Monday, August 21, 2017

When to Bolt

I live in this area and used to be active in the local Tea Party group. I know people who are not white nationalists who oppose the removal of the statues based on high-minded ideas about preserving history. None of them were [at the Charlottesville rally], and if they had been, they would have bolted the moment they saw a bunch of guys with torches chanting “Blood and soil.”

- Robert Tracinski, "Donald Trump Needs Not To Be President Yesterday"
The Federalist, 8-16-2017

This week's featured posts are "What to Make of Antifa?" and "A Few Points About Confederate Monuments".

This week everybody was still talking about Charlottesville

Led by the president -- more about him below -- conservative media has been pushing an even-handed or even pro-alt-Right narrative of the Unite the Right rally -- the one that culminated with the murder of counter-protested Heather Heyer in a car attack that injured 19 others: The "alt-Left" was just as bad. Lots of "fine people" were rallying not for white supremacy, but to defend Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue, and so on.

These stories become more convincing the further away from the events you get, so I think it's important to distribute as much raw video footage and as many eye-witness accounts as possible. (Along with the posters advertising the event, which say little-to-nothing about Robert E. Lee, and a whole lot about white supremacy and anti-Semitism.) I've already linked to some eye-witness accounts about Antifa in "What to Make of Antifa?", but I'll add some more testimony here.

If you've got a half hour, Vice News had a reporter embedded with the white supremacists, and that piece makes compelling television.

Some of the most thoughtful accounts are by clergy who came to protest, perhaps willing to get their heads bashed in or perhaps imagining that KKK types would be cowed by ministerial vestments. (They weren't.) Here's Brian McLaren of Auburn Seminary and local Unitarian Universalist ministers Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz.

Alan Zimmerman, president of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, describes the atmosphere of fear:

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There's the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

But there were also heart-warming moments:

A frail, elderly woman approached me Saturday morning as I stood on the steps in front of our sanctuary, crying, to tell me that while she was Roman Catholic, she wanted to stay and watch over the synagogue with us. At one point, she asked, “Why do they hate you?” I had no answer to the question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.

At least a dozen complete strangers stopped by as we stood in front the synagogue Saturday to ask if we wanted them to stand with us.

and Trump's horrible response

The day Heather Heyer was murdered, Trump denounced violence "on many sides", and seemed mainly to regret that Heyer's death -- he didn't mention her by name -- was diverting attention from his own accomplishments.

Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record -- just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it's been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they're coming back to our country. We're renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it's very, very sad.

Monday, his staff prevailed on him to read a more specific statement finally saying the kinds of things that any other president would have said immediately:

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

At the time, I thought he looked like a hostage reading a statement prepared by his kidnappers, and I wondered how long it would take him to undercut the whole thing. About a day: His Wednesday press conference went completely off the rails. He was back to "blame on both sides" and "very fine people, on both sides". He supported the pretense that the rally was primarily to protest removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, and suggested that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington would be next. (I discuss that in more detail in "A Few Points About Confederate Monuments".)


Trump supporters started to bail out on him almost immediately. Both his Manufacturing Jobs Initiative Council and his American Manufacturing Council had to be disbanded as its members resigned. Several Republicans in Congress also criticized him. But Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell made careful statements against violence and white supremacy in general, without confronting Trump directly.

Russ Feingold makes a good point:

The lesson from Charlottesville is not how dangerous the neo-Nazis are. It is the unmasking of the Republican party leadership. In the wake of last weekend’s horror and tragedy, let us finally, finally rip off the veneer that Trump’s affinity for white supremacy is distinct from the Republican agenda of voter suppression, renewed mass incarceration and the expulsion of immigrants.

It's nice to see a few tweets separating elected Republicans from Trump, but they need to speak out on substance, not just symbolism. Toxic statements are not an impeachable offense, but an official resolution of censure would be a good start, followed by action on the issues Feingold lists. So far, no Republicans are taking those steps.


Trump keeps "waiting for all the facts" before condemning white supremacists. But the massive counter-demonstration against a proposed right-wing "free speech" rally in Boston Saturday got no such consideration. He knew at a glance that the thousands of counter-protesters were "anti-police agitators".

His wait-for-the-facts stance also got under the skin of Yusef Salaam, who was one of the falsely convicted "Central Park 5" sent to prison in 1990 for beating and raping a white female jogger. (DNA evidence cleared them years later and someone else eventually confessed.)

During our trial, it seemed like every New Yorker had an opinion. But no one took it further than Trump. He called for blood in the most public way possible. Trump used his money to take out full-page ads in all of the city’s major newspapers, urging the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. ... He never acknowledged his rush to judgment, and last year when asked about us, he still stuck to the line that “They admitted they were guilty” and “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty.” Never mind that we weren’t.

and Steve Bannon's exit

Bannon's firing/resignation/whatever on Friday means that in a mere seven months, Trump has gotten rid of his entire Inauguration Day inner circle: Bannon, Reince Preibus, Michael Flynn, and Sean Spicer. Pence's mandate comes from the Electoral College, so Trump can't fire him.

The fact that Bannon was going to be in the White House at all was bad news, so him leaving has to be good news. He has been the administration's clearest link to the alt-Right, and was responsible for other white nationalist hires like Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller. (It would be great if they go next.)

That said, it's not like Trump is a puppet who will now be voiced by some more reasonable puppeteer like John Kelly. Trump has been at his worst when he spoke with the least outside input, as during his unhinged Tuesday news conference. Bannon encouraged and orchestrated Trump's worst instincts, but those instincts are still there.

but not enough people are heaping shame on Trump's religious lickspittles

The Thoughtful Pastor blog, written by Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas, a Methodist, notes something that should be scandalous: Even as Trump's business advisory councils are exploding, his Religious Advisory Council is standing firmly behind him. As of Friday, exactly one of the 24 (mostly Evangelical Christian) members had resigned, and none has spoken out clearly against Trump's echoing of white supremacist rhetoric. Some have openly supported those statements.

This points to an issue that deserves a lot more attention: The leadership of the Evangelical Christian movement has been corrupted by politics, to the point that it has abdicated the traditional prophetic role of speaking truth to power. Increasingly, "Christian" is a tribal identity rather than a religion. How else can we explain white Christians' allegiance -- both among the leadership and the rank and file -- to an amoral, self-righteous, non-religious huckster like Trump?

During Bill Clinton's administration, conservative Christian ministers frequently talked about the importance of character and of having a strong Christian man in the White House. During Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal, Trump RAC member James Dobson wrote:

Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior? Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations?

But he looked at Trump's Pussygate scandal differently:

There really is only one difference between the two [candidates]. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not.

Since the election, Evanglical leaders have been acting as if Trump were God's anointed, and competing to see who can be the most perfect toady. (Robert Jeffress is winning.)

Rev. Thomas finds this kind of thing appalling, as any authentic Christian would. Ministers who can't keep up morally with the CEOs of the big corporations deserve nothing but public shame. I often hear that Islam needs a reformation. Well, Evangelical Christianity needs a reformation; its corruption runs both wide and deep.

and you also might be interested in ...

If the sky suddenly goes dark while you're reading this, you might be in the middle of a solar eclipse. Go check.


The Trump administration has decided what to do about that annoying National Climate Assessment: disband the federal advisory board that produced it.


This evening, Trump will announce his Afghanistan strategy. Speculation is that he will call for a modest increase in troop levels and maybe some changes in how they're used. This is one of the rare cases where I wish Trump would stick to the isolationism of his 2016 campaign. Somebody needs to explain to me what our 15-year military action has accomplished, and what more we can expect from further involvement. I suspect tonight's speech will not do that.


Those of us who encountered Neo-Paganism back in the day, as a movement inside the liberal counterculture, can be shocked to discover some of the reactionary directions it has taken since. I recommend reading Amy Hale's "Marketing Rad-Trad: the Co-Influence Between Paganism and the New Right".

[T]he idea that there is a sacred link between people and place can inspire fixed ideas about the relationship between people and territory.

It is almost ironic that this wider conversation about cultural preservation and a desire to not appropriate have created the conditions for the New Right to be successful among Pagans. Particularly in the United States where Pagans and practitioners of New Age religions have been accused of appropriating symbolism and practices from Native American traditions, Pagans have become especially sensitive to these complaints and wish to practice their religion with a sense of cultural integrity. In short, Pagans do not want to be seen to be stealing traditions that “do not belong to them.”

As a result, Pagans feel as though they need to be able to legitimately claim ownership to the traditions they practice, which has led to an increase in ethnic reconstruction Paganism within the United States, as people try to become involved with traditions they feel they can legitimately claim as their own. The models for this type of practice tend to be heavily culturally bounded, using a genetic model of cultural transmission, one anthropologists recognize to be greatly flawed and incorrect, but which is a defining feature of New Right ethnopolitics.

and let's close with something controversial

The closing I promised in the Teaser fell through (the video wasn't what it claimed to be), so I'm going to substitute Tina Fey's cake routine. A few people -- like Rose Dommu at Out -- took her literally as saying that we should all just stay home and eat cake rather than do anything. But I think there's more to it than that. I saw as an expression of the frustration of seeing something obviously wrong and not knowing whether anything you do will make any difference.

And besides, it's funny.

Monday, August 14, 2017

They've Got a Friend

These [white supremacist] groups seem to believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House. I don't know why they believe that, but they don't see me as a friend in the Senate, and I would urge the president to dissuade these groups that he's their friend.

- Senator Lindsey Graham,
Fox News Sunday, 8-13-2017

This week's featured post is "The Battles Within the White House are Even Crazier Than You Think". I'm still intending to get back to the "Misunderstandings" series, if the immediate news developments ever slow down.

This last couple of days everybody has talking about Charlottesville

Charlottesville is where Thomas Jefferson put the University of Virginia. Like most university towns, it's solidly blue: Clinton beat Trump 80%-13%. Like a lot of liberal areas in the South, it's been wondering why it has all these monuments to the Confederacy. Sure, the Confederacy ought to be remembered, but does it really deserve to be celebrated?

In particular, a huge statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse was erected there in 1924. In April, the City Council voted to remove the statue, but there's a court case based on a 1902 state law protecting war monuments, so it's not clear what will happen.

This weekend, an alliance of alt-Right groups (including the KKK and some neo-Nazis), converged on Charlottesville for a "Unite the Right" rally centered on the Lee statue. Many came armed and in military-style riot gear, or waved Confederate or Nazi flags. Friday night there was a torchlight march, reminiscent of the torchlight parades of the Third Reich.

It wasn't the first time: White supremacist Richard Spencer led a torchlight protest in support of the statue back in May. The KKK had rallied at a different Charlottesville park in early July.

Counter-protesters, many of them clergy, also converged on Charlottesville. (I'm not clergy, but I'm on some of the same mailing lists as Unitarian ministers. I got a request to come to Charlottesville for the counter-protest. It did not say anything about coming armed or in riot gear.) Reportedly, there were also some anti-fascist counter-protesters (not clear how many), who believe in meeting violence with violence.

Friday night, the right-wingers marched through the university campus chanting "white lives matter" and other white supremacist slogans, including some anti-Semitic ones. Counter-protesters had gathered around a Jefferson statue; they were encircled by the marchers and some scuffling occurred, apparently with only minor injuries.

Saturday, the violence peaked with a reported Nazi sympathizer ramming his car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring 19. The photo below shows the alleged driver carrying a shield with the Lee statue in the background. (He's just below the horse's tail.)


Piece of advice these next few days: Don't get trolled. Some truly awful links are going around on social media, including a number to articles that I think were written purely to outrage people like me (and, I assume, you). By linking to them, we publicize the web sites they come from, which I think was the point.


You who know who really deserve to be on Southern Civil War monuments? Slaves who escaped, joined the Union Army, and came back to fight for the freedom of their people. Those are the real Southern heroes.


Some previous Sift articles: "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot", "Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag",  and "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party".

and Trump's lack of response

The President responded to this act of right-wing terrorism by listlessly reading a statement that refused to take sides between Nazis and people who protest against Nazis.

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides, on many sides.

He continued with boilerplate rhetoric about "restoring law and order" and urging everyone to "come together as Americans with love for our nation", before complaining that this violence was taking him off message.

Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record, just absolute record, employment. We have unemployment the lowest it's been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country, Foxconn and car companies and so many others. They're coming back to our country. We're renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country, so when I watch Charlottesville, to me it's very, very sad.

Because it doesn't matter who's dead, everything is about him and his accomplishments. And once again he talked as if his base were the whole of America.

We are all Americans first. We love our country. We love our God. We love our flag. We're proud of our country. We're proud of who we are.

So if you feel mistreated by America, don't believe in God, have mixed feelings about the flag, or if recent events -- including the very event he's supposed to be responding to -- sometimes make you feel ashamed of your country, then he's not even trying to be your president. You're not part of the "all" he's speaking for.

You only had to look at other Republicans to realize that getting this right is not difficult. Orrin Hatch tweeted:

We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.

Ted Effing Cruz, for God's sake, wrote:

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate.

How hard was that? But even after nearly two days, nothing from the President against white supremacy and Nazism.

Here's what it comes down to. KKK types like David Duke are invoking Trump's name and telling their followers that Trump is on their side. Trump is not telling them that they're wrong, because they're not wrong. He and his administration have been cultivating white supremacist support for years. He won't criticize them because they're his base.


Trump also has said nothing about the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota more than a week ago. His spokesman Sebastian Gorka said Trump would comment "when we have some kind of finalized investigation", but not before, because "people fake hate crimes ... with some regularity".

Gorka, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon -- the alt-Right recognizes them as their own people inside the Trump administration.


Another place where Trump is slow to speak out is against Vladimir Putin. Putin responded to the new sanctions Congress just passed (by a near-unanimous margin that caused Trump to sign the bill rather than face a veto override) by demanding large cuts in the U.S. diplomatic mission to Russia. When asked about it by a reporter on Thursday, he thanked Putin for helping him trim the payroll.

He later claimed he was being "sarcastic". But whether he was serious or not, he clearly avoided criticizing or opposing Putin, who seems to be the alpha in their relationship.

but before that it looked like we might go to war with North Korea

It's starting to look like we might not go to war after all, though it's hard to say that anything has changed in the last few days. And as Rachel Maddow keeps pointing out, it's also not clear what changed before that to ratchet up the tensions.

Over-simplifying recent history into one paragraph: The Clinton administration recognized that we had no good military options against North Korea, so instead it bribed the Kim dynasty with aid in exchange for it not developing nuclear weapons. Then the Bush administration came in and decided to "get tough" and end Clinton's "appeasement". So the Clinton deal collapsed, and Bush got to posture in a manly fashion. But there were still no good "tough" options, so North Korea developed nuclear weapons. That's how we got into this situation.

Josh Marshall concludes:

The real lesson I draw from this is that we should be extremely wary about actions which have the feeling or appearance of toughness but which are likely to have negative or even dire results because we have no viable, alternative policy. That seems very much like the situation we are moving toward with North Korea. Certainly it’s what President Trump was doing yesterday when he made wild threats he is highly, highly unlikely to follow through on.


Back in May, Stephen Krasner wrote "A Least Worst Option on North Korea", which I recommend. His conclusions:

  • All-out war would mean the destruction of Seoul (and possibly Tokyo, though Krasner doesn't say so), so it's not acceptable. "If South Korea suffered such a large loss of life as a result of a basically unilateral American strike, it would be the end not only of the South Korean-U.S. alliance but of NATO as well. No country will tie itself to the United States if the United States through its own actions can take measures that would result in hundreds of thousands of citizens in other countries being killed."
  • Only China has enough influence in North Korea to bring about new leadership with less destabilizing policies.
  • Our best-case outcome is China's worst-case outcome: a unified Korea allied with the United States. We can't hope for Chinese help that makes such an outcome more likely.

His proposal:

So there is a deal that the United States could credibly offer to China: leadership change in North Korea and the end to nuclear and missile programs there, in exchange for the withdrawal of American troops from the peninsula. All U.S. forces would be removed, if China actually succeeded in engineering the ouster of Kim Jung-un and an associated end to its nuclear and missile programs. A North Korean commitment to end its nuclear program made by a leader dependent on China would be more credible than any commitment made by Kim.


China is trying to be the grown-up in the room. In contrast to Kim's usual over-the-top rhetoric and Trump's off-the-cuff threats, Thursday a Chinese state-owned newspaper published a carefully worded editorial that Western observers regard as a "semi-official" statement from the government.

China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

I imagine this being said in the tone of voice of a Mom drawing a line down the center of the back seat and insisting that the kids each stay on their own side.

and that Google anti-diversity memo

In case you didn't hear about it: Google engineer James Damore posted a memo to one of Google's internal discussion lists, criticizing Google's program to promote race-and-gender diversity in the workforce and management. The two final bullet points in his introduction were:

  • Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don't have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership.
  • Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

The memo got out and went viral. Google fired him. This also sparked a huge amount of discussion, and the engineer is on his way to becoming an alt-Right hero. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a book-and-movie deal out of it.

Rather than write my own article about these issues, I think I'll just say a few things briefly and then point you at the commentary I found most thoughtful.

My few things:

  • There probably are "differences in distributions of traits" between men and women that might continue to be present in a totally non-sexist world. But society as we know it -- and the tech workplace in particular -- is such a contaminated environment that I don't know how you'd do convincing research to measure how significant those differences are.
  • There is a long, sad history of science being used to bolster social stereotypes. To borrow a legal term, any conclusions along those lines deserve strict scrutiny.
  • If there is some "natural" level of women in tech -- the number you'd get if there were neither sexism nor diversity programs to counter it -- I'll bet it's higher than Google's current 20-25%. Talking about 50% is a red herring; there are more possibilities than (1) perfect equality and (2) the status quo.
  • Job descriptions and the population of people who hold those jobs evolve together. Our current understanding of what it means to be a software engineer was shaped during an era when it was a job for men, so it may well depend on certain stereotypically male traits that aren't actually necessary. If the job as currently defined is "unnatural" for women, that could be a reason to change the job.

Now let's get to other people's comments. The best zinger I heard was tweeted by Sarcastic Rover, the alleged voice of the AI governing the NASA Mars rover.

Some people just love a merit-based system… right up until the merit you want is “not being an asshole.”

If you want to argue the science with Damore, start here.

Claire Cain Miller writes on NYT's "The Upshot" blog that stereotypic male nerdiness is not necessarily what software engineering is about.

Technical skills without empathy have resulted in products that have bombed in the market, because a vital step to building a product is the ability to imagine how someone else might think and feel. “The failure rate in software development is enormous, but it almost never means the code doesn’t work,” Mr. Ensmenger said. “It doesn’t solve the problem that actually exists, or it imagines a user completely different from actual users.”

Ezra Klein went meta, thinking about the reasons this incident hit such a nerve with the larger public.

Behind the furor over the memo is our unease with the unaccountable, opaque power Google in particular, and Silicon Valley in general, wields over our lives. If Google — and the tech world more generally — is sexist, or in the grips of a totalitarian cult of political correctness, or a secret hotbed of alt-right reactionaries, the consequences would be profound.

Google's influence is much harder to avoid than McDonalds' or WalMart's.

Compounding the problem is that the tech industry’s point of view is embedded deep in the product, not announced on the packaging. Its biases are quietly built into algorithms, reflected in platform rules, expressed in code few of us can understand and fewer of us will ever read. And yet those hidden commands and unexamined choices can lead to discrimination in housing and jobs, to a public sphere that fosters continual harassment of women and people of color, to a world where conservative news is suppressed, to a digital commons that everyone must use but that only a certain kind of person gets to build.

... The technology industry’s power is vast, and the way that power is expressed is opaque, so the only real assurance you can have that your interests and needs are being considered is to be in the room when the decisions are made and the code is written. But tech as an industry is unrepresentative of the people it serves and unaccountable in the way it serves them, and so there’s very little confidence among any group that the people in the room are the right ones.

So long as that’s true, any indication that the builders of tomorrow are quietly against you, which is what Damore’s memo was, will be explosive.

and you also might be interested in ...

Early in the week I thought I might have space to talk about final draft of the "Climate Science Special Report" of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Key quote:

It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.


Amy McGrath made a big splash with the opening video of her campaign for the congressional seat in Kentucky's 6th district. The district has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but has been held by Republican Andy Barr since 2012. Barr got 61% of the vote in 2016.


CNN does its best to make sense of Trump's attacks on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Attacking McConnell over Senate inaction also allows Trump to cultivate the two crucial sectors of his political support at the same time -- his loyal base of less ideological voters who hate the establishment, and purist conservatives who are livid that Obamacare remains the law of the land.

But not even Newt Gingrich is on board with Trump here.

One constant of Trump's character is that nothing is ever his fault. Very little that he promised during the campaign is actually getting done, so he needs a scapegoat. But this much should be obvious: If Trump had offered the healthcare plan he promised -- the one that gave everybody better coverage for less money, and was less expensive for the government too -- it would have zoomed through Congress. The fact that he was lying and actually had no plan at all is his own fault, not McConnell's.


From The Weekly Standard, which is one of the flagship publications of the conservative media:

Short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was an utterly forgettable political hack. But he said one thing before he was dismissed that’s worth reflecting on: “There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president. Okay?” Scaramucci was right about that. We know these people, and we admire them. We wish them every success.


Taylor Swift's $1 countersuit against the guy who's suing her for millions (because her complaint of sexual harassment, he claims, got him fired) could be a teaching moment for the larger society. Being famous, beautiful, well-known, rich, and so forth, Swift has advantages that most harassed women lack. So at the same time that it's instructive and satisfying to watch the usual attacks fail to throw her off-stride, the trial also has to give you sympathy for the women who usually have to face these tactics.


538 puts data behind the case I was making last week: Colin Kaepernick deserves to have a job in the NFL.


Two white women in Washington state have started White Nonsense Roundup.

If you are a Person of Color (POC), you have enough on your plate! It’s not your job to educate white people about privilege, racism, and what’s really going on in the world. If a white person is filling your social media with white nonsense – anything from overt racism to well-intentioned problematic statements – tag us and a white person will come roundup our own.

and let's close with something brilliant

By now readers know that I love song parodies and Game of Thrones. So how could I resist "Westerosi Rhapsody"?

Be warned: The video is not safe for work, contains graphic sex and violence, and includes spoilers for most of the major plot developments through Season 6.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Faustian Bargain

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.

- Senator Jeff Flake, Conscience of a Conservative

The big thing going on this week was a single story with two parts. Republicans in Congress have begun backing away from Trump, which I cover in "Was TrumpCare's Failure a Turning Point?" The other piece of that story is Trump going back to his base, scapegoating immigrants and minorities. That gets covered in "Returning to the Well of White Resentment".

This week everybody was talking about Trump's failures and his attempts to keep his base energized

That's what the two featured posts are about.

While I've got the topic raised, though, I wanted to say one more thing about the Statue of Liberty: Something we always forget about it is that it's a monument to the end of slavery. That's why there's a broken chain at Lady Liberty's feet. The statue was conceived in 1865, as the defeat of the Southern slave empire opened the prospect that we might actually become worthy of the fine sentiments in the Declaration of Independence. White nationalist may claim that they're getting back to the original purpose of the statue when they divorce it from Emma Lazarus' inscription, but they always forget that it commemorates the defeat of their idealized Confederacy.

and race

The NAACP issued a travel advisory warning for the state of Missouri. In addition to the longstanding problems that were made evident at Ferguson, the state just passed a law making it harder to sue employers for racial discrimination. You now have to prove that race was the primary reason you lost your job, not just a contributing factor. So a little racism in the workplace is OK, as long as you don't fire people primarily because of their race.


Procter and Gamble put out a video about racism called "The Talk". I had a hard time imagining why anybody would object to scenes of black people talking to their kids about racism, but that just showed my lack of imagination.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGod_R4rYWM[/embed]

I always hate to direct attention to bad examples, but if you have a strong stomach, look at Mike the Cop's response. Mike thinks one segment (where a black mother worries about how her new-driver daughter will handle being pulled over by police) is anti-cop, because not all cops are like that.

This is yet another version of the #NotAllMen fallacy that was answered by #YesAllWomen. It just doesn't matter that not all cops mistreat blacks. Enough of them do that just about every black has a police story. So of course, if you are a black mother, you prepare your children for the possibility of police abuse. If Mike wants to get upset with somebody, let him get upset with the racist cops that have given his profession such a bad image.


While we're talking about racism, Colin Kaepernick still doesn't have a job. He's the mixed-race quarterback who silently protested American racism by not standing for the national anthem before football games.

Kaepernick is not what football people call a "franchise" quarterback, i.e., somebody you can legitimately hope to build a championship team around. (If he were, some team would ignore his issues and sign him anyway. There are 32 teams and 15-20 franchise quarterbacks.) The 49ers thought he was for a while, and made it to the Super Bowl with him in 2013. But he lost his starting job in 2015, before his protest started.

Performance-wise, he's on the borderline between starting quarterbacks and back-up quarterbacks, which makes him way better than a lot of guys who have jobs in the NFL. But he's "controversial" now -- moreso than players who abuse drugs or beat their wives, apparently. So he's unemployed, too hot for any team to touch.

I still believe what I said when his protest started: Sporting events shouldn't be patriotic rituals to begin with. We don't "honor America" before movies or concerts; why do it at football games? So Kaepernick didn't start this; the NFL started it when it insisted that players begin each game by honoring a country that doesn't always honor them back. (The fact that he can't get a job now just proves his point, IMO.) Kaepernick protested in a minimally disruptive way, and should be respected for that.

but we should pay more attention to the bad turn 2020 skirmishing is already taking

Trump is already historically unpopular for a relatively new president, and Democrats have no obvious early front-runner (like Clinton was four years ago). So most pundits expect candidates to come out of the woodwork, creating a free-for-all that might resemble the Republican race in 2016. It's not hard to find 2020 speculation in the media: Will Bernie run again, or will he be too old? Is Elizabeth Warren serious when she denies she's running? Does Joe Biden have another run left in him, and would that be a good thing or does the party need a new face, maybe a non-white like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, or Deval Patrick? What about relatively unknown candidates coming from nowhere, Jimmy Carter style, like John Hickenlooper? Kirsten Gillibrand? Seth Moulton? Tim Ryan?

What's bugging me right now, though, is not how premature this all is, but the fact that the campaign is already taking a negative turn. Way-too-early presidential campaigns are supposed to be idealistic and full of hope. It's one thing to start getting excited about somebody years in advance, but why start running people down? For example: This Salon article attacks Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and The Week's Ryan Cooper adds Deval Patrick to the objectionable list. Numerous articles have made something sinister out of Harris' meeting with some wealthy Democrats, as if they should be barred from looking for someone to support.

The Shakesville blog's founder Melissa McEwan objects to Cooper's bifurcation of Democrats into "big money elites on one side and Sanders Democrats on the other". Genuine progressives, she argues, might favor an incrementalist approach to progress.

Part of the reason that Black voters and non-Black voters, especially white voters from marginalized communities, joined to deliver crucial victories to Hillary Clinton across the Southern U.S. during the primary is because Sanders' message of revolution, which centered on upending rather than refining the system, failed to resonate. And contrary to pervasive narratives, it was not because voters in those states are too conservative or were too uninformed to appreciate Sanders' big ideas.

It is precisely those communities living on the edge, she argues, that have the most to fear from tear-it-down-and-start-over visions.

It is a privilege, in many ways, to be able to "think big." To have the space and safety where one can imagine seismic shifts that don't come with the risk of falling off the edge. We don't all have that luxury.

Washington Monthly's David Atkins warns both sides:

The worst elements of both sides are engaging cynically in the ongoing civil war. Some Sanders supporters eagerly want to see him run again in 2020, and are actively seeking to kneecap every potential challenger to him–especially those who might be able to more easily secure Hillary Clinton’s coalition of older and minority voters. ... On the other hand, establishment moderates since the early days of the Democratic Leadership Council have sought a marriage of the much-vaunted “Emerging Democratic Majority” with an educated, upper-middle-class fiscally centrist donor class. This has been to the detriment of the economy as a whole, and to the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party in general. They have no intention of taking a sharper stand against the predatory financial sector, and actively seek to use ideologically aligned women and minority candidates as a wedge against more radical activists who might threaten to alienate the wealthy donor class they have sought to woo away from the Republican Party since the Reagan era.

... If the fault lines once again pit more moderate minority candidates against more economically progressive white candidates, the resulting warfare will create the worst of all worlds: watered down economic policy that fails to win back disaffected white working class voters, combined with a bruising primary trading insults that could demotivate both class-conscious millennials and identity-conscious older women and minorities, depending on the eventual victor.

and you also might be interested in ...

Two weeks ago I adapted Kipling's poem "If" to reflect what it means to "be a Trump, my son", and back in March I turned "Casey at the Bat" into the saga of TrumpCare's initial failure in the House. Well, these days the Trump administration is inspiring a lot of people to take up poetry. Thursday night, Steven Colbert rewrote Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" (the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty) to match the Trump immigration proposal: "your huddled MBAs yearning to be tax-free".

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUdKb79reJk[/embed]

But the one that really got a belly laugh out of me was "American Rhapsody". People have been asking for weeks whether Scaramucci can do the fandango, but this was the first extended parody I've seen. ("Transgender no! We will not let you serve.")


Lying about trivial things has gotten to be business-as-usual in the Trump White House. Twice last week, he claimed to have received phone calls from people who say they never made them: leaders of the Boy Scouts (who were supposed to have told Trump his speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree was the best one ever) and the president of Mexico (who supposedly thanked Trump for his enforcement of the border).

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later admitted neither of those phone calls happened, but bristled at the suggestion that Trump had lied. But it's hard to see what else to call it: Unless he's delusional or suffers from dementia, Trump had to know the phone calls never happened, even as he was saying that they did.

Meanwhile, transcripts of calls Trump made to the Mexican and Australian leaders in January leaked to The Washington Post. (How do these things happen?) One thing we learn is that Trump seemed not to care whether Mexico would actually pay for the wall or not. He just didn't want Mexico to say so in public.

and let's close with something surprising

From one angle, this church looks very solid.

From another, it's barely there at all.

That's a little like theology: Come at it from one angle and its arguments seem very solid. Come at it from another and you don't understand why everybody doesn't see the holes.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Nuclear Grade Bonkers

This process is an embarrassment. This is nuclear-grade bonkers, what is happening here tonight. We are about to re-order one-fifth of the American healthcare system. And we are going to have two hours to review a bill which, at first blush, stands essentially as healthcare-system arson.

- Senator Chris Murphy on the floor of the Senate Thursday night

This week's featured post is "How to Fix ObamaCare". The "Misunderstood Things" series is taking a week off.

This week everybody was talking about the craziest week yet of the Trump administration

Every day of American politics since January 20 has had a tinge of insanity or absurdity to it, but this week stood out. You can use the links to get the details, and I'll comment on some of these events below, but try to read the whole list before you delve deeper on any particular thing. I think it's worthwhile to stand back for a moment and take in the full lunatic-asylum landscape:

  • Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted a new policy banning transgender people from the military, which the Pentagon then announced that it would ignore.
  • Thursday, four Republican senators held a press conference. They described Mitch McConnell's latest ObamaCare repeal bill as "half-assed" and "a disaster", but offered to vote for it if Paul Ryan could guarantee them that it would never become law. (Three of them of them did vote for the bill early Friday morning, despite only having the bill's text available for two hours before voting. The fourth -- McCain -- cast the vote that killed it.)
  • Trump spent most of the week denouncing his own attorney general as "VERY weak" and "beleaguered". Trump said he was "very disappointed" in Jeff Sessions, but didn't fire him. Sessions described Trump's comments as "hurtful", but didn't resign.
  • Tuesday, Trump turned a homey presidential tradition -- addressing the Boy Scout Jamboree -- into an ugly political event that inspired comparisons to the Hitler Youth. Thursday, the Chief Scout Executive issued an apology for the President's behavior.
  • Wednesday night, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker got called by new White House Communications Direction Anthony Scaramucci, who spoke on the record. He described Chief of Staff Reince Preibus as "a fucking paranoid schizophrenic", and claimed to differ from Steve Bannon because "I’m not trying to suck my own cock." Trump backed him up, and by Friday Preibus was gone. For the moment, Bannon continues as Chief Strategist, though his contortionist abilities remain unverified.
  • Friday afternoon, Trump addressed police in Ronkonkoma, New York. He spoke warmly of "thugs" being "thrown" into the back of a paddy wagon "rough", and asked officers "please don’t be too nice" when arresting people. The Suffolk County Police Department responded, "As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners."
  • That speech was not the only one in which Trump reprised the false narrative of his speech at last summer's Republican Convention, that the main criminal threat in America comes from Muslim terrorists and Hispanic gangsters. In Youngstown on Wednesday he denounced "predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people", talked about immigrant gangsters who "slice and dice" their victims, and said "these are the animals that we've been protecting for so long."

And that's just a quick summary.

The big question is why. Why unleash such a big dose of the Crazy now? Why take a turn back towards fear-mongering, rabble-rousing, and not-so-veiled calls for violence? I think it's the Russia investigation. Jared had to testify this week (in closed sessions), and Don Jr. will follow soon. If they continued the patterns of their previous statements, they'll set themselves up for perjury charges. And as Mueller investigates Trump's past ties to Russian money-laundering, Trump alone knows what he might find.

Mueller is slow but dogged. On any given day, it's easy to drive the investigation out of the headlines with some new bit of insanity. But its mills are grinding.

Also, Trump's supporters are starting to crack. He's beginning to hear criticism from Republicans in Congress, and even from his evangelical base.

and TrumpCare's dramatic defeat in the Senate

Buzzfeed's David Mack compared the Senate floor at the moment of McCain's vote to a Renaissance painting.

McCain had puzzled us all earlier in the week. He returned from brain surgery Tuesday to cast the deciding vote that allowed the Senate to proceed to debate the various ObamaCare repeal options, but then gave an idealistic speech calling for a return to regular order and a bipartisan process, rather than the secretive Republicans-only process that his own vote had just allowed to continue. This struck author Mike Lofgren as typical of McCain, and he wrote: "None of us vain creatures can bear scrutiny of the gap between our words and our deeds—but few, I fear, would suffer from that scrutiny more than John McCain."

Whatever he was waiting to hear during that debate, though, he apparently didn't hear it. Or maybe he was just waiting for a more dramatic moment.

The repeated failure of ObamaCare repeal plans make it clear that "replace" was never more than a slogan for Republicans. Their voters liked the idea of some vague "replacement" that would keep all the good things about ObamaCare and do away with all the bad things, but there never was such a plan.

The question now is: Can Congress start doing what it should have been doing since the ACA passed in 2010: look at the results and make adjustments so that ObamaCare works better. I collect some suggestions about that in the featured post.

and the White House reshuffle

Friday, Reince Preibus was literally left at the airport as the Trump motorcade returned to the White House. I was reminded of Jim Comey being told about his firing by someone who saw it on CNN. Classy.

As of today, Preibus is replaced by former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. I am pessimistic about his ability to fix the problems in the White House, because they all trace back to Trump himself. For example, Dara Lind points out the underlying reason for the leaking problem: Trump watches TV, but he doesn't read memos. If a staffer wants to get the President to pay attention to an idea, s/he needs to get that idea on TV.

and you also might be interested in ...

Fascinating analysis by black comedian D. L. Hughley of the Trump base and why it doesn't care about the Russia scandal. In their view, he says, "America left them" by electing a black president and approving gay marriage and letting all those Hispanics into the country. Now "America is dead to them." If conspiring with Russia makes it possible for Trump to give them back the America their kind of people used to dominate, then that's fine.

Hughley compares the situation to the Bible story in which King Solomon offers to cut a baby in half to resolve two women's claims to be its mother. (One of them actually had a different baby, who died.) Solomon knows the true mother, because she begs to surrender the child rather than let it be killed. But Trump supporters are like the other woman, who feels so aggrieved that she would let Solomon divide the baby. If her baby is dead, then the other woman's baby might as well die too. They don't care if Trump conspired with an enemy power, because if he kills American democracy, so what? America is already dead to them.


Trump's Youngstown and Ronkonkoma speeches, where he talked at length about the "animals" in the MS-13 gang, were both chilling in similar ways. Vox's Brian Resnick spells it out:

Trump doesn’t clearly differentiate between criminal and peaceful immigrants living in the United States, nor does he care to. But Trump’s language is also dangerous, because it’s blatantly dehumanizing.

When we refer to people as “animals” or anything other than “people” it flips a mental switch in our minds. It allows us to deny empathy to other people, makes us feel numb to their pain, and lets us forgive ourselves from causing them harm.

Vox's Dara Lind described Trump's staff reshuffle as a "dark reboot" that will re-center the administration's message on "making America afraid again". That fear is a justification-in-advance of the cruelty to come -- the cruelty that is already here. When MS-13 is the face of all immigrants, Trump's base can happily watch ICE rip mothers away from their children.


The backstory of Trump's transgender ban is amazing. It starts in the House, in a disagreement between Republicans about whether the new budget should ban insurance programs for the military that might pay for gender-transition surgery. The anti-transgender Republicans were losing and appealed to Trump for help. What they got instead was:

The United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.

The Republican senators who pushed back against this make quite a list, including as Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Joni Ernst . The prevailing opinion seems to be that if you're willing to be shot at for America, America should let you do it.

And then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs basically said "never mind":

“I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the President,” Marine General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in an internal memo obtained by Politico. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.” In what reads like a rebuke of the policy Trump outlined on Twitter, Dunford added, “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect . . . and will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”

Some commenters are worried by the prospect of the Pentagon ignoring civilian orders, which would indeed be a worrisome thing. But a tweet is not an order. If it were, then anybody who hacked Trump's Twitter account -- don't tell me that's impossible -- would become commander-in-chief. (To paraphrase the inscription on the hammer of Marvel's Thor: "Whosoever hacks this account, whether he be worthy or not, shall wield the power of Trump.") Also: one of the proper ways to respond to a vague order that comes out of the blue is to ask for more specific instructions. (i.e., "Open fire" ... "On what?") That's what Dunford did.

In the end, though, it looks like this decision is really up to Congress, if it chooses to exercise its authority.


While we're on the subject, my favorite response to the transgender ban came from the female writers for Seth Meyers, who trolled self-proclaimed LGBT ally Ivanka Trump.

and let's close with something amusing

When you're a scientist flying to or from a conference, you often wind up carrying things you have a hard time explaining to TSA, like a 3D-printed model of a mouse penis, enlarged to the size of an 11-foot mouse. Or maybe a Nobel Prize. ("Who gave this to you?" "The King of Sweden.")

Monday, July 24, 2017

Nobody Begs for Dirty Water

I think it's important to note that the Congress has cut the [Environmental Protection] Agency quite a bit before you got there. Quite a bit recently, in relative terms. And so, speaking only for myself, I would expect to take those cuts into account and echo my colleague's sentiments about you may be the first person to get more than you asked for. Because, quite frankly, as many people have made the point, nobody is standing on the rooftops begging for dirty water, dirty air, dirty soil, and those sorts of things.

- Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nevada) to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt
hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
7-15-2017, (at about the 1:42 mark)

This week's featured post is Kipling's "If" adapted for the Trump family: "Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr.". This week's three misunderstandings: the census, the economic impact of environmental regulations, and who killed the coal-mining jobs.

This week everybody was talking about the apparent failure of TrumpCare

The Senate's TrumpCare bill changed several times this week, and all the versions failed to get 50 of the 52 Republican senators to approve moving forward. This issue is never over, because Republicans agree that they have to do something, but they can't agree on what.

I could almost feel sorry for them if they hadn't done this to themselves. They ran on some unspecified "replacement" for ObamaCare that Trump promised would cover everybody better and cheaper. It's now clear that no such plan ever existed, and that Trump has never had two consecutive coherent thoughts about healthcare. So either Republicans do nothing and look ineffective, or they do something that falls way short of the expectations they built up.

Their position was designed for undermining President Clinton, who would bail them out with a veto the same way Obama always did. Trump wasn't supposed to win.


But beyond this particular no-win moment, Republican free-market rhetoric is unsuited to healthcare in a more basic way. Markets don't see people, they see money. So if you can't afford to pay for what you want, your desires are invisible. (The corresponding economic concept is effective demand; wanting something you can't afford isn't effective in a market economy.)

That's why the market will never provide affordable effective healthcare for the poor and lower working class. At best, they'll be left facing the kinds of trade-offs no one should have to make: Do you send the kids to school with clothes they've outgrown over the summer, or do you pay the health insurance premium? A lot of people facing such a dilemma will "choose" to take a chance on staying healthy. If they lose that gamble, the market would let them die.

But that's not the kind of society most Americans want to live in. On most issues, we're willing to let the market allocate goods and services. I'm willing to accept, for example, that my desire for seafront property is ineffective. Richer people can have the ocean views and private jets and varieties of wine that I will never taste. I'm fine with that. But when we're talking about who lives and who dies, money shouldn't be the deciding factor.

The only way to change that situation is to put in government money. Republicans are still struggling with that basic fact, which is why they can't come up with any reasonable plan.


The Senate parliamentarian just made ObamaCare repeal that much harder: Several provisions of the current bill, including the anti-abortion ones, don't fit under the reconciliation rules that avoid filibuster. So they need 60 votes rather than 50, which they're not going to get.

and whether Trump will accept being investigated

Almost every day last week, something new came out that increased the odds of the Constitutional-crisis nightmare scenario: Trump scuttles the Mueller investigation, pardons anybody in his administration who might have done something wrong (including himself), and leaves Congress to either accept this fait accompli or impeach him. I still don't think this is the most probable scenario (though Josh Marshall does), but it's way more likely than I'm comfortable with.

Wednesday, Trump was interviewed in the Oval Office by three New York Times reporters, revealing that he thought it would be a "red line" if Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated his finances (which Bloomberg was simultaneously revealing that Mueller is doing), and lambasting Attorney General Sessions for doing the ethical thing by recusing himself from an investigation where he might become a target. Thursday, the NYT revealed that Trump's defense team is investigating Mueller and his people for conflicts of interest they can use to discredit the investigation or maybe justify shutting it down, and WaPo reported that Trump was looking into pardons, even possibly pardoning himself. (Experts disagree: Would that be unconstitutional, or did the framers just regard it as unthinkable?) Friday it came out that Jeff Sessions might still not have come clean about his meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Will Sessions hang on as attorney general? If he goes, will Trump replace him with someone he can count on to fire Mueller? Will the Senate go for that? Will they OK Trump's FBI pick? What will Jared Kushner reveal in his testimony today? What about Don Jr. and Paul Manafort?

Why does this all feel like we're building up to a season-ending cliffhanger?


Dahlia Lithwick is Slate's top law writer, but she writes an illuminating piece about the limits of law to control people like Trump.

The rule of law is precisely as robust as our willingness to fight for it. And to fight for it is not quite the same thing as to ask, “Isn’t there a law?” While a nation founded on laws and not men is a noble aspiration, I am not certain that what the Framers anticipated was a constitutional regime predicated on the Harry Potter hope that all the lawyers would fix all the stuff while everyone else crossed their fingers and prayed. ... What is increasingly clear is that Trump’s lawlessness isn’t a problem to be solved by other people’s attorneys. Like it or not, we are all public interest lawyers now.


Friday Sean Spicer resigned and hedge-fund manager Anthony Scaramucci became communicators director, because apparently if you can make money, you can do anything. (I know it's an ethnic stereotype, but Scaramucci really does look like a Sopranos character. Maybe Spicer isn't the wartime consigliere Trump believes he needs.) Sarah Huckabee Sanders moves up to press secretary, a job she was occasionally filling anyway.

Hedge fund manager, VP at Goldman Sachs, degree from Harvard Law -- Scaramucci is the perfect manifestation of populist anger, don't you think?


Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr seems unimpressed by one of the fake controversies Trump defenders have spun out of the Russia inquiry: that Obama's National Security Adviser Susan Rice improperly "unmasked" the names of people whose conversations were captured by the NSA.  Blaming his House counterpart, Burr told CNN: "The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes."


Journalism Professor Jay Rosen takes a deeper look at Trump's NYT interview. All the assumptions of the political interview, he tweets, are out the window with Trump:

One premise of interviewing a public official is that the official is more "in the know" than the journalist. Everything the Times reporters asked about health care shredded that premise. He knows far less than the people seeking answers from him!

When a subject says something confusing or wrong, you usually hope that the interviewer asks a follow-up question. But Trump's speaking style (in which he rarely produces a complete, coherent idea, and is more likely to interrupt his own train of thought than to elaborate) makes that tactic useless.

the most likely outcome of seeking clarification by way of a follow-up is that he will introduce some new and further confusion.

But Rosen also points to a more fundamental confusion: Trump's entire sense of self depends on being seen by others. So in an interview he isn't presenting himself so much as making himself.

You don't get a sense that he's explaining what existed prior to its being asked about in the interview— or that it will persist after.

and John McCain

This week we found out that Senator McCain has an aggressive form of brain cancer. News reports don't usually speculate about whether somebody is going to die soon, but that seemed like the read-between-the-lines message.

One of the benefits of living in New Hampshire is that you get to see presidential candidates close up. Of all the candidates I've seen since I started going to these campaign events in 2000, the one who connected with a room the best is John McCain. He's personable, loves to answer questions, and has an impressive range of knowledge. Even as a liberal, I would always come away trying to rationalize voting for him. (In the 2000 primary, I crossed over and voted for him against Bush. Given how the Bush administration turned out, I'm not sorry.) I saw him several times in both the 2000 and 2008 cycles, and the quality of his performance never wavered.

At a 2008 rally in Minnesota, he did the last magnanimous thing I can remember a Republican presidential candidate doing: When an elderly woman started talking about not trusting Obama because he's "an Arab" and (by implication) a Muslim terrorist sympathizer, McCain interrupted and corrected her before she could spread any more falsehoods about his opponent: "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about."

but you should pay more attention to Iran

In 2015, the Obama administration worked out a deal with Iran: We and our allies would relax our economic sanctions and let Iran access its money that we had frozen in our banking system, and in exchange Iran would stop its nuclear-weapons program, shut down a bunch of centrifuges, turn over its stash of weapon-ready radioactive material, and permit inspections to give us confidence that they weren't restarting it all. Every 90 days the President is supposed to report to Congress on whether Iran is upholding its end of the deal.

During the campaign Trump regularly attacked this deal, though there was no indication that he understood it any better than he understood any of the other stuff he talked about. (Where is that marvelous healthcare plan he promised?) Speaking to a pro-Israel group, he said, "My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran."

To keep that promise, all Trump has to do is report to Congress that Iran isn't complying, and ask them to reinstate sanctions. But Iran is upholding the deal. Rex Tillerson's State Department says so, and the other defense-and-foreign-policy adults in the administration -- Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford -- agree. Facing that united front, Trump felt like he had no choice this week; he verified Iran's compliance.

But Trump hates having his actions dictated by experts and their "facts". So Foreign Policy reports that he has instructed White House staffers to work around Tillerson.

Withholding certification “wasn’t a real option available to me,” Trump reportedly told the staffers. “Make sure that’s not the case 90 days from now.”

Here's the problem with that course: The original sanctions worked because Secretary of State Clinton convinced a significant international coalition (including Russia, China, and the EU) to cooperate. That coalition isn't likely to reinstate sanctions just because Trump says so. So after he blows up this deal, Trump will be in a weaker negotiating position than Obama was.

and you also might be interested in ...

Was it the massive street demonstrations? Pressure from the rest of the EU? A rift in the ruling party? Whatever the cause, I'll take it: Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed two bills that would have given the authoritarian ruling party nearly complete control of the judiciary.

If you're saying "What authoritarian ruling party?", take a few minutes to read David Frum's "How to Build an Autocracy" from March. Right-wing parties in Poland and Hungary are following the Putin model of how to corrupt a democracy. For more something more specific to Poland, look at The Washington Post's "In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power" from December.


Thursday, it was hard to avoid coverage of O. J. Simpson, who got paroled from the armed robbery charge that has kept him in prison the last nine years. I have nothing against O.J. personally, but I don't want to hear about him any more. If he has a quiet, happy old age that never again makes headlines, that would be fine with me.


538's Perry Bacon has an educational piece about stories with unnamed sources: As a journalistic insider, when does he take such stories seriously and when not.


Putin's decision to back Trump continues to pay dividends. Wednesday we found out that the U.S. will no longer arm rebels against Syrian President Assad, a Putin ally.

“This is a momentous decision,” said a current official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program. “Putin won in Syria.”

In general, Syria is a mess and intelligent people can disagree about what we should be doing there. I just wish I could be confident that our new policy is based on someone's vision of American interests, rather than paying off whatever debt Trump owes Putin.


Trump is nominating a climate-denier with no scientific background to be the top scientist at the Department of Agriculture. This isn't just a bad idea, it violates a 2008 law:

The Under Secretary shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.

We'll see if the Senate allows this. Sam Clovis has a bachelor's degree in political science and a doctorate in public administration. He was the Iowa campaign chair for another know-nothing Trump appointee: Energy Secretary (and custodian of the nuclear arsenal) Rick Perry.


Another nominee: Andrew Wheeler to be the second-in-command at EPA. Wheeler is a coal-industry lobbyist and a former aide to Senator Inhofe, who famously disproved global warming by bringing a snowball to the floor of the Senate.


Joel Clement is a government scientist who is blowing the whistle on the administration's attempt to get its scientists to leave.

and let's close with something unusual

Stephen Colbert visits the home of Mikhail Prokhorov in hopes of learning how to be a Russian oligarch.