Tribalism On Parade

People often say left-wingers and right-wingers aren’t that different. Whichever side we’re on, we all belong to a political tribe. We’re all live in our own bubbles. None of us really think for ourselves. We simply go along with the rest of our tribe.

It’s not true. Left-wingers are open to more sources of information and less likely to automatically follow their side’s leaders. Compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a cult.

Here’s an example. In 2013, a poll showed that 38% of Democrats supported bombing Syria because of the government’s use of chemical weapons. So did 22% of Republicans.

Last year, when asked the same question, the same poll showed 37% of Democrats still supported bombing Syria. But, remarkably, 86% of Republicans did!

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You might say, well, 64% of Republicans must have changed their minds over the course of four years because the situation in Syria changed. Maybe Democrats were too stupid or ignorant to recognize how different Syria 2017 was from Syria 2013. 

You could say that, but, from the Republican perspective, the real difference between 2013 and 2017 was which tribe occupied the White House and which position was being pushed by Fox News.

The Most Ridiculous Ever

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post has performed a public service by collecting a remarkably reassuring series of YKW’s (You Know Who’s) self-evaluations.

Outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster … said this week that “we have failed to impose sufficient costs” on Russia — joining a consensus view that [YKW] has been inexplicably soft on Vladimir Putin’s assaults on democracy and stability. 

But we can all stand down.

“Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” [YKW] announced.

I felt similar relief when, even though he used anti-Semitic themes in his campaign and hesitated to condemn vandalism against Jewish targets, [he] informed us that “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”

I likewise was not troubled by [his] talk about “shithole” countries in Africa, or his defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville, because, as [he] assured us, “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

I don’t share the stock market’s jitters over the trade war [he] started, because I recall his assurance that “nobody knows more about trade than me.”

The allegations about his infidelity and his boasts about assaulting women are not troubling, because “nobody respects women more than I do,” and “nobody loves the Bible more than I do.”

The outrage about him mocking a disabled journalist on the campaign trail? Misplaced — because “nobody’s better to people with disabilities than me.”

You think he’s foul-mouthed and his insult-an-hour leadership is unpresidential? WRONG! “I have one of the great temperaments,” he said.

And on those occasions when [he] pits Americans against each other by race and ethnicity, fear not: “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”

… In rare moments of self-doubt, [he] admits he may not be quite as great as the Great Emancipator, but, he said, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”

It’s a signature [YKW] move: Don’t just deny the charge but declare yourself to be the polar opposite (while accusing your opponents of whatever you were accused of: You’re the puppet!). He can’t be a racist, or soft on Russia, or anything bad — because he’s the furthest possible thing from that.

It’s all terribly reassuring.

[His] biggest-and-greatest talk defines him, of course, and ranks him at the pinnacle of all human endeavors. His “I.Q. is one of the highest.” He has “the best words.” He is a “stable genius.” He has “one of the great memories of all time.” He was “always the best athlete.” His building makes “the best taco bowls.” He knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and nobody “in the history of the world” knows more about taxes….

Some might quibble, saying his claim to be “the most militaristic person ever” is unfair to Genghis Khan, or that his claim that “nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as [him]” forgets the people who built the Panama Canal. But to point this out would be to further the historic persecution of [YKW], victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In fact, “no politician in history . . . has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

… I was concerned about the flood of international criticism of [YKW] — until [he] said that he received “red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received” in Asia, and that his speech in Poland “was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president.”

I worried about his cowboy talk of raining fire and fury on fat Rocket Man and his puny nuclear button, but I’m comforted to know that “there’s nobody that understands the horror of nuclear better than me.”

The rash of ethical scandals among Cabinet members was troubling, until I remembered that [his] Cabinet has “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever.”

[His] tweets seem to show he’s unaware of policy details, so I’m relieved to discover that he understands legislation better “than any president that’s ever been in office.”

And despite figures showing Congress has ground to a halt, I’m delighted to learn that “never has there been a president . . . who’s passed more legislation,” except for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In coming months, I expect … a new caravan of superlatives: Most faithful spouse in history. Least nepotistic person in America. Greatest gentleman in the world. Least susceptible to flattery. Most polite Twitter user. Least likely to watch cable news. And the humblest person — by far…. 

So far, but only so far, he’s left out the most fitting superlative of all. He’s the most ridiculous ever.

Sometimes It Still Feels Good To Be An American

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about our history, it doesn’t feel as good to be an American as it used to. But there are days like yesterday that remind me how good it used to feel and sometimes still does.

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Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post said it much better than I could:

By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do  this? 

The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.

If this was a movie, you’d think it was inauthentic. However, it may be our image of our fellow Americans and teenagers that has been wildly inaccurate and unfairly negative. Too many of us have bought into the notion that teenagers are passive, addicted to their phones and lacking civic awareness. Too many have been guilted into accepting that “real Americans” are the Trump voters, and that the rest of us are pretenders, pawns of “elites.” The crowd reminded us of the country’s enormous geographic, racial, gender and age diversity. (Plenty of teachers, parents and grandparents turned out.) And in the case of guns, these people are far more representative of the views of the country than the proverbial guy in the Rust Belt diner. 

Social media has its downsides, we have come to learn all too well. But we’ve forgotten amidst the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal and the daily torment of President Trump’s tweets that social media merely amplifies what is there already. It gives the Russians, the haters, the xenophobes a louder voice and the tools to disguise their true identities, but it can also amplify sincere, empathetic voices and knit together a community — an overused but underappreciated phenomenon — without which the students’ organization on a scale of this magnitude would have been impossible. It is all too convenient to blame social media; the actual problem is the small but significant segment of the population behind the nastiness, anger, aggression and refusal to grapple with reality. As is always the case, the solution to bad speech is more speech. If we had forgotten that, the students who have grown up never knowing a world without iPhones surely hadn’t. 

The decision to let only children and teenagers speak was key to the entire endeavor. No canned political speeches; no feigned emotion. The experience of the more than 180,000 students who have been  exposed to gun violence in schools over the past few decades was suddenly very real, very immediate.

Those on the event stage talked about their friends, their certainty in political change, their solidarity with other victims, and their fearlessness in the face of naysayers and cynics. They mocked and condemned the National Rifle Association and the politicians who take their money…. They sounded angry, sad and serious. They spoke about democracy and urged the crowd to vote; they inveighed against party politics….

And so we are left with the stark contrast — the sincerity of the students vs. the canned platitudes of the gun absolutists; the speed and vibrancy of a mass movement vs. the gridlock and sameness of our politics; the dogged determination of teenagers not yet world-weary vs. the sense of futility that pervades our politics. The outcome is not preordained. Yes, democracies are under assault. Xenophobes and nativists certainly have come out from under the rocks. The president has tried to make the abnormal commonplace and the unacceptable  inevitable. But if nothing else, the marchers reminded us we have a choice. We can be fatalistic and passive, or determined and active. If teenagers can take the capital by storm, surely the rest of us can do something more than complain and yell at the TV.

The young lady in the yellow sweatshirt gets the last word:

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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.

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.