More than two years ago, soon after Donald Trump entered the presidential race, I noted online that no one like him—with no political, military, judicial, or public-service experience, with no known expertise on policy matters, with a trail of financial and personal complications—had ever before become president. Therefore, I said, it wasn’t going to happen this time.
Quite obviously that was wrong. Penitent and determined to learn from my errors, I’ve avoided any predictions involving Trump and his circles ever since.
But a few days ago, I edged back into the danger zone, after my very first look of the just-named White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, on TV. Via the ever-perilous medium of Twitter, I observed that he seemed more at ease on camera than Sean Spicer ever had, and less committed to flat-Earth stonewalling denials than Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Maybe his smooth-schmoozy approach would be what the Trump team needed? Maybe the press should get ready to be handled by a pro?
Ooops. That looks wrong, too. Scaramucci’s half-hour live call-in to Chris Cuomo on CNN’s New Day this morning was unlike anything ever witnessed from other political “communicators,” and not in a good way. Among its charms is one David Graham quickly noted: Scaramucci’s off-hand reference to his relationship with Reince Priebus as being “like brothers” — as in “Cain and Abel.” I’m not quite sure which role—Cain as killer, or Abel as victim—Scaramucci thought looked better for him.
The whole thing, embedded below, is riveting, in a “Darwin Awards” or demolition-derby way. Congrats to Chris Cuomo for keeping his cool. I’d predict that your jaw will drop further, the longer you watch and listen—but that would violate my newly reinforced commitment to avoid any forecast whatsoever about Donald Trump and his team. Still, give it a look.
In response to three recent pieces—one discussing the public and private parts of the U.S. system of self-governance that are still working, another arguing that Donald Trump’s monologue to the New York Times represented a new frontier in self-revelation, a third saying that a handful of Republican Senators have the nation’s fate at their disposal—several reactions from readers.
What about the Democrats? A reader with long professional experience in government writes:
I just read your post calling for three Republicans to demonstrate civic courage. As you put it, “A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people.”
But it doesn’t—it relies on those three plus 48 Democrats. It is striking how often it’s just assumed that Democrats in this kind of situation will do the right thing.
But why should they? If the 10 Democratic senators up for reelection next year in states that Trump carried were consulting their political self-interest in the way that seemingly all Republicans are doing, some at least might not be resisting Donald Trump as they are. Yet they remain steadfast—just as Democratic members remained steadfast in 2009-2010 in voting for the ACA and cap-and-trade, even when their political futures were in jeopardy.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile sometime to do a post about how Democrats seem so much more able these days to maintain our standards of governance and to display civic virtue under pressure. That might be an edifying meditation.
What about the Attorney(s) General? In response to my noting that the Mueller investigation was (at the time) had not been derailed, a reader notes:
It is extraordinary that an article on this subject did not even mention the extremely important role played by the attorneys general of the several states in restraining Captain Combover. The role of the states in our political system has never been as significant as it is now.
Fair point. Last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival I did a very interesting (to me) Q-and-A with Xavier Becerra, long-time U.S. Representative from Los Angeles who has recently become California’s attorney general, on exactly this point. When a transcript or recording is available, I’ll post a link.
What about the Germans? I noted yesterday the historical, ummm... haziness with which Donald Trump discussed 19th- and 20th-century events in Europe, after his visit to Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week. (For instance: Trump apparently thought that Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Europe who died in 1821, was the same Napoleon who oversaw the grand-boulevards redesign of Paris 50 years later. Like Frederick Douglass, you really couldn’t keep that Napoleon down.)
A reader who is originally from Europe and now works for a famous U.S. high-tech company, says Trump’s description was a little worse than I let on:
I just read your article about Trump’s NYT interview and was surprised (yes, really) about what he said about Napoleon and Hitler. Since I'm interested in WWII in general and the Soviet-German conflict in particular, I tried to parse this part, to no avail:
Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.
I guess this reflects a view many people hold—that the Germans went into war and froze to death because of lack of winter clothing—but it’s way too simplistic and doesn’t describe what really went on.
The Moscow campaign started in October when the going was still good for the Germans. They had been slowed down by the Russians but still had a chance. However, due to strong reinforcements from Siberia and very harsh punishments for deserters, the Soviets managed to stay in Moscow and even carry out a counter-attack. The latter was stalled after a while and the Germans held the ground over the winter through better tactics.
There were German deaths from cold in Stalingrad, but the city had been surrounded and there would have been deaths anyway. In fact, most of the “consolidations” (I would assume this means holding ground and strengthening defenses) of the German army actually improved their situation in the short run and hence prolonged the war.
The bottom line is, his description of what went on in WWII isn’t really any better than his account of Napoleon. Like I said to a friend, I used to be more focused on Chinese politics than American, but with Trump that has changed—it’s hard to focus completely on other parts of the world when this administration is in charge. That’s too bad.
Last week, Jim Fallows, who covered the fallout from the Watergate scandal 45 years ago, wrote about five reasons why President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may pose an even greater challenge to the American system. In response, Stephen W.—a reader who was then a “young, idealistic college grad” working in Massachusetts politics—shared his own memory of the Saturday Night Massacre:
On the Saturday evening of October 20, 1973, I received a phone call from a mentor, Tom O’Donnell, a partner at Archibald Cox’s Boston law firm. I had heard the news earlier in the day: the firing of Cox, and the resignations of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. Tom asked me if I could perform a favor. AG Richardson was about to land at Logan Airport and needed a ride to his home in Cohasset.
As I pulled up to the terminal curbside, I saw the tall, horn-rim–spectacled figure standing alone in the faint light. I greeted him softly, “Welcome home, sir,” and took his buckled valise from his hand to place it in the trunk. As we made our way down the Southeast Expressway toward the south-shore enclaves of Yankee Brahmins, the night seemed particularly dark and gloomy. Very few people were out and about. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of the moment.
I feel the same weight today as I watch the Trump family tragedy play out. But I also remember the quiet countenance of Mr. Richardson. It was a profile of a patriot, putting country before party or self-interest. His expression was calm and deeply reflective as he sat in the front seat next to me, without a hint of anger or upset. There were no words of any import exchanged between us. It didn’t seem appropriate to intrude on his thoughts.
We exchanged a simple “thank you and good night,” as I passed his only bag back to him. As I pulled out of the long driveway of the dark and secluded home, the encounter left me with a deep impression of the significance of integrity and reputation in the course of all human affairs.
Your article triggers my memory—a very personal memory of the import of our solemn duties and responsibilities exercised for the preservation and protection of those exceptional ideals of democracy, against those who would suborn the rule of law.
Dozens of other readers wrote in to share their thoughts about those duties and responsibilities, as exercised by government officials and private citizens in Nixon’s era and ours. Fallows passed the emails on to me, and I’ve collected a number of them here. From Dan Kimmel:
Excellent article, but, like many, it glosses over the role of Robert Bork in the Saturday Night Massacre. I was no fan of Bork and was glad he never made it to the Supreme Court, but when he became acting head of the Justice Department, he told Richardson and Ruckelshaus he would fire Cox because he believed that the president had the authority to so order, but then he would resign in protest as well. Richardson and Ruckelshaus prevailed on him NOT to resign because there was serious doubt as who, if anyone, was legitimately next in line at the Justice Department. It fits the later narrative of the right-wing Bork to depict him as a willing Nixon stooge, but that was not the case.
According to The New York Times’s 1987 account of those events, Bork apparently considered the firing of Cox to be a question of legal authority, whereas Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned because of moral, not legal, concerns. But as another reader, Randy, points out, acting on principle can also be good politics:
As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest an article about what happens to politicians that bite the bullet and do what’s right for the country, not their party. Howard Baker and others, for example, became heroes. Did any of the Republicans that turned on Nixon lose?
I think it’s very clear that Rod Rosenstein is now an important figure in history. If he stays silent and things go south for Trump, he’s a co-conspirator, possibly, but if he does the right thing, he could become famous. It’s not too late. He could simply appoint a special prosecutor, resign, get rich in the private sector.
I think the personal loyalty oath [that Trump reportedly asked of Comey] is a huge deal. If that’s true, how can any FBI director pursue the Russian case?
Bill Popik likewise fears conflicting loyalties within the administration:
Early on in Trump’s administration (imagine—it’s actually still early, but it seems like an eternity ago) I thought that what might save us were the career bureaucrats three or four levels down in the government who would simply figure out ways to drag their feet to ensure that the most onerous dictates of this administration didn’t come to fruition. Now, I’m not so sure. We are seeing that Trump insists on loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to him and his causes above all else, and that he’ll enforce that through the appointment of loyalists who will drive fealty down through the agencies they lead.
Jay, on the other hand, is “unconcerned at this time”:
I think Fallows exaggerates Trump’s failings and Comey’s probity. We have too soon forgotten the evils of J. Edgar Hoover, a too-independent and too-powerful FBI chief. Comey was going Hoover on us with his dissing of Lynch and Trump. If he “lost confidence” in Lynch, imagine what little respect he would give to Sessions. It seemed clear to me, and I thought everyone else, that Comey’s days were numbered, and Trump only waited until he had an attorney general confirmed to can Comey.
Anyway, Clinton, Inc. and the Democratic Party present an immediate and serious threat to my rights and liberties under the 1st and 2nd Amendments. They also present the same danger to some freedoms I enjoy but that are not protected by the Constitution, such as sport hunting. It is for that reason I have a high tolerance for Trump’s shenanigans.
Jack was alive to remember Watergate, but writes, “I just do not think it has come to that—yet”:
Trump is many things, but not evil. Just a stumbling guy who stumbled upon a huge part of America that hated the Republican and Democratic/Academic/Media/Entertainment class that heretofore has controlled our political discourse and political system. He spoke to their concerns. That part of America elected him. You really should get used to it.
Stephen B. voted for Gary Johnson, but he’s also skeptical that the Watergate-Comey comparison may be overblown by partisanship:
We have been in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom since Watergate. A good percentage of Americans are simply playing a team sport. And like football, the brain damage is starting to accumulate to our society.
Whether you agree with the Watergate comparison or not, the reaction to the dismissal of Comey highlights the extent to which many Americans have lost trust—in government, in the media, or in their fellow citizens. And those accumulated losses could pose a very real threat. As Michael writes:
I just wanted to quibble with one statement made in the post:
At worst, such efforts [at interference by the Russian government] might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy.
I would argue that this is exactly backwards: The results of an election are a one-time thing, for the most part. (Brexit is an exception.) But I believe the Russian endgame is more about the latter than the former; I think it’s well documented that their MO is to sow confusion and uncertainty—even to the point of supporting both sides of a conflict—simply to render an opponent unable to act effectively.
In short, getting Trump elected was a nice-to-have; the real point was to weaken faith in democracy as an institution. This is the potential lasting damage.
David Frum is worried it will happen under President Trump. “The fancy term is authoritarian kleptocracy,” Frum says in a long and enriching talk with Atlantic editor Scott Stossel last Thursday about the dangers of the Trump administration (starting at the 10:22 mark):
The SoundCloud audio version is here. And if you haven’t yet read David’s cover story on Trump, or want to read it again in light of this discussion, here’s the link. If you prefer to listen to it on the go or while doing chores around the house, here’s the audio version:
This reader really liked the piece:
I’d just add a philosophical aspect, which is that if Obama was our first black president, then Trump is our first postmodern president. In postmodernity all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.
This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.
With the news landscape so fragmented, it’s really hard to solve this problem. I can ignore the traditional gate keepers like NYT and WaPo, and I can confirm all my biases on platforms such as Breitbart or DailyKos. Can we overcome that fragmentation? I think so.
Ultimately I believe it comes down to the need to return to hard-nosed investigative journalism, and putting out fewer opinion pieces. So, say Trump goes forward with his tariffs on Mexico. Well it may help the Rust Belt workers, but it will be detrimental to workers in border towns. So you’d want a reporter talking to people and businesses affected. It’s kind of hard to ignore these stories vs. opinion pieces.
In general, to overcome the cultural malaise that led to Trump, we’re going to need more dialogue across communities. The goal is to build a common “meta-narrative” that post-modernity tears down. We need grassroots activity and the revival of social institutions (churches/mosques/synagogues, mutual aid societies, neighborhood councils, etc.). So it just comes down to countering balkanization in media, culture, and politics.
This next reader has a very different view:
“The American free press” consists of some of the largest businesses in the world, huge corporations worth billions of dollars, the unregulated “fifth estate” in America. They are more powerful than politicians or representatives, free to say anything under the guise of “freedom of the press.”
They are no longer really “the press”; they represent the interests of the owners who, through their exposure to many millions of people, have power even beyond that of the president or elected representatives.
Let’s get real. The idea of what is happening in the world is what is presented to you by the media. You see “reality” through their lens. What they say seems to be the same as fact. They really control what you think! The Washington Post endlessly disses Trump, gives his critics more coverage mix fact with opinion, and distort facts. They are manipulating you.
Not so fast, replies this reader:
Or alternately, you could simply apply rational thought to what you read and draw rational conclusions based on the quality of evidence provided, the number of peer sources co-validating it, and the logic of the arguments presented. Or just buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that everything is a lie.
Another reader piles on:
Newspapers like The Washington Post provide sources; Trump never does, unless it’s his own gold-plated observation—like the phantom thousands of people in New Jersey whom he saw cheer on 9/11. The major newspapers also apologize and issue corrections when they make an error; Trump will do the same only when Mar-a-Lago freezes over. And lastly, Trump provides us all with seemingly never-ending examples of distortion, insults, and unethical sexual behavior. Trump is manipulating his penurious lemmings and then spits nails after the majority of the American people resist him.
Update from a reader who suggests that part of the problem is that online media is too democratized:
Very interesting article by Frum and the follow-up posts by readers. I want to add that the rise of Twitter is a major factor in this. It allows people (like Trump) to reach his target audience, unchecked. Any nuance or fact checking or hard questions cannot be condensed into 140 or whatever the Twitter character limit is.
It also promotes people like Milo Yiannopoulos who have nothing valuable to contribute but instead are ready to throw verbal molotov cocktails and watch the world burn. There is no accountability, therefore no need to be truthful.
Let me also pose this question: Why are all of us equipped to comment on news and what’s happening in the world? We don’t let all of us build rockets or do neurosurgery. So why does that standard of having sense, education, training, and aptitude apply to being a journalist? Having a blog—or worse, a collection of loony opinions like Breitbart—is not journalism.
Governor Jerry Brown of California got Twitter-verse attention for saying two days ago that if Donald Trump shuts down satellite collection of climate data, “California will launch its own damn satellites.”
I’ve now seen the short speech from which that line was taken, thanks to a tip from reader CS. It’s remarkable enough to be worth your time. It’s a genuine fighting speech, with a tone that is resolute but positive, rather than resentful or doomed. It’s a rousing call-to-battle against the environmental backwardness and larger disdain for fact of the coming era, from a person who as he nears age 80 has struck a distinctive Happy Warrior tone of resistance. Happy, in its confidence. Warrior, in its resoluteness.
The 13-minute clip of an obviously extemporized speech is below, followed by a viewer’s-guide annotation:
Points to note:
Brown is speaking to the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco two days ago. As reader CS says, this is “probably the largest single yearly gathering of geophysics related scientists in the world; close to 25,000 people attended it this year.” Brown’s remarks begin at around time 2:00, and you’ll see that he swings right from the introductory applause into a call for renewed energy on behalf of fact-based policies, science, truth.
From about time 3:30 to 3:50, the sound on the video fades away. Just wait it out.
From 4:30 to 5:15, Brown begins one of his “we’re ready to fight” riffs. The speech as a whole is unpolished, but among its charms is Brown’s ability to seem self-aware and even self-mocking. An example is in this passage: First he says that Big Tobacco was brought down by a combination of scientists and lawyers. Then, “And in California, we’ve got plenty of lawyers! … We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight!”
At 5:30, he introduces the “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Brown? You’re not a country” argument, about the way California has used its technical advances and sheer scale to set national and even international environmental standards. “We have a lot of firepower! We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs. We have a lot of political clout and sophistication for the battle. And we will persevere!”
From 7:00 to 7:15, the defiantly confident declaration: “We’ll set the stage. We’ll set the example. And whatever Washington thinks they’re doing, California is the future!”
At time 8:00, Brown makes an offhand reference to “Breitbart, and the other clowns.” In the following minute and onward in the speech, he increasingly stresses the need for reality, fact, “honest science,” truth.
My favorite part of the talk starts at 8:30, when Brown embraces a role that long ago he seemed to resist: that of a consummate politician, who knows both the nobility and the squalor of his business as intimately as anyone still performing on the national stage. This was the theme that fascinated me when I was writing my profile of Brown for the magazine three years ago. During Brown’s first incarnation as California’s governor, when in his 30s he seemed to resist the craft of politics into which he had been born. During his second stint, when in his 70s he is the oldest person ever to be California’s governor, he has fully embraced the importance and the value of political skill. You get a distilled version of how he feels about politics in this brief passage, through time 9:20.
Starting at 10:00, the “our own damn satellites” riff. It also has a great “Governor Moonbeam” cameo.
At 10:50, a similarly defiant stance about how Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and the rest of California’s science establishment will stand proudly against a fake-science, no-truth trend. If you’ve watched this far, stay through the “we can take a few data bases more” punchline.
Time 11:55, “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future. And you [the climate scientists in the AGU crowd] are the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”
Time 13:00, a nice in-your-face challenge to Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas had urged California companies to move to his lower-tax state. It ends with, “Rick, we’ve got more sun than you have oil, and we’re going to use it!”
Brown’s talk ends by time 15:45, following a “scientists of the world, unite!” pitch. I think that nearly every part of it is novel enough, in the current political world, to deserve a look.
This is one of the first speeches of the Resistance era that actually makes me feel better.
White nationalism, no. But I could go for some Brown nationalism of this sort.
Starting soon, I will be spending an extended multi-month period back in the California that Jerry Brown is describing, and away both from the Washington D.C. that will receive Donald Trump and from the overall world of online discourse. Details on that in a few days. Meanwhile, watch this speech! And check out my Brown profile, which I think does set up the performance you see here.
I have a soft spot for Rick Perry, finding his aw-shucks demeanor more natural-seeming than most politicians’. I can even remember the time, in the summer and fall of 2011, when Perry seemed the strongest Republican challenger to Barack Obama for the 2012 race. The reasoning back then: like George W. Bush before him, Perry was an affable-seeming, popular incumbent governor of an important state. Also like Bush, he was unusual among Republicans in maintaining broad Latino support without alienating immigration-hardliners in his own party.
Then came the Republican-primary debate of November 9, 2011, when Perry had his extended “Ooops!” brain-freeze. If you’ve forgotten the episode, Perry had promised to eliminate three whole federal cabinet departments. But when he tried to name them, he got through two (the Departments of Commerce and Education) but couldn’t come up with the third, not even after checking his notes and thinking about it.
If you haven’t gone back to see this moment in a while, it’s worth another look, in the clip below. Perry actually takes his on-stage embarrassment with good humor. Still, it is as agonizing a 60-second stretch as you’re likely ever to see in a live debate. And, as I remarked during the Time Capsule series, it was the sort of gaffe that back in the pre-Trump age could de-rail an otherwise promising candidacy, as it appeared to do to Perry’s.
Again, I find Perry more appealing as a person than some of the other characters now coming onto the national stage. But it is somehow an appropriate metaphor of our era that, if he is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:
2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.
Because many people don’t know this, it’s worth pointing out that the Energy Department officially runs most nuclear-energy and nuclear-weaponry programs for the United States, plus 17 of the famous advanced-research National Labs — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley, Fermi, and so on. That’s why the background in physics that Chu and Moniz shared was so relevant. Moniz also played a leading technical and diplomatic role in the Iran-nuclear deal.
Academic or research excellence doesn’t automatically translate into administrative success. The metaphor-for-a-moment point is simply that, if Perry becomes secretary, we’ll go from two leaders whose life work was part of the mission of the agency, to someone who couldn’t remember its existence.
I’m curious: Why is no one I’ve seen in the press calling these interviews what they are: summonses to come worship Trump on his throne. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry [Update: picked for Energy], Carly Fiorina ... these are all people who spoke ill of Trump, who refused to endorse him or failed to do so in a timely manner. These job interviews are nothing more than the politics of personal humiliation. President-elect Trump is basking in their subjugation and eager to watch them fawn and slobber over his ego in the hopes of reaping a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that they’ll never actually get. This is the act of a petty man, a child holding court on a playground.
In contrast, what did Obama do after barely beating Hillary Clinton in a long and bitter primary battle in 2008? He made her secretary of state, of course—fourth in line for the presidency. Romney didn’t fare as well in his bid for Foggy Bottom:
A photo posted by Shithead Steve ™ (@shitheadsteve) on
Another reader, Dave, fears Obama might be next:
I’m sure you read the “dominatrix” Daily Beast article this weekend. I think the writer is spot on regarding Trump’s character and the basis of his recent actions—parading ex-competitors in to kiss the ring only to be humiliated by being passed over.
I feel sure that Trump is salivating, waiting for his chance to do the same to Obama—and it will take place on January 22nd or thereabouts, as he personally trashes as much as possible his predecessor’s actions, leaving the follow-on to his truly weird and scary cabinet. Anything Obama does now will only appear to be groveling in hindsight. Trump’s current statements on Obama sound like his statements about Romney after dinner with him. Trump’s revenge on Barack will be far more public and more vicious. Like the scorpion vis-à-vis the frog, it is his nature. Unfortunately, we are the victims as well (not just of Trump, reading the latest R proposal on Medicare).
It is what it is. The most important thing Obama has done is to initiate the report on the investigation into the Russian campaign activity. Trump will not touch this, and it is essential that this info is on the record ASAP (hopefully as much made public as possible before the inauguration).
I suspect there is more background on the Russians that will eventually come out. I also cannot believe that given Trump’s past (and present) there will not be more incendiary facts to emerge. Will any of it stick? Who knows. But I do think there is a significant portion of the Republican Congress/backers/etc. that would much prefer a President Pence. He is predictable and manageable from the perspective of the party. If there is any glimmer of hope to Trump not lasting four years, his Waterloo may come from his own house. One can only hope ...
Here’s a big portion of the Trump/Fiorina face-off during the primaries:
Any of the people who ran against him, who are stupid enough to believe that he can be held to his word (in this case, the promise that they will gain appointments if they prostrate themselves before him and apologize), deserves all the humiliation that he lays upon them.
Here’s a despairing email from a “U.S. Marine who has done multiple tours both in Iraq and Afghanistan since I joined the service in 2006, and I have never been more concerned for my country”:
Fallows recently asked whether Donald Trump was a flagrant liar or can he not tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. The scary answer is he doesn’t care what’s true or not, and more importantly, the only thing that matters is himself and how he feels. This is terrifying, because we now have an emotionally unstable man as president who constantly needs attention and is willing to say or do anything to get the attention he feels he deserves.
The United States has fallen into a state of utter political nihilism, where there is no limit to what one party can say or do in order to achieve and maintain power. Worse, there is no meaning other than political theater behind it. The consequences of this political nihilism will be catastrophic and will reverberate down through the decades of the 21st century. If you doubt this, think of climate change, the global economy, and U.S foreign policy concerning NATO and other strategic alliances. Be afraid, be very afraid!
Another reader absorbs the latest:
After reading the latest cycle on the CIA report reaction [“Former Acting CIA Director Calls Russian Interference In Election ‘The Political Equivalent Of 9/11’”], I just finally understood a grim truth: President-elect Trump’s fear that any hint about election manipulation decreasing his sense of grandeur is greater than his concern about the role and process of elections in general. I say grandeur because he won the election, so his grasp is not tenuous; he is defending prestige alone, and that his pride could outweigh his concern for the engine of democracy is a grim truth indeed.
This next reader draws an analogy to, well, a Grimm tale:
Trump has no loyalties. He only wants to be POTUS because he can’t get any richer and see it mean anything. He can’t get any more famous. What else is there? He’s like the wife in “The Fisherman and His Wife.” In the end, she wanted to be God.
Another long-time reader, John, comments on Fallows’s latest note—which points out the plain reality that Trump’s victory was not the historic landslide he keeps claiming it to be:
I’m willing to bet that Trump knows his Electoral College margin was tiny. I’m willing to bet that he knows that there weren’t three million illegitimate voters. I’m willing to bet that he knows Russia was trying to help him. He’s not concerned with facts or evidence; he’s focused on framing the story for his followers. Fact-checking, shmact-checking—that’s something the MSM does and elites care about. Trump is tweeting bald-faced lies to give his followers cover, to give them something they can believe that won’t reduce their faith in him.
Trump and his people play by the reality TV rules. All that’s required is a plausible facade, while we expect adherence to actual facts. How pathetic are we? All that Trump’s followers want is a powerful fiction, something they can sink their teeth into, something with which to taunt us college-educated Atlantic readers. “Oh, you went to college, and you read all those books and took all those science classes, and you got A’s on your report cards? Big whoop, because now all that stuff you learned is meaningless! Facts don’t matter. Our man Donald makes it all up as he goes along, and we love him for it.” They love that we get so frustrated by Trump’s dissembling. The bigger the lie, the more they love The Donald.
Another reader, Jay, also tackles the “landslide” canard—but from the perspective of the popular vote:
Two points occurred to me this week that have not been raised anywhere in media that I have seen:
1. There are many discussion of the popular vote. Clinton’s lead over Trump is now 2.7 million votes. And it is often described this way [by New York’s Jonathan Chait]: “As votes continue to be tabulated in the days since the presidential election, Donald Trump’s deficit continues to grow (now at 2.7 million votes, or 2 percent of the total), while the imagined scale of his triumph continues to swell.”
But no one has pointed out that 7.6 million people voted for third parties. So the number of people who did not vote for Trump is now 73.1 million, compared to the 62.8 million who voted for him. So really, Trump lost the popular vote by 10.3 million. The vote was 54 percent against Trump to 46 percent for. I think it is worth pointing that out. It is also a better description of the potential size of the opposition to his policies.
2. I am a business attorney and work with a lot of small- to medium-sized family-owned businesses. Here’s a thing that most people may not appreciate: There is no job more like the king of a kingdom in modern society than the CEO of a family-owned business. These businesses often operate without boards of directors. The CEO is often the only shareholder or the majority shareholder. Everyone in the company works for him. These CEOs live in a bubble in which everyone they see does their bidding 24/7/365. Companies have no constitution. There are no internal rules, except those the company wrote for itself. The CEO can change anything any time. “You’re fired” is certainly important, but only the tip of the iceberg. A CEO can make any plan, start any project, buy any property, simply by deciding to do it all by themselves.
When the press describes Trump as authoritarian, they are correct, but he didn’t learn it from dictators. He learned it from his day-to-day work environment, where he had essentially unlimited power over a billion-dollar organization.
The best, fun, family-owned businesses try hard to install some character and moral sense into the heirs that might take over. Many require family members to work outside the company for at least five years, before they let them come to work in the family business. Often those family members do well, are successful on their own, and never come back. But those that do have at least learned how to behave in a outside work environment, where their supervisors have the power to give them instructions, and they have to perform. Trump never had any experience like that, as far as I know. I have certainly seen CEOs in this situations who lack moral character, and the result is not pretty. There is no check on their behavior at all. Typically, the spouse and children who are the only ones who might speak up without getting fired, are too afraid to do it. So the CEO rules like Sun-King in their own little kingdom.
My guess is that Trump thinks that being President will be just like his day job. He can give orders and things will get done. I think he will be surprised by the notion that he is limited by the Constitution, Congress, and the courts. “I alone can fix it” is just a reflection of how his world works in the Trump Organization. He has been the only person who gets to make any decisions for more than 30 years. That can certainly warp your sense of self. Mr. Trump’s appears to be the worse for the experience.
One word that I seem to be missing in the stories about the Russians hacking both the DNC and the RNC is “blackmail.” If they have incriminating info from the RNC hack, who did they approach to let them know that this information could be released? They clearly could have incriminating documents and emails that the Republicans do not want to get out, and the Republicans seem to have taken great care to prevent the evidence of Russian hacking to be made public. So what do the Russians know and who is most afraid of what they know?
Speaking of Russian intrigue, Fallows forwarded me the following email from a Canadian former aid worker, calling it “long but interesting”—and it’s hard to disagree:
Since Friday’s reporting on the CIA’s findings of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, I’ve been reflecting with a deep sense of foreboding on what this means for future relationships between Russia and the West. So much will hinge upon how the narrative develops, and that provides no comfort at all.
Bear with me?
For several years from 1994 onwards, I was a humanitarian aid worker, researcher, and writer working in and around several of the nastier wars in post-Soviet space—Chechnya, Georgia/Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia/S. Ossetia/Georgia and a few other lesser-known hotspots. For those of us in the international humanitarian community of UN agencies, Red Cross Movement and INGOs, post-Soviet space was uncharted territory fraught with new and lethal difficulties. My job at the time was mostly trying to look at what was working and what wasn’t, and to figure out from that how best to safeguard or expand the space available to humanitarian agencies to assist and protect civilians in these wars, all of which were being fought without humanitarian pretensions. Aid workers were getting killed and kidnapped there like nowhere else before, so of course there was a strong element of self-preservation in trying to figure things out, a precursor to acting on our humanitarian impulse and mandates.
Looking back, my Western upbringing left me poorly equipped for figuring out the “why” of things to the extent needed for getting things done in that spectacularly shitty and opaque environment. My encounters with American diplomats (and, to a lesser extent, European ones) left me convinced that they tended to be even less well-equipped than I was, often arriving on the scene with deep-seated assumptions about Russia and Russians that almost always made bad problems worse and solutions more elusive. (An important aside here: One exception that stood out was Brady Kiesling, a thoughtful young American diplomat with whom I had many positive and enlightening encounters in the Caucasus. Kiesling, as you might remember, would later leave the U.S. Foreign Service over objections to the Iraq war).
With hindsight, I was slow to discover how important it was to my task at hand to try to see things through Russian / post-Soviet eyes. I got nowhere in understanding Russian political and military behaviour as it was being played out in my stomping ground until I delved into Russian history—particularly the pre-Soviet, Stalin, and WWII-eras. This proved essential not because I was soft-headed, inclined to be lenient, or at all interested in justifying despicable Russian political machinations and atrocious Russian behaviour on the battlefield. Rather, it was simply necessary for the purely pragmatic purposes of figuring out how to prevent stupid things from happening, how to work better at solving, and preventing the problems that were otherwise proving so intractable and deadly.
To get to my point: Leaving aside the huge wildcard that is Donald Trump and his appointees, in the coming days, weeks, and months the U.S. in particular, and perhaps the West in general, may well be forging a new relationship with Russia informed by the recent revelations of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. We’ll be swamped with media attempts to get to the bottom of that meddling. I expect that much Bengazi-esque attention will be focused on demonstrating how Obama failed to protect the U.S. from such an existential threat.
I hope, in the reporting that goes beyond Obama’s role, that some serious effort is made at the earliest stage to parse the origins and motivations for the Russian interference, and that it goes well beyond “Putin = BAD,” or reductions to an ascendant Russian nationalism, or to an increasing Russian bellicosity—all of which are valid but grossly incomplete explanations of this other, different kind and scale of spectacularly shitty and opaque environment.
My take on this story is that for it to be told with any accuracy, one needs to delve deep into some of the nuances that underlie such a hostile act, some of which I’ll try to enumerate here:
the reasons for Russia’s profound sense of its perceived abandonment by the U.S. in WWII, with near-catastrophic results;
the ensuing animosity toward the West that persisted and grew through the Cold War;
the Russian sense of deep humiliation in the post-Soviet era as its entire economic system and its political and military might unravelled;
the arguably aggressive, at-best opportunistic stance of NATO in the post-Soviet era—wargaming conflict with an ascendant Russia long before it started to re-ascend, actively recruiting new NATO members and hangers-on in Russia’s backyard, and;
Russian perceptions of the aggregate of Western efforts in the post-Soviet era to promote “democratization” in Russia and its neighbours (by that veritable phalanx of organisations like NDI, IRI, USIP, Open Society Institute, USAID, and a host of others);
the imposition of sanctions on Russian elites and how these fed into Russia’s already pervasive and isolating “us against the world” mindset.
So much grist in all of this for Putin’s nationalist mill, but it goes so much further than just that. But just to reiterate: My intent isn’t to argue for leniency toward Russia or to diminish its actions in any way, but to underscore the need to take Russian perceptions into account when formulating policy directions in the difficult period to come.
The Senate will investigate claims that Russia interfered in the election on behalf of Donald Trump—whether the president-elect likes it or not. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday gave his backing to bipartisan inquiries after the CIA reportedly concluded that not only did Russia meddle in the campaign, it did so with the goal of elevating Trump over Hillary Clinton. ... On Monday, McConnell broke sharply with Trump on the Russia question and in his confidence in the CIA’s credibility. “The Russians are not our friends,” he told reporters at the Capitol…
After Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, respected left-leaning national publications such as The Nation, and an op-ed writer at The Los Angeles Times, described the event as an “electoral college landslide.” Obama’s Electoral College count was 332-206, which wasn’t substantially better than Donald Trump’s at 306-232. And Obama won the popular vote by a margin of less than 4 percent—but still, there were those on the Left who described it as a type of “landslide.” But The Nation went so far as to declare that since Obama won a majority of states, he had a mandate. (Trump won 33.)
So I think the Trump campaign’s desire to call this one a “landslide” is understandable. It doesn’t rise precisely to the level of Obama’s 2012 victory, but it’s fairly close. And a reasonable argument may be made that psychologically and politically, it had the same effect as a landslide.
The Democrats also blew a golden opportunity to take control of the Senate, and 2018 doesn’t look good either, with the Democrats defending 25 out of 33 seats—many of them in Red States that voted for Trump by a comfortable margin. They lost roughly 900 seats at the state legislative level, and they’re down to 11 governors.
The Supreme Court replacement for Antonin Scalia, and most likely replacements for Ginsburg and Breyer as well, will come from Trump’s Heritage Foundation candidate list. At the Cabinet level, Trump is picking a Who’s Who from the Republican anti-Obama brigade, including three generals who told Obama that withdrawing from Iraq so precipitously was a bad idea, and found their military careers abruptly at an end.
“Elections have consequences,” said Obama, and this one was very consequential at all levels and in all three branches of government. The comprehensive and lasting nature of this defeat is gradually being realized by the Left, and it’s causing a great deal of depression and despair. (The Atlantic just posted a story about “a cure for post-election malaise.”)
So although this may not have been a genuine landslide according to the strictest of terms, I suggest it has had the same effect.
Circling back to the nihilism theme, here’s one more reader note (also forwarded by Fallows), this time commenting on Trump’s call to Taiwan and his general contempt for political norms—which eventually leads to “anarchy and nihilism,” according to our reader:
I’m watching, with continued horror, the responses you are getting to your tweets on the Taiwan phone call. I’m horrified at the utter ignorance of key people regarding the dangers of failing to observe norms in international relations. So this is a supplement to my earlier emails to you about the importance of normativity domestically.
To review, there is no concrete, structural, real-world, tangible thing holding our society together. It is a shared consensus on the (slippery) meaning of words, and on the processes by which our institutions operate. Reality check: If humans were instantaneously to disappear from the face of the planet, what would the Constitution really be? A piece of paper with black squiggles on it, functionally indistinguishable from toilet paper. That is the extent of the solid, reliable fundament on which everything inside our borders rests. Everything else is normative, a shared consensus of meaning and consequence.
This is why the “there are no facts” meme that you have been highlighting is so important. If there are no facts, if there is no observable truth to which we strive to adhere, then there is nothing. We have reached anarchy and nihilism, and whoever has the biggest muscle and the biggest gun prevails: the absolute state of nature. We start all over again.
And everything that keeps our lives stable and predictable absolutely depends on observing those norms. The things which feel solid and concrete that we expect when we wake up in the morning—from coffee, to warmth, to having a job, to having a retirement account on which to depend—all of it is absolutely dependent on the observance of those norms. We take the fragility of our lives and of our society much, much, much too much for granted. And the stability which we have come to expect—indeed, to believe is solid—is as fragile as a sandcastle approaching high tide when the norms are disturbed.
And the fragility of domestic norms are ironclad compared to the norms that have developed over the centuries internationally. Communication between countries and foreign cultures is based upon far more fragile, and even less definable norms. There is no constitution, no law books, no Supreme Court, not even a shared language. This is what makes the foreign service establishment SOOO essential, and SOOO important to be cultivated and treasured and respected. Something as (domestically) innocuous as a congratulatory phone call can, internationally, be the basis for withdrawing formal consular recognition. In international diplomatic parlance, the mere placement of an eyelash can have profound meaning and devastating consequences. And the normative fragility internationally can have tremendous, lasting, destabilizing consequences.
I reiterate that we take our stability for granted. We fly from coast to coast. We fly internationally. But look at what happened when stability was shattered in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria. At least with the murderous dictators in power in those countries, the consequences were contained. When we shattered the stability by our interventions, the puss has poured all over the world, and it has destabilized cultures to the point that we have Trump.
Yes. I tie the rise of Donald Trump directly to GWB’s intervention in Iraq. (Yes, we are the strongest power in the world. But we are not omnipotent. Our strength is in our willingness to exercise self-restraint. We were the strongest power in history of the world on the day before the invasion of Iraq occurred. Once we invaded, our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities became blazingly obvious.)
As a species, we have built an elaborate structure of norms to protect us from the absolute state of nature. The absolute state of nature is the only concrete thing which can, with absolute assurance, stop the fall from the dissolution of norms.
In the last election I have heard many, many seemingly intelligent people say that they voted for Trump because everything is corrupt, and they just wanted to blow things up. I think these people fail realistically to account for how little in their lives they can truly count on. International stability and predictability and normativity rest on a hair’s breadth. And the degree to which Trump’s ignorant shenanigans can permanently disrupt international stability (not to mention domestic stability) and the normative structures that maintain what stability there is, is deeply, deeply unappreciated in the response to the Taiwan affair, and, indeed, to the election of Trump.
This is a justification, if not for panic, then for deep, deep, deep concern, and extraordinary intervention.
As I mentioned in this post in late November, and in this followup, and also in a discussion with Diane Rehm on her new podcast series yesterday, Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments. The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says. If he believes what he’s saying, at least in that moment, why shouldn’t we?
For the record, the latest entry of this sort is the repeated insistence by Trump and his associates that he won a “landslide” or “major” victory. For instance, this was his transition team’s response to reports of Russian attempts to swing the election in his favor:
Translation: “A long time ago” is actually one month, and “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” is actually one of the least impressive. Here are the facts:
In terms of his Electoral College margin, which will probably end up at 306 to 232, Trump will rank #46among the 58 presidential elections that have been held, or just above the bottom 20%.
In terms of his popular vote margin, Trump will probably end up with the third-worstpopular vote result ever, or if you prefer 56th ranked of the 58 winning candidates in history. (Obviously the 58 elections have produced 45 presidents, some of them winning two terms and FDR winning four.) This ranking is based on Trump’s losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a little more than 2 percent, or a little less than 3 million votes. John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote by 10 percent in 1824 to Andrew Jackson, and also came in second in the electoral vote—but became president when the race went to the House, since none of the four candidates had an Electoral College majority. He is #58 out of 58, in terms of popular-vote mandate for winners. Rutherford B. Hayes, who won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by 3 percent to Samuel Tilden in 1876, is #57. Donald Trump, losing by 2 percent, is #56. Every president except J.Q. Adams and Hayes came to office with a stronger popular-vote mandate than Trump.
None of this changes the fact that Trump ended up ahead in this year’s electoral vote. But the next time you hear Trump, his campaign managers, his transition team, or anyone else call this a “landslide” or “one of the biggest victories ever,” remember the numbers. This is 46th out of 58 in electoral college terms, and 56th out of 58 in the popular vote.
Here is the embed for my discussion yesterday with Diane Rehm:
Update: Some site somewhere must have published an alert saying, More media lies! Nixon was never impeached! At least that is what incoming mail would indicate.
Here’s the full story: As news of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up emerged in 1972 and 1973, impeachment efforts against Nixon gained steam. I remember this clearly because the first-ever articles I did for national magazines were during this time: a story on several members of the House Judiciary Committee for Rolling Stone, and a profile of Nixon’s staunchest defender on the committee, Rep. Charles Wiggins of southern California, for Esquire. (Nixon knew he was doomed when Wiggins turned against him, after release of some of the White House tapes.)
The impeachment process for Nixon was well and fully underway. After extensive televised hearings in the spring and summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three items of impeachment against Nixon (and rejected two others). Events were moving fast; the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon would have to release his long-secret White House tapes; Republican leaders of the House and Senate made clear to Nixon that, in light of the tapes, the full House was going to approve the articles of impeachment against him, and the Senate would vote to convict him and remove him from office. Rather than face votes he knew he would lose, Nixon resigned in August, 1974. You can read the Wikipedia version of the history here; I would add my Rolling Stone and Esquire pieces, but they don’t seem to be online.
So: Bill Clinton was officially impeached by the House in 1998—but the Senate did not even come close to the necessary two-thirds margin to convict him. Richard Nixon was in the process of being impeached in 1974 when he instead resigned before the process could be completed.
That’s the premise of The Choice 2016, Frontline’s superb documentary. The key portion:
With that in mind, here are three reader emails that Fallows forwarded me to post in his stead. (Accordingly I’ve changed them from second-person to third-person.) The first reader writes:
I’m a huge fan of Fallows, but I disagree with his latest note, pushing President Obama to denounce President-elect Trump. Fallows asked, “What the hell does [Obama] have to lose?” I think the answer is clear.
As many commentators have noted, Donald Trump’s principal principle is to listen to people who flatter him and reject people who offend him. Barack Obama, it seems clear, has decided that his best influence on the next four years is to stay on Donald’s good side—to convince him, as Obama apparently did in their Oval Office meeting, that Obamacare needs reform, not repeal; and perhaps to convince Trump to maintain other positive aspects of the Obama legacy.
Obama attacking Trump at this point will cause Trump to attack Obama and the policies of the Obama administration. It would feel good for liberals (including me!), but the real-world consequences could be terrible. All of the attacks on Trump from mainstream media and politicians did not keep him from the presidency. Now that Trump will be president, Obama is trying to maintain a relationship and thereby some sway in Trump’s decision-making.
So what does Obama have to lose? His policies, his legacy, and his chance at influencing the next president.
This next reader is on the same page:
I have to disagree with the notion that Obama should do more and be more visible right now.
I do agree with targeting a memorable farewell address, but otherwise, I don’t think any activity on his part will do any good now, and likely could do harm. We either survive the next four years reasonably intact, or we don’t, and I don’t think Obama can do anything about that now. Trump must be given the rope to hang himself and we must all hope he doesn’t take us all down with him.
To the extent that an in-power Obama fights against Trump, he provides ammunition to the narrative that the establishment is against Trump and won’t give him a chance. A year and a half from now, if he lays out the facts of various Trumptastrophies, Obama can be a more powerful voice towards bringing us back.
Again, I base this on the belief that Obama trying to thwart Trump now is at best pointless, and could well be counterproductive. Remember, baring death, impeachment, or resignation, Trump someday has to hand power over to someone else in a peaceful way. I’m not convinced that this is a given, and as such, having the opposition provide a stellar example might help.
We can still come out of this with Trump being the historically negative example we all expect him to be. To get the other less-than-half of the electorate to see it that way means he has to fail on his own. It is the silver lining behind a dark cloud of a Republican Congress. In two years, there will be an actual record, and there should be no-one to blame but Republicans for it.
Another reader adds some good points:
I could obviously be wrong, but I very much suspect the reason President Obama has been so low-key the past four weeks isn’t just because that’s his style. I think he’s aware of how Trump operates, and that if Obama comes out strongly for something, Trump will have no ability to do anything but come out against it. If Obama’s against something, well then, by gosh and by golly, Trump will just have to be for it.
But that’s publicly. I think Obama knows the best chance of his being able to influence Trump in any way is to stay low-key and speak to him sotto voce. And I’d be surprised if he’s not doing at least some of that now, and will be doing far, far more of it post-January. He taunted Trump way back at that Correspondents Dinner and look where it got us. Now he’s going to try to be The Trump Whisperer, in hopes of keeping the world from blowing up. (And my God I wish that were hyperbole.)
Again, I could be wrong. But I think Obama’s staying quiet, laying low now—despite how horrific this must all be to him, and despite how hard it must be, and how much he must want to speak out—because he loves his country that much, and wants that strongly to do the best he can for the world. It’s why he’s one of the great statesmen our country has ever had, and why I think someday he’s going to challenge Jimmy Carter for the title of Greatest Ex-President Ever.
Update from a dissenting reader, Dennis, via hello@:
A quick response to the first responder who counsels against aggravating Trump: This view displays the height of cowardice. Indeed it’s the sort of response that a bully desires. A whole point of bullying is to silence the opponent.
And let’s face it, Obama’s legacy is already screwed short term. Long term, who knows. I don’t believe there is an arc to history. I’ll leave it to future historians to comment. (And notice we have no control over future historians.)
In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.
This is not responsible behavior. This is not normal. This is not something the United States, or for that matter the world, can really withstand from a commander in chief. But this ungoverned, thin-skinned impetuosity is something the “responsible” GOP has decided, to its enduring shame, that it dare not criticize.
One other thing is true of Trump’s destructive outbursts. They come from a person who does not yet exercise any official power. The American-democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power includes the tenet that the United States has only one president at a time. And for the next 44-plus days, that president is Barack Obama.
As president, Obama has often been at his best in moments of national trauma, stress, or confidence-destroying emergency. I am thinking, for example, of one of his very greatest speeches: his “Amazing Grace” eulogy and exhortation after the gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina.
Our current exposure to Donald Trump is a moment that even experienced Republicans will say—carefully off the record—represents a confidence-destroying emergency. (How do I know this? Like most reporters, I have heard first-hand—but of course not from anyone willing to be quoted. This is the party of Lincoln.) A man whose temperament makes him manifestly unfit to command the vast military, surveillance, investigative, and enforcement powers of the U.S. government stands mere weeks away from assuming that command.
There is nothing Barack Obama can do about the transition scheduled for January 20. But in the meantime he is the president, and he needs to be present— and visible, and heard from. So far he has been deferential to a fault, letting the chaos emanating from Trump’s Android phone disrupt markets and alliances. His latest major press conference was on November 14, more than three weeks ago. (Trump, of course, has not held a press conference since the election, and none at all since July.)
Obama’s lowkey approach is no doubt an extension of his statesmanlike invitation to meet Trump just after the election, and their strained handshake at the White House. It’s in keeping with “no drama Obama.” He has never been known for seeking confrontations.
But if he thinks that America stands for values different from Trump’s daily outbursts, if he thinks the institutions of the country can survive the tantrums of the man scheduled to control them, if he thinks democratic norms and limits deserve defense, if he thinks the United States can find a steady path in the world despite a most unsteady leader—and we assume that Obama believes all these things, and may even have thoughts about the path forward—then let’s start hearing from him. Why not another press conference tomorrow? And then one a week after that. And then maybe we’ll all take a week off for Christmas and Hanukkah—but other presidents have given post-holiday greetings, and he could too. And remember hearing about Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest speech, his farewell address, three days before John Kennedy was sworn in? As his next rhetorical target, Obama could set for himself the goal of topping that to give the most-influential ever farewell address.
Everything Barack Obama has stood for, Donald Trump—not yet in office—is doing his best to discredit. For the next 44 days, Obama will still be the most powerful person on Earth, so he might as well sound that way. Remind us of what the country is, what it should stand for, how it can find a steady path ahead.
As the current saying goes: What the hell does he have to lose?
This morning, straight off the plane from Shanghai, I was on The Diane Rehm Show with Margaret Sullivan, much-missed former Public Editor of the NYT who is now with the WaPo, and Glenn Thrush of Politico. We were talking about how to deal with the unprecedented phenomenon that is Donald Trump, related to the “Trump’s Lies” item I did two days ago.
You can listen to the whole segment here, but I direct your attention to the part starting at time 14:40. That is when Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump stalwart, joins the show to assert that “this is all a matter of opinion” and “there are no such things as facts.”
You can listen again starting at around time 18:30, when I point out one of the specific, small lies of the Trump campaign—that the NFL had joined him in complaining about debate dates, which the NFL immediately denied—and Hughes says: Well, this is also just a matter of opinion. Hughes mentions at time 21:45 that she is a “classically studied journalist,” an assertion that left Glenn Thrush, Margaret Sullivan, Diane Rehm, and me staring at one another in puzzlement, this not being a normal claim in our field.
It’s worth listening in full. This is the world we are now dealing with.
Among the more practical advice that can be offered to international travelers is wisdom of the bathroom. So let me say, as someone who recently returned from China, that you should be prepared to (1) carry your own toilet paper and (2) practice your squat.
I do not mean those goofy chair-less sits you see at the gym. No, toned glutes will not save you here. I mean the deep squat, where you plop your butt down as far as it can go while staying aloft and balanced on the heels. This position—in contrast to deep squatting on your toes as most Americans naturally attempt instead—is so stable that people in China can hold it for minutes and perhaps even hours …
“I’m still very much puzzled about how this is possible."
To survive in the frigid ocean waters around the Arctic and Antarctica, marine life evolved many defenses against the lethal cold. One common adaptation is the ability to make antifreezing proteins (AFPs) that prevent ice crystals from growing in blood, tissues, and cells. It’s a solution that has evolved repeatedly and independently, not just in fish but in plants, fungi, and bacteria.
It isn’t surprising, then, that herrings and smelts, two groups of fish that commonly roam the northernmost reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, both make AFPs. But it is very surprising, even weird, that both fish do so with the same AFP gene—particularly because their ancestors diverged more than 250 million years ago and the gene is absent from all the other fish species related to them.
People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
Aduhelm, the first new Alzheimer’s drug in 18 years, may not work. But states and Medicare might pay billions of dollars for it anyway.
Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration overruled—to much criticism—its own scientific advisory committee and approved the Alzheimer’s treatment Aduhelm. The agency made this decision despite thin evidence of the drug’s clinical efficacy and despite its serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding. As a result, a serious risk now exists that millions of people will be prescribed a drug that does more harm than good.
Less appreciated is how the drug’s approval could trigger hundreds of billions of dollars of new government spending, all without a vote in Congress or indeed any public debate over the drug’s value. Aduhelm’s manufacturer, Biogen, announced on Monday that it would price the drug at an average of $56,000 a year per patient, a figure that doesn’t include the additional imaging and scans needed to diagnose patients or to monitor them for serious side effects.
“Scientists are meant to know what’s going on, but in this particular case, we are deeply confused.”
Carl Schoonover and Andrew Fink are confused. As neuroscientists, they know that the brain must be flexible but not too flexible. It must rewire itself in the face of new experiences, but must also consistently represent the features of the external world. How? The relatively simple explanation found in neuroscience textbooks is that specific groups of neurons reliably fire when their owner smells a rose, sees a sunset, or hears a bell. These representations—these patterns of neural firing—presumably stay the same from one moment to the next. But as Schoonover, Fink, and others have found, they sometimes don’t. They change—and to a confusing and unexpected extent.
Schoonover, Fink, and their colleagues from Columbia University allowed mice to sniff the same odors over several days and weeks, and recorded the activity of neurons in the rodents’ piriform cortex—a brain region involved in identifying smells. At a given moment, each odor caused a distinctive group of neurons in this region to fire. But as time went on, the makeup of these groups slowly changed. Some neurons stopped responding to the smells; others started. After a month, each group was almost completely different. Put it this way: The neurons that represented the smell of an apple in May and those that represented the same smell in June were as different from each other as those that represent the smells of apples and grass at any one time.
And that might be the right way to save classics from oblivion.
My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.
Many people who have been working from home are experiencing a void they can’t quite name.
This article was published online on June 9, 2021.
Back when commuting was a requirement for going to work, I once passed through a subway tunnel so filthy and crowded that the poem inscribed on its ceiling seemed like a cruel joke. “Overslept, / so tired. / If late, / get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / do it again.” “The Commuter’s Lament,” which adorns a subterranean passage in New York City’s 42nd Street station, made the already grim ritual of getting to and from work positively Dante-esque. But no one questioned the gist of it. The commute, according to the Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s research, ranked as the single most miserable part of our day. A Swiss study held long commutes responsible for “systematically lower subjective well-being.”
As religious faith has declined, ideological intensity has risen. Will the quest for secular redemption through politics doom the American idea?
This article was published online on March 10, 2021.
The United States had long been a holdout among Western democracies, uniquely and perhaps even suspiciously devout. From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history. Meanwhile, the “nones”—atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religion—have grown rapidly and today represent a quarter of the population.
But if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.
The Human Genome Project left 8 percent of our DNA unexplored. Now, for the first time, those enigmatic regions have been revealed.
When the human genome was first deemed “complete” in 2000, the news was met with great international fanfare. The two rival groups vying to finish the genome first—one a large government-led consortium, the other an underdog private company—agreed to declare joint success. They shook hands at the White House. Bill Clinton presided. Tony Blair beamed in from London. “We are standing at an extraordinary moment in scientific history,” one prominent scientist declared when those genomes were published. “It’s as though we have climbed to the top of the Himalayas.”
But actually, the human genome was not complete. Neither group had reached the real summit. As even the contemporary coverage acknowledged, that version was more of a rough draft, riddled with long stretches where the DNA sequence was still fuzzy or missing. The private company soon pivoted and ended its human-genome project, though scientists with the public consortium soldiered on. In 2003, with less glitz but still plentyof headlines, the human genome was declared complete once again.
The longer Breyer remains, the more likely a Republican president choosing his successor becomes.
In April, United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer delivered a lecture at Harvard Law School with the less-than-scintillating title “The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics.” He argued strongly—and, at least in my view, unconvincingly—that Supreme Court justices are above politics. Breyer insisted that “jurisprudential differences,” not political ones, “account for most, perhaps almost all, of judicial disagreements.” As he sees it, the justices are essentially technocrats who methodically use their preferred legal tools to decide how cases should come out.
This idea is a fairy tale America likes to tell itself. If this story were true—if justices were mere technocrats—presidents filling a Court vacancy would appoint the best legal scholars and judges without considering their politics. What presidents of both parties actually do, as George W. Bush did when choosing Samuel Alito and as Barack Obama did when selecting Sonia Sotomayor, is draw up lists of candidates vetted for conservative or liberal purity. Donald Trump expressly chose Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh for their right-wing bona fides. Are we really to believe nominees suddenly abandon their views when they get to the Court?