A Genuine Risk

The president won’t read it, but Vox has an important article called “Here’s What War with North Korea Would Look Like”:

For all the talk of nuclear exchanges and giant buttons, there has been little realistic discussion of what a war on the Korean Peninsula might mean, how it could escalate, what commitments would be required, and what sacrifices would be demanded.

So I’ve spent the past month posing those questions to more than a dozen former Pentagon officials, CIA analysts, US military officers, and think tank experts, as well as to a retired South Korean general who spent his entire professional life preparing to fight the North. They’ve all said variants of the same thing: There is a genuine risk of a war on the Korean Peninsula that would involve the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Several estimated that millions — plural — would die.

Even more frightening, most of the people I spoke to said they believed Kim would use nuclear weapons against South Korea in the initial stages of the fighting — not just as a desperate last resort….

War is inherently unpredictable: It’s possible Kim would use every type of weapon of mass destruction he possesses, and it’s possible he wouldn’t use any of them.

But many leading experts fear the worst. And if all of this sounds frightening, it should. A new war on the Korean Peninsula wouldn’t be as bad as you think. It would be much, much worse.

Since you’re not the president, you can read it here.

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Things Are Not Getting Better

The news has not been good, leading various journalists to summarize the past few days the way Jamelle Bouie did for Slate:

After months of sustained public criticism from Trump, Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI. The rationale behind McCabe’s decision is still not entirely known, but there’s little doubt it involves the Russia investigation. In addition to being a verbal target of Trump’s, McCabe had become a bête noire of conservative media, the subject of baroque conspiracies about a “deep state” that is allegedly conspiring against the president….

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a … memo [that] accuses the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers, using partisan opposition research in order to attack Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine his presidency, and singling out officials like McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and former FBI Director James Comey, all targets of Trump and his allies in the GOP and conservative media… Democrats on the committee have called the document a “misleading set of talking points”, and federal law enforcement officials had warned that releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless”….

In the wake of this vote, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee also opened an inquiry into the FBI and the Justice Department… On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his support for both moves, calling for a “cleanse” of the FBI….

What began as Trump venting on Twitter has now become official administration policy, carried out with the blessing of White House aides who were at one time seen as bulwarks against such behavior. Bloomberg reported on a phone call between White House chief of staff John Kelly and senior officials in the Justice Department, where the former conveyed the president’s “displeasure” and reminded them of his expectations, albeit adding that the White House doesn’t expect them “to do anything illegal or unethical”.

To all of this, add the fact that—during this same period of time—President Trump declined to sanction Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election [after Congress voted almost unanimously for new sanctions to be imposed].

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said this about the president’s decision:

Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia. The President decides to ignore that law. Folks, that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country.

There should be, but there hasn’t been. Most of us are suffering from outrage overload.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Bouie wrote about “ICE Unbound”:

[The president has unleashed] the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, giving it broad authority to act at its own discretion. The result? An empowered and authoritarian agency that operates with impunity, whose chief attribute is unapologetic cruelty.

…. The most striking aspect of ICE under this administration has been its refusal to distinguish between law-abiding immigrants, whose undocumented status obscures their integration into American life, and those with active criminal records—the “bad hombres” of the president’s rhetoric.

Erasing that distinction is how we get the arrest and detention of Lukasz Niec, a Polish immigrant and green card holder who was brought to the United States as a young child. Last week, ICE agents arrested Niec …, citing two misdemeanor convictions for offenses committed when he was a teenager… A practicing physician, Niec now sits in a county jail, awaiting possible deportation….

Bouie didn’t mention Amer Othman Adi, a 57-year-old Palestinian who had been in the U.S. since he was 19. A married man with four daughters, he helped revitalize the city of Youngstown by opening several businesses. He was deported to Jordan on Monday night.

It all makes these Twitter thoughts from author G. Willow Wilson worth thinking about:

It may be time to start thinking about how we can effectively push back against authoritarianism once the last of the checks and balances have fallen.

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others–there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal”. Certain books vanish from the libraries.

The press picks a side. The military picks a side. The judiciary picks a side. This part should already feel familiar.

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

People still have rights, in theory. The right to vote, to serve on a jury, etc. The difference is that they begin to fear exercising those rights. Voting in an election will get your name put on “a list”.

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

Until one day we wake up and discover the regime has decided to postpone the 2020 elections until its lawyers are finished investigating something or other. Or until it can ‘ensure’ that the voting process is ‘fair’.

A sizable proportion of the citizenry will support the postponement. Yes, absolutely, we must postpone elections. The opposition is corrupt! Our leader is just trying to protect us! A dictator is never without supporters.

And hey, if we pull ourselves back from the brink and the midterms go ahead and the 2020 election is free and transparent and on time, you are cordially invited to point at me and laugh. Honestly. No one will be happier to be wrong than me.

 

It’s Not “Dementia Don” Anymore. Now It’s “Very Stable Genius”.

This morning, a few minutes after the president watched his admirers at Fox News talk about his mental health, three messages appeared on the president’s personal Twitter account. Here they are, presented as one amazingly coherent (for him) paragraph:

Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence. Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

It’s very hard to believe that the president still has enough of his marbles to have written that all by himself. It’s false to the point of delusion, of course, but well-written. I would have said someone else definitely wrote it, except that the peculiar way “T.V.” is written is one of the president’s stylistic quirks. (“T.V.” written as an abbreviation appears 32 times in the searchable Trump Twitter Archive; the simple “TV” appears much more often.) Perhaps the president dictated his response to somebody familiar with his unique style, and that person polished his ravings for  public consumption.

If the president did write that paragraph this morning (which I doubt), the explanation could be that he’s more competent after he’s had some sleep. We know he tires easily. (That new Fire and Fury book says he often gets in bed by 6:30 p.m.) His dementia probably gets worse as the day wears on.

At any rate, the president’s poor mental health is receiving additional attention, which is a good thing. Vox has an interesting interview with Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, who strongly recommends that the president receive (or be forced to receive, if necessary) an emergency psychiatric evaluation. Its purpose would be to determine whether he is a threat to public health. Dr. Lee says it isn’t a question of diagnosing him. It’s a matter of determining how dangerous he is:

Assessing dangerousness is making a judgment about the situation, not the person. The same person may not be dangerous in a different situation, for example. And it is his threat to public health, not his personal affairs, that is our concern….

[Once] you declare danger, you are calling first for containment and removal of weapons from the person and, second, for a full evaluation — which may then yield diagnoses. Until that happens, physicians and mental health professionals are expected to err on the side of safety and can be held legally liable if they fail to act. So we’re merely calling for an urgent evaluation so that we may have definitive answers.

In doing that, we are fulfilling a routine, public expectation of duty that comes with our profession — the only part that is unusual is that this is happening in the presidency….

Those who most require an evaluation are the least likely to submit to one. That is the reason why in all 50 states we have not only the legal authority, but often the legal obligation, to contain someone even against their will when it’s an emergency.

So in an emergency, neither consent nor confidentiality requirements hold. Safety comes first. What we do in the case of danger is we contain the person, we remove them from access to weapons [Note: including nuclear weapons in this case] and we do an urgent evaluation.

This is what we have been calling for with the president based on basic medical standards of care.

We shouldn’t expect the president to be given a formal evaluation any time soon, of course. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo seems to think it isn’t necessary anyway, although he doesn’t distinguish between being diagnosed and being evaluated as a threat. That’s because we (including Republican politicians) already know there’s a very serious problem:

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. If the entire psychiatric profession got together and examined Trump and pronounced him entirely free of any mental illness, his behavior wouldn’t be any less whacked or dangerous in a President….

In common sense, everyday rather than clinical language, Trump is clearly unstable, erratic, impulsive. In a word, he’s nuts and not well. As citizens, we are entirely able and entitled to make these determinations. They are ordinary English language descriptors that the psychiatric profession doesn’t control and shouldn’t want to control. The entire debate over whether Trump is “mentally ill” is simply a diversion, premised on the idea that we need either permission or dictation to say he is not able to safely or competently fulfill the job of President. We don’t. The observed behavior is really all that is necessary and all that matters.

So where does that leave us? As the pressure mounts, the president will likely become more unhinged and more dangerous. Unless he goes totally batshit crazy, it’s unlikely that his staff or Congressional Republicans will do anything about it. Even then, they might cover up his incapacity. That’s what happened when President Woodrow Wilson had a series of strokes in 1919. His wife and the president’s associates secretly ran the government in his place.

Sometimes quietly, the Trump administration continues its assault on working people, the poor, immigrants and the environment. Republicans in Congress and the Department of Justice are increasing their efforts to protect the president and his co-conspirators, even as the evidence against them mounts. Now they’re even going after the president’s opponents (yes, let’s investigate the Clinton Foundation and her emails again). Fox News keeps broadcasting state propaganda. Puerto Rico is still suffering. War, either in Eastern Europe, East Asia or the Middle East, is probably more likely than it was a year ago.

Fortunately, we made it through 2017 without too many crises, aside from the disastrous effects of climate change on the weather. The various investigations now underway may interfere with the Republican agenda. January’s new Congress might provide some oversight of the executive branch. If we make it through 2018 relatively safely, there may be better times ahead.

In that positive vein, here are some words from Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister who influenced Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, among many others. Parker believed that slavery would be abolished one day:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

A Selection of Stuff You’d Rather Not Read About

Four articles that made an impression this week, from least to most depressing, that didn’t even mention Jerusalem, Puerto Rico, healthcare or starving polar bears.

One hundred and eighty-seven people are facing felony charges for participating in a demonstration in Washington D.C. that turned violent. The demonstration was on the day Trump was inaugurated. A trial is now underway. The depressing aspect of this story is that none of the six defendants are accused of doing anything aside from being there:

What jurors haven’t heard, and prosecutors don’t intend to offer, is evidence that any of the six individuals currently on trial … actually engaged in any property damage or violence. Under the government’s theory of the case, in which anyone arrested in the group is part of a conspiracy and is responsible for any actions taken by others, the lack of individualized wrongdoing doesn’t matter.

Maybe the jury will have the sense to acquit everyone and convince the government to stop these prosecutions.

Elsewhere in Washington, Republicans from the House and Senate are trying to reconcile the terrible tax bills they’ve recently passed. Could any of them read this article from The New York Times and say they were proud of their efforts so far?

… for the first time since the United States adopted an income tax, a higher rate would be applied to employee wages and salaries than to income earned by proprietors, partnerships and closely held corporations….

“We’ve never had a tax system where wage earners were substantially penalized” relative to other types of income earners, said … a former Treasury Department official….

Indeed, economists and tax experts across the political spectrum warn that the proposed system would invite tax avoidance. The more the tax code distinguishes among types of earnings, personal characteristics or economic activities, the greater the incentive to label income artificially, restructure or switch categories in a hunt for lower rates….

“The more you look at any of the major rules, the more ambiguities, glitches, clearly unintended consequences and tax planning opportunities you see,” said Michael L. Schler, a lawyer in the tax department of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He has written a 50-page summary of the more glaring problems …

From Georgia Southern University, a professor named Jared Yates Sexton, who grew up in the South, writes about the fascism that runs in his family.

Eventually I left for college and found my own people who didn’t express such fascist and ignorant beliefs. I visited for the occasional holiday, kept in decent enough touch, but I felt confident knowing that people like my family would never be in charge of the country they understood so poorly….

They hoard weapons, supplies, and daydream about the day the government will fall and they’ll be free to remake the country as they see fit.

I cannot say they are fascists, but I can definitely say they hold fascist ideas. This is why they hardly blink when Donald Trump quickly erodes the normal order of the government, why they’re not concerned when he undermines the Freedom of the Press or cozies up to authoritarian leaders. They love it when he tells policemen to be rough on suspects. They want someone who plays nuclear chicken with a despot while the lives of hundreds of million innocent people lie in the balance.

Finally, speaking of nuclear chicken, Jeffrey Lewis, a “scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies”, shares some really scary thoughts in The Washington Post. He imagines how a confrontation between North and South Korea might escalate, helped along by a morning tweet from the president, into nuclear war.

And so, facing what he believed was a massive American military invasion, Kim gave the order. The thread of history winds along on twists of fate, like Archduke Ferdinand’s driver missing a turn…

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency would later say this was a sign that the system had worked well, downing about a third of the missiles — although experts would argue that the low intercept rate resulted from problems that the Los Angeles Times had reported in 2017…. It seemed more likely, the experts said, that five of the missiles had simply broken up as they reentered the earth’s atmosphere.

The remaining seven nuclear warheads landed in the United States. These missiles were no more accurate than the others — but with 200-kiloton warheads, 10 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, close was enough to count in most cases.

I told you so.

This, That and the Other Thing

There are few places as forlorn as a resort town on a chilly, cloudy, damp, out of season weekday afternoon. Thus, Virginia Beach, Virginia, last week:

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But let’s move on.

Paul Waldman writes about “The GOP’s Baffling Decision to Raise Taxes on Millions of Americans” at The Week.

If there’s one thing we thought we could count on in this crazy world, it’s that Republicans will never, ever, ever support a tax increase. It wasn’t always this way — Ronald Reagan, who to hear some people tell it practically walked the Earth without sin, actually raised taxes multiple times — but today there may be no more foundational belief to the GOP than the principle that taxes must come down, everywhere and always.

Nevertheless, “the GOP is right now rallying around a bill that will raise taxes on tens of millions of Americans.” It certainly is strange. One part of the explanation, however, is that Republicans aren’t very good at this governing thing. Another part is that they’re so eager to cut taxes for rich people and corporations, they’re willing to antagonize millions of voters and lie about what they’re doing.

As a partial antidote to the above, consider reading all about “The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein”. Ian Ground presents an excellent overview of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, both early and late, at The Times Literary Supplement.

Even When You Want To Back Away From It

I’ve been working on a post that explains why I want to back away from our political crisis, but it’s been slow going. Meanwhile, an exchange that appeared on Brian Wilson’s community forum might be of interest.

First, some background. Brian Wilson (my favorite musician, who is best known as the creative force behind the Beach Boys) has a website that includes a forum mainly intended for fans to discuss his music and other aspects of his career. Occasionally, however, other topics come up.

A few days ago, a person who apparently lives in Germany and goes by the name “Cantina Margarita” (a reference to the song “Heroes and Villains”) announced that he or she was leaving the board after 10 years of participation:

I’d like to thank you all for some 10 years of being allowed to be a part of this community. Now it’s time to say goodbye because I feel I can’t continue having musical discussions on a US music forum, suspecting all the time to be talking to Donald Trump voters.

I can’t go on discussing music and concerts, trying to ignore the subject. It’s a very ugly and dangerous fly [???], and I’m used to expressing my opinion quite frankly. I can’t do this here without spoiling BW’s board, and this is not something I want this forum to suffer….

Keep having a nice time here, I just don’t feel like being in any longer.

My account is just being cancelled.

Maybe, only maybe, I’ll return after the next POTUS election, under a new nick. American politics is just too important to the rest of the world to ignore it.

[wave]

As you’d expect, there were a variety of responses to this post. Some people thought it was an overreaction. Why stop communicating with Americans in general just because millions of us voted a certain way? For example:

I am puzzled by this too.  I don’t like the way your election went, so I cannot talk to an entire country’s people?

I’m trying to look for an interpretation of this that does not seem like holding your breath until your face turns blue, or ‘cutting off your ear to spite your face’, etc., but I am failing.

Since Cantina Margarita was no longer available, well, it was a dirty job, but somebody had to…

How about this interpretation:

It matters to the whole world when America chooses a new president. Yet millions of Americans chose a person who is manifestly unfit for the job and whose presence in the White House constitutes a clear and present danger. I am so damned angry and worried about this that it’s hard to keep quiet about it, especially when I communicate with Americans. And since Americans who post here are probably among those responsible for putting this person in office, I’d rather not interact with them. Sadly, since I don’t know how people here voted (or if they chose not to vote, even in such an important election), I’m going to leave this board rather than have pleasant discussions with these people about Brian Wilson, given how I feel about the decision they made. Maybe I’ll be back when your country comes to its senses and it’s reasonable to assume that the person I’m communicating with didn’t make such a horrible decision, putting themselves and others around the world at serious risk.

I know this may sound extreme, but this person being the American president is far more extreme. None of us should accept this situation and go about our business in the usual way.

By the way, a powerful member of the president’s party expressed deep concerns about the president this week:

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in an interview on Sunday that President Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

In an extraordinary rebuke of a president of his own party, Mr. Corker said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ [a TV show] or something.”

“He concerns me,” Mr. Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

… All but inviting his colleagues to join him in speaking out about the president, Mr. Corker said his concerns about Mr. Trump were shared by nearly every Senate Republican.

“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said, adding that “of course they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”

So far, other Senate Republicans have declined Sen. Corker’s implied invitation to share their thoughts. However, a Republican congressman, Mark Meadows, did say “it’s easy to be bold when you’re not coming back”, referring to the fact that Sen. Corker won’t seek re-election in 2018. I suppose that Rep. Meadows does want to be re-elected, so being bold is out of the question.

Now back to backing away from the current crisis.