Against the Wall

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

Senator Dick Durbin

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

This week everybody was talking about the new Congress

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

And Mike Pence swears in new Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

and the shutdown and the Wall

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

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

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

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

In late December, Chief of Staff John Kelly said:

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

and Mitt Romney

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

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

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

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

but you should pay attention to …

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

and you also might be interested in …

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


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

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

And it’s not just the sitting:

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

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

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

and let’s close with something incongruous

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

Are powerful women likable?

OK, a lot of people found Hillary Clinton hard to like. But three more women gained the spotlight this week, and guess what? They’re unlikable too. Maybe there’s a problem here we need to look at.


Maybe there really was some unique I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it thing about Hillary Clinton that put people off. Sure, she was whip-smart, had a boatload of executive and legislative experience, could stand up to 11 hours of hostile questioning, and had put forward an impressive collection of policies she wanted to implement if she got elected, but … you know. There was just something about her that made voters uncomfortable.

Maybe it was her voice, or her hair, or the way she dressed. She was just too … something. If that many people had said that many bad things about her over the years, there must have been some fire under all that smoke, right? And behind closed doors, she was supposed to have a temper. I know, John McCain’s temper was part of his charm — he was fiery and passionate sometimes, you know — but Hillary’s temper was so … we can’t say bitchy any more, can we? But you know what I mean. It was different.

OK, let’s give people a mulligan for Hillary. And let’s give another mulligan to the people who couldn’t possibly be racist, but some ineffable something about Barack Obama just felt wrong to them. He just wasn’t like the rest of us — not because he was black, of course. Lots of people are black. But … you know. And if he claimed to be an American-born Christian, didn’t that seem kind of fishy somehow? How could we trust somebody like … well, like that, whatever “that” means.

Honestly, I’m starting to get my own ideas about what sounds fishy here, but let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s talk about now. Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three of them have been making news lately, and they’ve all been running into unusual levels of hostility. Each of them, in her own way, has some indescribable quality that raises a lot of people’s ire.

What could it possibly be?

It’s not incompetence. Nancy Pelosi is the most talented legislator of our time. She has no real competition for that title.

When she was Speaker before, the House got stuff done. Appropriations bills got passed on time. She not only saved ObamaCare, but passed a bunch of Obama’s other progressive proposals (most of which died in the Senate).

As soon as the Democrats lost their majority in the House, everybody suddenly realized that the Speakership is a hard job. Even if you lead a partisan majority, holding it together well enough to pass an agenda takes real skill. John Boehner couldn’t do it. Paul Ryan couldn’t go it. Again and again, they would fail to get a proposal to the floor, or miscount votes and see a bill fail unexpectedly. (To this day, a Republican healthcare bill with positive content hasn’t even been drafted, much less voted on or passed.) Deals they thought they had negotiated fell apart at the last minute. Boehner just barely avoided pushing the United States into a self-inflicted financial disaster.

The Speakership is hard, unless you do it backwards and in heels like Pelosi does. Then it looks easy.

When LBJ and Sam Rayburn were the masters of Congress, their skills were appreciated even by many who disagreed with their goals. Phrases like “wheeler-dealer” and “arm-twister” got used with a certain amount of admiration. But it’s hard to imagine applying descriptors like that to a woman. Instead, she (and not Chuck Schumer) was the villain of GOP campaign ads across the country. Her own party seriously discussed not letting her be Speaker again if they regained the majority. (Schumer, meanwhile, lost seats in the Senate and was not challenged.)

It’s not inauthenticity. One complaint about Hillary Clinton was that she just wanted to be president and didn’t stand for anything. But Elizabeth Warren’s political career has a definite theme: Capitalism needs to be regulated to keep big corporations from running over ordinary people.

After the crash of 2008, Warren left a cushy position at Harvard Law School and entered public life because she wanted to protect consumers from the predations of the big banks. She ran for the Senate in 2012 because Republican opposition in the Senate made it impossible to get the job she had wanted: head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (whose creation she had overseen). In the Senate, she has been a leading voice against the concentration of corporate power.

She has the working-class biography to back up her sympathies with ordinary people. Rather than being tracked for high positions early in life (like, say, Brett Kavanaugh), she came from a working-class family and her career developed slowly: She left college to get married, then followed her husband as his career took him to Houston and New Jersey. She finished a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and  taught public-school children with learning disabilities. She interrupted that career to be an at-home mother, then later went back to school in law. She started out doing legal services from her home, then started teaching, and rose in academic ranks as an expert in laws related to bankruptcy. Eventually she got to the top of the academic heap: tenure at Harvard.

When Clinton, a centrist woman, seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there was a groundswell among progressives for Warren to challenge her. Only after she refused to run did Bernie Sanders get into the race and lead progressive Democrats.

So announcing her presidential candidacy for the 2020 nomination raises one obvious question of substance: Just how much regulation does capitalism need? If you’d rather talk politics, you still have a number of interesting questions to choose from: Can she recover the support of the progressives who turned to Sanders in 2016? Can the Sanders/Warren wing of the party win this time? Can she get more support from blacks and centrists than Bernie got in 2016? And so on.

Instead, Politico raised this question:

How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Politically, it’s hard to see much resemblance between Warren and Clinton, except for this: Both of them are women who saw their unfavorability ratings spike when they started to look like serious candidates. Clinton herself explained it this way:

It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up.

It’s not a lack of passion and vitality. Another criticism of Clinton (which sometimes also gets said about Warren, though I don’t understand why) was that she seemed cold. But if you want a politician who is the opposite of cold, I’ve got one for you: new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But strangely, she also has been a target of public ire.

Since upsetting a member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary and then winning his seat in the general election, Ocasio-Cortez has been targeted both for being too poor and for not being as poor as she’s supposed to be. Predictably, the too-rich criticism was based on her clothes: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

When Paul Ryan came to Congress, he was a “young gun”; his youth was evidence of how extraordinary he must be, to get so far so fast. But AOC’s youth just points to her being a lightweight, because there’s no female equivalent of a “young gun”.

This week, we learned of a new AOC outrage: She and her friends made a dance video in college. Unlike, say, Melania Trump or Scott Brown, she kept her clothes on, but still the video is supposed to be embarrassing for some reason. My main reaction is that this video is a trivial thing that shouldn’t evoke anything more than a trivial response; mine is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with (assuming away the time-travel problem). But you can judge for yourself.

Somehow, though, conservatives looked at that video and saw something scandalous. I think this tells us more about them than about AOC. As Paul Krugman put it: “The mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad.”

If just being young and nonwhite were the problem, that would be one thing. But in the context of Clinton, Pelosi, and Warren, we see that being older and white doesn’t protect a woman either. The specifics of a woman’s life and character may shape how she gets disparaged, but her unique characteristics are not why she gets disparaged.

People are starting to notice. Robby Mook may have exaggerated a little about the reaction to Warren’s announcement video, but he wasn’t exactly making this up, either.

Last 24 hours shows Trump’s 2020 path to victory:
-Dem candidate releases video that explains her background, values, vision and policies
-it never mentions Trump;
-Trump responds with childish insult;
-Media only covers insult.
All process, all on Trump’s terms. No Dem message.

Maybe Trump and the press will do that with every Democratic candidate. But I also think it works better, and the media is more complicit, against women.

Peter Beinart, I think, has this right: The facts that an article cites about Warren may be true, but still contribute to a false narrative.

Mentioning the right’s attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her “very liberal record” and the controversy surrounding her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her, and many Americans don’t like her very much. But that equation is misleading. …

There’s nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate. The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender’s role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren’s unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them.

… Journalists shouldn’t ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren’s comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than they judge their male competitors. Unless journalists name that unfairness, they risk perpetuating it.

“I would have voted for the woman who isn’t running.” As the 2020 campaign proceeds, other women are likely to emerge as serious candidates. (Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, perhaps.) We can hope that the sheer multiplicity of targets will disperse the misogynistic fire. But here’s a wild guess on my part: Whichever one is polling last will get the most favorable coverage. In 2004, when she wasn’t running, many voices pined for Hillary Clinton, only to turn against her in 2008 and 2016, when she was actually on the ballot. Likewise in 2016, people who were voting against Clinton often claimed they could have supported Warren, if only she had run. But where are they now?

The Republican Party has a similar dynamic around blacks. At some point in the process, there’s a boomlet for a black candidate like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, or Ben Carson. But these waves always fade before any votes get cast. Having given cover to people who will never actually vote for a black, the candidacies have served their purpose.

We can’t let that happen in 2020. “I would have voted for a woman” isn’t an excuse any more. Do or don’t, but what you would have done in some alternate reality doesn’t matter.

For the most part, this kind of prejudice is structural and unconscious. “Woman politician” has become a category in people’s heads; it seems natural to treat them differently than male politicians, as if a political office changes when a woman holds it. (There has been a similar phenomenon in sports: For a long time “black quarterback” seemed to be a category of its own. Any new black quarterback would invariably draw comparisons to previous black quarterbacks, and be judged accordingly. Cam Newton came into the NFL as a tall, strong quarterback with speed and a powerful arm, but somehow John Elway was never the comparison that popped into commentators’ minds.)

As Pelosi’s speakership, Ocasio-Cortez’ congressional service, and the 2020 campaign continue, we’re going to have to monitor this constantly, both in the media and in our own minds.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Before his political career crashed and burned, John Edwards used to talk about “two Americas”: one rich and one poor. This week, though, we’ve been seeing a different two Americas: One America is reality-based. But in the other, illegal immigration is a national security emergency, a sea-to-sea wall will fix it, and this wall is so important that it’s worth burning down the country to get it built.

So we have a government shutdown in its third week, with no end in sight. Also, we have a new Democratic House of Representatives, and lots of interesting new members. And the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is getting started. I’ll talk about all that in the weekly summary.

The featured post, though, focuses on something related but slightly different: The Speaker of that new House, one of its most interesting new members, and the first major presidential candidate out of the gate all have two things in common: They’re women, and they all face an unusual level of vilification.

Coincidence? That explanation is starting to wear thin. I can sort of imagine that Hillary Clinton had some unique nebulous personal quality that made her unlikable to a large number of people (though I liked her myself). But it seems odd that the next three women to gain the spotlight all have some similar quality. I think we need to talk about that. So the featured post is “Are powerful women likable?”

I’m running late today, so it may not be out before 11 EST. Expect the weekly summary between noon and 1.

The Yearly Sift 2018

You can’t serve both Trump and America

Eliot Cohen

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

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

The story that dwarfed all others this year

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

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

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

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

Additional comments on 2018

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The State of the Sift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sifted Books of 2018

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

Other people’s year-end reviews

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

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

But this week everybody was talking about …

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

and let’s close with something humorous

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

The Story that Really Mattered This Year

Will American democracy survive the Trump presidency? The jury is still out on that, but things are looking up.


Ever since the Electoral College named Donald Trump president, news (some of his making and some not) has been coming at us like water from a fire hose — indictments, injunctions, special election upsets, gaffes, natural disasters, high-ranking people getting fired or resigning under pressure, insults to our allies, mass shootings, lies, government shutdowns, outrages against common decency (like ripping kids from their parents and putting them in cages), or the spectacle of an American president repeating the propaganda of foreign autocrats like Mohammad bin Salman, Kim Jong-Un, or Vladimir Putin.

All year, as I write my weekly summaries of the news, I’ve been complaining about it. (Tiresomely, I’ve decided, having just reviewed a year’s worth of Monday Morning teasers.) There is too much to process. Week after week, developments that might have been the Story of the Year in any other administration — the wide-ranging corruption of Scott Pruitt, say — nearly slip my mind. “Oh yeah,” I remind myself. “That happened too.” We get worn out by it. How many cabinet or top White House posts are vacant now due to scandal or protest or insufficient toadying? I’ve lost track.

But since November 6, 2016, one story has stood above all the others. Day-to-day, and even week-to-week, it was easy to lose sight of, but it was always there, sometimes in the background of whatever stories were getting attention. The unanswered question: Will American democracy get through this?

In recent years, authoritarian populism like Trump’s has been corrupting democracies around the world, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the original rise of fascism in the 20s and 30s. (I’ve been trying to cover that in the abstract, by reviewing books like How Democracies Die and The Road to Unfreedom. Recent posts have also been influenced by Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works, though I haven’t gotten around to writing about that book explicitly yet.) Trumpists claim that “fascism” is an unfair exaggeration, but the key components are there:

  • idealization of a vague past whose restoration would make the country “great again”;
  • assault on the institutions that try to establish a common basis of truth: science, the courts, experts within academia or the government, and the press;
  • elevation of a leader whose word and power replaces those sources of truth;
  • constant lying by that leader, to the point that lies become loyalty tests and expressions of power: How ridiculous a statement, or how self-contradictory a series of statements, will followers repeat with conviction?
  • identity politics focused not on the powerless and oppressed, but on the powerful and favored, with constant emphasis given to the grievances (some real, but most imagined) of whites, of men, of Christians, of the native-born, of the wealthy, and of all those who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their privileged places in the world;
  • glorification of the leader’s decisiveness, and his unwillingness to be bound by convention, propriety, morality, his own word, or even the Constitution.

And yet, this is America. We have the rule of law and a Constitution that has stood the test of time. We have long traditions of independent courts, independent law enforcement, and a free press. Could we really go the way of failed democracies like Russia and Turkey and Hungary?

It was a real question at the end of 2016, and it still hasn’t been decisively answered. That’s a good thing: At the end of 2016, there was reason to fear that it might be decisively answered by now.

2017. To me, the big story of 2017 was that Trumpian fascism did not prove to be popular.

It might have. Trump took office in the middle of an economic upturn that Obama had never been given credit for, and at a time of relative peace. He had a compliant Congress that would repeat his talking points, harass those who challenged him, refuse to investigate obvious corruption, and pass tax cuts and spending increases without worrying about the resulting budget deficits.

He had chosen his victims and scapegoats well: Muslims, immigrants of color, and refugees. Would the rest of the American people care if they suffered, or be energized by the sheer cruelty of it all? If police were once again unleashed to hassle (or occasionally even kill in cold blood) the non-white poor with no oversight or repercussions, would white Christian citizens react with horror, or gratitude? Would Americans care about the planetary environment they handed off to their children and grandchildren, or would they be happy to ignore all that in an fossil-fuel-burning orgy of après moi le déluge?

On Inauguration Day, none of that was clear, and even it hindsight it was a disturbingly close call: About 40% of the public has welcomed Trumpism, to the point that no development or revelation can move them. It could have been 50% or more.

2018. But even if Americans would tell pollsters they disapproved, would they vote? Or would they be confused or bamboozled or discouraged by dark fantasies of invading caravans? Could Democrats once again be played off against each other, so that they failed to unite behind any less-than-perfect candidate? Could anti-Trump women be cowed by the enraged male privilege of Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham? (Herodotus tells how similar tactics put down a Scythian slave revolt. The slaves repulsed an initial assault by their masters, who then came up with the following plan: “Now therefore to me it seems good that we leave spears and bows and that each one take his horse-whip and so go up close to them: for so long as they saw us with arms in our hands, they thought themselves equal to us and of equal birth; but when they shall see that we have whips instead of arms, they will perceive that they are our slaves, and having acknowledged this they will not await our onset.” Just so, Kavanaugh’s foaming outrage replaced any attempt at contrition, compassion, or fact-based defense: Now you’ve made Daddy angry.)

In retrospect, all that might seem absurd. But a year ago it did not, at least to me. Certainly there were red states where things played out that way and incumbent Democratic senators lost, sometimes by large margins.

And even if a majority wanted to vote against Trump’s party, would it be enough to overcome voter suppression and gerrymandering? In Georgia, suppression of the black vote worked, and a white Republican secretary of state oversaw his own elevation to the governorship. Gerrymandering also did its job: A record-setting Democratic popular vote (nationally, a nearly 10 million vote margin, or 8.6%) resulted in a mere 235-199 House majority, smaller than the 241-194 majority that a far narrower Republican margin (1.4 million votes, or 1.1%) produced in 2016.

What if? Imagine if 2018 had come out otherwise. What if the electorate, or at least enough of the electorate to maintain unified Republican control of Congress, had endorsed what they’ve seen these last two years? What if Democrats had won the national House popular vote by only 5% or so, and it hadn’t been enough to gain control?

Then the gloves would be off. Any restraint wary Republicans had exercised on Trump would vanish. Fire Bob Mueller and purge non-Trumpists from the FBI. Finish gutting the Voting Rights Act, so that elections can become mere formalities, like the empty rituals of a faith no one really believes any more. Round up immigrants en masse and drop them on the other side of the Wall without hearings. Openly defy any courts that say all this is forbidden by laws or treaties or the Constitution. Why not? Who’s going to stop it?

Laws can say whatever they want, but if no one is motivated or empowered to enforce them, what do they matter? That’s the essence of Putinesque fascism. Revoke freedom of the press? Why bother, when troublesome reporters can simply be killed and the murders will forever remain unsolved? Why bother, when persistently annoying networks and newspapers can be bankrupted and bought out by your cronies? Disband opposing political parties? Why go to all that trouble, when their backers can be convicted of corruption, and their candidates can be killed or induced to leave the country?

That’s the track we would be moving down, if voters hadn’t come out in large enough numbers to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. We could still wind up on that track. But it’s a lot less likely now.

What the House can do. By itself, of course, the House can’t end this crisis of democracy. It can’t pass laws by itself, and the executive branch is still in charge of enforcing them. Even the impeachment process requires a Senate supermajority.

But the House can guarantee that any further subversion of democracy happens in full public view. If the new Attorney General suppresses the Mueller Report, the House can subpoena it. It can draw attention to the Trump family’s violation of the Constitution’s Emolument Clause, as well as the rampant corruption on the lower levels of this administration. Public hearings can bring to light the human rights abuses and violations of law happening on our southern border, and make administration officials respond with something more than doubletalk.

The executive branch, particularly at its lower levels, is still full of people who are committed to the missions of their departments and agencies. (This is the kernel of truth behind all those “Deep State” conspiracy theories.) People at the EPA still want to protect the environment, in spite of the instructions they receive from the top. People in the Justice Department still want to enforce the laws. People at the State Department still believe in diplomacy and treaties and international law. People at the CIA still want American policy to be based on facts. People at the Pentagon still resist seeing America dominated by Putin or other foreign leaders, no matter what kompromat they have on the president or how much revenue they generate for The Trump Organization.

At times, all those people can feel alone and surrounded. Why resist? Why not go along or take an early retirement and let the administration do whatever it wants? The election told them they are not alone, that the country is resisting as well. And the House can give them a bastion of support, as well as a place to tell their stories to the resisting majority. If a crisis comes, and they start receiving drastic unconstitutional orders, they are much less likely to carry them out, now that they know that the electorate and at least one branch of government is behind them.

What’s more, the 2018 election puts the question to Republicans who have to run in 2020: The American Republic might be in trouble, but it hasn’t failed yet. You still have to face the voters, and so does Trump. Maybe it’s time to start looking beyond this administration, to the party you will have to rebuild after Trump is gone.

It’s not over yet. As we saw in the aftermath of the election, not everyone got the voters’ message or was willing to accept it. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican leaders in the legislature have insulated themselves against the electorate through gerrymandering, so that large majorities voting for Democratic control were unable to achieve it. The statewide offices can’t be gerrymandered, but Democrats who win them can be disempowered. And so, to that extent, democracy is thwarted.

It’s not just Trump. There is a rising anti-democratic spirit in the Republican Party as a whole, which David Frum summed up like this:

If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.

The myth of massive voter fraud has no evidence behind it, but conservatives believe it because it provides an excuse to ignore unfavorable election results. If there is a conservative coup someday, it will be justified by a claim that an election was stolen and they only lost due to fake votes.

Republicans still control the White House and the Senate. Attempting to take them back in 2020, Democrats will again run a hazardous gauntlet: Can we stay united? Can we convince reluctant voters to turn out? Can we ignore disinformation and manufactured crises? Can we overcome the electoral-college advantage that has given popular-vote-losing Republicans the presidency twice in the last five elections? Can we win by margins that convince Republicans to drop their flirtation with fascism?

What the midterm elections gave American democracy was a chance to survive, not a final victory.

The damage done. Even a massive 2020 victory won’t automatically set everything right again. The flood of Trump/McConnell judges will be making absurd rulings and blocking progressive change for decades to come. It will be a very long time before America’s traditional allies regard us as trustworthy partners again. The tax-cut giveaway to corporations and the rich will be hard to reverse.

Worse, the time we have lost in fighting climate change can’t be reclaimed. The carbon emitted can’t be recaptured. The wells dug, power plants constructed, and pipelines built will be long-term features of our energy landscape.

But worst of all, I think, is the long-term damage done to democracy itself. One-third of the electorate now buys into a worldview that blames its problems on Muslims and Mexicans, distrusts any attempt to establish objective truth, and won’t believe any vote that doesn’t come out in its favor. Standards of decency and truthfulness will be hard to restore. Partisan, ethnic, racial, and class divides have deepened. Even if we somehow manage to restore trustworthiness to government, will the American people trust it? There will be times of crisis in the future, when Americans will need to unite behind their leaders and move forward in together. It will be difficult, even if in the meantime we have managed to elect wise and honest people.

This election was a major step, but there are many steps to come before we are out of the woods.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week is my annual wrap-up, the Yearly Sift. In preparation, this week I re-read all of 2018’s Monday Morning Teasers. I was struck by how repetitive they were: Invariably, I complained that too much happened this week. Stuff that had seemed earth-shaking on Tuesday was old news by the time Monday rolled around, because the Earth had shaken several more times since.

I think I just have to get over that. Yes, the amount of drama and the number of outrageous events is much higher during the Trump Era than at any time in my experience. But this is where we live now, and we’re scheduled to be here for two more years. And even if the Trump Era ends sooner, that ending will provide its own rush of drama. Sifting developments of real substance out of the general clatter and hype is more important now than ever.

With that in mind, I decided to avoid the kind of wrap-up that lists the top ten stories of the year, and instead focus on just one: How did American democracy do in 2018? And the answer, I believe, is “Pretty well, considering the challenges we face.” If the voters had endorsed and ratified the kind of governance we’ve seen these last two years, I think the road to a Putin-style autocracy would be wide open. As it came out, though, we still have a chance to get off that track.

So the featured post this week will be “The Story that Really Mattered This Year”. It should be posted before much longer.

The yearly wrap-up will include an abbreviated weekly summary, a year-end State of the Sift piece, and links to some of the years’ articles that I am particularly pleased with. That should be out by noon (EST) or so.

Baby Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, Mattis’ letter begins with:

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

ends with

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

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

Trump, of course, had to shoot back.

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

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


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


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

and the government shutdown and the Wall

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

Here’s what Reagan actually said:

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

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

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

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

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

Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”

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


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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

and let’s close with some Christmasy things

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

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

Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions

As the government shuts down after Trump blew up a bipartisan compromise, The New Republic raises a question: What is the Democratic position on immigration, and is the lack of any clear position a problem?

To a certain extent this is the kind of problem propaganda always causes: When propagandists build an artificial crisis out of more mundane problems, opponents are usually stuck without a crisis-sized solution. The classic example of this is the blood libel: What solution could Europe’s “good” Jews propose to the problem of Jews whose recipe for Passover matzos required the blood of Christian children? How could they address an issue that existed only in the minds of anti-Semites?

The whole point of a manufactured crisis is to make common-sense solutions seem inadequate. We have to build a wall for the same reason we had to invade Iraq: Manageable issues have been puffed up into an existential threat that only some grand project can address.

People sneaking into our country do create a few problems, but the “border crisis” Trump keeps talking about is mostly in his mind and the minds of his followers. The wave of drugs and crime spilling into our country from Mexico is 99% fantasy. There is the occasional criminal among the undocumented, just as there are criminals among any large group of people. Some drugs are carried across the border by undocumented human “mules”, but the great majority arrives by mail, by ship, by air, or in the luggage of citizen travelers. If a complete shutdown of the border were possible, that portion of drug trafficking would shift to other avenues without any significant effect on the availability of drugs in your town.

Similarly, the Wall is a solution that only works in fantasy. (The whole purpose of “Build the Wall!” was to make Trump’s crowds cheer. That’s as far as he has ever thought it out.) Perfectly securing the border — which the Wall won’t do — wouldn’t even end illegal immigration: About half of the undocumented immigrants come in legally as tourists or on business, and then stay after their visas run out. Short of closing down foreign travel completely (and bankrupting Disney World), you won’t solve that problem.

Since it exists only in fantasy, though, Trump’s Wall can do anything. (I am reminded of the cartoon domes people used to illustrate Reagan’s fantasy missile-defense plan.) Its steel slats will have 9-inch gaps, but drug packages (or skinny children) won’t be able to pass between them. “Drones & Technology are just bells and whistles” compared to the advanced Bronze Age thinking that a wall represents.

Some Democrats imagine that giving Trump his wall will at least shut him up, but that won’t work any better than the Wall itself: As Jim Wright points out in some detail, a wall through a remote area is easily circumvented. (“All you need to defeat it is a ladder and some quiet time.” A shovel might work too.) So unless the Wall is actively manned and monitored for its full 2000-mile length, it will be useless. In other words, once it’s built the new issue will be that Democrats aren’t willing to fully fund the maintenance and monitoring of the Wall — which they won’t, because (like the Wall itself) that will be a stupid waste of money.

So what’s to be done? The biggest security problem related to undocumented immigrants isn’t anything they do themselves, but the mere fact that they’re outside the system and don’t dare claim its protection. So many of them might not testify to crimes they see, send their kids to school, get inoculated against epidemics, or insist on the rights that we want to enforce in all American workplaces. They are natural prey, so they attract predators. That hurts us all.

So the first priority should be to get them some kind of legal status. Deport the criminals among them. (I mean real criminals, not pillars of their communities who were arrested once thirty years ago.) Send back recent arrivals who have no legitimate asylum claim. Fund enough courts and judges to process the backlog on asylum claims that might be real. (That’s been our treaty obligation since 1951, by the way.) And finally, recognize that some people, however they arrived, have built a life here and are pulling their weight. So make them pay a fine or something and grant them legal residence.

Next, figure out why they keep coming. In particular, why are Guatemala and Honduras such hellholes that people are willing to walk thousands of miles to escape them? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to do some nation-building there rather than deal with their refugee caravans? (Again, you need to ignore some propaganda. The great majority of the world’s population prefers to stay home, if that’s a viable option. The caravans are people escaping from real dangers, not being drawn here by the magnet of American welfare programs.)

To the extent that people are coming here to work, make legal work permits easier to get and crack down on employers of undocumented workers.

And yes, patrol the border. But do it efficiently, with those “bells and whistles” Trump shrugs off, recognizing that no one — not the Chinese, not the Soviets, not the Nazis — has ever completely shut down a 2000-mile border. Border protection won’t be impenetrable — neither would Trump’s Wall — but the point should be to keep the undocumented immigration problem down to manageable proportions.

In short, address the non-crisis with a lot of little improvements. That approach may not be bold or grand or sexy, but it makes sense. Trump’s Wall doesn’t.

Is this any way to run a superpower?

It’s not crazy to want U.S. troops to come home from Syria and Afghanistan. It is crazy for a superpower’s global strategy to shift from one tweet to the next.


When I heard that Trump had tweeted the withdrawal of America’s 2,000 troops from Syria, and then heard reports that he would soon pull half of our 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan, my initial reaction was: “What’s wrong with that?”

I’m not a pacifist, but I judge an American intervention in a foreign war by a few simple criteria.

  1. Are we fighting on the right side?
  2. Do our soldiers have a clear mission with an achievable goal?
  3. Are the resources we’re committing sufficient to achieve that goal?
  4. Do Congress and the American people believe that the goal is worth the cost, and understand the risks involved?

Weighing Syria and Afghanistan. The Syria commitment could pass that test only as long as the goal was narrowly defined: to make ISIS a stateless state again by driving it out of all its territory. Given the nature of ISIS, which is as much an idea as a caliphate, that probably won’t kill it. But it should make it less of a focal point for global Muslim discontent.

What’s more, the strategy laid out by President Obama was working: ISIS had lost the majority of its territory by the end of the Obama administration, and Trump more or less continued what Obama had been doing, until now ISIS has been driven back to a few small enclaves. (The claim that we had not been beating ISIS under Obama but started “winning” under Trump is the usual Trumpian bullshit.) If those enclaves were about to fall, then it was time to think about declaring victory and getting out.

The longer we stay in Syria, though, the more secondary goals the mission picks up. We’re supporting rebels against the brutal Assad government that Iran and Russia back. We’re protecting the Kurdish forces (who have been doing most of the fighting against ISIS) from attack by Turkey (which has its own Kurdish region and fears Kurdish nationalism).

Those might be fine things to wish for, but they don’t fare well against my criteria. In particular, if we’re going to be players in the Syrian civil war, we’ll need a lot more than 2,000 soldiers. I don’t think the American people are ready to back that kind of commitment, and I don’t see how it is supposed to end.

Our Afghan commitment is harder to justify. Originally, we sent forces to Afghanistan in response to 9-11. The goal, which had close to universal support from the public at the time, was to capture or kill the people who attacked us and establish an Afghan government that wouldn’t let Al Qaeda operate freely within its borders. But 17 years later, Bin Laden is long dead and our effort to stand up an effective pro-American government in Kabul has failed. It’s hard to estimate a troop level that could truly pacify the country — Obama couldn’t do it with 100,000 — but whatever it is, the American people aren’t willing to underwrite it.

So yes, we should be trying to disengage. But here’s an idea the Master of the Deal might want to consider: Couldn’t we negotiate some concessions from the people who want to see our forces gone? Why just make an announcement and start pulling out?

And here’s my real problem with Trump’s decision: Disengagement requires a plan just as much as engagement does. Maybe I have things to do and I’m sick of standing here plugging a hole in this dike with my finger. But predictable things will happen if I pull my finger out, and how do I intend to respond when they do?

ISIS isn’t defeated yet. The premise of Trump’s Syria tweet was clear:

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

But as he so often does, Trump is claiming credit for something that hasn’t happened yet. (Despite his claims, North Korea isn’t denuclearized yet either, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future. And the trade deal with China he announced still hasn’t been worked out.) ISIS still controls a small amount of territory, it still has fighting forces, and it has squirreled away a considerable amount of money to fund future operations.

So the job isn’t done, but the US withdrawal will begin immediately. (Although Sunday’s tweet described the pullout as “slow & highly coordinated”.) Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this in a subsequent contradictory tweet that also happens to be false. (Russia loves that we’re leaving Syria.)

Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.

So the first predictable thing that might happen is that ISIS stages a comeback and starts gaining territory again. What’s the plan for that scenario? Accept it? Send our troops back in? Ask our Russian friends or our buddy Bashar al-Assad to handle it for us? (No, wait! Turkey will do it, according to last night’s tweet. Turkish troops going deeper into Syria, which they used to rule back in the Ottoman days, where they might come into conflict with Assad, Hezbollah, and Russian forces … what could possibly go wrong? “We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”)

What’s the new mission in Afghanistan? I can’t find any explanation for the 7,000 figure: What is the mission of the 7,000 that will remain, and why do they no longer need the help of the 7,000 who are leaving? My intuition says that there is no new mission. “Pull out half of them” just comes from Trump’s gut, and isn’t based on anything.

What about the Kurds? The reason American casualties in Syria have been so low is that Kurdish militias are doing most of the actual fighting against ISIS.

The Kurds and their Syrian allies paid a severe price: They have suffered about 4,000 dead and 10,000 wounded since 2014. Over that same period, the United States lost only three soldiers in Syria, according to a U.S. military spokesperson.

Trump seems not to know these facts. “Time for someone else to fight,” he tweeted, as if Americans were battling ISIS alone.

Turkey is worried about Kurdish militias operating in its own territory, which it sees as terrorism. According to AP, a December 14 phone conversation between Trump and Turkish autocrat Erdogan sparked the withdrawal decision.

Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week, two U.S. officials and a Turkish official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.

The Dec. 14 call came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have the two presidents discuss Erdogan’s threats to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are based. The NSC then set up the call.

Pompeo, Mattis and other members of the national security team prepared a list of talking points for Trump to tell Erdogan to back off, the officials said.

But the officials said Trump, who had previously accepted such advice and convinced the Turkish leader not to attack the Kurds and put U.S. troops at risk, ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan.

The obvious implication is that if Erdogan wants to attack the people we’ve been relying on to push ISIS back, he should just have at it. We’ll get out of his way.

Erdogan isn’t the only one likely to attack after we leave. To the Assad government, the Kurds are just one more set of rebels. What if the Kurdish region of Syria (green on the map) collapses and our former allies start getting slaughtered? What are the implications of that in other conflicts where the US wants to find local allies?

Sometimes, superpowers have to make such betrayals. We left a number of Vietnamese allies in the lurch when we exited the Vietnam War, but few Americans would want us still to be fighting there. I just wish I could believe Trump (or anyone involved in his decision process) had thought these questions out and was making these decisions strategically.

What generals and diplomats are for. There’s a way that major policy changes are supposed to happen: The National Security Council meets and the various departments involved weigh in: Pentagon people talk about military implications, State Department people anticipate how our allies will react, and regional experts from the intelligence services outline the most likely scenarios. They all make their recommendations and then the President announces a decision. The advisors whose advice wasn’t taken then try to talk him out of it. If the President stands firm, though, they have to yield.

Next, all the principals return to their departments with the message: This is where we’re going; make plans. The plans go back to the NSC, where they get accepted or rejected. (Sometimes the President has to say one more time, “No, I really meant it. This plan doesn’t do what I asked for.”) Allies get consulted. Political types design a messaging strategy to explain the new policy to the American people as well as the rest of the world. Then, when all the ducks are in a row, an announcement is made and the whole government moves in unison. If things are working well, our allies move with us.

There’s a reason for doing things that way: A global superpower is much bigger than the kind of family business Trump is used to running. There’s more to know and more to figure out. (As an analogy, consider the different medical specialists who might get together before a particularly complicated surgery. It’s not just a question of where to cut, but whether last week’s infection is under control, whether the patient’s heart will stand the stress, how the patient tolerates anesthesia, what kind of recovery plan is needed, and dozens of other considerations.) The various departments are in the meeting not just to protect their turf, but because they represent different kinds of expertise. You consult with the generals and diplomats because that’s what they’re there for. They know stuff.

Hardly any of the usual process seems to have happened in this case. The only advisor Trump seems to have listened to before making his decision is Erdogan, a foreign autocrat. (He’s also the former client of Michael Flynn, for what that’s worth.) The messaging strategy was for Trump to write a tweet; everybody else had to adjust on the fly.

The result is that most of the interested parties, both within our government and among our allies, were taken by surprise. As they carry out the withdrawal, no one involved can possibly have confidence that all the relevant factors were considered and all the risks foreseen.

Mattis and McGurk. Two major officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy Brett McGurk, resigned in protest. Historian Michael Beschloss claims no defense secretary has ever done this before.

Mattis’ resignation letter explains his decision in terms of worldview. In Mattis’ world, American power depends on its alliances, but Trump sees our allies as parasites.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships…. [W]e must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.

Mattis mentions Russia and China as examples of the kind of “malign actors and strategic competitors” that we and our allies need “common defense” against, because they “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model”.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

I can’t help believing, though, that it’s as much Trump’s process as his policy that makes it impossible for Mattis to keep working with him. If a decision as important as withdrawing from a war can be made off the cuff while talking to a foreign dictator (Turkey may not be a threat as large as Russia or China, but it also a country run on an “authoritarian model”.), by a President who doesn’t read memos or listen to briefings, then it’s not clear what role there is for people who know things.

The Monday Morning Teaser

If you thought the news might slow down for the holidays … well, let’s just say that didn’t happen. The big things going on are: troop pull-outs from Syria and Afghanistan got announced (to the great surprise of our allies and a lot of people in our own government), the Secretary of Defense resigned in protest for the first time in US history, a quarter of the government is shut down in a fight over funding Trump’s border wall, the Supreme Court agreed with the “Obama judge” who blocked Trump’s attempt to ignore asylum laws, and a few other things.

I had thought I might slow down and do Christmas stuff, but instead I’ve got two featured posts this week rather than the usual one. The first post “Is this any way to run a superpower?” is my response to the Syria/Afghanistan announcements. It’s complicated: I do wish we’d disengage from these sorts of wars, but not like this. Trump makes up his mind while talking to Erdogan, and the rest of the government just has to adjust on the fly. Meanwhile, the American people get the new policy explained to them in a series of contradictory tweets. White House spokespeople may try to flesh this out, but they’re guessing just as much as we are. Anyway, that post should be out shortly.

The second “Fantasy problems don’t have realistic solutions” is my response to people who want to hear a stronger message from Democrats about protecting the border. Trump has so distorted the undocumented immigrant problem that of course no fact-based approach to the issue will seem adequate. That’s how propaganda works sometimes: It creates fantastic problems that demand grand solutions like the Wall. That should be out be maybe 10 or 11 EST.

The weekly summary has the shutdown and everything else to cover. I’m hoping to have it out by noon, closing with an interview with Santa’s lawyer and an ancient take on the commercialization of Christmas by Stan Freberg.