Tag Archives: Trump administration

The Peril of Potemkin Democracy

Trump doesn’t have to be Hitler to bring an end to the Republic.


One of the most difficult puzzles of the Trump administration is figuring out which dystopian scenario to worry about. Depending on who you listen to, everything Trump does is a feint meant to misdirect us away from the main threat, which is somewhere else.

Maybe Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts“, Stephen Miller’s assertion that the president’s power “will not be questioned“, or the president’s own declaration that CNN and the other mainstream news sources are “enemies of the American People” are assaults on the fundamental basis of democratic governance, or maybe they’re shiny objects intended to distract the press from digging into Trump’s radical appointments. Or maybe putting a buffoon like Rick Perry in charge of our nuclear energy programs is itself meant to split Congress on partisan lines so that neither party will get around to investigating Trump’s relationship with Russia. Maybe Russia is a red herring, and we ought to be paying attention to all the ways Trump and his cronies are setting themselves up to profit from his presidency. Or maybe the profiteering is small potatoes next to the alt-right influence of Steve Bannon, whose prophecy of a global war with Islam might be self-fulfilling if Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban recruit enough young people into terrorism. Or maybe the Muslim ban is just a stalking horse meant to produce a clash with the judiciary, which Trump hopes to crush in the ensuing constitutional crisis.

I could keep going. Like a comic-book villain, Trump seems to be advancing towards the Apocalypse in all directions at once. Does that mean all roads need to be guarded equally? Or are all but one or two of the threats just distractions intended to split opposition forces? Is each proposal just the first step on a long march towards tyranny? Or is Trump like any other new president, checking off boxes on his list of campaign promises and hoping his various constituencies will be satisfied with a few symbolic baubles, so he can eventually focus on the things he really cares about? And what are those things?

Uncertainty of threat leads to uncertainty of response. Should we focus on throwing Trump’s allies out of Congress in 2018, or will that be too little too late? Right now, should we be calling our congresspeople? Marching in the streets? Planning our escape to Canada or Sweden? Or stockpiling arms for the inevitable civil war? Is paranoia making you worry too much? Or is denial making you too complacent?

A key point in Trumpian strategy is to keep your opponents rattled, and in that he is definitely succeeding. Probably the best line in SNL’s People’s Court skit wasn’t trying to be funny at all. The judge says: “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” Lots of us do.

So, acknowledging the uncertainties and the twin risks of paranoia and complacency, let’s see if we unrattle ourselves and focus our concern in the right places.

Why do people do what they do? This observation isn’t terribly deep, but it does help organize my analysis: What people do is always a combination of what they intend and the opportunities they happen across. For example, some people are in the careers they’ve pictured since they were kids, while others went wherever the jobs were when they graduated. Two people might work across a desk from each other, but one got there through a long-term plan and the other happened into it.

World leaders are the same way: They do some things because that’s why they set out to become world leaders in the first place. They do other things because the opportunity presents itself or some situation thrusts itself upon them. Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society because that’s what he always wanted to do; he saw himself as a protege of FDR, so he wanted to be remembered as the president who completed the New Deal. But his response to an unanticipated challenge also made him the Vietnam War president.

So there are two parts to figuring out what to fear from Trump. First, what drives him, so that he will set out to make it happen? And second, where are the opportunities he might try to exploit?

Drives. Let me start by saying that I’ve never met Donald Trump, so all my opinions about him come at a distance. But at the same time, he has been in the public eye for decades and hasn’t exactly hidden his personality, so I’m not just shooting blind.

My take on Trump is that his drives are all personal, and he has no fixed political goals at all. This is the biggest reason why comparisons to Hitler are misguided. Hitler was ideological. Any unscrupulous German politician might have opportunistically used anti-Semitism to rabble-rouse. But Hitler was so identified with it that he carried out the Final Solution in secret, and speeded it up as the war began to go badly. He seemed haunted by the idea that he might lose power before he finished his genocide. Similarly, he was always planning to attack Russia; the German people needed to expand in the east at the expense of the racially inferior Slavs.

You’ll search in vain for any similar fixed political goals, good or bad, in Trump. He’s been both pro- and anti-abortion. He’s been a libertine and the candidate of the Religious Right. He was for the Iraq War until he decided he had always been against it. During the campaign, his policy prescriptions were all over the map: The government spends too much, but should start a massive infrastructure project. It should both get out of healthcare and make sure everybody gets covered. He is simultaneously a hawk and an isolationist, a champion of both the working stiff and the billionaire who keeps wages low.

One reason Congress is so frozen at the moment is that even after face-to-face meetings where public pandering can be put aside, Ryan and McConnell still have no idea what Trump really wants them to do. Even ObamaCare repeal — which every Republican from Trump on down pledged to do on Day 1 — is frozen, largely because Trump has not committed himself. He has left Congress to face the real-life difficulties of healthcare, while he floats vaguely above them, ready to tweet out his wrath if Congress’ program doesn’t fulfill his impossible promises.

But Trump is a bundle of personal drives: He wants to be the center of attention, to be admired and idolized. He needs to win, to never be wrong, and to be better than whoever people might compare him to. Fame and TV ratings and crowds are a few ways he measures his success, but the biggest is money and the appearance of money.

Politics is just another game that he can win, and so prove his superiority. And if being president also makes him a lot of money, that’s a double win. Everything else is just a move in that game. Does he hate Muslims or Mexicans? Not really, I think. But a lot of people do, and they’ll cheer for him if he says and does anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican stuff.

While he is not ideologically racist, he is favorably inclined towards any argument that justifies his own superiority. In practice, that can sometimes lead to the same result. Sexism, I believe, runs a little deeper: Women are simultaneously individuals to be dominated as well as chips in his competition with other men. Being shown up grates on him, but being shown up by a woman is doubly galling.

What I don’t see in him is an urge to remake society in his own image. He has no vision like a thousand-year Reich, a new Soviet man, or anything else that would lead to a micro-managed totalitarian system.

The opportunity that doesn’t exist. Even if Trump didn’t intend to go there, you might still imagine him opportunistically drifting into a Hitler-shaped or Stalin-shaped hole in American society. I firmly believe that there is no such hole. The 21st-century authoritarian model is quite different (as we’ll discuss below).

Germany in 1933 and Russia in 1917 were both countries in great economic distress, dealing with the aftermath of a humiliating defeat in war. Both had nostalgia for a former era when a strong ruler was firmly in charge.

Trump’s appeal is based on a dim echo of that situation. Many Americans are disappointed in their economic prospects, but compared to Depression-era Germany, few are desperate. (Wondering whether your salary will ever justify your student loans is a world away from wondering what bread will cost next week.) America’s persistent inability to wipe out enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria is frustrating, but doesn’t compare to Russia’s or Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.  Trump’s rhetoric is nostalgic, but the leaders of those warmly-recalled eras were grandfatherly men like Eisenhower or Reagan, not iron-fisted czars or kaisers.

Trump has many fans, but Trumpism runs shallow compared to Hitlerism. In 1933, virtually every part of German society had its own Nazi movement eager to take power. In 2017, it’s hard to picture what a Trumpist takeover of the universities or of California would even mean, much less who would do it or how. The difficulty Trump is having staffing his administration is a symptom of this shallowness. He won with 46% of the vote, after all, and many who voted for him were not happy about it.

The appeal of Potemkin democracy. While America as a nation is not experiencing the kind of despair and defeat that leads to totalitarianism, many groups within America have seen a long-term decline in their influence and status, with no end in sight. Many members of these groups are deeply nostalgic, and prior to Trump’s election felt the kind of hopelessness that yearns for radical change.

These are the people I described in 2012 in “The Distress of the Privileged“: whites, men, conservative Christians, native-born English-speakers, and so on. These groups have never been oppressed in America and face no prospect of it, but they used to dominate society to an extent that they no longer do. That relative loss of power feels like persecution, even if in reality it is nothing more than a loss of privilege. [1]

But many of them experience that pseudo-persecution intensely, and believe it is being thrown in their faces constantly: when their doctrines are no longer taught or their prayers recited in public schools; when they have to compete in the workplace on near-equal terms with blacks and immigrants and women; when courts take the side of gay couples against the Christians who want to discriminate against them; when they express their distress in public and do not see their problems move immediately to the top of the agenda; when history classes call attention to the flaws of their heroes, or to the contributions of members of other groups; and on many other occasions. Those who look for these insults to their pride, and seek out media that highlights and exaggerates them, can find something every day.

These are the people who make up the bulk of Trump’s base, and who will be willing to watch democracy crumble if it allows them to regain the privileges they believe are rightfully theirs. While the extreme edge of this group contains open white supremacists, theocratic Dominionists, and even self-proclaimed Nazis, for the most part its members are not that radical: They’re happy with an American-style democracy as long as they’re comfortably in the majority and the elected government favors them. That’s what they’re nostalgic for.

But as they have sunk towards minority status, more extreme methods have begun to appeal: suppressing other voters in the guise of preventing “voter fraud”, gerrymandering legislative districts so that their minority of votes can dominate Congress and the state legislatures, shutting down immigration from people not like them, suppressing protest with police violence, and so on.

For the most part, their ideal America would be a Potemkin democracy. It would have the appearance of free institutions: elections, media not directly controlled by the government, opposition politicians not in jail, and so on. But the outcomes of those elections would never be in doubt, and democratic methods would never be sufficient to achieve equality for non-whites, non-Christians, or those that white Christians disapprove of (like gays).

The autocracy model that works. In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Frum described how democracy slipped away in 21st-century countries like Hungary, South Africa, and Venezuela. The Washington Post paints a similar (if less fully developed) picture of the year-old populist government in Poland.

What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

In Poland:

In merely a year, critics say, the nationalists have transformed Poland into a surreal and insular place — one where state-sponsored conspiracy theories and de facto propaganda distract the public as democracy erodes.

In the land of Law and Justice, anti-intellectualism is king. Polish scientists are aghast at proposed curriculum changes in a new education bill that would downplay evolution theory and climate change and add hours for “patriotic” history lessons. In a Facebook chat, a top equal rights official mused that Polish hotels should not be forced to provide service to black or gay customers. After the official stepped down for unrelated reasons, his successor rejected an international convention to combat violence against women because it appeared to argue against traditional gender roles.

The national broadcasting network has lost much of its independence, and the Catholic media outlets are happy with the new regime, so the overall news coverage is positive. Cosmopolitan Warsaw is dumbstruck, but in the countryside the new government is quite popular. Some say its economic policies — subsidizing couples with children and lowering the retirement age — aren’t sound in the long term, but facts and numbers aren’t making much of an impact on the public debate.

The ultimate model of a 21st-century autocrat, of course, is Vladimir Putin, whose praises Trump often sings. Putin’s situation gives him many advantages that Trump lacks: Pre-Putin Russia in many ways resembled the pre-totalitarian societies I discussed earlier, with extreme economic distress, national pride wounded by defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of its Soviet empire, and nostalgia for past dictators. But even as Putin becomes (by some accounts) the world’s richest individual, and as his hold on government is increasingly unassailable, Russia continues to have many of the trappings of democracy. There are elections, even if it’s hard to participate in them. [2] Some limited media criticism is tolerated, though sufficiently annoying critics do sometimes drop dead under suspicious circumstances. Putin even respected Russia’s presidential term-limit law, stepping into the Prime Minister’s role for a term to let someone else serve as a figurehead president.

Frum sums up:

Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.

First steps. It’s not hard to find steps Trump has already taken down the Potemkin democracy path. As often as he verbally attacks CNN, there is virtually no chance of troops seizing its studios in a totalitarian coup. But Jared Kushner has already met with a high executive of CNN’s corporate master, Time Warner, to criticize CNN’s coverage of the new administration. According to The Wall Street Journal, he called out two commentators by name: Van Jones (a black) and Ana Navarro (a Nicaraguan immigrant). The implied threat is all too obvious: Billions of dollars hang on whether the Trump administration approves Time Warner’s proposed merger with AT&T.

There is no need for Trump critics like Jones or Navarro to wind up in Guantanamo. It is sufficient if he can get them shunted off to media outlets that only liberals or people of color pay attention to.

Similarly, Trump has talked about expanding the scope of libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations. Melania is already suing one, using the lawyer that Peter Thiel used to kill Gawker. The point, apparently, is not to recover damages, but to put critics out of business.

Under the guise of “reforming the bureaucracy” or “draining the swamp”, Trump seeks to populate government service with people loyal to him rather than to the missions of their departments.

His refusal to separate himself in any meaningful way from his business empire, his lack of transparency about his finances, and his flagrant use of his position as president to promote his profit-making properties are all part of this pattern. Frum projects these trends into 2020:

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

The repeatability of 2016. As Trump is fond of reminding us, the experts said he couldn’t win in 2016, and they were wrong.

But it’s worth considering exactly what they were wrong about. What made Trump’s victory so implausible was that he consistently spoke to a base that was nowhere near a majority of the American people. It seemed obvious that his appeal could not translate into a majority of the votes cast.

And it didn’t: He got 46% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 48%, a difference of nearly three million votes. What everyone failed to see was that:

  1. The combination of sexism, a long-term build-up of anti-Hillary hype, Trump’s relentless lock-her-up negativity, and unethical meddling by Russia and the FBI would make Clinton unacceptable to enough voters that the election would be close, despite Trump’s general unpopularity.
  2. The inherent gerrymandering of the Electoral College would allow Trump to win despite being outvoted by a clear margin.

After taking office, Trump has continued to speak only to his base, which is still an electoral minority. Unsurprisingly, a whopping 55% of Americans now view him unfavorably after only one month of his presidency.

But couldn’t the same strategy work again in 2020? Given enough repetition, a sufficiently cowed media, new illicit meddling (maybe by a Trump-tamed NSA this time), and relentless efforts to smear whoever the leading Democrat turns out to be — “Pocahontas” Warren, for example — couldn’t he repeat the same trick and be re-elected with no more popularity than he had in 2016?

What to expect. What Trump wants and has always wanted is to make vast amounts of money, to be courted by his fellow billionaires, and to have the power to take revenge on those who slight him. The repressive kleptocracy model offers all that.

To stay in power — and ideally to hand power off to a chosen successor like son-in-law Kushner or daughter Ivanka — Trump must keep the loyalty of his distressed/privileged base. In order to do that, he will offer them some substantive benefits. But ultimately he has no loyalty to them, so he will consistently attempt to give them symbolic victories that cost him nothing, or to take credit for far more than he actually does. The most efficient way for him to maintain their loyalty is to keep them constantly agitated by imaginary insults from their enemies, which Trump will defend them against. [3]

That base will continue to be an ever-shrinking minority, but by making it increasingly harder for others to vote, for immigrants to enter the country, for resident aliens to become citizens, for opposition parties to bring their case to the general public, and for voting majorities to achieve actual power, Trump will endeavor to enlarge that minority’s power far beyond its numbers. In doing so, he will simply be extending and exaggerating policies the Republican Party and the conservative media have pursued for many years.

Accompanying these policies will be the constant attempt to increase public cynicism. Sure, Trump lies, Trump profits from government, Trump bends the rules in his favor, but that’s just politics. Everybody lies, everybody cheats, all news is fake.

The threat, then, isn’t that some Reichstag-fire incident will set off a well-planned takeover that overnight makes America unrecognizable. On the contrary, America in 2020 will be very recognizable, as long as you don’t look too deeply.


[1] This is not to say that some members of these groups don’t have genuine problems worthy of government help — ex-workers of dying industries in dying-industry towns, like West Virginia coal miners, for example. But even here, what thrusts them into public attention isn’t the degree of their distress, it’s that they’re native-born English-speaking white men in distress. It’s the my-problem-should-move-to-the-top-of-the agenda privilege.

Tim Wise comments:

When white people are hurting economically we’re supposed to feel their pain and “bring the jobs back” to their dying rural towns. But when people of color lack jobs in the cities (in large part because of the decline of manufacturing over 40 plus years, as well as discrimination) we tell them to “move,” to go to school and gain new skills, and we lecture them on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps because the government doesn’t owe them anything. But apparently we DO owe white coal miners and assembly line workers their jobs back because remember, out of work white men are “salt of the earth” while out of work people of color are lazy.

[2] Garry Kasparov discusses the difficulties of getting on the ballot and campaigning in Russia in his book Winter is Coming. For example, the rules require your party to have a nominating convention of a certain size, but what if no one is willing to displease the government by renting you space for it?

[3] A good example was his rally this week in Florida, which Melania opened with the Lord’s Prayer. Not only does that give conservative Christians a we’re-still-in-charge-here thrill at no cost to Trump, it allowed the pro-Trump side of the media to further their Christian-persecution narrative.

Supposedly liberals were up in arms about the prayer, but I would never have heard about it if not for Fox News’ coverage of how up-in-arms people like me are. The liberal web sites I regularly cruise didn’t find it worth mentioning. (Fox’ sources are social-media posts by ordinary people. You could find similar posts objecting to more-or-less anything that happens.)

In fact, a campaign rally is a private event, so opening it with prayer does not violate church-state separation. If Trump wants to signal to non-Christians that they are not welcome at his rallies, that’s up to him. I was not offended and I suspect very few liberals were.

White House, Inc.

How can something be a “conflict of interest” if the people who do it don’t seem conflicted about it? Josh Marshall raises a good point.

[S]top talking about ‘conflicts of interest’. Those are guide rails meant to help ethical people to stay ethical or unethical people put on a show of it. There’s no show here. Trump is openly using the Presidency as the world’s greatest marketing opportunity.

So, for example, his Mar-a-Lago Club (where he has been spending a lot of weekends and recently met with the Japanese Prime Minister) doubled its membership fees after the election, to $200K per year. It’s a direct payment for access to the president (or the appearance of access).

Melania’s defamation lawsuit against The Daily Mail is pretty explicit about the marketing opportunities she sees in being First Lady:

The economic damage to Plaintiff’s brand, and licensing, marketing and endorsement opportunities caused by publication of the Mail Online’s defamatory article is multiple millions of dollars. Plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a professional model and brand spokesman, and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.

In retrospect, wasn’t it silly of Michelle Obama to waste her eight years of fame on unmarketable causes like childhood obesity? Pity poor Lady Bird Johnson, who spent her term as FLOTUS trying to “Make American Beautiful”, or foolish Nancy Reagan, who frittered away her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” telling kids to “Just Say No” to drugs. How much cold, hard cash did any of them get for their efforts?

This week, Ivanka Trump’s prospects for plunder were in the spotlight. When Nordstrom’s dropped her brand because of falling sales, the President of the United States called them out. Richard Painter, who was an ethics lawyer in the Bush White House and is now at University of Minnesota, commented:

The president’s tweet — posted on his personal account and then re-sent from his White House account — is an act of intimidation. Nordstrom interacts with many executive branch agencies: the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and others. Each one of these agencies will be headed by Trump appointees. Most will be staffed with other political appointees as well. The president is telling all of these people that he is very angry with Nordstrom. The message is clear, and it won’t take much for a political appointee in some agency to conceive of an ingenious way of ingratiating himself with the White House by making life difficult for the store chain.

… And now every other department store knows that it had better not make a similar “business decision” that displeases the president. In other words, do business with the Trump family and help the Trump family promote its products, or else.

Kellyanne Conway ingratiated herself with the president by doing some Ivanka marketing from the White House briefing room.

“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway told “Fox & Friends.” “I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Conway’s remark appears to violate the executive branch’s ban on staff endorsing products or companies. The regulation, from the Office of Government Ethics, also prohibits using public office for private gain of oneself or friends or relatives.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Heather Nauert from Fox and Friends is looking for a job at the White House and also tweeting about buying Ivanka stuff “in solidarity”. She couldn’t possibly think that Trump family marketing is part of a government job, could she? Wherever would she get such a notion?

What makes this behavior particularly galling to Democrats is the hypocrisy of it: Not so long ago Trump was regularly attacking Hillary Clinton for the apparent (though not particularly real) conflict between her management of the State Department and her connection to the Clinton Foundation, from which the Clintons have never received any direct benefit. Now government employees are openly working to put money into the pockets of the Trumps, and it’s all good.

The Trump defense for this egregious behavior is his usual somebody-else-started-it: Ivanka’s brand was targeted by an social-media boycott campaign #GrabYourWallet. “They’re using her to get to him,” Conway said.

Here’s the point that observation should bring to mind: Trump and his advisors (which formally includes Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and in every practical sense includes Ivanka herself) should have divested their business interests and put their assets into blind trust. When public officials are actively involved in business, that opens them not just to bribery, but also to pressure from boycotts. But if the Trumps’ assets were in blind trust where they belong, #GrabYourWallet would be no threat to them.

As far as I can tell, no one in the White House is drawing that conclusion. Nothing I’m hearing from White House, Inc. indicates any sense of conflict over using the presidency to further the Trump family’s business interests. So if you want to talk about “conflicts of interest” talk about governing: It’s Trump’s responsibilities to the American people that he’s conflicted about, not his profiteering.

The Ban: Ten Days of Drama

It’s hard to believe how much drama has played out in the last ten days. Even the Advise and Consent style political novels I loved in high school didn’t move this fast.

It all started a week ago Friday, when President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 (a.k.a “the Muslim ban” and “it’s not a Muslim ban“) which Wikipedia summarizes like this:

The order limited refugee arrivals to 50,000 and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days, after which the program would be conditionally resumed for individual countries while prioritizing refugee claims from persecuted minority religions. The order also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees. Further, the order suspended the entry of alien nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days, after which an updated list will be made. The order allows exceptions to these suspensions on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Homeland Security later exempted U.S. lawful permanent residents (green card holders).

The immediate result was chaos. The order had been reviewed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for “form and legality”, but beyond that was pretty much unvetted, parts of it apparently leaping straight into the world from Steve Bannon’s brain like a malformed Athena from a not-very-godlike Zeus-wannabee. Congressional leaders were not consulted. (Though Trump apparently was helped by Republican congressional staffers who were obliged by a non-disclosure agreement not to tell their bosses; so far history does not record what the out-in-the-cold Republican congressmen think of that.) The border-control officials who were supposed to implement the ban in America’s airports were not briefed in advance. (NYT: “customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.”)

People already in the air, including permanent legal residents (i.e. green-card holders) who were returning to their jobs or students with valid visas coming back to their universities, were sent back or detained in airports. City University of New York claims it has 100 students from the affected countries. Two Iraqis who had helped the American military and feared for their lives if they had to return to Iraq were detained at JFK airport.

The public response was immediate. On Saturday, crowds of protesters spontaneously formed at JFK and other airports. By 9 p.m., a federal judge had issued an order preventing the administration from sending the detainees back where they came from. Sunday, the administration backed off of the restrictions on green-card holders.

Internal dissent. On Monday, acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee held over until Trump can get his own AG approved) ordered the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s order in court.

I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.

Also on Monday, an internal State Department dissent-channel memo — reportedly with over 1000 signatures — leaked to the press. It called the Trump order “counter-productive” and said

Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.

Rejecting the whole concept of internal dissent from experienced professionals, Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the signers “career bureaucrats” and responded that “they should either get with the program or they can go”. Yates was fired Monday night in typical Trump fashion; the White House statement descended from policy disagreement into personal insult: Yates had “betrayed the Justice Department” and was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration”. (One of Trump’s most disturbing traits is his apparent belief that it’s not enough simply to overcome opposition; the people who oppose him must be shamed and punished. This authoritarian impulse alone should have disqualified him from the presidency.)

Also Monday night, Samantha Bee weighed in.

Defiance. Throughout the week, court orders piled up from judges around the country, and multiple reports indicated that the Trump administration was at best slow-rolling its compliance and at worst simply defying the orders. Friday Politico reported:

Hours after a federal judge ordered customs officers to provide lawyers to travelers detained at Dulles airport last Saturday, senior Trump administration officials instructed the guards to give the travelers phone numbers of legal services organizations, ignoring a mass of lawyers who had gathered at the airport. Most of the legal services offices were closed for the weekend, effectively preventing travelers with green cards from obtaining legal advice.

The move was part of what lawyers contend was a series of foot-dragging actions by the administration that appeared to violate court orders against the Trump’s controversial travel ban. … The [Customs and Border Protection] officers at airports were not rogue individual actors, according to the documents obtained and people interviewed by POLITICO. Rather, the agents on the ground were following orders from high in their chain of command.

For example, a federal judge in Boston ordered the administration to admit travelers with valid visas. The travelers did not get into the country, though, because the administration claimed it had the power to revoke those visas. Slate‘s Jeremy Stahl interviewed an immigration lawyer, who concluded:

When you have an executive that is acting the way that Donald Trump is acting and not controlling what his officers are doing in noncomplying, that’s a constitutional—that’s leading to a constitutional crisis.

Yonatan Zunger put a dark spin on it:

[T]he administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

Writing on the Lawfare blog, Ben Wittes put a dark spin on the whole enterprise: He thinks the ban’s whole purpose is to appeal to the anti-Muslim bigots in Trump’s base, and has nothing to do with keeping Americans safe.

Put simply, I don’t believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose. This is the first policy the United States has adopted in the post-9/11 era about which I have ever said this. It’s a grave charge, I know, and I’m not making it lightly. But in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.

When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.

Where it stands. Friday, a federal court ruling came down from Judge James Robart in Seattle, applying nationally and stated in as sweeping terms as possible, clearly intending to allow no wiggle room. Saturday, the Trump administration said it would comply, pending appeal.

Meanwhile, a State Department spokesperson tells NPR that officials with the department are also adhering to the decision. The department has provisionally revoked somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 individuals’ visas, according to different accounts; under Saturday’s announcement, the State Department says that move has been reversed — and that “individuals with visas that were not physically cancelled may now travel if the visa is otherwise valid.”

Trump again personalized the conflict, tweeting:

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

(Lots of people pointed out that Robart’s claim to be a judge is at least as good, if not better, than Trump’s claim to be a president.) Late Saturday night, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Justice Department’s motion to reverse the suspension of Trump’s executive order. The order will remain suspended until the court can make a ruling on the merits of the case. That could happen as early as today, or not.

Over the weekend, congressional Republicans gave strong indications that they don’t want this conflict to escalate to a constitutional crisis. Sunday, Mitch McConnell, who (like Paul Ryan) has been stepping very carefully to avoid the President’s sensitive toes, told CNN’s Jake Tapper:

The courts are going to decide whether the executive order the President issued is valid or not, and we all follow court orders.

The unstated implication is: “You’d better follow them too.”

What will the courts decide? Deborah Pearlstein posted a good summary of the arguments both ways on Jack Balkin’s legal blog Balkinization. And the answer is: It’s a close call.

On the one hand, the Constitution gives the President a lot of power to manage our dealings with other countries, and Congress has supplemented that power in various ways over the years. So the administration has a lot of possible arguments it might make to defend its actions.

On the other hand, courts often look beyond simple questions of authority to rule on intent: If your clear intent is to achieve an unconstitutional result, then a court might block your actions even if they fall within the letter of your legal powers. A good example of this came last summer, when a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter-suppression law. Everything in the law — changing the dates and hours of early voting, requiring IDs, etc. — was within the legislature’s power. But the fact that legislators researched how and when black North Carolinians vote, and then systematically restricted their favorite options, pushed the law beyond the pale.

Here, there is a clear record of intent to create a religious test for entering the United States, which would be unconstitutional. Trump promised a Muslim ban during his campaign. Advisors like Rudy Giuliani have spoken in public about coaching Trump on how to “do it legally” by focusing on the threat of terrorism from particular countries rather than on religion. The order’s provisions to prioritize religious minorities for exceptions to the ban seems intended to make sure Christians aren’t caught in a ban intended for Muslims. (If the administration is serious about offering refuge to persecuted religious minorities, that provision should apply to a lot of Muslims as well: Shia in Sunni-majority countries, Sunni in Shia-majority countries, and Sufis and other smaller Muslim sects everywhere. Will it? Or is it just a Christian loophole?)

Will that be enough to convince an appeals court, and to split the 4-4 Supreme Court so that it doesn’t overrule? Maybe. But even if it does, that ruling is likely to illuminate a path that would allow some future objectionable executive order to pass legal muster.

Then what? Pearlstein says it’s not enough to count on the courts: Protesters need to focus their attention on Congress as well:

There is, however, one foolproof way to ensure the President’s order in its current form does not stand. And it lies with the body that gave the President the authority to issue it in the first place. A growing, bipartisan group of congressional representatives have expressed concern about the order’s scope and effect. And while Senator McConnell has proposed the matter be left to the courts to decide, it is not wise – and should not be easy – for Congress to avoid responsibility here. At a minimum, it would be a serious strategic mistake for the many groups sprung up post-election to push back against the new administration not to focus some of their energies on demanding Congress act.

So far, McConnell, Ryan, and other congressional Republicans have had it both ways: They can tut-tut about executive overreach and incompetent implementation, while remaining uncommitted about the order’s overall intent. As much as possible, the public needs to pin them down. If a Muslim ban (or something like it) is a good thing, then Congress should authorize it. If not, it should establish specific boundaries on the President’s power.

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.

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.

The Year of “This Can’t Be Happening”

In the 2015 Yearly Sift, I wrote:

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF? … I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

That was the best prediction I made all year. For me, the continuing mystery of 2016 was why anyone was voting for Donald Trump. I believed about him then more or less what I believe about him now: He has no qualifications to be president, and no insights about America that deserve a serious person’s attention. Truth means nothing to him. His life demonstrates no interest in anyone but himself and no discernible moral code. He brings out the worst in his followers, encouraging them to be more selfish, more hateful, and less thoughtful.

So why do so many people want him to be our president?

My first post of the new year flashed back to a post I wrote about the Tea Party in 2011: Working-class voters’ rage is like the famous wrong-way touchdown Jim Marshall scored in 1965. They have a right to be angry and to want to “take our country back”, but they’re trying to take it back from the wrong people. It’s not government and bureaucrats who have been stealing their opportunities, it’s corporations and billionaires. The Tea Party’s success had in fact given power to congressional Republicans who were doing their best to empower those oppressors and keep working people down. In short: They’re running the wrong way.

The only time working people have actually succeeded in taking the country back and bettering their lot was when they got behind a liberal: FDR.

You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

I didn’t really expect Trump voters to switch to Bernie, but I thought the case needed to be made.

As for what they were doing with Trump, my explanation (in February) was that Trump was an “opportunistic infection” Republicans had left themselves open to.

All the weapons another candidate might use to take Trump down have been systematically dismantled. Are his “facts” wrong? Mitt Romney already burned that bridge in 2012. Do experts say his proposals are nonsense? There are no experts any more; if you feel a need for expert support, go invent your own experts like the Koch brothers and right-wing Christians do. Are his speeches full of racist dog-whistles? Politically correct nonsense! Racism ended in the 60s, except reverse-racism against whites. And if Republicans had to expel anybody who dog-whistled about Obama, they’d have no party left. Are there echoes of fascism in his giant rallies and cult of personality? In his celebration of real and imaginary violence against hecklers? In his fear-mongering about unpopular ethnic or religious groups? In his implication that specific policies are unnecessary, because all will follow from installing a Leader with sufficient Will? More nonsense: There is no fascism any more, unless you mean liberal fascism or Islamofascism.

With all the legitimate arguments of political discourse unavailable, other candidates were left to fight each other and wait for Trump to go away. And when Marco Rubio recently decided he finally had to take Trump on, the only weapon at hand was to tease him like a third-grader, suggesting that he wet his pants during a debate.

But by early March, I thought I knew what the right anti-Trump argument was: He’s a con man. Tear down his image as a master businessman and replace it with the more accurate view that he’s a predatory parasite. The Trump supporters hadn’t been horrified by his attacks on Mexicans or Muslims or the disabled or Megan Kelly, because they didn’t identify with any of those people. But the victims of Trump U and Trump Tampa and all the other Trump business scams do look like them.

Up until now, arguing with Trump supporters has been like telling your 17-year-old daughter that her 29-year-old boyfriend is no good for her: It’s obvious to you, but everything you say just reinforces the me-and-him-against-the-world mystique that has been driving the relationship from the beginning.

… You know what finally gets through to the 17-year-old? Meeting her boyfriend’s previous three teen-age girlfriends, the ones he dumped when they got pregnant. They look just like her — or at least they used to, before the single-mom lifestyle started to drag them down. Realizing that he told them all the things he’s telling her … that starts to mean something.

And that’s the message that’s emerging: Not that Trump is crude (which he is) or racist (which he is) or a proto-fascist (which he is) or unprepared for the presidency (which he is) or any of that. But he’s a con-man, and he hasn’t been conning Mexicans or Muslims or Megyn Kelly (who is too smart to fall for his bullshit). No, his career is all about conning the kind of people who support him now.

By September, he had been nominated, and his core supporters seemed impervious to any argument, including the con-man one. So I assembled a bunch of articles about who they were and what they might be thinking (especially Arlie Russell Hochschild’s account of their “deep story”) in “Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going“.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour.

Ultimately, though, no matter how hard I tried to understand them, I just couldn’t respect anyone so misguided and misinformed as to want to turn the country over to an ignorant huckster like Trump. That frustration boiled over in my election-eve post “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation“.

When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

When Trump waves his arms around to make fun of a disabled man, when he suggests that Natasha Stoynoff isn’t attractive enough to assault, when he critiques Hillary Clinton’s butt in front of thousands of cheering fans, when he says that an Indiana-born Hispanic judge can’t be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican“, when he taunts a bereaved mother of a decorated Muslim-American soldier — that’s not “politically incorrect”. He’s just an asshole.

One my many failures of foresight this year was that I did not at all foresee Trump winning. The week after the election, I was in the Midwestern town where I grew up, asking “How did my home town become Trumpland?

All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

The word that popped into my mind was colonized. Like this wasn’t their town any more.

But as much as I might (at times) empathize or sympathize with those Trump voters who don’t fit into one of the deplorable categories (racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, Islamophobe), I’m left with the belief that they’ve done something stupid for both the country and themselves. Because whether my con-man argument convinced any of them or not, it’s true. The people who voted for him are the marks, and when his presidency starts to have real effects on the country, even they will see it. As I wrote last week in “How will they change their minds?

Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters. … Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

… Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them.

That’s a story I intend to keep following in 2017: What effects are Trump’s actions having on the people who voted for him, and are any of them starting to notice?

How will they change their minds?

Trump voters made an enormous mistake, for their country and even for themselves. We can’t force them to see it, but maybe we can make it easier for them figure it out on their own.


In the summer of 2003, the Iraq War was popular. Sure, somewhere between a third and half of the public had been strongly against the invasion before it happened. But then it all seemed to go so well. Iraqi armies melted away in front of our brave troops. Our technology seemed invincible, and before long we were helping the liberated Baghdad residents pull down Saddam’s statue. All those pessimists who had predicted a quagmire and thousands of dead American soldiers had been proved wrong.

On May 1, President Bush had heroically landed a plane on the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced victory under a “Mission Accomplished” banner. “In the battle of Iraq,” he proclaimed, “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” There was still some minor mopping up to do — we still hadn’t captured Saddam or found his WMDs — but our forces had the run of the country, so that was bound to happen any day now.

A few people knew better. In early July I talked to my best friend from high school, a career Marine who was home already from participating in the invasion. “The real war is just starting now,” he told me. But that was a lonely point of view. Bush’s supporters were already styling him as one of the great presidents — maybe not quite in the Washington/Lincoln neighborhood, but certainly in the next tier. It was a shame there was no more space on Mount Rushmore.

Sometime around then — I can’t tell you when because I hadn’t started blogging yet and haven’t been able to google up a newspaper account of it — Michael Moore gave a talk in Manchester. At the time I knew Moore only by reputation, so I was expecting to hear some angry rabble-rousing. Instead, he spoke in a compassionate tone that has stuck with me ever since.

The country had made a huge mistake, he told us. (I’m paraphrasing because I took no notes.) And sooner or later events would make that obvious. The way forward was for large numbers of Americans to recognize that mistake and change their minds about the war. How would that happen? Changing your mind about something you felt strongly about was a gut-wrenching process, and we needed to make it as easy as possible for them, so that it could happen sooner rather than later.

More or less, things played out the way he envisioned: By April, 2004, the First Battle of Fallujah made it undeniable that the war was not over, and the Abu Ghraib revelations removed the invasion’s aura of moral crusade. From then on, support for the war waned. Dick Cheney’s claims that the insurgency was in its last throes, or Thomas Friedman’s repeated predictions that everything would be fine in another six months (which became known as a “Friedman unit“), became increasingly unbelievable. The Democrats retook Congress in 2006, and a Democrat who had opposed the invasion got the nomination in 2008 and beat a more hawkish Republican in a landslide. Some public figures who supported the war early on (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry come to mind) admitted they were wrong, but lots more people (Donald Trump, for example) just rewrote history so that they had always been against the war.

At no point in that national mind-changing process was there some stunning new argument that turned everybody around. Anti-war Democrats didn’t come up with great new slogans or ads in 2006 or 2008. Demonstrations didn’t change minds in the numbers needed. Books and movies didn’t do it. Events had to do it.

I think we’re in a similar situation now: Electing Donald Trump was a huge mistake. It’s not just a mistake for the country as a whole, it’s a mistake for most of the people who did it: Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters.

The limits of propaganda. Many of them have, up until now, been entirely taken in by Trump’s bluster and a regular diet of propaganda from Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, and right-wing talk radio. They believe a lot of things that aren’t true, and are ignorant of many facts they ought to know. But propaganda can only go so far. You can’t, for example, convince a minimum-wage worker that he has a good job, or that we have the greatest healthcare system in the world when he faces a choice between bankruptcy and watching his wife die.

Reality is persistent, and propaganda that explains it away has to keep changing. Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

Moore’s speech impressed me for a couple of reasons. First, he really believed in his view of reality, so he didn’t have to be shrill about it. He didn’t need to wish misfortune on the people who disagreed with him, because misfortune was coming whether anybody wished for it or not. He was so certain that he could already feel compassion for misfortune’s victims. And second, in spite of recent events to the contrary, he retained his faith in the basic sense of the American people. They/we could be fooled for a while, but not forever.

That’s the point of view we need now. If President Trump really does “make America great again” — bring good jobs back to the middle class, fix our education system, produce opportunities for poor people in the inner cities, fix our healthcare system, avoid any further damage from the “hoax” of climate change, win the war against “radical Islam” — then liberalism is done for a generation. And it should be, because he would have proved us totally wrong.

But how likely is that?

And if he makes all those situations worse, as I think he will, how likely is it that the American people won’t notice? Or that they will support him anyway, just because?

Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them. The best we can do is to help that process along. So how?

We won’t overpower them with vehemence. Trump supporters already know that we don’t like him, that we think he’s a horrible person, and that we think everything he says is a lie. They knew that when they voted for him. Repeating all that in a louder voice is not going to turn them around.

Does that mean we should just shut up? Not at all, but it should influence the way we express ourselves. We need to think of ourselves as Avatars of Reality: persistent, implacable, but not boiling over. In terms of protests, for example, large groups of people holding a vigil are better than small groups having a riot. Publicly supporting somebody — American Muslims, the undocumented, black neighborhoods that feel terrorized by police, the working poor who depend on Medicaid or ObamaCare or Planned Parenthood, communities damaged by de-regulated pollution — is better than just being anti-Trump.

On social media, just trading insults plays into Trump’s hands, because his insults are as good as ours. His model of political discourse is two tribes of people yelling at each other; it doesn’t matter who’s right, just who is on your side. Our model is that reality exists and presents problems the public needs to deal with.

To remain true to our model, we need to keep drawing the discussion back to facts and plans and personal experiences. That doesn’t have to be complicated. (This week I saw somebody on Facebook claim that Trump had more integrity than Clinton, and I responded with a fact: Clinton has never had to pay $25 million to settle a fraud lawsuit.)

Trump, of course, will continue to assert his own facts. But fantasy lacks the stability of reality, so he will have to keep changing his story as events unfold. One by one, here and there, people will catch on.

The low-information voter. Trump himself almost never loses sight of the fact that he is speaking to the low-information voter. It’s rare for an interviewer to draw him deeper into an issue, and it never goes well for him. (Chris Matthews got him talking specifics about abortion, and his staff was walking that back for the next week.) That’s why Twitter is his primary form of public communication: It’s all about reaction, not explanation.

Feeling superior about that is too easy. I believe Trump won by beating Clinton decisively among low-information voters. (That’s hard to prove, because low-info voters aren’t as easily identifiable as racial or economic subgroups. You can use education as a proxy, but that involves some biased assumptions.) So people who only pay attention now and then are precisely the ones we need to turn around.

That was also true about Iraq. If your whole experience of the Iraq War was watching on TV as smart bombs went down smokestacks and joyful Iraqis pulled down Saddam’s statue, then nobody could convince you the invasion had been a bad idea. Eventually, though, even the most poorly informed voter started to wonder: “Why are we still losing soldiers if the war was over months ago?” and “If we’re winning, why do we have to take Fallujah again?” Thoughts like that didn’t have to be deep or complicated.

Two things to remember about low-info voters:

  • They respond to stories and experiences more than statistics. It’s important to keep bringing policy questions back to the people who are getting helped or hurt. It’s best if you can lay out a scenario where a policy will hurt the listener himself. Next best is to explain how you’re being affected. Next best is to relate things you’ve seen yourself rather than learned through the media. (So don’t just read about stuff, go places where you will see things, and then testify to what you’ve seen.)
  • They care about results more than processes. This is particularly maddening right now, when all the effects of Trump’s policies are still theoretical, but the process violations are everywhere. But while the high-info voter looks at a hole in the fence and immediately imagines the wolves getting in or the sheep getting out, the low-info voter doesn’t.

Amplifying that second point a little: People who watch politics closely are horrified that Trump hasn’t released his tax returns or put his assets into a blind trust. All other recent presidents have done that, so the sense of violation is immediate. But to a low-info voter, those sound like technicalities. So you always need to make the connection to results: His businesses are wide-open doors for pay-offs, and we know so little about his finances at the beginning of his term that at the end we won’t even know whether he has robbed us blind. Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” We aren’t in a position to verify anything about Trump.

The importance of popularity. The darkest imagining of liberals right now is that Trump’s election heralds a descent towards fascism or some related form of non-democratic government. Trump has roused such nativist/racist passions and shows so little respect for the norms of democracy that the question “What wouldn’t he do if he could get away with it?” seems to have no answer.

Other Republican behavior — the unprecedented obstruction of President Obama, up to the point of ignoring his Supreme Court nominee; the moves to suppress minority voting in states where Republicans have power; and most recently the post-election rule-changing in North Carolina — point to a party that has lost all principles and stands only for its own power.

All that raises the questions: What if there are no more meaningful elections? Why would changing people’s minds even matter?

That fascist scenario requires President Trump to take audacious extra-constitutional action which Republicans in Congress, in the military, in the courts, and elsewhere in government either actively support or passively go along with. But Republicans at the moment are not unified behind Trump. They could become unified, if he becomes the kind of overwhelmingly popular president that it would be political suicide to oppose. But that’s not where they are now.

Trump begins his term having received only 46% of the vote, and with an unprecedented unfavorability rating, even after a post-election bump. This is before the fog around his policies resolves, as it must, into a budget proposal and a plan for healthcare.

In the next year or two, his popularity is key to avoiding the most negative scenarios. If he remains as unpopular as he is today, or gets more unpopular, then the darkest scenarios will never manifest.

No facts? What does that mean?

Since Wednesday, you have undoubtedly seen several headlines about some Trump surrogate denying the existence of facts. It’s from Scottie Nell Hughes talking to NPR host Diane Rehm, and the money quote is: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” Sometimes condensed to “There are no facts”, that quote exploded across the internet in the same way that many fake news headlines do. But it had the added virtue of being true (to the extent that there is such a thing as truth any more).

But what does it mean?

If you make Hughes’ sentence stand alone, the most obvious interpretation is some kind of New Age you-make-your-own-reality philosophy. But I’m pretty sure that isn’t what she meant. For example, there are 2.6 million more Hillary voters than Trump voters, but even if we all get together on January 20 and visualize really hard, we won’t be transported to a world where President Clinton is being sworn in. Reality just isn’t that flexible, and I don’t believe Hughes was claiming otherwise.

So what was she saying? Let’s expand the context a little.

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say “facts are facts”, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there are no facts to back it up.

I’m hearing a less metaphysical claim, which I’ll restate like this: You can’t win a political argument any more by claiming to have the facts on your side, because the other side can generate its own apparent “facts”, and the public as a whole doesn’t trust anyone to decide between the two sets of “facts”. So in the end, all that matters politically is who you like: If you like Trump, you’ll believe his “facts” and if you don’t, you’ll believe the “facts” that contradict him. Worse, no one can set himself up as a neutral fact-checker, because as soon as he decides the case one way or the other, his presumption of neutrality goes away: All the public will hear is that he likes Trump or he doesn’t.

So when The Atlantic‘s James Fallows (who was on the same episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show as Hughes) listed a series of Trump lies, Hughes responded that the sources Fallows was relying on were all biased against Trump. Fallows immediately zeroed in on a Trump claim that the NFL had written to him about something, to which the NFL had responded by denying writing any letter to him at all. “The NFL?” Fallows challenged. “The NFL is biased?” And Hughes responded: “That’s the question you have to ask right now.”

So that’s Hughes’ not-quite-a-syllogism: What Trump asserts is true. People biased against Trump will say otherwise. Therefore anyone who says otherwise is biased against Trump. (Compare Woody Allen’s reasoning in Love and Death: “A. Socrates is a man. B. All men are mortal. C. All men are Socrates.”)

The interesting thing, if you listen to the rest of the episode, is that the other guests — Fallows, Glenn Thrush from Politico, and Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post — are pretty much saying the same thing in terms less quotable than “There’s no such thing as facts.” Fallows begins the show by describing the old state of affairs as

a sort of built in constraint of most public figures, that they would at least try to tell the truth most of the time and they would recognize it as a significant penalty if they’re shown not telling the truth.

And then pointing out how this has changed:

This does not apply in the same way to Donald Trump and therefore, we sort of need to recalibrate our gears to say, how do we treat assertions where the speaker himself doesn’t seem to care whether they can be proven false five minutes later, just goes on and doesn’t show any affect from that.

One perverse result of this is that Trump has gotten a reputation among his fans as “telling it like it is”. In other words, we are used to politicians spinning; they speak in elaborately constructed sentences so that they can give a misleading impression without saying anything provably false. But Trump doesn’t spin. He speaks in very direct sentences because he just doesn’t care whether he’s saying something provably false. If he wants to give you the impression that millions of people voted illegally (when they really didn’t), he’ll just say that.

I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

In the same way that “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue“, spinning is the homage liars pay to truth. Bill Clinton’s famous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was his attempt to recognize established facts, but still carve out some tiny sliver of interpretation in which he hadn’t been lying when he claimed nothing was going on with Monica Lewinsky.

It sounded weaselly. How much bolder and telling-it-like-it-is Clinton would have sounded if he had just kept saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He could have claimed that the lab that analyzed Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress was biased against him, and DNA testing is junk science anyway. Surely some “experts” could have been manufactured to go on TV and make that argument.

He didn’t do that, because sounding weaselly was a “significant penalty” Clinton was willing to pay in order to live in a world of facts. But Trump has declared his independence from the world of facts, so he never has to sound weaselly. If more than a dozen women accuse him of groping and other sexual assaults similar to his bragging claims, they’re liars and he’s going to sue them. (He hasn’t sued any of them, and he won’t.) If Trump University students claim he defrauded them and the instructor’s manual backs them up, he looks forward to refuting their baseless case in court. (He settled right after the election, paying the students $25 million.)

No spin. Just bold, direct statements that aren’t true. He hasn’t paid a political penalty for those false statements, because his supporters have neither the inclination nor the attention span to check up on him, and they don’t trust anybody who does.

If that’s not disturbing enough for you, there’s a way things could turn worse from here. An Elliott Lusztig tweetstorm explained how:

Hannah Arendt in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism provides a helpful guide for interpreting the language of fascists. She noted how decent liberals of 1930s Germany would “fact check” the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews like they were meant to be factual. What they failed to understand, Arendt suggests, is that the Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent.

So when someone would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in [World War I], naive people would counter by saying there’s no evidence of that. What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next.

Did 3 million “illegals” cast votes in this election? Clearly not. But fact checking is just a way of playing along with their game. What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to other Trump lies. For example, his claim that the murder rate is the “highest it’s been in 45 years“, when in fact it’s close to a low for that period. Combine that with his characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and “Islam hates us“, and and you get a justification for a harsh police crackdown on those communities.

What Lusztig is pointing out here is how this kind of widespread lying can turn partisanship into horror: People accept claims as factual for partisan reasons, and then later can be moved to draw consequences from those false claims. Those consequences might include horrible actions that those same people would have rejected had they been proposed directly.

It’s hard to see what to do about this, but it has to start with identifying the advantages reality has over falsehood. Obviously, reality also has many disadvantages, but its advantages include that it is persistent, self-consistent, and infinitely detailed.

Fantastic lies depend on an ability to constantly change the subject, so that the thinness of the fantasy world can’t be compared to the richness of reality. When a topic becomes so important that it stays in the public mind for long periods of time — the Iraq War is a good example — it becomes harder to lie about. The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about. And finally, anything a person cares deeply about can become a conduit to reality. For example, many otherwise conservative churches have made a project out of helping refugees resettle in America. Their commitment to those projects makes it harder to sell them horror stories about the refugee threat.

This is another example of a larger theme: The Trump administration is going to force us to think seriously about things we used to take for granted. (That’s why I wrote about white pride last week.)

For a long time, many of us have taken for granted that facts are facts, truth ultimately wins out, and lies eventually rebound against the liars. Those principles may still hold, but they’re not in the “of course” category any more. We’re going to have to study more closely exactly what strategic advantages reality offers, and figure out tactics that bring those advantages into play.

The Trump Administration: What I’m watching for

So far, I haven’t been tempted to protest against President-elect Donald Trump, at least not yet. If I am angry at all right now, it is at the swing-state voters who put him in office, not at him for taking advantage of our ridiculous Electoral College system, which allowed him to win when Hillary Clinton got more votes (about 1.7 million more, at last count). But demonstrating support for immigrants, Muslims, gays, and others who feel threatened by a Trump administration is a different matter.

Mostly for the sake of my own sanity, I have resolved not to react to things Trump hasn’t done yet. So, for example, in this week’s summary post I will comment on the appointments he has made, but not on the people he is rumored to be considering. During the next four years, I expect to see plenty of actions worth objecting to. But this will be a marathon, not a sprint, so I see no reason to jump the gun.

That said, I am also not naively hoping for the best. I am watching the Trump administration closely, and will be quick to object as soon as there are actions worth objecting to. Here is a list of the primary things I’m watching for, starting with the most mundane:

Taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments. President Obama has left his successor a country in much better shape than the one he inherited from President Bush. Republicans in general and Trump in particular have refused to give Obama credit for his accomplishments, or even to recognize good news when it appeared. Now Trump is in a position to acknowledge American success and take credit for it.

So, for example, ISIS has been losing territory for some while now. Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, is cut off and likely to fall in the next few months. Its de facto capital of Raqqa is under attack in Syria. If events continue on their current path, sometime in 2017 President Trump will be able to declare victory in the territorial struggle, though ISIS will continue to be a significant underground movement. That victory will be the result of Obama’s strategy, but I expect Trump to crow about how “America is winning again.”

Similarly, expect Republicans to suddenly notice that the number of undocumented immigrants is dropping, gas prices are down, unemployment is low, and that rates of murder and other major crimes are at their lowest levels in decades. Already, Gallup reports that Republicans have drastically changed their opinion about how well the economy is doing: “Just 16% of Republicans said the economy was getting better in the week before the election, while 81% said it was getting worse. Since the election, 49% say it is getting better and 44% worse.”

The beauty of this (from Trump’s point of view) is that no lying is necessary. On the contrary, all he has to do is stop lying about the state of country, and bask in the glow of instant success.

Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed. This has already started. Trump is taking credit for keeping a Kentucky Ford plant from moving to Mexico, when Ford never had a plan to move it. Who knows what he’ll prevent next? War with Belgium, maybe. By May, he will have decisively beaten winter.

In the conspiracy-theory swamps where many Trump supporters live, this will be incredibly easy: All they have to do is celebrate the end of things that never existed to begin with: You know those FEMA detention camps where anti-Obama dissidents were going to be sent? Trump closed them! They’re gone.

I’m reminded of a joke about a political leader answering charges of nepotism. Asked why his mother was on the public payroll, he explained that she oversaw the government’s anti-tiger policy. “But there are no tigers for a thousand miles,” the interviewer objected. “Don’t thank me,” the leader responded. “Thank Mom.”

Profiteering. This picture is worth a thousand words:

It’s President-elect Trump’s first meeting with a foreign head of state: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And who is that in the chair on the right? Ivanka Trump, the daughter who is expected to take control of Trump’s business interests.

It’s a staged photo, and the message it sends is unmistakable: There will be no distance between Trump’s government and Trump’s profit-making enterprises. The Trump children have all played significant roles in the transition, so many officials in the new administration will be in their debt. And presumably they will continue to have their father’s ear after the inauguration, even as they negotiate deals in foreign countries.

This week, Trump also met with three businessmen who are building Trump-branded properties in India. Two are sons of a member of India’s Parliament.

What this means is that there is a wide-open door for foreign governments to bribe President Trump: Go to Ivanka (or maybe even directly to Donald) and cut a lucrative deal to build a new Trump Tower in your capital city. Or if you are afraid the President is going to do something you don’t like, threaten to cancel such a deal.

This kind of thinking is toxic:

In interviews with a dozen diplomats … some said spending money at Trump’s hotel is an easy, friendly gesture to the new president.

“Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’ ” said one Asian diplomat.

So if you’re competing against a Trump business, you’re competing against the Trump administration. It’s one enterprise now.

All this runs afoul of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which conservatives were inclined to interpret strictly when imagining President Hillary Clinton. Unless Trump has some amazing plan he hasn’t announced yet, his violation of the Clause looks likely to be far more blatant than anything Clinton did or was even accused of doing. So we’ll soon see which conservatives have actually been serious about that uphold-the-Constitution rhetoric.

Changing the electorate. All through the campaign, conservative voices like Laura Ingraham have been referring to the Trump campaign as “the last chance, last stand for America as we know it”. The racial dog whistle there is pretty obvious: “America as we know it” is White America, and the electorate becomes a little less white every year.

To a certain extent that process can be slowed down by preventing non-white immigrants from becoming citizens. But that won’t change the demographics, because the non-white population is younger and more inclined towards large families. So if you really want to preserve the United States as a white-majority nation, you have to prevent non-whites from voting.

That has been the Republican strategy for several years now. As soon as the Supreme Court opened the door, states governed by Republicans began changing election rules to make it harder to vote, especially for blacks, Hispanics, poor people, and college students. Fortunately, this year courts struck down the most outrageous attempts to rig the electorate, like North Carolina’s.

The court said that in crafting the law, the Republican-controlled general assembly requested and received data on voters’ use of various voting practices by race. It found that African American voters in North Carolina are more likely to vote early, use same-day voter registration and straight-ticket voting. They were also disproportionately less likely to have an ID, more likely to cast a provisional ballot and take advantage of pre-registration.

Then, the court, said, lawmakers restricted all of these voting options, and further narrowed the list of acceptable voter IDs. “… [W]ith race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans. As amended, the bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.”

Unfortunately, the federal Justice Department plays a big role in bringing such cases to court, and under Attorney General Sessions it’s likely to get out of that business. (Sessions’ home state of Alabama has been one of the worst offenders, and he has not raised a word of protest.) Then there’s the question of how President Trump’s appointees will stack the courts.

Winking at right-wing paramilitary groups. To be honest, I’ll be relieved if we make it through the next four years with nothing worse than financial chicanery. Much darker stuff is possible.

When we think of fascist governments, we usually picture the police doing things like destroying the printing presses of critical newspapers and dragging their editors off to jail. But that kind of thing only happens at a much later stage. Early on, fascist violence is unofficial: Organized thugs destroy the printing press and send the editor to a hospital, not a jail. Police are not involved, but they show no interest in catching the people who are.

Right-wing violence in America was already a problem before Trump: There are groups that support firebombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors. Hate crimes against blacks, immigrants, or Muslims are usually portrayed as the work of isolated maniacs, but in fact killers like Dylann Roof and Wade Michael Page have had far stronger relationships with organized hate groups than, say, Omar Mateen had with ISIS. The Bundy gang in Nevada has openly challenged the federal government with armed resistance.

An Oathkeeper "protecting" Ferguson

An Oathkeeper “protecting” Ferguson

During the campaign, Trump frequently praised violence and valorized violent responses from his followers. My question is whether this will continue after inauguration and if violent Trump supporters will organize in a brownshirt fashion. Or perhaps already existing groups — Oathkeepers, for example — will shift into this role. Militia groups that organized to resist imaginary “tyranny” from Obama might welcome the opportunity to support an actual tyranny of their own.

And if this happens, how will Trump react? He could condemn such a development, or he could suggest targets to his paramilitary supporters by labeling people as “traitors” or using some similar language.

Richard Engel drew on his observations of other countries to describe the signs of creeping authoritarianism to Rachel Maddow.

If you start to hear the word “traitor” being used a lot about the opposition, that’s a red flag. If those criticisms escalate to “cancer”, that’s an even worse sign. So I think we should be listening for things like that. After that, the next stage would be mass rallies by his supporters that look potentially intimidating. And after that, to see if there’s any kind of call for a referendum to go right to the people to get around the constitutional system.

Subverting government agencies for political advantage. If Trump does intend to push America in an authoritarian direction, institutional forces within the government might resist — or not.

I don’t expect Trump to carry through on his promise to appoint a special prosecutor to go after the Clintons. The whole point of the accusations against Hillary was to defeat her politically and neutralize the Clintons as a political force — not to pursue justice or enforce the law. That political mission has been accomplished now, and attempting to prosecute her would only demonstrate how baseless the charges were.

But the mere fact that he would suggest such a thing is gravely troubling. In America, prosecutions bubble up from investigators, they don’t come down from the President. He has also threatened antitrust action against Amazon because its founder (Jeff Bezos) also owns The Washington Post, which Trump found too critical.

FBI Director Comey’s highly unusual commentary on the Clinton email server problem — ordinarily, an investigation that didn’t produce prosecutions would not be revealed to the public, and certainly not late in an election campaign — as well as the leaks from inside the FBI about some nebulous Clinton Foundation investigation, suggests that there has been considerable political corruption of the FBI already.

The FBI, CIA, NSA, SEC, IRS, and other agencies all have considerable power to make Trump’s critics miserable, as well as to provide valuable information to his business interests. Will they be asked to do so, and will they give in?

Paying Putin back. Trump and Vladimir Putin both know that Trump could not have won without Putin’s help. The Russian hack of DNC and Clinton campaign emails was a major factor in the campaign. We have since found out that the Trump campaign was in regular contact with Russian officials. This should come as no surprise, since former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had previously received millions of dollars from pro-Russian organizations in Ukraine.

Two questions immediately come to mind: Will the Russian government continue committing crimes for Trump’s benefit? And what do they want in return?

Obvious ways to pay Putin back include: supporting the Russian-allied Assad regime in Syria, turning a blind eye to further encroachments in Ukraine, or letting Putin dominate our NATO allies in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

 

Did I miss anything important? What else should we be on the lookout for?