Personally, I don’t see how letting Trump get away with attempting to cheat in the 2020 election is “standing up for the American people.” When the question is whether the president is above the law, and when he acknowledges no wrongdoing and apologizes for nothing, I don’t see a way to bridge that difference. Either you grant him permission to commit more crimes or you don’t.

Gabbard’s vote gave weight to a speculation Hillary Clinton made in October, that the Russians had “their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians.”


Speaking of the Russians, Vladimir Putin takes Trump’s side in the impeachment debate, and Trump thinks it boosts his case to point to Putin’s support.


A number of conservative voices have unexpectedly come out in favor of removing Trump: Christianity Today, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, American Conservative’s Daniel Larison.


Michele Goldberg identified an ailment I can identify with: democracy grief.

The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression.

When I examine those feelings in myself, it’s not about democracy per se. It’s more related to something I have believed in, perhaps naively, all my life: the power of truth. The most dispiriting thing about watching the impeachment hearings has been to realize just how little it matters that Trump actually did the things he’s accused of. Republicans have enough votes to acquit, and they don’t care.

and trade

Months after Trump started taking credit for a Phase One trade deal with China, a deal actually exists. The US has cancelled tariffs scheduled to start December 15, and rolled back some other tariffs. The Chinese have pledged to buy more American farm products. The major goals the trade war supposedly was seeking — progress on intellectual property rights, for example, — have been kicked down the road to a future Phase Two agreement.

Trump (of course) is claiming victory, but so are Chinese hardliners.

In essence, a year and a half into the trade war, China seems to have hit on a winning strategy: Stay tough and let the Trump administration negotiate with itself.

“The nationalists, the people urging President Xi Jinping to dig in his heels and not concede much, have carried the day,” said George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Center. “I don’t see this as a win for market liberals.”

Frequent Trump critic (and Nobel Prize winner) Paul Krugman proclaims Trump the loser of this trade war.

On one side, our allies have learned not to trust us. … On the other side, our rivals have learned not to fear us. Like the North Koreans, who flattered Trump but kept on building nukes, the Chinese have taken Trump’s measure. They now know that he talks loudly but carries a small stick, and backs down when confronted in ways that might hurt him politically.

but we should all pay more attention to the Afghanistan Papers

It’s a coincidence that I just wrote an article about “The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions“, but the themes of that article couldn’t have been better illustrated than they were by the revelations about the Afghanistan War that the Washington Post started publishing the same day.

The Post articles are based on a “Lessons Learned” project undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The Post won a three-year legal battle to get the 2000-pages of reports released to the public, and supplemented the material with its own reporting. The Post summarizes its conclusions:

  • Year after year, U.S. officials failed to tell the public the truth about the war in Afghanistan.

  • U.S. and allied officials admitted the mission had no clear strategy and poorly defined objectives.

  • Many years into the war, the United States still did not understand Afghanistan.

  • The United States wasted vast sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan and bred corruption in the process.

In particular, I want to call your attention to two aspects of the series: First, the Post article on the lack of strategy.

In the beginning, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear: to destroy al-Qaeda, topple the Taliban and prevent a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Within six months, the United States had largely accomplished what it set out to do. The leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were dead, captured or in hiding. But then the U.S. government committed a fundamental mistake it would repeat again and again over the next 17 years, according to a cache of government documents obtained by The Washington Post. In hundreds of confidential interviews that constitute a secret history of the war, U.S. and allied officials admitted they veered off in directions that had little to do with al-Qaeda or 9/11. By expanding the original mission, they said they adopted fatally flawed warfighting strategies based on misguided assumptions about a country they did not understand. …

Diplomats and military commanders acknowledged they struggled to answer simple questions: Who is the enemy? Whom can we count on as allies? How will we know when we have won?

Second, the unwillingness to tell a complex story of limited successes and larger failures that led to a consistent misleading of the American people across three administrations.

It’s worth considering what that more complex story might have sounded like, and how unlikely it is that the American public as it is could have accepted it.

Imagine if, six months or so into the war, we had declared partial victory for getting Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and sending Osama bin Laden into hiding. Imagine further that we had begun negotiating a settlement (in an honest coordination with Pakistan) that would have given the Taliban a role governing the country in exchange for verifiable assurances that Al Qaeda would not be allowed back in.

Whatever administration negotiated such a deal would have had a hard time defending it. Al Qaeda is an international group that attacked us and the Taliban is an indigenous Afghan group that we could only keep out by continuing to fight a long-term civil war (more intensely than we have been). Pakistan would help us against Al Qaeda, while protecting the Taliban against us. But both groups represent “radical Islam” and neither hold values consistent with ours.

But we could probably have worked out a way to live with one and get rid of the other.

and corporate surveillance

The NYT and the WaPo independently had scoops on the extent of the surveillance we have all put ourselves under by using current technology.

The NYT’s Privacy Project acquired a datafile of 50 billion location pings from 12 million smartphones, and demonstrated some of the things that could be done with such data.

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.

The data comes from a “data location company” that buys data from apps on your phone that collect location information. Such companies are essentially unregulated.

The companies that collect all this information on your movements justify their business on the basis of three claims: People consent to be tracked, the data is anonymous and the data is secure. None of those claims hold up, based on the file we’ve obtained and our review of company practices.

For example, the companies refuse to attach personally identifying information (like your name) to your data. But if a smartphone regularly makes the trip from your home to your workplace, who else could it possibly belong to? And yes, you did click a box that allowed a Weather app or a restaurant-review app to access your location, but you probably assumed these apps would only access your location when they needed it to answer your questions, not that they would track you wherever you go.

Such a track can be very revealing.

One person, plucked from the data in Los Angeles nearly at random, was found traveling to and from roadside motels multiple times, for visits of only a few hours each time.


Meanwhile, the Washington Post pulled apart the computers in a 2017 Chevy Volt to find out what General Motors knows about its customers.

On a recent drive, a 2017 Chevrolet collected my precise location. It stored my phone’s ID and the people I called. It judged my acceleration and braking style, beaming back reports to its maker General Motors over an always-on Internet connection. … Many [cars] copy over personal data as soon as you plug in a smartphone.

The reporter’s hacking was necessary, because GM doesn’t tell owners what data it’s collecting on them, much less allow them to see it.

When I buy a car, I assume the data I produce is owned by me — or at least is controlled by me. Many automakers do not. They act like how and where we drive, also known as telematics, isn’t personal information.

When you sell your car, the information about you the car has stored goes with the car, unless you figure out how to delete it.

For a broader view, Mason also extracted the data from a Chevrolet infotainment computer that I bought used on eBay for $375. It contained enough data to reconstruct the Upstate New York travels and relationships of a total stranger. We know he or she frequently called someone listed as “Sweetie,” whose photo we also have. We could see the exact Gulf station where they bought gas, the restaurant where they ate (called Taste China) and the unique identifiers for their Samsung Galaxy Note phones.

and you also might be interested in …

An uplifting story from the world of sports: Recently retired NBA star Dwayne Wade (best known as the Miami Heat star who created a multiple-championship team by convincing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him) supports his trans child.

I’ve watched my son, from Day 1, become into who she now eventually has come into. For me it’s all about, nothing changes with my love. Nothing changes with my responsibilities. Only thing I got to do now is get smarter and educate myself more. And that’s my job.

I had to look myself in the mirror when my son at the time was 3 years old and me and my wife started having conversations about us noticing that he wasn’t on the boy vibe that [older brother] Zaire was on. I had to look myself in the mirror and say: “What if your son comes home and tells you he’s gay? What are you going to do? How are you going to be? How are you going to act? It ain’t about him. He knows who he is. It’s about you. Who are you?”

I’m doing what every parent has to do. Once you bring kids into this world, you become unselfish. It’s my job to be their role model, to be their voice in my kids’ lives, to let them know you can conquer the world. So go and be your amazing self, and we’re going to sit back and just love you.


The Hallmark Channel backed down on banning the lesbian-wedding-themed ad from the wedding-planning site Zola. Afterwards, GLAAD looked into the One Million Moms organization that pressured Hallmark, and found that it’s more like One Mom.

and let’s close with something cold

It’s a cliche to call music “cool”, but ice drumming on Lake Baikal surely qualifies.

The Evangelical Deal with the Devil

and why it won’t help them win the culture wars


When Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office, as “a matter  … of loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments”, it acknowledged an argument in his favor:

his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy

but it characterized those benefits like this

no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.

It worried that ultimately, as Christian leaders tie themselves to this “human being who is morally lost and confused”, Christianity itself will be tarnished.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency…. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel.

CT’s editor Mark Galli, who wrote this editorial, is too benevolent to use this term, but the Christian tradition (not the Bible itself) contains a perfect description of the kind of bargain he is describing, in which worldly advantage is obtained in exchange for moral corruption: It is a deal with the Devil.

You might think Trump would deny such an implication, but in his tweeted response, the Artist of the Deal emphasized the transactional nature of his relationship to Evangelicals:

No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage.

In other words: You got a good price for your soul, so why are you complaining?

The moral cost. An inescapable feature of a deal with the Devil is that there is always more to it than you bargained for. And so it is here. A simple votes-for-judges bargain might have made pragmatic (if not moral) sense for conservative Christians, and might even make it defensible (if distasteful) to “brush off … immoral words and behavior” when Trump or his policies are grossly incompatible with Christian ethics. But instead of just ignoring sin and injustice, Evangelical leaders have been drawn into actively promoting and defending it.

When the public became aware of the policy of taking children away from their parents at the border, some prominent Christian leaders stepped up to deflect blame away from Trump:

“It’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for these kids, who must be dealing with a great deal of pain and confusion,” [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins wrote in a June 15 statement. “But the origin of that pain and confusion isn’t U.S. law or the Trump administration. That burden lies with their parents who knowingly put them in this position.” …

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, acknowledged the plight of the detained and separated children, but said he backs the president’s policy.

“Anybody with an ounce of compassion has to be disturbed by the scenes we are seeing at the border,” Jeffress said. “The only thing more gut-wrenching than the children separated from their families at the border is seeing children like Kate Steinle separated forever from her family.”

Kate Steinle was 30, not a child, when she died, and Jeffress did not explain how Steinle’s death might have been prevented by taking immigrant children — some as young as four months — away from their parents, or (if it could have been) how a Christian might justify such a moral trade-off. (This kind of reasoning is the exact opposite of the argument abortion opponents make against a rape exception: The child-to-be should not be punished for the sin of the father. “You are valuable no matter who your parents are, no matter the circumstances of your conception.”)

After the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (in which a neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 28), Jerry Falwell Jr. invented reasons to defend Trump’s pandering to the white supremacists in his base, and vouched for his character:

Falwell, president of the Christian-based Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Trump likely had more detailed information on protesters when he described “fine people” on both sides.

“One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct, he says what is in his heart,” Falwell told ABC’s “This Week” program. “But he does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Think about that: Standing against Nazis is being “politically correct”, while defending them is not racist.

What about sex? You might at least expect Evangelical leaders to denounce Trump’s sexual offenses. After all, we all saw him on the Access Hollywood tape confess to a pattern of sexual assaults, after which two dozen women came forward with corroborating testimony. But Falwell heard only “somebody bragging in a locker room-type environment about something they never did”. Falwell could have stayed silent; he could have withheld judgment — but no, he actively stood up in defense.

When it came out that Trump had cheated on Melania with porn star Stormy Daniels, and then paid for Daniels’ silence just before the 2016 election (a campaign-finance offense for which Michael Cohen is in prison), Perkins thought Trump should “get a mulligan“, as if the entire sleazy mess were just a bad golf shot.

Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies and author of Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, remains unshaken:

I strongly disapprove of adultery and being unfaithful in marriage, but I still support [Trump’s] actions as president. I’m glad he’s president, and I would vote for him again.

Nancy Allen, a Baptist who wrote Electing the People’s President, Donald Trump can read the same Twitter feed that CT characterized as “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”, but somehow she has invented a New Trump, who (without confession or repentance) has been washed clean.

Donald Trump has changed. I believe that with all my heart. He has changed. He hasn’t had any more affairs. Now he’s not perfect, but there’s no perfect person. We know that there has been a change in his heart, and he respects our beliefs and values. And I believe he has some of the same beliefs and values.

Even Christian theology has been corrupted. Numerous Evangelical leaders have paved for Trump (and presumably him alone) an entirely new path of salvation from the one I learned about in Lutheran confirmation: He can be forgiven even while continuing to claim that everyone who accuses him is lying.

 

But why? By many accounts, the justification for the deal is a sense of desperation: Conservative Christians are losing the culture wars, and have to fight back harder. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

Perkins echoes this sentiment.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

You may find it bizarre that Obama, who (unlike Trump) was scrupulously polite to his opponents, is seen as “the bully”. As best I can tell, liberal “bullying” consists mostly of recognizing same-sex marriage, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and requiring Christian businesses to offer their employees a full range of healthcare benefits.

But in addition to these actual affronts to Christian dominance, an array of imaginary threats have been concocted: Christianity will be criminalized! There will be widespread violence against Christians! Civil war! Christians are “one generation away” from a Nazi-like oppression!

Where actual offenses are lacking, terrifying ones can be envisioned in the future.

Why it won’t work. Selling out Christianity for Trumpism might even be justifiable for Evangelical leaders, at least temporarily, if Trumpist “street fighting” did what the Falwells and Jeffresses want: turned the country back towards the kinds of values Evangelicals promote — strict gender roles that reject homosexuality and female promiscuity, and postulate male/female as an either/or fixed at birth.

But the deal with the Devil won’t produce this outcome, because it’s based on a false diagnosis. Evangelicals aren’t losing the culture wars because they haven’t been tough enough. They’re losing because they’re wrong.

At its best, morality provides a way to skip bitter experience, because it offers you the same conclusions you would eventually come to yourself after years of pain and failure. How many people look back on failed relationships, estranged children, lost friendships and think, “If only I’d been honest with everybody from the beginning.”? How often do people confront a tangled web of cover-ups and wish they’d never cut the corner that got it all started? How many grasshoppers reach middle age and envy the ants whose consistent application of higher values have produced thriving careers, loving families, and valued places in supportive communities?

But not all attempts at moral rules work out that way. Some moral rules are arbitrary and bureaucratic. You keep them or you break them, and (unless you’re caught) life goes on with no obvious difference. Other rules are perverse: breaking the rule is the decision you look back on with pride and satisfaction. The regret you live with isn’t “Why did I do that?”, but “Why didn’t I see through that sooner?”

That’s where American culture is with traditional gender roles. We can see this most clearly in the public’s sudden acceptance of same-sex marriage, which went from an absurdity to a majority position in a little over a decade. In most other ways, that decade (roughly the early Oughts to the early Teens) was not a time of tumultuous change in social mores and attitudes. Politically, liberal waves in 2006 and 2008 were followed by a conservative wave in 2010, while approval of same-sex marriage continued to rise.

What changed? As gays and lesbians came out of the closet, more and more straight Americans got to know something about their lives, and came to rely on their own judgments of real people rather than the scare-stories promoted by Evangelical preachers.

Same-sex marriage wasn’t “presaging the fall of Western Civilization itself”, as James Dobson proclaimed in 2004 (and I think as far back as 1998, though I can’t find the link). As real experiences replaced stereotypes, same-sex marriage became the two guys who were renovating the house across the street, or the lesbian couple whose kid belonged to your kid’s playgroup. It was the cousin who could start being herself, or the son or daughter who now felt hopeful about life. Gay and lesbian couples weren’t engaged in some horrifying sham whose purpose was to undermine marriage for the rest of us, they were seeking many of the same happily-ever-afters we all were.

The reason American young people in particular are so accepting of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations is that they have grown up with out-of-the-closet friends. (I love the unconflicted coming-out story the CW Network wrote for its new Batwoman character. In 7th grade, when Johnny told everybody Kate was a lesbian, “I said ‘So what?’ and punched him in the mouth.”) They have seen the reality of the situation, and so will never be convinced that their classmates are minions of Satan.

Occasionally I hear white racists opine that blacks were better off under slavery, but I’ve never heard an African-American make that claim. In the same way, I’ve never heard a gay person say, “I wish we were all still the closet.” The era when homosexuality was a shameful secret, like the era when women could aspire only to “ladylike” futures, was a Dark Age. Nearly everyone cares about somebody whose life would be ruined if we really did “Make America Great Again” by going back to the values of the 1950s.

And for what? What possible benefit to straight white men would be worth rolling back the liberalizing waves of the last sixty years?

If the majority of the American people have anything to say about it, we’ll never find out. Not because some demon has tricked them, because of the authentic morality their life experience has taught them.

The Monday Morning Teaser

So Trump has been impeached, and now we wait to see what his trial will be like. Can Republicans really get away with simultaneously claiming that there isn’t enough direct evidence, and that the American people don’t need to hear witnesses with a clear view of what happened (like Mick Mulvaney)? Can senators like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner get re-elected while supporting a sham trial that acquits Trump without hearing any witnesses? We’ll soon find out.

The new NAFTA got through Congress, and the tensions in the trade war with China seem to have diminished. What does that say about the future of trade?

Meanwhile, the Afghanistan Papers came out, painting a picture of cluelessness and lying that stretches through three administrations of both parties. And the NYT and the WaPo had separate scoops about the constant corporate surveillance Americans live with, as both our smartphones and our cars have become spies against us.

This week’s featured post will start with the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal, and from there talk about the entire deal-with-the-Devil that Evangelicals have made — and why it’s not going to help them win the culture wars. That post should be out around 11 EST. Expect the weekly summary around 1.

Perks of the Office

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear December 23.

The question presented by the set of facts enumerated in this report may be as simple as that posed by the President and his chief of staff’s brazenness: is the remedy of impeachment warranted for a president who would use the power of his office to coerce foreign interference in a U.S. election, or is that now a mere perk of the office that Americans must simply “get over”?

– Adam Schiff,
preface to The Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report

This week’s featured posts are “Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?” and “The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions“.

This week everybody was talking about articles of impeachment

The Schiff quote above is the key question in this impeachment, and I would follow it with two other questions:

  • If soliciting or coercing foreign interference is just what presidents do now, how will we ever again have a fair election?
  • If Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme was wrong but not impeachable, as some Republicans suggest, what is the proper response that will keep Trump (and future presidents) from continuing to commit such offenses?

Two major reports came out this week: The House Intelligence Committee summarized the findings of its hearings regarding Trump’s Ukraine scheme, and the House Judiciary Committee reported on “Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment“.


The Judiciary Committee heard from four legal scholars Wednesday, three called by the Democrats and one by the Republicans.

The Republican witness, Jonathan Turley (who you may have seen over the years on CNN), was also a witness during the Clinton impeachment hearings, where he said the exact opposite of what he’s saying now. In 1998, he saw the danger of letting things go:

If you decide that certain acts do not rise to impeachable offenses, you will expand the space for executive conduct.

In 2014, when Obama was president, Turley listed five “myths” about impeachment, one of which was:

An impeachable offense must involve a violation of criminal law.

Now, though,

I’m concerned about lowering impeachment standard to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.

and he argues that the evidence against Trump doesn’t exactly fit the statutory elements for criminal bribery. (The other three witnesses said that it did.) So the need for a violation of criminal law isn’t a myth when a Republican is president.

Further hearings are happening as I write this, and I’m not trying to keep up.


Digby sums up the current anti-impeachment argument:

So basically the GOP position is that you can’t have an impeachment without examining all the relevant evidence and since Trump has denied all requests for that relevant evidence there can be no impeachment.


Fox News raises a point that I think they read entirely backwards.

While Democrats may use impeachment as an anti-Trump talking point on the campaign trail, candidates — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Michael Bennet, D-Col. — could end up spending valuable days of the primary season torn between their campaigns and a Senate trial should Trump actually be impeached.

An impeachment trial at that stage of the game would put the senators at a disadvantage, while candidates such as South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be free to continue their efforts.

I think senators who are currently not polling in the top tier, like Booker or Klobuchar, could get far more traction out of a compelling pro-impeachment speech on the Senate floor than they could from a campaign event in Sioux City or Manchester. Conversely, who’s going to pay attention to Buttigieg or Bloomberg when there’s an impeachment trial on CNN?

BTW, I’m getting really tired of hearing pundits make the point that Democratic presidential candidates don’t talk much about impeachment in their campaign speeches. Why would they? One way or  the other, it should be all over before anyone votes in a primary. These candidates should be discussing their plans for 2021 and beyond, and leaving impeachment to Congress.

and the NATO summit

Trump came home early after a video of other NATO leaders laughing about him went viral. Biden capitalized with an ad about how the world is laughing at Trump, concluding with “We need a leader the world respects”.

The incident and Trump’s reaction gave me an idea that I hope catches on. Like a lot of people, I’ve been saying for a while that we need to be out on the streets holding pro-impeachment demonstrations. There should be a continuous impeachment vigil outside the White House.

But here’s the idea: It shouldn’t be an angry, chanting and sign-waving kind of demonstration. It should be comedy marathon. Every night, one or more of the country’s top comedians should be standing on a soap box outside the White House telling Trump jokes. Any time Trump opens a window in the White House, he should be able to hear people laughing.

and Confederate symbols

Nikki Haley told interviewer Glenn Beck that the Confederate flag represented “service, sacrifice, and heritage” until the Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof hijacked it for white supremacy. Former RNC Chair Michael Steele recalled “The black people who were terrorized & lynched in its name” and concluded that “Roof didn’t hijack the meaning of that flag, he inherited it.

The Washington Post points out that

Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. Many of them disappeared after the Civil War. When they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history. … These symbols were not widely used after the Civil War but were reintroduced in the middle of the 20th century by white Southerners to fight against civil rights for African Americans.


Wake Forest and Garner, North Carolina have cancelled their annual Christmas parades, for fear that the participation of pro-Confederate groups would lead to protests and counter-protests. Of course, each side blames the other for ruining a popular children’s event with politics. I sympathize with town officials, who were in a tough place legally: Banning particular points of view from a public parade is very tricky legally, as is banning protests of those views.


The University of North Carolina solved its “Silent Sam” problem, but not in a way that made anybody happy. Silent Sam is a statue of a Confederate soldier that stood at an entrance to the UNC campus for over a century until students tore it down last year.

The University settled a lawsuit filed by Sons of Confederate Veterans (who made a controversial claim to own the statue, based on the theory that removing the statue violated the conditions under which United Daughters of the Confederacy donated it to the University). The settlement agrees that SCV now owns Sam, and UNC is contributing $2.5 million to a fund to transport the statue and build it a new home.

The University’s legal position was complicated by a 2015 North Carolina law that prohibits removal of historical monuments from public property. The law was passed after the Charleston Church massacre led to calls to remove Confederate monuments.

UNC’s anti-racist groups are glad that Sam will not be coming back to intimidate black students as they enter campus, but are outraged that the University is contributing to a neo-Confederate group.

[Assistant professor William] Sturkey said he came to UNC in 2013 because he felt it was the best place in the country to study the history of the South. In recent years, he said, he has repeatedly asked the university to endow a professorship in the Department of History for a specialist in the history of slavery, in part to research the university’s own connections to slavery.

Each time, he said, he has been told UNC couldn’t afford to fund such an endowment, which Sturkey said would cost about half the amount that has been pledged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans through the Silent Sam settlement.

and you also might be interested in …

If you’re worried that the House can’t legislate because it’s so obsessed with impeachment, consider this: Friday it passed a law to restore the parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court voided in 2013.

In the Shelby case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. The measure passed on Friday was an attempt to do just that.

Specifically, it would update the parameters used to determine which states and territories need to seek approval for electoral procedures, requiring public notice for voting changes and expanding access for Native American and Alaska Native voters.

Two points are worth noting:

  • Protecting voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue, but no longer is. The previous extension of the Act, in 2006, passed the House 390-33 and the Senate 98-0. This time the VRA passed the House 228-187, with only one Republican voting for it.
  • Like hundreds of other bills passed by what Trump calls “the do-nothing Democrats”, the VRA is expected to die in the Senate without being brought to a vote. So the point isn’t that Republicans have a different vision of how to protect voting rights, which McConnell & Company could write into a Senate version of the bill and send back to the House. Instead, Republicans in Congress are happy with the efforts of many red states to make it as hard as possible to vote, and want the federal government to leave them alone.

Waitman Wade Beorn explains why avoiding war crimes is a good idea. (Hard to believe that point needs defending, but under the current administration it does.) Using both his own combat experiences and examples from his training, he argues that “Abiding by the law of war has both ethical and pragmatic value.” He quotes his first squadron commander: “the laws of warfare are designed not only to protect civilians, but also to minimize the risk of moral injury to troops.”

“Moral injury” is an abstract way of saying that you don’t have to wake up at night seeing the faces of the family you massacred because you shot first and thought later.


Katie Hill, the California congresswoman who was pushed out of public life by a revenge-porn scandal, wrote a very moving account of how close she came to suicide, and why she didn’t do it.

This makes me wonder: Men who go through scandals seem to benefit from an unofficial statute of limitations. (Louis CK is on his comeback tour. Woody Allen is still making movies. Eliot Spitzer had a post-scandal media career and even ran for office again.) Could the same thing possibly work for victims of sex scandals?

I mean, after some interval, could Ms. Hill run for office again? Would the media respond to her revenge-porn pictures as old news? I hesitate to urge someone to display more courage than I would probably have, but someone someday should try this, just to raise the issue.


An important article in YES! magazine about a former white supremacist who works to help others deradicalize. She focuses not on the philosophical points of ideology, but on the emotional needs that white supremacy satisfies.

In every case she’s ever encountered, Martinez said, she’s been able to identify some type of unhealed trauma. Sometimes it’s extreme, as in the case of a young woman interviewed for this story who was repeatedly raped as a child by her grandfather—and then, once in the movement, raped again by a White nationalist boyfriend … Sometimes the trauma is less extreme, but there are always fundamental and unmet needs, Martinez says: the need to love and be loved, to speak and be heard, and to be a part of something greater than yourself. Deradicalization involves identifying the trauma, and finding new resources, behaviors and networks outside extremist groups to meet those needs.

Too often, we think of people doing things because they believe things. Often it’s the reverse: They believe things that justify doing the things they feel compelled to do. If you are filled with fear, you find a paranoid worldview that justifies that fear. If you’re filled with anger, you adopt a worldview that justifies that anger. Such people don’t need to hear facts that debunk their beliefs; they need to learn healthier ways to deal with fear and anger.


The NYT reports that hundreds of Hong Kong protesters have fled to Taiwan, where their visas are renewable month-to-month. Meanwhile, the demonstrations continue: Hundreds of thousands of protesters were on the streets yesterday.


North Korea is back to testing rockets, in preparation for a “Christmas gift” for the US, which analysts suspect could be a satellite launch. Trump tweeted this response:

Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States

(Oval Office soundtrack: “Don’t Give Up on Us, Baby“.) I’ve been a skeptic about the Trump/Kim relationship from the beginning. It has always seemed like one of those movie-star romances that the PR departments liked to dream up back in Hollywood’s big-studio era.


The United Kingdom has an election Thursday. Boris Johnson hopes to get a majority behind his Brexit plan. Ben Judah writes in the Washington Post: “Russia has already won Britain’s election“.


There are (at least) two distinct kinds of bigotry. The most egregious is outright hate: Kill them all, send them back where they came from, and so on. Trump is insulated against being accused of this kind of anti-Semitism by his some-of-my-best-sons-in-law-are-Jewish defense.

The second kind of bigotry may not be overtly hostile, but it pushes the stereotypes that dehumanize the victimized group. That’s what Trump was doing when he spoke to the Israeli American Council Saturday.

A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me — you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax.

In other words, Jews are rich, ruthless businessmen who only care about money. Goebbels couldn’t have said it better.


The Bloomberg campaign will be a test of what money can do in presidential politics. A typical candidate raises enough money to compete in the early small states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — hoping that strong showings there will bring in more contributions that allow the campaign to continue nationwide.

Bloomberg is spending near-limitless amounts of his own money, so the early-state strategy doesn’t apply.


Jim Brown makes a strong case for raising pensions for NFL players who played before the million-dollar-contract era. It would cost a very tiny percentage of the revenue the league generates today.


The minister of a Methodist church in California posts a lengthy annotation of the church’s nativity scene, which shows the Holy Family separated in cages, as they might well have been if New Testament Egypt had been like America today.

In the Claremont United Methodist Church nativity scene this Christmas, the Holy Family takes the place of the thousands of nameless families separated at our borders. Inside the church, you will see this same family reunited, the Holy Family together, in a nativity that joins the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all.”

I’m reminded of a stage production of The Odyssey I saw a few years ago: When Odysseus washes up on the island of the Phaeacians, he gets gets detained with all the illegal immigrants who have been streaming in since the fall of Troy.

and let’s close with a job well done

At Boise State, home of the famous blue football field, they’ve trained a dog to retrieve the tee after kickoffs.

The Illusions Underlying our Foreign Policy Discussions

So many of our debates about defense and foreign policy take place in a fantasy world.


Nations. Every time you look at a globe, you’re participating in an illusion: that the Earth’s land mass partitions neatly into nations. On the globe, ungovernable places like Afghanistan and Syria look every bit as solid and well-defined as Belgium or Japan.

In spite of ourselves, we fall for that illusion again and again. When American troops occupy a place like Iraq, we immediately start talking about “installing” a government, as if Iraq were a light socket that just needed a new bulb after we removed the old one. After all, there are lines on our globes, and little stars that denote their capitals. You just put somebody in charge, they send one of their people to the UN, and there you go: a nation.

In reality, the world is full of wild places where the word “government” doesn’t quite apply. Some of them, like Kashmir, are contested regions on the edges of larger entities. Some, like in Afghanistan, start right outside the capital and extend over the bulk of the alleged country. In places like Mexico, neighborhoods of major cities are controlled by crime families that the official government can’t overcome.

Some wild places are ruled by insurgencies that aspire to become governments themselves. Some are a field of play where rival warlords compete for dominance. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s going on: There are troops that claim to represent a government, insurgencies fighting against them, warlords picking a side one day at a time, criminal gangs just trying to do business, mercenaries paid by some interested party, official foreign troops allied with the government, or even covert foreign troops who wear no insignia and officially aren’t there at all.

Code that on a map.

War and peace. Another illusion is that war and peace are a binary pair of opposites. You’re at war, or you have peace. Peace is the natural order, but occasionally it is punctuated by relatively brief episodes of war, like the Civil War or World War II. Society has its normal rules for peacetime, but occasionally a switch gets flipped and the rules of war apply, giving more freedom to governments and armies, but less to citizens and foreign civilians caught in the wrong place.

Because peace is the natural state, within a few years any war is supposed to come to a conclusion: victory, defeat, or a negotiated settlement. Citizens submit to the restrictions of war on the implicit assumption that those restrictions are temporary. When events don’t play out that way — if say, the war goes on and on with no apparent end in sight — citizens get antsy and support for the war wanes.

Similarly to its localization in time, war is also supposed to be localized in space. There is a comparatively small and well-defined war zone where the shooting happens; everywhere else, life is normal but for a few restrictions necessary to support the war effort. Inside the war zone, people neatly divide into combatants and non-combatants. Combatants are soldiers of the afore-mentioned nations, which have agreed to rules that (up to a point) protect non-combatants.

The way a nation wins a war is through the quantity and quality of its combatants. Either you throw more troops at your enemy than it can handle (as Iran did against Iraq in the 1980s), or you equip your troops with expensive weapons that give them a decisive advantage (as the US has done wherever it fights).

Conventional war. One of the strangest bits of terminology we use is “conventional war”, which is supposed to distinguish a conflict from nuclear war on the one hand and “unconventional” war on the other.

The classic conventional war is World War II in Europe: There are two sides that each control well-defined territory. The line between those territories is the “front”, and each side tries to push the front one way or the other, using armies equipped with guns and tanks, and supported by air and naval power. Away from the front there might be spies, saboteurs, and assassins; covert partisan groups (like the French Resistance); or even enemy troops who have infiltrated past the front lines somehow (like our airborne troops on D-Day). But these behind-the-lines struggles are a sideshow compared to the big tank battles at the front.

What’s weird about calling this model “conventional” is that it rarely happens any more. Granted, it’s not totally gone. The Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967 was a conventional war. The opening phase of the Iraq War, where the US and its allies attacked and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s organized armies, was conventional.

But the US war in Vietnam wasn’t conventional. The Afghanistan War isn’t conventional. After the initial invasion, the Iraq War wasn’t conventional.

Unconventional war. “Unconventional” war is like what happens behind the lines of a conventional war. It’s all sabotage and partisans and irregular troops, but there is no “line” for this activity to be behind.

By calling this kind of war “unconventional”, we ghettoize it. It’s like the irregular verbs in a foreign language. War is mainly conventional war, and we’ve got that covered. But there are a few exceptional situations that fall through the cracks.

And that’s the problem we’ve had these last 60 years or so: Everything falls through the cracks. If the Viet Cong or the Taliban would just line up some tanks and roll them at us, we’d totally nail those suckers. If Boko Haram would field an air force and dogfight our F-16s, they’d have no chance. If the Colombian drug cartels floated a navy and tried to land narcotics on our Gulf coast in a Normandy-invasion sort of way, they’d find out just how mighty we are.

But they don’t. Everybody who takes on the United States fights an unconventional war against us. And we keep losing.

We lose in a fairly predictable way: We see war as a temporary thing. We imagine applying our matchless power until we’ve captured the enemy flag, and then we’ll declare victory and go back to our normal peacetime lives. So all the enemy has to do is refuse to give us a flag to capture. Melt into the countryside, hide among the civilian population, and come out just often enough to remind everyone that they’re not defeated yet. Eventually these tactics will run out our clock and we’ll start looking for a way to leave.

Obama took a lot of criticism in Iraq for a having a timetable, because you’re not supposed to tell the enemy how long they have to wait. But even without a timetable, we don’t fool anybody. Everyone knows we can’t stay forever.

Dr. McFate

The new rules of war. That’s where Sean McFate starts in his recent book The New Rules of War. How can we be so powerful and yet keep losing wars?

I find it hard to believe that “McFate” is his real name, but it seems to be. He’s on the faculty at Georgetown and the National Defense University. (Dr. McFate is not to be confused with Dr. Fate, the most powerful sorcerer of the DC comic book universe, even though McFate sounds a bit like a comic book character himself: He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, served as a mercenary in various conflicts he can’t talk about, got a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics, and published two novels. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to stumble across the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, or maybe an infinity stone.)

The central point of McFate’s “new rules” is less that he knows exactly what we need to do and more that we need to start thinking about reality again. The book’s subtitle, “victory in the age of durable disorder” introduces the book’s central idea: that disorder is a chronic condition to be managed, not a disease we should expect to cure and be done with.

Dr. Fate

Durable disorder is something that happens in the twilight region between war and peace. It can be found in the physical places that we call “failed states”, but it also happens in abstract areas where the rules of war and peace have never been nailed down, as in cyberwar between rival countries’ hackers, or information war.

“Conventional war is dead.” is the first of McFate’s new rules. He points out that not even other great powers practice it any more. Look at Putin’s Russia. In the last few years they have

  • invaded Crimea with “little green men” — masked soldiers without Russian insignia — that Putin for a long time denied existed or had anything to do with him.
  • manipulated the American political process to put his man in the White House and co-opt one of our two major political parties. Similar tactics have just about succeeded in breaking the United Kingdom away from the European Union.
  • bombed civilian areas in Syria to produce a wave of refugees that destabilized democratic governments across Europe.

None of that is peaceful, but neither does it fit into the usual categories of war. It is aggressive and sometimes violent, but far from the tanks-pouring-into-Europe scenario that NATO was designed to oppose.

Weapons. McFate disapproves of the urge to invest fabulous amounts of money in ever-more-complex technology. Rule 2 is “Technology will not save us.” There’s a reason for that: Gee-whiz weaponry may succeed in giving us greater dominance of the battlefield, but it doesn’t address the problem that most of our conflicts don’t happen on traditional battlefields.

Tech is useful, he says, but not decisive.

Gizmos can shape our everyday lives, but not victory. War is armed politics, and seeking a technical solution to a political problem is folly. Ultimately, brainpower is superior to firepower.

Instead, he recommends investing more in people, particularly special forces, diplomats, and people who know how to shape narratives. Rule 5 is “The best weapons do not fire bullets.”

Mercenaries. Having been a mercenary, McFate has a more nuanced view of them than you typically see. The stereotypic merc is a killing machine for hire. But in McFate’s account, they are like any other professionals whose skills may be used for good or evil. (Compare, for example, computer programmers, who could be developing algorithms to help Facebook manipulate us more completely, or who could be hacking Cayman Island banks to expose the sources of dark money.) Maybe they will take a gig with the bad guys to keep food on the table, but they’d rather work for people they believe are the good guys.

McFate tells an amazing story that I have no other source for: During the Darfur genocide, he claims, Mia Farrow floated the idea of human rights organizations hiring mercs to secure safe places for refugees to run away to. It was seen as a temporary measure while a parallel PR campaign would try to shame the world community into taking action. The scheme was never put into action, but it could have been.

He foresees a future in which mercenaries play an ever-larger role. Rather than pay a corrupt government for protection (like Rachel Maddow describes Exxon-Mobil doing in Equatorial Guinea) why shouldn’t a corporation just establish its own fiefdom with paid soldiers? When individual people have tens of billions of dollars and strong views, why shouldn’t they take direct action rather than work through the political system? What if, say, the Koch brothers decided to take down Venezuela, or Bill Gates finally had enough of corrupt African governments getting in the way of his foundation’s good projects?

Educating strategists. Strategy, especially grand strategy, is held in low regard these days. It’s supposedly a bunch of ivory tower ideas that have lost touch with the real world.

But the United States’ biggest failures in recent years have been failures of strategy. Bad strategy is how you win all the battles but lose the war. The mess in Iraq arose because we didn’t know what we were trying to accomplish: Replace Saddam with a friendlier tyrant? Control a larger chunk of the world’s oil supply? Create a showpiece democracy for the rest of the Muslim world? We didn’t know, so we couldn’t do it.

McFate locates this problem in how we educate our military leaders: We start out teaching them tactics and expect them to grow into strategic thinkers as they rise up the ranks. It seldom happens. He also has a radical diagnosis: Our officer corps attracts and promotes too many engineers. Engineers make good tacticians, but strategy is a liberal art.

My take. I think that McFate has sold conventional war a little short: It’s not so much that conventional war is obsolete, but that US dominance has largely taken it off the table. The same is true of nuclear war: It’s not that nuclear weapons can’t be used to win a war — they were key to our victory over Japan. But that example defines the situation where nukes are usable: You have them and your enemy doesn’t.

The fact that we haven’t exploded a nuclear bomb (other than as a test) since 1945 doesn’t mean that there was no point in building them. Our nukes took nuclear war off the table for our enemies.

The same thing could be said about the tanks, planes, ships, and missiles of our conventional arsenal. Wars against the United States have been unconventional not because conventional war is obsolete, but because potential adversaries know the US would win such wars.

We want to keep nuclear and conventional war off the table, so we should still invest in weapons that will make those options unattractive to our adversaries. (That probably doesn’t require as much money as we currently spend — maybe ten aircraft carriers is enough — but it does require something.)

I think some of his other rules are questionable, but in some sense that criticism misses the point. He’s raising questions that somebody needs to raise. Our defense debate is often just about a number: How much are we going to raise the budget this year? It needs to be about what we’re trying to do and how we imagine doing it.

Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?

Should Democrats throw the kitchen sink at Trump, or keep the impeachment case short and simple?


Thursday, Speaker Pelosi announced that the House would go ahead with drafting articles of impeachment. The main debate at this point is how broad or narrow those articles should be.

Obviously, there will be an article about the Ukraine scheme, and almost certainly an article about Trump’s efforts to obstruct Congress’ investigation of the Ukraine scheme. The most obvious additional article could be built around the obstruction-of-justice evidence in the Mueller Report.

Beyond that, Democrats could throw the kitchen sink at him. NYT columnist David Leonhardt consulted legal experts and came up with eight articles of impeachment:

  1. Obstruction of justice. This count would include the obstructions laid out in Part II of the Mueller Report, as well as hiding evidence by improperly classifying the call notes on the Ukraine call.
  2. Contempt of Congress. This refers to Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with Congressional oversight.
  3. Abuse of power. This is where the bulk of the Ukraine scheme fits.
  4. Impairing the administration of justice. Attempting to use the power of the executive branch to hound his political opponents.
  5. Acceptance of emoluments. “Trump continues to own his hotels, allowing politicians, lobbyists and foreigners to enrich him and curry favor with him by staying there.”
  6. Corruption of elections. Michael Cohen is already in jail for campaign finance violations related to the Stormy Daniels payoff. He claimed to have been carrying out Trump’s orders.
  7. Abuse of pardons. “He has encouraged people to break the law (or impede investigations) with a promise of future pardons.” The Mueller Report discusses how hints at a pardon may have encouraged Paul Manafort not to cooperate (which is a big reason Mueller never got to the bottom of the Trump/Russia connection). But he also has told border enforcement officials not to worry about breaking the law.
  8. Conduct grossly incompatible with the Presidency. “He lies constantly, eroding the credibility of the office. He tries to undermine any independent information that he does not like, which weakens our system of checks and balances. He once went so far as to say that federal law-enforcement agents and prosecutors regularly fabricated evidence — a claim that damages the credibility of every criminal investigation.”

I have no trouble believing that Republicans would have impeached Obama if they could have mustered a charge as strong as any of those eight. Who can forget Rep. Blake Farenthold discussing the possibility of impeaching Obama over the totally phony birth-certificate issue? Or Rep. Kerry Bentivolio telling his constituents that it would be “a dream come true” to impeach Obama, but that unfortunately “you’ve got to have the evidence”. Rep. Mark Gaetz of Florida is still  talking about impeaching Obama, nearly three years after his term ended.

The danger in the broad approach is that the short-and-simple story of the Ukraine extortion scheme — something that is easy to grasp, clearly proven, and obviously wrong — can get lost. It gives credence to Trump’s talking point that Democrats have just been looking for anything they can possibly find to hang an impeachment on. “Conduct grossly incompatible” happens every day, but does it really call for impeachment?

On the other hand, if Trump is impeached just for Ukraine, does that send the message to future presidents that all the other stuff is OK? Does it tell 2020 voters that the other examples of corruption aren’t really serious?

Meanwhile, Lawrence Tribe argues that broad/narrow is a false choice:

The impeachment and removal of this president is necessary because Trump has been revealed as a serial abuser of power, whose pattern of behavior — and “pattern” is the key word, as Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) emphasized during Wednesday’s hearing — makes clear he will repeat the same sequence again and again.

And Josh Marshall says something similar:

You can’t take any of the Ukraine stuff in isolation. Trump wasn’t a more or less normal President and then suddenly he did something totally bonkers. Both in soliciting foreign assistance in his election campaigns and obstructing the administration of justice, Trump has done all of this before. This is not only critical to establishing a pattern of conduct, which speaks to the question of guilt. It also provides powerful evidence that this is what he does and that he will unquestionably do it again.

This relates to the conclusion I came to in “What is Impeachment For?“, an article I wrote in June 2018 for the purpose of setting my impeachment standards before I knew what conclusions the Mueller investigation would reach. Impeachment shouldn’t be about punishing past wrong-doing; it should be about heading off a continuing threat to the Republic. If Trump’s abuse of power is over and done with, let the voters (and future prosecutors) deal with it. But if it’s ongoing, Congress should take that power away from him as soon as possible.

This argument points to a short list of articles, each of which includes multiple examples that establish a pattern of misbehavior. “Do us a favor, though” is an example of seeking foreign interference in our elections, but it’s also part of a pattern of seeking foreign interference that goes back to “Russia, if you’re listening” in 2016.

Then we run into the question of whether the less egregious articles of impeachment could pass the House, and what it would mean if they didn’t. On the one hand, debating a long list of articles, but passing only two or three, might show the public that Democrats are taking their constitutional responsibilities seriously. (Republicans wrote four articles of impeachment against Clinton, but passed only two.) Democrats representing purple districts could tell their constituents, “I voted for some articles and against others”, and sound like moderates rather than Trump-haters. But is it a good look if the Democrats are split on some counts, or should they try to stay united throughout the process?

Finally there’s this: A subpoena for the Senate impeachment trial would be hard to ignore, so that’s probably the quickest way to get testimony from people like Don McGahn. If there are key witnesses we’re not likely to hear from any other way, it might be worth including a related article of impeachment just to get them on the stand.

Personally, I’d go for three articles: Ukraine, obstruction of Congress’ Ukraine investigation, and obstruction of the Mueller investigation. Wavering Democrats could vote against the Mueller article, if they think they must, to give themselves cover back home.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Impeachment has a way of swallowing up all the other news in the world. (The UK is having an election Thursday. Who knew?) But we really are reaching the only-two-episodes-before-the-series-finale point. The Intelligence Committee submitted its report on the facts of the Ukraine scheme, the Judiciary Committee reported on the constitutional basis of impeachment, and Nancy Pelosi gave the go-ahead to write articles of impeachment.

So this week’s first featured post is “Articles of Impeachment: Broad or Narrow?”. It will cover the discussion about whether Democrats should focus on the simple Ukraine story, or attempt to produce a complete list of all of Trump’s impeachable offenses. It should be out shortly.

The second featured post has nothing to do with impeachment and is mostly a book review. I read Sean McFate’s The New Rules of War, which got me thinking about the fundamental illusions at the heart of most of our defense and foreign-policy discussions. Let’s predict that to appear around 11 EST.

The weekly summary covers impeachment stuff that the first featured article missed, the NATO summit, a series of more-or-less unrelated stories about Confederate symbols, restoring the Voting Rights Act, Hong Kong protests, North Korea’s latest threats, why Katie Hill didn’t kill herself, the UK election, and a bunch of other stuff, concluding with how a dog helps out on Boise State’s kickoff plays. That should be out between noon and one.