The Monday Morning Teaser

For the last two weeks I’ve kept being reminded of the Lloyd Bridges character in Airplane!, the air traffic controller who (as the tension ratchets up) says he picked the wrong week to stop smoking, drinking, taking amphetamines, sniffing glue.

I picked the wrong week not to put out a Sift. The last two weeks have been an incredible series of events; either week would have been impossible to summarize in the usual length of this blog. Considering the two together, well, important stuff is just going to fall through the cracks.

I’ve decided to focus on two things: the immigration/travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries and Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Each one gets a featured article, and stuff that would rise to the top in any other week — the fight over the DeVos nomination, the media’s continuing struggle to figure out how to cover this administration, and so on — will get entries in the weekly summary, maybe with a link to somebody else’s fuller treatment. I’d really like to step back and take a broader view of where I believe the Trump administration is headed, but not this week. My thinking on that will show through occasionally in how I cover immigration and Gorsuch, but a fuller treatment will have to wait until I can process the more immediate stuff.

Everything is going run late today, a result of both the bulk of stuff to cover and the cold I’ve had this week. The immigration article should come out first. I’m calling it “The Ban: 10 Days of Drama”, and I should get it posted before 10 EST. “What to do with Neil Gorsuch?” should appear between 11 and noon, and the weekly summary by 1 or so.

Presidential Enemies

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear on February 6.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

– President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address (1861)

Should I keep tweeting or not? I think so. You know, the enemies keep saying “Oh, that’s terrible.” But it’s a way of bypassing dishonest media.

– President Donald Trump (1-21-2017)

If juxtaposing the two quotes isn’t clear enough, let me spell it out: Presidents aren’t supposed to cast other Americans as their enemies. They may think of people that way in their own minds, as President Nixon did when he compiled his enemies list. In public, a president may portray loyal American citizens as critics, political opponents, and even (as re-election approaches) rivals. But not enemies. This is one of the many things Trump seems not to grasp about being presidential.

This week’s featured post is “The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump“. Next Sunday I’ll be speaking at First Parish Church of Billerica, MA on “The Hope of a Humanist”.

This week everybody was talking about the Inauguration

Donald Trump became President Friday at around noon. His first act as president was to give a short, dark, and very strange inaugural address that at times seemed to be channeling the speech the supervillain Bane gives in The Dark Knight Rises.

I found it weird and ironic that Trump framed his election as “the People” taking government back, when the actual people voted for his opponent by a 2.1% margin. (As I explained two weeks ago, inside Trump’s movement “the People” is not everybody. I’m sure that among “real Americans”, i.e., white straight native-born Christians, Trump won a landslide.)

Typical inaugural addresses feature a new president retiring his divisive campaign rhetoric and reaching out to those who didn’t vote for him. Trump did nothing of the kind, delivering what was essentially a shorter version of his speech from the Republican Convention, where he painted a picture of a dangerous dystopian America that he would fix by decree. He raised the specter of “crime and gangs and drugs” and pledged “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” (I was reminded of George Lakoff’s theory that conservatism is based on a strict-father metaphor of government: “This stops right now, kids.”)

The big policy theme of the speech was nationalism: America First. But he added this bizarre, ahistorical twist, aimed at those who accuse him of bigotry:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

But of course, nationalistic movements are famously bigoted against racial and religious minorities, and bigoted movements often cloak themselves in nationalism: The targeted group is a cancer on the nation, and must be eradicated if the rest of us are to survive and thrive. “Total allegiance” can become a rigged test: Once the government begins systematically oppressing a group, any profession of “total allegiance” rings false.

Ominously, Trump used the word eradicate:

We will … unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.

If I were a loyal American who is a devout Muslim, knowing how sloppy Trump is with words and facts, and understanding just how vague and flexible terms like radical and terrorist can be, I would be wondering how safe I will be these next four years. Under authoritarian regimes, there can be a very short gap between “You’re paranoid. How can anyone misinterpret us so badly?” and “We’ve been warning you for a long time.”

Trump also invoked the image of war as a nationalizing influence.

A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.

He also referred to Americans as “God’s people” and announced that “we are protected by God”, a theological claim I don’t remember hearing from a president before. Presidents typically hope or pray that God will favor our nation, or call on us to be worthy of God’s favor. But I don’t recall any previous president expressing such religious entitlement. In JFK’s inaugural, he told us that “God’s work must truly be our own”, not that our work must necessarily be God’s. Lincoln’s second inaugural warned us that “The Almighty has his own purposes.” But Trump apparently knows God’s mind better than Kennedy or Lincoln did.


Trump’s inauguration drew a much smaller crowd than Obama’s eight years ago, as you can clearly see in these side-by-side photos.

Trump seems sensitive about his relative unpopularity, as he is whenever reality punctures his over-aggrandized self-image. He claimed — apparently based on nothing more than his own view from the podium — that his crowd broke all records. He went on a rant about the “dishonest” media correctly reporting his crowd size (while talking at the CIA, of all places), and sent Press Secretary Sean Spicer out to harangue the press about it without allowing them any questions, as if they were disobedient children.

What I find more interesting than Trump’s claims or anger is the way the Washington Post covered it. Throughout the campaign, newspapers fretted over how to cover Trump saying something clearly false, which he did so often and so shamelessly that the old methods of coverage became obsolete. (You couldn’t call the falsehoods out in fact-check articles, because there were just too many of them, and Trump couldn’t be shamed out of repeating them.) But The Post seems to have come to terms with that issue: It reports what Trump says, and simultaneously reports the contradictory facts as contradictory facts. Like this:

Trump claimed falsely that the crowd for his swearing-in stretched down the National Mall to the Washington Monument and totaled more than 1 million people. It did not. Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.

“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said, falsely claiming that his crowd “went all the way back to the Washington Monument.”

CNN did something similar in its article “White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds“. So did The New York Times in “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift“. Chris Cillizza’s The Fix column, which is commentary rather than straight news, annotated Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s rant at the press.

These all demonstrate a similar philosophy on covering Trump, and I hope it catches on.


Sunday on Meet the Press Kellyanne Conway gave us the meme to ridicule the administration’s lying, characterizing Sean Spicer’s false rant as “alternative facts”. Chuck Todd wasn’t buying it:

Wait a minute. Alternative facts? … Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.

In response, Conway launched into a filibuster of facts she’d like the press to cover, never addressing Todd’s point. But #alternativefacts is going viral. Here’s one typical tweet:

Me: Hi, SAT Board, I need you to change my test scores. I didn’t get the questions wrong. I provided

And another one:

Don’t worry Wisconsin. I just spoke with Sean Spicer and he said the Packers are actually up by 3 touchdowns.


On paper, Trump’s visit to the CIA looked like a good bridge-building move, after he had compared our intelligence services to Nazis. But Trump never bothers to learn the culture of the people he’s talking to — they’re supposed to adjust to him, not him to them — so he committed a major sacrilege: He gave a rambling, self-aggrandizing, partisan speech in front of the wall devoted to agents killed in the line of duty.


At Slate, Nora Caplan-Bricker points out something I hadn’t noticed: Only Democratic presidents have inaugural poets. JFK started the tradition when Robert Frost recited a poem at his inauguration, and every Democrat but LBJ has continued it. No Republican has.


And they plagiarized Obama’s cake.

and the Marches

I’m pretty good at estimating crowds in the hundreds, but when they get into the tens of thousands their sizes are impossible to know with any accuracy unless there is a gate with turnstiles. (JFK used to joke about it. When asked how his campaign got their crowd estimates, he quipped: “Salinger counts the nuns and multiplies by a thousand.”) Saturday, I was at the Women’s March on the Boston Common, variously estimated at 100-175K. I have no idea. It was a whole bunch of people.

Estimates are also all over the map for the other large sister marches: I’ve heard numbers as high as a quarter million in Chicago, three-quarters in Los Angeles, and another quarter million or so in New York. Nobody really knows. They were big, and there were hundreds of them all over the country. Here was a view of Austin, which as far as I know got no national coverage at all.

The total number of marchers nationwide has been estimated at between 3.3 and 4.6 million, or about 1% of the population. The NYT had “crowd scientists” analyze crowds for both Trump’s inauguration and the D.C. Women’s March. In both cases they came up with numbers somewhat smaller than most, for what that’s worth: 160K for Trump and 470K for the Women’s March.

So let’s just stick with “a whole bunch of people” and reflect on what that means. Nobody really thinks this will make Trump himself change his ways, or that lots of Trump supporters will look at the crowds and say, “If so many people disagree with me, I must be wrong.” So what’s the significance?

There’s both an inner and an outer significance. The people who attended got energized and confirmed in their identities as resisters. Some percentage of them will progress to activism as a serious commitment, and the rest will be more likely to challenge Trump propaganda as they run into it. If we’re talking about millions of people, that makes for a definite change in the national conversation.

The outer significance has to do with what I’ve been thinking of as the Nightmare Scenario, where Trump’s election takes us down a path towards an authoritarian government. I don’t believe that Republicans in general want such a thing, but authoritarian leaders gain power by intimidating people into going along, and then into going much farther than they ever thought they would. If Trump were surrounded by a winning aura and seen to be wildly popular, other powerful politicians (like Paul Ryan) might think that they had no choice but to support him in whatever he does. Democrats might be intimidated into providing only token opposition. Even judges get swayed by what they imagine public opinion to be.

In the Nightmare Scenario, a Trump-is-the-voice-of-the-People frame becomes the subliminal basis of his press coverage. Rather than the blunt this-is-false coverage I described above, the press would shade into calling his falsehoods “controversial” or simply quoting them side-by-side with other people saying something different, as if there were no way to know the underlying facts. Little-by-little, the authoritarian government would capture the supposedly free press.

Raising big crowds against Trump the day after his inauguration interrupts that dynamic. It makes visible what the polls tell us, and what Trump’s defeat in the popular vote should tell us: He is not popular. Politically, there is no reason to be intimidated by him, and tying your future to his is a risky strategy for any politician. For now, Ryan and McConnell and the rest of the Republicans in Congress will continue to explore what they can get out of a Republican president, but Saturday reminded them that they need to keep their eyes on the exits.

Democrats, meanwhile, heard the opposite message: If you become known as the voice of resistance to Trump, that could work out well for you in the future. (Someday we may look back on Elizabeth Warren’s speech on the Boston Common as the beginning of her 2020 campaign. And one of the most impressive speakers in Boston Saturday was state attorney general Maura Healey, who I had not previously noticed. Her message for the Trump administration: “We’ll see you in court.”)

and other protests

Two weeks ago, I pointed you at Indivisible, a guide for influencing your congressperson, written by former congressional staff people. It’s largely based on the effective protests the newly organized Tea Party launched against ObamaCare in the summer of 2010. The underlying point is that congresspeople, whatever their party or ideology, live in fear of organized groups of their constituents, even fairly small groups. They especially fear groups that know how to get media attention, who can make them look out-of-touch with the voters of their districts. You can use that.

Indivisible-like protest actions are starting to happen. In this Aurora, Colorado event, covered by Channel 9 in Denver, people afraid of losing their health insurance overwhelmed Republican Congressman Mike Coffman. He intended to have short one-on-one meetings with voters in a room at the Aurora Library. But hundred of constituents showed up to ask about his plan for helping them after he succeeds in repealing ObamaCare. He didn’t adjust his format and left early, with many people still in line to see him. The Channel 9 piece looks pretty bad for him.

Josh Marshall collects similar recent examples:

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) was drowned out with chants of “save our healthcare” as she spoke at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally in Spokane. More than 250 people turned out to the Gerald R. Ford Library in Grand Rapids on Tuesday to question Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) about Medicaid cuts and the details of an ACA replacement plan, prompting security to turn dozens away. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) was surprised to find himself facing angry questions from a group of 50 at a Houston Chamber of Commerce session billed as an opportunity for locals “affected by Obamacare” to share stories about “rising costs and loss of coverage.”

If it becomes widely known that Republican congressmen don’t dare meet their voters for fear of similar incidents, the idea that ObamaCare repeal is popular will go down the drain.

and the cabinet nominees

Mattis at Defense and Kelly at Homeland Security have been approved. The Republican opposition to Tillerson at State seems to be evaporating. But the hearings have revealed a lot of problems, which Paul Waldman summarizes. Under the standards that applied to all previous administrations, I think Mnuchin at Treasury and Price at HHS would have been withdrawn already.

and you might also be interested in

President Obama under-used his pardon power for eight years, but he did commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who will be released in May.


The first change of a new administration is to take over the White House web site. Many have focused on what vanished: pages about climate change and LGBT rights, for example. More ominous to me, though, is what has appeared. The page “Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community” says:

The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.

I interpret this to mean that the Justice Department will no longer pay much attention to police killings. In the long run, this will be really unfortunate, not just for the public, but for many police as well.

During the controversy over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, it was hard to know who was telling the real story. The behavior of local police made it clear that their priority was to get their guy off, not to find the truth. The only thing that convinced me that Darren Wilson should not have been charged with murder was when the Justice Department’s investigation came out. Otherwise, there would never have been any trustworthy report.

That’s what will happen going forward. Police will continue to kill young black men, including some who are unarmed or unthreatening. Local investigations will declare those killings justified, whether they are or not. And that will be the end of the story. Citizens who dislike or distrust the police will assume they got away with murder, whether they did or not.


Online records of the Obama administration have not gone away completely. An archive of the Obama White House site is here, though it is not being maintained or updated any more.

and let’s close with something to change the mood

This week had a lot of wintry seriousness in it. So let’s imagine that it’s June in New York City. You’re cruising through the theater district on a sunny afternoon. Who might you give a ride to?

The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump

Is Donald Trump a legitimate president? Yes and no.


Not since Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into Washington has a president entered office facing so much organized opposition. Saturday, the day after his inauguration, marches explicitly for women’s rights (and implicitly against Donald Trump) were held all over the country, drawing (by some estimates) more than 3 million participants, and perhaps more than 4 million. The picture above is from much earlier demonstrations in the days following the election, but on the Boston Common Saturday I did see “Not My President” signs. During the boisterous moments before the official speakers took the stage, a “not my president” chant started in my section of the crowd, but quickly fizzled. [1]

It’s not just demonstrators. Last weekend, Congressman John Lewis told NBC’s Chuck Todd “I don’t see Trump as a legitimate president“, citing Russian interference in the election as a reason. Other observers — mostly Democrats, but not entirely — have given other reasons to regard Trump’s victory as shaky or suspicious: Hillary Clinton got nearly three million more votes than he did, winning the national vote 48%-46%. Trump was also assisted by the apparently improper interference of FBI Director James Comey. [2]

Trump has tried to bluster over such talk by tweeting about his “landslide” in the Electoral College, and making baseless charges about “the millions of people who voted illegally” for Clinton. The word legitimate came into the discussion from Trump’s supporters’ accusation that critics were trying to “delegitimatize”  his presidency. [3] By using that word, Lewis was swinging at the pitch thrown by Trump spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway.

So is he legitimate or not? On both sides, I think we’re getting lost in the vagueness of a word. What does it mean to be a “legitimate” president? I can’t speak for all the people who can’t bring themselves to call him “Mr. President”, but I thought I’d lay out exactly how legit I think Trump is, and what difference it makes.

Legal authority and moral authority. What confuses the issue, in my opinion, is that the presidency is really two things: on the one hand a legal office defined by the Constitution, but also a title evoking a much larger and fuzzier penumbra of traditional respect and moral authority. The President of the United States is not just the one who signs or vetoes laws, or gives orders to the Joint Chiefs. He is also the heir of Washington and Lincoln, the symbol and spokesman for the American people, the leader of the free world, and the recipient of the voters’ national mandate. Americans look to their president to express our collective sorrow in moments tragedy, and our resilience in the face of disaster. In our name, he recognizes outstanding achievements, and honors champions of sport and culture. We look to the president for direction in times of trouble. The Constitution says nothing about any of that.

In my mind, the legal office is really not in doubt. Congress counted the electoral votes and verified that Trump had a majority of them. So in the technical, legal sense spelled out in the Constitution, he is the President of the United States. All the powers the Constitution assigns to the President, or that Congress has delegated to him by law, are his to wield. [4]

As for the rest of it, though, Trump at this point deserves nothing, as far as I’m concerned. He is not my leader, and I do not respect him. He has no moral authority, because he deserves none. He carries no mandate, because the voters chose someone else. Our allies view him with suspicion, as they should. So he has the powers spelled out in the Constitution, period.

To a large extent, Trump has created this situation himself: When tradition would put burdens on him beyond those imposed by law, he sloughs those burdens off. [5] It is, after all, only tradition that insists that candidates reveal their tax returns or presidents put their assets in blind trust. Nothing in the Constitution requires that a president act presidential, rather than respond to even the most respectful criticism like a third-grader in a playground argument. [6] No law requires the winner of an election to be gracious, or to reach out to those who voted for other candidates, rather than gratuitously gloat over “my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly“. [7]

On top of his vote deficiency and his unworthy behavior since the election, his entire life shows him to be a genuinely reprehensible person. He assaulted those women. He defrauded those Trump U students. He stiffed those contractors. This is the heir of Washington and Lincoln?

The significance of moral authority. If you think it is toothless to deny Trump the intangible, extra-constitutional benefits of the presidency, consider how often he and his supporters ask for them.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the election settled all the issues that were raised about him during the campaign. He shouldn’t have to account for his conflicts of interest, for example, because the American people knew that when they voted for him. There is no point in continuing to discuss the pussy-grabbing or the defrauding or the stiffing. Or his bigoted attacks on Mexicans or Muslims, or his mimicry of a reporter’s disability. The election washed all that away, as if the electorate were a 130-million-member jury that voted for acquittal.

If Republicans genuinely believed such a clean-slate theory of elections, then President Obama’s clear victory in 2012 would have washed away Benghazi, making all further hearings and rhetoric irrelevant and immaterial. But in Trump’s case even the internal logic of the theory doesn’t work, because the American people did not vote for him. The Electoral College may provide a legal loophole that allows him to take office, but it doesn’t grant absolution. The American people endorsed the case against Donald Trump; he still needs to answer it.

A related claim is that the millions of protesters are misguided, because we need to “give the guy a chance“. Similarly, the Senate should give his cabinet picks the benefit of the doubt, even those who are manifestly unqualified, don’t understand the laws they’re supposed to enforce, have a suspect history on racial issues, or appear to be corrupt.

But none of that is in the Constitution. Constitutionally, nobody has to give Trump or his people a chance, or any benefit of the doubt. He needs to earn all that, and he hasn’t.

Much of Trump’s power over Republicans in Congress, or his hope of intimidating red-state Democrats, comes from an intangible aura of popularity: If elected officials oppose him, his voters will rise up and smite them. That’s why it’s not just legitimate, it’s vitally important to focus public attention on the fact that he is not popular and he has never been popular. Mass demonstrations do that, and so do polls that show Trump’s approval at unprecedented lows for an incoming president. [8]

And finally, I sincerely doubt that the constitutional powers of the presidency are what Trump was aiming for when he ran. He has never shown much interest in governing or in public policy of any sort. I suspect it was the splendor of the presidency that appealed to him, and that is precisely what President Forty-six Percent must be denied unless or until he earns it.

How could he gain legitimacy? To say that Trump can’t be my president unless he agrees with me would deny the whole basis of republican government. We all lose elections from time to time, and we need to learn how to live with that. What keeps Trump from being a fully legitimate president has nothing to do with his beliefs or policies, and everything to do with how he behaves. He could gain legitimacy if he worked at it.

How? To be blunt, he could start by not acting like such an asshole all the time. [Look at note 5 again. I’m using asshole not as an insult, but as a well-defined descriptive term.] A good beginning would be to stop using the word enemies to refer to law-abiding Americans who wish we had a different president, or to journalists who report true things he’d rather people didn’t notice. It was bad enough when Nixon maintained an enemies list in secret. For the President of the United States to use that word in public to refer to anyone short of an ISIS leader is way beyond the pale.

To put that more personally: I will never recognize any man as my leader who uses the word enemy to refer to people like me, or one who takes visible pleasure in insulting me.

He could recognize and carry out the obligations that tradition puts on him, rather than simply claim the benefits. He could release his tax returns and stop setting his business up to profit from his presidency. He could apply the same moral standards to his appointees that all previous presidents have applied to theirs. [9]

He could approach his job with seriousness, and not speak unless he knows what he’s talking about. He could stop telling lies so obvious that they insult our intelligence, like the ones this weekend about the size of his inaugural crowd.

That’s what most of us mean when we say presidential. But if he won’t even attempt to become presidential, then to me he will continue to be president only in a technical legal sense.


[1] “Not my president” didn’t start with Trump protesters. It was also said about Obama and Bush.

[2] Lewis’ statement, as well as expressions of outrage by many other Democratic congresspeople, followed a classified briefing from Comey about the FBI’s investigation of the ties between the Trump campaign and the Putin government. We don’t know exactly what was said in this briefing, but a reasonable guess is that Democrats were angered by Comey’s blatant double standard: When Trump was the target, Comey upheld the FBI policies of not discussing investigations. But he repeatedly made damaging public comments based on investigations of Clinton.

[3] This charge was somewhere between ironic and hypocritical, since Trump himself had literally tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by promoting the belief that he isn’t a native-born American, as the Constitution requires. And after Obama’s re-election in 2012, he tweeted: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

[4] Trump enters office under an ethical cloud that some think should lead to his impeachment, but that’s a different issue. There are legal methods for removing a president from office, and none of them have been carried out yet. So he is president under the law.

[5] In his insistence that he should receive the intangible benefits of the presidency, but shoulder none of the intangible responsibilities all other presidents have taken on, Trump is fulfilling the definition of asshole that Aaron James laid out in 2012 in his book Assholes: a theory.

A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. … His circumstances are special in each case, in his view, because he is in them. If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.

The asshole, in one paradigmic example, is the guy who cuts to the front of the line while believing firmly in the importance of lines

[6] I found his denunciation of the cast of Hamilton particularly noteworthy. If you watch the video of the event, the cast’s message for Vice President-Elect Mike Pence was entirely respectful, expressing no hostility. (“There’s nothing to boo here,” spokesman Brandon Dixon said to silence the audience.) Instead, they confessed to being “alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us” and encouraged Pence “to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us”.

Trump’s response (via Twitter) was not just to punch down, but to answer a respectful request for reassurance with personal insult:

The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

[7] Contrast this with how Lincoln, another president elected with less than a majority, closed his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

[8] Since Trump must denounce any mirror that doesn’t show him to be the fairest of them all, he claims these polls are rigged.

The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls. They are rigged just like before.

The flaw in this point of view is that although a few state polls (like Michigan) were badly wrong, the national polls were pretty close. The final RCP polling average had Clinton winning nationally by 3.2%. She actually won by 2.1%. There was a much bigger error in the opposite direction in 2012: the RCP final average was that Obama would win by less than 1%, and he actually won by nearly 4%.

Errors of that magnitude wouldn’t salvage Trump’s approval/disapproval spread, which is currently at -8.1% and dropping. Traditionally, pre-inauguration is when Americans are most optimistic about their new presidents. Gallup had Obama at +71% going into his inauguration in 2009. Even popular-vote-loser George W. Bush came in at +36%.

[9] HHS nominee Tom Price profited by trading healthcare stocks while he had inside knowledge of the industry through his position in Congress, and supported legislation that benefited his companies. Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin “failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven.”  The Senate should not have to vote on these men; their nominations should be withdrawn. These are not close calls.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Well, here we are, living under the Trump administration. We now know that no fairy dust sprinkles over a person during the inauguration and makes him presidential. The Trump we have gotten to know these last two years is the same man who has the nuclear codes now: small, impulsive, and constantly lying to protect his fragile ego.

A better human being might have acknowledged that he entered office without the support of a majority (or even a plurality) of Americans, asked for our patience, and pledged to prove himself worthy of our trust. He might have appealed to our highest hopes for our country, reached out to those who remember his hostile campaign rhetoric and feel threatened, and reassured allies who count on America to fulfill its commitments.

But there is no inaugural fairy dust. The one hopeful thing about the week is that millions of Americans took to the streets to protest.

Anyway, that’s the week I’ll be trying to cover today. The featured post, “The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump”, will consider the ways in which Trump either is or isn’t a “legitimate president”, to use John Lewis’ words, and what that implies going forward. That post should be out by 8 or so EST.

The weekly summary mainly discusses the inauguration and the Women’s Marches. Also the small-scale protests that focused on getting Republican congresspeople to face constituents who will lose their health insurance if ObamaCare is repealed. In other news, we’re finding out more and worse stuff about the cabinet nominees, Chelsea Manning will go free in a few months, 2016 was yet another hottest-year-on-record, and a few other things are worthy of your attention. But all that wintry seriousness deserves a summery closing: Carpool Karaoke takes a pre-Tony-Awards ride down Broadway. That should come out maybe around 10 or 11.

Believing in Change

Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I’m asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.

President Barack Obama

This week’s featured posts are “Farewell, Mr. President” and “Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest“. In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I want to point to an older Sift post “MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection“, where I attempt to recapture the often-suppressed radical side of King.

This week everybody was talking about the Trump dossier

Part of Trump’s briefing from the intelligence services included a two-page summary of a longer document (neither of which was endorsed as true by the intel people) listing alleged dirt that the Russians have on Trump. Buzzfeed somehow got hold of that longer document and published it, filling the airwaves with vague allusions to sexual practices you can’t talk about on TV.

Nobody who has commented (other than Trump himself, of course) actually knows whether any of this is true, and the major media outlets, in my judgment, are doing a good job of saying that at regular intervals.

I would feel sorry for any person this happened to, if he or she had maintained any standards of decorum in talking about others. But these are exactly the kinds of unsupported rumors Trump has been trafficking in for years. So this is more a case of what-goes-around-comes-around or they-that-touch-pitch-will-be-defiled.

That said, the claims aren’t well-supported enough to figure in my thinking, and probably shouldn’t figure in yours either. The proper use of them, at this point, is in jokes that needle Trump and his supporters. If they complain, you might remind them what it was like to listen to years of jokes about Obama and Kenya, or to see “humorous” images of the Obamas as monkeys.

The point of including the summary in the briefing, I suspect, is that Trump publicly resists the conclusion that the Russians were trying to help him win. But it’s hard to avoid that conclusion if the Russians had dirt on both candidates and only released what they had on Hillary. (He continues to deny that. Wednesday he said: “I think, frankly, had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it just like they did about Hillary.”) If Trump recognized anything in the document as true, the point was made.

and his plan to deal with conflicts of interest

I broke that out into its own article.

and Obama’s farewell speech

Also its own article, part of my retrospective on the Obama years.

and Senate hearings on the cabinet nominees

Like everybody else, I’m not paying the kind of attention to the nominees that they deserve.  I didn’t eight years ago, either, but that was different. My whole response to Steven Chu was something like: “A Nobel winner as secretary of energy. Cool.” But Jeff Sessions’ history on race, or Exxon-Mobil’s takeover of the State Department — these seem to deserve more thought.

The Christian Science Monitor bends over backwards not to condemn Sessions, but there’s still plenty there to set your teeth on edge. It quotes an SMU professor saying, “But he’s not evidently a mean-spirited guy. He has a narrow view, but not necessarily a mean view.” That’s a pretty low bar for an attorney general: He may not protect minority rights, but at least he won’t be screwing them out of spite.

And Tillerson will be making decisions about sanctions against Russia that have cost his former company more than $1 billion, by some reports.

And Ben Carson, well, we already know he’s a loon. I stand by my judgment in 2015 that he would be an even scarier president than Trump. In his confirmation hearings, he used the phrase “extra rights” when asked about LGBT rights in public housing. In 2014, he used that same phrase about same-sex marriage: Gay people don’t get the “extra right” to redefine marriage.

I’m sure I’ll have the occasion to say this many times, but I might as well start now: It’s invariably conservatives who are claiming “extra rights” or “special rights”. Same-sex marriage is a great example of that: Until recently, marrying the person you love was something only straight people could do. That’s a special right. Carson is complaining because gay people got the same rights he has. He exemplifies the right-wing-Christian sense of entitlement; they view their own rights as natural, and everybody else’s as “special”.

and ObamaCare

The Senate approved a budget blueprint that would be the first step towards repealing ObamaCare through a filibuster-proof process called “reconciliation“. Several Republican senators have expressed reservations about repealing ObamaCare without even having a replacement proposal written, but only Rand Paul abstained from the final vote. If the rest are going to buck the leadership on this, they’ll have to do it at a later stage. For now, they’re staying in line.

If any of you live in places like Maine (Susan Collins) or Tennessee (Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker) or Ohio (Rob Portman), you might want to give your wavering senator a call. They’re in a difficult political situation, and pressure either way might make a difference. On the one hand, they don’t want a primary opponent to say, “Senator X kept us from repealing ObamaCare.” On the other, they don’t want a general election opponent to say, “Senator X took your health care away.” But it’s shaping up to be one or the other.


In a 60 Minutes interview shortly after the election, Trump said this about ObamaCare.

Stahl: And there’s going to be a period if you repeal it and before you replace it, when millions of people could lose -– no?

Trump: No, we’re going to do it simultaneously. It’ll be just fine. We’re not going to have, like, a two-day period and we’re not going to have a two-year period where there’s nothing. It will be repealed and replaced. And we’ll know. And it’ll be great healthcare for much less money. So it’ll be better healthcare, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination.

It’s worth noting that as Congress moves towards repealing (and not replacing) ObamaCare, he still hasn’t said anything more substantive or constructive: Provide better healthcare, great healthcare, for less money. Do it immediately. At his press conference Wednesday, Trump did what he so often does: promised something in the future that there’s no reason he couldn’t deliver now, if he had it.

As soon as [HHS Secretary Tom Price] is approved and gets into the office, we’ll be filing a plan.

I don’t know what is going to happen, but I guarantee you it won’t be better healthcare for less money, immediately. And Trump will blame Congress, rather than take any responsibility for not offering a plan of his own. I continue to wonder whether Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell understand what they’ve gotten themselves into.

and you might also be interested in

Part of the ongoing project to understand Trump voters: Read “We have always been at war with Eastasia” by Michael Arnovitz. He’s addressing the way that conservative voters’ opinions can turn on a dime when the partisan winds shift: Putin and WikiLeaks are popular now. Protectionism is suddenly a good thing. There’s no need to drain the swamp, and we’ll see if anybody still cares about deficits when Trump runs one.

Arnovitz postulates that liberals and conservatives frame the partisan battle differently. Liberals believe that we’re contesting with conservatives over policy: The winner gets to decide whether we get national health care or free college, which are the really important things.

But conservatives view policy arguments as battles in the larger war against liberals. This is essentially a religious battle for the soul of America, and Russia or taxes or deficits are secondary.

BTW: In case it’s been a long time since you read 1984, the title refers to the moment when Oceania suddenly shifts its alliance from Eastasia to Eurasia. Eastasia, the former ally, is now the enemy — but no one is allowed to point that out. Instead of explaining the change, Oceania just alters history to claim that it was always at war with Eastasia.


On the Moyers & Company site, Neal Gabler writes about progressives going through the stages of grief about Trump’s election. I kind of get his point: You start out saying “This isn’t happening”, then get angry, and so on from there. But then he makes it clear that he doesn’t really understand the stages of grief:

The last stage of grief is acceptance, and one thing I do know: It is imperative that anyone who thinks of Trump’s election as perhaps the single greatest catastrophe in American political history must never reach that stage.

No, actually it’s imperative that we do get to acceptance. Acceptance isn’t an aw-fukkit attitude. It’s not resignation. It just means that you stop arguing that the world isn’t the way it is, or that the world owes you something for being the way it is. If you don’t get there, your actions have a brittleness or desperation that undermines your effectiveness.

Resignation means not just that you accept the present, but that you’re not going to try to change to future either. That’s where you should never let yourself get. (I talked about this at length recently.)

Trump will become president Friday. That’s bad, but the badness of it doesn’t change the fact. We’ve got work to do if we want to the future to be better.

and let’s close with a modern sorcerer’s apprentice moment

So Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant is default-set to allow you to voice-order products from Amazon. But what if it misinterprets something you say as an order, or recognizes somebody else’s voice — maybe a voice on the TV — as yours?

Channel 6 in San Diego admits that happened. Its news anchors were talking about an incident where a little girl ordered a dollhouse and four pounds of cookies, when one of them said:

I love the little girl, saying “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse.”

All over San Diego, Amazon devices heard somebody say “Alexa, order me a dollhouse”.

Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

Last week I talked about how Trump’s followers don’t care about process issues. To them, process issues are about getting the appearances right and filling out the correct forms. Only lawyers and fussbudgets care about technicalities like that.

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a process issue. Trump has been appealing to his supporters indifference to such concerns when he sloppily says “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.” or “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.” The grain of truth in those statements is that the president is exempt from the primary conflict-of-interest law (for reasons that will be explained below). So he’s free from some (but not all) legal technicalities, which he expresses by saying that he’s free from conflicts of interest.

This refusal to acknowledge the problem, other than as a set of meaningless hoops people expect him to jump through, explains a lot about the conflict-of-interest plan he revealed Wednesday. The Atlantic ‘s Jeremy Venook comments:

Trump and his lawyer Sheri Dillon laid out the plans that they claimed would resolve the questions about conflicts of interest that have dogged the president-elect since he was elected. Instead, what they announced were piecemeal steps that, though designed and packaged to mitigate the appearance of conflicts of interest, do almost nothing to substantively address concerns that his business entanglements will undermine his ability to faithfully execute the office of the presidency.

The plan. Trump’s plan has a few basic points:

  • He resigns as an officer of the Trump Organization.
  • His assets go into a trust that he continues to own, but which will be managed by his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, together with a Trump executive, Allen Weisselberg.
  • He pledges not to discuss business with his sons or Weisselberg. (Venook calls this a “pinky-swear assurance”. Obviously Trump will continue to meet with his sons, and we’ll have no idea what they talk about.)
  • The Trump Organization does not make any new deals in foreign countries, or any deals at all with any “foreign country, agency, or instrumentality thereof.”
  • New domestic deals will need the approval of “independent” ethics officers, one in the government and one in the Trump Organization.
  • Profits earned from foreign governments — say by diplomats staying at or holding events at Trump hotels — will be donated to the U.S. Treasury.

His lawyers claim that in giving up foreign-government-related profits, he goes over and above what the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause requires, because it does not apply to “fair-value exchanges” like renting a hotel room. (That’s a controversial view, to put it mildly. And who’s to decide the “fair value” of a room in a hotel whose main selling point is the prestige of its image? What if he later claims that a stay in a Trump hotel is — as the MasterCard commercials say — “priceless”.)

The problems. The foremost obstacle to a credible conflict-avoidance plan is that Trump has a long history of welching on his deals and not carrying out his promises. For Trump, no deal is ever done; he’s constantly pushing its boundaries and trying to re-negotiate its terms. At a minimum, we should expect Trump to interpret any constraints on his actions as loosely as possible. So his conflict-of-interest plan needs to have ironclad enforcement provisions.

This one has none. The public knows nothing and will continue to know nothing about the internal workings of the Trump Organization. The ethics officers are appointed by Trump or his sons, and if they rubber-stamp deals that clearly violate the stated terms — say, an interest-free loan from a sovereign wealth fund — we’ll never know. And what is “profit”, anyway? In the real estate business, profit is as much or as little as an accountant is willing to sign off on. Unless Trump volunteers to tell us, we won’t know how much he is remitting to the Treasury or what that number is based on. (Or he might tell us he’s giving so many millions to the Treasury and then not bother to write the check unless or until somebody notices; he’s done that kind of thing before.) 538‘s Ben Casselman sums up:

It’s hard to evaluate Trump’s promises because as a private company, the Trump Organization doesn’t have to disclose many details about its finances or operations and because Trump himself — in a break from the practice of past presidents — has refused to release his tax returns. Trump on Wednesday displayed huge stacks of documents that he said were part of the process of turning his business over to his sons, but he didn’t make those documents available for public inspection. So although Trump did, as promised, provide new details about how he will handle his finances as president, the news conference didn’t do much to change the bottom line: When it comes to conflicts of interest, Trump’s message to Americans remains, “Trust me.”

And then there’s the stuff that’s not covered at all. Even without any new deals, foreign governments will have plenty of opportunities to favor or threaten existing Trump properties. The Trump Organization can hire people that the Trump administration wants to pay off or keep quiet, and we’ll never know. Banks that loan money to Trump businesses — we recently found out there’s a whole lot more debt than Trump previously admitted to — will be regulated by the Trump administration. Quid-pro-quo deals can be arranged to begin after Trump leaves office. And the lease on the Old Post Office, which houses the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, explicitly forbids any “elected official of the Government of the United States” from participating. Presumably Trump thinks he’s solved the problem by having a trust that he owns be party to the lease, but he hasn’t.

Perhaps the most serious potential conflict of interest isn’t financial: Imagine that terrorists in some country, say Turkey, start targeting Trump properties, and Trump concludes that the Turkish government isn’t doing enough to protect them. Is that an issue between the Turkey and a foreign corporation? Or is it an issue between Turkey and President of the United States?

The Schaub speech. Also on Wednesday, the Director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Schaub, gave an unprecedented speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

I wish circumstances were different and I didn’t feel the need to make public remarks today. You don’t hear about ethics when things are going well. You’ve been hearing a lot about ethics lately.

I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met.

We learn a bunch of things from Schaub’s speech. First, that Trump constructed his plan with no input from OGE, the organization that his cabinet nominees have been working with. (Schaub spoke glowingly of Rex Tillerson’s cooperation, and the plan they came up with to insulate him from Exxon-Mobil.) Trump’s attorney had explained the decision not to sell his interest in the Trump Organization because its assets are too illiquid to dispose of quickly or easily. Schaub brushed that off:

[Trump’s] attorney [Sheri Dillon] also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time.

He might not get top dollar if he sold now, but people make sacrifices to serve at the top levels of government.

I appreciate that divestiture can be costly. But the President-elect would not be alone in making that sacrifice. I’ve been involved in just about every Presidential nomination in the past 10 years. I also have been involved in the ethics review of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and most top White House officials. I’ve seen the sacrifices that these individuals have had to make.

It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.

Tillerson, for example agreed to forego “millions of dollars” in bonuses from Exxon-Mobil. Everybody who joined the Obama administration, including Obama himself, had to sell their stocks at the worst possible time. (The exact bottom of the market was in early March, 2009, but November, 2008 was close.)

Finally, we get an explanation of why Congress exempted the president from certain conflict-of-interest laws.

Now, some have said that the President can’t have a conflict of interest, but that is quite obviously not true. I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict of interest law that doesn’t apply to the President. That law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, bars federal employees from participating in particular matters affecting their financial interests. Employees comply with that law by “recusing”, which is a lawyerly way of saying they have stay out of things affecting their financial interests. If they can’t stay out of these things, they have to sell off their assets or get a waiver. That’s what Presidential appointees do. But Congress understood that a President can’t recuse without depriving the American people of the services of their leader. That’s the reason why the law doesn’t apply to the President.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a president who owned oil wells had to recuse himself from any energy-policy discussion, he couldn’t really do his job.

[In response to this speech, House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz sent a letter to Schaub warning him against “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance” and implying that his office’s funding might be cut.]

Other expert opinion. The Atlantic interviewed Norman Eisen, who used to oversee ethics for the Obama administration. Eisen echoes Schaub’s explanation:

You don’t want to have the president in the middle of a crisis where he’s about to make an urgent decision, and his White House Counsel says to him, “Oh, Mr. President, you have a conflict of interest. You have to leave the room. You can’t decide whether to rescue those hostages.” We don’t want to have that.

And points out another way in which “The president can’t have a conflict of interest” is at best “a half truth”.

It is the case that there are certain portions of the federal conflict-of-interest laws that apply to all other federal officials, but do not apply to the president and vice president. But those occur in a large body of constitutional, criminal, and civil law that is intended to regulate conflict. There’s no dispute that the president is covered by the federal criminal law, including 18 U.S.C. § 201, for example, which is bribery of public officials.

Eisen answers questions about enforcement. Impeachment is the ultimate enforcement mechanism, but he outlines other steps that could play out in Congress or the courts, like competitors suing because they feel they’ve been damaged by favors given to Trump businesses.

But why are we even talking about this? He could sign his stuff over to a true, independent trustee, not a family member, let the independent trustee liquidate, put the liquidated assets behind a big, beautiful, blind-trust wall, and set up another ethics firewall for your kids and other managers of the organization. That simple, four-step process would spare us all of this.

The argument against this solution is one I suspect we’ll hear a lot these next four years: Trump is very rich, and it’s unreasonable to expect the very rich to follow the same rules or live by the same standards the rest of us do.

Farewell, Mr. President

This week he said good-bye to us. It’s time to reflect on what it means to say good-bye to him.


For about a year now, President Obama has been doing “lasts”: last State of the Union, last Democratic Convention as president, last press conference, and so on. It all leads up to Friday, when he will pass the presidency on to someone I don’t trust and feel is simply not up to the job.

Tuesday, he gave his Farewell Address, a presidential tradition that goes back to George Washington [1] and includes such memorable moments as Dwight Eisenhower warning us against “the military-industrial complex”.

The speech. In Obama’s farewell, he focused on the challenges that American democracy faces:

  • lack of economic opportunity for all
  • continuing conflict over race
  • retreat into bubbles of like-minded people
  • weakening democratic values by giving in to fear of each other
  • erosion of democratic institutions.

He presented these not just as political problems to be address by leaders and solved with new laws, but as cultural problems all citizens need to be aware of and work on. In a lot of ways it was typical Obama: He gives inspiring and engaging speeches, but he always assigns homework. He never loses sight of the truth that government can’t really be of the People, by the People, and for the People unless the People are willing to work on it.

Looking back personally. For me, any reflection on the Obama administration has to start with the personal: Over the last eight years I’ve developed a real affection for Barack Obama and his family. During campaigns, pundits sometimes ask whether voters would like to have a beer with a candidate. I’ll put a somewhat different spin on that idea: Of all the First Families of my lifetime, I’d most like to eat dinner with the Obamas.

For eight years, they have endured an unprecedented level of hatred and vindictiveness, some of it due to the increasing partisanship in America, and some due to racism. [2] Through it all, they have maintained a level of dignity and decorum that the entire country ought to take pride in, even if half of it doesn’t. I have memories of all Obama’s predecessors back to LBJ, and each, Republican and Democrat alike, have at one time or another left me embarrassed or ashamed to think of him as my president. I never felt that way about Obama.

Conversely, I always felt respected by him. From his campaign rallies in 2008 to the farewell address Tuesday, he always talked to us as if we were adults. He wasn’t above using a slogan like “yes we can” or “hope and change”, but there was always something behind it. He never turned America’s enemies into cartoon villains, or proposed cartoon solutions for dealing with them. (And yet, he dealt with them.)

When historians look back at the Obama administration, I think they will rate it as the cleanest of modern times. There was no Watergate, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky. Republicans kept trying to label things as “Obama’s Katrina” because none of them stuck. Every time they ginned up a new faux outrage, they had to relate it to something from a previous administration, because Obama had left them nothing. That is not just a testiment to his managerial ability and his good judgment in choosing subordinates, but to the example of the man at the top.

What he accomplished. In the farewell address, President Obama summed up his accomplishments like this:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history; if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11; if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did.

Republicans by and large refuse to talk about the Bush-Cheney administration, so the eight years before Obama sometimes seem like one big memory hole. But it’s worth remembering that he entered office in the middle of a historic crisis. The economy was hemorrhaging jobs, the banking system was insolvent, and the auto industry was bankrupt. There were questions about whether states would be able to pay their bills.

We were also in the middle of two bloody and expensive wars with no end in sight. So let’s start there: During George W. Bush’s two terms, 5984 American soldiers died in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Obama’s two terms, 921.

Obama turns over to Trump a far better economy than the one he inherited. The Dow was just under 8,000 when Obama was inaugurated. It’s now just under 20,000. Unemployment was at 7.8% and rising fast when Obama took office. It would peak at 10% by October. It’s now at 4.7%. [3]

When Obama took office, federal fiscal year 2009 was already in progress, having started on October 1, 2008. Politifact reports:

On Jan. 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for fiscal year 2009 was projected to be $1.2 trillion.

The FY 2009 deficit eventually came in at $1.4 trillion, with the extra $200 billion attributed mostly to Obama’s stimulus plan. Since then the deficits have come down considerably; the FY 2017 deficit Trump inherits is estimated at just over $500 billion.

ObamaCare, for all the abuse it takes, has succeeded in its major goals: The percentage of the population that is uninsured is the lowest in history. Unless and until it gets repealed, all of us are secure against becoming uninsurable because we get sick. [4]

The Iran deal, assuming Trump doesn’t screw it up somehow, was a great piece of diplomacy. As I described elsewhere, we got the concessions we wanted and gave the Iranians nothing but their own frozen assets. Compare this to the Bush administration’s handling of North Korea: The bluster sounded impressive, but in the end North Korea got nuclear weapons and Bush did nothing about it. He would either have done the same thing with Iran or started a third war bigger than his other two.

The opening to Cuba was long overdue. We’ve kept the embargo in place for half a century mostly because no president was willing to admit it had failed.

Marriage equality did happen on Obama’s watch, but I don’t think he deserves much credit for it. When he changed his mind on the subject, he was following the country rather than leading it. That’s better than holding the country back, but it’s nothing to brag about.

Where he failed: war powers. My substantive disappointment in Obama is best symbolized by the prison at Guantanamo: He signed an order to close it on the second day of his presidency, and it is still open. Guantanamo was the Bush administration’s attempt to find a “law-free zone“, where the treatment of prisoners couldn’t be judged either by U.S. courts or those of some host nation. It was part of a larger vision in which the War on Terror would be unconstrained by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, or any national sovereignty that would prevent us from killing whoever we want wherever we want.

That vision is still functioning, limited in some ways, but in others more secure than ever. Obama hinted as much in the farewell address:

For the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing.

He limited torture by executive order, which Trump will be free to reverse next week if he’s so inclined. Drone strikes continue in countries where we are not at war and do not have the prior approval of the local government. There is a more rigorous process — also established by and reversible by executive order — to prevent the most egregious abuses of these extraordinary powers. But if President Obama could order the death of an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki, a more malevolent future president could kill any of us.

As in so many areas of disappointment, his inability to get Congress to go along with him played a huge role (especially with Guantanamo).

Where he failed: economic justice. The ongoing economic collapse Obama inherited from President Bush created both dangers and opportunities. The banking system was insolvent and government action was necessary to prevent the kind of cascading bankruptcies that characterized the Great Depression. Sweden took advantage of a similar crisis in the 1990s to get control of its banks and re-organize them. Obama missed that opportunity, preferring to leave the existing bank managements in place and simply provide government cash and guarantees. His Justice Department also failed to prosecute bankers, even though it seems clear that a great deal of fraud was involved in the housing bubble.

As a result, bankers got bailed out and homeowners didn’t. The too-big-to-fail banks are still too big to fail, and the whole disaster could happen again.

In an effort to gain Republican support that never came, his stimulus proposal was too small and about 1/3 of it came as tax cuts. So American infrastructure continued to decay, even as large numbers of workers were unemployed and interest rates were near zero.

The bottom line was that when recovery came, its benefits were focused on the wealthy. Inequality continued to grow. Only in the last year or two have wages for the middle class begun to increase.

Where he failed: climate change. There is still no price on carbon, which is the most obvious and most necessary step to battle climate change. He was not able to get any substantive climate-change bill or treaty through Congress, so such advances as he made through the executive branch are vulnerable to the next administration.

The mirages of transformation. Whether you love Obama or hate him, probably you feel a certain amount of disappointment about his administration and his era. Looking back, I blame our unrealistic expectations more than failures on his part.

Obama’s 2008 landslide (and the large Congressional majorities that came with it) created a hope among liberals that he could be not just a good president — which I think he was — but a transformational one on the scale of FDR or Lincoln. The lesson of the Bush economic collapse was that conservative economics does not work: If you lower taxes on the rich, they won’t hire more workers; if you de-regulate banks and businesses, they’ll rob you. Surely now all of America recognized that great liberal truth, and was willing to follow the new president into a fundamentally new vision of how American society and economy should work.

In retrospect, Obama was slow to catch on to the scorched-earth nature of Republican resistance, and tried too hard and too long to find common ground with people who were content to reject their own ideas as soon as Obama adopted them. (John McCain, for example, opposed what was essentially the McCain-Liebermann proposal on climate change, as well as his previous ideas about immigration reform.) He never moved quickly enough because he always thought he had more time than he actually did. His filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, for example, lasted not two years, but only about half a year: from Al Franken’s delayed swearing-in in July, 2009 to Scott Brown’s upset victory in January, 2010.

But I think the idea that 2008 represented a chance to reshape the longterm political landscape of America was always a mirage. The speed with which the Republicans rebranded themselves and pulled their party back together, the quick and unified resistance to such changes as Obama managed to make, the willingness of white Americans to believe any bad thing propagandists could dream up about their black president … it all belies the vision of a transformational moment. It’s very human to fantasize about change and then resist such change as actually appears. We do that every day in our personal lives, and we did it as a country in the Obama era. (I think Trump is discovering a similar truth about now.)

Another mirage projected onto Obama, this one more often by conservatives, was that his presidency would mark the beginning of a “post-racial America”. Now that a black man had been elected president, we could all admit that racism was over and move on. Blacks and other non-white Americans would be satisfied now and stop making demands for any more substantive equality.

On the Right, it’s now widely accepted that Obama was a “divisive” president who made race relations worse: witness Ferguson and Baltimore. Rather than settle down and accept their unequal place in the world, blacks seem more riled up than ever by movements like Black Lives Matter, and Obama encourages them rather than urging them to get back in line.

But racism has never been over in America, or even close to over. Obama’s presidency brought to the surface racial currents that had remained hidden and deniable. He was “divisive” in the same way that Martin Luther King was: He raised black hopes for justice, and became a target for white racial anxiety. [5] The racial divide in America is more visible now than it was in 2008, and that’s probably a good thing, because we can’t solve problems we refuse to see.

Summing up. I’ve had things to complain about these last eight years, but I’ve never missed George W. Bush, or pined for the lost opportunities of a McCain or Romney administration. And as for next administration, the cartoon below rings far too true. For the next four years, I suspect I will miss Barack Obama every day.


[1] The writing of Washington’s farewell address is commemorated in the song “One Last Time” from Hamilton.

[2] Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the implicit racism embedded in attacks on the Obamas. For now, let me just say that I don’t believe it would ever have occurred to Joe Wilson to interrupt a white president’s State of the Union address by yelling, “You lie!” One simply didn’t do stuff like that during previous administrations, and probably no one will once again, now that the White House is back in white hands. I predict that Donald Trump’s addresses will be full of lies, as all his speeches are, but no congressman will yell at him.

[3] If you don’t like the way the unemployment rate is defined, we can compare a broader number, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls U6: In addition to the people the more widely publicized unemployment rate (U3) counts, it includes those who want jobs but are too discouraged to actively look for them, and those part-time workers who wish they could find full-time work. That rate was 14.2% in January, 2009 and peaked at 17.1%. It’s now at 9.2%.

[4] This is real to me because my wife is a two-time cancer survivor. If you look around at the people close to you, I predict you won’t have to look far to find somebody with a pre-existing condition no profit-minded insurance company would touch.

[5] Another comparison is the antebellum South. Slaveholders had convinced themselves that their slaves were happy — “You’re happy, boy, aren’t you? Don’t I treat you good?” — and believed that the only problem was those meddling abolitionists.

The Monday Morning Teaser

There’s really too much news to sift these days. I chose to write two featured articles this week, one a farewell to President Obama, and the other a response to Trump’s plan to appear to do something about his conflicts of interest. But also the Senate began hearings on cabinet nominees, several of whom are worth serious objections. Both houses of Congress started maneuvering to repeal ObamaCare, while claiming to want to replace it, but not coming any closer to producing a replacement. The Inauguration is coming up Friday, and the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday — which will draw the bigger crowd is an interesting question. Trump held an outrageous press conference, where he staked out a more hostile relationship with the press than any previous president. The Senate Intelligence Committee is going to investigate Russian influence on the election, while James Comey is taking a wildly different position on discussing possible FBI investigations of Trump than he did on discussing investigations of Clinton. Trump’s approval rating is far below any previous president-elect on the eve of inauguration. And oh, by the way, Congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis said publicly that he doesn’t think Trump is a legitimate president.

I’m having trouble keeping up with all that myself, much less explaining it all in a reasonable length. And what about the states, or the world outside the United States? There must be news there too — it’s not like they all shut down or something —  but I couldn’t tell you what it is.

So I go into this week’s sift admitting that I’m bound to leave out something important, or give a one-line mention to stuff that deserves serious thought. There’s just not enough serious thought to go around these days.

I wonder if that situation will settle down after the inauguration, or just get worse?

Anyway, I’ll guess that “Farewell, Mr. President” comes out around 9 EST. “Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest” at 10, and the weekly summary between 11 and noon. In the meantime, it’s MLK Day, so you might want to look at a post I wrote in 2013 to recall Martin Luther King’s radical side, which so easily gets swept under the rug these days: “MLK: Sanitized For Their Protection“. I take some pride in its opening line: “One of the best ways to silence a dead revolutionary is to venerate him.”

Dark Woods

This is the deepest part of the deep dark woods. Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.

Charles Pierce

This week’s featured post is “How Populism Goes Bad“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s feud with the intelligence services over Russia

Friday, Trump got briefed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Also on Friday, an unclassified report on the findings of the CIA, FBI, and NSA was released to the public. (Actual content begins on page 6. The report says it was based on a “highly classified” document. The conclusions are the same but some “supporting information” was left out.)

We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election

This effort seems to have unfolded on three levels: first, a “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order”, then a specific animus against Hillary Clinton, and finally a desire to help elect Donald Trump.

When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency. … Starting in March 2016, Russian Government–linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences.

The report describes a wide-ranging effort, including hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign emails that were released by WikiLeaks, direct propaganda on Russian-government supported outlets like the RT news network, internet trolls, and fake news sources.

Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections.

Until Friday, Trump had minimized any implication that Russia helped him get elected, saying that there was no way to know who had done the hacking, and describing the Russian-influence controversy as a “witch hunt“. His statement Friday didn’t double down on that, but changed the subject. He continued to acknowledge no special role for Russia, and shifted attention to hacking voting machines, which has been sometimes rumored but seems not to have happened.

While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations, including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines

In short: Russia played a key role in getting Trump elected, and he’s still carrying water for them. How far the pro-Russian tilt of his administration will go is still anybody’s guess.


BTW, if you believe the NYT’s interviews in Lousiana, Trump supporters don’t care. That’s disturbing, but I think it’s important not to confuse the enthusiastic Trumpers with the 46% who elected him. The 46% included a lot of Republicans with doubts about him.


In possibly related news, former CIA director James Woolsey resigned from the Trump transition team. According to the WaPo:

People close to Woolsey said … that Woolsey had grown increasingly uncomfortable lending his name and credibility to the transition team without being consulted.

and ObamaCare

President Obama, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine about the proposed repeal of ObamaCare.

If a repeal with a delay is enacted, the health care system will be standing on the edge of a cliff, resulting in uncertainty and, in some cases, harm beginning immediately. Insurance companies may not want to participate in the Health Insurance Marketplace in 2018 or may significantly increase prices to prepare for changes in the next year or two, partly to try to avoid the blame for any change that is unpopular. Physician practices may stop investing in new approaches to care coordination if Medicare’s Innovation Center is eliminated. Hospitals may have to cut back services and jobs in the short run in anticipation of the surge in uncompensated care that will result from rolling back the Medicaid expansion. Employers may have to reduce raises or delay hiring to plan for faster growth in health care costs without the current law’s cost-saving incentives. And people with preexisting conditions may fear losing lifesaving health care that may no longer be affordable or accessible.

Does anybody remember the deal that came out of the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011? We were assured that the sequester, which would cut spending across the board without regard to its importance, would never come to pass. It was just an enforcement mechanism to make sure that the bipartisan “Supercommittee” really did come up with $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next ten years. And they would, because nobody wanted the sequester.

Well, threatening the committee with something awful didn’t magically make the partisan deadlock go away: Republicans still wouldn’t consider any tax increases, and Democrats still weren’t willing to offer $1.5 trillion of spending cuts without any tax increases. So the sequester happened, even though everybody swore it wouldn’t.

Same thing here: We’re told that if ObamaCare is repealed, effective two or three years in the future, then Congress will be forced to come up with a replacement, because nobody wants to be responsible for 20 million people losing their health insurance and everybody losing protection against being locked out of the insurance system by a pre-existing condition.

And that’s exactly right: Nobody wants to be responsible. So when it happens they’ll all do their best to duck the responsibility.


Repeal-and-delay or repeal-now-and-replace-someday may have trouble in the Senate, where it only takes three Republican dissenters to derail the plan. So far

Rand Paul (R-KY), Bob Corker (R-TN), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Susan Collins (R-ME) are all signaling a potential break from the rest of their party. Though it’s not yet clear whether these senators will cast a vote against Obamacare repeal, the growing unease in the Senate puts the GOP on shaky ground.

They’re not coming out as ObamaCare defenders by any means, but each is reluctant to vote for repeal without knowing what the replacement proposal will be.

There’s a distinction to make here between sharp, hard-nosed tactics and irresponsibility. Much of the repeal of ObamaCare can be done through a reconciliation process that can’t be filibustered, but a replacement proposal would need 60 votes to get through the Senate, which it is unlikely to get at the moment.

So it makes tactical sense for the Republicans to separate the two votes, figuring that after ObamaCare is repealed, some Democrats will come around to a Republican replacement plan rather than revert to the broken healthcare system we had in 2009. What’s irresponsible, though, is that the replacement plan doesn’t even exist yet, and it’s not at all clear that Republicans can agree on one, even among themselves. They’ve had seven years to concoct a plan; it’s a mystery why the 8th or 9th year would be the charm.


Various Republicans are insisting that no one will be worse off under their plan, whatever it turns out to be. They almost certainly can’t make good on that, “since they are backing themselves into having no money to insure 20 or 25 million people” (as Josh Marshall observes), “But they’re on the record.”

For what it’s worth, Trump said during the campaign: “Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.” This week, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said: “We don’t want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance.”

Paul Ryan: “Clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off.” But later, his people walked that back, claiming that the Speaker was talking only about the transition period before the replacement took effect.

but I’m thinking about resistance

There are a number of events you could go to, either this weekend or next. You can search for something near you at the Our Revolution event page. (There are probably other event pages; if you know of any, mention them in the comments.)

The big ones, of course, are the Women’s Marches January 21, a week from Saturday and the day after the Inauguration. The central one in D.C. is expected to draw hundreds of thousands, and there are sister marches in cities all over the country.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t usually do this kind of thing, one question you might be asking yourself is: If I go, what difference will it make?

I won’t try to convince you that you’ll have some major impact on Trump himself, or on most of his supporters either. But a big news-making crowd might make congresspeople of both parties think twice before they sign on to Trump’s agenda, and also affect the way the media covers the administration going forward. We want to short-circuit the narrative that says the public is coming around on Trump, that nobody really cares about his conflicts of interest, his racist chief strategist and attorney general, his targeting of Muslim Americans and Hispanic immigrants, his anti-woman proposals and personal history, his pro-billionaire agenda, and all the rest of it.

But beyond all those good effects (which I admit that one more person would advance only marginally), you should think about the effect that going to a march will have on yourself. By getting out and marching on the first full day of the new administration, you start to change your self-image and your political identity. Rather than being someone who just pays attention to the news and votes, you start becoming someone who is more involved and does things on a regular basis. You may meet other people who get involved and do things, or discover that people you already know are out there with you. You may start feeling less helpless and hopeless. You may do less yelling at the TV and more planning how to respond. Seeds will get planted, and who can predict what will sprout from them?

So sure, do it for the country. But also do it for yourself.


As for affecting Congress, some ex-staffers for Democratic congresspeople have used their inside knowledge to put together Indivisible: a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. It’s about tactics for forming constituent groups and influencing your members of Congress.

It includes a number of tips that are obvious once you’ve read them, but that not everybody would think of. Like this one for attending town-hall meetings:

SHOULD I BRING A SIGN?
Signs can be useful for reinforcing the sense of broad agreement with your message. However, if you’re holding an oppositional sign, staffers will almost certainly not give you or the people with you the chance to get the mic or ask a question. If you have enough people to both ask questions and hold signs, though, then go for it!


The House Republicans’ attempt to do away with the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics failed. After an immediate public outcry, they backed down. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this issue, but it points out that the public’s voice still matters, if we choose to use it.


Sleeping Giants “is an organization dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites by stopping their ad dollars.” The main tactic seems to be pointing out to companies that their online ads are appearing next to horrible content, implying that the company endorses such views. Current target: Addidas.

We’ve reached a point in our country where sitting it out isn’t an option. If you’re a part of ad dollars flowing to racist sites like Breitbart, then you’re part of the ugliness undermining a strong, diverse America.

and here’s the most important story nobody’s paying attention to

From ProPublica, an organization that has a history of doing good, accurate reporting:

The rate of pregnancy-related deaths in Texas seemed to have doubled since 2010, making the Lone Star State one of the most dangerous places in the developed world to have a baby.

The increase is largest among African-American women, and the timing corresponds to a funding cut for family-planning centers that serve low-income women. Coincidence?

and you might also be interested in

Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes: “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.” Read the whole thing. Or watch it.

Trump, of course, doesn’t have the grace to let something like that stand — imagine if President Obama had felt obligated to respond to every bad thing said about him — so he tweeted:

Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big

“Overrated” is also how he described Hamilton, so it’s starting to look like a badge of honor. Being called “overrated” by Trump is something to aspire to.


If you want to know how bad things could get, look to Brazil. After President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party was impeached in August, the current un-elected president, Michel Temer, took over, despite being just as corrupt as Rousseff. Temer has pushed through a constitutional amendment to freeze public spending on all social programs at current levels (plus inflation) for the next 20 years. A whopping 24% of the public supports that limit — 43% of Brazilians were unaware of the plan a short time before the Senate approved it — but the business community loves it, so it passed.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, says the freeze “clearly violates Brazil’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and “will place Brazil in a socially retrogressive category all of its own”.

A separate pension-reform proposal forbids retirement before age 65, in a country where the life expectancy in many poorer communities is lower than that. Labor laws are also under attack. In many, many ways, the government is taking an attitude of: Yeah, it’s unfair and unpopular, but so what?


I frequently link to Pressthink by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at Columbia who is one of the sharpest people thinking about American news coverage. Recently he had a very good two-part series about the challenge Trump poses to journalism and some (admittedly incomplete) suggestions about how to respond.

One of the problems he cites:

A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: “Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.” … [E]xisting methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.

The usual model of trying to gain access to high-ranking officials can backfire in such a regime: What if your inside source has no more idea what the President thinks than you do?


Hearings are starting on Trump’s appointees, even though background checks on conflicts of interest are unfinished. How are senators supposed to know what to ask about?


It looks like Trump is going to ask Congress to pay for the wall. Supposedly, Mexico will reimburse us later. I think this is a pattern we’ll see a lot of: Magical things are going to happen someday to fulfill Trump’s promises, but in the meantime something else will happen.


Yonatan Zunger has a different metaphor for talking about tolerance, and it gets around the tolerating-intolerance issue: He thinks of tolerance not as a virtue, but as a peace treaty. You tolerate those who sign onto the treaty, but not those who reject it.

There may be bad consequences to this view that I haven’t identified yet, but I’m going to think about it.


At the Pink Panthers blog, dissident liberal Christians are asking for secular help getting their message out.

Obviously, a religious establishment which would pressure their followers elevate a man like Donald Trump to office and claim that this pleases God is, at the least, dangerous to our survival as a nation. Most of what passes for Christianity in this country is nothing more than complicated explanations for how a person can reject everything Jesus ever said while remaining Christian. Which is a travesty. Real Christianity is something which most human beings would look at and say, “even if I can’t believe in the religious stuff, I can see that this is good and right. It makes sense.” But right now, that kind of Christianity has been rendered all but voiceless both inside and outside the church.

Which is why I am asking secular, liberal America to start sharing the voices of Christian dissent on social media.


The Wall Street Journal (link behind paywall; summary at ThinkProgress) reports that Trump businesses owe far more than the $315 million he has admitted to.

Last May, Mr. Trump filed a financial-disclosure form with the Federal Election Commission that listed 16 loans worth $315 million that his businesses had received from 10 companies, including Deutsche Bank AG. But that form reported debts only for companies he controls, excluding more than $1.5 billion lent to partnerships that are 30%-owned by him.

ThinkProgress adds:

[The] financial institutions [that hold this debt] include many firms that are under the scrutiny of the federal agencies that Trump will soon control. Wells Fargo, for example, which services over $900 million in loans connected to Trump, “is currently facing scrutiny from federal regulators surrounding its fraudulent sales practices and other issues.”

and let’s close with something adorable

One of my friends has been working on this project for some while now, but has had to be circumspect about discussing it until the company was ready to announce, which it did this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Kuri, a gender-nonspecific name pronounced like the spicy Indian dish, is a different take on the idea of a home robot: It’s more of a pet than an appliance, and isn’t trying to look like a human or replace your maid service. So it won’t vacuum your rug, but it will roll around your house looking cute and evoking interactions — kind of like a puppy on wheels, but without the mess.

Its appearance owes more to R2D2 than C3PO. Techcrunch describes Kuri as “an Amazon Echo designed by Pixar”, and in fact somebody who used to work at Pixar did have a hand in the design. After decades of sci-fi about emotionless androids who are preternaturally competent and useful (i.e., Star Trek‘s Data), the idea that emotional connection needs to happen first is a fascinating reversal.

NBC News covered it like this:

How Populism Goes Bad

Perversely, sometimes “We the People” are anti-democratic


The word populism sounds like it ought to mean something close to democracy. Both are based on ancient words for “the People” (demos and populi), so you might expect them to be just different ways of saying the same thing: rule by the People.

The Trump campaign has been widely (and I think accurately) described as populist. He has constantly talked about “giving government back to the People”. The Tea Party rhetoric he built on was all about “We the People”. I don’t think that rhetoric was cynical: Tea Partiers really believe that they represent the People.

And yet Trump has also been widely described (again accurately, I think) as authoritarian and anti-democratic. Populist and anti-democratic: How is that even possible?

Like this: Populism differs from democracy in a few important ways:

  • In populism, “the People” isn’t everybody.
  • While democracy is “government of the People, by the People, and for the People”, populism can get so focused on the for that it stops caring about the of and by.
  • Because democracy is of and by the People, democratic government is defined by process. But populist movements want results.

Let’s go through that in more detail.

Who are the People? By its nature, populism is oppositional. In addition to the People, there is also an Elite they need to struggle against. As John Judis puts it in The Populist Explosion:

Leftwing populists champion … a vertical politics of the bottom and the middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.

But in fact the problem in rightwing populism lies even deeper. In my Conservative-to-English Lexicon, I make fun of the Tea Party practice of describing some Americans as more “real” than others.

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”
Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

But this isn’t just a quirk of language, it points to a genuine difference in worldview. For comparison, consider what people mean when they describe someone as “a real man”. Being biologically male isn’t the half of it. To be real, a man has to match a cultural ideal of how men are supposed to look, think, and act. So gays are out, as are men who have effeminate voices or gestures, are too fat or too skinny, or  aren’t interested in sports.

Similarly, in populism “the People” are the real people — the real Americans, real British, real Poles, real Austrians. There is an implied ideal of the kind of people the nation is “for”. Some people match that ideal model and some don’t.

For Trump/Tea Party populists, the real Americans are as I described: mature white conservative Christians. They’re also English-speaking (with a native-born accent), straight, and pro-capitalist. They are comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth, and if they happen to be unemployed, divorced, or without children, it’s not their fault; they identify as hard-working family people, whether they really are or not.

If you define the People that way, then I suspect Trump did win the “massive landslide victory” he claimed. The “millions of people who voted illegally” he tweeted about might be a pants-on-fire lie, but the notion in his supporters’ minds that millions — even tens of millions — of votes were cast by someone other than the People is absolutely true. Black lesbian Spanish-speaking atheist socialists voted, and those votes counted just as much as their own. It doesn’t seem right to them, because America is for real Americans, not just the people who satisfy the legal requirements to become citizens and vote.

This is why they aren’t bothered by what Democrats describe as “voter suppression”. If blacks or immigrants or people who don’t speak English have to jump through some extra hoops before they vote, and if some large number of them get frustrated and give up before they manage to cast their votes, that’s all good. The franchise wasn’t really meant for them anyway.

A lot of liberals interpret this attitude as hatred of the left-out groups, but it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. More accurately, it is a sense of ownership and entitlement: It’s my country, not your country, but I’m content to let you live here in peace as long as you recognize that. The hatred only shows up when that ownership feels challenged.

For, not of or by. As the Trump administration took shape after the election, most of the key positions went either to billionaires, generals, or people connected to Goldman Sachs. The top-level departments (State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Intelligence) are all to be headed by white men. Of the top White House staffers, all are white men but Kellyanne Conway, who holds the vague title of “counselor”.

It’s been a long time since an administration looked so little like America.

The white male dominance comes from what we just talked about — who “the People” are, and what it means to be “real”. (Real women don’t want to rule the world. Even Conway had to explain how she could work in the White House but still put her family first. Nobody raises this question about Trump’s male appointees, and Trump himself has no similar worries about his responsibilities to his 10-year-old son Barron, who at least for now will remain in New York with Melania.) But it’s hard to understand how the stereotypic white-working-class Trump voter can see himself in the 3G (Goldman, generals, and gazillionaires) axis.

And the answer is: He doesn’t expect to see himself, any more than he sees any resemblance between his own life and Trump’s ostentatious lifestyle of celebrity and wealth. Trump is supposed to be his champion, not his buddy. Likewise, he expects the Trump administration to be for him, but not to listen to him or be filled with people like him.

Results, not process. If you look at the Constitution, you’ll see that it says practically nothing about results. The Preamble is a mission statement expressing broad hopes about what the new government might accomplish with the powers the Constitution defines. But beyond that, the document is all process: This is how you pass a law. This is how you elect Congress and the President. This is how judges get appointed, treaties get approved, and so on.

It doesn’t tell you much of anything about the results that will come out of that process: who will serve in the government and what laws or treaties they might approve. It doesn’t specify a maximum tax rate, a balanced budget, the size of the army, an official language, or much of anything else.

The reason for that focus on process is that government of and by the People doesn’t happen by itself. A constitution for an absolute monarchy could just be one line: “Do what the King says.” But any large group of people is a cacophony. The larger the group and the more democratic it wants to be, the more processing it needs. (Occupy Wall Street encampments were famous for their General Assemblies, whose meetings could go on for hours each day.)

But populists typically don’t care that much about simply being heard or having representation. They are fighting a battle against the Elite (whatever that term means in their particular situation) and they want to win it.

To his critics, one of the most mystifying aspects of Trump’s nomination and election has been why the voters didn’t hold him responsible for his repeated violations of democratic norms. Every major-party candidate since Nixon has released his tax returns, but Trump never did and apparently never will. Presidents since Lyndon Johnson have used blind trusts or generic investments like government bonds or index funds to avoid financial conflicts of interest, but not Trump.

His supporters don’t seem to care. If foreign governments want to put money in Trump’s pocket by holding events in his hotels or by giving regulatory favors to his construction projects, they’re free to do so. It may seem incestuous for Trump to have regulatory authority over banks he owes money to, but so what? Who cares whether he holds press conferences, whether there’s any way to make him answer a question, or whether his answers bear any resemblance to reality (or even to what he said last week)?

Those are process issues. His supporters want stop illegal immigration, and perhaps legal immigration as well. They want manufacturing jobs to come back from China, and coal miners to be able to make the kinds of wages their fathers did. They want to stop gays from getting married and women from getting abortions. They want terrorist attacks to stop, ISIS to fall, and America’s enemies to be sorry they messed with us.

They’re sick of good process, and of politicians who check the right boxes and say the right things, but don’t get the results they want.

How democracies die. Democracy does have a way of getting tangled in its own processes, and American democracy has gotten more and more tangled as polarization has increased. Back in October, I listed a series of situations where the country is stuck in a status quo that nobody wants: millions of undocumented immigrants living off the books, a budget process that yields perpetual deficits and lurches from one threatened government shutdown to the next, unfilled judicial vacancies, and a Medicare system that creeps ever closer to bankruptcy.

At some point, people stop caring about good process, they just want it all fixed. If a Julius Caesar can come in and make things happen, that sounds like an improvement. (I’ve been discussing this prospect for a while in my “Countdown to Augustus” posts.)

But all those processes are there for a reason, as countries that discard them usually find out fairly quickly.

How populism turns very, very bad. If a populist movement’s definition of the People matches the voting rolls closely enough, or if it includes a lot of people who can’t vote but wish they could, then that movement will be pro-democracy, as Occupy Wall Street or the Bernie Sanders campaign were.

But that’s not the only way things can go. If a populist movement feels blocked by the checks-and-balances of democracy, or by the votes of people it thinks shouldn’t have a vote at all, then democracy itself can become the enemy. If it is forced to choose between democracy and the results it wants, it may choose the results.

That’s why authoritarian populism is not a contradiction. The pattern of a popular dictator enacting laws to defend the common people against an entrenched aristocracy goes back not just to Caesar, but before that to the Greek tyrants. (The word tyrant didn’t pick up its cruel, negative connotation until Plato — an aristocrat — wrote about tyranny generations later.)

The ultimate example of populism gone bad is Nazism. We don’t usually tell the story that way: In pop-culture references, Hitler’s regime is usually presented as a totalitarian pyramid of fear, which nearly everyone would have liked to topple if they hadn’t been so intimidated. [1] And many certainly were cowed into submission, but most were not. The sad truth of Nazism is that for most of its reign, the Hitler regime was popular.

This comes through in a book I mentioned last week, They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. After the war, Mayer went to Germany and befriended ten low-level Nazis in a small town. Almost unanimously, they faulted Hitler only for making tactical errors, like attacking Russia. But until the war, or even until the war started going badly, they felt that Hitler had come through for them: He pulled Germany out of the Depression. Good jobs were plentiful. Roads got built. Social services (for the People) improved. Law and order was restored. Germany was great again.

Unless you were Jewish, of course, or belonged to some other disapproved or disloyal group. But if you were a member in good standing of the German Volk, you were probably doing OK. A few thugs were expected to do horrible things in the name of the regime, but most people only had to avert their eyes from time to time, and not wonder too much about those who had been sent away.

Having a restrictive definition of the People, letting a leadership cadre govern for you without much oversight, ignoring process issues to focus on results … it doesn’t necessarily have to go to a bad place, but it certainly can.

The present moment. It’s usually a mistake to invoke the Nazis in a political discussion. [2] In our pop culture they’ve become cartoon villains [3], so associating them with your opponents often becomes a cheap shot.

So I should explicitly state that I don’t think Trump is Hitler, and I have no specific reason to think he wants to be. A few of his supporters are openly Nazis, but the vast majority are not. I invoke the Hitler regime as a cautionary tale, not a prediction.

If we want to make sure that the Third Reich continues to be nothing more than a cautionary tale, though, we need to learn its lessons.

  • It’s dangerous to exclude anyone from the People. Any time some infringement of rights has an implicit justification of “It’s only Muslims” or “It’s only inner-city blacks”, that implication needs to be called out. It’s hard to explicitly defend the contention that certain people don’t count, but it’s easy to slip such an assumption into the background.
  • The inability of democratic government to make progress on widely recognized problems is itself an argument for authoritarianism. So Democrats need to be very careful about how they use obstruction. “Turnabout is fair play” is a dangerous principle. We should block things because they’re bad, not just because we want to be as big a nuisance to Trump as Republicans were to Obama.
  • While continuing to call Trump to account for ignoring good process, we can’t make our stand entirely on process issues. We always need to be looking for the connection between bad process and bad results. It’s not enough to point out that there’s a hole in the fence; we need to catch the sheep getting out or the wolves getting in. For example, it’s not going to bother most Trump supporters if he profits from being president, but it will bother them if he sold them out.

We always need to keep in mind: Trump a the symptom, not the disease. Healthy democracies don’t get taken down by demagogues. Trump’s version of “the People” may not be everybody, but it is a lot of folks. The way to save democracy is to make it work for everybody, them included.


[1] That’s the reason so many believe the Hitler-confiscated-the-guns myth that so often comes up in gun control debates. He certainly didn’t want Jews to have weapons, but Jews were not part of “the People” as he defined it. Racially pure Germans (as Hitler defined them) remained armed, because there was no reason for them not to be. By and large, they supported the regime.

[2] I could also have used the Reconstruction South as an example. Here the People means Southern whites, and the KKK is their champion against the Yankees above and the blacks below. A semblance of democracy is maintained, but only after blacks are disenfranchised. This is justified by the assumption that America isn’t really for blacks.

[3] An occasionally disturbing exception is the current Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle, which often brings out the ordinariness of the American Nazi regime, and at times even shows how human generosity can still express itself. In an early episode of the second season, Juliana, who has been approved as racially pure, is being resettled in the Reich by the wife of an SS officer. The officer has ulterior motives, but the wife doesn’t know that. “I don’t know what to say,” Juliana tells the wife.

“You don’t have to say anything,” she responds. “You’ve come a place where good people take care of each other.” If good means “racially pure”, she’s not entirely wrong.