Monday, September 17, 2018

U.S. on trial for responsibility for climate change: 'Juliana v. United States'

On Oct. 29, "a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights," as Peter Singer wrote for Project Syndicate in 2018.

Singer said:

"The first climate litigation to win a positive decision was Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands, in which a Dutch court ruled, in 2015, that the government must ensure that the country’s emissions are cut by one quarter within five years. In response, the Dutch government did step up its actions to reduce emissions, but it also appealed the judgment. In October, The Hague Court of Appeals will deliver its verdict on that appeal.

Important as Urgenda has been, Juliana v. United States is by far the most significant climate case to date.

* * *

If we take the view that every person on this planet is entitled to an equal share of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our greenhouse-gas emissions, then the US is emitting 3.5 times its fair share. ... Moreover, the principle of equal per capita emissions is generous to the old industrialized countries, because it ignores their historical responsibility for the past emissions that have led to the situation we face today."

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Evangelicals disappointed in Trump's character

It can be tricky to pin down what evangelicals think of Trump, in part because it's an impermanent demographic based on self-identification.

First, it's important to note the decline in Christian influence in the United States. Many commentators have suggested that Christians are making a kind of "deal" with the man who happens to have gained power, someone who — just perhaps — they otherwise would not have admired.

Nina Burleigh wrote for Newsweek on April 16, 2018 that white evangelicals have experienced a sharp demographic decline over the last decade. Burleigh attributes this to their children "leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions"; today, 92 percent of white evangelicals are over age 30. "During the 2016 primary season, white evangelicals were largely divided in their opinion of Trump...But once Republicans nominated him, his favorability among white evangelicals jumped to 61 percent in September 2016...Now, according to a poll conducted in late March [2018], after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent." This suggests that this demographic is substantially unconcerned "by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels," "revelations that the married President had a year-long affair with an adult film actress after First Lady Melania gave birth to their son Barron," and "shady business deals".

White evangelicals "went from being the least likely to the most likely to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality had nothing to do with public service," an article in the New York Times said in June 2018, referencing a September 2017 article in the paper.

Ross Douthat wrote for the New York Times in September 2018 that a new survey by the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins for the Voter Study Group found that whether a Trump voter attends church predicted their views on race. Among Trump voters who never go to church, only half had positive feelings about Black people, and a quarter said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. Among Trump voters who frequently go to church, 71 percent had positive feelings about Black people, and only 9 percent said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. While the religious and secular groups in the survey had similar incomes, the secular people were "less likely to have college degrees, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced; they’re also less civically engaged, less satisfied with their neighborhoods and communities, and less trusting and optimistic in general." (Emily Ekins wrote a separate article about it, concluding that "encouraging conservatives to disengage from religion...may in fact make it even harder for left and right to meet in a more compassionate middle.") But why did the churchgoing people vote for Trump, if they disagree with him about race? It seems they made "a pragmatic bet that his policies on abortion and religious liberty were worth living with his Caligulan personal life and racial demagoguery." Early Christianity made such a bet with the Roman emperor Constantine. However, with Trump, it's "the reverse sort of situation: A Christian community trying to make the best of its decline, and allying with a leader whose core appeal depends upon and possibly furthers the de-Christianization of conservatism....it’s hard to see how it can reverse de-Christianization, and easy to see how it might accelerate it."

Others have a different interpretation. Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, notes the study's conclusion that "religious participation may serve a moderating function in our politics" [emphasis mine] and he clarifies that he believes that "white evangelicals are no moderating force. They are the core of our extremist president’s support." [emphasis mine]

Whether or not conservatism today is stripping Christianity of its religious content, it is giving it power, and this does reverse the decline of the influence of Christian institutions. Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children wrote in a May 2018 op-ed for the New York Times:

"There is a story going around, on both the left and the right, that America’s 'true believers' are a declining force and are now conducting desperate, defensive maneuvers in a secularizing society. But that is not how the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see it — because it is not true. They played a key role in putting President Trump in power. They are protecting him now, as they giddily collect their winnings in legislatures and in the courts. Why should they doubt that they can pull off the same trick again?

What Christian nationalists know — and many of us have yet to learn — is that you don’t need a majority to hijack a modern democracy. You just need a sizable minority, marinating in its grievances, willing to act as a bloc, and impervious to correction by fact or argument. Make this group feel good about itself by making other people feel bad about themselves, and dominion may well be in reach."


Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, planned ten "campaign-style rallies" throughout California in late May and early June 2018 in advance of that state's primary election. The goal is to turn out the evangelical vote. Other kinds of Christians are not receiving the same outreach to attend these rallies, "a tactic that plays directly into the growing separatist sentiment among many white evangelicals," according to Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Of this attempt to stoke "white evangelical resentment and outrage," Young wrote: "Such a dark and alarmist vision might seem to contradict the hopeful joy evangelicals claim their faith provides, but it aligns perfectly with the cynical and conspiratorial worldview Trump has brought to the center of American politics. As such, white evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t expose their hypocrisy, as plenty have contended, so much as it plainly reveals their heart." On 13 June, even Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump's policy of separating would-be immigrant families at the border is "disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit." He stopped short, however, of holding Trump accountable: "I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to where it is today."

Whether Christian power is seen to be declining or rising, many see the new administration as an opportunity to advance a theocratic-leaning political agenda. The theologian Roger E. Olson wrote for Patheos in August 2018 in "Is Trump “Our Cyrus?"

Here I’m not talking about those evangelical Christians who, among others, voted for Trump in order to vote against Hilary Clinton as the “lesser of two evils.” I’m talking about the many evangelical Christians who are now lionize Trump as a kind of new national messiah—not on a par with Jesus Christ but...on a par with whom?

A growing common answer is "He’s our Cyrus.'

* * *

During his approximately thirty year reign he [Cyrus] released the Hebrew people in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that was destroyed earlier by the Babylonians....the Hebrew people did not consider Cyrus one of them, of course, but a powerful ally—and one raised up by God to deliver them from exile and bondage."

Olson issues a warning: "I strongly suspect that he [Trump] is manipulating his conservative Christian 'base' and would turn on them in a moment if it suited his agenda to be powerful."

Is it hypocritical? Well, yes. Kathleen Parker on Aug. 31, 2018 in the Washington Post decried "the utter hypocrisy of allowing such a foul-mouthed, race-baiting misogynist to occupy the Oval Office after many of these same paragons of virtue impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his irresponsible affair with an intern." But it can be politically expedient to ignore the personal failings of one's own candidate. James Traub wrote in the Atlantic on July 18, 2018:

Elected Democrats lined up to denounce President Bill Clinton’s private behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, though none deemed it worthy of impeachment. Donald Trump’s vastly more outrageous behavior has provoked far less opprobrium from his own party. Republicans aren’t less decent than Democrats; rather, they have come to see political struggle in such apocalyptic terms that no merely personal form of shameful behavior can compete with the political stakes. Thus Christian conservatives hold their tongue rather than jeopardize their chances of getting a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade. The party of personal morality thus becomes the party of indifference to personal morality.

On another front, where Christians are trying to consolidate political power, it isn't exclusively white Christians who are doing so.

Katherine Stewart profiled Jim Domen for the New York Times on June 20, 2018. Domen (who considers himself a "former homosexual") founded Church United and has led it since 2014. It is "a multiethnic group of pastors from a variety of traditions — including Pentecostal and Catholic clergy members" with a mission of “helping pastors transform California at the government and church level.” Domen supports Trump, saying that he has “done more for the Church than many Christian presidents have.” Church United's work to "politicize pastors," as Stewart put it, "started with six affiliated pastors in 2014. The group now counts approximately 500 member pastors."

Some people feel torn.

An example of a middle-of-the-road position is given by Rev. Samuel Rodríguez, who serves at a church in Sacramento, Calif. and who has had private conversations with Trump in the White House. He publicly condemned Trump for his misogynistic, crude comments on the Access Hollywood tape and is also fighting Trump's immigration agenda, but he is willing to work with Trump overall. In May 2018, Rodríguez told BBC World:

"Trump ha hecho más por el movimiento evangélico que cualquier otro presidente desde la época de Ronald Reagan. Se puede medir. Hay 20 puntos que uno puede decir claramente: aquí firmó una orden ejecutiva, aquí firmó una ley, aquí avanzó..."

* * *

"El movimiento latino evangélico no está casado con Donald Trump. Tampoco estaba casado con Obama. Estamos casados con una agenda que va mucho más allá de la personalidad."

Independently of whatever "deal" may be struck here, what do evangelicals feel about Trump's character?Many are disappointed. Molly Wicker wrote for the New York Times on May 19, 2017:

"Evangelical voters have long demanded that politicians exemplify Christian character and morality in the public sector. In Donald Trump, however, evangelicals were confronted with a candidate who pledged allegiance to conservative ideals, but embodied none of them.
* * *
Claire Waugh, a senior from Woodbridge, Va., told me that she refused in November to have a Trump vote on her conscience, and that she hates to see the country being "led by a man who spews vitriol against anyone who is unlike him, a man who tries to invoke God’s name when he is acting utterly ungodly.""

Some Christians think that theology, not secular politics, is the way forward.

David Kuo, who worked for the George W. Bush administration, wrote in his 2006 memoir Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction when he was facing a terminal illness (pp. 262-263):

"We Christians need a short fast from politics.

We need to eschew politics to focus more on practicing compassion. We need to spend more time studying Jesus and less time trying to get people elected. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year in support of conservative Christian advocacy groups such as the Family Research Council, Eagle Forum, and the panoply of similar groups, let's give that money to charities and groups that are arguably closer to Jesus' heart. And we Christians should spend less time arguing with those on the other side and more time communing with them."

More recently, Daniel Burke wrote for CNN on 13 June 2018 about the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Dallas that "a small but significant slice" of the 10,000 participants objected to the planned address by Vice President Mike Pence. Younger people seemed more concerned with evangelizing the message of Jesus (what they call "The Great Commission") than with aligning themselves with the Republican Party. Garrett Kell, a pastor, said alignment with the Republican Party was also strategically fraught as it could affect the Southern Baptists' interracial and international relations. (The Southern Baptists formed as a pro-slavery splinter group in 1845, and Pew's 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study found that the Southern Baptists remain 85 percent white.) Pence did address the Convention that day, and Burke followed up, saying that "much of Pence's speech was dedicated to praising the accomplishments of his boss, President Donald Trump." He added: "The denomination's executive committee will consider a motion to cease inviting elected officials to speak at national conventions."

Jonathan Merritt, writing for The Atlantic on 16 June, said that the crowd at the annual meeting was significantly younger than he remembered from his childhood. He quoted Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins as saying that this demographic change "has thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis". They elected 45-year-old J.D. Greear as the president of the Southern Baptists who has promised to make an effort to proportionately represent women and people of color in leadership roles. The denomination addresses public policy through its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which opposes President Trump, and Greear said that inviting Pence to speak "sent a terribly mixed signal" about whether the Southern Baptists stood for religion or politics. At least some Southern Baptists, Merritt said, "appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump...places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk." Furthermore, although "Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines," they, too, are experiencing the same decline; they have lost 1 million members in the past 15 years. Tying themselves to conservative politics is therefore, many conclude, not the answer to reversing this trend.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Highlights of Bob Woodward's 'Fear: Trump in the White House'

In his book Fear, Bob Woodward's interviews with White House insiders fill in the backstory to many publicly embarrassing moments of the Trump presidency. The title, Fear, refers to Trump's concept of what "real power" is. He also believes, however, that personal rapport matters more than strategy. Thus, Trump acknowledges that China is an "economic aggressor" and President Xi may be "using" President Trump to meet some agenda, but Trump nevertheless feels that he is powerful in this situation insofar as he feels he has a friendship with Xi. According to Steve Bannon, however, Trump did not have any "genuine friends."

Military

Afghanistan

As the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were traced to Afghanistan, U.S. policy for the past 17 years has centered on preventing another major terrorist attack from launching from that specific place. U.S. funds were poured into the pockets of Afghan warlords with the idea that they will help fight terrorism even though these funds are diverted to their own internal corruption and violence. Today, the U.S. spends $50 billion per year in Afghanistan. Neither Bush nor Obama wanted to end the war. Trump wanted to end it completely. (His opinion: "We’ve got to figure out how to get the fuck out of there. Totally corrupt. The people are not worth fighting for...NATO does nothing. They’re a hindrance. Don’t let anybody tell you how great they are. It’s all bullshit." His mentors, however—Lindsey Graham, for one—repeatedly explained to him the risks of pulling out. In July 2017, he said: "You should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill people."

Iran

Trump always wanted to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal that had been negotiated under Obama. Priebus, Tillerson, and Mattis argued with the president about this, as they knew that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the deal. Trump persisted: “They are in violation, and you should make the case that this agreement is done and finished....And that maybe we’d be willing to renegotiate.” Tillerson eventually caved.

Syria

When Bashar al-Assad chemically attacked his own people on April 4, 2017, Trump was emotionally affected. His position was: “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” Mattis told Trump he'd do it, but privately he told everyone else: "We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured." The middle ground turned out to involve launching 59 missiles at Syria. Trump bragged: “A hundred countries have called...patting me on the back." Trump was interested in launching additional strikes, but he "soon forgot his questions."

North Korea

The public is aware of how Trump nearly escalated a nuclear war via Twitter. Woodward reveals that Trump wanted to evacuate dependent family members of the 28,500 U.S. troops serving in South Korea, an action that would have lent credibility to his plans to attack North Korea. Lindsey Graham had to talk Trump out of this step.

Transgender soldiers

Trump wanted to stop the military from paying for transgender-related surgeries and he wanted to remove transgender troops from service. He had incorrect information about how much certain surgeries cost. Woodward noted:

Gender reassignment surgery can be expensive but also is infrequent. In a Pentagon-commissioned study, the RAND Corporation “found that only a few hundred of the estimated 6,600 transgender troops would seek medical treatment in any year. RAND found those costs would total no more than $8 million per year.”

Priebus gave Trump four options — make no changes, ban all transgender people from service, and two more moderate options — and Trump agreed to discuss it later that morning at 10 a.m. At 8:55 a.m., however, Trump tweeted that transgender people would not be allowed "to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." Dunford refused to make the change, as, in Woodward's words, "tweets were not orders," and he advised the service chiefs: "we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect...we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.” Mattis claimed he would reflect upon next steps, but this was a delaying tactic. Four courts entered preliminary injunctions against Trump's order. On Jan. 1, 2018, the military began accepting new servicemembers who are transgender, following the original schedule of Obama's policy.

Interpersonal problems

In 2015, Trump had said of a Republican senator, John McCain, "He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero [only] because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured." He also gave out the cell phone number of another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, during his rival presidential campaign, but he soon reconciled with Graham. As Trump prepared to take office, Graham warned him about the sorry state of the Republican Party: "We have no idea what we’re doing. We have no plan for health care. We’re on different planets when it comes to cutting taxes. And you’re the biggest loser in this."

Woodward shows Trump maligning his own staff and supporters. To Rudy Giuliani, he once said: "Rudy, you’re a baby! I’ve never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?" On the advice of Rosenstein, he fired Comey via a letter. He said Reince Priebus was "like a little rat. He just scurries around...Just come talk to me. You don't have to go through him." He eventually fired Priebus and replaced him with Kelly; both men learned about the job change via a tweet. Kelly felt he had no option but to accept the job. Priebus later said: “The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.”

Of the scandal with Russian prostitutes, he once said: "I’ve got enough problems with Melania and girlfriends...I can’t have Melania hearing about that." The allegations were compiled into a dossier. Woodward once appeared on television calling the dossier a "garbage document...Trump’s right to be upset about that." At the beginning of Fear, Woodward said he still holds this opinion, although, as a journalist, he was "not delighted to appear to have taken sides." The dossier "played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world, especially the FBI and Comey."

Economy

Of the economy, Cohn had to keep explaining to Trump that an increase in the trade deficit is the sign of a growing economy and that Trump should abandon his goal of shrinking the trade deficit at all costs. Furthermore: "The president clung to an outdated view of America—locomotives, factories with huge smokestacks, workers busy on assembly lines. Cohn assembled every piece of economic data available to show that American workers did not aspire to work in assembly factories." Soon after the G20 summit, Trump wrote "TRADE IS BAD" on a draft of a speech he was editing with Porter. He could not understand that, if China is the world's leading manufacturer of penicillin, refusing to buy directly from China does not save money; it only increases the price of penicillin because another country will serve as the middleman. Trump tried to make Mnuchin declare China to be a currency manipulator, while Mnuchin said there was no legal validity behind that statement.

Trump had a letter drafted that he intended to sign to pull out of a trade agreement with South Korea, an important ally. "Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Kelly—everyone on the national security side—agreed that if the trade deficit with South Korea had been 10 times greater, it still wouldn’t justify withdrawing." To solve this problem, "at least twice Cohn or Porter took [the letter] from his desk. Other times, they just delayed. Trump seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list—in his mind or anywhere else—of tasks to complete."

Racism

After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he gave comments that took many aback. After his scripted comment, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he ad libbed, “On many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country..." Rob Porter had a difficult time explaining to him what he'd done wrong." Trump insisted that no side has a monopoly on hate. "It’s not as if any one group is at fault or anything like that. With the media, you’re never going to get a fair shake. Anything that you say or do is going to be criticized.” Porter explained, "There’s no upside to not directly condemn neo-Nazis," and he played to Trump's ego by telling him he could be a uniter. White House speechwriters provided a draft, and Porter edited it with Trump looking over his shoulder (the President cannot type, Woodward tells us). Trump felt ambivalent and disappointed, not wanting to seem weak or nodding toward political correctness. Two days after his original "on many sides" comment, he delivered the five-minute canned conciliatory speech "[l]ooking stiff and uncomfortable, like someone coerced to speak in a hostage video." Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn praised Trump: “This was one of your finest moments as president," and Fox News hailed it as a "course correction." Trump, however, was angry: "I can’t believe I got forced to do that. That’s the worst speech I’ve ever given. I’m never going to do anything like that again." The next day, he said, “There is blame on both sides... you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had a lot of bad people in the other group too...there are two sides to a story.” For this, he was praised by ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The leaders of the military branches then came out and stated their opposition to racism. Privately, Trump told Cohn: "I said nothing wrong. I meant what I said." In Porter's words, "This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House. This is a man being who he is.”

At a meeting, he said he wanted more immigrants from Norway and Asia and fewer from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, which he famously referred to as "shithole countries."

Immediately after approving a $8.6 trillion two-year budget without any money for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, he assured his crowd: "You’re getting the wall. Don’t worry. Had a couple of these characters in the back say, oh, he really doesn’t want the wall. He just used that for campaigning....every time I hear that, the wall gets 10 feet higher...we’re going to have the wall."

Odd behavior

Trump "doesn’t touch type or use a keyboard" and has others type for him. He referred to Twitter as "the reason I got elected." Woodward wrote: "He ordered printouts of his recent tweets that had received a high number of likes, 200,000 or more. He studied them to find the common themes in the most successful." He watched as many as eight hours of television a day and usually started work at 11 a.m.

Woodward wrote: "The operations of the Oval Office and White House were less the Art of the Deal and more often the Unraveling of the Deal. The unraveling was often right before your eyes, a Trump rally on continuous loop. There was no way not to look." In Cohn's view, Trump's "theory of negotiation was that to get to yes, you first had to say no." In Bannon's view, "Grievance was a big part of Trump’s core, very much like a 14-year-old boy who felt he was being picked on unfairly. You couldn’t talk to him in adult logic. Teenage logic was necessary."

Dowd told Mueller: "And the fact is, I don’t want him looking like an idiot. And I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with that idiot for? He can’t even remember X, Y, Z with respect to his FBI director."

Another response

Julian Zelizer wrote for CNN on Sept. 14, 2018:
"So Woodward has once again offered a fascinating account of parlor politics, this time in the Trump White House, but he has not provided an understanding about why this all happened and why it is allowed to continue. ... Until we have answers to these questions, we won't be able to have any assurance this will turn out OK, or that after Trump's presidency ends, his brand of politics won't outlast him."

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Another jab at 'identity politics': The anti-democratic sentence at the end of the Sept. 5, 2018 anonymous op-ed

Pundits had much to say about a Sept. 5, 2018 op-ed published by the New York Times and written by a Trump administration insider whose name the Times is protecting. The op-ed writer styled himself (I presume it is a man, for reasons that will appear below) as someone who resists Trump's agenda by quietly sabotaging his boss from within the system. Most responses tended to critique whether this is really resisting or just enabling.

This sentence in the op-ed drew particular attention: "There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more." Not everyone admires these Republican policies, after all. The same day the op-ed was published, Eric Levitz complained in New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer that this anonymous official apparently believes "that making it easier for payday lenders to scam the working poor, lowering the corporate tax rate, and increasing America’s military budget (which was already larger than every other major power’s combined) are such morally urgent goals, it is worthwhile to risk autocratic rule for the sake of advancing them:" Charles P. Pierce made the same point in Esquire, translating these policies as "poisoned water, more of the nation's wealth catapulted upwards, and a massive new Navy in case Yamamoto comes back from the dead."

No one seems to have picked up on the op-ed's last line, however. The anonymous writer said: "But the real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans." Given the position, this must be important. It doesn't obviously connect to the rest of the article's message, which should raise eyebrows all the more. Why is it there? How does the writer go from admitting that the amoral, incompetent president is being played by his own aides (of which the writer is one) to exhorting ordinary Americans to "shed" their personal identities?

Here's my theory. The writer knows that not everyone agrees with the Republican policy agenda. He knows that he, a rogue aide, is doing a job for which he was not elected. (If he was elected, rather than appointed, to any political position, the job he was elected for wasn't the job of subverting the president's agenda.) He knows that many people will take issue with him on the policy areas he mentioned and others that he didn't mention. So he flips the blame around. According to his account, if there's a problem here, it's not that the president is amoral and incompetent, nor that he's enabling this president, nor that he's pursuing some policy agenda. No, he says, the real problem is that "everyday citizens" criticize him because they are playing "politics" and have identity "labels" that polarize them against him. If they would just "ris[e] above politics," "shed the labels," and act like real "Americans," that would make a "real difference" — to him, of course, because then they wouldn't oppose him.

Here's the problem. There are plenty of ways that people are marginalized because of their identities. Some types of oppression rise somewhat organically as side effects of systems new and old, while other types of oppression result more directly from policies that are chosen and implemented by powerful people right now today. Whether discrimination and power inequities are intentional or not, they certainly take place. Our identities matter.

The author is picking up on a trope against identity politics. This trope blames people for their own oppression and for not getting the political leaders who will help them. If they would just stop having those identities, they wouldn't be oppressed, and their neighbors and politicians would actually want to talk to them and help them. But as they persist in having identities, they continue to manifest oppression against themselves, their neighbors vote against their interests, and their political leaders are likewise disinclined to represent them fairly.

This anonymous, unelected, self-appointed guardian of good policy and saboteur of bad policy: Just what does he think a politically transcendent, label-shed, generically American policy is? Why, whatever he says it is. He is the generic American. He's defending interests that make sense to him. Any "everyday" person who hopes to see their own interests represented by a politician is accused of dragging the country down into "politics" and causing division through "labels."

(As just one of many possible examples, see Katherine Stewart's op-eds that are occasionally published in the Times. So-called religious liberty initiatives, which she prefers to view as examples of "religious privilege," are attempts to "target specific groups of people as legitimate objects of contempt." While people denied services at one business may find those services at another, "what they won’t get back is the equal dignity to which they are entitled — and that’s the point.")

So, what this anonymous writer is saying is fundamentally anti-democratic. He claims to constrain an autocratic president, but his own tendencies are equally autocratic. He has no interest in representing the actual interests of actual people. He orders us to sit down and shut up. He doesn't want to know who we are. The uniqueness of each of us is a threat to his predefined idea of what it means to be "American."

Friday, September 7, 2018

Responses to the anonymous White House insider who wrote the NYT op-ed published 5 Sept 2018

Sept. 5

On Sept. 5, 2018, an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration published an op-ed in the New York Times confessing that "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them."

"From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.

Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.

* * *

It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening."

The anonymous writer also said: "The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making." The president generally opposes freedom: journalism, trade, democracy. To the extent the administration has managed to succeed in "effective deregulation, historic tax reform, [and] a more robust military," it is insofar as it has tamped down the president's "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective" character.

Furthermore, the writer said, while those who worked closely with the president had, in the early days of the presidency, discussed the possibility of using the Constitution's 25th Amendment to remove him on the basis that he was unfit for office, they decided that they preferred to avoid such a "constitutional crisis."

The op-ed was immediately parodied by Andrew Paul in McSweeney's: "I Am Part of The Resistance Inside Nyarlathotep's Death Cult."

Other parodies hit social media. For example:

In Esquire, Charles P. Pierce lamented "the careerist bleatings of anonymous sources who would like you to know that, by enabling El Caudillo Del Mar-a-Lago and his long, slow slide into howling madness, they are really keeping him from doing some real damage to the country, and shouldn't we all be grateful for their noble, selfless work." It isn't news, he says, that the president is amoral. "Jesus H. Christ on an auto-glass ad, everybody who watched him for 11 seconds on the campaign trail figured this out. You'd have to have had the brain of a marmoset not to be convinced of this back in 19-goddamn-79. More than 60 million people voted for him anyway. You took a job with him. When the scales fall from your eyes, make sure they don't hit you in the feet." He asked the author to come out of the closet: "None of you are heroes."

Eric Levitz similarly mocked it in New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer:

"Sure, the president is a would-be autocrat with severe emotional problems (who, technically, has unilateral command of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal). But that isn’t a dealbreaker once one realizes that the White House is full of “unsung heroes” (like our fearless author) who “have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing.” And while these patriots “are clearly not always successful,” Americans still shouldn’t feel any obligation to vote for Democrats this fall. No additional oversight is required — the “steady state” (get it? It’s like “deep state!”) has got this whole thing covered."

Levitz added that there is no ethical case to be made for

discouraging Americans from organizing politically to check the dangerous president’s power — nor is there one for wanting an administration led by this president “to succeed.”

Or, at least, there is no such case unless one believes — as this senior official apparently does — that making it easier for payday lenders to scam the working poor, lowering the corporate tax rate, and increasing America’s military budget (which was already larger than every other major power’s combined) are such morally urgent goals, it is worthwhile to risk autocratic rule for the sake of advancing them...

David Frum wrote in the Atlantic: "Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees — now that's a constitutional crisis." (Impeachment, the 25th Amendment, and "[m]ass resignations followed by voluntary testimony to congressional committees" are, by contrast, "constitutional mechanism[s].") "The author of the anonymous op-ed," Frum speculated, "is hoping to vindicate the reputation of like-minded senior Trump staffers. See, we only look complicit! Actually, we’re the real heroes of the story." Those who granted "deep-background gripe sessions" to journalist Bob Woodward for his book Fear (due out Sept. 11) would have done better to testify about Trump's unfitness before Congress, and something similar might be said about the author of the op-ed. The column likely "enflamed the paranoia of the president" who will "grow more defiant, more reckless, more anti-constitutional, and more dangerous." Apostrophizing the anonymous writer, Frum said that the writer's public service "is not so indispensable that it can compensate for the continuing tenure of a president you believe to be amoral, untruthful, irrational, antidemocratic, unpatriotic, and dangerous. Previous generations of Americans have sacrificed fortunes, health, and lives to serve the country. You are asked only to tell the truth aloud and with your name attached."

David A. Graham, acknowledging Frum's column, also wrote in the Atlantic that same day that it is "extremely worrying, and amount[s] to a soft coup against the president. Given that one of Trump’s great flaws is that he has little regard for rule of law, it’s hard to cheer on Cabinet members and others openly thwarting Trump’s directives, giving unelected officials" — that is, themselves — "effective veto power over the elected president. Like Vietnam War–era generals, they are destroying the village in order to save it. As is so often the case in the Trump administration, both alternatives are awful to consider." Graham acknowledges short-term value in "talk[ing] the president out of his worst impulses" but long-term harm in "disobeying orders and acts of deception."

Sept. 6

The next morning, Sept. 6, the press secretary tweeted an an image of a text response. The text wasn't attributed, but it used language preferred by Trump ("gutless loser" and "failing NYT"), although Trump was referred to in the third person. The text accused the media of having a "wild obsession" with the question of who had written the op-ed. (The Times is not failing; over 15,000 readers left online comments in approximately one day before the Times closed the article to comments. And, if anyone is "obsessed" with identifying the writer, it is the President himself; see comments under Sept. 8.)

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) responded to the op-ed by telling journalists that "anyone who’s had any dealings over there knows that this is the reality that we’re living in" and that the real question is "who wouldn’t have written" it. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, "If you’re not interested in helping the president, you shouldn’t work for the president," but he said he didn't think Congress should try to identify the person.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said that they would not have published the op-ed because it doesn't meet their criteria for offering anonymity, "not least because it isn’t news. The fact that senior Administration officials have been trying to block Mr. Trump’s uninformed policy impulses, and mute his self-destructive anger and narcissism, has been reported hundreds of times." They added: "Surely the writer knew that such insider criticism in the anti-Trump New York Times would be like waving a red cape in front of a raging bull....which makes us wonder if the writer’s real purpose is to assist the looming campaign for impeachment."

David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times that the op-ed may help "persuade a small but meaningful number of former Trump supporters" about the president's "unfitness for office and the chaos of his White House." Leonhardt added that he believes that the author "should go public with what’s really happening."

Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post:

"...I’m not inclined to join the chorus of commentators who say he or she is being cowardly and instead should have gone public, resigned in front of television cameras, marched up to Congress and demanded to testify and...and then what? Exactly what would such a performance achieve?

Does anyone believe the Republican leadership in the House and Senate would do anything? As Corker said, Trump’s unfitness has been obvious from the beginning. Republican officials have made the conscious decision to see, hear and speak no evil. We’re probably better off with the 'senior official' still in place, saving us from Trump’s destructive whims.

He added:

"...it’s clear that we’re already in a constitutional crisis of frightening proportions. The Cabinet will not act. Congress, under GOP control, will not act. The internal 'resistance' can only do so much.

Voters are the last line of defense. You must save the day."

Sept. 7

"We already know," said Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times on Sept. 7, "that many of Trump’s closest aides hold him in contempt." The op-ed reveals the rationalization of an enabler. Such a Republican "purports to be standing between us and the calamities that our ignorant and unstable president could unleash, while complaining, in the very same op-ed, that the media doesn’t give the White House enough credit. This person wants the administration to thrive because it has advanced Republican policy objectives, even as he or she argues that the administration is so dangerous that it must be contained by unprecedented internal sabotage." If any Republican senator wants to make a real difference, she suggests, they should vote against Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court. After all, a conservative majority on the court will stand between Trump and his legal troubles, giving the president "a measure of impunity. Republican senators who know the president is out of control have a choice — they can maintain a check on his ill-considered autocratic inclinations, or solidify right-wing power on the Supreme Court for a generation. It’s obvious which way they’ll go. Maybe they’ll tell themselves having adults in the room at the White House makes it O.K."

In an episode of WNYC's On The Media ("Adults in the Room," September 7, 2018), co-host Bob Garfield said that the White House appears to be taking the truth claim seriously and considers it a “mega-leak," which "corroborates the stories we’ve been hearing from anonymous sources for a year and a half.” Co-host Brooke Gladstone recapped some of those other stories: “For instance, Maggie Haberman talking to dozens of people (tallied, but not named) in countless news reports. We know that the Secretary of Defense has ignored the President on transgendered Americans in the military, and we know that the new Secretary of State John Bolton rushed through a joint summit declaration reaffirming NATO before Trump could get his hands on it. We’ve read in Bob Woodward’s book that the National Economic Council Director took papers off Trump’s desk to prevent him from undoing a South Korean trade deal.” Garfield thinks the anonymous op-ed is a kind of smoking gun. It is confirmation that “those previous reports were right all along. I think that is historic.” Gladstone disagreed. The anonymous op-ed "is just another headline" that the audience of On the Media already knows about; she believes her own show should focus on other issues to which she can contribute analysis.

Sept. 8

An anonymous source said that Trump is 'obsessed' with identifying the op-ed writer.

Sept. 11

Thomas Friedman pointed out in the Times that some people might support some of the Republican agenda and yet have nuanced disagreement with it. "I believe in a robust military and U.S. global engagement," he said. "But this does not automatically translate into support for a radically higher defense budget."

Also: While this was not a "response," as it was written over a year earlier, it's worth noting that Noah Millman predicted this situation in the American Conservative in 2017:

First of all, we may be in the middle of a quasi-coup already, in the sense that the military and the intelligence community may be preventing the President from conducting his own foreign policy (assuming that he has one, which at this point is highly doubtful). If the President continues to act in an alarmingly erratic manner, I don’t think it is far-fetched to imagine that the cordon around him will tighten further, to the point where an entire generation of senior leadership of the military and espionage services become accustomed to the notion that one of their key functions is to protect the country from its own president. This is precisely the scenario I worried about in my recent column. It is not obvious to me that four years of institutional insubordination is better for our democracy than a cabinet coup would be.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Charles Pettit's 'Son of the Grand Eunuch' (1927) and the Rodgers & Hart adaptation 'Chee-Chee' (1928)

In Charles Pettit's early 20th-century novel Son of the Grand Eunuch, "His Excellency the Grand Eunuch, Li Pi Siao," is the powerful character whose commands incite all the action. A footnote suggests a historical basis:

"Li Pi Siao's predecessor was named Ngan Te Hai and was nicknamed Siao Ngan Eul. He was assassinated at Tsentsin in 1864 by order of the Empress of the East, Tsen Ngan. He was the favorite of the Empress of the West, Twen Hi, and had been despatched by her on a mission to buy her gowns. His murder occasioned a lifelong feud between the two Empresses." (p. 22)

Pettit seems to be referring to the eunuch An Dehai who served Empress Dowager Cixi and was executed in 1869 with the consent of Empress Dowager Ci'an. His successor as the chief eunuch — whose character apparently is heavily fictionalized in this novel — was Li Lianying.

Character

On the opening pages, he is introduced wearing "long yellow gown" with "green dragons with scarlet maws" and "his official headdress, square in shape but surmounted by a species of folded peak of black satin" from which dangle ribbons with "two scarlet pompoms at the level of the clavicles." He has oiled his "long pigtail" that ends with a "fine tassel of black silk." He carried a "fly-whisk, official attribute of his honorable situation!"

"The long sleeves of his robe flapped like ghostly wings in the evening breeze! Within their voluminous folds, like spiders in their lairs, appeared the restless hands, the length of the lean fingers almost doubled by nails of extraordinary dimensions, enclosed in pointed sheaths. A green jade ring worn on the left thumb suggested a great scarab held captive by one of the spiders."

Moreover:

"His head swayed gracefully upon his heron-like neck and his face, hairless and wrinkled, resembled that of a highly respectable old lady.

A sallow fleshiness weighed down with dignity his flabby cheeks on either side of his pointed chin and between his narrow lids the brilliant glance of two little oblique black eyes like squashed fleas seemed constantly prying into every corner."

His nose was a "little mound" and he wore "enormous tortoiseshell spectacles such as are affected by all self-respecting scholars, but these were always removed, as decreed by court ritual, the moment he found himself in the presence of His Majesty the Holy Man, Son of Heaven." He was "the most deserving and the most estimable of Grand Eunuchs that anyone could desire. He was moreover of a fine intelligence, crafty of spirit and vengeful of heart." He also had fattened himself through his fondness for food — as Buddhist monks typically did, thus the emperor excused his "disfigurement" — which seemed in "singular contrast to the falsetto modulations of his shrill and strident voice."

Action

Hs first act in this novel is to ask the emperor to choose a concubine for the evening. The jade tablets with their names were on the Table of the Golden Dragon. The emperor picked one randomly. Li Pi Siao has "avoided the useless mental effort of memorizing the literary names of eighty and one concubines" so he refers to a notebook to find the number of her dwelling. He tells her to prepare herself: "to cause the Holy Man to wait for you would be of an unthinkable impropriety, even though His Majesty doubtless awaits your impending visit with the most complete and haughty indifference!" When she is beautified, he "summoned a gigantic eunuch" to carry her, as her feet had been deliberately "broken in infancy," to the emperor.

In the second chapter, armed eunuchs guard the ramparts overnight. Outside Li Pi Siao's pavilion are bronze lions. When he hears a tomcat calling to a female cat, he seems envious, as the cat's yowling is "so unpleasantly evocative of the harmonies of his own name," and he yells back to the cat: "within these walls the Holy Man alone has license or power to love." Eunuchs appear and chase away the cat. Then he sits down to dinner with other eunuchs. The conversation includes his own insistence that food is better than sex. In response to this topic, a young eunuch, taken by self-pity, keeps moaning "Women..." so Li Pi Siao, annoyed by his ingratitude and ill humor, banishes him from the palace to work as a rural swineherder.

Li Pi Siao's relative and predecessor, Ngan Te Hai (nicknamed Siao Ngan Eul), was favored by the Empress of the West, Twen Hi. He was murdered in 1864 on orders of the Empress of the East, Tsen Ngan.

Li Pi Siao was formerly married. His eldest son, Li Pi Tchou, is to become Grand Eunuch succeeding his father. However, Li Pi Tchou is married to his beloved Chti and refuses the position, which upsets his father. The Grand Eunuch gives his son a large sum of gold in one last gesture of tenderness but angrily tells him to go away with his wife. Li Pi Siao's second son is thrilled to accept the mantle in his brother's place.

The novel occupies itself in the farce of Li Pi Tchou's misadventures. He is repeatedly beaten by other men who have sex with his wife, which she enjoys. At the apex of violence, monks want to roast him alive to make him a saint unless he can find a man to volunteer to take his place. He encounters the exiled eunuch, the one who missed women, and they identify themselves to each other. Li Pi Tchou escapes being roasted alive, but he does eventually have to be castrated, and his father suddenly beheads Chti. (p. 130) From the father's perspective, "It was needful to be revenged upon all those who had profaned the estimable name of Li." (p. 131)

Musical adaptation

A year after its publication, this story was made into a Rodgers and Hart musical called "Chee-Chee." The book was by Herbert Fields and the lyrics were by Lorenz Hart. The storyline is loosely adapted from the novel's. According to Thomas S. Hischak's The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia (see the entry online), Li-Pi Tchou (played by William Williams) and his wife Chee-Chee (Helen Ford) “hatch a plot to inherit the Grand Eunuch position without his losing his manhood. They have a friend kidnap the royal surgeon and substitute himself as the replacement” and they “play dominoes while the supposed emasculation takes place.” The Grand Eunuch was played by George Hassell. It was only performed 31 times over one month in 1928.

Upon the entrance of the Grand Eunuch at the beginning of the play, the eunuchs exclaim:

The most majestic of domestic officials
The Great G.E., we fear his mighty initials!

But the Tartar chief, not realizing he's speaking to the grand eunuch, refers to him as a "pompous old capon".

"No. 7: Food Solo" praises the concubine Li Li Wee — here, the daughter of Li Pi Siao — by comparing her body parts to "licorice," "peas," "Edam cheese," "hominy," wine," "roast beef," "oranges," "eel," "lamb," and "pig's feet."

Another ditty, "No. 20: Better Be Good To Me," has lyrics that sound like they belong in a popular song 50 years in the future:

I was once a glad boy.
Something tells me you soon will say
He was not a bad boy.
This has got to stop. Maybe I'll pop.
Love is like TNT.
Better be good to me.

Scene 4, "The Gallery of Torments," does not correspond to the book at all. It has the stage direction: "against a black drop are wax figures representing Theft...Lust...Avarice...Drunkenness...Murder...Infidelity. The figure Infidelity is modeled in the likeness of Chti herself. These figures are not seen because of the darkness in the chamber until she lights each one separately with her candle. All figures except Infidelity are male."

Book

Charles Pettit. The Son of the Grand Eunuch. (1927) New York: Avon, 1949.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

On the astonishingly morally impoverished character of Donald Trump

During the 2016 presidential campaign and after the election and inauguration of Donald Trump, there have been countless negative assessments of his character. I have collected the most poignant here in chronological order. (Related topics such as the risks of working for someone with poor character and whether Trumpism might be a cult are in separate posts.)

Before the election

Tom Nichols wrote on April 26, 2016 in "If I Lose Friends Over Trump, So Be It":

"Yes, fellow conservatives: Trump is worse than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Their policies are liberal, even leftist, often motivated by cheap politics, ego, and political grandstanding. But they are policies, understandable as such and opposable by political means.

Trump’s various rants, by contrast, do not amount to policies. They are ignorant tone poems, bad haikus, streams of words whose content has no real meaning. They’re not positions available either to the GOP or Democrats, because they do not contain a vision of the future over which those parties can fight.

In fact, Trump’s policies are not policies. They’re just feverish revenge fantasies. Trump, a scam artist whose entire career has been based on victimizing the working class, should be the target of that anger. Instead, he is encouraging Americans to turn their hostility away from him and against their fellow citizens, inviting us into a war of all against all over which he will preside as an amused dictator.

The division between Trump’s supporters and the rest of us is not about reconciling our political differences. It is not about opposing policies we hate. (Most of Trump’s policies are actually quite liberal, but that is irrelevant.) There are no real principles on the table here, only Trump’s demagogic stoking of incoherent and even paranoid rage."

In August 2016: "In a Facebook post directed at the Republican presidential candidate, President Ronald Reagan's daughter blasted Donald Trump's 'glib and horrifying comment' on the Second Amendment."

After the election

On Feb. 6, 2017, Victoria McGrane described in the Boston Globe how Trump insulted a senator from his own party:

"McCain has publicly challenged Trump on refugees and immigration — saying the action may do more to recruit terrorists than beef up national security — as well as on the issues of torture, Russia, and trade. Trump has shot back, accusing McCain of 'looking to start World War III.'"

* * *

"Trump openly mocked McCain during his presidential campaign for being a Vietnam POW, saying “I like people who weren’t captured.’’ It was a highly personal attack that stunned the Republican Party, whose leaders rushed to McCain’s defense and called him a war hero."

In April 2017, Trump claimed inflated ratings for his appearance on Face the Nation. (He would continue in subsequent months to make distorted, baseless claims about the ratings of other media depending on whether it praised or criticized him.)

"“It's the highest for 'Face the Nation' or as I call it, 'Deface the Nation,' " Trump told the AP's Julie Pace, referring to the CBS News Sunday political talk show. “It's the highest for 'Deface the Nation' since the World Trade Center — since the World Trade Center came down.” * * * At the same time, Trump used the opportunity to denounce, as he has repeatedly, the press corps again as “fake media” that treats him “very unfairly.”"

George F. Will, May 3, 2017:

"It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence."

On May 11, 2017, Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, called Trump "encyclopedically ignorant", and Jesse Berney fretted that "There's No One to Hold Donald Trump Accountable":

"There is no one, absolutely no one, in the federal government to hold the president of the United States accountable for anything he does. * * * Trump is consolidating and expanding executive power in a way never seen in modern politics. Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, now James Comey — anyone who shows any independence or stands up to this president is summarily fired."

The next day, Stephen Collinson wrote for CNN about the president's anger:

"In three-and-a-half months in office, the 45th President has shown that indignation, impulsiveness and a prickly desire to protect his own self image are at the core of his governing philosophy.

* * *

Trump is not the first President to feel the bile boiling within. Lyndon Johnson's temper was legendary. Richard Nixon's stomach-clutching fury about his foes is revealed in the White House taping system that led to his downfall. Bill Clinton's staff feared his puce-faced rages. And even Barack Obama vented in private when the cameras were off in rants mostly reserved for his staff, like on the occasion when the Healthcare.gov website crashed on its launch day.

But unlike those Presidents, Trump's emotions and anger form the dominant strain of his political persona. They seem to largely dictate how he conducts his business as president, lashing out at perceived enemies, seemingly without forethought."

Although character is not decided by majority opinion, how others perceive us (our public image) is nonetheless an important part of our character. The Pew Research Center found in June 2017 that global opinion of the US and the U.S. president had slipped significantly from the end of Obama's presidency to the beginning of Trump's presidency in Spring 2017. Those who trusted the US President to do the right thing in world affairs slipped from 64% to 22%, and those who had favorable views of the US slipped from 64% to 49%.

Henry Rollins wrote for LA Weekly on July 13, 2017 ("It's Amazing How Quickly We Got Used to the Trump Dumpster Fire"):

"George W. Bush’s use of the English language fascinated me. As his administration dragged on, it seemed to progressively devolve. When Bush was the governor of Texas, he was noticeably sharper, at times bordering on witty. By the end of his second presidential term, he seemed to marvel at getting through a sentence. During his speeches, it sounded not only like he was reading the material for the first time but that he was just saying the words, devoid of context. I wondered if it was the horror of knowing he sent so many people to their deaths needlessly, finally taking its toll. He went out crushed, like Johnson.

Over those eight years, I got used to how he faltered both domestically and abroad. It took a while but eventually, how he was as he disintegrated became normal. It was like passing through stages of grief — if you can somehow get there, you accept.

The Obama years were so different. While I felt bad for the president and his family because of the attacks that started as soon as he began his campaign, I enjoyed how most of the criticism was more about the ignorance and bigotry of the accusers than anything real. Not that there weren’t things to take President Obama to task for; there were. There always are. That being said, at least when the man spoke, you had the idea that he was truly engaged and understood what he was talking about, whether you agreed with him or not. Much of the frustration from “the other side” stemmed from the fact that they knew they were outmatched."

David Faris's essay was printed in The Week on Aug. 31, 2017:

From throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game to rallying hopeless citizens in the aftermath of disaster, one of the president's most critical tasks is mustering eloquence and public spirit in the service of shared ideals.

When the country suffers a calamity or a tragedy, the president must work carefully both to convey a sense of the situation's gravity as well as to express optimism and hope for those who need it in their most desperate moments.

* * *

The best way to be competent at the presidency's ceremonial functions is to not be a pathological narcissist. The kind of emotional intelligence required to respond to a national crisis is something that many functioning adults possess almost instinctively. It's how you instantly mobilize to help a family member in need, or how you surround the sick or the grieving with love, run their errands and cook their meals. Most people know, without being told, not to respond to crisis by starting fights, reopening old wounds, or making someone else's tragedy about them.

President Trump is not most people. He is a narcissist. He's the kind of person who starts wailing inconsolably when your mom dies. He's the sort of friend who descends into self-pitying coldness when you get a promotion. These kinds of poisonous people suck up all of the emotional energy in the room by turning everything into a maelstrom of selfishness and performance and rage. Everyone is, by happenstance or poor decision-making, stuck with a handful of people like this in their lives, but over time we find ways to minimize their presence, and to distance ourselves from their worst outbursts.

President Trump's leadership during the Hurricane Harvey nightmare is a microcosm of everything he is incapable of as a human being: sustained empathy, determined focus, and the ability to put aside one's short-term needs and desires for the sake of people who need help. He put the dark abyss of his soul on display for everyone to see.

* * *

These are not political failings, things which President Trump possesses in almost biblical abundance. They are, instead, the pathologies of a deeply broken man, a person so devoid of feeling for his fellow humans that he reliably has exactly the wrong reaction to every single event that captures the public's attention. And while such people are, in some cases, deserving of a certain kind of sympathy, they have no business being in charge of the world's most critical symbolic job.

Susan Neiman, interviewed by Chauncey DeVega for Salon on Sept. 19, 2017:

"In the end, what matters in determining evil is not the state of one’s soul, but the effects our actions have on the world we live in — which is why having good intentions but not significantly acting on them is never enough. And here it is just unquestionable that what Donald Trump has done is evil. We all have our lists of least-favorite things he has done so far (though, mercifully, he hasn’t achieved as much as he would like). But what is absolutely clear is that Trump has made open and violent racism acceptable. Perhaps even worse, I fear, is that he has made it acceptable not to have values at all — except grasping for power and money. I worry about the effect his example will have on young people who are already uncertain about whether or not any value but power and money is real. Unfortunately, so much in the culture tells us that we should be embarrassed to believe in ideals of goodness, justice and mercy."

* * *

"Unfortunately, because it can be so easily abused, many progressives tend to avoid the concept altogether. This is a terrible mistake, because it leaves the most powerful concepts we have in the hands of those who are least equipped to use them thoughtfully. Instead of avoiding strong moral language, it’s imperative to use it reflectively and well.

I don’t think definitions of evil are of much use, but I think it is possible to do careful analyses of people’s words and actions to decide when words like 'evil' are appropriate."

* * *

"Americans with moral values need to unite around those values, and not let ourselves be divided by differences of race or gender or minor political differences. What we are facing now is not a political problem but a moral one."

Corey Robin wrote in his updated book The Reactionary Mind, published in October 2017: “Amid the vast desert of deprivation that is the Trumpian self, there appears to be no room for anyone else. ... Without a genuinely emancipatory left to oppose, Trump’s rage seems to be nothing more than what it is: the ranting and raving of an old man.”

Ironically for someone who seems to care primarily about gaining attention for himself, his proclamation for October 15-21, 2017 as "National Character Counts Week" stated: "Character is forged around kitchen tables, built in civic organizations, and developed in houses of worship. It is refined by our choices, large and small, and manifested in what we do when we think no one is paying attention."

Rep. Peter King (Republican, New York) told MSNBC on Nov. 29, 2017 that his constituents ask him to tell Trump to stop tweeting, which should imply what they think about the content of those tweets.

Ed Simon wrote in December 2017 (in “A spiritually illiterate man, a moral midget”): “At his core he is simply a consummate narcissist with little intelligence and less curiosity, one who has somehow become the most powerful man in the world.”

Adam Davidson wrote in The New Yorker on April 14, 2018: "There are lots of details and surprises to come, but the endgame of this Presidency seems as clear now as those of Iraq and the financial crisis did months before they unfolded. Last week, federal investigators raided the offices of Michael Cohen, the man who has been closer than anybody to Trump’s most problematic business and personal relationships. ... This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency. This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth." He adds:

"It has become commonplace to say that enough was known about Trump’s shady business before he was elected; his followers voted for him precisely because they liked that he was someone willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, and they also believe that all rich businesspeople have to do shady things from time to time. In this way of thinking, any new information about his corrupt past has no political salience. Those who hate Trump already think he’s a crook; those who love him don’t care.

I believe this assessment is wrong.

* * *

The narrative that will become widely understood is that Donald Trump did not sit atop a global empire. He was not an intuitive genius and tough guy who created billions of dollars of wealth through fearlessness. He had a small, sad global operation, mostly run by his two oldest children and Michael Cohen, a lousy lawyer who barely keeps up the pretenses of lawyering and who now faces an avalanche of charges, from taxicab-backed bank fraud to money laundering and campaign-finance violations.

Cohen, Donald, Jr., and Ivanka monetized their willingness to sign contracts with people rejected by all sensible partners. Even in this, the Trump Organization left money on the table, taking a million dollars here, five million there, even though the service they provided—giving branding legitimacy to blatantly sketchy projects—was worth far more. It was not a company that built value over decades, accumulating assets and leveraging wealth. It burned through whatever good will and brand value it established as quickly as possible, then moved on to the next scheme.

* * *

Of course Trump is raging and furious and terrified. Prosecutors are now looking at his core. Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and its partners around the world; he was chief consigliere and dealmaker throughout its period of expansion into global partnerships with sketchy oligarchs. He wasn’t a slick politico who showed up for a few months. He knows everything, he recorded much of it, and now prosecutors will know it, too. It seems inevitable that much will be made public. We don’t know when. We don’t know the precise path the next few months will take. There will be resistance and denial and counterattacks. But it seems likely that, when we look back on this week, we will see it as a turning point. We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency."

Paul Begala wrote in May 2018:

"The kind of intelligence I believe Trump has is enormously useful if you want to, say, be a politician — even better if you want to be a demagogue.

He has a cynical, innate intelligence for what his base wants to hear. It's like a divining rod for division, prejudice and stereotyping. His relentless rhetorical repetition ("No collusion, no collusion, no collusion") is brilliantly designed to tell folks who are predisposed to like him what they want to hear.

* * *

The problem is, Trump's idiosyncratic intelligence, while enough to propel him to the White House, does not serve him well for the job of President. He lacks, by most accounts, the broad curiosity, the policy depth, the healthy skepticism of his own positions, the attention span, the appreciation of nuance, and most of all, the intellectual humility that successful presidents must have."

Later that month, The Hill reported that Sen. Jeff Flake said in a commencement address to Harvard Law that Trump "has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division," that Congress "is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily," that "we may have hit bottom," and that "opposing the president and much of what he stands for is not an act of apostasy. It is, rather, an act of fidelity."

On June 6, 2018, Charles M. Blow focused on Trump's comment about the Central Park Five: "I want to hate."

Paul Krugman wrote for the New York Times the next day: "But what’s really striking to me is not so much the extent of corruption among Trump officials as its pettiness. And that pettiness itself tells you a lot about the kind of people now running America." For example, Scott Pruitt has committed corrupt acts to achieve "everything from [obtaining] customized fountain pens, to telling an aide to procure a used mattress, to an attempt to use his office to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife." Krugman says: "Consider how weak your self-control must be if you’re willing to put this huge payoff [a future lobbying career] at risk for the sake of a used mattress. But," he continues, "the downward arc of corruption from Teapot Dome to Chick-fil-A isn’t just telling you about Trump officials’ immaturity; it’s also a window into the emptiness of their souls." Of Pruitt: "The absurdity of his demands is a feature, not a bug: I have doubts about whether he ever uses that $43,000 soundproof phone booth, but he surely took pleasure in making his staff jump to provide it." It seems that Trump "sees nothing wrong in what they’re doing; it’s what he would do, and in fact does himself. So as I said, we’re being governed by men with small and empty souls. Does it matter?" Yes, insofar as: "We don’t need a government of saints; people can be imperfect (who isn’t?) yet still do good. But a government consisting almost entirely of bad people — which is what we now have — is, in fact, going to govern badly."

After Trump canceled peace talks with North Korea without informing the U.S. ally South Korea (they learned about it from the news), Nicole Gaouette wrote for CNN about how allies perceive the US. She quoted Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, as characterizing the administration's policy as "'You're with us, even if you don't want to be with us. We're dragging you along.'" She also quoted Aaron David Miller as saying that the America First approach means that "allies become much less important unless they fundamentally address a goal that's important to Donald Trump," and that as President he chose to take his first overseas journey to Saudi Arabia and Israel simply because: "He knew he'd be feted and flattered." (In her 1984 book Wickedness, Mary Midgley wrote: "A morbidly proud person reads everything that the people around him do as an answer to the single question 'Do they honour him enough?' If this is his central motive, that is his basic rule, the plan of his life. And in that case the honour he is looking for is something enormously higher than any of them could possibly give. This is because it has to take the place of all other motives...") The result, as Gaouette explained Miller's point, is that "Trump can flatter Chinese President Xi Jinping because he needs his support on North Korea, and chastise Mexico for illegal immigration, but he doesn't have to cultivate the Europeans because the issues he would need them on, including the Iran nuclear deal and climate change, 'he doesn't care about.'" She also quoted Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, regarding the U.S. exit from the Iran nuclear deal: "It's hard to overstate how angry and resentful the Europeans are." In June 2018, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia announced his resignation and commented on Facebook: "For the President to say the EU was 'set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank,' or that 'NATO is as bad as NAFTA' is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it's time to go."

Longtime GOP strategist Steve Schmidt announced in June 2018 that he was quitting the party. "I won’t share a party label with people who think it’s all right to put babies in internment camps," he said. “Trump didn’t destroy the Republican Party — it’s the cowardice of the Republican leaders, their complicity in all of it, the lack of courage to stand up for what's right."

Chris Cillizza wrote on June 29, 2018: "Past presidents have openly pined for circumstances that allowed them to sit astride history, emerging as the great men they believe themselves to be. (Remember: Many "great" men are not "good" men.)"

What does it say about Americans?

Roger Cohen wrote for the NYT on Aug. 24, 2018:

The thing about all the shocking Trump revelations — Michael Cohen’s about violating campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women in coordination with a “candidate for federal office” being the latest — is that they are already baked into Trump’s image. His supporters, and there are tens of millions of them, never had illusions. I’ve not met one, Babcox included, who did not have a pretty clear picture of Trump. They’ve known all along that he’s a needy narcissist, a womanizer, a lowlife, a liar, a braggart and a generally miserable human being. That’s why the “Access Hollywood” tape or the I-could-shoot-somebody-on-Fifth-Avenue boast did not kill his candidacy.

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Americans elected Trump. Nobody else did. They came down to his level. White Christian males losing their place in the social order decided they’d do anything to save themselves, and to heck with morality. They made a bargain with the devil in full knowledge. So the real question is: What does it mean to be an American today? Who are we, goddamit? What have we become?

Trump was a symptom, not a cause. The problem is way deeper than him.