Monday, January 29, 2018

Saving Jesus

To save Jesus from those claiming to be his heirs, we must wrench him from the hands of those who use him as a fa├žade from which to hide their phobias — their fear of blacks, their fear of the undocumented, their fear of Muslims, their fear of everything queer.

- Miguel De La Torre "The Death of Christianity in the U. S."

This week's featured posts are "Trump's Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand" and "The Shutdown, DACA, and Immigration: Where We Are".

This week everybody was talking about the end of the shutdown

One of the featured posts discusses this in more detail. One additional thing about the related immigration debate: Something you often hear European-Americans say is: "I'm not against immigrants. I just think they should come in the right way, like my ancestors did."

Three points on that: First, when my German ancestors came to America in the 1840s and 1850s, there was no wrong way, because there were no rules. America didn't start limiting immigration until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. From the beginning, it's always been about race.

Second, immigrating to this country legally, i.e., becoming a legal permanent resident, isn't the simple thing that "why don't they just ..." statements imply. People come here without a green card because they see no chance of getting one, not because they want to flaunt our laws. MTV's Franchesca Ramsey explains.

Finally, Trump's latest proposal (which further tightens legal immigration) will just make this worse. So the statement boils down to "Why don't they do something we're not going to let them do?"

and the Mueller investigation

Thursday, The New York Times reported that Trump ordered the Justice Department to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June, after it became clear Mueller was investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. Reportedly, White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign rather than deliver the message to Justice, and Trump backed down.

For what it's worth, Trump called the report "fake news" and "a typical New York Times fake story". Joe Scarborough's response to Sean Hannity's attempt to first deny and then distract from this story is hilarious.

Wednesday, Trump told reporters he was "looking forward" to talking with Mueller, and said he would do so under oath, repeating a claim he made last June. It was only a few hours before his lawyers were walking that back.

Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer leading the response to the investigation, said Mr. Trump was speaking hurriedly and intended only to say that he was willing to meet.

If anybody expects to see Trump under oath without (or even with) an order from the Supreme Court, let me remind you of all the times he has said he would release his tax returns. All this just underlines the Jay Rosen quote I mentioned last week, about the pointlessness of interviewing Trump:

In an interview situation, [Trump is] just saying what — at the moment — makes him feel like the best, the biggest, the greatest, the brightest, the richest, the most potent. He’s just saying whatever comes to his mind as the most spectacular boast he can think of. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his policies.

Speaking of interviewing Trump, Matt Yglesias comes to a similar conclusion about an interview Trump did with CNBC's Joe Kernen:

Listening to him talk is interesting from an entertainment perspective (he did once host a popular television show), but it conveys no information about the world, the American government, or the Trump administration’s policies. If Kernen wanted to help his viewers understand what’s going on, he’d have been better off interviewing someone else.

Trump is also trying to get the Justice Department to release a memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes. It seems to be a summary of the conspiracy-theory view of the Mueller investigation. It's based on classified information, and career DoJ people think its release would be "extremely reckless".

He has also recently said things that make it look like he doesn't understand what obstruction of justice means.

On Wednesday, speaking briefly to reporters, Trump defended his actions in the probe as “fighting back” against unfair allegations. “Oh, well, ‘Did he fight back?’ ” Trump said. “You fight back, ‘Oh, it’s obstruction.’ ”

If you're the president of the United States and the Justice Department is investigating you, using your official powers to "fight back" is exactly what obstruction of justice means. It's illegal for good reason.

but I to push back on Trump's claims about his first year

I can't bring myself to watch the State of the Union address tomorrow night, but I'll probably read the transcript. No doubt it will be full of claims about how the economy is growing and creating jobs.

The truth is that Obama left Trump an economy trending in the right direction, and it has continued to do so. The GDP growth graph looks like this:

And the job-growth graph like this:

This is about what I would expect, because the Trump tax cut has yet to take effect, and there has been no Trump budget -- everything is still running on continuing resolutions based on Obama's last budget. If there's a boom next year, that might belong to Trump.

and you also might be interested in ...

If you're having trouble understanding or explaining net neutrality, explain it in terms of Burger King's Whoppers.

If congressional districts weren't gerrymandered, what should they look like? 538 looks at the different things you might want to optimize, and the maps they lead to.

A video made by the War Department in 1947 is going around on social media. Its message -- that we shouldn't let rabble-rousers turn us against Americans who look different than we do -- still resonates. "Remember when you hear this kind of talk: Somebody is going to get something out of it, and it isn't going to be you."

The extended play version is about 23 minutes.

Mother Jones chronicles the rise and fall of ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an Ohio charter school that made its founder rich, cost taxpayers millions, produced poor results, and now has collapsed, leaving many of its students in the lurch.

Multiple warning signs got ignored, because ECOT fit the Republican privatization ideal so well that it got tangled up in the partisan politics of the Ohio legislature. Former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland explains:

“I don’t think all political contributions are efforts to do something nefarious,” Strickland told me. “But in this case, I think it was so obvious that these schools were so bad and were failing and had such lax oversight. I cannot give the Republican Legislature the benefit of the doubt and say that they did not know.

“When you have a situation where public moneys are used to enrich individuals,” he added, “who then in turn support the politicians that support the policies that enrich them—it may not be illegal, but I think that fits the definition of corruption.”

Statewide, ECOT got "more than $1 billion in public funding, much of it diverted from better performing Ohio schools ... at least 15 percent of that money—about $150 million—was paid to [founder William] Lager’s private companies".

Yesterday [January 18], after 17 years of operation, the school came to a spectacular end. ... Despite years of critics raising similar concerns, the school’s demise happened quickly, after two Ohio Department of Education reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that ECOT had overbilled taxpayers by $80 million for thousands of students it couldn’t show were meeting the department’s enrollment standards. As a result, last summer the state ordered the school to begin paying back almost $4 million per month in school funds, which ECOT claimed it was unable to do.

David Roberts writes about the role of climate change in our national strategy: It's been taken out of the new version of the National Security Strategy, but the Pentagon continues to take it seriously in a lot of ways.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral now serving as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, succinctly lays out the reasons the military can’t ignore climate change in this piece. Scarcity of water and other resources will drive dislocation and conflict, he writes. Coastal Naval bases are in danger of being inundated by rising seas; the Arctic is melting and opening new areas of geopolitical conflict; the rising cost of climate impacts will squeeze the military budget; and responding to severe weather events will reduce military readiness.

However, the military can't make up for climate denial in the rest of the government, because the military's focus (appropriately, Roberts says) is to respond to climate change, not prevent it. And that could lead to this dystopian future:

As things get worse, those who can afford to protect themselves — move their military bases, build sea walls and desalination plants, claim newly navigable land in the Arctic — will pull farther and farther away from those who can’t (the global poor, who did so little to cause the problem). The US might come out on top in a more violent, chaotic world, but in the end, we do not stand apart. We will sink with it.

Dr. Larry Nassar got sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for molesting young women and girls who came to him for treatment. He's 54 and already has a 60-year sentence to serve, so he's never getting out.

In addition to Nassar himself, two institutions are in trouble for enabling Nassar and ignoring his accusers: USA Gymnastics and my alma mater, Michigan State, where Nassar was on the faculty.

The whole USA Gymnastics board has resigned. The NCAA is investigating the extent to which the university was complicit, and both the university president and the athletic director have resigned. The Nassar publicity has also brought attention to reports of sexual assaults by MSU football and basketball players, which were either ignored or taken lightly. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued a report, which ESPN cites:

The report states students told investigators that Michigan State athletes "have a reputation for engaging in sexual harassment and sexual assault and not being punished for it, because athletes are held in such high regard at the university." It also states that athletes received more training on sexual harassment and sexual assault than other students but noted possible mixed messages. It cites a program called "Branded a Spartan" about upholding the Spartan name. Some male athletes told investigators that "making a report about sexual assault might tarnish the Spartan brand," and at least one said he might not report an incident involving a fellow athlete to the Title IX office, according to the report.

For a little over a month, Taco Bell has been trolling conspiracy theorists with its "Belluminati" ad campaign, like this commercial.

And guess what? It's working. The Vigilant Citizen blog says this is "the Illuminati flaunting in plain sight". The Unseen Encyclopedia warns that "the jokes on you ... it's always hidden in plain sight".

And now Taco Bell is upping ante with this "Web of Fries" movie trailer.

Leaving the subject of Taco Bell, let's talk about dietary fiber. Everybody knows it's good for you, but nobody is sure exactly what it does for you. Now there's an interesting theory that seems to prove out in mice: It's good for the bacteria in your intestines.

and let's close with something amazing

Somehow, my scientific education never covered the Leidenfrost Effect, which causes drops of water to float on a vapor layer above a metal surface heated to 500 degrees or so, and sometimes to climb up and over tiny grooves that can be formed into a ladder of sorts. It's fun to watch.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Troubles and Issues

"Troubles" are the things that bother people in their lives, that they talk about at night over the kitchen table, the things that they are actively worried about. "Issues" is what the political system does to run elections. ... When Issues don't speak to Troubles, and Troubles don't connect to Issues, you have a crisis in democracy.

-- Jay Rosen

This week's featured post is "Lies, Damned Lies, and Trump Administration Terrorism Statistics".

This week everybody was talking about a government shutdown

First, the simple facts: The shutdown became official at midnight Saturday morning. The Friday-night vote that made it final was 50-49 in the Senate. (John McCain, who is battling cancer, was the senator not voting.) The funding proposal fell well short of the 60 votes it needed to pass.

A continuing resolution to fund the government for four weeks had passed the House, but the 50 votes in the Senate were not enough to break a filibuster. The votes in both houses were mostly along party lines. In the House, Republicans voted 224-11 for the CR, and Democrats 186-6 against. In the Senate, Republicans voted for it 45-5 and Democrats against 44-5. The senators crossing party lines were five Democrats (Donnelly, Jones, Heitkamp, Manchin, McCaskill) and five Republicans (Flake, Graham, Lee, McConnell, Paul -- I suspect there's some procedural reason why McConnell voted against it once he knew it wasn't going to pass).

The two main sticking points in the negotiations leading up to the shutdown were preventing the deportation of the Dreamers and health insurance for children. (The CHIP program expired at the end of September. The states have kept it going anyway, but some will start running out of money soon.) The CR that failed funded CHIP for six years, but did nothing about the Dreamers, who will lose legal status in March because Trump killed President Obama's DACA program.

It is bizarre that these are the issues Congress is stuck on, because both are popular with the voters, and would pass if they came to the floor as individual measures. Probably the only reason CHIP wasn't reauthorized a long time ago was precisely so that Republicans could use it as a bargaining chip now. (In other words: We want to do the right thing, but only if we get something for it.) Paul Ryan is grandstanding about CHIP now, but Dylan Matthews points out all the opportunities he had to handle this problem without making it part of a shutdown vote. (In particular: Why isn't CHIP an entitlement like Medicare, rather than a program that comes up for a vote every few years?)

For weeks, optimists have expected a DACA-like program to be part of a deal that included tighter immigration rules and  more funding for border security, possibly even allowing Trump to claim that he had succeeded in getting money (from Congress and not from Mexico) to build his wall. The White House meeting that dissolved into the shithole-countries debacle was about precisely such a bipartisan deal that Senators Graham and Durbin had worked out. Since then, the main obstacle to a deal has been that Mitch McConnell didn't want to get stuck championing something that Trump wouldn't sign. All week he had been dropping ever-more-pointed hints that Trump should tell McConnell what he wants.

"I'm looking for something that President Trump supports, and he has not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign,” McConnell said. “As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels."

Consequently: Nothing about DACA was in the deal voted on Friday night.

So here we are: Nobody really wants a government shutdown. Almost nobody wants children to lose health insurance. Only the most radical anti-immigration minority in Congress (and Stephen Miller in the White House) wants to deport the Dreamers. And yet, these are the things we're fighting about.

There's currently a vote scheduled in the Senate later today. This could all resolve quickly, or not.

In general, nobody-wins situations like this happen because each side has its own view of how the disaster will play out. (Labor strikes are similar: Each side thinks the other will have to fold first, so they push to the crisis.) So a large part of how this comes out depends on how the public reacts. Republicans clearly think the public will frame the issue as the Democrats standing up for illegal immigrants over the American people. (Part of that is code, as I've explained before: The "American people" are white Christians.) Democrats think that the Republicans in charge of everything will bear the blame, and also have the argument that they're just trying to get Trump to do something he has often claimed he wants to do anyway. If one side is wrong, that side will eventually have to give in.

and a lie about immigrants and terrorism

That's the subject of the featured post, "Lies, Damned Lies, and Trump Administration Terrorism Statistics". To their collective shame, Homeland Security and the Department of Justice assembled a report to back up a lie Trump told to Congress: "The vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country." The report is a textbook lesson on how to abuse statistics.

While we're talking immigration, this meme has been going around:

and the Trump/Russia connection

This still looks speculative to me, but a bombshell story from McClatchy claimed that the FBI is investigating whether money from a Russian oligarch was funneled through the National Rifle Association to help elect Trump.

Investigating, of course, doesn't always mean that they've found anything, or even that there's anything to find. The purely factual part of the story is that the NRA spent way more money supporting Trump ($30 million) than they have on Romney or previous Republican presidential candidates. The NRA/Russia link is supposed to be "Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA." It's illegal to use foreign money to influence a U.S. election, so if this pans out, it's a crime.

My usual test for stories like this is whether I'd believe them if the parties were flipped. If I had heard that the FBI was investigating whether Chinese money had flowed through the Sierra Club to help Hillary Clinton, would I believe there was fire under that smoke? At this point, probably not. I plan to wait and see.

Another transcript related to the Steele dossier came out this week: Glenn Simpson, a co-founder of Fusion GPS, the research firm that hired Christopher Steele to investigate Trump's relationship with Russia and Russian oligarchs, testified before the House Intelligence Committee in November. The committee released that transcript, with a few redactions, Thursday.

I haven't completed reading either this transcript or the comparable one from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Simpson seems impressive in what I've read of both. His investigation sounds nothing like the conspiracy theories Republicans are spreading about it. And he tells a coherent Trump/Russia narrative that may not be proven yet, but does fit a lot of the known facts: During a period when the Trump Organization wasn't considered credit-worthy, a lot of suspicious Russian money flowed into Trump projects in a way that looks like money laundering. This was the beginning of a Trump/Russia relationship that blossomed during the campaign, resulting in a significant effort by Russian intelligence to get Trump elected.

Simpson does a good job of stating what he knows and not overstating it. Like this:

"Evidence", I think, is a strong word. I think we saw patterns of buying and selling that we thought were suggestive of money laundering. ... You know, fast turnover deals and deals where there seemed to have been efforts to disguise the identity of the buyer.

Fusion GPS couldn't get "evidence" because they didn't have subpoena power to get bank records. But congressional committees do. Rep. Adam Schiff asked who they should subpoena, and Simpson laid it out:

I would go for the clearing banks in New York that cleared the transactions, you know. And there's—again, it's these sort of intermediary entities that have no real interest in protecting the information, and all you have to do is ask for it and they just sort of produced by rote. So we've done a lot of money laundering investigations where we go to the trust companies and the clearing entities. And so, you know, all dollar transactions are generally cleared through New York. So, you know, the main thing you have to do is identify the banks that were used.

Atlantic's David Graham followed up by asking Schiff whether the committee will follow this course. It's not happening, Schiff told him "because Republican members are not interested".

One of the arguments about the Democratic message for 2018 is whether or not they should come out for Trump's impeachment. I hope they don't go that far, because the hard evidence isn't there yet. (Evidence is a strong word.) Instead, I would argue that the public needs Democrats to take over Congress so that we can find out what happened. Republicans are blocking investigations, and Democrats will go wherever the facts lead. Maybe that will be impeachment and maybe it won't. We need to know the facts before we can say, and we'll never know them if Republicans stay in control.

and the end of Trump's first year

I was hoping to do my own wrap-up this week, but the article didn't come together, so I'll push it off to next week. One of the things I plan to do is examine whether, going into this administration, I was afraid of the right things. In particular, I'll look back at "The Trump Administration: What I'm Watching For", which I wrote two weeks after the election.

In particular, I said was watching to see if Trump would be doing any of these seven things.

  • taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments
  • taking credit for averting dangers that never existed
  • profiteering
  • changing the electorate
  • winking at right-wing paramilitary groups
  • subverting government agencies for political advantage
  • paying Putin back

All in all, I think in hindsight, not a bad list.

and you also might be interested in ...

If you don't care about actual civil rights, you need to make up something else for your civil rights offices to do. HHS is going to task its office to protect healthcare workers who have moral objections typical of conservative Christians -- not wanting to participate in abortions or in transgender patient transitions, for example.

The pending rule would establish a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division of the HHS civil rights office that would conduct compliance reviews, audits and other enforcement actions to ensure that health care providers are allowing workers to opt out of procedures when they have religious or moral objections.

The new office "would be empowered to further shield these workers and punish organizations that don’t allow them to express their religious and moral objections".

Since it's impossible to make allowance for everything that someone might claim is part of their religion -- what if a Jehovah's Witness EMT doesn't want to participate in blood transfusions? what if a pharmacist has a religious objection to insulin manufactured through genetic engineering? or to any drug whose testing process involved killing animals? -- there is literally no way to implement such a policy without favoring some religions over others. In practice, the moral objections of Baptists and Catholics will be seen as serious and reasonable, while those of less popular religions will get consideration only to the extent that popular religions share them. The moral objections of atheists will be ignored completely, since they're not "religious".

In short, having a religion (especially a popular one) gets you special rights.

In any other administration, it would be a major scandal if the president paid off a porn star not to talk about their affair. For Trump, it barely registers. I look at religious-right Trump supporters like Rev. Robert Jeffress and wonder what they'd be saying if The Wall Street Journal had written the exact same story about Obama.

BTW: I think it's a low blow to point out the resemblance between Stormy Daniels and Ivanka. Probably they both look like a younger version of Ivanka's mom, who Trump marrried. There's a quote in Daniels' article in In Touch that can be spun in an incestuous way, but it's not obvious Trump meant it like that, even assuming he actually said it.

Trump got a physical from a well regarded Navy doctor, who pronounced him basically healthy. In particular, he passed a cognitive-function test. Admittedly, that test is not hard. But it would catch a lot of the kinds of dementia people imagine Trump has.

I never put a lot of stock in the Trump-has-dementia narrative, and to the extent I ever did, I'm going to stop talking about it. To me it's like the Bush-is-stupid narrative that popped up so often during W's administration. Bush was not stupid, he just had no interest in most of the topics we expect presidents to stay on top of. Probably if you talked to him about baseball, you'd be surprised how much he knows.

I suspect something similar about Trump: He has an unfocused mind, like a lot of people do. It's hard for him to dig deeply into any subject, and the only topic that really interests him is himself. He indulges in wishful thinking, and refuses to let facts or expert opinions change his mind. These are all serious deficiencies in a president, but there's no reason to think they point to a medical problem. His faults get more pronounced as he gets older, but that also is not unusual. Your uncle who was cantankerous at 50 is probably even more cantankerous at 70; that's not a sign of insanity, it's just how people age.

Earlier this month, Josh Marshall got this issue right: The important thing is what Trump does, not why.

All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior.

There's no need to argue about hidden causes when the effects are more important and so plain to see.

This interview with psychiatrist Allen Frances is well worth reading. He discusses both Trump (who he describes as bad rather than mad) and the people who support him. He advocates more political action from the public, rather than hoping that some cabal within the administration will use a psychological diagnosis to invoke the 25th amendment.

As a commenter pointed out last week: Most of the Americans who retire to Mexico are undocumented.

One 2015 study from Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography reveals that a stunning 91.2 percent of Americans in the country don't have their papers in order.

Still no one knows what Trump's inaugural committee did with the $107 million it raised. Obama's committee put on a bigger show for more people with half as much money, so either somebody made a huge profit or there's a $50 million dollar slush fund out there somewhere.

but you should listen to Jay Rosen

One my favorite news-media observers is Jay Rosen from Columbia University. His summary of how the news media has responded to Trump's first year is the first half of this episode of the Recode podcast. He was interviewed on Recode last year, and made a number of observations that other news people eventually came around to -- like that there was really no point in interviewing Kellyanne Conway, since it was impossible either for the journalist or the readers/viewers to pull any trustworthy information out of the mass of disinformation you would get from her.

In this interview, he talks about the press's loyalty to "rituals" that no longer serve a purpose in the Trump era. The press continues to fight for access to the White House "because that's what the White House press corps does". But even scoring the ultimate access -- an interview with the President himself -- does practically nothing to keep readers/viewers informed.

The whole purpose of interviewing a sitting president is that you can find out about their thinking, you can illuminate their policy choices, you can dig a little deeper into what they plan to do. That assumes that the president has policy ideas.

In an interview situation, [Trump is] just saying what — at the moment — makes him feel like the best, the biggest, the greatest, the brightest, the richest, the most potent. He’s just saying whatever comes to his mind as the most spectacular boast he can think of. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything about his policies.

He criticized the press for continuing to project normality onto Trump, for example, by talking about his "foreign policy" as if there were such a thing.

One of the more interesting parts of the interview was when the interviewer (Peter Kafka) brought up Rosen's previous statements that the press should "listen" to the American people more. Kafka related it to the various articles we have seen in which reporters go interview Trump voters in rural areas they don't usually cover. Rosen agreed that some good journalism came out of that effort, but said it wasn't what he had meant. He backed up to talk about a distinction (attributed to sociologist C. Wright Mills) between "troubles" and "issues".

"Troubles" are the things that bother people in their lives, that they talk about at night over the kitchen table, the things that they are actively worried about. "Issues" is what the political system does to run elections and win coalitions. And his point is that when Issues don't speak to Troubles, and Troubles don't connect to Issues, you have a crisis in democracy.

So my point was not that journalists should just go out and listen to the Trump voters because they got the election wrong. It was that if journalists could somehow listen to people's Troubles in a new and more potent way, then they would be in a position to represent those people better than the political system does when it fashions them into Issues. Now that's a deeper and more ambitious project than "Let's check in with Trump voters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to see if they still support Donald Trump."

I think we saw a lot of that kind of parachuting into Trump Country, which is sort of an anthropological -- or some people said "zoological" -- exercise. We saw a lot of that. But what I was talking about was trying to kind of recover authority by understanding the Troubles that led to the results that we saw in 2016.

and let's close with something adorable

The world's smallest cat lives in Sri Lanka and when fully grown, weighs about a kilogram.

Monday, January 15, 2018


The immigration debate has always carried with it an undertone of racism. I'm not attributing this to everyone who holds the position, but there's a sense in which [opposition to] immigration is driven by a deep anxiety about the browning of America. That "how will we stem the tide?", that "this is no longer a white nation." ... What Trump did yesterday was to make explicit the racist undertone of this debate.

- Eddie Glaude, speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" (1-12-2018).

This week's featured post is "The Real Immigration Issue".

On MLK Day, I always like to link to a piece I wrote in 2013 to warn conservatives against cherrypicking King's quotes. The real Martin Luther King was a radical: "MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection".

This week everybody was talking about shithole countries

(More about this in the featured post.) Even in a presidency full of jaw-dropping moments, Trump's statement about "shithole countries" was extreme.

Trump made the remarks Thursday during a meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office in which they discussed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan deal on the status of undocumented young U.S. immigrants, The Washington Post reported.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to people in the room, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Trump then reportedly suggested that the United States instead should bring in more immigrants from countries such as Norway.

The most appalling thing here is not Trump -- at least not any more; it's not news that he's a racist, or that he expresses himself crudely, or that his presidency is a constant embarrassment to the United States of America -- it's how few conservative or Republican voices speak out against him, even when he is so clearly in the wrong. For example, most members of his council of evangelical advisors made no comment, and the ones who did were supportive, like Baptist mega-church pastor Robert Jeffress:

"I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.” The United States, Jeffress said, has every right to restrict immigration according to whatever criteria it establishes, including race or other qualifications. “The country has the right to establish what would benefit our nation the most,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything racist about it at all.”

You read that right: Explicitly screening immigrants according to race would not be racist. What rabbit hole have we gone down here?

Jeffress was not alone in seeing a problem of bad language rather than evil intentions. Others saw only Trump's style, which is just different from what previous presidents have led us to expect. Fox News' Jesse Watters:

This is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar. This is how Trump relates to people.

There's a core of truth there, but Watters is leaving out something important: This is how racists talk at the bar, and how Trump relates to racists.

James Fallows imagines if previous presidents had acted like Trump.

Suppose, contrary to known (to me) fact, Eisenhower had said to Senators in WH meeting during Little Rock school deseg controversy, “why are these n****s so pushy and demanding?" Suppose that legislators meeting JFK, LBJ, or even Nixon at WH during nonstop 1960s civil-rights tensions had heard a sitting president refer to black neighborhoods as shitholes or used code word ‘Nigra.' Those comments would *certainly* have “connected with the base” in states that were fighting de-segregation. They would have reflected what “a lot of people were thinking.”

But I don’t think you’d have found (or would find, if you went back and looked) *mainstream* news outlets that would explain away, from a sitting president, outright racist language. This kind of “connecting with the base” rationalization is a new thing, and bad. Every civilization has ugly elements, which leaders are supposed to help their society rise above rather than egg on.

The one positive thing to come out of this: The mainstream media debate over whether it is proper to describe Trump's remarks or Trump himself as "racist" seems to be over: They are and he is.

At first the White House didn't even deny Trump's comment. Its initial statement said that "Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people." Eventually, Trump got around to denying it sort of, and a few of the Republicans in the room backed him up. The striking thing to me, though, is that most of the people in the room were Republicans, and only a handful of them defended their president. Lindsey Graham didn't specifically quote Trump, but more-or-less backed up the published accounts of the meeting.

I'll give the last word on this to the Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, as quoted by The Hill:

This is encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration.

and the Hawaiian false alarm

I can't decide whether the explanation is totally believable or totally unbelievable:

Around 8:05 a.m., the Hawaii emergency employee initiated the internal test, according to a timeline released by the state. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He was supposed to choose the former; as much of the world now knows, he chose the latter, an initiation of a real-life missile alert.

Couldn't somebody have designed in one of those "Are you sure you want to do this?" boxes? If there's a Doomsday Device somewhere, I hope its user interface is more forgiving.


A more detailed message scrolled across television screens in Hawaii, suggesting, “If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor.”

The false warning sparked a wave of panic as thousands of people, many assuming they had only minutes to live, scrambled to seek shelter and say their final goodbyes to loved ones. The situation was exacerbated by a 38-minute gap between the initial alert and a subsequent wireless alert stating the missile warning was a mistake.

and DACA

The "shithole countries" remark came during a meeting in which Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham were presenting a bipartisan compromise to avoid deporting the Dreamers, now that the program through which President Obama had protected them (DACA) has been ended by President Trump. Trump rejected their proposal, but so far there isn't any other plausible plan out there.

DACA is one of many issues in a larger negotiation aimed at avoiding a government shutdown, which is otherwise is scheduled for Friday. The "shithole" meeting came two days after a televised meeting with lawmakers of both parties, in which Trump at various times put forward all possible positions.

538's Perry Bacon thinks he knows what the ultimate compromise has to look like:

Even with the divides in both parties, the potential outlines of a bipartisan deal on immigration are obvious: some kind of permanent legal status and path to citizenship for Dreamers but with limits on their ability to sponsor relatives who also want legal status; an expansion of the physical barriers between the United States and Mexico; and the hiring of some additional border agents and other immigration enforcement personnel.

Meanwhile a court delayed the end of DACA by ordering the administration to keep renewing permits while the court rules on the legality of Trump's order.

and Oprah 2020

Oprah's speech at the Golden Globes, which I also linked to last week, started speculation about whether she wants to be president. That, in turn, sparked much pro-and-con arguing among Democrats. Some Democrats like the idea of challenging Trump with a better outsider: more famous, more accomplished, smarter, more articulate, more in touch with ordinary Americans, and just generally a better human being. Others hate the idea of nominating an inexperienced celebrity: Government is a serious profession, and calls for people who know what they're doing; the fact that the Republican electorate decided to be irresponsible in 2016 is no reason for us to be irresponsible too.

Count me in the middle here. I get the attraction of Oprah 2020. If I could custom-design a Democratic candidate to run against Trump, I think a charismatic black woman who already has a following among whites might be a good start. I'm surprised that there might be one available.

The question is how much we should be willing to give up to get those features. I'm willing to give up a little, but not a lot. Specifically, I would run Candidate Oprah through the same tests as any other candidate. She'll have to articulate a vision, show mastery of the issues, and lay out some detailed programs before I'd consider voting for her. (In 2016, Trump did have a vision -- a reprehensible one -- but he never demonstrated an understanding of issues or programs. He still hasn't.)

Her lack of government experience is a factor, but not a decisive one for me. Over the centuries, the Presidency has grown to be such a big job that in fact no one is qualified for it, not even someone as smart and experienced as Hillary Clinton. Our system requires us to vote for an individual, but in practical terms we are always electing a team. While it's true that Trump doesn't know what he's doing, the larger problem is that Team Trump also doesn't know what it's doing, and even when it does, Trump won't leave his subordinates alone to do what they know how to do. (That's a big piece of the lesson from Fire and Fury.) That's why, for example, the administration keeps putting out executive orders that the courts overturn, and issuing directives that the generals refuse to implement. It's also why there still is no Trump healthcare plan.

So Oprah's inexperience would cause me to look more skeptically at Team Oprah, but I'm willing to be convinced if collectively they stand for something I can support and demonstrate varieties of expertise that Oprah lacks as an individual.

A lot of the anti-Oprah writers point to the pseudoscience that her TV show frequently promoted. Again, I see that as an issue, but not an insurmountable one: Her TV show was intended to engage people's interest with ideas they weren't seeing elsewhere, not to establish government policy. So I would be watching her campaign to see if similar tendencies emerged. Candidate Oprah would of course be asked about politically relevant science issues, and her answers should be critically examined. But if the answers she gives as a candidate stand up to scrutiny, if (unlike Trump) she shows appropriate humility and appreciates that she needs to lean on expert advice, I wouldn't hold against her the stuff she promoted as an entertainer.

but you should pay attention to gerrymandering

A variety of cases are making their way up the ladder of federal courts. TPM has a good explanation of where they are and what they mean. The Texas case is about racial gerrymandering to limit the influence of Hispanic voters. But the North Carolina case opens a new front by directly confronting partisan gerrymanders, whether they are racially motivated or not. (As we increasingly have a party for whites and a party for non-whites, it's hard to tell the difference.)

In 2012, Republicans won just 49 percent of the statewide vote but snagged nine of 13 House seats. Two years later, with 54 percent of the vote, they won 10 of 13 seats.

and you also might be interested in ...

Trump continues to threaten to pull out of President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, but not to do it. Our side of the deal involves waiving sanctions against Iran, which the President needs to do every 120 days. Trump waived the sanctions again, but warned that this is the last time.

He continues to promise his base that he will get a new deal that is tougher on Iran. But no one else seems to think this is likely. In fact, Obama's deal does important stuff:

Under the agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years. For the next 15 years, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. Iran also agreed not to build any new heavy-water facilities for the same period of time. Uranium-enrichment activities will be limited to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges for 10 years. Other facilities will be converted to avoid proliferation risks.

None of our allies involved in the deal have expressed an interest in pulling out. The European Union's chief foreign affairs representative, Federica Mogherini, said on Thursday:

The deal is working, it is delivering on its main goal which means keeping the Iranian nuclear program in check and under close surveillance. Iran is fully complying with the commitments made under the agreement.

Thanks to a Trump pardon, Joe Arpaio isn't in jail. So why shouldn't he be a senator? If you want background, I suggest Rolling Stone's 2012 article "The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio". Arpaio represents not "law and order", but blatant bigotry acting in defiance of law and order.

Fascinating case in New Hampshire: The Border Patrol found marijuana by conducting no-probable-cause searches that would be illegal under New Hampshire law, and would also be illegal under federal law anyplace that wasn't within 100 miles of a border. They turned the weed over to local police in Woodstock, NH, who charged the possessors with a crime. A state court now has to determine whether the evidence is admissible.

At stake is the possibility that American freedoms might seriously erode within a 100-mile band around the border. Already the Border Patrol can set up random checkpoints anywhere in that 100-mile band and ask for your ID. (I know a naturalized U.S. citizen from the U.K. who was stopped on an interstate highway in Vermont. He wasn't driving, so he didn't think he needed to be carrying his driver's license. But his British accent created a problem that took some time to clear up.) It's one thing to be asked to ID yourself and answer some questions when you cross the border. But if you just live near a border, you can be going about your everyday business and suddenly find yourself under search. If anything they find can be turned over to local police for prosecution ... that doesn't sound much like America, does it?

and let's close with one last dance

iHeartRadio put together a celebration of performers who died in 2017, assembling clips of them dancing.

Monday, January 8, 2018


Not only would Trump not be president, almost everyone in the campaign agreed, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.

- Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury

This week's featured post is "Visions of a Future Gift Economy", which discusses Cory Doctorow's recent novel Walkaway.

This week everybody was talking about Fire and Fury

Michael Wolff's book shipped Friday, days after excerpts appeared in New York magazine and Wolff's account of writing the book came out in Hollywood Reporter. I like Masha Gessen's summary of what the book tells us:

The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did.

I'm about 1/4 of the way through Wolff's book, and I feel a consistent cognitive dissonance as I read it: It's simultaneously shocking and unsurprising. If not these exact incidents, many similar ones have been reported over and over again. We all knew. We didn't even have to rely on reporting; Trump's tweets are not the work of a sound and capable mind, much less the "stable genius" he tells us he is. (What actually stable genius would say such a thing?) Read them yourself.

James Fallows points out that Trump's unfitness for the presidency was already "an open secret".

Who is also in on this open secret? Virtually everyone in a position to do something about it, which at the moment means members of the Republican majority in Congress.

They know what is wrong with Donald Trump. They know why it’s dangerous. They understand—or most of them do—the damage he can do to a system of governance that relies to a surprising degree on norms rather than rules, and whose vulnerability has been newly exposed. They know—or should—about the ways Trump’s vanity and avarice are harming American interests relative to competitors like Russia and China, and partners and allies in North America, Europe, and the Pacific.

They know. They could do something: hearings, investigations, demands for financial or health documents, subpoenas. Even the tool they used against the 42nd president, for failings one percent as grave as those of the 45th: impeachment.

They know. They could act. And they don’t.

Josh Marshall:

We are now back on to the feverish debate about whether or not Donald Trump is mentally ill or suffering from the onset of dementia. The most important thing to know about this debate is that it simply doesn’t matter. ... All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell.

Trump fired back by threatening to sue both the publisher and Steve Bannon, which reinforces my belief that he gets bad legal advice. David Graham at The Atlantic explains why a suit is a bad idea. First, suing the publisher is likely to do accomplish nothing more than to increase the book's sales.

In order to win, Trump would likely have to prove that Wolff and the publisher printed information that they knew was false. In the United States, it’s very hard to win a libel suit against a publisher or media outlet—as Trump knows well, since he has repeatedly complained that libel laws need to be loosened for plaintiffs. Many of the most damaging quotes to emerge from the book so far, like Bannon’s description of the June 2016 Trump campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer as “treasonous,” or aides repeated assessments of the president as unintelligent and distracted, are matters of opinion and not fact, and therefore not subject to libel laws.

Take, for example, the quote where Bannon says Ivanka is "dumb as a brick". In order to sue Wolff for that, Trump would have to prove not that his daughter is smarter than a brick, but that Bannon didn't say the quote.

Whether Bannon is vulnerable depends on how sweeping his non-disclosure agreement with Trump is. But even if it's iron-clad and Bannon's statements to Wolff violate it, Trump would be foolish to go to court.

If a lawsuit did go forward, however, Trump would open himself up to defense lawyers poring through all sorts of information he probably doesn’t want made public. Presidents are largely immune to litigation while in office, but if Trump initiated a suit, he’d open himself up to discovery.

“It would be an opposition researcher’s dream,” Abrams said. “The sort of discovery which would result from a challenge to this book, which deals with issues as broad as the president’s intelligence, would allow enormous discovery. His college grades! It’s very hard to minimize the potentially relevant areas that discovery could go into.”

Trump tried such a suit once before, in 2007 against the author of the book Trump Nation. It didn't go well. While being deposed under oath, he was forced to recant 30 public lies.

Stephen Miller creeps me out, so I have not watched his CNN interview, the one Jake Tapper ended early, resulting in Miller needing to be escorted out of the studio. Maybe your stomach is stronger than mine. If I were casting a movie and needed somebody to play a fascist toady, Miller would be hard to top.

and the investigations of Trump

There have been a number of recent developments. The NYT reported Thursday on Trump's attempts to dissuade Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Anonymous sources say Trump sent White House Counsel Don McGahn to lobby Sessions against recusal, and quote him saying that it was Sessions' job to "protect" him from the investigation. Trump also talked positively about AGs "protecting" their presidents in an on-the-record interview with the NYT in late December.

Sessions, in turn, reportedly tried to dig up dirt against then-FBI-Director James Comey, presumably to undermine the FBI's investigation of Trump. Also, notes taken by then-Chief-of-Staff Reince Preibus apparently back up some of Comey's claims about his interactions with Trump.

All of this supports the theory that Comey's firing was part of a larger effort to obstruct justice.

The Republican conspiracy theory focused on Fusion GPS and the Steele dossier largely unraveled. The heart of that theory was that the original FBI investigation of the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia was based on the Steele dossier, which was partially paid for with money from the Clinton campaign. If that were true, it would point to a dangerous politicization of the FBI.

But it's not true. Another NYT scoop says the FBI investigation began with a tip from Australian intelligence: Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos (who has already pleaded guilty and is cooperating with Mueller) bragged to an Australian diplomat at a London bar that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton. The diplomat initially thought nothing of it, but when such dirt started to come out, he reported the meeting.

Meanwhile, the founders of Fusion GPS published an op-ed saying that Congress already knows better than some of the conspiracy theories that Republican congressmen have been trafficking in, because they have already testified extensively under oath.

Yes, we hired Mr. Steele, a highly respected Russia expert. But we did so without informing him whom we were working for and gave him no specific marching orders beyond this basic question: Why did Mr. Trump repeatedly seek to do deals in a notoriously corrupt police state that most serious investors shun?

What came back shocked us. Mr. Steele’s sources in Russia (who were not paid) reported on an extensive — and now confirmed — effort by the Kremlin to help elect Mr. Trump president. Mr. Steele saw this as a crime in progress and decided he needed to report it to the F.B.I.

We did not discuss that decision with our clients, or anyone else.

They request that Chairman Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee release the transcript of their sworn testimony, but Grassley has refused to do so.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress seem more interested in punishing the whistle-blowers than in understanding how Russia interfered in the 2016 election and trying to prevent future interference. Senators Grassley and Graham made the criminal referral resulting from the Judiciary Committee's investigation -- against Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier whose contents were leaked to the public a year ago. The only bank records Congress has subpoenaed are those of Fusion GPS, Steele's employers.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has become less resistant to political pressure from Republicans. Investigations into the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton's emails have re-opened. It would be one thing if these investigations were based on some new information, but so far that seems not to be the case. It looks like Benghazi all over again: If the last investigation didn't find anything criminal, it must be time to launch a new investigation. There appears to be no way to clear the Clintons.

We can't lose sight of the larger irrelevance of these issues: Bill and Hillary Clinton are private citizens now. If there's some legitimate reason to investigate or prosecute them, fine. But none of that has any political significance any more, and nothing that might be uncovered about the Clintons would justify ignoring Trump's law-breaking.

and you also might be interested in ...

Oprah's speech at the Golden Globes.

For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up.

Other people are wondering if Oprah's time is arriving. It's hard to picture anybody better equipped to channel anti-Trump outrage.

It's amazing how fast Trump nuclear-button tweet got knocked out of the headlines by other outrageous stuff. The best response to it was Stephen Colbert's Viagrageddon commercial:

When Susan Collins voted for Trump's no-billionaire-left-behind tax cut that also repealed ObamaCare's individual mandate, she insisted that she hadn't just caved, she had made a savvy deal: In exchange for her vote, she was promised that Congress would pass other legislation to keep the ObamaCare marketplaces from collapsing. Many observers (including me) concluded that she'd been rolled. In fact that additional legislation would never pass; or if it ever did, it would only be as part of a larger package requiring new concessions. Her vote had bought nothing.

Collins was enraged by that assessment, calling it "unbelievably sexist".

"I cannot believe that the press would have treated another senator with 20 years of experience as they have treated me,” she told reporters. “They’ve ignored everything that I’ve gotten and written story after story about how I’m duped."

But maybe people wrote that because she was duped. TPM reports:

When Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) first announced she would support the GOP tax bill that killed Obamacare’s individual mandate, she insisted that three separate health care measures to prop up the Affordable Care Act and protect Medicare recipients be passed before she cast her vote. She then amended her demand, saying the bills had to pass before the tax bill came back from the House-Senate conference committee. She then insisted — after voting for the tax bill — that the policies pass by the end of 2017. When it became clear that wasn’t possible in the face of staunch opposition from House conservatives, she expressed confidence they would become law in January.

Now, Collins is moving the goalposts yet again.

In an interview with Inside Health Policy published Thursday, Collins said she hopes the policies she proposed will pass and be implemented before 2019, when the repeal of the individual mandate is expected to shrink the individual insurance market by several million people and drive up premiums by at least 10 percent.

Drug policy has long been the most obvious place where Republicans abandon their states-rights rhetoric. Drugs are bad, and so laws against them are good, even if they are federal laws that trump more permissive state laws.

In recent years, states like Colorado have relaxed their marijuana laws, to the point that their are retail marijuana shops like Local Product in Denver. At the New Year, marijuana laws changed in California and a few other states. The Obama administration had turned a blind eye to states legalizing marijuana. Federal law still banned it, but the Obama Justice Department decided it had better things to do than fight with states about weed.

The result has been something that Republicans ordinarily would applaud: Entrepreneurs started new businesses and created new jobs. What's more, legally grown local marijuana keeps dollars in the country and lowers our real balance of payments deficit. (This may not show up in the official stats, because importing marijuana has always been off the books.) MarketWatch -- a news site targeted at investors rather than potheads -- projects that U.S. marijuana could be a $50-billion-a-year industry by 2026.

But this week Jeff Sessions announced that the oppressive hand of job-killing big-government regulation is coming back. He did not go so far as to order U.S. attorneys to crack down on those who grow or sell or use marijuana, but he rescinded Obama-era hands-off guidelines and instructed them to use their own judgment.

This policy change is expected to crimp the expansion of the legal marijuana industry, making bankers and other investors more skittish about risking their money. It will also give U.S. attorneys, who often go on seek higher office, a new temptation for corruption: Hey, Mr. Marijuana Mogul: Do you want to contribute to my campaign for governor, or should I arrest you?

Speaking of job-killing regulations, Slate points out that some jobs ought to be killed: the ones based on fleecing the public. The article points to the now-reversed regulation requiring financial advisors to act in their clients' best interests.

Yes, these rules and regulations might technically kill jobs. But which jobs, and in order to accomplish what? Protections of this sort chase dodgy sellers out of the marketplace. If that’s job killing, good riddance.

Deregulation, in turn, paves the way for the return of these jobs for financial snake oil salesman.

Deregulation also spawns the need for regulatory sherpas—self-anointed “experts” hired by frightened members of the public who lack the time and sophistication to test the quality of (newly deregulated) drinking water, food, or prescription drugs.

Does the country really need a cottage industry of private testers and verifiers to help Americans get through the day? These are not jobs we need, nor ones we should want.

Israel's response to Trump's announcement that the American embassy will move to Jerusalem is to move further in the direction of annexing the territory it conquered in 1967. The NYT quotes Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan:

We are telling the world that it doesn’t matter what the nations of the world say. The time has come to express our biblical right to the land.

Whenever the Israel/Palestine conflict comes up, it's worth remembering that there are only four long-term solutions:

  • two sovereign states
  • one democratic state in which all Jews and Palestinians are voting citizens
  • one undemocratic state in which half of the population rules the other half
  • ethnic cleansing

If you're not for option 1, you're implicitly for one of the other three.

Remember the commission that Trump established to prove his claim that 3-5 million people voted fraudulently in 2016, so he might have won the popular vote after all? Never mind. Trump disbanded the commission Wednesday. In the tweet announcing his decision, he continued to assert "substantial evidence of voter fraud", though he has never produced any evidence for that claim.

One of Roy Moore's accusers just had her house burn down. Maybe it's a coincidence.

One of the key worries of never-Trump Republicans is coming true: College Republican groups are losing traditional Republicans and being taken over by Trumpists. That's a trend that could affect the GOP for decades to come.

and let's close with something remarkable

As any home-owner will tell you, construction projects take forever. Maybe they don't have to: This house assembles itself in 10 minutes.