Monday, December 31, 2018

The Yearly Sift 2018

You can't serve both Trump and America

- Eliot Cohen

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

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

The story that dwarfed all others this year

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

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

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

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

Additional comments on 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of the Sift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sifted Books of 2018

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

Other people's year-end reviews

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

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

But this week everybody was talking about ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and let's close with something humorous

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

Monday, December 24, 2018

Baby Driver

When toddlers play, it’s good to have a grownup in the room to supervise. But if a toddler is driving a car, it does no good to have a grownup in the passenger seat. Pretending that it’s somehow okay is the least grownup reaction possible.
This week's featured posts are "Is this any way to run a superpower?" and "Fantasy problems don't have realistic solutions".

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

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

Defense Secretary James Mattis' resignation-in-protest from the Trump cabinet was a nearly unique event in US history. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described Secretary Mattis' resignation letter as "compelling both for what it said, and for what it didn't say". Asked by CNN's Don Lemon to elaborate on what wasn't in the letter, Clapper explained:
Typically in a letter like this, there is an expression of what an honor it has been to serve in this administration and under your leadership, or words to that effect. That's typically what you put in a resignation letter. That's what I put in mine when I resigned in the last administration. That wasn't there.
Instead, Mattis' letter begins with:
I have been privileged to serve as our country's 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals.
ends with
I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.
and spares not a single word to praise Trump or his administration.
Trump, of course, had to shoot back.
We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade. General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!
So now Trump has booted Mattis sooner than his resignation would have become effective. The new acting SecDef is Patrick Shanahan, who has been Deputy SecDef for over a year. He's a former Boeing executive whose only previous experience was in making and selling weapons, not fighting wars or managing alliances.

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

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

and the government shutdown and the Wall

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

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

Let's be clear how we got to a shutdown: Congress had worked out a deal, which the Senate passed by voice vote because Trump had agreed to it.
Vice President Mike Pence told GOP senators earlier this week Trump would sign the Senate’s stopgap with the $1.3 billion for the fencing — that’s why many Republican senators headed home after the chamber finished its pre-holiday business.
Then various voices on Fox News and talk radio got upset, so Trump reneged and demanded funding for the Wall.  So here we are.

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

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

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

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

I know it should never be shocking to notice that Trump has lied, but his abuse of Ronald Reagan's memory is particularly striking.
Even President Ronald Reagan tried for 8 years to build a Border Wall, or Fence, and was unable to do so. Others also have tried. We will get it done, one way or the other!
Here's what Reagan actually said:
Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back.

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

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

Now the Supreme Court has backed up that ruling. The 5-4 majority included Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Ruth Bader Ginsberg voting from her hospital bed.
As the "Obama judge" noted in his ruling, the law could not be more clear.
Congress has clearly commanded in the [Immigration and Naturalization Act] that any alien who arrives in the United States, irrespective of that alien’s status, may apply for asylum – “whether or not at a designated port of arrival.”
So it's the four most conservative judges (including Brett Kavanaugh) who have some explaining to do. Why are they substituting their own political views for the law?

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

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

and you also might be interested in ...

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

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

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

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

Trump's shamelessness about being caught in a lie has prompted the Washington Post's fact-checkers to create a new category: the Bottomless Pinocchio, for false claims that keep getting repeated no matter how often they're debunked.
The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong.
So far 15 Bottomless Pinocchios have been awarded, all to Trump. The man is in a class by himself.

and let's close with some Christmasy things

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

Looking Behind the Lies

A lie isn’t always a crime, but it is always an indication that the person telling it has something they want to conceal.
This week's featured post is "Trials of Individual-1: a scorecard".

This week everybody was talking about the President's legal problems

A list of the various investigations and where they stand is in the featured post. Also of note has been the shifting defenses  offered by Trump and his supporters, which in nearly every case evolve according to this general pattern:
  1. Nothing happened.
  2. Whatever happened, Trump didn't know about it.
  3. It wasn't a crime.
  4. He had no way to know it was a crime.
  5. It's not a serious crime.
When one step turns out not to be true, they move on to the next. We've gone through the whole list with the pay-offs to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal to hide from voters the fact that Trump cheated on Melania with them. In particular, Orrin Hatch and Kevin McCarthy have made it to Step 5. (Though Hatch later tried to walk it back, retreating to the position that "I don’t believe the President broke the law.")

I don't think he was involved in crimes, but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to, you can blow it way out of proportion, you can do a lot of things.
If [Democratic Congressman Adam] Schiff is taking this beyond to go forward and say that there's an impeachable offense because of a campaign finance problem, there's a lot of members in Congress who would have to leave.
We can only wonder what step 6 will be, because there's no reason to think that the current explanations are any more true than the previous ones.

The progression hasn't yet played out all the way with regard to Russian collusion, but think about the steps we have already seen:
  1. "It's all fake news." Trump had "nothing to do with Russia". The campaign didn't talk to Russians and Trump wasn't doing business deals with them.
  2. Trump's people (at least 14 of them, according to the Washington Post) were talking to Russians, but not about influencing the election. And Trump was trying to do a major business deal in Russia, but it didn't happen, it was "very legal & very cool", and "everybody knew about" it (in spite of Trump's public denials in Step 1).
  3. Donald Trump Jr. arranged a meeting with Russians to talk about getting "dirt on Hilary Clinton" as "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump", and Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner also attended, but nothing came of it. WikiLeaks started releasing hacked DNC emails shortly thereafter, but the Trump campaign knew nothing about that. (Ignore whatever happened between WikiLeaks and Roger Stone.)
Again, there's no reason to believe it stops here, or that it will stop with Step 5. To me it's pretty obvious where this could go: "Sure, he committed treason, but it wasn't TREASON treason."
Trump supporters need to ask themselves if they're willing to stick with him that far down the slippery slope. (For that matter, did you ever imagine you'd be defending what you're defending now?) And if not, at what point short of that are they planning to get off?

and ObamaCare

A judge in Texas ruled the entire Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. This appears to me to be exactly the kind of activist-judge-legislating-from-the-bench that conservatives always accuse liberals of.

It's worthwhile to look back at an 2012 article by Salon's Andrew Koppelman "Origins of a healthcare lie". The lie in this case is that the individual insurance mandate is somehow unconstitutional.
The constitutional limits that the [Affordable Care Act] supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written. They were invented only in the fall of 2009, quite late in the legislative process.
For now, the ruling will have no effect as the appeal works its way up the chain of courts. It should make it to the Supreme Court by next year, where it ought to be reversed. As the NYT's Cristian Farias notes "all five justices who, in 2012, already determined that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional will still be there." Please petition the deity of your choice that nothing happens to any of them.

Politically, I think this is a disaster for Republicans, one that they have made for themselves. It means that the 2020 campaign will begin (and possibly end) with millions of people facing either the loss of their health insurance or being shunted off into plans that won't cover what they need. Meanwhile, neither Republicans in Congress nor the administration will have produced a health plan of their own, because "get rid of ObamaCare" is the only idea they've been able to agree on. (A large number of Republicans hold a position they can't say out loud: People should only get the health care they can afford. If you're not rich and you get something that requires an expensive treatment, too bad for you.) Any actual plan will expose the lie in the various contradictory promises Trump has made.

One anchor GOP candidates carried in 2018 was the need to claim that they supported the popular parts of ObamaCare (like coverage of pre-existing conditions) without being able to point to any viable plan that preserved those features of the law. That conservative judge has guaranteed that they'll continue carrying that anchor for a while longer.

but I've been ignoring other countries lately

It's hard for the US news media -- myself included, in this case -- to cover foreign affairs properly, for a number of reasons:
  • The US produces enough news of its own that it doesn't need to import any. This has only gotten worse during the current administration. So a change of government in Brazil or Germany can get lost in a Trump tweet storm.
  • The American audience (and a number of American journalists, and a lot of times, myself) don't have the background to appreciate foreign news events. So it's a little like watching a sport when you don't know the rules or the players. You can try to look them up and explain them on the fly, but it's still hard to appreciate the action while it's happening.
To catch up a little, let's start in the UK. Brexit is scheduled to happen on March 29, but there is still no agreed-on plan for how it happens. Here's the BBC's chart of where things stand:

The problem is that at the time of the referendum Brexit was just a vague idea: Britain leaves the EU. That can mean a lot of different things, and no individual one of those things is popular. So the UK is in the curious situation where all the possible outcomes (PM May's plan to leave the EU in name only, and remain subject to EU customs laws; leave for real and erect a national border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, possibly restarting the Troubles; Parliament deciding to oppose the Brexit referendum and stay in the EU; holding a new referendum on some particular Brexit plan) seem far-fetched.

I can't help noticing the comparison to repealing ObamaCare, and why Republicans were never able to come through on the "replace" part of repeal-and-replace: ObamaCare is a specific program and "repeal" is a vague idea. As soon as Republicans tried to flesh out their specific replacement, it was less popular than ObamaCare.
The Brexit situation is at least producing some good humor, like Andy Serkis portraying some kind of Gollum/Theresa May synthesis.
Now let's move to the yellow vest protests in France. Basically, it's as if in 2016 the angry Trump and Sanders voters had gotten together and taken to the streets. Or maybe if Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party found a common cause. It's a strange mixture of left-wing and right-wing populism. It's anti-government, but none of the opposition parties have managed to stake a claim on it. Crimethinc comments:
Clearly, neoliberal capitalism offers no solutions to climate change except to place even more pressure on the poor; but when the anger of the poor is translated into reactionary consumer outrage, that opens ominous opportunities for the far right.
The issue that seems to have touched off the recent protests is a green tax, a move "to increase fuel taxes to raise money for eco-friendly projects". The Macron government has since backed off, but the protests -- mostly non-violent, but occasionally violent -- continue.
As in the US, there is a widespread but inchoate feeling that the system is working against ordinary people. It remains to be seen whether someone will manage to turn that view into a program that makes things better, whether some demagogue will ride the yellow vests to power, or whether the energy will dissipate without doing anything to decrease the general dissatisfaction.
In Germany, Angela Merkel won't seek re-election when her term ends in 2021. She has already stepped down as head of her party, the Christian Democrats. Her replacement is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The party has faced a dilemma, to either keep itself on the course set by Merkel – who was determined to secure the centre ground and has turned the CDU into a champion of gay marriage, a minimum wage and a quota for women in politics - or to take it more to the right in an attempt to win back the voters lost to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). ... Kramp-Karrenbauer’s victory is a sign that the party wants to continue on the path set for it by Merkel. Nevertheless, Kramp-Karrenbauer has repeatedly said she would forge her own path, and is decidedly more socially conservative than her predecessor.
In Brazil, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro will take office on January 1. He plans to pull Brazil out of the UN's Global Compact for Migration, and to develop the Amazon rain forest. In many ways a Brazilian version of Trump, we'll see if he has a similar impact on Brazil's rule of law.
Vox talks to North Korea watcher Van Jackson, who is not impressed with the "progress" Trump thinks he has made toward de-nuclearization. In his view, events are proceeding according to Kim Jong Un's plan, not Trump's.
He’s been pushing for simultaneously growing the economy and becoming a nuclear power. Now that he’s got the nuclear program where it needs to be, he’s decided to more aggressively pursue economic development, because that’s the other part of his strategy.
Pursuing economic development means getting sanctions relief. And how can you possibly get sanctions relief without pursuing a charm offensive?
So where we are today is because Kim reached what he sees as a position of strength.
... The structure of the confrontation has not changed. The nuclear situation has not changed. Sanctions have not changed. And frankly, they’re not likely to.
And finally, Yemen, where a war has combined with an ongoing famine to produce a truly horrifying situation. The UN has warned that 13 million people in Yemen are facing starvation in "the worst famine in the world in 100 years"
The famine is the direct result of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen and blockade. Yemen was already the most impoverished nation in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, and Al Hudaydah one of the poorest cities of Yemen, but the war and the naval blockade by the Saudi-led coalition and the United States Navy made the situation much worse. Fishing boats, the main livelihood of Al Hudaydah's residents, were destroyed by Saudi airstrikes, leaving them without any means to provide for their families. As a result, one child dies every ten minutes on average. A UN panel of experts found that Saudi Arabia is purposefully obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen.
The particularly dismal thing about the US role in this tragedy is that so few Americans have any idea where Yemen is or why we're involved in a war there. (Yemen's civil war is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We're on the Saudi side.)
The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi crown prince has at least got people taking another look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution against US involvement in Yemen.
This joint resolution directs the President to remove U.S. Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen within 30 days unless Congress authorizes a later withdrawal date, issues a declaration of war, or specifically authorizes the use of the Armed Forces. Prohibited activites include providing in-flight fueling for non-U.S. aircraft conducting missions as part of the conflict in Yemen.
The resolution is not being debated in the House, though, and Trump could veto it even if it passed the House, so it has no legal effect. It does, however, mark the willingness of at least a few Republican senators to break with Trump on this issue. No doubt it will come up again when Democrats take control of the House in January.

and you also might be interested in ...

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the latest corrupt official to leave the Trump administration. But in a virtual replay of Scott Pruitt's exit, his replacement will be no improvement in policy terms: Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil-industry lobbyist.

I'm trying not to make too much of the showdown in the Oval Office between Trump and Nancy Pelosi. I think Pelosi handled him well, but even so: Personality conflict is what Trump does; if we're talking about whether our leader beat their leader, we're on his turf.
Democrats need to stay focused on the people who gain or lose from what the government does, like the 7-year-old girl who died of dehydration while in the custody of the Border Patrol, or the millions who stand to lose their health insurance if ObamaCare really is ruled unconstitutional. Whether or not Pelosi got in the best line is of little importance by comparison.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
Double standards are Paul Ryan being elected at 28 and immediately being given the benefit of his ill-considered policies considered genius; and me winning a primary at 28 to immediately be treated with suspicion & scrutinized, down to my clothing, of being a fraud.
When I was discussing the ways that Hillary Clinton had to overcome sexism in 2016, one of the things I pointed to was the abundance of positive cultural stereotypes that are open to men with some weakness or character flaw: A duplicitous man can be a charming rogue, for example. An angry man can be a Jeremiah. No comparable framing is available to a woman.
In the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, both Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham expressed anger in ways that would have made Christine Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein appear to be raving. We're used to seeing men as channels for righteous indignation. Women, not so much.
We're seeing a similar thing here. An inexperienced man can be a whiz kid, a young gun, or a young Turk. None of those frames fits a woman. Some types open to young women are ingenue, mean girl, and damsel in distress -- none of which are all that useful to a woman in a position of power.
It's important to understand this as structural sexism. Even if nobody were consciously trying to mistreat Ocasio-Cortez, the same problem would be present: American men (and a lot of women as well) don't know how to think about or talk about women in certain roles. So even when we think we are open to them playing those roles, our unconscious reactions will betray us if we don't pay attention.

Another much-maligned female politician is Nancy Pelosi. She seems to have nailed down the support she needs to become Speaker when the new Congress takes office on January 3. To get the last few votes, she pledged to step down as Speaker after 2022.

Pro Publica looks at the IRS, whose budget and staff keeps shrinking. Meanwhile, audits are down and uncollected taxes are up, providing a "tax cut for tax cheats".
Tax collection largely depends on the public's voluntary cooperation, which could be endangered if people start to think that everyone else is cheating. That was largely the problem in the Greek economic crisis. It wasn't that the Greek government spent too much money, it was that it couldn't collect the taxes it was owed.

The Republican attempt to undo the 2018 election continues. Michigan has now passed a law that guts a referendum to raise the minimum wage and require paid sick leave. In states where the legislature is heavily gerrymandered, the only way voters can control the state government is through referenda and through state-wide offices like the governorship. But undemocratic Republican legislatures are doing their best to take power away from these voter-controlled institutions.

and let's close with something memorable

In August, 2014, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain's entry into World War I, 888,246 red ceramic poppies (one for each of the British and colonial soldiers who died in that war) were arranged to flow out of a window in the Tower of London and fill the moat. The temporary exhibit (now gone) was called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”. It's one of the most stunning views of the cost of war I've ever seen.