Tag Archives: Trump administration

Trump has no agenda

Articles about the McConnell/Trump feud, or Paul Ryan’s occasional tut-tutting of something outrageous Trump has said or done, almost always get around to this point: Trump needs McConnell and Ryan to “pass his agenda“. And the root cause of the friction, we are told, is that “Trump’s agenda” is stalled in Congress. Similarly, whenever Trump goes off the rails on some topic he could just drop, we hear about how he’s “derailing his own agenda“.

Given how often we hear it, the phrase Trump’s agenda deserves a closer look. If you ask one of his supporters to explain it, you’ll get a list like this: repeal and replace ObamaCare, reform the tax code, rebuild America’s infrastructure, erect a wall on the Mexican border, renegotiate our trade deals, and maybe a few other things. It sounds like a full plate for a president.

It’s not, for one simple reason: None of those items is anything more than a few words on a list. We have little reason to believe that Trump actually cares about any of it.

Cynical observers suspected as much during the campaign, when Trump’s web site was noticeably lacking in the white papers and references to think-tank studies that candidate web sites usually provide if you click enough links. But supporters had an easy explanation: Trump himself isn’t a details guy. After all, he didn’t design Trump Tower, he hired architects. And Ronald Reagan wasn’t a details guy either, but stuff got done. Like Reagan, Trump would be a CEO-style president. He was promising to hire “the best people”, and they’d do all the wonky stuff for him.

So who are they and where is it?

The first Big Empty Spot was healthcare. Through the entire ugly process that culminated in John McCain’s dramatic thumbs-down, Trump and his people offered not a single idea for reforming American healthcare. He had promised to “repeal and replace ObamaCare” “immediately” after taking office, and he wanted to be able to say he’d fulfilled that promise. But he couldn’t be bothered to flesh that phrase out into an actual program.

So the plans that the House and Senate voted on didn’t come from Trump, from the White House staff, or from his Department of Health and Human Services. Paul Ryan put together the original House plan, which then got amended to get the last few votes he needed from the Freedom Caucus. The public hated that plan, and many of the Republicans who voted for it in the House only did so because they hoped the Senate would fix it somehow.

When it passed,Trump held a celebration in the Rose Garden. He was “winning”.

In the Senate, McConnell seemed determined to keep the pig in the sack as long as possible. If it were legal to pass a plan in a sealed envelope, he might well have done so. On the day before the final vote, it still wasn’t clear what would be voted on.

Trump himself seemed to know no more about any of these plans than the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders know about the plays Dak Prescott is calling in the huddle. The current plan — whatever it was — was “great” and “brilliant”, but he couldn’t raise the American people’s faith that the plan would actually work for them because he clearly had no idea. He lectured congressmen about how it important it was that they pass “this”, without appearing to know anything about what “this” was. He still doesn’t know.

Repeal and replace ObamaCare was just an item on Trump’s list. He wanted to put a checkmark next to it. That’s as deep as his thinking ever got.

Now we’re on to tax reform. Healthcare was never a major Trump interest, but as a businessman who has spent much of his career dodging taxes, he should have as deep a knowledge of the tax code as he does of anything. A month before the election he tweeted:

I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them.

So here if anywhere, you would expect him to have a real plan.

He doesn’t. Wednesday he went to Springfield, Missouri to introduce his “plan” (and to spend public funds campaigning against Senator Claire McCaskill). He gave exactly zero specifics, but stated four principles he wants tax reform to adhere to.

  1. “a tax code that is simple, fair, and easy to understand.”
  2. “a competitive tax code that creates more jobs and higher wages for Americans.” Competitive means lowering corporate taxes. This is the closest he came to a specific proposal “Ideally … we would like to bring our business tax rate down to 15 percent.” His tone of voice suggested he knew that whatever plan Congress ultimately voted on wouldn’t achieve this.
  3. “tax relief for middle-class families”. How much? By what means? He didn’t say.
  4. “bring back trillions of dollars in wealth that’s parked overseas” The money could have been brought back at any time, if corporations were willing to pay tax on it. So this also is about lowering corporate taxes.

So: businesses and families pay less. There’s no proposal for making anybody pay more, beyond a vague reference to unspecified “special interest loopholes”. No mention of either spending cuts or the deficit. The plan can be simple, because it’s not like clever people are trying to avoid paying taxes or anything, so we shouldn’t need any complicated definitions; and fair, because everybody agrees on what that word means.

You know what would fulfill all four principles? Eliminate all taxes on everybody. Congress, go work out the details on that.

If tax reform follows the pattern of ObamaCare repeal — and why shouldn’t it? — events will unfold like this:

  • Congressional Republican leadership will propose to do some of the feel-good stuff in Trump’s principles, and also some horrible things that are necessary to integrate those changes into the real world.
  • No matter what it ends up saying, Trump will promote it as a “beautiful” proposal that will make America great again.
  • The CBO will spell out the damage it would do: blow up the deficit, create no jobs, shift even more wealth to the top.
  • Once the details come out, the public will hate it.
  • It will include nothing that appeals to Democrats, so Pelosi and Schumer will have easy jobs keeping their caucuses together in opposition.
  • The Freedom Caucus in the House will block it until the horrible parts are made much worse.
  • Three Republican senators will flip, defeating the proposal.
  • Trump will blame Ryan and McConnell for not delivering what he wanted.

Next up? Supposedly there’s an infrastructure proposal coming, but again there are no details. We are promised “an infrastructure meeting on Wednesday to discuss the broad contours of the proposal”. But is there anything in particular that needs to be built, or any particular way to pay for it?

Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce that he’s ending President Obama’s DACA program in six months. What will happen to the Dreamers then? Something that’s up to Congress to decide. I will be amazed if Trump suggests what it should be.

Supposedly NAFTA and other trade deals are being renegotiated now, but along what lines and for what purposes? Will Trump be happy just to say “I renegotiated NAFTA?” or will he care what the new agreement says?

It’s time for journalists and pundits to start being more skeptical before they repeat the phrase Trump’s agenda. So far, it has been nothing more than a list of vacuous phrases.

Fascism as a Unifying Principle

Trump is scary when he tries to divide Americans against each other. But his vision of unity is even scarier.


The televised speech Donald Trump gave last Monday evening was billed as the introduction of a new military strategy for Afghanistan, but it began with a plea for national unity.

During the previous week, the President had been taking heat for his statements about the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, which he said was attended by “very fine people” in addition to the obvious Nazis and Klansmen. The rally’s violence, which culminated in a white supremacist ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, was the fault of “both sides”.

Critics (like me) saw Trump siding with racists and bigots, and refusing to hold them to the same standards he applies so enthusiastically to Hispanics and Muslims. Across much of the mainstream liberal-to-conservative spectrum, pundits wondered: Couldn’t he at least try to be a little bit presidential and say something unifying rather than divisive?

In the Afghanistan speech, he tried. I don’t want to take him out of context, so I quote at length:

Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history.

American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives — and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds — they achieved total immortality.

By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God. The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.

They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together — and sacrifice together — in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; it’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.

The soldier understands what we, as a nation, too often forget: that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.

Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.

The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.

As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas — and we will always win — let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name that, when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.

I got chills listening to that, but not in a good way.

Probably most Americans who heard the speech didn’t share my sense of ominous foreboding. If you’re a Trump supporter, you probably heard the kind of bold patriotic sentiments you wish our leaders would express more often. And even those who listen to Trump cynically probably heard only boilerplate rhetoric: Our country is good, our soldiers are brave, so let’s all wave our flags and try to get along.

But there’s something deeper going on in this passage. It expresses a vision deeply at odds with the traditions of the American Republic.

The vision of the Founders, which they embodied in the Constitution, is of a social contract: In order to secure our own rights, we recognize the rights of others. Because we want respect for ourselves, we grant respect to to our neighbors. “As I would not be a slave,” Abraham Lincoln said when he was running for the Senate not quite four-score years later, “so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Lincoln said nothing about “loving” the slaves, because in the American tradition that’s not where rights come from. America has never been about love, neither love for each other nor even love for the Nation as an abstract entity. (On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, many were denying any emotional connection at all with the Nation. The States, they held, had merely formed a confederation, which had no claim whatsoever on the loyalty of individuals.)

What Trump is describing on the other hand, is a sort of emotional socialism. In economic socialism, the Nation collects money and redistributes it to make sure everybody gets a share. But in Trump’s vision the Nation is the focus of our love, which it then redistributes to all our fellow citizens. “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.”

This is not a new idea for Trump; it was in his Inaugural Address:

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

The basic pattern goes back much further, to a Masonic phrase that was taken up by many 19th-century Christians: “The brotherhood of Man under the fatherhood of God.” You should love other people, because you love God and God loves them.

But Trump’s formulation has one very significant twist: America is playing the role of God. In a nutshell, that’s what nationalism is: an idolatry in which the Nation becomes the central object of worship — God the Fatherland.

Now look at the other concepts Trump is presenting: total allegiance, loyalty, patriotism, heroes sacrificing themselves to become immortal, the obedient military as the ideal to which the rest of society should aspire, and our dead heroes as the symbol of the moral debt we owe to our country.

These are the emotional underpinnings of fascism.

You may not recognize them as such, because all our lives we’ve been told that fascism is ugly. These sentiments, though, don’t seem ugly at all, at least at first glance. On the contrary, they are moving and inspiring, noble and even beautiful in their own way. We all want to be immortal, we want see ourselves as selfless heroes, we want to love and be loved by those around us. Particularly at this cynical moment in history, we want to believe that something is worthy of our total allegiance.

We are like crusaders who have trained all our lives to battle a dark and hideous Devil, and so are completely unprepared when we encounter Lucifer, the Morning Star, the shining Angel of Light.

Fascism in its original form wasn’t all book-burnings and death camps. It was also a good job building the autobahn, wholesome outings with the Hitler Youth, and a feeling that your country was moving again; France and Britain weren’t going to kick it around any more.

I’ve urged you before to watch Triumph of the Will, the classic propaganda film that recorded the pageantry surrounding the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. You will find nothing ugly in it, other than your own knowledge of what comes next. In one rally after another, different groups of Germans focus their love on Hitler, the symbol of the German Fatherland, who reflects it back to them.

It’s beautiful. Hitler talks not about himself, but only of Germany and the greatness of the German people. He calls for them to be unified as never before. A group of infrastructure workers march by, in uniform, each carrying a spade as a soldier would a rifle (because the military is the model all should aspire to). Hitler tells them:

The concept of labor will no longer be a dividing one but a uniting one, and no longer will there be anybody in Germany who will regard manual labor any less highly than any other form of labor.

To a group of children he says:

We want to be a united nation, and you, my youth, are to become this nation. In the future, we do not wish to see classes and castes, and you must not allow them to develop among you. One day, we want to see one nation.

Only in hindsight do we see the flaw in this system: If we focus our love on the Nation (and on the Leader who symbolizes the Nation), and the Nation reflects that love to its citizens, then the Nation can cut off the flow of love to anyone it decides no longer belongs to it. In Germany, the exclusion process started with Jews and Socialists, and then spread until it reached people like Martin Niemöller. The suffering of the excluded wasn’t worthy of compassion, because they were never respected for what was inherent in their humanity. Germans had only loved them because they thought (wrongly, as they were later informed) that such people belonged to their Nation.

You can already see a similar exclusion starting to happen in Trump’s speech. Did you catch that “one nation under God”? Where are America’s atheists and agnostics in that vision? When we love America, do we love them as well? Or have they already been cast out?

And how specific is Trump intending to be when he says “God”? Americans who worship Allah or Brahma or some larger pantheon — are they under God, as Trump and his evangelical base understand the term? What about Jews or Unitarians, who fail to recognize two-thirds of the Trinity? Or liberal Christians, who may have a more deistic, impersonal view of the Creator? When we unify as “one nation under God”, who are we intending to leave out?

Another (largely Catholic) group is so obviously excluded that it need not even be mentioned: immigrants from Hispanic or other not-recognized-as-white cultures. They are being cast out in a literal, physical sense. So when ICE knocks on their doors in the middle of the night, we can avert our eyes and feel nothing. We need not inquire where they are going or what will happen to them. No one should be held accountable for abusing or mistreating them. The Nation and its Leader does not love them, so neither should we.

The Battles Within the White House are Even Crazier Than You Think

A conspiracy theory that belongs on InfoWars is at the heart of a National Security Council power struggle.


By now, anyone who has been paying attention has figured out that the Trump White House is a pretty odd workplace. From Trump himself tweeting against allies like Jeff Sessions and Mitch McConnell, to Steve Bannon’s pseudo-news organization (Breitbart) attacking then-Chief-of-Staff Reince Preibus and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, to Bannon in turn being accused by the then-communications-director of “trying to suck [his] own cock“, it’s been clear that something beyond ordinary office politics is going on here.

But the memo that got Rich Higgins fired from the National Security Council staff opens up cans of crazy that go far beyond anything that’s gotten public attention so far, and illuminates how deep the conflicts within the administration go. The seven-page document explains a decades-long and largely successful plot by “cultural Marxists” to destroy America “both as an ideal and as a national and political identity”. It claims that cultural Marxist narratives are now embedded in the Deep State, the establishments of both political parties, academia, the mainstream media, and international banks — and are even promoted by Islamists, because (in some unfathomable way) the same “nihilism” that cultural Marxists are using to destroy monotheistic Christianity also prepares the ground for monotheistic Islam.

Higgins attributes the current struggles of the Trump administration to a campaign by cultural Marxists, who see Trump as a threat to their domination. They have unleashed “political warfare memes based on cultural Marxist narratives” that are “designed to first undermine, then delegitimize and ultimately remove the President”. The memo concludes:

The recent turn of events give rise to the observation that the defense of President Trump is the defense of America. In the same way President Lincoln was surrounded by political opposition both inside and outside of his wire, in both overt and covert forms, so too is President Trump. Had Lincoln failed, so too would have the Republic.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, how did Rich Higgins ever get into the NSC to begin with? Who fired him? And is anybody taking him seriously? (Apparently yes. Somehow the memo found it’s way to Donald Trump Jr., who passed it on to the President. Trump reportedly “gushed” over it, and was upset to discover that the author had been fired.) And what the heck is “cultural Marxism” anyway?

The Flynn connection. Higgins was appointed to the NSC by Michael Flynn during his brief tenure as National Security Adviser.

Flynn is a source of crazy all his own, and is at the center of one of the deep mysteries of the Russia scandal. During the transition period between the election and the inauguration, Flynn seems to have been running his own Russia policy in competition with the Obama administration, which was still in power. During the time he was Candidate Trump’s main national-security adviser, he had been — and maybe still was after he officially joined the administration — an undeclared foreign agent of the Turkish government. (He was still carrying out his duties for the Turks as late as November 8, otherwise known as Election Day.) The extent of his connections to the Putin government is still unknown.

On January 26, acting Attorney General (and Obama holdover) Sally Yates began warning the new administration that Flynn had been lying to them about his contacts with Russian officials, and that he might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Nothing was done with this information — and Flynn continued to participate in national-security meetings at the highest level — until The Washington Post published it February 9. Flynn resigned February 13.

You have to wonder: If not for leaks to The Post (which Trump denounced as “criminal”), would Flynn still be National Security Adviser? And why did Trump — a man not known for maintaining inconvenient loyalties — stand by Flynn, to the point of improperly urging then-FBI-Director James Comey to “let this go” because Flynn is “a good guy”?

McMaster. After several people turned down a job ordinarily considered a career-crowning prize, H. R. McMaster replaced Flynn as National Security Adviser. However, his early attempts to clean house of Flynn’s appointments were stymied by Flynn allies Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. (Kushner and Flynn, you might remember, had a strange meeting with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, during which they requested a “back channel” to Moscow that American intelligence couldn’t tap. Even Kislyak found that odd.) Recently, though, McMaster seems to have gained the upper hand; Higgins is not the only Flynnite to have been sent packing.

But McMaster, in turn, is now the target of a backlash. Politico reports that “The conservative news site Breitbart has waged a nonstop campaign against national security adviser H.R. McMaster.” A little over a week ago, “two former senior NSC officials” told The Daily Caller that “Everything the President wants to do, McMaster opposes.

Trump wants to get us out of Afghanistan — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to get us out of Syria — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to deal with the China issue — McMaster doesn’t. Trump wants to deal with the Islam issue — McMaster doesn’t. You know, across the board, we want to get rid of the Iran deal — McMaster doesn’t. It is incredible to watch it happening right in front of your face. Absolutely stunning.

In typical conspiratorial fashion, McMaster isn’t presented as his own man with his own beliefs, but rather as “a sycophant” of somebody else: retired General David Petraeus. Alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich has started a McMaster Leaks site to publish negative information about McMaster. (Josh Marshall provides background on Cernovich.) He illustrates one article with a cartoon depicting McMaster and Petraeus as dancing puppets of arch-nemesis billionaire George Soros, who in turn is a puppet of the Saudis.

Most disturbing of all, Salon reports:

attacks on McMaster from right-wing media figures coincide with a coordinated troll campaign, according to a newly launched website that tracks Russian propaganda. Using hashtags like #FireMcMaster and #deepstate, accounts linked to Russian-backed bot campaigns shared several anti-McMaster stories this week.

In other words: The Flynn/Bannon/Putin alliance still seems to be functioning.

Cultural Marxism. Probably I had run across this phrase before I saw it in Higgins’ memo, but if I did it didn’t make any impression. Apparently, though, it is widely discussed by right-wing conspiracy theorists. You can get an in-depth introduction to the concept, at least as it is used on the far right, from this 90-minute video.

The video’s account begins with some actual history: As World War I broke out, Communists around the world hoped that workers would refuse to fight for their own country’s capitalists against the workers of other countries. But that dream went unfulfilled; each belligerent country was able to beat the drums of patriotism and inspire incredible levels of sacrifice from even its most oppressed citizens. Assessing what went wrong, many Communists concluded that physical revolution could only happen after a considerable amount of cultural change.

But from there, the Glenn-Beck-whiteboard mindset takes over: All the cultural changes we’ve seen since the Great Depression — the end of Jim Crow, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, gay rights, etc. — originate in the 1930s with the prison notebooks of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and continue through the Frankfurt School of social theorists who started in Germany and then escaped Hitler by coming to America. Who knew that a handful of intellectuals could wield so much influence?

The point of this conspiracy was and is to destroy the family, Christianity, western culture, the middle class, the Constitution, reverence for the Founding Fathers, and ultimately America itself. This continuing cultural Marxist conspiracy — and not anything Trump himself did or didn’t do — is the source of the administration’s difficulties.

The conspiracy-theory sidestep. Think about how believing this theory might change your mindset: Anything that was actually wrong with pre-New-Deal America, or that continues to be wrong with America today, becomes irrelevant. If you believe that an apocalyptic battle is going on between “America as an ideal and as a national and political identity” and a mysterious cabal of “cultural Marxists” who have been plotting against America since the 1930s, then anything that looks like a legitimate criticism of American traditions is just a way for the plotters to score points.

So the civil rights movement wasn’t really about lynching, segregation, or the right to vote; it was a way to divide America against itself and undermine Americans’ confidence in the righteousness of their country. Feminism wasn’t really about giving women the freedom to find their own places in the world, rather than be channeled into a small number of subservient roles; it was about destroying the male and female archetypes that God defined in the Garden of Eden. The sexual revolution wasn’t caused by improved birth control, widespread affluence, or new opportunities for women to be economically independent; it was designed by cultural Marxists to undermine Christianity and the American family. Schools now teach about the Founders’ slaves and the Native Americans who were slaughtered to make way for white settlers, not because those things are true — that’s irrelevant — but to destroy students’ American patriotism.

Similarly, current issues need not be considered on their individual merits — all those details are similarly irrelevant — but for their effects on the apocalyptic battle. Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with gays and lesbians finding a place in society; it’s about destroying marriage and the social structure that depends on it. ObamaCare isn’t about saving lives or preventing medical bankruptcies; it’s about extending dependence on government. The goal of Black Lives Matter isn’t to keep police from killing blacks on slight pretexts, but to tear down law and order. If you do anything but dismiss these issues — and especially if you get drawn into the stories of the so-called “victims”– you’re just letting cultural Marxists distract you from what’s really important.

Trump. Now look again at the Higgins memo. Attacks against Trump are not “politics as usual”,

but rather political warfare at an unprecedented level that is openly engaged in the direct targeting of a seated president through manipulation of the news cycle. It must be recognized on its own terms so that immediate action can be taken. At its core, these campaigns run on multiple lines of effort, serve as the non-violent line of effort of a wider movement, and execute political warfare agendas that reflect cultural Marxist outcomes. The campaigns operate through narratives. Because the hard left is aligned with Islamist organizations at local (ANTI FA working with Muslim Brotherhood doing business as MSA and CAIR), national (ACLU and BLM working with CAIR and MPAC) and international levels (OIC working with OSCE and the UN), recognition must given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate at the narrative level as well. In candidate Trump, the opposition saw a threat to the “politically correct” enforcement narratives they’ve meticulously laid in over the past few decades. In President Trump, they see a latent threat to continue that effort to ruinous effect and their retaliatory response reflects this fear.

The first thing that should strike anyone engaged in actual anti-Trump action is the sheer unreality of this vision. Probably you are straining to keep Bernie Democrats and Hillary Democrats from turning on each other. The idea that you might “seamlessly interoperate at a narrative level” with the Muslim Brotherhood and the UN is absurd to a point beyond humor. (I am reminded of John Maynard Keynes’ post-Great-Depression comment on the theory of a world-spanning bankers’ conspiracy: “If only there were one.”)

But once you believe that Trump is the key roadblock to the evil plans of the cultural Marxists, and that the narratives against him are “political warfare”, whether those narratives are true or false becomes irrelevant.

Higgins identifies the anti-Trump “meta-narratives” as

  • Trump is illegitimate.
  • Trump is corrupt.
  • Trump is dishonest.

and “supporting narratives” as

  • Russia hacked the election.
  • obstruction of justice
  • hiding collusion
  • Putin puppet.

So patriotic Americans need never consider questions like: Are the things Trump says actually true? Are his companies making money from his presidency? Why won’t he release his tax returns? Why did he fire James Comey? Why won’t he criticize Putin? Why did the Russian government’s social-media assets promote so much anti-Clinton fake news just before the election? Why did it take so long to fire Flynn? Why did so many of Trump’s people meet with Russian officials and then either hide it or lie about it? How far back do his business dealings with Russian oligarchs go?

Plausible answers to such questions are not necessary, because just asking them promotes the cultural Marxist narrative. Remember: “The defense of President Trump is the defense of America.” So forget the insignificant details. Which side are you on?

Spy vs. spy. The most important thing to understand about conspiracy theorists is: Whatever they imagine the conspiracy doing against them, they will be tempted to do “in response”. So if they see a battlespace where weaponized narratives compete independent of fact or truth, then that’s where they will fight.

Conspiracy theorists are prone to betray their plans through projection. Whatever they wish they could do — and would do if they had the power — they imagine that their near-omnipotent enemies are already doing.

What’s new? Conspiracy theories have been around for a very long time. (When I was in high school in the 1970s, I humored a friend by reading some of his John Birch Society paperbacks. The ideas were similar.) Such fantasies are a psychological defense against the complexity of the real world, and an opportunity to feel superior to the sheep who remain oblivious to the dark patterns behind events. As Alan Moore put it in 2003:

Conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening: Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

The desire for such comfort is perennial, so no one should be surprised to find conspiracy theories flourishing on the fringes of society.

The existence of an InfoWars web site, then, is not alarming. But when InfoWars-type arguments are happening at the highest levels of the American government, and when they are reaching the President and finding approval there — that is very, very disturbing.

Returning to the Well of White Resentment

As Republicans in Congress back away from Trump, he throws red meat to his base.


When things go wrong, you go back to basics. As the down-home saying has it: “I’ll dance with who brung me.”

What “brung” Donald Trump to the White House was not the support of establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, but the white resentment that had built up during the eight years of the Obama administration. And as Congressional Republicans start to back away from him, Trump is responding by going back to that well.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild started studying the Trump base years before anybody knew they’d be the Trump base. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land,  she summed up their “deep story” — the narrative of how life feels to them — like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

It’s tricky to argue with this narrative, because they’re not wrong about being stuck in an unmoving line: Middle-class wages have been stagnating for decades. The jobs you can get without a college education are going away, except for the insecure ones that don’t pay much. And college is increasingly a highly leveraged gamble: If you don’t finish your degree, or just guess wrong about where the future jobs will be, you may end up so deep in debt that you’re worse off than if you hadn’t tried.

What’s wrong with that deep story is in who it blames: Immigrants, blacks, and Muslims, not the CEOs who send jobs to Indonesia, or the tax-cutting politicians who also cut money for education and training, or the lax anti-trust enforcement that keeps monopolies from competing for workers and funnels so much of America’s economic growth to corporations that occupy a few key choke points. The story, in a nutshell is: Get angry about the real problems in your life, and then let yourself be manipulated into blaming people who are even worse off than you.

Writing in The Washington Post on Friday, Christine Emba summarized how Trump uses this deep story.

First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin: Employment? Immigration? College? Take your pick. Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, [administration] officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!

Misdirecting blame onto well-chosen scapegoats is the heart of the Trump technique. Two weeks ago I described how environmentalists have been scapegoated for the decline in coal-mining jobs, taking the real causes — automation and fracking — out of the conversation. This week, in the wake of TrumpCare’s failure, a brewing rebellion in Congress, and the increasing likelihood that the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia will actually get somewhere, those dastardly immigrants and minorities were front-and-center again.

Why can’t working-class kids get into Harvard? Tuesday, the NYT’s Charlie Savage reported that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is looking for lawyers interested in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This appears to presage an attack on affirmative action programs which disadvantage white and sometimes Asians applicants.

Such cases have been litigated for decades, with the outcome so far that affirmative action programs are OK if they are narrowly tailored to serve the goal of creating a diverse student body, which can improve the university’s educational experience for all its students. (Two examples: A history class’ discussion of slavery is going to be more real if some participants are black. And an all-white management program might be poor preparation for actual management jobs.)

Black comedian Chuck Nice lampooned the affirmative-action-is-keeping-my-kid-out-of-Harvard view Friday on MSNBC’s “The Beat”:

I am so happy this has finally come to the fore the way it should be, because whenever I walk onto an Ivy League campus, I always say to myself “Where are the white people?”

Emba’s article was more analytic:

Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods.

The real concern is how hard it is for children of the white working class to either get a top-flight education or succeed without one. Nobody’s laughing about that. But the compelling falsehood is to scapegoat blacks, who have an even smaller chance of getting ahead. The truly blameworthy people who get taken off the hook are the rich, and particularly the old-money families whose children have been going to Yale for generations. They’re the ones who are sucking up all the opportunity.

At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate.

If you want to blame somebody for why your children didn’t get into their first-choice schools, consider Jared Kushner. Daniel Golden had already researched Jared’s case for his 2006 book, The Price of Admission. In November, when Trump’s win made Jared (and Golden’s book) newsworthy, Golden summarized his findings:

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

It’s not that Somali immigrants are cutting in line ahead of your kid. It’s that there’s a different line for the very rich; your kid was never allowed to get into it.

Let’s shut down immigration, especially by people who don’t speak English. Donald Trump literally loves immigrants; that’s where his mom came from, and two of his three wives. His Mom, though, came from Scotland, where they speak something closely resembling English. And while Melania has a distinct Eastern-European accent, she was what Julia Ioffe calls “the right kind of immigrant. She is a beautiful white woman from Europe, and we like those.”

Those grubby brown Spanish-speaking immigrants, though, something has to be done about them. So Wednesday Trump endorsed a plan by Republican Senators Cotton and Perdue to cut legal immigration in half, and introduce a point system that favors English-speaking, youth, wealth, and education. (Homework: Try to figure out whether your own ancestors could have made it into the country under this system. I’m not sure about mine.)

The plan has virtually no chance of becoming law. Since it was introduced in the Senate a few months ago, no new sponsors have signed on. A number of other Republican senators criticized it, and it seems unlikely even to come up for a vote.

So the point of Wednesday’s push by the White House was purely to throw some red meat to the base. It also gave White House adviser Stephen Miller (who you may remember from his chilling quote in February that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”) a chance to get in front of the cameras and repeat a number of falsehoods about immigrants and their effect on the economy.

He also got to dog whistle to white nationalists. When CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged how this plan aligns with the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free … ), Miller waved aside the poem as something that was “added later” and accused Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias”.

The added-later part is true, sort of. Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” as part of a fund-raising campaign for the statue’s base, and it has been part of the monument for only 114 of its 131 years. The idea that its addition was somehow a usurpation of the statue’s original meaning is popular on the alt-right:

We’re having this “great war of national identity” because our New York-based Jewish elite no longer has the power to control the Narrative. The fake news Lügenpresse has steadily lost its legitimacy. Thanks to the internet, the smartphone and social media, they are losing control over everything from radio to publishing to video. I now have the capability to fire an Alt-Right cruise missile of truth from rural Alabama right back at David Brooks in New York City.

The “Occidental Dissent” blog recognized that Miller was repeating its case and felt suitably validated.

Chances are, you have never heard cosmopolitan used as an insult before, either. But that’s because you travel in the wrong circles. Nationalist movements have often used it to denote fellow citizens they thought might fit in better somewhere else. Stalin used it against Jews. It also traces back to Mussolini and Hitler. American white nationalists know this kind of history, which is what makes the word a good dog whistle.

Both these incidents go with Trump’s endorsement of police violence last week, the transgender ban, and his attempt to revive anti-Hillary-Clinton animus in West Virginia Wednesday. Governing is proving to be difficult, so he is trying to relive the glory days of the campaign. We should expect to see a lot more of it.

Was TrumpCare’s Failure a Turning Point?

Republicans in Congress are still a long way from revolting against Trump. But most of them have stopped covering for him. That won’t create a sharp break in his (already small) support from the public, but it could lead to a long, slow erosion.


Right now it is hard to remember, but the story of the fall campaign and the early days of the new administration was how the various wings of the Republican Party were making peace with Trump’s leadership. Libertarians overlooked his authoritarian side. Theocrats forgave his amoral life and his complete ignorance of Christianity. Corporatists looked forward to tax cuts and deregulation, while agreeing to disagree with him about trade and immigration. NeoCons chose to listen to his belligerent rhetoric (defeat ISIS in 30 days) rather than his isolationist rhetoric (re-evaluate our commitment to NATO).

It’s hard to estimate exactly, but probably only about half of Trump’s voters were truly happy about his victory. The other half had reservations, but eventually came around to the idea that any Republican president, no matter how superficial his connection to the causes that had previously defined the party, would be better than Hillary Clinton. Even Ted Cruz, who famously refused to endorse Trump during his speech at the Republican Convention in July, and who had good reason to remember Trump’s scurrilous attacks against his wife and father, announced in September “after many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience” that he would vote for Trump.

Would Democrats fold? After the election, Trump benefited from a somewhat smaller version of the public goodwill that goes out to all new presidents. His favorables never reached 50% (45.5% on Inauguration Day according to 538’s weighted average), but they exceeded his unfavorables (41.3%). Americans like to give the new guy a chance, and so the transition-period talk was not about the continuing resistance of the never-Trump Republicans, but instead about whether red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) or Heidi Heitkamp (ND) could be coaxed into supporting him on specific issues. And if Trump chose to begin his administration with proposals that leaned Democratic — a Bernie-Sanders-like infrastructure program or using the government’s negotiating power to beat down drug prices (both issues he had raised during the campaign) — Democratic resistance in Congress might well crumble.

Those of us who feared Trump’s fascist leanings — contempt for democratic traditions and the rule of law, self-dealing, lack of transparency, scapegoating of racial and religious minorities, encouragement of violence, and total disregard for truth — more than his policy commitments had every reason to worry that his authoritarianism might wind up being popular.

If you were among the millions who showed up for one of the Women’s Marches on January 21, you may have wondered what you were accomplishing, beyond having a feel-good moment with like-minded people. In retrospect, the marches were pivotal: They (and the bunker-mentality response from Trump and his people) all but ended talk of Democrats giving in to Trump. That was the first turning point.

The Faustian bargain. Nonetheless, it seemed to go without saying that congressional Republicans would get in line behind him, and they did. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan muted their criticism of the clearly unconstitutional first version of Trump’s travel ban. McConnell shepherded Trump’s somewhat bizarre cabinet appointments through the Senate, and blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Russia scandal. Ryan backed up Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes when he tried to subvert the House’s Russia investigation, and defended Trump’s firing of James Comey. Both of them turned a blind eye to Trump’s widespread conflicts of interest.

The implied agreement seemed to go like this: Whatever leaders like Ryan and McConnell thought of Trump as a man or a leader, unified Republican control of the branches of government would open the way to a long list of conservative proposals, which Ryan and McConnell would assemble. Trump, having few real policy ideas of his own, would sell those proposals to his supporters (who probably would be hurt by many of them) and then sign the bills once Congress passed them. The possibility of making Medicaid a block grant to the states and putting a hard cap on its growth, Ryan said, was something he’d been dreaming about since college. Why should he screw those dreams up by fulfilling Congress’ constitutional duty to check and balance the executive branch?

So: sweep Russia under the rug, let Trump get away with whatever scams he wants to run, and in exchange get a hard-right majority on the Supreme Court, repeal of ObamaCare, significant cuts to safety-net programs, big tax breaks for Republican special interests, and cover from the Justice Department for voter-suppression and gerrymandering efforts that could guarantee Republican domination of Congress into the indefinite future. What a deal!

ObamaCare repeal was supposed to be the easy part of that agenda. During the campaign, Trump promised “immediate” repeal. And even after things got real, when the new Congress began meeting in January, legislation was supposed to be on President Trump’s desk by February 20. But we are now in Congress’ August recess, with ObamaCare repeal in ruins and the rest of the legislative agenda still stuck on Square One.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but one problem is that Trump has proved to be a terrible salesman. Aside from occasionally tweeting about how “terrific” and “beautiful” the Republican healthcare plan was — whichever one seemed most likely to pass at the moment — he did nothing to rally public support, and little to corral reluctant Republican votes in Congress. His self-created reputation as a great deal-maker proved to be empty. He never spoke to the nation as a whole about healthcare or made a case for his administration’s vision, whatever it is. He was quick to take credit for successes and distance himself from failures. The House bill that he celebrated in May was “mean” just a few weeks later.

Worse, media attention that might have been marshaled behind the Republican agenda has again and again been diverted by Trump himself and the circus atmosphere of his White House. In addition to his personal spats and the infighting of his people, the Russia scandal that he swore was nothing keeps looking more and more like something. Again and again, his people have been forgetful or dishonest about their meetings with Russians, and Trump himself has participated in misleading the public. Even Republicans who want to cover for their party’s president have to wonder what exactly he’s covering up.

In short, congressional Republicans may not have ever liked Trump or approved of him as the leader of their party, but they would have been happy to march behind him to victory. What they’re not prepared to do is follow him off the cliff to defeat.

The second turning. So here’s what we’ve seen recently.

  • Congress overwhelmingly passed new Russia sanctions, which Trump can’t remove without congressional approval.
  • After the TrumpCare defeat, Trump demanded the Senate try again, and not consider any other legislation or leave for vacation until they passed something on healthcare. The Senate ignored him.
  • Some Republican senators are looking for a bipartisan fix for the ObamaCare exchanges (along the lines I discussed last week).
  • The Senate didn’t officially adjourn for the August recess. This prevents Trump from replacing Jeff Sessions via a recess appointment without Senate hearings, which was part of the most likely fire-Mueller scenario. This signal of distrust is something the Senate majority has never before done to a president of its own party.
  • Two bipartisan proposals are being floated to prevent Trump from firing Mueller.
  • A number of Republicans (including Mike Pence, though he denies it) are making preliminary moves in Iowa, as if they didn’t expect Trump to be a factor in 2020. John Kasich and/or Ben Sasse might be planning to challenge Trump if he does run. John McCain comments: “They see weakness in this president. Look, it’s not a nice business we’re in.”
  • Congress shows no signs of taking up the immigration plan the White House endorsed this week.

The current face of Republican resistance to Trump is Senator Jeff Flake, author of the new book Conscience of a Conservative, a section of which was published recently in Politico Magazine:

If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals—even as we put at risk our institutions and our values—then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?

This isn’t how things were supposed to go. By now, Republicans were supposed to be basking in the glow not just of stealing a Supreme Court seat, but of repealing ObamaCare, awarding their donors a tax cut, and maybe even creating some jobs with an infrastructure program. If any Republicans in Congress harbored doubts about the Trump administration, they would be quiet for fear of a primary challenge from his supporters. Red-state Democrats and maybe even the party leaders would be submissive, looking for ways to argue that they could work with Trump.

If the Women’s Marches were the first turning away from that scenario, I believe we are in the middle of the second.

It would be a mistake to expect this turning to go very far very fast. Elected Republicans are not likely to join the resistance anytime soon. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the effect they can produce just by going silent and working behind the scenes.

For example, look at Trump’s effort to undermine the Mueller investigation. He has been building a witch-hunt narrative and claiming that Mueller is motivated by conflicts of interest, with the obvious intent to justify firing Mueller and shutting his investigation down. Establishment Republicans could be echoing those points. They could have left the door open for a recess-appointed attorney general who could then fire Mueller. That would have left their own hands clean, and they could have tut-tutted about the firing without doing anything.

Instead, most congressional Republicans continue to endorse Mueller’s integrity, and they closed the back door to his firing.

They will continue to support the administration when it puts forward policies that are long-term pieces of the broader Republican agenda. But as Trump continues to make bad decisions, spew outrageous misinformation, and pick fights with whoever raises his ire from moment to moment, more and more he will be defended only White House flacks like Kellyanne Conway, or dedicated Trumpists like Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani. Republicans of independent authority will stand aside.

That silence will be felt. It will not lead to a sudden crash in Trump’s approval among Republicans (which is still fairly high). But the continuing lack of credible defense will cause a slow erosion. And at some point, that erosion might make direct Republican resistance a politically viable course.

Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr.

[with no apologies at all to that loser Rudyard Kipling]

If you can duck the blame when all about you
Have seen with their own eyes that it was you;
If you can demand trust when men should doubt you,
And call down vengeance for their doubting too;
If you can dodge and not be tired by dodging,
Or having lies exposed, hold to your lies,
Or being hated, hit them back with hating,
Yet always claim that you are good and wise;

If you can scheme, your schemes will make you master.
Let others think—their doubts will keep them tame.
But you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And claim them both as “winning” just the same;
If you can find a dream that men seek madly,
And tart it up to bait a trap for fools,
And take the things they worked their lives for, gladly,
And walk away as if there were no rules;

If you can get the banks to loan you billions
And risk it on a scheme you should have tossed,
And lose, and say good-bye to your pavilions,
But never pay a cent of what you’ve lost;
If you can force your wind and nerve and bluster
To serve your turn long after they’ve grown thin,
And so hold on when all that you can muster
Is just the Will that says you have to win.

If you can rouse a rabble into violence,
And cozy up to Russian oligarchs,
Intimidate good people into silence,
And not forget your fans are just your marks;
If you can jam each analytic minute
With the most relentless spinning ever spun,
Then you can grab the World and all that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Trump, my son!

The Paris Agreement is like my church’s pledge drive

How can a non-binding agreement be as important as Trump’s critics say it is? On a much smaller scale, I’ve just been dealing with something very similar.


If you’ve ever read the Paris Agreement on climate change — it’s dull but relatively short as international agreements go, so it’s not that hard — President Trump’s announcement that the United States is withdrawing from it was a bizarre performance. As you can see from David Victor’s annotation of the speech, virtually every line of it was either false, fantastic, or based on an incorrect assumption. (Near the beginning of the speech David Roberts tweeted: “If Trump says something true, I will notify you all.” There proved to be no need.) Parts of it were even internally contradictory, like the line where he called the agreement “non-binding” and “draconian” in the same sentence.

Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.

But though it was wrong in almost every detail, the picture Trump painted was very vivid: The Paris Agreement is an international conspiracy to hoodwink the United States and wreck our economy.

The fact that the Paris deal hamstrings the United States, while empowering some of the world’s top-polluting countries, should dispel any doubt as to the real reason why foreign lobbyists wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement: It’s to give their country an economic edge over the United States.

He did not mention President Obama directly, but the implication was clear: Obama agreed to this either because he was a fool or because he was in on the anti-America plot. Unlike his predecessor, Trump is pro-America — he represents “the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” — so he’s calling a halt to this nonsense.

Fact-checkers and other expert critics have been easy to find, but there’s a problem with their account, especially as it relates to low-information voters who are inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt: Not only is the experts’ interpretation of the Paris Agreement much less arresting than Trump’s paranoid fantasy, it doesn’t seem to hang together either. If the agreement doesn’t bind us into some kind of suicide pact, and doesn’t bind other countries either, how can renouncing it have the kind of apocalyptic consequences critics claim? If the nations that signed the agreement are still free to do whatever they want, how does Paris save any polar bears or avert hurricanes or keep the ocean from swallowing Miami?

So if we’re going to help the public resist Trump’s disinformation campaign, what we really need is not more detailed analysis from experts in international law or economics or climatology. We need a simple example from everyday life that helps people understand what the Paris Agreement is and does. In particular, the example needs to demonstrate how a non-binding agreement can be important.

Luckily, I happen to have such an example handy.

The Paris Agreement is a pledge drive. I admit, this model is in my mind for serendipitous reasons: This spring I was on the committee that organized my church’s annual pledge drive. But it turns out to be a pretty accurate parallel.

Every year, our drive works like this: We announce a target, a total amount that members will need to contribute during the next year if the church is going to do all the stuff our member-elected leadership thinks we should do. We send out a brochure explaining what that stuff is, and how the total compares to what we collected the previous year.

Then we ask everybody to send in cards with pledges: “I will contribute X dollars next year.” The pledges are in no sense binding. If you run into financial problems in the course of the year, you can always call the church office and say, “I’m going to have to lower my pledge.” Or you can just not send in the money. It’s not like we can take you to court or turn your pledge card over to the bill collectors.

The Paris Agreement is like that. It announces a goal: The nations participating in the agreement want to keep the overall increase in average global temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution down to 2 degrees centigrade (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Since the main cause of this increase is the rise in greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) in the atmosphere, the agreement asks nations to make a pledge to limit their carbon emissions.

Each country determines the size of its own pledge. The pledge can be changed at any time. And there’s no enforcement mechanism that kicks in if you don’t fulfill your pledge.

Just like at my church.

What good is a nonbinding agreement? If no nation is actually committed to anything in a legally enforceable way, you might well wonder what the point of the agreement is. After all, nothing stops a country from announcing an ambitious goal with a lot of fanfare, and then doing nothing. So if you’re looking for absolute certainty that the world is finally going to take serious action to fight climate change, the Paris Agreement doesn’t provide it.

So what does it do? The point of the agreement, as I see it, is more subtle: Like our pledge drive, it’s a trust-building exercise among its members.

In any collective enterprise with voluntary inputs, there’s always a free-rider problem. If, say, I contribute a lot to the church and the guy sitting next to me on Sunday morning gives practically nothing, we both get to sing the same hymns and hear the same sermon. And since no household contributes more than a percent or two of the whole budget, the direct impact of each individual’s contribution to his or her own church experience is close to zero. (If nobody contributes, we’ll have to fire the minister and turn off the heat, which I would notice. But if everybody else contributes an appropriate amount and I don’t, probably not much changes.)

Climate change is like that, especially for countries smaller than China or the United States. Denmark, for example, is a world leader in wind power. In 2015 it generated 40% of its electricity from wind, and plans to be over 50% by 2020. But it’s such a small country that, considered in isolation, its achievement makes practically no difference to the global climate. Even the U.S. isn’t big enough to turn things around by itself, which is sometimes used as an excuse for doing nothing. As Marco Rubio put it during a Republican presidential debate: “America is not a planet.

But the nations of the Paris Agreement — everybody except Nicaragua, Syria, and now us — are really close to being a planet. If they can work together, the gains will be meaningful. Building the trust that allows them to work towards a common goal is where the pledge-drive idea comes in.

The point of a pledge drive is to make sure that if you volunteer to make some sacrifices, you can know that you won’t be alone. Before I send in a single dollar towards next year’s church budget, I get to know what all the pledges total up to. (We missed our goal this year, but we’re close enough that almost all our plans still look feasible.) And before I pledge next year, I get to find out whether this year’s pledged money actually came in. (Again, it’s usually a little bit short, due to people losing jobs and having other unexpected financial problems. But it’s never been so short that fulfilling my commitment made me feel like a sucker.)

That’s what Paris is about. It got each nation to commit to either lower its carbon emissions or (in the case of developing nations) to significantly slow the rate of increase. (China, which still has hundreds of millions of people to bring into the modern age, pledges to stop increasing emissions by 2030. They seem likely to do better than that.) Nations also agree to share information about what they’re doing and how well it’s working. There is, in addition, a literal pledge drive in which rich nations raise money to help poor nations take action. (This is the Green Climate Fund that Trump is revoking Obama’s pledge to.)

So before any nation takes Paris-based action to lower its emissions, it gets to see what the other nations are pledging to do. And along the way, every nation gets to see how faithfully the other nations are carrying out their commitments. It’s a way for sovereign nations to move forward on their own climate-change plans while feeling confident that enough other nations are moving forward that they’re not wasting their effort.

To me, that sounds pretty familiar.

What’s not in the agreement. The Paris Agreement does not specify an carbon-emission goal for any particular nation, or mandate techniques for meeting those goals. What a nation commits to do and how it fulfills that commitment is its own business. The agreement also has no enforcement mechanism, no equivalent of the World Court or the WTO that could pronounce judgment against nations that don’t meet their goals.

So Trump’s claims that the Paris Agreement “blocks the development of clean coal” or mandates that “we can’t build [coal-fired power] plants” or puts our energy reserves “under lock and key” are pure fiction. If anybody had a genuinely clean way to get energy out of coal, it would lower our emissions and help us meet our Paris goals. So clean coal is only “blocked” to the extent that it doesn’t work. And energy reserves are under lock and key only to the extent that we voluntarily forego their use.

Likewise, his statements that “foreign leaders … have more say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens” and that “our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty” are nonsense. Our elected government made a pledge that it can adjust at any time. If it chooses to fulfill that pledge, how it does so is totally its own decision.

Why withdrawing makes no sense. I mean that literally. It’s not just that I disagree with Trump’s decision as a matter of policy, it’s that it makes no sense.

Think about it in terms of the pledge drive. Suppose I believed about my church what Trump seems to believe about Paris: that my pledge is so much higher than other people’s that the rest of the congregation is essentially taking advantage of my generosity. Everybody else should either pony up more money or get used to the idea of a more austere church.

OK then: Does it make sense for me to withdraw from the pledge drive? Not a bit. It’s not the pledge drive itself that I think is unfair to me, it’s the size of my voluntary contribution relative to the total. But I could fix that unilaterally. If I felt like a sucker, it might make sense for me to lower my pledge for next year, or even to call up the church office right now and angrily announce that I’m done contributing for this year, even though I haven’t fulfilled my pledge yet. If they need more money they should get it from somebody else.

Trump could have done that. If he has any particular terms in mind — which I suspect he doesn’t; I doubt he’s thought about it that deeply — the “renegotiation” he called for could just be an announcement. If he believes Obama’s pledge is unfair to us or beyond our abilities, he could lower it to an amount he considers fair and achievable. No other nations, no international authority, would need to sign off.

There is a discussion going on about how fair or achievable Obama’s goals were, or how much sacrifice the country should be willing to make to fulfill them. David Victor’s annotations are sympathetic to the view that Obama’s goals would require considerable economic sacrifice, while Paul Krugman believes that “We have almost all the technology we need, and can be quite confident of developing the rest.” (I haven’t studied the question enough to have a opinion worth sharing.)

But Trump is not engaging in that argument. He could simply tell the world what goals he considers fair and why. But he doesn’t. Instead, he’s withdrawing from the process of setting any goals at all.

Given that I could lower my pledge any time I find appropriate, the only reason I would withdraw from the entire pledge drive is if I acknowledge no responsibility to support the church financially. It would be tantamount to deciding to withdraw from the community.

That’s what Trump is doing here: He’s not defending our sovereignty or protecting our jobs or doing any of the other positive things his speech claims. He’s denying that we have any responsibility to work with the rest of the world in addressing one of the major problems of our era. He is, in essence, withdrawing from the community of nations.

Step Around the Benghazi Trap

As the Trump scandals deepen, Democrats should learn from Republican mistakes: If you let your expectations get too far ahead of what’s known, confirmation bias can lead you into an a universe of alternative facts.


A few days before last November’s election, I saw a guy wearing an anti-Hillary t-shirt with the slogan “Benghazi: I will never forget!”. And it made me wonder: Of the things he will never forget about Benghazi, how many are imaginary? Will he always remember, for example, the stand-down order that was never given? Or that Clinton’s response to four American deaths was to ask “What difference does it make?

Benghazi was a real event, but eventually it got surrounded by a cloud of virtual events conjured up by conspiracy theorists. The virtual events — did you hear that Obama knew the attack was coming and intentionally did nothing? — stick in the mind so much better than the real ones. I suspect they’re the ones that guy (and the millions like him) will always remember.

Republicans went certifiably insane about Benghazi. When seven separate investigations failed to verify their wildest accusations against Obama and Clinton, they did the obvious thing: spent millions of tax dollars on an eighth one that also found nothing, in the vain hope that someday the same evidence would start saying something different.

Last week, a commenter on this blog asked how Democrats will know if we’ve gone down a similar rabbit-hole about Trump and Russia. I replied that it was way too early to make such a comparison, because we haven’t even completed one investigation of Trump/Russia, much less started our eighth. But the longer I thought about it, the more I wondered if there wasn’t something worth thinking about here: It may have taken four years and eight investigations for their Benghazi insanity to play out, but when exactly did Republicans start making the fatal mistake that eventually drove them insane?

Early days, I think. Right about where we are now.

And here’s what I think the fatal mistake was: convincing themselves that they already knew what had happened and how everything was going to play out. Within days or weeks, they knew that this was the big one, the scandal that was finally going to bring Obama down. Obama and Clinton had done something horrible here, even if nobody was sure exactly what it was. The point of investigating was to find the horrible thing they did, not to determine whether it existed. Any investigators who failed to find something bad enough to end both of their careers — and maybe send them to jail as a bonus — just hadn’t looked hard enough.

The point of me bringing this up isn’t to pooh-pooh the seriousness of what we’re finding out about Trump, or to suggest that an investigation shouldn’t be pursued with all possible vigor. I think Trump and a number of his people are acting like they’re guilty as hell. And the seriousness of the possibilities is undeniable: One of the determining factors in the 2016 election might have been a conspiracy between the winning candidate and a hostile foreign power. An unsavory Trump-Russia connection might go back decades, to Trump getting bailed out of his terrible investment decisions by money that Russian oligarchs needed to launder. Or maybe Trump campaign officials like Manafort and Flynn were Russian agents paid to manipulate the useful idiot who was their candidate.

Those possibilities can’t just be left out there for people to wonder about. If there’s even a tiny chance that one of them is true, a major investigation is necessary.

It’s possible that all this will come out quickly, in months or even weeks. Maybe Flynn or somebody will flip on Trump and produce a smoking gun that will either force him to resign or convince reluctant Republicans in Congress that they need to impeach him. Maybe Pence is in it up to his eyeballs and he’ll be forced out too.

It’s possible. But at this point, I don’t actually know any of those things. Trump does a lot of stuff I don’t understand, so he could be acting guilty for some ridiculous reason that isn’t illegal at all. Remember how adamant he was about his inaugural crowd being bigger than Obama’s, or how he didn’t really lose the popular vote? Maybe the Big Thing he’s hiding is some similarly ego-diminishing fact that anybody else would just own up to. Maybe the stuff that looks like a giant conspiracy is actually made up of dozens of unrelated instances of stupidity and incompetence. Maybe the corruption being covered up is ordinary money-grubbing by lower-level Trumpists, and doesn’t have anything to do with high-level treason.

That’s all possible too.

We need to find out. So we need to keep paying attention. All the avenues of investigation should be pursued as vigorously as possible, and everybody needs to remain vigilant against attempts to change the subject or derail the inquiries. We need to stay on guard against the worst: If the tension keeps ratcheting up inside the White House, eventually somebody is bound to suggest a Reichstag Fire — a real or fake attack on America that is supposed to make us circle the wagons around our Leader.

Or our enemies could decide that now, while the country is divided and so many of us are inclined to disbelieve anything our president says, is exactly the right time to launch a real attack.

As Americans, we need to keep the pressure on our elected representatives to take all this seriously. We need to stay ready to protest in the streets if it all goes wrong, just as Tunisians and Egyptians did to chase their corrupt leaders into retirement.

But while we’re making sure we’ll be geared up for whatever happens, we also need to make sure we’re staying in touch with reality, and that we’re maintaining the separation between what we know, what we suspect, and what we’re getting ready for just in case. We can’t let ourselves live in a speculative future where everything we’ve always suspected about Trump turns out to be true, and everyone who supported him finally has to admit that we were right.

If you get too attached to that future, you’ll most likely miss the turn when reality decides to go some other way. As the facts unfold, you’ll only see the ones that point in the direction you want to go. That’s a well-documented cognitive failing called confirmation bias. It’s not a conservative or liberal thing, it’s a human thing. Unless you’re some particularly well-designed artificial intelligence, you’re susceptible to it.

It’s already starting to happen in certain circles. Things that might eventually turn out to be true are being reported as if they are inevitably going to happen, or maybe have already happened. (Did you hear that Trump has already been indicted?)

It’s very satisfying to respond to Trump’s alternate reality (where his inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s, his electoral college margin was historically large, only fraud prevented him from winning the popular vote, and no politician — not even one who got assassinated, like Kennedy or Lincoln — has ever been treated so unfairly) with an anti-Trump alternate reality.

But as boring as it can be sometimes, we need to hang onto real reality. It sometimes takes a while to manifest itself, but in the long run real reality has a power that we want on our side.

It’s tempting to believe that we already know what’s going to happen: We know what James Comey is going to testify to, we know that Michael Flynn and/or Paul Manafort are going to flip on Trump and what they’re going to say; we know where the money trail is going to lead; and so on. We’re just waiting for that inevitable future to arrive, when Trump is ridden out of town on a rail.

But I don’t know any of that stuff, not yet. So I’m going to have to listen to the witnesses as they testify. I’m going to have to read the investigators’ reports as they come out.

Trump’s defenders are telling us that because we don’t already know that he did something wrong, we shouldn’t be investigating. The answer to that isn’t that we’re investigating because we do already know. The reason to investigate is because we don’t know. Trump’s defenders — other than possibly Trump himself and a small circle around him — don’t know either.

We should move forward, but with full knowledge of the uncertainties and ambiguities. That’s harder than moving forward with full certainty of where you’re going. But in the long run, it will keep you sane.

What is impeachment for?

Before Democrats can talk responsibly about impeaching Trump, we need to state some standards we’d be willing to apply to a Democratic president.


One of the more ridiculous quotes of the Obama era came from Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan. It was the summer after Obama’s re-election and Bentivolio’s constituents were wondering about impeachment, like you do when you think the wrong guy won the election.

The Congressman responded that “it would be a dream come true” to impeach Obama, and claimed he had challenged lawyers to “tell me how I can impeach the President of the United States.” But the lawyers uncovered a pesky little problem: “Until we have evidence, you’re going to become a laughing stock if you’ve submitted the bill to impeach the president.”

Damn. You need evidence that he did something wrong. There’s always a catch somewhere.

The cheapening of impeachment. The mood was very different in 1973, when the House Judiciary Committee began investigating impeachment against President Nixon. Up to that point, there had been only one serious presidential impeachment case in American history, against Andrew Johnson in 1868. No one had come out of that affair looking good, and it made both sides cautious a century later. [1]

So the Nixon proceedings had an air of solemnity: History was watching, and whatever you did now would be what you were remembered for. Democrats, who held the majority in both houses in spite of Nixon’s 1972 landslide, bent over backwards to give Nixon at least the appearance of a fair hearing; Republicans likewise worked hard to create the impression that they were taking their duties seriously. Ultimately, it was three Republicans — Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, and John Rhodes — who went to the White House to tell Nixon it was time to resign.

A lot of Democrats had hated Nixon for a long time, but nobody crowed about “a dream come true”. Impeachment wasn’t something you started talking about as soon as your side lost. It was a constitutional last resort, and you didn’t break that glass unless it was really an emergency.

Impeachment still required a high bar in 1987, when Congress began investigating the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra was a big deal: A dozen major figures in the Reagan administration were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Adviser. [2] President Reagan apologized to the American people on national television: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Congress concluded that Reagan either knew about the wrong-doing or should have known. But he was not impeached.

It was Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998-1999 that changed all the rules. For Nixon, it was thought to be important that the special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, be a political independent who had voted for Nixon; that made it clear the President wasn’t being railroaded. But Clinton’s first prosecutor was a Republican (Robert Fiske), who was replaced mid-investigation by a more partisan Republican (Ken Starr). Starr published a report emphasizing the most salacious aspects of the case in lurid language, and frequently leaked sensational details to the press.

Throughout the process, the votes on impeachment were very close to party-line — which meant that the ultimate result was predetermined: The Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton by majority vote, but conviction in the Senate required a 2/3rds majority, which couldn’t happen without convincing a significant number of Democrats. Clinton served out his full two terms.

George W. Bush could have been impeached over violations of the Convention Against Torture or for deceptions in the process leading to the Iraq War. A resolution was introduced in the House, but it died in committee. The full House never voted on it.

Republicans often talked about impeaching President Obama, but their efforts never passed the laugh test: Like Bentivolio, they failed to come up with a plausible charge, much less assemble evidence to support it.

Standards. It’s easy to be a partisan hypocrite about impeachment. If the question is just “Do I want to get rid of this guy?”, then I’ll want to impeach presidents of the other party and defend presidents of my own. And after the plainly partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, it’s tempting for Democrats to return tit for tat.

But cheap impeachments are bad for democracy. An election should mean something; it should make a decision that is not easily reversed. On the other hand, the Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. If Democrats are going to start another one any time soon, we owe it to the Republic to form a clear idea of what impeachment is for, and to state a non-partisan standard we’d be willing to stand by the next time a president from our side is in office.

The standards for impeachment are listed in the Constitution, but the statement is terse:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Treason and bribery we all sort of understand, but it’s the “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has been so maddeningly vague over the years.

A prime example is obstruction of justice — what Trump may have done when he fired Jim Comey. Obstruction was an impeachable offense when Nixon did it, so Republicans claimed it as an impeachable offense for Clinton. Democrats thought you needed more context; not all obstructions should count the same: Clinton was accused of inducing Monica Lewinsky to lie about their affair; Nixon was accused of doing a long list of things — conspiring with others, concocting cover stories, destroying evidence, asking the CIA to interfere with the FBI — to block the investigation of a burglary intended to help his re-election campaign. It didn’t seem fair to lump the two in the same category and proceed from there.

Now that it’s a Republican in the dock, expect the parties to switch places: Democrats will insist that obstruction-as-impeachable-offense is now well established; Republicans will want to say, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re not all just going to run to our respective partisan banners, we need think this through from the beginning.

What is impeachment for? The Founders knew that occasionally the voters would screw up. Bad presidents were inevitable, which is why John Adams talked about forming “a government of laws, and not of men“. The Constitutional system created multiple centers of power that could check and balance each other. The hope was that the country would be strong enough to ride out a bad presidency.

So the ordinary way to get rid of a bad president is to wait for his term to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment is only for cases where that solution just isn’t adequate.

That’s why treason and bribery are specifically mentioned. If a president is just bad at his job, you can usually live with that until the next election. (After all, the country survived eight years of George W. Bush.) But if the power of the office is being controlled by someone else — by a hostile foreign power (treason) or a wealthy special interest (bribery) — then we really can’t wait that long. (That’s even more true today than in the 1700s, because of the immediacy of nuclear weapons.) So I interpret “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as “other offenses too urgent to put off until the next election”.

The most obvious offense that you can’t put off until the next election is anything that subverts the next election. So if a president is using his or her power to alter the political system — like burglarizing the other party’s files or making deals with foreign powers to hack their computer systems — that also should be impeachable. [3] Other things that could be impeachable in the same way are shutting down hostile newspapers, or preventing legal voters from casting their ballots.

Since the separation of powers is what we’re counting on to keep a bad president in line, anything that usurps the power of the other branches has to be impeachable, unless the breach can be repaired some less drastic way. [4]

Along the same lines, the impeachment process itself has to be protected. So obstruction of justice needs to be an impeachable offense, if the obstructed investigation concerns an impeachable offense. [5]

Finally, there are offenses that have no other enforcement mechanism. For example, violations of the Emoluments Clause, which there is a good case Trump is guilty of. Bush-administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter wrote: “The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.” [6]

Application to Trump. Under these standards, it seems obvious to me that the House Judiciary Committee should be investigating impeachment, because there are viable accusations of impeachable offenses: most obviously the emoluments, but possibly more directly dangerous things. Any collusion with Russia to hack the Democrats would be impeachable, as well as obstruction of justice if it was intended to shelter allies who did collude. (Whether Trump was involved directly in the collusion wouldn’t matter; if he later suspected what his associates did and tried to protect them, that would be impeachable.)

At this point, whether I would support an impeachment vote in the House or conviction by the Senate would depend on what those investigations turned up. But there are definitely things to investigate.


[1] Johnson had been the slave-owning Democrat Lincoln put on his ticket in the name of national unity. After the assassination, he was an outsider dealing with Lincoln’s overwhelmingly Republican Congress.

If you’ve ever wondered why vice presidents are such yes-men, Johnson’s example explains why. When the VP has very different views than the president, it’s practically an invitation to assassins. John Wilkes Booth really did succeed in changing the direction of the country.

[2] Both were pardoned by President Bush before they served jail time.

[3] By contrast, Clinton’s extra-marital affair was just embarrassing, not a threat to the Republic. He finished his term, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the other party after the next election.

[4] Republicans claimed that Obama’s executive orders on immigration usurped the power of Congress. So they sued, won their case, and Obama obeyed the judgment of the courts. But if Obama had instead said, “Screw the judges, I’m going to do what I want.”, then impeachment would have been Congress’ only recourse.

[5] That leaves out the obstruction charge against Clinton, but creates an interesting test scenario: What if the reason Trump wanted to stop Comey’s investigation wasn’t that he himself had done anything wrong, but to prevent Comey from catching his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was guilty of some financial chicanery? I’m leaning towards the idea that Trump should be prosecuted for that after leaving office, but not impeached.

[6] Naturally, if the money the President receives from a foreign government is in return for some favor, then it’s already impeachable as a bribe.

Are Congressional Republicans Patriotic or Not?

Trump obstructs justice, and his fellow Republicans still stand behind him. At what point, if ever, will Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell begin defending the Republic?


We’ve already been through a number of explanations for why Jim Comey was fired on Tuesday, beginning with the improbable story that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was so incensed by Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton (“we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation”) that he wrote a memo that led to Comey’s firing; Trump and Attorney General Sessions took no initiative, they simply rubberstamped Rosenstein’s recommendation.

But by Thursday that narrative had crumbled, and Trump was telling NBC’s Lester Holt he had intended to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” (making liars out of all his own spokespeople, including Vice President Pence). He went on to describe a very odd and disturbing scene: A week after the inauguration, he had dinner with Comey; Trump saw this as Comey asking to stay on as FBI director. (That in itself would be odd; FBI directors have 10-year terms and only one has ever been fired — an exception that was truly exceptional. In general, FBI directors just stay on after administrations change; they do not need to ask.) During that dinner, Trump asked if he was under investigation and Comey assured him he was “in the clear”.

This came along with other unforced admissions that Lawfare’s Bob Bauer analyzes like this:

The picture that Mr. Trump has managed to create so far consists of the following:

  • The admission that he sought repeated assurances about his legal exposure in an ongoing criminal investigation

  • The pursuit of those reassurances at a time when he was quite actively holding open the possibility that Mr. Comey might not hold onto his job. (Apparently one of these conversations took place over dinner—as it was being served, was the President making it clear that Mr. Comey might have “to sing for his supper”?)

  • The admission that in firing Mr. Comey, he was moved decisively by his frustration over the FBI’s handling of the Russia probe investigation.

  • The President’s repeated very public statements, heard by all, including those charged with investigating the matter, that he views the Russia probe as having no merit.  Responsible for the faithful execution of the laws and the integrity of the system of justice, Mr. Trump has chosen to actively dispute the basis for an ongoing FBI investigation that affects his interests.

  • The repeated adjustments to the story the White House originally told about the circumstances surrounding the decision to dismiss Mr. Comey. As noted in the earlier posting, it is not advantageous to somebody under suspicion to be altering his story—or, in this case, changing it in every material detail.

So that’s not what his enemies accuse him of, that’s what he himself has admitted to. Law professor Laurence Tribe comments:

To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning.

Bauer’s only argument that this behavior might not constitute obstruction is based on Trump’s ignorance of and disrespect for the ordinary limits of a president’s authority:

The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries.

Helen Klein Murillo reviews the legal standards for obstruction and concludes not that Trump is innocent, but that he would be hard to prosecute.

Even if [Trump or Attorney General Sessions] had other reasons or goals—including perfectly lawful ones, such as concerns about the public’s perception of the FBI and the Director—if obstructing or impeding the Russia investigation was a goal, that would constitute obstruction of justice. Therefore, inquiries as to whether Trump’s conduct amount to obstruction will center on his motives.

However, the statutory bar is exceedingly high.

Murillo concludes that there is really only one body that can handle this case: Congress, as an impeachment hearing. Tribe agrees.

Some are arguing that we’re not at the point of impeachment yet, because the damage done by Comey’s firing will be minimal if Trump just appoints a replacement with unassailable integrity. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sometimes seems open to questioning Trump, says: “Let’s see who he nominates to replace Comey.”

But Matt Yglesias believes that no replacement can undo the damage already done:

For Senate Republicans, the idea of the Good Comey Replacement serves a critical psychological and political role. It allows them to acknowledge that there was something alarming and suspicious about Comey’s dismissal without committing them to a fight with the Trump administration. They simply need to convince the White House to nominate someone well-qualified and then move on to cutting taxes.

But the Comey firing bell can’t be unrung. The independence of the FBI is now inherently compromised. And faced with a White House that’s willing to violate the norms governing presidential involvement in the investigative process, either there will be the forceful pushback from the legislative branch that most Republicans want to avoid or else oversight of the Trump administration will be woefully lacking. There’s no middle path.

If Congress just OKs a new director — whoever it may be — and moves on, then we are in a new reality: A president can fire anyone who investigates him without any real consequence. That’s never been true in America before, and it would be a big step towards turning us into a Potemkin Republic, like Putin’s Russia, where we maintain all the facades of democracy and the rule of law, but in reality the leader simply does whatever he wants. This goes along with other new realities we’ve seen Congress accept since January 20, like this one: A president no longer bears any responsibility to prove to the public that he is not corrupt, but can openly profit off his presidency — perhaps even taking money directly from foreign governments — while keeping the full extent of that profit secret.

Encroachments like this will continue until Congress draws a line. At root, Trump is a bully, and that is how bullies behave: They stop when someone stops them, not before.

Recall that during the campaign Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, that sounded like hyperbole — a joke. A year from now it might not. Because that’s also how bullies behave: They joke about things — and then they do them.

Unfortunately, Congress is controlled by Republicans, who have shown no interest in standing up to Trump no matter what he does. Occasionally a few will shake their heads, or express “concern”. (Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr describes himself as “troubled” by the Comey firing. Senator Ben Sasse is “disappointed” by the timing of it.) But they will not demand Trump’s tax returns, or question the legal basis of his attack on Syria, or call for an independent special prosecutor, or do anything else that has the potential to call Trump to account.

We all imagine that there is a line somewhere, a boundary between what will be tolerated and what won’t. But then Trump crosses what we thought was a line, nothing happens, and we start imagining a new line. Nicholas Kristoff writes:

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

Will it be different if Trump defies court orders? If he starts a war against North Korea without consulting Congress? If Jared and Ivanka lead a takeover some major defense contractor? If critical journalists like David Fahrenthold start disappearing or mysteriously dropping dead? If Trump cancels future elections and declares himself President for Life?

You’d like to think there’s a line, a point at which elected Republicans will start to defend the Republic. But is there? Another former Justice Department official who appears to have been fired while investigating the Trump administration, Preet Bharara, writes in today’s Washington Post:

History will judge this moment. It’s not too late to get it right, and justice demands it.

But it’s not at all clear that justice’s demands will be satisfied. By now, I think we have to start questioning the patriotism of people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Max Boot, who says he recently left the Republican Party “after a lifetime as a loyal member”, sums it up like this:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law — the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe. … While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is. Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

Recalling the three Republican leaders who went to the White House to tell President Nixon it was over, Boot wonders:

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

Nicholas Kristof sounds a similar note:

[T]his is the moment of truth for G.O.P. moderates like Senators Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?

I suspect they will make noises about justice, but in the end not stand up for it, at least not this time. And then, after Trump does something even worse in a month or two, there will be another moment of truth, and then one after that.

At some point will the damage to the Republic be too much for Congressional Republicans to rationalize and ignore? We can only hope they reach that point before Trump starts shooting people on 5th Avenue, and before he gets bold enough to simply ignore Congress altogether.