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Tag: "trump"

Our Racist President Endorses Historical Myths About Racist Mass Murder

[ 0 ] August 17, 2017 |

In the big scheme of things, Trump’s consistent faith in violent racist historical myths is perhaps not our greatest problem. But it certainly contributes to it. Of course, Trump’s embrace of Treason in Defense of Slavery memorials is perhaps the most important in terms of domestic politics. That Trump can’t help but contradict himself constantly is amusing in terms of black humor.

But it’s still distressing.

After today’s horrible attack in Barcelona, Trump decided to weigh in (just a few days after lying that he hadn’t responded to Charlottesville for 2 days because he needed all the facts. Uh huh) with a tweet that absolutely mystified me.

Is Trump sending U.S. troops into northern Mexico to catch Muslim terrorists? It would be about as effective as Pershing’s chase of Pancho Villa.

But, no, it turns out that Trump believes Pershing committed mass murder with an ugly anti-Islamic tinge while in the Philippines. And while it sounds like something the U.S. military might do in the Philippines, a war that rivals Vietnam and the genocide against Native Americans for sheer racist ugliness, it’s a complete myth. I am hardly in the habit of approvingly quoting Max Boot, but we live in strange times.

The average person probably has no idea what Trump is talking about. But this is a reference to a historical myth that he repeated constantly on the campaign trail in spite of valiant efforts by historians and journalists to correct him. He is referring to efforts by Gen. John Pershing, later commander of U.S. forces in France during World War I, to suppress a Muslim revolt in the Philippines in the early years of the 20th century, at a time when that country was an American colony. This is the story as Trump told it last year:

“General Pershing was a rough guy, He caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage . . . and he took the 50 terrorists and he took 50 men and dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood. You heard about that? He took 50 bullets and dipped them in pig’s blood. And he has his men load up their rifles and he lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years there wasn’t a problem.”

There is, in fact, no evidence that Pershing ever committed any such atrocity in his battles against the so-called Moros — the ancestors of the Muslim fighters who continue to fight against the central government in Manila to this day.

“This story is a fabrication and has long been discredited,” says Brian McAllister Linn, a Texas A&M University historian who is one of the foremost scholars of the Philippine War. “I am amazed it is still making the rounds.”

While some U.S. troops did commit atrocities in the Philippines such as the use of the “water cure” (i.e., waterboarding), Pershing was known for being more enlightened and more successful. As I wrote in “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power,” “Captain Pershing preferred to win over the Moros with outstretched hand rather than mailed fist. So successful was his campaign that he was made a datto, or chieftain.”

So basically Trump approved of the mass murder of Muslims thanks to a falsified story of religious and racist terrorism by occupying U.S. troops crushing an independence movement. I mean, if this is what Trump supports, he might as well just cite the genocidal campaigns against Native Americans. It’s not like he wouldn’t approve of Wounded Knee. That wouldn’t put our nation in any better of a space, but at least it would annoy me 1% less.


Yes, Trump is a Threat to Liberal Democracy. And You Should be Worried.

[ 181 ] August 13, 2017 |

On Friday, the The New York Times published an opinion piece by Samuel Moyn and David Priestland entitled “Trump isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” The article has been generating a fair amount of chatter in my social-media circles. I find the piece kind of odd. Over on the Twitters, Yascha Mounk argues that it “dismantles a very strawy straw man,” and I think that’s a pretty good characterization. Given my own concerns about ongoing democratic backsliding in the United States—and the risk that Trump will worsen it both at home and abroad—I feel compelled to weigh in.

Moyn and Prieston argue, in essence, that the threat to US democratic institutions posed by Trump is relatively low and that an excessive focus on defending freedom and liberty will distract from solving the underlying economic problems that enabled Trump’s brand of right-wing populism to capture the White House.

Tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, has always been a powerful force in the United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger. It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out.

There’s a lot of slippage here, including between concepts like “liberal freedom and institutions” and “democracy.” This matters. A lot. It might be that a significant percentage of the American population thinks that Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, abolish Congress, and declare himself President for Life. But, at least in academic and policy circles, the biggest fear about Trump concerns moving the country toward illiberal democracy. As Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger noted back in November:

During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties

These worries do not even depend on Trump having some grand authoritarian design. They simply require a self-serving, thin-skinned, individual with autocratic dispositions to occupy the most powerful position in the most powerful democracy in the world: someone who, for example, will demonize opponents, vilify the free press while genuflecting toward the use of economic carrots and sticks to shape coverage to his liking, dispense with conflict of interest rules and norms, and fan the flames of extremism for personal gain. In other words, Trump’s ‘standard operating procedure’ is itself pretty dangerous. Mix in other steps, such as turning the Executive Branch into an ally of—rather than a check against—voter suppression, and I don’t think it requries much imagination to see the threat as very real.

So what do Moyn and Priestland have to say about this?

The initial fearful reaction to Mr. Trump’s election was understandable. He cut a new figure in recent politics. His indefensible slurs against his fellow citizens and offensive plans for the weak were a shock. His frequent breaches of political norms seemed to pose an imminent hazard for democracy. They may have been too chaotic to be truly sinister, but the danger seemed clear and present.

A little more than six months into the Trump presidency, though, it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained. Starting with the Trump administration’s original version of the travel ban, the president’s most outrageous policies have been successfully obstructed, leaving largely those that any Republican president would have implemented through executive order. The menace the commander in chief poses to the world, as his impulsive warning to North Korea suggested, may be another matter. But there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.

Working backwards, and at the risk of repetition, the idea that Trump would “seize power unconstitutionally” is simply not the preomdinate fear among analysts. My strong suspicion is that it is also not the major concern among liberal and progressive political activists. Regardless, it really is a “strawy straw man” when weighing Trump’s threat to liberal democracy.

Moreover, Moyn and Priestland have a strangely static view of the next 4-8 years. Yes, federal courts whittled down much of the travel ban. But three members of the Supreme Court were ready to approve the full ban, including Trump’s own appointment, Neil Gorsuch. It is entirely possible that, within a single term, Trump could select a replacement for Kennedy and at least one of the center-left justices. That would, in all likelihood, create a majority willing to sign off on policies like the travel ban.

Keep in mind that the Supreme Court already has a majority willing to roll back minority voting rights, empower plutocrats in the electoral process, and otherwise tilt the playing field toward the GOP. Now factor in the one area where the Trump administration has seen enormous success: lower-court judicial appointments. This is starting to look an awful lot like the recipe for hybrid regimes, no?

Finally, any account of the Trump administration’s consequences for liberal democracy must consider its efforts to remove the United States entirely from the democracy-promotion, human-rights, and overseas rule-of-law games. The international system is, for the first time since the end of World War II, facing an international system without a great power that even bothers to be a hypocrite on these issues. This could, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue, have serious implications for global liberal democracy.

Moyn and Priestland continue:

There is certainly evidence of Russian interference in the election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee is serious. But that hardly amounts to a long-term design on American democracy from some kind of fifth column, backed by Moscow’s “Authoritarian International” and propagated by fake news. Even if it were true that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting an illiberal putsch, he is still far from achieving this goal. Paranoia alone explains why fear that the republic is in imminent danger has been the dominant response.

I know this is a short editorial in a national newspaper, but I’m not sure I would dismiss the real prospect of collusion—even in the nudge-nudge-wink-wink form we saw play out on television—between Russia and the Trump campaign quite so glibly. I certainly think the valence of this paragraph changes if we abandon the straw man of “tyrannophobia” that Moyn and Prieston offer. Beyond this, to the extent that Moscow’s information warfare played a causal role in Trump’s election, it’s already done more damage to the ‘liberal order’—including America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships—than Russia could ever hope to do via standard instruments of power politics. This doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of the United States, but it’s certainly bad for US national interests.

So why is paranoia a bigger threat than Trump? They write:

The sky is not falling and no lights are flashing red, but Americans have nonetheless embraced a highly charged, counterproductive way of thinking about politics as a “new Cold War” between democracy and totalitarianism. The works of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell have risen on the best-seller charts. Every news story produces fear and trembling.

History raises serious doubts about how helpful this tyrannophobic focus on catastrophe, fake news and totalitarianism really is in dealing with the rise of the populist right, of which this bumbling hothead of a president is a symptom. Excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law, could prove self-defeating. By postponing serious efforts to give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.

If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve. This approach to politics threatens to widen the already yawning gulf between liberal groups and their opponents, while distracting from the deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments.

The anti-communist politics in the United States of the early 1950s were rooted in assumptions that had much in common with those of anti-Trumpism today. There was, it was claimed, a serious risk to liberal democracy from American subversion within, in alliance with the Russians without, peddling seductive untruths. Other goals — like the creation of a more just and equal society — had to take second place to the country’s military posture.

Ironically, many who rallied to the anti-tyranny banner were liberals of a “vital center” who did so out of sincere belief in the need to create an American welfare state. Yet focusing on exaggerated threats to freedom and stigmatizing the communist enemy undermined their progressive goals. National Security Council Report 68 of 1950, for example, argued that the Cold War justified the reduction of nonmilitary expenditure by the “deferment of certain desirable programs,” including welfare. And while the New Deal was not dismantled, efforts to extend it — which still seemed a real possibility in Harry Truman’s early years in office — were denounced as pink tyranny, boosting state power at the expense of democracy. Casualties included attempts to create a national health care program. The consequences for American politics have been momentous.

On Twitter, Moyn comments on Mounk’s criticisms (which I echo many of here) by describing this piece as a “an attack on the empirical homogenization of unlike cases-an ’empiricism’ driving unhelpful alarm about US democracy’s collapse.” This strikes me as a bit ironic, given that the entire comparative logic here derives from the 1950s.

First, the net effects of the Cold War on domestic progressive causes are far from clear. Yes, it gave us McCarthyism, but Truman integrated the armed forces in the year following the crystallization of the Cold War. The negative effects of Jim Crow on America’s international image likely helped, rather than hurt, the cause of Civil Rights. The 1960s brought Medicare and Medicaid. Without the Cold War would the United States have universal health care, more progressive taxation, and more progressive policies over all? Maybe. But it’s a hugely complicated counterfactual to rest this argument on. At the very least, I’d like to see a deeper analysis of the causal role of anti-communist sentiment in derailing Truman’s health-care plan than provided in the link that they supply.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that the dissolution of the Cold War consensus probably made domestic political polarization worse while taking pressure off of Republicans to care about the attractiveness of the American political-economic model.

Second, Russia is a regional power with nuclear weapons, not a global competitor. It is very difficult to imagine a US-Russia repeat of the particular stew of existential rivalry that marked the 1950s and early 1960s, in which the future of mankind seemed to be on the line, and which led to the diversion of massive resources away from domestic priorities.

Third, Russia is not a communist state. It is rather implausible to suggest that, even if America were to succumb to a McCarthyite hysteria, it would take the form of “the United States can’t expand the welfare state, because that would forward the goals of Soviet communism.” Contemporary Russia is an example of inequality and kleptocracy—that is, precisely the kinds of things that progressives should, if we really need to go there, welcome a backlash against.

In some respects, the threat of anti-democratic forces might force efforts to address economic inequality, not distract from it—a point made by an undergraduate on the Mounk-Moyn thread:

The problems with the Cold War analogy just compound as the essay continues:

The absolute priority given to liberal fundamentals also promoted serious misunderstandings of the rest of the world. Capitalism (though not democracy) had to be defended at all costs, while foreigners were commonly viewed as subject to brainwashing, manipulation and mass irrationality — just what we fear today in the United States itself. And while those assumptions led to terrible mistakes and cost millions of lives in American military interventions, the end of the Cold War only reinforced the tyrannophobic worldview in an even purer form — now including liberal democracy and even freer markets.

My only prior comment on the piece, over on Facebook, was “if we focus on protecting democratic institutions, we’ll get McCarthyism? Wut?” The problem here isn’t simply that the supposed “tyrannophobia” of the liberal and left (nor that of the “vital center”, were we to successfully reconstitute it) operates in a geopolitical and ideological context completely different from that of the 1950s. It’s that the closest analogy to McCarthyism—a xenophobic, paranoid movement that argues for defending democratic sovereignty by adopting illiberal means—has a serious foothold in the Trump administration.

Put simply, the politics of Trumpism—the same politics that threaten democratic backsliding—also threaten to create the conditions that scare Moyn and Priestland. It’s not Russiophobia, or overwrought forms of anti-communism, that we need to worry about it. It’s Islamophobia and white ethnonationalism. Their diagnoses is completely wrong. Liberal and left-wing “tyrannophobes” are, as far as the analogy has any purchase, mobilizing against a replay of the 1950s—but, this time, the intellectual descendants of the Birchers are inside the Executive Branch.

They continue:

The rude awakening has been a long time coming, and even now has not fully occurred. The 2008 financial crisis failed to dent the political establishment’s complacency, even though it had become very clear that market-friendly policies were helping to destroy the social mobility and economic opportunity that underpins a well-functioning democracy.

And while the shock of the 2016 election caused unprecedented soul-searching, tyrannophobia is blinding many to the real warnings of the election: A dysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention if recent electoral choices are to be explained — and voting patterns are to be changed in the future. Yet there is too little recognition of the need for new direction in either party. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York recently declared that the Democrats have merely failed to get their message across. Many Republicans are convinced that the party can correct its Trumpian aberration by reasserting the status quo ante of free markets and social conservatism. Neither side, it would seem, is ready to depart from its prior consensus.

The threat of tyranny can be real enough. But those who act as though democracy is constantly on the precipice are likely to miss the path that leads not simply to fuller justice but to true safety.

Of course, I’ve so far operated under the assumption that their underlying causal claims are correct: that implementing social democracy in the United States is the best way to prevent the asencedency of the populist right. The experience of actual social democracies, such as Denmark and Sweden, suggest some healthy skepticism. So does growing evidence about the dynamics of the 2016 election.

I would certainly like a progressive “new nationalism” that tackled inequality and increasing political oligarchy, and did so in an inclusive, civic manner. I’d like a “New New Deal” for the world that remakes international liberal order to promote equality and economic democracy. Sure, I think all of this would probably help combat Trumpism and some of its root causes. But there’s a serious risk of the pundit’s fallacy going on here. History does not unequivocally show that economic inequality is a necessary or sufficient condition for right-wing authoritarianism. It certainly does not show that our best bet, in the face of the threat of democratic backsliding, is to let institutions take care of themselves so that we can devote all of our attention to progressive economic policies.

At heart, Trump forces us to make a wager: are American liberal democracatic institutions self-regulating, or are they precarious, held together through norms and practices that can be chipped away? Given our experience with regional racial autocracy, machine politics, civil war, serious illiberal movements at the national level, and more recent developments in state and federal governance, I think complacency is extremely risky. Heck, imagine what American political institutions would look like if Nixon hadn’t recorded every conversation in the White House, or if the Republicans in congress had held the line for him a bit better.

I find it particularly difficult to accept this risk when it is justified by arguments that seem to me at least somewhat in tension with one another. To believe Moyn and Priestland, we have to simultaneously hold that (1) the underlying threat to democracy is so grave that we need to radically alter our economic model and that (2) institutions are strong enough to prevent significant democratic backsliding under the most radical right-wing government in the postwar period. That is, we have to believe that Trump is a prelude to a much larger explosion of authoritarianism in the United State, and that what happens to the United States under Trump will not significantly shape either the likelihood of that explosion or its ability to usher in illiberal democracy. It’s possible for both to be true, but it’s not likely.


BREAKING! The White House is Absolutely Bonkers

[ 150 ] August 10, 2017 |

Jana Winter and Elias Groll got ahold of the memo that led to Rich Higgins’ resignation from the National Security Council (NSC), as well as some additional details about the whole mess, and, well, you need to read the story.

The full memo, dated May 2017, is titled “POTUS & Political Warfare.” It provides a sweeping, if at times conspiratorial, view of what it describes as a multi-pronged attack on the Trump White House.

Trump is being attacked, the memo says, because he represents “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative.” Those threatened by Trump include “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

The memo is part of a broader political struggle inside the White House between current National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and alt-right operatives with a nationalist worldview who believe the Army general and his crew are subverting the president’s agenda.

Though not called out by name, McMaster was among those described in the document as working against Trump, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the memo and the events. Higgins, the author, is widely regarded as a Flynn loyalist who dislikes McMaster and his team.

“It was about H.R. McMaster,” the source said. “So, when he starts reading it, he knows it’s him and he fires [Higgins].”

The story of the memo’s strange journey through the White House captures the zeitgeist of what has become the tragicomedy of the current White House: a son trying to please his father, an isolated general on a mission to find a leaker, a right-wing blogger with a window into the nation’s security apparatus, and a president whose closest confidante is a TV personality.

The memo itself is precisely the kind of unhinged ranting you would expect from the fringe right, but it’s also still pretty terrifying to know that this came from someone on the NSC staff.

A few other details worth noting come out of, or are related to, this passage:

In the meantime, however, the memo had been working its way through the Trump White House. Among those who received the memo, according to two sources, was Donald Trump Jr.

Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.

In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo’s author had been fired. Trump was “furious,” the senior administration official said. “He is still furious.”

The memo lays out what it described as a concerted campaign to undermine the president.

“The administration has been maneuvered into a constant back-pedal by relentless political warfare attacks structured to force him to assume a reactive posture that assures inadequate responses,” it reads. “The president can either drive or be driven by events; it’s time for him to drive them.”

1. Remember the supposed firewall separating the President, Donald Trump, and his sons, runners of his business? Snort.

2. The problem, as always, is Trump.

3. McMaster’s position may be more precarious than champions of “the adults” realize.

Go read.

Why the Right-Wing War on George Soros Matters

[ 291 ] August 6, 2017 |

Scott’s recent post opens with a David Weigel tweet, in which Weigel responds to Jeff Flake’s comments about birtherism on Meet the Press.

Per Weigel, Flake’s lament might carry a bit more weight if the junior senator from Arizona had voted against confirming John Bush‘s appointment to the Sixth Circuit Court. But Flake isn’t wrong, GOP officials had a window in which they might have excised birtherism’s racist fantasia of conspiracy theorizing and alternative facts; nothing forced Fox News to promote it. But the Republican establishment decided to ride that tiger of resentment and anger in its bid to reclaim political power after 2008. The cancer metastasized. Trump is a symptom of this failure.

Of course, the cancer that has engulfed the party involves much more than just birtherism. Why do Flake and other Republicans—who, however craven, really are appalled at Trumpism—focus on it? Because Trump used birtherism to launch his political career in the GOP. This suggests an obvious broader lesson: allow these fringe ideas to enter the mainstream at your peril.

On many fronts, it’s not too late. There are numerous festering conspiracy theories and modes of thought at various stages of moving from the right-wing fringe into mainstream conservatism. One is the notion of a “Deep State” out to destroy the Trump presidency. This particular conspiracy theory, which Russian information warfare actively promotes, is extremely dangerous in light of the non-zero chance that Trump—or at least his associates—will wind up being indicted by Mueller.

But I want to focus on a different cancer within the GOP, one that, in principle, it should be easier for responsible parties to vocally and vociferously stand up to: the repackaging of  old-school anti-Semitism under the rubric of “globalism” and attacks on George Soros.

Last week saw a few developments on this front.

First, Stephen Miller—the Jew who makes neo-Nazis smile—attacked CNN’s Jim Acosta as a “cosmopolitan” for pointing out, albeit with a bit of hyperbole, that making proficiency in English a criteria for immigration might have demographic implications.

Second, the Daily Caller published a promo for Dinesh D’Souzza’s new book—un-ironically entitled The Big Lie—in which he runs through the greatest hits of slurs on George Soros. D’Souzza closes with a variation on the claim that Soros was a Nazi collaborator. This time, D’Souzza accuses Soros of being just like Joseph Mengele. Because Mengele’s circumstances were exactly the same as that of a thirteen year-old Jewish boy being hidden from the Nazis by a man who was also responsible for accounting for seized Jewish property.

Third, this happened.

It’s come from all corners. Breitbart News, the website Bannon controlled as executive chairman before joining the Trump campaign, has produced a flurry of negative stories about McMaster over the past two days, accusing him of “purging” dissenters and kowtowing to “holdovers” from the Obama administration. Fox News host Sean Hannity has tweeted about McMaster, saying he might need to go. Radio host Laura Ingraham has also weighed in, tweeting that “Obama holdovers at NSC or State Dept who are leaking shd do real time for these leaks. Why has McMasters fired actual Trump supporters?” The Daily Callerpublished an interview with two former NSC officials attacking him, accusing him of undermining the president’s foreign-policy agenda. Circa, a site owned by the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting company, published a letter Thursday that McMaster sent months ago to his predecessor Susan Rice, in which he informed her that she could keep her security clearance. It’s a standard letter, but it has caused a furor in light of the ongoing controversy over unmasking.

The provocative right-wing blogger and activist Mike Cernovich has launched a sustained attack on McMaster, including setting up a website called When it launched, the main page displayed a large cartoon of the Rothschilds controlling a George Soros puppet, which in turn controlled puppets representing McMaster and former CIA director David Petraeus. (The hand labeled “Rothschilds” has since been relabeled “Saudis.” Cernovich told me he changed it because complaints about the cartoon’s anti-Semitism are “not a hill to die on,” and “if everybody wants to complain, then fine—I’ll just put the Saudis at the top.”)

Here’s the original image:

Once controversy developed, Cernovich cropped the cartoon so that we readers couldn’t see who was controlling Soros. Later, he settled on the Saudis as a substitute. Because nothing says “integrity” or “not playing your audience for suckers” like swapping around conspiracy theories on a dime.

Here’s what Garrison writes about it:

We know McMaster and Petraeus met with Soros at the last Bilderberg conference. The question is, why? To drain the deep state we must start with those who are corrupted by globalists such as George Soros, who is sponsored by the Rothschilds.

This cartoon was commissioned by Mike Cernovich who is on top of the matter.

–Ben Garrison

Additional: There is absolutely NOTHING anti-semitic about this cartoon no matter what the ADL says. The head of the ADL is pro-Obama and pro-George Soros, therefore he smears those who criticize them. The Rothschilds have amassed trillions of dollars over the centuries by war and inside machinations. I criticize them for their foul deeds, not their religion. Soros collaborated with the Nazis. The ADL does not get to decide or dictate what hate speech is. If they think they can, then they’re also evil. ’nuff said.

I guess it’s a small victory that people drawing and writing Protocols of the Elders of Zion fanfic feel the need to insist that they’re not being anti-Semitic. That’s often the case now: the relevant discourse is structurally isomorphic with libels against Jews, but it’s ‘merely’ about Soros or ‘merely’ about the Rothschilds. Indeed, as Jennings Brown and Jacob Steinblatt note in a piece chronicling the rise of Soros as a boogeyman in the American right:

Less than two years later, Glenn Beck joined Fox News and made Soros one of his main targets. In November of 2010, Beck dedicated two episodes to exposing the “puppet master” George Soros. With the aid of three giant chalkboards, a wooden pointer, props, literal marionette puppets, and his signature condescending professorial tone, he explained the twisted web of corruption and deceit that George Soros’ “shadow party” (does that sound familiar?) has wound around the American political system. Soros’ ultimate goal, Beck explains, is to build “one world government” and then take power.

Beck concluded by explaining that he himself has stockpiled a year’s worth of food and he encouraged his viewers to do the same. Then Beck said if nothing extreme happens within two years, “mock me all you want.”

Seven years later, Soros still has not taken control of the world. But those special episodes — which were heavily promoted on Fox News — made perhaps one of the strongest cases against a single private citizen to an audience of more than two million Americans.

At the time, Michelle Goldberg, author of “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism,” wrote in The Daily Beast that the program “was a symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles. Nothing like it has ever been on American television before.” She states that a lot of Beck’s ideas “only makes sense within the conspiratorial mind-set of classic anti-Semitism, in which Jews threaten all governments equally. And as a wealthy Jew with a distinct Eastern European accent, Soros is a perfect target for such theories.”

Walker believes Soros’ Jewish heritage is the reason he inspires wilder conspiracy theories than other billionaire political donors. “It’s not just everyday Republicans who don’t like him; there are also, for example, anti-Semites, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories can get pretty baroque,” Walker said.

Since the Fox News hosts began dedicated segments and episodes to Soros, the man has become a permanent fixture in right-wing conspiracy theory forums, blogs, and radio shows. In the last six months there have been more than 800 Soros-related posts on the subreddit /r/conspiracy, one of the most popular conspiracy theory forums. A Google search for article about Soros appearing on, turns up about 19,300 results. They range from the obvious (Backstab: Republican Leaders Funded By Soros) to crude (George Soros Craps In America’s Punch Bowl) to apocalyptic (George Soros Is About To Overthrow The U.S. and Trump Pulls World From Brink Of Nuclear War: Soros Outraged)

You may not like what Soros stands for politically—a lot of which involves funding civil-society and human-rights oriented NGOs—but there’s no conspiracy. Indeed, a big reason why autocrats dislike him—and this rhetoric is all borrowed from them—is because he’s an open and public thorn in their side.

So what we’re seeing is the normalization of anti-Semitic tropes and rhetoric in the Republican party. It’s another cancer that’s on the brink of metastasizing; the window of opportunity to excise it is closing.

But I’m not holding my breath. Nothing in recent history suggests that Republicans will do the right thing. Moreover, the peculiar politics of Israel provide real cover here. Maybe your rhetoric is indistinguishable from actual neo-Nazis, but hey, how can you be anti-Semitic if you support Israel’s unfettered hand in the West Bank and unequivocally back Israeli policy in the wider Middle East? Of course, mixing pro-Israel politics with anti-Semitic tropes is nothing new for the American right.

To complicate matters, as Israel backslides, Netanyahu has also not merely targeted Soros but actively sided with right-wing aspiring autocrats.

But Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, raised the stakes in this feud last week when his foreign ministry issued a statement that, in effect, backed a Hungarian government propaganda effort against Mr. Soros and joined its denunciation of him. This contradicted earlier remarks by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, who had expressed dismay at the $21-million billboard campaign by the ruling party of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, that has targeted Mr. Soros for his support of services for refugees and immigrants. The poster campaign, which has also attracted explicitly anti-Semitic graffiti, “evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” said the ambassador, referencing the fate of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust.

The foreign ministry spokesman denied that the Israeli ambassador’s comments “meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros” by Mr. Orban’s government. Instead, the spokesman went on to attack the billionaire philanthropist for “continuously undermining Israel’s democratically elected governments,” by his funding of organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Mr. Orban has personally accused Mr. Soros’s operations of “trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics” — a statement that appears to toy with an anti-Semitic trope about Jewish influence and yet strangely echoes the Israeli foreign ministry’s condemnation of Mr. Soros. It takes some gall on the part of Mr. Netanyahu to choose this moment to kick Mr. Soros while he’s down — not only because Mr. Soros is, once again, a victim of anti-Semitism in the heart of Europe, but also because he is being vilified in Hungary for trying to combat the same racist, anti-minority sentiments that led to the Holocaust.

Israel itself is playing with fire here.

Once upon a time, Orban’s praise for Horthy would have caused outcry across party lines in Israel, assessed Mudde, the Dutch researcher, who was in Israel this week. “The time has ended several years ago, when Likud and Netanyahu made the wrong assessment that Europe is anti-Israel and Israel should work with whoever is pro-Israel,” Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, said. “This has led to a formal and informal normalization of relations to the radical right in Europe and a bigger and bigger tolerance for anti-Semitic dog-whistles and historical revisionism by ‘pro-Israel’ forces.” This policy will immediately backfire, he predicted, “as it will weaken Israel’s critique of anti-Semitism or historical revisionism of ‘anti-Israel’ forces.”

Israel’s alignment is one of the stranger dimensions of the rise of transnational ties and rhetorical convergences among national right-wing movements. The effects Cass Mudde alludes to are not limited to Europe; they’re at work in the United States.

If there’s any ground for optimism about the GOP, it’s the anti-Semitism is a growing problem on the left as well—both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps attempts to use it as a wedge issue will encourage some Republicans to get their own house in order? Regardless, this is just one of many fronts that nominally responsible GOP officials and figures need to fight back on if they want to turn back the tide of Fascism Lite™ that’s swallowing their party.—and the country.

More Scenes from the Kakistocracy

[ 137 ] August 2, 2017 |

Paul already pointed our attention to the full transcript of Trump’s interview with the Wall Street Journal. Like pretty much all of Trump’s long-form interviews, it’s truly terrifying. Once again, Trump shows a complete lack of understanding of policy. Jordan Weissman flags a particularly head-desk moment.

So I’ll call, like, major—major countries, and I’ll be dealing with the prime minister or the president. And I’ll say, how are you doing? Oh, don’t know, don’t know, not well, Mr. President, not well. I said, well, what’s the problem? Oh, GDP 9 percent, not well. And I’m saying to myself, here we are at like 1 percent, dying, and they’re at 9 percent and they’re unhappy. So, you know, and these are like countries, you know, fairly large, like 300 million people. You know, a lot of people say—they say, well, but the United States is large. And then you call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have. So China’s going to be at 7 or 8 percent, and they have a billion-five, right? So we should do really well.

As Weissman explains, Trump seems to have confused talk of why well-developed economies can’t sustain growth at 7-8 percent with the size of a country’s economy population [typographical error fixed].

He apparently thought that when whoever he was listening to said “large,” they were talking about population. Therefore, in his mind, if China grows at nearly 7 percent per year with its 1.4 billion people, the U.S. should be able to do it too.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here’s Trump (hat tip: Jonathan Swann) on decertifying Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):

WSJ: You mentioned the Iran deal, but it’s been certified as in compliance twice now. It comes up again in September. Would you – is there going to come a point where you just –

TRUMP: Well, we’re doing major studies. Oh, I would be very surprised if they will be – look, we’ve been extremely nice to them. We’ve been extremely nice to them in saying they were compliant, OK? We’ve given them the benefit of every doubt. But we’re doing very detailed studies. And personally, I have great respect for my people. If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.

WSJ: Do you expect them to be declared noncompliant the next time?

TRUMP: Personally, I do. I do.

WSJ: In September?

TRUMP: I think they’ll be noncompliant. I think they’re taking advantage of this country. They’ve taken advantage of a president, named Barack Obama, who didn’t know what the hell he was doing. And I do not expect that they will be compliant.

WSJ: Will you overrule your staff on that, if they come back with a recommendation –

TRUMP: Oh, sure. Sure. Look, I have a lot of respect for Rex and his people, good relationship. It’s easier to say they comply. It’s a lot easier. But it’s the wrong thing. They don’t comply. And so we’ll see what happens. I mean, we’ll talk about this subject in 90 days. But, yeah, I would be – I would be surprised if they were in compliance.

Iran is, in any significant way, in compliance with the JCPOA. Full stop. Iran might, at some future date, materially breach the agreement. But that’s not the case now. Moreover, none of the other members of the P5+1+EU will view whatever excuse the Trump administration comes up with as credible basis for decertifying Iran.

The “major studies” Trump may reference a group within the NSC specifically tasked to come up with rationales for declaring Iran in noncompliance.

“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.

The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.

On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said.

It’s possible, I suppose, that this is a good faith effort to “Red Team” the findings of experts in the United States government—and, for that matter, the international community—but it seems rather unlikely. The interview is eerily reminiscent of Trump’s admission that he had decided to fire Comey, and was just looking for his subordinates to supply a pretext. Given the current facts on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any such ‘study’ will produce a compelling justification. Most important: none of our partners will believe it. The fact that Trump is telegraphing his intentions so clearly only makes things worse.

A decision to decertify Iranian compliance under these conditions is, to say the least, extremely risky. It would further shred American credibility—including with key allies—when it comes to abiding by agreements. It would leave the United States internationally isolated. And it would likely increase the risk of Iranian nuclear proliferation.

The weird mixture of self-aggrandizement and disparagement of Obama as specifically someone “who didn’t know what the hell he was doing” serves as a reminder that Trump embodies the Dunning-Kruger Effect. First, his consistent inability to understand that international bargains aren’t just a matter of will, but of leverage. Second, his confidence that his ill-informed impressions reflect deep, considered knowledge. His priors are simply immune to updating. If you don’t like the information, you get new information.

There are plenty of smart people who don’t like the Iran deal. There are even ways to unravel the JCPOA that might actually not leave the United States in such a poor position. I don’t endorse these, but Trump’s attitude—and his willingness to make it obvious to everyone—provides yet another piece in a mountain-high pile of evidence that he’s simply unfit for the job. More than unfit, a danger to US national security.

But at least he’s using the platform of the presidency to push the Trump brand, so that’s all good. From the signing statement on the sanctions bill:

I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.

This timeline stinks. I want out.

The Trump Administration Continues to Prioritize Ideology over US National Interests and Security: State Department Edition

[ 50 ] August 1, 2017 |

I’ve been working on a post detailing the ways that the Trump Administration is destroying the State Department, but it looks like I can outsource it to this Foreign Policy article by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch. A sample:

More than six months into the Trump presidency, career diplomats worry that the administration’s assault on the State Department will cause lasting damage to the workforce.

Tillerson’s controlling front office — and its focus on squeezing the budget — threatens to slow the hiring and assignment of new foreign service officers to positions around the world. All the while, numerous top career officials with decades of experience have quit, leaving a vacuum of talent and institutional knowledge in their wake.

While the State Department hemorrhages its own talent, it has also cut itself off from new talent by ending several distinguished fellowship programs to recruit top university graduates during its redesign.

The cumulative effect of a marginalized State Department, coupled with a freeze on hiring and budget pressures, could mean the next generation of diplomats will wither on the vine, current and former officials warn.

In a May 5 speech celebrating foreign affairs day at the State Department, William Burns, who retired in 2014 after a long diplomatic career that included a stint as ambassador to Russia, sounded the alarm bells.

Without mentioning the Trump administration, Burns warned against “pernicious” attempts to question the loyalty of career diplomats “because they worked in the previous administration,” as well a dismissive attitude to the role of diplomacy. Political and economic openness and a “sense of possibility” enabled America’s success abroad, but that is now threatened by a “nasty brew of mercantilism, unilateralism, and unreconstructed nationalism,” Burns said.

“Morale has never been lower,” said Tom Countryman, who retired in January after a diplomatic career serving under six presidents.

In the past, politically charged issues, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, created moral dilemmas for some diplomats, he said, but this is a problem of a different magnitude.

Countryman said he has been approached for advice by younger members of the diplomatic corps, many of whom are deeply disheartened. “My advice was to do your best to stay and serve the American people until it becomes truly unbearable for you in a moral sense,” he said. “I sought to encourage them by reminding them that no administration lasts forever.”

Tillerson himself appears to be exasperated by the job, caught between ideologues in the White House, competing congressional interests, and shell shock after jumping from the private sector, where he ran the U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil as a powerful executive in a highly centralized organization.

“He doesn’t have the same authority as a CEO,” one Trump insider told FP. “I know the White House isn’t happy with him and he isn’t liking the job.”

It’s worth stressing the advantages generated by an extensive and skilled diplomatic corp. Our diplomats are the lifeblood of extensive international networks that the United States uses to mobilize international support for its foreign-policy goals. In recent history, declining great powers have been able to hold onto outsized leverage via, in part, the accumulated institutional knowledge, skills, and connections of their diplomatic service. In conjunction with the State Department’s successful recruitment of a diverse, dynamic talent pool, the US looked in very good shape. Now the Trump Administration seems intent on shredding one of the most cost-effective foreign-policy instruments that the country enjoy—likely out of ideological animus toward the imagined machinations of globalism.

This particular act of geopolitical suicide comes along with signals that the administration intends to shutter functions that promote core American values. The war crimes office may be on the chopping block. Today, news comes that the administration is considering “scrubbing democracy promotion” from the State Department’s mission.

I know that, among many on the left, the reaction is likely to be eye-rolling—accompanied by mentions of Washington’s long history of support for coups, human-rights abusers, and autocratic leaders. All of this is true. But the United States has also played the role of “white knight,” supporting democratization movements in many countries across the globe. As Zacchary Ritter, one of my students at Georgetown, shows in his PhD thesis (huge PDF), the success or failure of these movements often depends on the United States putting its thumb on the scale in their favor. Of course, the United States can still do that even without the official mission. To its credit, the Trump Administration is taking at least some action in response to Venezuela’s slide into outright authoritarianism.

Overall, though, scrubbing the mission will be a major step backward, and not just as a signal about US priorities. The State Department primarily supports these goals through nonviolent means: naming and shaming, support for civil-society building, and the like. The infrastructure that supports the mission also ensures democracy remains on policy makers’ radar screens; when they overrule democracy and human-rights concerns, they have to proactively do so. Absent all of this, the international system is likely to be uglier and more authoritarian.

Indeed, the evisceration of the State Department is part of a larger story in which the worst elements of the Trump Administration are slowly winning in their battle to destroy competent, effective governance when it conflicts with their ideological priors. Peter Beinart on the resignation of George Selim:

George Selim, the federal counterterrorism official who works most closely with the organized American Muslim community, tendered his resignation on Friday. His ouster is a victory for Trump officials like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who see mainstream Muslim organizations as Islamist fronts, and for those American Muslims who oppose any counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. “There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Selim told me. It is the clearest sign yet that government cooperation with Muslim communities, which has proved crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, is breaking down.

it turns out that the administration can do enormous damage to American domestic and international security without passing a single piece of legislation. Sometimes incompetence doesn’t get in the way of ideology: it just makes things worse.

Image by Loren (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Another Episode of the Amazing Adventures of Dr. Sebastian Gorka, PhD

[ 143 ] August 1, 2017 |

I make it a general policy not to read Breitbart, but I’m sure that LGM readers will understand that why I found this irresistible clickbait. And, lo, my indiscretion was rewarded.

In the fantasy novel Sourcery, Terry Pratchett describes a feature of the Discworld universe called “anti-light.” “That’s not the same as darkness, because darkness is merely the absence of light. Anti-light is what you get if you pass through darkness and out the other side.”

Yes, as Dan notes, Gorka spouts banal clichés. But the way he strings them together produces not merely the absence of meaning, or even the presence of simple bullshit. He passes through to the metaphorical other side. His word salad forms a kind of singularity, out of which emerges a kind of anti-meaning I once associated only with the worst excesses of post-structuralist wannabe theorizing.

The story starts off wobbly, with only trace hits of what’s to come.

“We have had enough with old ways of thinking,” declared Dr. Sebastian Gorka during an exclusive interview at the White House last week. “The last 30 years of thinking have just been unimaginative. It doesn’t serve the U.S. purpose. We’ve seen about 7,000 people killed in uniform. We have to be smarter about it.”

I completely agree with Gorka that 7,000 military deaths in the last thirty years are too many, especially given the complete pointlessness of the Iraq War—which accounts for over half of those deaths. But I’m not sure I’d diagnose the underlying problem with the Iraq War as a lack of imagination. It’s more an example of what happens when you throw out sound strategic thinking in favor of ‘shaking things up’ and ‘shifting the paradigm.’

Also, just for come context from the time before we became “unimaginative.”

 Anyway, moving along:

[Gorka] noted that the Trump administration will apply “all the instruments of power in the right mixture” to its NSS [National Security Strategy].

As I noted over on the Twitters, I want this on a t-shirt.

Trump’s NSS will also cure asthma, heart disease, and opioid addiction—along with North Korea’s nuclear program, the trade deficit, free-riding European moochers, and all terrorism carried out by Muslims. It will make you and your family rich, in five easy steps.

The secret? It lies not only in getting the proportions of power exactly right, but drawing on those instruments long neglected by past administrations, such as Ivanka, Jared, the Trump International Hotel Washington DC, and chocolate cake.

Also, the NSS will be an iconoclastic, outside-the-box, engine of creative destruction:

“We recognized that this is an iconoclastic commander in chief. He is the first person in U.S. history who wasn’t a politician or a general officer before he came into office,” Dr. Gorka told Breitbart News. “As such, the national security strategy will not look like the previous Republican or Democrat security strategies. It will be as iconoclastic as the president. There will be a prioritization of threats and mission.”

Gorka, who works as Deputy Assistant to the President in the Office of the Chief Strategist, noted that the “globally disperse totalitarian ideology of jihadism” is one of the top threats facing America that the new strategy will address.

Nothing says “iconoclastic” in an NSS like laying out strategic priorities. Nothing says “break from the recent past” like treating transnational terrorism as a major US national security concern. But, you know, it’s all in the magical power of the word “jihadism.” If you say it, you gain power over it.

Instead of being confined by the “cliché” Republican interventionist and isolationist perspectives of the past, the Trump administration realizes it has a range of options at its disposal to protect the U.S. homeland, argued Gorka.

“It’s not diplomacy or war, intervention or isolationism. It is the full spectrum of options of statecraft with American leadership back,” he told Breitbart News, adding, “We jettisoned political correctness. We jettisoned cliché bi-polar ways of thinking.”

I… don’t know what any of this means. Trump’s NSS will perplex the world into submission by neither intervening everywhere nor intervening nowhere? What are “cliché bi-polar ways of thinking”? Is Gorka talking about leftover ideas from the Cold War, that vast American foreign-policy consensus that says we should never, ever entertain the “full spectrum of options of statecraft,” or a form of depression?

Oh, okay, maybe he’s talking only about the “political right.” I think. To be fair, the editorial work on this article is pretty shabby.

Gorka described interventionism and isolationism as the foreign policy “extremes” of the political right.

“There is a massive palate in between isolation and intervention, and we believe that it is smarter not to function on the extremes,” he said.

The White House official dismissed the political right’s approach to national security as “pathetic” because you are only forced to choose between two ideas: neoconservatism or libertarianism.

“You are forced into a binary world. Either you have to be a neoconservative and invade other countries, or you have to be libertarian and say ‘who cares we’re going to be isolationists,’” he told Breitbart News.

“This president explicitly rejects neoconservative foreign policy because he sees the invasion and occupation of other people’s countries as fundamentally un-American,” pointed out Gorka. “Nevertheless, America is a force for good. Not as an occupier, but as a shaper.”

I’m pretty sure that Gorka doesn’t really mean to condemn all invasions and occupations as fundamentally un-American. Presumably the post-war occupation of Germany and Japan, for example, were okay. But, given current Middle East policy, I assume “shaping” including blowing a lot of stuff up in places like Syria and Yemen—both directly and by proxy—so long as you maintain a ‘light footprint’ afterwards. Like Libya.

Does any of this reflect the actual NSS that the Trump Administration will produce? I have no idea. Is this NSS important? Likely not. Very few leave a lasting impression. But you know that we’re living in TrumpLand when national-security charlatans hawk the NSS like it’s actual snake oil.

Everything’s Fine!

[ 160 ] July 31, 2017 |


On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.

The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.

But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.

Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”

The claims were later shown to be misleading.

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.

As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III looks into potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.

“This was . . . unnecessary,” said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”

From the beginning of this nightmare, I have been completely dismissive of impeachment as a liberal fantasy because of the politics behind it. But this is so over the top and such an obvious crime (in terms of the overall coverup that is going on, not lying to the press, which is of course not a crime) that between it (not to mention whatever comes out tomorrow and every day after) combined with the collapsing relationship between the administration and congressional Republicans, I don’t feel so dismissive anymore.

Also, glad to see the leaks have stopped.

Sessions’ Testimony Smells Increasingly Fishy

[ 148 ] July 21, 2017 |

The Washington Post just published a story—although one based on the accounts of unnamed U.S. Officials—which you really need to go read. Here’s how it starts:

Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions — then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump — were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials both in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.

One U.S. official said that Sessions — who testified that he has no recollection of an April encounter — has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said that the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.

Sessions has said repeatedly that he never discussed campaign-related issues with Russian officials and that it was only in his capacity as a U.S. Senator that he met with Kislyak.

By the time this saga plays out, the number of dropped shoes will likely exceed the size of Imelda Marcos’ collection. Recall that Sessions actively volunteered in his confirmation hearings that he’d had no campaign-related contact with Russian officials.

Now, in of itself, discussing your campaign’s positions on a country with its ambassador doesn’t strike me as particularly problematic. The context, though… the context.

Although it remains unclear how involved Kislyak was in the covert Russian campaign to aid Trump, his superiors in Moscow were eager for updates about the candidate’s positions, particularly regarding U.S. sanctions on Russia and long-standing disputes with the Obama administration over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

What did Sessions know. And when did he know it?

UPDATE: Apparently, those of you speculating that Trump’s behind this leak aren’t alone.

If true, it would fit a pattern of Trump’s complete inability to think strategically. The leak suggests that Trump knew the extent that his Attorney General had perjured himself; it provides additional evidence of questionable linkages between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Vindictive? Shortsighted? Sure. Why not?

Image by JonnyBrazil at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on the Current Crisis

[ 274 ] July 21, 2017 |

In the wee hours of the night, I tweeted out my despair at the current crisis of the Republic. My immediate impetus was a terrific series of tweets by Jasmin Mujanović.

Here, I want to consolidate a few thoughts about some of the deep problems that have gotten us into this state of affairs: the occupation of the Oval Office by Donald Trump, an authoritarian kleptocrat. These are non-exhaustive, but I think not always adequately appreciated.

The first is what Julia Azari calls “weak parties and strong partisanship.”

Strong partisanship with weak parties makes for a couple of fairly serious problems for a democracy. The destabilization of institutions, for one. It’s hard for institutions — elected ones like Congress, the presidency, or state governments — to have legitimacy when partisan motives are constantly suspect. This is also true for other kinds of institutions, like courts and, as we’ve seen most recently, law enforcement agencies like the FBI. Citizens view much of what these institutions do through a partisan lens.

Suspicion of institutions doesn’t just undermine courts or Congress — it also undermines party politics as a whole. Party politics is really important for democracy; most political scientists still share E.E. Schattschneider’s observation that democracy is “unthinkable” without parties to do the work of campaigning, to organize stable coalitions, and to help citizens make sense of political choices.

For now, the problem is far more acute for the Republicans than the Democrats. Whatever one thinks of the ideology of the modern GOP, it generally served its most important institutional function at the presidential level: it prevented the nomination of charlatans and nut jobs. With hindsight, we can see its ability to do so begin to atrophy after the 2008 election when we look at the nomination of, for example, Christine O’Donnell in for Delaware Senate. But, at the time, this looked more like the flukes that regularly occur at the state level.

The 2012 presidential nominating process, however, now appears something of a canary in the coal mine. We saw a succession of “bubble candidates,” including Bachman and Cain, who were manifestly unsuited for the Presidency. But Romney prevailed, giving the impression that the party could still effectively screen out the lunatics. Romney’s loss in the general—particularly given unwarranted expectations, fanned by conservative media, that Obama was a weak candidate—almost certainly twisted the knife into the ability of GOP institutional mechanisms to manage its base. Once again, The Onion proved prescient.

As Azari discusses, the weakening of political parties is a long-term phenomenon, with a number of structural causes. But I do not think we should underestimate the role of the Bush Administration in setting in motion the conditions that led us to Trump. Given the current ascendency of the GOP at the national and state level, it is sometimes hard to remember how much the Bush Administration—through the Iraq War, Katrina, and its handling of economic policy—destroyed the Republican brand. By Obama November of 2008, 26% of Americans identified as Republicans. Even including leaners—the more important number—the GOP was in terrible shape.

At this point, GOP congressional leaders made a pivotal decision for how to rebuild.

During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected.

Attending the dinner were House members Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, Dan Lungren, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and Pete Sessions. From the Senate were Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign and Jon Kyl. Others present were former House Speaker and future – and failed – presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who organised the dinner and sent out the invitations. [….]

The dinner table was set in a square at Luntz’s request so everyone could see one another and talk freely. The session lasted four hours and by the end the sombre mood had lifted: they had conceived a plan. They would take back the House in November 2010, which they did, and use it as a spear to mortally wound Obama in 2011 and take back the Senate and White House in 2012, Draper writes.

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” said Keven McCarthy, quoted by Draper. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

The complete embrace of tactics honed by Gingrich, first in the 1994 elections, and then during the Clinton presidency, required synergizing the messaging of the Republican party with the more extreme impulses of right-wing media. It received a major assist from the rise of the Tea Party, which reconstituted much of the core Republican coalition under a new label—but in the form of a movement outside of, and already antagonistic to, GOP institutions.

This story is familiar to LGM readers, so I won’t dwell too much more on it. The key point is that the Republican party mounted a scorched-earth campaign geared toward delegitimating not only Obama and the Democrats, but the entire system of governance. In doing so, it stretched and broke many of the procedural norms that undergird American formal institutions. Nonetheless, we should still reflect on how extraordinarily dangerous, and irresponsible, this decision was given the state of the country and of the world. We were in the midst of the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, fighting failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and engaged in a worldwide counter-terrorism campaign. The overhang of these problems still persist today.

Second, I also think we sometimes neglect the broader effects of the Iraq War. As Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry open their new article in Survival, “The 2003 Iraq War was one of the great disasters in the history of American foreign policy.” Sold under false pretenses, badly designed and implemented, and rolled into a Republican wedge strategy built around weaponizing 9/11 for partisan gain, the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster in blood and treasure. The United States has spent, by some estimates, $2 trillion to, in effect, destabilize the Middle East, as well as to undermine American military power in real and perceived terms. It aided and abetted the militarization of local police departments.

The Iraq War also dealt an enormous blow to American political institutions. It damaged prominent Democrats. If Clinton had not voted for the Iraq War, she would have been elected president in 2008. I’ve already mentioned its effects on the GOP. It’s no accident that Trump points to the Iraq War when attempting to discredit the intelligence community, or that most Republican voters are indifferent to the nearly uniform condemnation of Trump by the Republican foreign-policy establishment.

Thomas Oatley argues that the decision by the Bush Administration to finance the Iraq War through borrowing, rather than raising taxes, lies at the heart of the Great Recession. At the least, it likely structured global financial flows in a way that made the world economy particularly vulnerable to the effects of the subprime crisis. It, along with the direct effects of Bush’s tax cuts, saddled the United States with enormous debt heading into the Great Recession.

This brings me to the third point: American political economy. Starting under Reagan, the United States has run pro-cyclical budget deficits. In the process, its accumulated a huge amount of debt. This has not only hamstrung progressive policies—the “starve the beast” strategy—but its had widespread effects on American political economy. Servicing this debt depends on low interest rates, low interest rates encourage private-sector borrowing and help fuel the growth of the financial sector.* That’s not a problem, per se, in the presence of robust regulation of the financial sector. But, that’s been sorely lacking. Dodd-Frank was a step in the right direction, but even its gains look precarious. This contributes to boom-and-bust cycles, and it is part of an overall story about the financialization of the American economy and the rise of the credit economy.

The combination of low taxes, lax financial regulation, and the erosion of government policies aimed at combatting inequality through transfers, has been a toxic stew. The rise in college tuition paid for by accumulating student debt provides an examples of one of the relevant dynamics. Cuts to support for higher education drive up tuition. The policy instrument used to address the rising costs? Encourage the financial sector to provide loans.The shift to financing through personal debt allows colleges and universities to raise tuition. Rinse and repeat.

More generally, people making middling incomes—and higher—compensate for wage stagnation by taking out easily available debt. This reduces labor mobility and bargaining power, because the ‘cost’ of missing a loan payment can be catastrophic—people making otherwise decent wages can no longer afford to go for periods without a paycheck. Those who don’t make enough to qualify for relatively cheap credit are forced into usurious ‘payday loan’ schemes.

All of this is part of an enormous shift of risk onto ordinary Americans. Instead of defined-pension plans, we have taxpayer subsidized individual retirement schemes. These inject money into the financial sector, while the reduction of the number of large institutional investors managing pension programs reduces effective oversight. Lax regulation has itself turned the financial sector into a monster, devising new instruments to, in effect, extract rents. None of this is necessary for the sector to perform its core productive economic functions of underwriting investment. It not only helps drive boom-and-bust cycles, but also drags down overall economic growth. Risk for large financial institutions are socialized—hence “too big to fail”—but the stew of economic policy makes individuals particularly vulnerable.

All of this creates a vicious pattern. As the economic clout of the financial industry grows, so does its political clout. The analogy here is with the entrenchment of trade liberalization. This can produce a political cycle where those pro-liberalization sectors become do better, become wealthier, and hence more powerful. The reverse happens in industries that benefit from protectionism. That does not mean that the cycle can’t be broken, but it affects the playing field.

My hardly original contention is not just that Bernie is right in his general diagnoses—we need robust social democratic policies. It is also that economic anxiety, loss of faith in governance as something that serves ordinary people, and other conditions that render democracies vulnerable to soft-authoritarianism, are quite possibly rooted in the configuration of low taxes and financialization that Obama only managed to dent. Trade is something of a scapegoat, because with a different political economy we could capture more of the surpluses generated by open trade and reinvest them.

What does this all mean? It means that the crisis of American institutions is grave indeed. It’s been here for some time, and it came to an immediate head with the election of a demagogue. Trump is weaponizing partisanship—and the underlying loss of faith in democratic institutions—in the service of his narrow interests: status, wealth, and, it seems increasingly clear, avoiding criminal and civil culpability for his business practices. I say “weaponizing” because the right-wing feedback loop ensures that each norm he breaks and each line his crosses is instantly rendered legitimate to 30-40% of the American electorate. It becomes evidence that he’s a fighter, that he doesn’t pull his punches, that the establishment is out to get him. The GOP, whose interest in voter disenfranchisement as a partisan power play dates way back, is, as Damon Linker notes, at risk of going full authoritarian.

I don’t know how this ends. The structural conditions—which extend far beyond political economy—are deeply embedded. While it should be clear that my policy sympathies, at least on economics, broadly align with the democratic left, it seems like we’re doomed to repeat the time-honored pathology of ripping the anti-Trump coalition apart over policy disagreements. Meanwhile, the Democratic position bears some eery resemblances to the GOP after 2008. The Republicans are dominant. While the primaries were in no way “rigged” in the way that the far left and RT assert, the party did take steps to ‘clear the field’ for Clinton. As a result of these, and other missteps, the party is at risk of becoming similarly unmoored from its base.

It’s also not clear where even a Democratic sweep leads. How do we rebuild norms? If we leave Republican violations ‘unpunished,’ those norms are gone. But if we retaliate, we risk making the crisis worse. The treatment of Garland provides a nice illustration. With the Court profoundly politicized, the only norm we had was that the President got to appoint—and the Senate consider—nominees in the event of a vacancy. McConnell ripped that up. The only way recourse would be to pack the Court. But that’s extremely risky—not only in terms of the politics, but in terms of the downstream institutional implications for judicial independence.

Thus, we have multiple pathways forward, none of them look good. For example:

  • Tump stays on, doing enormous damage. In the worst-case scenario, he combines the powers of the Presidency with his soft-authoritarian dispositions to destroy opponents in civil society and the anchors of professionalism in the civil service. This enables him to secure a second term, and in doing so completely transforms the GOP.
  • Congressional Republicans finally move to impeach him. This could itself provoke a devastating political crisis as Trump deploys every tool in this arsenal to protect himself. Democrats may relish a Republican civil war, but we could be looking at civil violence and domestic terrorism not seen in some time. If the GOP base stays with Trump, the remnants of the democratically-minded GOP could be swept away. And recall that Trump isn’t going to go quietly into the night even if removed from office.
  • Trump’s incompetence and institutional restraints work well enough that Democrats retake the Congress. If they move to impeach, it could be the first scenario but with the GOP rallying around Trump. Game that one out yourselves.
  • Democrats recapture the legislative and executive branches by 2020. That opens up the problem I raised earlier. How do we put things back together again? Can we?

I fear we need a new institutional compact, as we saw after the Civil War or after the Great Depression. How do we get such a compact in today’s political conditions?

All of this assumes that the Democrats don’t themselves succumb. One advantage we have: the partisan politics of opposing Trump position the party on the small-d democratic side when it comes to the struggle over the institutions of the Republic. And what if another collapse hits? Our institutions are already failing in the wake of the Great Recession.

In the short term, though, Trumpism must be defeated. It must be discredited. But on its own terms. This is a fight, first and foremost, to preserve the core of democratic institutions, not to destroy them.

[Shout outs to Paul Musgrave and Andreas Kern for discussions on these issues; image from the Fallout Wiki, intended as metaphor]

*As Yestobesure points out in comments, this reads an awful lot like a causal claim. I do not mean to imply that deficits lower rates, but was thinking about the degree that the political economy of debt and credit depends on low rates. This was a long post, composed with too great rapidity, and I’m sure there are other places where it doesn’t really hold together. However, there’s an interesting dynamic here associated with the US floating lots of debt and the willingness of overseas governments and investors to purchase it.

Global Kleptocracy and Luxury Real Estate: the World of Donald Trump

[ 3 ] July 15, 2017 |

Given recent developments in Trumpland, I decided to interview my friend and sometimes collaborator, Alex Cooley, for an episode of Foreign Entanglements. We discuss matters related to his recent co-authored bookDictators without Borders: Power and Money and Central Asia. These shed light on Trump’s business dealings, Trump-Russia connections, and some of the concerns that experts have about how Trump’s administration could damage the rule of law—not just in the United States, but globally.

I really encourage you to watch it, or listen to it in the background. Alex really knows what he’s talking about.

Trump’s Imaginary Friend

[ 92 ] July 13, 2017 |

Our president has an imaginary friend he trots out when useful.

For all things Paris, President Donald Trump’s go-to guy is Jim.

The way Trump tells it — Jim is a friend who loves Paris and used to visit every year. Yet when Trump travels to the city Thursday for his first time as president, it’s unlikely that Jim will tag along. Jim doesn’t go to Paris anymore. Trump says that’s because the city has been infiltrated by foreign extremists.

Whether Jim exists is unclear. Trump has never given his last name. The White House has not responded to a request for comment about who Jim is or whether he will be on the trip.

Trump repeatedly talked about the enigmatic Jim while on the campaign trail, but his friend didn’t receive widespread attention until Trump became president. For Trump, Jim’s story serves as a cautionary tale – a warning that even a place as lovely as Paris can be ruined if leaders are complacent about terrorism.

Jim’s biggest moment in the spotlight was during a high-profile Trump speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Trump explained that Jim “loves the City of Lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris. It was automatic, with his wife and his family.”

Trump one day asked Jim: “How’s Paris doing?”

“’Paris?” Jim replied, as relayed by Trump. “‘I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.’”

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, responded by tweeting a photo of herself with Mickey and Minnie Mouse inviting Trump “and his friend Jim” to France to “celebrate the dynamism and the spirit of openness of #Paris.”

This inspires confidence in our nation’s future.

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