Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Jim Bourg / Reuters

After this piece, on the “open secret” about Donald Trump (and the Congressional Republicans) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury revealed; and then this one, on the way people whom the world views as “like, very smart” tend to describe themselves; and then this one, on whether Trump’s history-agnostic “shake things up!” approach might bring rewards, I’ve received scores of interesting messages. For extraneous deadline and editing reasons, I’m not likely to be able to do anything with them until the end of next week, around January 20.

This is a placeholder note of thanks until then, and an announcement of an intention to choose at that point from them a sampling of ones whose insights have survived the news cycle.

And for the moment, two brief samples of material that has arrived.

First a “party girls” hypothesis on why Trump might be going out of his way to say “I’m actually smart”:

I agree with you in general that geniuses, or people who are skilled in some way, or even people who have certain personality traits, never really need to go around saying they are XYZ.

However, I do think there might be an exception for when outsiders or "enemies," or what have you, challenge those traits.

For example, there's a girl who I often tease as a "party girl" even though she insists she doesn't party a lot or isn't wild like some of her friends think she is. She constantly tells me that she is well-behaved and that she is good, when I tease her. My response is always that "good girls or well-behaved girls don't need to tell people that they are well-behaved. People just know." Of course, I am joking with her about being a party girl, but I can see why if someone has an inaccurate perception of you, you might strongly protest.

So, I suppose if someone is constantly ragging on your intelligence or your curiosity, you might protest. Or challenge people to an IQ showdown. I personally think that's childish, but then again, I don't have people challenging my intelligence left and right. (This is not me saying that I am a genius, just that nobody calls me the opposite.)

So yea, I guess my bottom line is that if someone is challenged on character trait XYZ, then maybe that someone might feel compelled to defend themselves constantly.

Mark Makela / Reuters

It’s less than a week since Michael Wolff said in Fire and Fury that all—“100 percent”—of those who worked with Donald Trump thought  him unfit for duties of the office. Then Trump himself replied, via Twitter, that he was “like, very smart” and “a stable genius.” I reported that actual very smart people I’d interviewed didn’t talk that way. And then (the last part of the set-up) a reader argued that Trump’s lack of interest in facts, experts, precedent, details was itself a form of genius, in that shaking things up might lead to more positive results.

As for this last claim, a whole lot of people disagree. A sampling:

Shaking things up brought us Iraq. A reader offered a comparison that many others also stressed:

Reminds me of the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Engaged in arguments with friends and colleagues, there were dozens of arguments about how Bush was lying and various alternatives. But  several colleagues said, roughly “the middle east is so fucked up; Bush’s war will shake things up; in the end things will be much better; they can’t be worse.”

The “shake things up” strategy has big risks.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Yesterday I noted one unusual aspect of Donald Trump’s  tweeted claims that he was “like, really smart” and a “genius.” Namely, that people whom the world recognizes as being in those categories typically don’t make the claim themselves. You can read the case here.

A reader in the business world writes in to disagree. It’s an interesting argument—and I’ll explain at the end why I think he’s right in many aspects even as he overlooks a crucial one. Here’s the reader, who after various flattering-to-me intros says:

I do view you as being overly negative towards Trump because you do miss the following beneficial aspect of him. Try not to immediately recoil from this email as you read it or think of how to rebut each point because taking it in....

While I agree with you Trump isn't thoughtful and he is clearly volitile/ chaotic (he is also old and likely suffering some decline), he has potential benefits, high-risk benefits.

I am making an analogy with:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stochastic_optimization#Randomized_search_methods

Trump is blunt and unpredictable but at least in foreign policy he generally is good at identifying long-standing chronic issues where everyone is stuck in a sub-optimal status quo.  All of the usually rational thoughtful actors can not get out of these chronic issues because there are foreseeable consequences to making changes or at least foreseeable risks.

President Trump with a black background
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Yesterday I argued that Michael Wolff’s revelations about Donald Trump, in his new book Fire and Fury, constituted an “open secret,” in the sense that term had been used after the revelations of sexual aggression by Harvey Weinstein and others.

That is: an unusually thorough work of investigative reporting, as in the NYT’s Weinstein coverage, or an unusually vivid set of anecdotes and quotes, as with Wolff, managed to focus attention on patterns that “everyone” already knew about, in some general sense, but that no one had bothered to correct.

Readers write in to respond. First, from a recent veteran of our long wars, who is worried about how a democratic system will cope with the unusual challenge that Trump presents:

I am a freedom-loving veteran who believes in America and our global leadership and institutions, I'm also a liberal, and I think Donald Trump is a threat to freedom around the world and at home. He endangers our republic and even before this book had proven himself incapable of leading us and needed to be removed from office.

My defense of Republicans is that the how matters—the ends don't justify the means, because the means will set precedents that are our future norms.

Trump was elected in accordance with the system laid out in our Constitution—the laws and norms of our republic gave him the presidency. Removing him is a major act. Yes, a plurality voted for his opponent and a majority voted against him. But overturning the effects of an election—and let's not kid ourselves, that is bluntly what impeachment is—will set a new precedent. [JF note: I’ll let the reader continue, but for the record let’s remember the recent history of impeachments. Less than 20 years ago, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives went through this exercise with a Democratic president who had been re-elected with 379 Electoral College votes, versus 304 for Donald Trump. More on the comparison, and the implications, after the reader’s note.]

The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, in fall
The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, in fall Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty

This continues our weeklong series on steps that individuals—both the hugely wealthy and those of ordinary means—and communities of any size in every part of the world, can take to protect the environment, at a time when national policy in the United States is headed the other way. The series began with news of a $165 million gift for preservation of coastal land in California, and followed with stories of efforts in Europe, then in several coastal American states; and then in Nebraska.

Today, we’ll hear accounts from readers on the Pacific Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, in New Mexico, points in Canada, and a range of other locales.

California. A reader writes:

We have an excellent land trust based just to the north of us in Trinidad, California, which is a little over 300 miles north of San Francisco. They have saved and are saving some spectacular “oceanfront property” for the benefit of us all.

It’s called Trinidad Coastal Land Trust.

Here is the map:

Trinidad Coastal Land Trust

* * *

Virginia:

I’m writing from Virginia to offer another partnership model to your series on land conservation in the United States.

Sunset on Watson's Ranch, a few miles north of Scottsbluff, NE Ed Bailey / AP

In announcing a $165 million gift for preservation of coastal land in California, the tech-industry Dangermond family said that they were trying to set an example for other rich people like themselves. But they also suggested that non-billionaires, through much smaller scale community and neighborhood efforts could cumulatively make a large environmental and livability difference.

The previous two installments in this conservation series gave illustrations of local, statewide, and regional efforts: first in Europe, and then in several coastal American states: Hawaii, Oregon, and Maine.

Now a report from Nebraska, on a major prairie-conservation effort underway there. This comes from William Whitney, executive director of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Aurora:

With much interest I read your recent piece in The Atlantic online about the Dangermond Preserve, the follow-up email from Europe, along with your interest in finding more examples of community based conservation work from across the country. I am founder and director of a land trust called Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Aurora, NE.

From Prairie Plains Resource Institute

As an isolated independent nonprofit in a town of 4,500 people we have somehow succeeded where simply surviving is difficult enough—since 1980—in community based grassland preservation, ecological restoration and education.

Prairie Plains Resource Institute owns eight gorgeous prairie natural areas in Nebraska; acquiring two of these properties included significant participation from local communities. For example, our most recent preserve, the 650-acre Sherman Ranch along the Platte River, was purchased with substantial financial support from our under-300 membership; also including major support from six local foundations (unusual for this type of project in a rural agricultural area); from Nebraska Environmental Trust; and a large national conservation organization, Ducks Unlimited.

Farm animals graze in the sunrise
Robert F. Bukaty / AP Crystal Springs Farm in Brunswick, Maine

Yesterday I mentioned a land-conservation scheme in Europe that a Swiss farmer was helping publicize. This followed news of a major donation of coastal land in California to The Nature Conservancy, for permanent preservation.

Jack Dangermond, who with his wife, Laura, has donated $165 million to make the California purchase possible, said that he wanted to set an example of increased public-private partnership for conservation at all levels, from the grand donation to the small-scale civic project. Here’s a brief report from Oregon about an effort already underway:

I live at a place called Kailash Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon. We are an all-rental co-housing community in the middle of the city and we have about an acre of farming here. You can read about us at http://www.kailashecovillage.org.

And a report from Hawaii:

Great private/public partnerships in preservation taking place all over. Here is an example from the County of Hawai‘i:

County of Hawai‘i

Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission (PONC)

This Commission develops two prioritized lists of lands for potential acquisition funding from the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Preservation Fund. It ranks potential county acquisitions and possible partnerships with the State or nonprofit organizations.

PONC Fund (aka Open Space or 2 percent Fund) 2 percent of Hawai‘i County real property tax revenues collected annually; fund to be used for acquiring lands or property entitlements in the County of Hawai‘i for the following purposes:

  • Public outdoor recreation and education, including access to beaches and mountains.
  • Preservation of historic or culturally important land areas and sites. Protection of natural resources, including buffer zones;
  • Preservation of forests, beaches, coastal areas, natural beauty and agricultural lands; and
  • Protection of watershed lands to preserve water quality and water supply.
From a video about community-supported agriculture in Germany. Thomas Rippel, on YouTube

Late last week, I mentioned a historically large conservation gift, worth $165 million and coming from one of America’s successful tech-industry families, that will preserve more than 24,000 acres of historically significant, aesthetically beautiful, and ecologically important coastland around Point Conception, California.

Part of the idea behind this gift, from Jack and Laura Dangermond of the Esri corporation in Redlands, California, was to set an example. The example was aimed both at other rich people like themselves, to encourage them to devote more of philanthropy to natural conservation, and at non-rich people, to encourage smaller-scale efforts at the neighborhood level. As I said near the end of that piece:

Will individuals and families make the connection between this large act of philanthropy and the smaller-scale opportunities immediately around them? It’s a lot to expect.

Thomas Rippel, an Atlantic reader who is an organic farmer in Switzerland, wrote in to say that his colleagues had already begun applying a version of this approach. His report:

I write to you in light of your last article. I have recently started working for a cooperative (Kulturland Genossenschaft—German-language site here) that purchases agricultural land in order to permanently secure it for organic cultivation, leasing it out for a very low fee to, of course, organic, but beyond that socially engaged farms.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

This past Tuesday Dean Winslow, a medical doctor and retired Air Force colonel who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flight surgeon, appeared before the Senate Armed Services committee. It was considering his nomination as the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

At the hearing, Senator Jean Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire, asked Winslow about mental-health issues in the military—and specifically about the shooter in the Sutherland Springs massacre, who had been courtmartialed and given a bad-conduct discharge by the Air Force for offenses that included threatening people with guns.

Winslow answered that question, and then volunteered a view that would have gotten more attention if not for the avalanche of other news. As a military veteran with first-hand experience treating combat wounds, he said he wanted to underscore “how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic assault rifle like an AR-15.” You can see Winslow making these comments starting at about time 1:19:00 in the Armed Services Committee video here, and read about the reaction here, here, here, and from a pro-gun site here.

* * *

The question Dean Winslow raised—whether  a weapon designed for the battlefield should be in wide circulation among civilians—is one I’ve been addressing on this site.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Decades ago I wrote in the Atlantic about the creation of the AR-15, which was the predecessor of the military’s M-16 combat rifle and which now is the weapon most often used in U.S. mass gun murders. After the latest large-scale gun massacre, the one in Texas, I did a follow-up post about the AR-15, and then a range of reader views.

Among the responses I got was from a man who as a young engineer in the Vietnam era had worked, at Colt Firearms, on the M-16. He writes to explain why he is shocked, as he says the AR-15’s famed designer Eugene Stoner would have been, to see this weapon anyplace other than the battlefield.

“I do not believe that there is any place in the civilian world for a family of weapons that were born as an assault rifle,” he writes at the end of his message. You’ll see the reasoning that takes him there. He begins:

During the Vietnam war era, as a newly graduated mechanical engineer, I was hired by Colt's Firearms, the original manufacturer of the M-16, and tasked with M-16 related assignments during my employment.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Back in the early 1980s, I described the origins of the AR-15 rifle, and its military counterpart the M-16, in an Atlantic article called “A Bureaucratic Horror Story” and a book called National Defense. This week I did an item about the AR-15’s role as the main weapon in America’s modern mass shootings. It explained that one reason for the AR-15’s killing power is that its bullets were designed not to pass straight through an object but to “tumble” when they hit, destroying flesh along the way and leaving a large exit wound on departure.

Readers write in, pro and con. Here’s a sample, starting with pro. From a reader in (pro-gun) Vermont:

There are a great many things wrong with the military, both in practice and in concept, but it offers one bit of education that is of use and more people should be aware of.

My father's experience was typical of many people I have heard of. He left his time in the (peace time) military with absolutely no interest in ever owning a gun. The Army had taught him in no uncertain terms that the one and only purpose of a rifle (not a "gun", a "gun" is what civilians call a cannon) it to kill people. And the one and only purpose of a pistol is to kill a human right in front of you. The main purpose of a military pistol is  for officers to shoot their own men with. The lesson being that if you are not interested in killing someone, you shouldn't have a firearm. Period.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

In the run-up to this week’s election results in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, I ran a series of items on how to think of “tribal”-style loyalties in American politics, and whether that was the right term for “We’re right, you’re wrong” political intransigence.

As I mentioned in the latest installment, one reason for continuing the discussion was as a sample of the nuance and erudition with which Americans can still discuss contentious issues—contrary to the impression national politics might bring. For reference, the previous sequence began with an opening post about the failure of congressional Republicans to hold Donald Trump accountable to normal standards of behavior, or even to notice what he is doing. It was followed by reader responses  first,  second, third, and fourth.

Now, a reader in the American Midwest leads off with what the Virginia results suggest about the divisions, and our terms for it:

I have been wondering aloud about the tribal — I like the word for this purpose, realizing it might not be PC, coterie doesn't capture the clannish nature of the idea)—reactions to the VA election results, which are all-too-triumphant [on the Democrats’ side]. (Too close to Trump, dontcha think?)

I've been thinking ahead to 2018 and the obvious reaction coming from the GOP and particularly from the Trump WH is that they will double-down, since that's what 45 always does, never give an inch, never apologize, always believe you're right and say you're right regardless of the evidence to the contrary.  A tribal response on steroids, and it could work.