Friday, March 15, 2019

Trump's response to the Christchurch mosque shootings

After a gunman killed 49 people at two mosques in New Zealand and released a manifesto claiming to have been inspired by Donald Trump, Trump's reaction was concerning.

The attacks began at 8:40 p.m. Thursday 14 March 2019 in Washington's time zone. The next morning, ten hours later, Trump tweeted condolences...

...but, two hours after that, he was tweeting about his self-perception as a victim in the Mueller probe.

Later in the day, Trump told reporters that he had not seen the shooter's manifesto (despite the fact that this manifesto referenced him and that he had pledged the support of "anything we can do"). He then referred to people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as "invaders," the same word that the manifesto writer used to describe Muslims in New Zealand.

Trump also told the reporters that he does not believe that white nationalist activity is increasing. (It is, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, which says 2019 has "the highest number of hate groups we’ve ever counted.")

Coming from the man who made the Charlottesville "both sides" comment, we should not be surprised.

Several days earlier, according to an article in the Huffington Post,

"President Donald Trump warned in an interview [Breitbart, March 12] that his supporters could 'play tough' and make things 'very, very bad' if they 'reach a certain point.' He cited the police, military and Bikers for Trump as his backers."

Friday, February 22, 2019

This is something other than condemning violence against journalists

On 22 February 2019, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that POTUS #45 hasn't "at any point has done anything but condemn violence, against journalists or anyone else." (ABC news clip)

What the Press Secretary says is not true. Every day, I remember this tweet by POTUS on 2 July 2017. It shows POTUS at a wrestling match. He throws his arm around the neck of a faceless man who represents a CNN journalist (the man's face is obscured by a CNN logo in the video). He tackles the CNN journalist and punches him repeatedly in the head.

On the day Trump posted this, the immediate reaction of then-Homeland Security adviser Thomas Bossert was to say that he felt "pretty proud" of the president for being so "genuine," and, after all, he assured us, "no one would perceive that [video] as a threat." That interpretation is not obvious. Since the time of this tweet, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. has been charged with mailing pipe bombs to CNN in three separate packages in October 2018, along with 15 other targets that included Democratic politicians. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. In February 2019, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson was arrested on firearm possession and may be charged with attempted terrorism, based on his alleged plan to launch a major attack against CNN reporters, other journalists, and Democratic politicians.

POTUS has still not deleted this tweet, and, even if he does someday delete it, it will forever remain an official record of the United States by virtue of the office of the person who tweeted it. You can try reporting the tweet, but it is a fruitless effort; Twitter will not remove it.

We all have to think of other things we can do to #ProtectTheTruth.

You can donate to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Lessons in a ten-year-old NYT op-ed against same-sex marriage

Happy tenth anniversary to this bizarre op-ed, "A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage" (David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, New York Times, 21 Feb 2009).

Believing in 2009 that "federal recognition of same-sex marriage...is not likely in the near future" (surprise: that recognition came just four years later), the authors said they wished to avoid "a scorched-earth debate" and to seek instead a "sensitive compromise" between those who supported the right of same-sex couples to marry and those who cited religious reasons for discriminating against those couples.

The authors laid out what they saw as the argument for discrimination:

"The First Amendment may make it unlikely that a church, say, would ever be coerced by law into performing same-sex wedding rites in its sanctuary. But religious organizations are also involved in many activities outside the sanctuary. What if a church auxiliary or charity is told it must grant spousal benefits to a secretary who marries her same-sex partner or else face legal penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status? What if a faith-based nonprofit is told it will lose its tax-exempt status if it refuses to allow a same-sex wedding on its property?"

Their solution to appease the religious organizations with these hypothetical problems:

1. Same-sex couples should receive "most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage," but those partnerships wouldn't be called a "marriage" but rather a "civil union." (Apparently it makes a difference for some reason. Apparently certain religious organizations want the government to refer to opposite-sex couples as "married," even if those couples are secular and the marriage was performed in a courthouse, and to same-sex couples as having "civil unions," even if those couples are religious and their partnership is ceremonially recognized in a house of worship. Of course they do! That privileges gay-hostile religious organizations in determining what marriage is, and it takes the same power away from gay-friendly religious organizations. Are you still with us?)

2. The federal recognition of the partnership should apply only if the civil union was performed in a U.S. state with "religious-conscience" laws that allow religious organizations to refuse to recognize the civil union. (Not sure how this would play out. Why wouldn't same-sex couples just travel to a state that offers civil-unions-plus-state-level-discrimination to obtain the civil union that is recognized by the federal government, then choose to live in a state that has better state-level recognition? And what if a state has "religious-conscience" laws but then revokes those laws; would the federal government withdraw its recognition of civil unions previously contracted there? This is one reason why it makes no sense for the federal government to treat gay people based on how a particular U.S. state currently treats religious organizations.)

3. "The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own," they said. (So, clearly the government does not accord same-sex couples "all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage," emphasis mine, if it simultaneously implements exemptions to that recognition that apply to same-sex couples but to opposite-sex couples.)

Do let them explain why this a righteous solution.

"We believe," they said, "that gays can live with such exemptions without much difficulty. Why? Because most state laws that protect gays from discrimination already include some religious exemptions..." This is too beautiful. A newly engineered type of discrimination will not hurt gay people because they already endure similar discrimination. So let's just pile on more of the same! Awesome. But don't gay people object to this? Yes and no. Existing religious-conscience laws haven't attracted much attention — they "are for the most part uncontroversial, even among gays — and therefore the authors question the expressed concern by "most gays" against the idea that new religious-conscience laws would permit discrimination against marriage specifically. (Who's being inconsistent here: the unattributed gay people who only object strenuously to one flavor of discrimination against them while accepting other flavors, or the op-ed writers who can't decide whether gay people do or don't object to being hurt?)

I find this ten-year-old op-ed perennially instructive, even more so in hindsight because it was a proposed "compromise" (cough cough: an under-bus-throwing) that did not have to happen.

Nor should any of us write such under-bus-throwings, about anyone, in the future.

Discrimination is actually hurtful.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House. Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity.

Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be accurate. I felt like most members of the White House press corps tried to do the same." Working for the Trump campaign, he met Trump during videorecording sessions. He was part of a campaign team that spent so much time at Trump rallies "that we could laughingly predict when the chants of 'Build the wall,' 'CNN sucks,' 'Lock her up,' and 'Drain the swamp' were about to begin." He had the "weighty responsibility" of occasionally commanding @realDonaldTrump, a Twitter account that is "inarguably one of the most powerful communication instruments in modern political history."

Sims was personally at Trump's side throughout Election Night 2016 and heard the president's talk of gaining the presidency change from "if" to "when" as the votes were counted.

He has plenty of criticism of Trump's character. He notes that Trump has a "recurring habit" of talking out both sides of his mouth in the same interview and then (depending on which of those claims later proves inconvenient to him) denying that he ever said it even though there is a record of it.

Trump's inner circle? It is, he says at the beginning of his book,
"a portrait of venality, stubbornness, and selfishness. We leaked. We schemed. We backstabbed. Some of us told ourselves it was all done in the service of a higher calling — to protect the President, to deliver for the people. But usually it was for ourselves. Most of us came to Washington convinced of the justice of our cause and the righteousness of our principles, certain that our moral compasses were true. But proximity to power changes that. Donald Trump changes that. The once clear lines — between right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness — were eroded until only a faint wrinkle remained."

Many of these stories are familiar, and the book reads to me overall like the 2018 books Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff and Fear by Bob Woodward, except that Wolff and Woodward were not insiders and Sims hasn't fully renounced his insider status. I don't imagine he can get a job within the Trump administration and maybe not even within the Republican Party after this book, so he's renounced that part of his career, but in this book he doesn't own his complicity in the wrongs committed by the campaign and by the administration and he doesn't sketch any redemptive plan for himself or others, so the narrative feels slimy.

Some of the characters

He describes Omarosa Manigault: "if there was any meeting, event, or policy specifically relating to the African American community, Omarosa would make sure she was right in the middle of it. She prided herself on being the President’s only African American senior adviser. That was her calling card, her legitimacy in the White House." He also refers to her as having "earned her spot on TV Guide’s list of 'The 60 Nastiest TV Villains of All Time.'"

Kellyanne Conway, meanwhile, is "a cartoon villain brought to life. Her agenda — which was her survival over all others, including the President — became more and more transparent...as if she’d already collected ninety-eight Dalmatians with only three more to go."

He describes Ivanka Trump as "a living, breathing Barbie doll," which is his way of saying that she is very beautiful, and he adds that she is "unfailingly polite." That is not the same as saying that she is competent, nor that it is good for unelected politicians to employ their unelected family members regardless of whether those family members might have useful skills (see: nepotism). (Nor is politeness the same as kindness, which Sims points out later, in his epilogue, in reference to himself, when he says that he's learned "that while I was by disposition a polite person, I was not by nature a kind one.")

Trump's character

Trump cared more about winning the election than he cares about being President, Sims admits. Indeed, "the only two issues on which he seemed to have deeply ingrained, long-held beliefs were immigration and trade." Elsewhere, however, Sims notes a limitation of Trump's alleged concern for immigration: Shortly after taking office, Trump told a Christian Broadcasting Network reporter that he'd give immigration priority to persecuted Christians seeking asylum. Sims gives a 2018 update: "the number of Christian refugees admitted to the United States had fallen more than 40 percent under Trump. And as I write this, the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center says that the U.S. is only admitting an average of about one Christian refugee from Syria per month."

As an example of Trump's apparent lack of concern for healthcare: After he took office and the time came for the Republicans to overturn the Affordable Care Act, one House Republican, Charlie Dent, broke ranks and told Trump that the proposed changes to Medicaid were not acceptable. Trump tried to persuade him: "We need a win here, Charlie." In other words, it's not about what kind of healthcare the nation needs, but what kind of party loyalty the Republicans need so that that Trump can "win." The President then told Dent: "You’re destroying your party. We were going to do this, we were going to do taxes, we were going to do infrastructure — so many things. Big things. But we needed a win on this. And it’s a very selfish thing to do. Very selfish. It’s very selfish." How Dent's expressed concern about the value of the healthcare proposal could possibly be "selfish" is not explained in this book.

Sims also admits to his own bad faith actions on immigration, but falls far short of taking ownership and holding himself accountable. Reflecting on Stephen Miller, who once said of asylum-seekers, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil,” Sims says:

"...some members of the administration downplayed the successes of immigrants who came to America, assimilated, and made remarkable contributions to society, while going out of their way to vilify all immigrants with the stories of the bad apples. Any time a refugee or immigrant committed a gruesome crime in the United States, for example, Stephen Miller would come down to the comms office demanding a press release about it. Normally I would help make that happen. I was and am a hard-liner on the issue of illegal immigration."

Note how this argument pivots: Stephen Miller selects facts to give a distorted picture of immigrants. I, in a position of power, knowingly enabled him in his racism. I did this because I have a strong political opinion on immigration that aligns with Miller's agenda and the president's agenda. It is one thing to say that you have a right-leaning opinion and that it is strongly held. It is another matter to pretend that this explains or justifies why you enable White House officials in racist lies. Your political opinions oughtn't depend on endorsing statements that you know are false and racist, nor should you make those false and racist statements to propagate your political opinions. That does not make any sense. It only makes sense if you, yourself, are racist and you don't mind telling lies to achieve a racist goal.

Episodes

In an attempt to damage the Hillary Clinton campaign, Sims drafted a list of talking points about the women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment years earlier, a list which, he claims, was not meant to be final and was accidentally leaked to the press. "Trump never mentioned the talking points himself — something tells me he probably liked them," Sims says, "and I quickly realized that such a misstep was light-years from a fireable offense in this campaign." Trump later produced a three-minute video of himself interviewing four of the women, which Sims exclaimed at the time was "the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life." Steve Bannon also succeeded in seating the four women at one of the presidential debates, a move whose purpose may seem unclear. "If the goal was to rattle the Clinton campaign, it definitely worked," Sims observes.

Sims acknowledges that Trump's phrase "American carnage" in his inaugural address was not in keeping with the traditional presidential style. When did he act presidential? Oh, says Sims, after he ordered an anti-terrorism raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL. There was a big media moment, and he seemed to grasp the gravity of it. Those were good presidential optics, according to Sims.

Problems

At the beginning, he says of the Trump campaign team: "We were each doing the job of numerous Clinton staffers," his evidence being that "the Clinton campaign had literally five times more staffers than we did." But he gives us no reason to assume that the Trump campaign was doing the same work, in amount or in kind. Nor is it necessarily significant that Trump averaged two rallies a day in the month before the election while Clinton averaged only one per day. The number of appearances says nothing about the quality of the speeches, the political engagement of the crowds, the health of the campaign, or the virtues of the overall mission.

In the epilogue, he complained of an "ends-justify-the-means dystopia" exemplified by Hillary Clinton's comment, "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about." If this is his best "gotcha" quote, I am not impressed. There is serious debate over what civility is (is it just politeness? dialogue? democratic norms? can it be one-way, or does it have to be two ways?) and whether it is good or even possible to be civil with someone who is hurting you. It depends in large part on the nature of the harm and the type of civility that is asked for. Especially coming at the end of a book that is a laundry list of Trumpian actual incivilities (those of the man himself and of his inner circle), attempting to pin "both sides" responsibility on Hillary Clinton for saying theoretically, maybe the Democrats should be uncivil in response is not a convincing bait-and-switch. This book includes a memoir of the highly uncivil behavior of planting Bill Clinton's accusers in a debate audience for the purpose of rattling Hillary during her performance. In this quoted sentence from Hillary, she wasn't even complaining about that insult to her; she was objecting to value-based attacks on "what you stand for, what you care about." She was verbally highlighting a general difficulty or impossibility in being civil in response to that. She was making a meta-ethical comment about the purpose and limits of ethics. Saying that she is the dystopian one, following the screaming dystopian Trump campaign confessions that came through this memoir, is some next-level gaslighting. The author failed to draw a moral equivalence. Readers do not have to fall for this gaslighting.

He errs in giving Trump credit for the "marketing genius" invention of a liberal "War on Christmas." The real pioneer of that vapid, bad faith bit of us-them politics was Bill O'Reilly in 2004. The "War on Christmas" had been a seasonal staple on Fox News for over a decade by the time Trump leveraged it.

He says that Trump subscribes to "strong opinions, weakly held," by which he means that Trump tends to change his mind. When I have heard that maxim mentioned in other contexts, it means that someone has intellectual humility and readiness to accept evidence that proves their beliefs incorrect. It does not mean that they abandon their opinions for no reason, for reasons of popularity, or because they are bored.

In the context of Alicia Machado's accusation that Trump had insulted her, Sims notes that it wasn't "news that Donald Trump said something offensive about someone." He asks why cable news channels chose to cover behavior that wasn't news. I ask why he chose to work for a candidate who says offensive things as a matter of course.

He recalls an incident in which Trump was "basically compiling an enemies list — but these enemies were within his own administration." The president said: "Give me their names." Sims avers, "Only in retrospect did I see how remarkable this was." He does not explain why it is remarkable, so it is not a teaching about values, norms, and expectations about naming political enemies.

Sims rehashes the brouhaha about the MLK bust at the White House. A reporter erroneously claimed Trump had removed the bust; the same reporter later corrected himself, saying that the bust had been there all along and he simply hadn't seen it. Sims says: "In this instance, Trump was totally justified in his fury..." I would challenge this. I believe Trump would be justified in a brief flash of anger, perhaps prolonged annoyance, and a desire to correct the record (which the reporter did anyway). But "fury"? Why? Why is a minor reporting error still being litigated two years later? Sims figures that, in Trump's view, the incorrect claim about the MLK bust was part of a deliberate effort "to humiliate him and perhaps even delegitimize his electoral victory." That may well be Trump's perception, but that doesn't mean he was totally justified in taking that view. Sims recalls that Trump directed his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to attack the press for its reporting about the MLK bust and about the inauguration crowd sizes; Spicer was told to respond to the latter with new lies. Trump's friend, the billionaire Tom Barrack, brought in some supposed statistics and facts that made a counternarrative about crowd size. Sims personally typed up the list. "Nobody stopped to make certain it was true. Nobody had time. Spicer, in all his manic glory, had worked us all into a frenzy," he says. "We had no idea that nearly everything we were being told was wrong." Groups do tend to fall into a collective panic mode, so this may be true, but in saying this, he is not taking personal responsibility. After finishing the list as dictated by Tom Barrack, Sims' computer promptly crashed and he lost the entire document. "Between Spicer, Cairncross, and myself, we pieced the prepared remarks back together as fast as we could," he recalls. They were piecing together factually incorrect information from memory, and it was not becoming any more correct. "In retrospect, of course, we were engaging in a senseless, unrecoverable act of self-sabotage....as he prepared to throw away whatever credibility he’d built over decades in Washington, Spicer was quiet as a church mouse, almost like he was walking to his own execution." He frames this as a regret:

"Quietly, without the glare of the lights, I was embarrassed, too. I would go on to write countless presidential statements and remarks, numerous @realDonaldTrump and @PressSec tweets, thousands of talking points, and dozens of op-eds in major publications. Nothing I wrote was a bigger disaster — and more damaging to the credibility of the White House — than the first piece of work I put my hands to. Partly, I hoped, this could be attributed to typical first-day chaos. But the chaos never really went away."

But saying that one is "embarrassed" about a workplace failure is not the same as recognizing the damage it caused and having ideas about what one will do differently in the future and about general principles that others can follow.

"In Harry Hurt III’s Trump biography, Lost Tycoon, he wrote that Trump’s father, Fred, used to tell his sons, 'You are a killer ... You are a king ... You are a killer ... You are a king.'...if you’re trying to make sense of almost any action he took as President, this is the prism through which everything should be viewed."
During the campaign, Trump paid attention to crowd sizes as if "they were a running tabulation of his wealth." He inflated these numbers according to the principle of "truthful hyperbole," as he termed it in his ghostwritten The Art of the Deal (1987), because: exaggeration gets sales results; lies attract fact-checkers, and any media attention is good, and he likes to provoke reactions ("Trump is history’s greatest troll").

Some of his memories are apocryphal: He argues about whether Spicer stole a mini fridge from fellow White House staffers as he departed his position. (No, says Spicer; yes, says Sims.) He remembers Anthony Gilberthorpe, who claimed to have a “photographic memory" of the interaction between Trump and Ms. Leeds on a flight over two decades earlier. (Ms. Leeds had accused Trump of molesting her on that flight.) Other members of Sims' team made a snap decision to fly Gilberthorpe from Britain to New York, where he creeped out Sims by "look[ing] like the kind of guy who’d pull up to playgrounds with a basket full of candy" and eating all the staff pizza, and ultimately the man was given a brief appearance at the end of a Fox News segment to defend Trump's character. Sims gives a literary sigh of resignation: "as Donald Rumsfeld once put it, you went to war with the army you had." Well, no. That episode could have been done differently.

Some of his perceptions don't quite gel together. On the one hand: "The way we saw it, they [the Clinton campaign insiders] were the spoiled rich kids whose mommies and daddies bought them BMWs for their sixteenth birthday. We [the Trump campaign insiders] were still riding the bus to school and wearing last year’s fashions." On the other hand: Keith Schiller, who had led Trump's security staff for over a decade and who became Director of Oval Office Operations, "was one of the only nonbillionaires that Trump viewed as a peer." So, Trump generally surrounds himself with billionaires, yet all his staffers think of themselves as poor upstarts? If this is true, it's a strange juxtaposition that should have been fleshed out more in the book.

Another example of something that doesn't gel: As a journalist, Sims is alarmed by Trump's use of the phrase "enemy of the people." Sims recognizes that phrase from Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao. "I doubt Trump was aware of the history of the phrase," he says. "Then again, maybe he was fully aware and used it anyway, knowing it would spark outrage. Regardless, it made me squirm. But I never told Trump that, or tried to explain this, which was a failing on my part. So if the choice was between calling reporters enemies of the United States or mocking their errors — and it was — I was all in for the Fake News Awards." I disagree that the only choice is between labeling journalists "enemies" or "fake" (because no other U.S. politicians use this language); I also disagree that the label "fake" is nothing more than a jest or a mocking insult (because disinformation and misinformation are real phenomena, and to accuse all journalists of peddling disinformation can have a chilling effect on the press and it certainly misrepresents the role of a free press in a democratic society, and in the public's perception there may little difference between someone who is "fake" and someone who is an "enemy"). Sims did not mention Trump's July 2017 tweet showing him punching a representation of a CNN reporter, nor the mass shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in June 2018, nor — as Sims' book was going to press in October 2018 — Trump's response to the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, Trump's praise of the assault of Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by a Republican congressman, or the pipe bombs sent to CNN.

Recalling one occasion when the Trump camp received positive news coverage, he called it "jarring. We had never experienced anything quite like this before. This must be what it feels like to be a Democrat." No, no, no. Anyone who watches or reads news coverage of the United States knows that Democrats have their share of negative coverage. In recent years, with his false rumors about President Obama's birth certificate, Trump has been a major source of negative media attention on Democrats. Sims, working for a campaign that mounted a successful effort to seat four accusers of Bill Clinton in a debate audience, knows this better than anyone. The line that Democrats always have positive media coverage is utter nonsense. It is not supported by any argument within this book. It's some kind of leftover Trump insider snipe that is not reality-based. It does not demonstrate that serious reflection has taken place.

He expresses some regret: "But as is so often the case, when I point my accusatory finger at someone else, I have three more pointing back at me. My greatest regret from my time in the White House is that I wasn’t a better picture of my faith to the President and my colleagues." I find this insufficient. He should also regret hurting people. He spent 2018 writing this book. During that time, he reflected on his own memories but did not interview ordinary people who have been injured by this administration's policies, both in the United States and in the ripple effects in other countries. Nor does he explain in this book exactly what his faith is (beyond the implication that he is Christian evangelical), what its specific values are, and what it would have advised him to do differently. Thus when he says he wants to be "a better picture of my faith to the President and my colleagues," I don't see him saying he wishes he'd helped the downtrodden instead of treading down upon them, but rather only that he he wishes he personally looked better, in some undefined way, in front of powerful people.

After Sims resigned, Trump stopped taking his calls.

"This wasn’t personal to him. And in a way I didn’t take it personally, either. He hadn’t lifted a finger for countless loyal aides before me, and I’m sure he wouldn’t for countless loyal aides to come. It was well known that in Trump World, loyalty was mostly a one-way street. But it’s one thing to know that, another thing entirely to experience it firsthand—to be unceremoniously abandoned by the President of the United States. I had let my personal relationship with the President blind me to the one unfailing truth that applied to anyone with whom he didn’t share a last name: we were all disposable."

These are Sims' concluding words, and they make sense if the book is a reflection on how he was hurt and not on how he hurt other people.

At the very moment that Sims' book was released, that is, in the early morning on Jan. 29, 2019, actor Jussie Smollett was the victim of an attempted lynching in Chicago. Smollett was doused with a chemical and a rope was put around his neck. His attackers reportedly used anti-Black and anti-gay slurs and shouted a Trump slogan. This is what ordinary Americans deal with. This behavior has escalated during Trump's presidency. If the author isn't reckoning with this reality, there's no real reckoning.

Areas that were not given much weight:
Syria is mentioned 12 times, North Korea 7, Iran 2.
Russia is mentioned 10 times. Putin, 1. Mueller, 1.
Climate, 2, in the context of the pullout from the Paris agreement.
Abortion, 8.
Gay, transgender, LGBT: 0.

In his epilogue, he says, "I’m proud that the president I served was Donald Trump." We must consider that his pride concerns a man he called "history’s greatest troll" within this very book, a liar who surrounds himself with villains and befriends only billionaires. The book is titled Team of Vipers. If that's a point of pride for him, I don't think he's really internalized his regret. I think this two-month manuscript is another example — just like the script given to Sean Spicer about the inauguration crowds — of something that was rushed to press.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Brink Lindsey's essay on small-r republicanism in National Affairs

"This essay is addressed to those conservatives and Republicans, from leaners to stalwarts, whose loyalties to movement and party are now badly strained or even severed," Brink Lindsey writes in his essay "Republicanism for Republicans" (National Affairs, Winter 2019). Strained or severed, that is, because the Republican Party "has been overrun by people or ideas you find repellent. And the things that attracted you in the first place — the intellectual seriousness of the 'party of ideas,' the optimism and idealism, the record of real-world policy accomplishments and skillful statesmanship — don't seem to count for much anymore." He acknowledges the "immense" nature of the project "to reconstruct the American right," given that the Republican Party "is overwhelmingly under the spell of Donald Trump and seems determined to plumb the depths of intellectual and moral self-abasement in the service of a cult of personality."

He wants conservative intellectuals to return to discourse about a small-r republic, "the ideal of political liberty achieved through popular self-government," an ideal which "saw political liberty not as the expression of some spontaneous general will, but as the artifact of constitutional structure: limits on power, checks and balances, and the rule of law." This form of government "rests on the civic virtue of the people, bound together as fellow citizens, who are called upon to uphold the public interest and safeguard it from corruption." Among the "small group of academic philosophers" who are interested in "republicanism as a theoretical alternative to liberalism," he counts Philip Pettit and Robert Taylor, saying that they emphasize "freedom as non-domination."

This kind of conservatism is not the opposite of liberalism; rather, it coexists with liberalism and draws from it. Liberalism, after all, cares about "individualism and the rule of law," and, in his view, it depends on "family, faith, community, and nation," so conservatives should have no argument there. When conservatives abandon certain liberal principles, they produce heinous results. "Among the repugnant lowlights" of conservative sins in today's American politics, he names: "animus against the foreign-born carried to the point of orphaning and caging children; acquiescence in blatant corruption by the president and top officials; mindless trashing of the liberal international order and the global economy; restricting the franchise for some voters rather than insisting it be preserved as the bedrock of a republican form of government and confidently competing for the votes of all Americans; and systematic subversion of the rule of law to stymie investigations of foreign tampering with our elections."

He wants opposing factions to stop demonizing each other, and he aspires to see "that partisan identity once again cuts across demographic and cultural identities instead of politicizing them."

"Republicanism," he says, "begins with love and unity: the patriotic love of country, a love that unites all of us regardless of party. However much we may differ from one another, however many distinctions we draw among ourselves in a modern, sprawling, pluralistic society, there is one thing that binds all Americans together as moral and civic equals: the res publica, or commonwealth, under whose laws we all live and within whose institutions we can all participate to make those laws better." In this, I see echoes of Mark Lilla and Ross Douthat. Lindsey says he'd like to see patriotism, "a fundamental moral passion of the right," recast "in civic rather than ethnocentric terms." Republicanism would distinguish itself from the left in its "support for a stout national defense" and its "valorization of the nation's protectors in the military and police."

A few issues here.

In today's United States, citizens are not, in fact, defending democracy. Corruption is unchecked and the public interest is not being served. A political theory may say that citizens ought to do better, but since in fact they are doing poorly, the political theory needs to have a realistic account of that and a pragmatic response to it if the theory intends to be relevant and useful.

He acknowledges that current events represent the country's "darkest impulses," and that "the Trump presidency is not a freak accident, but rather the culmination of developments that have been corrupting the conservative movement and the Republican Party for many years." What I'd like to see is acknowledgment that these dark impulses belong not just to humanity nor even to something particular to the American self-concept (though surely that is true), but that they belong to the conservative movement and the Republican Party, as that is the political house that was corrupted here, and therefore that special ownership for causing and fixing the problem lies with conservatives and Republicans. In one instance, he blames "the left" for its "open-borders cosmopolitanism and outright hostility to nationalism of any kind and American exceptionalism in particular," saying that such advocacy pushes the right toward its reactionary "conflation of patriotism and white identity politics." It is certain that warring political factions indeed fan the flames of their rhetoric when responding to each other's arguments, but pointing out that phenomenon is often intended to blame one's own intemperance on the other side. In this article, it would be nice if that observation were followed by a suggestion about how conservatives could please stop practicing white identity politics regardless of their anxiety about something they heard someone else say about borders and imperialism. He says "a republican movement on the right" could "criticize ethno-nationalism as fundamentally unpatriotic and unfaithful to American exceptionalism." OK, but it seems that movement does not exist yet, so, meanwhile, why can't conservatives simply stop endorsing white supremacy? Why does a highly academic movement need to arise from ivory tower mist and tell them how to behave according to their own alleged principles? Why can't they just stop being racist if they are not racist?

He does say — and he makes this central to his argument — that many white Christians on the right are guilty of "utterly poisonous" rhetoric. He wants "to resist populist ethno-nationalism in the name of genuine conservatism." The problem I have is that he does not explain exactly where this poison comes from. He deems it "deeply un-conservative," a judgment that could function as an excuse for intellectual conservatism to avoid fully reckoning with how it arose within the conservative movement in the first place. If these ideas are not attached by strings to conservatism, why do the bearers of these ideas call themselves conservatives? He begins to blame the terminology of the conservative movement where he says: "under contemporary conditions, the language of conservatism pulls its users naturally and almost irresistibly toward the ethnocentrism and dark divisiveness..." This is at once reassuring (since he is assigning some responsibility to conservatism) and alarming (since it isn't obvious to me what is worth saving about conservatism if the very words that describe it seduce people toward evil). He is a little more specific when he says that language meant to argue against progress, in a social context where the progress being discussed is the civil rights of oppressed groups, "slips all too easily into a defense of the status quo by the traditionally dominant groups." Yes, that is true. He also suggests that today's conservatism uses "divisive culture-war theatrics to mobilize support" because it isn't actually "helping real people to improve their lives in tangible ways," which is to say, if the movement would just talk more and do more about jobs and other material concerns, maybe white people would be more curious and less angry and would channel their energies toward productive conversations and lose interest in being racist. Maybe. But I wonder why white people don't already lose interest in being racist and go forth and have their own more productive political conversations about jobs and other things they care about.

The argument to me sounds like, if only white conservatives would understand what they actually believed, and if only they would stop feeling antagonized whenever they hear a dissent or challenge such that they jump into endorsing some hostile position that they don't actually believe. My concern is that they do actually believe the things they say they believe.

An article like this written by someone who wants a political movement that "cuts across demographic and cultural identities" should also explain why Black people and people of color should want to be in a movement that not only tolerates but indeed draws its lifeblood from white people who are difficult and whose ideas are frankly dangerous to them. These are people who (the author argues) need a counter-movement or revival to indirectly nudge them to stop being racist. Black people and people of color aren't responsible for teaching white people how not to be racist (nor for coming up with gentle paternalistic techniques to persuade or trick them into not being racist in a way that does not require conscious effort from the white people, nor even indeed for waiting around for them to suddenly stop being racist), but then, if they're not part of the new small-r republicanism counter-movement, it will be just another white conservative movement that lacks diversity.

This particular failure is set up in part by the chosen audience for the article: those disaffected Republicans who newly feel "politically homeless." How many non-white Republicans stuck around after the Republican Party's positions during the 1960s civil rights movement? Who are the Republicans of color who found the party appealing for the last fifty years, yet find Trump (OK, maybe George W. Bush) the last straw, but not that much of a last straw that they aren't willing to immediately return as long as all the Trump supporters smile and say sorry and briskly wash their hands? Some can surely be found, but not many. Not enough to Make the Republican Party Diverse Again. What this article needs, then, to succeed in its visionary agenda of rebuilding a conservative movement is to reach out to potential new converts to conservatism and explain what conservatism has to offer them and why the people they'd be hanging out with are not dangerous or obnoxious to them because the new improved old-guard white Republicans who are now new small-r republicans have already done their Amazing Grace (and then some, we hope), all on their own. The movement has to be demographically diverse from the beginning. It can't just be the same white people declaring themselves reformed because they asserted a New Year's Resolution to be slightly less racist and who are then wondering why people of color haven't yet shown up to their party. This is going to take a while. Yes, the Republican Party may face its "day of reckoning," but two years into the Trump administration that hasn't happened yet, and meanwhile vulnerable Americans (and people the world over) are still being targeted, damaged, and alienated, so the bloodshed needs to stop before anyone wants to reckon in a cheerful, fraternizing way with that party or people who were recently in that party. To put it another way: Any discussion of apology, repentance, and reconciliation includes not just the offender's change of heart, not just the offender's changed behavior toward other people going forward, but apology and restitution to their previous victims, which includes being sensitive to the needs and wants of the people to whom they would make apology and restitution, and the possibility that the victims may choose not to forgive or may move forward in their own ways. The "reckoning" is not just an inventory, reclassification, and housecleaning of one's own ideas but a reckoning with other people who are affected. The way to make a political party that "cuts across demographic and cultural identities" is to actually include people of other identities by actually listening to them and adjusting your positions in response to their needs.

Any revisionist narrative that says A great wind blew the MAGA hat up in the air and it accidentally landed on my blond head and stayed stuck there for a couple decades, but now I've decided to take it off, and now I think the sun and rain will grow brown-haired people from the ground in my front yard and they are going to want to hang out with me and collaborate politically with me and with the institutions I like is missing the part about the apology and rectification. All the people involved have agency. Certain things were done, and real work will have to be done to begin to fix it. There is no reason to treat the offense with kid gloves. Treat the offenders with civility so that they are able to participate in the dialogue, yes, but be honest with them about what they need to change.

"White identity" concerns are toxic and cause real damage, so it is important not to use language that is too accommodating toward them. Here is an example where I called out that language in a New York Magazine article by Andrew Sullivan.

An important note about sex/sexuality/gender: When he says that republicanism could "embrace traditional values" (whatever those are — this is a mysterious comment within an article that previously claimed to reject "excuse-making for sexism, [and] demonization of homosexuality"). He cautions: "Those values must truly reflect the broad contemporary moral consensus as opposed to a particular, sectarian conception of the good." This seems to up-end everything else he says in the article. In the article overall, he says that revolutionary small-r republican academics should teach ordinary Americans how to identify and speak better about their true values, but, in this sentence, he says that republicanism can accept some bigotry as long as it's popular bigotry ("the broad contemporary moral consensus") and not elitist bigotry ("a particular, sectarian conception of the good"). Not sure why there would be separate rules for sex and gender topics (where popular bigotry is allowed) and race topics (where he expects values to be more principled).

Lastly, his call for the "valorization" of soldiers and cops seems out of sync with his main point that conservatives today are far too excitable over MAGA-hat jingoism and that they need to tone it down and be more sober and intellectual over material concerns in their day-to-day lives. It is one thing to appreciate the role of soldiers and police, and another to deliberately develop hero-worship. I also don't think that this is enough substance to distinguish right from left. If right and left make peace with each other and can more productively discuss civic issues of mutual concern, such that their only difference is who is attracted to a valorization cult of men in uniform, that relatively shallow rah-rah team spirit (or resistance thereto) will start to pull them apart into dysfunctional factions all over again.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Two major federal actions against transgender rights in the US - Nov. 23, 2018

On Friday, Nov. 23, 2018, the Trump administration made two major moves against transgender rights.

Proposed U.S. ban on transgender soldiers may jump over appeals court and go directly to Supreme Court

On Friday, the administration "asked the Supreme Court to bypass the usual legal process to take on...President Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from military service." (Washington Post, Nov. 23, 2018) Trump proposed the ban in July 2017 via Twitter. He ordered Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to develop a plan for implementing this ban, which Mattis did. The ban was challenged, however, in part on the basis that Trump's directive was groundless ("the result of discrimination, rather than a study of how allowing transgender personnel affects the military"). Jennifer Levi of GLAD said that "the open service policy that was thoroughly vetted by the military itself and has been in place now for more than two years. Lower courts upheld those challenges. Trump administration "Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco asked the justices to consolidate the challenges to the ban," the Washington Post article said, "and rule on the issue in its current term."

"The Trump administration has taken an aggressive posture when lower courts have ruled against it on important issues. It has asked the Supreme Court — with varying degrees of success — to accept the cases before they have run through the normal appeals process. ... The effort has drawn criticism from those who say such requests puts the Supreme Court in position to be seen as doing the administration’s bidding."

The New York Times reported the same day that "The Supreme Court does not ordinarily intercede until at least one appeals court has considered an issue, and it typically awaits a disagreement among appeals courts before adding a case to its docket." The ban on transgender soldiers has not yet been ruled on in an appeals court, although arguments have already been heard in the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco which has not issued a ruling yet, and another appeal is scheduled to be heard in the District of Columbia Circuit next month. Cases from federal trial court may jump the line, without being first heard by an appeals court, and go directly to the Supreme Court, if the case is shown to be of "imperative public importance as to...require immediate determination in this court.” Solicitor General Francisco claimed in his brief that the ban on transgender soldiers indeed meets that standard. Joshua Matz, a lawyer who filed an amicus brief for challengers, wrote: “Trump’s lawyers fail to understand that the government is not entitled to play leapfrog whenever it loses in federal court.”

Detailed guidance about the rights of transgender federal employees is removed from the Office of Personnel Management

Also on Friday, it was noticed that information had been removed from the Office of Personnel Management's website sometime earlier in the week. The Office of Personnel Management oversees all federal employees. The website "still state[s] that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is prohibited — consistent with an executive order President Obama issued that is still in effect." However, all the previous detail, "ensuring that trans workers could dress according to their gender identity, that they were called by their preferred names and pronouns, and that they were allowed to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity," is gone, unannounced, according to an article in ThinkProgress.

Climate change will reduce U.S. GDP by 10 percent by the end of the 21st century

In the New York Times on Nov. 19, 2018:

"Reports of the threats from a warming planet have been coming fast and furiously. The latest: a startling analysis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting terrible food shortages, wildfires and a massive die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040, unless governments take strong action."

And the New York Times on Friday, Nov. 23:

"A major scientific report issued by 13 federal agencies on Friday [today] presents the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States, predicting that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

The report, which was mandated by Congress and made public by the White House, is notable not only for the precision of its calculations and bluntness of its conclusions, but also because its findings are directly at odds with President Trump’s agenda of environmental deregulation, which he asserts will spur economic growth."

* * *

"...in direct language, the 1,656-page assessment lays out the devastating effects of a changing climate on the economy, health and environment, including record wildfires in California, crop failures in the Midwest and crumbling infrastructure in the South. Going forward, American exports and supply chains could be disrupted, agricultural yields could fall to 1980s levels by midcentury and fire season could spread to the Southeast, the report finds."

CNN reported the same day about the same publication, saying that it "delivers a dire warning about climate change and its devastating impacts, saying the economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars — or, in the worst-case scenario, more than 10% of its GDP — by the end of the century."

"Coming from the US Global Change Research Program, a team of 13 federal agencies, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was put together with the help of 1,000 people, including 300 leading scientists, roughly half from outside the government.

It's the second of two volumes. The first, released in November 2017, concluded that there is "no convincing alternative explanation" for the changing climate other than "human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases.""