Authoritarian Americans Have Found Their Authoritarian

From Eric Levitz of New York Magazine:

[DT] won the GOP nomination, and then the presidency, as a different kind of Republican — one who backed radical restrictions to immigration, trade protectionism, infrastructure stimulus, universal health care, a Jacksonian foreign policy that spurned both nation-building and international law, and maintaining Social Security and Medicare at their current benefit levels. In his shambolic, improvisatory way, [he] had articulated a new vision for the American right, one that combined rabid nativism with welfare chauvinism, economic nationalism, and neo-isolationism.

Last night, [he] declared his support for prolonging America’s war in Afghanistan indefinitely. Last week, his administration’s lone proponent of a break with conservative economics was exiled from the White House. Over the last seven months, [the president*] has proven himself a loyal servant of the GOP Establishment’s agenda, as he’s pushed for draconian cuts to entitlement programs that he’d promised to protect; avoided trade wars, while dutifully prosecuting actual ones; let corporate interests dictate regulatory policy; and touted tax cuts for the rich as a panacea for all that ails the American economy….

The president may have abandoned most of his heterodox policy views, but he’s yet to back away from the true core of his political philosophy, a creed that can be summarized in two words: “Trump first.” And given the choice between the House GOP’s movement conservatism and the president’s maniacal narcissism, a lot of Republican voters are picking the latter. As Politico reports:

“Taxes, spending and even health care have taken a back seat to the most potent new litmus test in Republican primaries: allegiance to President Donald Trump.”

“… Loyalty to Trump has quickly become the most potent issue for the Republican base, according to a dozen candidates and strategists immersed in 2018 races. [Perceived disloyalty] has already put Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller under pressure in their states, sparked bickering between GOP candidates in two of Republicans’ top 2018 targets, Indiana and West Virginia, and sunk one candidate running for Alabama’s open Senate seat.”

“… One Republican strategist said polling shows staunch support of Trump is the top attribute primary voters are seeking in candidates right now. At least one-third of GOP primary voters identify themselves as “Trump Republicans” (as opposed to “tea party Republicans” or “mainstream Republicans”) in state after state, according to internal polling conducted by a Republican group, with that number reaching 40 percent in some states.”

One could argue that most “Trump Republicans” root their political identity in an ideological stance — specifically, support for nativism. Immigration has always been the mogul’s signature issue, and one that genuinely divides the GOP’s “elites” from its grassroots.

But in Republican primaries this year, debates over loyalty to Trump have often been divorced from all policy questions, with candidates touting fealty to the president’s cult of personality as a defining value, in itself. 

They like him. They really like him. The minority of Americans who want a “strong leader” above all else, a President who will anger, punish or kill their perceived enemies – or at least promise to in “strong language” – have found their object of devotion. They won’t be argued out of their loyalty, even when he fails to deliver on his promises. When he fails, he will see it as the work of his enemies. That’s exactly how his devoted followers, the authoritarian minority among us, will see it too. 

If You’re a Russian Twitter Bot, What’s On Your Mind?

In 1972, the German government founded the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a foundation and think tank in Washington. It was a gift to the American people in recognition of how the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany after World War 2.

The GMF has now created Hamilton 68, a site that allows “tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter”. (The name refers to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 68, in which he discussed foreign meddling in our elections.) If you visit the new Disinformation Dashboard, you can see what stories and topics Russia is pushing today. From today’s “Top Themes”:

The networks we track are engaged in disinformation. They amplify legitimate reporting when the content suits them, and they promote alternative media outlets that seemingly specialize in the production of disinformation, whether or not the outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. These outlets assemble stories from found objects – bits of information that may have some basis in reality. The final product will leap to conclusions the components of the story do not necessarily support, but which promote a distorted view of events to the Kremlin’s benefit. This past week we have seen Kremlin-oriented Twitter promoting content regarding non-lethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Reality: the U.S. Navy is helping construct a naval operations center at Ochakiv. The promoted stories at Stalker Zone and Strategic Culture turn that into: “The Entire Black Sea Coast of Ukraine Will Become a U.S. Military Base” and “U.S. Military to be Permanently Stationed on [Ukraine] Soil” respectively. Such stories are produced continuously. Their effectiveness is based on cumulative impact.

Side note: A coherent response to events on the weekend in Charlottesville has not yet emerged (as of August 16), though we continue to watch for one.

They’re currently monitoring 600 Twitter users, “properly understood as a network of accounts linked to and participating in Russian influence campaigns”, officially or unofficially, knowingly or unknowingly. These include:

  • Accounts likely controlled by Russian government influence operations.
  • Accounts for “patriotic” pro-Russia users that are loosely connected or unconnected to the Russian government, but which amplify themes promoted by Russian government media.
  • Accounts for users who have been influenced by the first two groups and who are extremely active in amplifying Russian media themes. These users may or may not understand themselves to be part of a pro-Russian social network. 

Today’s top Russian tweet, according to the Disinformation Dashboard, happens to be from the government-run RT network (formerly Russia Today):

Twitter user avatar @RT_com
Petition urges Trump to recognize Antifa as terrorists, reaches 55,000 signatures in 2 days https://t.co/toDhxusjll https://t.co/SV3TfIxVUD
Retweeted 566 times

The top Russia hashtags for the past 48 hours have been “antifa” (anti-fascist), “maga” (Make America Great…), “boston”, “syria”, “isis” and “altleft”. 

By the way, according to something called TwitterAudit.com, roughly 40% of DT’s 36 million followers are automated (i.e. fake).

Shining light on Russia’s propaganda efforts is a good thing, but I’d feel better if the president* and his minions were doing something to protect our upcoming elections. They’re not, because Russia is on their side.

Dashboard

Note: Whoever designed this graphic for GMF showing Putin releasing all those Twitter birds might as well have left the birds blue. Russia isn’t a Communist country anymore. It’s a right-wing kleptocracy, which is why the president* and other right-wing fanatics are so pro-Russia now. Putin leads the kind of government they aspire to.

This Chart Shows Who’s Winning at Capitalism

Capitalism involves competition. Competition involves winning. This chart shows who’s winning. Unless we change the rules, it shows who’s already won.

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The gray line represents inflation-adjusted income growth in the U.S. between 1946 and 1980. The gray line is higher on the left side of the chart than on the right, because, in those years, annual income growth for low-income people (the people on the left of the chart) was higher than income growth for high-income people (the ones on the right). That meant people who made less money were gaining (however slowly) on people who made more.

As you can see, the red line goes in the other direction. It shows income growth between 1980 and 2014. The red line is higher, in fact way higher, on the right than on the left because income growth for high-income people (the ones on the right) was much higher than for low-income people (the ones on the left).

In other words, since 1980, people who made more money pulled away from people who made less. The fact that the red line goes straight up at the end shows that the people who made the most money (not just the 1% but the 0.1%, 0.01% and 0.001%) pulled away even faster. Thus, since 1980 (when Ronald Reagan was elected), the better off you were, the better off you’ve done. And the worse off you were, the worse off you’ve done.

The chart is from a column by David Leonhardt of The New York Times. He goes into some of the nuances and suggests ways to fix this growing inequality:

Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

He also notes that the president* and his Republican co-conspirators are trying to make the situation even worse. They want the opposite of what’s needed: even lower taxes for the rich, less money for public education, weaker unions and less competition for big corporations.

So the chart shows who’s been winning. What it doesn’t show is that the game may already be over. Increased wealth translates into increased political power. But the more power you have, the easier it is to change the rules so that you can accumulate even more wealth (viz. the Citizens United decision). From the point of view of the upper 0.001%, it’s a virtuous circle. For the rest of us, it’s vicious.

Unless we fight back – which means being more politically active, as in voting every chance we get – it will become even vicious-er. 

Disturbing the Peace

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified 225 years ago. It states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

So let’s consider the Oxford Dictionary definition of “militia”:

A military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency. “creating a militia was no answer to the army’s manpower problem”

Now let’s read who showed up last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, as reported by The Guardian:

With their loaded assault rifles and pistols, camouflage, combat boots and helmets, it looked like the US army had descended on the pretty college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, as a white supremacy rally turned violent last weekend.

The military did officially turn up, in fact, in the form of the Virginia national guard, called into service to back up the police when a state of emergency was declared at 11am on Saturday morning….

But they were not the most visible or heavily armed soldier types [present]. That distinction goes to the militia [sic] members brought together as a unit from a handful of the hundreds of unofficial paramilitary groups that have long thrived across America due to the second amendment’s directive: “A well regulated Militia….”

With their trigger fingers ready on their loaded, battlefield-style rifles, held across heavy-duty body armour, these quasi-troops turned heads as they murmured to each other via radios and headsets.

The men in charge of the 32 militia members who came to Charlottesville from six states to form a unit with the mission of “defending free speech” were Christian Yingling, the commanding officer of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia, and his “second in command” on the day, George Curbelo, the commanding officer of the New York Light Foot Militia.

“We spoke to the Charlottesville police department beforehand and offered to come down there and help with security,” Yingling told the Guardian.

“They said: ‘We cannot invite you in an official capacity, but you are welcome to attend,’ and they gave us an escort into the event,” he added.

Gun laws vary from state to state and even city to city, but Virginia has one of the most relaxed sets of laws in the US. It is legal for civilians to carry weapons openly, including intimidating assault rifles loaded with 30-round magazines, which the Light Foots – but not the police or official military – carried during the Charlottesville event….

Curbelo praised his militia unit…. “We were de-escalating things and treating people injured on all sides, until we were hugely outnumbered,” he said, although he noted: “If I saw me coming at me in all my gear, I would find it intimidating.” 

This is insane. Private citizens who enjoy getting together and pretending to be soldiers are not a “well-regulated militia”. They aren’t a “militia” at all, no matter what they call themselves. A better word for these idiots is “paramilitary”:

Organized similarly to a military force. “illegal paramilitary groups”

Even if some right-wing fool on the local police force said they’d be welcome (“Come on down. Bring the biggest guns you have. The more the merrier!”), they had no business being in Charlottesville. The city police, the Virginia state police and, if necessary, the National Guard were responsible for keeping the peace. 

Furthermore, the law says these paramilitary groups are illegal. From Philip Zelikow, a lawyer and history professor, at the Lawfare blog:

For those close to the action, including the law enforcement personnel on duty, hardly any aspect of the Charlottesville confrontation was more menacing than the appearance of organized, often uniformed, private bands of men in military getups, openly brandishing assault rifles and other long guns.

This is an ominous development, but it is not a new one. And it can be—and has been—countered with legal action. I took part in that work.

In 1981 an organization called the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organized and trained paramilitary groups to harass Vietnamese-American fishermen on the Texas Gulf coast. They, too, wore Army-surplus-style clothes and gear, not white sheets. Working with Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Berg and I represented the fishermen in a federal lawsuit against the Klan. We invoked a Texas law more than a century old that banned “military companies” other than those authorized by the governor. There are similar laws in most states, including Virginia.

We asked the judge to shut down the Klan’s paramilitary activities.  Since this law had never been interpreted, we developed a legal standard to define the barred activity…We focused on private efforts to create a military or paramilitary organization that had “command structure, training and discipline so as to function as a combat or combat support unit.”

Expert witnesses explained how the group’s activities met the standard. The Texas attorney general urged the judge to accept our application of the law.  The judge … granted our request and in 1982 shut down the training activities…. The order worked. 

Our approach was used again in 1985 and 1986 when the Southern Poverty Law Center took legal action against the Carolina Knights of the KKK and its successor, the White Patriots Party. After they violated court orders, a jury found the organization and its leaders guilty of criminal contempt. The leaders were jailed….

The problem arose again during the 1990s as self-styled militias organized in several states. Morris and I published an op-ed in the New York Times in May 1995 to review the legal option of restricting the activity of private military groups. That danger subsided, after many lives had been lost—above all, in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 

But the danger is rising again, as my town, the nation and the world can plainly see.

The Second Amendment arguments can be—and have been—overcome.  Individuals may have a right to bear arms for self-defense, but they do not have a right to organize and train as a private military group. In 1886 the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for controlling what the Second Amendment calls a “well-regulated Militia,” when it held that “[m]ilitary operations and military drill are subjects especially under the control of the government of every country.  They cannot be claimed as a right independent of law.” A New York appellate court noted in 1944: “The inherent potential danger of any organized private militia is obvious. Its existence would be sufficient, without more, to prevent a democratic form of government, such as ours, from functioning freely, without coercion”….

The language of Virginia’s Constitution is clear. While “a well regulated militia” is valued, including what state law calls the “unorganized militia,” the Constitution stresses that, “in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”

Well, when truckloads of organized groups of heavily armed men drive into my town—or your town—it is time to uphold the civil power. Virginia, like most states, has the legal power to stop them. And the precedents are on the books.

Amen.

“Antifa” Stands for Anti-Fascist

Until a few days ago, I’d never heard the term “antifa”. It’s a word that refers to the anti-fascists, anti-racists who believe in direct action against fascists and racists, including violence at times. From an article in The Washington Post by the historian Mark Bray:

Antifa are autonomous anti-racist groups that monitor and track the activities of local neo-Nazis. They expose them to their neighbors and employers, they conduct public education campaigns, they support migrants and refugees and they pressure venues to cancel white power events.

The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.

Antifascists argue that. after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. We should not, they argue, abstractly assess the ethical status of violence in the absence of the values and context behind it. Instead, they put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late… The first antifascists fought Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts in the Italian countryside, exchanged fire with Adolf Hitler’s Brownshirts in the taverns and alleyways of Munich and defended Madrid from Francisco Franco’s insurgent nationalist army….

In the United States and Canada, activists of the Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) doggedly pursued Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other assorted white supremacists from the late 1980s into the 2000s. Their motto was simple but bold: “We go where they go.” If Nazi skinheads handed out leaflets at a punk show in Indiana about how “Hitler was right,” ARA was there to show them the door. If fascists plastered downtown Alberta’s Edmonton with racist posters, ARA tore them down and replaced them with anti-racist slogans.

Responding to small fascist groups may seem trivial to some, but the rise of Hitler and Mussolini show that resistance is not a light switch that can simply be flipped on in a crisis. Once the Nazi and fascist parties gained control of government, it was too late to pull the emergency brake.

In retrospect, antifascists have concluded, it would have been much easier to stop Mussolini back in 1919 when his first fascist nucleus had 100 men. Or to stamp out the far-right German Workers’ Party, which had only 54 members when Hitler attended his first meeting, before he transformed it into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party). Though the regimes that inspired their original protests are long dead, antifascists have devoted themselves to treating small fascist and Nazi groups as if they could be the nucleus of a murderous movement or regime of the future….

Years before the alt-right even had a name, antifascists were spending thankless hours scouring seedy message boards and researching clandestine neo-Nazi gatherings. They were tracking those who planted the seeds of the death that we all witnessed in Charlottesville….Behind the masks, antifa are nurses, teachers, neighbors, and relatives of all races and genders who do not hesitate to put themselves on the line to shut down fascism by any means necessary.

At The Atlantic, another professor, Peter Beinart, expresses concern about antifa’s occasional use of violence and threats of violence, but points out that there is no equivalence between the antifa movement and the neo-nazis they fight:

Antifa activists are sincere. They genuinely believe that their actions protect vulnerable people from harm. Cornel West claims they did so in Charlottesville. But for all of antifa’s supposed anti-authoritarianism, there’s something fundamentally authoritarian about its claim that its activists … can decide whose views are too odious to be publicly expressed. That kind of undemocratic, illegitimate power corrupts. It leads to what happened this April in Portland, Oregon, where antifa activists threatened to disrupt the city’s Rose Festival parade if people wearing “red MAGA hats” marched alongside the local Republican Party….

But saying it’s a problem is vastly different than implying … that it’s a problem equal to white supremacism. Using the phrase “alt-left” suggests a moral equivalence that simply doesn’t exist.

For starters, while antifa perpetrates violence, it doesn’t perpetrate it on anything like the scale that white nationalists do. It’s no coincidence that it was a Nazi sympathizer—and not an antifa activist—who committed murder in Charlottesville. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2 percent.

Second, antifa activists don’t wield anything like the alt-right’s power. White, Christian supremacy has been government policy in the United States for much of American history. Anarchism has not. That’s why there are no statues of Mikhail Bakunin in America’s parks and government buildings. Antifa boasts no equivalent to Steve Bannon [or] to Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who bears the middle name of a Confederate general and the first name of the Confederacy’s president, and who allegedly called the NAACP “un-American.” It boasts no equivalent to Alex Jones, who Donald Trump praised as “amazing.” Even if antifa’s vision of society were as noxious as the “alt-right’s,” it has vastly less power to make that vision a reality.

And antifa’s vision is not as noxious. Antifa activists do not celebrate regimes that committed genocide and enforced slavery. They’re mostly anarchists. Anarchism may not be a particularly practical ideology. But it’s not an ideology that depicts the members of a particular race or religion as subhuman.

CNN has an article with a brief video. The video includes a reporter talking to a group of masked antifa people in Oregon. It’s CNN, and I didn’t read the whole article, but their treatment of the movement seems even-handed. Democracy Now! has an extended interview with Mark Bray, who I quoted above. Part 1 is here. The second part is here.

The New York Times has an article too:

Last weekend, when a 27-year-old bike messenger showed up at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., he came ready for battle. He joined a human chain that stretched in front of Emancipation Park and linked his arms with others, blocking waves of white supremacists — some of them in full Nazi regalia — from entering.

“As soon as they got close,” said the young man, who declined to give his real name and goes by Frank Sabaté after the famous Spanish anarchist, “they started swinging clubs, fists, shields. I’m not embarrassed to say that we were not shy in defending ourselves”….

The closest thing antifa may have to a guiding principle is that ideologies it identifies as fascistic or based on a belief in genetic inferiority cannot be reasoned with and must be physically resisted. Its adherents express disdain for mainstream liberal politics, seeing it as inadequately muscular, and tend to fight the right through what they call “direct actions” rather than relying on government authorities.

“When you look at this grave and dangerous threat — and the violence it has already caused — is it more dangerous to do nothing and tolerate it, or should we confront it?” Frank Sabaté said. “Their existence itself is violent and dangerous, so I don’t think using force or violence to oppose them is unethical.”

By the way, ThinkProgress reports that, despite the widespread violence in Charlottesville last weekend, only eight people were arrested in connection with the white supremacist rally. That’s two more than were arrested for public drunkenness. A member of the antifa movement would almost certainly argue that those numbers show why we can’t rely on the authorities to fight fascism. 

Darkness in America

I suppose it’s possible there were some “very fine people” who chose to march with the Nazis and Klan in Charlottesville, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”. Perhaps they were seriously misinformed about the nature of the event. But as Chris Rock said today: “If 10 guys thinks it’s ok to hang with 1 Nazi then they just became 11 Nazis”.

The good news is that the president* sunk so low today that more of our fellow citizens will turn against him, finally seeing him for what he is. His angry defense of white supremacy even generated disgusted reactions from a few of the right-wingers on Fox (order has probably been restored by now).

Congresswoman Gwen Moore, a Democratic Congresswoman who represents Milwaukee, called for his impeachment:

“As we once again hear [the president*] defend those responsible for the deadly riot in Charlottesville and receive praise by hate groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis, the time has come for Republicans and Democrats to put aside our political differences and philosophical debates for a higher cause. For the sake of the soul of our country, we must come together to restore our national dignity that has been robbed by [his] presence in the White House. My Republican friends, I implore you to work with us within our capacity as elected officials to remove this man as our commander-in-chief and help us move forward from this dark period in our nation’s history.”

Of course, impeachment is unlikely, given the Republican majority in the House, but perhaps the House and Senate will vote to censure him. I could see our not-as-terrible-as-some Republican Congressman voting for that. 

Perhaps being censured would finally give our president* the heart attack or stroke he so richly deserves (after his new chief of staff told him what “censure” means). 

Meanwhile, the sun, earth and moon are speeding toward the locations in space that will give America a solar eclipse on Monday. The “totality – the area where the sun is completely blocked by the moon – will be 70 miles wide and will travel from Oregon in the morning to South Carolina in the afternoon. The rest of the country will see a partial eclipse. 

Vox has a cool eclipse tracker that allows you to see when the eclipse will occur in your zip code and how much of the sun will be hidden. At its peak here in New Jersey, 72% of the sun will be hidden at 2:44 p.m. I don’t plan to use the special glass or glasses you need in order to avoid permanent eye damage, but I’ll certainly take a quick look. Coincidentally, I have an appointment with our optometrist at 3 p.m. I can experience the eclipse from his parking lot and then he can tell me if I’m blind.

I’m just brainstorming here, but I wonder if someone could convince our president* that the eclipse will be a Message telling him his presidency is over. Eclipses have often made a big impression on the ignorant and/or simple-minded. Assuming he’s in Washington, however, the moon will only block 81% of the sun. That might not be enough. But the Secret Service could tell him he’s got a rally to attend in South Carolina (they like him down there) and arrange him to be outside at just the right time. It’s a long shot, but one can dream.

PS: Another Democratic Congresswoman, Jackie Speier, who represents the area south of San Francisco, has called for the president* to be removed because he is mentally unfit: “[He] is showing signs of erratic behavior and mental instability that place the country in grave danger. Time to invoke the 25th Amendment”.

“I’m Not Saying We Wouldn’t Get Our Hair Mussed”

In March 2016, candidate Trump said he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons in the Middle East or Europe.

In August 2016, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC claimed that “several months ago, a foreign policy expert went to advise Mr. Trump. … Trump asked three times, in an hour briefing, ‘why can’t we use nuclear weapons?'”

In January, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced imminent plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, President-elect Trump tweeted “It won’t happen!”

Last month, the U.S. government announced that North Korea had indeed tested an ICBM. The Trump administration responded by saying America would use “the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat”. 

On Tuesday, sources in the administration leaked an analysis of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities:

North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.

The analysis, completed last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency, comes on the heels of another intelligence assessment that sharply raises the official estimate for the total number of bombs in the communist country’s atomic arsenal. The United States calculated last month that up to 60 nuclear weapons are now controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The President immediately issued “an extraordinary ultimatum”:

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… [Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before”…

The President received encouragement from one of his most prominent evangelical supporters, pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas:

“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president … will not tolerate any threat against the American people. 

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis (the former general whose appointment as Secretary of Defense required special dispensation from Congress) issued a statement:

The United States and our allies have the demonstrated capabilities and unquestionable commitment to defend ourselves from an attack… The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who occasionally shows some sense, indicated that the President is ready to launch a preemptive strike: 

“I do believe Donald Trump will not allow Kim Jong-un to get a missile to hit America with a nuclear weapon on top, and it’s a matter of time until that capability exists….So, I hope we can do this [with] diplomacy and sanctions [and] war would be terrible, but if there’s going to be a war, it’s going to be in the region, not here in America….Isn’t your primary purpose as President of the United States to protect the American homeland from a nuclear weapon attack by a guy like Kim Jong-un?… He’s gonna pick homeland defense over regional stability and he has to.”

Note for Sen. Graham: Please read the Vox article “North Korea Is More Rational Than You Think”. It’s very hard to see why North Korea would want to start a war.

After Secretary of State Rex Tillerson downplayed the situation, saying there is no “imminent threat” and “Americans should sleep well at night”, Sebastian Gorka, a top presidential adviser (and neo-Nazi), declared: “The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical”, apparently suggesting that the issue of war and peace is a purely military matter. 

Finally, the President today expressed the opinion that his previous ultimatum “maybe wasn’t tough enough”. He told reporters that North Korea “better get their act together or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world”.

Well. I hope the North Korean leadership understands that you can’t believe a word that comes out of Trump’s mouth. When it comes to making threats or promises, he might as well be what the Chinese call a “paper tiger”. A normal response to his bombast would be “yeah, right, Donald, why don’t you go play golf or watch TV?”

But our President is also stupid, ignorant and lacking in normal human emotions, so nobody knows what he might decide to do. He does have the ability to launch a nuclear strike without anyone else’s approval (a problem that needs to be fixed). I don’t think he’d do that, however. I think it’s more likely he would authorize a non-nuclear attack on North Korea designed to eliminate the country’s leadership or slow down it’s nuclear program. The likely outcome of that would be a major war that wouldn’t be limited to the Korean peninsula.

The Atlantic has a long article on “How to Deal With North Korea”. Its subtitle is “There are no good options. But some are worse than others.” Its conclusion is “every option the United States has for dealing with North Korea is bad. But accepting it as a nuclear power may be the least bad”:

Although in late April Trump called Kim “a madman with nuclear weapons,” perhaps the most reassuring thing about pursuing the acceptance option is that Kim appears to be neither suicidal nor crazy. In the five and a half years since assuming power at age 27, he has acted with brutal efficiency to consolidate that power; the assassination of his half brother is only the most recent example. As tyrants go, he’s shown appalling natural ability. For a man who occupies a position both powerful and perilous, his moves have been nothing if not deliberate and even cruelly rational.

And as the latest head of a family that has ruled for three generations, one whose primary purpose has been to survive, as a young man with a lifetime of wealth and power before him, how likely is he to wake up one morning and set fire to his world?

The same logic applies to Iran and its nuclear program. There is no easy way to stop technologically-advanced countries from obtaining nuclear weapons, especially when unfriendly nations already have them. Fortunately, however, there is no reason to think any country on Earth would use them, unless it was to retaliate against an invasion or an earlier nuclear attack. If that happened, we could only hope the damage would be limited, as it was in Japan seventy-two years ago this week. As long as some countries have nuclear weapons, other countries will acquire them. Unless the nations of the world agree to eliminate them, and, if necessary, join together to force recalcitrant nations to give them up (and keep them out of the hands of terrorists), nuclear weapons will pose a continuing threat.

In case you didn’t catch it, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed” is from Dr. Strangelove. General “Buck” Turgidson is vigorously arguing for a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.”

Presumably, the real-life President will receive better advice than the fictional President Merkin Muffley (if only that nice egghead President Muffley was Commander-in-Chief right now).